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 nak*d, 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.
A church bell chimed the hour, then struck. He counted out the long, slow strokes, and felt Percy doing the same thing beside him. Midnight. A long time yet ’til dawn.
The bell fell silent, and the air shivered and rippled, falling still around them like the water of a pool.
“Shall I tell you a great secret?” Grey whispered, at long last. The room was dark, but his eyes were well accustomed to it by now; black beams crisscrossed the whitewashed ceiling above, so close that he might touch one if he sat up.
“Please.” Percy’s hand tightened on his.
“My father was murdered.”
I found him, you see.” The words came with surprising ease, as though he had told the story many times—and he supposed he had, though only to himself.
“He was in the conservatory. The conservatory had doors that led out into the garden; it was the easiest way to come and go from the house without being seen—I used it all the time.”
He’d used it the night before, in fact, to steal out for an illicit excursion to the river with the son of a local poacher. He’d left the conservatory door carefully jammed, to ensure an inconspicuous return at dawn, and when he came back in the soft gray light, wet to the knees, his pockets full of interesting stones and dead crayfish, a live baby rabbit tucked in his shirt, the door had seemed just as he’d left it. A careful look round in case the gardeners should be stirring early, and he had slipped inside, heart thumping with excitement.
“It was so quiet,” he said, and saw it in memory, the glass panes of the ceiling beginning to glow but the huge room below still slumbering. Everything was gray and shadowed, dreamlike.
“It wasn’t yet full day. No noise from the house proper, all the ferns and vines and trees still—and yet, you know the way plants seem to breathe? They were doing that. I didn’t see him—see the body—just at first. My foot struck the gun; it was lying just inside the door, and went spinning off with a terrible clatter.”
He’d stood transfixed, then ducked hastily behind a row of potted acacias, in case someone should have heard the racket. Apparently no one had, though, and he peeped cautiously out from his refuge.
“He was—he was lying under the peach tree. A ripe peach had fallen and smashed on the stone floor beside him; I could smell it.”
Smelt it, rich and sweet, above the jungle damp of the plants, mingled with the richer stink of blood and bowels. That was his first exposure to the smell of death; it had never troubled him on battlefields, but he could not eat peaches.
“How far…? The, um, the…gun?” Percy spoke with the greatest delicacy. Grey squeezed his fingers to show that he appreciated it.
“No, he couldn’t have dropped it. He lay twenty feet away, at least, with a bench and several big pot-plants between.”
He’d known at once that it was his father. The duke was wearing his favorite old jacket, a shabby thing of checkered wool, not fit for anything beyond puttering.
“I knew from the first glimpse that he was dead,” he said, staring up into the white void above. “But I ran to him.”
There was no way in which to describe his feelings, because he hadn’t had any. The world had simply ceased in that moment, and with it, all his knowledge of how things were done. He simply could not see how life might continue. The first lesson of adult life was that it, horribly, did.
“He’d been shot in the heart, though I couldn’t see that, only a pool of blood on the floor under him. His face was all right, though.” His own voice seemed remote. “I hadn’t time to look further. The door into the house opened just then.”
Sheer instinct, rather than thought, had propelled him back behind the acacias, and he had crouched there, frozen like the rabbits he had hunted in the night.
“It was my mother,” he said.
She’d been in her wrapper, not yet dressed for the day, and her hair hanging over her shoulder in a thick plait. He’d seen the first light from the glass panes overhead strike her, glowing from the dark-blond plait, showing up her wary face.
“Gerry?” she’d said, voice low.
The baby rabbit in John’s shirt had stirred then, roused by his own immobility. He was too shocked to do anything about it, too frightened to call out to the duchess.
She looked about her, and called once more, “Gerry?” Then she saw him, and what dim color the growing light had lent her vanished in an instant.
“She went to him, of course—fell on her knees beside him, touched him, called his name, but in a sort of desperate whisper.”
“She expected to find him there,” Percy said, intent. “And she was shocked to find him dead—but…not surprised, perhaps?”
“Very astute of you.” Grey rubbed at his ribs, feeling in memory the scratch of the rabbit’s sharp claws, a pain ignored. “No. She wasn’t surprised. I was.”