Read Midwinter Manor 2 -Keeper's Pledge Online

Authors: Jl Merrow

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Gay, #Historical, #General

Midwinter Manor 2 -Keeper's Pledge

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Dedication

To Inge, without whom this story would probably never have been written. Yes, with me, a very little flattery will get you everywhere!

Chapter 1

P
HILIP
rolled over to lie beside his young lover, breathing hard. Even after almost four years, it was still so, so good with Danny. He felt sated and soothed, and as happy as he could ever remember feeling. Sweat cooled on his body in the sharp autumn air. Philip savored the chill for a moment before huddling closer to Danny for warmth of more kinds than one. Outside, birds were twittering in the trees, their calls coming faintly through the tightly closed window of the keeper’s lodge.

It was odd, perhaps, that Philip should feel more at home here in these humble surroundings than he ever did in the manor house he’d lived in all his life, but right now he couldn’t quite bring himself to care. Shifting onto his side, he ran a hand over Danny’s shoulder and down his upper arm. “I swear, you get brawnier every day. I hadn’t realized a gamekeeper’s job involved so much hard physical labor.”

Danny grinned back at him, the effect rendered roguish by his dark gypsy curls and lightly stubbled chin. He must have shaved that morning, but his beard seemed to grow like grass in the summertime. “Maybe I do a bit more than I need, so as a certain lord of the manor won’t grow tired of my fading charms,” he teased.

“I? Tire of your charms? Never,” Philip said fervently. “Oh, but I wanted to tell you, I’ve invited my cousin down for the Christmas season.”
“Oh, aye?”

“Yes. My cousin Frederick. He’s the one who’ll take over the estate when I’m—after me.”

 

Danny frowned. “That’s if you don’t have any children.”

“Well, we both know that’s not going to happen,” Philip said with a touch of impatience.
“Don’t you think you’re being a mite quick in saying that?” Danny raised himself up on an elbow, his face serious. “You could still marry.”
“You’re suggesting I take a wife?” Did Danny really think Philip would abandon him for a woman? Or was he advocating casual infidelity? Philip was more than a little hurt by either implication.

It was Danny’s turn to sound impatient. “Of course I don’t
want
you to marry, but you’re….” He frowned. “Most men in your position would want an heir. I wouldn’t think the less of you for wanting that too.”

“I’ve got an heir. Frederick.” Philip sat up angrily and swung his legs out of Danny’s bed, reaching for his trousers. “Why you should think I’d want to get a child of my own on some poor woman I can’t imagine.”

He felt large, work-roughened hands close upon his shoulders. “I’m just saying, I wouldn’t take it ill of you.” Danny pressed a kiss to the nape of his neck, and Philip melted into Danny’s grasp in relief. “It’s not like we’ll ever have anything more than snatches of time, any road.” The kisses moved around Philip’s throat, making his breath catch and robbing him of speech. “But I’ll admit I’ve no great yen to share you.” Stubble rasped against Philip’s skin, while soft lips soothed the minor hurt. “Seems as I’ll have to, though, this Christmas.”

Guilt roiled in Philip’s stomach. There would be no cozy Christmas dinner for two this year; that was true enough. No cozy dinners at all, while his guests were here. The household servants might be content not to inquire too closely into the nature of Philip’s close friendship with his gamekeeper, but he could hardly expect his cousin to turn a blind eye to impropriety.

Philip wished he could explain to Danny that this visit was partly for his benefit. Without courting posthumous scandal, there was a limit to what he could do to provide for his lover in the event of his own untimely death. Thirty-five years old might be no age to be thinking about his own mortality, but Philip couldn’t forget that Robert—dear, longlost Robert—had been a full ten years younger when he’d died. Philip wasn’t entirely sure how he might broach the matter, but he hoped Frederick could be persuaded of the importance of seeing to Danny’s well-being.

“I’m sorry, Danny,” Philip said, covering one brown hand with his own pale one. “But it seemed the perfect time to ask him down. For all we know, he and Millie will have a child, or one on the way, by next year and won’t want to spend Christmas anywhere but at home.” They’d married only that summer; Philip had, of course, been invited but had made an excuse. Now, however, he rather wished he’d gone. The thought of having a total stranger visit his home filled Philip with a certain amount of dread, for all that he’d become somewhat easier in society since he and Danny had reached their understanding.

Danny nodded slowly. “He’ll be bringing his wife then?” “And her sister. Apparently she more or less lives with them these days.”

 

“Oh, aye? Seems a funny arrangement for a couple of newlyweds.”

Philip relaxed back into his lover’s embrace, enjoying the earthy scent of him that mingled with the traces of their lovemaking. “I’d have thought so too, but I gather she doesn’t get on too well with her father. She’s older than Millicent, Lucy is. I suppose it must rankle, seeing her younger sister go out into the world, while she’s still living at home.”

Danny laughed, a warm rumble against Philip’s neck. “Our Toby’s champing at the bit to get out from under Mam’s skirts.”

“Toby? But he’s only, what, fourteen now?”

“Aye, and thinks he’s a grown man. He’s already talked of moving out of the cottage, now he’s got the undergardener’s job, but Mam won’t hear of it. Not as how he could afford to, wages he gets. Not that I’m complaining, mind,” he added quickly, presumably worried lest Philip take offense. “You pay him a fair wage, and I wouldn’t want you to do more than that.”

“I should have thought he’d enjoy being the man of the house, now you’ve moved out to the lodge here,” Philip said. In truth, Danny’s home was more of a cottage, although it rejoiced in the grander title of “the keeper’s lodge.” “Does it bother you, living here?” Philip asked suddenly.

“Bother me? Why should it do that?”

“Oh, well….” Philip began to wish he hadn’t brought up the subject. “It’s just—well, Drayton used to live here.” Not to mention, had blown his brains out in the scullery. “And you and he were, well… not friends,” he finished weakly.

“Aye, but if ’tweren’t for him I’d not be here, now would I? I’d have frozen to death in that snow four years ago.” Danny was quiet for a moment, his arms tightening around Philip’s waist. “I reckon we’ve made our peace, him and me.”

Philip shivered. Lord, he’d come so close to… to what? He didn’t even like to think how different his life would have been if Danny had died that day, if he had never been brought to the manor to recover, after his fall from the tree. He felt another whiskery kiss pressed to his neck, reassuring him his lover was here, was his.

“Any road, it’s a fine time to be asking me that, Philip Luccombe, when I’ve been living here these three years and more!”

The tension broken, Philip twisted to look at Danny’s roguish grin, meeting it with a smile of his own. They kissed, then broke apart once more to dress.

D
ANNY
whistled as he walked through the grounds. Aye, he was a lucky man, and no mistake. Four years ago he’d been a penniless poacher, hunting rabbits to feed his fatherless family. Who’d have thought he’d end up gamekeeper on the same estate he’d stolen from? Not to mention in bed with the master. He grinned at the thought. He’d always thought Philip a grand-looking man, with his delicate features, sandy hair and long, slender limbs—so different from Danny’s own dark, coarse looks. You could tell at a glance which of them was quality, no two ways about it. And these last few years, Philip had blossomed. He’d lost some of his nerviness, and gained a bit of color in those pale cheeks. Aye, Danny was a lucky man to have him, that was for sure.

Still whistling, Danny strolled into the game larder and selected a fat pheasant. It’d only been hanging a week, and in frosty weather too, but it’d be tender enough, and his mam preferred meat that wasn’t so gamy. A remnant of his poaching past, most like, when they’d thought it best to eat the evidence of his crimes as quickly as they could. Danny thought of calling a boy to take the bird ¼round to his mam’s—but she’d be up on the estate to bend his ear if he didn’t go visit soon, so he might as well kill two birds with one stone.

These days, his mam’s little cottage was kept in good repair and freshly painted, indoors and out. With its blazing hearth and bright curtains at the windows, the parlor was right cheerful as Danny walked in with his feathered burden. All save for the sullen face in the corner, that was. Toby had put on collar and tie in honor of the Sabbath, but he hadn’t bothered to don a smile. Danny nodded to his brother, and sighed as Toby just turned his face away. Looked like a bruise was blossoming on his cheekbone, but Danny didn’t want to get into that before he’d even greeted his mam.

“Mam, I’ve brought you the bird I promised,” he called out.

Mam came bustling down from upstairs, looking bright herself in her Sunday best. “Oh, that’s a beauty, Danny. Will you stay for supper with us now?” There was a furrow in her brow as she said it, so Danny reckoned he knew what the answer had better be.

“Course I will, Mam. Can I do anything to help you with it?”

 

“Lord, no. You’re a working man. You sit yourself by the fire. Toby, will you call the girls in to help?”

 

Toby rose without speaking and slouched past Danny to the door. “Mary! Abigail! You’re wanted,” he called out. Mam huffed. “And if they don’t hear you? Go see where they are, Toby.”

 

“I’m a working man too,” he grumbled with a sidelong look at Danny, but he went out all the same.

 

“And close the door behind you!” Mam reminded him. “That wind’s blowing right through my bones.”

 

“How’s he been, Mam?” Danny asked when the door had slammed shut. “Looked to me like he’s been fighting again.”

She nodded curtly. “Came home with that last night. Smelt like he’d been drinking, too, though he denied it.”
Danny sighed. “Aye, well, he’s money in his pocket now. You can’t begrudge him a pint or two when the working week’s done.”
“If he stopped at one or two, I wouldn’t, and that’s the truth. But what use is it him working all week, only to drink his wages away of a Saturday?”

“You’re not short, are you, Mam?” Danny asked sharply. “No! Bless you, love. With what you give me, I’ve no call

to be short of money. I just wish that brother of yours had the same sense of responsibility,” she added pointedly as Toby stomped back into the parlor.

Two pink-cheeked little girls rushed in behind him in their best Sunday dresses, now somewhat grubby from their games outside.

“Danny!” His sisters at least were delighted to see him. Danny dug in his pockets for the little presents he’d brought—cakes from the manor kitchens, and scraps of fabric for dollies’ dresses, all courtesy of Mrs. Standish, the housekeeper. She’d taken quite a shine to Danny’s sisters, though he doubted she’d ever admit it beyond a grudging “They’re good enough girls, I suppose.”

“Have you been good girls for your mam?” he asked, holding the treats up high out of their reach until they nodded vigorously. “Even you, little Abby?”

“I have, I have. Mam, tell him I’ve been good.” Mam smiled. “That she has. Go on, eat your cake, both of you.”

Danny handed them the treats, and they set to, taking little nibbles to make the cakes last longer. Not that they ever went hungry these days, thank God, but these were manor cakes, and therefore special.

Danny lounged by the fire, listening to his mother’s stream of village gossip as she plucked and trussed the bird. When his sisters had done their part peeling vegetables, he took them out to play a game of rounders with sticks and pine cones in the pale winter sunshine. “Coming, Toby?” he called out with no real hope of success.

Toby just grunted and kept his head buried in the
Sunday Pictorial
.

 

“Toby says he’s too old for silly games,” Abby complained as they left him behind.

“Well, more fool him if he’d rather sit indoors and be miserable than enjoy a rare fine day for the time of year,” Danny replied, exasperated, although he waited until the door had closed behind them. Lord knew, Toby was sulky enough already without Danny putting his back up further.

“He’s just daft,” Mary decided with the authority of a ten-year-old. “You’re a whole eight years older than he is, and you’re playing with us.”

“He’s a difficult age for a lad.” Danny excused his brother, although if he were honest, he agreed with her. “Neither man nor boy. He’ll grow out of it.”

Enjoying themselves, and warmed by the exercise, they didn’t go back inside until the light had almost faded from the sky. The cottage was now filled with the aromas of roasting pheasant and cabbage with bacon, and Danny’s stomach growled. “Do you need some more firewood, Mam?” he asked, seeing the woodpile was low.

“Bless you, but Toby can see to that.”
Toby glowered over the top of the newspaper. “I don’t mind,” Danny said quickly.

Mam’s voice turned sharp. “Seeing to the firewood is Toby’s job,” she said, her tone brooking no argument. Toby slapped the paper down on the table and slouched outside. Mam tutted loudly and turned back to her cooking.

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