POSITION COMPROMISED. EXT 25. 303717N 075856W
Marcus Aquila re-read the words and fought the urge to slam his fist into the wall.
Two years work, wasted.
Two years of deception, infiltration, penetration and surveillance wasted without gaining the intel that had been his primary objective.
And he'd been so close...
Grinding his teeth in frustration, he memorised the map coordinates and moved to the window so he could expose the scrap of paper to the sunlight. It crumbled to dust between his fingers. Extraction on the 25th. Three days time. He hastily gathered essentials and began cramming them into a holdall, knowing better than to linger in the apartment. Now that his cover had been blown, there'd be people looking for him and he wouldn't be safe in any of his usual haunts. For sure he couldn't risk returning to his company's offices in the business district of the city as that'd be one of the first places they'd look for him.
"And here," he murmured, glancing at his watch. He'd give himself another five minutes. As he moved through the apartment he made a mental inventory of the locations of his equipment stashes. He'd need documents, money, weapons and transport. Priority after that would be to get out of the capital, get to the extraction point, then hole up somewhere close until the pick-up. He called up Google Earth on his laptop and punched in the coordinates.
The screen indicated a location 476 miles south-east of the city in a remote desert location.
"Couldn't find anywhere closer, huh?" Marcus muttered with a shake of his head. Sitting back, he stared at the screen, then re-entered the coordinates. The same location. He changed the Google display to show towns and attractions in the vicinity of the extraction point. The resulting list comprised a single name.
His head fell back to rest against the cool, tiled wall as he silently cursed the perfidy of fate.
He'd hoped he'd seen the back of that God-forsaken place. He powered off the laptop and thrust it into the backpack with another glance at his watch.
Out of time.
"Any port in a storm," he murmured to the empty room. Considering the services he'd rendered the Sultan in the past, he'd at least be assured of a warm welcome. His lips twisted into a mirthless smile. Always assuming the same man was still the Sultan...
"Ah, Aquila, my old friend. It is good to see you again!" The Sultan of Baslaam, Mehmet Bin Salid, greeted the American with every appearance of pleasure. The man was little-changed from the last time Marcus had seen him: a tall man with a prominent hook nose that curved over a neat black beard and a grave face in which were set the piercing eyes of a ruthless voluptuary. Where his cloak had fallen open, a corpulent body clad in white flowing robes was revealed, an embroidered waistcloth wrapped several times about his body with a richly-jewelled dagger thrust into its folds. What his appearance did not reveal was that the man was a hypochondriac with a morbid fear of assassination, but Marcus knew. He knew all about this man.
"What brings you to Baslaam?" the Sultan asked nonchalantly, but Marcus knew it was anything but a casual enquiry. The man's eyes narrowed as he spoke, suspicious as only one who knows that his position is secure solely because he is one step ahead of those who would depose him can be. Marcus knew that feeling well. He'd lived with it for most of his adult life.
Insincerity. Deceit. Lies. Double-cross.
Marcus had mastery of them all and he met the Sultan's gaze with a disarming ease. "Dune bashing, your Highness." Seeing the surprise in the other man's face, he explained, "I've wanted to do it for years but never had the chance. It's been a successful year," Interest flared in the Sultan's eyes, "And I figured I was due a break."
The Sultan smiled expansively. "And, of course, you thought of Baslaam, for have we not the most perfect dunes for such activities?"
Marcus smiled back. "That's what I'm counting on."
"And where are you staying?" Bin Salid asked, gesturing to two low couches between which had been set a table bearing an impressive platter of fruit. "Sit, sit. Eat."
"The Sheraton," Marcus replied, reaching for a handful of dates. "These are delicious," he said between mouthfuls.
The Sultan accepted the compliment with a small nod of pleasure. "I insist that you stay in the palace, for is not the hospitality of my house infinitely better than that of your Sheraton?"
Marcus' smile broadened. "No arguments on that score, your Highness. Thanks for your hospitality."
Bin Salid helped himself to a date. "So, my friend. Tell me more about this 'good year' of yours."
The rest of Marcus' audience was taken up with discussions about their respective businesses and the state of the Sultanate: the price of oil "good," the worrying rise of liberal radicals who pressed for economic reforms and modernisation policies "very bad," and the civil unrest in the neighbouring kingdom "very bad indeed." Marcus wasted no time in turning the conversation to the latest armaments available on the market, knowing that the Sultan's near-paranoid fear of assassination would ensure him a significant sale. So it was that, two hours and several glasses of mint tea later, he retired from the Sultan's presence with a multi-million-dollar contract for a second-hand, Soviet-built, helicopter and, more importantly, somewhere to stay until the pick-up.
At Bin Salid's insistence, Marcus' next stop was the hammam ‘to wash away the dust and stresses of your journey.’ Had the Sultan not suggested it, Marcus would have done so himself, for the bathing ritual was one of the many things he loved about this wild and ancient land. After a long soak in the heated bath, Marcus moved to the hot room to have his skin scrubbed with a rough cloth and the local black soap. Refreshed and invigorated, he wrapped a towel around his hips and wandered outside to lie on one of the white marble tables that surrounded the secluded courtyard and its blue-tiled pool. As a masseur worked the tension from his taut muscles, Marcus finally allowed himself to relax.
English voices amidst the predominantly Arabic ones drew Marcus' attention to two men sitting in a corner of the courtyard, apart from the other bathers and apparently shunned by them. The men spoke in tones that were too low for Marcus to hear and, not wanting to alert them to his interest, he concentrated on analysing their body language instead. The darker-haired of the two was speaking earnestly to the other, his gestures animated, his body angled towards his companion. The second man sat with his face averted, knees drawn up to his chest, arms clasped around them, listening with little comment, but occasionally shaking his head in disagreement. It was clear to Marcus that the former was trying to persuade the latter to some course of action, apparently with limited success, and as the frustration of the first man increased, so too did the volume of his voice.
"Damn it, Esca! You know what he'll do to me!" The words were laced with anger and fear. The fair-haired man said something too softly for Marcus to catch but, whatever it was, it did nothing to placate his companion, who retorted angrily, "How could you be so selfish? Esca! Please!" Again the second man spoke and it was clear from the slump of his shoulders that he'd capitulated to his companion's demands. The dark-haired man reached out a hand and laid it on the other's shoulder. "I'll make it up to you. I promise. When we get out of here, I'll make it up to you." The second man did not respond. His companion rose gracefully and walked off in the direction of the private rooms that had once been the palace's harem, but now served as quarters for the Sultan’s guests.
Marcus dropped his gaze, murmured a command to the servant pummelling his back, and watched the fair-haired man out of the corner of his eye. The man slapped his hand angrily against the tiled floor before dropping his head into his hands, the epitome of frustration and dejection. When he finally looked up, it was to gaze in the direction his companion had gone, and Marcus was able to see his face for the first time.
It was all Marcus could think as a bolt of lust lanced through his groin. Not a classically handsome face, but a memorable one, framed by unruly hair the colour of burnished copper shot with flecks of gold around steel-grey eyes that were set into a determined countenance that was now both angry and distressed.
It was shocking how much Marcus found himself wanting to kiss that distress away.
"Harder," he commanded the masseur in Arabic, and let the pain of the man's probing fingers draw his attention and lust away.
Marcus had never seen anything like it.
The Arts had never really interested him, although he'd carefully cultivated a familiarity with them when building his cover as a hedonistic arms-dealer and whilst he had attended operas, exhibitions and ballets in the past, he knew that he was far from being a connoisseur.
This had been mind-blowing.
He'd never seen anything as graceful, controlled, artistic, or beautiful, as Esca dancing. It had been stunning. The effortless, agile mastery the man exercised over his body had been extraordinary and when he danced, Marcus had forgotten everything: his situation, his frustration, his fears, everything.
Everything except Esca.
The man was beautiful: pale skin wrapped in gossamer silk, hands graceful and expressive, arms subtlety muscled, an abdomen that could have been sculpted from marble, so prominent were the muscle blocks.
There wasn't an ounce of fat on Esca's body, nor an inch of skin that Marcus did not desire, the intricate blue tattoo encircling his right bicep arousing more than just the American's interest, but it was Esca's legs that fascinated Marcus the most, the thighs powerfully-muscled, the calves toned and firm.
What would it feel like to have those legs wrapped around him?
Marcus fought back a moan. It would be incredible. Utterly incredible.
"Did you hear me, Aquila?" The Sultan's voice finally penetrated Marcus' reverie.
"Forgive me, Highness. My mind was elsewhere."
The Sultan gave him a knowing smile. "Beautiful, is he not?"
Shit! Had he said it aloud? Caught staring at the dancer, Marcus could hardly deny it now. "Indeed, Highness."
The Sultan settled back in his chair. "I first saw him perform in New York when he was senior principal with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, but it was not until he was performing in Russia that I was able to persuade him to come to Baslaam and dance only for me."
"I commend you on your excellent taste," Marcus said, and meant it, "and your powers of persuasion."
The Sultan accepted the plaudit with a satisfied smile. "Even in this time of technological sophistication, it's astonishing how compelling chloroform and a rope can be."
Even Marcus had to laugh at that. "I assume you offered him an obscene amount of money?"
The Sultan shook his head wryly. "Would that it had been so easy, my friend. No, this one was not interested in money, so he came here most reluctantly."
It took all of Marcus' self-control not to let the shock of that revelation show on his face. "So, if he didn't want to be here, how come he still dances for you?" Not wanting to appear too interested in the dancer, he helped himself to a selection of roast mutton and stuffed vine leaves from the platters laid out before him and waited for the Sultan to reply.
"Ah, it was necessary to concoct a little deception to ensure his cooperation."
"The other Englishman," the Sultan confided. "A member of the same ballet company but nowhere nearly as talented or as principled as his compatriot. Esca dances because he believes that Michael will be beaten most cruelly if he does not."
The Sultan's eyebrows rose. "But that is the beauty of the arrangement, Aquila! I need only threaten Michael with punishment and Esca is all obedience. He is," he reached for a napkin and wiped his fingers fastidiously, "foolishly loyal to his unworthy countryman and most protective of him. The first time he defied me, I had only to pretend to have Michael whipped to have the proud Esca on his knees before me, begging me to spare his friend and promising to dance for me better than he had ever danced before." He leant forward as though sharing a great confidence and dropped his voice to a whisper. "And do you know what, Aquila?"
Marcus mirrored his gesture, leaning forward also.
"He did," the Sultan said with smug satisfaction. "He was inspired. More graceful and more beautiful than any dancer I have ever seen."
Marcus' gut roiled to think how desperate Esca must have been. "And Michael?"
"Michael!" The Sultan spat the name out. "That one is interested only in the money that he is paid to maintain the charade. He cares nothing for Esca." He reached for a fig and bit into it before discarding it with a frown. "Fortunately, Michael is a far better actor than he is a dancer." He reached for a date before sitting back in his chair and lacing his fingers over his ample belly. "Now Esca dances for me and Michael ensures that he will not run, which is as it should be, for I see no reason why I should be denied that which I desire." He clapped his hands and servants hurried forward to remove the platters and serve the next course.
"A man after my own heart," Marcus murmured, reaching for his glass and wishing he could get drunk. His gaze sought out Esca unconsciously.
The Sultan threw him a calculating glance. "Do you desire him, Aquila?"
Marcus stirred in his seat, his arousal pressing uncomfortably against the material of his suit trousers. Pointless to deny it, especially as the Sultan was well aware of his proclivities. "Esca? Very much, Highness."
The Sultan's face dissolved into a slow smile. "Then he is yours for the night."
Marcus plastered a grin on his face.
"Michael assures me that Esca is virgin in the ways that a man takes another and, since none here have touched him, you will be the first."
The blood pooled in Marcus' groin even as his mind recoiled at the prospect of taking Esca against his will. He was treading on very dangerous ground here and the last thing he needed was to be ensnared in one of the Sultan's intrigues. "So, will I also need to threaten his countryman before he'll spread his legs for me?" he asked with callous levity.
The Sultan smiled expansively. "I can assure you that will not be necessary, Aquila. He will be most... agreeable."
Marcus raised his glass in salute and shocked himself by replying. "Then I thank you for your generous offer, Highness, and accept with gratitude."
What the fuck was he doing?
His brief had been to lie low. Not fuck some virgin ballerina of a Brit under the lustful gaze of the Sultan. And he would be watching, of that Marcus had no doubt.
He had to be out of his fucking mind…
Maybe he'd been in the field too long if a little down-time had him this far out of control. A disconcerting thought then: maybe his cover hadn't been blown. Maybe he’d been pulled him from the field because he couldn't do the job any more...
He took a long, calming breath to steady his jangling nerves.
He couldn't forget Esca's face before he'd danced, pale but determined, or the Sultan's words about his loyalty and protectiveness towards the faithless Michael, nor the sheen of sweat that had glistened on his skin as he'd danced. Marcus couldn't deny that he wanted him. Wanted Esca, beneath his body and writhing in ecstasy.
It was almost a relief to realize it.
Not out of control. Not de-mob happy. Just motivated by good, old-fashioned lust. Hell, maybe Esca would feel the same way. Marcus knew he wasn't unpleasant to look at, could be charming when he wanted to be, and a considerate, gentle lover when it suited him. He felt some of the tension leach from his body. Maybe seducing Esca would be fun for both of them...
And if Esca was being held against his will, maybe, just maybe, he could get him out of here.
The Sultan's smile broadened. "And if he pleases you, perhaps you may enjoy his body for the duration of your stay," the man's eyes glittered with avarice, "and perhaps we could renegotiate the contract for the helicopter?" He let the suggestion hang in the air as Marcus flashed him a smile but refrained from replying.
It was almost a relief when a servant stepped forward, bowed solemnly, and engaged the Sultan in a discussion about some aspect of the entertainment to follow. Marcus returned his gaze to Esca’s troubled form and tried hard not to care.
It was with no little satisfaction that Esca realised it'd taken four of the Sultan's heavies to hold him down, a fifth to immobilise his head and a sixth to hold his nose and pour some fucking concoction down his throat when he'd opened his mouth to breathe. Not so gratifying was the knowledge that he'd swallowed most of the stuff despite his best intentions not to. Fuck only knew what it was, but he'd lay money on it not being anything good.
"Bastards!" he cursed, when he had finally stopped coughing.
"Silence him!" the Sultan ordered.
"You bastard!" Esca shouted again, struggling furiously against the hands that restrained him. The Sultan bent over him and hissed, "Be careful who you insult, little one. Your life lies in my hands, as does Michael's."
A gag was forced between Esca's teeth and secured behind his head.
"Now tie him down," the Sultan commanded. His guards rolled Esca face-down on the bed and secured his arms and legs to the ornate bed frame with cords of plaited silk. Spread-eagled and silenced, Esca could only glare his hatred at the Sultan, who laughed at his impotent fury. Bin Salid placed a hand on Esca's neck and trailed it slowly down his back, stopping only when it encountered the waistband of his trousers.
The guards hurried to comply, drawing their knives to cut away the flimsy fabric of the dancer's costume. Esca dared not struggle then, terrified by the razor-sharp blades, but still he berated himself for his cowardice.
"Now leave us," the Sultan commanded softly when the dancer was naked before him. "I will complete his preparation myself."
Esca strained furiously at the ropes even as his vision blurred and the room began to swim.
When Marcus entered the bed chamber he’d been fully prepared to seduce the dancer if the man was amenable or engineer an argument if he was not; whatever it took so they could both survive the encounter with minimal collateral damage. Quite the last thing he had prepared for was a naked Esca, tied to his bed.
The word was muttered under the dancer's breath, then repeated in an endless litany that saw each word accompanied by a sharp tug on the cords that secured his arms to the bed frame.
"Stuck. Stuck. Stuck."
He must have been at it some time because the skin at his wrists was already abraded, dark with the promise of bruising and, in places, weeping blood.
"Esca, no," Marcus entreated as he closed the distance between them. "Stop that. You're hurting yourself."
"Oh, 'ello?" The tousled head turned towards Marcus and squinted owlishly. "Stuck."
"I know," Marcus said gently. "Give me a minute and I'll have you free."
"Promise?" The question was so plaintive that Marcus had to smile.
"Promise." He moved closer and lent over the bed. "Open your eyes, Esca. Look at me."
Esca forced his eyes open with an effort, his stare glassy and unfocused. "You know my name. I don't know yours." He sounded dismayed.
Esca's pupils were huge. Doped to the eyeballs; the Sultan's doing, no doubt. Marcus' jaw clenched so hard that it hurt.
Esca grimaced and closed his eyes. "Stop that."
"Stop what?" Marcus asked as he untied the cord securing Esca's right arm.
"Moving," Esca groaned. "Stop moving."
Whatever they'd given the Englishman had done quite a number on him. Marcus set to work on the second cord. "I'm not moving."
"You are!” Esca argued, clearly aggrieved. “I can see you moving!"
"Your eyes are closed," Marcus pointed out. He started work on the cords securing Esca's ankles.
"You're still moving," Esca fretted unhappily. "Everything's moving."
"Okay, you're free." Marcus swept the cords onto the floor and sat down on the bed beside Esca.
The dancer curled into a ball with a low groan of discomfort. "Bum hurts."
Esca opened his eyes just long enough to focus on Marcus and frown at him before repeating, "My bum hurts."
Marcus wasn't sure how to respond to that, so he said nothing.
"My arse," Esca added by way of explanation. He tried to stretch and winced. "Ass."
"Let me see."
"Fuck off! I hardly know you!"
That had Marcus laughing aloud. "I'll be gentle, I promise. I won't hurt you."
Esca's eyes cracked open. "Good, 'cos I'll break your legs if you try anything funny."
Marcus huffed in amusement. "Oh man, you are so wasted you couldn't break into a sweat."
"Bloody could," Esca muttered belligerently into the bedspread. "So you just watch it."
Marcus found himself warming to the prospect of watching Esca. A quick examination revealed the dancer's buttocks to be slick with oil and his anus angry and raw. Marcus winced in sympathy. Whoever had prepared Esca had been less than gentle and the knowledge made Marcus' stomach roil. This was his fault. If he hadn't accepted the Sultan's offer, Esca would not have been hurt. A wave of guilt assaulted him and he ruthlessly suppressed it. "You'll be fine in a day or two."
Esca sighed in resignation and shivered despite the warmth of the evening air. Marcus reached for one of the silk throws that littered the bed and draped it over Esca's body. The Englishman reared up in shock.
"S'cold!" he complained unhappily. His arms lifted to wrap around his head as his face contorted in pain. "Ow."
"Sorry," Marcus apologised. Impulsively, he drew Esca into his arms and settled him against his chest. "Better?" Esca mumbled something unintelligible and burrowed against him. Marcus eased them both down onto the bed.
"Be better if everything stopped moving," Esca muttered unhappily. "Make it stop, Marcus."
The sound of his name on Esca's lips sent an unexpected surge of warmth through the American's body. He wrapped his arms more firmly around the dancer's torso and held very still. "That better?"
Esca hummed happily.
A thought occurred to Marcus and, more in hope than expectation, he whispered, "Esca, do you like men? You know, more than women?"
The tousled head nodded. "I like you," the dancer's face broke into a slow smile. "You're warm."
Something twisted in Marcus' chest. He tamped the emotion down. In two days he'd be out of here. And Esca? Esca would still be here. He couldn't afford to get involved. He gazed down at the man lying quietly in his arms like he belonged there while Marcus' erection pressed hard into his thigh.
Hell, he was already involved.
He'd think of something.
He glanced around the room and if the fall of his gaze appeared casual, his appraisal of his surroundings was anything but. Just the one door. Ornate, filigree, wrought-iron grilles over the windows that were bolted in place. No obvious grills or vents in the walls or ceiling. An ornate prison, beautiful and gilded, but a prison nevertheless.
One thing that had been set into the ceiling directly over the bed was a large, gilt-framed mirror and Marcus found it fascinating. Mesmerised by the tantalising image of the fair-skinned Englishman sprawled naked between his thighs, Marcus soon had reason to regret the self-indulgent scrutiny as his own groin tightened in painful reaction. Sighing heavily, he forced himself to concentrate on assessing his situation. With Esca barely-conscious, seduction was no longer an option, and he wouldn't be able to engineer a falling-out between them either. Still, if he was to avoid arousing the Sultan's suspicions he'd need a plausible explanation for not having buggered Esca - he glanced down at the quiescent form in his arms - even more senseless than he already was. Only a fool would think the room was unobserved and Marcus was anything but a fool.
Esca shifted against him and sighed softly against his chest, Marcus' body responding with a predictable enthusiasm and a complete disregard for the Englishman's semi-conscious state.
So trusting, his Esca.
The American's eyes widened. Where had that come from?
Mentally berating himself, he forced himself to focus on the task at hand and steeled himself for what would come next. He had no choice, he told himself, and almost believed it. Besides, if he could get Esca away from this place, it'd be worth it.
"Hey!" he said loudly, giving Esca a shake. "Don't you go to sleep on me now!"
Easing Esca face-down on the bed, Marcus gripped the back of his ankles and pulled his legs apart before moving up the bed to settle between them.
"C'mon baby, time to show Marcus a good time." He pulled at Esca's hips, trying to get him onto all fours. Esca didn't respond. Releasing the man to fall bonelessly onto the bed, Marcus slapped Esca's face.
"Hey kid! Wake up! It's party time!"
"Bugger off!" Esca muttered thickly, burrowing into the bedclothes. “Sleepy."
Marcus swore at length in a very credible show of annoyance. "Shit! You’re no fun when you're stoned." A soft snore greeted his words and, inwardly, he smiled.
Not a bad start.
He punched a cushion to vent his 'frustration' before stripping off his clothing and throwing himself down on the bed beside Esca. Rolling onto his back, he laid his head on his forearm and gently caressed his erection. No point in wasting a perfectly good hard-on. With the Englishman so close, it'd be easy to get himself off. He closed his eyes and conjured up an image of Esca dancing and surprised himself by not having to fake a moan of pleasure when his erection throbbed in reaction.
Oh yeah. Real easy.
He stroked himself leisurely and hoped the Sultan was enjoying the show. He'd embellish the deception further in the morning.
Marcus was woken by the sound of birdsong and retching from the en-suite bathroom. Rolling smoothly to his feet, he was halfway across the room when the door to the bedchamber opened to admit the Sultan.
"Ah, Aquila! How was your night?" Bin Salid's gaze raked over Marcus' body. "I trust you found Esca ... agreeable?"
Unabashed by his nakedness, Marcus bore the scrutiny without demure. "The kid was stoned out of his head." Marcus did not mince his words. "If I'd wanted to fuck a corpse, I'd have brought my ex-wife."
The Sultan barked out a laugh. "Forgive me, my friend. It is only that he is a proud one and I did not want you disappointed by his unseemly resistance."
Marcus grinned wolfishly. "Oh, I like it when they resist, Highness. I like it a lot."
The door to the en-suite closed with an audible click and it was all Marcus could do not to turn round to look at Esca. He wondered how much of the conversation the man had heard.
"Ah, Esca," the Sultan addressed the dancer. "Michael waits for you. Go to him."
Esca crossed the room, his eyes downcast, his shoulders slumped. His gait was stiff, lacking the lithe grace of the evening before, and Marcus felt sick to his stomach when he realised why. How much did Esca remember of the previous night? Marcus found himself very much wanting to keep the dancer with him, at least until they'd had a chance to talk.
"A moment, Highness. I'd like to keep Esca with me."
Esca's step faltered. An imperious wave of the Sultan's hand halted him.
"Would you indeed?" The Sultan's gaze slid from one man to the other. "That was not our agreement, Aquila."
"Well, I hardly think I've had the best of him, Highness."
The Sultan's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps this is a subject best discussed over breakfast, eh? And perhaps we can also discuss the contract for the helicopter?"
Esca's chin lifted belligerently and he glared at the Sultan in silent fury.
Marcus kept his gaze on Bin Salid and nodded his approval of the man's suggestion. "As it pleases your Highness."
"As it pleases you, Aquila," the Sultan said with a smile. The smile disappeared when he noticed the Englishman’s angry gaze. “Lower your eyes, Esca."
For one sickening moment, Marcus thought the dancer was going to defy the Sultan. He felt the tension build in his body and silently willed the man to back down.
"Or more will be flayed from Michael than the skin of his back," the Sultan added softly.
Esca's eyes widened in horror. His gaze dropped to the floor, all trace of defiance gone. And something tightened painfully in Marcus' chest. He had to force himself to meet the smug, self-satisfied smile of the Sultan with a knowing grin of his own.
"Much better, Esca," Bin Salid murmured. "Now, show my guest how you make your obeisance." Not content with shaming the dancer, it seemed that the Sultan was intent on humiliating him. A muscle spasmed in Marcus' jaw.
"Kneel, Esca," the Sultan commanded.
Slowly, Esca knelt, his gaze never lifting from the floor.
"You are to remain like that until Aquila commands otherwise. Then you are to obey him. Know that his word is as mine, Esca, and carries the same authority. Defy him and you defy me, and you know what that will mean for Michael."
Esca did not move, but Marcus could see that he was shaking.
"Nod if you understand me," the Sultan concluded.
Turning back to Marcus, the Sultan said, "Come, Aquila. Let us eat and... negotiate."
Marcus followed him out of the room without a backward glance.
Mid-morning found Marcus driving his Toyota land cruiser along a dried-up lake-bed with a sullen, silent Esca in the passenger seat. Behind them, the trailer carrying Marcus' 700cc dune buggy and his KTM 450 EXC race bike rattled noisily whenever it encountered a rut. A substantial discount on the price of the helicopter had secured Esca's services for the duration of Marcus’ stay, an arrangement the Sultan had wasted no time in sharing with the young dancer. Esca's response had been an absence of emotion, a detached stillness and a silent acceptance of his fate. It had infuriated the Sultan, which was undoubtedly why Esca had done it.
The only defiance the man was still permitted that would not see his countryman punished.
Since the scant, gossamer-thin and highly-revealing costumes that the Sultan insisted Esca wear in the palace offered no protection against the fierceness of the desert sun, the dancer now wore clothing belonging to Marcus: a white cotton T-shirt, khaki combats that were way too long and way too big and needed a belt just to keep them on his hips, and an old denim jacket with the cuffs turned up. He looked like a kid brother clad in hand-me-downs he had yet to grow into and Marcus could scarce take his eyes off him. In the ill-fitting ensemble, Esca looked adorable.
The American glanced at his watch and counted off the hours. Thirty-five to go. Thirty-five hours to freedom. It was time he shared that information with Esca, now that there was no chance of their conversation being overheard. He'd searched the car thoroughly as soon as they were out of sight of the palace and the two bugs he'd found had been buried in a dead-drop spike in the sand, ready to be retrieved on their return. The tracking device he'd left in place. There was no harm in the Sultan knowing where they were going.
"I can get you out of Baslaam," Marcus said slowly. Esca ignored him, gazing out at the dunes through the side window. Marcus gave him a minute, then repeated his words.
"Esca, I can get you.."
"I heard you the first time," Esca interrupted.
When nothing further was forthcoming from the Englishman, Marcus prompted, "And?"
Esca shrugged dismissively. "I don’t believe you."
"What?" Whilst Marcus had imagined a number of reactions from Esca to the news, this had not been one of them.
Esca continued to gaze out of the window. “You’re lying.”
Marcus' hands tightened on the steering wheel. "I'm not lying. I can get you out of here." Esca ignored him. Marcus tried another tack. "Why would I lie to you?"
"So I won't fight you."
That had Marcus nonplussed. He was a head taller than Esca and easily twice his bulk. "Why would you want to fight me?"
Esca glared at him, then returned his gaze to the dunes. Marcus repeated the question. Still no reply. He slammed on the brakes and the land cruiser slewed to a noisy halt amidst a cloud of dirt and sand. "Esca, I asked you a question."
Esca glared at him, grabbed his backpack from the foot well then threw open the passenger door and climbed out, slamming the door behind him. Marcus wrestled with his safety belt and followed him, relieved to see that Esca had more sense than to try to make a run for it, stopping less than ten feet from the vehicle and standing with his back to it, his gaze fixed on the distant mountains. Marcus still made a point of taking the keys from the ignition.
"You know, you were a lot easier to talk to when you were stoned," he muttered as he ranged alongside the dancer.
"Talk?" Esca was incandescent. "Is that what you were doing last night? Not rape then?"
A muscle twitched in Marcus' jaw and his entire body stilled. "I never hurt you," he said slowly.
Esca shook his head in furious disbelief. Holding his arms out to reveal skin that was contused and purple with bruising, his tone was vitriolic. "So what the fuck is this then? Scotch mist?"
Marcus just blinked at him, none of the anger surging through his body finding expression on his face. He was too used to not feeling anything to let his control slip now, the ability to suppress emotion a necessity in his line of work, a skill he'd developed early on in his military career and honed relentlessly ever since.
He didn't want Esca thinking badly of him. The realisation shocked Marcus. He couldn't remember the last time he'd cared about anyone's opinion of him. Or cared about anyone, a voice whispered invidiously in his head. Like the unfamiliar and unsettling emotions, he ignored that too. His gaze found Esca's and held it levelly. "I wasn’t responsible for those bruises and I never touched you sexually." Oh, but how he wanted to say more. I untied you from the bed and held you in my arms until you fell asleep, and I have never wanted anyone as much as I wanted you then, and I did not fucking touch you.
"You never..." Esca stopped mid-sentence, brow furrowing, the anger leaching from his face as he digested Marcus' words. "You never?"
Another pause, then, "So, the drugs and stuff..." Again, Esca's voice tailed away and Marcus was left to finish his sentence.
"…were the Sultan's doing."
Esca nodded absently. "And you never...?"
Marcus sighed and slowly counted to ten. "No, Esca. I never hurt you. I never raped you. Despite what you might think, and what I’d have the Sultan believe, I like my bed mates willing, and if they're not, they don't share my bed. I won't force you to do anything you don't want to, but I will get you out of here if you want to leave. Clear enough?"
An uneasy standoff, until,
"Well, that's alright then." Esca scooped up his backpack and walked towards the car. Marcus stared after him, nonplussed. Just like that? He shook his head in disbelief.
At the land cruiser, Esca turned and, seeing that Marcus had not moved, called to him. "You coming?"
They spent the rest of the day dune busting, first in the buggy and then on Marcus' trail bike. Esca was a regular adrenaline junkie and Marcus was impressed by the man's steely nerve as he hurled the buggy across the dunes with fearless abandon. His enthusiasm was contagious. Marcus hadn’t had this much fun in, well, forever, and neither man seemed inclined to see it end. But when Esca was wincing in pain with every landing, Marcus called a halt to proceedings, much to the Englishman's chagrin.
"Spoilsport!" Esca accused with a laugh. "I was enjoying that!"
Marcus smiled wryly. "Esca, you won't be able to walk, much less dance, if you keep that up."
The smile slid from the Englishman's face as the reality of his situation intruded on the day’s enjoyment and he looked away to hide his distress. "So what?"
Marcus didn't reply.
"Maybe the Sultan will think it's because you fucked me," Esca laughed mirthlessly. "He'd like that." When Marcus did not respond, Esca spoke again, and his voice was shaky, his face strained. "Do you want to, Marcus? Do you want to fuck me?"
Marcus considered lying, but the tenuous trust between them was so fragile that he could not bring himself to endanger it. "Not like that. And not if it hurt you. And certainly not if it wasn't what you wanted also." His calm, green eyes locked with Esca’s troubled grey ones. "I meant what I said, Esca. I won't force you and I won't hurt you."
Esca's gaze dropped. "And what if I wanted it? What if I wanted you to?"
Marcus gazed at Esca for what felt like a lifetime before slowly shaking his head. "You don't. You've been kidnapped, isolated, terrorised and coerced. You don't know what you want right now, except to be free." His gaze softened and his voice was gently reassuring as he continued. "There's no price on that freedom, Esca. I will get you away from here. No strings attached."
"Why?" Marcus echoed. Why indeed? "Because I hate the thought of leaving you here."
Esca looked at him for the longest time. "And afterwards? When we're away from here? What then?"
Marcus smiled at him. "You’ll be free to do whatever you want. Your choice."
"What’ll you do?"
Marcus frowned and looked away.
Marcus was intrigued. "Just ‘oh’?"
Esca shrugged. "I figured if you could tell me, you would. So, the fact you're not telling me is either because you can't tell me, or you're too embarrassed to."
"Too embarrassed?" Marcus couldn't keep the smile off his face.
"Sure," Esca carried on matter-of-factly. "You could be a transvestite Mormon stripper."
Marcus laughed aloud. "A what?!"
"A transvestite Mormon stripper. A very successful one, obviously," Esca maintained with a straight face, "but only at weekends. Some blokes wouldn't admit that on a first date."
Marcus was still wiping tears from his eyes when the import of Esca's words sank in. "So, is that what this is? A first date?"
Esca's lips quirked into the smallest of smiles. "If you like."
Marcus studied him carefully. "No strings, Esca. You owe me nothing."
Esca nodded. "I get that. Only..."
"Only...?" Marcus prompted when the dancer had again lapsed into silence.
"I really like you."
Esca was blushing. An honest-to-goodness blush that reached to the tips of his ears. Marcus found it entrancing.
"I like you too, Esca."
Esca turned away, no doubt to hide his embarrassment, and Marcus lay back in the sand and closed his eyes. After a God-awful start, the day was really looking up…
He turned his head to look at Esca who was shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun and pointing at something behind them. "What's that?"
Marcus sat up and followed the direction of his arm. "Get back in the cruiser!"
Shocked by his tone, Esca nevertheless held his ground. "Marcus?"
"Now, Esca!" This time, Esca didn't hesitate, scrabbling to his feet and running in the direction of the vehicle. Marcus snatched up the backpack, hastily shoved their canteens and the groundsheet into it, and then followed his lead. Only when they were both in the land cruiser and Marcus had thrown the tracking device out of the window did he answer Esca's question.
"Can we out-run it?" Esca twisted in his seat to look back at the encroaching storm, bracing himself as the land cruiser barrelled along the rough, clay track.
"No," Marcus answered succinctly. "And if it overtakes us, it could bury the cruiser and us." Seeing the look of horror on Esca's face, he was quick to reassure him. "There’s an oasis north of here that’s surrounded by caves. We can hole up in one of them until the storm blows over. We'll be safe there."
Esca nodded, but his knuckles remained white where they clung to the grab handle.
As it was, they barely made it to the oasis ahead of the storm, the land cruiser's engine missing as it clogged with the sand thrown into the air by the fury of the storm. Marcus swung the vehicle into the first of the caves even as the engine died, and then turned to issue instructions to Esca. Over the howl of the sandstorm, he had to shout to make himself heard.
"Take only your backpack. We need to go deeper into the cave where the air will be easier to breath. Cover your face with your scarf and hang on to me. Do not let go!”
Esca nodded, already unwrapping the scarf from around his neck so he could wrap it around his face. Marcus retrieved his rucksack and the emergency kit from the back seat and then covered his face with his own scarf. "Ready?" he hollered into Esca's ear. Esca nodded. "Follow me!"
It was a struggle just to get the door open, but as soon as it had cleared the frame, it was torn from his hand by the force of the wind, the tortured door hinges screaming in protest.
He fought his way along the cave wall, Esca's grip on his shoulder a reassuring pressure in the maelstrom, until a violent gust of wind threw him off his feet. By the time he had regained them, Esca had gone.
Marcus circled around, searching frantically for the dancer, but in the thick, swirling, sand-laden air he could see almost nothing.
"Esca!" he called again. Dropping to his hands and knees he crawled over the cave floor, feeling with his hands for the other man. When he’d all but given up hope of finding him, his hand encountered an ankle, and then a leg, and finally a body, curled into a tight ball.
Marcus pulled Esca into a fierce embrace, then pushed him to his hands and knees. "Crawl along the wall! I'll be right behind you!"
It seemed to take forever to work deeper into the cave, their lungs burning from the effort of fighting for every breath, their ears deafened by the banshee-wail of the wind, but then they were in a high-vaulted chamber and the air around them was clearing and they collapsed in a heap on the cold, stone floor. Esca was shaking uncontrollably. Marcus wrapped his arms around him and held him close, unwrapping the scarf from Esca's face so he could breathe more easily and then the scarf from his own so he could reassure him.
"It's okay, Esca. It's okay. We’ll be safe here."
He thought Esca nodded but, in the darkness, couldn't be sure. Too exhausted to do anything else, Marcus closed his eyes and was asleep in minutes.
When Marcus awoke some time later, it was to a prodigious thirst. Coughing painfully, his throat abraded by the sand, he swallowed with difficulty and cast around for the backpack containing their canteens and the emergency kit. Esca stirred in his arms.
"Marcus?" Esca's voice sounded as rough as Marcus felt, but he smiled to hear it anyway.
"Right here, Esca. Just looking for the canteens so we can have a drink."
A backpack was thrust into his hands and he smiled into the darkness. "Good job." He fished out a glow stick from the emergency kit and broke it to generate some light, then handed a canteen to Esca. "Rinse your mouth, then take one swallow. We could be here a while so we'll need to conserve supplies." Esca nodded and followed his instructions. "Sounds like it's still blowing up a storm outside." Another nod. Marcus was beginning to find Esca’s silence disconcerting. "Esca? Are you okay? We're safe here, you know that, right?"
"You came back for me," Esca said softly. Marcus looked at him without understanding. "In the cave, when we got spilt up," Esca was frowning at him, confused by something, trying to figure it out, "you came back for me."
Marcus shrugged. "Of course I came back for you. I was hardly going to leave you to die." Esca just stared back at him and suddenly, shockingly, Marcus understood why. "Shit! You really thought I was going to leave you to die?"
Esca shrugged. "You could have died but you came back for me. You saved me."
"Esca," Marcus said softly, waiting until the other's gaze had met his own before continuing, "I said I'd get you out of here and I meant it."
"No strings attached," Esca murmured. Marcus nodded. "No strings attached."
Which was when Esca leant forward and kissed him.
At some point Marcus realised he must have kissed back because it seemed like he’d been doing it forever, and that still wasn't long enough, and then Esca was beneath him and rubbing his groin against Marcus' and he was so hard and so damned horny that it took every ounce of self-control he possessed to disengage their mouths and pull back long enough to ask, "What are you doing?"
"Seducing you," Esca said before melding their mouths once more. A hand stroked Marcus though the cloth of his trousers and he moaned into Esca's mouth.
"Seducing you," Esca repeated. "Join in any time you like. I'm not very experienced at this seduction lark," another firm stroke of Marcus' erection, another low moan of pleasure, "and if you're having to ask, I'm probably not doing it right." He muttered something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like ‘bollocks.’
"Oh, man, you're doing it right," Marcus said with a throaty laugh. "You're doing it better than right."
"That’s a relief," Esca confided, "because I really don't know what I’m doing." His cheeks flushed a dull rose. "I've never done this with a bloke before.”
“With a girl, maybe?” Marcus suggested. Another blush, accompanied by a terse shake of the Englishman’s shaggy head.
Marcus gazed down at his innocent lover with a mixture of affection and awe.
Esca lifted a hand to caress Marcus' cheek and smiled when Marcus turned his head to press a kiss to his palm. "There was never anyone before. There was never any time, what with all the rehearsing and the travelling and the performing." Marcus pressed another kiss to his palm. "I want you, Marcus, but I'm scared because I don't know what to do. I’m not even sure how much longer I can keep this up,” Esca gestured towards his groin, “and I really want you to finish inside me so we do it properly."
Marcus almost came there and then, biting back a moan between fiercely-gritted teeth.
Esca leant back with a frown. "Bollocks! Did I not say that right? What I meant was..."
"Oh, you said it right, I know what you want, it's just..." Marcus found himself floundering. "Why?"
The smile Esca gave him was as bright as the sun. "Because I want you, Marcus. More than anything. And because I think, maybe, you want me too?"
Oh, and he was shy then, and unsure, and Marcus wanted to kiss that uncertainty away, but even more than that, he wanted Esca to be sure. "Esca, I really want you too, but are you sure about this? You know you don’t have to do any of this for me, right?"
Esca nodded happily. "Oh, I’m very sure. Especially my cock. It's seriously sure. I'm doing this for me, Marcus. I want to go to bed with you more than anything.” He considered his words and then added, “Despite the fact we’re in a cave and don’t actually have a bed.”
It was all the answer Marcus needed. Clothing was stripped with unseemly haste, care taken over erections that protested such unnecessary diversions, and then Marcus was trailing kisses down Esca's neck as his hands busied themselves at the man's groin, Esca moaning in pleasure and Marcus thinking that all his Christmases and birthdays had come at once.
In the end, they didn't do it 'properly' because Esca was still too sore from the Sultan's attentions and Marcus had nothing to use as lube, but neither man seemed to mind, Esca sobbing his pleasure as his body pulsed its seed into Marcus's demanding mouth and then tentatively, but lovingly, returning the favour for a besotted Marcus, who had never in his life seen anything as sexy as his virginal lover going down on him.
Light had already begun filtering into the cave by the time Marcus awoke the next morning. Easing the drowsing Esca to the floor, he rose on silent feet and made his way to the mouth of the cave to assess the damage done by the storm. The land cruiser was almost entirely buried in the sand. No point in trying to dig it out, he knew: there’d be no way the engine would start after the damage it had sustained during the wild drive through the sandstorm.
So, the dune buggy or the bike? He glanced at his watch.
The buggy as first choice, the bike as back-up.
He scrambled up the nearest dune and peered over the summit, carefully scanning the horizon for signs of life. Nothing. Smiling, he ran back down again, jogged over to the trailer, and started digging.
Marcus glanced up to see Esca emerge from the cave and blink several times in the bright sunlight. The dancer offered him a hesitant smile before asking, too casually,
"You all right?"
There was a tentativeness about the Englishman that had not been there the night before, an uncertainty that Marcus found both endearing and disturbing and, not for the first time, he found himself wishing that he'd lingered long enough in the cave to be there when his lover awoke. He dropped the rag he'd been using to clean the bike and strode towards the dancer, pulling Esca into his arms and kissing him thoroughly. "I am now. I missed you."
Esca’s smile was breathtaking as he wrapped his arms around Marcus' waist and surveyed the fruit of his morning labours. "You've been busy. You should’ve woken me. I could’ve helped."
Marcus chuckled, "Trust me, if you'd been awake we wouldn't have been working on the bike."
Esca's smile broadened. "We’d have been doing something else then?" he asked impishly.
"Oh, yeah," Marcus confirmed, succumbing to temptation and smoothing down an errant lock of Esca’s unruly hair. Even unwashed and unkempt, the man was so damn beautiful. "Several times. And then we'd have had to sleep again."
Esca nodded sagely. "I like that sort of helping." He pressed up against Marcus, his arousal as unmistakable as his intent, and Marcus groaned in frustration.
He kissed Esca fiercely, thrilling at how eagerly the man’s mouth opened to him, and slid a hand between their bodies. Esca arched into his touch, moaning softly as Marcus traced his length with knowing fingers. "So do I. And later I’ll show you just how much.” Oh, and it was worth it, to see how Esca’s eyes turned to flame. ”But for now, I need you to fetch me the socket set from the back of the cruiser."
Esca seemed as reluctant to leave his embrace as Marcus was to see him go and that pleased the American enormously. He glanced at his watch again and turned his attention back to the bike.
When the sweltering heat of the day made further outdoor activity unbearable, they broke for lunch and retreated to the relative cool of the cave. Marcus rummaged in the emergency pack and held up two energy bars.
“Coconut or apple crisp?”
Esca shrugged. “I’m easy.”
“What?’ Esca asked with a frown. Marcus shook his head and tried unsuccessfully to wipe the grin from his face. “Marcus, what?” Esca asked him again.
“You are so not easy,” Marcus confessed, holding out the coconut bar. Esca reached for it, then snatched both bars from the American’s hands.
“Really?” Esca held up the two bars. “You think I’m not easy?” When Marcus nodded, he added, “Well, I think you’ve just talked yourself out of lunch.”
Marcus lunged at him but Esca was too quick, darting away with the bars held triumphantly above his head. Marcus sprinted after him, Esca laughing as he hurtled out of the cave with Marcus in hot pursuit. Marcus feinted left and Esca went right and then Marcus was all over him, wrestling the slighter man to the hot sand and pinning him beneath his body, wrists held over his head, hands still clutching the disputed energy bars.
Immobilised, Esca struggled anyway, hissing in pain as his abraded wrists protested the rough handling. A contrite Marcus instantly released his grip.
"I’m sorry, Esca. I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Esca stilled beneath his lover’s body and his gaze softened.
So much trust in those grey-blue eyes…
“I know you’d never hurt me.”
How Marcus wanted that to be true. He leant forward and pressed a kiss to his lover’s mouth, then another, and another. The energy bars slipped from Esca’s hands as his arms rose to encircle him, pulling him closer, and Marcus never wanted to break that contact, never wanted those kisses to end. He rocked his hips against Esca’s and wanted everything he could not have and had no right to demand, but Esca wanted them too, with a fierceness that surprised his lover, and that was enough to vanquish Marcus’ resistance and erase his remaining reservations.
It was a good hour before either man showed any interest in the energy bars again. A very good hour indeed.
"I guess he'll have people out looking for us," Esca murmured as he handed the socket set to Marcus. "The Sultan."
The American set about removing one of the spark plugs from the bike. "I doubt it. He knows where we are, or at least, where he thinks we are, but we’re a long way from there right now."
"The bike won’t have the range to get us back." Esca's voice betrayed his distress at the prospect of returning to the palace. “Maybe we should take the buggy?”
Marcus didn't look up. "We're not going back to the palace."
Esca's head snapped round, a shocked expression on his face.
"We’re getting out of here, together, just like I said," Marcus explained.
Esca shook his head. "Marcus, I have to go back! You don't understand!"
"Yes, I do," Marcus contradicted him calmly. "You don't have to go back for Michael."
Esca stared at him aghast. "Of course I have to go back for him! You have no idea what that bastard will do to him!"
"I know exactly what the Sultan will do." Marcus replaced the first of the spark plugs and moving on to the next one. "He'll stop paying Michael to lie to you and then cut him loose. There's an outside chance Bin Salid will kill him, but that's really not his style."
Esca was dumb-struck. "What the fuck are you on about?"
Marcus told him.
"You're wrong.” Esca shook his head again. “The first time I defied him, he had Michael whipped. I heard it! I heard him screaming! And it was my fault!" Esca's voice rose to a shout. "My fault Michael got hurt!"
Marcus eyed him calmly. "You ever see the scars, Esca?"
Esca shook his head. "He was so ashamed of what they'd done to him, he wouldn't show me. He's never shown me."
"That's because there are no scars," Marcus insisted. "It was a deception cooked up by the Sultan so he could control you. Michael was never whipped."
Again Esca shook his head. "How can you say that? You weren’t even there! I was! I heard it happen!"
"The Sultan told me himself," Marcus said quietly, deliberately taking the heat from his voice.
"And the Sultan never lies? Is that what I'm supposed to believe?"
Marcus couldn't fault the dancer's logic. "No, but in this case he was telling the truth."
"But you don't know that!" Esca argued. "Tell me you've seen Michael's back! Tell me it isn't scarred." Esca's grey eyes were imploring. "I'll believe you, Marcus. Tell me that you've seen it for yourself and I'll believe it and everything else you've told me about Michael."
And Marcus wanted to, but it would have been a lie, and he did not want to lie to Esca. So he shook his head and said, "I can't. I've never seen his back."
Esca's face fell. "Then I have to go back."
Marcus shook his head. "No."
"I have to go back!"
"I said no."
Esca came at him with fists flying and Marcus took him down without conscious thought, twisting his arm behind his back into a painful lock to immobilise him.
"Ow!" Esca panted brokenly into the sand, "Ow!"
Marcus released him with a curse. "You're not going back, Esca. End of discussion."
He turned away them, furious with Esca for his misplaced loyalty to Michael, furious with himself for not having convinced Esca to believe him, and especially furious with himself for having used violence to subdue the clearly distraught dancer.
He'd said he wouldn't hurt Esca. He'd promised.
Was it any wonder Esca didn't believe him?
He was still mulling that one over when Esca hit him with the socket set.
The deafening whine of the mosquito slowly penetrated Marcus' consciousness and he slapped at his ear to drive it away, groaning in annoyance. Had he forgotten the mosquito net when he’d come to bed?
The annoyingly-persistent, high-pitched whine finally began to abate and he sighed in profound relief. He hated mosquitoes. He always reacted badly to their bites and that was even before you considered the threat of malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever. He turned his head to further distance himself from the noise and winced as it throbbed painfully.
Fuck, he must really have tied one on last night to feel this bad now.
He hoped it had been worth it and wished he could remember. The mosquito's wail dwindled into the distance, missed, then gunned again. Marcus’ eyes snapped open.
Not a mosquito. A motorbike engine.
He forced himself to his feet and watched helplessly as Esca and the trail-bike disappeared over the dune.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
He had to stop him.
He forced himself to run to the dune buggy, a hand tentatively exploring the source of the sickening throb at the back of his head. The fingers came away bloody and he swore again.
Keys. Keys. Keys.
He patted his pockets.
It took him less than a minute to hot-wire the dune buggy, burning his fingers on the sparking wires in his haste, but by then he could barely hear the bike at all.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
He set off in hot pursuit.
He was gaining on Esca.
Unfortunately, the Englishman had realised it and was now riding with a reckless abandon, the angle he was ascending the dunes far more acute now than when he’d first taken off across the sand. All it would take would be a single misjudgement, one dune to fall away sharply on the other side, and Esca would be in for one hell of a hard landing.
And Marcus was terrified for him.
So, whilst Marcus could not bring himself to press the pursuit as hard as he could have in the more powerful dune buggy, he also could not bring himself to break it off entirely, hoping instead that Esca would change his mind, or run out of fuel, or fall off the damn bike himself and not cause serious injury.
Anything that would allow Marcus to get within range of him.
Then he’d simply tie him up and take him with him, whether he wanted to go or not.
Man could thank him later. Or not. But at least he’d be free.
Marcus glanced at his watch. Four hours. It’d take at least two of those to get to the extraction point. So, two hours to catch Esca. Less if he didn’t want to cut it so fine. Less still if he didn’t want to have to do it in darkness. The light was already beginning to fade.
If the night was moonless, he’d lose him...
Cursing, Marcus threw the dune buggy up a gear and stepped on the accelerator.
It was a shock to crest the dune and see Esca directing the bike towards a stationary black Humvee, the driver and front passenger doors already opening to disgorge the occupants. Marcus slammed on the brakes and slewed the dune buggy in a circle to carry it below the crest of the dune, hoping he hadn’t been seen. Then he crawled back to the top of the dune and gazed down to see what has happening in the valley below.
Esca had propped the bike on its stand and was walking towards a dark-haired man, accompanied by an Arab, who were making their way over from the Humvee. Even from that distance, Marcus could recognise the slender form of Michael, and the unmistakable outline of the rifle being carried by his Arab companion. One of the Sultan’s guards, most probably.
As Marcus watched, Esca held his arms open and Michael threw himself into them, the two men embracing affectionately. Esca’s hands rose to cup Michael’s face and then they were kissing, tentatively at first, then more passionately, Michael’s arms wrapping possessively around Esca’s torso, pulling him close, and Esca’s arms following suit, the Englishman pressing a leg between Michael’s thighs to further deepen the intimacy of the embrace as his hands tugged at the back of Michael's shirt.
Hell of a reunion, Marcus thought. His chest constricted painfully.
He couldn’t believe he’d been so naïve as to buy Esca’s act. A virgin! Like that was ever going to be true of a man with a face and body like Esca’s. Clearly he and Michael were lovers, which went a long way to explaining Esca's devotion to the man.
It shouldn’t hurt so much to know that Esca had lied. He should have realised. He should never have let it happen...
Rolling onto his back, Marcus gazed up blindly into the sky. There was no point in hanging around here any longer; he might as well head off to the extraction point.
Except that Esca had the Sat Nav.
He’d have to go down and get it, then make up some excuse to go back to the land cruiser.
The sound of a gun-shot had him scrabbling back to peer over the crest of the dune again.
The guard was lying motionless on the sand, a pool of blood spreading out from his shattered skull. A now-shirtless Michael was pointing a pistol at Esca who was standing a scant two yards away and shouting at him, seemingly oblivious to the danger he was in.
“You bastard! You fucking, lying bastard!”
Michael’s laughter carried to Marcus on the wind.
As Marcus drew the dune buggy alongside the two men, Michael moved so that he could keep Esca between him and it, the pistol not wavering from where it was pointed at Esca’s belly.
“Get out of the buggy, Aquila. Hands where I can see them. Stand next to Esca.”
Marcus did as he was bid, moving slowly so as not to aggravate the man further. Esca seemed to have managed that quite nicely already.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Esca threw at him angrily.
“I could ask you the same question,” Marcus countered.
“The bastard lied! There are no scars!” Esca was furious.
Well, that explained the shirt. Clever. “So, the touching reunion…?” Marcus let the question hang in the air.
“What the fuck do you think?” Esca snapped back.
Marcus was glad he already had his hands up. “Hey! Not the enemy here.”
Esca had the good grace to look chastened. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry.”
“How touching!” Michael’s voice dripped sarcasm. “But how very unfortunate for the both of you.”
“What happened to him?” Marcus asked, gesturing to the dead guard.
“Wrong place at the wrong time, I’m afraid.” Michael explained. “Although that’s not what I’ll tell the Sultan, of course. I’ll say he attacked you, and you died defending us. Unfortunately, Esca was also caught in the crossfire, and when the guard’s attention was diverted by that little tragedy, I was able to shoot him.”
“Why would one of the Sultan’s guards want to kill me?” Marcus asked. He sized up the distance between himself and the other man.
He’d need to persuade Michael to move closer.
Michael contemplated the question. “Oh, I’ll think of something. Maybe he was hired to kill you in order to implicate the Sultan? I’m sure a dangerous man like yourself must have equally dangerous friends who’d be most unhappy at your untimely demise whilst a guest of his Highness. You know how the fool is a sucker for a conspiracy theory. He’d happily believe any story that had his rivals setting him up for a revenge killing.”
The Sultan would at that, Marcus knew, but he was not about to admit it to Michael. If he could just get a little closer…
Michael glanced at Esca and his face broke into a hard, cold smile. “I can be very persuasive when I want to be, can’t I, Esca?”
“You bastard! Why did you do it? Why did you lie to me?”
Michael shook his head in disbelief. “You still don’t get it, do you?” He stared at the other dancer incredulously. “For the money, Esca! For a shit load of money!”
Now it was Esca’s turn to shake his head, which seemed to amuse Michael even more.
“What? You don’t believe me? You think that honour, integrity and loyalty are all that matters? You’re a fool, Esca! An idealistic, anachronistic idiot!” Spittle flecked Michael’s chin as he warmed to the subject. “Do you know what it’s like to be second-string all your life? To have to play second fiddle? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride?”
Esca shook his head.
“Five years I was your understudy! Five years! Watching you get all the best roles, all the breaks, all the applause.” Michael's lips thinned, his face dark with fury. “Five years watching from the shadows, watching you dance the roles that were rightfully mine. But no more. Not now!” His smile broadened. Unnoticed, Marcus edged closer. “After your tragic death, I’ll dance for the Sultan and I’ll have it all. The money, the roles, the applause! Everything!” Michael caught himself and his face pulled into an ugly frown. “But not you. Not you, Esca. Oh, you were too proud, too perfect, too high-and-mighty to condescend to accept my affection. And I loved you! I would have endured anything, even this, even life in your shadow, if only you had loved me back! But you didn’t want me. Oh, no! I wasn’t good enough for you!”
He looked at Marcus and the American held his breath.
“But he was! You spread your legs eagerly enough for him!”
Michael turned his gaze back to Esca and Marcus breathed again, his hands gathering into fists, his muscles tensing to strike.
Still too far.
“You let him fuck you and now you’re going to die for it. Was it good for you, Esca?” Michael wanted to know. “Was the sex good enough to die for?”
Esca’s chin lifted defiantly. “Yes.”
Michael’s finger tightened on the trigger.
Too far to reach Michael.
Marcus threw himself at Esca.
The impact of the bullet threw both men to the sand in a heap, Marcus on top of Esca.
A second shot, then, and Michael crumpled to the sand, the pistol falling from lifeless fingers. High on the rim of the dune, the Sultan lowered his rifle.
“Marcus? Marcus! Oh, God, Marcus!”
Esca’s panicked voice penetrated the fog of agony that had wrapped itself around the American and emanated from the gunshot wound in his thigh and, although Marcus wanted to reply to reassure his lover, he didn’t think he’d be able to without screaming, so he bit his lip to stifle any sound and concentrated on assessing the damage and stemming the frankly alarming flow of blood.
Pressure on the wound, then, and he did cry out as a wad of cloth was placed over it and tied securely in place with blue denim. Distractedly, he hoped it wasn't from his jacket. He really liked that jacket…
“Why did you do that? Marcus! Why did you do that?” Esca asked querulously, his face ashen, his eyes as big as saucers.
Stupid question. Marcus had better things to do than answer it. Like not screaming. And not dying.
“Because I love you.”
Okaaaay. That was unexpected. He must be conserving energy for the important stuff. He detected movement out of the corner of his eye and then Esca was snatching up the pistol and standing over him, one foot on either side of his body, defending him. Marcus found himself deeply impressed and fiercely proud of his spirited lover. Also terrified that he might do something that would get him killed.
“Esca,“ Shit, his voice sounded like crap, ”put the gun down.”
“Come Esca, do as Aquila says. We must return to the palace.”
The Sultan? Oh, this just got better and better…
“I’m not going anywhere! I’m staying here with Marcus!”
Marcus tried again. “Esca, put the gun down.”
“No! I'm not leaving you and I'm not going back to the palace!”
Marcus was so damned proud of him, he thought his chest might burst.
“The wound is grave and Aquila is dying. He will not survive the journey. Do as he says, Esca. Put down the gun and return with me to the palace.”
Dying? Marcus dearly hoped that wasn’t true. Fuck. He’d make sure it wasn’t true. “Highness, a word.” Oh shit, that took some effort. “In private.” He ignored the angry look Esca threw at him. “Please, Esca.”
Esca stamped out of earshot. The Sultan crouched down beside Marcus. “Tell me what happened.”
Marcus told him, an amended version of the story Michael would have told, except that now Michael was the traitor paid to kill Marcus and set the Sultan up for a revenge killing, with Esca being killed so there’d be no witnesses and Michael could replace him as the Sultan’s dancer.
“The faithless, deluded, fool!” The Sultan spat at Michael’s body. “As if he could ever dance as Esca does!”
Marcus huffed softly in amusement, then groaned in pain. The Sultan frowned down as him. “What would you have me do, Aquila?”
“Let Esca stay with me tonight. You’re right, I’ll be dead by morning. You can pick him up then. He’ll have no reason to resist you.” Seeing that the Sultan was considering his proposal, Marcus pressed on, “And it’s not like he has anywhere to go.” He glanced away as if embarrassed before quietly adding the confidence, “I don't want to die alone, Highness.”
The Sultan nodded slowly. “It grieves me that our friendship should end this way, Aquila, but for the sake of that friendship, I will grant you this last request.”
Marcus thought it best not to smile. “Never did get that night of passion with him you promised me,” he said with a breathlessness he did not have to fake.
God, it hurt so bad.
The Sultan smiled slowly, his face holding a genuine warmth that Marcus had not expected. “And I never got my helicopter, Marcus.” He held out his hand and Marcus shook it weakly. “Farewell, my friend.”
Marcus nodded wearily and closed his eyes and concentrated on not passing out.
Shouted orders in Arabic and then car engines starting that seemed to take forever to disappear into the distance. Arms gathered him into an embrace and the scent of Esca enveloped him and Marcus would have smiled if he’d had the energy. It was too much of an effort to open his eyes so he asked, “Have they all gone?”
“All of them? Are you sure?”
He opened his eyes then. “Cool. Get the Sat Nav from the bike and help me into the dune buggy.” He fished out the keys from his pocket, wincing at the blood that stained them, and handed them over.
“Marcus, I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Esca frowned down at him.
Oh, Marcus couldn’t breath then, and it had nothing to do with his injury or the resultant blood loss. He looked at his watch. Two and a half hours. They could do this. Hell, they would do this.
“Where are we going?” Esca asked.
Marcus smiled as he answered.
What? Why had they stopped?
"Esca?" The word was a thready whisper between laboured breaths and Marcus frowned to hear it. Oh, this wasn't good...
Marcus glanced at his watch, only focussing with an effort. Twenty minutes to go. They'd made it. He closed his eyes, weak with blood-loss and relief. They'd actually made it.
"I've double-checked," Esca said despondently, "and these are the coordinates you gave me but, there's nothing here."
"There will be," Marcus breathed softly. He closed his eyes and fought back a moan of pain.
Oh God, his leg hurt.
Esca helped him out of the buggy but his injured leg wouldn't support him and they both tumbled gracelessly into a heap on the sand. Fire lanced through Marcus' leg and he choked back a cry of pain. Esca's hands stroked his face in frantic reassurance. "It's okay! You're going to be okay, Marcus. I've got you now. Everything will be fine."
Marcus smiled at the concern in the Englishman's voice. "I know."
Hands on his leg then, easing the painful constriction of the makeshift bandage, and he wanted them to stop, he wanted the pain to stop, but he said nothing, digging his fingers into the sand instead and willing himself not to disgrace himself. The bandage was tightened again, Esca's silence, eloquent.
Still bleeding then…
"No. It'll cut off the circulation."
Better to lose the leg than bleed out. The breath hitched in Marcus' chest. He'd rather die. His injured leg was carefully lifted and propped up on the side of the buggy.
"The bleeding's almost stopped," Esca added.
A lie, but well-intended, and Marcus thought that he smiled. He shivered in the chill of the cold night air and was grateful when arms eased around him, Esca's lithe body pressing against the length of his own to blanket it and warm him. If he died now, Marcus thought ruefully, at least he'd die happy. It was more than he'd expected: he'd always thought he'd die hard and alone.
"I love you too."
That was worth living for.
"And I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Marcus."
"For not believing you. About Michael."
Marcus shook his head, the movement making his head spin. "Not your fault."
"But it is my fault," Esca's voice was anguished. "If I'd trusted you, none of this would have happened. You wouldn't have been hurt."
Water dripped onto Marcus' face.
Did it rain in the desert?
The realisation that Esca was crying tore at Marcus' heart. "Not your fault," he murmured again, Esca's pain harder to bear than his own. He stroked his lover's back and pressed kisses into his hair to reassure him. The moon dipped behind a cloud, plunging them into darkness, and for the first time, Marcus felt afraid. "Talk to me about something else," he entreated, desperately needing the reassurance of Esca's voice. "Anything at all."
"Did you really hate fucking your ex-wife?"
So he had heard. Marcus huffed in amusement as warm lips pressed kisses to his throat, Esca’s stubble rough against the sensitive skin. "I’ve never been married."
Esca’s lips curved into a smile against his skin. "Good." And despite the pain, Marcus found himself smiling too. "You're an awful liar though," Esca said.
The irony was not lost on the American. "Not to you," Marcus murmured. Never to you.
"I know that too."
More kisses then and Marcus had never wanted or needed them more.
“Why did you come after me, Marcus? Why didn’t you just let me go back?”
Marcus’ first thought was because I couldn’t bear to lose you. “You had the Sat Nav,” he answered, and instantly regretted it.
“And I couldn’t bear to lose you.” More kisses pressed to his throat. Yeah, that felt a lot better…
"Marcus? Marcus!" A gentle shake to rouse him. He must have passed out. So thirsty. He licked parched lips. “Mmm?”
"What are we waiting for?" Esca asked.
So dizzy. So much pain.
Marcus had to concentrate hard to speak. "What time is it?"
A pause as his wrist was turned and his watch consulted, then, "Five to eleven."
He could hear it, in the distance, the dull thrum of the rotorblades. He needed to tell Esca. "Stay still. No threatening moves. Let them come to you."
"Marcus? I don't understand. Let who come to us?"
Us. Marcus thought that he smiled. "You will. Just stay still."
The thrum increased in volume, drawing nearer.
"Marcus?" Esca was anxious now and Marcus so wanted to reassure him. "Don’t move, Esca. Let them come to us."
Then the noise was deafening, the sand whipping around them, light as bright as day flooding the ground. Ropes snaked down from the night-sky and black-clad forms descended to surround them.
Esca would be safe now.
The Englishman's embrace was a refuge from the maelstrom. Marcus turned his head into the comfort of that warmth and finally allowed himself to let go.
Esca's panicked voice was the last thing he heard.
Six months later
Marcus closed the door to his apartment and threw the keys on the coffee table before sinking down into the armchair with a groan of relief. Even the short walk up to the second floor had exhausted him and his injured leg was now aching mercilessly. Wearily, he rubbed at the tortured flesh and tried to conjure up the energy to run a bath, knowing that the heat would help. He reached for the bottle of bourbon and took a long swig. That‘d help too. Closing his eyes, he rested his head against the back of the armchair and wished, not for the first time, that he could turn back the clock. There was so much he regretted, so much of the last year he wished he could undo. But not everything.
Despite everything, despite the fearful cost, the lingering pain, he’d never regret that.
He just wished it had ended… differently.
The conversation he'd had with his case officer, shortly after waking up in ICU, replayed in his mind’s eye.
"Where's Esca?” Marcus was beside himself with worry for his lover and fighting the sleep meds so he could ask the question. “Is he okay?"
"Mr MacCunoval is in England,” Ed Dunstan replied. “We arranged to have him repatriated. As you can imagine, he was very keen to return home."
Just like that? Not Esca. He wouldn't have left like that. Marcus knew him. “He wouldn't...” he bit off the rest of the sentence, shocked that he'd spoken aloud.
"Wouldn't what, Marcus?"
"He wouldn't leave without knowing I was going to be okay."
"And he didn't," Dunstan assured him. "He stayed until you were out of danger and then he asked to leave."
"Do you have contact details for him?"
Dunstan shook his head. "He declined to supply any and, of course, we couldn't force him to. I got the impression that he wanted to put the whole, sordid episode behind him as quickly as possible and resume his old life."
Sordid. Was that how Esca viewed what had been between them? Marcus hated himself for asking, but that did not stop him. "Did he leave any messages?"
Dunstan looked at him intently. "No messages for you, Marcus." The way he said it, there had been messages for other people, just not for him. "Had he wanted you to contact him, I'm sure he would have left one."
A hundred reasons sprang to mind as to why Esca had not done that: too traumatised, too busy picking up the threads of his old life, too much secrecy about Marcus' whereabouts (he'd lost count of the number of military facilities and civilian hospitals he'd been in since returning from Baslaam,) but he was still disappointed. Surely if Esca had wanted to contact him, he'd have found a way?
And that was the crux of the matter...
Maybe Esca didn't want to contact him.
The thought made Marcus sick to his stomach.
That same, empty despair swamped him now as he gazed around his sterile apartment. Sure, all the things in it were his, but the one thing he wanted there the most, the one person in the world he wanted to be there, wasn't. He fumbled in his jacket pocket for the bottle of painkillers and swallowed two with three fingers of bourbon before lying down, fully-clothed, on the bed and falling into a troubled sleep.
That, then, became the pattern for his days. Sleep, wake, brood, physio on his injured leg, watch TV, order take-out and when the pain got too much, take painkillers, drink more alcohol than was good for him and fall asleep or pass out. He didn't much care which.
So it was that Saturday, 17 April was little different from the days that had preceded it. After a particularly gruelling session in the gym, Marcus returned to his apartment, stripped out of his sweat-soaked clothes, showered until the hot water ran out, sent out for pizza, then settled down on the sofa with an audible groan of relief and turned on the TV. Flicking through the channels, his attention was caught by a news anchor announcing that Matthew Bourne's ballet company was back in town and again taking audiences by storm, just as it had done when the radical re-interpretation of the "Swan Lake" myth had first turned the ballet world on its head by casting male dancers as the swans.
"The new US tour opened to rave reviews last night with plaudits for the principal dancer, Esca MacCunoval, dancing the coveted role of "The Prince". Mr MacCunoval is recently returned from a sabbatical in the Middle East and we were extremely fortunate to catch up with him on the opening night of the tour."
Spellbound, Marcus watched as Esca appeared on the television screen, his hand reaching out to trace a finger over the agonisingly-familiar face as Esca spoke about the honour of being chosen to dance "The Prince", the challenges of the demanding role and the delight of performing in front of such a knowledgeable, open-minded, and appreciative audience. The interview was brief, far too brief for Marcus’ liking, but the last question caused the breath to catch in his chest.
"Esca," Esca interrupted with a boyish smile that had the reporter blushing before correcting her mode of address and continuing, "Esca, I understand that you have a message for a friend?"
"That's right," Esca nodded eagerly. The reporter smiled at him. "Go ahead."
Esca turned to look directly at the camera. "Marcus, I tried to find you. I tried everything, but I didn't know where you were. I left messages and contact details but I don't know if you got them."
That bastard, Dunstan...
"So if you see this, you'll know I'm touring with ‘Swan Lake’. You'll know how to find me, if you want to see me, because I really, really want to see you." He looked back at the reporter who was now gazing at him with something akin to adoration for the scoop he'd just dropped in her lap, and added simply, "That's it."
"This Marcus," the woman said gently, "he sounds like a pretty special guy."
Esca's face broke into the sort of smile that had always set Marcus' chest to aching and now was no different.
"Then I hope he gets your message. This is Moira Witchell for Fox News at the New York City Center, New York."
Marcus turned up the collar of his coat against the driving snow and glanced at the stage door for what had to be the thousandth time that evening. He should have called. Or left a message. He really hadn't thought this through. An icy blast sent a shiver through his entire body which left his wounded leg throbbing painfully.
Fuck! He really should have called...
He shivered again, but not from the cold.
And then Esca was standing in front of him, clad in a long leather coat and tatty jeans, and Marcus felt light-headed with relief to see him, to finally see him again.
"Oh God, Marcus! I was so afraid for you!" Esca's face was stricken, "When you didn't get in touch, I thought… I thought you were dead."
Marcus shook his head. "I'm fine, Esca. Just fine." Not strictly true, but there'd be time for the truth later.
Esca was more eloquent and more honest. "I didn't want to leave you, but they gave me no choice. One minute we were in the hospital together and the next I was being taken to the airport and put on a plane to England." Esca's face was wretched. "They even sent some goon with me to make sure I actually went. They said it was repatriation but it felt more like deportation."
"But you didn't want to go?" Marcus asked quietly.
Esca shook his head vigorously, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "No. I wanted to stay with you, Marcus."
Esca's voice broke on his name and Marcus couldn’t bear to see his pain any longer, pulling Esca into his arms and holding him tightly, burying his face in the silk and scent of his lover's hair. "They told me you wanted to go back to England. That you wanted to get on with your life and put what had happened in Baslaam behind you. They said you left no contact details. No messages."
Esca stiffened in anger, pulling back so he could look into Marcus' face. "I did! As God is my witness, I did! I left contact details and messages and sent letters and made phone calls and they lied if they told you I didn't because I did! I did, Marcus! I..."
Marcus silenced him with a kiss. "I know you did. And yes, they lied."
"But you found me." No anger in Esca's voice now, only heartfelt relief. "How did you find me?"
"I saw the interview you did for Fox News."
Esca's face lit up. "You got my message?"
Marcus nodded down at him.
"And you wanted to see me?" Esca's voice betrayed his insecurity.
Stupid question really, since Marcus was there, but Marcus didn't care how stupid it was. All that mattered was that he was here with Esca, who needed reassuring. All that mattered was that they were together again. "I really, really wanted to see you."
"I missed you," Esca whispered against his chest, the material of his shirt damp with silent tears. Marcus didn't care about that either. All that mattered was to reassure Esca and hold him and never let him go.
"I missed you too, Esca. So much. I wanted to wake up and find you lying beside me. I wanted to go to sleep listening to you snore. I wanted to smooth down your hair when you came out of the shower and rub the soreness from your calves after you'd danced. I wanted to make love to you until you were out of your mind and then I wanted to do it all over again."
"I wanted that too," Esca breathed against his chest and Marcus' heart soared. "All of that."
"So, what now?" Marcus asked.
Esca gazed up at him with adoring eyes. "You decide?"
"How does "all of the above" sound?"
"Fucking brilliant! Just give me a minute. I forgot my scarf."
Marcus watched as he ran back into the building, re-emerging three minutes later with a luridly-coloured bouclé scarf around his neck. Marcus eyed it with barely-contained horror.
Esca’s brow creased into a frown. "Are we going to have our first lover's tiff?"
Marcus grinned at him. "We could follow it with make-up sex?" He looked at Esca expectantly.
Esca's face broke into a huge smile. "Excellent! In which case, I'd like to see your slur on my scarf and raise it with your earlier vile aspersion that I snore." At Marcus' amused expression, he added, "which should at least earn me a blow job before the main event."
Marcus kissed him before his mouth made any more promises his body would be honour-bound to keep...
…which, on reflection, sounded pretty damn good…
He threw in a derogatory comment about Esca's jeans for good measure.
- Fin -