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Bless Us With Content [MultiFormat]
eBook by Tinnean

eBook Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
eBook Description: Ashton Laytham came to Fayerweather, his uncle's estate, as an orphan at the age of seven. Family and servants alike perceived Ashton as an unlovable child and shunned him; as an adult, the occasional illicit rendezvous aside, Ashton remains aloof and alone. When his uncle dies, yet more abuse falls upon Ashton's shoulders: the estate is bankrupt and Ashton must make good on his uncle's gaming debts. With the family talisman stolen and the suspects fled, Ashton faces certain ruin until the arrival of Geo Stephenson, who holds all of Sir Laytham's IOUs. Geo proposes a solution: Ashton will accommodate him in his bed, thereby paying off the debt. Attracted to Geo in spite of himself and desperate for any human kindness, Ashton agrees? never expecting to lose his heart to a man who claims he will never give his.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2011, 2011
Fictionwise Release Date: April 2011

24 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

I was a child of seven the first time I saw Laytham Hall, too young to realize the country was in mourning for the passing of our monarch, King George III. I thought everyone was grieving with me for the loss of my parents.

Laytham Hall was a large and sprawling pile of grey stone, with a small portico shielding the double doors that opened into the Great Hall. Nestled at the heart of Fayerweather, its somber facade was covered with ivy, and wintry sunlight sparkled on the frost that etched the numerous paned windows, but lovely as it was, at that time it was not my home, and I did not want to be there.

The Laytham line had dwindled along with the family fortune until there were just three sons. Eustace, the eldest, would one day inherit the baronetcy. He had an unpredictable temper as well as a tendency to bully those who dared not fight back, and was not much liked by anyone, even his own parents.

Osburt was the youngest. In the normal course of events, he would have been destined for the church, but he was reputed to be wild to a fault and had been cast out of the family by the old baronet. After the passing of many years with no word from him, it was considered that in all likelihood his rakehell ways had led to his death.

Archibald, the middle son, was my Papa. Grandpapa would have bought him his colors, but the military held no appeal to him, and instead, because his godfather had left him a tidy sum, he moved to London and chose to spend his time trying to set the newest fashion in neckcloths and waistcoats, and in racketing about Town. There was still a goodly amount left of his inheritance when he met Mama whilst visiting with friends in the Cotswolds.

Mama was a vicar's daughter, sweet-tempered and sweet-faced with the most lovely brown eyes, sadly hidden behind the frames of her thick spectacles, the last woman on earth one would think to attract my father. He persuaded her to elope with him to Gretna Green, and while his elder brother Eustace, who by that time had become sixth baronet and the only surviving family member, shrugged indifferently, Mama's father was livid--her destiny was to care for him, the vicarage, and his congregation, not marry some rakehell, and so he predicted gloom, doom, and penurious misery for her and her offspring, and disowned her.

He was quite surprised when I did not arrive until two years later and grudgingly tried to make amends, but by that time the rift between him and Mama was too deep. She rebuffed his half-hearted attempts, and so I grew up with no contact with him. That was why, when my parents were drowned in a boating accident while crossing the Channel when I was seven, I was sent to Laytham Hall.

"Oh, you poor child!" Aunt Cecily, Uncle Eustace's wife, did not have children of her own. She enveloped me in a fragrant embrace, but it was not my Mama's scent, and instead of returning her embrace, I held myself stiffly. Her enthusiasm dampened, she released me, and I could only be relieved.

"Well, you would insist upon taking him in," Uncle growled at her. "Rude brat. Not much to look at either, is he?" A frown furrowed his brow, and he flicked a fingertip against the spectacles I perforce had worn from the time I was a tot and Papa realized it was not clumsiness that caused me to fall down stairs or walk into walls but my poor eyesight that was at the bottom of it.

Aunt Cecily sighed.

No, I was not a handsome child, but I had been loved. Would I ever be loved again?

Uncle snorted. "If it were not for the Laytham mark...." On my forearm, it was the shape and size of a penny and the deep red color of the Flame. He'd roughly shoved up the sleeve of my shirt, and then had thrown my arm away from him in disgust, although I didn't know why. "I would have wagered that Maria played my brother false. If we must have a brat about the house that is not mine, you will at least keep him out of my sight."

Uncle took pleasure in blaming Aunt Cecily for the fact that after ten years of marriage, they were still childless.

Her mouth tightened, but she said nothing. Mama, as sweet-tempered as she was, would have taken Papa severely to task for speaking like that to her. Mama... Papa... I missed them so much and wanted them back.

Aunt Cecily tugged the bellpull, and within moments Colling, the butler who had come to Laytham Hall with her upon her marriage to Uncle Eustace, entered the room.

"M'lady rang?"

"Yes, Colling. Master Ashton will be residing with us. The nursery has been prepared. See to it that one of the maids has a care to him until we can find a nurse or a governess."

I was too unhappy to protest that I was too old for a nurse and that I would much prefer a tutor to a governess.

Colling peered down at me from his great height, and I could tell he did not care for me. However, he nodded. "If you'll come with me, Master Ashton?"

"Please." I turned to my uncle and aunt, struggling to keep my upper lip firm. "Please, I want to go home."

"Do not snivel, boy! This is your home now," Uncle Eustace growled. He was altogether too fond of growling, and I cringed away. "I do not wish to see him when I am at home; is that plain, Colling? You will inform the rest of the staff in this matter."

"Yes, Sir Eustace. Master Ashton?" He took my hand and tried to lead me from the room.

"I will not go with you!" I shouted. "I want to go home!" I jerked free and ran back to Aunt Cecily, throwing myself at her and clinging to her skirts. "Please, Aunt!"

"Brat!" Uncle Eustace yanked me free of his wife, hurting me in the process. "Must I do everything myself?" His fingers closed about my wrist painfully, and in spite of the way I dug in my heels, he dragged me along after him.

"No!" I tugged on my wrist and, when he would not release me, sank my teeth into his hand.

"Enough of this!" He gritted his teeth and struck me hard enough to knock my spectacles askew, and I stared up at him in utter shock. I had never been struck before in my life. "Now behave, or I shall give you a hiding you will never forget!"

Terrified, I let him grasp my arm and pull me along. We seemed to climb and climb. Finally he opened a door and flung me inside.

"You are to stay here until you can find some manners; is that understood, you miserable whelp?" He glared down at his hand, which was bleeding sluggishly, then took out a handkerchief and wrapped the wound. "Colling, see to him."

"Yes, Sir Eustace." The butler must have followed us up with the small portmanteau that held all the belongings I had been permitted to pack. "I will see that one of the maids brings him his meals. However, if he is a biter, I cannot guarantee...."

"No, no. I would not expect you to, Colling. Deuce take it, he could cost me the servants, and God knows Lady Laytham complains enough about how difficult it is to keep them."

Colling's face looked as if it were carved from wood. "As you say, Sir Eustace."

"If no one will bring him his meals, he will just have to go hungry." There was satisfaction in his words, and with that, Uncle turned on his heel and left me there.

Colling gazed down at me, regarding with dispassion the bruise I could feel blooming on my cheek. "I will send Jane with a supper tray. You would do well to heed Sir Eustace's words and not attempt to bite her." He left also, closing the door behind him, and I heard the key turn in the lock.

I stood at the window and kept my back to the door when Jane entered.

"I've your tea, Master Ashton. I'll just leave it here on this little table, then."

Ashamed and mortified at having been struck, I refused to acknowledge her presence, and while she tried to make me feel welcome to some degree and chattered as she laid a fire in the corner fireplace and set about unpacking my meager belongings, she finally fell silent at my unresponsiveness.

"Well, I'm done. Ring if you need anything, Master Ashton. But it won't be me as is coming up here again," she muttered as she closed the door behind her, and again the key was turned in the lock.

Unseen by anyone, the tears slid down my cheeks.

* * * *

First impressions. Can one ever overcome them?

By the time I began to recover from my parents' loss, the damage had been done, and I'd gained a reputation as a sulky, disobedient, ungrateful child.

Uncle Eustace was rarely at home, for which I was not the only one who was grateful.

Aunt Cecily was confined to her bed for some reason that was unspoken in my presence, and when she finally emerged, she was pale and wan, and there was a quiet grief about her. She spent what little time she could with me, but before we could develop any kind of warmth toward each other, she received a message in the post, and the household was thrown into turmoil once again.

"Oh, dear God!" Aunt Cecily murmured brokenly.

"What is wrong, Aunt?"

She looked up at me blindly, tears trickling down her cheeks, and her lips quivered. "Marian Hood has died!"

"Beg pardon, I'm sure, but who is Marian Hood?"

"She is... was a dear friend of mine. We married around the same time, although hers was a love match. They followed the drum. The loss of her Robert came as a great blow to her. He was a brigade major in the _nth Foot, and he fell at Waterloo, leaving her a widow with three sons and no means to raise them. She remarried--a Frederick Pettigrew--shortly thereafter." Aunt Cecily frowned. "I did not have much opportunity to see her, although we had a prolific correspondence. Mr. Pettigrew wanted a son of his own, and finally succeeded, only to lose the child and the mother in childbirth."

I realized how distressed she must be to say something like that in my presence. "I am very sorry, Aunt," I said politely, but she did not appear to hear me.

"My poor, dear Marian. And those poor, poor boys! They have lost their mother and a baby brother, as well as their beloved father. As for their stepfather...." She sniffed. "Mr. Pettigrew is drinking himself into an early grave and neglects the boys shamefully. Her sister Vivien writes to me, begging for my assistance. She has six children of her own, and cannot take in young Robert, John, and William. Oh, of course they may come to live with me! I must write Vivien at once!"

"Three sons?" That sparked my interest. There were no boys of quality in the neighborhood of Fayerweather--Lord Hasbrouck's sons were grown and away, and Squire Newbury only had girls--and while I had no objection to befriending the lads in the stable, both Aunt Cecily and Uncle Eustace did.

"Colling, inform Thomas Coachman that I wish him to take the landau to Panton Square," she instructed the butler. "They will need a woman's tender presence," she murmured to herself. "I shall send Flowers to fetch them home!" She bustled away to speak with her maid.

And so, overriding Uncle Eustace's objections for once, Aunt Cecily had the Hood brothers come to live at Laytham Hall.

Almost shivering with anticipation, I lingered in the suite of rooms the brothers would be given as the maids prepared them. Of course I was sorry for their loss, but here was an opportunity for me to make friends with boys of my own class!

The sounds of a carriage pulling up in the courtyard had me pelting down the stairs, but I drew up at the bottom and walked decorously to the entryway, waiting until they entered the Hall.

The two older Hoods were almost the same height, a few inches taller than me, in spite of the fact that we were of an age, while the youngest was a few inches shorter. Their hair varied from shades of light brown to raven's-wing-black, but their eyes were the same bright, startling blue.

"How do you do?" I shyly offered my hand to the brothers. "I am Ashton Laytham."

Neither of the two older boys made an effort to shake my hand, and when the youngest attempted to, Robert stopped him.

"You're Awful Ashton. We've heard of you."

I felt myself turn pale and dropped my hand. I had never heard that appellation before. "What? How...?"

"We overheard the woman Aunt Cecy sent talking with Aunt Vivien's housekeeper as they packed for us." The two exchanged glances and sniggered, and then the third joined them, although it was apparent he did not understand their amusement. "They didn't even realize we could hear them. Grown-ups don't tend to pay children much mind, or haven't you learned that yet, Awful?"

I ignored that. Was that how they thought of me below stairs? My eyes burned, but I'd learned shortly after I'd arrived at Fayerweather that tears neither helped nor solved anything.

Aunt Cecily arrived upon the scene just then and swept all three of them into an encompassing embrace. "My poor, poor boys! You will do well here, for I shall look after you! Ah. Ashton. You have met Robert, John, and William. How fortuitous. You may show them their rooms and help carry their portmanteaux."

"I do not think so, Aunt. I have lessons." I turned and left them. Obviously they had no need of friends, for they had each other.

They were handsome children, everyone said as much, and Aunt Cecily turned her attention to them, doting on them as she had never doted on me.

Shortly afterwards, there was a period of subdued excitement.

"Aunt Cecy is in an interesting condition," Robert said knowledgably.

"Beg pardon?"

"You aren't very bright, are you, Awful? She is expecting a baby."

"A baby?"

The three brothers burst into laughter and walked out of the room, shaking their heads, murmuring to each other of my stupidity.

But truly, were not babies born of love? And there was no love lost between my uncle and his wife. I was aware of that if the brothers were not.

Aunt Cecily was so happy for a time, but then she retired to her rooms for a number of weeks, and when she emerged, she was once again wan and melancholy, although the Hoods managed to make her smile upon occasion.

Two years later, Arabella Marchand, a cousin's daughter, another orphan, arrived. Aunt Cecily smiled and clapped her hands. "How splendid! I have a daughter now, and the family is complete!"

An angelic-looking young girl, Arabella had glossy golden ringlets and eyes of cerulean blue, and everyone loved her on sight, spoiling her as no one had ever thought to spoil me.

It hurt, for I missed the affection my parents had so lavishly showered upon me. I determined, since I had already been given the appellation "Awful," that I would show them how very awful I could be, and so I became as obnoxious as I knew how in revenge.

Robert insisted I be included in their games--after all, who would be the villain? I, as the heir to Fayerweather, should have been the leader. However, Robert claimed the role of Robin Hood for himself--"Am I not called Robin?"--and wore the jaunty green cap with the sweeping feather he had cajoled Aunt Cecily into giving him from one of her bonnets. And of course John was Little John, while William assumed the role of Will Scarlet.

I, on the other hand, was deemed worthy only of being the Sheriff of Nottingham, or on occasion, Guy of Gisbourne. At any rate, none of the brothers would have followed my orders anyway.

On that day in particular, William, the youngest Hood, had taken an ugly splinter in his leg from the stick that substituted as my sword, and Robert had glowered at me. "This is your fault!" he snarled. "Little John, fetch something to remove the arrow."

John scampered off, and I crossed my arms and glared at Robert. "That is not an arrow."

"It is if I say it is!" He turned to his injured brother. "Now, Will Scarlet, I shall cut the arrow out of your leg!"

"Yes, Robin." The stupid little git would no doubt say, Yes, Robin, even if his brother told him, William, I am going to take off your leg.

John returned before too long with a penknife I recognized as Uncle Eustace's. "I'm telling Aunt Cecily!" I declared. One of us needed to use common sense. Aside from which, if it was discovered as missing, I was the one who would catch bloody hell.

"You'd cry rope on us?" Robert's face darkened, and he took a threatening step toward me. I forced myself to stand fast.

Arabella exhibited her displeasure by kicking me in the shins, and the three brothers laughed.

Robert dismissed my presence and unfolded the blade. William's eyes grew huge, and his lower lip trembled, for it suddenly looked as large as Cook's carving knife.

"None of that now, young William. You're a Hood! Here, take this piece of wood and bite down on it if the pain becomes too much. Not that it should."

"Yes, Robin." William obeyed him, and I curled my lip in disdain.

Robert nodded in satisfaction, then said, "Chin up, stout fellow," and began to dig out the splinter.

Arabella clutched William's hand. "You are being so brave, Will Scarlet!"

"It... it does not hurt very much. Honestly, Belle. I mean Maid Marian." He bit down hard on the wood, his complexion turning green.

"Got the bugger!" Robert exclaimed triumphantly. Arabella clapped her hands over her ears, but she giggled.

The blood flowed freely, and I sat down abruptly, feeling lightheaded.

Arabella tore off a strip of her petticoat, dabbed at the wound, and then bound it. "Are you feeling better, Will?" She petted his arm.

He nodded, but Robin Hood gave a dramatic moan. "No! Too late! We were too late! The arrowhead must have been dipped in poison! You'll pay for this treachery, Sheriff, you and your dastardly Prince John!" He shook his fist at me, then turned back to his youngest brother. "But for now--Will Scarlet died an honorable death. We must give him a hero's funeral!"

"Dying from a wound gone putrid isn't heroic!" I grumbled.

"None of that, Sheriff! It was through your actions.... Hold on a tick! John, we need... no, you already risked all to fetch the knife for the field surgery. I shall go in search of the valiant warrior! You lot dig the grave!"

"I don't see why I should have to!" I kicked at a tussock of grass.

But Robert raced off, and as usual, the others paid me no heed, instead scraping out a shallow hole in the ground near the pond's edge.

It seemed Robert was gone a good three quarters of an hour, but perhaps I had that wrong. I grew bored and wanted to visit the stable, where at least the grooms treated me well and one of the stable boys was friendly to me, but I was shouted down.

Eventually Robert came jogging out of the Hall.

"Sorry, chaps. Had to go... er... searching. See what I found!" It was a lead soldier with the Tarleton helmet of the Light Dragoons, his coat painted madder red and his collar royal blue.

"I say, that's... that belongs to me!" A friend of Aunt Cecily had given the set to me one Christmas, before the Hoods arrived and he realized he preferred the brothers to me.

Robert sneered, not a pleasant expression, and he placed the soldier into the "grave" and tossed a handful of dirt into it. "I am the resurrection and the life, sayeth the Lord...," he intoned with righteous zeal. His eyes took on a faraway look, and I curled my lip in disdain, but he was so wrapped in his visions of nobility that he didn't see. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...."

Arabella sniffled. Being unable to stand, William sat to attention. John stood beside him, his bugle in hand.

I sulked. It was my soldier, after all, and it had been commandeered without even a "by your leave."

At William's other side stood Robert, his eyes lit with almost militant fervor. "Wouldn't it be wizard to fight a final, desperate battle against overwhelming odds, chaps?"

"As Father did, Robin?"

"Yes, just as Father did!" His expression became wistful. "Father... he lies buried in a mass grave at the crossroads of Quatre-Bras. When I fall...."

"I shall see to it you have a hero's send-off, Robin!" John rested his hand on his brother's shoulder.

"I, also!" William chimed in.

"And I imagine you'll visit his grave each year on the anniversary of when he fell and leave flowers?" I scowled, hunched a shoulder, and turned away. "What rot!"

But it would have been as well if I'd spared my breath.

"Thank you, chaps." Robert cleared his throat. "Now, bugler, if you will?"

John raised his bugle to his lips and began to play Last Post, and I came to a reluctant halt, taken by the haunting notes in spite of myself. He drew in a breath and blew, drew in a breath and blew, and he did it so earnestly, never once hitting a sour note.

He had toyed with that bugle often and often, but this time.... It occurred to me how very beautiful he was, with his thick brown hair falling haplessly into astonishingly blue eyes, and it was then that I tumbled helplessly, hopelessly in love with him.

But it was not until six years later, on my seventeenth birthday, when we were all down from school, that I made lo--had John Hood the first time.

* * * *

Chapter Two

A strange groom presented himself at the kitchen door, and I was sent for. "Yes?"

"You be Mr. Laytham? I've a message for you." He handed me the slip of paper. I unfolded it and read the words with widening eyes. It seemed that during an unprecedented run of luck at a faro's den, Uncle Eustace had won a prime bit of horseflesh.

However, the message went on to state, since the animal was under his weight, he was passing the colt on to me. The action surprised me, and I wondered what was truly wrong with the horse; Uncle Eustace was not usually so generous.

"Where is the colt?" I asked the groom.

"Right outside t'door, sir." He stamped his feet and blew on his hands.

"Cook, see he has something to warm him."

"Thankee, sir. I could do with sommat."

"You may as well stay the night. After you've eaten, I'll have one of the grooms show you where you can put up your horse."

"Already acting lord of the manor, Awful?"

I scowled at Robert Hood, who seemed to have appeared from nowhere, and opened my mouth to inform him that when I indeed became the seventh baronet, my first act would be to evict him from my home, but John was standing there, as well as William and Arabella, because of course they were always together, and I bit back the words.

"Haven't you anything better to do than annoy me, Robert?"

"No." He grinned. "Cook, my own heart's delight, would you mind providing us with tea? We're famished!"

John looked at him as if his beloved brother had uttered deathless prose, and I hunched a shoulder and stalked out of the kitchen and into the December afternoon.

The colt standing there was small, not much above fifteen hands high, ivory-colored, with a long, thick mane and tail, and with unusual blue eyes. Uncle had written that his previous owner had named him for them--Blue Boy. "Of course you're to change the name at once. Something not as fanciful. Arthur, perhaps, or William after our gracious king."

The large, liquid eyes observed me, curious and intelligent. No, I would not change his name.

"Come along, Blue Boy." The weather was chill, but not unseasonably so, and I thought I would take him for a turn in the paddock behind the main stable. "Let's see how you move under a saddle."

* * * *

I finished putting the colt through his paces and walked him to the stable. Once there, I dismounted, giving his neck a pat.

The air in the stable was warm from the numerous animals and redolent of horse and hay.

"Blue Boy is a handsome animal, Master Ash." Jem, the young groom, removed Blue Boy's tack and set about rubbing him down.

"He is that, Jemmy, and a sweet-goer as well." I wondered if I dared grow too fond of the horse, lest Uncle Eustace withdraw the gift, an act he had been wont to do when he felt that with one more turn of the cards or toss of the dice he would see the end of a losing streak. He saw nothing wrong with wagering away a gift he had bestowed upon someone.

I sighed and patted Blue Boy a final time. "The most wonderful birthday gift Uncle has ever given me." Truthfully, the only gift he had ever given me.

Jem gave me a sideways glance. "It's your birthday, then, Master Ash?"

"Yes." It was John's as well, but for once I'd gotten the better gift.

"I've a gift I'd be liking to give you, sir." The corner of his mouth tilted in a grin.

"That's very kind of you, Jemmy, but not necessary...."

"I think it is, sir. You've been very good to me and my Mum." He looked around to make sure we were alone, then took my hand and led me to an unoccupied box stall. "Close the door, if you please, sir. Mr. Ruston is away for the afternoon, and the boys are in their quarters, warming up after exercising the horses, so we should have time enough if we're quick about it. Here's something that will make it easy for both of us." He handed me a jar of some sweet-smelling lotion, and his fingers became busy with the buttons of his breeches.

"Jemmy! Where had you this?"

"It's some of Mum's store, what she makes for Lady Laytham. She has plenty, and I thought...." He looked uncertain. "Do you not want me, then, sir?"

I thought briefly of John. He would never look on me thus, nor offer me his body. "Yes, Jemmy, I want you, and thanks."

A happy smile flooded his face. He stripped his breeches down enough to bare his arse. "Then have at me, sir!"

I took care with him--my prefect at Eton had taught me well, and among certain of the boys there, I was known as a generous lover. I saw no reason to treat Jemmy with less than care because he worked as a groom in my uncle's stable.

Once I felt he was prepared enough, when his hips rocked backward, taking my fingers deeper into his fundament, I coated my prick with the ointment and slid in, finding his back passage hot and clinging.

Jemmy gasped, and I ceased my movements. "Have I hurt you, Jemmy? Have you not done this before?"

"Aye, a time or two, although none so large as you, sir!"

"Sweet words, Jemmy."

"True words, sir."

"Do not call me sir when I'm buggering you, Jem." I nipped the side of his neck.

"No, sir." I could hear the grin in his voice, and I pinched his arse.

We could not take too long about this, for we could be walked in upon at any moment, so I sped up my movements.

He bucked like an unbroken steed under me, panting and moaning, and I was breathless, fast approaching the brink of climaxing, when sure enough, someone wandered into the stable.

"Jem Stableboy, I want my horse saddled!" It was John Hood, of all people.

I froze, my prick deep in Jemmy's arse, my hand firmly around his own weeping erection.

"Please, Master Ash! Please don't stop!" Jem begged in a hoarse whisper.

"Of course I won't stop, Jemmy, pet," I assured him, "but hush. Perhaps he will leave!"

"Oh ho! What's all the noise about then? Sounds to me like someone is having a right time!" John poked his head into the box stall. "Oh, my God! Ashton!" His eyes were enormous, fastened on the empurpled head of my prick, which I had withdrawn from the heated passage that had gloved it like velvet. My shaft glistened with the lotion I had used. I thrust it back into the young groom, and he whimpered in satisfaction as I stroked across his sweet spot. All the while I stared at the burgeoning arousal in John's trousers.

John could not seem to tear his fascinated gaze from the sight Jemmy and I made. "Care to join us, John?"

He was torn. The Hoods were always so honorable, so noble, so pure of heart. And I... I was Awful Ashton: dishonorable, ignoble, impure. John looked torn, as if he wanted to bolt from the stable, but more than that, as if he did, indeed, want to join us. Perhaps he had got a taste for a prick in his arse at Harrow. His face grown flushed, his hand was in his trousers, rubbing himself furiously.

"Ahhh!" Jemmy cried out softly, filling my hand with his seed. Two more hard, swift thrusts, and I spent as well.

Never looking away from the middle Hood brother, I brought my hand to my mouth and delicately licked at my palm.

John trembled and moaned and bit his lip, and a dark stain appeared on the front of his trousers. With a horrified groan, he stumbled from the stable.

What had I expected, that he truly would want to join us, or better still, pull me away from my playmate and demand that I keep myself for him?

"Well," I murmured, "I hope he manages to get to his chamber before anyone sees him."

"Will he tell on us, Master Ash?" Jemmy sounded nervous. It could cost him his position, and any future positions, if he were turned off without a reference.

"No. You need not be concerned. Master John might not have a care for me, but he is too honorable. He would not put a servant in that position." I dropped another kiss on the young groom's neck and carefully pulled free. "Let's get cleaned up, shall we, Jemmy?"

"Aye, Master Ash."

He gasped when I turned him, dropped to my knees, and carefully licked him clean.

"Master Ash, this is not right!"

"Hush, Jemmy." It was more right than he knew. In this little way, I felt as if I were getting some of my own back from John, who would never think to give me a birthday gift like this, who would never think to give me a gift of any kind.

* * * *

Later that same evening, just before the supper tray was brought in, John came looking for me in the billiards room.


I glanced up from where I was half-lying on the green baize of the table ready to make my shot, but I refused to say a word.

He shuffled uncomfortably, and I could not help but notice the bulge that again marred the smooth line of his trousers. I was sorely tempted to drop to my knees, unbutton his trousers, and free his prick. I wanted to know what he tasted like. Instead, I lowered my spectacles on my nose and observed him from over them.

"I... I want...." He licked his lips and gestured helplessly, an action one seldom associated with a Hood.

"You will have to tell me what it is you want, John. I am not psychical." Meanly, I decided that he would have to ask. For too many years, I had been shunted aside in favor of his brothers, and I could not resist just a tiny bit of revenge.

His teeth worried his lower lip. It was obvious he was torn. He sent me a glance from beneath his lashes, but I waited patiently.

"What you were doing in the stable...."

"Making love to Jemmy?"

Furious color mounted his cheeks. Did he truly think I would denigrate the act simply because my partner was a servant? He avoided my eyes but nodded. "Yes. That."

"You will speak to no one about what you saw."

"No! I would not!" Of course he would not. He swallowed. "I... I want...." The smooth line of his trousers was still marred by the engorged shape of his prick. John might be embarrassed; he might be unhappy with the state of affairs, but he was still aroused.

He turned away, and my eyes dropped to the tails of his evening coat. I couldn't help but imagine the firm curves that they covered. I'd seen them a time or two when, as boys, he and his brothers would strip down to their drawers and go swimming in the pond near the folly. I'd joined them just one time, still with hopes they would befriend me, but I'd been wrong. After they'd very nearly drowned me, I'd never again made that mistake.

"You want to bugger me?" I gave a harsh laugh. No need to sugarcoat it. John would never see it as making love to me. "Why should what you want make a jot of difference to me?"

He shook his head and seemed to have to force the words out. "Not... not that."

It took a moment for his admission to sink in, and then I took pity on him. "You want me to... sodomize you, John?" I dared not call it making love, dared not bring up the word love at all.

He glanced at me over his shoulder and nodded jerkily, his face as pale now as it had been flushed. "Just this once, Awful. And... and you must promise me no one will ever find out! If Robin ever learned of this...."

"You trust me not to reveal your dastardly secret?" He must want it--I would not permit myself to think he might perchance want me--very badly. "I do believe I am flattered. However, you need have no worry. This Laytham is honorable in his own way."

Besides, Robert would kill me for touching his brother. Did John think I was unaware of that? Did he truly think me that witless? I brushed how he must view me from my mind--there were better things to think of, such as how I wanted to crowd him against the wall, my fingers locked in his, keeping him motionless. How I wanted to rock my hips against his, allowing him to feel my arousal against his arse.

But perhaps he felt at a disadvantage, his delectable arse presented to me. As if he knew where my thoughts were travelling, he flushed once again and turned to face me.

I took a step toward him, and while he stood firm, his eyes widened and his lips parted. What would he do if instead of drawing in a breath, as he was endeavoring to do, he drew in my tongue instead? I worried that any precipitous actions would spook him. I'd always been good with nervous animals, and John was no different. I smiled ruefully and approached him no further.

"No one will ever learn from me that you want to be in my bed, and I promise you will enjoy it very much." In fact, I intended to make this so good that a single time would not be enough.

"Then let's get this done...."

I backed away from him, and it actually seemed as if he would reach for me, but then his hands fell, fisted at his side.

"I have a condition of my own, though, John."

"What?" he asked harshly. "I can promise you nothing...."

"I am aware of that. Do you think I am desirous of a pledge of undying love? How missish," I mocked. I would have wagered my soul for that, but I was not so foolish as to wish for what I could never have. "My condition is a simple one: you will cease calling me 'Awful'!"

"That is all?" Again he bit down on his lower lip, although this time apparently harder than he'd intended, for he winced, and I felt the blood flow more heatedly through my veins, wanting nothing so much as to soothe that tiny hurt. "But how shall I explain that to Robin?"

I shrugged. "Tell him it is childish, tell him you have outgrown it, tell him what you will." I turned as if to walk away.

"Very well," he agreed. I faced him once more, an eyebrow raised, and he concluded reluctantly, "Ashton."

"Shall we give supper the go-by tonight?"


I could have sworn in frustration, but I forced my expression to remain bland, inquiring.

"No," he said in a more moderate tone. "Everything must appear as usual. We cannot be seen leaving at the same time."

"Very well," I conceded, "but know this, John. If you call me 'Awful'--"

"I promised I would not, didn't I?" His reply was surly, and for a moment he was not in the least attractive.

And yet I found I didn't care. I was about to have my fondest desire fulfilled, and to that end he could be as surly as he chose.

He hurried from the billiards room, and I stared after him for a moment before I finished knocking balls into the pockets. Then I laid the cue aside, smoothed my hands over the placket of my trousers, tugged at the sleeves of my tailcoat, and left the billiards room.

The family was ensconced in the rose sitting room as I strolled in.

"Ah. Deigning to join us at last, Awful?" Robert raised his teacup to his lips.

"My word! Do you mean to say I've been missed? How remiss of me! Had I known, I should have put in an appearance much earlier!"

He scowled at me. On those rare occasions when I responded to his needling, I invariably succeeded in making naught but a fool of myself. But knowing I'd soon have his brother beneath me... the corner of my mouth turned up in a smirk, and his eyes narrowed.

"You're in a jolly good mood."

"And why should I not be? It's my birthday, and I've received a splendid gift--"

"Hell and the devil!" John's cup had slipped from his fingers to land on the Savonnerie carpet. He was pale, and there was an almost frantic look to his eyes. Did he fear I'd say something aloud, gloating over his perceived weakness for a male lover?

"--from Uncle Eustace," I concluded in all innocence.

"Really, John!" Aunt Cecily protested. We all knew better than to swear in her presence.

"I beg your pardon, Aunt Cecy, Arabella." He scowled down at the broken cup.

"Well, enjoy the gift while you may, Awful," Robert snapped as he went to the bellpull to summon Colling, "for I've no doubt Sir Eustace will take it back when it best suits him!"

I knew that even better than he, for my uncle never gifted the Hoods or Arabella with anything, leaving that to his wife.

I ignored Robert's hurtful words and turned to Aunt Cecily, who was offering me a cup of tea. "Thank you, Aunt, but no." I had no desire for any of the tiny sandwiches or iced cakes on the supper tray either, for John would soon be mine. "I believe I'll retire early."

He began choking.

"John, what's amiss with you tonight?" Robert pounded him on the back.

"Enough. Enough! You mean beyond me spilling tea all over my favorite waistcoat? Nothing, Robin."

"Well, you do seem to be at sixes and sevens this evening." William picked up the pieces of John's cup and put them on the supper tray.

"It's nothing, I tell you!"

I swallowed a smile; John did seem disgruntled. Too often had I been the object of the brothers' mockery, and in spite of my feelings for him, I couldn't help but take a bit of mean pleasure in his mishap, for that was indeed his favorite waistcoat.

I retrieved a candle and walked out, of course unnoticed by anyone.

Colling was bustling toward me.

"Mr. John's spilled his tea. I'm sure you'll deal with it in your usual competent manner."

"Indeed, Mr. Ashton." He went on to answer the bell, and I made my way to the still room.

How much time would I have, I wondered, before John came to me? I took one of the bars of the soap Aunt Cecily had made from the receipt the first Sir Osburt's lady brought with her from her homeland, and then strolled up to my bedroom. It wouldn't do to appear as if I were in a rush.

Upon opening the door, I couldn't prevent a sigh. My room was in darkness save for the faint moonlight that drifted in, for the curtains weren't drawn, and the hearth was cold.

I set the candle on the nightstand and went to the windows. It was the work of only a moment to close out the night. After I lit the oil lamps, I tugged the bellpull. Usually I'd make do with chill sheets, but not this night.

Soon a fire was blazing in the hearth, warming the room. I knew it would be a while before a housemaid answered my summons, so I took the opportunity to have a quick wash.

Perhaps the spicy scent of the soap would be an additional lure to John. It was said to be an attraction to a lover.

I found a nightshirt that hadn't been worn. It was uncomfortable against my skin--perhaps that was why I'd never worn it--but I didn't anticipate wearing it for long.

There was a timid tap on my door, and I drew on my dressing gown before calling out, "Come."

"Y... you rang, Mr. Ashton?" It was a tweenie, one of the youngest maids on staff. Of course, none of the housemaids would stoop to answer my call, although if it was one of the Hoods ringing they would stumble over themselves to do their bidding.

"I want a bed warmer, Maggie."

"M... me, sir?" She turned so white I thought she would fall in a faint.

"I want you to fetch me a warming pan," I clarified.

"Oh! Yes, sir!" She scurried out as if the hounds of hell were on her heels.

I shook my head. What had they told her below stairs?

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