In 1880, Sir Michael Winter returns from Oxford University to take his rightful place as lord of Winterwood Manor. In his absence, the estate has acquired a new groundskeeper, a brash young American named Thomas Gilchrist. When Michael sees that Thomas is educated and carries himself more like a lord than a servant, he suspects that Thomas may be hiding something. Before long, however, the two can no longer suppress their growing attraction and give into the passion brewing between them.
Just as Michael begins to believe he may at last have found happiness with Thomas, his household is thrown into turmoil. A guest of the estate is found in the woods after a garden party, mauled to death by some unknown creature. Soon it appears that a werewolf is stalking the nearby woods, and Michael begins to suspect that the man he loves might also be a beast and killer by moonlight.
He found the man with the shovel in the back garden, digging a hole to transplant a small tree that stood beside him with its roots protruding from a burlap bag. His shirt hung open all the way now, his chest and stomach gleaming with sweat. A few smears of dirt clung to his skin, as though he had reached up to scratch at his nipples. Michael’s mouth went dry in spite of the glass of fine wine he had just drunk.
The man stopped lifting the shovel as Michael approached and leaned on it with his hands folded. The casual pose startled Michael. Even Old Bert, odd as he was, had always put down his tools and touched his cap in a gesture of respect. This man didn’t even wear a cap.
“You must be Sir Michael, back from Oxford at last,” he said without the slightest note of deference. His honey-brown eyes met Michael’s with astonishing directness. “We’ve been expecting you. Your mother has been talking about your imminent arrival for days, not to mention the housemaids.”
“Yes, I am.” Michael found himself surprised at the man’s accent. He did sound American, he supposed, though Michael had only met a few Americans in his time and so was not terribly familiar with their speech patterns. However, whatever his land of origin, he did not speak in the flat, simple way one might expect of a man working in the garden. “And you are the groundskeeper my mother hired.”
“Thomas Gilchrist,” the man introduced himself in a gruff tone. “I won’t shake your hand, because, you see, I’m sort of dirty.”
“Indeed I do.” Michael raised a brow. A manual laborer shaking hands with a baronet? Absurd. Then again, perhaps things were different in America, where they prided themselves on having no rigid class distinctions. Frankly, he could hardly imagine such a society. It seemed almost perverse. On the other hand, he found himself enjoying the man’s forwardness. “My mother pointed you out to me from the window, and I thought I should come down and check on you. I understand you have some excellent ideas for the estate.” He looked at the tree waiting to be planted.
“A fair assessment. The fellow who came before me had no idea what he was doing. I think he was out in the woods drinking, if you ask me. Trust me, I’ve found plenty of empty bottles back there.”
“Possible,” Michael confessed. It did make sense. “I take it you have no such vices, Mr. Gilchrist.”
“I’ll admit to a few.” Thomas grinned, showing off the most beautiful set of teeth Michael had ever seen, especially in a servant. “Nothing that will interfere with my duties here, though, I promise you.”
“That’s good.” Michael swallowed. “Well, I shan’t keep you. Just wanted to see how you were getting on. Please feel free to come to the house and fetch me if you find you need my advice or assistance. Presumably you were reporting to my mother before, but now that I am home, I shall be assuming those duties.”
“I’ll be happy to do that.” Thomas nodded. He reached up and this time openly scratched at his chest. Michael stared, mesmerized by the way his fingers slid over one pert brown nipple and then moved slowly to the other. Such insolence was nothing short of shocking, he reflected. Yet he couldn’t take his eyes from Thomas Gilchrist’s gleaming flesh. He didn’t want him to stop. “In fact, I look forward to meeting with you as often as possible, Sir Michael. We’ll probably have much to discuss.”
“Right, then. I shall leave you to your work.” With an effort, Michael turned away and strode toward the house. His cheeks burned with embarrassment, and he could feel the front of his trousers tightening as lust swelled in his body.