You must both be godfathers,” Olivia informed them, from the bower of her bed at Jermyn Street. She looked fondly down at the infant glued to her breast.

Grey glanced at Percy, who was beaming at mother and child, as though he were a Renaissance artist specializing in studies of Madonna e bambino.

“We should be honored,” he told his cousin, smiling. “And now I think you must rest. And we must go to the Turkish baths. You realize this will be the second suit of clothes I’ve burned this month?”

Olivia disregarded this, lost in admiration of the little boy in her arms.

“What do you think? John Percival Malcolm Stubbs? Or Malcolm John Percival?”

“Call him Oliver,” Percy suggested, cleaning his hands with the remnants of a very stained handkerchief.

“Oliver?” Olivia looked puzzled. “Why Oliver?”

“Cromwell,” Grey explained, understanding instantly what Percy meant. “He’s got the roundest head I’ve ever seen.”

Olivia gave him a cross-eyed look, then revelation dawned.

“Oh, Cromwell!” she said, but instead of laughing, squinted thoughtfully at the child. “Cromwell Stubbs? I quite like it!”

Chapter 18

Finally

The room was small and clean, but had very little in the way of amenities beyond a bed, a basin, and a pot. It did, however, have a bed, and that, at the moment, was the only real consideration.

He saw it over Percy’s shoulder, as his new stepbrother pushed open the door—which had a lock, still better—and crossed the narrow room to push back the curtain. Cool gray snow light flooded in, making the room—and Percy’s flesh—seem to glow, dark as it was.

“Damned cold,” Percy said, turning toward him with a grimace of apology. “I’ll light the fire…shall I?” He moved toward the tiny hearth as though to do so, but stopped, hand hovering over the tinderbox, dark eyes fixed on John’s.

Grey felt his pulse throb painfully through his chilled hands, and fumbled a little as he drew off his gloves and dropped them. He threw off greatcoat and coat together in a thump of snowy weight, crossed the narrow room in two paces and seized Percy in his arms, sliding his hands under Percy’s cloak, his coat, jerking the shirt from the waistband of his breeches, and sinking his freezing fingers into the warmth of Percy’s skin.

Percy yelped at the cold abruptness of his touch, laughed and kneed him in the thigh, then pushed him back, and with one hand began to unbutton Grey’s shirt, the other, his own. Grey interrupted him, hastily jerking at his own buttons, popping one off in reckless haste, so eager to resume his acquaintance with that lovely, warm smooth flesh.

Their breath rose white, mingled. He felt the gooseflesh rough on Percy’s shoulders, the shiver of frozen air on his own bare ribs, and half clad, dragged Percy whooping into the icy bed, breeches still about his knees.

“What?” Percy protested, laughing and squirming. He kicked madly at the bedclothes, trying to free himself from the breeches. “Are you nothing but a beast? May I not have even the smallest kiss before—”

Grey stopped his words with his own mouth, feeling the rasp of Percy’s beard, its tiny bristles, and nipped at the soft, full lip, still stained with wine.

“All you like,” he gasped, breaking the kiss for a gulp of air. “And, yes, I am a beast. Make the best of it.” Then returned to the fray, struggling to get closer, desperate for the heat of Percy’s body.

Percy’s own cold hand slid down between them, grasped him. Cold as the touch was, it seemed to burn. He felt the seam of his breeches give as Percy shoved them roughly down and wondered dimly what he would tell Tom. Then Percy’s prick rubbed hard against his own, stiff, hot, and he stopped thinking.

Neither of them had thought to lock the door. That was the first conscious thought to drift through his mind, and alarm brought him upright. The house was still, the room quiet save the whisper of the snow against the window and the comforting sound of Percy’s breathing. Still, he slid out of the cozy warmth of the bedclothes, and picking up Percy’s cloak from the floor, wrapped it about his naked body and went shivering to lock the door.

The rattle of the key disturbed Percy, who rolled over in the bed with a groan of sleepy yearning.

“Come back,” he whispered.

“I’ll light the fire,” Grey whispered back.

The heat of their efforts had taken the frozen edge from the air, but the room was still achingly cold. The luminous glow from the window gave enough light for him to make out the dark shape of the basket that held Percy’s meager supply of wood and kindling. He felt beside it and groping, knocked away the small, cold square of the tinderbox; it slid across the slate of the hearth, and was furred with ash and dust when he picked it up. No one had swept the room in some time; he supposed that Percy’s means did not allow him to employ a woman to clean, though his sheets and linen were laundered.

He was acutely conscious of Percy as he worked. Small memories of the body lingered on his mouth, in his hands, making them uncertain with steel and flint. He felt Percy’s eyes on his back, heard the small rustlings of quilts as that lithe bare body shifted in the bed.

His mouth tasted of Percy. Each man has his own taste; Percy tasted, very faintly, of mushrooms—wood morels, he thought; truffles, perhaps. Something rare, from deep in the earth.

The steel chimed and sparks flew, glowed brief against the char but didn’t catch. He had tasted himself once, out of curiosity; faintly salt, bland as egg white. Perhaps Percy would think differently?

A spark caught, its red heart swelling, and he thrust a straw hastily upon it. There. Fire caught at the tip, burst suddenly gold along its length, and he dropped it onto the careful pile of straw and paper he had built, reaching for the sticks that would usher the infant flame into full birth.

He stood then, stretching cramped legs, waiting to be sure the fire was well and truly caught. He heard Percy draw breath behind him, as though to speak, but he didn’t.

He wanted to speak himself, say something in acknowledgment of what they had shared—but found himself unaccountably shy, and turned instead to the window, looking out at the white-covered roofs of London, humped like slumbering beasts, silent under the falling snow.

The exudations of their mingled breath, their sweat, ran in rivulets down the window.

The sky was an unearthly grayish-pink, suffused with light from the hidden moon; light shone like crystal in the droplets of moisture. He touched one with his finger and it disappeared, a small clear circle of wetness on the glass. Slowly, he drew a heart, standing a little aside so Percy could see—and then put his own initials, Percy’s below. He heard a soft laugh from the bed, and seemed to feel warmth flow between them.

He’d had Percy’s arse twice, and loved every second of it, from the first tentative slick probings to the piercing sense of conquest and possession—so thrilling that he would have prolonged it indefinitely, save for the irresistible onrush that emptied him so completely he forgot himself and Percy both.

The fire had caught well. He stooped and thrust a good-size stick of wood into it, then another.

He was chary of lending his own arse, and seldom did, not liking the sense of being so dominated by another.

He’d been raped once, years ago, and managed to dismiss the memory as a minor misfortune. But there was always since a moment, an instant of something not quite panic, when he felt his flesh obliged to yield so suddenly to that demand. Hector, of course—but Hector had come before.

He could feel Percy waiting for him, but delayed, torn between desire itself and the urge to wait, so that desire gratified should be that much more delight.

br />

You must both be godfathers,” Olivia informed them, from the bower of her bed at Jermyn Street. She looked fondly down at the infant glued to her breast.

Grey glanced at Percy, who was beaming at mother and child, as though he were a Renaissance artist specializing in studies of Madonna e bambino.

“We should be honored,” he told his cousin, smiling. “And now I think you must rest. And we must go to the Turkish baths. You realize this will be the second suit of clothes I’ve burned this month?”

Olivia disregarded this, lost in admiration of the little boy in her arms.

“What do you think? John Percival Malcolm Stubbs? Or Malcolm John Percival?”

“Call him Oliver,” Percy suggested, cleaning his hands with the remnants of a very stained handkerchief.

“Oliver?” Olivia looked puzzled. “Why Oliver?”

“Cromwell,” Grey explained, understanding instantly what Percy meant. “He’s got the roundest head I’ve ever seen.”

Olivia gave him a cross-eyed look, then revelation dawned.

“Oh, Cromwell!” she said, but instead of laughing, squinted thoughtfully at the child. “Cromwell Stubbs? I quite like it!”

Chapter 18

Finally

The room was small and clean, but had very little in the way of amenities beyond a bed, a basin, and a pot. It did, however, have a bed, and that, at the moment, was the only real consideration.

He saw it over Percy’s shoulder, as his new stepbrother pushed open the door—which had a lock, still better—and crossed the narrow room to push back the curtain. Cool gray snow light flooded in, making the room—and Percy’s flesh—seem to glow, dark as it was.

“Damned cold,” Percy said, turning toward him with a grimace of apology. “I’ll light the fire…shall I?” He moved toward the tiny hearth as though to do so, but stopped, hand hovering over the tinderbox, dark eyes fixed on John’s.

Grey felt his pulse throb painfully through his chilled hands, and fumbled a little as he drew off his gloves and dropped them. He threw off greatcoat and coat together in a thump of snowy weight, crossed the narrow room in two paces and seized Percy in his arms, sliding his hands under Percy’s cloak, his coat, jerking the shirt from the waistband of his breeches, and sinking his freezing fingers into the warmth of Percy’s skin.

Percy yelped at the cold abruptness of his touch, laughed and kneed him in the thigh, then pushed him back, and with one hand began to unbutton Grey’s shirt, the other, his own. Grey interrupted him, hastily jerking at his own buttons, popping one off in reckless haste, so eager to resume his acquaintance with that lovely, warm smooth flesh.

Their breath rose white, mingled. He felt the gooseflesh rough on Percy’s shoulders, the shiver of frozen air on his own bare ribs, and half clad, dragged Percy whooping into the icy bed, breeches still about his knees.

“What?” Percy protested, laughing and squirming. He kicked madly at the bedclothes, trying to free himself from the breeches. “Are you nothing but a beast? May I not have even the smallest kiss before—”

Grey stopped his words with his own mouth, feeling the rasp of Percy’s beard, its tiny bristles, and nipped at the soft, full lip, still stained with wine.

“All you like,” he gasped, breaking the kiss for a gulp of air. “And, yes, I am a beast. Make the best of it.” Then returned to the fray, struggling to get closer, desperate for the heat of Percy’s body.

Percy’s own cold hand slid down between them, grasped him. Cold as the touch was, it seemed to burn. He felt the seam of his breeches give as Percy shoved them roughly down and wondered dimly what he would tell Tom. Then Percy’s prick rubbed hard against his own, stiff, hot, and he stopped thinking.

Neither of them had thought to lock the door. That was the first conscious thought to drift through his mind, and alarm brought him upright. The house was still, the room quiet save the whisper of the snow against the window and the comforting sound of Percy’s breathing. Still, he slid out of the cozy warmth of the bedclothes, and picking up Percy’s cloak from the floor, wrapped it about his naked body and went shivering to lock the door.

The rattle of the key disturbed Percy, who rolled over in the bed with a groan of sleepy yearning.

“Come back,” he whispered.

“I’ll light the fire,” Grey whispered back.

The heat of their efforts had taken the frozen edge from the air, but the room was still achingly cold. The luminous glow from the window gave enough light for him to make out the dark shape of the basket that held Percy’s meager supply of wood and kindling. He felt beside it and groping, knocked away the small, cold square of the tinderbox; it slid across the slate of the hearth, and was furred with ash and dust when he picked it up. No one had swept the room in some time; he supposed that Percy’s means did not allow him to employ a woman to clean, though his sheets and linen were laundered.

He was acutely conscious of Percy as he worked. Small memories of the body lingered on his mouth, in his hands, making them uncertain with steel and flint. He felt Percy’s eyes on his back, heard the small rustlings of quilts as that lithe bare body shifted in the bed.

His mouth tasted of Percy. Each man has his own taste; Percy tasted, very faintly, of mushrooms—wood morels, he thought; truffles, perhaps. Something rare, from deep in the earth.

The steel chimed and sparks flew, glowed brief against the char but didn’t catch. He had tasted himself once, out of curiosity; faintly salt, bland as egg white. Perhaps Percy would think differently?

A spark caught, its red heart swelling, and he thrust a straw hastily upon it. There. Fire caught at the tip, burst suddenly gold along its length, and he dropped it onto the careful pile of straw and paper he had built, reaching for the sticks that would usher the infant flame into full birth.

He stood then, stretching cramped legs, waiting to be sure the fire was well and truly caught. He heard Percy draw breath behind him, as though to speak, but he didn’t.

He wanted to speak himself, say something in acknowledgment of what they had shared—but found himself unaccountably shy, and turned instead to the window, looking out at the white-covered roofs of London, humped like slumbering beasts, silent under the falling snow.

The exudations of their mingled breath, their sweat, ran in rivulets down the window.

The sky was an unearthly grayish-pink, suffused with light from the hidden moon; light shone like crystal in the droplets of moisture. He touched one with his finger and it disappeared, a small clear circle of wetness on the glass. Slowly, he drew a heart, standing a little aside so Percy could see—and then put his own initials, Percy’s below. He heard a soft laugh from the bed, and seemed to feel warmth flow between them.

He’d had Percy’s arse twice, and loved every second of it, from the first tentative slick probings to the piercing sense of conquest and possession—so thrilling that he would have prolonged it indefinitely, save for the irresistible onrush that emptied him so completely he forgot himself and Percy both.

The fire had caught well. He stooped and thrust a good-size stick of wood into it, then another.

He was chary of lending his own arse, and seldom did, not liking the sense of being so dominated by another.

He’d been raped once, years ago, and managed to dismiss the memory as a minor misfortune. But there was always since a moment, an instant of something not quite panic, when he felt his flesh obliged to yield so suddenly to that demand. Hector, of course—but Hector had come before.

He could feel Percy waiting for him, but delayed, torn between desire itself and the urge to wait, so that desire gratified should be that much more delight.

The warmth of Percy’s body called him, and the thought of that long—longer than his own, but not much—silken prick. Large-knobbed, he thought. He’d not seen it yet. What would it look like, come daylight?

Daylight was a good way off. The muffled reverberation of a church bell reached him and he waited, counting. They were deep in the night; hours yet of darkness. Privacy.

The bedclothes rustled, restive.

Should he? He thought Percy would not insist. But simple decency…He grimaced, not quite smiling at the irony of such consideration, in a situation where no normal person would even think the word “decency.”

A louder rustle of bedclothes, and Percy’s breath. Was Percy coming to him? No, he’d stopped. Afraid to presume, he thought, shy of pressing a desire that might not be welcomed. He turned, then, and looked at Percy.

The lively face was still, eyes no longer warm but hot as the embers of the growing fire at his back. Heat embraced his legs, touched his buttocks. He let the cloak fall and stood naked, the hairs of his body stirring in the rising air.

His own long hair was disheveled, but still bound. Percy’s curls were clipped short, to allow of a wig, but now standing on end, damp, and spiked as the devil’s horns. Slowly, he reached back and pulled the ribbon from his hair.

“Do you want me?” Grey asked, voice low, as though he might be heard beneath the sleeping roofs outside.

“You know that I do.” Percy’s answer was softer still, and his gaze burned where it touched him.

He breathed deeply, turned, crossed his arms upon the chimneypiece, and bent his head upon them, braced. He spread his bare feet apart, feeling grit beneath his soles.

“Come, then,” he said. And waited, eyes closed, the breath of the fire fierce on his balls.

Shall I tell you a great secret?” Percy’s voice was soft, breath warm in his ear. Grey reached a hand through the sheets, slid it over the high round of a still warmer buttock.

“Please,” he whispered.

“My name is not Percival.”

His hand stayed where it was, but he turned his head. Percy’s face was turned away from him, half buried in the whiteness of the pillow.

“Really,” Grey said slowly, not sure if this were meant as a jest or…if not a jest, what? “What is your name, then? Are you confessing that you are in actuality Desperate Dick, the highwayman? Or younger brother to the Pretender? Because if so—”

Percy rose suddenly in a flurry of sheets and hit him hard on the arm.

“Oh,” he said, in a different tone of voice. He fumbled through the sheets again and laid his hand on Percy’s thigh. He squeezed in apology, and waited.

He could hear Percy’s breath, deep and uneven, and feel the tension in the leg under his hand.

“I…told you that my father was minister to a particular sect of Methodists,” Percy said at last.

“You did,” Grey replied cautiously.

“I rather think you have not many Methodists among your acquaintance, John?”

“None, that I know of.” Where on earth was this leading? The one thing he was sure of was that it was no joke. The spot on his upper arm where Percy had hit him throbbed; he’d have a bruise come morning.

Percy made a sound, not quite a laugh.

“I am not surprised. Methodists are rather severe in outlook; my father’s sect particularly so. They would consider you and your family most frivolous and ungodly.”

“Would they, indeed?” Grey spoke a little coldly. He would admit to a general laxness in churchgoing—his mother and cousin attended to that end of things—but frivolous? Him?

“My father would have considered the Archbishop of Canterbury frivolous, John,” Percy said, plainly perceiving the affront. He laughed a little unsteadily, took a deep breath, and lay down on his back, drawing the sheet up over his chest.

“My name is Perseverance,” he said in a rush.

“Per—” Grey lay completely still, holding his breath and concentrating fiercely on his belly muscles.

“Go ahead and laugh,” Percy said from the dark, with exceeding dryness. “I won’t mind.”

“Yes, you would,” Grey said, but was still unable to quell the bubble of mirth that rose up the back of his throat, and being there firmly suppressed, emerged through his nose in a strangled snort. To keep from committing further offense, he said the first thing that came into his mind.

“What’s your middle name?”

Percy laughed, sounding a little easier, now that the dreadful confession was made.

“Middle names are a useless ostentation, an ornament of arrogance, and a mark of the damnation to be visited upon those who fester in the surfeit of their pride. One Christian name is enough for any God-fearing soul,” Percy replied with mock severity. “I imagine you’ve got two or three of them, haven’t you?”

“No, just the one,” Grey assured him, rolling over to face him. “And not even anything sinfully exotic like Achilles or Oswald, I’m afraid—it’s a very pedestrian William. Jesus,” he said, struck by a sudden realization. “What am I to call you now? I can’t call you Percy anymore, not with a straight face.” Something else occurred to him.

“Does the general know?”

“He does not,” Percy said, with certainty. “Since my mother died, no one at all has known it, save myself.”

“She wouldn’t have told him?”

“No,” Percy said softly. “She knew how I…She knew. She never called me anything but Percy.”

Grey wondered for a moment whether Percy meant that his mother had known…but surely not. Even if so, that was a discussion for another time. Just now, he was realizing exactly the magnitude of the gift Percy had given him.

He was the only one who knew. Percy had been right; it was a great secret, and John felt the weight of his lover’s trust, warm on his heart.

He groped for Percy’s hand and found it, slightly cold. They lay silent for a bit, side by side, holding hands, bodies warming to each other.


Tags: Diana Gabaldon Lord John Grey Suspense
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