“Have you tried the kitchen, sir?” Mr. Wilson lifted one eyebrow and peered over the tops of his glasses. His needlework hovered between them, his hands still for the moment.
“Well” Alban twitched his lips to one side and glanced over his shoulder. “I don’t want to disturb him.”
Mr. Wilson snorted. “Disturb Barclay? If you ask me, he could use the disturbance. He never comes out of that kitchen.”
“Hmm.” Alban tilted his head. “You think?” A slow smile spread over his face without his conscious effort. “Maybe.”
“Indeed, sir.” Mr. Wilson went back to his needlepoint, dismissing Alban and the conversation.
“Fine.” Alban tweaked the small lick of hair flipping out of Mr. Wilson’s neatly slicked crop. “Enjoy your evening, old man.”
He didn’t even look up form his work. “I have every intention of doing so, sir, thank you.”
Alban chuckled and left the butler to his quiet pursuits to seek out his mother’s cook.
Just as predicted, he found Barclay Beaumont in the kitchen, exactly where Mr. Wilson had predicted. He wore frayed skinny jeans and a tank top that showed off muscles no cook had a right to. A smudged apron with pink pin-stripes covered him, chest to knee. Alban’s mouth went a little bit dry at the sight of his bare arms and the tufted pony tail poking up at the top of his head.
He watched as Barklay cracked eggs into a bowl, little puffs of powder billowing with each plop of an egg. He hummed as he worked, swaying to his own tune.
Alban’s attention vacillated between Barklay’s long fingers and his mesmerizing ass as he danced. A few steps into the room, and Alban caught his toe on a rug, pitching forward to catch himself on the edge of the counter just in time.
“Hey there!” Barclay smiled brightly at Alban. “You just get back?”
Heat flashed up Alban’s neck as he straightened. He smoothed the front of his soiled T-shirt with his fingertips. “Hello.”
Barcklay glanced at the watch on his wrist. A thoughtful look passed over his face, there and gone in a blink. “Nearly dark out.” He muttered under his breath as an eyebrow went up then flattened out again.
The comment probably wasn’t meant for Alban’s ears and he turned his attention to the shine of shoes. “Um. Back. Yeah.” He scrubbed a hand over the back of his neck, winced because his palm was rasped raw, and let his arm drop. “Long ride,” he mumbled. “Went further than we intended.” And he’d gone ass over handlebars a number of times, so the return trip had been slow and slightly torturous. Alban’s boyfriend, Casey, had nagged constantly at him to “walk it off” all the way back. They hadn’t lingered at the trail head, or talked about going for drinks or hanging out after. As far as dates went, it hadn’t been one of their better ones.
“You going to just skulk in the doorway?” Barclay asked.
Alban shuffled into the warm room and glanced around at the piles of dirty dishes on the counter, the array of steaming pots on the stove, and the various mixing bowls with wooden spoons sticking above their rims. “You’ve got a lot going on here.”
“Have a seat.” Barclay motioned to one of the tall stools on the other side of the counter. “You can be my guinea pig.”
Alban eased himself up onto the stool and dropped gingerly into place. His knees ached and the skin pulled sharp and tight. He must have winced, because Barclay frowned and put down the spoon he had been stirring with to leaned forward, as if to see Alban better.
Alban nodded and dug his teeth deep into his lower lip.
“You’re a little stiff.”
“Sure.” He waved it off. “It’s fine.”
Barclay came around the end of the counter to look him over, and his frown deepened the instant he saw Alban’s ragged knees. “What happened?” He hurried forward, peered closely at the torn, scabby skin, then straightened and headed for a cupboard next to the fridge.
“Mountain biking with Casey.” Alban leaned on the counter, regretted it as his skinned elbow smarted, and so dropped his hands into his lap. He pulled his creaking spine straighter, lifted his chin, tried to infuse a bit of bravado into his tone. “I wiped out.” I sound like a prince playing tough guy. He closed his eyes.
“You certainly did. How many times?” Barclay knelt, placing a plastic box on the floor next to him. “Let’s have a look.”
“No, it’s fine. I only came down for a bit of something to eat. A sandwich.” Alban would have risen, but Barclay already had a hand on his shin, fingers wrapped around his calf warm and strong.
“Sit.” Barclay snapped out an antiseptic wipe and dabbed at the mess of Alban’s knee.
Alban sucked in a haggard breath as he plopped back onto the stool. “That hurts!”
“Of course it does. There’s tiny rocks in there. Hang on.” The hand holding Alban might have been gentle. The one scrubbing bits of the forest trail out of the rash of skin and blood was not.
Alban caught his lip between his teeth and clamped down on a curse. He gripped the sides of his stool with white fingers and closed his eyes. The burning was endless. There was only an instant of relief as Barclay moved to the other knee, then it began again. Alban wanted to whimper but held his tongue, literally, between his teeth. He ended up humming softly , creating a buzzing in his head that didn’t quite drown out the rush of blood from his pounding heart.
“Hey.” Something touched his cheek. “All over. Promise.”
Alban blinked and found himself staring directly into Barclay’s deep brown eyes.
“Okay?” Barclay’s gentle rumble, accompanied by a soft huff of apple scented breath, vibrated through Alban. Trimmed beard curled in a riot of gold, brown and russet over Barklay’s cheeks and chin, a fascination of intricate colour.
Alban flexed his fingers, fighting the instinct to touch. “Sure.”
That got him another grin, white teeth, perfect lips, laugh lines around his eyes: a full-face expression that lit up the room. “Good. Now you sit tight and I’ll make that sandwich.”
“No!” Alban jumped off his stool, but Barclay placed a hand in the center of his chest and held him with the small of his back against the counter.
“I can make my own sandwich.” Heat vibrated outward from the touch. Barklay was sure the minute tremours were real.
“I’m a chef. Which one of us do you think will do a better job?”
Alban shrugged. He was pretty sure his sandwich-making capabilities were being called into question, but he was havening a hell of a time breathing, let alone arguing the point.
“Good.” Barclay nodded with satisfaction. “Now have a seat and I’ll have that sandwich for you in a jiffy.” He gave a light push toward the stool, an amused smile on his face.
Alban sat back down, since his knees were wobbling anyway. The shakiness had little to do with the cuts and scrapes.
“So.” Barclay glanced at him as he worked. “Mountain biking, was it?”
Alban nodded. “The University trails.” He eyed the cheese Barclay was cutting, and a moment later, Barclay nudged a few of the slivers in his direction with a small smirk. “I think we were on trails a little above my skill level.” He studied his palm as he munched on the cheese, noting a few embedded stones there, as well.
Barclay noticed his attention and set his knife down. He pinned Alban’s hand to the counter, palm up, clucking at the raw skin. “Did you have fun at least?” he asked. With a few quick flicks of his nails, he had the stones dislodged. “Wash that.” He motioned to the kitchen sink. “Cold water and a paper towel to dry it.
Alban shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad. Casey likes that sort of thing.” He spun the taps and trickled cool water over his stinging palm.
“He took you rock climbing last time, didn’t he?” Barklay’s tools clattered as he worked, a marked change from his earlier grace with the eggs and whisk.
“Last weekend we saw a play and went to Veneto’s for dinner.” Alban defended Casey as he dried his hand.
Barclay whistled. “Veneto’s. Bet that set you back.”
Alban shrugged again. “It’s just a meal.”
“Says the man who lives in a house with a butler and a chef and two housemaids. To the rest of us, that’s a pretty rare treat.” He peered up at Alban, and the look had a slant of disapproval. “To Casey it’s a rare treat. Or it was before he started dating you, I think.”
“I like treating him.”
“And he likes treating you, I suppose.”
Alban shrugged yet again, then rolled his shoulders in irritation at both himself and the conversation.
“That’s right,” Barclay answered for him. “He likes mountain biking and rock climbing. Hey.” He pointed the butter knife in his hand at Alban’s chest. “You got vertigo watching me climb that ladder to change the lightbulb for Willow the other day. And you went rock climbing?”
“Some of the walls aren’t very high,” Alban admitted. He didn’t mention how Casey goaded him to climb something more challenging, or that he’d sulked when Alban flat out refused anything over ten feet from the floor. That date hadn’t ended on a high note, but Alban had avoided injury, at least.
But hey. The Veneto’s date had been fun. As had the concert the week before, and the trip to the city before that.
“I think he takes you on dates you’ll hate so you’ll stop letting him choose, and just keep treating him.”
“He’s not like that,” Alban protested.
“So.” Barclay leaned on the counter between them. “What’s the last date he suggested that you enjoyed? Camping? Because I think I remember you saying he teased you the entire time because you couldn’t sleep on the ground, and you came home so tired and cranky it took me a week’s worth of comfort food to get you back. Then there was the hiking weekend, and him complaining that you couldn’t hike far enough each day. I had to make you fresh oatmeal with apples for four days to fatten you back up after his campfire cooking that time.”
“Whatever he was doing over that fire, it wasn’t cooking.”
“You ask me, his definition of dating is just as questionable as his definition of cooking,” Barklay muttered.
Alban fought back a snapping retort. He could hardly fault Barklay for making an observation the evidence supported. Instead, he sighed, leaned an elbow on the counter, then yelped as broken skin and bruises bore his weight.
Barklay dropped the lid on a three-inch-thick sandwich and grinned. “Truer words, my friend. Truer words.” He placed the sandwich on a plate and set a plate on the counter in front of Alban with a soft snick. “Sustenance.”
Alban grunted, lifted the sandwich lid and let it fall again. It definitely looked more appetizing than anything Casey managed.
“Eat” Barklay gave the plate a tiny shove closer to Alban.
“It looks delicious.” Alban studied the layers of meat, bread, cheese and vegetables. “And surprisingly pretty.”
“’Tis an art.”
Any sandwich Alban might have made for himself would not have been this picturesque. Nor, he was sure, would it taste nearly as good. A prediction that proved true on the first bite.
“You know what I think.” Barclay began to clean up the sandwich mess. “I think he takes you on these crazy adventures then bitches at you the whole time just so you turn him down and take him to the good restaurants and expensive shows.”
“Nah. He’s not—” Alban chewed and swallowed a suddenly tasteless bite of sandwich. “He’s not like that.” He placed the sandwich back on the plate.
“Does he complain when you take out someplace fancy?”
“Well no. But…”
“I’m just saying maybe he takes you on these aweful dates so that you veto his choices and take him on the fancy ones.”
“He’s not a gold digger.”
“And you’re not an extreme sportsman.”
Alban ran his hands over his shorts, stared at the plate of food, pouted.
“Eat,” Barklay said again, his voice soothing. “Shower. Put on some clean clothes.” He motioned to the mixing bowls on the other counter. “Come help me make cookies.”
“Cookies? I don’t know how.”
“Cookies are easy. I’ll teach you.”
Barklay gifted him that bright, toothy smile again. “Definitely.”
How could he say no to that?