Thomas found out the Stable Master smoked the same brand of cigarettes as himself one chance spring evening. He'd wandered to find some solitude then found he'd forgotten his own only to come across the Stable Master smoking up against a post with a bay mare attached.
He passed Thomas a cigarette.
"This pretty girl's been feelin' under the weather lately," said the Stable Master - an American, tall, well built with a head of strawberry blonde curls, face covered in freckles. Thomas wondered if his shoulders, back, chest, were freckled like his arms were as well. Just now the man was only wearing a white undershirt as the midsummer heat dissipated in the evening, shirt resting over the horse's back.
He lit his second cigarette first, stubbing the first out in the dirt, economically using the same match to light Thomas' before it ran down to scorch his fingertips. Licking his index finger and thumb he stubbed it out, then ground it into the dirt beneath his heel. Thomas nodded curtly, not particularly interested in conversation when he'd come to be alone even though the man was handsome. After everything he'd stuffed away those silly wasteful romantic thoughts to throw himself into his job, all he had left to throw back in Carson's face when he'd looked at him like dirt all those years. He tried to smoke his cigarette to the filter as fast as possible, reminded of the work he had waiting for him back at the abbey.
"Thought I'd take sweet Aphrodite to the wildflowers to try cheer her up."
Thomas took a long, deep, drag then stubbed his cigarette out on the post, tossing it beside the other butt.
"Usually I'm taking my cigarettes out the back of stables this time of day."
Thomas met his eyes for the first and last time for a long couple of months. He mumbled, "thanks," then left the man to fuss over Aphrodite.
Thomas paced his room that night, and the next day found an excuse to be round the stables the same day, forgetting his cigarettes. And the next day, the next day, and the next day. Soon this became a daily habit and Thomas found him waiting, giving himself over the small talk. The weather. The horses although Thomas hated the creatures. The household gossip. The state of the nation. Past relationships but careful with the pronouns. Family. They'd both fallen out of contact with theirs. They shared a dry sense of humor, sometimes grim, but they always found a reason to smile in the other's presence. It didn't hurt that he was very handsome and good with his words either, tending to favour his own succinct drawl but by no means taciturn.
It was days before Thomas actually found out his name. Alexander. Alex to Thomas, he insisted. Thomas to Alex. Thomas forgot his cigarettes every day for weeks and every day Alex gave him one lit by the same match. Then Thomas remembered his and Alex forgot his and Thomas lit one for Alex in his own mouth and Alex reached over to pluck it from between his lips and Thomas met his eyes for the second time saying,
"Do I understand this? Is it my move now?”
When he got back to the Abbey Phyllis asked after him in her quiet concerned way, off to the side and away from the others and their prying ears. She plucked a bit of hay off the back of his jacket.
“You've been smiling more often lately.”
“Been down at the stables a bit."
"I'm glad," smiled Phyllis.
A week later to the day Thomas was strolling to their usual place, a spot nobody would be unless they had reason to be at the stables which when it came down to it meant a spot that only Alex ever was. Half broken overturned feed barrels that had half sunk to the ground made some makeshift seats against half a high crumbling brick pen, rusty hinges with no gate the only evidence of it ever being anything other that the clandestine meeting place it was becoming.
He heard Alex whistling and singing from inside the stables, so he went in there instead. The place was as he'd last actually been in there years ago, maybe a bit cleaner although there were still birds resting in the ‘A’ slanted beams that criss crossed to make up the rafters. Thomas suspected they poached hay from the bales stacked upon the flatter section to make their nests woven in horse hair.
Right at the back Alex was hunched over a crate of mismatched tack, whistling 'Sweet Rosie O’Grady’ to himself. As Thomas came closer he noticed how the raggedy half unbuttoned shirt that had slid down his shoulder to expose a smattering of freckles on sun tanned skin glistening in the sun that beamed through the little glass window above that had a crack in it that bisected his muscular back even more visible as the shirt practically fell off his torso.
Thomas set a hand on his shoulder before he even thought to do it.
Alex started, jumping back.
That stupid awful night with Jimmy flashed before Thomas’ eyes.
Alex took his arm to bring him back the steps he'd taken backwards.
Thomas wished he had a cigarette in his mouth.
“You gave me a fright, 's’all Thomas,” Alex was still gripping Thomas’ wrist.
Thomas looked down at his wrist and Alex let him go but he found his hand trailing after Alex's own, their fingertips brushing then intertwining so that their hands were clasped together palm to palm. He couldn't breathe like this was the first time he'd touched another man.
"Come out with me Thomas, to the films, to the pub, yeah?"
Alex stepped closer so their noses were practically brushing, taking Thomas' other hand in his own.
"You're sweet when you blush."
Thomas turned his face to the side, frankly embarrassed at how a handsome man calling him sweet made him feel like he was eighteen again. Eighteen like in that summer he'd been Phillip's darling, honey, love, even ridiculously duckie. Alex thumbed his burning cheek to turn Thomas' head so he could bring his mouth to his ear.
"Let me make you my sweetheart," Alex whispered in his ear for no one but Thomas to hear.
"'m hardly a sweetheart," Thomas huffed as he composed himself back to a servant's blank.
"I want to court you like you're my sweetheart Thomas. Come on a date with me, let me buy you a drink, take you out on my arm like-"
Alex found himself being kissed soundly against the door of a stable, and enthusiastically let it happen until Hera began to nibble at his hair, very indignant at all this happening on her doorstep. He gave his all to one last kiss before Hera turned her attentions to Thomas, who he knew would be cross about being mussed up by a horse although Alex had already done a number raking his hands through his slicked back hair.
"Now that shut you up didn't it?" breathed Thomas.
Alex laughed, still holding Thomas' waist, "be here at six o'clock on Saturday, I know the family will all be out so you'll be able to come, yeah?"
"Don't give me flowers or anything," warned Thomas, letting Alex go so he could straighten himself up.
"Takin' that as a yes doll?"
Thomas socked him on the arm although he was trying his utmost to bite back a smile, rolling his eyes. "It'll be a no if you keep that up. I have to go now."
As he stepped back Alex caught him up in his arms for one last kiss before letting him go, "just one? Poppet? Darling? Pet?"
Thomas gave in to laughter at how desperate Alex looked up to call him silly names. "Ha! Try me again after a pint."
He kissed him then left him to his work and all the way home his mind raced as he thought about him being his man, walking around the town with an arm around his shoulders, or a possessive hand around his waist. Or kissing him in their home, which would be a small cottage but with enough room for them and the children that would fill up the house later. Nobody would curse them, spit on them, he would kiss him in public every time they had to part ways no matter how long. He'd kiss him in their bedroom too, indecently all over. When he arrived back at the Abbey a fight between two maids over a boy from the village brought him back to reality and he only got peace when he sent them to their rooms as if they were children.