SWORDS clanged. Cannons boomed in the distance as their masters fired death through the veil of choking smoke. The resultant screams of the injured froze him with fear for his own life.
Blood gushed beneath his feet as life drained from the dying all around him. As the sun rose over the battlefield, the smell of death hung heavily in the air. He plodded forward, rifle in hand, wary, constantly alert as he stepped over his fallen comrades.
A quick glance to the left. Yes, Nick was there, crouched low, determined steps propelling him toward the enemy.
A horse whickered, drawing his attention, and then a searing pain radiated through his chest as a steel blade breached his body. His knees buckled, unable to hold the weight that carried him to the ground. He coughed, the pain casting even elementary thought into impossibility. He drifted through layers of consciousness, seduced by the beckoning hand of his long-dead grandfather. If only he could grasp that welcoming hand—if only he could raise his own.
“Grandfather,” he called out as the vision faded.
A voice, distant but familiar, pulled him back from the abyss.
“Pres, my God,” then nothing but the rumble of battle and a sudden weight on his chest. Using every ounce of strength he possessed, he opened his eyes. Blood and bone loomed before him.
The screams that filled his ears were inside his head. His gaze darted from what was left of Nick to the limited view of the fight around him. Panic, confusion, and then, mercifully, nothing, as his will ebbed and the darkness took him.
“YOU aren’t listening, Meacham.”
Preston shook his head, embarrassed that his employer had caught him reliving the most horrific experience of his life. “I’m sorry. I’m a bit distracted.”
William Litcott leaned over Preston’s desk, one arm around Pres’s shoulder, his busy fingers casually kneading while he spoke. The man stood too close for someone simply giving an employee instruction. For months, William had acted much more interested than a man safely should.
“Apparently so.” A tight squeeze and a shake punctuated the words. William patted Pres’s hand. “No problem, but you really must get some rest. You seemed to have dozed off.”
Pres leaned into William’s hold.
William turned and tugged him in closer. The man’s hard cock against Pres’s shoulder spoke the words William obviously hadn’t the nerve to utter.
William’s warmth encouraged him. On impulse, he raised his hand and brushed across the bulge in a long, slow stroke, his eyes fixed on the inviting proof of William’s arousal.
After a telling moment of hesitation, William canted his hips and moaned before he jerked back with a force that threw him into the bookcase. Musty volumes fell to the floor with loud thuds, shaking Pres from his shock at William’s reaction.
With arms flailing, William shouted, “What in hell are you doing?”
Pres jumped up and backed out of reach as his employer struck out at him. How could he have mistaken kindness for seduction?
“I’m sorry, I….”
Back on steady feet, William tugged at his waistcoat and smoothed his pomaded brown hair. His face flushed red while his eyes mere slits. “You what?” the man raged, his erection still straining the fall of his breeches. He paced and loudly insulted Pres’s heritage with a litany of expletives.
Pres panicked as the distinct tightening of a rope about his neck shattered his sanity. Litcott need only call the watch and Pres’s life would be over.
“Are you a sodomite?” William shouted, his face flushed, his voice unsteady. “No, do not answer that. Just get out and never return.”
William pointed toward the door, thankfully showing no signs of summoning the magistrate. Pres grabbed his writing pen and dashed out the door. Condemnation clung to him as he ran toward his boarding house. Though his life had never been more than hand-to-mouth, with this dismissal it had taken a drastic turn for the worse.
The boarding house teemed with activity: children crying, a woman wailing, men shouting. Pres dashed up the stairs, wanting nothing more than to seek refuge in his bleak, sparse room. The sunlit space seemed more a sanctuary than ever before. He slammed the door behind him and slid down its length. There he sat until the sun gave way to the moon.
Maybe it would have been for the best if William had reported him. His life had effectively ended at Salamanca, and since then, making his way had proven increasingly more difficult. He’d held several positions since coming to London, but none suited, none satisfied.
He bowed his head and wept, for all he saw ahead was more loneliness and despair.
HE’D somehow made his way to his bed, and there he lay, staring at the ceiling, the peeling plaster a reminder of his desperate circumstance. Just the act of living left him numb and wasted. For days, he’d done nothing but contemplate the hopelessness of his lot. He wanted someone, anyone, to fuck him until he lost sight of how cruel God was to have given him the need for other men and then make that very desire unlawful.
He wasn’t fit for decent society, not even for men like William Litcott. Pres couldn’t have been so wrong as to misinterpret what Litcott had wanted from him. The bastard most surely wanted him bent over the desk. There was no mistaking the signs. Pres knew enough about want to recognize it in others.
After many sleepless nights and days filled with long hours of rumination, nothing else was as clear. To his shame, with the slightest encouragement from William, he’d have locked the door, lowered his breeches, and accepted the fucking without a second thought. It was all he wanted, nothing more.
Since his lover’s death, fucking was the only thing that had chased Nick’s ghost away. Dangerous, faceless, mind-numbing sex was all that mattered, and the man he happened to couple with made very little difference. “Any prick’ll do,” as Nick used to say.
A wave of hunger tangled Pres’s gut. He pulled himself to sitting and his stomach growled. There was nothing to do but seek out a pigeon pie and a pint of ale. He headed out for the tavern, yet again leaving the worry about his fate for the morrow.
THE mist off the Thames cloaked Ben while the heavily shadowed alley protected him as he watched the male whores go into the molly house. Droplets of rain fell off the brim of his tall beaver and soaked through the fabric of his greatcoat. The dampness had long since settled deeply into his bones, weakening him. He depended more than usual on his walking stick to support his weight.
His driver and all-round man, Briggs, waited a short distance away while Ben watched for the man he’d come to find. Many times, Ben had observed the comings and goings at Mama Lil’s, after having learned the man he sought worked there. From the same vantage point, he’d caught only passing glimpses of the well-groomed, dark-haired man who seemed so out of place amongst the other down and outers. From a distance, Ben thought him to be handsome and quite personable, judging by his interactions with the other men. There also seemed to be a sadness about him, and for that, Ben was aggrieved.
At the sound of two distinctly masculine voices, Ben moved deeper into the alley. He pressed his body closer to the ramshackle building, out of the dim light cast by the nearby streetlamp.
The men passed him by, neither apparently wise to his presence. Unable to resist, he stepped closer to the mouth of the shadowed alley, fairly dragging his useless leg, and looked out after them. The scuffing he’d caused must have alerted them, because one of the men turned, the moon illuminating his face. It was him; the man he sought.
Their eyes met and locked for the briefest of moments. Ben cursed inwardly. He hadn’t intended them to meet this way—him lurking about like a thief, or worse, a desperate man.
The young man clapped his companion on the back. “Go on ahead, Tom, I’ll be along. Gotta take a piss.”
Tom waved a casual hand. “Yeah, yeah, sure. Don’t be too long. There mightn’t be no cock left for ya.”
“Never a fear of that, now is there?”
“S’pose you’re right. See you inside.”
The door slammed, but no louder than Ben’s own heart.
The young man approached, cautious, yet somehow sure. The watery click of his boot heels against the wet cobbles echoed the pounding in Ben’s ears.
He filled the entrance to the alley, a slim-waisted figure clad in a frock coat and breeches, someone who would have been supposed a gentleman in any other setting.
“Can I help you, sir?” The voice was more refined than a moment before.
Ben opened his mouth, but his words were stunted. This was the closest he’d ever been to Preston Meacham. The light from the streetlamp illuminated his handsome face. Ben stared, forgetting himself completely.
“Sir, are you all right?”
Ben resisted a continued stare. “Yes, yes, I’m fine, th-thank you.”
“Is there something you need? You really shouldn’t be out on this street alone. It isn’t safe. Unscrupulous characters are known to lurk about these parts.”
A slight feeling of indignation overset him. “I believe I am capable of taking care of myself.”
Preston’s gaze dropped to the walking stick, then back to Ben’s eyes. “Then I’ll leave you to it.”
The man took three steps before Ben found the words to continue the conversation. “A-are you available?” he asked on impulse.
A slight chuckle made him feel foolish. “I’m available, sir, if you have the blunt.”
Damn and blast, why must this be so difficult? “Can we go somewhere, alone?”
The younger man pointed toward the house. “Of course, I can get a room.”
“No! Away from here.”
“I’m scheduled to work. I don’t get paid if I’m not on the premises.”
“I don’t expect something for nothing. I’ll pay you for your time, however much you want.”
The younger man came flirtatiously close.
How could I have not noticed the extent of his physical beauty?
“Well then, if money is no object, sir, I’ll go wherever you wish.”
Ben swallowed hard and pointed toward the street. “My carriage is waiting. I live but a short distance from here.”
“You certainly are mysterious. How do I know you won’t slit my throat the moment we’re alone?”
“You don’t, but then, how do I know you won’t slit mine?”
A hint of a smile. “Fair enough. Be warned, I don’t sell myself cheap.”
“I don’t expect you to, and I assure you, you are entirely safe in my company.” Ben handed him a gold sovereign, which he took with alacrity.
Preston flipped the coin into the air. “Where is this carriage of yours?”
“This way.” Ben led him down the street and around the corner, where Briggs waited.
In the light of the carriage lamps, Preston appeared to be upwards of five-and-twenty. Ben’s hands itched to touch his full head of brown hair, to assess whether it was as soft as it appeared.
Preston sat back against the squabs in casual repose, one arm draped languidly over the back of the seat. Under other circumstances, they might appear to be old friends, out for an evening at White’s.
With the need to confirm what he already knew, Ben asked, “What is your name?”
“Preston Meacham. Pres, if you prefer, and what’s yours?”
Ben’s heart thudded. The confirmation made this moment all too real. He turned toward the window. “You may call me Ben.”
“Ben it is, but no last name?”
“For what I want, no last name is necessary.”
Jesus, how pompous. A quick glance ascertained that Preston’s expression hadn’t changed, save for a slight pinched look about his mouth.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.”
“Quite all right. I rarely get even that much respect.”
Ben’s heart dropped. He’d gone about this the wrong way.
“Whoa.” The carriage slowed, then stopped at Briggs's shout.
“We’ve arrived.” When Briggs opened the door, Ben got out, then turned to see that Preston had followed him.
They’d gone around to the back of his townhouse. After they entered the kitchen door, Ben dropped his hat on a table beside the door, removed his soggy greatcoat, and left it on a peg outside the kitchen. With as much haste as his war-ravaged leg allowed, Ben led Preston up the servant’s stairs to the second floor.
Ben’s usual pragmatism had gone for naught this night, pushed aside by Preston’s smile and solicitous manner. He’d only meant to observe, to ascertain Preston’s well-being. Never had he thought to enjoy the luxury of Preston’s company.
He limped down the portrait-lined hallway as his walking stick tapped out each step. As they approached his bedchamber, his heart raced. He wanted to be alone with Preston, to talk to him, to assure himself that the man wasn’t suffering in any way. That, and only that, he repeatedly told himself.
“What is it you said you did for a living?” Preston asked.
Sorrow gripped him as Preston meandered about the room, fingering the damask and admiring the highly polished mahogany table. Preston should have more than a shabby room and the molly house for employment.
“Well, whatever it is, you must do it well. Folks don’t come by this kind of luxury by accident.”
Oh, but they do if it’s an accident of birth.
Ben’s mouth watered as Preston brushed a hand over a bronze, life-sized statue of a nude Hercules.
“This is exquisite,” Preston said, passing an admiring hand over the hero’s cold, hard chest, a gesture Ben envied beyond reason.
“It is, isn’t it?” he said, forcing steadiness into his voice where there was none.
With both hands, Preston admired the muscled thighs, his thumbs grazing over the fig-leafed bronzed cock. He lingered as he took the measure of the provocatively covered bulge.
Desire, need, lust turned Ben’s mouth dry as sand. He ached for Preston’s touch. “Please, show yourself to me.”
As he caressed Hercules’s inner thigh, Preston smiled, showing his slightly crooked bottom teeth. “A bit anxious, are you?”
Preston affected a bow. “You’ve paid me well. I am at your service.”
Ben merely nodded, sat in his favorite chair, and watched as Preston removed his utilitarian coat. His silver-threaded waistcoat might have been rather remarkable—several seasons before. Now, it simply looked worn.
As he focused on Preston’s nimble fingers, Ben cursed his weakness. He’d not intended to engage Preston in this manner, but in his presence, he was helpless. The man was utterly beautiful.
Ben’s mouth watered, wanting those fingers to skim his back, to touch him admiringly.
Preston dropped his cravat to the floor, distracting Ben from his thoughts. The man’s white shirt was but a blur as he drew it over his head, revealing his muscled chest, marred only by a vivid scar from his left nipple to his neck.
The badly healed skin beckoned Ben’s attention. Given his way, he’d skim over the ridge with his tongue as Preston related the story of how he’d received it.
Ben imagined Preston’s powerfully built arms, tense and straining, as they supported his submissive body. Ben’s cock hardened beyond comfort.
Preston ambled to the bed, sat, and bent to remove his boots. He glanced up at Ben, a slight smile on his face as he pulled the boots off slowly.
Through half-closed eyes, Preston stared at Ben as he loosened the laces of his breeches, licked his lips, and hooked his thumbs into the waistband. With a slight wiggle, he slid the garment slowly over his hips, and stopped just before revealing his cock.
“Tell me, what is it you wish me to do, Ben?” His tone was dark and seductive.
Ben swallowed hard and beckoned with a curled index finger. “Come closer.”
Preston grinned and slowly stepped off the paces. In close proximity, the man smelled of soap and sandalwood. His demeanor spoke of pride, despite his lowered means.
“Please remove your breeches.”
Preston slid the garment down to his ankles and stepped out of it. His body bore many badly healed scars, the worst one on his chest.
Ben dropped his gaze and stifled an impressed gasp. He couldn’t remember ever seeing a more beautiful cock. The length and girth staggered him. He reached out and wrapped his fingers around it, taking in the man’s heat.
Preston sucked in a breath. Whether behavior born of necessity or not, Ben derived great satisfaction from the gesture. He pulled back the foreskin to reveal the weeping, purple head, and Preston tensed when Ben smeared the fluid over the crown with his thumb.
Resisting the urge to take Preston into his mouth, Ben released him. “Turn around, please.”
Preston gave Ben his back with slow, deliberate steps. Ben skimmed nervous fingers over the flawless skin of Preston’s arse, tracing along the crease.
Had he been a green boy, he would have taken Preston at that moment. However, he tempered his inclinations with prudence, savoring every moment. “Please part yourself for me.”
Preston unabashedly bent forward. He clutched his buttocks with long, slender fingers, revealing the inviting pink pucker that summoned Ben’s tongue and fingers.
Ben grew dizzy with anticipation.
He circled the hole with two spit-slicked fingers, then slid the tips in. He savored the heat and the pressure as Preston’s body instinctively sought to reject the intrusion. Ben stilled and allowed Preston to set the pace.
With a low groan, Preston spread his legs wider and impaled himself fully, while Ben’s cock battled the restriction of his breeches.
PRES suspected Ben to be somewhat shy, given the minimal conversation, and the reverence with which he’d touched him.
Touch had rarely been a part of his nightly assignations at the molly house, and Ben’s had, at first, seemed tentative, almost experimental, then grew more learned.
Ben slid his fingers free. “Would you please undress me?”
The request seemed almost timid.
Pres offered his hand and Ben took it, relying heavily upon it, apparently for balance. Once standing, Pres unbuttoned Ben’s superfine frock coat. As he did so, he studied his companion for the first time. He estimated Ben to be at least ten years his senior, given the generous sprinkling of silver through his dark-brown hair.
“The mark of a hard life,” his ma used to say about those who’d grayed prematurely.
While handsome, Ben’s face bore the deep lines of a man carrying many burdens. Bergamot and the rain-cleansed night air clung to the man’s clothing. The faint scent of starch was present as well, though Ben’s shirt and wilted cravat had lost their crispness. Preston slipped the slightly damp shirt over Ben’s head, noting the intake of breath when their bodies touched, completely by Pres’s design.
Ben took one step back, his chest covered in criss-crossing scars, long since healed. He’d obviously suffered repeated floggings. Could his back be similarly marred?
Pres fixed his eyes on Ben’s as he brushed a hand across the fall of Ben’s breeches. With deliberation, he slipped each button through its mooring. Ben’s eyes seemed devoid of lust, yet filled with—what, sadness mayhap?
Though he had no indication whether an embrace would be welcome, he nonetheless wrapped an arm around Ben while he slid his hand into the back of Ben’s breeches. In pulling the garment down, he lingered over Ben’s arse, tracing the ridged scars. Ben flinched, but Pres held him firm. When Ben closed his eyes, Pres saw a very lonely man.
Pres knelt and drew the breeches and stockings to Ben’s ankles. While there, he casually licked Ben’s cock, causing his client to wobble slightly. At Pres’s prompting, Ben lifted each foot in turn, resting his hand on the chair for support. He then stood naked, appearing not a little uncomfortable.
With his hand on Pres’s head, Ben gently guided him back to his cock.
Pleased to accommodate, Pres wrapped his hand around the length and slid his mouth over the head. Salty, musky, no different than most, save for the underlying scent of cleanliness.
He sucked, licked, and stroked, while Ben barely moaned, standing stiff, his eyes closed, his head lolled back.
Pres wrapped an arm around Ben’s arse, his hand again covering the ridged scars. Ben tensed but relaxed when Pres dared slide his fingers into the crease. As Pres explored, Ben acknowledged his need by rocking into his hand.
Long moments passed, during which Pres wasn’t sure if he should suck Ben’s cock in earnest or continue to tease. Ben groaned his displeasure when Pres drew his head back and Ben’s cock slipped from his mouth.
“Tell me what you want.”
A smile teased Ben’s lips. His glazed eyes spoke of his deep-set desire. “I fear you will think me mad.”
“I daresay, I think not. Tell me, and it is yours.”
Ben studied his face, tracing shaking fingers over Pres’s lips. “In the clothespress, top drawer, you’ll find all you need.”
Upon opening the drawer, Pres found articles completely unrelated to clothing. He looked back at Ben, who nodded.
“That is what I want. Can you do that for me?”
Pres admired each item with respectful touches. “I daresay I can.”
When he removed a leather-covered wooden paddle, his cock pulsed. To his credit, he had gained a reputation at the molly house for his ability to make men beg for more.
He passed the implement to Ben, who handled it reverently, as though a tool of great import. Then Ben handed it back and walked to the bed. He groaned as he bent at the waist and sprawled over the edge of the mattress.
Preston stared, his mind unable to accept the truth as it lay before him.
“Please. Make me feel it. I’m paying you well to do so.”