"No." Jim met his step-father's arrogant glare with a mocking one of his own, exercising his well developed talent for provoking the bastard.
He watched with grim satisfaction as the fury kindled in his step-father's eyes, spreading through the man's reddening face. Jim counted down silently to the explosion. Three…two…one…
"You will do as I say!"came the roar of outrage, perfectly on schedule. "And if I say you will marry Baron Nero then, by god, you will marry the man and thank me for it!"
"And exactly what past behavior of mine lends to the conclusion that I will do anything you say?" Jim inquired politely, knowing it would infuriate. Frank Edgars hated even the slightest hint of possible disrespect, let alone Jim's blatant insolence.
In the eight years since Jim's grieving mother had suffered the appalling lapse of judgment of choosing Edgars as her second husband, the man had never missed an opportunity to take his every insecurity and resentment out on his two newly acquired step-children. Perhaps Edgars resented having to follow in the larger than life boot prints of George Kirk, decorated war hero and adored husband and father. Perhaps he was just a complete bastard. Jim had long since stopped caring.
But if Edgars had ever held the thought that he could break the Kirk boys, he had been quickly disabused of the notion, especially in regards to the youngest. Eight years of beatings and constant belittling had only forged Jim's naturally stubborn will to the consistency of steel.
His step-father's face was the color of tomatoes now, the bluffly handsome features twisting into ugliness indicative of the man's true character. And then Edgars took a deep breath and calmed, the uncharacteristic action setting off every one of Jim's mental alarms.
"Nero has offered twenty thousand pounds for your worthless hand in marriage. Twenty thousand pounds." Edgars' eyes raked over Jim contemptuously. "I can't imagine why. I suppose he's enamored of your pretty face, which is the only thing a useless catamite such as yourself could possibly offer. The money will restore our family's fortune…"
"You mean the money will restore my family's fortune," Jim cut in, rage flashing through him at the other man's words. "The fortune you've squandered."
His family had been prosperous until his step-father had bled them dry of funds, mortgaging every property and selling off irreplaceable heirlooms. And now, with Jim's brother escaped into the army, his step-father was attempting to sell the only unencumbered asset he had left: Jim.
Edgars ignored Jim's outburst, smiling coldly. "It's three years until you reach your majority of twenty-one, boy, and until then, I own your worthless hide. You will marry Nero if I have to deliver you to the altar in chains." His smile twisted cruelly. "In fact, from what I hear of Baron Nero, he would prefer to see his bride delivered in such a manner."
"I will not marry the man," Jim bit out. Twenty-thousand pounds. Christ. For that much money his step-father would deliver him bound and gagged to the baron. He could not allow that to happen. His step-father, for all his canings and vicious words, instilled mere loathing in Jim, not fear. But Nero--there was something off about the man, something not right. The few times they had encountered one another, the baron's greedy gaze had crawled over Jim, hot and possessive, leaving him feeling unclean. The thought of marrying the man, being under his power…Jim would gladly take a hundred canings first.
His step-father raised a hand to yank viciously on the bell pull. "It is time you learned, once and for all, that you have no say in the matter."
The door to the study opened and Jim spun, tensing as two of his step-father's burly footmen entered the room; Exley and Fox, the ones who did his step-father's dirty work.
Edgars gestured. "Take the boy to his room and lock him there. I want a watch kept on him at all times until the day of the wedding, when he becomes Nero's problem." Edgars sneered as Jim backed away from the approaching men. "I look forward to the day Nero strips you of your worthless Kirk pride."
Jim had already dismissed his step-father from consideration as he focused on the two muscle bound hulks approaching. At eighteen,Jim was already an experienced and successful brawler, cheerfully wading in against odds that would give men twice his size pause. It wasn't enough. He gave a good accounting, bloodying Fox's nose and doing damage to Exley's ribs but, in the end, Jim's still developing teenage body was no match and he found himself stunned and roughly dragged to his rooms.
Listening to the click of his door's lock, Jim staggered to his bed and sank down, wishing for a desperate moment that Sam was with him, that his mother was still alive. He allowed himself one moment to feel the hurt and fear, the knowledge that he was completely alone. And then, falling back on his 'worthless Kirk pride', he began to plan.
Leonard Horatio Vincent McCoy, Earl of Huntfield, scowled down at the broken carriage wheel and cursed. "Fuck. The gods are against us, Scotty."
Leonard's driver and all around manservant nodded sagely. "Aye, well, they're against our carriage at the very least."
"Fuck," Leonard repeated with feeling. "How close is it to the next town?"
"Ah, that would be Newshire which is about, oh…" Scotty scratched at his chin, considering, "about a two hour journey by horse."
Leonard looked up at the gloomy sky which was threatening rain and grunted his disapproval. "Lovely. Well, there's no point in waiting. I'll release the horses; you pack up the essentials."
"Right you are," Scotty agreed brightly and Leonard scowled again. His main complaint about his long time servant was that the man was more cheerful than any mortal bound to earth had a right to be.
They reached the town and its only Inn almost two hours later, under a blanket of steady, soaking rain that had even Scotty acting less than his usual chipper self. The lateness of the hour and the miserable weather had apparently driven everyone inside because there was no one to greet them at the entrance to the Inn's stables.
Dismounting, Leonard and Scotty led their horses inside the stables and tended to their tired mounts in silence. Finished, they headed back into the rain, crossing the Inn's main courtyard, intent on a warm meal and a chance to dry out. The wet, muffled sounds had them both stopping and, with a silent exchange, moving towards the source, around the side of the stables. Turning the corner of the large structure, Leonard immediately felt a flush of outrage as he watched two large figures carrying a violently struggling smaller figure between them.
"What the hell are you men doing there?" Leonard barked out and the two larger figures stilled. The thrashing of the smaller person, whom he could see now was bound, increased.
"This ain't no business of yours," one of the large men informed Leonard, his tone full of threat. "You just go on about your night and you won't be hurt."
Eyes narrowing, Leonard shifted the bag he was holding as he reached into his overcoat and withdrew his pistol. "I assure you, I'm at no risk of injury. Let your victim go." He knew without looking that Scotty had also drawn his own pistol.
"Oy now, look," the man said, switching to a placating tone at the sight of the weapon, "no need for violence. This here's a runaway. We're jus' returning him home, is all."
"By tying him up?" Leonard asked with acid skepticism.
"He's a stubborn one, that's what he is," the brute responded with a shrug that roughly jounced the figure the two men were still holding. Hindered by the dim light and rain, Leonard could barely make out anything about the bound man—or youth—except for an impression of stubbornness based on his continuous struggles.
"Well, let's just call the local constable and he can sort matters out, shall we?" Leonard drawled, keeping his gun steady and hoping the rain hadn't ruined the powder. It would be a damn shame if he survived three years of practicing battlefield medicine in the Peninsula only to die at the hands of a couple of unsavory Englishmen. "I'm sure fine, upstanding gentlemen such as yourselves don't have anything to hide."
He watched with grim amusement as the two men eyed him and then each other, uneasiness plain.
"Ah, t'hell with it," the first man finally sneered and both men dropped their captive who fell to the ground with a thud that made Leonard wince in sympathy. "We'll find ye another time, boy." And before Leonard could stop him, the man drew back and kicked the bound figure, eliciting a muffled grunt.
"Oy, that's not sporting at all," Scotty cried in outrage as the men quickly hustled to their waiting closed carriage. With one in the box and one of them at the reins, they swept off into the night, leaving Leonard and Scotty alone with their still bound and thrashing rescue victim.
Leonard turned to Scotty. "Keep an eye out in case they're planning to sneak back and finish what they started. I'll check on our friend here."
"Aye," Scotty nodded and quickly disappeared into the sodden darkness.
Leonard slowly approached the figure on the ground who immediately began scooting back. As he neared, Leonard looked down into wary, fierce eyes that stared up at him from a bedraggled face, a gag cutting into the boy's mouth.
"I'm not going to hurt you, son." Leonard kept his voice low and soothing, taking the tone he would with a skittish horse. "I'm going to take the gag off and then I'm going to untie you, all right?" He waited, not moving, as those eyes took his measure. Oddly, he found himself holding his breath in anticipation of the verdict, as if it mattered whether this stranger, this boy, decided he was worthy of trust. Finally some of the tenseness bled out of the boy's frame and he nodded. At the silent permission, Leonard reached out slowly, pulling the gag gently out and down around the boy's neck. "Better?" he asked gruffly.
The boy coughed and then nodded, responding with a raspy, "Yes."
"Now, let's see about these ropes." Leonard examined the soaked knots and realized it would be much quicker to cut them. "The knots are too tight to untie. I'm going to get my knife out, all right?"
The boy kept silent but offered another wary nod, eyes still tracking Leonard's movements as he pulled his travel knife out of his boot and carefully sliced first through the bindings on the boy's hands and then those hobblinghis ankles. Freed, the boy let out a shuddering breath and sprung up, unsteady enough that Leonard reached out a hand to support him. Surprisingly developed muscles tensed under his touch and then, as Leonard made no further movements, slowly relaxed.
"All right now?" Leonard asked, leaving his hand out in support.
The boy took another steadying breath and then offered a cautious smile, a flash of white in the shadows. "Better than I was five minutes ago."
Leonard snorted, relieved the lad didn't seem much worse for wear, although…
"It looks as though you picked up some injuries from those brutes," he observed, frowning. "You should come into the Inn with me and I'll take a look."
The relaxed stance immediately stiffened and the boy's chin took on a stubborn tilt. "I'm fine. I need to be on my way…"
Leonard scowled. "Don't be an idiot. I'm a doctor and you're certainly not fine. At the very least you need your cuts cleaned. Do you know what happens when you leave injuries untreated?" Leonard had certainly observed the effects, too damned many times. "They get infected is what happens. Or maybe you want to lose a hand or an eye or have your damn nose fall off. In that case, it's probably for the best you be 'on your way', so that you can die young and not pass on your idiocy to the next generation."
Leonard regretted his harsh speech as soon as he ceased speaking. His bedside manner had only ever been described as god-awful, his naturally sardonic nature made worse by years of treating rough soldiers in battlefield conditions. The last thing he wanted was to scare the boy off. However, at Leonard's gruff words, the boy actually settled a little, smile tilting up into a sudden lopsided grin as he massaged his abraded wrists. "Are you really a doctor?" He sounded amused.
Leonard rolled his eyes at the question. "No, son. I just go around claiming the title so I can feel important."
This drew a soft snort of appreciative laughter and Leonard felt an unexpected jolt of interest from his groin at the husky sound. Well, fucking hell, he had obviously been too long at war if a drowned rat of a boy in a stable yard was enough to affect him. Leonard felt a moment of self-disgust. The boy needed help, not the sexual interest of a burnt out doctor who most days felt twice his twenty-eight years.
But one thing treating countless wounded soldiers had given Leonard was a sense for those who would respond to coddling and those who would shy away from obvious concern.
Going with those instincts, Leonard shrugged indifferently. "Well, I'm wet, cold and hungry as hell. So I'll be going inside the Inn where I pray they have a decent cook and perhaps even some decent liquor that won't burn a hole in my gut. You can join me, or you can stay out here and take your chances with those hulking friends of yours. The choice is yours." He turned his back on the boy and started walking, giving a low, carrying whistle to signal Scotty he was on the move again. Leonard was acutely aware of the silence behind him before he heard the sound of boots squelching against the muddy ground and felt the sudden presence of the youth at his side, carrying a valise of his own.
"I suppose I can stay for a short while before I head out." The tone was studiously indifferent.
"If you like."
Leonard allowed himself a small smile, hidden by the dim light.
They entered the Inn proper and Leonard quickly secured a private set of rooms with a small parlor, located on the second floor of the Inn, ordering three hot meals and brandy to be brought up as quickly as possible.
Once upstairs, Leonard shedhis overcoat with a sigh of relief, cupping his hands before the fireplace. "I fucking hate the rain," he growled, feeling out of sorts with all England.
"I like it."
The cheerful challenge of the voice had Leonard looking over and he blinked at the sight that met him.
The boy…wasn't a boy. And he certainly no longer looked like a drowned rat. He had shed his own overcoat and was stripping out of his damp shirt, not self conscious in the least. He draped it over a chair situated near the fire, before rummaging in his scuffed valise for a replacement. Leonard's new acquaintance was young, yes, but he had the lean, muscled body and confident bearing of a man. He likely hadn't hit his full height yet and still had some filling out to do, but Leonard had seen men as young as this one fight, bleed and kill for their country; had been wrist deep in their guts trying to save them so they could return home to their mothers and sweethearts.
Leonard was sure none of them had been this ridiculously pretty, though. It startled Leonard, even through the wet hair plastered to the young man's head and the generally abused condition of his face and body. The very abused condition of his body, Leonard realized with sudden fury as he took in the scars that decorated the young man's back. There were layers of them, consistent with repeated canings, a sight Leonard knew well from treating soldiers punished under the harsh British military code. No, this was no boy, and from the look of those scars, he hadn't been one for quite some time.
But for now he was smiling, seemingly relaxed and enjoying himself, despite the injuries and recent near brush with abduction.
"Well, that makes you a contrary bastard," Leonard snapped back as he realized the silence was stretching out. He consciously tried to dismiss the impact of the stranger's devilishly handsome features, piercing blue eyes and engaging smile. The young man was still young, not to mention vulnerable and clearly the victim of past abuse, damn it.
"You would not be the first to say so," was the amused response.
Leonard thought for a horrifying instant that he had voiced his thoughts on the stranger's attractiveness aloud, until he realized that the other man was just answering the accusation of being a contrary bastard.
Leonard breathed a sigh of relief as the contrary bastard in question flashed him a charismatic grin and joined him by the fire, shaking rain darkened hair to help it dry.
Leonard snorted and shook his head. "Somehow, that really doesn't surprise me." Rising, he moved to a nearby table and poured water from a pitcher into a bowl, carrying it back with him. Opening his medical bag, he motioned at the young man, the youth— it was easier to think of him that way. "Let me take a look at your injuries before dinner arrives."
The youth rolled his eyes but turned to face Leonard, arms spread agreeably. "I'm fine, Sawbones. I've had worse on a Saturday night down at the local tavern."
"I'll be the judge of that," Leonard snapped, reaching a hand up to probe at the cut on the youth's cheek. It was going to bloom into spectacular color soon but it wasn't serious. Further probing proved the cheek hadn't been fractured. "I suppose you're one of those young idiots who think fighting is fun."
This got him an innocent blink of blue eyes. "Fighting is fun."
Leonard just shook his head and grunted as he dabbed pure spirits of alcohol on the boy's cuts.
"Thousands of ways a man can die by accident and he still has to go seek out new and ever more idiotic means."
The youth laughed, not even wincing at the pull on his cuts. "It's a challenge, Sawbones."
Leonard gave his best scowl as he started cleaning the cuts on the youth's face. "Don't call me Sawbones, stripling."
The youth just smiled wider, amused. "Well I don't know your name. Sawbones."
Leonard gave an exasperated hmph and glared. "I begin to wonder why anyone would actually go to the trouble of trying to kidnap you. And the name is McCoy. Leonard McCoy."
"Huh. I actually like Sawbones bett…ow!"
"Oh, I apologize," Leonard offered dryly at the accusatory stare. "Did I press too hard?"
"It's fine," came the response, equally dry, and Leonard had to bite back a chuckle.
"And should I call you anything besides 'stripling'?" he asked, pointedly.
There was a short pause and Leonard felt himself being studied again, the stare more thoughtful than wary this time. "Jim."
"Alright, Jim," Leonard gestured. "Remove your shirt. I want to examine your ribs. That was a nasty kick you took earlier."
He was half expecting a return of wariness but Jim just shrugged out of the article of clothing, seeming completely comfortable half-dressed in front of a stranger.
Leonard carefully pressed his fingers along the ribs. Hearing Jim's sharp intake of breath, he looked up to see if he was causing pain and met lazy eyes and a considering smile that seemed to tell of a different reaction altogether. Telling himself he was being ridiculous, Leonard returned his attention to his examination. Finally, after another minute of exploration, Leonard gave a grunt of satisfaction. "Well your ribs aren't fractured, it's just surface bruising. Looks like you'll live after all."
"So I will be able to pass on my idiocy to the next generation?"
"If you must." Leonard's mouth quirked into a half smile, amused in spite of himself.
They were staring at each other in silence, each pondering the other, when they were interrupted by the arrival of a cheerful barmaid bearing their dinner and Scotty, who arrived shortly behind her with the rest of the bags.
"Ah, dinner. Excellent!" Scotty announced, as he dumped the bags against a wall and turned his good natured gaze upon Jim. "And hallo there. We weren't properly introduced what with those bloody brutes out there and the kidnapping and such. I'm Scotty." He offered his hand to shake and Jim took it, amused.
"Jim. My thanks for the assistance earlier."
"Oh, not at all. Most fun I've had since we returned to England," Scotty assured him and moved to start dishing out the pot of steaming stew into bowls.
"Where were you returning from?" Jim asked, accepting the bowl with a nod of thanks.
"Oh, we were in the Peninsula, fighting the frogs," Scotty answered as he sat down and proceed to stuff his mouth full of stew and bread with a contented, "hmmm."
"I thought you were a doctor?" Jim asked, turning to look at Leonard, a hint of challenge entering his eyes.
"I am a doctor," Leonard snorted as he dove into his own meal. "I didn't fight. I just patched up our men so they could fight." He shook his head at the memories. "Don't know what good I did in the end. Putting men back together just to see them go right out to get shot up again—a goddamn waste, if you ask me, which the idiot generals most assuredly never did."
"I'm guessing the ones you helped thought you did some good," Jim offered quietly and Leonard looked up at the other man's tone. Seeing his inquiring glance, Jim shrugged. "My brother is fighting in the Peninsula. I don't know if he's even alive, but who knows," he offered Leonard a half-smile, "maybe you patched him up on some battlefield somewhere."
They all went silent as they focused on their meals but Leonard was not at all surprised when Scotty, forthright and always curious, broached the subject of the aborted kidnapping attempt.
"So why were those men after you, lad?" Scotty asked as he refilled his bowl.
Leonard watched Jim hesitate, chewing his food slowly before looking up, eyes suddenly hard. "My step-father thinks he can pay off his debts by selling me into marriage." He looked back down into the dregs of his stew and shrugged, shoulders tense. "Starving would be preferable to the bastard he's picked out."
Jim stood abruptly, placing his empty bowl on the table and nodding at the other men. Reaching into his pocket, he fished out a few coins, placing them next to the bowl. "Thank you again for the rescue. I should be going, if I'm to stay ahead of my step-father's goons." He stood for a moment, pulling his shoulders back as if bracing himself for battle.
Leonard reacted without thinking. "Well, there's no sense in you leaving now," he heard himself say. "It's dark and raining and you won't get a mile, especially on foot. You can bunk down with us and head out in the morning."
He watched Jim open his mouth—Leonard somehow knew it was to refuse—and so he scowled. "Leaving now would be an idiotic thing to do and I think you know my opinion on idiots."
This earned him a raised eyebrow and an amused grin. "Well, yes, I believe you have made yourself perfectly clear on the matter of idiots. Sawbones." They stared at each other, Leonard challenging, Jim wearing a smirk that slowly faded before he finally, slowly, shrugged and sat back down with a muttered, "I guess I could stay the night." Leonard didn't question the odd feeling of relief.
Dawn had barely begun staking its claim on the day when Leonard awoke from a sound sleep. After two years of living in battlefield conditions he was trained to awaken alert and cautious, and he immediately began searching for whatever had pulled him from sleep. There. It was the barely heard rustling of cloth, the quiet footsteps of someone sneaking. Leonard opened his eyes to slits as he slowly tilted his head to take in the shadowed shape of their new companion. Jim stood, hesitating, at the entrance to their shared rooms. He was looking back at them--back at him--Leonard realized, feeling more than seeing the weight of Jim's stare in the still dim rooms.
And then the other man turned and slipped out.
Leonard was on his feet without conscious thought, wrestling into his shirt and breeches and pulling on his boots with a low curse.
The actions were enough to rouse Scotty, who jack-knifed up with wild eyes and a yelped, "I didna know she was married!"
"Go back to sleep," Leonard whispered with an automatic roll of his eyes, too intent on catching Jim to notice when Scotty settled at his voice.
Descending swiftly to the common rooms, Leonard scanned the large area.
"Damnation," he muttered when he didn't spot the other man. With Brute One and Brute Two after him, Jim probably wouldn't keep to the main roads and, if Leonard had missed him, it would be impossible to know which direction the younger man had taken. Leonard headed towards the Inn's front entrance to see if he could spot his target and then, at the sound of soft giggles, paused. Turning towards the laughter, he watched Jim emerge from what was likely the door to the kitchens, holding a wrapped package and smiling with good natured flirtation down at his companion. The source of the giggles, the barmaid, was laughing up at him, happiness elevating her plain features to pretty.
Jim looked up and, seeing Leonard, hesitated, smile faltering for the briefest of moments, before it returned in full charming force.
"Sawbones! I was just heading out. I stopped to pick up some food from Sally." Jim smiled again at the maid who dipped a quick curtsy to Leonard at his nod and, with a last wistful smile for Jim, murmured her excuses and disappeared back into the kitchens.
Going with the same instincts that had worked with Jim last night, Leonard crossed his arms and arched a brow. "So, you were just going to leave without saying goodbye."
"I thought it would be for the best. Based on your surly temper, you clearly don't get enough sleep and you looked nice and peaceful abed." There was a thread of wistfulness in the younger man's voice at odds with his affable smile and teasing words.
Leonard shook his head, reaching out to lay a restraining hand on the younger man's arm. "Jim, you're not going anywhere."
He realized immediately it was the wrong thing to do as Jim stiffened and pulled his arm away, head snapping up as blue eyes gleamed with sudden anger. "I wasn't aware that you had any authority over my actions, Doctor."
Leonard's eyes narrowed at the younger man's reaction. "You're not going anywhere because you're better off with us. Scotty and I are riding north towards the border to visit a friend. We're turning in the carriage hacks for better mounts and we can all ride out together this morning."
Leonard watched the refusal forming on Jim's face and shook his head in exasperation. "Are you really going to be an idiot about this? I certainly hope not, because the only thing I hate more than idiots is when I am required to repeat myself to idiots."
"I don't want to bring my troubles on you and Scotty," Jim insisted, eyes stubborn.
Leonard arched a brow at this. "What are friends for if you can't drag them into the occasional attempted kidnapping or two? In any event, we'll be moving fast on horseback so shouldlikely outpace any trouble. And if we do run into the louts who attacked you, well, they don't exactly strike me as deep strategic thinkers. You could even assist if they showed up again, instead of getting yourself tied up." He deliberately kept his voice to a low, mocking drawl.
Jim's eyes had narrowed as Leonard spoke, but after a moment of mutual glaring, his mouth quirked up into a reluctant smile, which turned into a grin. "Perhaps I enjoy being tied up and rescued."
The words sent an immediate twinge of interest to Leonard's groin—which he was goddamn well going to ignore—even as he snorted.
"Somehow I doubt you're the type to sit back and do nothing," he observed dryly.
"It depends on the situation. Sometimes it can be quite enjoyable to let someone else do all the work."
Fuck. The interest of his groin suddenly a great deal less ignorable, Leonard shook his head in exasperation. "I'm going to rouse Scotty. We should begin preparations for our departure."
He turned and headed back towards their rooms, giving a mental sigh of relief when he felt the presence of the younger man catch up to him.
The words were soft and, when Leonard glanced over, he saw a quizzical frown directed at him before it was replaced by a neutral expression.
Leonard sighed, mostly for show. "Don't call me Sawbones."
Setting out less than an hour later, they alternated between cantering for speed and letting the horses walk to recover, overall making good time as they followed the roads north towards the border that separated England from Scotland.
Jim proved an amusing companion during the slower periods when conversation became possible. He rambled on cheerfully, and with a surprising amount of knowledge, about a variety of topics ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime.
For the most part Leonard kept quiet, responding to direct questions and injecting the occasional sardonic observation, but remaining preoccupied as he pondered the enigma of their new traveling companion. Jim was well born, that was certain, given his speech and bearing. And he was in trouble. That much was also certain. But on the surface the younger man certainly didn't act as though he were burdened by any troubles. He had an easy smile and a quick laugh and seemed to thrive in their company. And yet he would have walked away from them earlier, even as clearly in need of assistance as he was. In fact Jim had appeared more baffled than wary at Leonard's offer of friendship, as if he didn't quite understand the proper way to respond.
And he was beautiful.
Even under the cloudy English sky, the younger man practically shone, with his burnished hair, sun kissed skin and the charismatic grace of a natural horseman. Leonard could see why someone would be willing to part with a fortune for the right to bed such beauty every night. To wake up to those laughing blue eyes and a smile that could brighten even a gloomy English day.
Leonard silently scoffed at himself for the notion. Whoever this golden boy was destined to end up with, it certainly wasn't a world weary doctor with a small talent for healing and a greater talent for sarcasm. Determined to put his unacceptable attraction for Jim away, Leonard concentrated on the tale Scotty was in the middle of exaggerating.
"…and then the general said 'By God, if my dog is not returned within the hour I will cashier the entire bloody regiment!' And I said…"
The crack of a rifle discharging reached Leonard's ears a second before he saw Scotty jerk in his saddle. He watched in horror as the Scotsman faltered and dropped to the ground, even as he was pulling his pistol out and scanning the area for the source of the shot. Fuck
Fuck, they were sitting ducks here, this section of the road wide and open and deserted but for them. Scanning their surroundings, Leonard spotted a copse of trees that was likely the cover the rifleman had used.
He hastily dismounted to put his horse between himself and the sniper and saw Jim doing the same.
"It came from over there," Jim pointed, grim faced, in the same direction Leonard had noted. The younger man held the pistol Leonard had lent him earlier that morning, and he kept watch with it, as Leonard hastily knelt besides Scotty, searching for where the ball had hit.
"Captain?" Scotty asked, eyes dazed. "Did the French get me?"
"It wasn't the French, Scotty." Leonard found the injury on Scotty's arm and felt the tension in his gut loosen a little as he saw it was merely a flesh wound. "It was a cowardly attempt at an ambush, but you're too tough a bastard to die from one little bullet. Can you stand? We need to get under cover." Leonard looked up to tell Jim to be ready and felt his blood freeze.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?" he demanded, watching as the younger man jumped back into his saddle, making himself a perfect target.
Apologetic, grimly determined blue eyes met his. "I'm sorry, Sawbones. I should never have gone with you. It's me they're after. I'll lead them off and you can get Scotty the help he needs."
"Jim, don't." Leonard's tone was almost pleading as he saw the determined, stubborn look of the other man. "We'll get out of this together. You don't have to…"
Jim responded with a sharp shake of his head. "It was a very great pleasure to meet you Leonard McCoy. I…I wish…there had been more time." And then the younger man took off with a yell, riding in a thunderous gallop to the north. An explosion of activity immediately came from the distant trees and then not two, but four riders burst from cover, in furious pursuit of Jim.
"Dammit, Jim. Who the fuck is after you?" Leonard rasped, as he watched the riders quickly disappear into the distance. He was gripped with the almost overwhelming urge to jump on his horse and chase after the bastards, rage filling him at the thought of Jim facing his pursuers alone.
"Go after him, Captain." Leonard looked down at his manservant and friend, looking back at him steadily with pain filled but rational eyes. "I'll be fine."
Leonard shook his head. "Your wound needs tending to, you stubborn Scott. I can't have you dying on me." Rising to his feet, Leonard quickly fetched supplies to clean the wound and staunch the bleeding.
"We'll get him back, Captain," Scotty gasped out, tensing in pain, as Leonard began tending to the injury.
Leonard nodded, face grim. "You're goddamn right, we will."
Jim rode north, feeling his pursuers in his bones, even before he risked a quick glance back and saw them and Jesus fucking Christ , when had his step-father's gang of bullies doubled? Gritting his teeth, Jim urged his mount to greater speed as he tried to come up with a workable plan. If he could make it to the next town, if he could…"Fuck!" He watched in disbelief as two more riders came towards him from the north, his pursuers now numbering six in a trap that was quickly closing. All of these men couldn't possibly be employed by his strapped-for-funds step-father which, Jim realized with an icy bolt of dread, left only one man they could work for…Nero.
Eyes narrowing in determination, Jim spurred his horse and changed direction to aim between his pursuers. His mount was fast and full of heart, responding to his urging with an increase in speed. Another favor Jim owed to Leonard McCoy who was now miles away and, if there was any last bit of kindness in the universe, safe from Jim's troubles.
He smiled fiercely as his horse shot through the rapidly closing trap and he saw clear road ahead of him. If they were planning to stop him, they were goddamn well going to have to shoot him.
They didn't shoot him.
They shot his horse.
A sharp crack was the only warning before his mount stumbled and went down in an explosive and deadly tumble, Jim kicking free of the saddle from pure athletic instinct. He was airborne for a brief exhilarating moment before his body met the ground, air exploding out of his lungs at the brutal impact. He lay half conscious, wasting precious seconds, before he was able to force his injured body to stagger upright to witness the trap closing around him. Blinking at the blurry figures of men surrounding him, Jim's vision abruptly snapped back into focus on the unwelcome sight of a powerfully built man who swung down from his horse and walked arrogantly forward to greet him.
"James, my dear, you have put me to a great deal of trouble." Baron Nero smiled thinly, the action doing nothing to disguise the anger simmering in his intense, dark eyes. The man stopped in front of Jim's stiffly held body, reaching out with snake like quickness to cup Jim's bruised face, his large hand tightening as Jim instinctively tried to jerk away.
"And you've damaged yourself before our wedding. That simply will not do." Nero leaned in closer, gaze burning. "The only bruises you should be wearing are those I put on you." His fingers pressed painfully into Jim's cuts and Jim wrenched violently away.
"I am not marrying you, you sick bastard," Jim hissed, feeling bile rise in his throat at the thought.
The Baron's powerful hand shot out again and closed around Jim's throat before he could react, the man's fingers squeezing brutally. Already weakened by the fall, Jim tried desperately to find some leverage against the other man, punching and kicking with as much force as he could muster. But the baron was large, strong and uninjured, and Jim felt the world fade away to blackness to the sound of the Baron's amused response, "I do look forward to proving you wrong."
Jim woke with a start, confusion quickly replaced by fear and anger as he realized his hands were bound behind him and he was gagged. Pushing the fear down, Jim focused on feeding his anger as he took in his surroundings. He was in a closed carriage, the vehicle jouncing on its springs as it carried him to points unknown. He was regrettably not alone.
"Ah, you're awake," Nero smiled at him, a flash of sharp teeth, eyes roaming possessively over Jim. "You look so very pretty bound up for me, James. Perhaps I'll keep you like this, hmm? Until I can properly train you, that is. And that mouth…" Jim watched in revulsion as Nero's eyes darkened in appreciation. "It's framed so beautifully by the gag. Yes, I think you will be wearing a gag frequently, when your mouth is not being put to other uses."
Jim just glared, swallowing his sick feeling of dread at the baron's words. He had heard hushed stories about the baron's proclivities, about the injuries his servants sported, about the fate of the man's first wife. Jim would slit his own fucking throat before he became the baron's plaything. He stiffened as Nero leaned forward to settle a large hand on Jim's thigh. He managed not to flinch as the hand moved up to casually cup Jim's sex through his trousers. "You will look very pretty tied to my bed, young James." The baron's voice held anticipation as his hand began to work Jim who bit down on his gag in revulsion.
"It's tempting to take a taste now," the baron continued thoughtfully and his hand tightened, enough to cause a flare of pain shooting through Jim's groin, before he abruptly let go. "But you will come to understand that I am an old fashioned man. We will wait until we are bound together in the eyes of God." He gave Jim's leg one last pat and sat back, continuing to study Jim with possessive satisfaction.
Jim glared back, defiant. He wouldescape the bastard, even if the only escape available was through death. He turned his head away, pointedly ignoring the other man's presence, and spared a brief, fervent prayer that Leonard and Scotty had come to no lasting harm. The memories of the Scotsman's good cheer and the doctor's gruff kindness were rapidly taking on the aspect of a pleasant dream, an unreal interlude in his current nightmarish existence.
They continued traveling through the night and into the next day, emerging from the carriage only for relief. Jim was never left alone and never unbound, although Nero did have two of the hulks switch Jim's ropes to shackles. "Mustn't cut off the blood, James," he murmured. "We don't want any damage that won't heal."
As they traveled onward, the baron spoke in a casually possessive voice about the 'experiences he had planned for James' and although Jim was hardly an innocent at sexual activities, the practices outlined by the baron's cool, dry voice had panic flickering at the edges of his consciousness.
Jim ate the food Nero offered to keep up his strength and for the chance to have the fucking gag removed, if only for short periods of time. He just needed one moment of inattention, one chance. The comfort he clung to was that they needed his consent for the marriage and, no matter what transpired, that was something he would never give.
Then, on their second day of travel, that last comfort was stripped away. Nero, pausing in the middle of a protracted soliloquy on the virtues of different blades—and if he hadn't already despised the man, Jim would have refused to marry him on the general objection that he was a long winded bore—parted the window curtain and looked out, smiling in satisfaction. "Ah, we're in Scotland, James. Excellent. It was rather fortunate that you chose to travel north. There's a church, mind you, not that ridiculous Gretna Green where children under the age of consent elope to. No, this is a private church that isn't as…particular, shall we say, about the consent of both parties." He smiled darkly at Jim. "We should be there in another half a day."
The snarl that erupted from Jim was one of pure frustrated rage and he lashed out with his feet without conscious thought, the unexpected action catching Nero off guard and managing to connect solidly with the man's knee. Roaring with pain and outrage, the baron clutched at his injury before lunging at Jim, eyes wild with fury. "How dare you."
A knife was suddenly at Jim's throat and he tried to goad the baron on with his eyes, growling past the gag, beyond caring, wanting the bastard to do it. For an instant Jim thought he would get his wish, until the baron paused and, stomach sinking, Jim watched fury turning into something more calculating and far colder.
"Do you think you can provoke me into ending your life, James? Stupid boy, you belong to me. I knew it from the moment I first saw your beauty and strength and all of your brilliant energy just waiting to be bound to service." The baron slid his knife gently along Jim's throat, so cleanly that Jim didn't realize he'd been cut until he felt the sudden bright flare of pain. Sliding back, the baron lifted the knife, examining the edge of red. With a smile that sent an involuntary shiver through Jim, the baron ran his thumb along the edge before bringing it up to his mouth to give it a sinuous lick. "No, James. We will marry. And you will learn to enjoy my attention. This I promise you."
Jim closed his eyes and tried not to give in to the unfamiliar emotion of despair.
It was an eternity later and still far too soon when Jim felt the carriage come to a rumbling halt. Nero stood in the small space, reaching down to pull Jim up with a hand under bound arms, ruthlessly dragging Jim's shackled body down from the carriage where they faced a small, tidy chapel surrounded by forest.
Jim glared while the baron examined Jim's abused state with a frown of displeasure. "It really is a pity you had to run away, James. I had a very nice suit tailored for you to wear to the wedding." The man shrugged. "Ah well, I can have you wear the suit another time, once you're properly housebroken for formal occasions."
Nero nodded curtly to one of the interchangeable hulks who reached down and lifted Jim as if he weighed no more than a feather, dragging him towards the doors of the small chapel, ignoring his desperate struggles and furious muffled snarls.
Jim was too focused on resisting his fate to register the sharp, cracking sound of a firearm being discharged. His first hint that something was afoot came when the bastard dragging him jerked and then stumbled, loosening his hold. Jim took the opportunity to lunge away, stumbling to his knees and then up. And then he heard the shots and stopped, adrenaline crashing through him, as he watched easily a dozen figures emerge from the woods surrounding the isolated chapel. And then he heard a familiar, indescribably welcome voice growl out, "Everyone drop their goddamn weapons, now!"
Nero's outraged roar barely penetrated, because all Jim could seem to register was Leonard 'Sawbones' McCoy striding towards him, pistol in hand, looking wild-eyed, unkempt and absolutely furious. He was undeniably the best sight Jim had ever seen in his life. Jim stood, still stunned at the turn of events, as Leonard reached him and, lifting his hand with a gentleness that belied the fury still burning in his hazel eyes, pulled out Jim's gag.
"For the love of God, will you kindly cease getting yourself kidnapped?" The gruff, accusatory words were completely at odds with the genuine concern lighting the doctor's eyes.
"I will do my best," Jim rasped out, his own eyes wide. "How the hell did you find me?"
"I had riders looking in every direction for your kidnappers. Brutes such as these are rather noticeable, thank God. As soon as you were spotted, you were followed until we could gather enough men for pursuit."
Jim shook his head at that, looking around at the small private army that seemed to have invaded the clearing. "Who are you?" A simple doctor wouldn't be able to command so many men on such short notice.
"Yes, who are you? I must know what name to give the authorities when I set them after you for assaulting a nobleman." Nero's cold, arrogant voice drew both men's attention and they turned to face the baron. He was being held at gunpoint by a lean, older gentleman with graying hair and an amused expression gracing his face.
The older man smiled rakishly at the baron's demand. "He wants to know who you are Len. Shall I tell him?"
"By all means, Chris, do introduce us." Leonard drawled, anger seeming to pour from him in waves as he stared at Baron Nero.
The man named Chris turned and gave a mocking half bow. "Allow me to introduce myself. Christopher Beaumont Geoffrey Pike, Duke of Evington. And may I give you the honor of being presented to my young friend, Leonard Horatio Vincent McCoy, Earl of Huntfield."
"Earl?" Jim asked, voice coming embarrassingly close to cracking at this latest turn of events.
He watched Leonard Horatio Vincent 'Sawbones' McCoy, Earl of Huntfield, scowl, looking vaguely embarrassed. "Well, as of six months ago, yes. Before that I was just a younger son. The inheritance is why I was forced to return home." He shrugged indifferently. "Not that my family is particularly thrilled that I've inherited the title since they consider me a scapegrace for studying medicine."
"Earl?" Jim just asked again pointedly, although an effervescent lightness was beginning to bubble up through him.
"Oh, shut up," Leonard muttered, and Jim gave in to the urge to laugh, as much as in relief as in amusement. Because just a few moments ago Jim had been sure he'd never have reason to laugh again.
Leonard gave him an exasperated glare before his expression darkened into something much more dangerous at seeing the fresh injuries adorning Jim's face and neck. Turning, he grimly regarded the arrogant figure of the baron.
"Where are the goddamn keys to the shackles?" Leonard strode towards the baron, threat clear in his eyes.
Nero just snarled in response. "The boy is my fiancé, you have no right to interfere. And as we are both gentlemen, I demand satisfaction from you for this offence."
Jim immediately shook his head in alarm, knowing the baron's reputation as a noted swordsman. "No, Sawbones, this is not your…" and then he stopped, blinking in fascination as the doctor's fist lashed out, low and directly into Nero's groin in a distinctly ungentlemanly shot.
"Truthfully, I've never quite gotten the hang of being a gentleman," Leonard said grimly, watching in satisfaction as the large man dropped to the ground, moaning in agony. Crouching, Leonard reached into the baron's jacket, pulling out a set of keys as his pistol never wavered from its aim at the man's head as the baron glared at him with pain and hate filled eyes. "Listen very carefully, you degenerate bastard. The boy is not your fiancé, he is my fiancé . He and I will be married before the day is through. And if you come anywhere near him again there will be no duel, no swords, no pistols at dawn. There will be just your quick and ugly death followed by your burial in an unmarked grave."
Standing, Leonard nodded at his older companion. "Chris, I trust you can manage things from here?"
"Oh, I can indeed," the older man promised with a hard gleam in his eyes. He nodded at the baron's men who had been herded into a group and were under guard. "I'm sure these 'gentlemen' are wanted by the law somewhere if we just make the necessary inquiries. And I look forward to having a little talk with the baron about his inability to keep a fiancé without the aid of chains."
"I do believe I like your friend," Jim observed in amusement as Leonard returned to his side and quickly undid his shackles.
Observing Jim's chafed wrists with a frown, Leonard snorted. "Yes, I'm sure you and he will become great friends. You certainly remind me enough of each other. He's the man Scotty and I were on our way to visit. We became friendly in the peninsula, as he was one of the few noblemen I met who weren't useless."
"You mean like yourself," Jim asked, unable to resist the mild jab, even as his brows furrowed in concern. "Scotty, is he…?"
"He's fine," Leonard assured him. "He'll be very put out that he missed all the excitement."
"About that, I…I don't know how to…" Jim didn't know what to say, how to thank him. Jim wasn't used to having anyone to thank and certainly had never conceived the notion that the other man would come after him. That he wasn't alone—it was baffling and...amazing.
Leonard was looking at Jim, hazel eyes serious as if he knew every single thought that was running through Jim's mind. "You're welcome," he said simply. "Now, can you ride?"
"Away from here? Of a certainty," Jim said firmly.
"All right then. We can head south to Chris' estate. I…" Leonard paused, clearly uncomfortable, and Jim looked at him curiously.
"About before, what I said when I called you my fiancé." Leonard hesitated. "I truly think it would be best if we married, Jim. I've heard of the baron. He's a powerful man. Chris and I can threaten him but, in the end, with your step-father's consent he could try again. If…if we were wed you would have my protection. We wouldn't have to…that is, I would never take advantage of…I apparently own several estates now, you wouldn't even have to…"
Jim took in the scowling, embarrassed, overwhelmingly attractive and exceedingly good man currently stuttering out a proposal and grinned. "So, you are offering me your name for protection and are promising not to take advantage of me, is that it?"
"Yes," his Sawbones huffed out, looking relieved at being able to stop the uncomfortable speech.
"I see." Jim paused, as if considering. "I believe my answer must depend upon your answer to a very important question."
"And what is that?"
"Am I allowed to take advantage of you?"
Hazel eyes blinked at him in surprise that was slowly replaced by heavy lidded desire, sending a scorching blaze of want sweeping through Jim. Always one to take a tactical advantage, Jim took the opportunity to lean in, pressing his mouth against the other man who, after a brief hesitation, met Jim in a heated, dueling kiss that left them both breathless.
When they finally pulled back to regain their breath, Jim watched in satisfaction as Leonard Horatio Vincent 'Sawbones' McCoy, Earl of Huntfield smiled. It was a smile entirely free of the sarcasm that was normally so much a part of the man; a characteristic which Jim was already inordinately fond of.
"You are most certainly allowed to take advantage of me," Leonard assured him with a raspy drawl that Jim absolutely approved of. "Will you marry me then, Jim?"
Jim beamed. "I believe we'll pass Gretna Green on our way south."
"We can be there in two hours."
They made it in less.