“STOP.” HOLDEN gasped, pressing his back against the alley wall for support. “Someone will see.” Paying no heed to his own admonition, he did nothing to escape the warm, wet tongue the tall figure leaning into him ran up the side of his neck.
Tommy chuckled low in his throat before repeating the action even more slowly. “Someone’ll see only if you don’t stay quiet,” he replied when his efforts produced another involuntary moan.
Holden could feel the curve of Tommy’s smile against his skin, and he arched into the ticklish feel of it. The rough brick of the building housing his father’s offices scratched at his back, the grooves and indentations of the uneven surface detectable even through the thick wool of his waistcoat. Rumbling wheels and the clop of hooves heralded the traffic navigating the busy thoroughfare of Oxford Street mere yards away. But the noise provided little distraction, familiar as Holden was with the myriad sounds of London in the early afternoon. The knowledge that the entire city was passing by so closely merely increased the thrill of the illicit encounter.
“Besides,” Tommy continued, his light baritone voice dripping with confidence, “you don’t really want me to, do you?”
Holden groaned at the nip of Tommy’s teeth against his skin. “No,” he confessed, “but please refrain from leaving evidence that might alert my father.”
Tommy growled his displeasure at the caution, but he obliged by turning his attention to the skin exposed by the shirt buttons he’d opened moments before. Holden relaxed slightly, tilting his head back against the brick wall while Tommy’s lips skimmed the bared flesh of his chest.
“Speaking of your father,” Tommy managed between plying Holden with the biting kisses, “tell him I need your help with the ledger after the office closes. I was never as good with numbers as you.”
Holden drew his bottom lip between his teeth as Tommy’s nimble fingers undid the placket of his trousers. Hiding a smile, he silenced yet another embarrassing utterance of pleasure. “And we’d be more comfortable working in your room upstairs, is that it?”
“Mmmm,” Tommy mumbled in agreement, clearly expending only half his attention on their conversation. He seemed far more interested in reaching a searching hand into the pouched front of Holden’s drawers. “There’s so much work to be done. Even with the two of us, I suspect it will easily take the whole night.”
They had used the excuse before when desirous of being together away from disapproving eyes. As Holden had come to learn, the best lies were always based in truth. The entire country was still reeling from the financial crisis precipitated by the fall of Overend Gurney over two years prior. Tea imports had been the mainstay of his family for several generations, but the business Holden had always expected to inherit had fared only slightly better than the many enterprises that collapsed under the strain. His father had borrowed heavily to expand the presence of Peters & Sons in the East Indies shortly before the calamity, and the ill-timed endeavor had nearly sunk them into ruin. Fortunately, over the past few months, the economy had begun to slowly recover, and business improved along with it. Holden’s gratitude for the rebound was due in no small part to the resulting need for additional help beyond the part-time assistance he provided when he wasn’t busy excelling at his studies.
Tommy Innisbrooke had joined the firm as a clerk nearly six weeks before, fresh out of one of the city’s more prestigious public schools. Barely a year older than Holden, with a tall, well-formed figure, inky black hair, and warm brown eyes that ever hinted at mischief, Tommy had been a sight to behold. Holden had fallen for his father’s newest employee with unseemly swiftness. When he’d been sent one morning to fetch Tommy down to the office before opening hours for an urgent task, he’d found Tommy only half-awake and even less attired. He’d been betrayed in an instant by the flush that had surged to his cheeks and the uncontrollable intensity of his gaze as it roamed over Tommy’s toned, shockingly exposed form. But Holden’s mortification at being so effortlessly discovered had been happily tempered by the reciprocation of his esteem. For several weeks, he and Tommy had taken advantage of every moment they could spare to steal away and indulge their youthful passion.
The narrow alley behind the offices of Peters & Sons had become a favorite spot for a rendezvous, both for its convenience and because of the titillating danger the location’s semipublic nature afforded. Before meeting Tommy, Holden had never thought of himself as a wanton. Quite to the contrary, he’d always been a dutiful son, his dearly departed mother’s pride and joy, and the apple of his upright father’s eye. But Tommy had opened up a brave new world that Holden found himself increasingly eager to explore… so long as their activities remained a secret. The rewards might be great, but the risks were nearly beyond his ability to contemplate.
“All right,” Holden replied, struggling to speak as Tommy wrapped a hand neatly around the stiffening member between his thighs.
“…and then I tells ’im, ye ain’t paid me for two weeks. If ye want fresh apples, ye can pick ’em yerself….”
The squawk of the woman’s companion laughing at her brazenness sounded from just beyond the mouth of the alley, abruptly interrupting Holden’s enjoyment. “Wait,” he moaned as Tommy squeezed him while rubbing his thumb in slow circles over the head of his cock. As much as he was enjoying the deftness of the arousing strokes, he was suddenly besieged with uncertainty. While he and Tommy had used the alley to engage in light kisses and comparatively innocent groping, they had limited their more intimate activities to the privacy and relative safety of Tommy’s room. “Perhaps we should continue this later.”
Tommy ended the nascent protest with the hard press of lips and an impatiently seeking tongue. After several interesting minutes, he finally raised his head enough to allow Holden to catch his breath. “I can’t wait,” he growled unnecessarily. “I want you now.” He grabbed Holden’s hand and pressed it against the bulge distending his own trousers.
Taking the unsubtle hint, Holden whimpered his acquiescence and fumbled past the obstructing buttons with clumsy fingers. The hard flesh of Tommy’s arousal came quickly to hand, and Holden was rewarded with a choked obscenity.
“Bloody fuck, Peach. You’re getting awfully good at that.”
Warmth surged through Holden at the teasing sobriquet, so earned because of the pink that invariably colored his cheeks at such moments as this. I had a good teacher, he wanted to offer in clever retort, but a groan was the only response he could muster. Tommy had indeed proven himself a worthy instructor, insistently leading Holden down the primrose path to carnal knowledge.
“Tommy, please,” Holden begged, dew beading at the tip of his cock as his balls drew up against his groin. He cupped the back of Tommy’s head, drawing him down for another kiss to quiet his own shouts as Tommy spread the moisture over the swollen head with a determined thumb.
“Almost there, Peach.” Arousal lent a harsh note to Tommy’s tone. “Hang on with me.” He licked into Holden’s mouth to suck urgently on his tongue.
Unfair, Holden thought as he reacted predictably to the devastating maneuver. Tommy knew what that particular trick did to him, and right on cue, Holden’s self-restraint collapsed. He cried out as his release crashed upon him, his untutored body unable to mitigate the ferocious deluge of sensations. Tommy was only a moment behind, coating Holden’s hand with an equally vigorous outburst. He rested his sweaty forehead against Holden’s, and they struggled together to catch their breath.
“Mince pies! Two for a penny! Hot, fresh mince pies!”
The costermonger’s bellow inadvertently reminded Holden he had yet to eat his lunch. Although he was already as tall as his father, the pains of growth in his legs still awoke him often in the night, and his rapidly maturing body demanded constant sustenance. Tommy chuckled at the loud rumble that issued from his stomach.
“Now, that’s a lovely thanks for all my hard work.” Bestowing one last kiss to Holden’s lips, he straightened and glanced askance at his soiled hand. “What say we get cleaned up, and then you can show me what Mrs. Parsons packed for us today.”
Holden pushed away from his boneless posture against the alley wall. “For us?” he asked, taking a deep, fortifying breath as he tried to gather the energy to right his clothes. “She’s my father’s cook, and it’s my lunch, not yours.”
“Aww, ye wouldn’t leave a poor lad to starve in the street. Not after we’s been so good to ye, kind sir.”
Holden failed to suppress his laughter at Tommy’s ridiculous cant. “Kind, you say?” He glanced around for something to wipe his hand on and rid himself of the evidence of their dalliance. “You’ve left me a right mess—”
“Holden, what in God’s name are you doing?”
The scandalized hiss sent a shard of ice through his heart. Holden dragged his gaze away from Tommy’s abruptly colorless visage to see his father staring at them from the mouth of the alley with an expression of undisguised horror….
A KNOCK on the door pulled Holden from the memory that had haunted his every waking and sleeping moment for the last two months. He realized someone had spoken.
“Yes?” he croaked, hampered by the lump that inevitably formed whenever he recollected his precipitous fall from grace.
“I said the carriage has arrived, sir. The master asks that you please come downstairs.”
Demands more like, Holden thought somewhat uncharitably.
The young woman’s voice was unfamiliar. His father had probably hired her to replace a recent departure while he’d been serving out his banishment in his room. Holden fancied that the old maid who’d been with the family since he was an infant had quit out of protest for his genteel imprisonment, though more likely she’d simply decided to retire. While he wasn’t actually locked in his room, he’d seen little of his father or of anyone but the cook, Mrs. Parsons, since that fateful October day. Holden supposed he couldn’t blame his father for shunning him so completely. It couldn’t have been easy for that worthy gentleman to discover he had a Godless sodomite for a son.
Holden laughed humorlessly at his poor joke. It had taken over a month for his father to even speak to him afterward, and then he’d broken his silence only to inform Holden that he should prepare himself for new living arrangements. It seemed he was to be sent somewhere far away where he could no longer taint the family name with his sinful behavior.
“I’ll come down presently,” he replied aloud, though he remained unmoving even after the maid’s soft footsteps had faded away. Sighing, he gazed listlessly about his room and allowed himself one last moment of self-indulgent melancholy.
The bed on which he sat had been his since he’d outgrown his crib. How large it had once seemed, though now his feet nearly hung off the end. He could hardly bring himself to imagine sleeping elsewhere. The hideous wallpaper his mother had so proudly put up five years before—“The latest from William Morris!” she’d exclaimed—was suddenly dear to him, though at the time he had derided her choice with childish petulance. The heavy wardrobe in the far corner of his room, which had been a gift from a favorite uncle who’d died without children of his own to indulge, stood empty. All of his clothing and books had already been packed away and hauled off. He supposed—or at least hoped—they’d be awaiting him at his destination, although the identity of that locale as yet remained a mystery.
His father had not deigned to enlighten him concerning where he was to serve out his exile. Holden knew only that he was to report to someone named Mr. Leslie once he arrived. He’d had plenty of time to consider the possible consequences of his shameful deeds. Maybe he would be transported to Australia, or perhaps he was to be sent off to teach the pauper children at one of the workhouses. Both outcomes had occurred to him during his wilder flights of imagination. More likely, however, it had simply been arranged for him to join some other office as a clerk, probably with one of his father’s close business associates, where his background would be known but his present circumstances would remain unquestioned. And if luck had not completely abandoned him, maybe he would even find Tommy there. He had neither seen nor heard from his partner in crime since the discovery of their ignominy. Holden suspected his father had simply dismissed Tommy rather than give him over to the police, as the truth would have also landed Holden in prison.
Holden sighed and forcibly halted his wandering thoughts. He was merely stalling, and doing so would get him nowhere. The deed was done, the sentence had been handed down, and it was time for him to go. It had occurred to him that he could simply leave on his own accord and attempt to make his way without the benefit of his father’s backing, but the thought never lingered more than a moment. He couldn’t help but feel whatever punishment his father deigned to hand down was owing to him for his scandalous lack of judgment. While he resented being forcibly separated from Tommy and was fearful of Tommy’s present circumstances, he could not forgive his own horrid disregard for the danger in which he’d put not merely his own reputation, but that of his entire family. No, he’d decided. He would face his penance with as much dignity as he could muster. He owed his father that much at the very least.
He pushed himself to his feet, feeling far heavier than he should have, considering the number of meals he’d missed of late. All he’d been permitted to take was a lone satchel filled with some of his more personal effects, including a miniature portrait of his mother in a locket, which he’d hidden away in a rolled-up pair of drawers. He didn’t know if his father would have forbidden him the memento, but had decided it was safer not to inquire.
The house was silent when he opened the door to his room and stepped into the hallway. Even the one lower hinge that had squeaked for years was respectfully muted. The maid had disappeared, and Holden surmised she was assisting Mrs. Parsons in the kitchen at the back of the house. Other than the elderly cook and the new maid, the residents of the townhome included only Holden and his father. Holden wondered what the old man would do with so much space to himself once he had gone. His mother’s departure several years ago for Heaven’s golden fields had made the house seem cavernous. Perhaps that loneliness might prompt his father to someday offer the forgiveness he’d been thus far so disinclined to give. Holden couldn’t stop himself from hoping, though the wish was likely futile.
The main stairs were already beginning to sport the festoons of the Christmas season. Holden gazed at them wistfully as he headed reluctantly down the steps, remembering the annual wait with his mother in the cold for the tinsel and poinsettias she’d insisted on every year without fail. More of his life that was now lost to him. The front hall was as yet free of decoration, and Holden was relieved by the absence of ornamental merriment. It seemed improper that the house should reflect any joy upon such a dire occasion as this.
As he walked to the door, movement in the room to his left caught his attention. Holden glanced into the parlor and saw his father standing at the window, staring through it to the street beyond. The British Museum always drew large streams of visitors to Bloomsbury, and Holden had spent many a pleasant hour speculating about the tide of humanity that daily passed by his home. He wondered if his father was currently partaking of the pleasant diversion or whether his thoughts were consumed with gloomier concerns.
For a second, Holden actually considered walking out the front door without speaking. His presence had recently been a torment to his father, and there was no reason his imminent departure should have altered that state of affairs. But manners ingrained in him since he’d worn short pants prevented him from leaving without at least attempting to bridge the abyss that had formed between them. He moved uncertainly into the sitting room, as yet unseen. His hip brushed against the edge of the piano, a de rigueur investment for anyone of middle-class pretensions. Despite his mother’s often annoying insistence that he learn to play, Holden had come to love the instrument, his hours of toil lending him a not inconsiderable level of skill. He somehow doubted he’d be given the opportunity to play in the near future. Something else to add to his long list of regrets.
Once he stood behind the ramrod figure positioned in front of the window, Holden cleared his throat. “Father,” he began, “perhaps your forgiveness is too much to ask, but I must beg your indulgence—”
“No, do not speak to me.” The denial was cold and clipped. “Say nothing. Not here in your mother’s house.”
Holden’s father had chosen well when he’d proposed to the daughter of a wealthy merchant. Though the young Franklin Peters had not laid claim to as extensive a fortune, Holden’s maternal grandfather, Mr. Forsythe, had not been averse to his daughter marrying a similarly positioned young man of ambition. The townhouse had been his wedding gift to the fledgling couple. Franklin had never resented essentially living under his father-in-law’s roof, a fact Holden had long felt worthy of admiration. Unfortunately Holden could not say the same for his father’s sense of tolerance—his “good opinion once lost,” as Miss Austen had so adroitly penned.
“Father, please,” Holden tried again, only to be met with the same lack of success.
Franklin Peters was not a large man, but he had always seemed so in his son’s eyes. When he rounded on Holden suddenly, Holden couldn’t help but cringe back from the evident fury that darkened his father’s countenance.
“I’m glad she’s dead and didn’t live to see her son become a degenerate.”
Franklin glared with hazel eyes that were the image of Holden’s. Beneath the fire, they held a reddish sheen that suggested they had recently been beset with tears. Holden’s stomach clenched at the thought of having brought his father so low.
“Leave this house, and never again darken my doorstep. You would be most unwelcome.” With that, the elder Mr. Peters turned away to stare once again out the window, visibly dismissing his son from his notice.
The disappointment and anguish on his father’s face twisted Holden’s heart. Holden resigned himself that he could do nothing further to delay the inevitable. But the looming doubt concerning his impending future prompted him to ask one last question. “If you please, sir, what type of business does this Mr. Leslie run?”
No answer was forthcoming. Holden sighed and left his father to his resentment. He was almost to the front door when a winded shout sounded from behind him, bidding him to look around for the source. Mrs. Parsons heaved her considerable bulk toward him as she rushed from the back of the house where she’d clearly been working in the kitchen. Her apron was covered with flour, and her hands still bore the traces of a hasty wiping. The white powder on her face was streaked with still-falling tears.
“Oh, Mr. Holden,” she sobbed. “Is you really leaving us?”
“It appears so, Mrs. Parsons.” Holden forced what he hoped was an encouraging smile to his lips. “Don’t cry. I rather think it’s an adventure to make one’s own way in the world.”
The dear lady was plainly having none of his weak reassurances. “It ain’t right a lad like you being put out onto the street.” She shot a glare toward the sitting room, her disgust with her employer evident though she carefully pitched her voice low enough so as not to be overheard. When she lifted her gaze once more to Holden, her anger instantly melted into distress. “If only you would apologize for whatever it is you done.”
Holden winced, recalling his recent attempt to do precisely that. “I fear the time for apologies has passed.” He smiled again, this time with more sincerity. “I’ll be fine, Mrs. Parsons, though I dare say I will regret never tasting the likes of your plum pudding again in this life.”
The praise prompted a fresh round of tears, but before Holden could think how to comfort her, she thrust a wrapped packet at his chest. Even without looking, he knew it was a package of Fry’s Chocolate Cream. The cook had been enamored of them since their debut two years before. Now, as then, he didn’t have the heart to tell her he preferred the plainer chocolate bar offered by the Cadbury brothers. Instead he took them with all the gratitude owing her intent. He bent to press a kiss to her plump cheek as he’d so often done over the years.
“Thank you, Mrs. Parsons. I shall strive not to eat the entirety in one go.”
The joke earned him a sob punctuated with a giggle. “See that you don’t, young sir. And, Mr. Holden,” she added, grabbing the hand not holding his satchel in hers, “do take care of yourself.”
Holden made the requested promise, hoping he’d be able to keep it.