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Footsteps at the Door

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“Well, Horatio, what do you make of it?” Archie gestured to the spacious bedroom
around him, completing the tour of the small house the two of them would share. “It’s
better than a cramped berth, I tell you,” he added with a grin. “I really do love nothing so
well as a proper bed.”

The statement was more finicky than provocative, which suited Horatio well enough, too intent on drinking in the details of these new surroundings for banter. The bedchamber was indeed larger than any officer’s berth – excessively so to Horatio’s way of thinking, though to Archie’s it likely did not rank above quaint. A fireplace along the right-hand wall provided heat, and above it hung a landscape painting set in a gilded frame. There was a chaise before the wide single window; a curve-legged sideboard under an oval mirror, a large wool rug spanning the middle of the polished floor; and a wide bed draped in blue damask opposite the fire. Neither the cherry furnishings nor the ornate décor was as fine as anything in Cassilis’s mansion – who, by way of comparison, did not live so well as he and Archie’s mutual friend, Charles Edrington – but perhaps too fine for an Earl’s steward.

Horatio’s own quarters were sparser, of course – a smaller bedroom joined to a study at the opposite end of the hall, furthest from the staircase. The meager contents of his seachest hardly filled the wardrobe and book shelves, but Horatio found that he had more than ever now. He was hardly penniless, and the fact that he had almost made post- captain was hardly a secret to the family, yet he could not shake the feeling that, like Archie, this house set him above his present station. He was only supposed to be lodging, of course, as an eccentric, solitary man who preferred this quietude to the bustle of the rather social family that had employed him. That was hardly a pretense, true, but Horatio could not help but feel as though he and Archie were two dogs thinking to hide by ducking only their heads under the bed.

He could not pinpoint why he felt that way. No one should think it unreasonable that Horatio Hornblower had retired from the Navy to end up employed by the family of his dearest, departed friend. In fact; he rather liked people to know it, liked them to think it a protest against the verdict in Kingston and a small declaration of where his loyalty lay. Attaching himself to Archie’s family seemed the honorable thing to do, though his fears of late had little to do with his own honor.

Archie operated under a sound enough cover, Horatio supposed. He was Maurice Carlyle, a denounced nephew on his mother’s side from a shadowy first marriage in America, stricken from the family records by his father for marrying a mulatto girl there. After Horatio had brought him to England, Maurice – wounded in soul and body – had received his aunt’s pity and an appointment as her husband’s steward. A sound cover indeed, yet often times Horatio closed his eyes and saw Archie in the custody of those red-coated Marines again. He fancied he could hear their footsteps at the door, coming to drag him to the gallows.

“Horatio?”

Blinking at the sound of his name, Horatio looked about him once more. He had forgotten that Archie awaited an answer. His friend sat on the bed now, tugging off his boots; blue eyes trained on him, brimming with nervous worry. Horatio ducked his head in remorse that his silence had soured Archie’s delight with their new residence.

“It’s more than I’d hoped for, Archie,” said Horatio at last. It was certainly no lie. He had feared Cassilis would drag him by his hair to the Admiralty building in London, demanding he bear the blame in Archie’s stead, or worse, turn Archie in himself out of disgust for a “traitorous” son. He had certainly not expected to be received with any kind of civility, let alone sympathy. Cassilis was a gruff, distant man – a frigate captain during the Seven Years War – but practical and defensive of his own. In his eyes, Horatio and Archie were victims of the same ill circumstance, the same stupidity, and apart from reserving a small measure of disdain for his son’s “damned theatrics” he directed his ire at Pellew, Hammond – no strangers to him – and Clive. “Your family has been too good to me,” Horatio finished after a pause.

Boots off, Archie leaned back on his palms, studying him. Horatio pursed his lips under that perceptive blue gaze, feeling that every word he said had been both wrong and hollow. Archie seemed to agree, suddenly blunt and depreciating. “Fiona has hired you because she thinks you’ve a fine mind, Horatio; she does not dole out charity.”

That stung. Baroness Ward had been kind in hiring him to tutor her children, and in and of itself, Horatio had no qualms with the work; the children were dear enough, and certainly provided distraction from his troubles. Yet it was hardly work he could withstand his entire life. Lady Fiona knew this; everyone knew it – he wore disorientation like a cloak – and so various members of the family scrambled about, offering him this position or that, bleeding pity from every pore. Horatio knew not what else to call it but charity.

“As for the house,” Archie went on. “You don’t like it.”

Horatio set his jaw stubbornly, irritated that Archie should make this accusation. He could not understand how Archie could be so prickly about accepting assistance when he was hurt and yet have no compunction when it came to leaning on his family. On the contrary, Archie seemed to think that was what a family was for. Perhaps the aristocracy simply worked in that fashion, taking pride in their connections rather than in making their own way.

“I do like it, Archie.” Horatio sat down on the bed beside his friend. He did, in truth. “I only feel . . .” No words could explain it. Too comfortable, perhaps. He felt drugged inside, out of touch with the world around him, the important things. And he felt like that dog again, blind and vulnerable in his false security to any threat that might come swooping in.

“Poor Horatio . . .” Archie reached up, brushing his cheek with warm fingers. “I almost make you happy, don’t I.” It was not a question.

His heart sank, Horatio could not say why, and an oppressive sense of inadequacy settled in his gut. Why must he constantly punish Archie with his gravity? Why could he not be gladdened for his friend’s sake? And why could Archie not value himself enough to see what really gnawed at him? “My dear . . .” Horatio covered the hand on his cheek with his own. “You misunderstand me.”

“Perhaps.” Archie’s voice came softly, leaning close. Horatio’s heart stilled in his breast, struck by the clear blue of Archie’s eyes, too reminiscent of the sea that had once served as a chasm between him and the ill, incomprehensible world. But the illness of that world had reached him at sea, tainting otherwise honorable hearts, leaving him a man without refuge, without peace. Horatio closed his eyes to hide the pain, and felt Archie cupping his cheek. He nearly melted when Archie’s lips covered his, razing his reserve with a slow-moving kiss.

Sliding both arms around him, Horatio caught a hand in Archie’s honeyed hair. It had not yet grown long enough to wear in a ribbon, but no longer had that butchered look. He wore it with less of a fringe now, in silky golden waves just long enough for Horatio’s fingers to comb through while tasting that pert, pink little mouth. Archie’s arms twined around his neck, bringing their chests together in a union of thick, anxious heat.

They seemed to kiss forever, but when they disentangled themselves Horatio realized it had only been a moment. Archie’s cheeks were flushed all the same, his eyes sparkling beguilingly. “Come on,” he said, getting up to close the door. “Let’s see if this bed is as serviceable as it looks. No need to sleep in that cramped room.”

Horatio glanced at the wide bed with its dark headboard and rich blue coverlet, certain he sat upon a proper feather mattress. Never had he tumbled Archie on anything so fine, but a glance at the door, and the hall beyond, filled him with fresh anxiety.

“In here?” he asked stupidly, wringing his hands in his lap. His lips felt numb and clumsy where Archie had kissed him.

Archie stopped halfway to the door, rolling his eyes. “Would you prefer the parlor floor?” His mouth twitched up in an infuriating smirk.

A blush crept into Horatio’s cheeks; he lowered his head. Archie’s huffy, impatient air had a way of making him feel so stupid. He clenched his hands but endeavored to keep a rational tone. “I fear sharing this bed would be less than discreet. How would it look, Archie?”

“Who is looking?” Archie made a mockery of surveying the room for prying eyes.

Growing exasperated, Horatio’s tone sharpened. “The servants, Archie. If we were to lock ourselves in here, it would be all too apparent what we were up to.” He knew that with the aristocracy, servants were not seen as people; he had learned that with Mariette in France and it had appalled him. They were indeed people – people with eyes and ears who could snuff out their secrets and use them to the worst ends.

Yet Archie looked at him as if he had suggested raising topgallants in a storm. “The servants are in the servant’s quarters, Horatio, fast asleep. They wouldn’t disturb us now unless we rang for them.”

“Suppose they did. Suppose they came to find us in an emergency.” They would only have three servants, Archie had explained while whisking him about the ground floor – a Mrs. Wilson, a shy French girl called Angélie who had been a daughter of society before the Terror, and a groundskeeper called Alec – but three pairs of eyes watching their every move seemed far too many for comfort.

Archie sighed. “Horatio, we’ve managed in a cabin with walls thinner than these, with hundreds of men about, no less. I don’t understand.”

“We were supposed to share that cabin, Archie. But if we share quarters here, even for a few hours, there’s nothing else to be assumed but the truth.”

He kept his voice low, dearly wishing they were not having this conversation. They did not often debate the risks of their relationship, but those risks seemed multiplied now. Condensed living was a necessity of shipboard life, and despite the ominous Article twenty-nine, relations between men had a certain unspoken immunity, a place within the raging purgatory of war. The crime often felt like a Spartan theft, punished more for its discovery than its existence. But on land the world was different. With so many women about to dance with, charm, and wed, and so much gossip and scandal, Horatio felt exposed in this house on its little hill, as if he and Archie’s attachment to one another were held for all to see and scrutinized by the eyes of society.

No longer intent on having him, Archie sank down onto the chaise. “We managed aboard . . .” He trailed off, but Horatio knew what he wanted to say and shook his head. Their arrangement aboard Retribution had not been the same as sharing a room; he had simply offered his bed to a wounded gentleman, and they had slept in turns, not together. All other moments alone had been stolen under the proper and honorable pretense of a captain entertaining a passenger. Archie seemed to realize the fallacy of this point and changed course. “Had you been Captain and I your lieutenant we would have faced the same difficulty:” He seemed defensive, distressed.

Horatio wanted to tell him that was not so, but could not find conviction enough to do so. Rank had never mattered between them, and he doubted it ever could, in their hearts, but the gulf between captain and lieutenant would indeed have demanded distance where appearances were concerned. Their closeness would certainly have spawned gossip and jealousy among any other officers he might have had.

“In any case,” Archie’s voice was suddenly strained, “I think I’ll simply go to bed.”

For a moment, Horatio stared at him, puzzled as to why he was suddenly so upset. Archie was neither petty nor impractical, and the need for discretion was nothing new. But if Archie wished to be alone, Horatio could hardly deny him.

“Very well.” He rose from the bed, clamping down on the disappointment swelling inside him. “Goodnight, Archie.”

Closing Archie’s door, Horatio stepped out into the hall, pausing at the top of the stairs. Below lay silent darkness, where the light from the candles on the wall behind him did not quite reach. He remembered what he had seen coming in, however, after Archie had gone to fetch him at his sister’s in his excitement that the place was finally suitable to inhabit again. The house was handsomely furnished, but not elaborately so. Archie’s grandmother had lived here alone until she died; the tenth Earl had built it for her long ago. David Kennedy had a fondness for having things built, Archie had told him; the man had bankrupted the family commissioning a grand castle on Scotland’s Ayrshire coast, the family’s proper and ancient lands.

The Kennedys had little time for Scotland, or perhaps their relatives had little love for them – Archie would not elaborate on the subject. He often spoke animatedly of his lineage, however, of a forefather who had roasted a man on a spit until he surrendered his lands, of another who had fought with Joan of Arc at Orleans, of yet another who had been murdered as part of Mary of Scots retinue, and of course of his father, whose New York property had been confiscated by George Washington himself. It seemed Archie’s father shared his daughter’s taste for city life.

Horatio frowned to consider what city life would do to Archie. He would not dare make his presence too conspicuous, of course, but there were those bound to recognize him nonetheless. Would he invite them here in the hopes of rekindling friendships? Seeing him with Miss Ward was bad enough – Lady Fiona’s grown stepdaughter who fluttered her fan about her low neckline and inquired about the places Archie had been. Horatio scowled; perhaps therein lay what he disliked about the place; he had no longer had Archie to himself, but had to share him with a small trickle of acquaintances more congenial than he. Perhaps it was selfish of him, but he wanted to take Archie away, back to sea where he could not be smiled at and smile in return. Horatio sighed. The Marines, the Articles, the pretty women; they were all there to steal Archie from him.

Passing the stairs, Horatio shut himself up in his own rooms. He sank into the pale armchair before the single window in the small study. The French girl had left the lamp burning, as well as a candle in the bedroom within. Nevertheless, the room looked dreary in the dim light, lacking the happy colors of Archie’s quarters. There was a decently sized writing desk, a tall-backed chair, and a bedroom larger than the sleeping cabin aboard Retribution, but it still felt lonely – the first room in seven years he would not share with Archie.

The sad thought brought Archie’s distressed expression back to mind. Horatio realized he had been a dolt in refusing his friend’s advances. Archie had clearly not wanted to occupy a separate room either, and if he did not share Archie’s bed he was certain Emmaline Ward would vie for the privilege. Horatio shook his head. This was madness; they were both grown men with dignity to maintain. He should be glad for the privacy of his own room and so should Archie.

Yet Archie’s worried eyes would not leave his mind. Horatio thought back on all he had said, the argument of appearances and so on. Perhaps he had sounded too final and had given Archie the impression that he did wish to risk any further amorous relations at all. Dear God. His heart sank for the second time that night. Suddenly he felt sick inside, strangely chilled and uncomfortably panicked. He had meant nothing of the kind, only that . . . .

He had meant nothing of the kind.

There were always risks. Compared to the unpredictable mayhem of battle, coupling in their cabin had always seemed a small one – discovery was a risk that could be controlled and eliminated by certain measures. It was different on land, of course – the servants made him feel uncomfortably watched, and gossip seemed as arbitrary a danger as cannon fire – but their lives were not without a semblance of normality. Archie could often be seen in female company, and he was often in Lady Fiona’s house while her husband was away.

Horatio rubbed one palm over his face, yawning. There were always risks; he and Archie would simply have to employ caution, as they always had. He wanted to go back and assure Archie that reducing their friendship to something purely platonic had long since been out of the question, but a knock sounded before he could.

“Come in,” he called, unaware of how tired he was until he heard himself speak.

Archie slipped into the room, barefoot with his shirt untucked and hanging open. The front of his hair was wet, as if he had washed for bed and then had thrown his clothes back on in a hurry. He appeared weary too, disconcertingly somber. Horatio frowned to see it.

“I’ve forgotten to give you the key,” Archie said quietly, placing a bit of shining metal on the desk.

Staring at the key, Horatio pondered what this gesture meant. That he need not expect Archie to wait up for him? He always returned late from the Baroness’ house, though the distance would be less now that he had only to travel to the edge of the Earl’s property. No, he took another look at his lover’s face, instantly ashamed; Archie had not meant that at all. The gesture had been a conciliatory one.

Horatio cleared his throat, anxious to return it in kind. “Close the door, Archie.”

Straightening, Archie blinked, as if he did not understand.

“And lock it,” Horatio added after a moment.

Nodding at last, Archie moved to do as Horatio asked, but the set of his shoulders revealed that he was confused still. He applied the latch and then turned to Horatio without a word, an oddly blank expression on his face.

“Come here, Archie.” Impatience strained Horatio’s voice this time.

He should not be impatient, Horatio realized; it was he who had brought on this uncertainty by not thinking before he opened his mouth.

Pulling Archie into his lap, Horatio settled his arms about him, studying Archie’s face for a moment. He was so lovely with his fine brows and silky hair, his delicate cheekbones shadowed by his sandy lashes in the lamplight. Horatio stroked his cheek with a lazy hand, watching Archie’s features relax slightly under his touch.

“Archie, I didn’t mean what you think,” Horatio told him softly. “I only meant . . .” He trailed off; Archie’s eyes squeezed shut in an obvious effort to compose himself. Chest tightening, Horatio swallowed hard. “Archie, I love you,” he said out of desperation, drawing Archie closer.

The chair proved an impediment – hardly large enough to hold the both of them – but Archie showed no interest in moving. He tucked his head between Horatio’s shoulder and neck and muttered, “Horatio, you’ve not been happy since our transfer to Renown. I’ve done all I could.”

The quiet, fraught tone knotted Horatio up inside. He drew Archie back at arms’ length, staring at him. His blue eyes were wet where they had glittered with excitement before, his features tight with frustration. He looked so near to breaking down. Horatio went cold again. Archie must not weep, not ever. Swallowing the lump in his own throat, Horatio forced himself to speak.

“How can I be, Archie, when it is possible to lose you?”

The words were as true as anything he had ever uttered. The risks gnawed at him. An entire month of believing Archie dead had left too great a scar on his heart, as well as those two years long ago while Archie had been in prison. If he were to lose Archie again, Horatio knew he would not survive it. His thin, frail body had not been made to withstand such pain.

“I’m sorry for getting myself shot,” Archie choked out, clearly at his wit’s end, as if he were to blame. Horatio shook his head, biting his lip. It was not Archie’s fault he was a weak, fragile fool terrified of being alone.

“I’ll get you some water,” was all Horatio could think to say, gently pushing Archie off his lap. He no longer wanted to be in that room, forced to face the toll his own mulling anxieties had exacted upon Archie, and dignity demanded he not watch Archie cry.

But when he reached the hall, Horatio stood awash with shame. Why was he so damned transparent? He had hurt Archie enough with his grieving before and now here they were in the same mess all over again. His pain and fear could not be helped, but he could do better at concealing it.

Huffing in self-disgust, Horatio made his way down the stairs. The curtains over the small kitchen window hung open, letting in the bright moonlight, allowing him to locate a pitcher and cup on a tray. He filled the cup and turned to head up the stairs again, but the faint echo of a woman’s laughter stopped him. The sound came from outside, muffled but high and silvery like chimes.

Cup in hand, Horatio stepped over to the window. He saw their servant girl skipping childishly on the arm of a man who must be the groundskeeper, holding her skirt up in one hand and tossing her dark curls at some remark he made. Her gaiety puzzled Horatio. Her family had been wealthy in France, Archie had said. As a girl, she had probably never imagined herself sweeping floors or rising before dawn to bake bread for English masters. Probably she had been born a Marguerite or something else very regal, though now she called herself Angélie. Calamity had ruined her life and yet she still knew how to laugh. Why should it be so difficult for him to do the same for Archie’s sake?

Horatio glanced back over his shoulder, through the kitchen doorway at the rest of the house. The place was deathly silent, though not oppressively so. This silence was a safe one, contradicting how exposed he had felt in Archie’s bedchamber before. With the housekeeper clearly asleep and the other two servants occupied, he and Archie’s rooms now seemed remote and well fortified by the house’s vast darkness. Horatio frowned, feeling doubly foolish now for the fuss he had made.

“Good God. Why does she let him slobber all over her? With a body like that she could entice a king.”

Archie appeared in the doorway, staring past Horatio through the window. Horatio followed his gaze. The groundskeeper had Angélie pinned against the wall, all but devouring her mouth. He then hoisted her up onto his hips, carrying her off toward his little room. Her skirts rode up to her knees, baring her pale legs to the moonlight. Apparently she had anticipated the encounter, as evidenced by her lack of stockings. Horatio cleared his throat.

“Perhaps if I donned a dress you wouldn’t worry about discovery half as much,” Archie teased when the pair had vanished, too appreciative of the spectacle by far.

Still, Horatio had to laugh at the remark. “The ruse is sure to fail the instant I open your bodice, Archie.”

In the faint light, Horatio caught Archie’s grin. The sight reassured him. “What do you know of opening bodices, Mr. Hornblower?” Archie tilted his head.

“Not much I’m afraid,” Horatio admitted dryly, and then handed over the cup of water. “Here. Drink.”

Archie took the cup, their fingers brushing. The contact sparked something between them, or perhaps it was the familiar words. Horatio lowered his head, suddenly abashed. After all Archie had done for him over the years, was a cup of water still the most he could give in return?

But Archie drank, a sip at first before moving out of the kitchen and into the dark parlor. Horatio followed him, standing while Archie sat finishing his cup in silence. He wanted to put an end to the tension between them tonight, feeling ridiculous for creating it, but did not trust his own clumsy tongue with the task. Instead, Horatio waited, encouraged by Archie’s lighter mood in the kitchen a moment ago. He crossed the room, sinking to his knees before Archie on the rug.

He sank back onto his heels, the side of his hand brushing Archie’s bare foot. Before thinking better of it, Horatio drew that foot into his lap, rubbing the chill away with both hands. The pad of his thumb traced just under the first toe, over a small faded scar where a cigar had burned the skin; Horatio did not want to think on who had done the burning.

“Stop,” Archie pleaded with a faint chuckle, attempting to pull his foot away. Horatio did not let go, only raised it a little higher, nuzzling and then planting a kiss to the top. Archie shifted above him, and only when Horatio saw him hold out his arms in the faint, faint light did he pull himself up.

“Archie,” he whispered, leaning close between his friend’s thighs, relieved inside when Archie’s arms folded loosely around his neck. Horatio kissed across his cheek, along his handsome square jaw, but not yet his mouth – that privilege required invitation. One hand worked under the hem of Archie’s unbuttoned shirt, stroking his chest lazily, playing in the soft honey hair and lightly rubbing a nipple with the tip of one finger. Archie sucked in a sharp breath; Horatio could feel him growing hard against his stomach.

“Horatio,” Archie murmured, his breath coming faster, “do something.”

Giddy to be wanted so, Horatio did. He pushed the collar of Archie’s shirt back, revealing one wide shoulder, and applied his mouth there, kissing gently inward. When he reached Archie’s neck, he bit down on the tender skin. Archie flung his head back with a sharp cry, rocking against him. Seizing advantage, Horatio’s hand skipped down, palm rubbing between Archie’s legs and then squeezing him through his trousers. Archie groaned and leaned back further, head resting against the couch’s carved crest, breathing raggedly in the darkness.

Horatio made short work of unbuttoning him, claiming the smooth, hard prize that sprang forth into his hand. He sank back onto his heels again, his free arm circling Archie’s waist as he bent and took Archie in his mouth.

Strong fingers dug instantly into his scalp, pressing him closer against Archie’s body, urging him. Horatio worked at him in languid strokes, stirred by the way Archie groaned under the tugging embrace of his lips. He worked at him until Archie’s fingers flexed and a rush of wetness filled his mouth. That, Horatio swallowed absently; Archie tasted like the sea, had eyes like the sea, had always been his refuge.

He rested his head in Archie’s lap when it was over. His blood pounded, disturbing the quiet of this place, but when Horatio opened his eyes he realized they were still alone, safe in the dark parlor of an empty house. Hands were tugging at him, pulling him up, and a moment later the two of them lay sprawled on the uncomfortable sofa, Archie’s head atop his chest.

Running a finger under Archie’s chin, Horatio prompted his lover to look up at him. Archie shifted, draping himself over Horatio’s body, reaching up and burying both hands in his hair. The feel of him was so warm and arousing that Horatio wrapped both arms around Archie’s hips to press him tighter against his half hard groin. Archie rubbed against him teasingly, chuckling when Horatio expelled a sharp breath.

“Now how shall I repay this monstrous debt tonight?” Archie murmured, pressing both thumbs against Horatio’s jaw, titling his chin up. Horatio groaned into the kiss that followed, sliding a hand up to grip the back of Archie’s head, drawing that kiss out for as long as he could. Heat swept through his body; he felt awake, alive.

“Perhaps we might employ that bed of yours,” Horatio suggested when Archie pulled away. “I thought you said –“ Horatio silenced him with a finger to his lips, shaking his head. “We should be all right for a little while, Archie, with two potential pairs of prying eyes busy, after all.” His mouth twisted to recall that indecent display outside.

Archie snorted. “I wager I can do better for you than he can for her.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Horatio laughed, helping Arching to his feet. They both paused to catch their breath, and then moved for the stairs under the cover of quiet darkness.