Julian stared at the fire crackling merrily in the fireplace. He dreaded the upcoming ritual. The idea of...of kneeling to wash a stranger’s bare foot disturbed him. Not the act itself—that was no worse than the occasional lascivious playacting he’d indulged in. No, it was the humiliation he anticipated doing such a thing one-handed.
He could barely feed himself without being completely disgraced. He needed Garrett’s assistance with almost everything. Being right-handed—well, having been
right-handed—he no longer even had the dignity of writing his own correspondence or signing his own name.
So how in the bloody hell would he manage washing a person’s foot at the threshold of the main door without making the most appalling mull of it? Julian had no idea. He was likely to overset the bowl and spill the damned water across the floor.
Julian held his left hand up, flexing the fingers, waggling them at the fire as though casting some magical spell. They performed for him flawlessly, though not with the sublime elegance of his lost right hand. His left hand had been the brutish one, the one he used to force things open, the one he used to level opponents while boxing. His right hand had been the finesse, the delicate touch, the caress.
Tonight promised to be an unmitigated disaster. Julian wanted to run, to hide, to do any craven thing except perform the First Foot ritual. Nonetheless, he would do his duty as the master of the house, even as he damned his family for the addition of the foot washing to the usual Hogmanay celebrations. Even should his fears prove correct and he botched the whole damned business, Julian refused to disappoint the servants who looked forward to the event.
He’d been an empty shell upon his arrival at Blackston House after the accident. Garrett and Mrs. Murtree had taken him in, treating him as a son, the staff following suit. As the weeks wore on, Julian learned anew something vital he had forgotten. He may have lost an arm and an eye, but his return to Ayr had given him a renewal of his true self. A self that had been lost in a time before his sister was married. More, the bitterness he had felt since his sister’s marriage had finally started to fade.
His injuries had been less than two months healed when he’d arrived, his spirit a dead thing. He had learned to his grief just how little his life meant—to himself, or to those around him he’d counted as friends and compatriots. Hard on the heels of that realization had been the understanding that of course they saw him that way. After all, he’d treated those so-named friends none too kindly at times.
He’d considered them little more than sycophants—hangers-on, debauched comrades, lewd attendants. That was all they’d been to him—all they truly were, if Julian dared to be honest, at least in the privacy of his thoughts. He’d sought such people out, hoping to bury his heart with indifference. Well, he had most certainly achieved that.
They’d called him Narcissus, laughing at his preference for his own company to theirs. Sniggering at his self-indulgent lifestyle, whispering that he was in love with his own beauty. He’d ignored their titters. He’d been a hedonist and reveled in it, finding no pain in the name.
Yes, they’d named him after the pitiful young man in the Greek myth, cursed by a goddess out of spite. That myth had always angered him, because the goddess had ruined two lives, not just one. That silly nymph was always the focus of the tale, but no one thought about doomed Narcissus, wasting his life away adoring his own reflection.
certainly hadn’t wasted away. No, he’d done his damnedest to throw his life away at all possible speed. Yet when it came down to it at last, he’d wanted to live, hadn’t he?
“Yes, I wanted to live,” Julian said aloud. “I needed a reason to live, if only to see him
again. After all, he is free now.” Even if he won’t fall in love with me. Just seeing his face or hearing his voice will be enough.
The words rang hollow, even inside his head. If such a happenstance occurred, Julian knew he would not truly be content with such an empty relationship. He would want to become close, held in his love’s arms, to enjoy with his whole heart the deeds that had been mere physical pleasure before the accident.
“You’re a fool, Julian Mure.” The chastisement did little to banish the desire. He closed his tired eye, wishing to undo—well, to undo everything. To be whole again. To be in love again. To see him
If wishes were horses, went the old saying—but they were not.
* * * *
The clock in the great hall ticked away, marking the final moments of New Year’s Eve. Julian stood in front of the massive oaken doors, heart pounding. God, he’d become craven. He had never feared meeting strangers, for he’d always been secure in his fortunate looks and his ability to sway others. Now, though, he could not predict with any certainty what kind of reaction he would receive, and he dreaded that it might be revulsion.
The clock whirred into life as the last minute ticked past. The chimes began, and the gathered household waited in hushed expectancy. The final chime tolled, and the clock once again became silent.
Julian jumped as three loud claps rang through the hall, answering the clock’s final chime. He drew a steadying breath as two footmen stepped up to open the doors, letting in the chill, damp air of Ayr’s winter.
The cloaked stranger entered, offering the footmen the traditional gifts of the First Foot. Julian could smell the sweetness of the Scotch bun and the acrid scent of coal, and the bottle of whisky was clearly visible in the crook of Garrett’s arm. Julian had no doubt there were silver coins in the stranger’s pocket, as well, to distribute among the staff.
Julian stepped forward to welcome the stranger but stopped, staring in dismay at the man who had become Blackston House’s First Foot. His outstretched hand fell limply to his side in his shock. The man was tall, dark-haired, handsome—everything a First Foot should be for the best luck and prosperity of the household.
He was also the man Julian had loved for the past ten years. Loved since he was a callow youth of fifteen and understood that his desires were abnormal. The anticipated First Foot visitor was none other than Julian’s brother-in-law, Alasdair Hedgeford, widower of Julian’s dead sister Elizabeth.