In response to Sam’s Challenge #4: Something to be over on the LT3 Goodreads group, this short contains something not to be, and two somethings to be. This takes place several years after Daggers from Sk’lher. Despite this not being a warm and fuzzy, I intend to cannibalize these scenes into the other POV and use them to start out future stories complete with HEA.
Warnings: This is not a love story. This does not end HEA or HFN. There is somewhat explicit intimacy contained in this story.
Rain pelted the window, as if it wanted to break through the glass to drench Leo and clear the way for lightening to smite him. And didn’t he deserve it, Leo thought as he clenched the heavy curtain. He kept watch for a familiar deep green cloak, but he couldn’t see anything beyond indistinct blurs of watery-gray color.
Behind him a servant arranged tea and refreshments like it was just another visit from Avery. Leo felt like a cur. The worst of men. Not even a man. Real men kept their word no matter what. Was that not what his father had impressed upon him all the years of his childhood? And today, at his father’s insistence, he would break his most important vow. Was he a man for doing his family’s bidding? Or was he not for breaking his word? He leaned his forehead on the chilled glass and gave a shuddering sigh. He was a good son and a bad man.
Condensation from the window beaded on his skin and trickled down his face. A slow moving dark blur on the drive approached the house. From his vantage point, the blur was small, like a slow spider creeping ever closer. Maybe a sound would startle it away, and then Leo could put off this task one more day.
Slow down, he willed the blur. Turn around. But it kept moving. Go home. The blur disappeared under the entry way.
Leo stood, back straight and head high. He wiped the water from the sides of his face. He could do this. He would do this. He walked to the table and adjusted the cloth wrapped package so that it pointed straight at the door.
He was wrong; he could not do this. It would be better to unwrap the dagger and apply it to his wrist. It would still be a betrayal of his promise, but he would not have to endure the consequences.
He stood still. He did not reach for the dagger. He could hear his heartbeat amid the buzzing in his head. And he waited.
The ornate brass knob turned, and Avery walked in. Even in the wretched weather he was sunshine. His golden hair, the color of wheat in the August sun, was plastered to his head. He ran his hand through the strands until they stuck out, haloing his head in golden light. The green cloak was absent, but water still clung to and fell from his head, dropping onto the lush midnight blue rug under his feet. White swirls in the carpet reminded Leo of meteor showers and watching them tangled in Avery’s long limbs.
Avery laughed and said, “Leo, Leo, forgive me for raining on your carpet. I took the carriage, but did you know your drive is impassible by the main road? I feel like I should apologize to your maids, too, for the mud I’ve brought in.”
Leo dragged his eyes from the carpet and Avery’s mud-caked boots, up his legs, over his waist, the Adam’s apple at his long neck bobbed once.
“Leo.” The laughter in his voice was gone.
Leo raised his eyes to Avery’s face. His cheeks were flushed from the cold. His pale blue eyes were full of worry. Avery looked from Leo, to the table, and back to Leo. His brows furrowed. “What’s wrong? What is happening?”
Avery opened his arms and moved towards Leo. Leo held up his hand to stop Avery from walking forward. Walking to him. If they touched, he really could not do this.
“Please.” Leo gestured to a chair at the opposite side of the table. “Have a seat.” Avery’s frown grew deeper. He sat in the indicated chair, watching Leo closely. Leo gestured to the small array of refreshments. “Can I offer you some tea?”
Avery shook his head. “Why are you speaking like… so formally?”
Leo lowered himself into the chair. He rested his elbow on the table and put his head in his hand. “Avery.” Leo took a breath, raised his head, looked straight at Avery. Never again would he permit himself to use Avery’s given name. “I am returning this to you.” Leo pushed the cloth-wrapped dagger across the table.
Avery paled. “Return? I don’t understand.”
“I am not going…” Leo took another breath, changing tack. “His grace, the Duke of Devon and my father have signed an agreement that will strengthen the relationship between the two families. One of the terms is that I marry the Marquess of Aines.”
Avery shook his head. His face had a gray tinge, and he looked like he’d be ill. He opened his mouth. Closed it. He looked down at his hands. Leo knew what he was looking at—his scar. Leo’s scar, long healed, on his hand tingled.
“But Leo.” Avery’s voice was small, scared.
Leo shook his head and stood abruptly. He could not do this any longer. He could not watch. Avery was no longer his to comfort. “Take the dagger,” he said. “I am sorry to have caused you this pain. Please have the butler see you out.”
Leo walked as fast as he could without giving the appearance of fleeing. Before he shut the door behind him, he turned for one last look. Avery stared at him, eyes wide. Lost. Helpless. “And from now on, you should address me as Lord Effingham.”
Leo shut the door. He wanted to hit something. He wanted to damage. To maim. To feel blood spatter on his skin. But he walked with outward calm towards his chamber and the comfort of alcohol to be found there. When a servant passed, Leo asked him to show Avery out.
Leo waited in the salon for his fiancé to arrive. The man was late. Leo took a sip of brandy. Avery was never late.
But Avery was past. Lord Dunkirk was present and future. A light drizzle pattered against the glass; the rain hadn’t stopped in a week. It only changed strength. He swirled his glass and watched the amber liquid spin, lamp light glowing through it. Leo would rather have his finger nails pried off than sit through this dinner.
He had not seen Avery since returning the dagger eight days ago. And those were eight days of hell. He had spent four of them in a drunken stupor, hiding in his room. And the other four he had spent every waking moment combing over the estate books. Twice. The eight days were a small mercy given to him while Dunkirk traveled to the city from his home in the country.
He’d only met Dunkirk twice; both times under the calculating eyes of their fathers. The first time Dunkirk was silent. As their fathers negotiated the terms of their arrangement, and the future of Dunkirk and Leo, Dunkirk sat there mute. Leo said little, his input was neither expected nor wanted, but he did draw the line at being the sire of their heir. Dunkirk would take the Effingham name and sire the heir, and that was fine with Leo. The second time they had met was when the contracts were signed. Dunkirk actually spoke then. Leo had never encountered such a peculiar mix of arrogant and bumbling in a man of good breeding.
A quick rap at the door preceded Lord Dunkirk, the Marquess of Aines. He was everything Avery was not, which was a small relief. Dunkirk was short and stocky. His hair was oily and black. Instead of the palest blue, he had eyes the color of horse’s droppings. And he was so darkened by the sun Leo wondered if he hadn’t spent the summer working the land along with his tenants.
Dunkirk gave a quick, perfunctory bow that would not be acceptable in city social circles. “Good evening, Lord Effingham.” And his voice was too heavy, gritty; it grated Leo’s ear and was nothing so sweet as the light tenor of his — of Avery’s voice.
Leo stood and extended his hand. “Lord Dunkirk. I trust you had a pleasant trip.”
Dunkirk grimaced. “Miserable. Today was six hours of abject misery to add to four previous days of abject misery. Coming to the city is quite onerous.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Leo loved the city. So did Avery. Leo couldn’t imagine a more joyous feeling than the last day of travel back into bustle of the city and society. But to him, it was returning home. “I understand you have not spent much time here.”
Dunkirk nodded. He stood awkwardly putting his hands in his pocket, removing them; he didn’t seem to know what to do with his arms. “This is only my third time making the journey.” Dunkirk opened his mouth, then closed it. He looked at Leo then averted his gaze out the window. Finally, looking back at Leo, he said, “After we marry, I hope you have no objection to setting up in the country. I know we never agreed on where we would live, but…”
Live in the country? It should have occurred to Leo that Dunkirk would prefer that, but it hadn’t. He had assumed that Dunkirk would move in to his comfortable home, and they would spend their days avoiding once another at their separate clubs and going to different social events.
“Why don’t we discuss it over dinner?” Leo led Dunkirk to the small family dining room. The servants laid the table for two. The lights were dim and the table small. It was the arrangement he and Avery used when dining. He should have informed the servants to add more light and another leaf to the table.
After sitting, Leo snapped his napkin and laid it across his lap. “I find,” he said after a small sip of wine, “that I prefer the life of the city to that of the country.”
Dunkirk looked up at Leo, startled, then worried, then wary. The man seemed to have no skill at dissembling. Then all the worry cleared and he grinned — a grin, not a refined, distant, or even polite, smile. “I’m sure once you reach the open moors you will feel differently.”
Moors? “Moors?” Country was one thing. But moors?
“Of course we will come to the city for the season,” Dunkirk said, waving his wine glass around carelessly. No wonder his manners were so unrefined. Third trip into the city? He had never been in proper society. “It would not be fair of me to keep you so far away. We…” Dunkirk took a wheezing breath. “We must both make compromises.”
Leo wanted nothing more than to take his knife and stick it between Dunkirk’s eyes. The moor was not a compromise. It was a punishment. A threat. Instead of the violence, though, he nodded towards his wine glass, which was almost instantly refilled.
Over the first two courses of the meal Dunkirk extolled the virtues of the “country lifestyle.” At least outside of the city, Leo wouldn’t have to face accidental encounters with Avery. Perhaps he could avoid Dunkirk in the wide open raw beauty of the unrefined countryside. At least until the snows came.
Dunkirk laughed his stupid little laugh. “My apologies, going on and on about myself and my home. I confess I love it so. Tell me, what are your hobbies, Lord Effingham?”
Leo startled at being asked a direct question, but quickly hid it. “Fencing. Blade technique, in general. I belong to the Royal Sword Club and spend much of my free time there.” Except he had stopped going because he couldn’t bear to run into Avery.
“What about the rest?” The intensity of Dunkirk’s gaze put Leo ill at ease.
“The rest of your free time.”
“Nothing. There is no other free time.” Not now that Avery was forbidden to him. “I manage parts of Father’s estates. And at night?” Avery. “I read.”
“We shall have to do something to improve upon that.” Dunkirk leered at him, and Leo swallowed down the bile in his throat.
“I am quite satisfied with my routine.”
“Surely, Lord Effingham a virile man such—”
“Lord Dunkirk. Please. We hardly know each other.”
Dunkirk rose from his chair and waddled over to Leo. “We are betrothed.” Dunkirk rubbed a finger along Leo’s shoulders. “You must call me Blaise.”
Dunkirk stood to Leo’s right, hand extended palm up. His erection was obscene in his pants. “Let us retire to more cozy surroundings for an after supper drink.” Leo took his hand, only so not to be rude, and dropped it once he was standing. He led Dunkirk back to the salon. Leo hesitated in the doorway; he had a feeling he knew in what direction the evening would go, and it was a direction he was not interested in going. Dunkirk put his hand on the small of Leo’s back and urged him forward to the deep leather chair next to the fire.
Leo fell back in the chair as Dunkirk pushed him. “You are too uptight, my dear Leo. I know you are worried about the nuptials. I shall make you forget them, for now.”
Leo started to protest. But what was the point? Dunkirk was his future. The man to whom he had given his word — whatever that counted for these days — to form a union.
Dunkirk lowered to his knees with all the grace of an ox. He fumbled with the buttons of Leo’s pants with a clumsiness that was astounding. How Dunkirk managed to hunt, or even to write, was unknowable.
With no teasing, no seduction, Dunkirk pulled out Leo’s cock. The eager look on Dunkirk’s face reminded Leo of the whores in the gambling hell that his fencing partners occasionally dragged him to. Never, until this moment, had he accepted the services of one with such a look. It was appropriate, he supposed, that now Avery was gone he receive the attentions of one. Although, a whore wouldn’t have been so God damn inept at the simple task of sucking cock.
Dunkirk tried, once again, to aim Leo’s cock at his face. His hands were like ice against Leo’s skin, and they shivered incessantly, making Dunkirk all the more incapable of handling Leo.
Leo closed his eyes. He couldn’t watch a man not Avery do this. He tried not think about Avery. Not to picture the way his pale pink lips would stretch over the head of Leo’s cock. The way Avery’s pale blue eyes would gaze up at him through the thick veil of black lashes that fanned his cheek. Not recall the way his elegant fingers would spread saliva down as he pulled his mouth up.
He tried, so hard, not to imagine how it felt when other fingers ghosted over his bollocks and then oh so lightly, just a whisper of touch really, feather over the entrance of his body. And he was absolutely not thinking about how, with Avery, that meant as soon as he became aroused again, after Avery’s warm, sweet mouth brought him off, that Avery would lay him out on a soft surface, arrange his limbs in whatever manner pleased him most that moment, and take his body with slow, torturous, deliberate moves. And while trying not to think of this, the purity and joy of his love with Avery, he came, pleasure washing through his body and into the mouth of a stranger.
He opened his eyes to see Dunkirk’s flat face staring up at him. Any lingering ease washed away in a torrent of nausea. Dunkirk opened his swollen, shiny mouth to speak, but Leo grabbed his sloppy cravat and hauled him up until they were nose to nose. Dunkirk’s breath smelled of wine and his release; Leo thought he might actually vomit. He swallowed and breathed through his mouth so not to encounter the putrid odor again. “That was an unwelcome advance. Do not do it again.”
“Listen, Dunkirk. You are not to touch me until the wedding. I do not spread my legs for anyone ever, and I think it’s best if we see as little as possible of one another until we exchange vows.”
Two red splotches colored Dunkirk’s pudgy cheeks. His eyes were shiny with anger and probably a touch of shame. “How—”
“Enough! Leave. Now.” Leo threw Dunkirk to the floor. His large posterior cushioned the fall just fine, allowing Leo to forgo any sense of guilt over the act. Leo stood, righted his pants, strode to the bell pull, and yanked it. He was lucky it didn’t come off its tug. A moment later a butler appeared. “Please show Lord Dunkirk to his carriage.”
Dunkirk glared at him as he stalked out of the room. Leo couldn’t bring himself to care a whit. Dunkirk was not Avery. He lived on the fucking moors and expected Leo to as well. He took liberties that he should not. This was a terrible beginning to what should have been happy years of comfort and safety.
Avery was in hell. And hell, it turned out, was a wedding. He had every intention of being out of the county until the Crown Prince said that he looked forward to seeing Avery at the event.
He knew. They had grown up together — Leo, him, and Alexander. So what does the high and mighty Prince Alexander do when Avery relates the moments when his entire world reshaped itself into a warped and gnarled throbbing ball of pain? He says, “See you at the wedding.”
It was a gorgeous day for a wedding. Warm, sunny. Flowers were blooming, birds were singing. The occasional white, puffy cloud floated serenely across the cerulean blue sky. The church bells rang out with jubilation and children ran playing in the yard. Many years ago, he, Alexander, and Leo had run around at a different wedding. Avery sighed for the passage of time and the changes it wrought upon them.
Avery nodded politely to the Dowager Countess of Shelty, one of Leo’s aunts. She was slowly making her way to him, head held high, cane piercing the soft grass with each step. “You must be very pleased,” she said, “to see your boyhood friend so well settled.”
Avery smiled the appropriate smile; the one that communicated polite appreciation of the fortuitous circumstances for which they were gathered. “Of course. An alliance between the duchies will benefit them both. I wish them the greatest of happiness.”
Avery wished a pestilence upon their lands. But that was not the correct thing to say, especially at a wedding. He looked around for Alexander, hoping to sneak away before he was dragged to the reception by the bastard. Seeing the happy couple dance would be too much. Avery barely kept his temper in check through the ceremony. Love. Honor. Companionship. Leo had as much interest in Lord Dunkirk as Avery had in a slug. Perhaps less. But to the world, Leo and Aines were the picture of joy. They laughed. They smiled at each other.
The Dowager Countess smiled and gave a decisive nod. She turned and moved on to more important people than Avery. They loved to rub in how beneath them his family was. He was barely important enough to be mingling with the nobility. Only his family’s ties with the crown had recently granted his father the title of Baronet. Despite how close their families were, Avery was surprised he was included on the invitation. He had a sneaking suspicion that Alex was responsible for that.
Avery finally spotted Alex. But not before the bastard had spotted him. Avery changed his smile to one of welcome and walked to meet Alex.
“Lovely wedding, aye, Avery?” Alex loved to say aye Avery. Avery thought it stupid. Much like the whole dismal day.
“The loveliest there could be.” If he had to stand around and make more inane conversation about the loveliness and the joy and the prestige and whatever lofty adjectives people applied to the marriage he would do serious harm to someone.
Alex frowned. “Avery… I know this is—”
Avery cut him off with a swipe of his hand. “I was going to be out of town until you ordered me here,” he hissed. His facade had slipped, and try as he might, he could not force his face back into distantly amiable. He turned away from the crowd. The last thing he needed was his peers gossiping about his snippishness with the Crown Prince.
Alex laughed and bumped Avery’s shoulder with his own. “I didn’t order you.”
“When the Crown Prince says, ‘see you at the wedding,’ that’s an order, and you know it.” Avery took a deep breath. He fixed his face back into some degree of pleasant, and turned back to Alex and the rest of guests.
Alex shrugged. “It is good for you to have closure. And stop calling me the Crown Prince. Anne has as much chance of being named heir as I do.”
“That was not closure. That was grinding my innards to a pulp on the ground.”
“Oh Avery.” Alex waved as if shooing off Avery’s words. “You’re always so dramatic.” Somewhere amid the guests, Leo laughed. The deep, happy sound carried across the distance and sliced away another little piece of Avery’s heart. “Avery,” Alex said softly. The sympathy in his voice was enough to slice another little piece off. Alex touched Avery’s arm. “I have a proposition for you. A change of scenery.” His voice was cheerful again, as if that little moment of sympathy hadn’t happened.
“Oh?” Avery stuck his hands in his pockets and balled them into fists. Alex’s propositions were rarely good, at least not for anyone other than Alex.
Alex looked over the crowd of people. “One of my… assistants… recently retired, and I require a new one.”
“What do you mean, assistant?”
“He assists me with things I need kept quiet.”
No. Avery didn’t want any part of it. He just wanted to retreat the lakes and lose three months to the haze of brandy. “Alex… I really was planning to—”
Alex rolled his head around and smirked at Avery. “When I said proposition, you really didn’t think you had a choice, did you?”
Avery narrowed his eyes at Alex. First Leo breaks their promise. And now Alex uses his position, twice, to control him. Funny, he’d thought them friends.
He looked back at the gathered guests and his heart started pounding. Leo and the Marquess of Aines were heading towards them. Avery looked left and right, hoping they could be heading towards anyone else. No, they were definitely heading their way.
“I will expect you at this address, 10pm tonight.” Alex handed him a slip of paper. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.” Alex nodded and sauntered off towards Leo and his new husband.
* * *
Avery ran the pad of his index finger along the supple hilt of Leo’s dagger. Out of twisted need to be reminded of what he had lost, Avery had taken to carrying it instead of his own when he was out. At the moment, he was glad he had a sharp weapon, period.
He was surprised at the unsavory area in which Alex had asked to meet. The moon was new, so the night was dark. Even the occasional street lamp did little to improve visibility on the street. Avery eyed dark doorways and even darker alleys, alert for any sign of movement. A dog barked nearby and a loud crash preceded a high pitched yelp. Avery quickened his pace to a brisk walk. The street grew even darker. So much so that he almost missed the turn onto the narrow street that was Avery’s destination.
When Avery knocked on the townhouse door, he was surprised that Alex himself opened it. He’d always had servants or guards to perform such common tasks. Also a surprise was the rather dilapidated state of the building.
“Avery!” Alex grinned and clapped his shoulder. “We could set clocks by you. Come in, come in.” Alex stepped aside to allow Avery entrance.
“Evening Alex.” Avery slid out of his light jacket and draped it over his arm. The entry way was dim. Alex held the only source of light, which was an oil lamp. It smelled of pungent, cheap fuel.
“The reception was lovely, but of course you don’t want to hear that.” Alex could be an evil bastard when the mood struck, as it apparently had tonight. Avery chose to ignore the comment and concentrate on not discussing the fact he wanted to string Leo up by his bollocks and leave him dangling until vultures packed out his lying dead eyes.
Alex chuckled; what humor he found Avery could not say. “Follow me.” Alex led him down the hall. There were spider webs throughout, and it was clear that the house had been empty and untended for some time. Before opening the door Alex said, “There’s a man here to meet you. His looks tend to startle people. Be nice.”
“Of course.” He wasn’t the one poking at someone’s open wounds with a salty blade.
The hinges creaked as Alex opened the door. Truly, Avery could not figure out why they were in the run down excuse of a town home. Avery’s apartment was in much better repair, but Alex treated it like a hovel. Yet here he was. Unconcerned. Perhaps it belonged to the stranger they were going to meet. But if that were the case, surely it would be less dusty.
Avery saw no one in the room, which probably was a sitting room. At one time in the past, at least. Only a single candle provided light for the room. The corners and walls were cloaked in shadow. An old, threadbare carpet covered the wood floor. It might have been green at one time, but now it looked like it would disintegrate should a strong draft move through the room. Three old chairs surrounded a thick table. Avery approached it and stopped. Deep slices crisscrossed the wood. There was a subtle red tint to the otherwise light, unstained wood.
A shadow shifted, and it was then Avery realized the shadow by the window was actually a very large man. Avery looked at Alex, who was completely at ease with the world, then back at the man. He stepped forward. His hair was wild, long, and unkempt. His beard had not been cut in perhaps years. Avery couldn’t see his eyes. Or anything beyond his impressive mass. The man had to be twice as wide and half a head taller than Avery, and few were taller than Avery.
“Avery, I’m pleased to introduce you to Dillon Ratcliffe.”
Avery’s jaw dropped. “The Earl’s son?”
Dillon bowed and the manners ingrained in Avery forced him to do the same. “But you’re missing.”
“Dillon, here, has been one of my trusted assistants for several years. His partner is who recently retired, and as such, Dillon is now my only trusted assistant. You will take the place of Dillon’s parter.”
“Enough of the vagaries. Alex, what is going on?”
Alex sat in a chair and crossed one long leg over the other. He gestured to the other two chairs. Avery sat. How Dillon managed to fit in the chair was a mystery. He looked like a giant, disheveled turkey perched on a narrow fence post.
Avery realized Dillon watched him stare. Avery quickly averted his eyes and focused on the table. Up close the scars in the wood were rusty red. There was nothing subtle about it, this table had seen a lot of blood. Avery hoped it was animal, but suspected human. He did not want to ask and have his fears confirmed. He was skilled with blades, yes, but he took care to never do any real harm. Not until Leo’s betrayal had he considered it.
Alex tapped the table in a slow, steady rhythm with the tip of his index finger. It disturbed Avery that Alex would touch the tainted surface.
“From now on,” Alex said, “you two will work together.” His gaze was steady on Avery as he spoke. “Avery is quite adept with a knife. But he is not very stealthy.” Dillon grunted. “He could be though.” Soft candle light caused subtle shadows to dance on Alex’s face. He gave Avery a fond smile, reserved only for when they were among close friends and away from the watchful eyes of society. “Anyway, here is the next thing I need assistance with.”
Alex looked away from Avery and held out a paper to Dillon. Dillon read it. He held the paper over the candle flame until it lit. The paper flared bright, and in the light, Avery could make out a jagged scar along the left side of Lord Ratcliffe’s face. His wild black hair hid most it.
“Aye, it’s an ugly thing.” Lord Ratcliffe’s voice was slow and gravely. It and the scar gave him a distinct tinge of danger. And the hair added an element of wildness. Avery would not want to be on the receiving end of his ill will.
“The crown appreciates your help in the matter. Dillon.” Alex stood, nodded to Lord Ratcliffe. Then he looked at Avery, the fond smile back. “Avery, we will catch up when you return.” The he turned, and he left without another word.
Avery turned. Lord Ratcliffe was staring at him. “So,” Avery said. “I guess we are working together now.”
Lord Ratcliffe shifted. Despite being mostly covered in hair, his demeanor managed to communicate extreme skepticism. “It would appear so. Try not to get killed.”