Trying to avoid ruin and disgrace, young naive Neal Clifton, wealthy heir to a sizable Boston family fortune faces the illicit and dangerous complication of his first affair with man--a scheming, unscrupulous man with influence and power that reaches beyond the grave. Neal vows to never give into his own unnatural desires again but finds his only hope for escape in the hands (and arms) of stoic silversmith, Peter Wade.
This story is part of the print anthology THE MYSTERIOUS.
"Move swiftly, child. That worm of a man is gone to a meeting at the tavern, but I never know when he'll see fit to return. If he catches you here now, he'll burn us both. Hurry, child!"
The sound of passing horse's hooves clatter on the cobblestones echoed faintly down the narrow alley he used to reach the back door. The falling snow muffled his much lighter steps, the stench from the emptied chamber pots thrown out in the street stronger here, lessening the amount of foot traffic and prying eyes.
Ayana's hushed words ran together, heavy and exotic, her Jamaican accent painting blue oceans, warm breezes and lazy sun-drenched days for Neal Clifton like they always had despite the woman's current tense insistence. Neal winced when the housekeeper's hard, bony grip squeezed his arm as she pulled him out of the lightly falling snow and into the warmth of the Judge's small kitchen.
"I know, Ayana." Neal clasped his own chilled hand over hers, returning the comforting touch. She was small in stature, her skin smooth and clear like a petite bronzed sculptures in his father's study. She was a beautiful woman, large dark eyes, coal black hair, and a full-lipped, expressive mouth under high, sharp cheekbones off set by her worn but clean white neckerchief. It framed her neck and face beautifully. Neal could see why she had been considered a royal captive, why Williams had needed to possess her whatever the costâ€”to her or to her people.
"I'm not sure but I think someone saw me. From the Abbot house next door. Coming around to the alley." He resisted the urge to flee before it was too late.
"Then you must hurry." The warmth of the room pushed the chill away from his back as she urged the door closed. The clink of the door blocked out the outside world of prying eyes and accusing fingers. In the sudden silent of the small, comfortable room his nerves calmed and his courage returned.
"I wasn't to leave town for three more days."
"The time is right now, child. The spirits do not lie."
"Then I'll leave tonight. I'll send a message to father to follow as originally planned so he'll be less inclined to suspect a problem. The transfer of the business back to Philadelphia is almost completed." He had lived his whole life in Boston but a change was needed if his was to have a decent life. He glanced anxiously toward the upstairs chambers. "I have to say, with the latest turn of events, I'm no longer reluctant to go."
Philadelphia was his father's place of birth, but Neal had spent little time there. When his father told Neal he had begun arrangements to return to the Pennsylvanian town five years after his mother's death, it seemed natural. But Neal has been surprised by the plan to merge businesses with a fellow silversmith of equal reputation. Surprised but too distracted by his own troubles to pay much regard to most of what his father told him about the new business plan and their new partner.
After years of working as his father's apprentice, Neal was an excellent silversmith but his real talent lay in the business aspects. He had a head for figures and a natural charm and wit when dealing with people, both customers and business associates. It now offered him a legitimate opportunity to leave Boston. Impulsive as always, Neal leaped at the chance to escape his present situation without further thought.
"I know it was unspeakable of me to ask you to do this but I couldn't think of any other way." Betrayed by his lover, the fine upstanding Judge Martin Williams, Neal's friendship with Ayana, Williams' indentured servant, remained intact, the two of them bound together against one evil.
"I know, child. I know. You must not let him keep anything that ties you to him." Her dark eyes were like a fierce storm at night, full of power and anger. "If I could get back what he took from me all those years ago I would send his black spirit to the other side of the darkness and never let his filthy soul find peace!"
If anyone understood what a cruel and abusive man the Judge really was beneath his public mask of respectability and moral righteousness it was this proud and defiant woman, forced into service for over a decade, treated no better than the lowliest slave.
Neal knew Williams had some mysterious, unspoken power over Ayana. Whenever Neal had shown too much curiosity about the subject Williams would only give a randy smirk. Neal was certain she had suffered in the Judge's bedchamber, as well as in his household service, at one time.
And Neal knew all about the Judge's bed these last few months. At first they had been deliriously wonderful times, but Williams' true character soon emerged, and Neal realized what a precarious position he had put himself and his family in. He'd been a fool. Now he was here to correct the grave error his naÃ¯ve heart had made.
"I only wish you could, Ayana. Unmerciful as it is, I do wish it after what he's done! I should have listened to you from the beginning. I was blinded by what I thought was love."
"That man knows nothing of love!" Ayana spat on the floor mumbling a few words Neal didn't understand but recognized as her native tongue. It sounded dark and ominous, curses being brought up from hell. "He is the devil's servant. With no heart. The only soul he owns belongs to another! Evil! Evil lives in this house, child, evil and darkness!"
The intensity of venom in Ayana's usually gentle, exotic, sing-song voice startled him. It spurred his desire to do what needed to be done and be gone from this house once and for all. Neal gently disengaged her grasp to stride through the kitchen and into the hallway. He was suddenly anxious to be gone from this place once and for all.
His gaze lingering on the small animal bones scattered on the floor by the hearth. Strangely, Williams had encouraged Ayana to keep her heathen cultural beliefs alive, reveling in the exotic, mystical rituals. She clung to them in a fanatical manner Neal wasn't quite comfortable with. She had refused to let Neal into the house until the spirits and mystic signs had told her the time was right. Apparently, the bones favored him this evening.
The bones appeared to vibrate as he walked by them sending a chill through his chest, spurring him to walk faster. He took the staircase two treads at a time, the hallway to Williams' chambers at a trot. Ayana followed, her pace slower but just as anxious, lit candle in hand.
Neal threw open the door and moved into the familiar room with the ease that spoke of many hours spent in the plush surroundings. Too many hours that created too many detailed memories. Memories that echoed off the cold walls to hammer accusingly at Neal. Gone was the pleasure he had first discovered here. Passion and adoration had turned to bitter guilt and shame.
"He keeps his personal papers this drawer." Neal moved to the ornate desk in the corner of the room and lit a another candle off Ayana's flame. Light splashed across the cluttered surface and shadows danced on the walls like demons guarding the gates of hell. The room was chilled, smelling of burnt ash and spices. Neal yanked on the upper drawer of the desk, frustrated but not surprised when it didn't budge.
"The key would be best, but he never takes it off. Even when he'sâ€¦" Neal paused, embarrassed though he knew Ayana was aware of the things that happened in this room between Williams and himself, "â€¦unclothed." He was surprised by how much disgust there was in his voice. Disgust for the Judge's offensive behaviors but mostly for his own foolhardy actions. He was responsible for the trouble he found himself in.
Ayana touched his arm, her voice low and soft. "You are young, Neal. You think with a young man's heart. A heart that looks at life with passion and love. Do not let this deceiver change your heart. I know of his charms and sly ways." She tapped Neal's chest, a soothing, maternal pat of acceptance. "Yours is a good heart, child. There will be others to share it with, even if your lovers are not ordinary choices."
She nodded a small knowing smile on her full, brown lips. She traced the curve of his cheek and jaw with a tenderness that brought tears to his eyes. If she had been allowed the life she had been meant to have, Ayana would have been a wonderful mother in Neal's estimation. "Love is love and it is meant to be shared. You will find another who deserves your heart. A better man than Judge Martin Williams!"
"That shouldn't be too hard considering the Judge's character, but I doubt it, Ayana. After this, my 'choices' must remain secret, buried where no one can use them against me again. I can never trust another not to betray me. Never. There is too much to lose. My father would never recover from the shock. He is all the family I have left to me. I can't let Williams take that away from me as well."
A letter opener lay to one side on the desktop, its gleaming metal bright and inviting in the glow of the candle light. Neal jabbed it into the lock space and forced the metal to give under the full weight of his slight frame. The drawer cracked and splintered under the pressure. Neal yanked it open. Ayana touched his arm but said nothing. Neal paused, concern for her twisting his inside into knots. She would be here to bear the Judge's wrath at the drawer's destruction, not he.
Ayana shook her head. "Broken lock or not, once he discovers them missing he'll know who took them. Do not fear for my safety, child. I will survive as I have done all this years."
"I'm sorry, Ayana. The last thing I want is for him to hurt you because of me."
"Hush and hurry before he returns and we both feel his displeasure."
Neal stared into her fathomless black eyes and wondered for the hundredth time how this woman had remained so goodhearted while withstanding the isolation and humiliation Williams forced on her. He knew he could not have tolerated it. A few short weeks on the Judge's leash and he was willing to do anything to escape. Including thievery.
Pushing a few loose parchments aside, Neal retrieved a slim bundle of letters out of the back of the drawer. They were wrapped in dark red ribbon, the one Neal had used to tie back his wavy brown hair the last night Williams had seduced him.
Williams had used it to bind his hands over his head the second night they spent together. More recently it had been tied around his shaft while Williams teased and tortured him until he begged for release. Dark stains marred the ribbon, mute testament to his eventual relief. He could feel the burn of shame on his fair skin and the buzz of humiliation in his ears forcing him to turn his back until he could regain control. He had even cut his hair shorter after his last night so as to no longer need to wear a hair tie.
Before he regained his composure, the air in the room shifted and a deep, mocking voice chilled his flesh and froze his heart.
"Stealing your love letters, as passionate and revealing as they are, will hardly be worth the thievery charge, if I still have your thoughtful and rather damning gift, don't you think, Neal, my dear boy?" That nasal, condescending tone rippled over Neal like tainted honey, thick, sweet -- suffocating. Words stuck in his throat like flies.