GABRIEL BLACKSTONE adjusted his collar, the formal leather jacket uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity. In his workshop, he rarely wore anything over his shirtsleeves, and at home alone he wore even less, especially in the heat of the summer. His assistants and friends, Caleb Deahl and Andrew Lambert, had gone in together and purchased an evening out for him as a birthday present, though, so he had to make himself presentable. The gentlemen’s club where he was supposed to meet his companion for the evening was one of the most exacting in town, only allowing members to enter unless special arrangements were made. Gabriel had no idea how Caleb and Andrew had made those arrangements, but they were quite clear about where Gabriel was to go, so he had replaced his old breeches with fresh ones and dug out his cravat and coat, even going so far as to don a hat. He doubted he would wear it for long in this heat, but it gave him an air of respectability as he waited for the mechanized hansom that would bear him to his destination. The coach arrived in a whoosh of steam, making Gabriel wish he had left on the goggles he wore in his lab. Instead he shielded his eyes with his hand to protect them from the cinders as he gave the address to the driver and climbed inside.
The coach resembled a horse-drawn carriage, but a large engine took the place of the unpredictable animal, making the contraption dependable regardless of weather or traffic. Unsurprisingly, it had almost entirely replaced horse-drawn carriages except for the aristocrats who considered the horses a sign of their wealth. Gabriel envied the man who had invented the mechanical conveyance. He was surely a rich man because of it.
Gabriel wasn’t ready to retire just yet, but he was ready to have one of his inventions catch on enough to keep his workshop running instead of having to worry each month where he would find the funds to pay Andrew and Caleb or to buy the supplies he needed for his work. He’d enjoyed small successes here and there, but nothing big. As the coach carried him toward his destination, his mind shifted to the project in the basement of his workshop. Not even Caleb and Andrew knew about it yet. A flying chair that would allow people to travel short or long distances without having to sit in traffic or wait for a train. He was sure, if he could make it work, that it would be the discovery that made his name in the world. The Blackstone chair. Unfortunately he lacked the money he needed to invest in all the tools and supplies he would need to make an engine powerful enough to carry a person but light enough that its own weight would not hold it down. It worked in theory, but he had not completed a prototype yet, and no one would fund an idea as radical as this one based on theory, not without a big-name inventor behind it, anyway.
A rap on the roof of the hansom drew Gabriel from his musings. They had arrived at the club. Fighting with his collar once more, Gabriel descended and paid the driver. At the club’s entrance, a burly man, clearly a guardian of the gate for all his formal attire, barred the door. “Your name?”
Gabriel might have taken offense at the lack of honorific, but the quality of his clothes proclaimed him to be part of the merchant caste even if the scales tattooed on the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger did not. Only the aristocracy escaped the process of being marked, their status in life proclaimed each time they shook hands.
They always shook hands.
“Gabriel Blackstone. I was told you were expecting me.”
The guardian scowled but checked his records, eventually opening the door to let Gabriel in. “Mind your manners. There’s quality folk inside.”
Gabriel did bristle at that comment. Although he did not have the wealth or social status of an aristocrat, he knew how to behave in society. “Mind your own,” he snapped. He pushed past the guardian, ignoring the increasing grumbles. He might not be an aristocrat, but he had the right to be here. His friends had paid for this evening, and Gabriel refused to let a lout like that stop him from enjoying every part of it.
His righteous indignation fizzled out when he caught sight of the other patrons of the club. Unlike him, they all wore silk and linen instead of leather and cotton. Even more strikingly, many of them wore gloves. Despite knowing he had bathed and laundered his clothes, Gabriel suddenly felt grimy next to their polished elegance. He almost retreated, his earlier determination aside, when a soft, smooth hand clasped his. “Mister Blackstone, I presume?”
Gabriel turned to see who had spoken his name, wondering as he did how anyone here would know him. He found the most beautiful man he had ever laid eyes on. “Yes, I’m Blackstone,” he choked out, not sure how he could make his voice work when every bit of his mind was taken with the vision in front of him. His companion had pitch-black hair, pulled back into a long queue that fell below his collarbone as it lay across his shoulder. The locks contrasted sharply with fair skin that seemed never to have seen the sun. His eyes were the color of the dark chocolate Gabriel could rarely afford.
“I’m Lucio,” the other man said, his grip changing so that he shook Gabriel’s hand. “Your companion for the evening.”
Automatically Gabriel glanced down to where their hands met, catching sight of the tell-tale fan on Lucio’s hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Gabriel said, his mind reeling as he took in the number of ribs in the fan. Lucio was not merely pleasure caste. If Gabriel had counted correctly, he was the highest echelon of companion. Gabriel nearly flinched at the thought of what Caleb and Andrew must have paid to secure Lucio’s presence at the club.
“Perhaps we could find our table?” Lucio suggested smoothly. “We would draw less attention that way.”
Gabriel trailed along behind Lucio, his eyes raking over the companion’s body now that the beauty of the man’s face was denied to him. Lucio was almost as tall as Gabriel, but his lithe form gave him a much slighter appearance. His costume, nearly as elegant as that of the aristocrats who surrounded them, clung to his body in a way the other men’s clothing did not, highlighting the line of his back and the curve of his legs most provocatively. Lucio’s coquettish glance over his shoulder suggested he knew exactly the effect his appearance had on Gabriel, which pricked the inventor’s pride enough to want to be contrary. He would enjoy the evening and the companion’s company, but he would treat the other man as a friend or a colleague rather than as a body in which to take his ease.
“I hope you don’t mind,” Lucio said as he took a seat at the table in a private lounge, sprawling elegantly in the chair, “but I took the liberty of ordering a light repast for us. I was not sure you were familiar with the offerings.”
Lucio’s cultured tones bespoke an educated upbringing, everything but the fan on his hand giving the impression that he was one of the aristocracy. For a man who had more than once denounced the idiocy of the caste system to his friends, Gabriel found the illusion disturbingly arousing. Before Gabriel could reply, a server approached with a bottle of wine. He showed the label to Lucio, who nodded his approval. The sommelier opened the bottle and poured a small amount into Lucio’s glass for him to taste. The companion sniffed delicately and sipped the wine. “Would you care to taste it as well?” he asked Gabriel.
“If it pleases your discerning palate, I’m sure it will be to my taste,” Gabriel said, not willing to show his ignorance in this setting. His clothes and the tattoo on his hand set him apart badly enough as it was.
Lucio nodded to the sommelier, who filled Gabriel’s glass before topping off Lucio’s. He left the bottle on the table and discreetly withdrew. Gabriel picked up the goblet and sipped at the wine as he had seen Lucio do, trying not to make a fool of himself. The flavor of the wine rippled over his tongue and up into his sinuses, filling his head with its richness, far more complex and potent than the liquor he was accustomed to drinking. He managed not to choke as he swallowed, approaching the next sip more cautiously.
“I understand you’re an inventor, Mister Blackstone,” Lucio said when Gabriel had recovered. “I’ve always been fascinated by machines.”
Gabriel almost scoffed at the blatant fawning, but he stopped himself with the firm reminder that Lucio had not chosen his lot in life any more than Gabriel himself had and that being a companion did not make Lucio unintelligent. “It is a fascinating field,” Gabriel agreed. “The new inventions over the past twenty years alone have changed the world as we know it.”
“It always amazes me when I think of the amenities our parents had to do without,” Lucio said enthusiastically. “I can’t imagine not having steam to heat my bath in the morning.”
Gabriel nearly choked on his wine again at the evidence of the luxury Lucio clearly enjoyed. Gabriel’s own bath had no such heat. He still warmed his water in pails over the fire and poured them by hand into his copper tub.
“It is an improvement indeed,” Gabriel agreed, trying not to imagine Lucio reclining in a marble tub, steam rising around his face and dampening his hair. He wondered cynically if the comment had been intended to summon just that thought, but Lucio’s face bore no guile. “I cannot imagine working by candlelight.”
“Such a prosaic example for an inventor,” Lucio chided flirtatiously. “Give me a better example, something you have contributed to our technological revolution.”
“My contributions have been small,” Gabriel demurred. “You have probably never seen them.”
“Don’t be modest,” Lucio insisted, leaning forward and taking Gabriel’s hand in his own, his thumb stroking the lines that crossed Gabriel’s palm.
The jolt of lust was undoubtedly what the companion had intended, reminding Gabriel where they were and why. Drawing his hand back, he shook his head. “Enough about me. Tell me about yourself instead.”
Lucio’s eyebrows jumped in surprise, making Gabriel wonder if no one had ever asked before. “I am a companion. What more is there to say?”
“You are fascinated by machines,” Gabriel said. “I’m sure that isn’t true of every companion, or if it is, perhaps I should have sought one out before.”
“Most are not,” Lucio said after a long moment, “unless perhaps they are out to dinner with an inventor and are not sure what else to talk about.”
“Then it was simply a ploy to draw me out?” Gabriel asked, frowning at the idea of being deceived.
“No,” Lucio replied quickly, reaching for Gabriel’s hand again, “but it is the kind of gambit we are taught so we might be pleasing company to our guests for the evening. It was felicitous that our interests coincided and I needed no ulterior motive to bring it up.”
That could be as much a lie as the rest, Gabriel knew, but he sensed honesty in Lucio’s words. Either the companion was telling the truth, or he was even better trained than Gabriel had imagined. The one saving grace in the entire conversation was Lucio’s willingness to admit to his wiles. Surely he would have hesitated to do so were he using them on Gabriel. Then again….
This was why Gabriel had always refused to hire a companion. He couldn’t trust a word any of them said. He prided himself on being a plain-spoken man, and their pretty ways were more than he could tolerate.
They were interrupted by the arrival of the first course of their dinner, a thin soup the color of the rich earth. The server placed the dishes in front of the two men and retired without saying a word. “What is this?” Gabriel asked.
“It’s onion soup,” Lucio said before he tasted it. Gabriel watched in fascination as the companion’s eyes closed and a look of bliss crossed his face. Gabriel’s gut clenched at the idea of seeing that look again in more intimate settings. He pushed the thought aside. He had already decided not to take advantage of the companion’s charms. He did not need release so badly that he would take it meaninglessly in the potentially unwilling body of the man across the table from him. Lucio might have been born into the pleasure caste, barely one step above servants, but that did not mean Gabriel had to demean him that way. Looking at the quality of Lucio’s clothes, the elegance of his coiffure, Gabriel saw little to suggest any lack in Lucio’s life, certainly nothing compared to the way Gabriel lived. Lucio might not have had a choice in his profession, but he had clearly thrived at it. Even so, Gabriel would not take that choice from him tonight.
Pushing all thought of desire from his mind, Gabriel tasted the soup, surprised at the richness of the thin broth. In his experience, clear broth, even one as dark as this one, was as bland and tasteless as a meal came, but this was different. Gabriel had no idea why, but his tongue proclaimed the truth of the situation with great delight. “This is wonderful,” he said, determined to converse with Lucio as he would with any equal. “What other delights do you have in store for me?”
The moment the words were out of his mouth, Gabriel cursed silently. He had just handed Lucio the perfect opening to bring up the more carnal aspect of the evening. Lucio let the opportunity pass, smiling simply before replying, “The chef here is excellent, as you’ve already seen. He has a salad, a fish course, a lamb dish, and then dessert. I prefer lamb to beef or pork. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Gabriel said, though in truth, he had only tasted lamb a few times in his life, the meat being out of his reach given his current financial situation. “It will be a lovely treat.”
Lucio shifted slightly on the chair, drawing Gabriel’s eyes back to his body. “I hope the rest of the evening will be a treat as well.”
Gabriel looked away, uncomfortable with the suddenly suggestive mood of the companion’s voice and stance. “I’m sure it will be,” he said, his voice tight. “I rarely have an evening out.”
“What makes tonight special?” Lucio asked, the seduction gone again as quickly as it had appeared.
“It’s my birthday,” Gabriel admitted softly. “My assistants arranged our meeting as a gift.”
Lucio smiled and leaned forward. “I like the idea of being your birthday present.”
Gabriel looked up sharply. “I don’t. I don’t like the idea of anything being forced on you.”
Lucio laughed. “Do I look like I’m being forced? No one is standing here with a gun to my head. No one is threatening to hurt my mother or my sister in order to make me be here. I have earned enough status to choose which new guests I accept. If I had not wanted to be here, someone else would have come in my place. Your friends did not ask for me by name.”
Gabriel’s eyes narrowed. Lucio’s words made sense, but he was a companion. He had already admitted to transforming himself in order to please his client. This could be one more example of that. “Why?”
“Why what?” Lucio asked, finishing his soup and pushing it aside. He rose from the chair and approached Gabriel.
“Why would you accept an inventor as a guest when you are obviously used to much better?” Gabriel rasped, resisting the urge to reach for Lucio.
“Because I was intrigued,” Lucio replied, his hands resting on the back of Gabriel’s chair so they brushed the inventor’s shoulder blades lightly as he bent forward, his breath stirring the fine hairs on Gabriel’s neck as he spoke. “I’ve never met an inventor before because rarely can they afford me. Your friends were very specific in what they wanted for you, which I found intriguing, and I decided I wanted to be the one to deliver it. I haven’t been disappointed at all. I hope you haven’t either.”
Gabriel swallowed against a suddenly dry mouth. He told himself this was one more line, but his body didn’t care. He caught all the signals Lucio was sending out, and he yearned for that contact. Only the knowledge that it was bought and paid for held him back. He would never be able to face his friends at the Caste Equality movement if he gave in. “I haven’t,” he croaked. “I should finish my soup. I’m sure the server will be back soon to clear the table and bring the next course.”
Fortunately Lucio backed off, resuming his seat and easing the intensity of his approach. Almost as if on cue, the door opened, and the server came back in, setting down the salad Lucio had promised and clearing the used dishes. Gabriel regretted not finishing his soup, but the salad looked equally enticing. He nudged the greens with his fork, trying to decide what else was in the salad.
“It’s cranberries, walnuts, bleu cheese, and a light dressing,” Lucio said before taking a bite.
Gabriel nodded and ate, determined to finish this course rather than be distracted by Lucio’s charms. Lucio seemed to sense his new mood, letting him eat without conversation. Only when Gabriel had finished did Lucio resume their earlier discussion as if the moments in between had never occurred. “You didn’t tell me what you were working on, Mister Blackstone. I truly am interested.”
Gabriel hesitated, deciding after a moment that it couldn’t hurt to tell Lucio some of the public projects he was working on. If he kept the flying chair to himself, it was because he hadn’t told anyone about it yet. “I have a patron who has always wanted a pet but is allergic to their fur,” he said. “He has commissioned a mechanical dog that he can activate when he wants companionship and turn off when he’s out of town or when having a live animal would be inconvenient.”
Lucio bit back a laugh. “How very… practical of him.”
“Self-indulgent is more like it,” Gabriel muttered, “but he’s paying me, and I can’t afford to turn down the commission.”
“Is it going well?” Lucio asked.
“Well enough, I suppose,” Gabriel said with a shrug. “The challenge is making all the parts move together in something that approaches natural movement. I’ve built a prototype, but its movements are still awkward. Too awkward for my client.”
“It sounds like challenging work even if the result will be less than groundbreaking,” Lucio said.
“It pays the bills,” Gabriel replied. “At this point I’m grateful for that. I have another project I’m working on, but I don’t have a sponsor for it, and that means it always gets pushed aside.”
Lucio nodded. “Money does seem to rule the world. Even among the aristocrats who pretend to be above all that, money determines who enters where, as much as the lack of mark on their hands.”
“At least that’s honest,” Gabriel said. “No matter how much money I make, there will be doors closed to me because I have a tattoo. The same is surely true for you.”
“It depends,” Lucio said. “If I am on the arm of a wealthy aristocrat, his status is enough to gain me entrance. On my own, I imagine even more doors would be closed to me than to you.”
“You were able to gain us entrance here,” Gabriel pointed out. “I could not have done that alone.”
“Point taken,” Lucio replied, “but I’m known here because of the number of guests I have entertained. I neglected to mention when I made our reservation that you were merchant caste. They assumed you were an aristocrat, and I didn’t correct them.”
Gabriel laughed. Perhaps there was a bit of revolutionary inside Lucio after all. “I think I like you.”