William’s ignorance in all matters concerning romance could be exasperating. Why could he not tell it was not because Duncan did not want to lie with him that he proposed this, but because he did?
“I do want to,” Duncan murmured.
“Then why don’t you? I’m right here, and I’m ready. I want your cock in my ass and your fingers in my mouth.”
“Because I think we should take things slower than we have.” Duncan loved and hated it when William spoke explicitly.
“Slowly? When people die every day? What’s the use? If you don’t want me anymore, you can just tell me, and I’ll be off and away.”
“I do want you.”
William laughed, but it was without humor. He stood, then walked to Duncan. His actions were anticipated, but it made them no less heartbreaking. William put his hands on the hem of Duncan’s kilt and lifted it over his waist. When he saw the flush there, for Duncan was indeed desirous, William’s cheeks darkened.
“I told you. I do want you,” Duncan said.
“I don’t understand,” William said, letting the cloth fall and cover Duncan again. “I don’t understand. How can you just stand there?”
,” Duncan said, reaching the end of his rope. “I like you. Haven’t we covered that already? I like
you. Not just your body, but you
. I care
about you, about your safety and your happiness. And right now, I want to focus on that part of our affinity, the nonphysical side, because I don’t think you’ve quite grasped what it means.”
“You think me stupid,” William said, looking away. Though he had tried so hard to convince Duncan of this earlier, it was clear the prospect distressed him.
“No,” Duncan replied. “No.
I think you’re one of the cleverest people I’ve ever met. But you have no experience, no foundation, for this sort of coupling. And it’s a complicated sort of thing. Many people, even those who have not had your experiences, have difficulty understanding.” He touched William’s cheek and coaxed his face forward again. “I want to do this right, Will,” he whispered. “I want to do right by you. You’ve been wronged so much, so terribly. I would rather die than continue that theme.”
William stared at him, his eyes glimmering and his mouth set. “All right,” he acceded at last. His voice was tremulous but determined. “What would you have us do, then?”
“Cover yourself up, first, before I go back on my word,” Duncan said, retrieving William’s shirt, jacket, and hose from the floor and then passing them to him. “And let’s go for a walk, just the two of us. We can talk along the way.”
Always obedient, William began to dress.
“You’ve turned me into an incorrigible skirt chaser,” William muttered, casting Duncan a faint smile. “I never thought I’d see the day.”
chaser,” Duncan corrected him but grinned.
Once William had dressed, Duncan led him to the castle courtyard. There were gardens there, in which a vast array of herbs and vegetables were flourishing. Duncan had always wished he could have his family’s apiary in the courtyard, but his father had expressed concern about keeping stinging insects so close to the castle, despite the built-in bee boles in the wall. The bees were relegated to the orchard some distance away, within a little fenced pen to keep the foxes out. The bee boles were filled with rosemary pots every spring, and despite their distance from the castle, there were dozens of bees diving into blossoms in search of nectar.
They exited the courtyard, crossed through a narrow corridor, and left the castle, walking down the sloping green grass surrounding Faoltaigh Castle. It was a gray day, like so many of the days in late Scottish summer, but there was, mercifully, no rain. Duncan glanced at William as they headed for the sea.
“How have you found your stay in Scotland thus far?” Duncan asked.
“You mean after the part where I was attacked by wolves and nearly starved to death?”
“It’s been nice,” William said. “I’ve been very well fed. I’ve a bed of my own. I’ve kept congenial company. I’ve”—he dropped his voice to a theatrical whisper, his smile growing broader—“I’ve met a man I care for.”
“Is that so?” Duncan asked, returning William’s smile. Then Duncan had to look away because he suddenly felt shy. William had never said he cared for Duncan.
“Yes. Wait, are you blushing
, my lord?” William demanded, incredulous. He giggled. Giggled! “Why, I do believe you are. Imagine that.”
“Yes, imagine.” Duncan felt very warm.
“So what is it you wished to discuss?”
“I want to learn about you,” Duncan said. “You don’t have to share your history if you’d rather not, for that is not all that you are. Tell me about your present. Tell me about your favorite things.”
“My favorite things?” William repeated slowly, looking confused. “What do you mean?”
“Well, to begin with, what brings you happiness?” Duncan asked.
William walked by Duncan’s side in pensive silence for some time. “I like flowers,” he said eventually. “I like watching them bloom. It’s such a beautiful thing, to see them grow from a bud so tiny and plain into something so colorful and fragrant. I like weaving them into crowns to wear when no one else is around. I like the idea of someone giving me a bouquet because they saw wildflowers and thought of me. I used to dream of that as a boy. And”—he glanced at Duncan—“I find something tragically satisfying in their evanescent beauty. They wilt so quickly when removed from the stalk, and even when remaining on the plant, they last but days. Is that strange?” he asked. “That I should love something though it is born to die?”
“No,” Duncan said. “I understand.”
They continued walking, the only sound their feet upon the long grass and their quiet breaths.
“Is there anything else that brings you happiness?” Duncan asked.
“Oh, plenty of things. I like children,” William went on. He smiled. “I haven’t had the opportunity to spend very much time with them, but I love to watch them. Everything about the world is so fresh and new to them. There’s so much promise in something that has no past, you know? You’re creating it with them in the present. And there’s such innocence about them. They never think you do or say something untrue, for they cannot conceive of a reason why you should be dishonest. They do not understand ulterior motives. And that is beautiful. They have not yet learned to be distrustful. They are blank slates of honesty and inquiry.”
Duncan loved to hear William talk like this. He was thoughtful and reflective, and, it turned out, they saw things very similarly, though Duncan had never articulated these thoughts himself.
“Oh, and since I care for you,” William added nervously, and Duncan’s brain hummed with excitement, “being with you makes me very happy.”
“Why’s that?” Duncan asked, his heart swelling.
“Because you’re very solicitous. You care about how I feel and what I think. You could take advantage of my weakness, you could very easily hurt me because I am so vulnerable and unprotected now that I…” He stopped, swallowed, and continued in a disjointed way. “But you don’t. It’s lovely, to think you care enough not to hurt me.
“And I guess I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say I like you because of the way you make me feel when we’re intimate. You make me feel good. Very safe, very excited, very respected. And as though my satisfaction is every bit as important as yours.”
“But, Will,” Duncan said, perplexed, “it is every bit as important.”
William shook his head. “How could that be?”
“Why, because that’s the point.”
“Of being intimate: mutual fulfillment, affirmation of emotional ties. Fun. And it’s only fun if everyone’s having fun.”
“Is something wrong?” Duncan asked.
“It’s just—no one has ever explained things to me this way. You always give me so much to think about every time we speak.”
“Well, it’s just my interpretation of things, but I think it’s a nice one.”
“Yes,” William agreed. “It really is.”
The suspicion that had long built within Duncan was nearly confirmed: William had never made love. He had had a shocking number of sexual partners from a young age, yes, but he had never made love. Not as one should.
“And what makes you happy?” William turned the question on Duncan.
“I like hunting,” Duncan said after brief reflection, “but it’s not about killing things. It’s about being out on the land, alone, where I can just think
.” He was not often limited by his vocabulary, but he was at a loss how better to describe the appeal of hunting to him. He did not relish taking the life of any creature, but he did value human life over the lives of wolves, and so he saw his regular hunting escapades as a duty. Besides, it had led him to William. “I like that it means I am doing my part to keep my people safe.”
“You like doing that, don’t you?” William asked. “Protecting people.”
“It brings me peace of mind,” Duncan replied, looking to the sky. “And I just think, I am fortunate enough to be strong, male, noble, and trained in killing, and I am in a better position than so many others. The least I can do is put my skills and fortune to good use.”
“So it’s a duty?”
Duncan wrinkled his nose, reflecting. “Yes, but also a compulsion. I can’t bear to stand by when I see pain. I feel too much, sometimes.” It was hard to admit, but he knew this to be true, and he wanted William to know. “I think I sometimes feel too much of what others feel, and it means when they suffer, I suffer. Maybe my altruism is ultimately selfish. I don’t know. I just know I’d go mad watching anything bad happen to the ones I care about.” He had gone mad, for a while, when Adaira died. But that was not something he wanted to talk about for the time being.
“What about you?” William asked softly, and the concern in his voice was touching. “Who protects you?”
“Last I checked, I didn’t need protecting.”
He was not sure if he saw doubt on William’s face.
“But it makes you happy? To protect?”
“It makes me happy to end suffering.”
William touched Duncan’s arm. “You’re a saint.”
“No,” Duncan countered, thinking William had gotten the wrong impression. Did he not realize Duncan had no choice in the matter? Did he not realize Duncan often wished he could step back from things, as all others seemed capable of doing, and not feel so responsible for everyone and everything? If he could, he would.
“We’ll agree to disagree, then,” William said, linking his elbow through Duncan’s. It was a casual gesture, but Duncan understood how hard it must have been for him to do. “Tell me, my lord, what else makes you happy?”
“My family,” Duncan replied. “I would die for Sara without a second thought.” He said this matter-of-factly.
“How terrifying,” William murmured, “to love someone so much. To be loved so much.”
There was a certain fear to caring so much, Duncan agreed. Loving someone so much gave the loved one incredible power over a person. It also meant failure to secure the loved one’s safety would be disastrous. It meant Duncan was wary about falling in love again.
“It holds me together,” Duncan said, not caring to elaborate for the moment. There was a time when Sara was the only thing that kept him from gutting himself. Would he feel so much for her if he did not owe her his life? Yes. He would. He had loved her from the moment Adaira had first put his hand on her swollen stomach and he had felt a wee nudging against his palm.
“You look sad,” William said. “You said family makes you happy, but you look so sad.”
“One must know sadness to know happiness,” Duncan replied. He wished to change the subject; William was too observant. “But let me tell you of something less bittersweet.” He leaned closer to William’s ear. “You see, I too have found a man I care for since you arrived at Faoltaigh.”
William raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Oh?” he asked.
“Aye. He’s just the sweetest thing. Pure brilliance too. And that’s saying nothing of his beauty.”
“You don’t say.”
They were near the water, and Duncan looked up and down the beach. Seeing no one, he drew William into an embrace. “I’ve never understood that expression,” he said, delighting in how William hugged him back.
“How do you mean?”
“You English say such a thing as ‘You don’t say,’ when I said exactly that. I said I like a man who’s sweet, smart, and striking.” He gazed into William’s open face. “Did you only want to hear me say it again?”
“It is a nice thing to hear, admittedly, my lord.” William smiled. “Though it was not my intent.”
“And what was your intent?”
“I don’t know. Only, I’m glad I wound up in your arms again. It’s nice here.” He rested his head against Duncan’s shoulder and sighed. “It’s very nice here,” he repeated in a whisper.