From A Sinner without a Saint
“Your sister’s work? How did I not know she painted, as well as yourself?”
Benedict closed his eyes, willing away the awareness the soft-spoken words uttered behind him sent skittering down his spine. Why should he be surprised that Dulcie had followed him, after he’d given him such an ill-advised glimpse of his own longing during their last sketching session?
But should he really throw all the blame on Dulcie? Had not his own instincts, betraying good sense, urged him to leave the festivities, hoping that Dulcie—no, that Clair—might follow?
“They are not Sibilla’s,” he said, his voice low. “These were done by my mother.”
Dulcie sat on the sofa beside him and tugged on the folio so that it sat half on Benedict’s lap, half on his own. Benedict’s breath caught at the closeness of Dulcie’s thigh, the brush of his arm against his side as he turned each page. But the viscount’s attention remained focused not on Benedict, but on the contents of the folio, examining each of the paintings with the eyes not of a loving child, but of an intelligent, opinionated critic.
Would Mother’s heart have beaten as quickly under the appraisal as Benedict’s did?
She had liked him, that golden, laughing boy he’d described in the letters he’d written to her from school, and encouraged her shy son to pursue a friendship with him. If she had still been alive, would she have helped him find that boy again, draw him out from where he hid, safe behind the varnish of his social smile? Or would she have counseled Benedict to forget him? Assured him that boy no longer existed?
“Quite accomplished she was, your mother,” Dulcie said when he had finished examining the final painting—Benedict’s favorite, a scene of a flower-strewn meadow on the Saybrook estate. “Such a dreamy, almost ethereal quality to them, as if she were painting her own visions rather than actual topological views. Did she ever submit her work to the Royal Academy exhibition?”
Benedict ran his fingers round the tinted border surrounding the painting. How lovely it would look, mounted in a simple gold frame. “I believe several of her friends urged her to do so. But she never valued her own talents highly enough to accept their praise. And my father thought it ill-suited of a viscountess to subject herself to such public display.”
“Did you believe so, too?”
“I hardly think the opinion of a mere boy would have changed his mind.”
Dulcie turned back to studying the picture. “Ah, yes, you had the misfortune to lose your mother at a young age, I believe?”
“When I was but fourteen.” Two years after he’d lost Clair. Each time, he’d thought he’d lose himself as well, his grief had been so potent, so overwhelming.
“A pity. She had a talent that many a professional would envy.”
Benedict closed the folio and slid it from Dulcie’s lap, careful not to allow his fingers to touch the other man’s thighs. “She would have been even better if she’d had the chance to see the works of Poussin, or Claude, or any of the old Dutch masters of landscape.”
Dulcie shifted to face Benedict. “But as the wife of a peer, surely she had the chance to visit many a private collection?”
“A few, yes. But during a social visit, one is hardly allowed the chance to contemplate one painting before being rushed on to the next.”
“Especially if its owner is prouder of himself for purchasing it than of the merits of the art itself,” Dulcie said with a grin.
“Yes! If you wish to understand on an instinctual level a painting’s composition, its use of line and shadow, the play of light and color, you must spend time with it, examine it in detail. Which you could do, if the country’s best paintings were not all held in private collections. Gather them in one place, a place open to any who wish to view them, and watch how England’s art would flower.”
Dulcie waved a careless hand. “There are other museums, on the Continent.”
“But my mother never had the opportunity to travel abroad, to study the great works of the past. How many other talented young artists are lost to the world, or never reach their full potential, for lack of the opportunities enjoyed by the wealthy, or the privileges granted the male sex?”
“How impassioned you become when you speak of your museum scheme!” Dulcie gave a lazy smile, one that belied the sudden tension in the air between them. “Eyes frowning, brows lowering, that teasing sulkiness about your full lips—why, it’s almost as if you were speaking of a lover, rather than a plan to make the world a better place.”
Benedict shot to his feet. “Is that why you followed me? In search of a lover?”
“Bold words, Mr. Pennington. And if I answer with equal boldness, and say that I am?” Dulcie rose with far more grace from the settee than Benedict was sure he had.
“Is not Mr. George Norton already filling that role?”
“Not yet, although I have considered him. Teaching untutored youths in the ways of the flesh is a particularly piquant pleasure. But the more I see of you, the more I find myself unaccountably curious to know what it would be like to play with a more experienced man.”
“You take a risk, revealing such things to me.”
“No more of a risk than you once took. Sending that impassioned letter to me when you were a mere schoolboy.”
“My letter.” The blood rushed to Benedict’s face. “You did receive it, then. I was never certain.”
“Well, in a manner of speaking. My father opened it, then read certain parts to me aloud.”
“Your father?” Benedict’s stomach fell. He’d pictured Dulcie reading his letter a million times—laughing, sneering, sharing it with his friends, shredding it into tiny pieces and feeding it to the pigs. But that it might have been intercepted by a parent—that he’d never once imagined. “Lord, Clair. I’m so terribly sorry.”
“Yes, as was I when my father informed me that I would not be returning to school again.” A wry smile crossed Dulcie’s face. “And when he forbid me to write back to you. I did so wish to tell you how accomplished I found your translations of Xenophon.”
“Yes, accomplished. From what my father shared with me, your translations were not only remarkably accurate, they were rendered in quite elegant prose.”
“The accuracy and elegance of my prose—is that what you remember about that letter?”
Dulcie crossed his arms and perched on the arm of the settee. “Well, Father did mention something about certain amorous wishes you expressed towards my person. But he did not deign to share any of the more salacious details. Perhaps you’d like to tell me of them now?”
Benedict felt his flush spread to his ears. “I’m no longer a child, smitten by calf-love for the most popular boy at school.”
“No, you are certainly no child.” Dulcie’s eyes roamed with shocking directness up and down Benedict’s body. “And I am no longer a boy who must heed his father’s orders. If I wish to write to you, or to sit in front of you half-garbed while you take my likeness, or to grab what I imagine is your eager and lively prick and frot you until you spend in my hand—why, who is there to object?”
“No one,” Benedict whispered.
“No one,” Dulcie echoed, then reached up to pull Benedict’s head down to his.
God, he was kissing Dulcie, pressing his lips to Dulcie’s, nudging his mouth open and shoving his tongue deep inside it. No, not Dulcie, but Clair, the boy he’d worshipped from afar for so long, the boy still there beneath the man he’d spent months warily circling.
Whenever he’d dreamed of this moment, he’d imagined gentleness, something transcendent, even spiritual. Yet this kiss was crass and lewd, all tongues and teeth and need. Not just on Clair’s part, but on his own, his body thrumming with the sheer necessity of his desire. He wanted to bite Clair, devour him, suck him down like sweet honey from the comb.
Punish him for staying hidden for so long.
“God, Pen,” Clair whispered, his voice low, yearning. “I’ve missed you so.”
With a groan at the sound of that old pet name, Benedict pushed him to the wall and shoved a leg between his. Yes, there it was, Clair’s cock rising against his thigh, twitching under the pressure. Slim and elegant and proud, he’d imagined it, just like the man to whom it belonged. God, would he have the chance to actually see if he was right? The thought was almost enough to make him spend there and then.
He grabbed Clair’s waist, forcing him to hold still as his own hips pressed and released, pressed and released. Clair clutched at Benedict’s arms, as if trying to stop himself from falling.
A loud thump jerked him from Clair’s hold. His mother’s portfolio lay on the floor beside them, jostled from its perch on the table by the intensity of their rutting.
Clair gulped in a deep breath, then swiped a thumb over the swell of Benedict’s lip. “Well, well. It seems someone has learned a few things about kissing in the years we’ve spent apart. Alas, this is neither the time nor the place to discover how far your studies have progressed. Perhaps, after Friday’s meeting. . .”
Benedict blinked, struggling to shake free from the daze of arousal. “What meeting?”
Clair laid a silencing finger over his lips. “No questions. It’s a surprise I’ve arranged, particularly for you. Be ready; I’ll fetch you in my carriage at half past five.”
He grabbed Benedict’s neck and pulled him down for one last lingering kiss, leaving him open-mouthed as he made for the door.
“And bring your sketching pad and your charcoals. And your best arguments in favor of establishing that museum you’re so intent upon. I’ve some people I think might be interested in hearing them.”
With a wink and a grin, Clair sauntered from the room.