GROANING, DALTON Fairfax huddled farther down into his peacoat as he ran. Damn the luck, letting Ravensburg spot him leaving the IN base on the very day he returned to Regelence. His father, the Marquess of Ravensburg, was a pain in his arse. His parents had been making a fuss for weeks now about him moving back home and selling out his commission. Not bloody likely.
The wind whipped his cheeks so hard he’d lost sensation in them two blocks ago. He glanced back at the mass of people on the sidewalk from which he’d just escaped, but kept going. It was a little like trying to swim up the Bordo River on Lerdra. Shouldn’t these people be sleeping off last night’s excess? Most aristocrats didn’t rise till ten or so, and it was barely six thirty. Dodging a nanny pushing a pram, he almost plowed into a young lord.
Dalton leaped over a frozen puddle before glancing back again.
Ravensburg had his arm in the air as if hailing Dalton, as he shoved through a mass of people on the sidewalk. If his face got any redder, he’d look like a tomato. When had Father gotten that out of shape? Or perhaps he was a victim of wind chill as well?
A stab of pity, mixed with something that felt suspiciously like guilt, niggled at Dalton, but not enough to make him stop. Eventually he’d have to talk to his father, but not now.
Skirting a trolley filled with oranges, he peeked over his shoulder again, and bam! He splatted up against a rather squishy body. Oomph. “Meteor dust!”
“Whoa!” The squishy body flew backward in a flurry of puce and flapping arms. A hat sailed forward off the man’s head.
Dalton shot out a hand to grab the man, but the man’s walking stick came flying toward him. He snagged the stick out of midair, but missed the owner’s arm.
The man landed on his arse with his legs spread and his gray beaver hat between his knees. He brought to mind a toppled bowling pin as he floundered around.
Several fellow pedestrians stopped to gawk.
Dalton seriously considered resuming his escape, but how callous would that be? He wasn’t a complete scoundrel, even if it meant his father caught up with him. Sighing, he planted the walking stick on the sidewalk and offered his free hand. “Terribly sorry, ol’ chap.”
“Oh, I say, Ashbourne. Is that you?” The bowling pin, er… man, blinked bright blue eyes up at Dalton. His lips flowed into a grin, making his jowls more prominent. Lifting his hat from between his legs, he plopped it on his head, turned his face upward, and took Dalton’s hand in a warm clammy grip.
Oh stars. It was Viscount Tyndel. Of all times to run into a former paramour. Dalton pulled and failed to help the viscount rise. Galaxy, the man had packed on some pounds. He’d never had the toned physique Dalton preferred in his lovers, but the man had a talented mouth, so Dalton hadn’t cared overly. Now? There were practically two of Tyndel.
Putting his back into it and using the walking stick for leverage, Dalton tried again to help Tyndel up.
Slowly, Tyndel rose to his feet, staggering a bit. He dusted off his chocolate-colored trousers and rearranged his waistcoat, jacket, and puce greatcoat. “When did you get back in town? Last I heard, you were serving in the IN on Lerdra.”
“Right. Um….” Dalton chanced a glance behind him. Was that Ravensburg? The man certainly seemed in a hurry and the hat appeared the right shade of brown, but Dalton couldn’t get a good look at him otherwise. An IN soldier kept pace in front of him and a much smaller blond man directly beside…. “Damnation!” The blond was his sire. Where had he come from?
Arthur Fairfax’s body lurched back in recognition. He said something to—yes, that was definitely Ravensburg—and pointed in Dalton’s direction. Great, now both his parents were on his tail. He’d managed to avoid them while on leave last year because they’d been in the country at Windswept Abbey, but evading them while they were in town was already proving more difficult.
Dalton sprang into a jog. Bloody hell. He’d forgotten all about Tyndel. He turned over his shoulder toward the now slack-jawed viscount and walked backward. “My apologies, Tyndel. We’ll catch up later.” His gaze strayed a few yards back. Eep. His sire was quick for such a small man. “Family emergency.” Which wasn’t a lie—it was an emergency that he get away from his family. He fled without another word.
“Oh, I say, how undignified,” someone called out behind him.
Dalton grinned at the absurdity of the situation and kept going. How very undignified, indeed. Both Lords Ravensburg running down a crowded sidewalk in the middle of downtown Classige. Dalton chuckled. He couldn’t wait to tell Uncle Raleigh.
After bolting into an alley, he came out on Green Street and looked both ways. There was a jeweler, a tailor…. There. The haberdashery. Maybe he could hide out and do some shopping.
He sprinted across the road, narrowly avoiding a lift. Glancing behind him, he made sure his parents hadn’t made it out of the alley yet, and then he flung open the door and hurried inside.
The bell tinkled, and…. Ah, warmth! His frozen face and burning lungs approved. Dropping his hands to his knees, he took a deep breath and then another. He really needed to get reaccustomed to the higher altitude in Pruluce. Having been stationed for the past year on a planet with nothing but plains had not done him any favors today. Thank goodness for the last six weeks of special training to go into the Regelence Special Regiment, or he’d be in worse shape.
Dalton raised his head as a tall thin man in a dove gray morning coat and charcoal trousers came around the corner toward him. The pinched expression on his face clearly declared Dalton beneath him. The establishment did cater to the haute ton, but still… a soldier wasn’t exactly riffraff. Besides, how could the salesman even see with his nose that high in the air?
Straightening to his full height, Dalton lifted his own chin; he could do haughty when necessary.
“How can I help you, lieutenant…?” The man looked as though he’d bitten into something quite sour, and the way he made Dalton’s rank sound like the equivalent of horse droppings was very impressive.
Dalton barely suppressed a twitch at the corner of his lips. Staring down his nose at the man, he lifted a brow. “Lieutenant Lord Ashbourne.” He wasn’t above playing the lord card to keep from getting tossed out of the shop.
Normally that was all it took, and this proprietor was no different.
Mr. Lemon Sucker’s entire demeanor changed, and the poker up his arse seemed to have disappeared. “Welcome, my lord. I’m Humphreys. How may I serve you? Please allow me to take your coat and….” He looked at Dalton’s head.
Bloody black hole, he’d lost his cover in the mad dash to get away.
Humphreys quickly divested Dalton of his peacoat. “What can I help you with today, my lord?”
“I’ll let you know. I’m going to browse around.” Dalton stepped past Poker Arse, completely dismissing him, then felt guilty for it. But the man was rude to him first, he reasoned—not to mention he needed out of the doorway. Even though the bottom part of the door was wood, the top had panes of glass and a clear view to the street.
“Very well, my lord. Please let me know if I can be of service. I’ll check back with you in a moment?”
Waving his hand behind him, Dalton continued walking. He did need a new civilian wardrobe more fitting to Regelence for when he was off duty. Though he was loath to give up the shorts and sandals he’d worn at the base on Lerdra during his down time.
Studying the shelves of cravats to his right, he decided to browse while he let his esteemed parents get farther away.
“Bannon, get down from there right this instant. What if someone sees you?”
The furious whisper had come from somewhere to his left. Whoever the speaker was, he whispered louder than Dalton’s cousin Tarren, which was quite impressive.
“I mean it, Bannon.”
Wait. A flutter racked Dalton’s stomach. It couldn’t be. Bannon was the name of his cousin Aiden’s friend. And Bannon’s brother…. Could that be Dalton’s Adonis calling his younger sibling?
Before he’d gone into special training, Dalton had been home on leave and spotted the most angelic, gorgeous creature he’d ever laid eyes on. The man had starred in every one of Dalton’s fantasies since then. That lovely face had even gotten him through those long nights in the surf while he’d suffered from hypothermia and starvation. He could still picture the man clearly. A real diamond of the first water. Lord Redding, Blaise Thompson, heir to the Duke of Eversleigh, had brown hair and the most brilliant green eyes Dalton had ever seen—like emeralds in the sunlight. He had kissable lips and a grace of movement that made him appear ethereal. He was beautiful, elegant, and very, very beddable.
Only Dalton hadn’t been able to arrange an introduction. Somehow their paths had not crossed again, which wasn’t surprising, considering that Dalton was a rakehell and Blaise was… well, respectable. None of Dalton’s cousins had taken him seriously when he’d asked to meet the viscount.
Footsteps came from behind him. “My lord, can I—”
“Not now!” He waved his hand without looking at the man.
“Hrmph. Very well, my lord.”
Bloody hell. Dalton swiveled around. “Pardon me, Humphreys. My apologies. I was deep in thought, and I’m still deciding, but I’ll let you know.”
“Very well, my lord.” Humphreys dipped his pointy chin, turned on his heels, and left.
Dalton hurried to the very end of the aisle and glanced down the next one. Empty. Standing perfectly still, he closed his eyes and listened. Where are you, lovely?
“Eep.” The shelving unit cattycorner on his left rattled. A black beaver hat fell from the shelf, bounced onto the navy blue carpet, and rolled in a circle before landing crown up in the middle of the floor. “Oh star dust! Blaise, let go of my feet and stop pulling….” A pair of dazzling green eyes peered down from the top shelf, under a shock of bright red hair. “Oh, hallo.”
“’Ello.” Dalton grinned. Not only was it Aiden’s friend, Bannon, but Bannon’s grousing confirmed that his gorgeous brother was indeed on the other side of that wall of hats as well. “Can you get that for me?” Bannon asked.
“Certainly.” Dalton snagged the hat from the ground, and warmth spread through him as though he’d drank a shot of whiskey. At last, he was about to meet the breathtaking Viscount Redding. Finally.
“Bannon…,” Blaise hissed from the other side.
“I have him,” a female hissed back. “Bannon, get down.”
The shelving teetered.
“Oh!” Bannon’s eyes widened, and his head began to sink below the shelf.
Three more hats dropped from the top ledge, and one from the middle—right about where Bannon’s foot would be—and hit the ground. Unlike the first hat, these didn’t roll but instead pelted the ground like darts.
Dalton had a vision of the shelf falling and knocking over the rest like dominoes. He raced around the corner with his arms outstretched, intent on catching the hellion, and plowed right over the man of his dreams.
It was nothing like running into Tyndel, because Blaise was not at all squishy, and he never saw Dalton coming. He fell like a chopped tree—straight down.
Dalton reached out, but the impact had sent him reeling backward as well. The cuff of Blaise’s soft wool morning coat flitted through his fingers, followed by a small current of air that sealed the deal. All he could do was watch with his mouth ajar as Blaise hit the blue carpet. The breath knocked from him was little more than a hiss.
Clutching his chest, Blaise gasped for air. The agony and surprise on his face hit Dalton so hard, he might as well have fallen himself. Those beautiful green eyes went wide and unfocused. His chestnut hair fell in an attractive tousle over his forehead, and those smooth alabaster cheeks grew botchy with spots of color, but for all that, he was still the most beautiful man on Regelence. Like an elven prince from one of the storybooks Grandfather used to read at bedtime.
Before Dalton could move forward to check on his hapless victim, Bannon screeched.
Hanging from his fingertips, the redhead dangled four feet off the ground. The shelving unit swayed back and forth as if hit by a gale force wind.
A woman tried to steady the shelves but had no success whatsoever. It was only a matter of seconds before the whole thing toppled, and who knew which way it would actually fall.
Dalton rushed forward through the rain of hats peppering the ground around him like tiny missiles and caught Bannon with one arm. After setting the young man on his feet, he used both hands to steady the shelf. The girl helped, and it stopped swaying, but most of its contents had crash-landed onto the carpet.
Dalton’s lips twitched up into a big smile as he studied the turbulent sea of hats. Some on their sides, some upside down, others right side up, one or two still rolling. In their stuffy society, a little harmless folly was a godsend. Well, almost harmless. He supposed Blaise might disagree at the moment, but still it tickled Dalton.
Somehow all but one hat missed Blaise, who was now trying to sit while gasping for air and clawing at his cravat.
Dalton rushed to him, tossed the green hat from his abdomen, and helped him sit. Sinking down behind Blaise, he propped the viscount’s back against his chest and couldn’t help but feel tenderness. “Easy, sweetheart.”
Galaxy, he smelled divine. Like cold nights around a campfire and the inside of a sweet shop all rolled into one.
Blaise leaned back into Dalton’s arms, so warm and trusting, and despite the situation, Dalton’s cock stirred. Gritting his teeth, he willed his body to behave and intercepted Blaise’s hands. Pale, elegant hands that would look splendid on Dalton’s slightly darker skin. And thoughts like that were definitely not a good way to get control of his body. Geez, the man couldn’t breathe, and here Dalton was lost in a fantasy.
Unknotting the cravat, he pulled it free. “That’s it, sweetheart, easy now. Try to slowly let the air back in.”
Little by little Blaise began to relax and inhale. Soon he was breathing easier, and so did Dalton.
“There now. Much better, yes?”
Blaise nodded and snuggled, moving his back side to side, against Dalton’s chest. He leaned his head back on Dalton’s shoulder and closed his eyes with his face only inches away.
A charming sprinkle of freckles dotted his cheeks, and his slim neck begged to be bitten. The strong pulse throbbing there taunted Dalton’s tongue. Would he taste salty or sweet? Or a combination of both?
“Oh bother.” Bannon stood a few feet away with the black hat he’d risked life and limb to get, wringing it in his hands. His pale skin blanched nearly white. “Father is going to throttle me.”
Humphreys appeared behind him with his mouth ajar. Wonderful! There was no telling what the very uptight man would say about this. Frankly, Dalton couldn’t believe he wasn’t already shrieking and calling the law on them.
The girl bit her bottom lip and shook her head at the damage before turning on Bannon. “I told you it was a bad idea.”
“You did not!” Bannon shouted at her. “You said the hat would be dashing on me.”
“I didn’t mean for you to climb up and get….” She trailed off, looking over at Humphreys.
With a sigh and a prayer to anyone who’d listen that Humphreys didn’t have an apoplexy right on the spot, Dalton met the older man’s gaze. “I’ll pay for everything, but allow me to revive Lord Redding first.”
Surprisingly the proprietor did not explode. Standing up straighter, he closed his lips and dipped his chin. “Very well, my lord.” With a glare at Bannon, he lifted his chin, sniffed, and walked away.
Like a bolt of lightning had struck him, Blaise jerked forward and scrambled to his feet. He spun around and locked gazes with Dalton, his mouth gaping open. For several seconds, they stared at each other.
Dalton couldn’t have moved if he’d wanted to. He sat there transfixed by those grass-green eyes and the most profound feeling that his life had just irrevocably changed. He shook his head, trying to clear the insane thought, and hopped to his feet. It wasn’t like he was a lad with his first infatuation. He didn’t even believe in love at first sight, but there was… something… some strange pull he couldn’t deny. The shock in Blaise’s eyes made Dalton wonder if he felt it too.
Blaise swallowed hard enough to make his Adam’s apple bob. A small, shy smile teased his lips, and those gorgeous eyes peeked out from under fluttering lashes. Pink tinged his neck and face as he bit his bottom lip. He took a step forward, and the color drained from his face.
Maybe it was the widening of his eyes or the jerky way he moved, but Dalton read his intent to flee and said, “Blaise, wait.”
But he didn’t wait; he took off at a brisk pace, kicking hats out of his way as he went.
Bollocks! Dalton reached out as if he could somehow stall the retreat, but Blaise increased his pace.
Bannon and the girl stumbled along behind him. After a few seconds, Bannon peered back over his shoulder with a sheepish expression. “Sorry. And thank you.”
Dalton nodded. Bloody hell! What had he done? Well, other than knocking the man on his arse, of course. Rolling his eyes at himself, Dalton groaned. He watched Blaise disappear around the corner with his coattails flapping behind him.
Ugh. That had not gone at all like Dalton envisioned their first meeting. So much for a first impression. He’d just have to make a better second one. Glancing around at the hats littering the floor, he chuckled.
That shouldn’t be too hard.