If he thought at all, but I don’t believe he ever thought, it was that he and his shadow, when brought near each other, would join like drops of water; and when they did not, he was appalled.
His sobs woke Wendy … “Boy, why are you crying?”
Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie
Wendell Albert Rhodes was not the kind of man who did anything lightly. “Measure twice, cut once” was an expression his father had been fond of using, although the man was a banker not a builder. Still, Wendell took the words to heart and never acted without carefully weighing the consequences first. Until tonight.
He stared at the door in a brick wall on a very unremarkable street and shivered a little though the night was not cold. He wrapped his arms around himself and faced the knocker. Perhaps he should come another time when, Stuart, the man who’d invited him to this elite club, could accompany him. It was too odd to turn up without a sponsor. They might not even let him inside.
Wendell cleared his throat, a nervous twitch that had plagued him throughout his school days until he’d outgrown it. Damn. He would not revert to being Whiny Wendy, the butt of his peers’ jokes and pranks. That pathetic little lad was well behind him now. He was a responsible member of the community, a paragon of respectability—except for the secret vice that dwelled deep within him and made his nights a torment of unfulfilled desires.
The games he’d got up to as a boy with other fellows in deserted hallways or empty closets continued to haunt him. Other schoolboys may have outgrown that phase but he’d never lost the desire to touch and be touched by those of his own sex.
Rather than diminishing, over the years the need had grown in depth and intensity until Wendell could scarcely function due to the clamoring need inside him. That was why he was standing here contemplating the biggest step he might ever take in his life.
A grille in the door slid open and an angry voice muttered, “Don’t stand there gawping. You’ll draw attention. Knock or leave.”
Wendell took a deep breath and tapped with the knocker the code Stuart had taught him, then repeated the password. He felt utterly foolish, a grown man playing a childish game. Except this game was for high stakes and the results of losing could be devastating. A man could jeopardize not only his livelihood and good name but even his life if caught in such a place during a raid.
The door opened and Wendell walked into a fragrant garden. He could scarcely breathe. His heart was hammering so hard he feared he might expire before reaching the house and experiencing the delights that lay within. Was it possible to die from overexcitement?
Wendell nodded at the guardian of the gate, a stocky man wearing striped scarf and a hat with earflaps. “Haven’t seen you before. Who’s your sponsor?” the man demanded gruffly.
“Stuart Littleton. He was called out of town at the last minute but told me it would be all right if I came as planned. My name is Wendell Rhodes.”
“All right. You’re on my list. Go on inside then.” The man waved him on.
Easier said than done. Wendell’s legs felt as if they were frozen stiff on the coldest winter day. He could barely lift his feet to walk up the steps. But with the guard’s eyes on his back, he didn’t hesitate to open the door and go inside lest he be scolded for lingering again.
A quick scan of the foyer assured him his guesses about Ever Lads had been correct. The décor boasted the tawdry splendor of what an Englishman imagined a pasha’s harem to look like—if that pasha happened to have a harem full of pretty boys rather than women. The artwork was brazen and Wendell’s cheeks flamed at the painting of a man kneeling before a goat-footed faun and sucking its cock. Wendell dropped his gaze and cleared his throat.
I’ve made a mistake. This place is not for me.
He started to back toward the door and nearly jumped out of his skin when a voice addressed him. “Don’t be shy now. You’ve come this far. It’s a long journey, I know, but you’ve landed in a safe place.”
Wendell looked up into the homely face of a bearded man. A sailor, Wendell guessed from the rolling gait as the man approached him. This truly was a meeting place for all kinds.
“I should’ve waited to come with my sponsor. I don’t know anyone here.”
“You know me. Barnaby Steadman.” The fellow thrust out a hand and enclosed Wendell’s hand in a crushing squeeze. He gestured at the pastoral idyll on the wall. “Don’t let those pictures embarrass you. You needn’t dive in deep unless you want to. Some are content merely to enjoy the company of friends in a place where they can relax. Come with me and I’ll pour you a drink to put you at ease.”
Wendell followed Steadman from the hall where clusters of men chatted together into a larger room—another decadent fantasy land. He noted gaming tables, musicians playing at one end of the room, curtained alcoves, and open booths where men were openly kissing or embracing each other. When he glimpsed a man kneeling between another’s knees, head bobbing, he averted his eyes. Having one’s erotic fantasies brought to vivid, colorful life was both painfully arousing and utterly overwhelming. He shriveled with embarrassment and focused his gaze on the heels of his companion.
“I’ll introduce you to some others,” Steadman promised as he poured a glass of something and offered it. Wendell tossed back amber liquid, which seared his throat and settled like molten fire in his stomach.
Steadman poured again, and Wendell sipped more slowly this time. A flush of courage bloomed inside him. What was the worst that could happen? He’d stay a while then leave. It wasn’t as if he would be forced to perform acts he wasn’t ready for. Oddly enough, the thought of being “forced” to perform lewd services made him made him hungrier than ever to indulge in them. If he was being honest with himself, that was a good part of why he’d come here tonight.
“Damn! Damn, damn, damn!” Someone bumped into him, knocking his arm and sloshing his drink on the carpet. “Where the hell is it?”
Wendell looked into eyes so brilliant and clear a green they appeared unreal. His stomach flipped and the dull ache of desire in his groin grew sharper. “What have you lost?” he croaked. He cleared his throat and repeated the question.
“My watch. I know I put it on tonight. I always wear it. Now it’s missing.” The black-haired man ran his palm over the front of his waistcoat from which an empty chain dangled. His dark brows knitted together over worried eyes.
Wendell looked around the carpet as if the thing would magically be lying in plain sight. But all he saw were numerous pairs of shoes and pants legs belonging to other club members.
“Perhaps if you made an announcement,” he suggested, wondering if this was the sort of place where items mysteriously “disappeared” on a regular basis. Certainly no one here could go to the police if one among them was light-fingered. They’d have to sort it out amongst themselves.
“I was in that booth,” the man pointed, “and I’ve sorted among the cushions but can’t find it. That new fellow, Tinker was with me. He flitted off somewhere. The scoundrel probably nicked it.”
“Now, Peter, don’t go blaming anyone till you’ve had a better look around,” Steadman cautioned. “Come. We’ll help you search for it.”
Wendell was actually glad to have a mission to accomplish. It gave him a purpose in this strange place to follow after Steadman and the dashing Peter.
“Evening, Peter. How are you?” Greetings came from all around as the man strode through the crowded room like a prince and people parted before him.
“Not happy. My pocket watch is missing,” he growled in response.
The reverberation of the growl ratcheted up the tension inside Wendell. He wanted to hear that snarl directed at him and wanted to be the one to appease it. A fantasy which involved kneeling and begging, a little slapping and having his head forced down shot through his mind in the blink of an eye. He quickly pushed the randy thought away but his body’s reaction was slower to recede. His cock had stiffened.
Wendell glimpsed gold on the floor very near the divan Peter had indicated and he swooped down on it. The metal disc was cool and heavy against his palm. He offered the watch to Peter with a flourish and unreasonable joy bubbled up inside him as those stormy eyes lightened.
“Thank you!” Warm skin barely brushed his as Peter took the watch, but tingles shot up Wendell’s arm. For the first time, Peter focused on Wendell and actually registered him.
“Thank you. This watch is irreplaceable. I owe you a great debt.” His smile wrapped around Wendell like a fire-toasted blanket on a cold winter’s night.
“Your father’s perhaps?”
Peter grimaced. “No. It was given to me as a gift by…someone very important to me.”
Wendell nodded, understanding the value of a keepsake. “Well, I’m glad I could help you find it.”
The man offered his hand. “Peter Woods.”
Wendell was happy to clasp it, palm to palm, energy sizzling his flesh. “Wendell Rhodes.” He cleared his throat.