Sunlight injected the indigo sky with golden threads earlier each day. Spring was drawing near, its sweet scent suspended in the cold air, even as crisp frost from the persistent winter lingered, crystalizing the blades of grass into fields of sparkling emeralds.
Harry surveyed his small patch of land, watching the sun peek over the serene, silent meadows beyond the encroaching forest. It shot streaking bursts of pinks and yellows, shrinking the night sky into a mild blue, pushing back clouds as it rose, a glorious, near-blinding orange orb. Birds in nearby trees were already welcoming the dawn with their delicate song. He would never tire of waking to this peaceful serenity.
Six years. How many sunrises was that?
Shivering out the tense muscles up and down his back, Harry went to work. The cold was not a friend to the scarred muscles of his left arm, which made their complaints known as he picked up his saw. Setting his jaw, he bit the saw’s teeth into the strong flesh of an oak he’d cut down and stripped yesterday.
He cut the trunk down to decent workable lengths. They would do well to replace the rotten floorboards near the fireplace, soaked with moisture from the cellar after it had flooded during the fall. It had taken weeks to dry out and create a soakaway around the house. He shouldered and lugged the timber over to the mounted flat rock he used as a dining table or a makeshift bed when the weather grew warm enough to eat and sleep outside, but right now it was his work bench. It took him most of the morning to saw the wood down to size and most of the afternoon to sand it smooth. The oak was a gorgeous color, clean and creamy for such a strong, unbending timber. It was hard-going work with only one fully serviceable arm, and it took him the rest of the day to make the new floorboards. His muscles soon began to ache, forcing him to take a frustrating number of breaks.
He’d long stripped off his coat, gloves and frayed woolen shirt, but the afternoon was already chasing away the daylight, prickling gooseflesh over his arms and chest. He sucked in his breath and shivered, basking in the cool air before pulling his abandoned shirt over his head and collecting the naked timber. A frosty night was settling in again and he didn’t want the boards exposed to the elements.
He gave a lingering glance at the dying sun disappearing behind the trees, twinkling as branches swayed against their sisters.
But that wasn’t all.
Something else was casting shadows in the forest, a moving silhouette that didn’t belong. Harry squinted, the waning light speckling through the fluttering leaves stinging his straining eyes.
Retreating inside the cabin, Harry gingerly propped the timber against his fireside with his good arm before sprinting upstairs, taking the steps two at a time. Skidding to the floor, he pulled his rifle from under the bed. When he got back into the yard the light had dimmed to a low glimmer. Harry brought his rifle up and aimed his sights on the treeline, ignoring the tightness in his left arm and shoulder, heartbeat drumming in his temples.
All was quiet and still.
Then it wasn’t.
A man emerged from a tight crop of trees and bushes, tripping over the log pile and stumbling gracelessly to the muddy ground at Harry’s feet. Startled, Harry quickly recovered, gritting his teeth to steady his weak arm, his rifle trained on the man’s downturned head. The man moaned and choked, picking himself up out of the mud, brushing himself down unsuccessfully, ignorant of Harry and his loaded rifle.
Harry cleared his throat. The man’s head snapped up. Feral eyes glared at the barrel, then Harry. Harry’s breath caught. Dying evening light reflected in the eerily familiar cobalt blue of the man’s eyes.
The stranger blinked, his lips curling into a poised smile. The illusion broke and Harry glared down at him.
“Tell me, my good man, is that your house?”
He was well-spoken, if a little effete, with a slight lilt disguising an accent. His hair, soaked from sweat and plastered to his scalp, grew past his shoulders, the color of dull gold. His wan complexion did nothing to hide the beauty of his high cheekbones and full, pale lips.
Harry grunted, remembering himself. “What business is it of yours?”
The stranger offered an uneven smile, flashing dimples in his cheeks. “Forgive me. Allow me to introduce myself—”
“I don’t need your name, or any other. What is your business here?”
“I…I am merely seeking shelter, just for tonight. My carriage wheel buckled and the horses ran free of it, leaving me stranded on the road.”
“The village is eleven miles south. Follow the river until you reach Paix.”
The stranger gave a humorless chuckle, his smile collapsing under Harry’s unwavering grimace. “It is close to nightfall. I don’t wish to impose, but I’m rather desperate.”
Everything about this man screamed suspicious. His clothes, though finely made, were well-worn and covered in forest debris. Mud plastered his knees and palms. Bruising blossomed under a bleeding cut on his prominent cheekbone.
Harry continued to eye him. He didn’t want trouble. Yet here it was, scared and attractive and watching Harry with those painfully stunning eyes. But there was more. The way he held himself stiffly, drawing sharp breaths though he tried to hide it. He was in pain.
Harry set his jaw. He lowered the rifle. “One night.”
The dimples were back, the relieved exhale quickly smothered. “Thank you so much.”
“I want you gone at dawn.”
“No, no, dawn it is.” He gestured to the house a little insistently. “Shall we?”
Already calculating over a dozen reasons not to let this man inside his home, Harry shouldered his rifle and led the way.
“Well, this is certainly…rustic,” the stranger said once inside.
“You’re free to try your luck in the forest.”
He said under his breath, “I think I already am.” He turned back to Harry, catching his scowl. “It’s wonderful. Thank you, mister…” He offered his hand. It was trembling. “Surely we can be civil?” he said when Harry continued to stare in silence.
“No ‘mister’. I’m Harry.”
“Harry, it’s a genuine pleasure.” He gripped Harry’s right hand. His shaking subsided a little. His palms were surprisingly rough where Harry had expected soft.
“Just Kit, like you’re just Harry.”
Nodding, Harry released his hand.
“Don’t suppose there is any food going spare?”
“Not spare, but we can share what there is.”
Harry set about lighting a fire and swung the remains of yesterday’s stew over the flames, the blackened pot squeaking loudly with age.
Stepping out of the cold and into the brewing heat inside the small room had brought a blush to Kit’s ashen cheeks. His hands trembled at his sides. “May I?” He gestured to a chair by the fire.
Harry eyed his mud-sodden clothes. “We should get you out of your wet things.”
“No.” Harry flinched at Kit’s vehemence. “They’ll be fine. The fire will dry them soon enough.” He stared into the flames, rubbing his dirtied hands together.
Harry nearly let the subject drop, but couldn’t. “I don’t know what you’re running from, but having you die from cold in my home will bring more trouble than I need. Also, I don’t want muck all over my furniture.”
Kit arched his brow then glanced guiltily at the wet trail he had brought in behind him. “Of course, I apologize.”
“I’ll get you a blanket and something for you to wear.”
“You…you’re very kind.”
Did Kit think him so uncivilized? Harry supposed he couldn’t blame Kit after having a rifle shoved in his face. He didn’t know what Kit had suffered. He didn’t want to know. It wasn’t his business.
With shaking fingers, Kit gingerly plucked open the buttons of his sodden coat, fine beneath the brown sludge and forest debris. He turned to Harry. Harry blinked away, heat rising under his skin.
“Would you mind giving a chap some privacy?”
Harry scowled. “Excuse me, your lordship, would you like me to wait outside?”
“No. Sorry. I just—”
Harry shook his head. “I’ll go get that blanket.” Begrudgingly, he left the warmth and the stranger and trotted upstairs. He tore the one decent blanket from his bed, unwilling, ridiculous as it was, to show the gentleman his moth-eaten linen stash. His clothes would be too big on Kit’s lithe form, but beggars couldn’t be choosers, especially beggars who arrived with nothing but the clothes on their back and suspicion circling them like flies around shit.
Harry shook his head. He’d been on his own too long to easily allow a strange gentleman into his house, into his haven.
A stranger he had left alone while his back was turned.
Swearing, he made his way quietly back downstairs, as though to catch the man in some criminal act.
Instead he caught sight of pale, naked flesh. Harry stopped in his tracks, half hidden by the stair bannister. Blood bloomed under his skin and his breath caught. It was alien for something so rare and beautiful to grace these humble, shabby walls. Kit’s fair skin was marked with numerous scars consistent with sword wounds, silvery lines atop a white canvas, some thicker than others. His chest and stomach were tightly muscled, his hips tapered, swaying a little as he moved out of his trousers and bent to drape them in front of the fire. His legs were sprinkled with a light covering of hair, matching the drying locks curling into loose golden ringlets around his face.
Wetting his lips, Harry knew he should look away. Kit wanted privacy. But he couldn’t bring himself to blink and risk missing a second of it. Kit’s naked ass was nothing short of glorious, small and pert, muscles clenching as he shivered, gooseflesh erupting all over. Old, long-buried sensations stirred, aching inside him. Harry imagined the pebbled texture under his fingers, his tongue, bathing it with warmth until it smoothed. His lame hand clenched at his side.
Kit gingerly lifted his shirt, hissing as he peeled the fabric from his side, and Harry’s unwelcome arousal withered.
Tight scar tissue stretched the skin on Kit’s side just above his hipbone, a white brand in the shape of a ‘W’. Witch. An equally cruel brand, fresh and raw, outlined with inflamed flesh beside the healed scar, branded him with a distorted ‘T’ for tethered, a binding brand cutting off his connection to magic.
Kit pulled the tatty knitted throw off the chair and wrapped it tight around his body. It was too small, full of holes and dropped stitches, but it covered the brands. He clutched it to his body, rubbing his hands up and down his bare legs, wincing with every movement.
Harry breathed out a deep sigh then cleared his throat. Kit whipped around before offering a small, grateful smile. He stared in surprise when instead of offering the blanket Harry draped it around his shoulders, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wounds. Their eyes met. Heat flared and traveled from Harry’s face to his chest.
Don’t get involved.
He shuffled around Kit to the now boiling stew, dropping the bundle of clothes in front of the fire to warm them through. He took it off the fire and moved to a safe distance, searching through the only cupboard not holding books or tools and digging out his two least-chipped bowls. He chastised himself, but couldn’t stop the urge to show this man he wasn’t an unsophisticated lout. He ladled them each a hearty bowlful.
Kit muttered his thanks and hugged the bowl close before abandoning his careful manners and clamping his mouth on the lip of the bowl, gulping it down in great guttural swallows. The stew overflowed and trickled down his chin. He paused for breath only to lick the bowl clean and wipe his mouth, sucking broth from his fingers.
His eyes flicked to Harry’s wide-eyed disbelief, his face growing red. “Forgive my enthusiasm. I have not eaten in days.”
Harry had guessed as much. His cooking wasn’t the worst, but it never warranted such gusto.
“More?” Harry offered.
“Thank you.” This time Kit sipped slowly, giving a satisfying smile, dimples back in place.
They sat in silence as they ate. Kit broke it first. “I am terribly sorry to put you through this trouble.”
Harry grunted. “As long as it’s the only trouble you bring me.”
Kit smiled weakly and lost eye contact, suddenly interested in his bowl. “I’ll do my best on that score.”
Harry finished his food, ruminating, fighting the urge to ask more. Bored curiosity, he told himself. He didn’t need another man’s problems. But his mind once more wandered back to the brands on Kit’s skin, worrying about the fresh wound. He opened his mouth then quickly shut it.
Kit finished his bowl and a third before finally lounging back in his seat, sighing contently. “That was wonderful. Thank you.” His smile was tired, his eyes blinking slowly.
“There’s a bed upstairs.”
Kit tensed. Feral eyes glinted in the firelight.
“I’ll stay down here,” Harry clarified calmly, as though he hadn’t noticed Kit’s discomfort.
Kit attempted a smile, but it looked uncomfortable on his ashen face. “That’s not necessary. You don’t need to give up your bed for me.”
Harry gestured to his rifle. “I’ll keep watch tonight.”
Kit opened his mouth to argue, but Harry was not stupid and offered a skeptical brow. Someone was after this man and Harry would not be caught unawares. Kit nodded. “Thank you,” he said again, his voice small. He blinked tiredly.
Harry offered Kit the clothes as he stood. Kit took them with a tight smile.
Well, better make myself comfortable, Harry thought as he watched the strange man disappear up the creaking stairs in a wobbly daze. Hooking his good arm through the back of his chair, he maneuvered it to the window. He pulled the other chair over to rest his feet on. Not the comfiest bed in the world, but he’d endured worse. He sat and watched the dark treeline, wondering what the hell he was doing allowing this man into his home.