DR. NICK Sewell sat in the comfortingly dingy atmosphere of the Ship in Silver Street, Cambridge, and tried not to stare too obviously at the pretty young man at the other end of the large, wooden table. Julian Lauder was all translucent skin and silken hair falling oh-so casually over the collar of his expensive leather jacket. A student, of course, which added a nice touch of seediness to Nick’s hopeless, pathetic crush. At least he wasn’t one of Nick’s own students—Nick could feel a cold sweat breaking out at the very thought. Julian was reading English, not history. God, if Nick had had to supervise him… it was bad enough as it was, seeing him practically every day, striding through Main Court on his way to Hall or loitering in the Porter’s Lodge with his friends as they checked for post and talked about whatever students talked about these days.
Nick gave a wry smile. It was barely a decade since he’d been an undergraduate, but already they seemed a different species to him. This new generation had a sophistication his had aped in vain and an ease with matters sexual he’d have given his right arm for at a similar age. And they were all so damned good-looking.
Not that it had been a problem for him before. Not until Julian Lauder had sauntered into college with his blond hair and his cashmere sweaters and his cut-glass accent. All Saints’ was a small college, not one favored by the major public schools, and Julian’s way of speaking stood out there, where at John’s, or Magdalene, it might have been lost in a sea of similar accents. Although actually, Nick mused, that wasn’t entirely true. Julian’s voice might be confident, even arrogant, but it had none of the braying quality that was all too evident in the average Old Etonian. Julian’s voice was clear, musical, and…. And God, Nick sounded like a lovesick schoolgirl. A man his age, making himself ridiculous over a student who, despite showing an interest in some of the male undergraduates, wouldn’t look twice at a dusty old fellow.
It was all hopeless, in any case. There was a reason Nick hadn’t had a relationship in three years, and that reason wasn’t going to go away. Ever.
He sighed and tried to tune back into the conversation. They were a motley crowd, the University German Society, and they met there every Wednesday at eight o’clock simply to chat in German. Nick had been a member in his undergraduate days and had popped his head in once or twice since becoming a fellow. Not so much, of late. He was quite aware that he was only there that evening due to having heard a third-year calling to Julian, “See you at the Stammtisch—mach’s gut!” as he walked into college in the afternoon.
There were about a dozen die-hard members who attended meetings every week come hell or high water, and a shifting population of usually five or six more, depending on how close they were getting to exams. The present meeting was rather crowded, it being only a few weeks into Michaelmas term. There was a variety of accents, ranging from flawless Hochdeutsch to broad Schwitzerdütsch. And, of course, faltering attempts at joining in with a hideous English inflection from a few whom Nick knew from experience wouldn’t outlast the first evening.
Julian, of course, was very much at the Hochdeutsch end of the scale, and seemed to be completely fluent. Not so very surprising, with a surname like Lauder, Nick supposed. He thought he could detect just a trace of a southern softening of the final consonants. Nick rather liked South German accents. He had one himself, he was reliably informed. At the moment, Julian had his end of the table in fits over his cruelly accurate impersonation of one of the English lecturers. Nick marveled at how Julian managed to capture the old man’s dithering speech patterns so precisely while speaking an entirely different language. He looked the very picture of arrogant youth, but Nick was convinced there was more to him than that. Perhaps Nick was deluding himself, but he’d been watching him. In an entirely nonstalkerish way, of course. When he was alone—which was rather more often than one might have expected of one so outwardly attractive and entertaining—his face took on a much more open, vulnerable expression.
Nick remembered clearly the first time he’d seen that look on Julian’s face. It had been a bright, warm morning in the first week of term, while he was still trying to get his head round the names and faces of the latest influx of students. He’d seen Julian before then—he was hard to miss—but he hadn’t really noticed him. Nick had gone to the Porter’s Lodge to check his pigeonhole for mail and found the place almost deserted. For some reason the hairs on the back of his neck had prickled, and he’d looked around to try to work out what on earth was causing him to feel so uneasy. His gaze had fallen, naturally enough, on the only other occupant of the little room where the pigeonholes were housed.
Julian had been holding a letter. From whom, Nick had no idea, of course. But clearly someone Julian cared about very much. There had been an expression of such softness on his face as he looked at the envelope before impatiently ripping it open and reading the letter there and then, oblivious to the sudden rush of students pushing past him to get at their own post. Nick had been unable to tear his gaze away from the half smile on Julian’s face that somehow seemed so sad. He’d watched helplessly until, with a toss of his head, Julian broke the spell, carefully refolding the letter and putting it in his pocket.
When his eyes had met Nick’s as they passed, the amused, supercilious mask had been firmly back in place.
Nick had spent more than a few restless moments since then wondering who Julian’s correspondent might have been and engaging in the odd guilty fantasy of his or her untimely, not to mention imaginatively painful, death.
“Wo hast du dein Deutsch gelernt?” Nick was wrenched back to the Stammtisch in the Ship as an owlish-looking first-year asked him clumsily where he’d learned German, having obviously given up trying to follow the general conversation in fast-flowing dialect.
“In Stuttgart,” Nick explained. “Ich war Au-Pair Mädchen,” he added mischievously. “Vor einigen Jahren, natürlich.”
He needn’t have bothered adding the bit about how many years it’d been since he was an au pair, as the first-year simply stared at him blankly.
Apparently Julian had overheard, as Nick found a sly smile directed his way. “Mädchen?” Julian raised a pale, elegant eyebrow as he leaned across the table. “It looks like you’ve changed a bit since then,” he added in his impeccable German.
Nick was rather grateful he no longer blushed as easily as he had in his adolescence. At least he hoped he didn’t. “Ah, I may have been teasing about the girl part. But I was actually an au pair. During my year off, before I came up to Cambridge as an undergraduate.”
Julian looked at him with an expression Nick couldn’t quite interpret. “Stuttgart is a lovely city,” he said flatly, instead of the surprised or mocking comment about male au pairs Nick had been rather expecting. And then those bewitching eyes turned away as Julian resumed his conversation with his neighbor, leaving Nick strongly suspecting he’d just made an arse of himself, but at a complete loss to explain how.
CUTTING THROUGH Garden Court the next day on his way back to his rooms, Nick couldn’t have said precisely what caught his eye about the figures in the doorway to one of the staircases. Except that one of them was Julian, and Nick seemed to have a sixth sense for noticing the object of his hopeless affections even when said object was crowded into a dimly lit doorway and shielded by a much bulkier young man.
They seemed to be arguing, Nick was guiltily pleased to see. Another of Julian’s boyfriends on his way out, he supposed with rather more satisfaction than was proper. God knew there had been enough of them in the short time Julian had been up at Cambridge. Nick had regularly seen him with young men from out of college, half of whom he recognized from the Student Union lesbian and gay society. None of them seemed to hang around for more than a day or two.
Nick had often wondered about that. The only person who seemed to be a constant in Julian’s life was a first-year historian, Tiffany Meadows, but he was fairly sure they were nothing more than friends. She was a state school girl, a bit quiet, and nothing much to look at. But a nice young woman, he thought. She certainly deserved better than being saddled with that god-awful name.
The dark-haired stranger was gesticulating dramatically, whereas Julian had his hands in his pockets, avoiding the man’s gaze. It seemed odd somehow, although Nick couldn’t have said why. Abruptly the stranger seemed to tire of his hand-waving and grabbed Julian by the shoulder. Julian’s eyes snapped up. The dark-haired young man dropped Julian’s arm as if he’d been burned and, shaking his head slightly, walked away.
It didn’t seem to be the reaction Julian had been hoping for. His jaw clenched visibly, making Nick ache to comfort him.
And then Julian turned and looked directly at Nick. Their eyes met for a painfully long moment—until the sound of students approaching jolted Nick back to reality, and he looked away hurriedly and continued back to his rooms, feeling not only as if he’d once again behaved like a fool, but also somehow worried about Julian’s state of mind.
LATER THAT night, Nick was restless. It was hardly surprising, the date being what it was. He itched for a drink, but he knew from experience that alcohol would only make things worse. He tried to read, but his brain refused to focus on the words on the page, and his eyes turned instead to the moon, only three days from full, shining brightly through the window of his rooms on Main Court. Throwing his book aside in disgust, Nick decided to go for a run to try to burn off some nervous energy.
As he jogged down the road, the streetlamps lent everything an unreal, too-warm color, overpowering the light of the moon. Nick gradually relaxed. Physical exertion always calmed him when he was like this. It also had the not unwelcome effect of toning his body, ridding him of the stereotypical softness of the academic. His sandy hair might be showing the first signs of gray at the temples, but his abdomen was lean and flat, and he’d be willing to bet he was fitter than half the teenagers who filled the college. Well, the NatScis and CompScis at any rate, he thought with a grin. Although with their workload, the Natural Scientists (the university remained remarkably resistant to using such trendy modern terms as “chemists,” “physicists,” and “biologists”) at least had an excuse for not taking a lot of exercise.
Every year it was the same: first-year NatScis finding out to their absolute horror that Cambridge’s shorter-than-average terms meant they were expected to attend nine o’clock lectures six days a week. Of course, if they were rowers they’d have been up for hours by then in any case. Being rather more of a night owl than a lark, Nick had never understood the appeal of crawling out of bed at 6:00 a.m. for a long bike ride down to the boathouse, then a miserable hour of physical exercise on a bloody cold river. Still, the college eights filled up every year, so clearly not everyone agreed with him.
Julian hadn’t succumbed to the mystifying siren call of the boat club either, it occurred to Nick idly. Of course, he was probably too slender for a decent rower, and too tall for a cox, only a couple of inches shorter than Nick. Although of course not all college rowers were as muscle-bound as the Blues squad seemed to be these days. Those long, elegant limbs might be just the thing for propelling the streamlined shape of the boat through the clear waters of the Cam.
Nick stopped that line of thought hurriedly before he got into rather murkier waters that were entirely unsuitable for anyone wearing jogging bottoms in public. At least, anyone who didn’t fancy making a spectacle of himself.
Suddenly the rhythm of his stride faltered. There was something… interesting ahead. Not for the first time, Nick cursed his heightened senses for providing the alert yet failing to interpret it. He quickened his pace, following his nose around a corner into the dark, rubbish-strewn alleyway behind the Rat & Ferret on Green Street. Two figures hid in the shadows, one standing, one kneeling before him.
Nick’s pulse throbbed in his ears. Julian. The kneeling figure was Julian.
Nick shook with the effort of not charging in, grabbing Julian—his Julian—and hauling him away from this scum who dared to take—
No. He couldn’t do it. Couldn’t expose himself that way. He’d be a laughingstock. Julian was nothing to him. They’d barely even spoken, for Christ’s sake.
But he couldn’t tear his gaze away either. Couldn’t stop watching as Julian sucked that bastard’s cock, as that filth stroked his hair, as he looked up—
Nick realized that while he was busy thinking no, his body had ignored him, had walked up to the pair—was standing three feet away.
“What the fuck do you want?” Belligerence stared him in the eye—and then turned almost comically to fear. Nick realized he was growling—worse, that he couldn’t stop it. “You mental or something?” Nick didn’t need the tremor in the stranger’s voice to know that it was all bluster. “Fuck off!”
Apparently he’d killed the mood. The man pulled away from Julian, fumbling with his trousers. With a fierce surge of triumph, Nick stepped forward. In the corner of his vision, Julian clambered to his feet, stumbling as he did so and catching himself against the wall. Nick would deal with him in a minute. For now, he focused on the usurper who had dared to lay hands on his property. Not even trying to stop himself this time, he growled once more—a low, threatening sound that warned of blood and pain and vengeance.
The man stared at him for a moment longer—and then bolted. Nick was alone in the dingy alley with Julian.
Abruptly Nick became aware of just how inappropriate—how insane, for Christ’s sake—his actions must appear to Julian. Nick tensed as their eyes met, not sure what he expected. Anger? Mockery?
It was the third option. Fear. Julian had gone a deathly pale that seemed almost inhuman in the weak light of the streetlamps. He looked up at Nick with wide, horrified eyes—and fled.