"Daddy, exactly where are we going and what are we going to do there?"
Kael Saunders steered the small, unobtrusive car along the A23 to Herstmonceux Village. The high hedgerows on either side of the narrow, two-lane road obscured the view ahead, and he hit the horn each time they came to a sharp bend. "There's a castle owned by a Canadian university up the road past the village. It's on five hundred acres, and they let us use it for outdoor classes. Survival skills, that sort of thing."
Kael had made the decision some time ago to tell Angel that he worked for the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6. Angel was a smart boy and could be trusted to keep his mouth shut. He would never do anything that might endanger his daddy. But the rule was, ask no questions.
They drove through the small, quaint village and continued on until the red brick castle rose up from the landscape. "There it is."
"Holy King Arthur's court! That is beautiful," Angel said, and Kael laughed.
He drove onto the grounds and up the hill into the car park, where a ten-seater van was just leaving. Milling about talking to each other were seven men and one woman, and beside them were five rolled-up tents and ten identical backpacks. Several of the men were tall like Kael, though none matched his six feet five inches. They were all well built, muscular, strong-looking men, and every one of them had a crew cut or buzz cut. "Oh my God. It's like a night out at a leather bar." Angel laughed.
"In your dreams. How many leather bars have you been to, boy?"
"Only the ones you've taken me to, Daddy. Will we be staying in the castle?" Angel's beautiful gray eyes were wide with excitement; his boyish enthusiasm always made Kael smile.
"No. We're staying in pup tents in the wood over on the north side. It's called the Azalea Walk."
A look of disappointment flitted across Angel's face, quickly replaced by resignation. "How picturesque," he said.
"Angel." Kael looked at the boy he had fallen in love with a mere six months ago--the boy he was supposed to have killed. "Do not call me Daddy this weekend. I am Sir at all times. I've never met this group, but I have to weed out the cowards, the idiots, and the insane, not to mention the men from the boys--and that includes the woman. They must know nothing about my private life or yours."
They got out of the car. Angel went without instruction to the boot to take out their leather jackets and water while Kael stood about ten feet away from the group. The woman emerged from behind one of the men, dwarfed by his size just as Angel, with his slender five-feet-eight frame, was dwarfed by Kael. For a moment, Kael stopped to suck in a breath. She reminded him of Misha, but this girl had blonde hair and Misha's had been dark. The young woman smiled when their eyes met. Kael did not return her smile. He would not get friendly with anyone in the group.
Quickly he assessed them, spotting who the friends were and who didn't like each other. One man, broad and muscular but not much taller than Angel, had a ruddy complexion, a sign of alcohol abuse or perhaps a dicky heart. Another man, no more than nineteen or twenty years old, walked with an overconfident swagger: a sure sign that he overestimated his own abilities. The woman looked happy just being there and eager to get on with the work.
It was a cold morning in February, and the group, attired in dark clothing, wore jackets and hats. Kael wore a black lightweight but very warm pullover, dark jeans, and black Doc Martens. Angel handed him his leather jacket, which he pulled on and zipped up. Angel wore the same, and when Kael pulled a black woolen hat over his shaved head, Angel copied. "Keep your jacket fastened up, boy. Avoid getting cold because it'll be hard to warm up again with staying outdoors all weekend."
"Yes, Sir." Angel obeyed at once, not only because he recognized Kael as his dom, but because he trusted him completely. "Sir, if this is for your work, why was I allowed to come?"
"Conran suggested I bring you. I'd refused the assignment because it was a weekend."
"Because you didn't want to leave me, Sir?"
He looked down at Angel, unsmiling in case anyone saw. "That's right." He didn't give a shit who knew he was gay. But they didn't need to know Angel was his and that he loved him; that would make Kael vulnerable.
Kael looked at his students. "Get over here!" The group stood to attention momentarily and then hurried toward him to stand quietly. His raised voice had succeeded in making them nervous, which was exactly what he wanted. "My name is Sir, and that is what you will call me every time you look at me. How many of you have been in the armed forces?" Two men and the woman raised their hands. "Good. You'll find it easy to remember. The others will get a smack if they forget. Are we clear?"
"Yes, sir," they chorused.
"Excellent. Pick up the tents and packs and start walking north."
Angel brought Kael his pack, but the other men were already carrying the tents.
With Kael leading the way, the group walked for about twenty-five minutes until Kael told them to stop in the woods. "There are five tents, two people to each tent. Start pitching them in a circle. We make a fire in the middle." He helped Angel pitch one of the tents, mainly to show him how.
When the tents were up and a fire pit was constructed and ready to light later, Kael had everyone sit on the ground. He watched where they sat and who they felt comfortable with. Two of the men had marched side by side to the woods, and they sat together now, so he decided to separate them. They were obviously straight, but they wanted to be together. "You"--Kael pointed to one of the men--"will share a tent with him." He pointed at another man. "Move now." Kael's anger flared with the man's hesitation. "Oh. I'm sorry. Did you want to be with your friend?" His tone dripped with sarcasm. The man moved quickly, his cheeks flushing. Kael proceeded to split up the pairs, assigning the woman to the burly, red-faced man.
"Sir," the woman said. She was tiny and adorable. "You haven't asked our names."
He already knew their names; he had seen their files and a small photo of each and memorized everything. He pointed at each of them in turn, giving their names, ages, and the place they were born. "I know everything I need to know about you, Matilda Thornton."
She smiled. "I go by Mattie, sir."
"Sir?" It was the bloke with the swagger: Harry Denbigh. "Is he part of the group?" Angel stuck out as much as Mattie did, and he had been glued to Kael's side since getting out of the car.
"Yes, he is. Tell them your first name only, boy."
Angel smiled at him and then around at the group. "I'm Angel."
Denbigh laughed, and Mattie said, "Awww, that's so sweet."
"Sir," the ruddy-faced man said. "When are we going to eat?"
"Not today," Kael said calmly, ignoring their disappointed faces.
"I didn't have breakfast," another man said.
Kael stood up, towering over them, leaning forward as he spoke and pointing at them one after the next. "You fucking morons! We don't get lunch breaks and tea breaks on this job. If you want to work in a fucking office, then go and work in one. This job is for real men." He looked at Mattie. "No offense."
She grinned. "None taken, sir."
"Some of you will go into security; you'll be minders. Imagine taking care of a head of state and saying, 'Excuse me, minister. I need to stop and have my sandwiches now. And I need to go for a piss. Can you wait there?'"
The men started to laugh. "See how ridiculous that is? There's water in your packs. That's all you get until morning. Make it last." He looked at Mattie. "When you're small, you have to be more careful. You get hungry quicker." But she looked as tough as nails. It was Angel he was worried about. Before they left London, Kael had made the boy eat an enormous protein-loaded breakfast to tide him over. "Does anyone want to leave? Because if you do, go now. Don't waste my time."
"Our careers depend on this weekend, don't they?" one of the men asked.
Kael looked round at them. "Your futures with SIS will be determined by my reports. If you want exciting, action-filled careers, then act as if that's what you want. Or you'll end up in office jobs."
"Kill me now." Mattie laughed.
Kael almost smiled at her and repeated, "Does anyone want to leave?"
No one spoke.
The first task Kael set them was a five-mile run--not a jog or a walk. He set the pace, and Angel kept up with him most of the way. Mattie on her short legs quickly fell behind, but by the time they all reached the finish, she was back at the front of the pack. Five out of the seven men who had got off to great starts had peaked and become exhausted. Kael reached the end a full eight minutes ahead of the group and stood, hands on hips, waiting for them. Angel and Mattie arrived first, and the men trailed in after them. One man collapsed on the ground, and when his buddy went to help him, Kael said, "Leave him! If you were in the field, running for your life, you would have to leave him or die with him. Be sensible."
After several minutes of watching him lie flat out, panting like a dog, Kael walked over to the man. "Up you get." He put out his hand and hauled the man to his feet. Giving him a brusque pat on the shoulder, he said, "You finished the race. That's all that matters."
They had barely recovered when he took them to the moat on the east side of the castle, where it was deepest, and ordered them to strip naked. The presence of a woman made them hesitate. But Mattie and Kael were the first ones naked. Angel was next but only because of the cold. He was used to being naked and was very comfortable in his skin, but being so slender, he began shivering very quickly. Kael kept his eye on Harry Denbigh, who seemed to want to compete with Angel and looked angry when the boy had beaten him in the run. He hurriedly stripped off his clothes and strode up to the edge of the moat, ready to go in first.
Angel ran up beside him and jumped in, his knees drawn in toward his chest the way he often leaped into bed at night. "First!" he screamed with childlike glee. The look on Denbigh's face was one of hatred. He dived in after Angel.
"Get out, the pair of you," Kael ordered, furious at their stupidity.
The two climbed out onto the bank, shivering. "Only an idiot jumps into a strange body of water," he said to Angel. "And a bigger idiot dives in." He got in Denbigh's face. "There could be rocks in there you could hit. At least Angel would only have cracked his arse. You could have broken your stupid fucking neck." Angel and Denbigh colored despite the cold. "What if you were in a tropical country and there were flesh-eating fish or reptiles? First you examine your terrain."
For twenty minutes he made them stand naked while he went over the ways to check if a body of water was safe before using it for an escape route. Then he went in first to show them how to do it.
Later, as they dressed, Denbigh looked at Mattie and said, "Nice tits. A bit small but nice."
"I wouldn't worry about it, mate. You'll never get your hands on them."
The men laughed at the exchange until Kael walked up to Denbigh and grabbed his cock. Stunned, Denbigh reared back.
"Nice cock. A bit small but nice." The men broke into gales of laughter, but Kael hushed them quickly. "We support our fellows in the field; we do not demean them. There'll always be times when you'll work in groups or with a partner. You can't put down a partner, then expect them to have your back in a sticky situation."
The remainder of the afternoon they spent on basic survival techniques. By midnight, they were exhausted. "Get into your tents and go to sleep," Kael told them. "You'll notice you have no sleeping bags--only a blanket. Put on every piece of clothing you brought. I hope you've all got hats. Keep your boots on. Put the blanket on the ground. Then wrap it around you. The rest of your warmth will come from your tent mate, so get cozy."
One of the men looked at his partner and joked, "Don't try anything."
They all laughed and crawled into their tents to lie down on the hard, cold ground. The moment they were alone, Kael pulled Angel into his arms and felt his boy melt against him. "How did I do today, Daddy?" he whispered.
"You're amazing." Kael kissed his forehead. "A couple of those guys have been in the army. All of them have had some training, and you not only kept up with them, you surpassed them. That's my boy."
There was nothing Angel loved more than praise and encouragement, but he also took discipline well if he knew he deserved it, and that was a sign of maturity. "That's because of all the weight training and running you make me do, Daddy." He kissed Kael softly on the lips. "I'm so tired."
The conversation from the next tent was just discernible with Kael's better than ordinary hearing. He pressed his finger to Angel's lips and listened. Denbigh and his tent mate were talking. "I reckon Sir is as queer as George Michael," Denbigh said. "That boy's not with SIS, and there was no question where he was going to sleep when Sir was ordering us around."
"He's a good bloke, tough as bloody nails," the other man said. "I'd let him cover my back any day."
"Yes, but I think he's favoring his bitch over us."
"Shut it, mate. This isn't the fucking X Factor. No one's going to get eliminated."
At the word bitch in reference to Angel, Kael said, "Wait there." He crawled out of the tent and directly into the next one. Before Denbigh could speak, Kael had straddled him and had him by the neck, pushing down on his windpipe. His tent mate moved quickly out of the way. "I knew you were trouble the minute I laid eyes on you." He smacked him hard across the face. "Got anything else to say?"
Unable to speak, Denbigh attempted to shake his head. Kael eased up on his throat, and Denbigh whispered hoarsely, "No, sir."
"Now go to sleep like a good boy. Don't make me come back." He had not been quiet about disciplining the young man, and the others were sitting at their tent flaps watching and listening by the time he crawled out. "Get some sleep!" he said. He crawled back into the low tent, and Angel snuggled into his arms again.