Owen Montgomery has been a landless drifter since the Royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester nine years previously when he was seventeen. Since then, he has lingered abroad as an insignificant follower in the retinue of exiled King Charles.
In the spring of 1660, Owen travels across England as an envoy on behalf of the King. Despite this important diplomatic mission, Owen regards himself as little better than the highwaymen he encounters on the lawless roads.
During a brief stop at an obscure roadside inn, he encounters Lucky John, a bullied skivvy with a sweet nature who makes a lasting impression. When Owen impulsively rescues John from his unkind employer, he has no idea of the impact the lad will make on his lonely existence.
Will Owen reject this chance to open up and share his life? And can Owen be convinced he deserves John’s love?
Owen heaped a pile of straw for his billet with his pack roll in place of a pillow. He was about to blow out the light, intending to wrap himself in his cloak to sleep, when he heard the patter of ill-shod feet coming across the cobbled yard.
John appeared at the stable door, clutching a few blankets. “I thought you and Bess might be cold overnight.” Owen was touched by the thoughtful gesture. The boy was a touch of sweetness in a harsh and cruel world. All the more remarkable when he was regarded as an object of mockery and derision by his employers and their patrons.
“Thank you,” Owen said as John designated the most worn blanket for Bess. Using his cloak as an under-blanket, Owen now had the luxury of spreading the rest of the blankets on top. Satisfied with his work, he sat on his makeshift bed to remove his high riding boots.
“Let me help you,” John said, sitting on his haunches on the stable floor. One boot slipped off easily, but the other was more stubborn. After several efforts, with one last tug, it came away abruptly. John fell backwards, laughing, with the boot in his hands. His laughter was infectious, making Owen grin. John’s innocent delight was disarming.
It was growing cold in the unheated stable. Owen removed his hat, coat, and belt, and keeping his precious messenger bag and small arms close by, he scrambled into the straw bed, expecting John to depart, taking the lamp with him.
Instead, the boy blew out the flame, shucked off his pattens, and attempted to get under the covers. “What in hell are you doing?” Owen snapped, sitting up and glaring at John in the darkness.
The boy was unrepentantly. “You have all my blankets. I didn’t think you’d mind sharing.”
Owen had survived war, skirmishes, and the machinations of great men. But he had never met anyone as disconcerting as this skinny slip of a lad.
“Very well,” he conceded, settling back down. But rather than keeping a careful distance, the boy snuggled up to him like a puppy. At first, Owen tolerated this simple need for warmth on a chilly spring night. He didn’t object to John’s tentative touch on his shirt-covered chest, but when one hand started to drift downwards towards the waistband of his breeches, Owen tensed.
“No,” he said, halting John’s progress firmly.
“I thought you might want to. You’ve been nice to me.”
“Not beyond common courtesy. You don’t have to repay me. Especially in that way. You haven’t even learned my name.”
“I know. But you seemed lonely and I wanted to comfort you. And I noticed you didn’t give our serving maids a second glance.”
Owen was startled by the lad’s unexpected perception. How could he have guessed? Even during their long exile together, his own brother hadn’t suspected his preferences, mainly because Owen had been careful to conceal his indifference to women. Excuses were easily arranged by indulging in a stupefying excess of liquor like the rest of the exiled court.
Over the years, there had been fleeting encounters, catching a man’s attention in whatever province or country he’d passed through. But there’d been at least some conversation to establish a mutual attraction, usually over a few glasses of wine or ale. John’s instant, correct assumption wrong-footed him.
“I like you and I thought you liked me. It’s not as though I haven’t been with men before,” John added helpfully. “And you are quite handsome, especially when you smile.”