The glass gas globes that lined the street were indeed as beautiful as Hannibal had hinted. Their light cast an ethereal glow on the world around him as the coach rolled past on its way to the ballroom affectionately referred to as the Colosseum. There was a festive air to the evening, the streets already busy with coaches, with people on horseback, with revelers on the walk. With nothing more to entertain them, those left to dwell in the Capital were more than eager to spend the evening in intrigue at the charity ball. Even those who could not attend were caught up in the atmosphere, pointing at the fantastic costumes and enjoying the spectacle.
Will could not resist the urge to stare out as they drew near, the image of glittering, elaborate costumes on the misty, lamp-lit streets etched in his memory. The sidewalks grew thick with people, those who could not come by coach taking a leisurely stroll to enjoy the anticipation.
He heard a clamor of hoofbeats and shrieking laughter and leaned to look out of the opposite window just as an outlandish fantasy of a pirate rode past bearing an equally reimagined barmaid on his lap. Will’s heart picked up its pace and he touched his mask again, feeling to be sure that it was firmly in place. The ties, knotted carefully by Jimmy, were twined to defy tugging and buried beneath his long curls. The reassuring security of it calmed him and Will took a deep breath, fruitlessly trying to quiet his nerves.
The coach slowed almost to a stop. Music reached him despite the closed windows of the coach. It was faint beneath the sound of laughter, the noise of people enjoying themselves already at even this early hour. He swallowed hard, excited and almost regretting that he had left Hannibal behind him.
‘Catch me for a kiss if you can…’
His own audacity shocked him, but this was a night for rash decisions heedless of consequence. This was a night for gaiety and dancing. Regrets could come tomorrow, with all the bitter flavor of familiarity, but tonight was Will’s and he intended to live a lifetime within it.
With such an uncertain future and such a decision before him, this might be his first—and his last—chance to cast off inhibition and simply enjoy himself.
The coach drew to a stop and shifted as the footmen jumped down. There was a press of people awaiting entry, most of whom had turned when they arrived to see what new person of import had come, there always being so few at a charity event. The ducal coaches were not precisely anonymous and Will saw a flurry of fans snap open, whispered conjecture passing from lips to ears. People strained to have a view of who would emerge and Will had a moment of panic that almost compelled him to abandon his plan and flee.
But he was made of sterner stuff than that. They would not know him, any of them. He was masked and anonymous, a mysterious Someone granted the honor of riding in the Duke of Westvale’s coach, and they could wonder all they liked about him.
One of the footmen opened the door and held out a gloved hand. The other cleared a path through those attending, while those gathered to look at the costumes and enjoy the pageant they could not afford to be a part of jostled to see the show.
Will took the hand he was offered and eased out of the coach, ducking his head to keep from catching the feathery ruff that ringed the sparkling, silver-chased wolf mask he’d chosen. He was restrained in his movements, careful in the unfamiliar, low-heeled shoes as he stepped down onto the walkway, drawing clear of the coach. He shook out the flounced, bustled back of his flaring jacket and let it billow down around his legs in a froth of lace and brocade. He murmured his thanks when Jimmy—looking quite fine in borrowed livery—bent to straighten the gathered, beribboned lace hem of his knee breeches, ensuring the cascading layers fell quite nicely over his pearlescent, subtly-patterned stockings.
Jimmy straightened as the coach drew away and fell into step behind Will, telling him with pride shining in his face, “You look absolutely stunning, Lord Clarges.”
Will uttered a soft, nervous thanks and moved towards the wide-flung doors, ears pinking up when people lining the walkway called out propositions to him, some of them whistling. The footman moving ahead made a threatening gesture but it only drew amused laughter and Will called him down, knowing it was harmless for the most part. Yet he was relieved all the same to reach the door through the crowd where the footman proffered his invitation.
The masked man at the entry looked at the invitation, looked at Will, looked at the liveried men with him, and Jimmy piped up, “His Lordship wishes to remain anonymous.”
The man dipped his head in a sign of courtesy and made a hasty, wide gesture for Will to enter, saying, “A very joyous welcome to you. May your evening be one of mystery and excitement.”
Will looked back at Jimmy, who beamed at him, and at the footman, who made a little urging gesture with a wide smile, and he made his way inside in a press of others costumed and perfumed for their night of revelry.
The flow of humanity ran like a river to empty out in the heart of the Colosseum. Will stared around with unabashed delight at the chandeliers glowing overhead, a succession of small suns casting a glorious golden glow on the crush of costumed humanity.
And so much humanity there was, thronging three tiers, the open upper levels milling with strangers laughing and drinking. The balustrades and columns bore garlands of flowers twined into evergreen and festive streamers fluttered in the swirling air. There was so much to see that he came to a stop for a moment, fixing it all in his memory to be treasured forever.
Will tore his gaze from his surroundings to incline his head at the couple who had come in just behind them. They were only moving past, but he was aware of the woman’s stare and knew he had made an entrance without even meaning to. She stared fixedly at his costume, no doubt cataloguing details for retelling, and in a heartbeat they were swallowed by the crowd.
There was a roar of laughter and Will looked in its direction from reflex, distracted from his thoughts and laughing aloud when a man dressed as a capering Harlequin flung a basket of confetti at the dancers below. The fine, colorful paper fluttered down, caught on the air moving through the open terrace doors to spread across the room. Will plucked a piece as it drifted past him, golden-bright and thin, and he tucked it into his jacket with a smile.
The orchestra was at the far end, its brisk music reaching across the massive ballroom. It was so packed within that Will could hardly see the dancefloor proper, and had a moment of unease wondering just how Hannibal would be able to find him among so many people.
But he would. Will knew it as surely as he knew the night would give way to the day. He had issued a challenge to Hannibal and Hannibal was, if nothing else, a proud, determined man. He would feel compelled to give chase with such provocation and not rest until he reached his goal.
Bolstered by the thought that he had not made it too easy nor too hard on him, Will moved away from the dancefloor towards the sweeping stairs, moving this way and that around partygoers, marveling at the fantastic costumes he saw, delighted by the constant chatter and whispers and sidelong looks the guests gave one another as they gossipped and guessed who was who.
Will felt delightfully conspicuous dressed as he was—a modern-day Omegan courtier, corseted and bustled with the long, flaring skirt of his jacket spilling in layers of lace and embroidered brocade behind him, almost touching the floor. The coat cinched tightly and was seeded with pearls, the whole of it patterned in creamy, pale colors. He was a silk and pastel vision all the way down to his bejeweled, buckled, heeled shoes. It was feminine, elegant, but borrowing masculine design, a blending of the two that felt daring to an Omega who had never dreamed he would wear such a thing. People looked at him, and looked again, some murmuring to their escorts, pondering on his identity. Will inclined his head to those he caught staring and was pleased to receive an answering nod each time, acknowledgement of being part of their beautiful, candlelit world.
He came to a stop on the second level, which gave him a good view of the dancing and was a perfect place to listen to the orchestra. Even the musicians were in costume, uniformly dressed and masked, keeping up the lively music that tempted toes to tap and coaxed smiles to anonymous faces. Staff thread through the upper levels, delivering drinks to those at the gaming tables where revelers threw dice and drew cards and wailed or laughed at the result.
Will snagged one of the glasses and took a sip of citrus punch, feeling his constant, strained vigilance loosen. He longed to dance, but the idea of doing such a thing with a stranger didn’t sit well. Hannibal would not be far behind him, he knew. He could wait until his husband arrived to enjoy the dancing with him. In the meantime, there were sights enough, smells enough, sounds enough to divert him and Will moved to roam again, taking in the many costumes, blushing over the behavior exhibited behind the cover of potted ferns and in the shadows away from the floor, laughing when a passing wizard swept his gloved hand up and kissed it before chasing down a rather frazzled-looking unicorn whose horn had fallen askew.
He came to rest against the balustrade, swaying to the music with a smile on his lips.
“What a beautiful costume you have, my dear.”
The words were delivered directly into Will’s ear, startling enough that he barely restrained the urge to turn.
“What an interesting combination, topping such a… titillating ensemble with the mask of a wolf,” the man said, still leaning far too close for Will’s comfort. He didn’t recognize the voice, nor did he care to, though he recognized an Alpha well enough when he heard one speak.
He turned his head away, still swaying to the strains of the music and resolved to ignore the attention.
“Are you in the habit of not acknowledging a gentleman when he speaks to you?”
There was amusement but no anger, as if he couldn’t fathom anyone would ever ignore him.
Realizing he was not to be left in peace, Will put his cup down on one of the many low tables and said, “Were there a gentleman speaking, I would acknowledge him.”
“You say I am no gentleman?” It was said with a chuckle and a trace of concern that he was not at all getting the response he expected.
Will turned his head and leveled a bland look at the man dressed as a Ram, and impressively so. He was rather tall and possessed of an athletic build, though Will found it was not quite as pleasing as his husband’s was.
“A gentleman does not breathe into one’s ear,” Will informed him, and when the man reached out to touch his arm, Will flipped his fan up into his hand and slapped his fingers soundly, stating, “Nor does he touch without invitation.”
“Is there some means of gaining an invitation from so delectable a courtier?” the Ram asked, tipping his head in a blatant exaggeration of appreciation that Will found entirely unappealing.
“There is not, unfortunately—or fortunately—enough,” Will said, his smile wry. It had the unexpected side effect of encouraging his odd admirer.
“Fortunately for whom?” the Ram asked, amused.
Will noted with satisfaction that he rubbed his smacked fingers, and ungenerously hoped it had stung. He leveled a repressive look at him and primly said, “For me.”
“Would you care for a dance, perhaps?” the Ram asked, offering his gloved hand properly this time, not daring Will’s quick fan or the smack it promised.
“I am waiting for someone, sir,” Will said. “As he has not yet arrived, I am content to watch the dancers.”
The hand dropped but not his interest. “A faithful lover dressed as a courtier? What a conflicting picture you are, you Wolf. Yet you arrived in the Duke of Westvale’s coach and we know one another well. Do I know you?”
“You do not know me, sir,” Will informed him. “Nor I you.”
“That can be remedied with ease,” the Ram said, smiling. His Alpha fangs were not as impressive as Hannibal’s were, but it was a pleasant smile all the same. “Say you will dance with me tonight! What can I give you to change your mind?”
“I will tell you tomorrow,” Will said.
The Ram laughed, delighted, saying, “A handsome figure paired with wit. I confess I am smitten.”
“Then you are far too easily impressed,” Will told him, wondering at his claim to know Hannibal, who was not at all easily impressed or patient with nonsense. Will realized that people were watching them, curious and unabashedly observing their exchange, and lowered his voice to say, “If a pleasing figure and a setdown engage your interest with such speed, then it is little wonder your conversation lacks weight.”
“You can’t guess who I am?” the Ram asked, exasperated by his resistance. “Surely, you must? He has never even mentioned me?”
“I have no interest in who you are,” Will said, quite honestly, at that.
“Do you speak so to Lord Clarges?” the Ram asked, grinning, but it faded when he locked eyes with Will. “You must have him tied in knots! I never in a million years imagined he would take an Omegan lover, odd, cold fish that he is.”
“Cold?” Will echoed, and had to laugh at that, the heat of Hannibal’s mouth on his still branded at the front of his memory. “You have mistaken him, sir. He is anything but cold.”
“After an acquaintance such as ours, I would think I know him, my dear,” the Ram said, chuckling. When Will said nothing, it seemed to mystify him and he asked, “You truly do not know me?”
“No more than you know me,” Will countered, turning his attention back to the dancefloor. “I will leave it to Lord Clarges to further our acquaintance if he pleases.”
The Ram was more intent on Will than he was on the festivities around him and moved to his side, watching him as if closer inspection might reveal Will’s identity to him.
“Who are you?” he asked, all bluster set aside for genuine curiosity. “Those eyes of yours are familiar, but I have never met an Omega who could hope to overcome Hannibal’s unsavory attitudes.”
“Are you so certain I am Omegan?” Will asked, tipping his head to look at him, pleased when sudden doubt settled.
“Let me see you—”
“No,” Will told him.
It took him by surprise when the Ram reached out to him again, for his mask this time. Offended, Will drew back and fixed him with a hard, unwavering stare. With studied, dangerous calm, he warned, “If you wish to keep that hand, you will behave yourself, sir. You are not charming, nor clever, but a nuisance I should like to avoid.”
It seemed to genuinely take him aback. Either that, or he finally realized how many people were watching them. Contrite, the Ram bowed to him, formal and impressive even to Will’s critical eye.
“I beg your forgiveness, I was carried away by high spirits,” he was told. “I see now how you fit him, our Lord Clarges, and that you truly do not know me. I admit it breaks my heart, but I accept it.”
When the Ram straightened and offered his hand once more, Will grudgingly gave his own, pleased when it was lifted, and not kissed. He simply wouldn’t stand for that, he knew.
“I have offended you,” the Ram said, though it seemed more for the benefit of those watching them so avidly. “Tell me how I can make amends.”
“A gentlemen should not have to be told how to conduct himself,” Will reminded him, stepping closer to keep their words more private, the flared tails of his coat swirling around his trim legs as he did so.
“I would be happy to obey commands of such a comely Wolf,” the Ram said, and tugged him close enough that Will heard him when he whispered, “especially if the face beneath the mask is as fair as the smile.”
“Heavens, a dog would have learned by now,” Will said, and plucked his hand away. “Allow me to see how you measure up, then. Stay.”
He turned, jacket billowing out behind him, the crowd parting to let him pass. People stared at him, but Will easily lost their gazes in the crowd, smiling to himself when the Ram stayed precisely where Will had told him to, though he seemed more bewildered than obedient.
“Wait! Wait! I know you!”
The voice reached him as recognition did. A smile spread across his face the moment he paused to find Beverly Katz catching up to him, dressed quite convincingly as a Privateer, complete with sheathed sword.
“Ms. Katz,” he said, tipping his head to her. “What a pleasant surprise!”
“It certainly is,” she said, eyeing him past her half-mask. “I didn’t expect to meet you here. You alone?”
She craned a look around searching for Hannibal or another escort, but Will told her, “Yes, though not for lack of trying.”
“I saw,” she said, a wry smile on her face. “You know who that is, right?”
“I couldn’t care less who that is,” Will informed her, frowning at the Ram who even now was fussing some other beleaguered soul. “His behavior is not at all gentlemanly and I refuse to indulge bad habits.”
Beverly laughed at that, delighted, and said, “Don’t worry, he isn’t as important as he thinks he is, or my father thinks he is, for that matter. Your husband didn’t mind you coming by yourself?”
“He wasn’t given a choice in the matter,” Will said, wishing he’d been able to see the look on Hannibal’s face when he’d opened that note. “Though he is no doubt on his way as we speak.”
Her smile widened to a grin when she said, “You look amazing.”
“And you look very dashing,” Will said, glad that his mask hid the way his cheeks pinked up, her honest admiration worth the empty flattery of a thousand inebriated Rams. “Are you alone?”
She snorted on a laugh and said, “No. Father and a bunch of his Merchants’ Guild council came. Apparently they have some meetings lined up off the record with the Ministry of War.”
“That sounds very clandestine,” Will said. “And illegal.”
Bev waved it away and held out her hand, saying, “Forget that, it’s a bunch of nonsense. Would you care to join us?” When Will cocked his head in inquiry, she said, “Most of my friends are here. You’ve met a few of them at the Dimmond party, remember? Come on. A party like this is no place to be alone. Especially with that sort around.”
Will nodded, grateful to have someone he knew in this crush of humanity and doubly pleased that it was Ms. Katz, whose open friendliness put him instantly at ease.
“How did you know me so quickly?” he asked, matching her step for step as they moved down towards the dancefloor, his hand held securely in her own.
“Are you joking?” she asked, glancing at him. “You arrived in the Duke’s coach. The crest is big as life. I assumed it was you when I heard but I knew it was you when I saw you slap that ram like he was a brat with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Well done, by the way.”
“Thank you, he was behaving appallingly,” Will reminded her, careful to keep the hem of his jacket flipped up over his arm to prevent it from being trod on. “Did you truly not know me until you saw me? I wondered if there would be some bit of intrigue regarding my identity.”
Beverly laughed again and sighed. “Oh, there is plenty of that already, Lord Clarges. Let’s see… So far, you’re a foreign dignitary in the Duke’s care, you’re the latest indulgence of Lord Clarges, and—this one is my favorite—you’re the Duke’s lover sent on a lark. Although the one about you being a royal concubine was pretty good, too. Not to mention believable. Did I tell you that you look good enough to eat?”
“Beverly!” Will said, shocked, but she remained unrepentant. “I have been here less than twenty minutes—”
“My dear Lord Clarges, all it takes is twenty seconds for the rumors to start,” Beverly assured him, dragging him into a group of young men and women with a crow of victory, stating, “Told you I’d find him!”
Will joined their merry little party with a smile, murmuring to himself, “Now, if only my husband is lucky enough to do so…”
Hannibal opted to ride, eager as he was to get there, and it gave him an advantage over those arriving by the coach-loads. Dressed in a black and gold military uniform, masked as a feathered stag with a spreading rack, he cut an impressive figure dancing his horse through stalled traffic and around pedestrians, even up onto the walkways at times to a chorus of shocked screams. There was a ripe promise on the air and he felt driven, his blood singing with awareness, goading him to hurry and claim his prize.
One of the footmen in Lecter livery had stationed himself at the door and hastened to Hannibal when he dismounted, taking the horse’s reins.
“Did he arrive without incident?” Hannibal asked, straightening his coat.
“He did, my Lord, and was a fair bit nervous at first, but soldiered on.”
“Yes, I imagine he did,” Hannibal said, and made for the door with a final pat on the horse’s rump as it was led away.
The line for entry parted easily for him and Hannibal had no qualms taking advantage of their surprise to hand his invitation to the doorkeeper.
The man read it once, then again, and asked, “Should you like me to announce you, my Lord?”
“Not at all,” Hannibal said, knowing he wouldn’t have to. He wondered if Will’s arrival in the ducal coach had caused a stir, because his own arrival certainly had. Peers and their spouses were uncommon at such common affairs for the most part, and Hannibal reasonably assumed that Will’s station, if not his true position, had already made its rounds of the room.
The stir he himself had caused, however, was more due to the mask he wore rather than the assistance of the liveried footman. He imagined the stretching gold and gleaming antlers in their base of inky-black feathers was enough to give anyone a good pause, and had chosen it without hesitation, unlike the rest of his wardrobe.
“A very joyous welcome to you, then, my Lord,” he was told. “May your evening be one of mystery and excitement.”
“There is no possibility for it to be otherwise,” Hannibal murmured, and moved through the doorway with the lithe grace of a panther, eager to hunt down his wayward mate.
The ballroom floor was stuffed with dancers and thick with observers. It was, as every masquerade that Hannibal had ever had the misfortune to attend, barely better than chaos. Given the opportunity to behave as they pleased with little consequence and the cloak of anonymity, people flouted the rules and indulged themselves, and this was no exception.
He strode to the edge of the crowd to the space cleared for the dancers, scanning the room, drawing a breath thick with perfume and wax and warm bodies, pomades and soaps and incense, spilled alcohol and roasting meats and the acrid-tinged air that blew in from the archways flung open to the night. If there was any trace of Will’s faint, sweet scent, he knew he would find it, even hidden as it was beneath so much distraction. It was a perfume that he was keenly tuned to, a scent that heralded bright blue eyes and wry smiles and curls as untameable as the spirit that lived within his stalwart heart.
It was home, and Hannibal searched for it, stalking the edges of the dancers with his head tipped up and the blunt spurs on his boots jingling with each step.
People drew back before him, some from recognition, most from his intensity. He was far too focused on his task to notice, however, his amber eyes scanning the upper levels with piercing concentration from behind his heavy mask.
Hannibal caught it then, faint enough to be a memory, the barest hint of the sweet-hot perfume that clung to his mate’s fair skin. He turned to trace it and moved straight across the dancefloor, weaving between the dancers to follow that faint, alluring trail.
He found his husband in a crowd of admirers, one of whom Hannibal recognized as Miss Katz. He paused there for a moment, watching Will as he had at the Garden Party, lively and animated, seated in a spill of thick lace, pale silk, and heavy brocade, his shapely legs crossed at the ankle before him and his painted lips parted in a grin as he laughed at the Court Jester begging him for a dance.
And then he looked up as if Hannibal had called him by name.
It was instant recognition, both of them knowing the other as surely as if gazing into a mirror. Wolf and Stag, hunter and hunted, Omega and Alpha and everything in between.
Hannibal strode to a stop before him, seeing his bright, lively blue eyes behind the pearlescent, beaded Wolf mask light up with excitement.
Will had known the second he walked into the room, as much the force of his presence as the bond that sang within him. Hannibal, in his stiff and formal clothing, seemed more himself in his fanciful uniform, his shoulders just as broad but the handsome symmetry of his trim build on display in a way that his heavy coats and layers rarely showed. Will hardly felt safe letting his eyes drop lower than his chest, taking his cues from the admiring glances of those around them.
He had certainly outdone himself, Will admitted, and he graced Hannibal with a delighted smile, the Omega within him purring in pleasure that Hannibal had tracked him so effortlessly and without distraction.
Hannibal took a moment to drink Will’s presence in, to bask in his gaze, and then he bowed. It was the sharp, smart bow of a soldier in keeping with the black uniform he wore, and he knew it made the most of his antlered crown.
When he straightened, he held his gloved hand out in offering, his skin tightening in response to Will’s blue eyes flicking over him, taking in the details of his stark, bold costume.
Will’s strong, gloved hand slid into his and he inclined his head, smiling as Hannibal drew him up from his seat and into the sea of dancers to a chorus of delighted clapping and laughter.
In a heartbeat they were immersed in a world of graceful music and sparkling costumes, flickering candles and gaiety. Hannibal’s hand closed around his, firm and confident, the other coming to rest beneath his arm to draw him into the dance.
Will smiled up at him, a small laugh escaping him when Hannibal deftly spun him around into the midsts of the dancers, effortless and sure. Will’s smile gave way to delighted laughter, his simmering excitement bubbling over to finally be dancing in such a place, in his husband’s arms, both of them looking so unlike themselves, or more like themselves than usual. Perhaps he was wrong and this was a night when fantasy was peeled away for reality, and they were truly merely a Wolf and a Ravenstag, feral creatures of instinct and intuition armed with weapons that were exquisite in their savagery.
He certainly felt wolfish, fluid and beautiful, a creature of grace with a dangerous smile and a heart full of wild desires he could not bear to inspect, lest they be loosed.
He closed his eyes, the strains of the waltz filling his ears along with the laughter and conversation of those around them. He drew a deep breath heavy with Hannibal’s Alpha scent, his skin tightening with awareness. He could not help but focus on the hand holding his, warm within its leather glove, on the hand at his shoulder blade, flat but tender, guiding Will securely through the steps of the dance so that all he needed to do was enjoy.
He opened his eyes, his gaze finding and holding Hannibal’s. His husband pulled him just a touch closer, their bodies brushing as they danced. Both were reluctant to break the silence between them, an unspoken pact to enjoy this first dance and one another without anything more to trouble them than a crowded dancefloor.
The song came to an end yet they did not draw apart, merely moved smoothly into the next dance.
“You are so light in my arms,” Hannibal said, finally breaking the ripe silence that carried them through the first waltz. “You move as if you were born to it.”
“As do you, sir,” Will answered, admiring the lean strength of his husband and the graceful ease he showed in leading their dance. “Though I dare say you are more in practice than I.”
The body of dancers twirled and moved clockwise, reversing their direction on the beat.
“What do you think of the ball so far?” Hannibal inquired, speaking to Will as if he was a stranger, though the warm familiarity in his voice gave him away. “I don’t suppose you lack for company.”
“Only sufficiently diverting company,” Will said. “I lingered and hoped for a pleasant companion.”
“And have you found it?” Hannibal asked, drawing a breath over his teeth in a soft inhale, tasting the sweet-hot flavor of Will’s scent on his tongue. “Or have you no interest in me, even still?”
Will laughed, his teeth gleaming and sharp behind his paint-darkened lips. He seemed someone else entirely in his costume, some wild and fearless person with strong passions and the confidence to act on them, but it was entirely Will—his Will, wry and amused—who said, “I’m starting to.”
They changed direction. Hannibal guided him with elegant grace past a couple having a spat and beyond, carrying them away from any potential unpleasantness.
“What an interesting quandary we have,” Hannibal said, acutely aware of the press of Will’s sturdy, slim body against his, of the way the flare of Will’s coat framed him as they danced, a fitting tail for such a handsome Wolf. The bare expanse of Will’s chest peeking above the ruffled edging of his jacket was pearly-pale and distracting, and he forced his eyes up when Will cleared his throat to get his attention.
“And what quandary is that?” Will asked, repeating the question his husband had not heard. The close posture of their dance exaggerated the slight sway of his back and seemed to press him even deeper into his husband’s hold, the brush and pressure of Hannibal’s warm body against his teasing his nerves as much as that rich Alpha scent teased his senses.
“A stag is hunting, and his prey is a Wolf,” Hannibal said, cocking his head ever so slightly, the spreading rack of antlers atop his head catching the light. The feathers worked in around the antlers and edges of the mask were soft and black as a raven’s wings and Will thought it suited him quite nicely. He smiled at him, memorizing the set of Hannibal’s mouth beneath the edge of his mask and the way his amber eyes drew the light, catlike and lovely.
“I have never heard of a stag going hunting,” Will said, and the longer they danced, the more attuned he felt to his husband’s touch, breathless with the possibilities it brought to mind. It was as if the world shrank to just the two of them, all else rendered incidental, unimportant. “Though perhaps a Ravenstag hunts, after all… or is hunted in turn.”
Hannibal grinned, his gloved hand spreading behind Will’s shoulder blade, his fingers cupping ever so slightly in a caress. The shoes Will wore made him even with his husband in height, something Hannibal noted with pleasure as it put Will’s luscious mouth so perfectly level with his own.
“Hunter or hunted, I intend to enjoy the result,” Hannibal said, dancing him to the opposite end of the room.
“And what will you give me if I catch you?” Will asked, his pleasure in their game rising, leaving him elated. He felt he had exchanged himself for a Courtier in truth, and played the role now gleefully, fully enjoying the freedom of it.
Hannibal chuckled, and feigned consideration. “A title?”
“Heavens, no, I have one of my own,” Will said, his laughter throaty and quick. He shifted in Hannibal’s arms, pressing just a touch closer. “This country is awash in such useless things.”
“Then jewels, perhaps?” Hannibal pressed, tipping his mouth nearer, his hand tightening on Will’s own. “A diamond ring fit for a beauty such as yours?”
“There is a ring I would much prefer, should I find the giver in my favor. If you have jewels enough to impress me, sir,” Will said. “Then you should donate them to the charity.”
“What can impress you?” Hannibal asked, curling his tongue around one heavy fang. “Tell me and I will provide it.”
Will leaned close, so close their lips brushed, so close that for a dizzying moment Hannibal believed he might kiss him.
“A glass of champagne is a good place to start,” Will whispered, and pulled away with a graceful bow when the waltz ended, leaving Hannibal staring after him.
It did not take his husband long to find him again, drawn like a magnet to where he stood once more firmly wedged into his group of young people, more a flock of noisy, colorful birds than ladies and gentleman. Will was aware of him in a way he was not aware of anyone else, as if the vibration of his breath and the weight of his gaze were invisible fingers on his skin, tugging and pulling him in his husband’s direction like a compass pointing north.
Smiling, he turned to face the dancers, heart thundering in anticipation when he sensed Hannibal stop behind him. Two of the young ladies in Beverly’s acquaintance stifled nervous giggles at Will’s side, young and silly girls too excited for common sense to overrule their inexperience.
Will felt a warm puff of breath against his ear just a split second before Hannibal’s voice purred the Masquerade greeting, “Do I know you?”
The fine hairs on Will’s nape lifted in response and a shiver coursed through him, pooling in his belly with heat.
“You do not know me, sir,” Will said, turning his head away to bare the slender length of his throat. “We are all strangers here.”
Hannibal leaned closer. The tip of his nose brushed the sensitive skin of Will’s neck as he scented him, shocking and forward under any other circumstance, and when one of the girl’s gasped, her friend pinched her soundly before drawing her away.
Will flipped open his fan and lifted it, blocking the action from other curious, sheltered eyes. His lips parted on a soft sound he was barely able to restrain and his eyes widened for a split second before his lids fell, his nerves singing to the brief sensation.
“I am certain I could never mistake such a pleasing scent,” Hannibal said, straightening and stepping close to Will’s side, unable to get the little minx to look at him.
“And have you scented so many in public, sir?” Will asked, fluttering the fan to cool himself, playing the coquette in full honor of his costume.
“Only the one who pleases me most. Let me look at you properly,” Hannibal said, swinging around to his other side before Will could move away. He swept Will’s free hand up in his and lifted his arm, baring him to his sight despite the press of the crowd.
He was speechless for a moment with appreciation as he looked at his mate and the exquisite way in which he wore his Courtier costume. The cinch of his waist seemed miniscule below the admirable breadth of his shoulders, all of which the floor-length, skirt-like jacket only emphasized. The way his coat flared made the most of his beautiful build and the trim, subtle curve of his hips. The small ruffles at his knees, the frothing lace that edged his jacket, the embroidery worked with pearls and stones all topped with the half-mask of a snarling wolf created a vision that Hannibal marveled over.
“You are staring, sir,” Will said, chin tipping up as if he expected censure.
“I cannot help myself,” Hannibal admitted, his charm temporarily derailed by the sight of his mate in Omegan clothing. He turned Will by his hand to get a better look at him, eyes widening when his gaze was snared once more by Will’s muscular, graceful legs starkly on display in his patterned white stockings, by how his long feet arched in those low-heeled shoes.
Hannibal had never wanted to kiss a pair of shoes before, but he felt a sudden urge to.
“You look absolutely exquisite,” he breathed, even as the analytical part of his mind delighted in the fact that Will had chosen pearls and pastels, while he himself had gone with black and gold. Even apart, they complemented one another, and that thrilled him to the tips of his aristocratic toes. “I shall have to order you another wardrobe.”
“That is a very forward thing to say to someone you do not know,” Will told him, smiling. The paint on his lips had worn off, but had stained them a deep crimson red, delectable and full.
“I would know you anywhere,” Hannibal said, pulling Will’s gloved hand to his lips to kiss his knuckles, grazing his teeth over the thin, fine material to satisfy his urge to taste his beautiful mate. “Your eyes, your smile, your posture, the tilt of your head and the way you breathe. The curve of your hip and the dip of your back. From the tips of your curls to the curl of your toes, I would know you.”
He straightened and pulled Will closer, unmindful of their audience, trying and failing to remain inconspicuous in their observations.
“When we are apart, I am missing a piece of myself,” Hannibal said, murmuring the words against Will’s lips, the confession for his ears alone. “By my own completion, I know you.”
Will’s smile softened and his gaze fell, a peek of the shy youth within who was touched by Hannibal’s words. He dropped his fan to dangle by its silken cord from his slender wrist and trailed his fingertips against Hannibal’s jaw in a light caress.
“Are you always so forward, sir?” he asked, enjoying the fact that his touch made Hannibal’s amber eyes shutter half closed in pleasure.
“When there is a kiss from my brilliant spouse at stake, yes,” Hannibal said, flashing his heavy fangs in a grin. “Yes, I most certainly am.”
Will chuckled, and from the way he tilted his head, Hannibal knew one of those disapproving eyebrows was cocked over one wry blue eye.
“I have something for you,” Hannibal told him, turning back to the pedestal where he had placed the two flutes of champagne. He plucked the slender glasses up and offered one to Will. “I propose a toast.”
“A toast to what?” Will asked, lifting his glass in anticipation.
“To new beginnings,” Hannibal said, and tapped the rim of his flute against Will’s before lifting the glass to his lips.
“I can drink to that,” Will said, and swallowed down the sweet champagne, grateful for the relief of the cool alcohol in his parched throat.
“And so I have won your little challenge,” Hannibal said, putting his empty cup on the tray of passing staff. “Have I not?”
“Catch me for a kiss, if you can,” Will reminded him, depositing his own glass to free his hands and easing away. “You have found me, but as a fisherman I know too well never to count it a catch until you’ve landed your fish, and you have by no means landed me, my Lord.”
He turned on his heel, and Hannibal stared after him, struck for a moment by the beautiful sight of the coat floating out behind him like a billow of gathered, cascading skirts, by the lacing of a thick satin ribbon down his long back that drew the whole ensemble tight around his trim body.
“Have you come for a dance, Lord Clarges?” one of the girls dared to ask, wide-eyed and brave from too much champagne.
“My deepest apologies to such a striking Swan, my dear, but there is only one here with whom I will dance,” Hannibal said, eliciting a few appreciative whispers from Beverly’s friends. “If you will excuse me…”
Will cast a look back over his shoulder as he moved towards the dancefloor and Hannibal came after him, more than content to chase him forever if needs be, if only to have his sight filled with nothing but his mate.
Hannibal was determined that Will not find fault in their evening. They danced for hours without pause, though it only felt like moments. When Will grew flushed and breathless, Hannibal escorted him away from the dancefloor and settled him comfortably in one of the many little chairs ringing the walls of the Colosseum, leaving him with the promise of fetching him something cool to drink.
Pleasantly sore and somewhat warm, Will smoothed the flounced fall of his skirt-like jacket and sighed, eyes closing to enjoy the music, a slight smile on his lips.
“May I join you?”
Will opened his eyes to find a woman before him, smiling down at him from behind her elaborate mask, most of her admirable shape exposed in her exquisitely tailored dress. Will felt his cheeks heat up just looking at her, but he said, “Yes, of course.”
She seated herself next to him, fanning them both with her gilt, lace fan. The smooth curves of her mask, which wore the implacable expression of a goddess, were in stark contrast to the red mouth below, which cut sharply from her glistening skin with firm strokes of paint.
“Do I know you?” Will asked, opting to fan himself and turning just a hair away from her.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. I can’t imagine Lord Clarges would discuss me,” she said, the sigh in her voice drawing Will’s eyebrows down. She tilted her head his way to judge his reaction before looking him over.
“Why should he not?” Will asked, cocking his head, a slight smile on his lips.
“Our relationship isn’t one meant for polite conversation,” he was told, and she fanned herself more vigorously as if embarrassed.
“My conversations with Lord Clarges are rarely polite,” Will said, enjoying her discomfit as much as the way she turned an annoyed look at him. He knew very well what conclusions she wanted him to draw, and knew very well that they were untrue. Hannibal had told Will the names of the women he had erred with; Will had insisted on it and been told without compunction. One lived in Lietuva—his mother’s homeland where he had visited his grandparents four years before—and the other had moved to the Continent with her husband less than a month after their single night together.
“I am intimately acquainted with his tastes…” she let the inference hang in the air and smiled.
“That certainly sounds intriguing,” Will admitted, unable to resist baiting her somewhat, galling woman that she was. “I know a little of his tastes, but not very much. Would you tell me?”
“Tell you?” she echoed, shocked by his request.
“Yes,” Will said, turning to give her the whole of his attention. “A gentleman’s tastes must be accommodated at all times, so I have been told.”
“They certainly should!” she stammered, looking around for some distraction with which to rescue herself.
“Indeed they must,” Will said, thoroughly amused. He settled back in his chair, grateful for the corset supporting his frame as his body reminded him of the fall he had taken. “I find that I must know his… predilections in order to best please him.”
She sat up straighter, surprise lighting her eyes, but she said, “Of course!”
“Will you share them with me?” he pressed, watching the flustered panic rise in her eyes. “What does he desire first thing in the morning?”
“And in the afternoon? He has such a prodigious appetite,” Will said, fanning himself. “I fear I am falling short, lacking that which he is used to.”
He dropped a meaningful glance at her figure and she squeaked, hand flying to rest over her bosom.
“W-well, I would suggest—”
“I do understand, however, that your relationship is in the past,” Will said, overriding her hesitant offer. “I am sure you did all that you could. It certainly isn’t your fault that his tastes changed. He is a man, and a fickle one at that, and some things lose their charm with familiarity.”
“May I assume that you are speaking of me?” Hannibal inquired, approaching with two glasses in hand.
Will smiled and turned, reaching for the glass of ratafia that Hannibal held out to him. He saw Hannibal’s gaze land on the woman next to him, but there was no spark of recognition in his eyes, merely curiosity.
“Have you been gathering more admirers in my absence?” Hannibal asked, sipping from his own glass, though he found the stuff to be useless for anything but washing pans.
“You’re just in time, Lord Clarges,” Will said, turning an expansive smile on the woman next to him. “I was just having the most delightful conversation! You will never guess who has come this evening! It is your former cook!”
Hannibal paused in the process of sipping his drink, confusion evident when the woman gasped in outraged horror at Will’s side.
“Yes,” Will said, reaching out to lay a gloved hand on her arm. “I know it isn’t done to speak in public of these things, but she was telling me all about your tastes! What happy circumstances these are, to find someone so well acquainted with what you desire!”
“Indeed,” Hannibal said, feeling somewhat sorry for her, whoever she was. It was no easy thing running afoul of his mate and she clearly had not known what she was getting into.
“I was just telling my new acquaintance how unfortunate it is,” Will said, sipping his drink with delicacy, “that you have lost your taste for melons.”
Hannibal choked on his drink and coughed, forced to put it down entirely to clear his lungs.
“Yes,” he managed, stifling another cough. “Indeed, I have lost my taste for melons.”
“Speaking of,” Will said, turning his attention back to her. “Your costume is quite daring. It certainly makes the most of your lovely figure.”
“Thank you,” she said, somewhat dazed and looking for a way out of whatever she had managed to get herself into.
“Oh, but thank you very much for seeking me out,” Will told her. “You should call on our present cook at Chelsea House. Perhaps something in your experience could sate my husband’s peculiar tastes.”
She summoned a faint laugh and stood, saying with stiff discomfort, “I will be sure to do so. If you will excuse me?”
When she vanished into the crowd, Hannibal looked down at his mate and asked, “Melons?”
“She was very determined that I know her relationship with you,” Will said, chuckling.
“My cook?” Hannibal asked, laughing. “You truly are dangerous, Will.”
“Far less so when I am not provoked so recklessly,” Will said, standing to straighten his jacket.
He was just about to ask Hannibal to dance again when he was distracted by another voice saying, “Quick! Lord Clarges!”
“Miss Katz!” Hannibal said, holding out his hand for her, which she took to come near, hissing to Will, “Ask me to dance!”
“Goodness! This is turning out to be a crush! Heavens! Excuse me! Excuse me!”
“Quick, before he catches up,” Bev said, abandoning Hannibal’s hand for Will’s. “Dance with me!”
Will laughed but hesitated, looking to Hannibal. It was not permission he looked for, just reassurance, which he found in Hannibal’s smile and slight nod towards the dancefloor.
Hannibal watched them go, Wolf and Pirate, vanishing into the crowd while Mr. Katz, his portly bulk in no way aided by the panniers of his Lady-in-Waiting costume, came tripping towards him.
“My goodness! Lord Clarges, is that you?” he asked, his moustache rather incongruous on his powdered face. “What a frightening mask you have! Have you seen my daughter?”
“She is dancing with my husband,” Hannibal said, feeling safe enough to return to his drink without asphyxiating himself. Will certainly was dangerous, even when he didn’t mean to be.
“I was very surprised to hear you came!” Mr. Katz said, yanking on his skirt with aggravation and cursing at it. “How in the seven hells people wear these without risking life and limb is entirely beyond me!”
“Will needed some entertainment and it is for a good cause,” Hannibal said, compelled to assist him to sit before he lost his entire train to the uncaring crowd. “On the subject of causes, we saw soldiers heading south. What news is there from the Ministry?”
“Oh, sorry, sorry business!” Mr. Katz lamented, fanning himself furiously, his wig askew. “We lost the port and they have taken back Ostham. The Ministry decided to lay siege.”
“Was it unanimous?” Hannibal asked, concern pushing back against the enjoyment of his evening.
“No, it was not, but it will happen nonetheless,” Mr. Katz said. He picked up Will’s glass and drained it, heaving an unhappy sigh. “The Merchants’ Guild has been advocating for a treaty. This cannot continue on. This must be settled! Lord Rathmore—”
“Lord Rathmore? The junior, I presume?” Hannibal asked, startled to hear Mina’s husband mentioned.
“Yes, the prancing little—beg your pardon, my Lord,” Mr. Katz said, remembering himself, but Hannibal waved it away, more interested in what he had to say than in his apology. “Lord Rathmore sits on the Ministry now. His father got him appointed. It seems he needed something useful to do, and now he is playing at war.”
“A man who has never been to war is making decisions for those who must go to war?” Hannibal said, flummoxed and appalled.
“My sentiments precisely,” Mr. Katz said, sour. “Unlike yourself, Lord Clarges, who has served very valiantly in their Majesties’ military, Rathmore would rather be in charge than be in danger. He’s here tonight, should you like to call him down.”
“I might yet,” Hannibal murmured, still puzzling over such a man taking a seat on a military council. “What does Bert think?”
“His Highness,” Mr. Katz said, repressive in his tone, “thinks we need the treaty. He is firmly in our corner.”
“He always was a sensible one,” Hannibal said, amused at being reprimanded even so gently by Mr. Katz. “Though he made a terrible doctor.”
“He’s here, too, you know,” Mr. Katz said, dropping into a hushed whisper. “Somewhere about. He told me he intended to be here and I strongly encouraged him—very strongly encouraged him, my Lord—not to do something so entirely reckless!”
“Entirely reckless is his stock in trade,” Hannibal said, grinning at the thought of the youngest royal nephew wandering the ballroom, standing out like a Cenobite in a brothel, given his usual high spirits. “Have no fear on his behalf, Mr. Katz. Bert is a soldier first and royal only by the skin of his teeth, as he will not hesitate to remind you.”
“My Lord, just because he is a man of the people does not mean we can speak so freely—”
“I would always have you speak so freely, Katz!”
Hannibal glanced over and grinned, the familiar voice recognized easily once he saw the man before him. He was, amusingly enough, dressed as a Ram and every bit as conspicuous as Hannibal had known he would be.
“Don’t,” the Ram said, holding up a warning hand to Mr. Katz to cut off the greeting as well as his attempt to rise. “You’ll give me away! I don’t even carry a damned title, Katz, honestly!”
Mr. Katz wobbled in consternation, his manners at war with the request.
“I should like to have a dance, if your card isn’t full?” the Ram inquired, grinning when Mr. Katz furiously fanned himself. He shifted his attention to Hannibal and said, “So you are the lauded paramour of the beautiful Wolf?”
“And you are here without your father’s blessing and,” Hannibal said with a telling glance around, “without your usual cohorts.”
“They wouldn’t be caught at a charity ball,” he was told. “And they would give me away in heartbeat! I spend quite enough time shuttered away in boredom, thank you. That aside, I am here on business. I wanted to hear for myself what people were saying about the war and have some discussions incognito.”
“As if everyone here doesn’t know who you are,” Hannibal said, noting the way they were watched. Mr. Katz was fanning himself fit to start a gale-force wind and still made no dent in his nerves, as if an assassin might pop out of the crowd to murder the King’s least and most distant relative who had no hope or ambition in gaining the throne.
“You come dressed as a Ram? Very fitting,” Hannibal said, tipping his glass in appreciation.
“A Stag even moreso,” was the quick retort. “Or are you a hart for the sake of your Wolf?”
Hannibal just laughed, withholding his answer as the Ram turned to say, “Mr. Katz, I am having difficulty placing your costume…”
“I can tell you where I will be placing it,” Mr. Katz said, gaining his feet with caution and shaking out his skirts. “The nearest rubbish pile should do!”
“Well, you look lovely. I was hoping I would run into you,” the Ram said. “We have some business to discuss regarding the Merchants’ Guild. But that can wait for now.”
He turned his amused gaze on Hannibal and said, “I certainly didn’t fancy meeting you here, though. You never attend these sorts of things.”
“No, nor would I, but my Wolf had the desire to see the costumes and I find I cannot refuse him,” Hannibal said, his eyes searching out his mate on the dancefloor, expertly moving through the steps of the quadrille with Ms. Katz, laughing with abandon as he danced with nimble grace.
He grinned at the way Will expertly flipped the frothy, layered tails of his coat when he moved, as if the gesture was second nature to him already. Omegan dress truly suited him, Hannibal observed. If Will would allow it, he would indeed buy him an entire wardrobe in such a style.
Two, even. And perhaps some traditionally-female wear, also, in case he might like to try it.
He would have to have Will’s dressing room expanded at once.
“I imagine you can refuse him very little. Ah, a new mistress after all these years, though you surprise me with your choice,” the Ram mused, chuckling when Mr. Katz gasped in horror at his mistake. “Not that I don’t see the draw. He’s quite fetching, and very sharp.”
“Mind that he doesn’t cut you,” Hannibal warned. “He is never unarmed, and quite Uncommon. But he is not my mistress.”
“This is a highly irregular conversation!” Mr. Katz announced, using his fan to separate himself from it, his eyes darting around to see if anyone was eavesdropping.
The Ram cocked his head, ignoring Mr. Katz’ offended sensibilities, a sly smile curving his lips. “No? The ballroom rumor has named him so. Arriving in the Duke’s coach all alone… and we know well enough that your grandfather hasn’t taken a lover in thirty years. So who is he, then? Your secret is safe with me, provided you keep mine.”
He sent Hannibal a smug, questioning look and lifted his glass to take a swallow.
“He’s my spouse,” Hannibal said, enjoying the way he choked on his drink and lost his composure coughing, pleased that he could be as dangerous as his husband when it suited him.
“No, I’m fine, I’m fine,” the Ram said, waving Mr. Katz away when he made to pound him on the back. “You’re having me on! After all these years? And your… oddness?”
“Yes, after all of these years,” Hannibal said, refusing to let his joy be soured by references to his past behaviors. “My oddness has been well and thoroughly cured. He has no tolerance for nonsense.”
“How on earth did he get it out of you?” the Ram asked, the words spoken in laughter.
Hannibal leaned a bit closer to him and confided, “With a trout.”
“Don’t ask,” Hannibal warned, and handed his glass off to Mr. Katz, who had no qualms finishing it off. “When you meet him, you will understand. Isn’t that right, Mr. Katz?”
Mr. Katz nodded, eager to move the conversation to something more acceptable, and gushed, “He is the most delightful young man! And he fishes!”
“I have met him,” the Ram said, casting an appreciative look at Hannibal’s spouse that he decided to tolerate. Will was garnering quite a few of those this evening, and Hannibal preened as if they were directed at him, instead, bursting with pride for his mate. “I asked him to dance with me when he first arrived.”
“I am trying to imagine how that went, given what passes for your attempts at charm,” Hannibal said, and was not disappointed when the Ram said, “He told me he wasn’t interested in me, then slapped me with his fan and ordered me to stay to see if I could learn as fast as a dog.”
“He went easy on you. You’re very lucky it was only a fan,” Hannibal said, laughing. “For someone so delicate and small, he is remarkably strong.”
Mr. Katz sputtered, then cocked his head in Hannibal’s direction, looking entirely at a loss. “Delicate?”
“And small?” the Ram echoed, looking from Hannibal to Will, who was clapping at the close of the dance, a wide smile on his full lips. “Your spouse?”
“Who else?” Hannibal asked, and sighed, watching him with satisfaction.
“Yes, well, I cannot argue that he is most agreeable,” Mr. Katz said, grasping for words that would not offend. “He does have a fineness of feature that is very pleasant. He is very clearly of noble birth and it certainly does show—”
“You do realize he’s nearly as large as you are, Hannibal?” the Ram said, able to plow ahead where Mr. Katz could only tiptoe. “And you are no small man.”
“What? Nonsense! He’s much smaller than I!”
“Nonsense nothing, he is,” the Ram said, torn between amusement and horror at his perception. “Hannibal, he certainly isn’t delicate! He’s nearly as broad in the shoulders as you are and almost as tall. He could snap me in half like a twig if his temper was up.”
“You exaggerate,” Hannibal said, turning his offended stare on the man next to him. “He would never snap anyone in half like a twig!”
“Gentlemen,” Mr. Katz said, a pleading note in his voice. “This is not—”
“Honesty!” the Ram said, ignoring the call to wiser topics. “He’s quite a brawny young man.”
“We must agree to disagree,” Hannibal said with a sniff of disdain for his friend’s poor opinion. “Farm hands are brawny. My mate is an ethereal beauty born of elemental grace—he most certainly is nothing like brawny.”
“He looks you in the eye when you dance and could strangle a man with his thighs,” the Ram commented. Hannibal was certain that Mr. Katz contemplated a swoon at that, but he only swayed a bit, horrified. “Which is not an altogether unhappy prospect, considering.”
“My husband is far too refined to strangle anyone with his thighs,” Hannibal said, considering the legs in question, which were lovely and muscular and all that they should be. “Though it is, indeed, not an unhappy prospect. He is small, and fragile, and wondrously brilliant and has no need to use his thighs for such things.”
“I could think of some uses for them if you can’t,” the Ram said, chuckling at Mr. Katz’ soft noise of dismay. “But he does cut a handsome figure, my friend, and I admit I have done my share of admiring him. He has an incredibly diverting figure, not to mention his beautiful neck.”
“Keep on like that and I’ll see you at dawn with pistols,” Hannibal warned. “Be sure to invite your wife. I’m sure she’d love to see me drop you. You always were as terrible a shot as you were a doctor.”
“I need another drink,” Mr. Katz murmured, despairing of their choice in conversation.
“Which was to your benefit on all counts,” the Ram said to Hannibal, shaking his head. “Bring him to court.”
“If he wishes,” Hannibal said, turning his attention back to his spouse. “He is very industrious and keeps himself occupied. He has very little time for frivolity.”
“And has no tolerance for nonsense, which we are, unfortunately, stuffed full of,” the Ram said. “But then, you never were one for court life.”
“Court does not appeal to me any more than it does to you,” Hannibal said. “And until my duties as Duke require it, I will gladly keep clear of it, and of you, Your H—”
“Don’t,” he was warned, and subsided with a grin. “I will thrash you, scandal be damned.”
“You could try,” Hannibal said, amused. “Though my spouse would take exception and believe me, you do not want to agitate him.”
The Ram laughed, thoroughly pleased, and offered his arm to Mr. Katz, who took it with another dangerous wobble.
“If you’ll excuse us,” the Ram said, amusement floating in his voice. “This lovely lady and I have some business to discuss.”
“Best of luck to you both,” Hannibal said, turning his attention back to Will. “I trust between you, you will manage to ensure that I am not forced to abandon my wondrous little Wolf for foreign shores.”
“We will do our very best, my Lord,” Mr. Katz said, and was tugged out to the dancefloor with a little yip of dismay, leaving Hannibal thoughtful and somewhat strained behind him.
It was a night Will knew he would remember forever, not for its grandeur or the exciting sights he never dreamed he would see, or those rare dances he danced with Bev, or the champagne he took in moderation but always with a smile.
He would remember it forever for the way Hannibal held him when they danced, the way he would lean to whisper a soft tease in Will’s ear as they changed partners, the way he would bring something cool for him to drink when he returned from the floor on another’s arm. He would remember forever the sight of Hannibal in stark black and gold, a fanciful imagining of the soldier’s uniform he’d worn to battle with pride, in the regal mask of a Ravenstag which transformed him into a supple forest god.
But mostly he would remember it for the way that Hannibal looked at him, bold and unashamed, pride shining in his amber eyes as if Will was the most glorious thing he had ever chanced to behold.
And for the night, he was. He spoke without hesitation to those who gathered to join their party, secure behind the shelter of his mask and protected by the presence of his husband. He laughed and debated and drew his own little crowd of motley admirers, much to Hannibal’s indulgent amusement. He was free for just one night to be who he might have been had his life taken another course and he took full advantage of it, knowing it would vanish like fog in the morning sun.
Yet, as the hour grew late, Will found himself tiring despite the excitement. Beverly’s group of friends, many of whom Will had partnered through the evening, were bright and cheerful company, whereas those in Hannibal’s acquaintance were more serious and prone to deeper discussions, but he wanted neither. His head was beginning to spin from the chatter and gossip and noise, and he found himself wishing for Hannibal’s warm scent and the comfort of his touch as he returned from the dancefloor, only to find Hannibal was not among their gathered group.
Will headed around the ballroom in search of him, ears perking when he heard Lord Rathmore mentioned by name. Hannibal had told him that his brother-in-law was in attendance, but he had not been able to locate him. He thought it somewhat odd that Timothy would not seek him out, if only to have word of his wife, and found himself eavesdropping despite himself, his curiosity unwilling to pass it by.
“ … up to his eyebrows in debts, is what I was told,” a woman was saying, her stage whisper carrying despite her efforts.
The two women with her, masks pushed atop their heads, made an attentive audience. One of them eagerly offered what she had heard, not even bothering to whisper, “So it is Lady Rathmore after all? Scandalous! First that actor, and now her brother-in-law!”
“Gods know it wouldn’t be his wife,” the other said, and they all tittered, fanning themselves and quite pleased with their ugly gossip.
“Hear tell he was at the Dimmond Garden Party. Cold as a grave, they say. With a mate like stone, it’s no wonder he’s chased himself up the sister’s skirts!”
Will drew closer slowly, drawing a deep breath to calm himself.
“Still, to chop her beautiful hair—”
“I beg your pardon, ladies,” Will said, noting how the froze when they saw him there. He inclined his head to them, little though they deserved it, and said, “I believe you are gossiping about my sister.”
“Yes,” Will said. “The Lady Rathmore, my sister, who you seem to believe is here this evening? Compliments of my husband, was it?”
“M-my Lord, we—”
“I do not want excuses, ladies, nor apologies which carry no weight,” Will said, troubled. “What I do want, however, is for you to hold your peace on the subject of my sister, whose affairs are entirely her own business and none of yours, and to ensure that you do not connect her in so unseemly a fashion with my own husband, who has been good enough to bring me here despite his own reluctance, no doubt knowing better than I what manner of company I might expect!”
Silence greeted him, shocked and ashamed.
“If you have paid one moment’s attention, then you have seen for yourself how my husband indulges me,” Will said, softening his tone some. “And knowing now that I am the brother, and not the sister, then you understand that your gossip is entirely baseless, do you not?”
“We do, my Lord,” came the prompt reply, the other woman nodding with vehemence, the third on the verge of a distressed Moment.
“Whatever this conjecture is regarding Lord Rathmore’s fortunes, or lack of such, it is entirely unrelated to my husband or myself,” Will pressed, insistent on that point, though resolving to find out for himself the state of his sister’s fortune. “Please refrain from speaking so unkindly regarding those whom you do not know, for fear your behavior will prevent you an opportunity to better yourself through their acquaintance.”
He turned away without acknowledging their stammering apologies, satisfied that he had made his point and refusing to allow the exchange to ruin his evening. He resumed his search for Hannibal and finally managed to catch the barest flash of gold across the room from the corner of his eye.
He stretched up, catching Hannibal’s eye, his annoyance and irritation evaporating when his husband drew back into the crowd and vanished out onto the terrace beyond an open archway.
Will followed with a small smile, wondering what his husband was up to. He fanned himself until he reached the terrace and the cold, foggy night air blew against him in a heavenly caress after the heated squeeze of the ballroom. The terrace, however, was empty, giving him only a view of the city below through a haze of fog and misty lights.
Will dropped his fan and tipped his head to the cool air, sighing with relief but wondering where on earth his husband had gone off to.
“You seem as if you are enjoying yourself.”
Will turned to find Hannibal leaning against the building in the shadows, just watching him.
“I am,” he confirmed, relieved that he was here, after all. “And what of you, sir?”
“I find that the sight of my mate laughing and delighted is quite possibly the most fascinating thing I have ever beheld,” Hannibal said, pushing away from the wall to draw closer. “Even when he is not dancing with me.”
Will cocked his head, encouraged by his words. “It would be rude to refuse to dance with those who asked.”
Hannibal held out his hand, then, and said, “Will you dance with me now?”
“Here?” Will asked, laughing softly but intrigued. Never one to resist a challenge, he put his hand in Hannibal’s and allowed himself to be pulled into a close hold.
The music was muted by distance and the roar of the crowd within, but the steady thump of their hearts beat a rhythm made just for them and they swayed softly to it, gazing at one another in the moonlight.
“Your hold is quite irregular, sir,” Will whispered, his hand resting on Hannibal’s arm, which wrapped his waist with a possessiveness that was not at all unpleasant.
“The effect you have on me is even moreso,” Hannibal murmured, squeezing him just a bit closer. “I have never been so desperate for another’s touch, so filled with joy at the sight of another’s smile. I have never longed so deeply for anything than I have longed to simply watch you, Will, and enjoy the world through your delight. For the first time in my life, I clearly understand what it means to value another over oneself, and find satisfaction in giving rather than taking.”
Will swallowed hard, releasing a soft, embarrassed laugh. “You flatter me, sir, I—”
“It is no flattery, Will,” Hannibal whispered, bringing him to a stop there in the small pocket of privacy of the terrace, his hands warm on Will’s skin and his eyes alight with hunger. “You’re unmaking me, knot by knot, bit by bit.”
He shifted, drawing Will’s hand to his chest and settling in there, pressed flat over his heart so that Will could feel the steady thunder within, picking up and racing at his touch.
“And what am I making of you, Hannibal?” he asked, lifting his gaze, his head tilting ever so slightly.
“A man,” Hannibal told him, his lips whispering over Will’s, the soft exhale of his breath tickling over his skin.
Will closed his eyes, a fine tremble of anticipation sweeping through him. He slid his hand from Hannibal’s heart to his jaw, cupping his face. His breath picked up in response to the sudden quickening of his heart and he wet his lower lip with the bare tip of his tongue, impatient and nervous and elated.
Hannibal’s gloved fingers curled beneath his chin, urging his head up. Will’s breath escaped in a rush when Hannibal nuzzled him there, just beneath his jaw, drawing in his scent like fine perfume.
“What you do to me,” Hannibal whispered, mouth and tongue whispering over Will’s skin, tasting the salt of his sweat and the flavor of his scent at long last. Will shuddered in his arms and it woke something primal in Hannibal to feel his mate so moved. He pulled Will tighter to him, grazing a kiss up the curve of his jaw to find the delicate lobe of his ear. He drew it between his teeth in a gentle bite, shuddering when Will’s sturdy, perfect body arched up from instinct, a soft gasp escaping him. “You have no idea what you do to me…”
“I’m starting to,” Will breathed, tipping his head when Hannibal’s hand swept down his neck, the leather of his gloves slick and warm on his skin. He was glassy-eyed and flushed when Hannibal drew back just enough to look at him. His full mouth curved into a smile and he warned, “Do not ask me, Hannibal…”
“As you are my husband,” Hannibal purred, backing Will against the balustrade. “I will do as you say…”
“Then kiss me,” Will told him, the long hours of dancing, of being so aware of one another, of touch and scent all wearing his patience to a thread that snapped beneath the press of his husband’s warm lips.
This wasn’t a night for hesitance. Their kiss beneath the afternoon sun had been gentle and warm and careful.
Their kiss beneath the moonlight was fierce, hungry, and insistent, daring in the place of caution, bolstered by a night of joy and wrapped in the surety of shared delight.
Will returned every stroke of Hannibal’s tongue, every nibble of teeth, every teasing suck, shuddering at the way his husband groaned in response, pushing harder against him in a blatant display that thrilled Will more than shocked him. His breath came out in a rush when Hannibal’s hand slid beneath his jacket, delving under his blouse.
When he touched the hard stays beneath, Hannibal moaned, “Is that a corset?”
The question was half lost in a gasp, in a drawn breath, in the way Will tugged on his lower lip with keen little teeth instead of answering him.
“Gods, what you do to me,” Hannibal breathed, his kisses deep and devouring but still gentle, still aware that the coy Courtier in his arms was no more coached in seduction than he himself was.
But he certainly seemed to be making a go of it, with enough success that Hannibal abandoned himself to his mate’s fevered kisses.
It was Will who eased back, tipping his chin to bare his throat. Hannibal delved beneath his jaw and rubbed his teeth over that sweet place where Will’s scent was strongest. Will purred with deep satisfaction, a soft vibration of sound that seemed exquisitely tuned to provoke an immediate and rather startling response from his husband.
“You are profoundly Uncommon, Will,” Hannibal said, the words shaky but full of contentment.
“And Confounding?” Will asked, a breathless whisper in his ear.
“And Unusual,” Hannibal murmured, grinning. “And entirely Unpredictable, especially when you are agitated.”
“I am not agitated at present, Lord Clarges, so you are quite safe,” Will told him, enjoying the way his skin prickled with sensation as Hannibal trailed a kiss up his cheek
“I must admit that I am,” Hannibal told him, chuckling. “I fear that I am in no state to return to the ballroom.”
Will blinked, then blushed, but he didn’t pull away. He was certainly feeling rather appreciative himself, though it was tempered somewhat with his nerves.
“Given the circumstances, neither am I,” Will said, catching his breath with difficulty. “And you claim you have no interest in carnal pursuits, my Lord.”
“No more interest than you have in kisses, my Lord,” Hannibal murmured into his ear, grinning at the breathless way Will laughed.
“I am beginning to see their appeal,” Will told him, leaning back, though he stayed pressed belly to belly to his husband. He looked out over the city, content to be there looking down at the soft glow of the lamps and haze of the fog with Hannibal’s arm tight around his waist. He could not imagine feeling more at peace than he was in this moment, his worries and cares a lifetime away and unable to harm him, a possible future he could hardly dare to hope for.
The great clock struck the hour, the chime faint but clear.
“Three o’clock,” Hannibal said, nuzzling the delicate ear peeking out from Will’s curls. “There will be dinner soon, if you wish to stay.”
Will smiled, eyes half closing when his husband scented him again, drawn over and over to his throat in search of what was normally so elusive. He realized just how tired he was now that the Courtier had left him, burned away from the heat of Hannibal’s kisses to leave him just himself again.
“Perhaps something at Chelsea House? Provided your agitation subsides?” he asked, the suggestion shy and soft, vulnerable in the aftermath of exposing himself so entirely. He felt his father’s censure like a storm banking on the horizon, a looming threat at the display he’d made of himself, both in his costume and in his husband’s arms. There was a quaver of uncertainty in his voice when he said, “I have enjoyed myself to exhaustion, it seems. I have risen this early, but never stayed up this late.”
Hannibal saw the hairline crack in him, the small ripple that moved ahead of dreaded and unwelcome doubt. He refused to allow it, and kissed the corner of Will’s mouth, asking, “Have you danced holes in your shoes yet, my little Wolf?”
“Not quite as yet,” Will said, turning to face him, smiling when he was given another sweet, gentle kiss on his lips that chased back the whisper of father’s voice and his own disbelief at the liberties he’d allowed Hannibal to take with him, in public no less. When Hannibal drew away, reluctant but resolute, Will said with cautious encouragement, “Perhaps next time, my Lord.”
It filled Hannibal with pleasure to hear him even hint at a future together, and he stepped back to give Will a graceful, albeit rather careful bow before he straightened and offered his arm.
“Then I shall escort you home, my Lord,” he said, and Will took his arm with a smile. “But you shall have to walk in front of me, Will, unless you prefer I make a spectacle of my—”