Bron dashed across St. James’s Street, slipped between the bumper of a Daimler and an idling taxicab, and splashed through the gutter, badly soaking his socks. Time to go straight, he thought. Past time, in fact. The time to go straight would have been before whoever was following him had found out he existed. But the second best time was now.
He looked behind him. All week, London had been swaddled in sooty drizzle and it still hung in the air like a fine, dirty paste. Through it, his pursuer’s face was nothing more than grey smudge.
Who was the blighter? Bron thought, with the self-righteous irritation of the very petty criminal. He rattled through the possibilities as though they were a particularly dispiriting collection of cherry stones. Policeman? Bailiff? Auditor? Judge? He hadn’t called out any of the names that Bron used: perhaps he was no-one at all. Perhaps Bron was losing his nerve; perhaps he would take this next turn – into a square lined with stucco-fronted Georgian townhouses – and discover that the man hadn’t been following him at all. He took the turn, and walked on, holding his breath.
Footsteps sounded behind him. He cursed internally and quickened his pace.
The trees at the centre of the square were in feeble bloom, their branches heavy with dripping magnolias. If Bron could just round the corner, get out of sight…
He turned, heart pounding, walked about halfway along the east side of the square and then, blindly, quickly, like a bolting fox, slipped through the wrought-iron gate in the pavement railings and down into the light-well that housed the servants’ entrances.
He stood there in the shadows, his face tilted up and rain dripping into his collar, listening for the sound of feet in the street above.
His breathing echoed around the light-well, harsh and all wrong. Bron was accustomed to padding about noiselessly: like a big savannah cat, looking for lunch – the words of an old paramour. When they’d been said, Bron had been pacing, and thinking how much he’d like to slip the silver ewer on the dresser into his jacket and take it home. He hadn’t, not until the affair had run its unsentimental course – not cricket, he thought, to steal from a lover, and, besides, it was too damn easy while you still had their latchkey.
There, he thought now, with indignation. Principles. He never did anything really egregious – nothing to justify this kind of hounding. Every day, people born into money did exactly the things he did and worse, without anybody batting an eye. They lived on credit, they cheated and lied, they drank far too much of wine they’d not bought. And as for the sodomy… Well, from what Bron had heard from posh boys he’d fucked, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen England’s ruling class did little else.
But because Bron had been born in an undistinguished rural town and educated in an undistinguished county school, and had been forced to bed, borrow and card-sharp his way out of obscurity, his sins would eventually be counted against him.
Perhaps the stealing did go a little beyond the pale. Bron wasn’t sure how many of his fellow bright young things made free with other people’s ancestral silver. But surely the man couldn’t be after him for that? He hardly ever resorted to actual house-breaking these days: it was so much easier to gatecrash a party, wander through rooms and slip unobserved trinkets into his suit pocket. And Bron was sure he appreciated them far more than their owners: If he didn’t need to eat and buy suits, he’d keep everything he took, just for the pleasure of looking at them. Half the treasures he’d stolen probably hadn’t been missed. And in a way, Bron had earned them, as rewards for bald-faced daring; there was an electric thrill to reaching out and taking a beautiful thing, feeling his fingers close around it and knowing it was his.
Not looking very daring right now, are you? whispered a nasty voice inside him.
No, he wasn’t. He looked soggy and hunted. God, was he losing his nerve?
He stared at the grey, massy sky, and had a sudden moment of clarity, the kind he’d always been prone to – a sudden tug in his gut, like a fishhook, showing him the way.
Two branching paths lay before him. He could keep on like this, running, forever, with faceless men following behind. Or he could do what most fast young men eventually did, even the most authentically wealthy: chuck it all in – well, all but the lying. Find a girl who could stand him, with a very rich father. Settle down for good.
The first path was perilous, propulsive; if he stopped moving, he’d fall. And the other, the one lined first with church-pews, and then well-pruned wisteria, the one he would walk alongside an unobjectionable, powder-scented companion – Flossy or Bridget or Valerie Anne… was it a path? Or was it a sudden stop?
Was it even possible? It wouldn’t be immediate: he’d need money first, for taking his powder-scented Flossy out to all the right places, and a good sober suit for meeting her father. He’d have to stay ahead of his creditors a little longer, and then he’d have to give up some things for good – no more putting his hands in other people’s pockets or around other men’s pricks. God, could he do that – give up sex, or at least the kind he enjoyed? Forever?
Above his head, Bron could hear footsteps. He could picture the damp white fog eddying around the man’s blasted ankles.
Both paths sounded with the clink of someone else’s money – but only one was comfortable and safe. Civilised. Both ended in a cell, but only one of those cells had a fashionable suburban address. And Bron, who was barely twenty-eight, who had been running for years and had fed off the thrill, suddenly just felt fed-up, and ancient, and tired.
Perhaps Flossy would let him curl up at the end of the bed and sleep.
If I just get out of this, he thought, I swear…
There was a creak at his elbow. Bron’s head snapped round so fast his neck hurt.
An exceedingly neat face looked out of the servants’ entrance at him. “You were expected twenty minutes ago,” it said, with a peevish gravity. Sharp eyes swept Bron’s not inconsiderable height. “Sir. Lady Honeysett has been waiting.”
Bron goggled. If he said Lady Honeysett has never heard of me, he’d be told to stop loitering around her tradesman’s entrance, and be turned straight out into the jaws of his pursuer.
“Sorry,” he said, and flashed his most useful smile – winning, ingratiating and lightly contrite – at the pursed, professional face. “My train was delayed. Will Her Ladyship still see me?”
It wasn’t his prettiest piece of persuasion, but it only had to work. The face frowned, stepped to one side and let Bron bolt past it. He heard the door close behind him with senseless vulpine relief.
The face was talking: it was, he now saw, attached to a woman, walking on clicking heels along the corridor in a manner that expected to be followed, promptly, if you please. Personal secretary, Bron thought. One of the bulldog breed.
“I shall show you directly up to Her Ladyship, Mr. Leigh. You may take it from your invitation that your references have already been deemed satisfactory. They made no mention of your punctuality, though I hardly thought it necessary to ask after that.” This barb might have wounded Mr. Leigh if he’d been there to receive it. Bron, who had no references that were not forged, took it with equanimity. “I assume the agency told you all you need to know?” the woman continued.
“Oh, rather,” Bron said, mostly out of habit. He was fairly used to pretending to be people he was not, and he doubted that the unfortunate Mr. Leigh had any talents he lacked. He could pick locks, mark cards, spoke a couple of languages, knew a bit about a lot and fucked like a stallion. Or so he’d been told.
Besides, the further he travelled into the house, the further he was from the street, and the longer he managed to stay there, the more time his pursuer had to lose his scent.
The disapproving young woman took him from the house’s impersonal, servile bowels into a world of airy delight. The hallway was flagged with pale tiles; before the front door – the one for real visitors – was a screen of gleaming stained glass, all curves and flourishes and kingfisher colours. Bron was led up a staircase lined with portraits – some in oil, some modern studio photographs – of a woman as cool and lovely as the house. Her pale sweetheart face was framed by sweeps of dark hair and she had a remarkable mouth: sculpted and pink, the bottom lip fuller than the top. Her blue eyes held one perpetual look – gossamy and remote, as though she gazed placidly through a film.
Bron had a fanciful thought. He had been pulled out of the gloomy depths of Hell and was now being carried upwards into the light of sinless respectability, his path flanked with celestial beauties, guided by – well, he’d allow the secretary to be a particularly austere angel. Or St. Peter in tweed skirts, noting down his tardiness in her recording book.
This, he thought, is a house that badly wants robbing. He put his hands in his pockets, just in case St. Peter could tell that his fingers were itching.
He was shown into what must, surely, have been a drawing-room, but something about it called forth the words boudoir and sanctum: the inward-looking quality of the dark blue walls, perhaps, or the plump white upholstery, as coyly inviting as the embonpoint of a nineteenth-century hostess. Dainty things in porcelain stood on dainty carved tea-tables; a Sèvres mantel clock chucked quietly under the mirror. The whole place was filled with a heavy, drowsy scent from the lilies that spilled in fanfares of white and gold from glass vases and wall-sconces. It was a room in which it would be impossible to worry or sweat – to do anything but slip silkily about, cool, untroubled and functionless as a marble.
At its centre sat the subject of those likenesses on the stairs – a little older than she’d been in most, but not much changed. She looked just like her things: beautiful, static, crafted from porcelain. Her skin had the pillowy, slightly frozen look of the very very rich. She blinked at Bron with the gossamy expression from the portraits, as though she still searched vaguely for him through glass.
In her lap, under one lax and exquisite hand, lay a large white Persian cat. It looked like a large white Persian cat.
“Oh,” Lady Honeysett said in a languorous tone, more breath than voice. “You must be the young man for Dickie. How too, too divine.”
All this effortless display of status left Bron, who liked to think himself hardened to such things, a little bowled over. He was suddenly an under-gardener summoned before the lady of the manor, trembling in muddied boots. Who’s Dickie, he thought, and what could he possibly want with me? A whipping boy?
Behind him, the efficient St. Peter sniffed and left the room. Her Ladyship indicated a seat and, as Bron took it, looked slowly at him. “You don’t look like my idea of a tutor.” she said, then gave a whispering laugh. “Is that awfully rude? I only mean that you look more like a– a human being. A normal young man.”
A tutor. So Bron would be working against his suit, which was too good, and his shoulders, which were too broad. If he’d known, he’d have worn spectacles. He smiled winningly. “I’ll take that as the greatest compliment, Lady Honeysett,” he said. “I should hate to appear as stuffy as I truly am.”
Lady Honeysett smiled back in a way that told him the breadth of his shoulders might not be entirely to his disadvantage. “I suppose,” she said, still with that slow, dragging lilt, “the only qualification for tutoring is knowing an awful lot, and Miss Perkins tells me you were at Oxford and did something dreadfully clever and abstruse, so I suppose you do. And, in this case, you really must speak Italian, or I don’t know how you’ll manage.”
“Italian?” Bron felt his ears prick up.
Her Ladyship nodded with an indistinct smile, her eyes on her cat. “It’ll be a bore to be out there for months in the middle of the London season– oh, but perhaps you don’t mind that sort of thing. I was forgetting…” She trailed off vaguely, as though in wondering contemplation of the mysteries of middle-class life.
A couple of months in Italy. Bron felt that tugging again, low in his gut, the impulse he got just before he called at cards or slipped an unattended cigarette case into his pocket or said the one thing to make somebody like and trust him. Oh God, did he want this job?
He could cool his heels in Italy, let his creditors tire themselves out, and come back in the winter with cash for courting. Tutoring was honest work, and this house reeked of money; he could go straight and still earn enough to win over any father-in-law.
The closest he had come to attending university was fucking a professor of Divinity in the stacks at Imperial. But his club memberships all said he’d been to Oxford, and he was uncommonly good at having attended a different college from the person he was talking to, or having graduated just before their arrival. He had always been able to talk confidently on things he knew very little about, which was, as he understood it, the essence of teaching. And his Italian was genuinely good; he’d lived with an Italian sculptor in Bloomsbury for two years, and at the volume and length that Gianni had talked, it had been hard not to learn.
“How old is Dickie?” he asked, trepidatiously. Bloomsbury living might teach one how to lie and to talk Italian: it did not teach one how to cope with a ten-year-old.
“Oh, seventeen,” Lady Honeysett said, and a flicker of personality entered her face: she gave Bron a brief, circumspect glance and spoke more quickly. “He’s a darling, really, he is but… Miss Perkins may not have explained everything when she spoke to your people – you know, your agency. He ought to be in school, of course, for the end of the sixth form but he’s… he’s been rather naughty.” She sighed luxuriously. “It’s been too, too much for my nerves, I’m afraid. I am not a strong woman, Mr. Leigh.”
The white cat stretched. Bron made sympathetic noises.
“So I thought,” Lady Honeysett continued, “it might be rather lovely for both of us if he could get away for a bit. See some of Italy. His father lives in Florence, you know.”
And Bron remembered suddenly that he knew the name Honeysett. Dickie’s father must be Sir Hubert Honeysett, baronet: a source of muted scandal several years ago for having gone away to the continent and never come back.
“He’s in favour too,” Lady Honeysett was continuing, “but the dear man seemed to think somebody ought to be sent out with Dickie – to keep an eye on him, you know, and make sure he’s getting the most out of the trip.” She gave another of her vague, silvery laughs. “They used to call that ‘bear-leading,’ didn’t they, in our parents’ time? Like leading around a sweet little cub. I think that’s too precious.”
Bron was familiar with the phrase – had seen it done, even, when he’d been briefly in France as a financier’s petit ami. Moneyed young men with more spirit than sense being dragged around Europe by older, shabbier counterparts: at one time those partnerships had been as standard a feature of an English tourist-party as the bold red jacket of a Baedeker guidebook. To Bron, it had seemed largely to function as a way for the poor relations who did the leading to extract as much money as possible from the cub’s parents while keeping troublesome offspring out of sight and mind.
“I would take him myself,” Lady Honeysett was saying, “but I find travel too exhausting and with the season just starting and everything with Dickie’s school – no, Dinah, don’t.“
The cat stopped batting languidly at a lily and drew her long white leg slowly in. She turned and gazed up at Bron with an air of baleful curiosity.
“Aren’t lilies rather bad for cats?” he said, eyeing her back.
“Oh, terrible,” agreed Lady Honeysett with drowsy cheer. She had a trick of opening her blue eyes wide for a phrase or two, then letting the lids slowly fall, as though in pleasant exhaustion. She did it now. “They kill them, you know. But they’re just too beautiful. I couldn’t be without them. And I couldn’t do without my darling Dinahs either, not for a day. It’s too, too unfortunate…What was I saying?”
The fine white fingers threaded in Dinah’s fur seemed suddenly repulsive, dead and soft, like grotesque fungi. Bron stared, fighting an impulse to snatch the cat up and run from the room. He swallowed. “That your son had run into some difficulty at school,” he said.
“Oh, there was some kind of unpleasantness, and the headmaster said he simply had to go. The poor thing was always a little too much for them. He used to run away – three or four times, I think – his masters were getting awfully cross. But really! They can hardly have been making much of an effort to make the poor boys stay! I suppose he was trying to reach home, though I don’t think he did…” She trailed off again, the thought falling and dipping into inexpressibility, and if it continued, Bron was no longer privy to it.
“Four times does begin to look like carelessness,” he agreed. “Does he often run away? Has he ever run away from home?”
“Oh yes,” Lady Honeysett said. “Heaps of times. But he comes back when he’s hungry. Dinah’s just the same.” She sighed, and looked contentedly at the cat. “And then there was this last little unpleasantness, and they just threw their hands up and thrust him home. But I’m sure he’ll be an angel while you’re away. I suppose you ought to meet?”
Without waiting for a reply, she reached out her soft white hand, picked up a silver bell and rang it. Dinah’s ears flicked, and Miss Perkins appeared. “Oh, do find Dickie,” Her Ladyship said, with pleading sweetness. “Do.”
There was a pause, filled only by Dinah’s grumbling coos as she rolled over and patted determinedly at the lily. Bron had a moment to feel very foolish, sitting there with a blank smile upon his face like a marionette.
Then the door opened and a slim, springy-looking youth stood on the threshold, framed by the doorway and the frenzied sprays of pale and golden flowers on either side. Light bounced from their petals and cast soft, almost imperceptible auroras upon him, pale golden kisses on his face and his neck. For a second, he seemed like another cool, lovely thing that belonged to the house, as though he too were worked in glass, or glowing marble – something bright and polished and rubbed adoringly smooth. He made the tennis whites he stood in seem an absurdity, as though some prudish curator had bullied the Medici Apollo into shorts.
Bron blinked, and the boy became human – arresting, yes, but human. Facially, he looked very much like his mother: he had the same wide-set eyes in the same indeterminate blue, the same black lashes and the same small mouth. But where she was withdrawn and remote, his features were sulky – rather attractively so – and his eyes were bright and wary. They passed over Bron where he’d stood to greet him.
“Dickie, darling,” his mother said. “Say how do you do.”
“How do you do,” said Dickie darling, and pulled the same face as the cat.
“This is Mr. Leigh, my angel,” said his mother. “He’s awfully clever. I thought you might like to take him with you to Italy.”
“Take him with me?” said the youth. He eyed Bron with a gaze so frankly assessing that Bron found himself impressed. “You make him sound like a valise. Why take him with me?”
“Oh, to speak Italian for you,” said Lady Honeysett, “and show you all the things you ought to see–”
“I’ll have my Baedeker for that,” said the son.
His mother, without appearing to modulate her tone at all, contrived to speak over him: “–and keep you from falling into any nasty mess, my darling. You know what you’re like.”
Dickie’s pink mouth gave a sour, unhappy twitch, and a blush tinted his cheeks. “Oh,” he said. “I see. So that’s why he’s built like that. He’s the bear-leader Daddy ordered. My warder.”
Lady Honeysett laughed. “Well, if you like. Or a friend. Doesn’t it sound too divine? Wouldn’t you like him to come with you?”
“No,” said Dickie Honeysett, with sudden savagery. “I wish to hell he wouldn’t.” Bron saw his narrow fingers tighten convulsively on the door-handle, and then the boy was gone, and the door was rattling in its casement; the lilies bobbed and shivered on their stalks.
Dinah had jumped, bristling, to her feet. Lady Honeysett gave another sighing laugh and stroked her with both hands. “What a bore,” she said. “I suppose he’s having one of his difficult days. He’s as sensitive as a whippet, poor dear. It’s wrong to keep him cooped up here.”
“He doesn’t seem,” Bron said as diplomatically as possible, “to warm to me much.”
“Oh, he’ll come round. I’m afraid he shall have to: his father would be so cross with me if I let Dickie manage his own expenses abroad. And then Dickie will be cross with me when I hand that over to you. He does mind things so much.” Lady Honeysett sighed and patted at her forehead with her fingertips. “It has not been easy,” she said, confidingly, “bringing up a boy alone: stronger women than I have not been asked to do so. It does seem unfair that I….” She trailed off, then roused herself, finished the thought. “Well, all these little muddles will give Dickie something to write about in his memoirs.”
Bron looked at the plush, over-domesticated cat, trapped in a place that was inimical to it, and had a sudden narrowing feeling, as though high walls were creeping in slowly towards him. Trying to outrun the notion, he paced over to the window.
The street outside was a slick grey mess, devoid of life. But that didn’t mean there wasn’t somebody waiting just around the corner, or the one after that, or—-
Lady Honeysett was bent over the little table before her, her chequebook laid upon it. Her pen was poised. “I do hate numbers,” she said in a sigh. “I am not one of these modern women who seem to dote and gloat on them – so singularly charmless.” Her lashes executed their slow, showy flutter. “How much would you advise for expenses, Mr. Leigh?”
Two weeks later, Bron was standing at the ticket office window in Calais, with Sir Hubert Honeysett’s money in his pocket and the smell of the Channel still clinging to his clothing.
The crossing had been choppy, the ferry enthusiastic. Bron had spent the whole thing with his back against the wall of the observation deck, sucking preventatively on a cigarette. Dickie had leant on the rails, looking down at the surf, and talked with Parisian girls, making them throw back shingled heads with peals of bright laughter. So he can be charming, Bron had thought, when he wants to be. It’s a shame he despises me.
Dickie wasn’t being particularly charming now, standing at Bron’s elbow with his brows furrowed and a look of peevish confusion. “Wait,” he was saying. “What’s all this about one compartment? It’s over a day to Florence! You can’t mean us to share–”
“I can and I do,” Bron said, cheerfully. He’d decided early in their journey that implacable cheer was the way forward. “Where were you expecting me to sleep? The freight car? Pick up your bag.”
“My bag?” Dickie eyed his trunk dubiously, and looked about them with a shy, resentful air, like a diffident schoolboy called on in class. “Isn’t that what the porter chappies are for?”
Bron glanced at him in his travelling suit – cool and slim, his dark hair tumbled by sea breeze. No wonder he’s spoiled, he thought, looking like that. “Don’t think you can lift it?” he asked innocently.
Dickie shot him a poisonous look, grabbed the handle of his trunk and hauled it into the air before him; quietly amused, Bron put a palm against his tense back and shepherded him to the platform. By the time they’d found the door to their carriage and boarded the train, there was a perceptible tremble in the shoulders beneath Bron’s hand, and he greeted the gold-painted letters that identified their sleeper compartment with a wave of sheepish relief. He propelled Dickie forwards, and all but pushed him inside.
Bron would usually expect to share a compartment this large with nine or ten other people, in less than half the style. Plushly upholstered benches spanned the width on either side, leaving space for a table between them; foldaway bunks waited in the walls above. Dickie stumbled in, dumped his trunk on the floor, and immediately flung himself onto a bench, belly-up. “There!” he said, pretty face flushed and triumphant. He looked a little like a puppy who’d just caught his first rat.
“Very impressive,” Bron said. He took the trunk by the handle and hefted it up onto the rack with one hand – a stupid piece of showboating, because the thing was enormously heavy. But it was worth it to watch Dickie’s cheeks get pinker and his smug smile turn a little shamefaced.
When a steward appeared to offer them dinner, Bron ordered the lobster out of principle – Sir Hubert’s treat. Dickie studied the menu for a while before choosing his entrée, chewing on his lip. “And we’ll have a bottle of the Montrachet,” he said, quickly, as the steward was drawing the compartment door closed.
The steward flicked a dubious glance at Bron.
“No,” Bron said. “We won’t.”
“I’m old enough to get married,” Dickie said as the door clicked. “You might let me drink.”
“I don’t think your father is paying me to ply you with alcohol. Quite the reverse, in fact.”
“I doubt my father has any specific opinions on the subject,” Dickie said coolly. “I doubt very much whether the question has ever entered his mind.”
Bron had remembered more about Sir Hubert since their first meeting– not just the society-page stuff, but something of real personal interest. “He’s a collector, isn’t he,” he said, as neutrally as he could, “of objets d’art?“
Dickie laughed. “Yeah,” he said. “One of England’s foremost, according to Debrett’s guide to the peerage. Bit rich considering he hasn’t set foot in the country in, oh… five years? Nothing to interest him there, evidently. And he can’t leave his collection: he doesn’t trust the Italians.”
“Doesn’t trust them how?”
Dickie shrugged. “Not to steal his ceramics, I suppose. Or not to knock them off shelves.” He gave another grim little laugh, sounding very like a world-weary, acid-tongued protagonist in a fashionable play – hard and modern and allergic to feeling. “Heaven forbid. When I was six, I dropped a figurine of a musician from the Tang Dynasty and chipped one of her lute pegs, and he’s still not forgiven me. I suppose he never will.”
At the thought of a villa ahead full of Tang figurines, Bron’s heart started singing; his fingers beat restlessly against his thigh. But even so he caught something in Dickie’s brittle grin that made him wonder whether Dickie was as jaded as he was trying to appear.
He kept watching as the food arrived on silver trays, as the stewards withdrew and Dickie moved to toy unenthusiastically with his chicken. “Were you really running home?” he asked finally. “From school?”
Dickie was silent for a long, watchful moment. “Why?” he said.
Bron looked to his lobster, his voice light. “You don’t seem to have made much of a job of it, that’s all. If you were.” Through his lashes he watched those straight brows draw together; the pale face darkened.
“Well, fine, I wasn’t.”
“Oh? Where were you going?”
Dickie fiddled restlessly with his fork. “Nowhere. I don’t know. Away from school. It was very dull there.”
Bron felt the dream-like movement of the train beneath them, bearing them away from England, from his bright modern flat full of things still unpaid for. He supposed that he could sympathise with a blind animal flit – a need, sinew-deep, to be simply away. “And then they chucked you out for it, and sent you away for good. You must have been pleased.”
“Yes,” Dickie said, and raised his eyes quickly – the rabbit-quick glance of an unseasoned liar. “Yes, I suppose I was.”
Bron’s intuition stirred, catching a scent. “Why did they really chuck you out?” he asked. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll be forced to draw my own conclusions.” He was already beginning to sketch something out, actually, based on his own prurient fantasies of public school life. Surely, he thought, not that...
Dickie darted another look at him, then raised his chin. Bron was reminded of a gently born officer facing a court-martial, the same rigid, upper-class pride. “Stealing, if you must know.”
“Oh,” Bron said, intensely interested. “What did you take?”
He realised his error as soon as the words left his mouth: a real tutor – an authority figure, a model of responsibility – would have scolded first, and asked questions later. But there was something new blooming in Dickie’s guarded face – a hint of warmth – and Bron couldn’t quite bring himself to regret the indiscretion.
“Do you know,” Dickie said, with a slow wonder in his voice, “you’re the first person to ask me that?” The warmth became a smile, sunny and impish. “I took my housemaster’s cane. Made him cross as two sticks, of course – he was rather fond of it. I was ratted out by one of my conspirators.” He fingered his fork again and shot a bright little glance up at Bron. On anyone less blue-blooded, Bron would have called it bashful. “Sounds rather puerile, I suppose. But it was a dare, and I don’t back down from those.”
It sounded like something out of the Schoolboys’ Own Library: Read More in Next Month’s Ripping Volume! Youthful pluck, low stakes, good wholesome fun. Bron frowned. “They threw you out for that? Couldn’t your father have–”
The fork bounced against the table cloth, making a dense muffled clatter. Dots of jus flicked across the white linen tablecloth, and settled and spread. “When I was thirteen,” Dickie said, evenly, “my father received a note telling him that if he wanted to secure my safe return, he should kindly leave ten thousand pounds in notes in an attaché case in the left luggage office at Paddington. He took out an ad in the next morning’s Times and Morning Star offering five thousand pounds, and not a penny more.”
“As a stalling tactic?” Bron said gingerly. “Perhaps the police advise….” He trailed off, hearing the inadequacy of his own words.
“Perhaps they do,” Dickie said. “Worked, in any case. They weren’t the chopping-bits-off kind of kidnappers, fortunately for me. Just an under-butler with a bright idea who’d got in over his head. So they did get me back, only a few days later than if he’d paid up immediately – and for a much better price.”
“Sorry,” Bron said, “you were actually kidnapped?”
Dickie glanced up at him and waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, it wasn’t so terrible: I just spent the weekend shut in a shed with my ankles tied to a garden chair. Pretty thrilling in its own way – very Robert Louis Stevenson. I suppose all schoolboys secretly dream of being kidnapped.”
There was a determined lightness to his tone, a set feeling to his phrases, that made Bron suddenly realise that he had told this story many times before, exactly as he was telling it now, to shock and allure. The poor little rich boy again, too clever and modern to take his little rich life seriously. Aren’t I fascinating?
Bron felt himself bridle at the attempt, and then bridle again as he realised how well it had been working: he’d been enjoying their conversation, the delicate push-and-pull. Working away at Dickie’s reserve had been rather like picking a tricky lock, teasing the tumblers this way and that until he heard them yield under his touch and fall sweetly into place, and felt the door give.
The worst part, he thought sourly, is that I’m not sure he’s meaning to be quite so fascinating.
“Are you done with that?” he asked gruffly, indicating Dickie’s dinner.
The steward was summoned and cleared the plates. Dickie had fallen to gazing out of the window, his features at their most saturnine, but looked up eagerly when Bron stood. “Are we going somewhere?”
“The bear-leader is going somewhere,” Bron said grimly, pulling on his suit jacket. “The bear is staying here.”
A still tension came into Dickie’s face, a look that smacked of mischief. “Oh,” he said, smiling. “All right.”
“And he’s staying put,” Bron said. “I’m locking you in.”
Dickie’s mouth dropped open. “What? What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“Entertain yourself,” Bron said. “Read a book.”
And he let the door shut on Dickie’s look of disgust.
The drinks in the dining car were mixed for people with money. Bron headed back down the corridor in an enormously good mood: well-oiled and a little uplifted. The train’s rolling motion seemed to crest right when it ought to; the floor rose up to meet his feet. Strings of faraway lights wriggled smoothly past the exterior windows like so many torchlit parades; behind the frosted glass of the private compartments, travellers moved, their foreshortened shadows intertwining and twisting into strange hybrid shapes – fabulous monsters, readying themselves for bed.
Bron was far from his creditors, unburdened, in motion. Italy lay before him in the darkness ahead, with its cathedrals and chapels, its mosaics and frescoes and golden saints in repose. All holding their gleam like a secret within them, awaiting the Mediterranean dawn.
Bron reached his own compartment door, unlocked it and flung it open with a rather debonair flourish.
Dickie had apparently worked out how the bunks folded down. He’d changed for bed and was lying on his stomach, reading a book by yellow lamplight, a cigarette in his hand. For a second as the door swung, he presented a picture of unbroken absorption: his brows drawn together, his eyes dreamy and bright. His mouth lacked any trace of its customary sullen tension, soft-pink and open; the cherry-red glow at the tip of his cigarette wormed its way towards his fingers unheeded.
The whole scene was wreathed in sweet Turkish smoke, and the air of touching absurdity peculiar to an Englishman in pyjamas.
Not enough light to read by, Bron thought; he’ll wreck his eyes. And was astonished at himself.
Then the door crashed against the partition and the scene was shattered: Dickie startled, made a guilty scramble for an ashtray, and generally looked so hunted that Bron started to notice more things. Like Dickie’s breathing – a little gusty, as though he’d been running. Or his lips, and the way they were smudgy and pink and catching the lamplight, as though he’d been worrying at them. There was a flush in his cheeks too, raw-red and radiant. If one were to lay a hand there, the skin would be hot.
“What have you been up to?” Bron asked flatly.
“Nothing!” Dickie chirped, very indignant. Then he remembered that he was a sophisticate and turned all languid and aloof, an epicene copy of his mother. “Just reading,” he said, far more lightly, and showed his teeth. “Like you told me. Pretty interesting stuff, actually.”
Bron looked narrowly at him, then let the compartment door swing shut behind him. He swiped for the book. Dickie yelped and tried to roll away towards the wall with it against his chest – Bron lunged up after him, and there was an undignified scuffle of the kind common only between schoolboys or drunks – or in this case, one of each.
Dickie was a delight to grapple with – small, yes, but lithe and solid beneath Bron’s hands, and as slippery as a buttered ferret. He had very sharp knees. His face, pinned close to Bron’s, was set and determined, but not entirely displeased. There was a light in his eyes, a kind of wild daring – a puppy again, boisterous and wriggly and dying to scrap, tail aloft and blood up.
Suddenly, with the lightning-strike certainty peculiar to the slightly drunk, Bron saw exactly what he would be like in bed. Squirming happily in his partner’s grip, bold and entitled, that pretty face flushed as he rubbed off against them…
You’re drunk, Bron reminded himself, with self-amused sternness. The brandy was warming and easing his thoughts, making them slide pleasantly through his mind as though they were printed on silk. He batted this one away and made a successful snatch at the book, then sat swiftly upright, out of reach.
Dickie scowled up at him from the pillow, his pyjamas askew. Just a spoiled seventeen-year-old who probably didn’t know that men could fuck one another. “You’re a beast,” he said.
“Aren’t I?” The book was in French. The title page – and the startlingly frank illustration found there – told Bron everything he needed to know: the usual sort of backstreet Marseilles fare, printed privately and smuggled into England to be passed from hand to hot and guilty hand. This particular volume told the tale of a saucy little gamine and her adventures in the estate where she purported to serve, but who – Bron flipped a couple of pages – seemed to spend most of her time cavorting in large silken beds (or, pour changer d’air, in hay-strewn stables) with her high-spirited mistress. All very picturesque and titillating.
“You’ll lose my place,” Dickie said. He was watching Bron with a half-wary, expectant, expression, features still and eyes bright. Bron caught in the look something like anticipation – almost relish.
This boy, he thought, lives to shock. “Hm,” he said, as dispassionately as he could. “Not bad, for its type.”
The relish wavered, and was touched with dismay. Dickie sat up a little. “You mean you don’t mind?”
“Why should I mind? At least you’re practising your conjugations. Elle mouille, elle mouilla, elle mouillait.” It was enjoyable, being shocking; seeing Dickie’s face startled blank, his lips parted in surprise, filled Bron with undignified glee. He ran his eyes over another couple of lines and gave his charge a level look. “Do you really understand all of this?”
“I understand enough!” Dickie said, blue eyes snapping with heat. “There’s nothing wrong with my French!”
The train rounded a slight corner, and the hanging lamps swayed. For the first time, light fell on another dark shape in the corner of the bunk, untouched by their tussle. It lay patiently beside the pillow, dust jacket emblazoned with large white lettering. A phrasebook. Dickie saw Bron see it, and coloured violently.
Bron felt a swell of drunken affection. Silly little creature, he thought, magnanimously. Thinks he’s Lord bloody Byron, but he’s just a silly, pretty, perfectly normal young man. All het up at the idea of girls touching each other. I wonder if he’s ever even kissed a woman.
He had a perverse playground impulse to rile Dickie up further, to prod and annoy him and see him turn pinker. He held out the book and let it be snatched at. “All right,” he said. “Prove it. Finish your chapter.”
Dickie stared at him for a second, his dark hair disordered. A flicker of feeling passed behind his clear eyes: an unreadable look, there and gone in a second, like the shadow of a swooping bird upon grass. Then he slowly rolled over, resumed his previous position and re-opened the book. The back of his neck was pink too.
Bron had interrupted just as the gamine and her mistress had been engaging in a bit of afternoon ça va, ça vient, it appeared: kissing and cuddling, all fairly tame. He settled more comfortably on the bunk and listened to Dickie’s cut-glass voice translating in the compartment’s still air.
The narrative halted a little at first, but then Dickie lost self-consciousness and settled into the story with a disarming earnestness. His finger ran smoothly along the printed lines, his brows furrowed again as his mouth shaped the words – as though he had become genuinely involved in this flimsy piece of French smut, and was determined to know what followed.
He’s got spirit, Bron thought with grudging admiration, and his French isn’t bad.
“… when a man, powerfully built and with – with broad shoulders, burst through the bedroom door, with a crash phen–a phenomenal crash. When he saw Clothilde and I at our, uh, our game, he stood eyes blazing and took my small arm in his mighty fist and dragged me away, saying ‘Stand up, boy, and face me! Don’t you know who is your master?’”
“Boy?” Bron asked, leaning in to peer over Dickie’s shoulder at the line.
“Oh, she’s dressed as a stable boy,” Dickie said, matter-of-factly, the words falling warmly against Bron’s cheek. “She got sacked as a maid for being too saucy, so now she sneaks about like this. I think this broad-shouldered fellow is Clothilde’s husband, Monsieur B—. Clothilde says he’s a marvellous brute who lives to cause pain.”
Bron found that he had no answer to this. “Oh,” he said, “right-ho,” and lit a cigarette.
An incensed Monsieur B— threw the gamine onto his lap and made ready to take a hand to her deceptively boyish backside. Dickie’s side was warm where Bron leaned against him. His translation had picked up pace, inspired, perhaps, by the entry of this admirably virile male player.
“‘Tie his hands,’ Clothilde advised, ‘for he is a naughty boy and will otherwise touch himself.’ I looked to her in consternation only to find upon her pretty face a smile so wicked it made my blood heat and I trembled, from my scalp to my – my – minou –”
Bron blew out smoke and smiled. “It means–”
“I know what it means!” Dickie said hotly, and went on at an indignant rattle. “From my scalp to my sheath inside my borrowed trousers. The flat pain of the first strike was excruciating, and the second, and third, and at first it took all my fortitude not to cry out or to attempt an escape. Then as it continued, I began to feel my heartbeat in my buttocks, a continuous hot throb, and I heard Monsieur B— say, in an admiring tone, ‘You are a stubborn little bastard, and take the strikes you have earned like a brave soldier! You are perhaps not so offensive as you first seemed.’
“Then an elation rose within me, and I began to feel the tingle left by each strike as a caress, or a badge of achievement. Each blow seemed to build me higher; I became more audacious and real under the weight of his hand, as though he were a labouring sculptor and I his masterpiece.”
At the end of this sentence, Dickie paused, almost breathless. The fluency and feeling of his translation had built and built, until he could almost have been reciting from heart, speaking the rather silly, smutty phrases as though they held some great meaning.
Well, he’s won, Bron thought, indulgently, and he jolly well knows it. “Enough?” he asked, without chagrin. ”You were right, your French is tolerable. Ça suffit. Va te coucher.”
“Oh.” Dickie cast a look over his shoulder, and where Bron had expected to find triumph he found pinched confusion. “Sleep? But…” His gaze dipped and fixed on the bedclothes. “But the chapter isn’t over yet. Don’t you want to see what happens?”
It was at this point that Bron did something rather foolish.
The next morning, when his head cleared and he was more man than beast, its foolishness seemed quite patent, quite obvious. At the time, it was an impulse, simple and natural. Dickie wanted to hear the rest of the chapter, and Bron’s French was better.
He leaned over Dickie’s shoulder and read on himself.
“’Do you feel that?’ asked Monsieur B—. ‘It is you who has provoked that with your effrontery. I never knew a villain take a beating quite as you do.’ He jostled a hard length against my stomach, and I felt its heat radiate there as though I lay upon a coal. ‘I wonder that you recognise it for what it is. I suppose it is larger than your own by some degrees.’
“‘It is,’ said Clothilde, smiling still.
“‘I shall need somewhere to put it, when we have finished tinting your arse pink, and I’ll wager my Clothilde is all battered and bruised from your unseasoned thrusting.’
“‘Oh, I am, I am,’ cried Clothilde, her eyes bright, and the next stroke of his hand fell with such ferocity that I should almost have cursed the dear creature – if the tickling sensation that followed was not so delicious.
“’Well, my boy,’ said Monsieur B—, with some relish, ‘you have transgressed in my house. It seems only fair that you should offer to play host to me. Oho’ –for I had cried out, in alarm or excitement, I could not say– ‘I see that appeals to you. Very well. I had thought to make you suck me, but I think you should kiss my Clothilde’s lovely aching slit, and repent of your sins. Meanwhile, I will seat myself in your singularly pretty arse and see if you take that as bravely as a beating.’”
There was another pause.
Bron became suddenly and acutely aware of Dickie underneath him, holding very still, except for the shallow swell-and-ebb of his breathing.
“There,” Bron said. His voice was rougher than usual. “That’s the end.”
Dickie shifted a little, then he was rolling over; he was looking into Bron’s face, his eyes large and dark and his mouth very red. The train rolled on, and its locomotion moved them both, their still forms swaying in woozy surrender. Bron felt his body halt and bob, felt his mouth dip the scantest fraction closer to Dickie’s own, and then be pulled away. Dickie blinked up at him, just a dark glimmer in this low light, a flash of his lashes. There was almost no blue left to his iris, and the pupil was full of lamplight.
Out of the corner of his eye, Bron caught their own mingled shadows, leaping and playing on the back wall of the bunk: Dickie’s prone, insubstantial, almost lost in the pillows; his own a crouched hulking darkness that reared and loomed. An oddly matched pair, conjoined at the hips. It looked like some primal scene, something simple and ancient – the end of a hunt, a view of a kill – and it put a familiar dark thrill somewhere deep in Bron’s breast. He felt his blood heat, felt civilisation sitting on him like an ill-fitting suit.
He remembered the first time he’d felt it, this persistent itch – standing in somebody else’s house and seeing something beautiful that wasn’t his but he wanted. He remembered reaching out and taking it.
“There,” he said again, inadequately. “Fin. Now go to sleep.”
Determined to break the moment, he jumped down from the bunk, reached for his suitcase and began readying himself for bed.
He could feel the warmth of a gaze on his back. He manfully ignored it.
“You’re a funny sort of tutor,” Dickie said finally. He sounded puzzled, but not perturbed. “Bon nuit, I suppose.”
Perfectly normal, Bron thought again, with something like relief. He turned, took the book from Dickie’s pillow, and snapped it closed.
“We left France hours ago,” he said. “Buona notte, orsetto.“
Metz passed, and Besancon, and Bern. Bron woke into white light and had the usual traveller’s experience of finding his compartment unexpectedly around him – peremptory shapes pressing themselves upon his consciousness before he was ready for them. His mouth was dry; the train still moved under him. He rose and dressed.
Dickie lay on his back, still asleep, the sheets curled around him in lifted swells like one of Titian’ lofty deities, if Titian had gone in for cowlicks, pillow-creased cheeks and monogrammed pyjamas. Bron watched his chest rise and fall in the pale morning light, and morosely lit a cigarette.
He had not, he reflected, behaved particularly intelligently last night. All that scrappy undergraduate glee, all that joyful needling… Stripped of its alcoholic veil, it seemed pathetically transparent: if Dickie had pigtails, then Bron would have pulled them. And Dickie was seventeen – old enough to be married, yes, but also fresh out of school, having seen nothing of the world, and not nearly as hard to scandalise as he liked to pretend. If he’d caught just a whiff of inversion in their horseplay, Bron could have at best kissed goodbye to his paid trip to the continent. And at worst…Well, Bron was no patriot, but he didn’t fancy Italian jail any more than an English one.
And if Dickie had been receptive? a treacherous voice asked.
If he’d been receptive, Bron would have been stuck with him: a spoiled, silly, sullen young cub with an unpleasant temper, who took risks for fun. And then what happened to Flossy and his life of ease?
No. Bron snuffed out the thought with clinical brutality. No. No stealing, no swindling, and no committing indiscretions with the golden goose.
There was a rustle of cotton. Dickie stirred, yawned, opened his eyes, seemed to see Bron, and blinked sleepily at him. “‘llo,” he said, indistinctly. “Not late, am I?”
“We’re several hours out from Florence,” Bron said shortly. He turned to his case and started throwing his overnight things into it. “But you better get up if you want any breakfast.”
“Oh,” Dickie said behind him. There was a slightly empty sound to the syllable, something like confusion – that strange seasick feeling of waking up while in motion, perhaps. “All right, then.”
Bron ran out of things to put in his case, closed it and moved to the door. “You can join me in the dining car when you’re dressed,” he said, and bolted.
By the time a dressed Dickie appeared, he’d sunk back into his sulk, and he stayed sunken and near-silent through all that followed – pulling into Florence, disembarking, acquiring a taxi, the breakneck journey through narrow city streets.
The piazza they wanted was white and grand, and currently resounded with the arhythmic chiming of Italian bells, a grave, mystic sound. Lady Honeysett had picked the hotel, on the recommendation of an awfully clever lady-novelist friend, and it was smart without being offensively so. Before Bron had even got his taxi door open, there was somebody waiting to greet them: a young man who introduced himself as Gennaro, welcomed them to Firenze, and marshalled the fleet-footed bell-hops with such amiable efficiency that Bron almost didn’t realise they were being waited upon.
Gennaro himself could have stepped off a plinth among the marble heroes of the Roman forum, except that he lacked their pallor, tending instead towards tanned glossy vigour in every inch and a general air of what fashionable young women called “It”. Though he respectfully addressed his remarks to Signor Leigh, Bron caught him and Dickie exchanging the glances of innocent interest that always pass between two vigorous young males on their first meeting: dogs sniffing at each other in the park, or boys in the schoolyard trying to gauge whether a newcomer might be persuaded to play marbles.
Signor Leigh, meanwhile, was clearly classed with the old men – too decrepit to be fully human, but good for a tip. Bron tried not to take it personally. The sober tutor’s suit probably wasn’t doing him any favours. It certainly wasn’t keeping him cool; he could feel his shirt sticking at the small of his back. And because no hotel in history – no matter how smart – has ever managed a check-in without some kind of calamity, by the time he secured the keys to their rooms, he’d been standing in sweaty tweed for a good twenty minutes, and was so ready for a drink that his mouth felt dusty.
So his mood didn’t improve when he turned, keys in hand, to find that Dickie had vanished.
Gennaro was found and questioned. He gave his evidence in fits, as occasionally a car would pull up or a bellhop would err in some inscrutable particular – and these would need addressing, Bron’s search temporarily postponed with a gallant smile. The young gentleman who had arrived with Signor Leigh? Yes, Gennaro had seen him. He had left the lobby very soon after entering and headed down a street out of the square. Yes, Gennaro knew where he had gone – into the bar on the corner, the one with the blue sign. Gennaro’s feet shuffled. Well… Yes, he could guess why. Ragazzi – youths – met there, to play cards.
Why hadn’t somebody said something to Signor Leigh?
To this last inquiry, Gennaro – quite reasonably – could make no response, except to thrust his fingers through his crown of dark hair and look politely sympathetic. Bron suddenly saw himself from afar, hot and irritable and asking foolish questions of an Italianate god, and felt for the first time in his life like a prim and stuffy Englishman.
He thanked Gennaro and headed down the street, cursing the bastard who had invented tweed. The bar didn’t look to be officially open: it was unlit, dim and cool inside. Bron parted the beaded curtain at the door and squinted through cigarette smoke.
There, in a crowd of young men round the only occupied table, sat Dickie, a fan of cards in his hand. He was smiling and talking, a puppyish upwards tilt to his chin, and Bron understood again that he could be charming; he could see the golden reflection of Dickie’s charm in the faces of his new friends, in the way they watched when he spoke, the way the man beside him laughed and gripped fraternally at his shoulder. For some reason, perhaps because he was tired from the journey, perhaps because the sun was so blasted hot, Bron found this characteristic, this charm, intensely annoying. He was struck – again, for the first time in his life – by a desire to wade into a situation and drag someone out by their ear. God, perhaps he was getting old.
Dickie turned and saw him. His face went blank with honest surprise, then he smiled again and waved, as though hailing a faraway ship, and gave an explanation to the table in his adolescent Italian – cicerone, il mio cicerone. The sun had caught him too: there was pink in his cheeks.
Heads turned to look at Bron; assessing gazes swept over him.
“If he’s playing on credit,” Bron said, also in Italian, “then he’s lied to you. He hasn’t any money.”
A raffish, stubbled young man gave a laugh, with no particular malice. “He hasn’t bet any money,” he said, and flashed his wrist. Dickie’s watch was strapped round it.
Bron sighed and looked to the table, the untidy scatter of lire and notes. “And the stake for this round?”
Dickie’s eyes were flicking between them as they spoke, round and furtive, his features very still. “We haven’t started yet,” he said hurriedly, at the same time as the young man said “Camicia. His shirt.”
Bron looked at the hand still resting on Dickie’s shoulder; he had a stark, vivid vision of Dickie sitting here in the half-light, biting his lip, his fingers fumbling at the buttons of his white linen shirt. His flush spreading to his shoulders as he exposed his chest, his nipples tightening under the avid eyes of strange men…
“Right,” he said grimly, reaching for his billfold of Sir Hubert’s money. “Deal me in.”
Three hands later, with Dickie’s watch rescued and the shirt on his back preserved, Bron threw his cards down.
“Thank you all,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure. Dickie, andiamo – let’s go.”
He heard Dickie make an unhappy round of Anglo-Latin goodbyes then come trotting after him into the narrow brown street. The buildings were tall, the blue Italian sky like a thin streamer far above their heads.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Bron asked, too hot to keep it seething within him.
Dickie’s face was pettish, his eyes fixed on the cobbles. “I was bored,” he said. “I didn’t think you’d mind. I didn’t think you’d notice. I certainly didn’t expect you to come panting after me. I know where the hotel is. I just wanted a drink, and somebody to talk to.”
The trace of genuine confusion in his voice managed, infuriatingly, to make Bron – who had been ignoring Dickie, very deliberately, and for reasons he couldn’t possibly explain – feel like a bounder. “And that’s how you make friends, is it? Running up debts and threatening to whip off your shirt? I suppose you think people might find you more bearable if you take off your clothes. Very friendly.”
“What was I supposed to bet?” Dickie asked, an angry flush starting to bloom in his cheeks. “You have all my money. I wasn’t going to lose it, anyway. And if I had… Well, so what? I have other shirts. ”
Bron wondered if it could really be so simple for him. Could he be so entirely normal that sitting in a strange bar with a group of strange men in a state of undress didn’t even strike him as peculiar, let alone potentially dangerous? Had there been any danger, or had Bron lost all perspective?
Dickie was eyeing him warily. “Are you going to give me my watch back, or what?”
Bron had intended to, but the impoliteness of this request only intensified his flare of irritation. Silly little blighter, he thought confusedly, and teach him a lesson. “No,” he said, and felt an unworthy triumph at the contraction of Dickie’s eyebrows. “I won it, didn’t I? That too” – he nodded at Dickie’s shirt – “but I’ll let you borrow that, since it beats the alternative. I don’t particularly want you wandering the streets half-nude.”
He turned and strode away, expecting outcry to follow. It didn’t. In fact, Dickie was so silent that Bron looked back to check he hadn’t run off again. He found him, with his face pale and set, his eyes bright and prickling impotently. His lips were moving as though in fervent prayer, like a temple acolyte of some strange, angry religion.
“What on earth are you doing now?” Bron asked, unnerved. “Putting– putting a hex on me, or something?”
Dickie stopped short – stopped walking, stopped mumbling – and his face went very white. He drew in a breath and let it out with strained, careful dignity. “If you must know,” he said, “I’m reciting Kipling.”
Bron found, once again, that he had no satisfactory answer. “Ah,” he said, and stared. It was such an irrefutably odd thing to do and Dickie seemed so embarrassed to be spotted doing it, that the cardboard caricature over which Bron had been enjoying feeling his supremacy – the spoiled upper-class brat with more money than sense – seemed to crumple and fall away. Suddenly, he was looking at a seventeen-year-old boy – a strange, difficult boy, but a boy nonetheless – and a pulse of confused compassion swept his triumph away. “All right,” he said gruffly. “Go on then, don’t let me stop you. If it’s… you know. Helpful.”
Dickie gave him a swift glance and then suddenly, incredibly, his sculpted lips twitched into a smile; he brought his palms up and pressed them over his eyes, as though in amused despair. “Oh Lord,” he said. “Mortifying. Sorry. That’s the kind of ludicrous thing you pick up at public school, even if you don’t mean to. Our masters were very hot on that sort of guff: even in adversity an Englishman is never alone, et cetera, et cetera.” He parted his hands and peeked at Bron, bashful and impish. “Nobody’s ever caught me at it before.”
Strange creature, Bron thought dazedly, standing there in the Italian sun, back slick with sweat and heat shimmering round his ankles. Part gutter tyke, part pukka sahib. I shouldn’t want to touch him, even with two barge-poles. And yet…
“I wish,” said Dickie crossly, “you wouldn’t hand me toast like a lapdog. I’m quite capable of finding my own way to my plate.”
Bron had been watching the square – sunlit and empty, as though Sunday morning itself was still just stumbling out of mass, half-drunk on incense and the divine. He was startled to hear that he’d been doing anything at all with Dickie’s toast. This responsibility business must be habit-forming, he thought, in some confusion, and placed the slice he’d been proffering onto his own plate.
Dickie gave him a look of extreme exasperation, as if to say that he might as well have it now that his heart was set on it, reached across the table and snatched it back.
“Well,” Bron said, obscurely gratified, “you ought to eat. We’ll be on our feet all day. I won’t have you doing it on Turkish smokes and bravado.”
All in all, they had passed a very pleasant week. Florence, with its golden light, its activity, its constant, bludgeoning charm – it had conquered Bron so effectively that he barely even registered what pleasant days they were having, until suddenly, about once a day, he would trip over the pleasantness and stop short in wonder.
Perhaps Florence was working on Dickie too, because he had been good, almost alarmingly so. Bron had anticipated dragging him snarling from sight to sight, but in the Basilica di Santa Croce he had trotted from Giotto to Giotto, mute and alert; he’d smiled with grudging delight at Il Porcellino’s bronze tusks, and rubbed its nose for luck like a proper tourist. In San Miniato, Bron had left him before some saints’ lives in Baroque oils while he cast a covetous eye over the gilded altar piece, and returned to find him in front of a martyrdom with his face uplifted, wearing the distant, awed look of a choirboy in song.
“You like this one,” Bron had said.
Dickie had coloured at being caught appreciating art. “Yes,” he’d said warily. “It’s not bad.”
It was a shivery, visceral piece – a far cry from Giotto and his placid rubberised St. Francis. This saint’s flesh was pliant and live, and seemed to yield to the ropes and spearheads with an eager facility, smooth skin torn and flinching to show off the flushed pink gore beneath. The savage focus in the persecutors’ faces suggested they longed to see more. The saint had personality too, a forbearance so luminous he seemed to rejoice in the wounds. Was there something else there? Something goading and smug, pleased at the attention? Come on and stab me, since you want to so badly.
“Bloodthirsty little beast,” Bron had said without censure, and had watched Dickie’s white teeth flash in the still, candlelit dark.
It was only in the evenings–when the bars started thrumming and youth flooded the streets–that Dickie would start fidgeting, his eyes taking on a strained, startled look that reminded Bron worryingly of a yearling on the brink of a bolt. So far, Bron had averted disaster by keeping him moving all day, eating late, allowing him to order wine with dinner and letting him have just enough of it to get soft and sleepy without making himself sick. Then he could be marched home to bed without too much fuss. It probably wasn’t the solution his parents would have chosen, and Bron wasn’t sure how long it would hold out.
Worse was the restlessness building in Bron himself, that itching tightness in his shoulders and hands. If he were alone, he’d have gone out to a bar, made a new friend and had a quick, relieving fuck. But he wasn’t alone. He was obliged to spend his evenings in candlelit restaurants, baby-sitting a junior bacchante with wine on his lips and heavy-lidded eyes.
Bear-leading, he was discovering, was not so simple as it appeared.
Today he was trying something new. He’d learned from an irrepressible English lady-traveller in the hotel lift that a party would be driving out of the city, to climb the hills at Fiesole, look at the violets and see Florence from afar. Surely, Bron reasoned, a strenuous tramp, a long drive and stultifying company ought to leave them both too dog-tired to get into mischief. Surely, God, please.
“Eat up,” he said now, pushing his own plate away. “I believe the expedition party is assembling.”
“And me without my pith helmet,” said Dickie, and grinned at him.
The indispensable Gennaro was today playing driver, and he handled the hotel’s natty little seven-seater touring bus with the reckless panache of a rodeo rider. Bron was yet to discover his official function: he seemed to spend most of his days adorning the lobby or the front steps, smiling at the signorinas and swapping small-talk with the less formal of the clientele. Dickie was one of the few current guests close to his age and whenever they happened to be in the same room, their gazes seemed continually drawn together, as though in a natural acknowledgement of this similarity – an unconscious confederacy of youth and beauty.
It still bothered Bron more than he would have imagined to be classed with the rest of the dull, middle-aged, well-to-do people: the dowagers and judges and successful Dutch doctors. He hadn’t known he was so vain about his age. It didn’t help that everybody in this particular party had somehow got hold of the idea that Dickie was Bron’s schoolboy son, a misconception that took more correcting than Bron would ever have believed – “He’s not his father, dear!” bawled the irrepressible Englishwoman to her companion as they rattled down the Settignano road. “Just a tutor! Well, I don’t know why the boy’s out of school! Perhaps he’s sickly!”
Bron had an idea that he ought to find this very amusing, but what with one thing and another – the constant convulsions of the seat beneath him, or the irritating maidenish cries of dismay that issued forth from other passengers at every sharp bump – he was just feeling touchy and irritable and hot round the knees.
“Do you think,” he said acidly into Dickie’s ear, after he’d been thrown practically into Bron’s lap by a particularly stylish turn, “that Gennaro can possibly have confused directions to Fiesole with a request for felo de se?”
Dickie gave him a look of friendly disdain and huffed out a laugh. “Now that,” he said, “is a joke only a tutor could love. I like his driving. It’s rather thrilling.”
And with Dickie’s quick impish smile so close before him and Dickie’s pale hand braced on his knee, Bron suddenly found it hard to disagree.
Finally, the bus came to a lurching halt. “Va bene, Fiesole!” Gennaro cried: he ran a hand through his hair, looked about him for admiration, found rather less than he might usually expect, appeared unperturbed, and lit a cigarette.
The survivors disembarked, and broke out their Baedekers. The ground rose gracefully before them, topped at a great distance by the town of Fiesole, glittering indistinctly in the clear light. Their goal was not Fiesole itself, but a small promontory, a natural observation point, less than halfway up the hill. Leading up to it, the slope was bare, bleached and scrubby; the outcrop marked the beginning of the densely packed fruit-trees that covered the rest of the hill’s towering curve.
Somebody with a loud American voice began immediately on a recital of the historical importance of the place. Bron, who was still feeling too jostled to digest facts, felt an overwhelming desire to rush away up the hill – and then found himself, insanely, intending to grab Dickie’s hand and drag him along too.
He was so alarmed by the nannyishness of the impulse, and so sick and giddy from the drive, and so mindful that this was supposed to be a chance to exercise his brewing stupidity – exorcise it, even – that he turned his eyes to the dirt, and struck out up the slope at speed and alone.
The walk beat back the sickness: he began to enjoy the crunch of dry earth beneath his feet and the sun on his skin; the burn in his worked muscles felt bracingly pleasant. The air, which had been thick with exhaust, now had a new smell – a woozy, rich mix of ripe pears and altitude. Even the shrill song of the crickets began to be welcome. He didn’t realise he was approaching his destination until he ran out of hill.
He walked out onto the promontory. One brave tree jutted out from the earth under the outcrop’s lip and bent upwards. Bron stood by it and looked out on a wide view, open to blue sky on all sides. A haze of dust hung in the hollow that made everything beyond and below – faraway Florence, with its intricate patchwork of buildings and squares, and the further-away shapes of dark hills behind it – look soft and alien.The wind rushed up the hill at him, making his jacket flap.
Below him on the slope were the rest of his party, coming to join him in the sky: the bus, a shiny beetle-black, at the bottom, then a straggling line of drab tourists, and then, finally, not far below him, the unmistakable shapes of Dickie and Gennaro. In another display of that youthful solidarity, they had drifted together and were taking the climb at an easy stroll. They looked very alike, seen from afar: Bron was reminded of a couple of unkennelled creatures, young and lively and unself-conscious. A pair of hillside horses perhaps–Dickie all coltish mischief, Gennaro sleek and romping. He could see Dickie’s lips moving, making conversation. The wind robbed the words of their meaning but carried the sound, Gennaro’s pleasant drawl and Dickie’s puppyish Italian forming a fugitive duet that lifted and faded with every warm gust. As Bron watched, Gennaro said something that made Dickie give a burst of laughter. It broke like the sound of bells on the clear scented air.
Bron looked back at the view.
And what was he? he wondered, worrying at the metaphor with the same ghastly thrill one got from digging at a scab. The horsebreaker set on domestication, crop and saddle in hand? Or a beast on the hillside, all dripping jaws and hideous urges?
Or was he just an ass, shabby and comical and led round by a halter. A stock character; a joke. The ageing tutor lusting pathetically after his nubile pupil. Was he so used to borrowing other people’s roles that he’d forgotten how to live without the aid of a cliche? Even this vista before him… How impossible it was to describe, how impossible to look at without somehow reducing it, fumbling it to fit a string of stock phrases. He could feel his mind – as commonplace, it turned out, as the next man’s – grubbying the landscape wherever he looked. He could never describe it to anyone: he had nobody who would want to hear of it, who would pause in the course of their own life and listen with patience to these pat little phrases.
He gazed out at it all, and had the unshakeable sensation that he was helplessly, unwillingly, locking something beautiful into a vault – a vault deep inside him, from which nothing could be brought back into the light.
The wind dropped dead; the hollow became still and airless. On a ticklish impulse, Bron glanced back towards the treeline.
The two young men had reached the top, but Gennaro must have headed off in search of the famous Fiesole violets, because Dickie stood alone, his back against the silvery bark of a narrow fruit tree. His linen shirt had been tugged from the waistband of his flannels and was being played with, his tanned flank flashing with every flutter of wind. There was something cool and faun-like about him, standing there in the shade, hair starting to curl in the heat. His eyes were thoughtful and fixed on Bron; when he saw Bron looking back, he came trotting diffidently forward and stood beside him.
Bron watched the wind play with his dark hair, tossing it continually against his forehead. “What do you think?” he asked gruffly.
“It’s beautiful,” Dickie said, the word dropping from his lips as though without thought, then he glanced at Bron and looked abashed. “Beautiful. I sound like an idiot. But somehow I can’t–” He frowned.
Bron looked again at the blue of the sky, the grass baked to silver, the soft sulky shapes of the hills in the distance. They felt somehow more real, more tangible now that Dickie had looked at them. Perhaps that was the way to preserve this kind of beauty – sharing it with another witness, turning it into something that you carried between you. Perhaps that was why people insisted on travelling in pairs. Bron pictured himself in fifteen long years, ringing up a thirty-two-year-old Dickie Honeysett – saying Do you remember? That view from Fiesole? and seeing those hills hang before him again, somewhere in the space between them.
“It is beautiful,” he said. It won him a shy little smile. Then Dickie turned and braced himself against the scrubby, strangely formed tree and leant out over the edge. His linen shirt flapped more wildly than ever, lifting to reveal the small of his back. Small stones danced away under the pressure of his feet; Bron could hear them grinding against one another and tumbling musically off down the hillside onto the track below. He felt his hands come up, and then he’d moved forwards and gripped at Dickie’s shoulders.
Dickie turned towards him, lips parted in surprise, dark hair fluttering. “Careful,” Bron heard himself say, his voice faint and bodiless in the wind. “Not too far. It’s not safe.”
Dickie’s surprise dissolved into one of his bright, impudent grins, and his warm lithe body settled under Bron’s hands. “You wouldn’t let me fall, Mr. Leigh.”
In fifteen years, Bron would be a married man, or in jail. Dickie wouldn’t remember the name Leigh, or the man he’d thought it belonged to.
Bron let go, so abruptly that Dickie stumbled; if he hadn’t had the tree to lean against he would have fallen down. The linen of his shirt was crumpled – big starburst creases left by Bron’s clumsy hands. Bron looked at them, and said, with that same soft final feeling of a vault closing within him, “I won’t have you burning either. Go and find your friend. It’ll be cooler in the shade.”
“Oh,” Dickie said. His grin had vanished: Bron got the sense that he’d hurriedly put it away. “Right-ho.” He opened his mouth to say something more, hesitated, and closed it again. The slightest frown flickered in his expressive face, then he turned and walked off towards the grove, head bent.
He wants to be my friend, Bron thought miserably. Blind little bastard. Can’t he see the danger he’s in?
The rest of the party were just arriving, shading their eyes and exclaiming at the heat. Sunburn would be Bron’s penance, dull readings from Baedeker his Hail Marys. When he dared to look back, the silver trunks of the pear trees shone baldly at him. Dickie was nowhere to be seen.
Fifteen minutes later, the irrepressible Englishwoman paused mid-sentence and looked about her. “Where can those young people be? They ought to be appreciating the view.”
“They’ll be swapping stories of conquests, no doubt,” said her companion, who was of a roguish disposition. “I hope Gennaro isn’t teaching your boy Italian manners, Mr. Leigh.”
Bron, who felt he had done as much penance as he could take, offered to go and chivvy them along.
Under the trees all was noise and motion and cool green growth. Insects flitted and buzzed past Bron’s ears, bent on vital and mysterious errands; the pear trees crowded around him, young and self-assertive, hard clutches of fruit just brushing his head. Branches yielded as he pressed his way past, then flew back to their place, a pliant joy in their movement.
Clothilde and her gamine could have done with a length of that, Bron thought, then felt grubby again.
Growing between the trees were the Fiesole violets, first in sporadic, sun-hungry patches then thickening and thickening into a grand profusion that stretched out into the wood. It soon became impossible to proceed without crushing them, and it was hard not to take the thick waft of perfume they released under Bron’s boot as a form of rebuke.
He trod onwards, listening for a reprise of that youthful duet, but as he ventured further and further, the trees began to thin, the sunlight grew tawny, the violets thickened and pooled and pressed their petals softly against his flannel trousers, and still no voices came. Only a low, sweet sound – Bron frowned, tried to sharpen his senses through sheer will – rhythmic and natural, like the sighing of wind or the rubbing of branches, or–
Gennaro, sighing and panting and vocalising, his back against a tree and his strong chin upturned. He had never looked more like a statue – a stark emblem of pleasure – his eyes half-closed and his face wearing a lost, inward look as he chased something so inexpressible and so inexpressibly personal. His shirt was unfastened, hanging loose from his shoulders; the muscles of his abdomen moved under his bronzed skin. His tanned hands were fastened in the dark hair of the boy who knelt at his feet, curving and cupping his skull, a strong thumb against the heart-breaking curve at the nape of his neck.
Violets wavered and swayed madly around them, following the tempo of a genuine face-fucking. There were other noises, Bron realised, now he was closer – barely audible over the chuffing of crickets, but wet and obscene and shockingly explicit. The sound of an overtaxed throat, forced to take cock.
Bron must have made a noise of his own. It was exactly as though he had startled a pair of mating animals: the scene froze, suspended in a bold, vivid tableau, the kind of thing museums had to hide from English tourists, but in full colour rather than black on terracotta. Gennaro, his face still twisted in joyful anticipation, dropped his chin and released his grip in shock. Dickie turned, and for a second everything else fell away but his face: his eyes very bright, brimming over with brightness, and his lips – Bron’s belly gave a hot, queasy roll of arousal – his lips parted, and so swollen and rosy that they seemed more obscene than the straining cock that still stood beside them. His chin shone with spit. He didn’t look a thing like a statue; he looked warm and soft and vital and ravished. He looked like an invitation, like he was made to be handled.
Then everything seemed to move at once: Gennaro exclaimed in Italian, and hurried to pull up his trousers; Dickie jumped to his feet, looking sick, and wiping at his mouth with the back of his wrist. A stray branch licked a hot stripe of pain against Bron’s cheek, and he realised that he was moving towards them, fast. He’d made no plan and no choice: it was simple instinct that had him crashing through the undergrowth and lunging at Gennaro, pinning him back against the tree.
“You bastard,” he heard himself snarl. “You fucking–”
There was an urgent tugging against his shoulder. “Mr. Leigh,” Dickie was saying. “No! No, Mr. Leigh, listen, you mustn’t– It was my idea, mine.”
The pound of Bron’s heart drowned out the words, but he heard the fright behind them, and turned to find Dickie staring up at him, his frantic face a white smudge against the riot of colour around them. Whatever he saw in Bron’s expression made his eyes go enormous; there was a second where he seemed to rise up on his toes – braced to turn and run like a deer–and Bron felt an answering tension rise within himself, a surge in his chest of hot, eager feeling at the prospect of a chase, of crashing through the violets and filling the air with their scent. Of running Dickie down and pinning him in the grass, feeling his body lose tension, making it go limp and yielding beneath his own. For a second he stood there and let himself feel it, that mindless, animal selfishness – I want.
Dickie didn’t run. “It was my idea,” he said, voice hoarse and quiet. “Gennaro didn’t – I asked him to.”
He was standing very still, his back very straight. Though a flush was creeping back into his pale cheeks, there was something in the set of his chin, his mouth, that spoke of stoic defiance. There was dirt on his knees. He was clearly half-hard.
Bron felt heat engulf him all over, as though a damp warm curtain had suddenly fallen, tangling and slowing his movement and thought. He tore his gaze from Dickie’s crotch and looked to Gennaro, who had finished stuffing his shirt back into his trousers and was running a hand through his hair, his eyes wide and watchful.
“Is that true?” Bron asked, voice terrible to his own ears.
Gennaro and Dickie exchanged a look, like schoolboy conspirators outside the headmaster’s office. They were both breathing hard and both very beautiful – a matched set. He saw himself from outside, a prim and punitive intruder, his tutor’s suit a dull brown blot on this Dionysian scene. The rising heat within him – rage, jealousy, want – collapsed in an instant. He felt cold and old and tired.
Dickie’s eyes fluttered closed for a second, then he nodded.
“Andare,” Bron said to Gennaro, and when that had no effect, more forcefully: “Andare! Go. Keep your mouth shut and go.”
Gennaro darted another look at Dickie and whetted his lips. “What will you do?” he said.
Bron wondered how monstrous his face must look. “Signor Dickie and I are going to have a talk,” he said, voice grimly controlled, flattening out the last trace of wildness. “Go.”
Gennaro went. Bron turned to Dickie – who still had that stiff-upper-lip tension in him – and made his voice harsh.
“What the hell were you thinking? You reckless young fool. I suppose you’ve had your head filled with nonsense about Mediterranean licence and broad-mindedness. What if somebody else had come to find you?” Bron felt a cold lurch in his stomach, an echo of the horror he’d felt when he thought Dickie was being forced. “Do you think the Fascisti like that kind of thing? Do you want to be thrown into some obscure Italian prison? Would you find that thrilling? Do you think your father–”
Dickie’s mask of endurance flickered; he startled as though struck, drew his breath in sharply. “Don’t,” he said. “I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t think–”
“No! You didn’t think! You don’t ever seem to think – you just do whatever you like and to hell with the consequences! It’s a crime, Dickie, here as much as in England.”
That had done it. Now Dickie was staring at the floor; his shoulders drew up in a defensive hunch. He was still at least a little hard – Bron noticed it with a last wretched twitch of desire– and his hair was a dark tangled mess. He looked sick and cowed and shaken at last – no anger, no obstinacy, just accepting Bron’s word with a wretched nod. Two weeks ago, Bron would have thought he’d welcome seeing Dickie laid low; he would have taken an austere, faux-righteous pleasure in watching Dickie discover that fate wouldn’t always roll over and play nicely with him– an arrogant little puppy taking its very first sharp nip.
And yet the lost, wretched look on his pretty face felt wrong, somehow, unnatural – like seeing the sun suddenly get shy and stop shining
“Look,” Bron said hesitantly, hating himself, “I’m sorry to talk to you like a Dutch uncle but–”
Dickie looked up sharply. “Why?” he said. “I would have thought that was the very essence of bear-leading. Along with discouraging sodomy in general. I’m waiting for you to tell me that I’m a hellbound degenerate. Unnatural. Vile.”
Those are direct quotations, Bron thought over the sound of his own heartbeat. It wasn’t just stealing that got him chucked from Eton. “I’m not going to say any of those things,” he said, as evenly as he was able. “I don’t happen to believe them. But… it’s dangerous, Dickie.”
Dickie’s lips parted, and he drew in a soft breath, like he’d been dealt a blow.
His mouth was still smudged; the air still smelled strongly of crushed violets and sex and something else – the full, musky smell of damp earth and underbrush. Bron wanted with shocking clarity to kiss him. To lay the silly little fool back in the grass and give him everything he was asking for. On this score, Dickie wouldn’t be stopped, that much was obvious – Bron wouldn’t, couldn’t say the words that might stop him. He didn’t want to. He wanted to crowd over him, to put his back between Dickie and the world and its whip.
That acquisitive instinct was surging again, that animal need – to catch Dickie and have him, yes, all of that, but also… something else, just as selfish and a thousand times more frightening.
Bron wanted to keep him–to keep him safe and to keep him just as he was, indulged and reckless and foolish. He wanted to keep the world from turning him timid or harsh. And, he thought, with a flare of brute arrogance, he could do it too, far better than the likes of Gennaro. He’d kept himself safe for years; he could show Dickie things he’d never dreamed of, never read about in his smuggled French smut. Bron wouldn’t leave him stranded on a hill-top, hard in his shorts.
He thought dizzily about the gods who had once sported here, stealing away the mortals that most took their fancy: had they felt this way, this same righteous certainty? Look at him. He deserves to be taken care of. And I’d do it best, so it’s my right.
Dickie was looking back at him, his eyes very blue. If he just leans forward, thought Bron, if he gives any sign…
“Have you ever done something stupid,” Dickie asked, “just to keep from doing something worse?”
Bron’s answering laugh was a surprise to himself; it sounded as though it’d been wrung out of him. Why else was he in Italy right now, using somebody else’s name to do somebody else’s job, rather than back home in London, breaking into somebody else’s house and taking their money? Why else were they here tramping around Fiesole? Why had he sent Dickie away to suck Gennaro’s cock except to keep from giving him the kissing he so clearly deserved? He never seemed to do anything except desperately borrow against his own stupidity.
He ran his hands over his face and sighed. Enough. “Tidy yourself up,” he said, so that he wouldn’t voice any of that, “and we’ll head back to civilisation.”
“Mr. Leigh, I–” Dickie started, then his eyes flicked down and something like a smile played round his lips – small and rueful. “Thank you,” he said, to the ground. “It’s better than I deserve.”
“Not Mr. Leigh,” Bron heard himself saying. “You’re right, I’m not talking to you as a tutor right now. Auberon. Bron, if you like.”
Dickie looked up. His eyes were very bright and very blue. “Thank you, Bron,” he said.
Bron felt a spiritual jerk – the feeling of hitting the end of a leash. Enough, he thought again.
Their visit to Dickie’s father was fixed for tomorrow. He’d just get through that, then he would make his excuses and go home – head away, stupidly, from the most comfortable employment that he’d ever find and out of Dickie’s life, so that he wouldn’t do something worse, and stay.
“I didn’t expect you until one,” said Sir Hubert Honeysett, “and yet I’m told you have been here for nearly half an hour. I had an appointment concerning some Etruscan terracotta. It would be considerate to keep to arrangements as they are originally agreed. However, here we are. Good of you to come, Richard.”
The clock on the mantelpiece began to strike the hour, and there was a pause as they all stood there listening to the tutting whirr of the mechanism as its hammer drew back, and the reproachful ting of its single chime. Sir Hubert raised his eyebrows with an air of deliberate significance.
From the things Dickie had said – and his grim silence all morning, intensifying with each minute they’d waited for their host to receive them – Bron had formed a half-conscious, indistinct notion that the Honeysett paterfamilias was some kind of titan, a grand and terrible eater of young. He was almost disappointed by the reality of Sir Hubert in the– well, in the flesh wasn’t quite right: the man before them, with his neat moustache, clipped way of talking, and military bearing was so very like a pen-and-ink illustration of a retired major-general that it felt impertinent to imply he had something as frail and vulgar as flesh. Just as it was impossible to think of him as “Dickie’s father” – not because they didn’t look alike; they did, especially round the cheekbones and chin – but because the baronet was so starched and Edwardian that it was difficult to believe he’d ever unbent sufficiently to engage in the kind of activities that produced babies.
It was always possible, of course, that Dickie’s gloom was unrelated to Sir Hubert’s titanic status or lack thereof. It might be nothing more than disappointed calf-love: since their return from Fiesole, he and Gennaro had been studiously avoiding each other. Or perhaps it was simply because the long parade of blue skies and clear sunlight had suddenly ended, and Florence was assailed by blunt, ceaseless rain. The city bore up under it with stoic resentment, all bustle ceasing; the hills in the distance were a bruised, dirty purple against the glowering sky. That was enough to sour anybody’s mood.
“Thoughtless of us,” said Dickie now, with a return of the crystalline air so reminiscent of his mother. It wasn’t until he saw it again that Bron realised the extent to which the affectation had dropped out of their daily discourse. “Daddy, this is Mr. Leigh.”
“How do you do,” said Sir Hubert, eyeing him as though he were a poorly turned-out subaltern. “So you’re the bear-leader, are you? I was expecting somebody older. Much experience with this sort of thing?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Dickie said, saving Bron the trouble of lying. “That must be some testament to his skill as a warder.”
Sir Hubert made a dry noise and reached out a hand to shake. This man will never know, thought Bron, as he looked into the strange-familiar face, how badly I want to burgle his house and fuck his son.
Bron hadn’t resented the wait. They had been shown into a room that was austere and mediterranean in shape and design, full of marble and light like a baby palazzo. But the things in it hailed from all over the globe, with charm and antiquity the only requirement: Chinese ceramics in rose-red and gold, an eighteenth-century English spinet, a case full of golden medallions by Benvenuto Cellini. Above the mantelpiece hung a minor Gainsborough. Bron’s fingers had been itching since they’d first walked in.
Perhaps Sir Hubert could tell, because he was still eyeing Bron dubiously. Or perhaps his face was simply built that way, because when he turned it on Dickie, the expression stayed fixed. “There is a smoking stand by your elbow, Richard,” he said. “You can extinguish that cigarette there. Prompt obedience, please.”
Bron half-expected an outcry, but though Dickie looked mutinous, he moved to do as he was told.
The baronet gave him clipped thanks. “I would request,” he added, sounding like the primmest kind of tour-guide, “that you don’t light another, and that you remember that the antiquities are not there for touching. Now, shall we move through to lunch?”
He turned and headed out of the room. When his back was turned, Dickie pulled a face and did a weary little mime with one hand upturned and the other thumb twitching – playing a lute, Bron realised, with a burst of wan amusement – then followed his father.
The luncheon room was splendid. Bron scarcely noticed what they were eating, too entranced by the eighteenth-century Spode crockery it was served on, or the oils by Stanhope and Hunt on the walls, or the chandelier in green and white Murano glass. Sir Hubert seemed to be under a similar spell: he had a trick, noticeable and disarming in a man whose bearing shouted of discipline, of never fixing his gaze on his guests or a speaker, instead passing it continually around the room. As he spoke of various topics – politics (English), politics (Italian), politics (domestic – servants, and the troubles with) – Bron watched it light first on one treasure, then another, then the next, bestowing on each a shrewd loving glint.
Bron ate quietly, oddly cowed by the sheer excess of beauty and a certain atmosphere of strained politesse that hung over the table. He felt like a spectator, or a governess in a Victorian novel, allowed to eat with the toffs but making no pretence to be one of their class: it wouldn’t be his place to make conversation.
Dickie, meanwhile, was toying with his luncheon. “Mother is well,” he said. “By the way.”
“I assumed that she was at least no worse than usual,” Sir Hubert replied with stiff serenity, his eyes on a sketch Bron was willing to bet was a real Tintoretto, “or you would have mentioned it sooner. She would certainly have mentioned it in her letters. Her style is elliptical, but it does not skimp when it comes to her nerves.”
“Perhaps she foolishly imagined her husband might be interested,” Dickie said, coldly.
“Hm.” Sir Hubert’s gaze seemed, for the first time, to focus on his son. “Your hair wants cutting.”
“Yes,” Dickie said, with the barest hint of savagery in his smile. “It’s probably grown since you last saw it. Are you going to ask me why they threw me out of Eton?”
His father put his glass down. “I assumed it might be a topic that would shame any gentleman, and out of courtesy I had decided not to mention it. Perhaps my judgement erred. Perhaps you’re proud of it. Ought I to ask, so that I may congratulate you?”
There was a silent second that seemed interminable. All the charming things in the room – all its beautiful, ostentatious curiosities – seemed suddenly to withdraw into the walls, as though discreetly averting their gaze. Bron felt the flare of righteous spirit common to the owners of boisterous puppies scolded in the park; his palm was hurting, he dimly realised, because he was gripping his silverware so fiercely.
“No?” Sir Hubert said. “Why raise the topic if you don’t want it discussed? If it was in your usual line of absenting yourself without leave, then I don’t see that it’s anything to brag about. Thousands have faced worse than the rigours of public school without turning tail.” He gave a short huff of displeasure. “I’m afraid your mother’s idea of discipline – or sad lack thereof – is partly to blame. The army don’t reward cowardice with Italian holidays.”
“Well,” Dickie said, his eyes very bright. There were angry patches of red in his cheeks. “I’m sure they could have shot me at Eton, if you’d only asked. You ought to have written.”
“Please, Richard, don’t be hysterical. You insisted upon the discussion, but if you would rather not face it after all, then–”
“Oh, go to Hell,” Dickie said thickly. “Go to–”
Bron cleared his throat. “Is that a Tintoretto?” he said, a little wildly.
Both Honeysetts froze, their mouths half open; four blue eyes turned towards Bron. Sir Hubert looked a little as though he hadn’t known, up to that moment, that Bron spoke English. “It is.”
“I apologise for butting in, sir,” Bron said, as demurely as he could manage – likeable, likeable, like a dog showing his belly. “Only it’s rather a fine example, isn’t it?”
Sir Hubert looked at the sketch, and seemed to draw himself up; his back, impossibly, became straighter, and he pursed his lips in approval, his moustache bristling. “The finest you’ll find in any private collection,” he said, then turned and looked more keenly at Bron. “What did you say your name was?”
“Daddy,” Dickie said, with a note of shocked horror, as though everything else had only been a prelude to this insult. He threw a glance at Bron, apologetic and bashful – touchingly wholesome on his sulky features. “It’s Mr. Leigh.”
“Leigh,” Sir Hubert said ruminatively. “Leigh…. I don’t know your people. Unless – some relation of the Wiltshire Leighs?”
Bron admitted, coyly, that he was. The baronet’s ardour increased. Was Bron a sportsman? Bron had carried his bat for Bailliol at Oxford in ’23. The atmosphere around the dining table became positively balmy.
“And what did you read?”
Bron took one last survey of the splendid room.
“History,” he said, with a modest smile. “Then I studied art for a year. I’d thought of becoming an artist, but I’m afraid the style currently in vogue leaves me quite cold. All squiggles and splotches and lobsters where they oughtn’t to be.”
Sir Hubert beamed upon him. “Ha!” he said, looking around with the most animation he had so far displayed, as if wanting a witness to their uncanny agreement. Finding only an openly astonished Dickie, the baronet’s eyes passed back to Bron. “That’s exactly what I always say! What, I ask, has happened to the idea of craft? It’s all shock tactics and deliberate primitivism these days. And the money they want to charge you for this dross. Why, only the other day some damned pup of a dealer tried to ambush me with a bit of surrealist tat and…”
And they were off. Bron trod along carefully, chipping in with agreements and admissions of ignorance, which were appreciated even more warmly than any expertise he let slip. The baronet talked and talked, his eyes lit with the comfortable gleam of a man embarked on his own subject. The plates were cleared and the coffee was brought. Still Sir Hubert talked.
Then, as the cups were collected, he stopped short, and gave Bron another long, assessing look. “I have some very choice pieces in my library,” he said, with an oddly formal manner. “I wonder whether you would care to see them.”
All through the meal, Bron had wanted only to leave as soon as possible. But now… He thought of treasures lying patiently behind doors that would never usually be opened to him, filled with a quiet magnificence. If he could just see them…
He would be honoured, he said, and kept his itching hands under the table, out of sight.
They were led upstairs and into a smaller room, with only one small window and dim lighting – for the sake of the tapestry adorning one of its walls, Bron would guess, which looked Flemish and depicted a hunting scene in reds, greens and golds. Pendant lights with bottle-green shades hung above dainty pie-crust tables, each laden almost to the boundary of taste with miniature masterpieces – ceramics, jades and ivory netsuke. The one nearest the window boasted a veritable mountain of silver and gold in the intricate style associated with Medieval Florence; their complacent gleam in the afternoon light made it clear that it was somebody’s job to polish them daily.
Bron’s heart beat audibly in his head; his tongue felt dry and clumsy. He felt a dizzy panic at the idea that one man had them all, all these beautiful, valuable things, and kept them in darkness. Over his pulse, he could dimly hear Sir Hubert holding forth on some subject – the history and the cost of each piece, the things he had done to get and restore them, the care his staff took to keep them in condition. Hardly listening, Bron wandered to the centre table, trying dazedly to focus on any one object.
A small figure caught his eye, about the size of a clementine; even in dimness, it had a dense, lambent glow – one that seemed to radiate from within and made Bron think of snow-laden branches caught at night by bright torches. A pocket-sized bear cub, impossibly charming, with a round massy body, raised paws, and a juvenile snout, jaws parted and snarling.
“Dickie,” Bron said quietly, “come and see this.”
Dickie, whose disgrace had apparently been forgotten for now, stopped looking morosely at the tapestried hunters and ambled over. When he saw the bear, his sullen air receded; he lost the slouch, as though it had been surprised out of him. “An orsetto,” he said, and flashed Bron a half-grudging, secretive little smile.
Bron felt something zip between them then in the dim cloistered air, something so quick and brilliant it made his breath catch – a fine thread of understanding, private and warm.
Do you remember? he thought, his mind leaping foolishly into the future, the crystal orsetto?
“Richard,” somebody said in a dangerous tone, and Bron remembered that Sir Hubert existed. “Remember: I am trusting you to behave yourself. These items are not for touching.”
The warmth dropped from Dickie’s face in an instant. It was like watching a heavy door slam. “Heaven forbid,” he said, in an utterly toneless voice and wandered over to the window to look at the rain.
“Ah,” Sir Hubert said, as though Dickie hadn’t spoken. “You have something of an eye, Leigh. That may be the most venerable piece in this room. Third century, early Byzantine. Sceptre topper, or similar. Carved from rock crystal. You may have read Pliny on the practice, if they still deign to teach Pliny in this modern age – he believed the crystal came from snow. He also writes on bears, and the Roman belief that they were born white and formless and were licked into shape by their mothers’ tongues, only then developing their colour – hence the whiteness.” He looked gloatingly at the cub. “One of my more recent triumphs. Auction in Rome. The bidding was ugly, an out-and-out brawl – but when I set my heart on a prize I am never beaten.”
It was easy to imagine Sir Hubert in an auction room, his paddle flashing, just as it was easy to imagine him on the sports field, or on a hunt, or in a strategy room, and very hard indeed to imagine him caught up in an actual brawl. There wasn’t an ounce of wildness in him. Why would there be, when he benefited so greatly from civilisation? Its vast machinery was set up to please him. He had simply to follow and enforce its rules with zeal, to engage in strictly organised competition, to throw around the authority that he had been born into, and any prize that he wanted would be placed before him.
If this were a charming fable – one of those ingenuous French pamphlets with melancholy line-drawings – he would be a sad figure, sat in his dark and echoing villa, surrounded by all his perfect, expensive, spiritless things.
And yet he was happy. Happy to have his ordered existence, happy to preserve it by stamping on others. He wasn’t dark and terrible; he wasn’t a titan. He was stiff and thoughtless and unspeakably tedious. Bron wondered whether he even knew how much his son hated him, and whether he cared.
“And do you know how much I paid for it?” Sir Hubert said, his voice an unlovely counterpoint to the soft hum of the rain. “Ten thousand pounds. A damned ransom. But I had to have it.”
There was a tinkling smash in the dimness behind them.
Over by the window, Dickie had turned so abruptly that he must have stumbled, and upset the delicate pie-crust table, sending it arcing down to thud against the flagstones; its silver cargo spread and spilled in an instant, almost as though the metal had spontaneously melted and dropped in one liquid cascade. One large bell-like bowl hit the floor on its side, and broke away from the rest, rolling out on its rim in a wobbling arc. There was a shocked second where they all watched its progress in silence. Dickie stood, backlit, his face frozen still and a shining heap round his ankles.
Then the bowl hit the wall and was knocked onto its base with a musical thud.
The room came alive with frenetic movement and noise. Sir Hubert lunged forwards, with a strangled yell for the servants, and his hands closed on Dickie’s shirt, on his arm, clutching and twisting: everybody started speaking at once, all in fragments, as though language itself had been splintered in the crash.
“You careless little bastard!” That was Sir Hubert. “Any idea of the cost–the damage you’ve may have – imbecile – should wring your damn neck–”
“Oh God,” That was Dickie, pulling hard against the baronet’s grip; his voice was high, a wretched laugh in it that contained little mirth. “Oh God, get off, let me go.”
“Get your hands off him!” Bron heard, as though from a distance. That was him, he realised. He’d lunged forward too, and now found that he had his hands in his employer’s jacket and was trying, with some success, to loosen his grip on his son. “Let him go–he didn’t mean–”
Sir Hubert spared him a glance, his eyes blazing, no recognition in them, lips white beneath his moustache. Then he raised his free hand and slapped Dickie’s face.
The chaos subsided. Dickie stopped struggling. Bron stepped back, as shocked as if he’d taken the blow. The two maids who had knelt to gather the casualties paused and looked up, their eyes dark and watchful. The only sound was of harsh, heavy breathing.
A light brush of pink showed slowly on Dickie’s white cheek, and a look bloomed in his face, blank and wondering. His lips moved a little. Then, stilted but clear, he said, “I think I’ll go now. Let go, please. I’m leaving.”
“You’re not going anywhere, my boy,” said his father, with hideous satisfaction in his voice. “You’re staying right here until we see what damage you’ve done.”
Bron had that spectator feeling again. Ever since the slap he’d felt as though his feet were sunk in marble. He waited, mind racing, to be shown the right thing to do, the one clever thing to say that would salvage the situation, make everything right. But nothing came to him, except an itch in his fingers, stronger and more persistent than he’d ever felt before.
They itched, he realised, with a shock so profound it almost took him out at the knees, to fasten on Sir Hubert Honeysett’s throat.
“No,” Dickie said, loudly, before he could do anything. He wrenched his arm free, and straightened his shirt. The blank, closed-up expression had increased, as though something, a kind of beatific calmness, had settled on him like snow. “No. Actually, I’m leaving. Goodbye, Daddy.” And, head lifted, eyes vacant, he crossed the room, and was gone.
Sir Hubert looked after him, mouth open, then shook his head as though in amazement.
Bron found that his hands were shaking. “He’ll be soaked,” he said emptily, to no-one, and managed to take a half-step towards the door.
Sir Hubert’s face had already turned to the tumbled chaos of his collection. “He’s a spoilt, selfish puppy,” he said. “Right that table, for God’s sake. Then we can see what we’re dealing with. It comes from a total lack of discipline. He ought to be whipped. If he’d been one of my recruits– ”
“He’s your son,” Bron said savagely. “A son you haven’t seen in half a decade: what the hell do you know about how he’s been disciplined? If you don’t like how he’s been brought up, then perhaps you should have bothered to raise him yourself! And since that was apparently too much to ask, can’t you at least act as though you give half a damn about him now?”
In that beautiful room full of beautiful things, his voice sounded unsteady and very young. When Sir Hubert turned slowly to look at him, his blue eyes starting, for the first time in a long time, Bron felt young too: he was conscious suddenly of his limbs, of the fact that he was standing there stupidly, his hands dangling at his sides, his heart an untutored flutter in his throat. He remembered feeling ancient, just a day ago on the hills: now, surrounded by relics, the thought seemed laughable. Sir Hubert Honeysett, in all his rigid civility, seemed a relic himself, an Edwardian dreg. That wasn’t Bron’s world; he didn’t belong here, in this museum where things weren’t meant for touching, this pocket England. He belonged out with Dickie in the Florentine rain.
“I don’t recall asking for your opinion on the matter, Leigh,” Sir Hubert said coldly, and turned back to resume his supervision. “You can see yourself out.”
“With pleasure,” Bron said and meant it.
Then, before leaving, he did something else that pleased him – something impulsive and stupid that made his blood sing. It was the work of a moment for his practised fingers. When he crossed to the door, Sir Hubert didn’t look up.
The rain was still falling in thick glossy sheets. Bron grabbed an umbrella from the carved stand by the front door, his heart hot inside him. It felt unbelievably good to be stealing again.
Dickie was just an indistinct shape veiled by the rain, moving blindly forwards, dark head down. He didn’t react when Bron called his name, and didn’t slow or look round when Bron finally caught up to him, trying to huddle close and get him under the shelter of the umbrella. His arms hugged at his midsection as though concealing some mortal gash; his clothes were soft and clinging, sopped with rainwater. Wherever they brushed against Bron’s own, they left wide damp kisses.
“Dickie,” Bron said again, breathless and hoarse. It echoed in the dome of the umbrella. Close to, Dickie looked feverish, pale and flushed at once, and his eyes were so wild and startled he seemed like a stranger. Bron grabbed at his arm; waterlogged linen squelched under his grip, soaking his fingers. “Dickie, stop! Where are you going?”
Dickie looked down at the hand on his arm as though he’d never seen it before and shrugged mechanically.
“Stop walking,” Bron said, immensely frustrated. “You little fool.”
Dickie stopped, finally, and turned up his pale face. “What do you want?” he said quietly.
His hair looked black when it was wet, black and shiny; the way it was plastered against his skull gave him the intense, big-eyed look of a painted Joan of Arc. Bron watched a droplet of water track down his temple, and slide glossily over his cheekbone. “You’re soaked,” he said.
“What do you care? Do you think he’ll stop paying you if you let me catch cold?” The words were quite toneless, and hit Bron right under the ribs, confused hurt spreading there like a bruise. Perhaps it showed on his face, because Dickie gave a soft breath of mirthless laughter. “Oh, come on. You know that’s all this is about, any of this. I’m nothing more than a meal-ticket to you, Mr. Leigh, and you’re nothing more than staff. If you’re even really that.”
Oh, hell. “What do you mean?” Bron said, woodenly, meaning How did you find out?
A little life came back into Dickie’s face: he gave Bron the look of sour derision that all schoolboys carried in their arsenal. “Auberon Leigh? That’s not what it says in the flyleaf of your Baedeker. And you don’t play cards like a respectable tutor.” He sighed as though very tired, and brought up his bone-white hands to press at his eyes. “I didn’t even care until I saw you fawning over the old man like that. It was disgusting, like watching a wolf crawling about on its belly. At one point I thought you might start licking his hands. Then I remembered what this was. That you’re nobody, and I’m nothing to you.”
Bron’s lungs seemed to contract, to flinch wildly within him, the unreasoning response of a creature to something that hurt it. “All right,” he said harshly. “So I’m nobody: I’m not a Honeysett or a baronet or any part of society. I’m not even called Leigh. But you’re not nothing to me, Dickie. Do you really think I’ve been charging around after you out of professional zeal? You said it yourself; I’m not even a tutor! Why do I care? Because somebody has to! And against all my better judgement – no matter how hard I’ve tried not to – it turns out I’ve decided that somebody is me!”
Dickie’s face was very close to his under the umbrella, filling his vision. Bron watched his mouth twitch, and his eyes get brighter, and dimly realised his own chest was heaving.
“I know,” Dickie said, his voice very strained, “that you tell people anything they want to hear. I’ve watched you do it all day.”
“I’m not lying to you,” Bron said, and he had never, in all his criminal career, wanted to be believed as badly as he wanted it now. “You aren’t nothing, I promise. And now I’m taking you back to the hotel and drying you off. Are you going to walk, or do I have to throw you over my shoulder?”
Dickie looked at him, and his face was strained too, wretchedly uncertain. He raised a hand and rubbed mindlessly at his cheekbone.
Without meaning to, Bron raised his hand too, cupping Dickie’s face and tilting it up to the weak light, dashing rainwater from his smooth cheek with a sweep of his thumb. “Let me see,” he said, voice coming out soft and terrible. “Does it hurt?”
Dickie just looked up at him, and minutely shook his head, jostling gently against Bron’s hand. Then he swore softly, and his face finally crumpled.
Bron swore too. “Come on,” he said gruffly, and put his arm around Dickie’s slim shoulders, pulling him in and letting him bury his face in Bron’s jacket, if he wanted. “I’m taking you home.”
By the time they reached the door to Bron’s room, Dickie was perceptibly shivering under his arm: when Bron fumbled his key from his heavy pocket, most of his jacket was unpleasantly damp. Inside, the fire had been laid. Bron lit it, and went to the en suite to fetch a towel. When he returned, Dickie was still standing between the door and the bed, shivering and dripping onto the rug.
“Oh Lord,” Bron said, without venom. He wrapped the towel around Dickie’s shoulders and held it there, corners drawn together under his chin. “Here.” He gestured with the stray ends. “Take them, please.”
Dickie’s white fingers curled sluggishly into the plush fabric, as though he’d forgotten how they worked. Bron put his arms around his cocooned figure and began rubbing his back briskly, trying to work up what hearty young protagonists in popular novels always called a warm glow.
“You must think I’m awful,” a thick and muted voice said, somewhere by his ear.
“For the things you said about me?” Bron said grimly. “Or for running around in the rain like a silly little blighter?” He sighed. “Well, you weren’t inaccurate, you’ve had a trying day, and I don’t see that you’ll learn any lessons from contracting consumption.” Warm glows, it turned out, were catching: he was starting to feel a burn in his arms from the work. But at least Dickie was starting to feel less corpse-like against him. He mumbled something inaudible into Bron’s shoulder. “What?”
“I said that I have a very robust constitution,” Dickie said, and finally came to life in his arms, struggling under the towel and pushing at Bron’s chest. “Let me go – get off me! I never get ill. Get off.”
Bron held his hands up, eyebrows raised. Dickie took a step back and the bed took his knees out from under him; he yelped and sat down heavily on the counterpane, falling onto his elbows and looking up at Bron, rumpled and wet. He looked like a kitten that had fallen into its water-bowl and emerged, drenched and furious, his chest rising and falling.
Bron felt helplessly fond of him. And maybe Dickie could tell, because he lowered his damp lashes and the ghost of a smile played around his mouth. “Sorry,” he said, in a tone of amused contrition, “I’m being dashed difficult.”
“Yes,” Bron said, looking down at him. His linen shirt had turned translucent and clinging, showing the rosy pink of his pebbled nipples; his fringe still stuck limply to his forehead. Bron wasn’t quite stupid enough to let Dickie know that he preferred him difficult, but it was a close thing. “See my earlier comments regarding silly little blighters,” he said instead.
Dickie thrust a hand through his sopping hair and laughed, a distant note of astonishment in it, and Bron approved of that too. “You make me feel it too,” Dickie said, almost to himself. “No-one’s ever made me care how silly I am, or how rude, the way you do. If you’d been my nanny, I’d be much better behaved.”
“And instead you’re getting my counterpane wet,” Bron said, “and destroying the carpet.” He knelt and removed one of Dickie’s sodden loafers, and went to pull off the other. “If I were your nanny, you’d be getting a spanking.”
Dickie made a little gasping noise, a shocked intake of air. His foot went very still in Bron’s hand. The very air in the room seemed to tense up, hot and shy.
When Bron looked up, there was a brightness in Dickie’s eyes; his face held that alert, faun-like tension—the one that meant he was on the brink of doing something naughty and daring.
Bron’s mouth went dry. For a second, one split-second, his hand tightened unreasoningly on Dickie’s slim ankle. “Dickie,” he said, slowly – a single warning tone.
He just had time to see the daring blossom and rise in Dickie’s face, and then there were determined hands in his shirtfront – they were tugging him up, up and forward – he was pulled, stumbling, onto the bed, hands on the counterpane. His mouth crashed against Dickie’s.
It was less a kiss than a frank provocation. The chilled lips under Bron’s were soft but insistent, so eager and so clumsy that he suddenly knew that Dickie had more experience sucking cock than being kissed. His stomach executed a heated flip: he must have been gripped with educational zeal, because suddenly their textbook meeting of mouths had become a proper kiss, heated and thorough enough that in the future, Dickie would know exactly how it was done. For just a second, everything but the novice mouth against his – warm now, and yielding, letting him lead – just faded away.
Then he made himself pull back. He found Dickie’s wrists narrow and warm in his hands, and pinned to the counterpane on either side of Dickie’s head. Bron blinked dazedly. He hadn’t realised he’d grabbed them.
“Now you really are being difficult,” he managed. The words sounded distant, dark and gravelly.
“Yeah,” Dickie said. His voice was thick, his chest moving fast, his flush tracking steadily down his throat. His gaze was fixed on Bron’s mouth. “Sorry.”
His own lips were dark and swollen, kiss-bruised, and his chin and jaw were stung a light pink by the rasp of Bron’s stubble. He looked mauled. Bron hadn’t meant to– Involuntarily, he traced the hollow of one wrist with his thumb, feeling Dickie’s blood pulsing, the fragile skin there jumping and fluttering. “You’re not sorry at all, are you?” he said.
Dickie just blinked up at him, his eyes wide and starry, and then he grinned. The flash of his white teeth in the firelight was half boast, half goad. The insolent flash of a white tail in a thicket. Come on and maul me, since you want to so badly.
An animal exultation rose up within Bron, and this time he surrendered to it, let it flood through him and move him and make him feel right – his blood hot and racing, his muscles taut and in form and working fluidly, without thought. He leaned back in and fitted their mouths together again, taking joy in the action: it was like picking a lock, he thought idiotically, this sure, patient slide of lips against lips and tongue against tongue – finding the movement that would make Dickie moan and huff and press forward for more, the slight edge of teeth that made him go lax – breathing shallowly into the kiss for a second, overcome. Bron wanted to spend hours mastering his mouth, learning what he liked, teaching him how to get it and what to give back.
But there were other parts of Dickie that needed attention. He drew away – the soft, needy noise of displeasure the movement provoked was intensely gratifying – to kiss down Dickie’s throat, to mouth and suck at the soft hollow at the hinge of his jaw. Dickie wriggled under him, his hair kissing damply against Bron’s face like a soft wet pelt: he was hard and trying for friction, Bron could feel it blood-hot against his hip. He tightened his grip on Dickie’s wrists and groped half-heartedly for his last shred of decency.
“We shouldn’t do this,” he said, but he said it against Dickie’s throat, between elliptical kisses, the soft chirp of his lips against Dickie’s skin like stray punctuation. “It would be really – really – stupid.”
Dickie wriggled harder and gave a breathless laugh, a hum in his throat that Bron felt against his lips. “But I want to,” he said simply, and Bron didn’t have to look up to know that his brows were drawn together and his mouth was pouty and kissable. No wonder he’s spoiled. “I want it,” Dickie said again, and then, in a breathless rush, “I’ve been wanting it this whole time, since that night in the train. I want it and I can take it. I’ve been doing everything I can think of to make you notice – “
Bron felt a tremor of disbelief, and sun-soaked images started clicking before his eyes like plates in a magic lantern show: Dickie lounging on his bed with his pert ass in the air; Dickie in shorts with his hand on Bron’s knee; Dickie on the hillside at Fiesole, violet-scented and wind in his hair… Every time Bron’s desire had lurched against his self-restraint like a hound on a leash. “Right,” he said, fiercely, and grabbed Dickie by the shirt. It was intoxicatingly easy to haul him to his feet and thrust him out into the room, send him stumbling round the foot of the bed. “Get those trousers off.”
Dickie’s hands went to his belt and he fumbled it open. The white shorts beneath them were soaked through as well, clinging to his thighs and crotch. If I look at his cock, Bron thought, I’m going to fall down and suck it. It sounded heavenly, but there was one of his fishhook certainties tugging at him, too strong to ignore. He knew what Dickie wanted: he was so sure of it.
He looked to the end of the bed, the thick eiderdown hanging over the high Edwardian bedstead – too high, perhaps. He’d had a master at school who’d made them stand on the Bible. Perhaps…
“What are you–” Dickie said breathlessly, a lilt of uncertainty in his voice. His hands were curled shakily into the fabric of his wet shorts.
Bron felt a sense of duty and power –.as though he were holding something very precious and fragile, something that was his to do right by. “Go and get Baedeker,” he said, his voice almost dreamy.
Dickie looked warily at the red-jacketed book where it lay on the dresser. “Why?”
Bron laughed. “I’m a large man in your hotel room, travelling under a false name. Don’t you think you ought to do as I say?” he said, and got to watch Dickie’s breathing get shallower, his pulse flickering in his throat. “Go on,” he said, more softly, his own heart pounding. “Recite your poem if it helps.” Dickie went and returned, moving as though in a daze. “Good boy,” Bron said, and watched Dickie’s eyes darken. He took the book, dropped it at the foot of the bed and nodded at it. “Climb up.”
He caught understanding dawning in Dickie’s face. Perhaps the masters at Eton had similar tricks. Probably made them stand on Debrett’s guide to the peerage, Bron thought wryly.
“Oh,” Dickie said, and swallowed hard. He stepped up onto the book, with a look of such frank excitement that Bron felt a mingled surge of desire and affection for the deeply strange creature. He put a hand to the nape of Dickie’s neck, pushed with gentle force, and felt Dickie yield easily, folding forwards over the bedstead; his elbows hit the mattress, his arse in the air. Bron pressed against him for a second, relishing the warmth against his front and the soft noise Dickie let out as his hips pressed against the cushioned brass, then drew back before he could give way to temptation and just rut against Dickie’s backside ’til he spent.
Instead, he smoothed out the damp creases in Dickie’s cotton shorts with the flat of his hand, feeling the tension in the muscles beneath. Dickie sneaked a look back at him over his shoulder, his face gold in the firelight, half-shy, half-desirous. He held Bron’s gaze and parted his legs a little more, tilting his hips.
“You want it, don’t you?” Bron said, seriously.
Dickie gave a laughing moan, and rested his forehead against the sheets. The back of his neck was flushed again.”You know I do.”
Bron’s smugness ran rampant; any remaining jitters turned to clean, bright adrenaline. “Say please, then.”
Dickie’s cheek ticked with amused derision. “Don’t be an ass.”
“If you can wait,” Bron said lightly, hand trailing over his arse, “and not be tired by waiting–”
Dickie made a high, strangled noise of exasperation. “Oh, God,” he said, in a stumbling rush, “stop fucking about! Take my shorts off and hit me!”
There was a beat – Bron waited. The firelight flickered on the back of Dickie’s legs, his pale thighs and tanned calves; the fine smattering of hair there glowed like a dusting of gold. “Please,” Dickie said, quiet and fervent.
Bron’s chest felt hot and tight with affection. “Since you asked so nicely,” he said, and pulled off Dickie’s shorts, and got to hear him gasp joyfully as they dragged over his trapped cock. His arse was pale and full, muscles flexing minutely as he tottered on his toes.
Bron ran a hand over a buttock, savoured Dickie’s twitch of anticipation. Then he lifted his hand and let it fall.
The smack resounded, and Dickie exhaled sharply; his arse bounced under Bron’s hand, then coloured up instantly, a pink splash of heat. Bron rubbed wonderingly at it, at his handiwork.
“Come on,” Dickie said hotly. There was pink in his cheeks too, defiance in his face. “You’re not going to break me. I can take more than that.”
“Of course you can,” Bron said. “You’re very robust.” He let his hand fall again, faster and with more force, making Dickie – who had taken breath to retort – jerk in helpless shock, toes scrabbling at the surface of Bron’s Baedeker. He breathed against the bed, open-mouthed for a second, then gave an urgent nod.
“Yeah,” he said, “let me– I can–- let me show you.”
Bron gave him what he wanted, letting the blows fall faster and faster, until his own palm was stinging. There was something absorbing and satisfying about it, almost hypnotic – watching Dickie’s arse turn first a very pretty rose-pink, then a deep red that glowed with heat, and knowing his hand had done it. Every time he found a fruitful spot – the side of a tensed buttock, the tender curve where arse met thigh – he had Dickie’s reactions as his instant reward. He chased them greedily, trying to make Dickie bite his lip and moan, make him rise up on his toes to meet each strike. It took him a while to realise he was speaking, a steady stream of heartfelt nonsense flooding out of him without a single mental check: “Good boy, brave boy, always so brave. Taking it perfectly, just like you promised. Showing off for me, aren’t you? Making me proud.”
Dickie made a noise, a raw open whine of deep feeling, his thighs shaking, and Bron felt every drop of blood in him sing. He rubbed a slow circle into Dickie’s back; it was supposed to be soothing, but it made Dickie’s hips give a desperate jerk. He mumbled something into the bedding. “Speak up, orsetto,” Bron said. “I’m listening “
Dickie turned his head to the side and rubbed his cheek mindlessly against the counterpane. His hair was a wreck, and the creases of the bedding had left a pink line on his cheek. It matched the whip-thin cut Bron had won at Fiesole. “More,” Dickie said, indistinct and dreamy. “More. I like it.”
This is animal too, Bron thought dizzily, this softness unfurling deep in his chest – a breed of affection deeper and less civilised than anything he could speak about at an altar. Like a beast with its mate, or its cub. A simple, aching need to make Dickie feel good. He was gripped by a desire to nuzzle and bite, any distance between them suddenly intolerable. When he spoke, his voice came out sounding almost unrecognisable, a tender open growl. “One more,” he said. “one more, and then – oh, fuck, and then–”
As he spoke, his hand had moved helplessly, reaching forward to rub at Dickie’s reddened cheekbone with his thumb. But leaning over Dickie like that brought his own hips clumsily against Dickie’s backside; the heat of his spanked skin radiated through Bron’s trousers, and Bron’s cock nudged perfectly between the twin swells of his arse.
The scratch of the fabric must have been Hell on smarting skin, but Dickie only made a choked little noise, bit his lip and rocked back, legs straining to push himself more firmly against Bron’s crotch. Jesus. Bron didn’t know what he’d planned to say, but what came out, raw and urgent, was “Dickie, if you carry on like that, I’m not going to be able to keep from fucking you.”
Dickie wriggled desperately and arched his narrow back, a flagrant appeal. “Yes!” he said. “Please.”
“Oh,” Bron said, his mind a white-hot blank. “Jesus.” He drew back, grabbed at Dickie’s shirt and hauled him upright – Dickie’s legs trembled like a newborn colt’s but he wouldn’t be allowed to fall while he was in Bron’s arms. His nice shirt was a wreck, near-dry by now and pulled off his shoulder: Bron took advantage, and bent to press a biting kiss into the curve above Dickie’s collar-bone. He stayed there, nipping and kissing until Dickie had regained his feet.
“Take this off, then,” he said, a very soft order, tugging demonstratively at the abused linen, “and get on the bed.” His promised final slap was delivered to the side of Dickie’s thigh, as though he were urging on a horse.
Dickie promptly obeyed. It was hard for Bron to tear his eyes away from the tangle of flushed limbs as Dickie flopped onto the bed – Bernini, he thought dizzily, Canova, all hacks, not an ounce of life in any of their simpering marble gods. Then he remembered what he was about, and turned to the dresser, trying all at once to be rid of his shirt, his belt and his shoes. Oil, did he have any oil? That white heat in his brain beat and soared and span. His lock-picking set, there was oil in there, if he could only find it… With one hand he pawed through the dark shapes in the drawer; with the other he unfastened his trousers, and then finally pushed down his underwear and let the eager weight of his erection spring free.
There was a curse from the bed. Bron looked up so quickly his head spun. Dickie was half-sitting, propped up on one elbow; his other hand was flying over his prick, which was slim and pretty and flushed berry-red, and leaking furiously enough that each stroke made a slick, obscene noise. As Bron stared, Dickie made another sound, a gritted-out groan of frustration, let himself go – his cock bounced a little, leaving a shiny kiss against the lean muscles of his stomach – and sat up properly, leaning on shaking arms.
His shirt still hung off his shoulders but he’d got the front open, and his chest was flushed all over and glowing with sweat, rising and falling jerkily. Sitting like that, nominally dressed, legs in a shameless open sprawl, his eyes dazed and dark, he looked a little like an androgyne version of an illustration in one of the sillier French papers – one of those coquettes who had slipped while skating and landed on their pretty culs, their skirts round their waists and stars whizzing round their temples. L’ange dechu.
Bron didn’t feel like laughing. He was holding his breath, he realised, expectant. Waiting for Dickie to say something, something rude and impatient, to scold and berate him, and order him to come over and touch him, right now. But Dickie simply looked up at him, a look so frank and beseeching it had Bron’s heart trembling in his chest.
“Bron,” Dickie said, voice raw, and shivered. His eyes fluttered shut for a second; his cock gave a twitch.
“I’m here,” Bron heard himself say. His lips were numb and clumsy, but the words sounded huge somehow, so full of feeling.”I’ve got you, I’m coming.” His hands shook as they closed blindly around the little bottle and drew it with him to the bed, as he climbed up to kneel between Dickie’s legs. Those fine pale hands instantly reached for his cock, and when Bron – who felt like he’d go off at the brush of a finger– cursed and batted them away, they returned to Dickie’s own, which was a little amusing. Bron laughed breathlessly, grabbed for his wrists, and pinned them to the bed again beside Dickie’s hips, earning a mew of displeasure. “None of that,” he said, somewhere between chiding and ravenous. “I’m looking after you.”
Dickie said his name again, very soft and high, almost a sob, and his hips jumped up, a tiny trapped thrust, too shallow to rub himself against anything useful. Between their torsos, a clear bead of fluid welled at the flushed head of Dickie’s cock and tracked stickily down the shaft.
“Christ, that’s a sight,” Bron said, emptily, and decided to stop fucking about. He let Dickie’s wrists go and messily slicked his own palms. Then, acting on instinct native to anybody who had once been a schoolboy – or had seen enough Greek amphorae – he swiped the oil between Dickie’s parted legs, thoroughly anointing his inner thighs, giving their smooth, near-hairless planes a soft shine. The skin was so warm under his hands, dimpling and yielding – so much better than marble – and he surrendered to the temptation to touch as much as he liked: squeezing and stroking at tense muscle, playing briefly with Dickie’s tight balls and making him yelp, pushing up a knee so that he could slip slick fingers between the flushed and burning cheeks of Dickie’s arse and tease over the entrance hidden there. That had Dickie gasping and tossing his head; Bron paused there for a moment and rubbed at him gently, feeling the tight little furl tense and flutter against his fingertips. Then he withdrew.
Dickie whimpered, eyes wide and reproachful, trying to rock up and chase Bron’s fingers. “Wait,” he said, with open dismay, “wait, why don’t you–”
Why didn’t Bron push, sink a finger in deep, rub at him from the inside, make him mewl and tremble and drip on to the sheets.
Bron’s grip tightened on Dickie’s warm knee. He ducked and laid his forehead against it for a second, his eyes squeezed shut. “Because if I put my fingers in you,” he said, “I’ll need to put my cock in you, and if I put my cock in you, I’ll hurt you. You need opening up properly before I can take you the way I want to. And I want you too badly to wait.”
“Oh,” Dickie said, a falling, wondering tone, and Bron felt him shiver. He looked up and caught Dickie’s throat working around a thick swallow. “I bet I could take it,” Dickie whispered, eyes bright with something more than bravado.
And what should Bron do with that – with the knowledge that Dickie was laid out beneath him, shivering, his cock twitching and leaking at the thought of Bron holding him down and fucking him open, urgently, brutally, like a beast? If he should have done anything but swear and grab at him – flip him over and urge him into position, arse up, hips back, legs pressed together – and slip his own cock, rampant with need, between those coltish thighs, then he failed.
It was already such a relief to be trapped between Dickie’s slicked thighs that Bron couldn’t help groaning, the sound ripped from deep within him. When he thrust forward and pressed himself fully against Dickie’s raised arse, the head of his cock slid forward wetly against Dickie’s soft, hot balls; it bumped at his prick, a friendly nuzzle. Dickie startled and the channel surrounding Bron tightened and squeezed, in an obscene echo of how it would feel to be inside Dickie – mounting him, fucking into his tender pink arse and making him tremble.
Bron found himself at the mercy of a vast, rising impulse – a joyful imperative. He was thrusting and humping between Dickie’s legs like an animal, running down the tingling bliss that was building in his belly and loins: everything seemed suddenly to scream only of sex, even the smoke from the fire and the thin bluish smell of wet stone from the paving outside. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw their shadow flung against the wall – one monstrous form, in rough frantic motion – and felt a rich dark joy, almost too grand and simple to have come from him. For a second, there was a wolf’s heart beating within his chest; a wolf’s hunger in the tight, triumphant clench of his jaw.
There were no more words now – Bron couldn’t have formed them – only the smack of their bodies meeting, joyful and earthy, and the breathy cries punched out of Dickie each time Bron’s thick cock slid against his own.
Bron reached down and wrapped a clumsy hand around the pair of them, so that every thrust of his hips fucked them both into the tight circle of his fingers. Dickie gave a wild cry, hands scrabbling at the sheets – Bron noted them, the pale press of his bones against the skin, and wanted dizzily to nuzzle and kiss them. He settled for pressing a wet, possessive bite to the back of Dickie’s slender neck, holding him fast in the only way he could manage and rejoicing when Dickie’s hips stuttered helplessly and his knuckles went bloodless.
Bron couldn’t have said what did it – the desperate clutch of Dickie’s thighs or his long, wounded whimper, or the way everything in Bron’s hand suddenly became even slicker. But a dark joy heaved and surged within him and suddenly Bron was cresting a cliff and toppling over in freefall, crushing his prize to him, mind a bright gorgeous blank – shaking harder with it than he had in years.
After what might have been hours of lying there in a limp, joyous tangle, Bron said, “You ought to clean us up. I did all the work.”
Dickie turned a little and looked at him with one lively blue eye, then very deliberately closed it again, and gave an impish smile. It was only natural to nip at his ear, to crush him more tightly against Bron’s front, to hold him and nose happily at his damp hair. Perfectly natural. Out in the countryside, beasts in their dens were doing the same.
A thought struck Bron, lightly, something almost forgotten. “I have something for you,” he said and, with superhuman fortitude, ignored Dickie’s protests to go and rifle through the pockets of his own discarded trousers. He returned to the bed and held out his prize.
The Byzantine bear glowed softly in the firelight. Dickie sat up and stared.
“Oh,” he said, and gazed up at Bron, his mouth a little open. There was a searching look in his face, a kind of shy disbelief.
“It made me think of you,” Bron said, voice gruff. Bashful heat rose in his cheeks like a Victorian suitor – ludicrous when they were both lying there spattered with come.
“Me?” Dickie reached out to run a finger over the bear cub’s cool curves. Then wickedness entered his drowsy features. “I think I’m too old for a good licking to have much effect,” he said and grinned.
Bron’s prick gave a brave twitch; his heart preened and strutted within him, like a sleek, indulged beast. He opened his mouth, and let out possibly the stupidest thing he had said all week. “Well,” he said. “We’ll just have to keep trying.”
Bron was woken by the ugly trill of the hotel phone.
Against him, Dickie stirred, frowning sweetly in sleep. Bron disentangled himself, picked up the receiver and was told that he had an outside call. He took it, yawning, looking at the pale curve of Dickie’s back, the dark glowing tangle of his hair.
“So you’re still there,” a voice hissed in his ear. Bron blinked and started paying attention. “Listen here, Leigh, your little game is up. I knew there was something fishy about you the moment I laid eyes on you. Balliol, my eye! Do you think these things can’t be checked? No Leigh carried their bat for them, not in that year or any year! What do you say to that, eh?”
Bron didn’t know what he said to that. His heart had started a high icy thrum, like the trembling of a fox with its foot in a trap; he groped for the right thing to say, the smart thing that would save him. “Sir Hubert…”
“Save your grovelling! I suppose you’re some disgusting acquaintance of my son’s – I suppose he put you up to it. Well, if either of you think I won’t involve the police out of some kind of family feeling, then you’re sorely mistaken. I’ll have that bear cub back one way or another: if Richard wants scandal, then so be it! If you have any sense you’ll hand it quietly over to the carabinieri with your apologies. I’m calling them right now and telling them – you have my bear cub, and you’re no cricketer!”
The line dropped.
In the Florentine light, face placid and still, Dickie looked like a saint in a fresco cycle’s early stages, pleasantly exhausted by performing his miracles – not yet made to pay for them in sacred pain. He looked like a young seraph napping on a painted ceiling, rumpled sheets standing in for Baroque plaster; like a porcelain shepherd on a high, sunlit shelf.
He looked like none of those things. He looked like himself, and like Bron was losing him.
He was losing other things too; they were falling softly away, the future wet through from last night’s rain and turning to pulp under Bron’s fingers. Flossy and the wisteria and the safe suburban house, the comfortable pen where he could curl up and rest: his attempt at civilisation, aborted before it began. He’d be hunted again, driven before hounds, limbs aching, soul tired, spirit sapped needle-thin.
He hardly cared. All of that, all those privations… They all seemed easy, seemed bearable, when weighed against walking away from the boy on the bed.
If you can lose, Bron thought, a dazed recitation, and start again at your beginnings, and never breathe a word about your loss… And found that it was no fucking help at all.
He could either miss Dickie in prison or as a free man. If Sir Hubert filed a report immediately, then Bron had perhaps twenty minutes to be out of this room, forty to be out of this quarter and holed up somewhere safe… He moved with stealthy haste, throwing items into his valise. If he could get away before anybody knew to notice a lone English tourist–
He looked up, expecting to find Dickie pouting. Instead, the face that greeted him was tight with defeat, the blue eyes so dull they looked doll-like, just dead discs of glass. It was a look of utter resignation, and it caught Bron under the ribs, drew him staggering over to the bed. Because it was there, pale and alive, he picked up Dickie’s hand and pressed it between his own.
Dickie tried to twitch it away, then seemed to submit. “Well,” he said. “I hope you’re not sneaking out because you think I’ll be silly and girlish about it. I won’t, I promise!” He gave an emaciated attempt at a laugh, little more than a breath. “God, I must have seemed an awful fool last night, throwing myself at you like that after— Well, after you said what you said. I really thought you… But all’s fair, I suppose. You win.”
“I haven’t won anything,” Bron said fiercely. “Listen, I have to go. Your confounded father’s called the police, so either I take myself off or wait for them to do it for me.”
“He’s what?” The hand between Bron’s spasmed with shock. “Why on earth–”
“Because I stole his bear cub, and I never carried my bat for Balliol.”
Dickie looked at the cub where it sat, blushed slightly pink by the dawn, on the bedside table. His brows drew together; his mouth twisted, turned pursed-up and petulant. Darling creature, Bron thought, chest tight, and couldn’t even hate himself for one last-hurrah cliche.
“So?” Dickie said. “Why don’t you give it back? I don’t know, say I bullied you into it, or something. He’ll believe that, and once he’s got it back he’ll forget you existed. They can’t arrest you for never playing cricket. Not in Italy.”
He was giving Bron an achingly characteristic look, one that meant the receiver was being inexpressibly stupid. Perhaps Bron was. “Well,” he said, in some astonishment. “I don’t want to give it back. I want you to have it.”
Dickie stared at him, then looked back at the cub. “Where are you going?” he asked, voice slow with thought.
“I was going to get out of the hotel,” Bron said, “and decide on the way.”
Dickie nodded, small and dreamy. Then, with one eager spring, he was out of the bed, and had snatched up the cub; he turned and, incredibly, he gave Bron a grin – pretty and wicked and distinctly uncivilised.
Bron stared at it, stared at him – at his bruised hips and throat, the wreck of his hair, the stolen cub in his hand snarling out at the world – and felt another come-along tug in his gut, quite different from any he’d felt there before. Not intuition, not certainty. Bright, stupid hope.
Dickie was no debutante, and he didn’t have a father who’d give him a penny; he wouldn’t make Bron’s life one fraction more restful. But he was good at running, and when he was grinning like that – that goading white flash – the future finally looked like something worth chasing down.
“Bron,” Dickie said. “We’re coming with you.”
Bron felt his blood heat, felt his spirit rear up within him. He felt the sharp edge of his teeth, and suddenly found that he was smiling too.
“All right, orsetti,” he said. “Andiamo.”