Rite of Summer
Treading the Boards, Book 1
by Tess Bowery
Ebook ISBN: 9781619227224
Print ISBN: 9781619229587
[ Regency Romance, MM ]
Stephen and Evander are long-time lovers, but a meeting with a passionate painter at a house party changes everything. Joshua swore off love long ago, but Stephen’s beauty stirs up a heart he thought was dead. A triad seems like the answer, but in the end, can true love win?
There were few things in the world as perfect as Evander’s prick.
It was neither misshapen nor too small, nor curved oddly to the side. When it rose with his arousal, jutting hard and red-tipped from the cloud of golden curls at the base, it was as magnificent a creation as the Tower of Pisa all the way over in far-distant Italy.
If Stephen were to write odes and sonnets—on pricks in general or Evander’s in particular—they would not focus on the look of it, but the feel. On the heavy weight that filled Stephen up and broke him open, in arse or mouth alike; on the heat of his skin, so soft when so much else about him was rough; on the salt-slick slide as he thrust in over Stephen’s tongue and held there, gasping.
Evander’s prick was the epitome of all things that were erotic and beautiful in the world.
Loving the man would be easier if Evander didn’t think so as well.
The thought veered too close to blasphemy. Better to focus on the task at hand.
The noise of the busy London street carried on outside the shuttered windows of their lodgings. Inside, all was quiet but for their panting breaths and the wet slide of spit and skin.
The uneven floorboards pressed ridges into his knees, his lips stretched around the prick in his mouth. The taste of Evander’s arousal mixed with the remnants of the wine they’d shared, passing the same bottle back and forth until there was nothing left but dregs.
There was little hope of a breeze on the best of days, and this sultry summer afternoon was not one of those. Evander had persisted in wandering around in only his linen shirt and drawers, the light garments clinging to his lithe frame and his blond hair sticking, damp, to the back of his neck. Accompanied by the utterly obscene way he lifted the bottle to his lips, it had made their current position inevitable.
Stephen’s fingers clenched on Evander’s thighs, dug into the solid dips and curves of his muscles, stroked across the smattering of fair hair. His own prick ached, hard and damp, his trousers too tight and harsh where they rubbed. He dropped a hand to palm himself. The pressure was the barest edge of relief, muted by the wool and linen of his clothing. He groaned aloud, the sound muffled around the thick cock in his mouth.
Evander thrust in reaction to the vibrations, his fingers clenching in the bedclothes. Gasps spilled from his lips as he arched, threw his head back and came.
“Come up here,” Evander ordered, the command softened by the drowsy satiation in his voice.
Stephen swallowed around Evander’s prick one last time before he pulled away. It fell from his lips with a wet and obscene pop, to lie, gleaming, against Evander’s muscled thigh. Stephen let Evander draw him up onto the bed and he crawled to his usual place, nipping lightly at Evander’s flank as he moved. Salt tingled on his lips, both of their bodies damp with the sweat of exertion in the midsummer heat.
Evander seized Stephen’s face in his hands and kissed him, tongue delving into Stephen’s mouth. He licked in and Stephen opened for him, passed back the taste of Evander’s own release from tongue to tongue. His prick throbbed in further urgency at the heat of it, the taste and feel of him. Evander consumed him, fire and molten steel.
Evander’s fingers slipped down inside Stephen’s fall front, wrapped around his aching prick, and words were no longer possible. They vanished from his mind as soon as he tried to focus on any particular one. He wasn’t good with them at the best of times, preferring always to let music speak for him, in the rhythm of the notes and the scrape of the bow across the strings.
Evander hummed a discontented note. His mouth closed over Stephen’s again, tasting like him, salt-sour and familiar. His oiled hand gripped and glided along the length of Stephen’s prick.
“What are you smiling about?” Evander asked, pressing firm, cool kisses along his throat.
Stephen tipped his head back and Evander ran his tongue down the length of Stephen’s throat. “I was thinking of you,” he reassured him. Life was always easier when Evander was pleased. “How much like Michelangelo’s David you are, stretched out for me in the sunlight.” Stephen paused, then, and grinned. “Except for certain things, of course, in which you far surpass the original.”
Evander soaked up the compliments, as he had embraced the sunshine before, lounging across the narrow bed. “The Greeks had a strange position on male beauty.” Evander laughed, his pride repaired.
Stephen couldn’t form coherent thoughts against the pressure of Evander’s hand on his prick, on the strength of the fingers wrapped around him. Evander pressed his thumb firmly beneath the head, dug in just a little with his nail so that the shock of pain and pleasure mingled and combined inexorably.
“Come for me, my muse,” Evander murmured in his ear. He wrapped his hand up and over the crown of Stephen’s prick, then scraped his teeth across Stephen’s swollen earlobe and bit down. The momentary pain shot down through his body like lightning, met the coiled and heavy arousal in his gut. He released, hot and sticky, into Evander’s palm, the ache in his body fading in time with the pulse of pleasure wrung from him.
Evander rolled away and rose to his feet the moment Stephen’s body stopped trembling. He crossed the room and took up a kerchief to clean himself with water from the jug on the nightstand.
Stephen stretched, reaching his fingers above his head until his shoulders popped in agreement. The mugginess of the midsummer air made his skin clammy as the sweat dried in prickling pools behind his knees and in the crooks of his elbows. It would be so much nicer to have Evander back beside him, to curl against his body and lie there, languid and warm. But such things did not please Evander’s sense of aesthetics, and so Stephen sprawled inelegantly and alone across the bed, linens damp beneath him from sweat, oil and come. The bedclothes would stick to his skin once everything began to dry. He would have to peel himself from them, the creases red across his back and lingering longer than the memories of the pleasure itself.
The pillow had ended up on the floor; reaching for it was too much effort. He would stay here, drowsy in the summer afternoon, listen to the clatter of the carts over the cobblestones and the laughter of the children running in the street below.
If they only knew what grotesque acts took place just above their heads; Stephen felt a rush of amusement mixed with trepidation at the thought. Fat Annie must certainly suspect. Their landlady was too much a woman of the world to entirely mistake the sounds that the two young men occasionally ripped from one another, or to wonder at their lack of interest in the Covent Garden girls who whistled low at men passing by along the road.
There was more muscle to Evander now than there had been when they first took these rooms. Stephen played in the inns for pennies and Evander wrote his music by the window, the better to preserve their few precious guttering candle ends. The rent, small as it was, had been too much sometimes, but Evander had always been there, his blue eyes and easy charm buying them one reprieve after another.
Those days of penury and hunger were long gone now, had ended when the Earl of Coventry had seen Stephen play.
Or, to hear both the earl and Evander say it, when the Right Honorable Earl had heard Evander Cade’s compositions as faithfully rendered by Stephen Ashbrook’s violin. He had offered Evander a patronage, instructions on the sorts of music he liked best, a stipend enough to feed and keep two in reasonable accommodations, and a hope of better things to come.
Stephen, it must always be remembered, had been included on sufferance. The patronage, the lodgings in Holburn and the income to pay for it all were Evander’s.
Stephen sighed at the thought, staring up at the wooden beams of the angled roof above him. Someday, that would change. He would find a new patron or work of his own that did not require him to flatter Coventry, as Evander did, in thanks for his generosity and connections.
He was not a fool to think himself so talented that he could get by in life without the assistance of a patron at all, mind you. But, somehow, when he had his bow in his hand and Rosamund’s living wood tucked securely beneath his chin, her neck humming with his heartbeat and his breath, their song ascending into heaven—
Somehow all the connections and society in the world ceased to matter.
And that was probably why Evander was poised upon the brink of true professional success, and Stephen was still something of an afterthought.
His postcoital discomfort proved too much to ignore, finally, and he peeled himself from the sheets with a groan of protest. Evander was putting a kettle to boil in the sitting room, from the sounds of it, and going through the mail that had been delivered while they were out. They had stumbled over the folded envelopes under the door earlier, too intent upon each other’s bodies to stop and deal with mundane matters.
Stephen washed, the water splashing cool over his face and sweaty throat. By the time he had found trousers and a fresh shirt, and had thrown his fouled garments aside for the laundress, Evander was sprawled full-length and half-dressed along the settee, reading his letter. A satisfied smile settled on his face, turning his golden beauty momentarily smug and dark.
The expression vanished as he sat up, the shadows changing as he moved, the twist to his features nothing more than a trick of the light. He swung his legs down and beckoned Stephen over, draping his legs across Stephen’s knees once Stephen took his usual place at the end of the faded green cushions.
Evander was humming a bawdy tavern song, and Stephen stroked his calf lightly. It was the sign of a good mood, as though their lechery before had not been enough to prove it, and the last remaining knots in Stephen’s shoulders untangled themselves.
“Something pleases you,” he ventured, arching an eyebrow at the letter. The paper was fine quality, and what he could see of the wax seal and the writing was familiar. Coventry, then, and with good news.
“You please me,” Evander countered, and he reached a hand out to toy possessively with one of the dark-brown curls that lay on Stephen’s shoulder. He kept his hair unfashionably long, true, but it was simpler to tie it back with a ribbon when he played than to worry about having it cut on a regular basis. And Evander liked it.
“My life is but to serve you,” Stephen replied dryly.
It was, as always, a joke. As always, Evander laughed.
“We—that is, I, and he knows that you and I are inseparable—have received an invitation.” And there Evander paused with a flourish of the letter, waiting for a reaction before he carried on. He had more of the born performer in him than most actors of Stephen’s acquaintance.
An invitation—and it had to be a request to perform. That was something worthy of a little pretension! The previous year had been a lean one, the earl’s mourning for his late wife putting a temporary halt on his usual festivities. The Countess of Coventry had been considerate to the last, mind you; her early spring death ensured that her youngest daughter’s first Season would only be delayed by a year, rather than cancelled for two. “Polite of her,” Evander had commented when the news came. Stephen, for once, had kept his thoughts rather firmly to himself.
This summer had been much better so far. More performances meant more exposure to the wealthy families of the bon ton. And the more in demand they became, the greater the likelihood of future commissions.
The possibilities were exciting, especially given the smile on Evander’s face. It had to be something enviable. Vauxhall again, perhaps, or a grand concert at Coventry’s London home. The manor had a ballroom so large that he could host forty couples and still have room for a sideboard. The acoustics in there were a marvel, the resonance such that it would make a howling cat sound like a boys’ choir singing “Te Deum”.
“Go on,” Stephen urged, not entirely because Evander was still waiting for his reply. He ran his hand along Evander’s bare calf, his trouser leg pushed up to his knee. Unruly blond hairs stuck up in all directions. Evander hated unruly, and Stephen smoothed them down again.
“To a house party,” Evander announced smugly.
A what? Images of Coventry’s grand ballroom crumbled to dust.
Evander did not look up from the letter, which gave Stephen a chance to rearrange his face into something that did not show his dismay. “Very exclusive, as special guests of Coventry himself. There shall be a command performance of ‘Nocturne’, and we shall be wined and dined as kings. There!”
He set aside the letter, brimming to overflow with self-satisfaction. “I told you he would like the piece, and now look. We are to be guests in the house of an earl! You would never have believed such a thing was possible when we first met, love—now look at what we have accomplished.”
A house party in the country? How could he possibly feign excitement about that? Far from the pleasures of playing for a full room or dreams of a grander stage yet, a house party meant confinement to an audience of ten or fifteen at the most. There would be interminable days filled with guns, dogs and riding about in circles, and even more excruciating nights sitting about in parlors, miming charades and losing at cards to frowsy dowagers in muslins three sizes too small.
Evander was watching him in expectation, his eyes bright.
If it were for a week, perhaps it would be tolerable. A week to press palms with the earl’s nearest and dearest and make some new connections. Then escape back to London, where the air was thicker and heavier at the end of summer, but at least the people and the streets were his own.
He bit back the sigh that threatened. “For how long?” he asked, keeping his voice as mild as he could manage.
Evander scanned the cramped black handwriting one more time. “Six weeks,” he replied, exultant. “Depending, of course, on the weather and how the company enjoys itself. We are to leave on Wednesday next; he will send a coach to fetch us.”
A full month and a half? “No,” Stephen declared, shaking his head. “That will not do.” To Evander’s startled look, he said only, “I have a prior commitment. Phillips arranged for he and I to play Lady Ailsford’s soirée a fortnight from now.”
The Ailsfords were known for their “little parties” which invariably involved half of high society. To appear on his own merits, to have the opportunity to play a program of his own design, rather than worry about whether his choices would be found wanting—
“Cancel it,” Evander ordered blithely, and he refolded the letter along the original crease lines. Stephen stopped stroking over the arches and balls of Evander’s feet. “Or have Wren take your place. The earl has commanded a performance, and I cannot find anyone else in time who knows my music half as well as you.”
“But…” Stephen began to object, though everything Evander had said was true, “…we will be isolated, away from all our friends, with only Coventry and his set for company.”
“Come now,” Evander wheedled. “The Season is all but over; Lady Ailsford will have an empty house this time of the summer. An opportunity like this comes along but once in a lifetime, and we must make the most of it. Who knows who else he will have in attendance—earls, marquesses, perhaps dukes! We will find ourselves in greater company than ever before.”
“I would prefer not.”
Evander’s pale-blue eyes flashed dangerously and an edge crept into his voice. His legs were heavy in Stephen’s lap, his muscles tensed as if for battle. “I would do it for you. Do you not care about me?”
And there was the challenge. Accept the invitation and maintain all as it was, keeping Evander’s affections as well as Coventry’s, or refuse. He’d find himself on the outs with both that way, and with a cold bed until Evander’s temper could be placated. For an offense this grave, it could take months.
“Fine,” Stephen conceded, and he forced away the sigh of discontent that rose up inside. Trusting Evander had gotten him this far; it was only stubbornness and his vague dislike for Coventry that were giving him qualms about it now. “I will write and beg a postponement. If it means so much to you, we shall both go.”
Evander’s face brightened again, the sun restored to the world. “You will not regret this,” he promised, all tension gone from his jaw. He set the letter aside, and with a gleam of mischief in his eyes, tucked one foot down in Stephen’s lap. He dragged his toes slowly along the soft bulge of Stephen’s prick.
What was he— Oh.
Evander grinned. “It is a massive house, you know,” Evander began, as though delivering a confidence. “With galleries and gardens that extend for miles. Coventry described it to me once. We will have hours of uninterrupted leisure.”
He dug his foot down farther and pressed it, firm and strong, against the front of Stephen’s trousers. “We’ll kiss and we’ll swive,” Evander sang, putting lyrics to the tune he had been humming before, his eyes alight and his smile infectiously lascivious. He was utterly ridiculous and delightful, and Stephen could not help but laugh as his body began to respond to Evander’s excitement. “Behind we will drive, and we will contrive, new ways for lechery…” Evander finished his bawdy chorus by tangling one hand in Stephen’s hair and using it to pull his head back.
Stephen’s breath caught with the spike of desire, his throat exposed to the press of Evander’s lips. “All right!” Stephen laughed breathlessly. “I’ve agreed already, I need no bribe to convince me further.”
“Oh, but you do,” Evander said, letting go of his hair and slinking his hand down to replace the press of his foot. “We shall make a game of it, defiling his house in as many ways and places as please us. Think of the thrill!”
Stephen’s prick was thinking of little else, rising under Evander’s touch, as it always did. The man was insane, the suggestion as distractingly tempting as almost all of his ideas were. If one servant saw them, though, in the wrong place, at the wrong time—Evander’s social climbing would end rather abruptly. As would their necks.
“Think of the risk,” he pointed out, one last-ditch effort to talk some sense into the man before he too was carried away by the contagion of his delight.
“There is no risk,” Evander shook his head before detangling himself and crawling across Stephen’s body to straddle his lap. “We are Coventry’s favorites; no one can touch us now.”
His kiss was one of triumph—full, wet and dirty.
Stephen kissed him back, ran his hands up the firm muscles of his thighs and buttocks, cupped the round swells of Evander’s arse tightly in his hands.
“A month or more in the country, surrounded by the rich and the powerful.” Evander spoke between kisses, his hands braced on either side of Stephen’s head. “This will be a grand adventure, Stephen. It could change our lives.”
Perhaps. Stephen allowed himself to be swept up in Evander’s enthusiasm, in the heat of his mouth and the solid surety of their bodies entwined. But could life truly get much better than this?
“And what do you think?” Mr. Meredeth, owner and proprietor of Meredeth’s Music, as his father had been before him, leaned over the counter between them to watch as Stephen flipped the pages on the new sonata.
“Mad,” Stephen declared, “and brilliant. It shall take me a month at least to learn this properly.” He passed over far too many of the coins he had been carefully saving for just this moment.
The coins fell into Meredeth’s hand with gentle clinks. He counted them calmly, stowing the fee away with a smile. He could only have ten years or so on Stephen, fifteen at the most, and yet there were already threads of gray in his short brown hair. It was thinner on the top as well, but he was a man of the sort who never seemed to run to fat, no matter what other indignities age tried to inflict.
“Is the missus not feeding you well enough?” Stephen joked while Meredeth wrapped his packet for him. “I could span your wrist with my finger and thumb, man.”
“The missus is as good a cook as you’ll find anywhere.” Meredeth puffed up proudly. “But running after customers all day and children all night, ah! There’s no way to eat enough to keep up.” He patted his stomach, hollow as it was, with a wink and a grin. “You’ll find out, when you’ve got little ones of your own.”
And that was easily the most unlikely prediction for Stephen’s future that he’d ever heard, but he laughed nevertheless. “I’d have to be able to afford a wife first,” he answered as though delivering a confidence, a pat reply that would lead to no further questions.
Meredeth set his own elbow on the counter and leaned in just as conspiratorially. When he spoke, though, he pitched his voice loud enough to be heard through the open door to the small shop’s back room. “I’ll tell you a secret—work them hard enough and they pay back their overhead quickly.” And he winked.
“John Meredeth, you stop with your foolishness!”
“And here she comes.” Meredeth straightened and turned to face his wife, whose lack of height and equally slim figure did nothing to reduce the impression of her ferocity.
“Morning, Mrs. M.”
She ignored Stephen at first, swiping at Meredeth with a sodden dish towel.
“And to you, Mr. Ashbrook.” She curtsied prettily, then smacked Meredeth’s hand as he tried to slip it about her waist. “You see what I put up with?” she asked him rhetorically.
“Should’ve married me, then,” Stephen teased. “I’d treat you like the queen among women that you are.”
“Well now!” Meredeth pretended to object to the banter. “And in front of me, yet.”
Mrs. Meredeth laughed at her husband and exchanged a look with him of such infinite fondness that it seemed even more of an intrusion to watch than had Stephen come upon them kissing. She leaned across the counter and patted Stephen on the cheek. “You’re far too young and far too pretty, my dear boy. We’d never have gotten on. You’d be better use to some calm and lovely creature with a taste for tunes.” She slung her dish towel over her shoulder again and headed back through the door to the living space behind. “Ask him about the lessons!”
“I am to ask you about lessons,” Meredeth said dutifully. His solemn nod was enough to make Stephen grin again. “Our Susannah’s old enough now—we were wondering if we could engage you for it. Despite all this…” he waved at the shelves of sheet music, the instruments that lined the walls, the once bare panel by the door now pasted thick with bills advertising concerts and entertainments from around the county, “…I never did learn pianoforte, and Mrs. M. simply doesn’t have the time to sit with her.”
The middle child of the Meredeth brood was a quiet and serious little girl, her mother’s big brown eyes peeking out from her father’s slim face. Even if she turned out not to have the knack for music, she wouldn’t be difficult to manage for half an hour at a time.
“Gladly,” he replied, and would have said more but for the thunder of hooves outside and the rattling of a coach pulling up outside the door of the shop. Those would be Coventry’s horses and his driver, but how could he have found Stephen there, unless—
“Come on, then!” Evander leaned out of the coach door and waved to catch Stephen’s attention. “We’ll be late starting!”
“And that would be me, off,” Stephen apologized, tucking his parcel under his arm. “We’ll be gone about six weeks. Shall I call on you to make arrangements for lessons once I return?”
“Do so. Six weeks in the country, such a hardship!” Meredeth laughed at him and his disgruntled expression, and waved him off merrily. “Come home with a sweet farm-fed bride!” he called out, the end of his words muffling as the door swung shut behind Stephen.
He swung himself up and into the coach, tucking the precious package out of the way, beside the seat. The driver had them moving within moments, Evander already sprawled easily across the seat opposite.
“I don’t know why you still go in there,” he said, a frown on his face. “The selection’s much better at Bland’s, or even Clementi’s.” He toyed idly with his pocketknife, carving slivers out of an apple and eating them off the blade. “The other customers are better situated as well.” It was hard not to watch his tongue and lips as he ate, and Evander caught Stephen’s eye with a knowing smirk.
How to describe the feeling that kept pulling him back to Meredeth’s? The warm smiles of those who knew him, the cozy, familiar sense of a well-loved space, the knowledge that, even though all money had been firmly settled between them, there were some debts that could never be fully repaid. Evander would not understand.
“They’re able to order what I need,” Stephen said, shrugging. “And they were so kind to us when we first came to London. Extending credit on account to a pair of starving boys is hardly what you’d call a smart business move.”
Evander did not understand. “And they continue to reap the rewards of it from your patronage, so it was hardly an ill-conceived one,” he pointed out, gesturing with a piece of apple stuck to the end of his knife. He must have seen something cross Stephen’s face, for he softened his smile a moment later. “You’re a sentimentalist, dear Stephen,” he said fondly. “That will be your undoing one day.”
“Perhaps I am,” Stephen replied, stealing the apple slice and popping it into his mouth. The juice splashed tart and cool across his tongue. “Better that than unfeeling.”
Evander’s cheerful disdain aside, it did not seem like such a terrible thing to be. It had a much lower likelihood of getting them in trouble than, say, Evander’s hedonism. And now, to be moving among powerful strangers for a month and a half, their relationship of the sort that could never be discovered—it could prove a problem.
Two artists from humble origins, sharing lodgings, was common enough, mind you, that even the most respectable of society matrons would not blink. Stephen could think of a handful of men of equal stature who lived exactly as they did, but for whom pursuit of cunt, not prick, was their favorite pastime. So there was little to give them away in that.
The raids, at least, would not be a problem for them while they were away. There were a handful of common houses in the back streets of London where, at least until recently, men of a certain inclination could go to drink and flirt and remain unmolested by either women or the law. For years they had slipped by, disregarded, but lately the magistrates had found them a useful target.
It had only been seven months since sweet Dr. Taylor had swung for buggery, his body hanging for the ravens at Portsmouth. He had possessed surgeon’s hands, a tribute to his profession, and Evander had exclaimed in delight over his lush and eager mouth. Less than a year ago, the three of them had spent the better part of a night at play in an upstairs room at the Kit and Barrel. Now those precise and clever fingers fed the worms.
Life would be easier if he could summon up some passion for a girl, enough to marry her and take her to bed with frequency enough to keep her content. It was hardly an uncommon thing, though mightily unfair to the bride. But he had yet to meet a girl, however pretty, who could compete with the curve of Evander’s arse or the strong cut of his jaw.
They would need to be far more careful.