From inside the large manor house came the sound of glass shattering and housemaids screaming. The Honourable Philip Huntingdon, three months shy of his majority, paused by the back door and looked down at his spaniel thoughtfully. "I think my guardian is in a rage, Cassie. Perhaps the stables?"
The black and white dog at his side cocked her head thoughtfully then doubled back, wagging her stumpy tail, and set off the way they had come.
Philip paused for one more instant and then, as a bellow came from within, turned and followed in her wake.
In the warm, mellow stable-building, Philip went to his favorite mare, Jewel. The gray was dozing at the back of her stall but as Philip called her, she whickered and swung her head around in greeting.
Cassie bedded herself down in a pile of loose straw as Philip entered the box. "Good girl, Jewel. Where's that rascal Fergus, eh?" As he petted the horse, he listened for footsteps that would herald the young groom's approach.
Fergus and Philip had grown up together on the estate, largely free to run wild over the grounds. Philip's guardian had shown little interest in his ward, preferring to spend his time pursuing the estate's game, and running through the fortune left to his trusteeship. Now, though, with the estate at ruin's door through poor management and with Philip mere months away from his twenty-first birthday and inheriting, Sir John was determined that Philip should marry.
But marriage was the last thing on Philip's mind.
"Thought I'd find you here." The voice, low and melodic, was followed by a dry chuckle. "The old man's temper is a great boon to us stable-dwellers."
Dark where Philip was fair, Fergus was slight, wiry and hard-muscled. His skin was swarthy from the outdoors, and dark hair covered his arms, and showed at the neck of his shirt. At twenty, Fergus was already a man.
By contrast, Philip was tall and lithe, his body retaining the coltishness of adolescence. And the more Philip's guardian spoke of duty and the meaning of his coming of age, the more reasons Philip found to slip away from the house and find his way to the stables.
Sighing, Philip replaced Jewel's brush on its nail outside her stall, giving her nose a farewell rub. "Fergus..."
His friend laughed again, almond-shaped brown eyes teasing. "I know, I know. Far be it for me to question the ways of royalty."
Fergus's laugh was bitter this time. "Sure you're not. And I'm the King of Persia. Come on."
They both knew better than to reach for each other on the ground floor, out in the open. Even if the horses were their only witnesses, it wasn't safe. Nothing about the situation was. ENDEXCERPT