31 Overcoming

Overcoming Header 31



Hannibal remained disturbed and unhappy on his walk back up to Marsham Heath, his mind occupied with the issue of Francis and the knowledge that so many children had gone missing. He had never imagined he would be bringing Will from one desperate situation to another, and was momentarily flummoxed on how best to proceed. Will would refuse to leave now that renovations were underway, at least at first, and it clearly was not safe in the Capital with Mason at large. Galley Field was an option but not one he wished to impose on Will so soon, and the other holdings in their hands were much farther away.

He was so occupied in his thoughts that the wet nose rubbing against his hand came as a surprise, as did Will asking, “Hannibal? Is everything alright?”

“No, it isn’t, actually,” Hannibal readily admitted, pausing on the path as Will reached him. He and Winston approached from a side lane where a little group of cottages sat in the distance, picturesque but isolated. Hannibal admired him for a moment, enjoying having his beautiful mate so near and finding that the sight of Will calmed him, even if the strange scent from the smokehouse in the distance made his nose sting. “Forgive me, I didn’t hear you come.”

“You were concentrating very hard,” Will remarked, frowning as he saw the worry on his husband’s face. “I sent the guard packing when I caught sight of you, before you ask. I am safe enough within shouting distance of such a ferocious beast.”

His blue eyes flicked to Hannibal’s face when he added, “And I had Winston with me, as well.”

Hannibal chuckled and rested his arm behind Will’s back with a happy sigh, his heart thundering when Will leaned into him. They stood there for a moment before resuming their journey home in comfortable, close contact, Winston busying about in the bushes along the way.

“I have had some unsettling news, Will,” Hannibal said, deciding to relate the more pressing matter. He could do nothing personally for those children except apply to the Capital for help, but Francis was a problem they could sort together, even if there was just as big a chance of Will rising to the Alpha’s defence as there was of his being equally worried. “It seems that the two men Magistrate Crawford dispatched to follow Francis at my request have turned up dead.”

Will’s mouth bowed down in troubled contemplation and he leaned just a bit closer, seeking the comfort of Hannibal’s touch. “How were they found?”

“Washed up in the river,” Hannibal said. “Their throats had been cut.”

Will said nothing for a long time, their silence broken only by Winston’s happy investigation and occasional gruff barks.

“You think Francis killed them, don’t you?” Will finally asked.

Hannibal considered the question, but merely asked, “Don’t you?”

Will sighed, weighty and unhappy but resigned. He nodded, admitting, “I think there is a good chance that he might have, Hannibal, if he was doing something we would not approve of and realized people were following him. I have no desire to condemn a man without evidence, nor hold his history of violence against him, but something in me fears to disregard the warnings as they come and there is little room to find coincidence in their deaths.”

“If Francis is capable of brutally killing two men, then I cannot decide what worries me more—your sister’s safety if we return him to her,” Hannibal said, drawing Will around the side of Marsham Heath onto the garden path, “or what on earth she had him doing that he felt he must kill to keep her secret.”

“You’re assuming he didn’t lie about being on her orders,” Will said, his voice subdued and low. The canopy of trees overtook them as they moved around the house and through the small but lovingly-tended garden. It was peaceful there with the bees humming around the vibrant flower beds, with birds and squirrels about their busy business in the treeline. It was a relief to breathe the fresh air and feel the quiet of the country after the bustle of the city, but Will found he could not enjoy it as he wanted, not with so many things weighing on his mind. “It’s a sobering situation and I believe it is one which I must leave in Mina’s hands. I will write a letter to her, detailing what has happened, and I will send Francis to deliver it. If she feels threatened or uneasy, the staff of Hartford can fetch the constable and have him removed. If she is happy to keep him… I will worry when the answer comes, I suppose.”

“That seems the best course,” Hannibal said, relieved that his mate was reliably sensible in most things that didn’t include dogs.

“Should Mina desire his absence,” Will said, giving Winston more play on his rope, “then I want to assist him in finding work.”

Hannibal glanced at him, brows up in question.

“Francis helped me during a very difficult time in my childhood,” Will said, and vague as it was Hannibal knew precisely what he was talking about. “Had he not done so, there is no telling what might have happened to either of us, or what he might have become.”

“Humanity has a gift for violence, Will, but it is not a trait everyone nurtures,” Hannibal said, taking him down the gravel path towards the modest stable. “Francis is who he is. His circumstances aside, no one has ever forced his hand to turn against his fellow man. Just as no external force turned your father’s hand against you.”

Will flinched but nodded, and said, “I know, it’s only that… I feel responsible for him.”

“If your sister decides not to keep Francis in her household, then I will see to it that he is given a position in the north,” Hannibal said, covering Will’s hand where it rested on his arm. “His behavior worries me and his interest in you is troubling, whatever he claims.”

One of the stable boys caught sight of them arriving and scurried to get the groom, who came out to meet them on the path, smiling and curious.

“Can I do something for you, my Lords?”

“Yes, you can,” Hannibal said. “As you can see, we acquired a dog in the city. He needs a proper collar and lead, and he definitely needs a wash.”

“I’ll get it sorted, my Lord,” the groom said, gesturing one of the little stable boys to his side. “The lads’ll have him spiffed up and a proper polished gentleman by tea time.”

“Thank you,” Will said, offering one of his rare, unguarded smiles. He bent to scratch Winston behind the ears and told him, “Behave for him, Winston, hear?”

Winston, however, growled as the stranger reached for him, surprising them all. Will tightened his grip on the lead instinctively as Winston jerked his head, frozen in stunned horror when the frayed rope snapped and broke free from the dog’s neck. Winston carried through on his momentum and dashed off into the woods without heeding Will’s startled, upset cry of his name.

“Don’t worry too much, my Lord,” the groom said, seeing the visible distress on Will’s face as he ran a few steps after Winston, drawing to a stop when the dog’s bushy tail vanished into the undergrowth. “There’s naught in the woods that will hurt him no more. Big predators has all been pushed out for lack of prey. He’ll wear himself out and come right back here.”

“I certainly hope you’re right,” Will said, craning to peer into the dense woods even though it was quite hopeless. “He isn’t used to the countryside.”

Hannibal lay a reassuring hand on his shoulder, also looking in the direction Winston had gone, but the forest was dense and impenetrable. “He’ll get hungry and come back, Will, once he tires himself out chasing squirrels.”

“I hate to think I brought him to a strange place only to lose him entirely,” Will said, his anxiety almost palpable. He drew the rope between his hands, stricken by the idea that he might have caused the poor animal’s unfortunate death. “I couldn’t stand to think he might… meet a bad end because of my being selfish.”

“He won’t meet a bad end without that rope tied around his neck, and you certainly aren’t selfish,” Hannibal assured him. “He’ll be back, Will.”

“That’s right, m’Lord!” the groom said, eager to allay his fears. He plucked the rope from Will’s hands and tossed it at the stable boy to get rid of it. “A faithful heart always brings you back home, don’t it? He’s just scared a bit, that’s all. I’ll get the things ready and send one of the boys up with them, so you’ll have them when he comes back, hm?”

“Thank you, that is very kind,” Will said, reluctant to leave for fear that Winston might come back and not be able to find him, but as Hannibal reminded him, a dog’s nose was of far more use than a person’s. Winston would be able to trail Will wherever he went if he was of a mind to. It had to settle the situation for the moment, and Will had to content himself with hoping that they all were right and Winston would find his way home.

The frightened defection of Winston left Will unsettled and in need of an outlet, which writing to Mina did little to satisfy. He kept it simple and direct, explaining the events surrounding Francis’ absence and the concern it caused.

I find that the wisest course, dear Mina, is to return Francis to you, as he is more a danger to my peace of mind than any unknown assailant is to my safety. If you did not send him to the Capital on your business, if you feel you are no longer safe in his company, please go at once to His Grace and simply say so. Francis will be given lodgings down in Hartford Town until Hannibal can arrange suitable employment for him in the North.

The other possibility is one I dare not entertain, but must address. Mina, if you have sent Francis on some task and he has felt compelled to murder two men to protect the secrecy of your interests—if he did, indeed, murder them in truth—then I pray that you would confide in me what manner of unsavory situation you are embroiled in and allow my husband and I to assist you. You are my sister. We shared a womb before we shared a cradle, and there is no horror of deed that could affect my love for you. I will do everything in my power to help you, no matter what.

He closed with his usual well wishes and love and prepared the letter for sending, taking a deep breath to steady his nerves. He wished he had accepted Hannibal’s offer to remain with him, but his husband had his own letters to write and he had no desire to alarm Francis. He also had no certainty that Francis had done anything wrong in the least, but his instincts warned him that something simply wasn’t right. Given the revelation of the connection Francis claimed, Will could not feel easy with him.

It was in everyone’s best interests to send Francis away—two Alphas near an unmated Omega could only be playing havoc with everyone’s senses and Will knew he was making the right decision… yet a part of him truly felt for Francis Dolarhyde. They shared the unhappy reality of a bond forced by violent circumstances, each from a different end but resulting in the same unfortunate connection. Whatever Francis was guilty of, whatever he did or did not do, Will hoped that separation would grant him a little more peace than being in the presence of something he would never have.

Determined, he took his finished letter and went to his door to find Francis in his usual place on the landing, pensive and glowering in his constant state of watchful agitation.

“Mr. Dolarhyde,” Will said, retreating to formality. He held the letter out and Francis looked at it as if Will offered him an asp instead.

Will took a step forward and Francis reached for it, reluctant, his blue eyes searching Will’s face for a clue to his thoughts. “I need you to take this to my sister.”

“You wish me to leave you?” Francis asked, the words sharp with dismay. The wood smoke scent of his skin crisped to sulfur in an instant, agitation filling the muscular bulk of his body.

“I wish you to deliver that letter to my sister’s hands personally,” Will said, ignoring the flutter of upset in his chest that rose in response. “It is important to me that she receive it in all haste.”

Francis’ hand shook as he stared at the letter. His gaze flicked to Will’s face and he said, “You’re unhappy.” It had the hard edge of accusation, of suspicion and offense that Will would dare demand something of him that induced such a feeling.

“I am,” Will admitted, knowing well enough it was no use to lie. “It distresses me to cause anyone pain, Francis… and I fear I’ve caused you pain.”

“My pain is of no matter, my Lord,” Francis said. “Your safety—”

“My safety is ensured by my husband, Mr. Dolarhyde,” Will told him, heading his argument off. “As it should be.”

Francis subsided. He tucked the letter into his breast pocket, disturbed and uneasy, a glowering, blue-eyed dragon with empty talons, bereft of his treasure.

“Please pack your valise,” Will said, his voice quiet but firm, breathing softly lest that brimstone scent scorch his lungs to crumbling coal. “Anything you leave behind will be packed for you and sent on.”

Francis smiled, a bitter and small thing that spoke to his deep disquiet. “You mean to be rid of me.”

“I mean to release you from your charge, Francis,” Will said, using his given name on impulse. “I know how difficult your… particular set of circumstances can be. I will spare you what unhappiness I can.”

“And what of your unhappiness, my Lord?” Francis asked, head bowed but shoulders tight with tension.

“I have been happy with Hannibal, Francis, and very much so,” Will said, and asked with a troubled frown, “Can you not sense it?”

Francis looked up sharply at him, eyes narrowed. He held Will’s gaze for a long, tense moment, finally looking away when Will refused to break contact first. He bowed his head to Will, stiff formality overtaking him, and said, “I will deliver your letter, Lord Clarges.”

“Thank you, Mr. Dolarhyde.”

Will watched him go, fighting the nervousness that gripped him as Francis vanished on his duty, knowing without a doubt that he had not seen the last of Francis Dolarhyde and wishing that their parting could have come some other, far more pleasant way.

His search for Hannibal in the wake of Francis leaving took Will to Mr. Wells’ office and the Lords Clarges spent the remainder of the afternoon in busy pursuit of progress to distract them from the weight of their worries. They and Mr. Wells met with their new work crew, deciding on where best to run the pipes and trying to finalize when the second crew could begin on the interior, running gas lines and piping for their updates. There was no time or occasion to talk of other things, for which both of them were grateful.

It was taxing work in the details, which Hannibal found as diverting as he found his husband’s sharp intelligence. Will’s mind continuously impressed him. The serious little Omega never forgot a single thing he was told, for good or for ill, and easily relayed from memory what Mr. Wells had to check for in his notes. But it was fascinating and exhausting, and both of them were glad of the distraction after the events of the day.

Dinner that evening was a quiet affair in the dreaded dining room after baths to soak off their busy day. They were undisturbed by anyone and the peaceful quiet allowed the two of them to exchange the other matters that had occurred—the absence of Francis Dolarhyde as well as the disturbing information Jack had shared with Hannibal in Moseley.

Will took the news of the disappearances with his usual somber calm, only the furrow between his brows speaking of his worry.

“Needless to say,” Hannibal said, lingering over his after-dinner brandy. “I have packed Berger off with a pile of letters already this evening. What a sorry, ugly mess, in all.”

“And you could not imagine much of interest ever happens here,” Will said, reminding him of his words their first morning at Marsham. “There are seven girls, to date?”

“Yes,” Hannibal said, knowing very well that Will recalled it, but confirming all the same. “I thank my lucky stars that you do not share their traits. It is damnably unlucky that we fled one would-be killer only to find ourselves in the presence of one in practice. You do seem to attract trouble, Will.”

“I certainly hope you are including yourself in that statement,” Will said, tapping the table with his sharp fingernail so that Hannibal grinned, pleased to be scolded.

“Oh, I always include myself in anything involving my beautiful mate,” Hannibal said, reaching across the table to twine his fingers with Will’s. “But it is frightening to think that there is someone here in Moseley who is taking children for gods alone know what sort of horrors.”

“I do not like Mr. Hobbs very much, but I am grateful Abigail is with him just now,” Will said, turning his hand in Hannibal’s, an idle play of fingers as his thoughts grew heavy. “She has the same look as the other girls. She probably was friends with no few of them. As distasteful and rude as he was, Mr. Hobbs seemed to be deeply dedicated to her.”

“Alpha males do tend to be somewhat fierce when it comes to their offspring,” Hannibal reminded him.

“She isn’t his in the biological sense,” Will said, the words absent as an afterthought. “Abigail was adopted as a baby. Mrs. Hobbs confided that he is unable to sire children. No Omega would have him, she said. It was… it was a terribly sad story to hear from her.”

“Sterile?” Hannibal echoed, brows rising. “It is no wonder he behaved so strangely towards you, Will, considering you are in your prime and as yet unbonded.”

Will flushed at that, but Hannibal put it down to nerves, telling him, “A sterile Alpha’s scent betrays them, even to other Alphas. It may be that his own sensitivity to scent has strengthened in the search for a compatible match.”

“Mrs. Hobbs did ask me if I was bothered by the smell of bread yeasts,” Will said, remembering how fragile and nervous she’d seemed. “Perhaps it is as you said. What an awful stress that must put on him. I would avoid Omegas, too, were I him.”

“It is a blessed unhappy situation and little wonder his behavior caused you concern,” Hannibal agreed, leaving a brandy-tinged kiss on Will’s fingertips. “What on earth did you say to inspire such confidences from Mrs. Hobbs, having only just met?”

“I tried to put her at ease by asking about Abigail and she told me everything. It seems to burden her, the poor woman. She believed my interest to have a more sinister purpose related to Abigail’s adoption,” Will said, thoughtful. “She said that Abigail has expressed an interest in finding her birth parents, which has understandably upset them all. Mr. Hobbs was incensed that day in the woods when I mentioned Abigail by name, and Mrs. Hobbs was so very nervous when I visited this afternoon. Are you certain the Lecters have had no dealings with the Hobbs?”

“As certain as I am that your eyebrows are very thoughtful right now,” Hannibal said, smoothing a fingertip of one of the brows in question, which was drawn down in a frown over Will’s eye.

The frown cleared at the touch, but his concern did not.

“Bella said they shelter her enormously, perhaps they simply do not like strangers taking too much interest in a child they have raised as their own?” Hannibal offered.

“It seems something more than that,” Will breathed. “Abigail is searching for where she came from. Perhaps they fear someone will come looking for her, instead.”

“It will all come out in time,” Hannibal said, just gazing at him for a long, appreciative moment before he gained his feet and offered to escort Will upstairs.

“This has been an entirely Uncommon day,” Will sighed, not in any hurry to end it all the same. They came to his door and he leaned against the frame, casting a glance out at the darkness beyond the hallway window. “I do hope Winston is safe.”

“And I do hope I have not filled your head with haunts for the evening,” Hannibal said, leaning there next to him, glittering affection in his amber gaze.

“Seven missing children who could all be sisters in appearance?” Will asked, and added with a smirk, “No, of course not! How silly to think something such as that should bother me.”

“If you get frightened, you can always come sleep with me,” Hannibal offered.

“Is that an offer for comfort, Lord Clarges?” Will inquired, his full mouth curving into a smile. “Or do you wish to better make my acquaintance through an absence of clothing?”

“Perhaps,” Hannibal murmured, and tipped his head towards Will’s.

The newel post lamp was lit, the only light in the darkened hallway. The distant glow of its warm orange light cast shadows on the planes of Hannibal’s face, throwing dark hollows beneath the curve of his cheekbone and pooling at the corner of his mouth.

Will’s smile faded as his lips parted, his lids dropping to shield his blue eyes. He felt the irresistable urge to kiss Hannibal’s lips to find out if they tasted of brandy and darkness.

Hannibal’s warm breath teased his mouth when he asked, “May I?”

Will tipped his head and captured Hannibal’s mouth instead, turning to cup his cheek with one hand, the other falling to Hannibal’s waist as he stepped close.

The exquisite pull and gentle urgency of lips and tongue would never cease to be as blissfully exciting as it had been the first time. Each kiss seemed a first kiss, in truth—just as thrilling, just as nerve-wracking, just as deeply fulfilling.

It was a soft embrace of flesh and scent, confirmation that they were here, that they were together. This pleasant escape was a tender reminder that for all the horrors outside these walls, they were warm and alive and reaching for one another, a much-needed comfort for them both.

It brought such a rush of trembling relief to him that Will was hardly aware of Hannibal’s hands at his back, tugging him close until they pressed into each other, tense and trembling.

Something shifted in the kiss, the reassurance overcome by desire. Every plunge of Hannibal’s tongue within his mouth, every answering press of his own, every half-smothered moan that escaped them both only to be swallowed between them, all of it stoked the fevered weight in Will’s belly, fed by the answering ache of hunger flooding him from his bond to Hannibal.

“Will,” Hannibal whispered, breaking the kiss to suck on his lower lip, his sharp teeth grazing his silken skin. “You will be the undoing of me.”

Will bit him in response, a tease of teeth and a flick of his tongue before he pulled back, his breath coming in ragged pants. They rested there, forehead to forehead, and Will stroked his cheek once more before he murmured, “Sweet dreams, Lord Clarges.”

Hannibal closed his eyes and sighed, but he was smiling, pleased with their little game and Will’s determination. He squeezed Will to him, undeniable evidence of his interest apparent in brief, tight contact that made Will’s breath catch. But like the gentleman he was, Hannibal released him and stepped back to get the door for him.

“Goodnight, Lord Clarges,” he said, gesturing Will within.

Will moved into his suite and closed the door, leaning on it. When he heard Hannibal softly say, “By all the gods, certainly the undoing of me,” he bit his lip against a pleased, happy grin.

Will drew on the enjoyment and relief of that kiss as he began to undress for bed. He’d only just managed to peel his clothes off down to his shirt and pants when a muted knock came at the door. He could hear Hannibal in his own suite, so he moved cautiously to ask, “Yes? Who is it?”

“It’s Jimmy,” came the reply, and Will opened the door to find his valet there waiting. He sheepishly smiled and said, “I figured I should knock from now on, just in case. But I wanted to tell you that your dog is back.”

“He is?” Will asked, a flare of relief shooting through him.

“He was scratching at the back entrance,” Jimmy said, pleased to see him so happy. “He’s filthy as can be, so Cook fed him some roast and put him in the coal room for the night with a water bucket.”

“The coal room?” Will asked, dismayed. “Was that really necessary?”

“He’s been rolling in gods know what and all you can see of him are his eyes,” Jimmy whispered, chuckling. “He gave Cook quite a start! But he’s right as rain and very glad to be in out of the woods, poor city boy! I’ll have the groom give him a scrub come morning and bring him to you.”

“Thank you, Jimmy, it’s quite a relief to know he’s come back and he’s not hurt,” Will said, whispering, too, so as not to disturb Hannibal.

“Do you need some help?” Jimmy offered, spying Will’s state of undress. There was a twinkle in his blue eyes when he added, “Or is his Lordship helping y—”

Go to bed, Jimmy,” Will scolded, closing the door with a soft laugh. He moved back to the dressing room to finish undressing and get himself to bed, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Winston spending the night in the coal room, even if it was probably the nicest room he’d ever found himself in to now.

Resolved, Will waited until his husband’s suite fell silent and then he took up his lamp. Dressed only in his nightshirt and robe, he sneaked back downstairs barefoot in the dark, the contours of Marsham Heath rearranging into sinister shadows by lamplight, stark and unfamiliar.

The coal room was just off the kitchen, separated by a short passage to keep the dust down. Will eased open the door and Winston lifted his head from his paws, his eyes bright and alert but his tail thumping up a cloud of dust.

“You have to be quiet,” Will whispered, pressing his finger to his lips. “Winston, come.”

The dog obeyed, more at the firm hand gesture than at the unfamiliar name. He kept close as Will fired the boiler again, feeding it coal enough to warm the tank up before it would burn out. The dog didn’t so much as sniff sideways at anything, cowed by the strange sights and smells of the indoors. He followed Will back upstairs and into the washroom, only whining a little when Will closed the door.

“It’s okay,” Will whispered to him, settling the lamp in its ornate grip. “Let’s get you cleaned up, hm? And then we’ll both of us have a nice sleep.”

He pushed the pump handle, wincing at the shriek it gave that seemed loud as a siren in the silence, the splatter of heated water like thunder in the aged porcelain tub. Winston flattened his ears and retreated to the corner, leaving a little pattering of doggie footprints across the floor.

Will filled the tub only a little and paused, waiting and alert, finally satisfied that he had not disturbed his husband. He stripped off his robe and hung it safely out of danger before rolling up the sleeves on his nightshirt.

“Now, don’t fuss,” he whispered, and hefted Winston into the tub.

Winston whined, uneasy with the whole matter but trusting the man who soothed him. He held perfectly still as Will sluiced water over him, the runoff gritty and muddy with filth almost immediately.

“Good boy,” Will whispered, rubbing his thick ears and muzzle as he worked. “You are a handsome fellow, aren’t you? Hm? And you’ll look much more handsome once you’re cleaned up a bit.”

The dog tried to wag his sodden tail but only succeeded in sloshing water onto Will, who quickly pushed his haunches down and got to work with the soap.

It was relaxing work, mindless, allowing his thoughts to revisit the last few days in exquisite detail. Thoughts of his close call with Mason bothered him and were quickly shunted aside in favor of their night at the Masquerade. He smiled as the night replayed itself at his whim, swaying gently to an imaginary waltz while he knelt next to the tub. He didn’t realize he wasn’t alone, didn’t realize he was humming softly beneath his breath until his husband’s earthy Alpha scent teased him to awareness, solidifying from sense memory to the present.

“Well, well,” Hannibal purred, amused by the picture his little mate made. “What have we here?”

Startled, Will froze in the act of rinsing Winston’s final soaping and said, “This is… precisely what it looks like.”

Hannibal’s brow quirked up at that. He angled a look at Will’s body, the pearly-pink hue of his skin visible beneath his damp nightshirt, one long thigh visibly outlined where water had turned the cloth transparent over the curve of his muscle. He looked like a little naiad kneeling there next to the tub in just his nightshirt and underclothes, water dripping from one curl and running down his kiss-bruised throat, a siren whose promise was balm and delight, worth any shipwreck to reach him.

“Yes, I see,” he said, appreciating Will’s beauty as a feast in itself. “That isn’t all I see, however.”

“Are you ogling me?” Will asked, torn between offense and amusement. A set down died on his lips when he realized his husband had come investigating in nothing more than the loose linen pants he preferred to sleep in, very similar to the ones Will himself usually wore. His broad shoulders and wide chest were bared, as was the furring of silvering hair that trailed down over the slight dome of his belly to vanish in the waist of his pants.

“I think I should ask that question,” Hannibal pointedly said, and Will smiled.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, wrinkling his snub nose in a grin, “I am. I have very few occasions to ogle you, after all.”

“I am always happy to accommodate an ogling from you, Will,” Hannibal said, moving closer to the tub to inspect Winston. “Well, you’re very nearly finished. Here, pull the drain and I’ll fill from the pump. The boiler must be fairly tapped by now, hm?”

“Thank you,” Will said, genuinely touched as his husband joined him, cleaning Winston up and toweling him as dry as his thick, brindled coat would allow for. He behaved himself, only starting to fuss once Hannibal lifted him out of the tub in a towel, though Will easily calmed him with a soft but firm cluck of his tongue.

“You have a way with dogs, Will,” Hannibal observed, smiling slightly as he settled Winston’s wet paws on the slick tile. “Or perhaps you’re simply attracted to things which need your help.”

“Do you need my help, Hannibal?” Will asked, roughing Winston’s jowls with both hands, though his blue eyes were on his husband.

“Are you are attracted to me?” Hannibal asked with a smirk, feeling Will’s eyes tracing the slope of his shoulders again, furtive and aware.

Will chuffed a low, embarrassed laugh, his little Omegan fangs bared in a grin. “I don’t think attraction can be questioned; but I also don’t think either one of us is interested in a quick-burning bonfire.”

“Nothing so banal as that could ever bring us satisfaction,” Hannibal murmured, reaching out to smooth Will’s hair back from his forehead, smiling at the way he leaned into his touch ever so little. “But if you are ever so inclined, there is no law saying we can’t enjoy feeding our little flame.”

Will turned his face just slightly, scenting Hannibal’s wrist. Even through damp dog, soap, and well water, the mouth-watering flavor of his Alpha scent rose to the top and Will drew it in, exhaling on a soft sigh.

“What would you feed it?” he asked, his hands idly stroking the restless dog’s head. He looked at Hannibal from beneath the heavy fringe of his lashes, his gaze all the more sultry for its innocence.

“Anything,” Hannibal said, his voice falling to a husky purr.

“Anything?” Will echoed, brows rising. “Even though I am not yet decided on accepting… the fullness of your advances?”

“Your decisions are your own,” Hannibal confirmed. “I am content to wait until such time as you decide, preferably in my favor. Being near you is a pleasure of its own, Will. Everything else is a gift that is yours to give when it pleases you.”

It gave Will a visceral thrill to hear it, to have acknowledgement that there was this vast and voracious attraction between them that pleasures of the flesh were incidental to, something to be experienced as a culmination of their mutual regard, enriching it all the more.

“With every gesture you make, every flutter of your eyelashes, every touch of your tongue to your lip, every lift of your eyes to mine when you look at me clear to my depths, you’re feeding it,” Hannibal said, the admission felt as much as heard. “To hold you? To be near you? Croesus himself would envy my fortune.”

Will leaned into his touch just a fraction more before retreating, his blue eyes almost brown in the lamplight, the most beautiful eyes Hannibal had ever seen. He let his hand fall from Will’s cheek and straightened, satisfied that he had made himself clear. Will’s eyes tracked him, noting how he opened the doors, first to his own suite and then to Will’s, the option standing just as wide.

Will hadn’t a chance to ponder the significance—Winston saw his opportunity and made a break for it. He bounded out of the washroom, straight across Will’s bed, and dove beneath the skirt on the corner writing desk.

“Winston! Oh, look at what you’ve done,” Will said, staring at the bedding marred with wet paw prints and a trail of sooty drips. It struck him funny somehow, his long day and the absurdity of what had just happened colliding to create a burble of amusement that he simply couldn’t hold back. He laughed, horrified but amused, and Hannibal glowered at the scene before him.

“I am so sorry,” Will said, gasping for breath but unable to stop laughing. “Oh, gods, what a mess!”

Hannibal turned back towards his suite and for a moment Will was certain he was going to walk right past him and call it a night.

Instead, he scooped Will up by the waist and carried him into his bedroom, leaving the doors standing wide behind him.

They fell in a tangle on Hannibal’s bed, exhausted and laughing and damp from Winston’s bath, unable to put up a moment more of fight.

“This is nice,” Will sighed, his legs tangled with Hannibal’s, his husband’s strong arms tight around him. His fingers twined in the hair over Hannibal’s heart, teasing and light until they stilled, his breathing evening out.

“Are you sleeping already?” Hannibal asked, drawing a deep breath as his lids fluttered closed.

“Mmm… you smell like a wet dog,” Will said, the words half a sigh as he snuggled against Hannibal’s body, the chill from his damp clothes vanishing with Hannibal’s Alpha heat.

“Should I tell you what you smell like?” Hannibal asked, chuckling when Will nodded and stifled a yawn.

He pressed a kiss to Will’s temple, tender and soft where the faintest trace of his bruise was still visible. With gentle affection, he murmured, “You smell like home.”

– Will smiled, tipping his face to Hannibal’s, letting his lips brush his husband’s when he asked, “And what does home smell like?”

His fingers shifted again, fingernails lightly scratching Hannibal’s chest, an affectionate caress for a sleek, furry cat. Hannibal certainly purred as if he was one, a pleasant rumble that vibrated through Will’s body and down his spine to coil in the pit of his stomach.

“Home smells like sunshine,” Hannibal whispered, stroking Will’s long back in a soothing sweep. “It smells like the heat of your skin when you blush.”

His amber eyes opened, barely able to make out Will’s features in the faint light from the washroom lamp until his sight adjusted.

“It smells like fine wine and the mint of your lips in the morning,” he breathed, a pleasant shiver coursing through him when Will’s mouth pressed to the pulse in his throat, his heart picking up its pace in response. “Home smells like fevered sweetness and rich cream and the faintest trace of salt.”

Those fingers drifted over the curve of his chest, brushing the delicate skin of one nipple so lightly it seemed by accident.

“Sometimes,” Hannibal said, his breathing unsteady as Will’s sensitive fingertips traced the tight nub with gentle intensity. “It smells like wet dog.”

Will chuckled, rolling to hitch his damp, shapely thigh up over Hannibal’s lean hip.

“I expect,” he whispered, trading fingertips for his thumb, teasing Hannibal’s responsive flesh until his nipple stood tight and hard. “That wet dog will be rather more present from now on.”

Hannibal moaned softly, his hand daring to seek out the curve of Will’s bottom, which was every bit as perfect as previously hinted at. He splayed his fingers over the warm, taut muscle, giving him an appreciative squeeze. “Only if you let me join you when you dole out baths. I wouldn’t want to miss a chance to ogle you.”

Will’s low laugh was almost inaudible, fading away to soft silence and desire. He flattened his hand over Hannibal’s chest, feeling the hard kernel of flesh press up against his palm, and stroked him again before stretching slightly, reveling in the heat of Hannibal against him, in his musky scent and strength and the comfort he felt just being so close to him.

Hannibal stretched with him, sweeping his hand up Will’s round bottom to the curve of his lower back, Will’s naked skin warm and inviting beneath the hiked, bunched lip of his nightshirt. Will tensed as Hannibal touched his scars, then subsided, relaxing against him as Hannibal’s large palm swept up his skin and down again in long, soothing strokes.

Pressed belly to belly, it was difficult to mistake the heat that grew between them, all the stronger for being unintended. Their eyes met for just a heartbeat in the gloom before their lips did, bodies drawing together with slow but insistent desire.

Will’s hand curled against the base of Hannibal’s skull without him meaning it to, every inch of him reaching for his husband in the darkness. The play of his tongue was intoxicating, a soft and gentle encouragement to be kissed in return. Will tilted his head and his hips arched, his sex stirring in response, rasping pleasantly against Hannibal’s warm belly. The hand pressing to the base of his spine burned like a brand, spurring Will to press closer. When Hannibal’s palm dropped once more to cup one firm, pert cheek on his backside, Will arched in time with his urging, hips pulsing to press his fattening sex against Hannibal’s belly.

Hannibal broke the kiss, trailing his mouth over Will’s cheek to nip his earlobe, dropping his lips to Will’s throat and covering it with sucking kisses. Will wriggled against him, breathing fast with excitement. He tasted of eager anticipation with a hint of nerves, though the sweet-hot flavor of his desire drowned everything out.

“Will,” Hannibal breathed, squeezing his bottom, so round and firm in his palm, like a ripe peach begging for a bite. The heat of Will’s skin through the texture of his nightshirt and the flimsy excuse of his underclothes brought Hannibal to trembling attention, awed that anyone as perfectly delightful as his mate could exist. His fingers moved of their own will, curling, tracing the cleft of Will’s buttocks to brush between them in cautious exploration, curious and seeking. Hannibal knew the anatomy of an Omega, as any qualified doctor should, but learning the contours of his mate’s toned young body through the thin material of his underpants was a revelation of swelling arousal. His fingers drifted down to the tight ring of Will’s bottom, garnering a stifled, indignant noise that he hushed with deeper kisses. The small stretch of skin between that little pucker and what he sought was smooth, firm, giving way to his entrance, slick, hot, and taut behind the tight weight of his sac.

“Will,” he moaned, his mate arching against him as the touch brushed his full sac, awakening an insistent pulse through the hard heat against him. He sucked on Will’s throat to distract himself, his response to his husband so strong he feared he might embarrass them both.

Will swept his hand down Hannibal’s nape and powerful shoulder, over his hard chest and under his arm to his side. The fingers tracing his slit were startling and exciting, the light sensation of Hannibal’s sensitive fingertips feeling him through his clothing an aching pleasure that teased as much as it satisfied. The sharp teeth that raked lightly over his neck brought a wash of goosebumps to his skin and desire burned in his belly like a live coal—the desire to know and be known, to feel sensation paired to emotion.

To touch Hannibal and be touched in return.

Hannibal found his mouth once more in the darkness and kissed him, a muffled groan escaping him when Will rocked his hips up in a little movement to wriggle closer, the friction an utterly delightful torment.

“I don’t know what to do,” Will whispered, his words broken by his ragged breath, hesitance borne of chronic self-doubt rearing its ugly head to drown him in uncertainty.

“Do whatever you would like to do,” Hannibal murmured, brushing his curved lips over Will’s in a brief, breathless kiss, “except beat me with a trout.”

Will’s delighted laughter was swallowed in another deep, searching kiss and he clung to Hannibal like a lifeline, feeling safe and secure against his broad chest, his uncertainty rapidly wilting in the face of Hannibal’s encouragement. It was thrilling and terrifying to have unfettered access to his husband’s powerful, beautiful body. Will couldn’t resist his impulses, couldn’t deny the deep excitement he felt with every soft moan he earned, every approving kiss, every whispered praise for touches that grew bolder and more inquisitive with each thumping heartbeat.

Will returned Hannibal’s tender worship, returned those lazy, sweet kisses and gentle, seeking touches, chasing a shiver down the valley of Hannibal’s spine, tracing a path over his side to his belly to find where the hair began to thicken as it swept lower. He touched the crease of his groin and shaped it with his fingers, gasping when the strutted thrust of Hannibal’s sex surged against him, awakening an answering throb that echoed inside of him. He felt empty but full, as if this need might unfold from within him like a flower opening petal by petal until he was ready to be plumbed to his depths. His full sac tightened, drawing up to bare the way, and Will moaned when Hannibal curled his fingertips against that small, wet, and waiting place yet again.

The desire to allow it was heady, immediate and insistent like the need he felt during his heat, and all the sweeter for not being so steeped in wretched desperation.

Will’s breath caught on a gasp when Hannibal’s hand slid away from his tight and untried entrance, drifting back to brush the clenched pucker of his bottom before gliding up and over his side. Those gentle, questing fingers moved dangerously close to where Will’s own ready sex tested the bonds of his underclothes, pushing up against the cloth to pulse between their bellies. He wanted it so much, and feared it so much, that touch which might break him for good and all, because surely, surely such sweet pleasure had a price?

But Hannibal didn’t touch him, not then, not yet. He drew back a fraction, a shadow in the darkness with a halo of golden light.

“May I?” he asked, his fingers toying with the hem of Will’s damp nightshirt.

Will nodded, his voice unsteady when he said, “Yes.”

Propped on his elbow, warm and looming in the darkness, Hannibal teased the fine material open bit by bit, revealing Will’s lean, hairless belly as if unwrapping a treasure not meant for mortal eyes.

Hannibal found that Will’s knees, dangerous as they were, could not hold a candle to the expanse of his trim, flat belly. He took his time touching him, feeling the texture of Will’s soft skin, the way his body tightened and shifted at his touch. Will’s breath came out in a stuttering exhale of excitement when Hannibal slid the cloth off of one shoulder, fingers tracing the curve of his chest and mouth parting in soundless approval.

He was perfect. He was poetry given form and breath and life, so achingly beautiful that Hannibal fixed this moment in his mind, greedily hoarding it for those lonely nights when his mate would not have him, for a quiet moment when he could capture Will on paper—half-lidded eyes and parted lips and flushed cheeks an exquisite ode to love.

Will shivered in the sudden cold but Hannibal’s heat chased it away, leaving him secure in his husband’s promise to him—only as far as he wanted and no more. The impulse to touch came on the heels of the impulse to know, as if there was no part of his husband that Will was content to leave in mystery, even down to his skin. Intimacy was something neither one of them was accustomed to or had ever felt was necessary, yet it came to them naturally with one another, and neither wanted to stop it.

Will wriggled his other arm free and flung the nightshirt to the floor, bared to his husband’s gaze but for his underpants. He could feel Hannibal’s amber eyes searching his chest and his nipples tightened in reaction. He bit back a gasp, his hips canting up in a brief, hard friction that made them both shudder hard, and roused his husband once more.

“You are absolutely incredible, Will,” Hannibal murmured, entranced by the plump, large nipples darkening beneath his gaze, twin shadows of color on the pale canvas of Will’s body in the lamplit darkness. There was a fullness to Will’s chest that enticed him, neither masculine nor feminine but perfectly both, perfectly neither. The shape was enhanced by his husband’s active lifestyle, defining the gentle curves of his chest and creating two plump little handfuls offering up his large nipples. Those alluring peaks tightened even more in response to Hannibal’s appreciative gaze and he whispered, “You’re very sensitive, aren’t you?”

Will nodded, wetting his lips, aching with the desire for Hannibal to touch him there. He could feel Hannibal’s pounding pulse echo in the throb of flesh pushing up between his spread legs and was seized with the sudden desire to close his oft-discussed thighs around that tempting bulk until Hannibal came undone.

It left him simultaneously appalled at himself and achingly aroused.

Hannibal lifted his hand to Will’s cheek, turning it to graze his knuckles over the curve of his jaw and down his collarbone. In a throaty whisper, he asked, “Do you touch them?”

“No,” Will answered, blushing but responsive. “It bothers me even when my clothing brushes them so I try not to touch them at all. Jimmy binds them for me.”

What he really wanted to say was that he wanted Hannibal to touch them, and bit his lip to hold it back. He almost couldn’t restrain the noise that threatened to escape him when Hannibal asked, “May I?”

Will nodded, the movement jerky but certain.

Mouth parting in anticipation, Hannibal shifted and bent his head over Will’s body to exhale softly over one ruddy peak, a deep shudder running through him at the thought of what he was about to do. Will moaned, arching his throat up in offering, eyes sweeping closed as the warm heat brushed his hard nipple. He swallowed with difficulty, his fingers squeezing at Hannibal’s shoulder, digging in hard when Hannibal lightly flicked his tongue over the taut peak jutting up as if begging to be teased.

Will sobbed, gasping, straining against Hannibal’s grip and pushing up to feel more of Hannibal’s hot, wet tongue on his sensitive skin. Another stab brought another flush of pleasure and he writhed, his flesh throbbing at the touch, tender and aching.

“You are very sensitive,” Hannibal whispered, a husky deep purr that sent hot breath spilling over Will’s slick nipple. He whimpered, a flush suffusing him from cheeks to knees as his body eagerly responded to Hannibal’s ministrations. The steady, instinctive push of groin against groin tested Hannibal’s strength to the point he wasn’t sure if he could hold back much longer.

Eyes half closed in sensual delight, Hannibal curled his tongue around Will’s nipple and fastened his mouth over it, sucking lightly, lashing the pointed nub with his tongue. He palmed the softness of his chest, cupping him to better lift Will’s heated flesh into his mouth for a gentle graze of his sharp teeth.

Will bucked against him, the scent of his body suddenly stronger as he writhed, a mouth-watering sweetness that Hannibal wanted to devour at its source. Even the thought of it made a surge run through his heavy sex and he suckled harder, Will’s strong hands clenching as he arched against Hannibal’s mouth, pulling on him to force their bodies closer.

Hannibal growled under his breath and shifted them both just enough trail his mouth to Will’s other plump little breast, freeing his hand to touch his other wide nipple, wet-slick and hard. He gently rolled it between thumb and forefinger, moaning at the way Will keened his pleasure aloud, at how his thick scent rose heavy into the air to pluck his instincts like tightly wound strings. It sated him to hear Will cry out like that and drove him to do more, filling him with the Alpha desire to make Will scream so loudly everyone would know he was being drowned in pleasure, so there was no doubt in any mind that he was thoroughly and completely cherished from his curls to his adorable little toes.

Will sobbed when his other nipple was suckled, the pressure of lips and tongue driving him into a frenzy of need. Eyes hazy with desire, his hips rocked with want, rubbing his hard sex against Hannibal’s while he tongued and teased his nipple.

“Hannibal,” he moaned, a deep and languorous sensation uncoiling through him and filling him with sensual delight. Hannibal suckled him harder, a painful pleasure that stole coherent thought and brought him to the trembling cusp of release. “Ah! Oh, gods, Hannibal!”

Hannibal closed his eyes, taking his own pleasure in Will’s soft moans, in the throb of his full sex, in the way those slender fingers flew to tangle in his hair, urging him on and tugging. He had never in his life experienced such heady need, never dreamed that intimacy such as this could exist, that he could exchange his life of stoic removal for this insatiable hunger unique to Will.

Will’s moans hit a pleading, fevered pitch that matched the tightening of his trim body. Hannibal responded by instinct to his mate’s aroused cry and lifted his head to kiss Will’s mouth, tender but ravenous, knowing he hadn’t permission to ease the ache they’d caused in one another.

“Tell me to stop,” he breathed, and meant it, both of them knowing that was all it would ever take. One word, simple and short, but it wasn’t the word Will spoke to him.

“No,” Will whispered instead. “Don’t stop.”

He tipped his head to nuzzle into the scent of Hannibal’s mussed hair, moaning softly when Hannibal’s mouth locked over him again. The draw on his nipple sharpened, an almost-pain that sent his hand flying Hannibal’s nape to hold him there, urging him on. He threw back his head and his wide eyes stared blankly at the ceiling, the whole of him lost in a place where pleasure didn’t have a price, it just came freely for those who would dare to take it.

Hannibal gave him a final suck and pushed his mouth into the crook of Will’s neck, searching out the marks he’d left on him and covering them in kisses before moving on to the graceful sweep of his shoulders, the tempting jut of his collarbone, the bunched muscle of his bicep—every inch he could reach, from the curve of his hip to the fluttering planes of his belly. All of it was precious, all of it was divine and he was driven to pay homage to him. And all the while Will rocked against him, the sweet arch of his body a begging all its own, maddeningly tempting and distracting.

“What you do to me,” Hannibal breathed, teeth closing briefly around the skin of Will’s throat, a slight concession to the instinct that begged him to bite down, to sink fangs and body deep and claim him for good and all.

But it would never be so simple between them, nor so base, and the complexity of it was a challenge they both delighted in.

Emboldened by Hannibal’s soft praise and his own desire, wanting to share instead of simply take, Will reached down between the press of their bodies and skated his searching fingers over the firm, hot bulk of Hannibal’s sex.

Hannibal twitched and Will snatched his hand back, gasping, “I’m sorry—”

The rest of his apology was stifled by the sudden plunge of Hannibal’s tongue in his mouth, lips sealing over his in a hungry kiss. His husband’s fingers moved to grasp his hand and settle his palm lower, more firmly over the bulge that gave a responsive throb against his palm.

Will moaned into the kiss, caressing him, mapping the swollen flesh with his hand, his imagination filling in details that the future might provide him in truth.

Hannibal groaned, pushing against Will, pressing his hand over his again to urge more pressure. Will’s strong fingers shaped him through his thin pants and wrapped around the base of his sex, giving him a firm squeeze that stole Hannibal’s breath and wrung another moan out of him. Those questing fingers found the loose skin of his knot and explored it, dropped lower to drift over the fat bulge of his sac. Hannibal shifted slightly, turning to give Will more room, rewarded by a careful but curious cupping rub that made his belly tighten and his hips arch.

Will marveled at the weight and bulk of him, an Alpha’s physique made for breeding, a remnant physicality from the days when Alphas spread their seed far and wide as fast as they could, as often as they could.

Unwilling to lose even a second of this moment with his beautiful husband, Hannibal distracted himself from the inquisitive, exquisitely determined hand on his body by stroking his little mate’s trim, sturdy body from the curve of his hip to the curve of his jaw. He cupped the slight fullness of his chest as he laved him with tender kisses and teased Will’s pert nipple with cautious force, pleased by the way Will moaned and arched into his touch, his hand squeezing in reflex that wrung a throaty groan from Hannibal’s mouth.

He stifled it by sealing his mouth over Will’s, a raspy, rumbling purr breaking from him. He closed his eyes and lavished Will’s soft lips with attention as his mate’s deft and intuitive fingers found and tested the most sensitive nerves of his foreskin, a blunted touch felt keenly through the fine linen of his pants.

Hannibal returned the favor, a throaty moan breaking from him when he cupped his mate’s sex and his knot began to rise in response to his looming climax.

Full, hot flesh filled his seeking palm, doubling his arousal when Will pushed against him with a sobbing, startled cry of excitement, tongues twined and mouths meshed.

It was far more intimate than either had first intended, and far more enjoyable than they had ever expected. Entwined with his husband, sharing kisses and teasing, coaxing touches until pleasure spilled over into trembling, shared release gasped against each other’s mouths, Will was forced to admit that he was deeply attracted to his mate. It wasn’t their improper bond. It wasn’t even the fact that Hannibal was an exemplary example of an Alpha, strong and virile and in a position of power.

It was the crinkle at the corners of his eyes when he smiled.

It was the way the most minute expression could show on his face, saying so much without saying a word.

It was his laughter, sometimes throaty and abandoned, sometimes merely a deep chuckle.

It was the stark, bone-deep relief in his amber eyes when he swept Will up into his arms and said, ‘Gods, if I had lost you…’

It was the way he frowned when something displeased him, how his thoughts showed in his eyes as he considered ways to change that which he did not like, and how fearlessly and confidently he then changed those things—starting with himself.

It was how much he had already changed, how willing he was to admit what he had done wrong, how eager he was to correct himself and make amends.

It was a thousand little things that, taken as a whole, became a brilliant glow in the darkness of Will’s heart, filling him from the inside out, finding all the cracks and mending them with something far more priceless than gold.

Pleasantly exhausted, thoroughly satiated, the air saturated with their mingled scents and spent sex, Will Lecter-Graham’s heart made its decision, even if his head didn’t know it yet. He felt a vast and bone-deep relief that left him relaxed and content, kissing his husband as the lamp burned out and left them in darkness, still stroking one another through their sticky clothing, still catching their breath.

“Well, I wouldn’t say there was an absence of clothing,” Hannibal murmured, laying kisses up the column of Will’s throat before nuzzling into him, utterly at peace. “But I think we’ve better made one another’s acquaintance.”

Will chuckled, still throbbing with the aftershocks of pleasure, unable to summon an ounce of shock at the liberties he’d allowed his husband to take with his person… or the liberties he’d taken in turn.

“That was rather educational,” he whispered, turning to nuzzle Hannibal back, glad of his heat and the way Hannibal lay draped over him. “I never imagined so much could be accomplished in one’s undergarments.”

Hannibal laughed, a soft rasp of sound in the comfortable silence. He kissed Will’s temple, a hint of concern in his deep voice when he asked, “Are you happy, Will?”

Will shook his head, a smile curving his full lips. “Yes, Hannibal. I am.”

He waited for regret to overtake him, for the worry to settle in, the dread he always felt when something went too well for too long, but it didn’t come. It was as if he was stronger for Hannibal’s presence, braver, less vulnerable to being stripped of what was precious to him. Or perhaps it was simply that he finally had something precious to protect, something too dear to risk losing after all this time.

“It’s yours as long as you desire it, Will,” Hannibal told him, as if sensing the turn of his thoughts. “Nothing will take it from you, not if I can help it.”

He placed hungry, loving, lingering kisses on Will’s brow, his ears, his cheeks, nose, and mouth, on his throat and his shoulders, all the while breathing his name with awed reverence.

Will certainly felt revered, felt treasured.

But more, he felt loved, and what had happened between them was the result of that feeling, not the cause, and just as it should be.

“I will return it to you in excess of you expectations,” Hannibal reminded him, tucking Will close to keep him warm. “For as long as you will have me.”

+ Will smiled and nuzzled Hannibal’s warm throat, content to drift with his husband into the waiting arms of Morpheus.

Morning brought the crew up from village along with Abigail, back from her trip with her father to resume her duties at Marsham Heath. One of Magistrate Crawford’s men accompanied the workers as well, the same young officer who had escorted Will the day before, much to Will’s consternation.

“I don’t want to hear any arguments,” Hannibal said, kissing the frown off of Will’s face as they rose from their breakfast. Will’s initial embarrassment had died a quick and definitive death under Hannibal’s relentless determination not to acknowledge it, though he blushed furiously every time he caught Hannibal looking his way, as if he knew his husband was thinking of last night.

In his defence, Hannibal most certainly was.

“If you will not accompany me today, then someone will be with you in my place,” Hannibal insisted. “One of Jack’s men will remain at Marsham Heath until we return to Hartford, Will. I insist on it”

“This is hardly necessary!” Will said, refusing to be kissed into good humor, though he hoped his husband would continue trying. “Mason Verger is being hunted by your Mr. Tier as we speak and there are far too many people—”

“Will,” Hannibal said, and the gentle reproach in his voice stilled Will’s protests better than the kiss that followed. “I cannot bear the idea of you being in danger and even you must admit that in some things you are terribly impulsive.”

Will’s frown returned full force, but it was more thoughtful this time, less offended. He didn’t resist when Hannibal embraced him, hugging him tight with a little sigh of contentment.

“Please allow it,” Hannibal said, holding his gaze. “For my peace of mind.”

Will heaved a sigh, thoroughly put out, but nodded all the same.

“You could come with me,” Hannibal coaxed, but Will shook his head, saying, “No, there is far too much work to be done and I want to be here for the first stages. Marsham Heath needs delicate handling and I will not have her harmed through inattention.”

Hannibal’s brows shot up and he smiled, saying, “Precisely the argument I should use for you, Will. In fact, when I return, I will try to seduce you.”

“Oh, really?” Will asked, finally cajoled into smiling.

“I will not have you harmed through inattention,” Hannibal teased, earning himself a sharp slap on his flank for his pertness. “Ah, but I hope an entire day without me will make you more amenable to my seduction.”

“I dare hope I might get some work done,” Will said, fishing his spectacles out and putting them on, his gaze pointed. “Off you go.”

Hannibal tipped Will’s head up with a soft touch under his chin and planted a thorough kiss on his full lips, warning him, “I’ll be back soon.”

Will held his gaze for a long moment, the shadow of past partings darkening the vivid blue of his eyes.

But Hannibal felt a thrill of victory when his little mate said with a small smile, “I know you will, Hannibal. A faithful heart always brings you back home, doesn’t it?”

Hannibal grinned, recognizing the saying and sharing a quiet moment of amusement with his husband. They drew apart reluctantly, Hannibal holding onto his hand until that, too, was relinquished, though not without a parting kiss.

Will smoothed his jacket once Hannibal was out of sight, delaying a moment before moving to the window. He watched his husband emerge onto the drive, moving with swift surety and grace to mount his horse. He felt fairly caught out when Hannibal’s eyes turned to find him there in the window, drawn to him in a way that defied explanation.

But Hannibal only lifted his hand, a gesture which Will returned to him with a smile even as his husband rode away. The pain of parting was no less sharp, but his heart was lightened by the knowledge that Hannibal would come back to him.

He would always come back to him, Will could feel it in his bond, and that was enough to quell the ache to a bearable, dull pain.

Winston yipped and Will turned, as surprised to see Abigail before him as she was to find a dog before her.

“Miss Hobbs?” Will said, smiling at her. “Please don’t mind Winston, he’s friendly. Is there something I can do for you?”

“Lord Clarges, I-I came to beg a favor of you,” she said, so nervous that she trembled with the force of it. “I need a moment alone with your husband, and you are always so kind to me.”

“May I ask why you should make such a request, Abigail?” Will asked, her visible agitation lifting the fine hairs on his nape.

“I-I mean, you… know,” she said, a soft, brittle laugh escaping her. Her fingers clenched and unclenched in her apron. “I mean… he purchased that hat for me, and you’ve been talking to my mother—”

“Abigail, I purchased that hat for your because I find you a bright, pleasant girl and wanted to do something kind for you,” Will said, rapidly growing uncomfortable. “Hannibal had nothing to do with it.”

“No,” she said, shaking her head, her eyes rounding. Panic thread its way through her voice when she said with more force, “No! You’re lying! I knew you would be jealous!”

“Jealous? Abigail!” Will said, and the tone of his voice brought Winston to his feet, suddenly alert. “Abigail, please! What are you talking about?”

“You’re jealous because I came first!” she said, her freckled cheeks flushed with bright color and her mouth trembling. Tears stood in her wide blue eyes, thickened her voice. Will could feel her fear, her uncertainty, could practically taste the desperation in her, the terror that her course of action was for all the wrong reasons and she would rather die before admitting it—a child’s devotion to their beliefs, the reckless tendency of youth to wager everything on a single play. “You can’t stop me, you know. I’m going to tell him no matter what!”

“Abigail, you aren’t making any sense—”

“I’m telling Lord Clarges that he’s my father!” she said, the words breathless, as if she had shocked herself. Her chin tilted up when Will only stared at her, aghast, and she said again with wavering force, “I’m telling Lord Clarges that he’s my father!”

“Abigail, wait!” Will said, but she was gone in a trice, fleeing like a doe before the hunter’s dart.

Will hastily put Winston on his lead before following after her, not wishing anyone to be hurt over a misunderstanding and certainly not wanting Winston to bite in their shared agitation. He heard her barrel through the kitchen and out of the servants’ entrance, Cook’s indignant shouting broken by the slamming of the door.

“My Lord?”

Will brushed past Mr. Thatcher and hurried outside in time to see her go sprinting down the lane, her skirts bunched in her hands and her slim legs pounding like little pistons with the force of her flight.

“Abigail!” he called, relieved that she hadn’t gone into the woods. “Abigail, wait! It isn’t safe!”

The crew was already hard at work under Mr. Wells’ watchful eye, but they exchanged looks and one of them piped up, “She’s safe enough on the path, m’Lord.”

Will watched her go, feeling helpless as he lost sight of her. Seven other girls just like her had vanished into thin air, he knew, and hoped the bright daylight and being on the path was enough to keep her safe.

“My Lord? You seem perturbed,” Mr. Thatcher said, wobbling out onto stoop, not venturing onto the gravel, which was dangerous to unsteady feet.

“I am incredibly perturbed, Mr. Thatcher,” Will said, shushing Winston when he began to bark. “I fear that my attempts at kindness have only resulted in hurt feelings.”

Mr. Thatcher nodded, though Will rather doubted he’d heard.

“Her mother will see to her,” the old butler said, proving Will wrong on that count. “Miss Hobbs has been dreadfully unhappy for nearly a year now, m’Lord. It’s frightening not having a place to belong and to find you aren’t who you’ve always been told you are.”

Will flinched, knowing well enough how that felt.

“Do you know where Abigail came from, Mr. Thatcher?” Will asked, his gaze imploring.

“I cannot remember, my Lord, time passing as it does,” Mr. Thatcher said, his wrinkled face puckering in thought. “The Hobbs never did say, just one day they had a little girl no one knew anything of.”

“But there were rumors,” Will confirmed, wanting to get to the heart of this issue.

“There are always rumors, my Lord,” Mr. Thatcher said, the disapproval heavy in his voice. “Some more believable than others.”

“Were there ever any rumors involving my husband?” Will asked, nerves sharpening his voice.

Mr. Thatcher mulled it over, then shook his head. “Nary a one, my Lord.”

Will’s anxiety made room for puzzlement. “Where on earth did she get such a wild idea?”

“My Lord?” Mr. Thatcher asked, genuinely not hearing him this time. He looked very worried, however, when Will headed towards the lane with Winston at his side. “My Lord, where are you going?”

“To get some answers,” Will said, striding away from Marsham Heath with purpose, so intent on his goal that no one dared stop him. Even Magistrate Crawford’s young officer seemed hesitant to approach him, and opted to follow the troubled, unhappy Omega from a safe distance as he headed down towards Moseley in search of the truth.

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