Authors: Ava March
Woodhaven forced a see then conceded to Benjamin’s pair, laying his cards facedown. The pot that could have been Julian’s made its way to Benjamin’s elbow.
He held back the groan. Could the evening turn any more worse?
Woodhaven gathered the discarded cards, putting them at the bottom of the deck, then held out the deck to Julian. “The next deal is yours.”
His fingers brushed Woodhaven’s as he took the proffered cards. A little jolt of awareness shot up his arm. He swore he heard a small intake of breath from Woodhaven. He glanced to the man. If he wasn’t mistaken, and he rarely was about such things, there was a spark of interest in Woodhaven’s dark eyes. Not overtly obvious by any accounts. He doubted Benjamin or any men at the nearby tables would notice. But it was definitely there, along with a shade of caution, as if Woodhaven hadn’t yet figured out that Julian preferred men.
He held Woodhaven’s gaze two heartbeats longer than necessary, then turned his attention to the cards in his hand. Perhaps the evening would prove more promising than he had anticipated.
“And that’s Lord Tarras standing with your cousin, Lord Walter,” Oscar said, pointing out the middle-aged man conversing with one of Parker’s older brothers. Lifting up onto his toes, he scanned the ballroom, quickly looking between the couples on the dance floor and those clustered along the perimeter. “I see Lady Tarras and Stoddart are back.”
Hard biceps brushed his shoulder as his companion leaned closer. Julian’s warm breath fanned his ear as the man asked, “Do you really believe they disappeared together?”
Oscar took a deep breath, willed his pulse to calm. “They usually do. She’s young and willing and has already produced an heir, and Stoddart’s even more willing. Lord Tarras either doesn’t care or is too wrapped up discussing the latest bill before parliament to notice.” He shrugged, using it as an excuse to rub his shoulder against Julian’s rock-solid upper arm. Damnation, the man must be all muscle. “Likely a bit of both.”
When he had first come to Town last summer, the flagrant infidelity among the
had surprised him. Marriage vows meant little if anything. As long as the individuals made an attempt at discretion and propriety was maintained, no one batted an eye. It was simply the way it was. He didn’t necessarily agree, but he’d grown accustomed to it.
“And who is the woman dancing with Harper?”
He found Harper’s blond head on the dance floor. “Miss Katherine Wright, niece of the Earl of Shelburne.”
Oscar nodded. “She’s been out a few years. Her mother’s hoping she settles on someone this Season. She has an older brother, but he doesn’t appear to be in attendance.”
And so he continued on, pointing out the various guests to Julian, making an introduction when someone of interest passed by their spot along the wall. Parker—Lord Benjamin Parker—had left a good hour ago, claiming he’d had enough for one evening. At Julian’s reluctance to depart with his cousin, Oscar had volunteered to take him home later. He usually remained at a ball until the end of the night, he had reassured them, so it was no hardship to stay on with Julian.
Absolutely no hardship whatsoever.
Even if he had gained a fondness for going home before midnight like Parker recently had, he would have eagerly changed his plans to spend more time with the man’s cousin. Much to his surprise, Julian had been completely content to remain by his side since Parker had departed.
If Parker hadn’t told him that Julian was his cousin when they had sat down to play cards with him hours ago, Oscar would have guessed. The two men were clearly related. They had the same hazel eyes, the same straight nose, and were both of the same height, approximately five feet ten, a good six inches above Oscar’s own height. But where Parker was the epitome of an agreeable gentleman, his features pleasant but not striking, his figure fit but not enough to draw the eye, Julian was an extremely handsome version of his cousin. Rich, sable hair instead of light brown. His jaw stronger, his shoulders broader, his beautiful lips tempting Oscar with every word from his mouth.
And damnation, did the man fill out a coat to perfection.
“Who is Anderson talking to?” the delicious man next to him asked.
Oscar quickly located Anderson’s tall form by the double doors that led to the terrace then he looked to Julian. He had no idea if Julian preferred men. Hopefully, but well…Julian was handsome and had chosen to befriend Oscar. Even if on the off chance he did prefer men, the possibility that he could be attracted to Oscar, as well? Significantly too much to hope for. But he could enjoy Julian’s company. And it was very nice to have a new friend who preferred him above others, for however long it lasted.
“That’s Mrs. Moorely. His latest conquest. I doubt she’ll last long. They never do. Are you planning to attend the Hunts’ ball on Saturday?”
Julian pulled his gaze out to the dancing couples before them. “I’m not certain, as I need to discuss it with Benjamin.” The line of his beautiful mouth thinned for a brief moment. “I’m at the whim of his invitations.”
“If Parker doesn’t plan to attend, you are welcome to come with me. I’ll wager you two pounds that we’ll find a new beauty on Anderson’s arm at the Hunts’ ball.” A bet he would likely win, given what he knew of his friend, but if the prospect of a wager could lure Julian to attend with him then he’d happily win it.
Julian slanted him a glance. “From what you’ve told me of Anderson, it doesn’t sound like a very safe bet.”
“No, it’s not,” he replied in all honesty, flashing Julian a conciliatory smile.
A short chuckle rumbled that broad chest. “I’ll take you up on the invitation but not on the wager.”
Oscar’s smile grew wider. “Wise man. Shall we guess who he’ll choose? Make a game of it? No wager, of course. That wouldn’t be fair, given you’ve just arrived in town. But it would make the ball more interesting.”
Julian swept his gaze over the thinning crowd. A little furrow marred his brow. He and Anderson were both handsome men, each in their own way. Any lady Anderson could get, Julian could likely get also. Would he select someone he himself would choose to pursue?
The happy glow of the evening dimmed a bit. Perhaps the game wasn’t the best idea, but if Julian’s interests ran toward women, there wasn’t anything Oscar could do about it. No use bemoaning it.
“The blonde by the potted palm. The one in the lilac gown.”
A quick glance confirmed his suspicions. Of course, Julian had exquisite taste in women.
And of course, Oscar just had to ask, “Why her?”
“Beautiful with a cool, haughty elegance. She’d be a challenge.”
“Indeed,” Oscar said, conceding the point. “She would be a challenge.” Whereas he would be no challenge whatsoever. The right word from Julian, and he’d drop to his knees for the man, offer him anything he wanted. “Though Anderson does seem to prefer blondes, and to my knowledge, he hasn’t made a go of her yet.”
Julian nudged him with his elbow, one of those friendly nudges between men. “Who do you think he’ll choose?”
“Mrs. Hudson, though she’s already left for the night. Tall, blonde, not quite as elegant, and with breasts that are usually in danger of spilling out of her bodice.”
Julian’s attention went back out to his choice. That furrow once again marred his brow. “No danger of that with her. Do you think I should change my guess?”
“No, not at all. It’s a good guess, just as good as mine. We’ll have to see what Saturday brings. The crowd tonight is definitely starting to thin, though. Have you had enough of the ballroom, or do you wish to stay longer?” He’d stay as long as Julian desired, but he didn’t want the man to feel obligated to remain longer than he wanted to simply because Oscar was his ride home.
An image slammed into his mind. Of Julian, crouched over Oscar, hands gripping Oscar’s hips as he pounded into him, riding him hard.
It was all he could do to keep the moan inside.
he forcibly reminded himself, in an effort to pull his mind off the lurid and too-tempting image. He was Julian’s carriage ride home. Nothing more. Unless Julian wanted more…
“Doesn’t much matter to me if we stay longer or not. Is it late already?”
Oscar pulled out his pocket watch. “Almost three.”
Julian’s dark brows rose, as if taken aback by the lateness of the hour. “Well then, it
getting late. If you wish to depart, I won’t object.”
The decision made, they began to make their way out of the ballroom. Once they reached the entrance hall, Oscar called for his carriage.
“Where do you call home in London?” he asked Julian, as they waited for the equipage. “So I can give my driver the direction.”
Julian gave his black coat a tug, his attention skipping around the entrance hall. “Long’s Hotel. It’s on Bond Street, at the corner of Clifford.”
The man hadn’t rented apartments but was staying at a hotel? Long’s was rumored to be a reputable hotel, favored by country gentry. Still, how impersonal. “If you’d like, you are more than welcome to stay with me at my town house. I have plenty of space.” That was an understatement. “You could come and go as you please. Attend functions with Parker or attend with me. The choice would be yours.”
Why did Julian look so surprised by the invitation? Perhaps because Parker obviously hadn’t extended the offer for Julian to stay at his own town house. Not well done of Parker. Oscar would have thought better of him. But it was Oscar’s gain. “Yes, truly. It would be nice to have a guest.”
“In that case, I accept. Thank you.” A devastatingly gorgeous smile curved his mouth. “It’s most kind of you.”
Oscar waved aside the thanks. “I’ll send a footman to the hotel to pick up your luggage and bring it to the house.”
That devastating smile dimmed. “Oh, you needn’t bother. I can stop by there in the morning.”
“It’s not a bother in the slightest. My man will have everything in your bedchamber before you lay your head on the pillow.”
“Mr. Woodhaven, your carriage is ready,” the butler said, opening the front door.
His first house guest. Not a friend who merely stayed until dawn after a night of revelry or shared his bed for a handful of hours. But an honest-to-goodness house guest. Someone to sit with him at the breakfast table and share a nightcap before retiring to bed.
Oscar couldn’t stop the smile from spreading across his mouth as he led Julian out to his carriage.
The carriage turned left, taking them up Brook Street. They passed Benjamin’s town house, the windows dark, indicating his cousin had long gone to bed.
“How long do you intend to stay in England?” Woodhaven asked from the bench across from him.
“I hope to remain indefinitely.” And Julian hoped to one day have a carriage like Woodhaven’s. Sleek and black and pulled by a team of four matching grays. The interior trimmed in satin wood, the benches covered in soft black leather, the fittings done in polished brass. Not garish or overdone. A display of wealth in the perfect inflection.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Woodhaven said. In the darkness of the carriage, Julian couldn’t make out Woodhaven’s features, but he had no doubt the man was smiling. That warm, friendly smile never seemed to be far from his lips. “Do you plan to reside in Town or will you go to the country after the Season ends?”
“I haven’t yet decided.” A great deal depended on the outcome of the Season. “Though there’s more to amuse one in London. The country can veer towards dull at times.”
“I couldn’t agree more.” Woodhaven let out a little huff of breath. Golden light from a passing streetlamp briefly fell into the carriage, allowing Julian to glimpse the accompanying roll of Woodhaven’s eyes. “I’m partial to the theatre myself. Do you like to attend?”
“I’ve never been before,” he admitted. “I had heard the theatre in Philadelphia left much to be desired, so I never bothered.” Not entirely true, but he wasn’t about to tell Woodhaven he hadn’t been able to afford a decent seat.
“The theatre in London is wonderful. The actors are very talented. I keep a box at Drury Lane. If you’d like, we could attend some time.”
“Thank you for the offer, Woodhaven. Very kind of you.” Benjamin might have been willing to pawn him off on another tonight, but at least one person in London seemed genuinely happy to have him around.
It didn’t hurt one bit that the spark of interest had remained in Woodhaven’s dark eyes throughout the ball. He was definitely interested in Julian, so much so that he’d asked him to be his guest.
Or Woodhaven could have simply been being kind, opening his home to his friend’s cousin who had newly arrived in Town.
Whatever the cause, Julian was certainly not about to object. From what he knew of Woodhaven thus far, the man came from a wealthy family and he was acquainted with most everyone worth knowing in London. Definitely a good sort of friend to have. If their newfound friendship extended to more pleasurable activities, activities that included discovering if Woodhaven would gift him with that warm, friendly smile after he swallowed Julian’s release, then all the better.
Those rose-tinged lips, plump and wet from sucking him off. Those dark eyes filled with eager need. And Woodhaven would be eager in bed. Julian knew it without a doubt. Eager and willing, his lithe body pliant beneath him, taking everything Julian gave him and begging for more.
If you’d like, you are more than welcome to fuck me until I can barely walk tomorrow.
Woodhaven’s cheerful voice sounded in his head.
His lips quirked. He’d most assuredly take Woodhaven up on that offer…if the man extended it.
extend the offer, because hell, it had been months since he’d indulged with another man. Once he married…well, he had no idea when or if the next opportunity would present itself. The possibility of denying his desires for the rest of his life was a high price to pay, but he’d be paying it with a fortune securely in the bank and that was what mattered.
The carriage slowed to a stop. Julian looked out the window and stopped his jaw from dropping just in time. Woodhaven was obviously wealthy if he could afford this carriage, but certainly such a young man could not manage the massive town house a few steps from the carriage on his own.
“Will your father mind a guest?” Regardless of the money he stood to save by not staying at the hotel, he did not want to impose. That feeling of being an unwanted guest was not a pleasant one.
“My father? No, I don’t believe he would mind, given he passed away almost eleven years ago.”
“My apologies.” Woodhaven must have been younger than Julian had been when he’d lost his father.
“Think nothing of it.”
At least the man didn’t sound put out. The carriage door opened. A footman clad in dark green livery flipped down the metal step.
“Do you live with your mother then?” Julian couldn’t help but ask. Woodhaven was a young man, and that town house was damn massive.
“No, she passed away shortly after I was born,” Woodhaven said, as he got out of the carriage. “No siblings, either. It’s just me in the house.”
Julian stepped from the carriage and glanced about. Woodhaven lived on Brook Street, same as Benjamin, though Woodhaven was steps from Grosvenor Square versus down past Davies where the homes were more tidy than impressive. Then he swept his gaze over the town house once again. Red brick with stucco on the ground floor. A wrought-iron balcony extended the length of the first floor, underscoring tall arched windows. Twelve of them, to be exact. Four floors, five chimneys silhouetted by the moonlight—if he counted what appeared to be the coach house on the left.
Woodhaven had not been exaggerating when he’d told Julian he had plenty of space for a guest.
The place absolutely dwarfed Benjamin’s home.
Woodhaven was not merely wealthy. He had to be very wealthy. Obscenely wealthy. At least ten thousand a year, and likely more.
The man paused at the top of the stone steps to the front double doors and glanced over his shoulder, that smile on his lips. “Come along.”
And he was so nice and seemed to want Julian around.
Immense wealth made one cold and arrogant, with a decided preference for looking down one’s nose at others. Not kind and friendly.
Julian hurried up the steps. He rather expected the vast entrance hall, the walls stretching up to a ceiling graced with a mural a good thirty feet overhead, and therefore managed not to gape like a country-bred fool. He hadn’t been in a home near this grand since he’d been an adolescent, spending occasional summers at Haverson House, Benjamin’s family’s seat in Norfolk.
Pulling his attention from the ceiling, he looked to Woodhaven, who was talking with his butler, a middle-aged man in a crisp black coat.
“Mr. Julian Parker is to be our guest for the foreseeable future.” Woodhaven tugged off his white evening gloves, laying them in the butler’s outstretched hand. “Please let the house know he’ll be in the blue bedchamber. Denton should arrive shortly with his trunks.”
Not trunks. Bag. Singular. At least the footman wouldn’t strain his back lugging Julian’s luggage into the house.
“Yes, sir.” The butler turned to Julian and gave him a half bow. “Welcome, Mr. Parker.”
“This way, Julian.” Woodhaven motioned to the grand staircase. “We’ll get you settled in.”
He followed the man up two flights of stairs and down a broad corridor lined with crystal-and-brass wall sconces and oil paintings in gilt frames. The house was lit as though it was six in the evening, not well after three in the morning. And everywhere he looked he spotted a servant. A footman standing at the ready near the top of the stairs, a maid in a black dress slipping into a room farther down the corridor.
“Do you keep a night staff?” he asked.
“Just a night butler and a couple footmen to watch the house. Most of the rest of the staff doesn’t retire until after I’ve arrived home for the night. Don’t much care for coming home to an empty house.” Woodhaven pushed open the door the maid had disappeared through. “Here we are. The blue bedchamber.”
The efficient maid had already lit the candles and turned back the navy coverlet on the large four-poster bed and was currently at work lighting the fire in the white marble hearth. Cream-and-navy-striped paper lined the walls. Navy damask drapes covered the two windows. Even the upholstery on the armchairs that comprised the seating area was a patterned navy.
“Apt name,” Julian said.
“Yes, well, it is blue. Not
in it, but well…” Woodhaven shrugged. “I didn’t name the room. The house came to me a few years ago through my uncle—my father’s brother—though I didn’t move in until last summer when I came to Town.”
“You could be bold and rename it the navy room.”
Woodhaven chuckled, the sound just as warm and friendly as his smile. “I could, but I wouldn’t want to risk confusing the staff. They have enough rooms to keep track of.”
The maid got to her feet and turned to face them, the fully stoked fire popping and crackling in the hearth behind her. “Is there anything else you need, Mr. Woodhaven or Mr. Parker?”
“Brandy would be nice.” Woodhaven looked to Julian. “Unless you’d prefer whisky?”
The maid bobbed a curtsy then left the room, only to be replaced a moment later by a footman carrying Julian’s leather bag. The man set the bag on the foot of the bed and made to open it.
“That’s quite all right,” Julian said, stepping forward. “I can manage unpacking on my own.”
A nod, and the footman went the way of the maid.
Woodhaven’s gaze lingered on the single bag, the brown leather scuffed and marred from years of use. “Did Denton forget anything at the hotel? If so, it won’t take him but a moment to go back for it.”
“No need. I’m certain he didn’t miss anything.” He tried to sound casual, as if it was completely common for a gentleman to travel so lightly. “I didn’t bring much from Philadelphia. Planned to make use of London’s tailors, though I’ve only had time for one visit since I’ve arrived.”
The hint of a frown vanished from Woodhaven’s face. “Oh, well then, I’ll have my tailor stop by tomorrow. He’s a right fine fellow. Does a bang-up job and is mighty quick.”
The maid slipped into the room, depositing a silver tray with two glasses and a cut crystal decanter of brandy onto the side table between two armchairs, then disappeared again, closing the door behind her and leaving him and Woodhaven alone.
“You needn’t bother with the tailor. I’m sure I can find time in the next few days to manage it.”
“It’s not a bother at all.” Crystal clinked softly as Woodhaven poured them each a glass. “It will be easier this way. Save you a visit to St. James Street.”
At least Woodhaven had correctly guessed that Julian’s coat had come from a respectable London tailor…who had been expensive. But Woodhaven’s tailor? The cut of his coat screamed the man was beyond Julian’s means.
Woodhaven turned to him, the ever-present smile on his mouth, and held out a glass of brandy.
He’d just have to have a word with the tailor tomorrow. Let him know he only needed one or two things. He
saving the expense of the hotel, after all.
He took the proffered glass with a murmured, “Thank you.” Bringing the glass up to his lips, he took a sip.
Woodhaven’s brandy was of an even better quality than what he’d had at the ball.
“Sit. Relax.” The man motioned toward an armchair, then flopped down in the one closest to him. “What did you think of the ball?”
“It was pleasant,” Julian said, as he sat down. “There were a lot of people in attendance.” Names had never been difficult for him to remember, yet the sheer number that Woodhaven had rattled off that evening swarmed about in his head. It would take a couple more functions until he had them all straight. “Are balls usually that crowded?”
“Depends on who is hosting. Some invitations are more coveted than others.” Woodhaven tugged on his cravat, loosening it about his neck. “Do you have any plans for tomorrow?”
“Besides your tailor? I had given thought to calling on one of Benjamin’s sisters, but I could do that another day just as well.” He had never been a favorite of Eleanor or Jane. Eager to spend summers in the grandeur of Haverson House and to escape whichever landlord was currently demanding payment, his mother had not been above imposing on her husband’s relations, practically showing up unannounced at the front door, Julian and his sister in tow. Eleanor and Jane’s dislike of his mother had extended to him, but if he didn’t make the obligatory calls on them soon, they were apt to believe he was snubbing them. Given their positions in Society, he did not want them as enemies. “Do you have plans?”
“No, but we could take my curricle to Hyde Park if the weather holds. Five is the fashionable hour. I could make some more introductions, if you’d like.”
“All right.” More names to add to the mass in his head, but that was why he was in London. To ingratiate himself with the
and be well on his way to a sleek, black town carriage and a home of his own by the beginning of summer. The thought of summer snagged on something Woodhaven had said earlier. “You mentioned you came to Town last summer. I take it you came down from the country?”
“Yes. I resided with my aunt and uncle in Yorkshire.”
“Did you spend most of your time with them, or did you go to university?”
“No university for me, or any form of public schooling. My uncle thought it best I have tutors. Was set to go to Eton, but…” With a shrug, he dropped his attention to his brandy, traced the lip of his glass with the tip of one finger. A chunk of his auburn forelock fell over his brow, the ends grazing his lashes. “My father passed, and my mother’s sister and husband took me in. Tutors offer a superior education, or so I’m told,” he added, with a fleeting glance to Julian.
The frown, even though a mere hint, pulling his mouth looked so…foreign on Woodhaven, as if it did not belong. Dimming the brightness in his eyes. Casting a pallor on his cheerful spirit. The loneliness practically radiated from him.
A loneliness Julian well understood. He had experienced it firsthand, though in his case he’d learned how one could feel lonely in a crowd of peers. “I went to Eton for a few years, and I can say with certainty that the experience is worth missing. You should count yourself fortunate to have avoided it.”