They settled on the tarp, back to back because the damned daffodils were so big, Lucas couldn’t sit next to Mike. Lucas dipped the brush into yellow paint and finished a petal. He already had paint on his hands. His valet, who disliked doing anything more than brushing his suits, would be a wreck at the sight of so much dirt as it was. Lucas was covered with dust and cobwebs. Paint would kill his man.
Lucas wiped his hands on the plain wood of a flower leaf and rose to his feet. Mike, still crouched, looked up at him, and the sudden flash of fear in his eyes made Lucas back away. “I’m just taking off my jacket,” he explained. “And my waistcoat too, I think.”
Mike put down his brush and stood. “A good notion.” He went to Lucas. “Allow me to help you? My fingers are still clean.” He eased Lucas’s jacket from his shoulders and then moved to his front to unbutton his waistcoat.
Lucas tried not to notice how close they were to each other or the way Mike’s chest quickly rose and fell as he worked the buttons. He was used to his valet performing these tasks, Lucas reminded himself.
“Mike.” He whispered the word.
“Hmm.” Mike’s fingers trembled. He slid the waistcoat off too, his fingers grazing Lucas’s arm, and Lucas swore he could feel that touch, even through the linen of his shirt.
He would try for a jovial tone, something light, though his heart pounded and his breath skittered. “You’re very good at this.”
“I help the actors dress and undress. During performances,” Mike said. His voice sounded husky. He deposited the coat and waistcoat on a tree stump next to the gate out to the stage entrance.
He returned to his flower again, without a word, dropping to a crouch and picking up his paintbrush.
“Does it bother you? To undress the actors?” Lucas said.
Mike seemed to watch his hands do the methodical dip and stroke, dip and stroke, as if it were someone else controlling the movements. “Usually, no. I don’t mind doing the work at all. But you’re different. When I’m near you, I feel a touch of fear.”
Lucas’s stomach turned over. He wished he’d taken off his own damned jacket.
“But there’s also something else.”
“Never mind the fear. That second bit of something else sounds good,” Lucas began, but he stopped. Mike’s shoulders were shaking. Damnation. “Mike?”
“It was gone, taken away from me, and now it’s coming back.” A tear dripped down his nose. Lucas wanted nothing more than to go to him and pull him close, but he knew better.
“Heavens, I do hope the ‘it’ you speak of means attraction,” Lucas drawled. “Forgive me if I’m presumptuous.”
Mike sniffed and wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve like a young boy. He twisted and looked at Lucas. His eyes were damp, but his mouth was twisted into a wry grin. “You’re doing it once more, forcing me to feel amused when I’m miserable.”
“That’s good, yes?”
“I hope so. God, I hope I’m wrong. I don’t want to hate physical contact, Lucas, but I’m afraid I will for years.”
Lucas’s vision went hazy and red as anger filled him. He wanted to kill whoever had done this to Mike. At the very least, he wanted to howl with rage. But Mike had said the Andrews’s chatter soothed him, and the stiff upper lip was their heritage. Lucas would give him both and hope it helped. He picked up the yellow brush and got back to work.
“Talk is all very well, but there is only one way to find out, you know, and that’s to try touching a person you might possibly find appealing. That person should know he must not respond badly—or perhaps not respond at all. That’s entirely your choice.” He spoke briskly. “And if anything about your own touch or his presence alarms you, then you stop. And try again whenever you choose.”
Lucas put down the yellow brush and picked up the red to fill in the center of the cheerful flower. A daisy, perhaps. “It should not be a great surprise to know that once again I volunteer myself to you. Outside or inside, in private, clothed, naked, I’ll do whatever you wish, whenever you wish it. Send word at two in the morning, and I’ll drag myself to the spot immediately.”
He found a rag this time to wipe his hands. He couldn’t hold back the rest of it. “I know you don’t wish to speak of this, but do you think it would help you to find whoever did this to you and have him put in jail?” Or have him killed, he silently added.
Mike started painting the tuft of grass, his movements still methodical. “No need.”
“No. Someone else set the building ablaze, and five people died, including…those who held me against my will. This happened after I left, or I’d be ashes and bone in the attic as well.”
“Good Lord,” Lucas said. He didn’t know what else he could add. Mike was silent too, so they continued their work.
Mike shuffled his feet, then leaned backwards so his back pressed to Lucas’s. Spine to spine, they rested. Lucas tried to remain completely still—not to draw deep breaths—so he could feel Mike’s every move. For ten heartbeats, Mike’s weight rested against Lucas from shoulder to lower back, only their shirts between them.
“Thank you,” Mike said at last and leaned forward, taking all that interesting heat with him.
“I did say any time,” Lucas said, and dabbed at the last green leaf.
They cleaned the brushes with linseed oil and rags. “I’ll have to do at least three more layers,” Mike said. “Someone thinned the paint to make it go as far as it could. Now it’s far more work.”
“If I offered to buy better paint?”
Mike shook his head. “That’s another problem, I’m sorry to say. I hate to be beholden to anyone for anything.”
“I recall that about you. From school, I mean.”
“Really? I thought that came from…” He waved a hand. Unfortunately, it held a paintbrush, and a drop of green landed on Lucas’s shoe.
“Damn.” Mike dropped to a squat with a cloth in his hand and scrubbed at Lucas’s shoe.
“Please don’t,” Lucas said, alarmed. “Get up, do!”
Mike tilted his head to look up at him, puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
He thought of an answer at once. “Kneeling at my feet made you seem to, um, cower. Before. Remember? I’d supposed it would engender fear, and I don’t like it.”
Mike’s face was directly in front of his private parts, which woke up to this fact. Lucas closed his eyes and tried to recall Hubert Dunfry’s smirk. Anything but thinking of Mike so close to him.
“I’m the one who is supposed to be afraid, not you.” Mike’s voice held laughter, not scorn.
Thoroughly relieved, Lucas opened his eyes and reached a hand to him. “I’m allowed to be afraid for my friends if I want to be, you wretch. Allow me to help you rise to your feet.”
Instead of standing, Mike sat back on his heels and smiled up at him. “Thank you for worrying for me. I think it helps me relax a little to have you so high strung.”
“Then I should roll my eyes and show my teeth like an ill-mannered horse.” He attempted that expression and was rewarded with another laugh from Mike, who still stayed on the cobblestones, no longer inches from Lucas’s prick, but not far away either.
Mike’s gaze dropped from Lucas’s face. His attention had to be directed at Lucas’s torso. Seconds passed. Lucas stood still, once again imitating a statue. And close to him knelt Mike Cordett, the object of his lust and longing for years.
He shut his eyes again, but it wasn’t much use. His statue imitation wasn’t entirely accurate, and he only prayed his clothing disguised his arousal.
“I say, I’m rather surprised that I am able to be this close to you,” Mike said. “I wonder if all that maundering on and fretful talk of mine helped me, because here I am, at a man’s feet, and I don’t feel anything but…” Something touched Lucas’s leg, the merest brush through his trousers—Mike’s fingers.
Lucas swallowed and managed a bright cheerful tone. “What do you feel?”
“Your leg, of course.” His fingers moved down. “And now your knee.” And then his hand moved up, but he stopped short of the swelling bulge in Lucas’s trousers.
“Please,” Lucas said and hoped Mike would take it as an invitation to do whatever he wanted, and not as begging on Lucas’s part.
“Thank you.” Mike rose to his feet and brushed his knees, leaving a smudge of green paint on the blue wool fabric. He seemed less amused now, but Lucas considered the small experiment a success. He wondered if he should say as much when Mike said, “We’d best clean up and put these flowers somewhere safe to dry. Just against the building will do.”
They straightened the yard. Lucas folded the tarp and wondered if he could steal it, bring it home to remind himself of the small tentative touches Mike had given him.
After they put away the paints and brushes—and the tarp—Lucas said, “You’ve done all this work for us. I feel as if I owe you a meal.”
Lucas wanted to protest that he had so much money he must pay for the meal again. The urge to take care of Mike seemed to overrule everything. But one look at Mike told him that would be a mistake, so he only said, “Will we risk the purple ladies again?”
“If you like. Or we could go to a public house. Do you have time?”
“Yes, of course.”
Lucas realized he would make time any time Mike asked him to. When he’d gone searching for Micah Cordett, he’d hoped to lay his boyhood infatuation to rest at last. Instead, he feared he’d awakened a sleeping dragon, bringing to life even stronger and more mature feelings that threatened to consume him in their fiery breath. But these flames he was willing to endure if there was even the slightest hope that Mike felt the stirring embers of a fire too.