The prayer arose so naturally, Ban made no attempt to curtail it. In fact, he was emboldened to add more, addressing the author of all creation as boldly as a Protestant.
I know am I not truly soulless, Lord. I know this because you let Fino live again. I destroyed him, yet you gave him another chance. Permitted me to behold him again. Permitted me to love him again.
That last surprised Ban only for a moment. He’d known it. Surely from the moment he slaughtered Carmilla, murdered Phillip and declared open opposition to Sebastian, he’d known. But it was much too soon to confess the emotion to Nicholas.
So if I am not soulless, Lord, I must be your servant. I must do your bidding. No matter what it costs me. Including my own unnatural life.
Impulsively, Ban crossed himself. And, thus decided, spurred his horse back to Grantley. To inspect the perimeter and then meet Nicholas at the herb cottage.
Ban saw the firelight long before he saw the cottage. The night was so cloudy, he rode with a lantern in one hand, despising a flame so close to his body, even a flame imprisoned in leaded glass. Blossom, although far inferior to his Carmilla, was a spirited mare who’d turned docile for Ban, unexpectedly capturing his affections. To urge such a newly-loyal beast off an embankment, or allow her to break a leg in some gopher hole, simply because he disliked the necessity of carrying a lantern? Unforgivable.
Carmilla’s saddle fit Blossom well, even if it looked much too grand atop a workhorse. Tonight she also bore the saddlebag Ban had packed more than a week ago, minutes before Phillip summoned him to Sebastian’s bed for punishment. The saddlebag contained something special—special to the uninitiated, at least, if common enough for one with Ban’s long experience.
Outside the cottage, he tied Blossom to a slender tree, since the hitching post was gone or obscured by brambles. Bringing the saddlebag with him, Ban moved silently toward the door. Easing it open, he used all his powers to come upon Nicholas, reclining in front of the fire, unaware. But Blossom, clearly feeling betrayed by her short ride and confinement, whinnied in protest. Smiling, Nicholas turned, catching Ban in the act.
“Creeping up on me? You could have said, ‘hello, the house.’”
“I wanted to see that look in your eyes when you’re frightened.”
“You like it when I’m afraid?”
“I like seducing the fear away.”
Before long they were kissing. Again, Ban was forced to initiate it; again, he was forced to be patient, overcoming what at first seemed like reluctance. It was only the residue of Nicholas’s self-protection, the result of so much rejection, not only from his former wife, but from himself. And again, once Nicholas started to thaw, the change was swift. He pressed against Ban, wanting to be held, wanting to be caressed. Even fully clothed, he trembled in Ban’s embrace, clinging tight.
The bed, as surmised, was in pieces, the slats rotten and the headboard covered with moss. In fact, half the cottage had gone back to nature, its wattle-and-daub walls cracked, one corner of the roof swapped for open sky. Ban didn’t care. Even the unshielded hearth didn’t trouble him, after he dragged Nicholas’s thick blanket a few paces away. “Undress me.”
“A new suit? It’s well-made.” Sliding his hands beneath the coat, Nicholas worked it off.
“Appropriate only for a junior clerk. An upstart. Not a gentleman.”
“Well … a country gentleman, perhaps.” Nicholas undid the first button on Ban’s waistcoat. “It’s all in the way you speak, the way you carry yourself. If the finery doesn’t match, people will assume you’re impoverished gentility. Not an impostor.”
“But I am an impostor.” Freed of the vest, Ban watched Nicholas drape it, along with the coat, over a rude three-legged stool. It was that, or toss his new clothes on the cottage’s mossy floor. “My finery is necessary, so I may believe my own lie.”
“It’s not a lie. You have the education, the money, the manner.” Nicholas worked to loosen the stylish knot in Ban’s cravat. “You were not born a gentleman, but you have become one.”
“Does that mean I’ll do? I’m sufficient for you?” Ban asked. Conceiving the question, he meant it to sound playful. To his surprise, there was real doubt in his tone.
“You’re a beautiful man.” Nicholas touched Ban’s cheek, running fingers along his jaw, his wide mouth. “I lust for you as much as I ever did for any woman. I don’t know if it’s your face. Your cock. Or something … something I remember in you….”
“What do you remember in me?” Ban breathed. He had the borrowed cotton shirt over his head before he remembered he was allowing Nicholas to undress him. Still, the touch of Nicholas’s fingers against his chest, tracing the almost invisible line of hair toward his trousers, was perfectly erotic.
“Fire.” Nicholas’s voice was husky. “I was a dragon. Son of a dragon. You were … well.”
“I was what?”
“What did I admire?”
“On the surface? How I breathed fire. But the truth was, you liked my face. My body. How I swaggered, boasted, and thought I ruled the world. You wanted to fuck me. And when you finally did, it hurt. It hurt so bad, but I loved it. I loved having you inside me. Before long I lived for it, to grit my teeth and take you, to let you rock against me until pain turned into pleasure and we both let go.”
“Serafino.” Ban put his face against Nicholas’s neck. “Ti amo.”
“But how can you know that was my name? That it was real?”
“Of course it’s real. Ask your grandmother. She looked into my heart and knew the truth at once. I was yours and you were mine, all too briefly.”
“But.” Nicholas caught his breath again. “If I lived before … if I was once the man you remember … that means….”
Ban chuckled. His trousers were already loose, falling around his ankles as he stepped free. The long underwear came last, borrowed from Nicholas’s wardrobe and thus comically short. Then Ban was nude, hard, and pressing Nicholas’s hand against him.
“Nicky. If I can come to terms with possession of a soul after such a long, distressing life, surely you can.”
Nicholas gasped. He was still new enough to such pleasure that it gave him a fresh transgressive thrill every time he curled his fingers around Ban’s cock. “It’s not the soul that troubles me as much as the faith. The contradictions. The multitudes condemned to hellfire. The unforgiving nature of—”
“Nicky. I burden you with no faith. Only the confirmation that I knew you as Serafino. I mourned you for centuries. And now that I’ve found you again, there can be only one reason. Some part of you endured, and was made flesh again.” Trying to join their mouths, Ban was surprised by the other man’s resistance. “What is it?”
“I … I am not the man I once was.”
Ban was hungry, impatient and amused all at once. “Nicky. Either I’ll persuade you to abandon such folly, or I’ll beat it out of you.”
“Down. Face the fire on your hands and knees. Now.”
Ban started with kisses, slicking the back of Nicholas’s neck, thrusting his erect cock between Nicholas’s clothed thighs. He liked the contrast, himself nude, Nicholas fully dressed, moaning from just a bit a pressure between his cheeks. It would be easy to abandon himself, to rip Nicholas’s clothes off and take him, to make it as quick and dirty as the human Ban had so often done with his anonymous lovers. Instead, Ban was thorough, using his mouth extravagantly, undressing Nicholas layer by layer. He adored the other man’s scent, the random threads of gray in his dark brown hair, the way his shoulders tensed as Ban caressed the curve of his rear. By the time all Nicholas’s clothes were piled on the blanket, Nicholas was loose-limbed and panting in anticipation, head down, legs spread.
“Now.” Ban pressed inside, flesh on flesh, gentle against the barrier. “I’ve been aching to fuck you.”
“Do it,” Nicholas whispered.
“But that’s not all. I need something from you.” Ban pressed in, just enough, entering only slightly. There could be no pain here, only a whetting of appetite.
“Do it. Fuck me.”
Ban’s fingers dug into Nicholas’s shoulders. Biting his neck, Ban thrust slowly but inexorably, entering a full inch as his lover shuddered. “Not without a promise.”
Nicholas smelled so perfect, so deliciously ripe, Ban suffered a moment’s desire to feed. “You must obey me after I pleasure you.”
“Nicky.” Jerking Nicholas’s head back by the hair, Ban bit harder into his neck, breaking the skin and tasting blood. It was hot, perfect, the chemical life-essence of the man he adored. In short, ambrosia.
“I mean it. What I ask, you must give. Wholeheartedly.”
“I will. Fuck me,” Nicholas pleaded.
Ban did. But not without limits; not without consciousness. Each thrust was slower than he wanted, shallower, more careful. Instead of hurling himself off the edge, Ban skirted its perimeter, riding Nicholas no harder than he dared. Of course, the outcome was never truly in doubt. Nicholas was mortal, his needs too long ignored. Mouth set, eyes wide with determination, Ban thrust until the other man cried out, all the while keeping himself in check.
“My sweet one. My dear one,” Ban whispered, holding Nicholas until his tremors subsided. “Now you’ll pay. You promised. You’ll do what I ask.”
“I will.” Nicholas turned toward Ban, eager for another caress, another kiss. “Anything.”
The saddlebag wasn’t far. Unlatching it, Ban found something within by feel alone, pressing it into Nicholas’s hands. “Put this between your thighs to take the chill off. Warm it. Then take me.”
“Oh!” Nicholas couldn’t hide his revulsion. As soon as his fingers recognized the shape within his hands, he let the marble phallus fall. It lay on the blanket, eight inches long, thickest toward the head, fashioned to resemble the real thing. “Christ, Ban. Will you humiliate me? Will you destroy every ounce of pride I have left?”
“You promised.” Seizing Nicholas by the shoulders, Ban bit him again, just enough to draw two fresh drops of blood. It was excruciating, tormenting himself this way, but he was certain Nicholas would grant him release. “I need this. It’s been decades since I asked for it. Since I chose it. But I need a man to take me.”
Nicholas tried to speak coldly, but the pain in his voice betrayed him. “There are men throughout Maidenstone—through Surrey—who can do it. And do it properly.”
“Nicky.” Ban bit him again, hard enough to make him gasp. “It has to be you. It means nothing to me unless it’s you.” More gently, he kissed Nicholas’s jawline, using his tongue, nuzzling the other man until he shuddered. “Warm it between your thighs. When you’re ready, I’ll turn. Then do it. Don’t hold back.”
Nicholas kept the item tucked away so long, Ban feared he’d decided to resist, to try and ply him with nothing but hands and mouth. And it was sweet, the hungry way Nicholas devoured his mouth, the eager squeeze of his fingers. In the end, he didn’t disobey. Even with his own body sated, he wanted Ban, wanted to please him. And so finally, warm stone phallus in hand, Nicholas nudged Ban to turn over.
“Oh,” Ban said as it pushed against him. Over the centuries, Sebastian had taken him countless times, but Ban couldn’t remember the last time he’d wanted this. The last time he’d been on his knees, palms pressed against the floor, fully exposed and desperate for more. “Keep going.”
“Hard as you can!”
One more vicious push, and it was in. Shifting his weight to one hand, Ban grasped himself with the other, beginning to tug. After three centuries he knew his body well, knew the pressure and speed necessary. What he hadn’t known for sure, what proved a hoped-for revelation, was how Nicholas began to pant with each thrust.
“Nicky. It’s good.”
Nicholas made an incoherent noise.
“That’s it. Don’t stop. Don’t stop….” Ban let himself fall into the rhythm, the fullness, the exquisite pressure inside. When he let go, groaning, he heard a gasp behind him. The sound was sweet. Perfect. Satisfying.
“Very good.” Reaching behind, Ban worked the phallus free and tossed it aside. Then he pulled Nicholas close, pleased with how the other man submitted instantly, pressing their bodies together as if separated for ages. “You enjoyed that.”
“Yes.” Nicholas was breathing hard.
“It satisfied you.”
“Yes.” Nicholas hid his face against Ban’s chest. “It—it did.”
“As it should.” Ban kissed the top of his head. “I knew you wanted it as much as I did.”
“But it wasn’t. Wasn’t truly….”
Ban smiled. “Then why are you shaking all over? Why have I stained this blanket beyond redemption?”
Nicholas couldn’t answer.
“Because it was what we both needed. I know—all your life you’ve shunned the mysteries of the soul. You’re brilliant, Nicholas, but you don’t know everything. Not every fear in your heart will prove true by daylight. Or even starlight.”
Ban heard the other man’s breath hitch, and knew better than to press. In such moments, to force tears was unforgivable. After what felt like a long time of simply holding Nicholas, Ban said, “So you were pleased.”
Nicholas, controlled again, made an amused sound. “Of course.”
“Can you imagine it? Being with a man? Not just for the winter, but for all your life?”
“Yes. I think once upon a time, in my youth, I loved John Peyton. I just lacked the vocabulary; the understanding that such a passion could be authentic. Even so, I nearly died for him when Storm-Born reared. Because when I saw him in danger of his life, instinct took over.”
“Because you’re a hero,” Ban said, thinking of Serafino’s last action, breathing fire at Sebastian.
“I don’t know about that. But John’s death … Lydia’s desertion … my injury … it all rose up to crush me for awhile. Until I met you and realized I still had needs.” Nicholas sucked in his breath. “Is it truly because—you know. The other never dropped, and is inside me? Can that really explain it?”
“I can’t be sure. Only a very learned physician could say.” Ban forced himself to feign interest in the question. “But the fact is, you were a man grown when the injury occurred. Accustomed to certain satisfactions. I can’t believe anything would eliminate the urge for such pleasures entirely. Surely they arise in the heart and mind.”
“Ban,” Nicholas whispered. “You mustn’t lie to me. What I did to you. Was it really enough?”
Ban held his breath. Since murdering Phillip and betraying Sebastian—since waiting by Nicholas’s bed for six excruciating nights and days—he’d imagined himself saying this. Yet still he was afraid, pushing out the words by main force. “You survived an infusion of my blood that should have killed you. Your grandmother, not to mention Dr. Flowers, saw to it. I believe you could survive another infusion. And be fully transformed by it.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Nicholas’s lie sounded feeble.
“Yes, you do. Nicky. I promise I’ll find a way to do it safely. But I want you with me, always. And for that, you must become one like me.”