One

 

 

Kent, England—1758

 

NOT all of Malcolm Byerly’s passions put him at risk of imprisonment. Music and learning were safe enough pastimes, and he eagerly pursued both as substitutions for the love denied him by his nature. If the closest he’d come to romance was sweet love songs played upon the strings of a violin, at that he could excel.

From the longing in his soul sprang melodies of passion and harmonies of desire, things of which he dreamed and never hoped to have, for danger lurked in the having. Better a solitary existence than to forfeit honor, or worse, to partake of forbidden fruit.

Sometimes, when he tucked the instrument beneath his chin, he unleashed not the joys of affection but sorrows and disappointments, the mournful cries of his violin giving voice to loneliness in a tongue few understood. On the fateful night he set foot on the road to destiny, the notes formed on the strings fluently spoke the language of heartbreak.

He’d paused to scribble notes in the margin of a music sheet when the bells tolled in the courtyard, marking the hour and summoning him to the dining hall. He sighed, regretting the interruption. Alas, the school maintained strict rules and didn’t tolerate tardiness in the students or the staff. The headmaster lectured endlessly on the grave responsibility of teaching young minds and the necessity of practicing self-discipline in order to properly instruct another. After putting away the violin and vowing a quick return, Malcolm left his sanctuary and joined the throng heading for the evening’s repast, the notes of his latest composition echoing in his mind.

The usual faculty members took their places on the long benches on either side of his assigned table, mostly older, gray-haired men who’d been with the school many years—bachelors who, like himself, resided in the dormitories. Bitter old maids, Malcolm usually thought of them. However, a few were closer to his age of twenty-three and too new to their scholarly profession for such cynicism.

A handsome stranger occupied the formerly empty place at the table, peering up with piercing blue eyes from beneath a cascade of dark brown hair. An easy smile on a pleasing face ignited a spark of recognition from deep within Malcolm. Something long buried bloomed to life—attraction. Without knowing quite how, Malcolm recognized another lover of men.

He seated himself beside the stranger, willing his pounding heart to calm. Their legs met under the table, sending a jolt of pure desire shooting straight to his groin.

A hint of a blush crept up the stranger’s face. “I’ve been told you’re the gentleman who played the violin earlier in the dormitory. You play wonderfully. I’m Kinnerley, Thomas Kinnerley. And you’re Malcolm Byerly, if I’m not mistaken.” He appeared young and fervent, all bright eyes and bashful smile.

Malcolm’s cheeks flushed hotly and he struggled to accept the compliment with grace. “Thank you. My apologies if I disturbed you. Before the evening bell is the only time I can practice.”

“Oh, no!” the man assured him. “I never learned to play myself, and I’m fascinated by those who can. The song you played, how melancholy. What was it?”

Malcolm’s blush deepened, and he felt somehow exposed that another had been privy to what were, in essence, his most personal thoughts. Since the other teachers never commented on his music, he’d assumed they didn’t listen. “It’s nothing. A little something I’m working on.” He hoped the man wouldn’t believe him boastful.

“A composer! How marvelous!” Thomas Kinnerley beamed, causing a squirming, not entirely unpleasant sensation in Malcolm’s belly.

A stern look from one of their dining companions hushed them. Apparently, the elders frowned upon Thomas’s enthusiasm, much as they frowned upon everything else. Malcolm solemnly swore never to take his anger and bitterness out on the world around him, no matter how old and disillusioned he grew.

He focused on the others’ conversations while munching his portion of roast chicken, occasionally distracted by the beguiling brush of Thomas’s leg against his own. His cock throbbed throughout the entire meal. What harm lay in privately enjoying the accidental contact? He discovered a few moments later that the casual attention wasn’t accidental.

After several of their peers left the table, Thomas leaned in, pressing his leg to Malcolm’s more directly. He quietly suggested, “Perhaps some evening I can come to your room whilst you play?”

Malcolm froze. Thomas couldn’t mean…. He studied the new teacher, from the heated sidelong glances and the suggestively lifted brow, to the slight, smirking upturn of lips. The hand casually stroking his thigh removed any lingering doubts of Thomas’s intent.

Breath caught in his throat, Malcolm scanned the table for possible witnesses. Those remaining sat too far away or seemed too deeply engaged in their own conversations to notice. “I’m sure that would be highly inappropriate!” he hissed, reluctantly pulling his leg from Thomas’s. His traitorous body naysaid him, creating an unmistakable bulge in his breeches.

Thomas gave Malcolm’s thigh a light squeeze before removing his hand. “I merely wish to hear your music,” he said. A wink and a brazen look added heat to the words.

Malcolm stammered, “I… I’m not like that!” Terrified of being overheard, he sank lower on the hard wooden bench, praying his far-too-forward admirer would go away before the whole world knew his secret.

Thomas was either naïve or unafraid of the consequences. Malcolm, however, had no intention of skulking back to his father’s house, tail between legs because he’d been dismissed from a post, or worse—bearing the accusation of sodomy and facing the full punishment of the law.

“Your words lie,” the young teacher persisted. “I can tell what you are and what you want.”

Struggling with the urge to flee, Malcolm pleaded with his eyes for understanding. “What I want is to finish my meal and retire to my room—alone.”

From down the table, another teacher laughed, obviously misunderstanding what little he’d overheard. “That’s the problem, Byerly—you spend too much time alone. If you’ve no need of a wife, I know of a reputable place not far from here. The ladies are comely and affordable, even on our salaries.”

Few topics captured the attention of the older, single teachers housed at the school, which was a beacon of higher learning where the sons of the wealthy and titled received their educations. Women, or rather prostitutes, were one of them. The remaining men expressed opinions on the subject or made suggestions about their favorite ladies. All except for Malcolm and the new arrival.

“I’m very tired tonight,” Malcolm stated. “I believe I’ll retire early. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen.” Outwardly, he rose and calmly walked away; inwardly, he ran, too afraid to take a chance. Thomas didn’t follow. Malcolm’s emotions bounced from relief to disappointment.

The next night, he deliberately came to the table late, risking the wrath of the headmaster. An empty place remained at the opposite end from Thomas, who seemed fully occupied, smiling and nodding, conversing with another. Good, maybe there’d be no repeat of last night’s advances. How dare the man make such a suggestion openly, where anyone might overhear! Nevertheless, in the pit of Malcolm’s gut lingered the bitter pill of regret. Deep down, he wanted the attention, wanted to accept Thomas’s offer, not daring to admit the truth.

Occasionally, Thomas’s admiring gaze found his, full of longing. A kindred spirit. After all these years, he’d met someone like himself whom he found desirable. Malcolm hardly touched his meal, too busy waging an inner war with his conscience. Did he dare cast aside years of hiding and take a chance? Could he and Thomas conduct a discreet affair, leaving none the wiser? After excusing himself, he wasn’t surprised to hear footsteps behind him in the courtyard separating the dining hall from the dormitories.

Taking a deep breath and exhaling sharply, Malcolm waited. He turned to find an eager, expectant face—eagerness he intended to crush.

“I’m sorry for my forward behavior last night,” Thomas began. “When I first laid eyes on you, I knew you were like me, and I—”

Malcolm didn’t let him finish. “Thomas,” he said, a shake of his head sending curls bouncing around his face. “I’m not like you. You’re bold, I’m not. You’re daring, I’m a coward.” A quick glance ensured their privacy before his eyes found his would-be suitor’s and held them. Very deliberately, he spoke rehearsed words to destroy what might well be his one chance at happiness in this place. “What you seek cannot be found here.”

Unwilling to witness Thomas’s pain—the same pain and rejection he’d always felt in his own soul—Malcolm fled across the courtyard, slamming the door once he’d reached his tiny room. The rough wood bit into his back and he leaned against it, burying his face in his hands. Why did he have to be this way? Why couldn’t he, like his brothers, want the love of a woman instead of a man? Why couldn’t he be content to marry and father children?

Afterward, he and Thomas remained politely civil, limiting their talk to matters of the school and other innocent topics. Gradually, the yearning in those blue eyes faded. Months passed, and a new empty space appeared at the table when a teacher left for a private post. A few nights later, a replacement arrived, an energetic blond with a hearty laugh and an infectious grin. Malcolm liked him immediately and, apparently, Thomas did too.

Malcolm watched the two leaning together as they chatted, an ache of loneliness building in his chest. What would it be like to give in to temptation, to experience firsthand being held, being loved?

All he knew of such were the boastful stories of his peers about female conquests, involving lust, not love. Forcing his eyes to stay on his plate, Malcolm turned deaf ears to the murmured voices around the table, Thomas and the blond’s in particular, as the food turned to sand in his mouth.

The torturous ritual continued for weeks. By day he focused on filling the minds of his students; each evening he sat and watched what he’d thrown away, pretending not to care. During that time, no tender songs emerged from his violin, only requiems of desolation and emptiness. One night, he arrived at the table to find two places conspicuously empty, as they remained throughout the meal. Oddly enough, at a table full of gossips and “brothers’ keepers,” no one mentioned the missing men and all eyes studiously avoided the vacant seats. Appearances in the dining hall were mandatory. Though bold, surely Thomas wouldn’t risk a reprimand, knowing such an absence would be noted?

Unable to tame his curiosity, Malcolm asked, “We’re missing two of our ranks tonight. Are they ill?”

His fellows grew uncomfortably quiet. “You mean you haven’t heard?” the man sitting beside him finally spat. “Seems we had two sodomites in our midst. Caught them at a molly house. Don’t you worry, we know how to deal with the likes of them.” The man’s beefy hand rested on the table, the knuckles torn and swollen.

Malcolm swallowed hard, his eyes darting from one stern face to the next. Some of the teachers nodded agreement while others kept their eyes downcast. A dark bruise marred one’s cheek, a deep gash another’s. What had they done? And why had Thomas and his friend visited a molly house? Didn’t they only need each other? Malcolm heard tales of such places, safe havens for men who desired other men, too reticent to pass the door. Denying his curiosity appeared now to have been a wise decision.

Thankfully, no one observed him too closely, or if they noticed the flush of embarrassment on his cheeks and the horror in his eyes, they mistook his discomfort for indignation at having been exposed to such vile men. He dropped his hands beneath the table to hide their trembling. Afraid to press further and reveal his true interest in the men’s fates, like a coward, Malcolm joined Thomas’s accusers. “Serves them right, too, if you ask me,” he muttered, while inwardly praying for the two lost souls.

By unspoken agreement, the teachers never mentioned the offenders again. That didn’t stop Malcolm from thinking of them often, wondering what had become of them, and whether their few shared moments had been worth the price they’d paid.

Although he’d rejected Thomas, Malcolm still felt a kinship to the lovely brunet with the expressive sapphire eyes, and deeply mourned the loss of a good teacher. In the evenings, alone in his room, conjured images of the ill-fated lovers filled Malcolm’s mind, and when his bow caressed the strings of his violin, he named the result, Thomas’s Lament.

Night after night, he sat at the table, studying face after face, trying to decide which of his fellows passed judgment and who’d stood idly by, and what he himself would have done had he been present. How Malcolm came to dread those times and the painful memories dredged from the depths of his consciousness where he tried to keep them safely locked. Upon whose hands did Thomas’s ruin reside?

Fate had spared Malcolm, but for how long? If any discovered his true desires, would they care that he’d not acted on them? Probably not. Suspicion alone would prompt action. He never learned precisely what heinous cruelty his peers endured. Most likely they’d been beaten, judging by the injuries he’d witnessed. And the careers of both men were over, their reputations damaged beyond redemption. Had they been dragged through the streets, cursed at and spat upon, as Malcolm had once witnessed?

The punishment could be quite severe if they’d been caught in the act. The two men could face the pillory or, at this very moment, be languishing in prison. For Malcolm, his absence from the jeering crowd mattered little. He knew he was too weak and afraid to take a stand. He’d told Thomas the truth when he’d confessed, “I am a coward.”

Soon, his imagination created trouble where none existed before. Were the other teachers watching him? Did they suspect? Guilt and fear gnawed constantly at his belly, his unease growing with each passing day. He needed to leave Kent before he, too, fell victim to self-righteous judgment.

 

 

“MASTER Byerly, you have a letter.”

Malcolm glanced up one early spring evening into the sweet face of his deliverer, who unknowingly handed him salvation. He stared down at a flowery script he’d not seen in years, recognizing the handwriting immediately—his former teacher’s, from whom he’d learned music.

Dearest Malcolm, the letter began, I’ve found a position for you in Scotland

Dear Master Edward, who’d shocked one and all by leaving a prestigious position in Kent for the wilds of Scotland, had remembered him.

There is a family of my acquaintance in need of a tutor for their sons. Forgive my presumption, but I recommended you, dear student and friend, remembering how fondly you once spoke of your ambition to visit Scotland.

Relief flowed through Malcolm, and he didn’t try to hide a smile, the unfamiliar gesture causing his cheeks to ache. “I’ve received a letter from my mentor!” he announced to the men he’d secretly begun referring to as the angry mob.

With great satisfaction he tendered his resignation. The letter enabling his escape was tattered and worn from nearly constant handling by the time he traded familiar surroundings for the unknown of the Scottish Highlands. All his life, he’d done as expected, head down to avoid notice. Now he feared obscurity wouldn’t be protection enough. For once in his life, he’d do something daring, something bold.

Packing his precious violin, a few books, and other meager possessions took a mere handful of minutes. To avoid his sire’s admonishments that he’d soon return in shame, upon leaving Kent, Malcolm sent a letter back home to be delivered long after his departure.

He left with his head held high, determined never to look back.