Max Molloy opened his eyes and glanced over his shoulder to see that his companion was still asleep, his body spooned against Max's backside. Max moved to lie on his back and turned his head to study Alan Dudding's face better.
It had already been three weeks since that bloody Yank of Petersholme's had forced him to meet Dudding -- as an equal.
He couldn't remember a time since his student days that he'd been happier. Thanks to Alan Dudding. He allowed himself a smirk -- and thanks to that damnable Barry Alexander as well. Not that he would ever admit it to the American. He wouldn't give him that satisfaction.
It had, however, taken the Yank finding him out to bring down his barriers, barriers that Molloy hadn't even realised were there much before three weeks ago. Barry had done so most rudely, even crudely. It was what he'd come to expect of England's former colonials after spending most of the summer in the overheated kitchen they called a Capital. Brash, rude, and crude. No sense of propriety at all. It took that kind of approach to make some people wake up to themselves and to their needs. Ruefully, Molloy admitted it had with him.
It would never have occurred to Molloy to view Dudding as a possible lover, not without Petersholme's American forcing him to do so. He wondered about that, surprised that he could be so blind.
Dudding had been there all along of course, even during Molloy's days at university. Molloy had known about the Irishman's tastes then as well. Molloy hadn't been looking for a lover, however -- not at university and not even when young Barry had put him so roughly in his place. He'd thought himself satisfied with a sex partner. At university, he'd had Petersholme and von Kys. They'd been friends whose friendship had permitted frequent couplings.
Even that farm boy his father had found him with had been just another sex partner. They'd had nothing in common, other than their mutual desire to couple. The hell that the Earl had put him into and the subsequent marriage had scared Molloy. Initially, that fear had been of anything inverted. But slowly and, he conceded, subconsciously he had come to see his troubles stemming from the farm labourer's class.
It had a warped logic about it, blaming the lad's class for his own troubles. It had kept him away from King's Cross and the rentboys he would have found there. Class had kept him from making a fool of himself with some of the junior members of the Ministry. But it had always been a convenient excuse for protecting himself.
Any man had the necessary equipment to engage in sex of course. Class had nothing to do with that ability. What class did was to establish barriers that separated the interests of one man from those of another. Molloy could see that now. What had made the sex with Petersholme and von Kys so much fun had not been the actual coupling. It was being with friends before and after -- friends who had similar interests to his own.
At university, Petersholme and von Kys had been a continuous pleasure to chum around with -- in bed and, most definitely, out of it.
In three short weeks, Alan Dudding had already become an equal pleasure. Molloy was certain he found this so because Dudding had similar interests to his own. And he had developed those interests because of his education, not because of his class.
He traced Dudding's lips with his fingertip and smiled to himself. There was definitely more than simple friendship between Alan and himself. Something that he hadn't bargained for, but which was there nonetheless. Something that made him feel good inside. Something that made him want Alan Dudding beside him all the time.
He supposed that he was in love, it had that mushy feel to it. Already. In just three short weeks. He leant forward and touched the man's lips with his own.
Alan smiled and his eyes opened slowly. His hand rose from the mattress to reach the nape of Max's neck. He pulled the nobleman's face closer to his and opened his lips. Max adjusted instantly to the changed nature of their kiss.
After they'd made love, Molloy pushed the covers from Dudding and sat at the side the bed, looking back at the naked man lying there and smiling up at him. "I'm hungry, Alan."
"I am too -- are you cooking?"
"You should have learnt by now that I can't even boil water."
"But I'm so comfortable, Max." Alan Dudding ground his shoulders and buttocks against the sheet.
Molloy smiled. He almost dived back into bed and the action that Dudding was implying. But he was hungry. And he wanted to get this man over to look at a particular flat he'd found for rent in Mayfair, not far from his house. The working class section of London in which Dudding lived was too bloody far to travel twice daily.
"I know a place that serves a delightful breakfast table, Alan. Get dressed."
"Get dressed?" the Irishman groaned and scrunched into a foetal position. "Make me."
"I should tickle you then?"
Alan sat up, sliding to the opposite side of the bed. "You have more plans for us today, don't you, Max?"
"Well, I did think..."
"You thought -- but you never asked me what I might think, did you?" He reached for his pants on the floor beside the bed and quickly pulled them on.
He sat on the bed and, leaning back against the pillows, turned to face the room beyond the foot of the bed. He didn't exactly look at Molloy, but he did pat the mattress beside him. "Come over here and let's really talk, Max. I think it's bloody well time we did."
The nobleman slid across the mattress towards Dudding cautiously. Adjusting his pillows, he leant back against the headboard, his hands covering his groin. He didn't like serious talks. He couldn't remember one that had gone the way he had wanted it to go. He hoped Dudding wasn't going to put a damper on their relationship. He was getting so comfortable in it.
Alan put his arm around Molloy's shoulder and pulled him closer. Molloy smiled then. Whatever it was that the Irishman thought they needed to discuss, it wasn't serious enough to disrupt the growth of their relationship.
"Max, I've come to -- well -- appreciate you these past several weeks," Dudding said softly. "More than I expected."
"You too?" Molloy yelped. "I've been walking on clouds. I feel like a silly school boy more times than not."
Dudding stole a quick glance at him and grinned. "I know the feeling," he said.
"I don't want what I'm feeling to end, ever."
"So, Max, what are you planning that entails getting me to go with you?"
Max Molloy turned to face the man who had come to mean so much to him in such a short time. "Alan, this end of town simply is not convenient for me."
"Too working class, is it?"
"No!" Max answered quickly before the Irishman could go off. "It's too far away. It takes me forty-five minutes to get here, in addition to the forty-five minutes it takes me to go home every day -- it cuts down on the time I'm allowed to be with you."
"Perhaps, you could skip making the trip to Mayfair?"
Max sighed. "Alan, that was one of Sarah's conditions to my seeing you. We have to maintain normality -- for both of our families, for the neighbours, and the boy. You know that, you agreed to it."
"That was before I had come to feel as I do now," Dudding mumbled.
"Even so, it's definitely part of our arrangement."
"Mayfair is pricey, Max. I couldn't afford more than a room in a boarding house there."
"I'll pay half -- I'll be living there too."
"Will you?" Alan studied the man beside him closely. "I mean that you'll be living there too?"
"If you'll have me. I want you to be my lover, Alan Dudding -- not just a hard dick in my arse. I want us to do things together -- outside of bed."
"Do you think that wise?"
"We'd have to be careful but -- yes ... In Mayfair, we could do it." Max smiled suddenly. "I had an opportunity to chat with Mr. Churchill on Wednesday."
"If you're half as good as I know you are, you'll be getting a rise in your pay packet within the month."
"You didn't?" Dudding demanded.
"I most certainly did ask him to have Lord Stanhope review your records. Now, will you go look at a flat I saw advertised in Mayfair?"
"I suppose. But are you sure that's what you want to do?"
Max stared at him. "I want you close to me -- all the time."
Alan laughed. "But you're still naked, Max. We can't go anywhere with you like that."
* * *
Barry glanced at himself one last time in the hall mirror. Yes! He did look good in tails. He just wished he was going to the ballet with Robbie instead of Miss Alice and Elizabeth.
"Elizabeth will be down shortly," Alice said as she neared the bottom of the stairs. She smiled. "You young people have so much more to work with than us older people -- it's no wonder it takes you so long to get ready." She reached the foot of the steps then and stopped, studying Barry closely. "My, but you make a handsome rake, Mr. Alexander."
He grinned. "Rake? I don't think so, Miss Alice. More like a peacock strutting in a gilded cage, I think."
"Whatever makes you think of yourself in that way?"
He shrugged. "I look good in tails, I know that. But the only person I really want to look good for isn't going to be with us."
Alice pursed her lips. Her voice was low and didn't carry when she began to speak. "I accept that you feel that way about Robert, Barry -- but you can never show it publicly." She shook her head slowly and brought her hands up to straighten Barry's lapels. "I don't envy you your future with him. Either of you. Never once being able to share the momentary touch in public that tells the other how much you love him. Never once being able so much as even to look at the man you love and expose your feelings in public." She shook her head again. "No, young Barry, I do not envy you or Robert your lives."
"It's not exactly the life I would have chosen," Barry answered quietly. "But it's the hand I've been dealt and I'll make the best of it that I can. Robert will to. We've got to -- for everybody's sake."
"Waiting for me?" Elizabeth called from the landing and started down the steps, holding onto the banister with one hand and holding her skirt up an inch or two with the other. Barry already knew Elizabeth to be an attractive woman, but he was hardly prepared for the transformation that formal attire had brought to her.
She was stunning. As he stared at her, Barry couldn't think of a more appropriate word for her than that. Stunning.
Elizabeth reached the last step and giggled. "Too bad, Barry. You're Robbie's, and I'd never touch what I can't have."
Alice looked from Barry to Elizabeth and back again, even as Barry blushed a deep crimson. She slowly smiled then. "I think we'll have to remember his tender male ego," she told Elizabeth, her eyes twinkling. "At least, until he's seated between us so that he can't escape."
"You think he would leave us stranded, Aunt Alice?" Elizabeth asked as if she was giving serious consideration to the possibility. "He's supposed to be a gentleman, we have Robert's word on it."
"My dear, men are notorious for becoming mindless little creatures with their tails tucked behind them when confronted with a night of ballet. He certainly wouldn't be the first to leave defenceless women at the mercy of the evening."
Barry Alexander understood they were having fun with him. It wasn't the first time that Elizabeth had pulled his non-existent whiskers; but it was Alice's. He hadn't been prepared for her to join in with the younger woman's fun at his expense. The old girl's wits were sharp; he had to give her that. He smiled. He was going to enjoy crossing swords with her; he just had to be careful not to insult her.
They sat in the Petersholme box, Elizabeth and Barry sitting in the forward corner with her pointing out interesting sights to the American. Alice's attention had been drawn to the other boxes and she began to scan them slowly
She was mildly surprised that the D'Archers had not come. It was, after all, opening night -- and the Bolshoi was reputed to be just as perfectionist as it had been under the Tsars. She remembered then that the Viscount's younger brother had finally settled on a bride and that the family was hosting his celebration party this weekend.
She scanned the other boxes with her opera glasses as the orchestra began to tune its instruments. The Royal Box held Queen Elizabeth and the two young Princesses. Alice allowed herself a tight smile as she imagined an advisor finally finding King George a legitimate escape from a night at the ballet, probably a last moment reprieve at that.
Movement two boxes down from the Royals pulled at her curiosity, and she trained her opera glasses there. Alice remembered then that it was Earl Molloy's box, and her interest instantly grew.
The curtains had been pulled partially open as she looked again, and there was now a light in the box. Young Molloy was just sitting there beside Dudding, and they seemed to be looking down at the stage. She increased the magnification of her glasses and found the movement that had first drawn her attention to the Molloy box. Maximillian seemed to be pointing the orchestra pit out to the Irishman.
She smiled as she contemplated that. The Dudding lad did indeed have upper class affectations from his years at Oxford; but she had no doubt that he needed a tutor to show him the ins and outs that were part of the nobility's natural terrain.
The orchestra began to play Tchaikovsky's overture and Alice sat back in her chair. She turned to Barry as the curtain began to rise. "Have you seen Lord Molloy?" she asked the American.
"Not in the past couple of weeks, Lady Alice."
"Tomorrow's Monday. Why don't you ring him up and find out if he's heard anything about Robert?"
Barry nodded. "That's a good idea."