Did you not hear My Lady
Go down the garden singing?
Blackbird and thrush were silent
To hear the alleys ringing.
Oh saw you not My Lady
Out in the garden there?
Shaming the rose and lily
For she is twice as fair.
Though I am nothing to her
Though she must rarely look at me
And though I could never woo her
I love her till I die.
Surely you heard My Lady
Go down the garden singing?
Silencing all the songbirds
And setting the alleys ringing.
But surely you see My Lady
Out in the garden there,
Rivaling the glittering sunshine
With a glory of golden hair.
The Turkish Baths, everyone agreed, were an insult to moral decency and something absolutely no one in polite society would be caught dead frequenting. Naturally, this meant the Marquis of Moscow, Lord Alexander Ovechkin, was seen entering not two days after it opened, attended by four or five of the young rakes always dancing attendance upon him.
This delicious bit of gossip was acquired by Betsy, the under housemaid, who had been on her day out, immediately passed to Mary Brown, the upstairs chambermaid, on to John, the second footman, who told the entire kitchen staff. Nicklas, who was collecting Sir Sidney’s linens from Mary Wesley, listened without comment and then slipped out as the staff began discussing which of the young gentlemen they wouldn’t mind having a quick tumble with in the dark corner of the bath.
Sir Sidney was still in bed when Nicklas stole into the room on silent feet, opening the wardrobe doors and laying out the day’s outfit, a pale blue serge suit that would look very well with Sir Sidney’s dark hair and eyes, and tidying away the clean smallclothes and cravats. He’d finished with the laundry when he heard a groan from the bed and a corner of his mouth quirked in a wry smile. “Good morning, my lord. Would you like your bath or breakfast first?”
There was another groan. “Backstrom, would you please give a man enough time to gather his wits before you expect him to make decisions?”
“A cold bath, then, I take it.” Nicklas decided, and moved through to the washroom swiftly enough to avoid being called back. Sir Sidney was a very decent sort of man, but he was the sole heir of a father who invested unwisely and was only saved from ruin by a marriage of convenience to a wealthy widow, and now seemed to make it his life’s aim to be as staid and serious as possible in order to avoid even a hint of scandal. Nicklas could not fault him for this, but could and did fault him for his unrelenting seriousness in every area of his life. Not that by disposition or station in life Nicklas was any sort of gadabout himself, but the first time Nicklas had met Sir Sidney he had been fretted over a particular suit being too lively a shade of green and had reacted very badly to Nicklas’ suggestion of wearing a bright yellow cravat with it and thereby ensuring no one would be looking at the suit.
Simply because Nicke himself preferred to wear nothing but rusty blacks and greys even on his afternoons off does not mean he thought an eligible young lord should dress like he was in permanent mourning. And it was absolutely no use for the young lord to suggest he was quite content as he was, because Nicklas had seen him watch couples walking in the Park or talking in quiet corners and recognised the wistfulness in his eyes.
This same wistfulness was present at breakfast, as Sir Sidney stared down at his plentiful but unappetizing breakfast of porridge and plain brown toast. Nicklas was not at all sympathetic, since this, too, was Sidney’s choice. Something about it being far more heathful than a breakfast consisting of thick slices of ham and bacon and steak-and-kidney-pie - this same reasoning behind the daily cold baths in place of a luxurious soak before breakfast. If Nicklas was subjected to the same he felt certain his bouts of dizziness would grow far more frequent.
“Would you like a scone or perhaps a bit of jam to finish, my lord?” Nicklas asked politely, as Sidney managed the last spoonful of his porridge.
He received in return the expected baleful glare and did not bother to hide his smile. “Is your lordship at home today?” He asked as he cleared away the breakfast things.
“No, I’ve several errands to attend to, and I promised my sister a turn in Hyde Park.” Sidney rose from the bed and began the set of Swedish stretches he performed every morning without fail.
“Very well, my lord.” Nicklas brought the blue suit through to the bedroom and said, to forestall the expected protest, “It will look very well on you, my lord, and you know that will please Miss Crosby, to be seen with you looking so fine.”
Sidney gave in, as Nicklas had known he would; any hint that something will please his sister is the surest way to earn his capitulation. “O, very well. But only a plain style for the cravat, Backstrom. None of this fancy Continental design, do you hear.”
“Of course, my lord.” Nicklas arranged his face into a look of surprise reproach that Sir Sidney would think such a thing would ever have crossed his mind. He had learned the Jester’s Twist from Lord Eller’s man, and had very much looked forward seeing it ‘round his employer’s neck, but it could easily wait for another time. “Will Miss Crosby be dining with us?”
“I think it likely.” Sidney smiled tenderly at nothing in particular as he allowed Nicklas to dress him and brush the suit down of any traces of dust that might have dared to encroach upon it since it was pressed. “See that Mrs. Gilligan has something special for the final course, will you, if it’s not too much trouble.”
Nicklas rolled his eyes heavenward. “My lord, you know full well how all the staff dotes upon Miss Crosby. Were her nature less good she would be spoilt indeed if we all were allowed free rein.”
Sidney laughed in his own peculiar way, his cheeks flushed a little. “She is a wonderful sister, it is true, but if I know her she will already be by the doors of her school waiting most eagerly for me to arrive. Thank you, Backstrom.” He took the proffered overcoat and his stick and left in a swirl of strong legs and broad shoulders.
Nicklas shook out the blankets and banked the fire before carrying the tray down to the kitchens. There he collected hot shaving water and went back up to Sidney’s rooms to put everything in order for his return and lay out his dinner garments. Of course it was not until he had completed these tasks that he realised that in his hurry to meet his sister, Sidney had forgotten his hat. Nicklas frowned, casting a worried look out the window at the brooding clouds without, and with a sign, caught up the hat and hurried down the stairs and out the front door, snatching an umbrella from the stand by the door as he passed.
Sir Sidney Crosby’s London residence was no great distance at all from Hyde Park, and Nicklas judged that by this time his lordship would most likely have collected his sister from Lady Winter’s Elect School for Young Ladies and be en route to the park and adjusted his steps accordingly.
The first drops of rain were beginning to fall as he spotted them across one of the rose gardens, both dark heads bent closely together as Sidney listened intently to something his sister was saying.
“My lord!” He called, and distantly noted one or two other of the gentry looking ‘round at his call before Sidney looked up and spied him, beckoning him over. “Miss Crosby, an honour. My lord, you had forgotten your hat,” he proffered it. “And an umbrella, for I fear for Miss Crosby’s lovely frock if it turns to a downpour.”
“You’re very kind, Mr Backstrom.” Miss Crosby smiled up at him. “I love the rain, but I would hate to spoil this frock, after my brother so kindly gave it to me.”
Her brother only smiled at her, seeming to convey he would happily buy her two dozen more frocks if necessary.
“My lord,” Nicklas bowed a little. “Miss Crosby.” He left them to it, shoving his hands into his pockets and feeling quietly satisfied they would be dry beneath the umbrella even as he dodged raindrops with his head down. Rain often, although not always, signaled the onset of one of his spells, and if there was anything he could do to mitigate the chances of a public attack he would take it. He was so concentrated on eluding the wet that before he knew it he had collided, mortifyingly, with a very large and solid chest covered by - the most hideous waistcoat Nicklas had ever had the displeasure of seeing.
“I beg your pardon,” he began, manners not quite knocked out of him by astonishment at the waistcoat, but there are already large hands on his shoulders, steadying him, and out of habit he glanced at the fabric of the coat. It was moire, heavy and well-made, and a reassuring dark plum instead of the garish colours of the waistcoat, and it was only when a deep laugh met his ears that he glanced up to see the face of the man he had nearly put on his fine-clothed arse.
It was not a beautiful face, not as finely wrought as many of the English Ton , and with the generous mouth still open in a laugh Nicklas could see one of the front teeth was missing, giving him rather a rakish air not helped by the thick mane of tousled hair already showing traces of grey. Taken altogether the man was far more striking than any he had seen in many a year, although striking in what way Nicklas could not have said.
“The fault was mine,” the man started, accent layering roughly over the words and then stopped abruptly. Nicklas, glancing back at his face, saw the stricken look upon it and supposed he had discerned Nicklas was but a servant and was incredulous that he should be in Hyde’s Park with his betters.
Nicklas drew himself together, stepping back and lifting his chin coldly. “Your pardon, sir. I must return to my duties.” He bowed briefly to the gentleman and stepped around him, shoulders very straight as he hurried away down the increasingly wet path. He was at the entrance to the Park when he heard a voice calling after him, and, thinking it might be Sidney with some further instruction for him, turned.
It was not Sidney. It was the man from two minutes before, moving at a far from dignified pace as he came towards Nicklas.
Nicklas hesitated, wondering if perhaps he was going to be taken to task for his mistake, if perhaps the man would demand to know his employer and press for him to be sacked. He did not think Sidney would be so churlish, and had no intention of standing by meekly and letting it happen if the man did. After all, Nicklas had just as much a right to be in the Park as any other man, did he not? He might have been only a valet, but his father had been perfectly respectable, and his mother the daughter of a landowner. Even if he had not been on an errand for his master how was this man to know he wasn’t simply on his afternoon off? Nicklas pressed his lips together tightly and waited in a state of indignation for the other man to catch him up.
“You walk most quick,” the man said, sounding nearly out of breath, with his accent thicker than before. “Please, will you tell me your name?”
“Why?” Nicklas demanded. If the man intended to see him dismissed without a reference Nicklas would know the reason why.
The man looked startled for a moment before he took a step back, running a hand through his mane of hair. “Of course. My reputation. Of course you not wish to be seen with me.”
Against his better judgement, Nicklas allowed himself another look at the man. Certainly the waistcoat alone should bar him from polite society, and the accent is unusual, but there are plenty of Russians now in London, and certainly plenty of English gentlemen who wouldn’t know fashion if it bit them on the arse, but nothing apart from his churlish behaviour towards Nicklas indicates the man’s place in society is suspect.
But then the piece of gossip heard only that morning suggested itself to him with force, and he frowned. “Are you by chance my Lord the Marquis of Moscow?”
The other gave him another startled look. “You did not know? But then why -”
“I am not in the habit of divulging private information to men who nearly knock me over in parks.” Nicklas answered stiffly, only belatedly adding, “Lord Ovechkin.”
He is rewarded in this attempt at a rebuff by another of those wide smiles. “I think it is you almost knock me over. Ha! Is good Zhenya and Dima not here or they would never let me live down; bested by Englishman.”
“I’m Swedish,” Nicklas retorted, more annoyed than ever, “And we are of a size.”
Lord Ovechkin beamed at him as though Nicklas were a small child performing a complicated piece of poetry. “Yes, but I am Russian.” Perhaps understanding Nicklas’ uncomprehending stare, he added, “Russia best .”
Nicklas was all at once irritated to his back teeth with this man, no matter how many smiles he flashed at Nicklas or how fine his legs looked in his - ye gods they were close-fitted - trousers. “Be that as it may,” he rejoined coldly, “As I said, I must be returning to my duties.”
“Wait,” Lord Ovechkin said, his tone almost pleading, “Please, your name?”
Before Nicklas could answer him yea or nay, a familiar voice from Nicklas’ left said, “Backstrom, is everything all right?”
Nicklas closed his eyes in brief supplication to any God listening before turning to Sir Sidney, who was looking at him curiously. Miss Crosby, one arm through her brother’s, looked even more curiously from him to Lord Ovechkin. Stiffly, he replied, “Yes, my lord. I was on my way back to the house, but my Lord Ovechkin wished -”
Here, with the disregard for proper etiquette Nicklas was beginning to suspect was habitual, Lord Ovechkin broke in, “Sidney! You not tell me you have so beautiful friend!”
There was a silence into which a pin could have dropped and sounded louder than the bells of the Cathedral. Nicklas was horrified to discover a dull red creeping up his face and ears. His only consolation was that Sidney looked well-nigh as horrified as he himself did.
“Ovechkin, what are you - are you mad , you cannot simply - what are you even doing here? Making veiled remarks regarding my valet?”
“Your -” Ovechkin looked puzzled for a moment before his expression cleared. “He work for you! This is good, wonderful! We live so close, I can come see him, yes?”
Nicklas felt rather as though the raindrops still falling on them had surged into a sudden rainstorm, leaving him drenched and breathless in its wake.
“My sister is present!” Sidney hissed, looking very much as though he would like to clap his hands over Miss Crosby’s ears to preserve her tender years.
For her part, Miss Crosby merely dimpled up at Lord Ovechkin, dropping him a quick curtesy. “I am Miss Taylor Crosby, Lord Ovechkin. I have heard much about you.”
Thou’ his gaze, Nicklas cannot help but notice, was fixed steadfastly on Nicklas himself, Ovechkin bowed properly and murmured a,
“Your servant, Miss Crosby.”
“I don’t know how they do things on the Continent, Lord Ovechkin, but in England we don’t accost people’s valets and demand -”
“Who is demand?” Ovechkin looked bewildered, and his gaze as it strayed back to Nicklas was distressed. “If I offend, Mister Backstrom, I am very sorry.”
“It’s just Backstrom,” Nicklas said, cheeks heating despite the cooling rain and wind, “And you did not offend me, I was merely - surprised. Generally most gentlemen take no notice of me.”
Lord Ovechkin looked as though Nicklas could have said nothing more surprising, and opened his mouth presumably to say something to set Nicklas aflame entirely, but thankfully Sir Sidney interrupted here, the sharpness in his tone not abated.
“My valet has duties to attend to, Lord Ovechkin, and I should like to get my sister out of this rain, so we will bid you good day.”
Sir Sidney left no room for Lord Ovechkin to re-enter the conversation, maneuvering deftly around him and ushering both Nicklas and his sister ahead of him. The journey back to Sir Sidney’s house was entirely dominated by a one-sided monologue about the rudeness of Continentals in general and of Lord Ovechkin in particular, and the indecency of the man in addressing Nicklas in such a way, and a sound denunciation of his and his friends’ wild ways (while being careful to go into no details, despite the rapt attention from Miss Crosby) that he seemed to quite forget Miss Crosby was only to stay to luncheon and told Toby that the carriage would not be needed the rest of the day.
Nicklas suspected Miss Crosby was only too pleased by this development, as she cherished any time spent with her brother and off of the boarding school grounds. Nicklas himself was relieved to busy himself with his daily tasks, taking more than his usual care and attention in the doing of them in an attempt to forget the intense light in Lord Ovechkin’s eyes as he had asked for his name and the easy way Ovechkin had called him ‘beautiful’. As he filled the ewer with fresh water his eyes caught on his own reflection in the mirror above it, and he surveyed himself with detached interest. A high forehead with fair hair brushed neatly back from it. Eyes, too close-set to be fashionable, and nose far too pointed and feminine. His chin, stubborn despite the weakness of it, and the sloped shoulders that no fine tailoring could give sharp angles to, slimming to hands dainty enough to match his nose in their femininity. His legs at least were straight and well-formed beneath his trousers, but taken as a whole there was nothing about him that could be called beautiful by any reasonable man.
And yet Nicklas could not help but smile to himself as he remembered Sir Sidney’s discomfort in the company of Lord Ovechkin. Perhaps Lord Ovechkin was simply - not a reasonable man.
Lord Ovechkin, Nicklas has learned over the past fortnight, was anything but a reasonable man. He began by simply appearing on Sir Sidney’s doorstep the day after the incident in the park and, on being informed that Sidney was not at home, nodded and confided in Mary that he was actually there to see Backstrom. Puzzled, but not in the habit of questioning foreign nobility when it turned up on the doorstep, Mary had fetched Nicklas.
Nicklas had taken one look at the enormous man in the entryway and groaned. This had done nothing at all to deter Ovechkin, who had simply beamed at him and proceeded to spend an hour then and at least once a day for the next two weeks offering Nicklas every kind of bribe under the sun for: item one; his first name and item two; Nicklas to give up his employment with Sidney and come and work for him instead. He seemed to think it would be a fine incentive to assure Nicklas he would, as the song has it, do nothing but sit a fine cushion and dine upon strawberries, sugar, and cream. Nicklas had informed him quite sharply that he had no desire to be anyone’s mistress and refused to see him the next two times he asked after him. This had merely resulted in absolutely ridiculous bouquets of flowers delivered twice a day until Nicklas had scolded him for leaving no flowers for the rest of London and lifted the embargo.
It did no good at all when Nicklas protested that he had work to do. Ovechkin would only follow him around, watching with such admiring eyes as he did the most simple of tasks and Nicklas would inevitably have to order him to go home before Sir Sidney returned and found him loitering in his bedroom, or library, or favourite chair.
But not even Sidney’s return to find an uninvited and unexpected visitor was enough to deter the Marquis. He simply embraced the astonished knight and enquired earnestly after his sister and regretted he couldn’t stay to dinner before making a swift exit.
The third week of this brought a change in what Nicklas had already come to think of as the routine. Ovechkin was accompanied by another man, slightly taller, and with a build that put one in mind of a wolfhound - long of leg with a face to match. Nicklas wondered somewhat that such an exuberant and amiable man as the Marquis would be friends with someone so clearly dour. At any rate it seemed Ovechkin meant to play at being a proper gentleman, for he presented Mary with his card and also Lord Evgeni Malkin’s and inquired if Sir Sidney was in to visitors.
Mary, somewhat bemused by this deviation from the normal cheerful demand to know if Backstrom was about, obediently trotted upstairs to the drawing room and presented Sir Sidney with the salver. Sidney, taking it, looked as though he would like to groan as well, but turned it into a sigh at the last moment. “Tell him he can come in, Mary, and put them in the library, will you?”
“Yes, sir.” Mary hesitated. “Only, sir, he’s already in.”
“Of course he is,” Sidney muttered. “Very well, Mary, I’ll go down straight away. Thank you.”
Nicklas contrived to be coming from the kitchens just as Sir Sidney came into the entryway, and thus was privy to the rarely seen phenomena of watching his master go faintly pink in the cheeks from something other than anger or exertion. Even Nicklas could admit Lord Malkin’s legs, clad in their fine silk trousers, were indeed shapely, although he himself preferred the more broad strength contained beneath Lord Ovechkin’s coat.
“Lord Ovechkin,” Sir Sidney said, voice a trifle faint before he pulled himself together. “And you must be Lord Malkin. Welcome.”
“This Zhenya,” Ovechkin introduced him with an impatient gesture as his gaze wandered the entry hall as though he had not spent far too many hours in it the past fortnight. “You say Geno. He want to come for visit, because he get sad and jealous when I’m gone too long.”
“Sir Crosby,” Lord Malkin bowed slightly. “At your service. Forgive my friend; he take too many hits to head and now he forget how to be polite.”
“Really?” Sidney came closer, smiling up at Malkin. “I confess, I had thought he had been born that way.”
Lord Malkin laughed, a great booming thing that made Sidney flush all over again as Malkin regarded him with approval, but Ovechkin has ceased to notice them, having caught sight of Nicklas lurking in the doorway and making for him with alacrity.
“Lord Ovechkin,” Nicklas greeted him, “I hope you are well.”
“Always good when I get to see you,” Ovechkin smiled at him, both members of the gentry seemingly forgotten behind him. “Maybe you do me honour of taking walk with me?”
“Sasha!” A voice barked from behind them before Nicklas could give any reply. “Какого черта!”
Ovechkin turned away from Nicklas briefly, his rejoinder succinct and bitten off.
Nicklas glanced back at the two figures standing so close at the bottom of the stair, and the cold look in Lord Malkin’s eyes as he stared at Nicklas, and coughed. Ovechkin’s attention was immediately on him, and Nicklas could not help the slight upturn of his lips. “My next afternoon off is Thursday,” He told him, and vanished back into the servant’s hall.
When Nicklas heard a low, thickly accented voice in the front hall two days later, he naturally assumed it was Lord Ovechkin again, come to plague him as he worked, but to his surprise it was the lanky figure of Lord Malkin, and it was shortly joined by the lighter tenor of Sir Sidney. Nicklas, as he drifted closer with studied indifference, was further astonished to hear Sidney accept an invitation to dine the following night at Lord Malkin’s residence. Sidney, famously, refused every society invitation proffered unless it would in some wise advance his sister’s prospects, and even then would tend to disappear to the library in short order.
The following day, Ovechkin appeared promptly on the doorstep and smiled hugely at Nicklas as he came to meet him. “Backstrom! You tell me Christian name today, maybe?”
“I think not,” Nicklas said, continuing on to the pavement without waiting to see if Ovechkin would follow. “I have some errands to run. You may accompany me, if you wish.”
“Errands not very romantic,” Ovechkin groused, sending a hot rush through the soles of Nicklas’ feet and up to the top of his head, but Ovechkin merely followed after Nicklas as though he had no idea of the impropriety of what he had just said.
“Nevertheless they need to be done,” He managed, keeping his face steadfastly turned forward that Ovechkin might not see any lingering flush to his cheek. “If you are bored, Lord Ovechkin, you can of course return to your usual pursuits.”
“You call me Alex,” that gentleman demanded, long strides bringing him astride of Nicklas easily, “And I call you - ?”
“Backstrom.” Nicklas cast him a wry look. “A fine effort, my Lord.”
“Alex,” Ovechkin said again, “Or Sasha, if you like.”
“Sasha?” Nicklas tilted him a curious glance. “Your friend called you that.”
“Yes, is, how you say. Family name. Close friends, lovers. And also Zhenya, but only because he be so irritating if I not let. Zhenya is Lord Malkin, he live next to me. What we do, Backstrom? Buy new hat? Ribbons? You let me buy you ribbons, maybe?”
“I’m not some underhousemaid.” Nicklas suppressed a smile at the idea of showing up to work bedecked with ribbons. Sidney would never recover. “The stationers, for more paper and ink, and then handkerchiefs. Mine seem to vanish at an appalling rate, especially lately.”
Ovechkin - Alex - looked suddenly very guilty indeed, which confirmed Nicklas’ theory that he will need to have a stern talk with the Marys. He knew they hadn’t simply been mistaken for rags. “Alexander, I begin to suspect you are something of a romantic.”
Alex looked quite offended. “I try to woo you for weeks now. Of course am romantic.”
Nicklas stopped short on the pavement, absently muttering an apologie to the young lady and her governess he had nearly run into. He put out a hand, halting Alex before he can go past. “Lord Ovechkin - Alex. You know I am a man, yes?”
The sudden heat that sprang to Alex’s eyes assured Nicklas that the fact had not escaped his notice. Nicklas looked aside and swallowed rather hard before he continued, “And far from your class and social level in every respect?”
“These all things people say, for why I should not pay you respects. All this time, you think -” There was a touch of genuine hurt to Alex’s features. “You still think I just want you for - disrespect, like kept man. If you think this, why you let me come call?”
Nicklas pressed his lips together, unease mixed with a strange sensation of relief. “Not - we should not have this conversation here on a public street. Come, this way.” He led them to a quiet coffeehouse nearby. The proprietor was a friend of his, and knew to simply bring him their coffees and leave them be. Nicklas busied himself with adding cream and sugar to his cup, eyes fixed steadily on his hands in order to put off the moment he would need to look Ovechkin in the face. “I suspected you were making a mock of me at first, as you know. And when you persisted, I did not know what to think. Our places in life are so different - even with your preferences, there are no shortage of pretty, tractable young men in London.”
“I don’t want pretty and tractable,” Ovechkin burst in, one hand making an abortive movement toward Nicklas. “I want stubborn, and beautiful, and won’t tell me Christian name.”
“And your friends? Society?” Nicklas demanded sharply. “They will still allow you into their salons and balls instead of giving you the cut direct and steering their daughters clear of you?”
“Why I care about that?” Ovechkin leaned forward, shoulders threatening to burst out of his coat. Nicklas noted absently that the make of it was inferior along with the cut, and that whomever was choosing his tailors was clearly lacking in sense as well as taste.
“You might care very much when the rumours turn from eccentricity to outright madness.”
Ovechkin laughed outright at that, a broad rolicking laugh that invited one in and made strangers welcome. “I am Russian. We are all a little mad.”
Nicklas was getting the feeling that once he did give way to Alex it would be very likely that he would go down all at once, like a would-be burglar under the influence of a well-placed kick to the knee. It was not a comfortable feeling, and left him feeling rather vulnerable about the state of his own knees. Nevertheless, he tried once more, almost more for Alex’s sake than his own. Someone needed to rescue the man from his own foolhardiness. And his tailor.
“I have no intention of leaving Sir Sidney’s employ, you know.”
“Of course. Since you not let me buy you things, need to make money to buy most beautiful presents for youself.”
At this, Nicklas finally allowed himself a smile. He drained the last of his coffee and withdrew several coins from his pocket, placing them deliberately on the table. Alex tracked the motion of his hand, mouth slightly open and a sudden heat in his eyes as though Nicklas had torn off his cravat in the middle of the town square and cried ‘take me, take me now!’ instead of merely paying for their drinks.
He had no sooner turned to go, however, then he felt a too-familiar dizziness behind his eyes and a trembling in his limbs. He braced himself against the table, lowering himself back to his seat slowly and resentfully. Now, of all times? He had things he needed to accomplish today; he’d no time for coddling his begrudging body or losing ten or twenty minutes due to a spell. And there’s Ovechkin, too, undoubtedly viewing his weakness with disgust.
“Backstrom, are you all right? Can I help? Need food? Water? Brandy?”
Nicklas pried his eyes open to see Ovechkin’s face just in front of him, broad brow furrowed in what looked astonishingly like worry. “It is - nothing. Simply a weakness of the blood that takes me sometimes. I shall be quite all right in a moment, thank you.”
“If you certain, only - you look like you two seconds from fainting.”
Nicklas’ eyes flew open of their own accord at that, and he managed a credible glare. “I am not about to faint.” But then, the darkness behind his eyelids crowded closer, and he added grudgingly, “If I do, there is a small bottle of salts in my inner pocket.”
Ovechkin moved at once, coming around the table to sit on the bench beside Nicklas, one arm coming around his shoulders to steady him as the other fumbled in Nicklas’ pocket. It was quite pleasant, having that broad chest to lean into as the darkness covered him completely, although there was some reason he knew he should not relay this information to the owner of said chest. There was one thing he had been meaning to say, though, and he clung to the remnants of consciousness long enough to get out, “Nicklas. Nicklas Backstrom.”
Dear Mother , Nicklas wrote in his neatest script, thank you for your letter of the 8th. I am gratified to hear you and father and Kristopher are keeping well.
He paused, pen in mid-air as he gazed out of the window to where Sir Sidney and Lord Malkin were playing a game of croquet according to no rules Nicklas had ever seen.
As Sir Sidney is a most accommodating gentleman, I have hopes that I will be able to visit you all before too long. Pray do not worry yourself over the cost, as my wages are more than fair
And he was using even less of them, these days, with Lord Ovechkin always standing ready to purchase anything Nicklas’ eye lingered on for too long. This was not even taking into consideration the constant funds Nicklas found slipped into his pocket or left discreetly underneath his pillows that Alex claimed no knowledge of.
- and my situation secure. Miss Crosby is also doing well, and beginning to be proficient at the pianoforte. It is a delight to the ear to hear her practice on her brother’s pianoforte as I go about my duties rather than the strain upon all our nerves that it was only a fortnight previous. I do not think it a coincidence Sir Sidney frequently had business to attend to elsewhere when she came to practice.
The cacophony seemed to mean nothing to Alex, though, who would listen with a genuine smile and compliment the young lady on her (hardly discernible) progress. Nicklas was frankly astonished Sidney would countenance a man in the same room as his doted-upon sister with no chaperone other than the servants, but he supposed his desire to be out of earshot overrode his desire for propriety. Well, that and the fact that Ovechkin seemed to have no intention of obscuring his intentions with regard to Nicklas himself.
While of course Miss Crosby is too young for any sort of romantic attachment, I would not be in the least surprised if the papers shortly announce an understanding between her brother and a certain foreign gentleman - although far be it from me to speak out of turn of my employer. I wish him every happiness, if indeed the match in question is a success.
Alex had, since the unfortunate incident at the coffeeshop, haunted Nicklas’ every step with the dogged persistence of a favoured hound, sure that this time you were going out and taking him with you. Nicklas had assured him with some impatience that the spells were infrequent and he was generally perfectly all right provided he was careful with his diet and did not over-exert himself. Alex took this as permission to press all sorts of exotic fruits on Nicklas at every opportunity and refuse to allow Nicklas to walk any farther than the flower-seller on the corner. It would be more exasperating were it not so obvious it stemmed from Alex’s care of him. Nicklas had been taking care of himself for years and prided himself on his ability to do so, as well as perform his work to the best of his (considerable) abilities. It was...somewhat pleasant, he was surprised to discover, to allow someone else to care for, at least, his material needs. Of course there was no question that Ovechkin was truly in - that he had genuine feelings for him, besides perhaps those of brief infatuation, but Nicklas could admit the fresh fruits were welcome, and the solicitous inquiries after his health seemed heartfelt enough.
I myself continue in fine health, for the most part, although of course the beginning of the change in seasons is always a difficult one for a man in my position, as I am sure you will understand. Still my fellow servants are kind enough and there is a -
Here Nicklas paused long enough to leave a truly atrocious blot of ink. There was nothing to be gained from telling his mother about Alex, surely. Nothing was going to come of it, no matter how many winsome glances Alex sent his way. Nicklas firmly finished the sentence,
good amount of work to keep me busy and my mind engaged. Give my love to Father and Kristopher and the Aunts.
- and determinedly did not think of the sedate blue ensemble he had ordered and paid for out of the money Alex had been slipping him and how very well it would suit Alex’s broad shoulders and blue eyes. He blotted and sealed the letter and addressed it with a steady hand. The game of croquet going on outside had devolved still further and unless Nicklas missed his guess Sir Sidney would require a bath before he was fit to be seen in company.
Still, despite the extra work, Nicklas couldn’t help but feel a small surge of satisfaction. In all the time he had worked for Sidney, he had never seen him so openly happy as he was in the company of Lord Malkin. Perhaps this was something he ought to encourage, insofar as he was able. Alex, of course, as one of Lord Malkin’s intimates, would be able to do still more. Nicklas tapped his letter thoughtfully against the desk for a moment, brow creased in thought. It would take some doing, but with both he and Alex working together at it - He would not be at all surprised if there were a posted engagement by Michaelmas.
“It is very simple,” Nicklas explained patiently, for what he felt like was the third or fourth time. “If you make a pretense of having been visiting all this time for love of Sidney, it will certainly induce your friend to move at once to secure Sidney’s affections.”
Alex was still frowning. “But Sidney knows I come for you.”
Nicklas waved this aside. “A passing infatuation. You could tell him that having seen him in his own home and with his sister, you came to realise how admirable a man he is.”
“Sidney is very admirable,” Alex agreed, “But - you will be fine? You know is all an act, yes?” He looked worried, and Nicklas felt a pang. Not that he thought he and Alex would ever truly be a match, but that Alex was still so concerned for his own comfort and well-being was nevertheless touching.
Alex took such care of Nicklas and all his friends and had been all eagerness when Nicklas had suggested a plan to pair off Evgeni and Sidney; his delight at seeing his friend happy readily apparent. It made Nicklas wonder who was taking care of Alex himself and think with some satisfaction of the now-finished suit carefully laid in the bottom of his wardrobe.
“Of course,” he agreed readily. “And once they are safely engaged you can of course tell them the truth. I would not have them thinking you inconstant,” he teazed gently, but Alex looked genuinely relieved.
“A good plan,” Alex agreed, and then hesitated, one hand making an abortive movement towards Nicklas. “Of course you can say no, but - may I, kiss you hand? Before I pretend to be in love with other man.”
Nicklas considered this, Alex waiting patiently with both hands pressed together, as though without holding on to each other they would involuntarily reach out towards Nicklas. “No,” he said at length, and then before Alex’s face could fall too far, added, “but you may kiss my cheek, if you like.”
Alex’s face lit as though briefly possessed by Apollo himself, and rose at once from his seat only to fall to one knee by Nicklas’ chair. Nicke had of course been on the receiving end of many of Alex’s melting gazes the past month, but the infinite care with which Alex cradled one side of his head and tilted it until he could press a reverent brush of lips to Nicke’s cheek -
He felt himself grow hot all at once and pulled back swiftly, sure that the mere touch must be burning Alex as much as it burned him. “Enough; you will ruin your trousers, on your knees like that.” Nicklas stood, brushing himself off as though he had been the one kneeling. “Tomorrow, then, we begin.”
Alex stood, but slowly, and the expression on his face was one Nicklas found he could not read. He nodded, though, and departed after an echoed ‘tomorrow’, and a quick bow in Nicke’s direction.
Nicklas watched the next morning as Alex caught Sidney on his way out of his door, tipping his hat politely before placing a hand on his arm and saying something earnest. Sidney looked confused, and then bewildered, and then shyly pleased. He replied, obviously in the affirmative, and Alex smiled at him, open and warm, before bowing briefly and continuing down the pavement.
Sidney stared after him, hat in hand, for a long befuddled moment, before shaking his head and continuing on his way. He looked perfectly serene to all appearances, but Nicklas noted the rim of his hat was crushed beneath one hand.
Their scheme bore fruit sooner than they thought, for no sooner had John ushered Alex into the dining room and Sidney had opened his mouth to greet him than there was a bang as the door flew open once again and Lord Malkin stalked into the room, brow looking as clouded as a thunderstorm. John, hurrying in behind him looking very flustered indeed, belatedly said,
“Lord Malkin, my Lord,” and scampered.
“Sidney!” Lord Malkin thundered, ignoring Nicklas completely and casting Alex one scorching glance before refocusing all his attention on Sidney. “How you let this - this - ублюдок pay court to you like this?”
“Geno, what -” Sidney looked entirely taken aback, one hand pressed to his chest like a consumptive maiden.
“Zhenya,” Alex began, and Malkin whirled on him, looking furious.
“And you! Pretend you so in love with слуга and then turn around and court my Sidney? How dare you, you -” Lord Malkin dissolved into Russian, the contents of which Nicklas understood not at all, but the message of which was all too clear.
“Geno,” Sidney tried once more, but both Lord Malkin and Alex were arguing furiously in their native tongue, Lord Malkin so clearly not listening to a word Alex was saying in his own defense, that Nicklas thought it prudent at this juncture to step in, emptying one of the finger-basins over Lord Malkin’s head.
Into the abrupt silence that immediately followed, Nicklas said, “I beg your pardon, Lord Malkin, but you seem to be a trifle wet. May I offer you the use of the powder room?”
Ignoring both Sidney, who was staring at him with open-mouthed horror, and Alex, who was staring with open-mouthed glee, Nicklas escorted Lord Malkin and assisted him in his repair of his toilette.
“I suppose you have damn good explanation for your behaviour?” Lord Malkin asked as Nicklas sponged off his waistcoat.
“I suppose you have one for yours?” Nicklas raised an eyebrow as he resettled Lord Malkin’s cravat. “Storming about like that and insulting my master in that manner; not to mention your disrespect for Lord Ovechkin.”
Lord Malkin looked bewildered. “Sasha?”
Nicklas brushed Lord Malkin off perhaps a touch too forcefully. “Yes. Refusing to allow him to explain; insinuating he was - dishonourable.”
Lord Malkin looked more confused still, and perhaps a little angry, but Nicklas glared at him, attempting to communicate that he would take no issue whatsoever should the need arise for another cold bath, and the point must have been taken, for Lord Malkin subsided, mouth turned down in a fretful moue. “It was dirty trick.”
“And yet, effective.” Nicklas pointed out.
Lord Malkin stared at him a moment longer, and then let out a loud burst of laughter. “I can see why Sasha like you.” He shook his head, waving off Nicklas’ offer of a fresh handkerchief. “No, I go back and apologise.”
The apology must have gone well, for by the time Nicklas returned to the dining room, another place had been laid at the table and Lord Malkin and Sir Sidney’s heads were bent close together, dark hair nearly mingling as they talked. Lord Ovechkin watched them from his place at the table, looking pleased if a little forlorn.
Later that evening, after Lord Malkin had bid Sidney a farewell so lingering that neither Nicklas nor Alex had stayed to see the end of it, Nicklas was ironing Sidney’s collars under the admiring gaze of Lord Ovechkin. Why Alex hadn’t gone home to his own house to rest or out to some club for more entertainment than can be gained from watching a repetitive household task, Nicklas had not the faintest idea. The kitchen is quiet, this time of night, all the servants having finished their dinners and gone to seek their own rest. Nicklas, however, felt somewhat ill at ease going to bed without knowing the full outcome of their experiment, and some part of him was secretly very pleased Alex is here, with him, and not cosied up with Sidney in one corner of the library.
“Nicke,” Alex said, abruptly, “Why you not let me take you home, with me.”
Nicklas navigated an uneven seam and made a note to himself to speak with the tailor about shoddy work before he replied, “This is my job, Alex. It’s what I am good at, and I enjoy it. You would have me come and live with you and do nothing at all, or be out at all hours in and out of clubs and making a nuisance of myself in public. I have my place, here, and I’m useful. Sidney is kind, and I am able to put a little by against the day I will have to be put out to pasture.”
Alex had listened to this with visibly growing impatience, and now he burst out with; “But you not have to do! Can sit at home and read books, or go to parties, or not! Nicklas, please. You drive me mad, like this. You always doing things, always busy, and never let me talk to you, never let me tell you -” he broke off, looking away.
Nicklas felt his stomach tightening in response to this impassioned plea. He could not help but admire the way Alex threw himself into everything he did, whether it was a brisk walk in the rain or wrestle with one of Sidney’s dogs, or - or the matter of his affections. It was a brave way to live life, far from the careful studiedness of Nicklas’ own inclinations or the cautious patience that was Sidney’s wont. At the same time, the headlong way Alex took nearly everything in his life made it difficult for Nicklas to truly believe he meant anything longer than a brief fling; a dalliance with a lower-class uranian before he settled down with someone respectable - his friend Lord Malkin, or Sir Sidney, or perhaps the both of them together. Or a woman; the rumours said Lady Phillips had her eye on him for her daughter. And then Nicklas would be back where he was before, but the worse for a sore heart and most likely having to look for a new position. Why would he jeopardize what he had for a fairy tale dream? It would be the kindest thing for them both, surely, for Nicklas to send Alex away for good; yet he found himself strangely reluctant to do so. If a tumble with the lower classes was all that Alex wanted, he could have had any one of the many servants whose eyes followed him with unconcealed desire.
Nicklas knew himself to be no great catch, either in terms of looks or even experience. He had had few lovers and the great majority of his expertise came, in fact, from discreetly written books which were even more discreetly printed and bound and sold to one only after a solid hour of delicate negotiations with the local book-seller. This...passion, of Alexander’s, could come to no good end, certainly, and yet beneath the weight of Alex’s pleading gaze, Nicklas could not bring himself to end the matter with a few sharp words. He tried, as gently as he could, to explain some of this to Alex, but Alex only became more and more upset, insisting that he knew his own mind and that he would always take care of Nicklas, no matter what happened, until Nicklas all of a sudden lost his temper.
“And what if I do not wish to be ‘taken care of’?” He demanded, setting down the iron sharply enough to crack one of the hearthstones. “Simply because you have a large estate and more money than Croesus, you think I should swoon and fall at once into your arms? I told you I don’t wish to be put on a pedestal; set upon a fine cushion and have everything whisked away from me for my own good. Perhaps I should simply roll over and allow you to have your way with me, since that is to be my lot in your eyes.”
Alex had pulled away, and the dying fire revealed a half-shadowed face that was horror-struck. He swallowed once, and again, and Nicklas wondered, alarmed, if he was going to be sick. “I -” His voice was hoarse, and he made no effort to clear it. “I had not realised - I - Nicklas. Backstrom. I am sorry. I did not mean -” He shook his head, standing abruptly and backing away. “I will not trouble you any more, I promise. If you knew how I - how sorry I am, to hurt you.” He bowed, brief, and was gone before Nicklas could do more than open his mouth.
Stunned, Nicklas sank slowly to sit on the hearth. He had never thought that Alex. That Lord Ovechkin would take his words so much to heart. It was more or less what he had been saying since they met, was it not? And yet Lord Ovechkin’s reaction was so severe; perhaps he had said something that meant something truly terrible in Russian. He would have to apologise, the next time Ovechkin came around. Yes, that was the answer; he would apologise, and the misunderstanding would be cleared up, and then everything would go back to normal - Nicklas going about his duties with a large shadow following him cheerfully and Nicklas pretending he minded.
As Nicklas slowly stood and banked the fire and bent to gather the collars, he noticed his hands, just ten minutes ago so steady at their task, were shaking.
The following day dawned, clear but cold, and Nicklas felt unusually impatient as he went about his tasks, waiting for the booming voice that announced his usual visitor. But the hours went slowly by, and no knock or ring came. He told himself that it was only because of the late hour the night before; Alex would certainly be by in the evening, or failing that, the next morning.
Both of these times came and went without so much as a note, and Nicklas began against his better judgement to worry. His spirits were not helped by Sidney, who went about with an oft literal song on his lips and took advantage of Nicklas’ absence of mind to wax rhapsodic about the excellence of his fiance (for Lord Malkin had indeed proposed) to a degree that was surely calculated to drive the most patient of saints to distraction. Nicklas, being very far from one of these noble persons, intervened at hour five of the third day with no word from Alex, and informed his employer that he wished both of them were neck-deep in the Thames and if he heard one more soliloquy on the topic of Malkin’s perfect legs he would certainly throw them in it himself, and furthermore he was taking the rest of the day off.
Caught up in his worry and fury, he had slammed his way out of the door and was almost to Alex’s front door before his senses returned and his steps faltered. This was sure to go badly. He’d do much better going right away from the place and washing his hands of the whole mess. Before he could make up his mind one way or another, the front door opened and a young man stood in the entry.
Nicklas recognised him as one of Alexander’s set; bright copper hair cropped unfashionably close with outlandish taste in jackets and an easy smile. This smile was nowhere in evidence at the moment, however. His face was quite serious and he called something back into the house in a questioning tone. It being in Russian, Nicklas understood nothing but his own name. He pulled himself together. “Is - Lord Ovechkin in?” If there had been a reply to the torrent of Russian, he certainly had not heard it.
The young man leaned against the doorjamb, looking as though he had nothing in the world better to do than lounge in doorways and be in people’s way. “That depends. Are you going to make him cry again?”
Nicklas felt a horrible sensation in his navel, as though the earth and all its foundations had fallen away in its entirety. “I - he cried?”
The man regarded him with some surprise. “Yes. You not know? You not do on purpose?”
“No! No, of course not.” Nicklas wished he could muster more righteous indignation at the veiled accusation, but the fact is he had known what he was saying would hurt Alex, consciously or no, and had decided to say it nevertheless. “Listen, I just want to - apologise. Tell him I’m sorry about - just tell him I’m sorry, that’s all.” A thought occurred to him. “Perhaps you might - tell him for me.”
At this, the young man finally smiled, looking as though something had amused him very much. “Oh no. What is it you say? You make bed, you sleep in bed.” He stepped back from the doorway, holding the door open. “And Sasha’s bed is second room at top of stairs.”
Nicklas eyed him suspiciously, wondering if all this was simply funnery at his own expense, but the youth held his gaze with limpid eyes, and so Nicklas gave in and began climbing the stairs. Whatever happened, at least he could make sure Alex was all right. After that, if he happened to take a job all the way in Scotland, or the West Indies, well, that was his business. Certainly Alex could have no objection, after the way Nicklas had insulted him.
The door, when he reached it, was cracked open by only the slightest margin, and the inside of the room very nearly pitch black. He knocked, properly, and then a trifle less properly when his first summons engendered no response.
This time, there was a muffled cough, and then Alex’s voice came. “I’m not well.”
Nicklas frowned, feeling suddenly annoyed. If Alex wasn’t well enough to receive visitors, he should have said as much to the young man at the door. And if he simply didn’t want to see Nicklas, well, he should simply say it right out in his usual forthright manner instead of faffing about like this. Making up his mind all at once, he knocked once more and then pushed the door open. The light from the hall only faintly illuminated the room, revealing a lump underneath the bedclothes. The large bed dominated the room, round and hung about with curtains, with a chest of drawers and wardrobe the only other furniture in the room. There were large windows covering the wall to the opposite side of the wardrobe, but the curtains were pulled tightly close so that no beam of light might enter.
Nicklas crossed immediately to them and drew the curtains, unfastening the latches and throwing the windows wide. It was brisk, but not snowing yet, and at any rate the maneuver accomplished his aim spectacularly.
Ovechkin sat up at once, looking like nothing so much as a startled peahen with its feathers all ruffled, and said, “Nicke!” in reproachful accents.
“Of course you feel poorly, all closed up like this.” Nicklas crossed to the wardrobe and took up the jacket hanging by a sleeve from the open door. “And with all your things in a muddle.”
“I don’t - Nicke, what you doing here? Put that down, you don’t - I think you don’t want to see me again.”
Nicklas had opened his mouth to make another dry remark, but the look in Alex’s eyes made him reconsider, and though he kept his eyes on the waistcoat he was shaking out and hanging, perhaps with a trifle too much attention, in the wardrobe, he replied: “I came to apologise. I - spoke out of anger, without any consideration for your character or reputation.”
Alex said, “Hang my reputation! Nicke, why you not say I hurting you? Why you not tell me right away to leave you alone, stop - stop make unwanted advance?” He swallowed, hard, looking down at where his hands were fisted in the thick linen counterpane. “I never want to hurt you, Nicke.”
Nicklas wondered at the timbre in Alex’s voice as he said his name - something in him thrilled to the resonance of it even as a part of him turned up his nose and sniffed at the too-familiar ‘Nicke’. The latter part of himself was the one responsible for the wounded look in Alex’s eyes and the redness of his nose and eyes. “Alex...a man in my position - the luxury of bad choices is one I can ill afford. If I agreed to come with you, and you grew weary of me six months later, I should be out on the street until I could find another position, if anyone would take me after the rumours. I know you - I know your nature is all that is kind and forbearing, but I am not a pleasant person either to live with or to - to consort with. And my nature is not of the kind that is easily changed.”
Alex had listened patiently as Nicklas delivered himself of this speech, and then said, all passion, “That will never happen, Nicke, I promise. If you decide - if we decide to call whole thing off, I make sure you have good situation, back with Sid and Zhenya, or with little Zhenya, or - lots of people. Or just give you enough money so you never have to - sorry, sorry, I know you not want.”
Nicklas could not help but laugh at the abashed expression on Alex’s face. “Perhaps if we call things off you’ll no longer wish to shower me with flowers and gold,” he teazed gently, but to his astonishment Alex rose at once from his bed, making to advance on Nicklas with a determined look in his eye, but before he reached him he was stymied, tangled in the bedclothes.
Even as Nicklas laughed, he was gentle as he extricated Alex from his soft confinement, though the laughter died as Alex stood at last before him, still looking as wild and rough as ever, but with a light in his eyes Nicklas could no longer find it in himself to deny.
“Nicke,” Alex said, low, and Nicklas, swallowing, nodded his acquiescence.
It might have been five minutes or five hours later, for all he knew, when at last he tore his mouth away from Alex’s neck and said, “Wait - Alex - I must -”
“Sasha,” Alex mumbled, from where his mouth was attached to Nicklas’ chest, “You call me Sasha, now.”
“Sasha,” Nicklas said, even as he wondered with some exasperation exactly how many names these Russians had, “I must - Sidney, and your friend will be wondering what has become of us.”
“Kuzya can go hang, and Sidney with him,” Was the cheerful rejoiner, before another five minutes passed pleasantly with both of their mouths very much occupied.
At length when the need for air became pressing, Nicklas pulled away once again to repeat, “I must tell Sidney, and then you must cease distracting me from the pigpen of your room. And would it kill you to have a few rugs or perhaps some flowers?”
Alex blinked at him owlishly, looking bewildered. “Of course, if you like. Tell Kuzya and he get. Anything you want. But you not have to -” He caught himself at Nicke’s eyebrow and finished carefully, “And you can - do all chores you want?”
“Well done,” Nicklas smiled. “After all, it’s becoming increasingly apparent you need someone to take care of you.” He looked ‘round the room with a practiced air. The curtains needed a good beating, of course, and all the bed hangings - the headcloth especially - and the state of Alex’s wardrobe explained a good deal about the bizarre combinations he often wore to go out. A chair, and perhaps a lamp or two, in the corner, and the entire place would take on quite a different aspect. And he hadn’t even had a chance to look at the rest of the house yet. With a start he came back to himself, realising he had begun arranging the entire house and disposing of various articles of Alex’s wardrobe without a thought for the man himself, but Alex was merely sitting perched on the edge of the enormous bed, an unmistakably fond look in his eyes, and Nicklas cannot help but step to him and, taking his head in both hands, tilt it up until he can meet his mouth with his own. “I must go tell Sidney,” he said, softly, “But I will return, I promise.”
And Alex looked up at him, love-light in his eyes as he replied, “I know.”
“I wish to give notice, my lord.”
Sidney’s face became concerned. “Has something happened? Geno mentioned Alex had been upset, the last few days, and Taylor also mentioned - well, nevermind. Is everything all right?”
“Quite all right, my lord.” Nicklas paused. “I have simply agreed to enter into service with Lord Ovechkin.”
Sidney’s face became no less concerned. “Into - service? But I had thought - that is, it was my understanding -”
Nicklas took pity on his distress and explained, “It is perhaps not a...conventional relationship, my lord.” Seeing confusion still reigned, Nicklas added dryly, “I fully intend to fuck him, Sidney.”
“Oh!” Sidney’s face turned instantly as red as one of Alex’s cravats. “O, well. That’s - good. I mean, so long as you both - Well! I’m very happy for you.”
“Thank you, Sidney.” Nicklas nodded to the large signet ring set on Sidney’s finger. “And may I offer my own congratulations as well?”
Sidney flushed still deeper and stammered out something about it not being any sort of official arrangement as of yet, and how there was no need for any kind of fuss to be made yet, and they hadn’t even said anything to Taylor.
Nicklas suggested they might want to get on that, as he was quite certain he’d seen Taylor pouring over matching wedding ribbons, and floated out of the room on a wave of Sidney’s spluttering protests.
He stopped by the kitchen, to inform the cook and Mary B, who happened to be there, of his impending departure, and then departed very quickly before any of their cries for more intelligence could be voiced. Besides, he had a - a something. To return to. An Alex. His Alex. He pushed his hands deeper into his trouser pockets, despite the way it ruined the line of his suit, trying to contain the emotions that surged as he allowed himself the thought. Unbidden, his mind kept returning to the image of Alex kneeling beside his chair, of the look that had entered his eyes when Nicklas had allowed him a kiss on the cheek. He thought of another reason Alex might be on his knees, only this time naked (to save his trousers, of course). The line of his suit was ruined for quite a different reason as he hurried up the stairs to Alex’s house, this time unimpeded by any impudent young men, and into Alex’s room.
Alex was by the window, seated on the narrow lintel with one leg pulled up to his chest and the other dangling free. He was looking out at the grounds below, seemingly deep in thought, but when Nicklas knocked briefly on the door he looked round and his smile lit up the room brighter by far than the November sun. “You come back!”
“I promised you I would.” Nicklas spread his arms, head tilted a little in what he told himself was an invitation and not a challenge. “Here I am, my lord. Yours to command.”
And Alex, doing more to seal Nicklas’ trust in him than a whole host of airy promises would have done, came to him, setting his own hands between Nicklas’ own and bowing his head. “Other way around, I think.”
The look on his face was both shy and hopeful, and Nicklas suddenly could not bear for it to be anything but open and joyous, and so he took his hands back in order that he might take Alex’s face in both of them and pull his mouth down to meet his own.
“Alex!” Nicke pulled his head and shoulders out of the wardrobe (neatly organised by colour, occasion, and one or two sets that were kept in reserve for when Nicke expressly wanted Alex to look his best) and called again, knowing the odds were low he would be heard over the loud playing of the pianoforte by Zhenya, or Kuzma, as he had offered for Nicke to call him.
Nicke had grown used to the constant chaos that was life in the Ovechkin town house - Alex was forever having guests to stay, friends from Russia, or the Americas, or simply a tramp looking for work who needed a roof and a meal for a night - and the music that was a constant if Kuzma and Dima were about. The two were younger than Alex by a good few years, and he seemed to treat them with the same kind of mingled amusement and annoyance one might extend to a beloved younger brother - he (and by extension, Nicke) was forever getting them out of scrapes and putting them to bed after a too exuberant night out. For all that, though, they were good souls, and Nicke knew for a fact they would the both of them give the coats off of their backs to any that had need - a thing he had seen Alex do, often and often.
Nicke’s thoughts had gathered so much wool that he was startled when Alex actually answered his summons, and had to take a moment to recall himself. “Oh, yes. The garden party tonight, with Sidney and Geno - are you certain they’ll not mind Kuzma coming along?”
Alex waved a dismissive hand. “Of course not mind. Zhenya and old Zhenya know each other for long time.”
Nicke raised his eyebrows. “Alex, have you heard the saying: ‘familiarity breeds contempt’?”
Alex beamed at him. “Contempt slides right off Zhenya; he like a duck.”
Giving it up with a sigh, Nicklas beckons Alex over. “Well, I suppose we shall simply have to hope for the best. Now, before I dress you, would you rather have my mouth or my cock?”
Alex was wearing one of his new suits that Nicke ordered for him - a vest of black silk satin with cut-velvet woven floral pattern over a plain linen shirt; trousers of plaid cotton twill and a silk scarf. The scarf, after much pleading on Alex’s part, was scarlet with gold trim. Nicke took the ensemble off of him with deliberate care despite Alex’s suggestion that he simply undo his trouser placket and take his pleasure.
“It very much is my pleasure,” Nicke said, undoing the vest buttons one by one and sliding it slowly off of Alex’s broad shoulders, “To take my time with you. My lord.”
Alex, as he invariably did whenever Nicke called him ‘my lord’, flushed hot and subsided.
(Nicklas had asked him about it, once, shortly after he had taken up mostly permanent residence in Alex’s room and Alex’s en suite.
Alex had looked up at him from where he was knelt in front of Nicke and had replied, “It sounds like I belong to you.”)
He folded the vest neatly and set it aside, putting his hands to the laces of Alex’s shirt and drawing it over his head, smiling at the mess it made of his hair. He put a hand to it under the guise of straightening it, but the fluttering of Alex’s eyelashes changed his grip to a guiding one, fingers tightening in the strands as he pulled Alex closer, his other hand cupping his length through his trousers. He swallowed Alex’s strangled gasp, biting down sharply on Alex’s lip and twisting the hand in his hair at the same time. The resulting groan was music to his ears, and he smiled against Alex’s throat as he placed one last lovebite just low enough to be hidden by his collar before he stepped back.
Alex swayed forward, eyes lidded half-drunkenly, a small cry of dismay escaping him that turned quickly to another moan of pleasure as Nicke finally undid his trousers and slid them down past his knees. Nicke pressed him backwards, onto the bed, and folded and set aside the trousers before fitting both hands to Alex’s hips, thumbs rubbing steadily in the divots beneath the bone. “So good for me, Sasha,” He leaned forward, dragging his mouth along Alex’s cock. “You’re so lovely, laid out for me like this, letting me take my time with you.”
“Nicke,” Alex pleaded, “Let me - Please, let me -”
“Hush,” Nicke scolded, “We don’t want to let the guests know how weak you are for your valet’s attentions, do we? Or perhaps you’d like that; Lord Malkin stopping in on some matter or another and discovering you facedown across your desk, cock hard and dripping as I take you from behind? Perhaps you’d like him to join in, open your mouth for him when I tell you to; have him invite Sidney as well?”
“Yes,” Alex gasped out, hands grasping so tightly at the bedclothes his knuckles were white with the effort needed to keep from touching himself or Nicke. “Yes, whatever you say, Nicke, please.”
“Whatever I say?” Nicke smoothed a hand across Alex’s stomach, pressing just above where Alex’s cock was likewise begging for attention. “And if I decide you’ll find no satisfaction tonight? If I keep you like this, for me, all evening? Perhaps I’ll even use you for my own pleasure; as nothing but a marital aid. Still whatever I say, Sasha?”
With an effort, Alex lifted his head to look at him, the conflict playing out as clearly on his face as a scrum on the village green, but he replied, “Whatever you say.”
Nicke felt a surge of affection well up for the man laid out before him, for his strength that he so easily gave up to Nicke, and the love he proffered daily despite Nicke’s own inability to respond with the same words. Instead, Nicke bends and takes Alex into his mouth, reaching his free hand for one of Alex’s and tangles them together.
After Alex has spilled himself into Nicke’s mouth, and Nicke has spat into the chamber pot and rinsed his mouth with a splash of brandy, he allowed Alex to bring him off with his hands and mouth. Alex, being Alex, swallowed, although Nicke refused to kiss him until he likewise had some brandy.
This concluded, Nicke took Alex’s hands, guiding him to a seated position on the low divan he’d had installed in front of the windows. Alex looked up at him questioningly, but Nicke only smiled. “It’s time to get dressed, my lord, for the garden party.”
Alex looked as though he were thinking some very impolite things about Sir Crosby’s garden party, but said nothing beyond, “Is it not still early?”
“It is.” Nicke took up the new silk stockings he had ordered, the set of garters, and a likewise new pair of dark blue silk breeches, and knelt in front of Alex. “But one must not rush perfection.”
He took one of Alex’s strong ankles in one hand and propped the foot in his lap, carefully rolling on the first stocking. He watched as the dark hair covering Alex’s leg slowly disappeared beneath the ivory silk, running a thumb firmly across Alex’s instep before repeating the process with the other leg. He reached for the first garter , aligning the silk just so around the girth of Alex’s thigh so the words picked delicately out upon the jacquard stood out in bold relief against the ivory silk.
“Nicke,” Alex said, a strange tone in his voice. “Nicke, I cannot read well, this French. What -” He cleared his throat, but still with that strange voice finished, “What does it say?”
“ Ma devise est de vous aime .” Nicklas answered, all his attention focused on the second garter as he tied a neat bow in the silk ribbons.
“And - the second?”
Nicklas looked up, his eyes finding and catching Alex’s own. “ Es de ne jamais changer.”
The new breeches, the elaborate velvet vest and coat - all fell heedlessly by the wayside as Alex stood and, with two strides, had caught Nicklas up in his arms and carried him to the bed, where he undid quite thoroughly any progress in dressing that Nicke had made.
An hour or an eternity later, Nicke rolled over in the bed, hair tumbled about his face, and, it must be said, an extremely smug look upon his face. “I told you we would do well to dress early.”
“If you call this dressed,” Alex replied, smiling as he leaned down to steal yet another kiss, “I’m will be delighted to find what you call undressed.”
“That, my lord, is a delight that will have to wait.” Nicke gave one final tug to Alex’s hair and rolled reluctantly off of the bed. “Our hosts await, and this time we really can spare no further time.”
Having collected a far too knowingly amused Kuzma from his lounge atop the pianoforte bench, they made their way the few hundred paces to Sidney’s house and garden. Alex was suitably resplendent in his (only very slightly wrinkled) suit, with Kuzma only scarcely behind in a forest green waistcoat with matching breeches and coat and brown top hat. Alex, of course, wore no hat at all, but had prevailed upon Nicke to wear one of his fur hats from his own country, citing the evening chill, and had looked so worried when Nicklas demurred that he had at length accepted not only the hat but also a heavy wool greatcoat over top of his own plain grey ensemble.
Sidney welcomed them warmly, shaking them all by the hand in such a manner that the diamond ring he now sported next to the heavy signet ring could not be missed. He flushed when Alex gave a shout of delight, but was clearly pleased himself; pleased enough to only scold a little when Alex grasped him by both shoulders and planted a hearty kiss squarely on his lips before making for Lord Malkin.
Nicke, watching him, could only smile and shake his head even as he offered Sidney his own, more decorous, congratulations.
“Thank you, Backstrom.” Sidney fiddled idly with the ring, watching Malkin and Alex as they embraced and exchanged a kiss in their turn. “I am - very happy.” He smiled softly down at his hands, repeating in almost a wondering tone, “I had not thought it possible, to be so happy.”
Sidney, after a moment, seemed to startle, realising his duty. “And how are things with you and Alex? All still well?”
It was Nicke’s turn to smile down at his hands, remembering the scenes of a scant few minutes prior, and perhaps something of this showed on his face, for Sidney made a hasty excuse that he must speak with his sister and disappeared.
More than happy to be left to his own devices, Nicklas wandered through the garden, as impeccably kept as ever, and into the kitchen to give his regards to everyone still there (Mary B and John, the under footman, had run off to Gretna Green together, in a turn of events that surprised no one at all, and were currently in residence in a small cottage outside Greenwich).
When he came out again it was to see Alex in deep conversation with one of Sidney's friends, a young and comely youth whose name he thought was Brandon - and Kuzma, in one corner of the garden, standing very close to Miss Crosby.
He made his way there with as much alacrity as he thought would not attract attention and cleared his throat meaningfully. Kuznetsov had not even the decency to look at all abashed, and Miss Crosby only beamed up at him and asked warmly after his family.
“They are well, Miss Crosby, thank you. Mister Kuznetsov, I was not aware you and Miss Crosby were acquainted?”
“We acquaint now.” Kuzma said equitably, and Miss Crosby added eagerly, “Did you know Zhenya was enrolled in the Royal School of Ballet? He was just telling me all about it! I’ve always wanted to see a performance, but Sidney says it wouldn’t be proper.”
“I could show you some steps, if you like.” Kuzma smiled down at her, and Nicklas noted with alarm that Sidney had noticed them, and was making his way over. “Maybe even private performance?”
“Kuzma, I do not think -” Nicklas began, but was interrupted by Sidney, looking inquiringly at Kuznetsov as he came up to them.
“I do not think we have been introduced, Mister --?”
“Kuznetsov,” that youth said, bowing crisply, and Nicklas added, “A friend of Alex’s, Sidney. He’s been staying with us for a time.”
“A pleasure,” Sidney said, in a manner that conveyed he was not at all certain it was one. “Taylor? I believe Lady Fleury has arrived, if you wished to speak with her still.”
“Oh! Yes, indeed, thank you brother. Zhenya, it was lovely to meet you, and I look forward to a recommencement of our conversation soon.”
Kuzma merely bowed over her hand in reply, but the look that passed between them contained enough intelligence to fill the Library at Alexandria twice over.
Following this, Kuzma excused himself to wander back over towards Alex, both Sidney and Nicklas watching him go. “He is a good lad, if a trifle young,” Nicklas offered.
The melancholy crown about Sidney’s head did not diminish. “I know she is beginning to be of an age, but I still - I would I could keep her young, and forever innocent of what few worldly cares she has not yet known.”
“A thing we all wish for those we love.” Nicklas put a hand to Sidney’s shoulder. “She is a well educated young lady with a good head on her shoulders, and she loves you. I think she will do better than you suppose.”
“Perhaps so.” Sidney sighed and shook himself, forcing a smile that became more real as he caught sight of Lord Malkin and Alex across the path, coming towards them. “At any rate. Tonight is a night for rejoicing. I will dwell no more on such maudlin thoughts, but instead urge you to take some champagne, and one of the cakes, and eat and drink to health and our happiness, and to your own.”
Nicklas laughed, taking a glass from a passing tray and holding it up. “To your good health, then.”
Alex, beside him, slipped an arm about his waist and tangled the fingers of their free hands together to rest on one comfortingly solid hip. After Nicke had drunk, he took the glass and raised it, eyes steady on Nicke’s own as he replied, “To our very good health!”