A Soul's Worth

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Chapter Twenty-Three

In the morning, Warren and Elizabeth were sitting down to breakfast when Ben arrived from his overnight shift. The two of them had fallen into an easy routine in the mornings, preparing tea for him and coffee for her, and they moved easily around each other the same way they had every morning since she had moved in. Warren noticed Ben watching them from the doorway with a rather bitter look, and a touch of guilt made him pause. He knew that it would be a long while before he and Ben had such a knowledge of each other’s regimens, if ever. They had spent so long stealing moments together and being afraid that there was barely a chance to notice how the other took his tea. Even now, Ben spent a lot of time at the house, but it would never be the same as living together.

He invited him to sit with them, but Ben only muttered that he was tired, so Warren kissed him goodbye with a vial of blood in his pocket. He told him the truth—that he was going to see the man about the storage warehouse—which Ben waved off immediately as boring business and went to bed.

In the back of the autocar, Warren stared at the vial in his hand as they bumped along down the street toward the warehouse. On the telephone, the owner had agreed to meet outside of the solicitor’s office, given the secretive nature of their negotiation. Warren had wanted to meet as soon as possible—partly to get it done with, and partly because he wasn’t sure in the slightest how long blood stayed potent once it was out of the body. He was exhausted from not sleeping the night before, but he pinched himself into clarity as they approached the warehouse and took a deep breath, turning the vial in his hand.

As he felt the autocar slow to a stop, he pulled the stopper from the vial and put it to his lips, attempting to ignore the smell. The metallic taste wasn’t as unpleasant as he expected, but the thickness of the liquid and the lumps that had begun to form in it coated the back of his throat and made it difficult to swallow. He nearly choked before getting all of it down, and he pressed his handkerchief to his mouth to contain his cough as he dropped the vial to the floor of the carriage. If nothing else, he imagined fresher blood wasn’t quite as sickening.

He made sure to wipe his mouth thoroughly to remove any traces of red, trying to swallow down the last remnants, and he tucked his handkerchief back into his pocket just as Cam opened the carriage door. The man who waited for him looked fat and surly, but Warren smiled at him and offered his hand.

“Mr. ‘Ayward, is it?” the man smirked down at him, reaching out to accept the handshake. “Thought you’d be taller.”

“Yes, so did my father,” Warren said with a pleasant smile, and he took a tight hold of the gentleman’s hand, touching his index finger to his inner wrist and feeling the pulse of blood there. “Now, I understand you think you have something to discuss with me,” he said, more slowly, pressing the other man with a cold stare. He could feel the man’s mind stumbling immediately, and it gave him a small shiver to sense how easily such a man could be turned.

“About—about the ware’ouse,” the man said, narrowing his eyes as though he couldn’t quite focus.

“I can see no reason not to continue with the agreement,” Warren murmured. “I’ll pay you the price we agreed upon, and you’ll have nothing further to do with me, do you understand? I don’t think you actually know anything about me at all.”

“No,” he said after a moment. He hesitated, looking down at Warren with confusion plain on his face. “I’m sorry, sir, I—I don’t quite remember why we had to meet this mornin’.”

“Just making certain,” Warren answered, releasing the man’s hand and watching him for any change. He only stood with a thoughtful look on his face, and then he chuckled and shrugged, so Warren nodded at him and smiled. “I’ll be by Mr. Ainsworth’s office to sign the paperwork, and I assume everything will be in order by this afternoon, won’t it?”

“I expect so, sir. Good to do business with you.”

“Indeed,” Warren murmured, and he returned to the autocar with a dark satisfaction in his chest. He picked up the empty vial as he took his seat, and he smiled faintly as he looked at it. He never expected it to be so easy. He wondered how long it would last? He had an invitation to Wakefield’s tonight—and another two vials to use before they went completely rotten.

Elizabeth staunchly refused to attend anymore of Wakefield’s parties unless she was expressly invited, which Warren requested not be the case. This suited both men just fine, since wives only tended to complicate the issue and make things less fun overall. They were generally considered unwelcome at Wakefield’s dinners, though he always invited a number of single young ladies.

The Travers, however, were on the verge of being invited by their own merit even without Warren’s presence. One of them was, in any case; while Wakefield could not get enough of Owen’s ribald stories, he wasn’t the only one who told Warren in private that Simon gave him a bit of a chill. The twins were a package deal, however, and one could hardly invite one without the other.

The parties usually went one of two ways—either there was a very nice dinner followed by a bit of dancing and wine, and the guests went home at a reasonable hour, or there was a very nice dinner followed by quite a lot of dancing and even more wine and brandy, and guests sometimes didn’t stumble home until the next morning. This latter type of party was Warren’s favorite.

He spent the remainder of the day before the party sleeping to catch up from the previous night, feeling Ben’s warmth as he lounged beside him on the bed and read the newspaper. Ben had even kissed his hair and softly scolded him for working himself too hard, which almost made him feel a little guilty.

Warren bathed and dressed himself when he woke up in the evening, and Elizabeth quite happily stayed at home, so he kissed Ben goodbye and spent the evening chatting and drinking as usual. One of the guests was a young man he didn’t recall meeting before; Wakefield introduced him as the son of Lord so-and-so, but what caught Warren’s attention was the way he held onto his hand just too long after shaking it, and the way he looked at Warren with a small smile and a slight tilt of his head. He was quite handsome in a pretty sort of way. Warren made a point to ignore the shape of his lips and the pleasantly minty shade of his eyes. After dinner, he sat with his back to the table to face the dance floor while Wakefield lit his first cigarette for him.

“All gentlemen of merit smoke,” Wakefield told him, though Warren could barely hear him over his cough as he inhaled. “I’m really shocked you don’t already, Hayward. Everyone should have a hobby, after all.”

“This is a hobby?” he asked over the chuckles of the gentlemen near him.

“Of course it is. Now pay attention. I’ve been practicing this all week, and I’ll be damned if I get it wrong now.” Wakefield leaned on the table to focus on the deck of cards sat in front of him and demanded that Warren choose one and place it back in the middle. With that done, Wakefield shuffled the deck two or three times and attempted to pull a card from the center of the deck. He presented it to Warren and the surrounding spectators with triumph. “Is this your card, sir?” he asked with a flourish.

“Afraid not, friend,” Warren said as he took a sip of brandy.

“Oh, blast it,” Wakefield said, but he was laughing as he threw the cards across the table. “Sod the card tricks anyway.”

“I can show you a real trick,” Warren offered, a slow smirk pulling at one corner of his lips.

“Can you now? What sort of trick?”

“I know quite a few,” he said with a shrug, smiling as Wakefield nudged him with his elbow.

“Go on, then.”

“Well, I suppose if you’d really like to see,” Warren teased, and a few of the gentlemen around them chortled and told him to get on with it. “Pass me that glass, will you?” he asked one of them, and he took the tall glass of water from down the table and set it in a clear space in front of him. He set down his brandy and his cigarette and placed one palm over the rim of the glass, then whispered a single word. Slowly, a thin cover of ice rose from the bottom of the glass, frosting the outer surface, and the water inside crystallized until it was completely solid. Warren pulled back his hand and rubbed his palm on his trousers to warm it while the table stared silently at what he’d done.

Wakefield narrowed his eyes at the glass as though he found it offensive, picking it up and immediately juggling it between his hands. “I say,” he laughed, “it really is frozen solid.” He passed it to the man next to him and leaned in close to Warren. “That’s quite a trick, lad. How’d you do it eh?”

“You ought to know a magician never reveals his secrets, Wakefield.” Warren picked up his brandy and took another drink.

“A magician, he says!” Wakefield clapped him on the shoulder, almost causing him to spill his drink. “Now you’re a magician as well as some sort of prodigy of engineering! Been making deals with spirits, I suspect,” he laughed.

“You’ve caught me out,” Warren said dryly, and he tried his cigarette again. He still coughed, but it wasn’t quite as bad as the first time.

At Wakefield’s urging, Warren showed the other guests half a dozen other minor spells he could cast without the need for a grounding token—small sparks, levitation of small objects, drawing the water out of a flower to wilt it, even boiling the water that he had just frozen. They were near useless spells that he had learned as a boy, but they were magic enough to enthrall the gentlemen and ladies who gathered to watch. Ben would have his hide for casting spells in front of mundanes, he knew, but this sort of thing was easily explained away by the talents of a skilled illusionist.

The attention eventually shifted back to dancing and drink when Warren claimed his repertoire exhausted, and he even danced with a few of the young ladies who were always in attendance. His dancing still wasn’t what one would call impressive, but he hardly stepped on anyone’s feet anymore.

As he was bending to kiss the knuckles of one of the women to thank her for the dance, Wakefield approached and put a hand on his back, leaning in conspiratorially as Warren straightened.

“Be a good lad and go and look in the study, will you?” Wakefield murmured into the younger man’s ear. “I’ve a gift for you.”

Warren looked at him skeptically, but Wakefield shooed him down the hall to the large wooden door of the study and quickly returned to his duties as host—which mostly consisted of drinking more and singing more loudly than anyone else. Warren pushed open the door to the study and saw the son of Lord so-and-so with the pleasant green eyes sitting on the plush chair by the fireplace, his jacket hung over the arm of the chair and his waistcoat unbuttoned. Without a word, the young man approached him, pushed the door to shut the both of them inside, and kept his pale eyes on Warren as he slipped loose the knot of the other man’s tie.

“I’ve heard about you, Hayward,” he said in a soft voice while his fingers ran down the silk of Warren’s tie, slipping it from around his neck and letting it fall to the floor.

“You’ve heard that I like it when strangers don’t have boundaries?” Warren said dryly, but he felt anchored to the spot as the other man began unbuttoning his dress shirt, drawing Warren’s eyes to the skin under the young man’s collar—the delicate collarbone and the soft hollow just at the base of his throat.

“I think I can make a decent guess as to what it is that you like,” the Lord’s son said as he slipped his arms around Warren’s neck, the backs of his fingertips briefly brushing over his copper hair on their way.

“Do you,” Warren answered, his throat dry. He ought to leave. He ought to have left already. This encounter clearly wasn’t leading anywhere that he wanted. His eyes were on the man’s slightly parted lips as he leaned in closer, and a jolt went through him as he found himself being clutched tightly and kissed. Warren’s back hit the wooden door and his hands instinctively went up to the other man’s chest, his fingertips pressing into the hard flesh under his open shirt. The kiss was feverish and rushed and made Warren’s heart beat loud in his ears, but when he felt the other man’s hand slip down to his belt, he pushed him away.

The Lord’s son stumbled back a step and looked at Warren incredulously, the both of them panting and flushed.

“No,” Warren said simply, and he bent to pick up his tie and drape it back over his neck.

“No?” the young man asked with a chuckle, and he approached Warren again and reached out to run his fingers through his hair. Warren hesitated for just a moment at the slow shudder that ran through him, but he took the other man by the wrist and lowered his hand. The man frowned at him. “Why not?”

“I don’t owe you any reason,” Warren said, clearing his throat as he began to fix the knot in his tie.

“You don’t kiss a man like that and then claim you don’t want him,” the Lord’s son argued. “It’s not your wife, is it?” He laughed. “Can’t be. Wakefield told me she’s just for show. If there’s someone else, you don’t have to worry. It’ll be our secret, hm?”

Warren paused in straightening his tie, and he glanced back at the young man. A boy like this couldn’t keep secrets. He’d be caught within a year if he carried on this way. The last thing Warren needed was a spiteful noble spreading gossip about him that had even the slightest chance of getting back to Ben. He gave the other man a slow smile and stepped closer to him, lightly trailing his fingertips along his jaw and watching him shiver.

“If you can promise it will be our secret,” Warren purred, and he urged the Lord’s son backward until he hit Wakefield’s desk, and then he turned him around and forced him down over it, spilling papers onto the floor. The man laughed and let his head rest on the surface of the desk as he pressed back against Warren’s hips.

“Knew you only needed a bit of encouragement.”

Warren slid one of the vials of blood from his jacket pocket and quickly downed the contents, grimacing against the taste as he tucked the empty glass away in his coat. He took hold of the other man’s wrists, holding them firmly behind his back as he leaned over him to whisper into his ear. “This didn’t happen,” he said softly, feeling the heartbeat under his fingertips. “Wakefield didn’t tell you anything about me, and you will never touch me again.”

He pushed away from the man and left him slowly straightening with a hand to his head, and he paused to fix his tie in a small mirror on the wall. Before the other man could come to his senses, he opened the study door and went out into the hall without another word, smiling brightly as he spotted Wakefield and casually linking their arms to pull him away from his conversation.

“If you don’t stop telling everyone in earshot about my boudoir preferences,” he began cheerfully, “I’m going to have you thrown in the river with a heavy load of stones around your feet.”

Wakefield frowned down at him like a guilty child. “You didn’t like your gift?”

“I’m not interested. This is still supposed to be a secret, Wakefield.”

“That’s what the wife is for!” He laughed and held up his hands in surrender at Warren’s scowling face. “Have it your way. See if I offer to let you sully my library again. Ungrateful creature.”

“You are magnanimous and kind,” Warren sighed as he released Wakefield’s arm, “and you are also a right pain in my ass.” Warren felt the weight of the remaining vial in his pocket, and for a moment he considered using it. But Wakefield was still a friend—one who had been good to him. He deserved a warning. “Just keep it to yourself, will you?”

“As you like. You’re missing out on life experiences, but I’m not your father.” Wakefield chuckled and put his arm around Warren’s shoulder. “My friend is missing a brandy!” he announced as he led him back into the crowd. Warren could still taste the blood in his mouth, but it didn’t seem to bother him as much now. Now he could defend against anything. He would tolerate no more threats against his freedom and privacy.

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