Tiptoeing into the large stable, Colin winced as the door closed behind him with a loud whine from the hinges. He’d have to remember to tell one of the servants to tend to it. He’d do it himself but had absolutely no idea where he’d obtain the oil.
Cautiously, he crept farther into the dim building. The horses had all been out for their exercise and now resided calmly in their stalls for the most part. As Colin passed, Viola huffed and stamped the wooden floor, probably eager to return to the pasture. Colin shushed her, scratching behind her ears.
As he moved toward the back of the stable, he listened carefully but heard nothing out of the ordinary. Just in case, Colin peeked around the corner toward the stable master’s quarters.
He sighed heavily and returned to Viola to give her an apple. After the first time he’d stumbled upon the two men three years before, Colin had avoided the stable for countless months, flushing with embarrassment every time he had even neared the building. He’d made every attempt to forget what he’d seen and—more importantly—how he’d reacted.
However Colin had now abandoned the pretense, at least in his own mind. It had taken him years to accept it, but he’d given in to his nature and had begun actively seeking out the clandestine activity, eager to witness it again.
Naturally as soon as he was looking for it, it was nowhere to be found.
Colin knew it was wrong on several levels. Patrick would surely be furious if he found out he was being spied upon. But more importantly, the act Colin craved was punishable by death. He should be disgusted by it.
Yet the very thought of it quickened his blood and stirred his manhood. It excited him like nothing else.
After the day Patrick had plucked him from the runaway stallion’s back, they’d become friends of a sort. Patrick had given him riding lessons, and Colin had eagerly hung around the stables whenever he could, helping with the chores.
There had always been an air of defiance about Patrick, who treated Colin as a peer and not a master. But three years ago, Colin had discovered just how rebellious Patrick truly was. It had led Colin to destroy their friendship.
As Viola chomped through her apple core, Colin’s thoughts drifted back.
Rain pelted the countryside and brought with it a relentless wind. Everyone holed up in the main house, but Colin grew restless. He was sixteen and bored of everything, particularly studying.
By late afternoon, the sky was so dark it was as if night had fallen. Colin bundled up and stole out the kitchen door, hurrying to the stable. He planned to keep Viola company, guessing she was as tired of being cooped up as he was. Perhaps Patrick could give him something to do. He loved visiting Patrick and helping with the animals whenever he could.
As he entered the stable, Colin was careful to shut the door quietly against the wind so as not to startle the animals. He opened his mouth to call a hello to Viola, but the words died in his throat.
A low moaning reached him, coming from the far side of the stable. Colin wasn’t sure at first if the sound was human, and worried an animal was ill. But some instinct told him to be stealthy and keep his silence. He trod as lightly as he could, listening to the moans and gasps for breath with a strange excitement and mounting curiosity.
The stable master’s quarters were in the back corner of the building at the end of a short corridor, and it seemed to Colin the noises were most likely coming from there. After gathering his courage, he peered slowly around the last stall.
His heart hammered so loudly he worried it would certainly be heard. Through the open door at the end of the corridor were two men. One braced himself against the wall, hands spread as he bent forward. The other man was Patrick, and Colin clapped his hand over his mouth as he gasped aloud. Patrick had mounted the man in the same manner Colin had seen horses mate, and Colin stared, transfixed.
Both men groaned and breathed harshly, breeches around their ankles, shirts undone and hanging loosely. Colin’s own trousers were suddenly uncomfortably tight, and he fought only briefly against his urge to get a closer look. Taking the apple he’d brought for Viola, he held it out for the horse in the last stall, opening the door just enough to slip inside. He squeezed by the animal to the rear of the enclosure, holding his breath.
By stooping, Colin could see through a gap in the horizontal slats of wood. He was only ten feet from the straining men, and his pulse pounded. Colin had been informed of how babies were created by his dispassionate tutor, Mr. Wheeldon, years ago, but had never imagined what he was witnessing was possible. While William had been obsessed with girls of late, Colin had never found them of much interest outside of pleasant conversation.
But hiding in the stable, watching Patrick mate with a man he vaguely recognized as one of the groundskeepers, Colin was overcome with desire and exhilaration. Patrick slammed into the man over and over as Colin watched, rapt. It was as if the missing piece of a puzzle had finally locked into place.
Both men shone with a thin sheen of sweat, even in the chill, and they grunted with a satisfaction Colin had never experienced. He’d touched himself many times, but it had always felt strangely empty. William had told him that he thought about one of the housemaids dusting naked, but when Colin tried it, his loins remained stubbornly unmoved.
As Colin watched, Patrick reached around for the other man’s member, grasping it tightly as he continued riding him. Colin silently loosened his trousers and snaked his hand inside. He was already hard as a rock, the tip of his cock wet. Biting his lip, he stroked himself, eyes glued to Patrick’s round, firm buttocks, partially hidden by the ends of his shirt.
Colin drew blood from his lip as he flooded his hand with sticky seed. He hung on to the side of the stall, his entire body shuddering with release as he’d never felt before.
“What are you doing here? Lose your way?”
Colin jumped, his mind jolting back to the present as he spun around to find Patrick watching him quizzically. Colin had been rubbing himself unconsciously through his trousers as he’d remembered the stormy day three years past. Patrick’s gaze flickered downward, and he raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Enjoying your horse, Lord Lancaster?”
“I… What? No! I was just…” Colin tore off his jacket and held it to his stomach. “I was giving Viola an apple. Nothing more.”
Patrick smirked. “If you say so, Lord.” The term he’d once bestowed without malice had become an insult.
“You know I’m not a lord at all,” Colin mumbled. Colin’s family was wealthy enough, but they weren’t nobility.
“Could’ve fooled me. I’m surprised you’re giving your mare the time of day. Thought you were too good now for hanging about in the muck. Shouldn’t you be relaxing somewhere? Eating candies?” Patrick was being quite insolent and would never speak this way to Colin with others around. “You used to enjoy getting your hands dirty. But I suppose the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree after all.” He shrugged.
Colin flushed. After witnessing the encounter three years ago, he’d stopped his visits to the stable. He only came when he had to and had often tasked the household servants with collecting and returning Viola for him. He knew why Patrick thought he was now a pampered prince and too much of a snob to hang about as he once did. Yet truthfully he’d been too confused and troubled by his feelings to do anything but watch Patrick from afar.
Although he’d been coming again regularly to the stable for the last few months, Patrick was none the wiser, since Colin had hoped to catch him fornicating again and hadn’t made his presence known. He’d thought about talking to Patrick and telling him the truth, but every time he considered it, he felt positively sick to his stomach.
“Can you not deign to listen to me?”
Colin had been so preoccupied with the fact that Patrick was standing but a few feet away, looking completely ravishing, that he had no idea what the man was saying. As usual, he didn’t have the nerve to look Patrick in the eye and kept his gaze elsewhere. “Pardon?”
“Shouldn’t you be running along to your tutor?”
Colin forced himself to look up at Patrick. “My tutor?”
“Although you’re quite”—Patrick’s eyes flicked downward again—“unpresentable at the moment.”
Without another word, Colin fled, leaving Patrick’s hearty laughter in his wake. As he hustled back to the main house, a two-story rectangular building of beige brick with a long, curving lane in front, Colin cursed himself for his foolishness. He should forget Patrick and stop embarrassing himself.
Passing a startled maid, Colin took the grand staircase in the foyer two steps at a time and was soon safely in his chambers, the door firmly closed. He buzzed from running into Patrick. Although Patrick had cooled toward him considerably, Colin couldn’t help but be exhilarated by the encounter.
After checking the clock on his mantle, Colin saw he still had twenty minutes before Mr. Wheeldon would arrive for their daily studies. He quickly shucked his trousers and stroked himself, imagining it was him Patrick had mounted that day in the stable.
At first, Colin had been so mortified by his reaction to the sight of Patrick and the groundskeeper that he hadn’t touched himself for the longest time. He’d denied his feelings and avoided Patrick at all costs. And he’d tried with the lovely Katherine Crawford. Really, he had. But it was no good. Colin wanted men, and one man in particular. One man he could never have.
After spilling his seed, Colin swiftly cleaned himself and went to the drawing room to meet Mr. Wheeldon. The afternoon ticked by ever so slowly as they went over Latin conjugations. Colin thought about what Patrick was doing until Mr. Wheeldon, face growing alarmingly red under his thatch of white hair, smacked a ruler across Colin’s hand and ordered him to stop daydreaming.
# # #
A few days later, as Colin once again listened to Mr. Wheeldon drone on—this time about the Middle Ages—he heard hoofbeats approach through the half-open window.
It was a warm afternoon in May, and Colin longed to be outdoors. He’d thought once he was accepted to Cambridge, he’d be able to end his tutorials. However his parents had insisted on lessons all summer.
Colin’s days were a numbing routine of sameness. Hours and hours of study and lessons with his tutor. Most weeks, he only left home on Sundays to attend church with his family. Although he usually daydreamed during the services, he always eagerly anticipated the end of the week and the opportunity to escape his dreary routine.
A minute later, William gave a cursory knock and swept into the study. “Ah, Mr. Wheeldon! How are you this fine day? I’m afraid my cousin will have to cut his studies short. Deepest apologies, but it’s simply unavoidable.” William bowed and then, with a forceful tug on Colin’s arm, they were out the door before Mr. Wheeldon could reply.
Laughing as they burst out the front doors of the house, Colin breathed in the fresh air gratefully and blinked into the sun. “What’s the emergency?”
“You being cooped up in that dark little room on a day such as this. School is out, my dear cousin.” William had attended a private boys’ school and had graduated the week before. Colin was thrilled to have him back. William and his parents lived only a short distance up the road, and the boys had always been close. “Come on; get your horse. The afternoon awaits.”
Colin’s good humor faltered. “My horse? Oh, do you think you could collect her for me? I’ve forgotten to tell Mr. Wheeldon something. I’ll just be a moment.”
William gave him a quizzical look. “What is it with you and that stable? You never want to step foot in there. Too grubby for you? No, I know what it is, my most lazy cousin. Honestly, you’re spoiled quite rotten. Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Edward did you a disservice keeping you home from school.”
“All right, since there seem to be no servants about to do your bidding, I shall. You know once we’re at Cambridge, you’ll have to fend for yourself!”
Colin ducked back inside the house. Since he had no message for Mr. Wheeldon and in fact wished to avoid him at all costs, he simply waited in the foyer. The upstairs maid passed, carrying a pile of curtains to be laundered. She gave him a puzzled look but scurried away before he could provide a suitable excuse for why he was skulking in the front hall.
When William whistled, Colin returned outside and swung himself onto Viola. He followed William’s lead across the pasture. “Where are we going?”
“The river, of course. Where else?”
William galloped ahead confidently. They had grown up playing together, exploring the countryside around their homes. They had always been more brothers than cousins, although a stranger would not mistake them for siblings.
William was quite tall in the saddle and had golden hair. His skin loved the sun, while Colin was ever in danger of sunburns in the warmer months. Colin’s own hair was a thick chestnut brown that hung over his forehead, and he was a good few inches shorter than his cousin.
As they neared the river, they slowed and let the horses saunter through a stand of trees. “I don’t know how you’ve been able to bear that old tutor of yours. I should have gone mad long ago. Does the man ever smile?” William asked.
“Once, but I think he was passing wind.”
“Well, as sheltered as you are, I suppose Aunt and Uncle were right in taking you out of classes and giving you private lessons these past years. After all, you’ve been accepted at Cambridge, and you never were the brightest student.”
Colin didn’t take offense—it was simply the truth. He knew William didn’t mean any harm. “No, academics have never been my strength. I always thought I’d prefer something more physical.” He thought of the countless hours in the stable with Patrick when he was younger. He’d always found far more satisfaction in mucking out a stall than in writing essays.
“Physical? You?” William chuckled. “You forget what a lazy sod you are. Always making me fetch your horse. What kind of physical task do you fancy you’d make a career of?”
Colin wished, not for the first time, that he could share his secret with William. But he feared if he told William of his criminal desire for Patrick and for men, he’d lose his best friend and quite possibly his life. He trusted William not to betray his confidence in every other circumstance, but feared this would be the exception. His cousin was the only person he could really talk to, but he knew he must keep William at arm’s length, for both their sakes. “I really don’t know. Sometimes I think being a farmer would be preferable to all those hours cooped up with textbooks.”
“A farmer? You can’t stay out in the sun for more than two hours before strongly resembling a lobster. Besides, you’d never do without all the comforts of home and servants. Academics may not be your calling, but I think you’re suited to more civilized pursuits than working the land.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
William grinned. “Naturally. Don’t worry; you’ll love Cambridge. We’ll have a grand time. You’ll make a ton of new friends so you won’t have to put up with just me.”
Colin smiled affectionately. “I’ve never needed any friend but you.” William was popular with everyone, and Colin had always felt lucky to be so close with him, to have their easy camaraderie. William’s friendship made him feel special.
“It’s true. I am quite remarkable.”
“Yet so modest.”
“Incredible, isn’t it?”
As they laughed, a male voice called out. “Hurry up, there! Took you long enough.”
At the riverbank, five young men sunned themselves. They were some of William’s chums from school, and Colin always felt woefully out of place among them. Their greetings to Colin were friendly enough as he and William joined them, but Colin was very much the outsider in the group.
Edward Lancaster had decreed that Colin was following in his footsteps at Cambridge if it was the last thing he accomplished during his time on earth. So while William had gone off and made new friends and had adventures, Colin had stayed home. His younger sister had her own tutor, but their parents were only concerned with how well she could marry. The entrance exams for Cambridge had been fearsome, but Colin had somehow passed. Barely.
He’d never been a particularly strong student. He was rather average, in fact. It was only his father’s influence—and, Colin suspected, outright bribery—that had earned his place in the next Cambridge class. Although he yearned for the freedom of leaving home, the idea of more years of academics left Colin entirely cold. But just as William had asked, if Colin brought it up with anyone in his family, they wondered what he’d rather do, and he had no answer to give.
He knew there was something out there for him, but he had no notion of what it was. He was determined to find out at Cambridge. Though he wasn’t enthusiastic about his studies, Colin hoped leaving home would open new doors. Perhaps he’d never live the thrilling adventures he read about in novels, but he knew there was more to life. There had to be.
His father had spoken fondly about the clubs he’d joined at Cambridge, of the brotherhood he’d felt with his fellow students. Although Colin was less interested in brotherhood than in developing certain other bonds, the idea of meeting so many new young men was greatly intriguing. He longed to go somewhere he wasn’t known. Where he could be his own man for the first time. He was well and truly tired of being a boy.
“So, Lancaster. Looking forward to university?” Daniel spoke up from where he sprawled on the grass.
Colin sat and picked a wildflower, toying with the petals. “Yes, very much. You?”
“Of course. I’ll undoubtedly be captain of the Oxford rowing team before long.”
The other boys guffawed. “Are you planning an assassination to ease your way?” William asked.
Colin laughed loudly. He’d never cared much for Daniel. Emboldened, he joined in. “I heard you almost tipped the boat in the last race.” William and the others chuckled.
Daniel’s smile was smug. “Oh yes, I’m sure you’re quite the expert. Trying out for the Cambridge squad, Lancaster? Perhaps your mummy and daddy should find you a private tutor so you can master the stroke.”
Colin could think of no quip and simply shrugged, keeping his head down and focused on the petals he was now shredding.
A few of the others snickered, but William gave Daniel’s leg a swift kick. “Watch it. It’s not Colin’s fault his parents are overprotective. He’ll be grand at Cambridge. I know it.”
Colin was warmed by William’s loyalty. Fortunately, one of the others changed the subject abruptly and declared it warm enough to take a dip. Before Colin knew it, William and the others were stripping off and charging into the water, shouting. Not wanting to be teased for refusing to join in, Colin removed his clothing and followed, hurrying into the water.
Although he thought his looks were average, around William’s friends, Colin felt he was quite lacking. They all seemed to be much leaner and muscled, and Colin felt rather soft in comparison, although he was slim. He wished, not for the first time, that he’d spent years rowing and playing sports so he could be fitter. Although he loved the outdoors and spent long hours walking and riding, he didn’t seem to possess a natural athletic build.
The river was freezing, but with the warm sun overhead, Colin soon grew accustomed to it and paddled about happily. Treading water, he watched the others cavort. He caught flashes of nudity as they splashed and hauled each other about.
Without warning, strong arms captured Colin from behind and yanked him under the surface. He sputtered, gasping for air as he came up and heard Daniel’s voice in his ear. “Come on, Lancaster. How long can you hold your breath?” Then they were back under again.
As Colin struggled, Daniel clasped him all the tighter. When he gasped for air again, Colin realized with horror that he was responding to the sensation of being held to a firm male body. With a strong backward kick to Daniel’s knee, Colin broke free just as he was pulled under again. He swam out of reach as Daniel cursed. “Watch it! I was just having some fun.”
“Sorry.” Colin wasn’t remorseful in the slightest, but the last thing he needed was a fight with Daniel, especially in his current state of arousal.
“Let’s dry off in the sun.” William led the way back to shore. Colin stayed in the river, willing his flesh to return to a normal state. William glanced back. “Colin?”
“Be there shortly.”
William shrugged and lay out on the grass with the others. The sight of their firm bodies, skin glistening, did little to help Colin’s condition, and he turned away and counted tree branches until he could venture to shore.
By the time Colin rode home, the sun was setting and he’d missed dinner. His mother would undoubtedly be displeased, especially since Mr. Wheeldon had likely reported Colin’s early departure from his tutorial.
No one was about, and Colin considered going inside to ask one of the servants to return Viola to the stable. He chided himself for being a coward. Surely he could risk running into Patrick Callahan for a mere minute.
Colin led Viola to the stable as quietly as possible. All the better if he could avoid Patrick—or at least avoid being seen by him. Colin wouldn’t mind the chance to see Patrick undetected. The thought stimulated him without fail.
As he put Viola in her pen, Colin heard an unfamiliar sound coming from the far row of stalls. After gently latching the door on Viola’s stall and giving her a treat, Colin crept around to the far row. Unlike the noises he’d heard that unforgettable day three years before, this sound was gentle and soothing.
Patrick was singing.
Stealing closer, Colin could spy Patrick with a heavily pregnant horse. The horse seemed to be in distress, and Colin realized she must be in labor.
The lullaby Patrick crooned sweetly to her was Gaelic, and Colin didn’t understand the words. Then again, neither did the horse, but as Patrick stroked her flank tenderly, she nuzzled against him.
Colin watched, utterly captivated. Yes, he desired Patrick greatly, but there was something else as well. Something that drew Colin unerringly to him as a compass needle to north. He admired Patrick’s confidence and skill. His physical prowess and the quiet way he could command attention. Patrick had always seemed larger than life compared to everyone else Colin knew.
Backing up slowly, Colin snuck around the corner. He took a deep breath. It was time to stop being so timid and lily-livered. If he was going to be a new person at Cambridge, he’d better start practicing now. And although his father was a close second, there was no one who intimidated him more than Patrick.
After a moment, he cleared his throat and walked with heavy footsteps toward the pregnant horse’s stall. Patrick’s song stopped in midverse. “Lose your way again?” As usual, sarcasm dripped heavily from Patrick’s words.
“Is the horse unwell? I thought perhaps I could be of assistance.” Colin’s heart was lodged firmly in his throat.
Patrick’s expression changed to slightly suspicious and puzzled. “She’ll be fine. She’s going through the worst of it now.”
“Perhaps I could—”
“Go and send one of the house servants down? No need, Lord. I’m fine on my own.”
“Are you certain?”
Patrick stared for a long moment and finally shrugged. Pulse thrumming, Colin stepped into the stall. Patrick jerked his head at a bucket in the corner. “Think you can remember how to fill it?”
Colin nodded and hurried off. When he came back, feeling ridiculously proud for accomplishing his task, he asked if there was anything else.
“No. We wouldn’t want you to get your hands dirty, now would we?”
“I…” Colin was as tongue-tied as ever in Patrick’s presence.
“Good night, Lord.” After a pause, he muttered, “Perhaps you’re not completely useless.”
Colin retreated quickly, returning to the house almost at a run, eager to slip away to the privacy of his chamber. When he encountered his father in the hallway, Edward gruffly asked what in the hell Colin was grinning about.
Copyright © Keira Andrews
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