Henry barely got his hands up in time to stop his nose slamming into the grimy, soot-streaked stones of the alley wall. The man behind him had a firm grip on the back of his jacket, threatening the seams if Henry struggled. His bulk was warm in the cool night air, and his breath smelled of cheap whiskey and tobacco, which was not, in Henry’s experience, the worst a man could smell. He was…oh, Lord, he was hard, grinding against Henry’s arse, and Henry’s own cock throbbed and thickened in response.
The sounds of the tavern spilled out of the doorway around the corner, and a stone’s throw away was the illumination of the street lamps and the disreputable bustle of the nighttime inhabitants of the docks. Henry’s heart was pounding frantically.
Sliding a hand down to the waist of Henry’s trousers, the man tugged as if to rip them off by sheer force, and Henry hissed a protest. The two of them grappled for a moment until Henry got a hand free to help and undid his buttons and braces so that he could slide his trousers and undershorts down to mid-thigh. Goose-flesh rose on his bare skin, his cock bobbing free between his legs. Henry bit his lip, ducking his head against his arm. He could see nothing but their boots, his, neatly cared for, spread apart, and the man’s closer together, a worn, shabby pair of boots. Between their feet gleamed the fetid puddles of the alleyway. Henry closed his eyes.
The man spat in his hand, and pressed blunt, barely slicked fingers inside him. Henry squirmed instinctively away from the pain and was pressed more heavily into the wall for his trouble. His cock drooled fluid from the tip, the wetness feeling cool in the night air. He ought not to be doing this, sitting would be hell tomorrow, but it was too late to change his mind, and that thought made his gut knot with heat.
Spitting again, the man prodded with the head of his cock at Henry’s hole, and pushed in. Henry gasped, and then pressed his nose into the crook of his elbow to block the smell of piss and refuse, and the stink of the river not far off. The man gave a satisfied grunt and thrust deeper, sending Henry up on his toes. Tears pricked the corners of his eyes at the pain.
The initial burn of penetration lessened as his body accustomed itself to the familiar intrusion, and his prick filled fully again, a hot, pounding counterpoint to his heartbeat pulsing in his groin. The man was rocking him forcefully enough against the wall that Henry needed both arms to brace himself or else risk getting the gritty slime he could feel under his fingers on his face. His prick bounced untouched between his legs, aching.
Henry tried to adjust his stance for a better angle, stumbled, and the man growled, getting a grip on one arm and squeezing forcefully, bearing him more heavily into the wall, holding him in place. Henry’s balls were drawn tight and full. He sucked in short, panting breaths, nose filled with the wool of his second-best jacket.
The man gave a low groan in his ear and finished with a series of short thrusts, sliding more easily with his spend slicking the way. Henry muffled a moan against his own arm and pressed back into those sweet, staccato strokes. His own climax throbbed at the root of his cock, coiled and ready, but before he could chase it the man pulled out and stepped away. There was the sound of clothing being straightened, and then footsteps.
Squeezing his eyes shut, wet at the corners, Henry reached down for his cock, remembered at the last moment his hands against the filthy wall, and pulled up his shorts instead, gripping himself through the fabric. And, Christ, there was something so good and horrible about that – standing alone in an alley with a stranger’s seed seeping from his arse, used and sore, touching himself frantically through his clothes at the memory.
His climax broke like a storm, wracking him with fierce convulsions, and then was gone as abruptly as it had come, leaving him tired, sore and sticky, and still with a walk back to his lodgings. Wiping his face with the back of his arm, he did up his trousers, checked that he still had his wallet, and set out in the direction of the boarding house.
The address in the letter, confirming date and time, was not for the mill but for a large, newly-built brick house on Manchester’s rapidly growing outskirts, where the streets were clean-swept and the windows all gleaming.
Henry arrived with a comfortable quarter of an hour to spare and was shown to an upstairs office. The man behind the desk was of a Welsh complexion, dark hair and dark eyes, in a neat dark wool suit of a sober cut.
“Mr. Henry Neale,” the butler announced, and withdrew.
“Ah, welcome,” the man said, rising to extend a hand.
“Mr. Abel?” Henry inquired.
“No, I’m Benjamin Marshall, at your service.” Marshall’s hands were cool and dry, leaving Henry very aware that he was slightly sweaty under the cuffs himself from his brisk walk across town. He could have hailed a cab but the idea of bouncing over cobbles had seemed particularly unappealing that morning. “I was the man of business to the late Mr. Abel,” Marshall continued, “and I continue to serve his son in that capacity. Mr. Abel the younger will be joining us” –he checked his watch– “at some point. Please have a seat.”
“Thank you.” Henry sat, somewhat gingerly, and cleared his throat. “I’m aware I’m not in a popular line of work, and I appreciated your prompt response to my letter.”
“Of course.” Marshall folded his hands on the desk. “It is merely part of doing business. Aside from my regular duties I will be happy to offer whatever assistance you might need.”
“That’s very kind. I will do my best to make the process painless for everyone involved and my apologies in advance for any disruption to your other duties.”
“Not at all,” Marshall said with a small, polite smile. “What do you need from me to get started?”
“Records. All of them.” Henry grimaced apologetically. “Sales, expenses, debts and payments, capital improvements and so on.”
Marshall nodded. “The last seven years, correct?”
“You have your work cut out for you.”
There was a thudding of footsteps outside in the hall and the door flew open, admitting a red-and-white dog and a fair-haired young man. The dog bounded up to Henry and put its paws on his knees to snuffle at his face, tail wagging enthusiastically. “Victor!” the young man in the doorway exclaimed. “Stop that, Victor! Come here.”
Paying his master no mind, the dog tried to lick Henry’s cheek. Henry leaned back instinctively, feeling a twinge in his arse at the sudden movement.
“Victor, down,” Marshall said firmly, without raising his voice. “Heel.” Hopping down from Henry’s lap, the dog trotted obediently around the desk and sat beside Marshall, tail thumping on the polished floor.
“I’m terribly sorry,” the newcomer said. He wore breeches and high, dusty riding boots. His cheeks were pink with exertion and his blonde curls tumbled windswept about his ears. When he clasped Henry’s hand, his palm was even warmer and sweatier than Henry’s. “Jack Abel, pleased to meet you.”
“Henry Neale,” Henry managed.
“You must be the tax man.”
“I… yes—well no, not exactly, that is…I’m from the Board of Taxes but—” Abel was still holding his hand. Henry gathered his wits. “Not a tax man, just an auditor. If all goes well, there won’t be any need to collect further taxes.”
“If all goes well indeed!” He gave Henry’s hand one last firm pump and released him, pulling another chair up to the desk. “So, what did I miss?”
“Mr. Neale is going to begin examining all our records from the last seven years,” Marshall said calmly, apparently unaffected by the small hurricane that was Mr. Abel.
“What, all of them?” Abel said, crossing one leg over the other. His fawn-colored breeches strained against his thighs. “Good Lord, you must be a glutton for punishment.”
Henry resisted the urge to shift in his chair. “Just a mind for details,” he managed.
“Well I hope you have cleared your schedule,” Abel said cheerfully, “I have a feeling we’re going to be monopolizing you for the next little while.”
“I took lodgings for a month,” Henry assured him.
“Wonderful,” Abel said, which was not something Henry heard often in his line of work, or indeed from many other people in his life. “Did you travel far?”
“From London, by rail.”
“Not too tiresome, I hope.”
While not as tiresome as the stage, it had in fact left Henry restless and irritable enough to give in to the desires that he had uncomfortable cause to regret this morning. “Not terribly so,” he said. “I don’t want to take up more of your time than necessary. If there’s a place out of the way I can work…?”
“Certainly,” Marshall said. He had one hand on the dog’s head, fondling his ears absently. “Capital expenditures and investments, along with dividends are kept in the household books here,while operating expenses, invoices, and gross income records are at the mill. There’s plenty of room in my offices for you.”
“I wouldn’t want to intrude…”
“Not at all. I was a clerk for years, I’m quite accustomed to working in company. Would you like to begin now?”
Abel departed with the dog, leaving the office in relative silence, apart from the scritch of Marshall’s pen and the rustling of pages. Marshall was as good as his word, clearing a space on a table in one corner and unlocking a tall cabinet full of ledgers. Henry was accustomed to working under suspicious and unwelcoming eyes, but Marshall hardly glanced at him as Henry spread the ledgers out on his borrowed desk, and opened his own notebook.
He spent the better part of six hours orienting himself to the ins and outs of the business. The books were neatly kept and refreshingly well-balanced. Here or there an error had been made, noted, and crossed out with a correction. It was soothing work, the lines of numbers all in the same meticulous hand. The numbers carried consistently from column to column and book to book, and most importantly they tallied at first inspection with the tax returns submitted for Abel Mill Company, of which Henry had copies in his file.
Several times a footman brought a pile of papers in to Marshall, or Marshall would ring a bell and send a stack of letters off. A servant brought tea and sandwiches at four o’clock which Henry decided did not count as bribery and availed himself of at Marshall’s silent gesture. Just past six Marshall set down his pen and said, “I trust you are making satisfactory progress.” When Henry nodded, he continued, “I have to go to the mill for the close of day, would you like to accompany me?”
“Oh, yes. Certainly.” Henry packed his things into his portmanteau while Marshall gathered his own papers, and they went down into the foyer where Mr. Abel was adjusting his gloves and top hat in the hall mirror.
“Ah! Headed to the factory?” he said as they descended the stairs, still peering at himself. Gone was the disheveled young man in riding habit. Beneath an impeccably tailored tailcoat Abel wore a lavender silk waistcoat and dove-grey trousers that showed the length of his legs. His cravat was as snowy as his gloves, a ruby winking from the cravat pin drawing the eye to his throat. “I’m off to dinner at Mrs. Harrington’s, we’ll drop you on the way.” Giving the angle of his hat one last tweak, he turned and Henry saw that Abel also wore a black crepe band around his upper arm.
There was a carriage waiting in the stable yard. Abel paused to greet the coachman, stripping off his gloves to pat the harnessed horses. “To the mill and then on to Harrington’s, please, Wilkes. Hello, sweetheart.” The last was to the horse, Henry presumed.
The three of them climbed into the carriage. Henry balanced his portmanteau between his knees, and Marshall sat beside him, sleeves almost brushing, with Abel taking the double seat on the other side, brushing his hands together and pulling on his immaculate gloves once more.
As the coach lurched and rattled out into the street, Abel chattered effortlessly about the upcoming dinner, and then something about dancing. Henry was not catching the details. The carriage was new and well-made, with luxurious springs, but they still bounced over the cobbles distinctly enough to cause marked discomfort. Henry bit his lip, face heating.
“Mr. Neale, are you well?” Abel said suddenly.
“Wha– oh, yes, ah, yes. Just a bit warm.”
“It is rather stuffy in here.” Abel reached to pull up the window sash. “At least the weather finally turned, after all that rain. I was afraid summer would never come. Look, you can see the Cathedral from here.” He gestured insistently until Henry leaned forward to look out the window. “They’ve just begun an enormous renovation. And there’s the city hall, and when we turn toward the river you’ll be able to see Blake Mill’s new building – those are the smoke stacks there. We’ll have to show you the new warehouse under construction. It’s not far out of our way…”
Marshall checked his watch. “Some other time.”
“Of course. Oh, look! The opera house.” The carriage lurched around a corner toward the river and jostled over a pothole. Abel, leaning forward precariously toward the window, wobbled, hand flying out for balance and landing on Henry’s knee. The sudden touch and the abrupt motion together made Henry gasp. Not a loud sound, easy to pass off as startlement, but Abel’s head jerked up and their eyes met, Abel’s hand still on his knee.
His lips were pink, slightly parted, his eyes rainwater grey. The look they exchanged was brief, barely a flicker of eyes over Henry’s face before Abel was pulling himself back onto his side of the carriage with a good-natured apology, but Henry’s heart was beating frantically. He’d followed men out of bars and down dark alleys after looks less telling than that glance.
Sitting back in the seat beside Marshall, Henry fixed his eyes on the sliver of the city passing he could see from that position, and scolded himself for being foolish, wanton and sinful. His prick was half-hard in his trousers, thankfully hidden by the leather case on his lap.
Had he not just that morning been reflecting on the previous evening’s mistake? Risky and uncomfortable, and yet here he was not even a day later, having carnal thoughts, not about any man, but about the owner of the operation he was auditing. It was entirely unconscionable.
He would simply ignore any untoward urges. And if he were so enslaved to his worst nature that he could not, well, there were other alleys and other riverside bars in Manchester.
The breeze wafting through the window changed as the carriage rumbled over the bridge, less sooty and more sour, river stench. It was a very short time after that they pulled to a halt, and Marshall opened the door. The carriage was pulled up before a wrought-iron gate, and behind it was an extensive compound of high, blocky brick buildings with rows of featureless windows. It was architecture intended to function, not to display, but it was impressive in its sheer size and uniformity. Tipping his head back further, Henry saw smokestacks belching soot into the sky.
“Enjoy Mrs. Harrington’s gathering,” Marshall said to Abel, who said something back that Henry didn’t hear. And then as the coachman clucked the horses into motion again, Marshall led the way to a human-sized gate to the side of the great gates, pulling out a key and letting them through. There was activity in the courtyard even at this late hour – a cart being loaded with crates and enormous paper-wrapped cylinders, carried by four men apiece. Several people nodded as Marshall walked by, and Marshall waved a hand in greeting, saying to Henry, “Muslin bound for Boston.”
“Do you sell much of your product to America?”
“Not a great deal. The Americans have mills of their own and of course can get cotton cheaper. But I can see the shipping labels.” Henry squinted at the loaded cart. There were indeed colorful labels on the crates and bolts of fabric, which he could no more read than he could read writing on the moon, but which Marshall had recognized at that distance.
“There’s the dye house and the machine shop,” Marshall continued, pointing as they passed. “And the power house – all the steam and gas is generated there. The factory is entirely self-sufficient.”
“No water power?”
Marshall shook his head. “The late Mr. Abel gambled that what he could save in buying cheaper land away from the river would make up for the advantage in free energy held by factories that still use a waterwheel for part of their power.”
“And was his surmise correct?”
“He had little other choice at the time. There was no capital to invest. His father was a clockmaker, who invented a device to regulate shuttle mechanisms. Abel the first intended to sell the patent for what it was worth and continue running his clock shop, but his son had ambitions. Abel the second won part of the deed to this property in a game of piquet, I believe, and mortgaged the rest for a pittance, against the patent of the shuttle device. The money to build on it came from his wife’s father in part, and partly from the bank.”
“He sounds like a shrewd man.”
“He was. And a kind one too. The accommodations are some of the best for workers anywhere in the region, and all the children get schooling and medical care. He never forgot what it was to live by humble means, even when the wealth poured in.”
“You sound like you admired him a great deal.”
“How does the saying go — no man is a hero to his valet?” Marshall gave a ghost of a smile. “The same may be said for a man of business. But he had many good qualities, and indeed good ideas, which I am working to preserve, for the current Mr. Abel and for everyone employed here.” They had reached the largest building. “All the carding, weaving and spinning happens here. Ready to see?” Marshall opened the door.
The sound hit Henry first, a deafening thumping, clattering din, and then the draft of hot, humid air. Together they were like the damp roar out of some beast’s gullet. Stepping inside, Henry surveyed the crowded, dusty workshop where rows upon rows of enormous, incomprehensible machines whirred. Each one was the size of a cart horse, and they made a noise like hooves on cobbles but magnified a hundredfold, for that was how many the room seemed to contain.
The ceiling was three times the height of a man, crossed with iron girders to rival any of London’s new train stations. Thick belts ran to pulleys on the girders, and a constant flexing of pistons turned the pulley wheels and then the belts, which in turn powered the arcane mechanisms of Industry.
The windows were larger than they appeared from the outside, letting in the last of the daylight in addition to the gaslights overhead. Still, it was not so bright that Henry could fathom even seeing, let alone understanding, all the intricacies of the machines that thudded and shuddered all around, and yet the workers dealt deftly with the gears, levers, and thousands upon thousands of strands of cotton thread. There were men, women and children, all covered in bits of linty dust, each one attentive to their machines as a hostler to his horses.
Henry realized his mouth was open because of the dry tickle of bits of airborne cotton sticking to his tongue and closed it hastily. He felt a hand on his arm, and turned to face Marshall, who was touching his sleeve lightly. “This way,” Marshall mouthed, inaudible. Henry read the words off his lips. Following Marshall down one side of the room, he tried not to make too ridiculous a face as he attempted to scrape the sticky fuzz of cotton off his tongue with his teeth. It was hot enough that he was already sweating under his jacket.
At the far end of the room was a windowed wall, through which could be seen a number of desks with men bent over each one. Marshall opened the door and gestured Henry through. Mercifully, with the door closed again the noise was somewhat muffled, enough that Henry could hear Marshall say, “This is the clerk’s office. Let me introduce you to our head clerk, Jenkins.”
Jenkins was a tall man with a mustache like a straw broom, who greeted him with the tepid welcome auditors usually received. The heads of the clerks all around the room came up to watch the interaction, even though surely it was still too loud to eavesdrop at any distance. Many of them, Henry noticed, were working in their shirt sleeves.
“If I’m unavailable for any reason,” Marshall said, “Jenkins should be able to answer most questions and find things you need. There’s also the general manager, Lawson, and shift foremen for each part of the operation, but I can’t imagine you’ll need anything that Jenkins and myself between us can’t supply. There’s also the warehouse manager and the clerking staff at Talbot’s warehouse. We lease storage space from them and they aren’t meant to handle our invoicing or payments at all but sometimes shipping mix-ups happen. It will be a relief when construction on our own warehouse is finished.”
Marshall had a desk of his own here also, and directed one of the clerks to clear off an unused desk for Henry. Another clerk began bringing ledgers to him, setting down a stack of books with a thud that raised a cloud of dust. “Good luck,” the man said, with a twist of a sneer at the corner of his mouth.
Here, the books were in more varied states – clearly kept by multiple people, there were more errors and also more corrections. In some places the notation was so overwritten, or scrawled so close that Henry could barely make out the numbers at all. Still, as he randomly checked columns of sums, the numbers all totted up correctly.
The master ledger was the one he had already seen, at the Abel townhouse. Here were the books used in the day-to-day running of the mill: the cash book, the invoice book, the bill book, the letter book, and so forth. Their sums would have to be balanced against one another and against the numbers in the master ledger, which would be the work of Henry’s next few weeks. Assuming he found nothing amiss, as he had not so far, and the records matched the tax receipts, he would return to London in four weeks’ time, make his report to the Board of Taxes, and be sent off to his next assignment.
His days quickly settled into a routine – meeting Marshall at the townhouse in the morning, and working there together or taking a cab to the factory. There, Henry compared his notes from the master ledger to the mill books, mostly ignored by the other clerks, while Marshall did his work at a desk facing his, occasionally consulting with Jenkins or one of the foremen.
Every time the door to the factory floor opened, the noise made Henry flinch. It was beastly hot and damp in the office, and he was sweating through his collar. He certainly understood why so many of the other clerks were half-dressed. On his first full day of working at the mill desk, it took only a few hours for Henry’s own sense of propriety to lose a short and apathetic battle against the muggy heat. He stripped off his own jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and returned to his work, pushing a sweaty lock of hair out of his eyes.
Examining the books was a way of looking at the whole business of the mill at once; different, and more revealing, than looking up at the smokestacks from outside or touring the buildings. The sale volume was staggering, the expenses equally so and the attributions incomprehensible even where the handwriting was legible. Henry had no idea what a creel was, or what repairs to it might entail. It was an aspect of his job that he enjoyed, getting glimpses into the minutiae of other people’s work.
Realizing he had been hunched over the desk long enough to crick his neck, Henry leaned back and stretched his arms above his head. As he was glancing around, Marshall looked up also, and their eyes met. Henry flushed, suddenly aware that he was in his shirtsleeves, no doubt disheveled, and had damp patches under both arms. He lowered them hastily.
Marshall said something, completely inaudible over the noise of the weaving floor through the wall. Henry shook his head in incomprehension and gestured to his ear.
Getting to his feet, Marshall came around his desk to stand by Henry’s, leaning down to say, “I said, does all go well?”
“Oh! Yes, thank you,” Henry said. He was very aware that Marshall was also less than fully dressed, with his sleeves rolled up to reveal shapely forearms, more brown than Henry would have expected from a man who spent his days in an office. “What is a creel?” he asked, to distract himself.
“It is a device to hold a great number of threaded bobbins and feed the threads individually into the heddles of a loom.” Marshall leaned closer so that the longer sentence should not be lost in the din.
Henry wrinkled his nose. “What’s a heddle?”
Marshall smiled slightly. “It’s the bit that makes the threads go like this.” He held up both hands palm to palm, fingers extended and tipped them so that his fingers slid through one another, into an interlocked cradle, and then back. Henry had no idea what that was meant to signify about weaving, but Marshall’s fingers were long and elegant, slightly ink-stained. He swallowed and nodded.
The progress was slow, and inevitably full of confusions. Half a dozen times over the first week Henry asked Marshall or Jenkins about some discrepancy only to discover the missing number recorded as a sale rather than an invoice, or to have it patiently explained that the entry in bill book that said ‘6lbs 3oz alizarin’ was the same expense as the one in the cash book that said ‘red dyes, bulk.’ Marshall’s explanations were always patient, at any rate. The same couldn’t be said for the clerks, and it was only natural that Henry developed the habit of reserving questions for the moments when Marshall would come by Henry’s desk and check on him.
“Ready for tea?” he asked, stopping by on a Thursday afternoon. Henry lifted his head, blinking sums out of his vision. Marshall was in his shirt sleeves, and a single dark curl was curling over his forehead in the damp, but he still managed to appear collected.
“Um. Nearly,” Henry said. “I had a question for you, actually.” He flipped through his notebook to where he had left a clean pen nib as a bookmark. “There’s a major expense for ‘repairs to cross-cutting machine’ noted in the Abel books but I can’t find any record of that money being spent in any of the factory books.”
Marshall didn’t look concerned. “Some of the expense outlays that came directly from the owner’s pocket never passed through the mill office. Or the payments were recorded in smaller distributed amounts in the mill books after being received as a lump sum from the Abel account.”
Henry tapped the entry for the repairs. “Are there receipts for any of this?”
“I’d like to take a look, please.”
“Well, let’s see what we can find, shall we?” Marshall said.
They left the office, Henry wincing as always at the sheer magnitude of the din on the factory floor, and Marshall led the way down several flights of stairs, into a subterranean hallway, lit with gaslights at intervals. “Paper doesn’t keep well in the hot damp air,” he explained. “We store all the records down here where the temperatures are more moderate, along with certain dyes and chemicals.”
It was cooler, down below ground. Henry felt the sweat he hardly noticed on the factory floor chilling the back of his neck. The doors along the corridor were unmarked but Marshall led them without hesitation to one partway along the hall. Inside was a storeroom, lined with shelves, and on the shelves were stacks and stacks of papers, mostly bound up more or less neatly with twine. Henry eyed them in some dismay. “Are they ordered at all?”
“Oh yes. Approximately.” Going to the nearest shelf, Marshall tipped a bundle toward him and peered at the topmost page. “September, ’41. That’s earlier than you want.” He moved down the shelf. “November, December, ah, here’s ’42.” He squinted at the papers. “We ought to have brought a lantern. There is a ladder over there, will you fetch it please?”
It was not a secured rolling ladder as a library or bookroom might have, but a wooden stepladder, quite heavy. Henry managed to carry it over without banging it into any shelves or knocking anything over. When set up, it wobbled slightly on the uneven stone floor. “Hold it steady for me?” Marshall asked, stepping up onto it. Henry grasped the legs, stabilizing it as Marshall climbed up to reach the top shelf. “Ah, here we are.”
Glancing up, Henry found himself staring directly at Marshall’s backside, and looked away again quickly. Marshall’s trousers were fine wool and excellently tailored, not tight but certainly not disguising his finely-shaped arse. His waistcoat was snug around his trim middle. If he turned around on the ladder, Henry’s mouth would be at just the right level to…
With no warning other than a faint hiss and flicker, the gaslights abruptly went out, plunging them into pitch darkness so complete that it felt like a physical weight pressing into Henry’s eyes. “Damn,” Marshall said with feeling.
“What was that?” Henry asked, in more of a squeak than he’d have liked.
“Gas line depressurized. It happens sometimes, since we generate our own. It usually only lasts a minute or two but all the lights will need to be re-lit.” There was some rustling from the top shelf. “I’ve got the papers we need, for what good it does. Can you steady me coming down?”
“Of course.” Henry reached up blindly, felt part of a sleeve, and then their hands met in the dark. With one hand occupied, Henry leaned on the ladder to brace one side with his thigh, using his bodyweight to stabilize it. There was a rustle of fabric and movement in the air as Marshall descended, tremors in the wood, and then the two of them were standing almost chest to chest, with Henry leaning close to the ladder and Marshall standing at the base. Marshall’s hand was warm in his, the whole bulk of his body radiating heat where the underground air had chilled Henry.
He realized that the machinery above their heads had gone silent also. He had hardly noticed the constant thumping and clattering noises until they were gone. It was so quiet he could hear Marshall breathing, and his own heartbeat, speeding up. Their hands were still linked.
Henry felt a sudden surging compulsion to lean forward and kiss Marshall. His mouth tingled with it. His stomach clenched. It was the same sort of reckless impulse that led him into dark alleys with strange men and got him fucked brutally, and the thought was making his cock thicken in his trousers. There was a heavy, waiting expectancy in the pitch black between them.
Then a faint hissing noise, of gas out of a pipe began, and Marshall said, “Ah. There it is. Hold this, would you? I have lucifers somewhere.”
Henry lifted his free arm blindly and his fingers brushed Marshall’s waistcoat like the beginning of an embrace. The fabric was warm from his body. Then Marshall shifted the stack of bound papers into the crook of Henry’s elbow, squeezed his other hand briefly, and released him. There was the sound of fabric moving and then the scrape of a safety match.
Its flare left Henry blinking and blinded as Marshall went quickly to the wall and lit the gas lamp. His momentary madness was dispelled with the darkness, leaving him holding a heavy bundle of bound receipts and with one hand still warm from Marshall’s grip.
The cooler conditions in the basement might help reduce mildew but they could do nothing to stop the degradation of the damp air on the paper. Many of the receipts were tattered and faded, or smeared in places. Some had been nibbled by mice. It was slow, tedious work matching scraps of paper to entries in the ledger books. The deeper he delved into the mill books, there were more costs unaccounted for, and Henry had little hope of identifying them all in the mess of receipts, or even most of them.
He took the papers back with him to his lodgings that evening, and to the Abel house the following morning, rather than working in the uncomfortable and distracting environment of the factory. For once, Marshall was not with him, spending the day at the construction site of the new warehouse.
Setting the stack as neatly on his desk as possible, Henry opened the volume of the master ledger from which he was currently working – dated three years prior – and began methodically sorting the receipts into potential matches for items in the expense columns. He’d been at it a couple of hours when the door opened without a knock. Expecting to see Marshall, Henry lifted his head, but it was Mr. Abel in the doorway.
“Morning, Mr. Neale,” Abel said. “Marshall gone to the factory?”
“The warehouse, I believe.”
“Oh, that’s right, he mentioned something.” Instead of retreating, Abel ventured further into the room, propping his hip against Marshall’s desk, opposite Henry. “I can hardly keep track, it’s one problem after another with that project. The contractors are a nightmare, the bricklayers are behind schedule, the price of timber and iron are going up, good grief. I’m glad I’m not the one dealing with it all. You should hear some of the things he says about the architect’s firm.” He shuddered theatrically. “Truly, I would be lost without him. So would my father, to tell the truth. Marshall nearly went to read law, has he mentioned that? Of course he hasn’t. But he took the position as father’s man of business instead, and I don’t know where we’d be without him. Or, where I’d be.” The corners of his mouth turned down.
Henry’s gaze drifted to the black band around Abel’s sleeve – it had been nearly a year since the late John Abel’s passing, and a less devoted son could have given up the trappings of mourning months previously. “You must have been very close to him. Your father, I mean.”
Abel nodded. “We were all one another had, after my mother died. My father’s family is all in Norwich, and I never knew anyone on my mother’s side. She had no surviving siblings, and her parents passed before I was born. Her father was a horrible old warhorse, by all accounts, with money made in the slate mines last century. No more respectable than us by blood, but rich for longer and puffed up with it. My father met mother at a horse race, you know. Said he first laid eyes on her right by the fence, screaming for her favorite, and decided right then that he was going to marry her. Everyone always thought he married her for money, including her family, but it was a love match.” He looked down at his folded hands, uncharacteristically still for a moment, and then tossed his head and smiled. “But I’m being terribly rude, droning on about my family history! Nothing more dull than genealogy. What of your own family?”
Henry blinked. “I wouldn’t want to bore you. With genealogy.”
“I’m terribly difficult to bore,” Abel said cheerfully. “Comes of being featherbrained. Tell me about yourself.”
“My father is a rector in Surrey. I’m the oldest of three brothers.” Henry fiddled with his pen. “I haven’t seen any of them in years. Last I heard they were all still alive.”
Jack raised his eyebrows. “You had a falling out?”
“You could say that.” It was the kind of falling out that had involved a travelling farrier, who was burly enough to hold nineteen-year-old Henry up against a wall with his feet fully off the ground. It had been a revelation. A revelation of a different sort for his father too, unfortunately. The rector was not the kind of man to beat his children badly, beyond the occasional smacks and spankings of childhood, but Henry had been locked in the vestry of the parish church with nothing to eat for three days before he’d stolen a pair of silver candlesticks and crawled out the window above the cellaret of communion wine. In London, he’d pawned the silver to keep food in his belly, and eventually found work as a junior clerk at the Board of Taxes. He had never looked back.
Jack’s brow was furrowed earnestly. “I’m sorry.”
“It is of little consequence,” Henry said. There had been devotion but little warmth in his childhood home, and he rarely missed those left behind, but he did sometimes long for the sense of belonging he remembered at the rectory. That was shattered beyond mending, however, and no use missing it. “I was not close to them, as you were to your father. I should have liked to have a family like that.”
“It is a different kind of loss,” Jack said thoughtfully, “to lose something beloved than to never have it at all.” Afternoon sun slanted in through the window, catching his golden curls and his soft, pink mouth. Though the fashion was for beards and sideburns, Abel was clean-shaven, and Henry wondered, looking at the very faint gold stubble that would be invisible in a different light, if Abel, like Henry, simply couldn’t grow one. “But, listen to me, pontificating and keeping you from your work.” Abel shook himself like a wet dog and gave Henry a cheerful grin. “When I start rambling, just shut me up. B—Marshall always does.”
Before Henry could decide on an appropriate response, Abel had bounced to his feet and departed with a casual, “Ring for tea when you get hungry,” tossed over his shoulder.
The next week or so proved futile in his attempts to account for the inconsistencies in the books. The entries were noted too meticulously to be errors, all labeled with descriptions that sounded reasonable enough – usually various and sundry repairs – they just didn’t match. Henry kept a list of the mismatched entries in his leatherbound notebook, and pored over them during his evenings in his lodging house. Sometimes there would be stretches of weeks at a time with nothing of note, and then two or three expenses of several hundred pounds at a time within a few days of each other. The amounts were never the same, so it was not a bribe or some other illicit payment.
Once, Henry actually turned up a receipt for a missing entry – 175 pounds as a down payment on materials for the new warehouse, which had been under construction for more than a year. The entry was noted in the Abel books and not in those belonging to the mill, and Henry discovered the receipt in the midst of a pile of others from the approximate time period.
It reinvigorated his search to such an extent that he stayed late in the office at the Abel townhouse, until after the dinner bell had rung, and Marshall had closed up his own books and gone. Henry could not have said why he felt such motivation, even urgency, to right the discrepancies, only that it kept him bent over the ledgers until the house fell quiet around him and the night outside was full and deep. Lighting an oil lamp for closer light, Henry turned off the gas and returned to his desk. He would look through a few more piles of receipts and depart.
Henry came back to consciousness slowly, first aware of a sharp pain in his neck and then an ache in his lower back, and finally of the soft voices that had woken him. His cheek was resting on paper rather than a pillow, and he blinked blearily, realizing he had fallen asleep over the ledgers in the townhouse office.
It was past dawn, grey light spilling through the curtains he’d never drawn. His desk was in a dark corner away from the window, or the light might have woken him sooner. The wick of the oil lamp had burned down and the flame gone out. Henry rubbed his eyes. He’d slept the whole night over the books; no wonder his neck hurt.
The office door was open. Marshall stood in it with one hand on the knob, looking back over his shoulder to speak quietly with someone in the corridor. Abel, Henry realized, hearing him say, “…think that there is cause for concern?”
“Not yet,” Marshall said. He spoke in a low, early morning tone, but not so softly as one might in the presence of a sleeping person. They had not noticed Henry was there – indeed, who would be so ridiculous as to fall asleep at his desk like a grammar-school boy?
“I am not sure you would tell me if there were,” Abel said, and it sounded like a gentle reproach.
“I tell you the important things,” Marshall returned, “and you trust me with the rest.”
“I do,” said Abel, and then cupped a hand around Marshall’s neck and Henry’s sluggish mind churned with shock as the two men in the doorway kissed. He could see little of Abel over Marshall’s shoulder but there was the unmistakable wet sound of lips meeting and parting, and the way Abel’s fingers slipped intimately into Marshall’s hair.
Henry shook himself, wondering frantically if he were dreaming, but a sharp pinch to the back of his hand did not change the scene in front of him. Still Marshall’s head tilted down, Abel’s grip at the back of his neck and the other arm around Marshall’s waist as Abel said, “Have a good day, love.”
“Enjoy your ride,” Marshall murmured back. There was the sound of footsteps in the hall, and Marshall stood in the doorway a moment longer, looking after Abel, and then turned to enter the office and froze as his eyes fell on Henry.
“I…” Henry began and trailed off, not knowing how he planned to finish that sentence. I won’t tell? I didn’t see anything? I kiss men also? Except he didn’t, usually. His encounters rarely lent themselves to such tenderness. When he did kiss it was usually rough, punishing bites and devouring licks; he couldn’t think of a single time he had been kissed as tenderly as that good-morning exchange. “I fell asleep.”
Marshall shut the door softly and remained in front of it, shoulders squared. He was broadly built, though the cut of his suits disguised it. There was a silence, and Henry could hear his own heartbeat thundering in his ears. Then Marshall took a breath so deep Henry could see his chest moving, and said slowly, “I am sure you are aware that there are a great many unsavory people about in cities these days. The criminal poor, and so on. It can be quite dangerous to walk the streets at times.”
Henry frowned. “Yes? In London also.”
“Yes, I imagine so.” Marshall’s dark brows were drawn together, regarding Henry from beneath them. “Whatever you may think you saw just now, be advised that if you were to make offensive accusations about Mr. Abel, you might find yourself in unpleasant circumstances. Walking down a dark alley, perhaps.” Henry felt a lurch of comprehension, and his pulse rabbited in his throat.
“I won’t!” he exclaimed. “I won’t tell anyone, I swear.”
Marshall just glared at him, lips pressed flat, nostrils flared.
“I…I mean,” Henry gulped and groped for words, “I wouldn’t…I don’t, don’t…consider it any of my affair.”
“Don’t you? Most men would have an objection, their affair or no.”
“I don’t…find it objectionable, or what have you. At all.” Henry’s face felt hot. Marshall was still in front of the door. Henry realized he was gripping the edge of his desk so hard his knuckles hurt. “And I would not wish ill on either of you, I swear.”
“Well.” The set of Marshall’s shoulders softened somewhat. He regarded Henry a moment longer with that piercing gaze under lowered brows, and then pushed a hand into his hair abruptly and moved away from the door. “In that case, you ought to go get some real rest.” He took his customary seat at his desk, straightening his jacket as he did so. “Come back in the afternoon. The books will still be here.”
Henry considered objecting, but not only was he stiff and rumpled in yesterday’s clothing, he was parched and hungry as well, so he carefully closed his ledger and departed. It was only when he took his overcoat from the footman that he realized his hands were shaking.
He got a very stern look from his landlady when he arrived with the breakfast dishes just being cleared away. When he tried to explain that he had fallen asleep at work she raised her eyebrows and said, “I weren’t born yesterday, lad,” but she did give him some bread and cheese to eat and poured him a cup of lukewarm warm tea. Thus fortified he went up to his room to rest his head just for a while and woke up to the noon bells chiming.
When he arrived back at the Abel house, freshly washed and shaved and dressed in fresh clothes, both Abel and Marshall were in the office. There was no hint of impropriety, Marshall at his desk and Abel all the way across the room sprawled in an armchair by the window, but they broke off their conversation as Henry entered the room, and Henry felt himself blush.
Giving them both a nod of acknowledgement without meeting their eyes, Henry went to his own desk and busied himself with his books, though he could scarcely remember what he had been doing the previous night before falling asleep. In the corner of his eye, he could see Abel standing, and Henry ignored him as long as was at all possible, until Abel came to stand directly beside Henry’s desk and Henry could not, in good conscience or good manners, pretend oblivion any longer. He looked up.
“Marshall told me you fell asleep here last night.” Abel’s face showed nothing more than friendly inquiry, but Henry tensed anyway.
“I did,” he said cautiously.
“I trust you are better rested now.”
“Good.” Abel gave a pleasant smile that Henry failed to find comforting. “Are your lodgings not to your taste?”
“No, that is, they are perfectly adequate.” He dropped his gaze and fiddled with his pen. The ink had dried in the nib; it would need to be soaked. “I merely misjudged my own exhaustion and fell asleep.”
“We cannot have you working yourself to exhaustion! Should the need arise, say the word and we shall have a bed made up for you here. You are our guest, and as I understand you have been told, the streets are dangerous at night.”
Henry’s head jerked up. Abel was grinning, hip propped on the desk.
“Mr. Abel,” Marshall said, sharply. “You are keeping Mr. Neale from his work.”
Abel directed his sunny smile at both of them and said, “Don’t mind me. I will leave you both to your work, but any time we can make you more comfortable, Mr. Neale, just say so. We want you safe and well. I trust you want the same for us?”
“Very much so,” Henry said honestly.
“That’s good, because I find you likeable and Mr. Marshall really didn’t want to have you murdered.”
“Jack,” Marshall snapped, as Henry’s mouth dropped open. “Out.” Abel gave a little wave and slipped out the door.
Henry blinked after him. “He likes me?” he repeated.
Marshall sighed. “Mr. Neale, please ignore Mr. Abel and accept my apologies for his flights of fancy.”
“Flights of fancy?” Henry raised his eyebrows, feeling buoyed and reckless. “You weren’t planning to have me accosted in a, ah, dark alley, I believe were your words?”
Marshall looked back at him, cool-eyed. “That would be exceedingly uncivilized.”
“We wouldn’t want to be uncivilized, would we?” Henry said. He grinned at Marshall who gave him a faintly incredulous look, and returned his gaze to his books without a further word. They worked in silence for the rest of the afternoon, Henry feeling more cheerful than a man who’d had his life threatened had any right to feel.
The feeling of elation didn’t last. Henry saw little of either Marshall or Abel over the next few days, and he made no further progress on accounting for the inconsistencies in the books. The amounts were not enormous in comparison to the other staggering expenses of running the business. The mill spent hundreds of pounds a week on wages alone, to say nothing of the costs of coal, cotton, wool and other raw materials. And that was merely the operating mill, against which was borrowed the money to build the partially-constructed warehouse. However, the sum of the unaccounted for entries grew larger in Henry’s notebook.
He was mulling over the problem to himself as he arrived at the townhouse one morning to find Mr. Abel in the foyer, dressed for riding.
“What are you doing here?” Abel asked.
“Working?” Henry hazarded.
“It’s a Sunday!”
Abel put his hands on his hips. “You are working too hard, Mr. Neale. I think a break is in order.”
“Oh, I’m all right,” Henry said vaguely. “I just lost track of the days.”
“Mr. Abel?” a footman said, appearing from the servant’s stairs with a large wicker basket.
“Thank you, Stevens,” Abel said, relieving the man of his burden. Now, Mr. Neale, it’s a beautiful day, and you need to take your mind off work.”
“It’s kind of you to worry but, truly I’m…”
“None of that! Mr. Marshall and I are going for a picnic, and you ought to come along.”
“Me?” Henry squeaked, and then cleared his throat. “I really couldn’t. I have a great deal to do, and I am not entirely sure that would not constitute bribery of a government official.”
“You haven’t tasted Cook’s scones,” Abel said with a laugh. “They aren’t fit to bribe a dog. Come along. Work can wait.”
“I’m really not sure…” Henry protested, but Abel took him by the arm and dragged him down the hall to the rear door, and out into the stable yard, where Marshall was speaking to one of the grooms.
“Mr. Neale is coming with us on our excursion,” Abel announced.
Marshall raised his eyebrows. “Is he now.”
“Yes, and I shall hear no arguments on the subject.”
Henry glanced back and forth between the two of them. “I have no wish to intrude on…if this is your… I mean to say, if the two of you planned to spend the day…” He was very aware of the groom standing impassively by.
Abel squeezed his arm, brief and warm. “You are a very singular man, Mr. Neale. Do you ride at all?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“No matter. We shall take the gig.”
“It’s not made for three,” Marshall said.
“I shall take the footman’s perch. Or failing that we will simply sit very close together.” Abel beamed and Henry’s stomach rolled with some sort of morbidly mingled anticipation and dread.
In the end, all three of them ended up squeezed onto the bench seat of the gig, with Abel in the middle. He had both arms slung casually along the seat-back, behind Henry and Marshall. Henry’s shoulder was tucked up under Abel’s arm, their bodies pressed together from chest to knee. The picnic basket was consigned to Henry’s lap and he clutched it with one arm, holding onto the side of the gig tightly with the other.
In other circumstances, Henry would have found himself fascinated by the ride. Manchester was a rapidly growing city, splitting its own seams with new construction. There were fashionable new townhouses of bright sandstone cheek by jowl with old Tudor construction and cheap new tenements already tarnished with soot. Everywhere there were half-built factories, mills, warehouses, mansions.
Abel pointed them out as they rode. “There’s Lawson’s new factory, it will have three times the capacity of his current mill on Redhill Street, when it is completed. And those row houses are to be shared lodging between Schaffer and Townsend – quite a good idea, I think, for mid-sized operations. To share the upkeep of the school and church and so on. And there’s Olsen’s new manor-house – he could have afforded a more fashionable part of town but he wanted to be close to his mill. Only I heard the other night that it was actually because his mistress didn’t like coming and going with all the fine folks looking down their noses at her.”
Henry was not paying attention. The gig jounced down the rutted road, jostling all three of them together. Abel’s outstretched arms had slid from the back of the seat to rest comfortably across each of their shoulders. Henry was sweating beneath his clothes.
Manchester’s soot-choked sprawl gave way to fields and farmhouses, more quickly than on the outskirts of London. Dozens of small rivers and streams flowed into the lowlands from the moors and the Pennines to the northeast, into the Mersey and toward the sea. The banks were lined with trees, and between them were fields and hedgerows, small stone houses, dusty farmyards. The wheat in the fields was still green, heading up with feathery fronds, waving in the breeze.
Tipping his head back, Henry breathed deeply. He’d been in London for the better part of ten years but had never learned to love cobbles more than clear sky. When he looked down again, he found Abel watching him. “You’re smiling,” Abel said.
“The countryside is lovely.”
“Yes, the view is nice,” Abel said, without taking his eyes off Henry’s face. Henry flushed, and turned to face forward, clutching the picnic basket on his lap.
The smog-smear of Manchester withdrew behind them, until eventually Marshall pulled off the main road near a small stone bridge and guided the horse down a narrow lane, along a farmer’s old stone wall. He reined them to a halt by a stile and hopped down to see to the horse.
Abel put his hand on Henry’s knee for balance as he leapt down also, and then reached back up for the basket. Henry, somewhat reluctantly, passed it off his lap and pulled his coat down as he descended from the gig himself. By that time, Abel had hitched the basket over the stile and was waiting on the other side. The field beyond, Henry saw as he clambered after, sloped down to the stream bank. A flock of sheep turned suspicious eyes on them from one corner of the paddock.
The bank was churned to mud in places by the hooves, but there was a willow tree with roots raised out of the water, making a little elevated spot at its base where the soil had dried in the summer heat. Abel spread the picnic blanket out there, and began unpacking the basket. “Ah, here we are! Cook’s infamous scones.”
“These are the ones not fit to bribe a dog?” Henry asked dubiously.
“The very same. And lest you think we have bribed you, you must try one.” Breaking one open, Abel slathered it with jam and held it out.
Henry took a cautious bite, and made a face. The plum jam was quite good but he had never had a drier scone. It had an almost gritty texture on his tongue and seemed to suck all the moisture from his mouth without getting any softer. “Goodness,” he mumbled. “I see what you mean.”
Abel laughed as Henry chewed and swallowed carefully. “I think she puts grave dirt in them. When I was a boy I did think she might be a witch.”
Henry carefully set the remains of the inedible scone aside and brushed crumbs off his hands. “Why do you keep her on, then?”
Abel lifted a finger, smiling impishly. “Wait until you try her pork pies.”
Marshall joined them as they laid out the meal – a cut of roast beef, a half-dozen meat pies, a loaf of bread, more scones, jelly in a little jar and mustard in another, a pat of butter, bottles of ginger beer, and one of brandy.
“Here.” Abel passed him a pie. “It’s good, I promise,” he added, seeing Henry’s dubious expression.
Sinking his teeth into it, Henry made a noise of startled pleasure. “Mmph!” The filling was rich and flavorful, hints of nutmeg, mint and thyme, along with the flavor of meat and onions stewed in wine. It was a mystery how the creator of the world’s rockiest scones had made a pastry crust that flaked apart on the tongue.
Abel licked crumbs off his own lips and grinned. “We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Ben, pass me the knife, I’ll carve the roast.”
A few of the sheep had ambled down to the water’s edge to drink, keeping wary eyes on the interlopers in their field. “Whose flock is this?” Henry asked, licking pie crumbs off his fingers.
Marshall passed the carving knife to Abel. “My father’s.”
“Oh!” Henry said. “I didn’t realize.”
Abel set about slicing the roast, somewhat unevenly. “The Marshall family is far more respectable than mine. Except his mother is Welsh. Beef sandwich, anyone?”
“My father hails from a minor land-holding family of no name,” Marshall said quellingly. “And I am the fifth son, and thus always destined to work for my living. No mustard for me,” he added.
“I know.” Abel rolled his eyes and began buttering the bread.
“So you came to work at the mill office?” Henry asked.
“The late Mr. Abel and my father were friendly, and the mill was short staffed. I took a temporary position as a favor to him.”
“And that was how you two…met?” Henry stumbled on the word, and flushed.
Abel smiled, not his sharp, pointed grin, but a soft smile, in Marshall’s direction. Henry felt his stomach squirm. “I’m afraid I was a bit of a hellion at university, and my father thought a fancy education was so much tosh – a watchmaker’s son, remember – so he cut me off and set me to work in the mill office. Marshall was the poor soul assigned to nanny the boss’s son.”
Marshall had better control of his expression than Abel, but there was a trace of the same warmth in the lines around his eyes. “No one was more startled than your father at how studiously you took an interest in the business.”
Abel’s grin widened into his customary smirk. “Little did he know.”
Henry felt his own cheeks heat with the urgent English instinct to save someone such shocking displays of emotion. But there was a question crawling unstoppably out of his throat. “How long ago was that?”
Abel passed Marshall his sandwich. “I was nineteen, so it has been…”
“Nine years this winter,” Marshall said, and smiled. “So much for a temporary position.”
A sick longing clenched in Henry’s stomach, to imagine that, an almost inconceivable depth of partnership.
Marshall cleared his throat. “Since we are on the topic, I wanted to apologize. For how I reacted, last week, when you…discovered us.” He made a face. “I swear I don’t make a habit of threatening to have people menaced in dark alleys.”
Henry gave a sudden gasp of laughter, struck by the absurdity. “It’s all right. If I had…someone special, I would want to protect him, too.”
Abel and Marshall exchanged a look so private that Henry glanced away. Then Abel said, “Sandwich, Henry? May I call you Henry? You must call me Jack.”
“Oh.” Henry gulped “Yes, please. To the sandwich, I mean. And my name, I suppose. With mustard. The sandwich. Not the name. Um.”
Abel smiled his sunny smile and began sawing another pair of slices off the loaf of bread, and the conversation moved on. They discussed a new cotton supplier, the warehouse construction, some trouble with one of the foremen. Henry listened more than he spoke, and watched most of all; watched their accord, their ease, even the comfortable disagreements between the two of them, Abel and Marshall; Jack and Ben, to one another.
The sun arced slowly high overhead and the breeze died down, leaving the afternoon air hot even in the shade of the willow. The conversation slowed to a halt in the summer stillness. Henry lay back on the picnic blanket, comfortably full, watching the sunlight flash between the subtly swaying leaves overhead, lifting an arm across his face to shade his eyes.
He woke to the sound of soft laughter and blinked dazedly around. He was still on the picnic blanket, the sun had only barely moved. Beside him, barely more than an arm’s length away, Marshall lay on his back and Jack was leaning over him, one hand propped on Marshall’s chest. They were not kissing, but speaking softly, grinning at one another. It was Jack’s low giggle which had woken Henry.
To his dismay he found his cock twitching in his trousers, confusedly excited by sleep and the glimpse of secret intimacy. He cleared his throat. Both heads turned toward him. “Oh, you’re awake,” Jack said cheerfully, rolling away from Marshall. “Feel fresh?”
Henry rubbed his eyes, sitting up, and grunted something incomprehensible.
Jack laughed. “I know just the thing to wake you up. Let’s go for a dip!”
It woke Henry quite expediently when Jack began stripping off his clothes. “You aren’t supposed to swim after eating,” Marshall said, sounding amused.
“We aren’t swimming, it’s not deep enough to swim. Just a refreshing little splash.” Henry shucked off his trousers and smallclothes together, and knelt naked on the picnic blanket, sunlight dappling over his broad shoulders. Mouth open, Henry couldn’t help the way his eyes dragged over Jack’s body. An athlete’s musculature; not just the toned thighs and belly of a rider, he must also do something to strengthen his arms like that – boxing perhaps. His cock hung plump and tempting between his thighs in a patch of fair curls.
Henry yanked his gaze back up, face scarlet. Jack grinned, then leapt to his feet, and Henry was treated helplessly to the view of his backside as he bounced down to the riverbank and into the water, graceless as a pup.
“Sure you don’t want to get in?” Marshall asked. “You look a little warm.” Henry saw with a shock when he turned that Marshall wore a grin even sharper than Jack’s – an expression Henry had never imagined on his serious face – that made Henry’s stomach turn over pleasantly.
He ended up discarding his shoes and socks, rolling up his trouser legs and wading a little. The cold water did feel wonderful swirling around his calves and ankles, cooling his whole body. Marshall stood in the shallows also, shading his eyes to watch Jack frolic hip-deep in the water. He wondered what someone passing on the road might think of the scene, but they were hidden from the bridge by a bend in the river, and the Marshall family’s stone walls and hedgerows on the other side. In any case, a young man could swim naked with his friends – there were three of them, and surely no one would imagine…no one could think that all three of them might…
Back on the bank, Jack donned his shirt, but left the rest off, sprawling his long, damp legs out and patting the picnic blanket beside him in invitation. “Would you settle a wager for us, Henry?” he asked.
Henry sat. He couldn’t remember the last time someone called him by his Christian name – his family, maybe, years ago. “What’s the bet?”
“What would you do if I did this?” Lifting a hand, Jack cupped Henry’s cheek, leaned forward, and kissed him lightly on the mouth. It only lasted a moment, and then Henry found himself gaping at Jack from a few inches away.
Jack quirked an eyebrow. “Well?”
“I –uh.” Henry blinked and swallowed. His mouth had flooded suddenly with spit.
“I wouldn’t call that kissing back,” Marshall said, rubbing his chin.
“He wasn’t objecting either!” Jack exclaimed. “Were you?”
Henry pulled the scraps of his intellect together. “You talked about this? About…” He gestured between them.
“Of course.” Jack was playing with his collar, sitting close enough to see the individual gold lashes around his eyes, the tiny imperfections in the texture of his skin. “How could we not, with you around for weeks being so smart and dedicated and quite remarkably good looking…and then when you saw us together, and we found you to be both kind and circumspect, and, if you don’t mind my saying so, somewhat telling in your understanding. Of course we talked about you.”
“And about” –he lifted his fingers to his lips– “kissing me?”
Jack hummed agreement. “Just a little wager on your reaction.”
“You thought I would object?” Henry asked faintly, looking at Marshall.
Marshall shrugged, “Well, I didn’t think you’d kiss him back.” Their eyes locked for one long, tantalizing moment, and then Henry lurched forward, got two fistfuls of Jack’s linen shirt, locked their mouths together.
Jack made a surprised noise, and then started laughing into the kiss, which was undignified but surprisingly pleasant. The noise vibrated between their skin, and Jack’s lips parted, wet against Henry’s, tongue exploring in between huffs of breath. Jack threw his arms around Henry’s neck and they went toppling over together, Henry on top.
One of Jack’s legs was between his, ankle hooked behind Henry’s knee. It put his thigh snugly up against Henry’s cock, which was entirely happy about the proceedings. Jack clearly knew the effect he was having, as he was rocking up against it shamelessly, equally hard. Henry was extremely aware that Jack wore nothing but his shirt; that if he reached down, he would find bare, hot flesh.
When their lips finally parted with a damp smack, Jack tipped his head toward Marshall and panted, “Our wager goes to me.”
Henry felt a hot shock go through him, hungry and mortified at once at the idea of being used not as a lover but as a sort of game piece, the ace of spades, the knight in checkmate. His cock throbbed.
“I see that,” Marshall said, amused. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Claim my prize, of course,” Jack said, and quirked an eyebrow at Henry. Henry gulped and nodded.
He found himself pushed onto his back, Jack straddling his hips, solid weight holding Henry down. They kissed until Henry’s mouth tingled with it, until they were both rutting at one another through their clothes, stiff cocks bumping and pressing. When Henry began making embarrassing whimpering noises into their kiss, Jack slid backward until he was crouched between Henry’s knees, and began plucking at the buttons of his trousers.
Henry moaned, acutely aware of Marshall watching as Jack drew out Henry’s prick and licked the head unceremoniously. Marshall had one hand in his own lap, squeezing himself absently through his trousers, eyes on Jack’s mouth. Winking at Marshall, Jack swiped the leaking slit of Henry’s cock over his lips, leaving them shiny, pursed his lips in an exaggerated pout like a stage actor checking his makeup, then when Henry was caught between arousal and laughter, sucked him deep without warning, so Henry’s half-born laugh turned into a gasp.
Jack was skillful and steady, once he’d stopped playing, less distractible than Henry had imagined – might have imagined, had he imagined such a thing. Henry felt himself drifting as on a warm tide, pleasurably buoyant. The sun and shade made magic-lantern patterns on his closed eyelids. His balls were tight, his cock sliding sweetly in Jack’s mouth.
The arousal in his stomach simmered steadily. Like the summer day it stretched on and on, without the sharp ascent toward climax. Henry could happily have lain thus until the stars came out, but Jack’s jaw must be aching by now, and he of course wouldn’t enjoy the edge of pain the way Henry did. He must be growing tired and Henry still hadn’t finished, nor could he see release in the gentle fields of his arousal. Furrowing his brow, Henry tried to focus harder on the wet drag of Jack’s lips, the grip of Jack’s fingers around the base of his cock.
But a thread of unease grew, that without the rough use, the demanding callousness, the urgent disregard which Henry so shamefully enjoyed, that Jack’s diligent, considerate work wouldn’t be enough, or else it would take too long. Jack would be insulted, or worse, disappointed, and Henry would have ruined it with his horrible, unclean desires. Henry felt the cold creep of anxiousness and self-loathing and compounding it, felt his prick begin to go soft. He clapped both hands over his face in a flood of misery.
Jack pulled off slowly. “Something else?” he asked, voice hoarse. His palms rubbed up and down Henry’s thighs. “Or do you want to stop?”
“No!” Henry yelped, still hiding behind his hands. “No. I’m sorry. I don’t want to stop. I just. Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry. I’m happy to keep going,” Jack said, and kissed at his wilted cock, suckling lightly at the soft skin over the head. “Unless you’d like something different?”
Henry pressed his fingers harder into his eyes.
“Talk to us, Henry,” Marshall said, voice closer than Henry had expected. “What do you like?”
“I –“ Henry began, face burning. He had only ever spoken these desires aloud to prostitutes. When meeting strangers in dark pubs and back alleys, he selected men who looked likely to give him rough treatment without instruction. And when it wasn’t to his taste, well, they hardly cared if he spent also. “I like to be…used.”
“You like to be fucked?” Jack asked and Henry grimaced behind his hands.
“Yes. But not…only. I like” –he squirmed– “to be a, ah, to be subject to another’s desires.”
Jack, who was still nosing around his damp groin, placing careful little kisses, made a humming noise that Henry felt more than heard. “To be used however your lover desires? As if you were merely an instrument, for their pleasure?” Henry felt a contraction in his groin as his semi-soft cock twitched, and Jack said, “Aha. You like that, the idea of being a tool, a toy, just for our entertainment. As if you had no say in the matter. Is that right?”
Henry made a muffled inarticulate noise, his prick answering for him, plumping against Jack’s lips.
“I like the sound of that,” Jack continued, breath gusting over Henry’s cock. “My new toy, Henry. Did you bring him home just for me, Ben?”
Very gently, Marshall drew Henry’s hands away from his face. Eyes watering in the sudden sunlight, Henry squinted up at them both. Marshall gazed for a long moment into Henry’s face, and then said to Jack, “I certainly hoped he might be of use.”
Jack laughed and began plucking at Henry’s shirt buttons. “Do you want to help me unwrap my present?”
Henry was efficiently undressed, until he knelt on the picnic blanket clothed only in the scarlet flush that he could feel from the tips of his ears down past his nipples. His prick swung half-hard between his legs. Jack, still wearing only his shirt, crawled in a semi-circle around Henry, making a sort of inspection, humming and smiling to himself. Sweat prickled on the back of Henry’s neck.
“What do you want, love?” Marshall asked Jack, putting a hand on his back as Jack returned to his side.
Jack leaned against Marshall’s chest. “I want something inside me,” he said, one hand between his legs, stroking his own cock absently as he looked at Henry. “That sweet little prick.” Henry shivered, the prick in question twitching. Jack licked his lips. “But I want to see our new toy get fucked too, I think he’d like that.” A slight frown furrowed his brow and he tugged on Ben’s sleeve. “Ben, I can’t decide which I want first.”
Marshall smiled indulgently. “I think we can arrange for you to have both.” He moved one arm behind Jack’s body where Henry couldn’t see, and did something that made Jack jump. “What if you had my cock in you while you fucked him?”
Jack and Henry both made a noise at that, a delighted exclamation from Jack and a low whimper from Henry. Henry’s traitorous cock had no trouble standing to attention now, rising toward his belly.
Jack clapped his hands. “Brilliant, Ben! What do you think, will you let me take you?” He shuffled forward in front of Henry. “Make me feel good while Ben fucks me?”
Henry had rarely been asked to confirm or deny his desires, and he bit his lip, forcing himself to nod. Jack made a noise almost like a purr and leaned forward to kiss him. Their mouths moved slick and open together until Jack made a little gasping noise and drew back. Craning his head up, Henry saw Marshall over Jack’s shoulder, forearm working at Jack’s arse.
Jack’s eyelids fluttered, and he moaned and then said, “Wait, wait, Ben. Henry first.”
Marshall passed Jack the bottle of oil, and Henry found himself tipped on his back with his knees around his ears as Jack fingered him open, with more patience than was characteristic or necessary, until Henry was gasping, “Please, please – I’m ready, just, please!” and Jack was hitching Henry’s buttocks onto his thighs and bending over him, the head of his cock probing bluntly and then sliding in all at once.
They groaned together. Jack’s weight on Henry’s thighs, pressing his legs further open, made his muscles strain. He would be aching for days from being used. His prick tapped against his belly, flexing of its own accord. Jack’s prick was not the largest he’d taken but it felt enormous inside him, air rushing out of his lungs as Jack bottomed out with a jerky thrust.
“Steady,” Marshall said. “How does he feel? How does Henry feel on your cock?”
“Perfect,” Jack gasped and Henry felt a rush of heat, from his face to his belly. His cock was leaking already, leaving a sticky smear on his stomach. “He feels perfect, so tight and warm on me.”
“You look lovely. I love to watch you like this.” Forcing his eyes open, Henry looked up into Marshall’s face. He was stroking a hand up and down Jack’s back, staring down at them both with intensity almost like a second touch, as if Henry could feel Marshall’s hands on his skin as well, caressing his face. “Spread your legs for me.”
Jack shifted, making Henry catch his breath sharply as the angle of penetration changed abruptly. Face tucked against Henry’s throat, Jack moaned and squirmed as Marshall fingered him open. Henry lay pinned and helpless beneath him, cock throbbing as Jack’s movements shifted his prick inside Henry, not in any kind of satisfying or deliberate way – because it wasn’t for his satisfaction, it was for Jack to have a hole to fuck while Marshall fucked him. Henry moaned weakly in Jack’s ear and Jack nibbled on his neck in response.
“Hold still,” Marshall said, and there was a sharp smack. Jack jolted forward into Henry, and Henry whimpered. When Marshall pressed his cock into Jack, Henry could feel it in the way Jack’s lungs ballooned against his chest, the huffs of damp air against his neck, the way Jack trembled and moaned.
There was a moment or two of fumbling, where Jack and Marshall both tried to move out of sync with one another and Jack’s cock nearly slipped out of Henry. Then Marshall planted a hand in the middle of Jack’s back, forcing him down against Henry’s chest, and thrust hard, driving his cock into Henry with the movement. Jack yelled loud enough to make Henry wince, and Marshall slapped his other hand over Jack’s mouth, beginning a steady rhythm with his hips.
Each of Marshall’s thrusts rocked Jack more deeply into Henry. His cock was drooling against his stomach, untouched and aching, the muscles in his thighs burning with the strain. The sheep baa’d uneasily at the noises they were making, and only the hand over Jack’s mouth stopped him from bringing half the parish down on them, shouts and grunts muffled by Marshall’s palm.
Dipping his head forward, Jack licked at Henry’s lips through Marshall’s fingers, and Henry opened his mouth in response, tongue sliding over Marshall’s knuckles.
“Filthy,” Marshall said fondly, wet fingers dragging across Henry’s cheek as he pulled his hand away to brace himself against the ground and drive into them both harder. Jack groaned into Henry’s mouth, heavy on top of him, cock buried deep in Henry’s arse, not moving except with Marshall’s thrusts, letting them both service him. “Oh yes, oh God,” he gasped. “So perfect, Henry, so good for me. Christ, Ben, that feels good, don’t stop. I’m close, I’m so close.”
“Going to spend in our new toy?” Marshall asked, and Henry cried out wordlessly as his whole body clenched around Jack’s cock. Shuddering, he spilled helplessly all over his chest and chin, his cock jerking between his belly and Jack’s. Jack moaned and bit down on the meat of his shoulder, and Henry felt Jack’s hips stutter inside him, thrusting deep.
He lay dazed, panting, his sensitive cock half-hard, while Ben fucked Jack steadily through the shuddering throes of his climax. Overhead the blue sky winked between the sighing, fluttering leaves. The sun blazed behind Marshall’s head, haloing his dark hair as he threw his head back in silent pleasure. On top of Henry, Jack sighed in contentment and gave a little wiggle that sent shivering shocks through Henry once more.
When they had eased apart enough for Henry to straighten his legs with a pained groan and to mop up the worst of the mess with the linen napkins Cook had packed, Jack burrowed up beside Henry and kissed his cheek, laughably chaste. “Thank you for my present,” he murmured, and Henry couldn’t help but laugh and turn his head to catch Jack’s lips against his.
They returned from their picnic in the cooling twilight, grass stained, disheveled, and somewhat sunburnt. Jack and Marshall dropped Henry at his lodgings – there was no question of kissing on the open street but Jack squeezed Henry’s knee hard before Henry climbed down from the gig.
He had no idea what to expect Monday morning, and when Marshall greeted him at the manor house office with his usual reserved courtesy, Henry told himself that the sensation in his chest of a stack of china crashing to the ground was relief. He repeated to himself all morning that it was best for everyone to leave their encounter safely behind in the countryside: a fanciful, pastoral interlude which belonged to the workaday world as much as forest nymphs belonged in Piccadilly. He kept his head down when sandwiches arrived at teatime, and made only the most passing of remarks to Marshall. Over the course of the last three weeks, they had grown comfortable working together in silence. Henry reminded himself firmly that to expect any change would be foolish at best.
Therefore, it came as an entire surprise when Jack arrived, as Henry was packing his valise for the night, sat himself down squarely in Henry’s lap, and said, “You should stay for a drink.”
Within the hour, Henry was on his hands and knees in Jack’s private sitting room, choking on Marshall’s cock as Jack ploughed into him from behind. He spent all over the expensive imported carpet and got friction burns on his knees.
The week that followed was a strange one. He spent all of Tuesday and Wednesday at the mill, much of it in the basement archives, sorting through moldering stacks of paid invoices and receipts, matching dates and amounts, making copious notes in his leather-bound book. Small twinges of muscle and flesh would not let him forget his extremely unprofessional extracurricular activities, even as his skin parched with paper dust, looking for the right records to make sense of the books, and finding nothing.
Thursday he was back at the Abel townhouse, comparing notes futilely. All the new numbers merely muddied the picture and did not account for the discrepancies. Swearing under his breath, Henry scratched a vicious X through the total at the bottom of his page of notations.
“Something troubling you?” Marshall asked, at his own desk across the room.
Henry sat back and put his pen down. “These numbers don’t add up,” he said bluntly.
A faint frown furrowed Marshall’s brow. “I’m fairly certain they do.”
“Well, yes, the numbers in the master ledger balance but I can’t always find corresponding notations from the business ledgers.” Henry ran his hands through his hair, tugging at the strands. “And the ledgers from before you took the post are a complete mess.”
“That’s true. My predecessor did not have the capacity required by the late Mr. Abel, to manage his business. This position was not entirely a sinecure.” Marshall was still frowning. “And you’re sure you’ve looked through all the receipts, and not found anything corresponding?”
“No, I’m not sure!” Henry exclaimed. “There are thousands of them, and half are rotted away in the damp or mildewed unreadably. I could look for years and not find the documentation. What I want to know is why didn’t the expenses get entered in the mill’s books, if there is a receipt for them?”
Marshall pursed his lips. “A truly unfortunate lapse in bookkeeping for which I can only apologize. I have been endeavoring to improve the standards for how invoicing and payments are handled.”
“The last year or so has been better,” Henry conceded. “In fact, I haven’t found any discrepancies in the most recent ledger at all.”
“You ought to take a rest,” Marshall said, putting down his own pen.
“Usually Jack’s the one telling me that. What would I do, go sit in my lodging house? I’d rather at least be trying to work.”
Marshall tipped his head to one side. “I have a suggestion, if you are amenable.” It was a lower, silkier tone than his usual brisk professionalism, and it made Henry sit up abruptly, prick stirring. Marshall smiled at his reaction. “Come here.”
Henry hesitated only a moment, then got up and went around the desk where Marshall was seated. Marshall pushed his chair back a little, and spread his knees, gesturing to the floor beneath the desk, between his legs. Henry felt his pulse leap. “What, here? Now?”
The corner of Marshall’s mouth curled up. “You can take your mind off your work and still be making yourself useful.”
Henry knew that if he turned away and walked back to his desk, nothing more would be said about it at all. They both would return to their books as if nothing had happened. That would be the rational, professional, correct thing to do. Heart pounding, Henry lowered himself to the floor.
“Good boy,” Marshall murmured, running his fingers through Henry’s hair, and then reaching for the buttons on his trousers. Henry felt his breath come short and his mouth water as Marshall’s deft fingers plucked open his fly and let his soft cock loll out. With a gentle tug on his hair, Marshall guided him forward, and Henry opened his mouth obediently, taking nearly all of Marshall’s prick in his mouth.
Above him, Marshall sighed and there was the sound of a pen nib beginning to scratch away at a page again. Sudden heat flushed through Henry’s body at being used so casually, almost an afterthought to Marshall’s work. His cock thickened gradually on Henry’s tongue, but never grew fully hard, in contrast to the way Henry’s prick had stiffened almost immediately.
The door opened, and Henry froze. He was fully hidden beneath the heavy desk unless someone should walk all the way around to it, but the danger made every nerve in his body twang. “Papers for you, Mr. Marshall,” the footman’s voice said. Henry’s pulse thumped in his ears.
“Thank you, Stieber,” Marshall said. “Put them there.” Henry trembled, straining his ears for footsteps. Marshall’s prick was heavy on his tongue.
The door shut behind the footman, and Henry let out a long, shuddering breath against Marshall’s groin, feeling Marshall’s fingers comb through his hair. “You’re being very good,” Marshall murmured, and Henry’s whole body throbbed, oversensitive.
At some point, with Marshall’s thick, semi-hard prick in his mouth, the passage of time came unmoored, measured only by the occasional reassuring stroke of Marshall’s hand on his head, and the dull ache in his jaw and knees. It was fuzzy, soothing. He was hard himself, one hand pressed between his legs comfortably, but it was by no means urgent.
He was jolted out of his pleasant reverie when the office door opened once more and Jack’s voice said, “Where’s Henry?”
“Lock the door and I’ll show you.”
The lock clicked, and Marshall shifted the chair away from the desk, Henry following on his knees. He was stiff and sore, but loath to let Marshall out of mouth. Marshall chuckled, looking down at him. “Enjoying yourself?”
Jack came around the desk. “Oh hello, beautiful. Did you get to spend the afternoon like this? Lucky dog.” He knelt down beside Henry, Marshall spreading his legs wider to accommodate both of them, and leaned in to kiss the corner of Henry’s mouth where it was open around Marshall’s cock, which twitched on Henry’s tongue. Jack felt it too, grinning up at Marshall and then licking obscenely across Henry’s stretched lips.
“Christ.” Marshall’s voice was strained.
Jack hummed happily, and dropped a hand to Henry’s lap, squeezing his neglected prick. He’d leaked a distinct wet patch into his smallclothes and hardly noticed, he realized, until Jack was undoing his buttons and the wet cotton suddenly felt cool on his cock. Jack’s hand closed around him, smearing the slick down his length, making him moan, muffled by Marshall’s prick.
“Kiss me?” Jack asked sweetly, and Henry realized he was talking to him. “No, don’t move,” Jack added. “Like this,” and leaned in to kiss Henry around Marshall’s cock.
“Jack.” Marshall had spent the afternoon more or less hard, but now he was throbbing. Jack hummed in satisfaction, swiping his tongue over the head before licking into Henry’s mouth, and Henry did his best to kiss back, sloppily, Marshall’s cockhead dragging between his lips, smearing wetly against his cheeks and chin. Henry could taste the hint of salt that meant Marshall was beginning to leak, and he felt his own balls tighten also.
“Fuck.” Marshall pulled back and began stroking his own cock rapidly, knuckles gleaming with spit. “Open your mouths.”
Henry did, and beside him Jack did the same, pink tongue lolling out. Hand working fast on his cock, Marshall spent in pearly streaks over their lips and tongues. After so long on edge himself, the shock of it, the very idea and the sight of Jack’s beautiful mouth curling into a grin, lapping up Marshall’s seed from his chin, sent Henry over into a convulsive climax of his own.
“Fuck, look at you both,” Jack groaned, wrestling with his own trouser buttons, pink cock poking out. “Touch me, stroke me please, I want it, I want it so much. Ben, Henry, please.”
Still limp with pleasure, Henry got a hand around Jack’s cock doing his best to keep up a steady rhythm. Leaning forward, Jack pressed their mouths together in a messy, sticky kiss with the bitter taste of Marshall’s seed on both their tongues. Above their heads Marshall swore, and Henry felt a hand cup the back of his neck, possessive and gentle.
Jack did not have the benefit of an afternoon’s worth of anticipation, but Henry was content floating on the lassitude of climax, leaning his shoulder against Ben’s warm thigh, kissing Jack lazily. It didn’t take long till Jack moaned into his mouth and shot his seed on the floor between them.
Sighing, Jack tipped his head forward against Henry’s shoulder. Marshall’s fingers were in his hair, brushing Henry’s cheek. Jack hummed contentedly. “That’s what I call a fine afternoon’s work.”
Gathering his wits somewhat, Henry looked down at the floor and made a noise of dismay. Their clothes had largely escaped unscathed, but there were ropes of seed gleaming all over the polished floorboards between their knees. “We’ve made a mess.”
Jack twisted his head to look at Henry and his contented smile took on a wicked aspect. “Going to clean it up for us?” Henry felt his breath catch with a punch of pleasure low in his gut. His mouth dropped open slightly. Jack’s eyes narrowed in glee. “Oh, you’d like that, if I made you lick it up. I can see you thinking about it.”
“Maybe some other time,” Marshall said. “Henry has worked hard on his knees already today.”
“You’re right.” Getting to his feet, Jack tucked his prick back in his trousers, straightened his clothes, and winked. “Like Ben said, some other time.” He went to the door and unlocked it, leaning out into the corridor and whistling between his teeth. “Victor! Here boy!”
“For God’s sake, Jack,” Ben said, “you can’t just…” Henry poked his head over the edge of the desk to look between them in confusion as he heard the clatter of canine nails in the hallway.
“Who’s a good boy,” Jack said, bending over to greet the dog. “Yes, you. Come here.”
“You absolute dunderhead, are you trying to teach him to have a taste for—”
Jack had led the dog around the desk, and tapped his toe by the sticky mess they’d left on the floorboards. “Here, boy.”
Henry clapped a hand over his mouth as he began to laugh. Ben bent forward and thunked his head on the desk. “I’m leaving you,” he mumbled. Collapsing back on the floor with his pants still undone, Henry laughed at the ornate ceiling until Ben was chuckling too.
“It’s convenient!” Jack protested, and they both laughed harder.
A cold, damp nose nudged Henry’s groin, and he yelped and sputtered, batting Victor away from his prick, panting with hilarity. He heard Jack squawking, “No, Victor, leave him alone,” and Ben saying, “Now look what you’ve done,” and Henry howled with laughter until his ribs hurt.
Another week passed at a canter. In the midst of long, dragging hours hunched over the ledgers, Henry would look up and catch Ben looking at him. Ben would smile and suddenly time would go a little faster. The three of them passed nearly every evening together, starting with the pretext of drinks, usually abandoned forthwith for other entertainments, which were varied and vigorous. Henry had rarely had repeated encounters with anyone, and never at such a frequency.
It ought, perhaps, to have sapped his vital energies, but instead he found himself invigorated, if somewhat distracted. There was a sort of unease growing beneath his frustration with the books. The month he was assigned to be in Manchester was drawing to a close; he ought already to be writing up his final report and preparing to return to London. Instead he was abandoning his work in the middle of the day to suck Jack off in the parlor, or be bent over his desk by Ben.
It was Thursday before Henry’s return ticket the following Wednesday, and they were in Ben and Jack’s bed. Technically it was Ben’s – the two shared a set of chambers connected by a study, Jack having apparently convinced his father years previously that the arrangement was useful for something or other.
“Good Lord,” Jack said through a yawn. “And these were nice trousers, too. Dusters now, just about.”
“It was just one seam,” Ben said, quellingly, from Henry’s other side.
“Dusters,” Jack repeated. He stretched, and shimmied the rest of the way out of the much abused trousers, which had never made it further than shoved down his thighs.
Henry was face down on the bed, still trying to catch his breath, sweat drying on his back, “Sorry,” he managed, voice rasping.
Ben clicked his tongue. “Not in the least your fault and in any case, an easy repair. I doubt it will even have to go to the tailor, the laundress will see to it.”
“They’ve popped a button, too.”
“Woe is the man who cannot sew his own buttons!” Ben exclaimed and the mattress shifted. There was the sharp sound of a hand smacking flesh and Jack’s indignant yelp. “All the fuss your father made over raising you with humble values, and you’ve never sewed a button in your life.”
“Peasant,” Jack said cheerfully.
Eyes shut, Henry listened to them bickering comfortably. He had the taste of Jack’s spend still in his mouth, and Ben’s leaking stickily from his arse. He was drifting, half-awake, entirely used. His muscles ached pleasantly, in his jaw, and his shoulders and thighs from bracing himself against both of their thrusts. There was a wet patch under his belly where he’d come off into the sheets, from nothing more than the slight friction of his cockhead against the coverlet, and then collapsed helplessly in his own leavings once Ben and Jack had finished with him.
“I have to go into the tailor’s tomorrow in any case,” Jack was saying, “for the final fit of my new evening jacket.”
“To wear it tomorrow night to the opera? The poor man will be paying his staff double to get that ready in time. I told you to get it done last week.”
“I meant to, but then the farrier came, and the day after there was boat racing, and with one thing and another…”
Ben sighed. “Tip him generously, at least.”
“I always do,” Jack said, affronted, and then poked Henry’s arm. “I think we put Henry to sleep.”
“M’not asleep,” Henry mumbled.
“Oh you’re not?” Jack’s voice came closer, breath gusting against the back of Henry’s neck, making him shiver. “Of course not. We didn’t wear you out at all, I can tell by your vigorous demeanor.”
Henry made an irritable noise, fighting a smile, and rolled onto his back, squinting up at Jack. “Awake. See?”
“I see.” Jack kissed his nose. “I’m glad we didn’t entirely bore you into a stupor.”
“Not at all.” Henry rubbed his eyes, feeling the slow seep of alertness coming back. “You two are very…comfortable together. Settled.”
“Well, yes,” Jack laughed. “We’ve been together nearly a decade. I daresay we are rather dull and domestic.”
“It’s not dull.” Henry readjusting the pillow behind his head, and found himself saying, “I’d like to be settled, some day.”
“Do you think you might marry?”
“Have you no interest in women, then?”
“Not to speak of.” It was not so much that he didn’t find his attention caught by a glimpse of décolletage or a sweetly rounded arm, it was the thought of being the man of the house, the owner of such a complex commodity as a wife made him feel panicky. Moreover, he had no wish to impose upon a woman the depravity he so desired in bed.
Once, in a whore house, after he had mustered words to articulate his desires to the madam, she had said, Well, all our gents are occupied at the moment, but I think I have a lady who might suit, and Henry, unable to face the prospect of either returning home unsatisfied or starting the process over at a different brothel, had agreed. The woman had wasted no time ordering him to his knees and mastering his mouth with her cunt as thoroughly as anyone with a cock had ever done, and he surprised himself by enjoying every minute. Then she had stripped him and given a lesson on fingering a lady, complete with two instructional fingers up his arse, making him copy her movements and rhythms until he spent all over himself. She seemed to enjoy it also, but one couldn’t ask a wife to do things like that. “I don’t imagine I will ever marry.”
Ben propped his chin on his hands, dark curls falling into his eyes. “One need not marry to find settled companionship.”
“I see that, now,” Henry said, with a feeling of something bittersweet blooming under his breastbone. Gladness and longing mixed. “Do you do this often? Taking a third?”
“Sometimes,” Jack said, propping his chin on his hands. “Just for fun.”
“Except for Robert,” Ben said.
“Bonny Bobby,” Jack sighed. “That’s true. We thought he might join us as…more.”
“More,” Henry echoed, heart thumping unaccountably in his chest.
“You know. More than a bit of fun,” Jack said. “Something lasting. But then his father took sick back in Glasgow, and he went back to look after his ma and his little sisters. He writes, sometimes. Married now.” Jack’s mouth turned down at the corners, and Ben put a hand on his back silently. “When is your ticket back to London?”
“But that’s next week!” Jack pushed himself upright, mouth opening in dismay.
Swallowing hard, Henry nodded, telling himself there was no other response possible.
“Well, then…this weekend we ought to do something special! Another picnic perhaps, or… oh, I know! You should come to the opera with us!”
“Oh, I — I couldn’t possibly…”
“No, you must!” Jack gripped his arm, something brittle and slightly frantic about his voice. “It’ll be a fine time, truly! Say you’ll come with us.”
“I haven’t anything near fine enough to wear,” Henry protested.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m sure we can work something out, can’t we Ben? One of father’s evening jackets might fit him. You will come, won’t you Henry? Please?”
“Oh, all right,” Henry said, and it didn’t feel like capitulation at all when Jack beamed at him.
Jack paced around Henry in a slow circle. “Yes, I think one of father’s jackets made most recently will fit you nicely. I grew taller than him at seventeen, and after his illness he was very slight.”
“You really needn’t…” Henry began, but Jack cut him off.
“Nonsense. There’s a whole wardrobe full of the things just gathering dust and feeding moths. I daresay I ought to have given them away by now but the poor house has little use for evening dress. Come along.”
Henry was practiced by now at following Jack into bedchambers. John Abel Senior’s rooms stood empty, though it would have been more the done thing for Jack to move into them. The furniture was all in dust covers; the cloth over the wardrobe billowed to the floor when Jack tugged on it. “Here we are.”
The late John Abel’s clothes did indeed fit, although the sleeves of the evening coat were a little long. Jack fussed over him like a very inefficient valet, and when he finished the outcome was quite respectable. “A little last year, perhaps,” Jack said, eying him in the mirror, “but it will do. It will do very nicely. No one will be paying any attention to your clothes anyhow. Not next to your handsome face.” He pecked Henry on the cheek, and went to extinguish the gas lights, towing Henry by the hand.
The opera house was grand and crowded. Carriages clogged the street in front of its neoclassical façade, coachmen swearing at their horses and at pedestrians in evening dress. Henry felt itchy and out of place in the borrowed dress clothing, but as they disembarked from their own carriage into the press of people queuing it was clear that his fears were unfounded. No one was looking at his clothes. No one was looking at him at all. Everywhere there were finely dressed women drawing the eye, in a riotous array of colors and fabrics, beads, feathers, pearls and jewels, blazing beside their drab husbands and chaperones.
Those who did look toward their trio were looking at Jack, in any case. He made dozens of greetings, each as sincere and cheerful as the last, to various impeccably dressed people, as Ben presented three tickets at the door and they made their way into the lobby. Glittering chandeliers lit red carpets and marble floors. The walls and pillars were decorated with gilded plaster flowers and flourishes. Henry had been in fine theatres in London, in the cheap seats when he’d had a bit extra in his pocket, but he had never had such a close look at the mysterious currents of society.
Jack waded confidently through the crowd, turning heads, exchanging pleasantries. Henry and Ben drifted behind him, hardly noted. Henry didn’t blame his admirers for their attention – in his new tailcoat, with his fair hair tamed and gleaming and his smile beaming in every direction, Jack was radiant; a nonpareil of a beautiful and fashionable young English gentleman, apart from black crepe band around his sleeve. Henry could hardly take his eyes off Jack himself.
Eventually, the sounds of the orchestra beginning the opening bars began to summon the crowd to their seats. Champagne glass in hand, Jack led the way up several flights of plush-carpeted stairs to a box high above the auditorium floor. It was a small space hung with velvet curtains, which somewhat obscured the view of the stage but gave an excellent view to the rest of the theatre. The box was in the highest tier, so that they could look down not only on the auditorium floor but on the glittering occupants of the other boxes.
Curiously, Henry peered down at the faces below – opera glasses and diamonds winking in the house lights as people rustled and settled in rows like birds on a fence. The strains of the orchestra mingled with the murmuring and chatter of the audience. It was already quite hot up so near the arched and frescoed ceiling.
When Henry turned he found Ben and Jack had left the seat between them empty for him, and felt himself blushing unaccountably as he took it. “Have you seen much opera?” Jack asked, leaning in to speak quietly in his ear as the gas lights illuminating the auditorium were dimmed.
“Not much,” Henry whispered back. “I have a tin ear for music.”
“More of one for the melodrama?” Jack said knowingly. “There’s plenty of that in opera also, never fear.”
There was applause as the curtain rose on a gloriously painted set – a sunny, foreign-looking countryside, in bold yellows and purples and greens that glowed in the stage lights – and a man with a mustache the size of a lady’s stole who began to sing in Italian. He had a deep, round voice like a smooth, hollow bowl, which rang off the rafters and made Henry shiver. The music soared, and then the rest of the cast was pouring on stage, all in colorful peasant garb that wouldn’t have lasted a season in the working parish where Henry grew up.
Jack passed him a little pair of glasses inlaid in mother-of-pearl, but through its magnification he could only see bits of the stage at once, and found he preferred to watch the whole sweep of the costumes and chorus and dancers together. Ben, he noticed, listened with his eyes closed, and for a moment Henry wondered if he’d fallen asleep, but his mouth was moving slightly along with the music.
The plot was incomprehensible – there were several pairs of lovers, a tyrannical king, some priests, at least three disguises, although Henry was not certain if they were the same person or meant to be different people, and an extremely energetic duel where both parties sang the entire time and their stage-swords never collided.
At the first entr’acte, Jack turned to Henry. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” Henry said honestly. “I’m sure I’m not appreciating the music properly, but it’s certainly a feast for the eyes.”
“Yes, it is rather dazzling isn’t it? This autumn they are doing a production of Der Freischütz, which is supposed to be a glorious spectacle. We’ll have to bring you—” Jack closed his mouth abruptly, and then said, in nearly the same tone, “Well, I expect it will be a delight. It’s a wonderful work, if you ever get a chance to see it. More champagne?” He reached over and tugged the bell-pull without waiting for a response.
As the second act began, Henry felt somewhat tipsy, and more than a little distracted. It was hot in the theatre and the air was thick with the smells of greasepaint and ladies’ perfume. Henry had sweated through his undershirt already. Jack was restless beside him, fiddling with the opera glasses, their elbows and knees bumping. They knocked into each other again, and Jack put a hand on his knee, squeezing companionably, and left it there.
Henry sat, sweating and trying not to squirm as the performance continued and Jack’s hand gradually inched its way up his thigh. A vigorous chorus number began on stage, and Henry nearly jumped out of his seat as Jack’s palm came to rest directly over his cock. Henry whipped his head around, but Jack was staring, apparently rapt, at the stage, only a faint smirk indicating to an observer that anything was amiss.
“Jack,” Henry hissed.
“Relax,” Jack murmured back. “Look natural. No one can see. Not my hand, anyway.”
“Ben…” Henry tried, and felt Ben’s long fingers close around Henry’s hand on the other side, giving a quick, reassuring squeeze, and then trailing from his arm down into his lap. Henry pressed his lips together to suppress an oath as their hands met over his cock and Jack gurgled a low, pleased laugh. His fingers curled on the arms of the seat. Someone was plucking at his buttons. He didn’t dare look down.
Cool fingers curled around his prick, pulling him out of his trousers into the open air. Henry bit his lip, excruciatingly aware that, while his lap was hidden by the side of the box and their elevation above the audience, his face was in plain view of half the room. His cheeks were flaming. The sweltering, humid, human-body heat of the air pressed on him like a physical force. The music grew soupy and dreamlike to his ear.
On stage the dancers whirled a nonsensical dervish. Both his companions were still watching with every appearance of interest, no indication that one of them was cupping and rolling his balls gently, while the other stroked his cock. He was beginning to leak, feeling the slickness of it as a thumb swiped across his slit.
“You’re being very good,” Jack murmured, and then chuckled when Henry’s cock twitched. Glancing to the side, Henry saw that Jack had his own prick out, playing with himself lazily with the other hand. Ben was also hard in his trousers, but making no move to touch himself.
Henry felt both their hands twining together around his erection, fingers overlapping. They began a counterpoint movement, one stroking up and the other down, meeting in the middle. Henry slapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a moan, and then fumbled for a handkerchief to disguise the motion as a sneeze. His fingers shook as he retrieved the square of cotton. Jack whispered in his ear, “Going to spend already?”
Henry wanted to protest that, no, the handkerchief was merely a prop, but in truth, a certain tightness in his belly and groin indicated otherwise. Jack sighed happily, warm breath tickling Henry’s neck, making him shiver. “Letting us touch you like this makes you hot, doesn’t it?” Their interlocked fingers were getting slick on Henry’s throbbing cock. “At our mercy. Just another part of the evening’s entertainment.”
Henry whimpered, balls contracting abruptly as his climax rose through him, sweeping from his extremities to his core like a crescendo. He clamped the handkerchief over the head of his cock and Jack made a purring noise in his ear as Henry filled the cloth with his spend. “So beautiful,” Jack murmured, still stroking the last few pulses out of him, “so good for me. Such a good boy.” Henry bit his lip, trembling.
Withdrawing his hand and plucking the damp handkerchief with it, Jack turned his face forward to the stage, and began working his own in earnest. His face remained impressively neutral in contrast to the quick, jerky movements of his forearm, bumping against Henry’s. The music rang in Henry’s ears, distorted by the thumping of his pulse. He felt lightheaded.
Beside him, Jack stiffened as the orchestra thundered into the closing notes of the act. His eyes fluttered closed briefly, lips parting as if in ecstasy at the music. Ben made an appreciative noise on Henry’s other side, which was lost in the swell of applause as the curtains swept shut across the stage. Blinking his eyes open, Jack threw back his head and laughed, beginning to clap along with the audience, handkerchief crumpled between his palms.
The house lights began to come up for the second entr’acte. Jack turned, looking radiant; grinning and flushed in evening dress, not so rumpled as to be scandalous, but glowing with satisfaction. He had his trousers done up again by the time the audience began to shift and rise. “What about you, Ben? Can you wait until the third act?”
“I’ll manage till we get home,” Ben said. He adjusted the bulge in his trousers a little and added, “I have plans for this.”
As Jack crowded predictably over that, Henry excused himself to get a breath of air.
It was distinctly cooler in the hallways than the auditorium, heated by both the crowd and the stage lights, but not cool enough. He made his way down the flights of stairs and across the lobby, murmuring apologies to people as he shouldered past them, and out into the summer evening, which was neither as cool nor as fresh as it could have been, but was a relief nonetheless. Leaning against a pillar, Henry sucked in air, feeling his heartbeat finally begin to slow.
His collar was soaked with sweat, his forehead slick with it. He reached reflexively for his handkerchief. It not being his coat, the inner pockets were not where he expected them to be, and it took him a moment of distracted searching before he remembered that it was, of course, soiled. In one of the pockets was a crinkle of paper. In a moment of distracted curiosity, he pulled it out, turning toward the nearest lamp to read it.
It was a flimsy scrap of paper, somewhat faded in the creases, and Henry read it over twice before making sense of it. In a neat, professional hand was a bookkeeper’s note for the sum of 555 pounds wagered against the success of a horse called Daisy Prince, dated from the third of March, 1943, somewhat more than a year previously. It was unremarkable except for the sum, which was distinct in its evenness.
For a long moment Henry stood still, trying to place why the evenness of that number seemed familiar. A suspicion unfurled in mind and his stomach plunged unpleasantly.
A polite bell chimed in the atrium and the colorful gentry began to flood back toward the auditorium. Feeling sick, Henry folded the paper carefully, returned it to his own inner shirt pocket, rather than the suit jacket, and followed the others, climbing back up toward the box. When he took his seat, Jack cast him a grin and then did a double take. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” Henry said hurriedly. Jack frowned at him but the lights were going down and the orchestra swung into the third act with enough vigor to discourage speech.
Afterward, Henry recalled little of the rest of the opera except the increasing claustrophobia of the hot theatre. He wanted his books in front of him, to put concrete numbers to his concerns. Without them, his mind spun uselessly to the frenetic music while his palms sweated against his wool trousers.
In the carriage, Jack asked again if he was feeling well and Henry admitted to exhausted distraction, and then cursed himself for that excuse when Jack immediately offered to have him dropped back at his lodgings. Henry did not want to sleep; he wanted to get his hands immediately on the records he had been pouring over for the last several weeks.
“No, truly. I have to return the borrowed clothes, in any case.”
“Well, if you’re coming home so I can undress you…” Jack began, and trailed off at whatever he saw in Henry’s face. He cast a helpless look at Marshall.
“Henry,” Ben began, with painful kindness, “neither of us wish to make you uncomfortable to a degree you don’t wish. If we went too far in the theatre, you need only say so.”
Henry chewed his lip and took the excuse. “Perhaps a bit.”
“Oh.” Jack’s face fell so sharply that Henry ached. “Oh no. I’m sorry, Henry. It was my fault, I shouldn’t have…well, I’m sorry, that’s all.” He sounded miserable. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I know.” Henry felt nearly sick with the urge to take his words back as Jack withdrew to the other side of the carriage, leaning against Ben’s side, face downcast.
Ben put an arm around Jack’s shoulders said, “We ought not to have assumed you would be open to all our most depraved habits despite your interest in some of them.”
“No, it’s…” Henry twisted his hands in his lap. “It wasn’t your fault. Either of you. Really. I didn’t say anything or, or try to stop you. I…I liked it. At the time. It’s just…”
“It was too much afterward?” Ben suggested, and Henry nodded, grateful and guilty. The rest of the ride passed in silence, until they pulled up in front of the Abel house.
His street clothes were still in the upstairs room where Jack had dressed him earlier, and the three of them went up the stairs together, but without the pleasant promise of a shared destination, a shared bed. On the upstairs landing, Henry gestured and said, “I shall…I’ll just change out of this. I can let myself out, after.”
“Yes.” Jack scuffed his feet. “Well. Goodnight. And sorry, again.”
“Please don’t be sorry,” Henry said.
“May I…?” Jack asked, leaning forward hopefully, and Henry’s heart hurt too much to deny him.
The kiss was sweet and shallow, and the smile Jack gave him when they parted made Henry’s throat ache as if he were about to cry. “Goodnight.”
Jack and Marshall retired together, and Henry went into John Abel’s chamber to change. He checked all the other pockets of the evening jacket carefully, and found nothing. Donning his own, mundane waistcoat and jacket, which did not need a valet to help him into, he extinguished the light and left the room.
Instead of going down to the foyer to get his coat and depart, he slipped down the dark hall to the office, closing the door softly behind him, and lit a single lamp, turning it down as low as the flame would go. He pulled his own leather-bound notebook from his satchel lying by his desk. And there it was, at the very top of Henry’s notes – the most recent incongruity he had found in the Abel books, an expense for unspecified repairs in the amount of 555 pounds even, dated from the third of March, 1943.
Letting out a shaky breath, Henry folded forward over the book and pressed his forehead to the pages, breathing in the musty, comforting paper scent. It was a long time before he gathered himself enough to make the dark, solitary trek back to his lodging house and his chilly, lumpy, lonely bed.
The next morning was a Saturday, a day of business for horse racing. His landlady expressed stern disapproval when he asked about the location of the bookkeeper whose mark was on the scrip, but she gave him directions to a race track in Ardwick.
Henry arrived several hours before race time, when the track was still largely deserted except for the jockeys and stablehands. The boy at the ticket counter was sullen and unforthcoming but when threatened with the wrath of the Board of Taxes, fetched the head bookkeeper. He was a short, balding man who gave the undoubtedly fictional name of Jones.
Jones was equally disinclined to be generous toward a representative of the state, but a combination of sweet talk, fast talk, and veiled threats put the books in Henry’s hands. It was the work of just a few minutes to find that on the first of March, 1843, a Saturday, Daisy Prince had lost his race at odds of three to one. A wager of 555 pounds matched the scrip Henry had found in the late John Abel’s jacket, and the entry Ben had made the following Monday in the business ledgers for Abel Mill.
Henry spent the better part of the day poring over the back records with his own notebook open on the table beside him, while outside the grandstand filled up and the horses were run, the roar of the crowd rising and falling with each race. He made it through several years’ worth of records by the end of the day. There were no names on the wagers in the books, only scrip numbers, so that the correct note could be redeemed. On most days, it was impossible to compare the numbers in Henry’s notebook, which represented the unaccounted-for expenses in the ledgers, to the wagers, since Abel had bet on more than one race each day, and presumably won some while losing others. There were a few that matched, however – large losses, clearly enough to send Abel away from the racetrack for the day, each one of them noted a day or two later, under some innocuous label as an expense or repair, in the mill’s books.
At the end of the day, Henry returned to his lodgings with a full journal and a heavy heart. There was a note awaiting him, inviting him on a Sunday jaunt in the country with Jack and Ben, no doubt another sun-soaked, riverside excursion. Henry didn’t respond.
Monday was payday, which meant Ben was at the factory and Henry had the manor-house office to himself. Jack was nowhere to be seen, for which he was profoundly grateful. Sitting down with his notes from the race track and the master ledgers from the relevant dates, he began laboriously to double-check his work.
The results were damning.
Not every inconsistency was accounted for by the gambling losses – there were many numbers he simply had not been able to compare, and no doubt there had been other losses at other racetracks and gambling hells – but every major loss at the horses was hidden somewhere, in Ben’s neat, familiar hand, under vague items like repairs or capital improvements.
With a sick knot in his stomach, Henry began, mechanically, to make calculations, and was still at it when Ben returned, shortly after the chime of four. Standing abruptly, Henry fought a brief dizzy spell and realized he hadn’t eaten since the few bites of breakfast he’d managed to cram down at the lodging house. Ben’s brow furrowed in concern. “Are you well?”
Henry nodded, and then grimaced and shook his head, cursing himself for his lack of composure when Ben crossed the room, reaching out for him – to hold him, or feel his face for fever, Henry wasn’t sure. He put up both hands in a warding motion, and Ben stopped, frowning.
Henry’s throat was dry. He swallowed with a click, and said, “You were hiding Mr. Abel’s gambling in the books.”
The worried expression dropped from Ben’s face, momentarily replaced by shock and then a sort of stony blankness. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yes you do. All the expenses that didn’t match the factory books, all the discrepancies I’ve been hunting down for weeks.”
“Some of the records and receipts have likely been misplaced or destroyed…” Ben began, but Henry interrupted him.
“Don’t give me that. Don’t stand there and lie to my face.” The hollow horror in Henry’s gut was igniting into something fiery. “It’s all there, in your hand. The repairs that didn’t add up; I could never find proper records for them because they weren’t factory expenses at all! They were racecourse losses and God knows what else!”
“I was doing the job Abel hired me to do,” Ben said flatly.
“You were hiding the debts in the books and lying to me!” That was not really the pertinent fact, but it burned in Henry’s mouth hot enough that he spat it out. “This whole time! Leading me on a merry chase after nothing while we…” Henry swallowed hard, heart pounding.
At that Ben dropped his gaze, though his expression didn’t change. “I was doing what I had to do,” he repeated.
Aren’t you sorry? Henry wanted to shout. Aren’t you ashamed? But that was the response of a lover, not an auditor. Instead, he took a deep breath and said with careful dignity, “In light of this, I will calculate the business’s new tax liability, which I expect will be substantial.” His voice shook.
“You’ll do as you see fit,” Ben said stiffly, “I did.” Turning on his heel, he strode out of the room.
Henry would gladly have left also, departed the Abel house and never returned, but he had a job to do. He returned to totting up sums, eyes stinging and hand cramping around his pen.
It was not entirely a surprise, but still felt like a stone falling into his stomach when, an hour or so later, Jack burst through the door, agitated. “Henry…”
“Did you know about the books all along?” Henry asked sharply, rising from his desk.
Jack chewed his lip. “I knew father gambled. Ben didn’t tell me how bad it was until the letter came about the audit.”
“So you were lying too, the whole time.” Henry shook his head incredulously. “My God. Were you…distracting me on purpose? Was that why? All of it?” His hands were shaking and he clenched them behind his back. “Was that why you wanted to fuck me?” he spat.
“No! Henry, no. Or not…” Jack grimaced. “A bit of the flirting, perhaps, at first. But not the real things! Not…everything after. It had nothing to do with…that.”
“You just decided it would be a little entertainment on the side, until I went safely away and you never had to see me again!”
“It wasn’t like that!” Jack gave him a pleading, wounded look that wrenched at Henry’s heart and made him furious in equal measure.
“Wasn’t it? It certainly wasn’t anything else! God, you must have been counting the days till I was gone.”
“I wasn’t,” Jack said. “I swear. I didn’t want it to be like this.”
“Neither did I.” There was a short silence. Henry ran his hands through his hair, rubbing at the headache pounding in his temples.
“What are you going to do now?” Jack asked in a small voice.
“My job,” Henry said woodenly. “Report the new tax liability for collection.”
“But Ben says there’s not liquidity to pay anywhere near the sum.”
That much was obvious from Henry’s month with the books. “I imagine there will be a lien put on any property and assets that are not already leveraged. They’ll be seized if the debts aren’t paid.”
“Weren’t there new loans taken out for the warehouse construction?”
“There were.” They stared at one another. Jack’s eyes were bright with unshed tears.
“But that… that could mean all of it could be taken.”
Henry looked away, down at his books. “Possibly.”
“But…you…you can’t do this to us!” Jack shouted, with so much anguished panic Henry felt a knot in his throat.
“I’m not doing it to you! It’s the law!”
“Oh, so you’re a helpless tool of the state? Just a harmless conduit for Her Majesty’s will?”
“Yes!” Henry exclaimed.
Jack’s face twisted in an unkind caricature, his big eyes narrowed and reddened, his plump, generous mouth set in a snarl. “Then it’s a good thing you like being used. I wish you joy in your work.” Turning, he slammed the door behind himself, leaving Henry gaping after him, cheeks burning as if he’d been slapped.
He had just sat back down at his desk, feeling distinctly shaken, when Ben entered the office again. Henry resisted the urge to put his face in his hands.
“I heard shouting,” Ben said.
Henry pressed his lips together. “Mr. Abel was expressing his feelings.”
“Was he very objectionable?”
“It’s not worth repeating,” Henry said stiffly.
“Yes, because apparently he is aware that the two of you are perpetrating criminal tax fraud.”
“Since I told him the extent of his father’s indiscretions, yes. I had always tried to protect him from it before. He loved his father very much.”
“So you planned this. Together.” Henry’s stomach was sour. “He said what we did wasn’t part of the plan. Was that true? Or did you just not tell him that part?”
“It was not part of the plan,” Ben said. “And you need fear no retaliation from us. No matter what happens.”
Henry felt a sudden prickle of cold down his neck, a nauseous clenching of his throat. He somehow had not even considered the possibility of blackmail. “Good,” he said faintly.
“There’s not money to pay the back taxes. It would ruin Jack.”
Henry folded his arms. “If the taxes had been paid all along there wouldn’t be a lump sum due now.”
“The money wasn’t there to pay it. You’ve seen the books, with the debts figured in. Mr. Abel spent to the height of his bent. The profits were only barely enough to cover it. I chose to keep a roof over Jack’s head rather than pay taxes into the crown’s coffers, and I’d do it again.” Ben’s jaw was set, eyes burning, and Henry saw suddenly the stubborn, half Welsh country boy, rather than the cultured clerk. “You’ll do as you see fit, but none of this was Jack’s fault, and if you bankrupt him…” Henry tensed for a threat, but Ben swallowed and said, “he could go to debtor’s prison.” Henry blinked. Ben’s mouth twisted bitterly. “You think I don’t know exactly how much is likely to be owed, and how much his assets are worth? The factory is leveraged for the new warehouse and the updated machines three years ago. What’s owned outright won’t cover the debts. You could send him to prison.”
Henry swallowed hard, tasting bile.
“All I ask is that you think on that.” Ben looked down and cleared his throat. “I won’t trouble you further.” This time, the office door shut quietly. Henry sagged into a nearby chair and dropped his face into his hands.
Heavy clouds hung lurid and low in the sky when Henry departed the Abel house for the last time. The air felt like warm, wet cotton in his lungs, but the storm refused to break. All through the evening only a few pathetic droplets of rain spattered against his window at the lodging house. Henry’s dinner congealed barely touched on his plate, and the few bites he forced down churned in his stomach.
He paid his landlady tuppence for two extra candles and worked late, hunched over his report until his neck ached. The room was close and humid, smelling of tallow smoke, mildew and uneaten pork cutlets. He broke two nibs and ruined his right cuff with ink, and still no rain fell.
By the time he finished his report, the words were blurring on the page, his eyes stinging with exhaustion, but when he laid down on the hard, narrow mattress, sleep eluded him.
In two days he would be back in his bed in London – equally narrow if not quite so hard. The sheets would be stale, probably full of spiders and silverfish. And after that, in a few weeks, he would be off again, on another assignment, another lodging house for two weeks or a month. He wondered sometimes why he bothered to keep a room of his own at all, when it was hardly more of a home than this cramped, dusty punctuation mark of a room.
There was a stone in Henry’s throat. He had a sudden sense, as he sometimes did ever since those three days locked in the sacristy, of the walls squeezing in like people in a hostile crowd. With the windows shut against rain that had never come, the air was stifling. In the wall, a rodent scritched and skittered. The noise itched in the back of his skull. Rolling onto his side he pulled the limp pillow over his head and moaned softly to himself to drown out the sound.
There was a knocking at the door of Henry’s lodging room early Tuesday evening. “Posh young man to see you,” his landlady called. “Name of Abel.”
Henry sat upright abruptly. He’d been lying on the unmade bed, staring at the ceiling, miserably savoring his idleness. The damning tax report was safely in his valise along with his return ticket to London, first thing tomorrow morning. When he had departed from the Abel house on Monday night, he had not expected to see Jack or Ben ever again. “Send him up.”
Her footsteps retreated down the hall and Henry hastily straightened the sheets, folded a shirt that he’d tossed over a chair, glanced in the tiny mirror over the wash basin, smoothed his hair, told himself he was being ridiculous, and then there was another knock at the door. Henry turned to answer it, heart pounding.
Jack had to stoop below the low lintel, and then stood, eyes downcast, turning his hat in his hands. He was impeccably dressed, but there were circles under his eyes. They stood in silence for a long moment until Henry said, “Well?”
“I came to apologize. For speaking to you the way I did. It was discourteous in the extreme.” Henry opened his mouth to say that’s all right, and closed it again without speaking. Jack glanced at him briefly, and then continued, still staring at the floorboards, “And to ask you not to prosecute Ben.”
Henry’s eyebrows rose, and Jack fidgeted with his hat, shuffling his feet.
“I know what he did was illegal and you could…probably charge him with something or other, put it on his record so he never works again, fine him and bankrupt the farm, maybe, throw him in prison even. But he was just doing what my father told him, and trying to protect us. I’ll pay whatever I have to, everything I have, just please,” Jack’s voice cracked, and his lower lip wobbled, “please leave Ben out of it.”
Henry felt his own throat constrict. He swallowed. “It’s not just Ben who could go to prison.”
He saw Jack wince, and felt his own heart flinch in response. “I know. I will shoulder the sins of my father, but Ben’s only sin was…loving me.” Jack’s voice hitched. “Which most would say is a sin that deserves worse than debtor’s prison or transportation, but you of all people…I mean, just…think about it. When you make your report, or whatever it is you have to do.” He rubbed a hand across his eyes. “That’s…that’s all, I suppose. I’ll go.”
“Wait,” Henry said. Jack stopped, lifting his gaze. Henry opened and shut his mouth on nothing for so long that Jack’s face fell once more, and he turned toward the door again. “You could run away together,” Henry blurted.
Jack spun around, highbrows high. “What do you mean?”
“I mean…run away.” Henry gestured. “Sell the properties before the debt is reported and just…go.” His heart was pounding.
“I’m fairly certain you’re not supposed to be advising that.”
Henry’s laugh sounded slightly hysterical to his own ears. “I know, but…however this turns out, it will be a cursed mess for both of you and…and I just…I never thought it was possible, to have what you have. With each other.” His voice sounded thready and pathetic to his own ears. “And I don’t want you to lose each other, over this. When it truly wasn’t your fault, either of you. So you could run away together.”
Jack was looking at him with an odd expression. “You want us to dodge prosecution of debt by fleeing the country? Changing our names and moving to the continent?”
Henry shrugged helplessly. “Yes?”
There was a brief silence. Jack had his eyebrows raised, as if waiting for something. They stared at one another.
“You realize,” Jack said, “you could just…not report the inconsistencies.”
Henry blinked. “No, I…uh.”
“You hadn’t realized?”
“…no,” Henry said faintly.
Jack sidled toward him and said in a tentative, encouraging tone, “It would save everyone a good deal of trouble. I speak hardly any French, you know, and less German.” He took Henry’s unresisting hand in one of his. “And I’m sure this sort of thing creates extra work at the Board of Taxes. Save your colleagues some bother. Easier all round to just not say anything, don’t you think?”
“I…suppose,” Henry said. The small, hopeful smile starting on Jack’s face was hypnotizing.
“And if Ben and I weren’t off living lives of shame and exile in Paris or Berlin,” Jack continued, squeezing his hand, “we might see you again.”
“Me?” Henry repeated, feeling his heart thudding under his ribcage.
“Well, as you so accurately discerned, it is difficult to have one lover from inside debtor’s prison, much less two.”
Henry swallowed. “Is that…I mean. I was just…a bit of fun. You said it yourself. Entertainment.”
Jack’s brow furrowed. “You can’t truly think that. Do you?” He clicked his tongue reprovingly at whatever he saw in Henry’s face. “Good Lord, Henry, that’s all just a game. You’re so much more.”
Of course, a man could say anything, with so much at stake, but Henry couldn’t stop himself from asking, “More?”
“Quite significantly more,” Jack said, looking both amused and impatient. “Really, Henry, don’t be silly. The way you’re so serious bent over your books, but you light up when you laugh. You’re just as smart as Ben or we wouldn’t be in this mess, and all dedicated and honorable about it, although I suppose I shouldn’t be reminding you of that. Suffice to say, you are very much more than a toy. You are clever and kind and right this moment you’re the man who is deciding not to turn me over to the board of taxes for my father’s sins. Aren’t you?” he added, eyes turning earnest. His hand was warm on Henry’s, their palms sweating together.
Henry thought about his valise full of records, the bitter fruit of weeks of painstaking work. The horrible satisfaction of cracking the mystery, and the way his stomach had been hurting ever since he found the racetrack scrip. He thought about Ben and Jack bickering about trousers, kissing good morning and good night; the hours spent working in companionable silences with Ben, and the sound of Jack blithely calling Henry’s given name. About Jack’s brilliant smile and the way Ben listened to music with his eyes closed.
“I am,” he said softly, and then, more firmly. “I am.”
“I knew it. I knew it! Oh, Henry!” Seizing him by the shoulders, Jack kissed him fiercely, hard and deep, leaving Henry dazed when he pulled back and said, “Come on. We have to tell Ben, he’s worrying himself sick.”
“Ben!” Jack yelled, dragging Henry by the arm up the grand stairs of the Abel house. “Ben!” They passed a footman who appeared unsurprised at his master in a state of agitation calling his man of business by his given name.
“Jack?” Ben emerged from the office disheveled and alarmed as they reached the top of the stairs. He was in his shirt sleeves, hair disordered as if he had been pulling on it, and there was an ink stain on his cuff. He stopped short when he saw Henry, face closing down. “What is it?”
Jack barreled past him, forcing Ben backward into the office and dragging Henry after him, slamming the door shut behind them and throwing the lock. He turned to Ben, face radiant. “Ben, it’s all right – it’s going to be all right.”
Ben’s brow furrowed, and he looked between them. “Explain.” There was a whiskey bottle on the desk, and standing close Henry could smell it on him.
Jack was nearly bouncing. “Henry’s going to – oh, some accountant thing – but he’s not going to report the debts! And we can see him again!”
“What?” Ben’s gaze slid to Henry, still frowning.
Jack seized Henry’s arm and shook him. “Tell him, Henry!”
Henry opened his mouth and hesitated. He was winded from following Jack at a run nearly half a mile before they’d caught a cab, and his heart was pounding as if he were running still. As if, as in a nightmare, there was something unseen behind him, or perhaps it was something wonderful ahead of him, just out of his reach.
He glanced around the room, eyes falling on Ben’s desk, the open decanter, the unusual clutter of papers. A memory surfaced. Polished floorboards hard under his knees, the muffled scratch of a pen, a pleasant ache in his jaw.
“You said seducing me was never in the plan, but the afternoon when we…in here.” He gestured to the desk. There had been more than one episode in here, but Ben nodded, lips pressed together. “I had been asking you about the books, right before.” He’d nearly forgotten that.
Jack’s brow furrowed. His hand slid away from Henry’s arm, dangling limp at his side. Ben set his jaw but met Henry’s eyes. “I didn’t plan it. But I…admit to some improvisation.”
Henry nodded. “I ought to be angry about that.”
“You ought,” Ben said. “Why aren’t you?”
“I am, a little, I think,” Henry said slowly. “Sort of. But I don’t blame you for the choices you made. You were just protecting Jack. And getting your cock sucked in the process.”
Ben winced. “I am sorry. At the time–I didn’t…I don’t suppose it makes much difference to say I didn’t think of the trade in those terms at the time. That was remarkably low of me, and you have my apology, should you choose to accept it.”
Jack was clinging to Ben’s arm, face scrunched up with worry. “Henry?” he asked, in a small voice. They were both looking at him, wary. Jack’s big, pleading eyes and Ben’s painfully furrowed brow. Henry’s stomach was all knotted up. Jack went on quietly, “I thought…have you…changed your mind?”
Henry let out a breath. His heartbeat thundered beneath his ribs. “No. No, I’m not going to turn in my report. Or rather, I’ll write a new one; it will be as if the inconsistencies in the records never existed. Nothing to report, everything ship-shape and up to snuff with the Abel Mill books.” There was a tightness in his throat, almost like the absurd urge to laugh.
“That’s…but that’s wonderful, Henry!” A tentative smile was returning to Jack’s face like dawn. “You’re wonderful, I mean, I knew that, but I’m–Christ–so glad, so thankful –” He shook Ben’s arm. “Didn’t I say it would come out all right in the end?”
Ben was still frowning. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why!” Jack exclaimed. “Because Henry is wonderful!” Reaching out he clasped Henry by the shoulder as well, jostling him joyfully, and Henry felt something shake loose inside him.
“I mean,” Ben said, voice rising, “why would he jeopardize his position, his career, when we, not to put too fine a point on it, had him sucking our cocks while misdirecting him.”
“It’s not as if he didn’t enjoy the cocksucking! Right, Henry?” Jack said with such an expression of indignant sincerity that Henry clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a sudden, ridiculous bark of laughter. “Henry?”
“You’re right,” he managed. “I did enjoy it.”
“Well then!” Jack huffed, and Henry laughed again at his expression, leaning over to the desk and pouring brandy into Ben’s empty glass, knocking it back. It burned down his throat, taking some of the manic tightness with it.
“This way, I won’t be the reason the two of you got hurt.” He poured out a second drink. “It’s as simple as that.”
Ben wrinkled his nose, an unexpectedly endearing expression on his serious face. “If that’s simple, I need another drink.” Henry poured him one, wordlessly, and passed the glass over. He took a deep gulp, coughed, and said, “But your job, your whole life – you’d jeopardize that for, for…”
“For us?” Jack finished, shaking Ben remonstratively by the sleeve and splashing brandy onto the floor. “Of course.”
“Of course,” Henry echoed, feeling his lips curl up helplessly, and Ben caught his eye and covered his face with his free hand, giving a strangled laugh.
“Jack, good God, you can’t take things like that for granted,” he wheezed.
“I didn’t take it for granted!” Jack protested. “I went to see Henry and asked!”
“Just asked? Asked him to, what, abandon his job, his life, and his principles to live in sin with us?”
Jack pouted. “You make it sound so presumptuous. I asked very nicely!”
“He did,” Henry agreed, stifling his own laughter. The brandy was warm in his belly, and Jack’s hand was warm on his arm, through his sleeve.
“Well, God knows some of the things I’ve done when he’s asked nicely,” Ben threw back the last of the brandy. “Very versatile talent of his,” and then they were both laughing, leaning on each other and trying not to knock over the brandy, while Jack huffed in feigned annoyance and held onto them both.
Finally, Henry wiped hysterical tears from his eyes with his jacket cuff and said, “I think I’m going to need a new job.”
Ben leaned back against the desk, one arm around Jack’s waist, the other hand resting on Henry’s hip. “Fortunately I know of a respectable business right here in Manchester, always in need of a sharp accountant. Can I interest you in a position, Mr. Neale?”
“I can think of several positions,” Jack drawled, dragging a hand down Henry’s back to his arse.
Henry’s cheeks ached from smiling. “I’m interested.”