Linden Bay Romance LLC
Josh drew his gaze back to the dark mirror of his wine with a sense of pressing danger. The Nimrod had never been a happy ship, but it seemed to him that some special malevolence lay on this voyage. He could feel himself surrendering to it, growing listless, reckless, and this last blow had left him reeling. He had not thought it was possible to hate Walker more, but this... it was unspeakable.
He risked glancing up, meaning to say so, and caught Kenyon’s eyes. They were full of fire and fury, hotter by far than his words, and the look of implacable anger made Josh’s heart stall in delight. Such beautiful eyes! So fluid, so expressive, so very green in the gold of the lantern.
Control yourself! He should certainly not be leaning forward, gape-mouthed and entranced. Kenyon might notice. He might notice and understand. Then...then it could be Josh, hanging by his neck from the yard arm, slowly choking to death.
"The shirt is not the only thing in ruins." Josh’s voice sounded unnaturally loud to himself. Walker had stepped over the line, and now he was just a little too angry to keep his mouth shut. "By God, sir, you might be his latest victim, but you are not his first—you’ve seen how he treats the men.
"They cannot appease him," Kenyon agreed and tried to lean down to mop the bloodstain away. His hiss of pain was soft and lay unacknowledged between them, for it was a mark of how far their friendship had come that he let himself flinch at all—a human weakness he would not have shown to another soul on board. "They run about furiously to look active but achieve nothing. I believe he’s afraid of them. But the more he tries to grind them down, the more just cause he has to be afraid."
He’s afraid? Josh had never thought of it like that. He had imagined Walker merely loved the power. But if he was only a small, terrified man trying to protect himself from those he believed were stronger than him, did he then deserve pity? No, I think not.
Kenyon shuffled gingerly forward to the edge of his cot and braced himself to slip off, so that he could kneel and clean the floor without bending. The movement took him from deep shadow into lamplight, baring his shirtless skin to Josh’s rapt gaze. Mother of God! Such arms he had, pale and strong, the yellow light pooling in their curves. His long neck and flanks and chest were sleek as cream and scarcely scarred. And his back, the elegant curve of spine brutally cut from waist to shoulders, swollen, bruised, and oozing blood.
Josh made a noise, clapped his hands over his mouth to stifle it, and cursed his vivid imagination. It had chosen that moment to replay to him the scene of punishment on deck; the beautiful young man tied to the grating, the lash, Kenyon’s frown of pained concentration, the grunts of impact and the small, involuntary gasps of his breathing.
I was appalled, I was! Oh Mary and Joseph! Why must I be such a monster?
"Are you quite well?" Kenyon looked up with terrible innocence. Oblivious.
"Just feel...a little sick." Josh drained his wineglass, filled it up again and drank half down before he felt collected enough to go on. "It looks painful. For all love, sir, lie down. I’ll swab the floor."
The lieutenant retreated, easing himself down to lie on his stomach with his head propped on one arm. That was better, for now only his amused expression met the light, and even that was half-hidden behind the veil of his long, dark hair. "I made the mess; I should clean it," he said. Josh’s mother had had a similar saying, and the familiarity of it was a balm after that rush of paralyzing lust. Affection was safer.
"I know my place," he said, smiling and had begun to relax over scouring the stain away, when the treacherous voice in his head added, On my knees for you. He choked again and scrambled back to his bottle. It was a difficult game he played with the wine—he needed it to knock himself out so that he neither lay awake listening to Kenyon breathing nor ran the risk of speaking out of his extraordinarily vivid dreams. But he paid in evenings of lowered inhibitions, the mortal dread of exposure, and lately a growing suicidal wish to confess all, to let the older man know what he really felt. Only the knowledge that it would be playing into Walker’s hands held him back, barely.
"I wonder if you do."
"Is it the drink?" Kenyon watched him with a measuring, alert gaze that —to Josh’s muzzy thoughts at least—seemed gentler than any he had used before. "You seem seaman-like and efficient to me, bright enough, able to charm or daunt the men at will, and well able to command. What keeps you from passing for lieutenant? You cannot want to be a midshipman all your life."
"On this ship? You, if anyone, should know what it’s like by now. I only wish I’d never been made acting lieutenant at all. It was that that made him notice me, and God knows how it’ll end." He found the words pouring from him in a kind of ecstasy of relief. Years, it seemed, he had yearned for someone to say these things to, and to find that confidant in Kenyon was almost too good to be true. "I’m not totally without ambition. Were I out of his reach I’d qualify tomorrow, but that isn’t going to happen now, is it? So I wish I had damn well kept my head down and stayed unobserved and unimportant ’til I died."
Their shared anger and the honesty felt more intoxicating than the wine.
"It is a far worse pain than the stripes to me," said Kenyon softly into the private, swaying gloom, "to see so many excellent things go to waste. This is a beautiful ship, yet he makes her feel like a prison transport. In the right hands, this crew could be the equal of any in the fleet—and he treats them like dumb brutes, officers and men alike. And you... There are times I see a fine spirit in you, a fighting spirit. Then, of a sudden, it fails. Has he broken you, too? Is there nothing left that can be salvaged?"
"Are you calling me excellent?" Anger Josh understood and could navigate, but praise made him stop short, disbelieving and a little anguished. In drink, the thought of being called "excellent" made him want to weep, though sober he might have appreciated its irony. You would not think so, sir, if you knew what I wanted to do to you; what I wanted you to do to me.
"I am." Kenyon looked at him with an open expression, almost nervously. There was a silence, and Josh’s heart beat against his throat like the wings of a bird. No one—starting with his mother—had ever thought him worth such praise. Even to God, whose loving kindness was supposedly infinite, Josh was nothing but an abomination to be wiped from the face of the earth with brimstone and fire. He was used to disdain, but he didn’t know what to do when faced with kindness. Taking in a harsh breath, he turned his face to the screen to conceal the threat of tears.
Conscious that he had strayed too far on delicate territory, Kenyon hitched himself up to take another long drink of the several pints of rum which had been pressed on him in sympathy by the men and changed the subject. "I have been hoping to uphold the present regime at least long enough for us to reach our destination, but now I wonder. Could I call him out?" His face hardened again. "Summersgill practically suggested it. He’d back me if I chose to, I think."
"Challenge Captain Walker to a duel on his own quarterdeck?" Josh repeated, his spirit thrilling at this audacity.
"On land it would wear well enough. The world understands that a gentleman cannot be expected to bear such an insult."
Did Josh really need to point out the hopelessness of this plan? The absolute authority of a naval captain that superseded any moral law? "But we’re not on land."
"No... No." Kenyon tried to turn over onto his side, but clearly his injuries had begun to stiffen, the bruises to bloom and the cuts to tighten, because he gave a startled hiss and lay back down, frowning wearily at the floor. "Some other reason would have to be concocted, and then I should need to be convinced that every man on board would be prepared to swear to the lie."
This time the silence was one of enormity. Josh’s glass rang twice as he put it down, betraying the tremble in his hand. Swinging his legs over the edge of his cot, he let himself be seen, partly dressed and frightened as he was. "Isn’t that... mutiny?"
Kenyon smiled. It was, perhaps, the sweetest expression Josh had ever seen on a man’s face, with its perfect mixture of vulnerability and amusement, resignation and entreaty. "If I place my life in your hands," he said softly, "it is because I know it’s safe there."
If Josh had been fragile before, these words shattered him. For a moment he forgot how to breathe, how to think, as the storm overtook him, and he ran helpless before the swell of agony and denial. The words were out of his mouth before he had time to consider or regret. "You would not be so quick to trust me if you knew what I was."
"What you are?" The gaze became quizzical, still light-hearted on the surface, but colored with shades of compassion and concern beneath. "I don’t...I don’t know what you mean."
"If I place my life in your hands, will it be safe there?"
"To the utmost of my strength."
Josh took a breath and tried to say it; "I...I.." His heart stuttered as wildly as his words, choking him. He looked at the wall, the floor, the lantern—they glared back, implacable, refusing to help. I will hang for mutiny or die at the hands of the crew. It made it easier to force himself out of the cot to crawl on hands and knees across the tiny space, the gulf which was all that separated him from that smile. If I’m going to be killed anyway...
Reaching out, he pushed his fingers into the thick darkness of Kenyon’s hair, the sensation pounding over him, drowning him. Stroking the errant locks out of the lieutenant’s face, he leaned down and touched his lips to the corner of a mouth that had opened a little in surprise. Flushed skin and sweat, and Kenyon licked his lips—perhaps nervously—but at the tiny flickering touch Josh couldn’t help himself. Both hands twisted wrist deep into that glorious hair—soft, so soft—and he lifted the older man’s face to his own, claimed the mouth full on, plunging deep, luxuriating in the taste and the firmness and Peter, oh, Peter. Oh, God, Peter!
Something breaking in his chest—his heart, probably—forced him away, forced him to huddle miserably in the middle of the deck with tears spilling onto his cheeks, waiting for the recoil, waiting to be punched and shunned. He didn’t fear death, for the lieutenant was a man of his word, but Josh was basely, burningly ashamed. And if he hates me... He wiped his eyes on his sleeves, looked up—best to know the worst at once—and was met by a look of plain astonishment, almost wonder.
"Ah," said Kenyon uncertainly.