Tyneridge was not a town I particularly cared for, but it wasn’t on my lands so wasn’t my problem. I’d spent the day before dealing with tenant issues, none complex but all the more annoying as it meant one party was merely being stubborn, so had gone to York for the day to rest in the bookshops. Tyneridge was on the way back, and while the inn was not a place I would ever consider sleeping, the pub had surprisingly good food considering the state of the rest of the place. I’d left my horse to be cared for at the stable and was taking the short-cut to the inn through one of the grim alleys the town seemed to be entirely made-up of. This one was apparently the haunt of those plying less-than-honest trades. I could hear grunts of a man thrusting rudely into someone. I tried to avert my eyes as I passed but made the mistake of doing so by looking down. That put the man kneeling on the filthy cobbles in my line of sight.
He had the look of a clerk fallen on hard times, very hard times by the state of him, but not the hard look of someone accustom to working on his knees. He seemed to be bearing up, his eyes darting every time he heard a sound like someone afraid of detection rather than used to the inevitability of it. I risked a glance at his client and recognized the tanner. I hadn’t known he would be interested in men. He certainly seemed the sort to want one of the more obvious women who haunted the back of the inn. He was using the man roughly, pulling on his hair and pounding into his mouth without regard for him, although he was the sort to think that, as he was paying, that was his due. I averted my eyes again and kept walking. As I passed them, I heard the tanner mutter, “That’s right, your lordship, take it all down that throat. You like being stuffed in that fine mouth with a good honest cock, eh?” So that was it. The fellow on his knees must have had an accent that could be mistaken for the upper classes. And after I’d ruled against him the day before-really, who in their right mind thinks you can keep a fellow’s horse because it wandered onto your property-he probably wanted to punish someone. I felt sorry for the poor wretch he was using. Although I probably shouldn’t. I’d probably guessed wrong about his state. No doubt it was an act as well, a way of plying his trade for the most money. There were plenty of men who had no interest in other men normally but would love the chance to shove a cock down a noble throat and rub a well-born face in the sweat of their groin. He was most likely capitalizing on that and the marginal safety of a client who was even more scared of detection than he was.
When I got to the square, I turned my steps towards the pub. Perhaps I would see the fellow in there, if he’d been working to get money for a meal. He’d surely want something to rinse the taste of the tanner from his mouth. I was meandering in that direction, imagining what I would say if I saw him, which was foolish really as there was nothing I could say that wouldn’t sound like I was attempting to hire him. That thought led to thoughts of those lips stretched around my cock, which were very nice thoughts indeed. Looking down and seeing that pretty face looking up at me. And I would be gentle with him, not rough and demanding. And perhaps I could…
I was interrupted by the crowd around me. It had seemed the normal sort of crowd a moment before, milling about trying to get to the pub for a drink or home for dinner, but in that moment, I felt it change. I stopped and tried to determine why. Vaguely, I noticed the man come out of the alley alone and start towards the pub. Then I spotted the problem. The pie seller on the square. He was yelling at someone. I moved closer, planning to intervene. I knew the man who owned that cart and he wasn’t given to fits of temper, so something must have happened to upset him. Even though it wasn’t my land, I was known in the area. Perhaps that would be enough to allow me to intervene.
I was trying to figure out how to give Eddie Welcher the money without humiliating him or having every beggar in the square try the same trick to get money from me when the man from the alley slipped his hand from his pocket. I saw the glitter of coins fall to the ground. “Young fellow,” he said in something close to the accent of the area, not the plummy tones I’d expected, “is that it?”
Welcher was hesitant, but he went forward and took the money. “Yes, that’s it exactly.”
The crises was averted, and far better than I could have done on my own. But that left the man, who from the look of him had just given Welcher his last coins, and as I knew how he’d just earned them and with whom… I tried to push forward through the crowd to find him. It was a perfect opening for me as well, an offer to buy him a meal for the kindness I’d just seen. Then a drink. Then I would stop thinking of what could happen next. But by the time I’d made my way through the crowd, he was gone. I went into the pub hoping I was wrong about the money and hoping to see him, but he wasn’t inside. By the time I’d noticed that, I’d been spotted, and there was no good way to tell the barmaid who greeted me or the host who came out to see me that I had to run off and find a fellow. So I sat and had my dinner as quickly as I could.
By the time I’d finished my meal, there had been no sign of the man and I’d convinced myself that I was right about him. Despite the accent I’d heard him use in the square, he wasn’t local, and I suspected wasn’t a professional prostitute. He’d given his coins too readily to Welcher. That was the act of someone who felt the boy’s situation keenly, not someone who had learned to ignore such things lest he be there next. So what had happened to bring him to the back alleys of a small town in Yorkshire? I invented all sorts of interesting fantasies but was no closer to figuring out how to find him by the time I’d finished my meal and returned to the stables for my horse.
When I turned him to his side, I realized who it was. The man from the alley. I quickly pressed my fingers to his neck and found pulse was there, steady enough. I didn’t think he’d die in the next few moments. But he was cold and wet and clearly had needed the food more than Welcher and his sister did. There was really only one thing for me to do. I lifted him gently and managed to wrap my cloak around us both so I could keep him warm against my chest. Mounting my horse while holding him was tricky and undignified but possible as she was a good animal who trusted me and had no interest in anything but getting home to her stall and was clever enough to know that me on her back was the quickest way there.
She also knew the way home, which meant she needed me to do very little to guide her, leaving part of my mind free to worry about my charge. From the better look I’d had at his clothing, I was beginning to get an idea of what had happened. He’d been in prison; I’d stake Gorsewall Manor on it. And his clothes were those of a clerk of some sort, fairly well-paid, professional. So how had he ended up in prison? I forced myself to consider thievery, that some fellow feeling had caused him to help Welcher, but then why had he been on his knees in front of the tanner? Why not steal himself? No, I suspected he’d been to prison for the crime we’d both committed at one time or another. That explained his wariness in the alley as well. If he’d been taken for sodomy once, a second conviction would be something to fear. No, more than that. I suspected my charge had escaped somehow. He was on the run. Well, he’d be safe at Gorsewall Manor. I could see to that at least.
Ralph met me in the stables when I arrived, so interested in greeting my horse he almost missed the fact that I was burdened with a guest. When he did, he hurried to help me down. “I’ll take him through the kitchen,” I said, and Ralph sent one of the lads to go along with me and pound on the door. Mrs. Hopkins answered on the second knock. “Dinner won’t be ready for… Oh, your lordship. What’s this?”
“I think he was set upon by highwaymen,” I said as I brought him through.
“Hmm.” She didn’t believe me, but she also didn’t object.
“He’ll need a room prepared for him.”
“I’ll make up a bed in the storeroom if you like. Won’t take a moment. Moira! Get some sheets from the donation box.”
“Yes, ma’am. Poor fellow.”
I was going to object and suggest a guest room, but the storeroom was already being prepared and I knew there was fireplace in the room and it was close if he needed anything from the kitchen. While the kitchen bustled around, I told the stable boy to have Ralph send someone for Dr. Barton and carried my guests to the fire and held him in my lap facing the warmth, hoping to get some of the heat into his bones. When Mrs. Hopkins had finished, I carried him through to the storeroom off the kitchen. Moira was lighting a fire in the small hearth and they had set up a bed for him on an old straw pallet. The sheets were worn and patched but it would do until he’d been seen by Dr. Barton at least. I lay him down then went to remove his boots. He struggled as I did, clearly wanting to keep them. If he’d been in prison as I suspected, he was most likely afraid of being robbed, even in his unconscious state. I managed to get the boots off, both with soles so thin they were in danger of falling apart in my hands, then stroked his brow and tried to say something soothing, but finding nothing to say but, “I’ll leave your boots by your bed. They’ll be there when you wake.” When he was calm, I cradled him against my chest and removed his coat and waist coat, both of which were soaked through. I planned to remove his trousers as well, but he struggled against me and I decided it best to let him rest and tucked him under the blankets Mrs. Hopkins had brought.
“I’ll make a nice pot of broth while he sleeps,” Mrs. Hopkins said as she led me out of the store room where I had honestly thought to wait for the doctor. “And I’ll get Simon to heat you a nice bath while we wait for Dr. Barton to examine him.”
It was then that I realized I was almost as damp and muddy as my guest. “Thank you. I’ll go upstairs and send Nelson down to arrange things. But do send someone up as soon as Dr. Barton has seen him.” As I started for the staircase, I realized it had been so long since I’d had any sort of guest anywhere that I had no idea what to do. But surely one didn’t leave them in a storeroom; I knew that much. “And he’ll need a proper room once he wakes up. The rose suite should do.” It was in the same hallway as my own rooms, so he would be close if he needed something while he was recovering, and it wouldn’t make the servants open another wing of the house.
“I’ll send the girls to do it up in the morning. I don’t think he’ll wake before then.”
He wasn’t awake the next morning either, but Dr. Barton had been confident that he was all right, so I forced my attention to my correspondence, which mainly consisted of tossing invitations into a pile where they would sit until it was too late to respond and they could safely be tossed int the fire.
I glanced up from my plate and saw Moira standing in the doorway looking nervous. I could only think of one reason for the kitchen maid to be venturing upstairs. “Is he awake?”
She relaxed at once. “Yes, my lord. And had two bowls of broth and is having bath now.”
“Excellent. Then he must be feeling better. Tell Mrs. Hopkins to send him up when he feels ready.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And thank you both for taking care of him.”
Moira smiled at that and curtsied and hurried out the door.
I finished my food as quickly as I dared-too fast and Mrs. Hopkins would know that I was impatient, too slow and I’d miss my chance to see him. I got to the study earlier than normal, early enough that Agnes was still readying it for me. I was too impatient and dismissed her before she could light the lamps. I wanted to think. I wanted to think of something to say to my guest that wouldn’t sound foolish. His name. I should have asked Moira his name. Surely someone would have asked that at once downstairs. There was no way to ask without sounding foolish now.
My guest followed Mrs. Hopkins into the room and stopped just inside the door. He didn’t seem surprised to see me, so perhaps he had noticed me in town and realized I was his rescuer, or perhaps waking up in the storeroom of a kitchen in a house he’d never been to was such a strange occurrence that my appearance was simply not worth being surprised over. In any case, he had clearly bathed and changed into a random assortment of hand-me-downs someone had found for him. Despite the fact that he was wearing a motley array of clothes, I could see he was handsome. Slim by nature and now too thin for even his slight frame, his hair clearly light brown now that it was clean, and curling slightly around his face. Those brown eyes I’d noticed in the alley were watching me now, silent and no doubt wondering why the master of the house had summoned him then sat in his chair staring. But before I could speak, I had to come up with something to say, and you’re beautiful was probably not the best way to begin things, even if it was true. He was still watching me, and I wondered what he made of me. Had he seen me in town? Did he know I’d seen him? Did that matter to him? Would he mind if I told him he had the most extraordinary eyes?
Mrs. Hopkins broke the silence between us by announcing, “Here’s Mr. Brook, my lord. Didn’t anyone come to light the lamps? I am sorry, your lordship,” and beginning the bustle of household tasks the maid hadn’t managed to finish before I sent her away. Mr. Brook. His name was Mr. Brook. It was a nice name. Simple, but evocative. He looked like a Mr. Brook. Still waters run deep someone had said at some point about me. I wondered if the same were true of him.