James had spent much of his childhood holding personal conversations with God, so becoming a curate, a curer of souls, made perfect sense. Never mind that most of his conversations were one-sided arguments and complaints. By the time he left school, he’d made a concord of sorts with his maker and had learned to help others find a version of peace.
His father and mother, genteel souls, were quietly delighted with his choice and even happier when he came back to the village where he’d been raised.
Life in Bishop’s Hartfeld suited him. After all, he’d grown used to his own loneliness and secrets. He knew how to tuck them away while he visited parishioners to drink tea or sit by the bedside of the dying.
Vicar Ethan Hollister seemed pleased that he took up all the more onerous daily tasks of their profession, and the bishop liked the fact that ladies in James’s parish threw themselves into church work.
Today James was to meet with Miss Emily Parker to discuss what the villagers called the wedding of the decade. He invited the bride into his cottage for tea and ginger biscuits. For a moment, the sheer enthusiasm of her acceptance gave him pause. After several embarrassing experiences involving weeping, disappointed ladies, he’d learned never to spend time alone with women or girls, as they seemed to be unaccountably attracted to him. Miss Parker’s purpose turned out to be almost as appalling as an attempt at seduction.
“The bans have been posted, and Kip and I wanted to tell you the wedding will be held on the sixteenth, a Saturday morning.” Miss Parker beamed and ate her stale biscuit and sipped too-pale tea with apparent pleasure—James had no housekeeper and could never get the measurements right. “You’re free, I hope? You know Kip is especially fond of you. He tells me all about your school adventures.”
For a moment, he gaped at her. Did Kip tell how he’d tortured James, or how he’d kept that as much a secret as the more unmentionable things that had happened between them? No, of course Kip Darnley wouldn’t be so honest with his fiancée.
“Yes, we were the only two from Bishop’s Hartfeld to attend the school.” James carefully wrote the date for the wedding in his book and forced himself to look up at the happy and beautiful young lady sitting in a chair across from his desk. “I think Vicar Hollister will want to conduct this ceremony. Squire Darnley will want that as well.”
“Oh no.” She waved a hand. “Kip insists that you must perform the service. He asked me to talk to you about it.”
The coward wouldn’t face him, of course, and what was he playing at, demanding James be involved in the wedding ceremony?
James smiled at Miss Parker and couldn’t bring himself to resent her smug pleasure at landing a giant fish like the squire’s son. She repeated Kip’s name as if the word itself was precious and she couldn’t keep from saying “Kip thinks” as often as possible.
James hoped the entitled son of a squire appreciated her joyful spirit and didn’t turn his sharp mockery on her. It would be a sad thing to see this cheerful girl beaten down by Kip’s derisive nature.
“Reverend Hollister should perform the ceremony. My duties mostly consist of administering to the sick and teaching.” James tried to sound regretful. “You should speak to him.”
Miss Parker gathered her gloves and smiled at him. “I shall, but it’s a disappointment, Mr. Fletcher. I don’t think Kip will be pleased.”
And I don’t give a damn what Kip thinks. James hoped he wasn’t lying to himself.
James should have known Kip would toy with him like a cat with a mouse. A week after Miss Parker’s visit, and less than a week before the wedding, the betrothed couple appeared at James’s small cottage. Kip’s large but elegant form filled the front door, blocking out the watery daylight. He sauntered in, trailed by his fiancée. Kip sat on the threadbare sofa without being asked. After a moment’s hesitation, James offered a chair to Miss Parker next to the sofa.
“What’s this I hear? The guests are arriving, and we need to get this settled. Miss Parker says you’re balking. Not what I like to hear.” Kip shook a finger at James. “You do the service. My fiancée particularly wants it.”
A small flicker of surprise crossed the young woman’s face, but then she nodded and agreed.
Kip turned to her. “Dearest, you must go see if Mrs. Hollister is in. I’ll be along in a minute. I just need to twist our friend’s arm.”
She rose and kissed his cheek. James escorted her to the door and watched her skip down the lane toward the vicar’s much larger home across the churchyard. With most people over the age of ten, skipping would seem an affectation, but not for lighthearted Miss Parker.
James closed the door, turned to Kip, and spoke. “She deserves happiness.”
“Are you implying I won’t make her happy?” Oh, how that lip, curling in a sneer, reminded James of their past.
“I hope you will both be happy,” James said politely.
“You sound like you’re uttering a funeral pronouncement. Come on, Jimmy, you know I’ll be a fine husband. No one knows better.” He leered. “Do you miss me, Jimmy?”
Kip leaned forward. The scent of expensive cologne reminded James of the feel of Kip’s body near his, the taste of him on his tongue. The casual, exciting cruelty of his touch. The contrast of his dark hair and blue eyes had entranced James since the day they’d met. Kip’s muscular body and the absolute lack of delicacy in his blunt features had always seemed thoroughly masculine—brutal and lovely.
“Not at all.” James wasn’t lying—not entirely.
“I could make you do whatever I wish again. I could get you to suck my cock. You would fall to your knees with a smile on your face.”
James walked across the small room and stood behind a chair, a sad attempt to protect himself from Kip—and his own desires. “No. I think not.” His mouth watered.
“Are you so much more devout now that you wear that collar?”
Actually, he felt less pious all the time. “I can see you more clearly now, Mr. Darnley.”
“So formal, Jimmy boy. You are growing stuffy.”
James went on as if the overbearing blister hadn’t interrupted. “May I say that I hope, for Miss Parker’s sake, that you care more about her than you do about most of the world.”
“She has nothing to do with this.”
“You’re here to discuss your wedding. I’d say she has a great deal to do with our meeting.”
“This meeting between you and me? Oh, not at all.” Physically, Kip was glorious, with his blue eyes and wide smile. He rose to his feet now. James was horrified to see that he was unbuttoning his trousers. And James was even more horrified to feel his own fascination and the pressure of his own erection.
“Come on Jimmy boy. It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Kip cooed and reached in to pull out his partially erect penis. “Have a nice treat.”
“Go away, Kip. You’re disgusting.”
“Nonsense. You crave me. Suck me.”
He came close enough to place his hand on James’s head and exert pressure. For two years, when that pressure touched his head, James had dropped everything, his pride, his scruples, and he’d fallen to his knees. He’d worshipped that lovely prick as if it was precious to him. It had been.
He craved powerful men and, apparently, casual cruelty. He’d begged God to take both desires away. But that prayer hadn’t been answered, so he’d had to take matters into his own hands and learned to turn away from that part of himself.
“Jimmy boy, you know you’ll obey me.”
“Stop it,” James said.
The pressure on his head increased. “No.”
He felt too close to giving in, so he took action. He brought his knee up fast and hard between Kip’s legs. Kip yelled, clasped his hands over his crotch, and collapsed on the floor. The sight shocked James. He’d laid low the one devil of his life, though it gave him little pleasure. If only he could as easily vanquish the demons in himself.
James squinted in unavoidable sympathy but didn’t move except to fold his arms. “I shan’t conduct your wedding. I have half a mind to tell your bride what sort of man you are.” He added, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to strike such a hard blow.” As usual, he tempered his strongest actions with apologies.
Kip writhed and gasped. When he managed to get his breath back, he used it to call James a cocksucking nancy and other phrases he’d used while thrusting into James’s mouth back in their school days.
“No, I’ve decided I won’t tell her,” James said, loud enough to be heard over Kip’s curses. “She loves you, and perhaps she has enough love for both of you.”
James hadn’t heard the door open. He’d been too focused on escaping Kip’s power over him. It had been so long, and he was dismayed to learn he still desired one of the least amiable men he knew.
A deep voice startled him. “Good God, what happened here?”
“Perhaps Mr. Darnley is having a fit,” James said, too disgusted with Kip and himself to care what this stranger thought.
The large man wore dusty clothes, a driver’s coat, and worn boots. After giving James a scowling frown, he dropped to a crouch by Kip’s side. “What’s going on?”
“He hit me,” Kip gasped.
The man looked at James. “Aren’t you some sort of priest?” His deeply tanned face made his eyes—as blue as Kip’s—brilliant. They regarded James with interest.
“I’m James Fletcher, the curate. And I didn’t hit Kip, I, ah, struck him with my knee.”
The man suddenly showed a gorgeous smile. So familiar—Kip’s smile. “That’s some muscular Christianity you have there, Mr. Fletcher.”
James didn’t smile back and turned his attention to his victim. “Are you able to stand, Mr. Darnley? I’m certain your fiancée is wondering where you are. You said you’d join her.”
The big man, who could only be some sort of relative, clapped a hand on Kip’s shoulder, then rose to his feet. He crossed his arms and studied James. “Why on earth did you knee Darnley in the balls?”
“He can tell you if he wishes.”
Kip had more color in his face but still took deep breaths between words. “Fletcher is a sodomite, and when he tried to pressure me to do horrible things, we got into a fight.”
“Hmm.” The man didn’t seem particularly shocked, which should have relieved James, but he still felt the haze of disinterest. None of this felt real.
What would he do now that he’d ruined his future here? Perhaps go to London. He’d have to talk to his bishop, of course, give an accounting of why he’d struck the son of the richest man for miles around, and now there was this tiresome added accusation of sodomy. Would it get back to his parents? Could he explain it away without lying right to their faces? He couldn’t bear that. Avoidance of the subject was one thing, but outright lying wasn’t in his nature.
Kip could sit up now, though he still hunched over his lap. He seemed to be fighting tears. “Curse you, James Fletcher. I’m going to talk to Hollister. I’m going to summon the constable.”
The stranger bent and offered a hand to Kip, who refused his help with a shake of his head. “It’s your own business, Kip. But with your wedding so soon, you’d probably be better off not raising a stink about the crooked curate. Stick to looking after Emma.”
“Emily,” James corrected.
From the floor, Kip protested. “Christ almighty, Declan! The sodomite attacked me.”
The stranger absently tapped his chin with two fingers, drumming a face so similar to one James had once longed to kiss but never had. He looked at James and then back at Kip, who had gotten to his feet but still wobbled. “That’s a strong accusation and a serious one. But I believe people will wonder—he’s about four inches and three stone smaller than you. Do you really want to stir up a scandal that might bring your own proclivities into question?”
Kip straightened and growled. “Never mind, then. Goddamn you, Jimmy.”
“Perhaps He will,” James agreed. “Go find your fiancée.”
Kip rubbed his face and apparently decided to ignore James’s existence. Still pale, he cleared his throat. “It’s about time you got here, cousin. I’ve told Miss Parker all about you, and she’s longing to meet you. Of course, the mater and pater will be delighted you’re here.” Kip was starting to regain his usual aplomb, that easy, pleasant manner with a touch of amused dominance. Soon his sharp wit would reappear. Once upon a time, James had regarded him as the epitome of sophisticated charm, even when he’d been sliced by Kip’s rapier tongue in front of the other youths.
Declan shifted from foot to foot. “Yes, I’ll be along soon.” He sounded impatient.
“How have you arrived? By train? You may ride back to the house in my carriage, if you like. We’ll send someone to fetch your luggage.”
A slight frown suggested the visiting cousin was in no hurry to reach his destination. “I’ve been sitting all day and would appreciate the chance to stretch my legs on a long walk. No need to give me a ride. Go to your Emily, and I’ll follow after,” he ordered.
Kip shot a worried look at Declan and a threatening one at James. Perhaps he feared leaving them alone lest James reveal Kip’s part in what had transpired. “Don’t waste your time on Fletcher,” he said and stalked off, limping a little.
Declan put his fists on his hips and turned toward James. “All right, man of the cloth, what was that about?”
James’s pulse raced, and the high-pitched ringing in his ears suggested he was on the verge of fainting. The magnitude of what had transpired and the accusations this stranger had heard suddenly hit him. The thing he’d feared his entire life appeared to finally be coming true—his secret had been exposed. James gripped the back of his office chair to steady himself and forced his voice not to quaver. “It’s best that you talk to him yourself.”
Declan sighed and moved to a table where a dusty decanter of wine sat. A parishioner had given the bottle to James, and he kept it for visitors and as a temptation for himself. Drink had been a part of his problem at university. The stranger poured himself a glass without asking for permission—most definitely one of Kip’s relations.
“I was outside this house and heard some of what Kip was shouting. Luckily, no one else was around to hear.” He observed James shrewdly over the rim of his glass. “You needn’t fear my spreading tales. Whatever you may have gotten up to with my boor of a cousin is your concern.”
James blinked, too shocked to form words. This tall, rugged stranger who’d strode into the room with the confident manner of a man who knew his place in the world—master of it—seemed the sort most likely to be utterly repelled by even the suggestion of a dalliance between men. Yet Declan dismissed the possibility with a mere shrug, as if it were of little consequence.
“Whatever happened, no doubt my cousin deserved a sharp kick in the balls,” the man drawled before taking a long swallow of wine. He regarded the half-empty glass. “Not a bad vintage. Paired with some sharp cheese and a crusty baguette, it would make a fine snack. You wouldn’t happen to have such refreshments at hand?” He glanced around the plainly decorated room as if James might have a hidden pantry somewhere.
James’s hands shook, so he folded his arms over his chest again. How could this Declan behave in such an offhand manner? James certainly couldn’t. His calm had been broken. “I—I believe Mr. Darnley and Miss Parker are waiting for you.”
Declan waved a hand, dismissing the idea. “I’m in no hurry to be surrounded by relatives I haven’t seen in years. But you want to be rid of me.”
“No, no,” James said politely. Yes, yes, please, go. Please. Now.
Declan examined the sleeve of his dusty coat. “Such an interesting start to what I’d expected to be a dull visit.”
James’s face went hot. He had no interest in providing entertainment for this larger, drawling version of Kip. “Mr. ah…”
“Shaw,” he supplied. “Declan Shaw, at your service. Although one does wonder what your idea of service might entail.”
James ground his teeth together and reminded himself he abhorred violence. Driving his knee into the groins of two of the squire’s relations in one day would be beyond the pale. He stared down at Mr. Shaw’s boots.
James had wanted to atone for his sins and had hoped the work he did for the village would be enough. Apparently, fate had another sort of penance in mind, in the form of coping with Kip Darnley again, and now the added burden of Declan Shaw, another entitled, rich man with apparently no manners and a far too appealing surface.
Poor Mr. Fletcher turned pale and seemed to shrink into himself. Rather a disappointment—Declan had expected a firebrand of a man after overhearing the reverend’s attack on Kip. But Declan couldn’t help pushing. Curiosity was his besetting sin, after all.
He didn’t know any men of the cloth, and in fact made it his business to avoid them. His childhood had fed him quite enough of priests, clerics, and indigestible religious dogma from competing faiths. Somehow, both Catholics and Protestants uneasily coexisted in his big Irish family. Now that he was a man, he’d chosen an agnostic path that suited him just fine. But he was interested in Kip’s sodomite cleric.
The need to know more, to unravel mysteries, pestered at Declan like a buzzing bluebottle fly. His mother had always told him he was too curious by far and that he could never leave well enough alone. He’d used this quality to help discover problems in his family’s far-flung business concerns: uncovering a manager who helped himself to profits, learning substandard building supplies were being used in the construction of a new factory, and other such troubles. Now he might put that investigative mind to less vital purposes—like uncovering the secret life of a country parson.
“Come, Reverend Fletcher. You are suddenly timid. Don’t you wish to rail at me?”
“I am a man of God, sir.”
“Does that mean that if you tell me what you’re thinking, the words you use will sully your sermon-reading lips? I wonder, what could you be thinking?”
The curate raised his gaze from Declan’s boots. His pale cheeks had spots of color on each sharp cheekbone and his gray eyes burned with some sort of passion. He was quite a beautiful man, Declan realized with a jolt of interest.
“Mr. Shaw, you are apparently cut from the same cloth as your cousin. I have learned that, with men who toss innuendoes and jibes, it is best to remain calm. I am having trouble doing so at the moment, so I shall remain silent.” He spoke low and quick. Clearly the passion he felt was anger.
“Fletcher. I apologize. You seem to think I wanted to bait you.”
“Like a bear that’s been tied to a post,” Fletcher muttered.
“I was teasing…I think. Granted, I don’t often tease strangers, but I haven’t met many people under such odd circumstances.”
Fletcher stared back at Declan. And in that long, pregnant moment, something unexpected happened. Declan felt a sort of rushing sensation, a pulsing radiance of something like energy seething inside him. It reminded him of when he’d played sports back in his school days, how he’d gathered all his strength into a tight ball inside him, then let it explode as his legs carried him in superhuman bounds over a playing field or along a track. He’d been one of the best athletes in his form when he unleashed that power. What would happen if he let it loose right now? Where would that raw drive carry him?
The curate took several deep breaths, then broke their shared gaze. He glanced at the slow-ticking clock over the mantel. “Ah, well, look at the time,” he said, sounding jolly. “I’m sure your relations will be wondering where you are.” He’d regained his calm and clearly had no intention of allowing Declan to push past it again. A pity, for the intense emotions Declan spotted under the pleasant façade intrigued him.
He would go at the curate from another direction.
“It would seem my cousin has been causing you trouble and perhaps plans to cause you more,” Declan prodded.
The curate sighed. He pushed a finger under his collar and rubbed his neck. “Mr. Darnley’s accusations were exaggerated. I did not attack the man and have no inclination to do so.”
“Kip always had a flare for the dramatic. But clearly something happened between you. Some old slight or hurt was aired?” Declan suggested.
“The past is best left in the past,” Fletcher answered tersely.
“How distant is that past? Have you known him long?”
Fletcher raised his chin. His eyes were steady and no longer heated. “I would appreciate if you would overlook anything you saw or heard today. I’m certain Mr. Darnley would as soon forget the entire matter as well.”
“You don’t trust me.” That fact gave him an odd twinge of disappointment.
“I don’t know you, Mr. Shaw. I beg your pardon, sir.” The curate’s false smile might have been plastered to his mouth. He was not much of an actor. “But you did say that the matter between your cousin and myself was my own concern.”
What a pity Fletcher had control over himself again. “I did indeed, but I’m intrigued by you.”
He wasn’t sure, but Fletcher might have muttered something about rotten luck.
Declan moved toward the door. “I shall remain with my Aunt Mary for at least a fortnight. I expect we shall meet again. This is a small village. You’ll be invited to some of the pre-wedding festivities, won’t you?”
“I am very busy with my duties. The vicar, Mr. Hollister, frequently dines with Squire Darnley and the family. It is more likely you’ll encounter him.”
“I shall have to call on you on my own, then.” Declan turned and walked to the door before the curate could protest.
Declan was used to getting his way and didn’t like being blocked from his goal. But honestly, why was he working himself into a lather over this? Something about this man inspired rabid curiosity and a desire to push and prod. Since he was stuck here for a time with nothing better to do, he would give in to that desire and delve into the puzzle of the country curate with the hidden depths.
As he walked up the slope toward the Darnley estate, the huge sprawling house dominating the hill and the village below, Declan pondered the benevolent dictatorship of country squiredom. A master and his serfs. An autocrat and his minions. The sort of arrangement mired in history and bogged down by thick steaming layers of crap Declan didn’t buy into.
His own family had emerged much more recently from solid middle class to the lower edge of gentry. They’d sold wool for generations, developing a market in England and then in the rest of Europe. His grandfather had expanded their business from wool to the machines that processed it. They had no storied title or grand family history, but the Shaws had plenty of wealth. Money and holdings his extended family had worked hard to possess. These English nobles on their centuries-old estates despised work, yet desired the comforts it brought. Thus the convenient marriage between Declan’s Aunt Mary Hennessy, with her large dowry and yearly income, and Squire Robert Darnley.
He’d elevated her in society, and she’d brought money to pull his family back from the brink of bankruptcy. An equitable arrangement for all. Except in Mary’s recent letters to her sisters Beatrice and Helena, the subtext of unhappiness and a certain confusion worried Declan’s mother. Unable to make the trip all the way from Ireland due to precarious health, his mum had asked Declan to attend the wedding in her stead and discover what distressed his aunt.
If she is in any real trouble, you would do better to help her than I could, she’d pointed out in the letter Declan had received in Brussels, where he was assessing the possible acquisition of a textile factory. Perhaps Mary merely misses family. Please cheer her and remind her we all think of her fondly and pray for her well-being.
Mum had gone on to suggest it would also be a good opportunity to reconnect with his cousin Kip. Where the woman ever got the notion he’d become fast friends with that blighter during his brief boyhood visits at the Darnley estate, Declan didn’t know. He’d most emphatically told her he detested Kip. Now it appeared the loathsome boy had turned into a despicable man. Whatever had occurred between Kip and the curate, Declan was convinced his cousin instigated it. Although perhaps some of Kip’s babbling today was true—Declan smiled at that thought.
When he arrived at the front door of the Darnley house, he discovered Kip and his bride hadn’t arrived home yet. The new butler didn’t know Declan and nearly sent him around back before Declan convinced him he was an actual wedding guest and relative.
The butler scanned him from shabby coat to dusty toe. Declan had been traveling for many miles and had walked several more from the train station, so it was no wonder the man guessed he was some sort of peddler with his bag in hand. “Shall I send a boy to collect the rest of your luggage from the station, sir?”
“Thank you. That would be greatly appreciated.” Declan peered around the front hall, which remained unchanged since he’d visited fifteen years before. “Is my aunt at home?”
“Mrs. Darnley is taking her afternoon rest. She should be present at supper.”
Declan wanted to see Mary privately and talk openly minus the presence of his uncle, cousin, or any other family members. “Could you inform her of my arrival?”
The butler gave the frown of the deeply inconvenienced. “I shouldn’t want to disturb her rest.”
“She’ll want to see me,” Declan replied firmly. “Do let her know I am awaiting her summons.” He thrust his bag at the astonished butler to remind him of his place.
The butler passed the bag off to a footman, then led the way upstairs to the room prepared for Declan.
The same sweeping staircase and beautifully carved banister led to a long corridor with a threadbare carpet in blue and gold. As a boy, Declan had slept in one of the smaller rooms adjacent to Kip’s. This time he’d been placed in a large bedroom overlooking the gardens. He splashed his face and neck clean at the wash basin and did his best to shine up his dusty boots with a handkerchief. The butler still hadn’t returned to say Aunt Mary would see him, so Declan wandered about the place a bit, noting the seediness of the furniture and carpets. It appeared the influx of Mary’s dowry had long ago run out and with very little effect on the house. He would love to have a fly’s-eye view of how this estate was managed—or mismanaged—by the squire. From the run-down appearance of the place both inside and out, Declan wagered Darnley was either poverty-stricken or an extreme skinflint. Funny that Kip’s attire and demeanor suggested no lack of money.
Declan wound up in the parlor where, uninvited, he poured himself a glass of port at the sideboard. He swirled the liquid in the glass and stared out the window, wondering where Kip and his fiancée had gone.
“Mrs. Darnley will see you now.” The butler’s voice made him start so, he nearly dropped his glass. Declan turned abruptly and caught a small smile curving the man’s lips as if he’d fully intended to startle the pushy guest. “She will see you in her waiting room.”
Declan followed the stiff figure back to the second floor and into the brocaded and fringed jewel box where his aunt sat in a creampuff of a chair. She looked nothing like the woman he remembered, a younger, paler version of his mother. Deep lines now etched Mary’s face, between the brows and on either side of her mouth. She could’ve been his energetic mum’s older sister. She didn’t rise to greet him but held out both hands. “My dear boy, it is so good to see you again.”
“Aunt Mary.” He went to her, took those frail hands, and bent to kiss her lined cheek. “You’re looking… Are you feeling quite well?”
She shook her head. “Not well. Not well at all.” Her gaze darted around the room as if spies might hide in the bric-a-brac, and she lowered her voice. “I am so afraid. Can you help me?”
His stomach dropped with a sickening thump. Something was very wrong here. Either Mary was suffering from some brain disorder, or she had true cause to be afraid. He sank to his knees at her feet and gazed into her dilated eyes. “What are you afraid of, and how can I help?”
“We can’t talk about this here. Someone might be listening.” Her voice was barely a whisper, but she gripped his hands so hard it hurt.