Copyright © 2012 J.L. Langley
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
January 12, 4831: Planet Regelence: Dinmore House, the Marquis of Crestview’s residence, in Classige, Pruluce.
His younger brother was right. Life was like a book. But instead of the romance novel Tarren professed it to be, it more closely resembled a Greek tragedy.
In all fairness it probably wasn’t as bad as that, but Colton was having a hard time seeing the good at the moment. He glanced out over the busy ballroom and zeroed in on the love of his life waltzing with that…that…light-trousers. What could Wentworth possibly see in Lord Biltmore’s second son? Eugene Collis may be of age, but he was a wanton. A wanton and a buffoon. No one had ever caught Eugene in flagrante delicto, but there were rumors, lots and lots of rumors, even before he’d turned twenty-five. Maybe that was the problem. Wentworth had a reputation for his attraction to easy men, and Colton wasn’t easy.
Colton sighed and absently lifted the crystal cup to his lips. Galaxy, Viscount Wentworth made his heart ache.
Wentworth’s sable hair looked windblown and elegant at the same time. No surprise, his hair always appeared as though he’d just come in from riding. His perfect jaw sported a beard shadow. Anyone else would’ve been scandalously unkempt, but not Wentworth. On him it represented an air of mystery and added to his rakish appeal. His breeches should be outlawed the way they emphasized his muscular arse and thighs. Really only his legs since his coattails covered his backside, but Colton knew the man had a splendid arse. Sebastian Hastings spent nearly as much time in the saddle as Colton himself. It was one of the many reasons Colton adored him.
“Are you going to actually drink that, or are you pretending?”
Colton lowered his glass and contemplated his brother’s stepson. “What?”
Trouble waved his hand absently and turned to watch the dancers. “You’ve put that cup to your lips at least three times in the last five minutes without taking a drink.”
They both stepped to the left to allow a couple to exit through the open patio doors. Couldn’t people go to one of the other open doors? Everything was on his nerves tonight it would seem.
Colton sipped his lemonade and set it on the small table next to the door. “I don’t particularly like lemonade.”
Trouble chuckled. “It took you that long to decide?” He studied his glass, winced and downed it in one gulp. “I don’t either actually, but Hawk took the glass of champagne I filched.” He stepped past Colton, deposited his empty glass on the table and situated himself back in front of the exit leading to the veranda. “Why are you hiding on the edge of the ballroom? I thought you liked these shindigs.”
Colton shrugged. The younger man wouldn’t understand. Trouble was infatuated with his betrothed. All he had to do was wait, and one day Rexley would be his. Although, why anyone would want Colton’s stuffy oldest brother completely boggled him. “I like them just fine, but I’m tired of dancing.” And tired of being fawned over by everyone but the one man he wanted to dote on him. If only Wentworth would notice him…
“Oh, speaking of dancing…” Trouble pulled his dance card from his waistcoat pocket and began looking around.
What he searched for Colton had no clue, so he continued trying to locate Wentworth. Where was he? He’d been here only moments ago. Normally he stood out in the all-black evening wear he favored.
“You’ve got it bad.” Trouble shook his head and put his back to the ballroom to gaze out the French doors. “Come on, we need to go outside.”
“We can’t go outside. We don’t have a chaperone.”
Trouble growled and huffed out a breath. “Fine.” He cocked his arm and threw his dance card.
“Oh my stars.” Colton turned in time to see the black card sail over the veranda railing, past a strolling couple and into the fountain.
A chuckle came from their right as Bannon Thompson sidled up next to Trouble. “You definitely win for originality, Winstol.”
“I win first to dispose of that ghastly thing too.” Trouble snatched the dance card from Bannon’s hand and chucked it out the door as well. It too landed in the fountain pool.
Bannon laughed. “Why thank you, milord.”
“Quite welcome.” Trouble brushed his hands together. “Good riddance. I hate dancing.” He over-exaggerated a shudder. “Guh, there should be an age limit to the men who can ask you to dance.”
“I concur.” Bannon leaned forward past Trouble, making a hank of auburn hair fall into his eyes. “Colton? Don’t you usually dance?” Scrunching his face and rolling his eyes upward, Bannon blew at the hair.
Colton shrugged. “I don’t feel like it.”
“He’s pining away for Wentworth.” Trouble turned around, facing the dance floor again.
Discreetly, Colton elbowed Trouble in the ribs.
“Oof. Whaaat? I’m just saying…”
“You should join the DCDC,” Bannon said. “It will take your pining to a new level. Maybe it will make Wentworth notice you and do something about it.”
“What is the DCDC?” Colton studied the crowd. Wentworth nearly always came to events late and retired from them early.
“The Dance Card Destruction Crew.” Trouble grinned, showing off the charming dimples in his cheeks. Grins like that made it hard to remember why he was called Trouble.
“We lost Aiden and Payton, but we’re still going strong. Winstol is our newest member,” Bannon explained.
“Who are the other members?” Colton asked. Was that Wentwo—? No. Colton’s shoulders slumped. Apparently, the viscount had already quit the rout. What time was it? Shouldn’t they all be leaving soon?
“Just me and Winstol.” Bannon shrugged. “Rupert says he can’t flirt as well without dancing, so he still refuses to join.”
Colton chuckled. “Sure. Why not?” He didn’t want to dance with anyone but Wentworth anyway. He pulled his card out of his waistcoat pocket.
Trouble confiscated the card. “Bombs away.” He tossed it out the patio door just as he’d done the other two.
“Uh-oh.” Bannon touched Colton’s shoulder. “Is that the admiral coming this way?”
Colton squinted. It did look a bit like his brother-in-law headed toward them.
“What?” Trouble swiveled so fast he practically jumped around. “Nate will throttle me. He said I had to dance tonight. Let’s go.” He grabbed Colton’s arm and dragged him out the patio doors with Bannon chuckling behind them.
“Trouble…” Stumbling down the steps toward the garden, Colton nearly plowed into Lord Girton. “Beg your pardon, Girton.”
“Sorry, milord,” Bannon yelled and grabbed Colton’s other arm to help usher him away.
Caught as he was between Trouble and Bannon, Colton had no choice but to follow. They dodged around hedges and tall perennials, another fountain and several benches. The garden was a maze of alcoves, faux Greek ruins and plants. In the daylight it was probably beautiful, but at night it was a little spooky. Too many spots where people could hide.
They came to an arbor that resembled a cave with the mass of climbing vines and fairy lights strung over it. Trouble and Bannon flopped down on the bench, cackling like a couple of loons.
Trouble tugged at his cravat. “Do you think Hawk saw us?”
“I’m not even sure that was Nate.” Colton chuckled and sat between Trouble and Bannon. That was fun. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something so carefree. Since his brother and Trouble had been abducted last year, he and Tarren had been the very epitome of respectability. They’d been absolute angels. No more sneaking out, no more balancing on the edge of propriety only a hair away from scandal.
Speaking of propriety… “Cut that out.” Colton knocked Trouble’s hands away from his cravat. The kid always fussed with them, complaining they were choking him.
Trouble growled but let go of his neckcloth. “Idiotic torture device,” he mumbled.
The weather was balmy with stars twinkling above. Nice for winter. Cool but not freezing. There were no flowers in bloom, but plenty of evergreen plants dotted the landscape. Best of all, no one stared at Colton.
Closing his eyes, Colton slouched back on the bench like Trouble and Bannon. The sway of leaves and the tinkling of water from the fountain made for a lovely lullaby. The tension riding him for the last three hours, since arriving at the ball, seeped out of him. A soft breeze tickled his face.
“What?” Colton frowned.
“What?” Bannon asked.
Colton cracked open one eye. “Why are you groaning?”
“It wasn’t me.”
“Shhh…” Trouble sat up.
Colton and Bannon leaned forward.
Cocking his head, Trouble raised one platinum brow.
The groan, or rather moan, came again.
With eyes wide, Trouble bit his bottom lip and grinned.
Bannon slapped a hand to his mouth and pointed toward their right. The back of a vine-covered arbor, like the one they sat under, lay beyond a large grouping of bushes. The perfect spot for a lovers’ tryst.
Hopping to his feet, Trouble put a finger to his lips.
“Oh no. Get back here,” Colton whispered and made a grab for the scamp, but Trouble evaded him.
Trouble tiptoed, which was ridiculous because he was on grass, toward the moans. He disappeared from sight for all of thirty seconds before he returned with a blank look on his face.
Uh-oh. A lump settled in Colton’s stomach.
“Who was it?” Bannon wanted to know.
Trouble shrugged and sat on the bench. “Just a couple of lords.”
Normally Trouble would be smiling and cracking jokes or encouraging them to go check it out themselves. It must be someone they all knew participating in a clandestine meeting. Was it one of their friends? Or perhaps family? No, it couldn’t be. Father and Cony were one hundred percent devoted to one another, as were Aiden and Nate. Rexley would never do something so careless. And Tarren—
Colton shot to his feet. Tarren was reckless and a hopeless romantic.
“No!” Bolting from his seat, Trouble shook his head. “It’s nothing. Come on. We should all go back. It’s getting chilly. Aren’t you getting cold?” Taking Colton by the arm, Trouble motioned for Bannon to get up. “I’m cold. Bannon? How about you?”
Colton freed himself and started around the bushes.
Trouble darted in front of Colton, placing a hand in the middle of his chest.
“Jeremy, if it’s Tarren—”
Trouble sighed. “If it were Tarren, I’d have told you. Let’s just go back to the ball. Please?” He gave Colton a weak smile.
He should’ve been relieved, but instead his heart raced and the hair on the back of his arms stood on end. He walked around his step-nephew.
Behind him, Trouble began whispering to Bannon.
Colton crept past tall ornamental grasses and a knot garden. The alcove appeared completely concealed from the back. Surely Trouble had not gone around to the front or parted the vines. He’d have been noticed if he had.
Slurping noises and deeper but quieter moans filtered through the greenery.
There, in the right corner of the mass of foliage, halfway toward the bottom, was a clear space. Colton bent and peered through the hole in the spindly branches and leaves. He wasn’t going to like what he saw. Nervous flutters tickled his insides, but he forced himself to look.
A man reclined on the bench with his head thrown back. The angle concealed his face, and the night hid the color of his clothes, but his hair appeared to be dark. Colton let his gaze drift down the long, toned body. The man’s evening coat was undone and his shirt untucked. Oh. His trousers were open. There was a nest of dark hair and— Colton gulped. The man’s pr**k was in the mouth of— No! It couldn’t be…
Colton’s gaze shot back to the man’s head. Still, he was unable to make out the man’s features, but he didn’t need to. Turning away with his heart in his throat, he took a deep breath and then another. When he brought his hand to his face it shook, so he lowered it.
Bannon caught his wrist. When had Bannon gotten so close? He pulled Colton away from the arbor and down the aisle.
Trouble kept pace beside them.
Colton couldn’t look at either of them…not yet. He stared at the ground, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other. His composure was fleeting, trying to abandon him altogether. But he wouldn’t let it. He couldn’t.
They walked for several seconds, and Bannon came to a halt. He turned Colton and pushed him down on a bench.
Trouble sat next to him, grabbed his hand and squeezed. “I tried to keep you from looking.”
“It’s quite all right.” He patted Trouble’s hand and gave him a weak smile. Glancing up at Bannon’s concerned gaze was almost Colton’s undoing. “Seriously, everything is fine.” He’d never get the image of Eugene Collis’s lips stretched around Wentworth’s thick c**k out of his head, but he would not break down over it.
Wentworth was nothing to him, not really, and this was probably for the best. It was the eye-opener he needed. All the flirting he’d done over the years had never amounted to anything. Wentworth was not interested in him, Colton had always known it, but he’d hoped one day…
“Why should I care what he does?” Standing, he wiped his sweaty hands on his breeches. “We have to return to the ballroom before anyone notices we’re gone.”
Bannon frowned and cut his attention to Trouble, who returned the gesture.
Colton took both of their arms and led them toward the mansion. If they didn’t believe he was over Wentworth, he couldn’t blame them. He wasn’t so sure he believed it himself, but he was determined for it to be the truth.
Alone in his bed, Colton stared up at the sapphire-blue canopy. It fit his mood. Funny how sometimes the blue could seem peaceful and other times it depressed him. No, he wasn’t melancholy. He was disillusioned. He shouldn’t be because as he’d told Bannon and Trouble, Wentworth was nothing to him.
He’d spent the past several years flirting and doing everything he could short of declaring his love outright. Wentworth had always ignored him. Deep down Colton had known there’d never be anything between them, but the scene in the garden had walloped him upside the head. He’d built so many dreams around Wentworth. Silly, childish dreams. All the while the viscount was out living his life with other lovers. Colton had heard the rumors, but somehow seeing the proof had made it real.
He teased Tarren unmercifully about his romance novels, but Colton was every bit as fanciful as his younger brother. Sebastian Hastings was not going to come to his senses one day and ride up to steal Colton away in some grand romantic gesture. It was time he faced the truth.
Heaving himself out of bed, Colton went to the window and opened the heavy brocade curtains. He peered past the carriage house, pasture and the rolling fields. The moon was bright tonight, but even still he couldn’t see Wentworth Park from here. Colton rested his forehead on the cool pane. How many times had he stared out this very window trying to catch a glimpse of the viscount riding? He came to work every day through that field.
Colton sighed. He had to get on with his life. If his future didn’t include Sebastian Hastings, and it so obviously didn’t, he needed a plan. He was done pining for a man he’d never have, a man who had no interest in him whatsoever.
Something moved closer to the castle, drawing Colton’s attention.
His new filly, Apollonia, frolicked in the pasture. Her mother grazed a good ten feet away. Apollonia was such a pretty thing. He hadn’t meant for her to be conceived and would’ve chosen a different mare as her mother, but he was pleased. She had the sorrel coloring—technically the Jockey Club considered it red chestnut, but he’d always thought it more of a sorrel—and the spirit of Apollo, her father.
With a clump of grass in her mouth, Apollonia tossed her head and strutted around her mother.
Colton chuckled. “What a showoff you are.”
She flung the grass in the air and let it fall before running in a circle and back to her mum. Her antics were not so different than her father’s. She might make a fine racehorse one day. Galaxy knew her father would be. Apollo was fast. And he loved to run.
There was nothing like being on Apollo’s back and feeling the wind whip past while racing through the countryside. The first couple of times had been frightening, but Apollo was so surefooted and graceful it hadn’t taken Colton long to appreciate the experience. Too bad he didn’t have his brother Payton’s small frame. Colton would love to be a jockey, but he was way too big. He took after both his parents, getting Cony’s height and Father’s build. Not a bad combination—he was rather pleased with his looks—but not jockey material.
He wasn’t bad at polo, and he was fairly certain he could become better with practice, but his heart just wasn’t into the game like it was racing.
Apollonia nipped her mother’s leg and dashed away. Her mum raised her head and nickered, admonishing the filly, but Apollonia pranced in a wide circle.
Colton grinned. My little hoyden. Even though her mother belonged to Rexley, he had not so much as batted an eye when Colton claimed the foal. It had been assumed by everyone she’d be Colton’s. He even helped their head groom, Cecilia Brooks, deliver her. And Colton would train and break her to a saddle when she was ready. He smiled. The lost feeling he’d carried around since he’d stumbled upon Wentworth and Eugene Collis had vanished. His life was about to take a new direction. It all seemed so clear now. He’d always had an eye for horses. And he was good with them. Breeding racehorses was his calling. It was something he’d love and be smashingly good at.
Giving one last glance in the direction of Wentworth Park, Colton let the curtain fall back in place. “So long Wentworth.”
He climbed back into bed and closed his eyes. He was going to be okay.