|The Wanderer bucked and swayed as she navigated the switch and
James West woke up halfway to the floor. With a twist that would have
been the envy of any cat, he landed as sure-footedly as if he'd
intended the move and stood blinking in the middle of his stateroom.
Jim yawned and plowed a hand through his mussed hair. He twitched aside a curtain and flinched away from the piercing rays of the rising sun. "Too damned early," Jim muttered as he pulled on his dressing gown.
Give him a mission and a madman intent on taking over the world, or at least the country, and Jim would roll out, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, when the cock was still sleeping soundly with his head under his wing. Give him a presidential decree and a warrant to serve, and he'd cheerfully ride all night and fight all day. But stick him on the train for two days straight, nothing that needed doing and no one caring what he did, and Jim turned into a hibernating grizzly.
He shuffled down the corridor, the larger part of him wanting nothing more than to go back to bed, the rest knowing the jolt that had awakened him was the switch onto the New Orleans track. They were less than an hour out, and he might as well give in to the inevitable and think about making himself presentable, after he found himself some coffee.
Coffee greeted him the minute he walked through the parlor door. Jim took the cup from Artie's hand and buried his nose in the blissful aroma.
"You're supposed to drink it," Artie told him, disgustingly awake and irrepressibly cheerful, "not inhale it."
Jim grunted in response, swallowed a mouthful of searingly hot coffee, and turned to make his way back to his stateroom. If he drank off most of the large mug while he was washing and pulling on his trousers, he just might manage to shave himself without cutting off an ear. A hand on his shoulder stopped him, warm fingers lapping over the collar of his dressing gown to brush against his neck.
"Breakfast." Artie steered Jim to the table, the firmness of his grip clear warning that he would brook no disagreement.
Jim allowed himself to be ushered into a chair. So long as he got to keep the coffee, he didn't mind. Artie disappeared into the galley and Jim sipped coffee, glad he was sitting with the rising sun at his back. Its rosy reflection on every polished surface was dazzling enough. The light and the coffee sufficed to open a few more doors in his mind, and Jim scowled.
"I can't." He raised his voice to be heard in the galley. "It's not that I don't appreciate it, Artie, but I don't have time. The prince's ship will have arrived before we get there as it is."
"What do you think the odds are that a spoiled Karpanian prince is awake at this hour, let alone prepared to leave his luxurious accommodations on board ship?" Artie appeared in the galley doorway. "You're going to sit right there and eat your breakfast."
The order was somewhat undercut by the fact that he was wearing an apron and gesturing with a spatula, but Jim swallowed his smile, and another mouthful of coffee, and meekly said, "Yes, Artie."
Thus it was that, a good half an hour after the Wanderer had pulled into the New Orleans trainyard, James West -- dressed in his best -- swung off the rear platform and made his way toward the wharves, his belly full of Artie's superb cooking and a smile on his face.
He was not smiling when he returned two hours later.
Jim shoved the door closed with enough force to set it rattling on its hinges and threw his top hat onto the couch. The wrinkled swallow-tailed coat followed, and the frilly necktie, rendered limp and lifeless by the heat. "The bastard wasn't there."
"The prince never boarded in the first place, if the captain can be believed. And there was no sign of him on the ship; I looked. We'll have to--" He turned on Artie. "You know?"
"Telegraph." Artie laid his book aside and rose, looking crisp and cool in his vest and shirtsleeves. Jim felt as wilted as his necktie. "Came through about half an hour ago. It appears Prince Hapnick fell ill at the last moment and was unable to make the voyage." Artie picked up Jim's discarded hat, necktie and coat, and gave the latter a shake that failed to budge the wrinkles.
"I expect," Artie went on, when Jim proved himself unable to do anything but fulminate against the arrogance of princes, and that silently, "that he 'fell ill' with the aid of a good quantity of alcohol, and made himself quite green at the thought of a sea voyage."
"God dammit, Artie! That must have been a week ago!"
"Ten days, give or take. Apparently, the young prince realized -- quite correctly, I'm sure; it won't be the United States, after all, that suffers for the lack of a trade agreement -- that his father would not look favorably on the decision, and took the slowest road home. Then, of course, a messenger had to be sent to the nearest country with a telegraph -- Karpania's rather backwards still. Washington just got word via the Atlantic cable an hour ago."
Jim crossed his arms over his chest and scowled at his partner. "You're taking this rather calmly." And thereby making himself a tempting target for Jim's irritation, the prince being unavailable.
Artie headed down the hall with Jim's discarded clothing. "I wasn't looking forward to hosting another princeling on this train anyway."
"They're not all out to start an international incident, you know," Jim said as he followed. Artie ducked into Jim's stateroom and laid the top hat on his bureau.
"One," Artie decreed, "was enough." He tossed the wilted cravat into the laundry hamper and shook out the coat again, holding it up to study it critically.
Jim grinned. "You're just annoyed you had to wear that feather-cape for two days," he said, forgetting that it had been rather a sore issue with Artie.
Artie scowled at him and went back to trying to brush the wrinkles out of Jim's formal dress coat. "Just what sort of trouble did you get into this morning?"
"The captain wasn't inclined to let me take a look in his staterooms. It became necessary to convince him."
"And a few of his crew, no doubt."
"You know," Jim said, ignoring the new subject, "you looked superb in that cape. Rather regal."
Artie snorted. "In a barbaric, half-naked kind of way."
Jim grinned. "Something like that. Better than that spoiled prince would have."
Artie shot him a look calculated to remind him just who had engineered the chain of events that led to the wearing of that cape. Jim shifted and glanced away. He still felt a bit guilty about that -- not so much the ruse that put Artie in that position, but the fact that it had been necessary to arrange for Artie to be knocked over the head to bring it about. He still thought it was worth it. Entirely aside from the concern over kidnapping that had brought Jim and Artie into the case in the first place, the crown prince of the Coral Islands could never have made the entrance Artie had, royal blood or no.
"All right." Artie sighed. "Nothing for it. Get out of those trousers and that shirt." He tossed the coat across the bed and started on Jim's buttons. "If you're going to be presentable at the theater tonight, they'll all have to be pressed."
"Theater?" Jim pushed Artie's hands away and finished unbuttoning his shirt himself. The news from Washington and Artie's unbreakably pleasant mood finally clicked. "We're to stay here."
"Until a new assignment comes up or we're needed back in Washington. Paid furlough, Jim. Can't beat that." Artie draped Jim's coat and shirt over his arm and watched Jim heel off his shoes. The moment he'd stripped off the trousers, Artie grabbed them and walked out.
Jim snatched up a dressing gown and followed Artie back to the parlor, pulling it on hastily when he remembered that they were sitting on the main line in front of the station in anticipation of a quick departure with their royal guest.
Artie stuck his head out the rear door and whistled, high and sharp. A moment later, the stationmaster's boy came dashing out. "Yes, sir?"
"Take these--" Artie shoved the bundle of clothing into the boy's arms. "--to the nearest reputable laundress. Give her this if she can get them pressed and back by mid-afternoon." He handed the boy a half-eagle.
The boy's eyes widened at sight of the gold. "She'll have 'em done in an hour for that!"
Artie grinned. "Bring them back yourself, and I'll give you one just like it."
The boy was off like a shot.
"Feeling generous, are you?" Ten dollars just to get evening clothes pressed. They could both eat at the most expensive restaurant in town for less.
Artie merely shot him that unshakable grin and reached for his jacket where it lay over the back of the couch. "Stationmaster can't appreciate our blocking his main line. I'll go make arrangements to be switched to a siding. You," he added, "might consider getting dressed. And bathing."
Jim discretely sniffed himself. He did rather smell of the wharves, and the bilge-reek of that captain and his squalid ship. Perhaps it was not merely alcoholic nerves that turned the prince green at the thought of a sea voyage.
Artie went out, whistling, leaving Jim clad in nothing but his
smalls and a haphazardly tied dressing gown. Funny how he felt like
Jim was right about the most expensive restaurant in town. It had cost less than ten dollars, though not much. And Artie forbade him to pay even a cent of it.
Jim sat across the table from Artie, dressed in his newly pressed evening clothes, eating the best meal he'd had in ages -- and considering Artie's cooking, that was saying something -- and listened to Artie muse aloud over what they could do during their unexpected vacation, his irritation washing completely away. The prince had, it seemed, done them a good turn. Too bad they couldn't thank him for it.
The theater was, if anything, even better than the restaurant. Artie had somehow managed to finagle box seats, and the best in the house at that. The play was engaging, the starring actress capturing the whole house in silent rapture every time she spoke. And yet, it was not she who caught Jim's attention, but the sweet-faced brunette in the subordinate role. Her voice was, to him, far more pleasing than the ringing tones of the star, her lithe form more appealing than the overblown charms of the other woman. Jim found himself leaning forward every time she was on-stage, and was aware of Artie sitting back, a satisfied smile on his face.
Somehow, he wasn't all that surprised when Artie led him backstage after the curtain came down to thundering applause.
Backstage was a half-step from a madhouse, as usual. Jim was familiar with the chaos from the few times he'd been impressed into the protection of some spoiled diva, and the even fewer times he'd been fortunate enough to watch Artie in his native element. Even before the curtain went down and the stage-struck audience imposed themselves on the chaos, it was a wonder anything got done, let alone the staging of something as complex as a play. It was even more impressive to watch Artie weave his way through the madness with the deft sure-footedness of a man wholly at home.
Artie stepped suddenly into a space between two enormous panels of scenery and hauled Jim after him, tugging him so close Jim could smell the subtle scent that rose from Artie through the veil of his elegant black evening clothes. A moment later, the leading lady swept past, borne on a sea of fawning men. The tidal wave vanished through the outer door with a resounding crash, and the theater sounded suddenly quite empty, though there was still the usual chaos of supernumeraries rushing hither and thither.
Drawing Jim along behind him, Artie went unerringly to a certain dressing room and knocked. The voice that answered was unmistakably female, and unmistakably the one Jim had so enjoyed on stage. He knew what to expect when Artie pushed open the door. Or thought he did.
"What's so fascinating in that mirror, pretty Annie?" Artie murmured, laughter in his voice. "Think those curls'll blow away if you're not looking?"
"Tem!" She whirled to her feet, a grease paint-streaked rag in one hand and a smile bursting over her face. Coming at him as if she might throw her arms around him, she teetered to a stop at the last moment. "Oh, but I'll get grease paint all over your pretty clothes."
Artie laughed and dragged her into an affectionate hug. "Annie," he said when he drew back, "I want you to meet my partner, James West. Jim, may I present Constance Caswell?"
"Enchanted," Jim said with his best bow. She made him a very pretty curtsey, not in the least marred by the rag in her hand or the grease paint still lingering on her rosy face.
"Oh, Tem, why didn't you warn me you were in town? I'd have--"
"Got into a pother and fluffed your lines, no doubt. You were marvelous, my dear." He kissed her cheek. "Now. Quick change, Annie. If you're ready in five minutes, I'll give you a very special present indeed."
He stepped back and closed the door on the whirlwind that took
over the room. Turning to Jim, he asked, "Tea and dessert at Sadie's
She was ready in five minutes, and they were ensconced in a private parlor at Sadie's in ten. Annie was even more radiant off-stage than on, and in a fashionable gown with all traces of grease paint banished from her face, she'd have been the belle of any ball.
Jim leaned close when Artie was consulting with the waiter on precisely what to order, and murmured, "Tem?"
Annie smiled, an engaging twinkle in her eye. "Artemus used to say that it was much more fun to make a pet name out of the end of someone's name than the beginning."
"Quite right," Artie said as he rejoined them, sinking into his chair by the fire. "Can you imagine calling this delicate creature 'Connie'?"
Jim cocked his head to steal a glance at her where she perched next to him on the couch. Artie had taken the single chair as soon as they arrived, leaving the couch to Jim and the young lady. It felt, in that small, pleasantly warm room, quietly welcoming in its removal from the bustle of the street, almost too intimate. "No, I think not. But may I say," he added, turning to Artie, "how glad I am you seem to have got over that idea?"
Artie chuckled. "Dear lord, Jim! I haven't the foggiest what I'd call you if I hadn't!"
"I'd rather you didn't try to figure it out."
The waiter returned with tea and cakes and a very fine vintage of brandy on a rolling cart which he established before the fire, and for a time the conversation was general and aimed entirely at the consumption of the dainties. Annie was no-nonsense in her approach to the food, and didn't pretend at the bird-like appetite feigned by half the society belles Jim had the misfortune of meeting.
After a time, Artie sat back with his glass of brandy and chuckled. "Still can't bring yourself to eat before a performance, I see."
"A fact you were obviously counting on, Tem," she returned saucily. "Or you gentlemen would have had a time getting through this feast you ordered."
"Oh, I think we would have managed. One thing you can always count on is James and his... appetites."
Jim's eyes shot, despite himself, to Annie, but though her cheeks were tinged with a healthy glow, it seemed to have more to do with the fire than Artie's barely veiled suggestion. Jim turned a warning look on Artie, who merely smiled blandly back at him.
"What about you?" Annie asked. "Still going into your roles with nothing but a glass of brandy in your belly?"
"Yes," Jim answered for Artie. The practice had worried him when he first became aware of it. The last thing they needed on a mission was Artie slipping out of character because he was running on little more than alcoholic fumes. But he'd never once caught Artie in a slip, and by now it was old hat. If he was around when Artie headed off, Jim poured the brandy himself.
Annie shook her head and her finger at Artie, but there was not the least touch of censure there. Jim shifted on the couch, his body comfortable -- warm and pleasantly aglow with liquor -- his mind less so.
He knew the stirring in his gut for jealousy, but wasn't sure who he was jealous of. Annie was a beautiful woman -- one whom Jim would certainly like to know better. Would surely like to bed, if he were to be crude about it, and why not in the privacy of his own mind? But there were always other women. There was only one Artemus Gordon.
Artie made friends wherever he went, that Jim was used to. But Jim had never seen him as comfortable with any of them as he was with this slip of a girl. Women were more dangerous than men. A man would only ever be a friend, but a woman could become a wife. And Annie, Jim thought, was more dangerous in that respect than Lily Fortune. Perhaps it was just timing -- Jim had seen Lily and Artie together only when Artie was sweating in the grip of his ill-advised marriage proposal. Artie had hardly seemed comfortable then. The easy affection he displayed for Annie made Jim nervous.
"Ah," Artie said, flipping open his watch to look at the time, "I've nearly made myself late." He didn't say for what, merely tucked his watch back into his vest pocket and rose. "I trust you'll see Annie safely back to her lodging house, Jim?" It wasn't truly a question. Nor did Artie wait for an answer.
Startled, Jim scrambled to his feet.
"The room and meal are paid for, James. Don't let that scraping skinflint of a manager convince you otherwise. Good night." The door closed behind Artie with a decided click, leaving Jim standing by the couch with his mouth open. The parlor was, for some minutes, silent.
"Do you sometimes fancy yourself a sinking ship?" Annie asked with a twinkle.
Jim sank back onto the couch. "I'd say yes, but then you'd tell Artie I called him a rat, and I'd never hear the end of it."
"Would I do such a thing?"
"I don't know you well enough to tell."
"Well then, James." She slipped closer to him on the couch, and laid a hand on his arm. "Why don't we get better acquainted?"
Jim shook his head, a laugh slipping between his lips. "You don't waste any time, do you?" Actresses weren't known for their virtue, of course, but Jim had known Artie long enough not to assume that just because a person trod the boards they made their bread and butter on their backs.
"Why should I?" Annie asked with a shrug that rippled seductively down her lithe body. "I know what I want, and what you want. Why should I let this world -- which disapproves of me anyway -- stand in the way of getting it?"
"Why indeed?" Jim bent to kiss her lips, and between that first kiss and laying Annie back on the couch, blessed Artie for making himself scarce. The thought that he'd totally misread the interplay between the two actors got lost somewhere in the discarding of clothes, and Jim did not attempt to recover it.
She was as beautiful with her clothes off as on, eager for him
to remove them, her fingers quick to help him shed his own. Her body,
soft and attentive, welcomed him with heat and grasping, demanding
limbs. And in the warm, sweet hollow behind her ear, she smelled of
sweat and grease paint.
"Have a good evening, James?"
Jim stopped in the open door of Artie's stateroom. His partner reclined on the bed, wearing trousers and a dressing gown open at the neck and showing a wedge of warm-toned skin. He had a book open in his lap, a glass half-full of amber liquid within easy reach.
"You," Jim said as he walked in, grabbed the desk chair and turned the back to Artie, "are incorrigible." He straddled the chair and sat with his arms folded on the back. "When did you take up procuring?"
"James," Artie scolded. "You can say anything you like about me -- frequently have, I do believe -- but I really can't allow you to say such things about Annie."
"Pistols at dawn, is it then?"
Artie shuddered theatrically. "Perish the thought. I refuse to die on an empty stomach."
"How long have you known her?"
Artie smiled into his brandy. "Oh... a long time." He looked sidelong at Jim. "You like her?"
"You knew I would when you introduced me to her. You know," Jim went on, resting his chin on his hands, "before you left, I thought you wanted her."
Artie shuddered again, this time with no hint of the theater in it, and shook his head. "It would be like bedding my own sister. If I had one."
"You know, I am capable of finding my own... entertainment." But Jim didn't say it with any force of hurt pride. He was too content, his body too heavily sated, for that.
"Of that, I am well-aware." Artie ran his finger up and down the unread pages of his book in the silence that followed.
"Where did you go?"
Artie glanced up with a quick smile. "I'm capable of finding my own entertainment as well. Lest you be in any doubt, James my boy."
"Didn't keep you very long." Of that Jim was certain. Artie was too comfortably ensconced. He gave the impression of having been there -- reading and drinking -- for hours, but for the fact that he wasn't drunk. But then, Artie never was.
The smile Artie gave him was so lascivious as to turn something hot and not entirely settled at the base of Jim's spine. "Long enough," he drawled.
"Well." Jim rose and put the chair back at the desk. Artie's disguise book and part of his kit were spread out across the polished surface, and the hint of grease paint that tickled Jim's nose did something to his insides that should have been impossible after the pleasures he'd enjoyed. "Good night, then."
Artie's soft voice followed him out the door. "Night, James."
Jim was on his feet applauding before the prima donna made her curtain call. He caught a flash of teeth as Annie took her bow, and knew she saw him there.
Not surprising. It was where he'd been every night for a week, the first three times with Artie beside him. The fourth night, Artie had said with a wink that he'd probably seen that play often enough, and to give Annie his regards. Jim had given her a deal more than that, half-relieved that Artie had not come. When Artie came to the play, he felt duty-bound to join them at Sadie's for at least three-quarters of an hour afterwards.
Jim waited until the theater had cleared out, familiar by now with the ebb and flow, and knowing that the leading lady's light o'loves would abandon the backstage area about the same time the last stragglers departed the house. He rose from the chair, straightened his coat, and headed soft-footed for the rear of the theater.
Freshly washed and barbered, Jim felt just a touch off-balance every time he caught a whiff of himself. It wasn't an unpleasant scent, really -- just not his usual. His usual scent, however, wasn't to be found in the stores of a New Orleans bath house. Artie had insisted, and Jim could hardly disagree. They had, after all, spent most of the day at a horse fair, and the odor did tend to cling. Especially since Jim insisted on inspecting the animals with his hands as well as his eyes.
Artie had been remarkably patient. Jim enjoyed horse fairs. He had no intention of buying another horse -- Blue was enough for him. But he looked with the relish of a society belle shopping for a new hat. Artie could hardly be expected to find the same enjoyment in the activity, not being partial to horseflesh. And no wonder -- those hacks the Service sent him were horrible. As long as Artie resisted finding his own horse, however, he'd be stuck with whatever the government provided.
Jim had, upon occasion, pointed that out -- usually when Artie was complaining about a particularly intractable example -- but Artie always fobbed him off with the same excuse. The government would replace the mounts it provided when they were injured or stolen. It would not reimburse a man for the loss of his own horse, bought with his own money. There was no denying the argument had merit.
Annie threw open the door at his first knock. "James!"
He had occasion to wonder how she could manage to get so much of Artie's tone of voice into that single utterance, but the speculation was quickly broken off by the press of her warm lips against his. She drew him inside by the lash of his necktie, and Jim kicked the door shut with his heel.
She wasn't wearing any smalls under her frilly dressing gown, and by the time they left for Sadie's, Jim's necktie wasn't the only thing wrinkled. As they strolled down the broad avenue in which paraded ladies and gentlemen out for a promenade now that the sun's decline had softened the heat of the day, Jim found it deliciously amusing to look at the trim and elegant woman at his side -- cool, collected and oh-so-proper -- and remember what they'd been doing only minutes ago.
It was by far the most fun Jim had had in quite some time. He enjoyed every moment he spent with Annie -- even the ones spent fully clothed. She was an engaging little minx, her unselfconscious pursuit of pleasure attractive in a world where such things were typically disowned by the gentler sex. Jim was very fond of her, but not, he knew, likely to fall in love. Nor did she seem to expect him to, which no doubt added to her attraction.
Jim's experience of women tended to fall into two categories. There were the innocents, usually requiring rescue. They wanted heroic deeds, romantic words, and perhaps a few chaste kisses. Jim was happy enough to oblige -- though frankly he found it rather boring -- and very careful not to step one inch beyond the bounds of propriety. The last thing he wanted was to find himself married by shotgun. The other sort of women he met -- those for whom innocence was a rapidly fading memory -- tended to either be closely attached to whatever madman he was after, and therefore require cautious handling. Nothing like having to watch your back to dampen even the strongest ardor. Or they were calico girls, no better than they should be. And while Jim had no complaints about the latter -- he was no hypocrite to preach against that which he desired -- it was difficult to feel any sort of affinity with a woman who had to be paid for her pretense of interest.
Annie fit neither category, and her enthusiastic welcome of his attentions felt like a breath of fresh air.
"Tea first," she laughed as he pulled her down on his lap in their usual parlor. "Tea first, or I'll waste away."
"Can't have that." Without dislodging her, he reached for a cup and a handful of little cakes. While she drank and ate, Jim nuzzled under her ear. She always missed a tiny dab of grease paint, and he was beginning to find the scent quite beguiling.
"Not hungry?" Annie stretched to pour herself more tea, shifting deliciously in his arms.
"Not for food."
She laughed. "You're insatiable, you know that?"
"Artie did warn you that first night about my appetites."
"Hmm." She leaned her head against his shoulder and brought the cup to her lips when he would have pressed his own against them. The laughter dancing in her eyes said it was no accident. "Dearest Tem. I wonder what he's up to."
"Nothing." Except, if his position when Jim returned to the train every night was to be believed, reading and consuming brandy.
Annie shot him a look, one eyebrow raised in disbelief. "Tem is always up to something. Surely you've realized that by now. I remember one time in Chicago -- no, San Francisco. There was this big fancy hotel, and Tem talked his way into the best suite by making the desk clerk think he was the owner's nephew. Well, we're about halfway through the second bottle of wine when the owner comes busting in, madder'n a wet hen. 'Pears he didn't have a nephew. And Tem stands up, regal as if he were Henry V himself, and says 'I don't know where you got that idea, my good man. Come dear, perhaps Uncle Stanford will put us up for the night.'" She started to giggle. "We got the suite for free, and two more bottles of wine."
Jim managed a smile. The tale was familiar -- not its particulars, but he'd certainly seen Artie at work often enough to recognize the broad outline. But he found himself wondering why Artie had never told him that particular story, and if it had anything to do with the engaging woman in his lap. And what they'd done in that free hotel room in the dark watches of the night. Jim deliberately forced the thought away.
"Well," he said, pausing as he finally caught her lips. "Whatever it is, I wish him luck with it."
"Genn'lmen. Happen there's room at your table for one more?"
Jim looked up from his cards. In New Orleans, it was possible to find a game of poker nearly any time of the day; more difficult to find a table at which it was safe to play. The gambling den Jim had found round about noon was better than most -- there hadn't been one fight, fist or otherwise, since Jim arrived -- but Jim still made it a point to sit with his back to the wall.
He studied the character already sliding into a chair opposite him. The man was tall, his dark hair pressed down by a high-crowned hat. He wore black unrelieved but for the subtle stripe in his waistcoat and the gold watch fob that dripped from one pocket. There was more gold on his fingers. His necktie was burgundy and elaborately knotted, and the smile he shared out to the men at the table was broad and friendly under the thin line of his mustache.
"Always room for one more," Jim said to Artie. He couldn't have presented the appearance of a professional gambler better, and Jim straightened a bit from his bored slouch. Artie was sitting with his back to the room, which meant he was counting on Jim to keep an eye out for trouble.
"Bein' the new man, suppose you deal," the man on Jim's right said, a touch of nerves in his voice. The others also looked uncertain -- like sheep who suspect a wolf in their midst. They were all mediocre players, without a hint of dash, or even daring. They played like church mice, making it difficult for Jim to avoid winning every hand -- he had no particular taste for fighting today -- and aside from that minor challenge, he'd found the entire afternoon deadly boring.
"Don't mind if I do," Artie drawled in that soft accent that could be from anywhere but here. He drew the cards to himself, shuffled them expertly, and dealt them out with a flourish.
Jim picked up his cards and found that he held a hand full of garbage. Wondered if that was pure chance or Artie's impish greeting. The two of them played privately often enough to lend their games a certain degree of sameness. Jim knew precisely how Artie played. He watched Artie stroke one finger briskly along his mustache and wondered how this man would play. The character was entirely for Jim's benefit and Artie's amusement, so all Jim knew for certain was that he could speculate until he was blue without getting any closer to guessing what was going to happen.
He folded and watched the hand play out, unsurprised when the man to his right raked in the pot. No professional gambler worth his salt started off by winning.
As the game progressed, Artie appeared to be taking that maxim very much to heart. He lost when he dealt; he lost when any of the other players dealt; he even lost when Jim knew he had a winning hand. Artie was too good a player, and too good an actor, to have any obvious 'tells.' He'd been an excellent player when he first sat down to a game with Jim -- he had no proof for it, but Jim suspected Artie had supplemented his meager salary in saloons -- and was superlative now. They'd made a point, he and Jim, of identifying and helping each other to break those nervous habits that gave the game away. Secret Service agents couldn't afford such things.
Still, Jim knew that Artie was throwing away winning hands, because Artie was letting him see all those 'tells' he'd trained himself out of. He wanted Jim to know when he got a good hand, and he wanted Jim to know that he gave it away every time, either dropping the key cards for new ones, or tossing down the hand in disgust, folding only after he'd sweetened the pot.
Jim won a hand or two, but never when Artie was dealing. After a few rounds, he started playing back to Artie -- letting his 'tells' show, dropping winning hands. Artie's lips twitched in the barest hint of a smile.
Each of the other three players at the table won a few times, the man at Jim's right more often than the others. This fellow was the meekest of the lot, his watery blue eyes blinking uncertainly, as if knowing the world never did right by men such as him. The others obviously knew him, and just as obviously were astounded every time he collected a pot.
"Whatteryer doin' there, Tommy?" The men to Jim's left asked when this hard-luck fellow hauled in his third pot in a row. "You ain't tryin' yer hand at cheatin', is ya?"
His tone of voice wasn't quite to the shooting stage yet, but Jim doubted it would take all that much to get it there. His heart sped up slightly. If this luckless fellow's friends decided he was cheating, a fight was inevitable, and it would be up to him and Artie to protect the innocent man.
"Never knew a man able to cheat when he wasn't dealing," Artie drawled. Jim nodded silently, though it was an out and out lie.
The men subsided warily, their mood softening when Tommy went on to lose the next several hands. The other two won. And won. And when Tommy started winning again, a hand here and a hand there, they didn't seem to note it.
Jim sat back in his chair, and played out his hands, dropping the good ones, bidding on the garbage Artie dealt him, and watched the church mice grow brighter and brighter. They weren't much in the brains department, but they knew a professional gambler when they saw one. And this one, they were beating.
By the time Artie said, "Well, I'm all in," and tossed his cards down for the final time, those three were lords at the table. Artie stood and bowed. "Genn'lmen. It's been... interesting." He tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets, incidentally displaying the small gold-plated derringer in one of them, and strolled off, leaving three young men enriched to the tune of about a hundred dollars, some of it Jim's.
Tommy's hands started to come together in excitement, stopping suddenly with a sharp jerk and a muffled 'ouch.' Jim kept his expression impassive with an effort and excused himself from the table, thanking the three for the game. He did not need to look to know that smiles came close to cracking their faces the minute he turned his back.
Jim stepped from the gambling hall into the rosy light of the setting sun. The day had slipped away while he and Artie played, and the street was all but bare, citizens and tourists alike busy at their suppers.
Seeing no sign of Artie, Jim strolled down the street, marking a leisurely path toward the trainyard. He caught sight of a black-suited man leaning against sun-warmed brick at the next corner, and smiled to himself. "Those three are going to drink on that story for years."
Artie fell into step beside him. "Don't be silly, James." He smoothed his mustache. "Decades."
Jim laughed and slung his arm around Artie's shoulders. The smell of grease paint rose off his partner's skin, and his belly fluttered. "You, my friend, could give the gods themselves lessons in trickery."
Artie's laugh was hearty, his arm warm across Jim's shoulders. "Come on home. I'll feed you."
Jim looked at him sidelong. "What's wrong with a restaurant?"
"Can't have you late to the theater." Some emotion Jim didn't recognize passed swiftly over Artie's face. "And what," he asked suddenly, "is wrong with my cooking?"
"Nothing. Nothing whatsoever." Jim gave Artie's shoulder a little nudge with his own, putting a brief stagger into their walk. "Your cooking is better than any restaurant's."
"As well you should know, James my boy," Artie murmured, his voice rich with satisfaction.
It was too damn hot to be exercising.
Jim took a step back and waited for Artie to make the first move. Both men had stripped to the waist in the sweltering car, and sweat shone on their naked chests. It was as well they were on an isolated siding some distance from the stationhouse.
Artie made a grab at Jim, who sidestepped and aimed a blow at his back as he passed, hitting him just hard enough to make him stumble. Artie staggered and, with a little help from Jim's foot, tumbled to the floor. He immediately rolled to his feet and resumed his threatening pose. Jim wiped sweat out of his eyes and resumed his fighting stance.
Jim's theatrical preoccupation had caused him to forego his usual exercise for too many days in a row, and he felt almost as if he were starting to rust in the sultry heat. No signs of recall yet from Washington, but Jim couldn't allow himself to slip any further into a hazy cloud of relaxation. He was surprised that Artie had consented to join him in the vigorous pursuit. Artemus usually responded to the heat by settling somewhere with a book and moving as little as possible. Still, Jim wasn't complaining. He appreciated having a sparring partner. Though Artie wasn't as adept at hand to hand combat as Jim, he had his ways, and moves that sometimes took Jim by surprise.
As if to prove the point, Artemus suddenly made his move, stepping sideways into Jim and grabbing him around the waist, changing the struggle from a matter of fisticuffs to a question of wrestling, at which he was better than Jim by virtue of his greater weight. James closed his arms around Artie's broad shoulders, trying to find purchase on the slick back. He dug in with his feet, bracing himself as Artie, head bent, pushed him inexorably off balance.
Dark curls brushed Jim's cheek, and the scent of Artie's strong male body, redolent of fresh sweat, rose into his nostrils. Jim shook his head, trying to concentrate on the struggle before Artie over-mastered him. The feel of Artie's smooth chest rubbing over Jim's was--
Jim straightened, throwing Artie sharply away from him. Artemus landed on his back and lay still as he tried to regain his breath. Jim braced his hands on his thighs and did the same.
"That was interesting," Artie said after a moment. "I wish you'd warn me when you're going to try out something new." He stood in one lithe movement. "All right. Show me how you did it."
Jim stepped back. "Not right now." He grabbed his shirt off the back of the couch and walked out.
Jim still felt off-balance when he walked up the theater steps some hours later. A good steaming in a bathhouse and a long, leisurely meal had not had the desired effect. He felt distracted, out of sorts. His skin itched, somewhere underneath where he couldn't scratch.
They'd changed the signboard at the front of the theater, the play one Jim didn't recognize. Artie probably would. He'd been playing his violin when Jim left -- something mournful. Violins always sounded mournful to Jim. He scratched absently at his chest and walked up to the ticket-seller.
"Box for one?" the man asked, looking at Jim with an expression of bored familiarity.
A box was more expensive, but Jim preferred to watch Annie without ill-washed specimens of humanity packed against either shoulder. "Is Miss Caswell performing tonight?"
"Constance?" The man leered. "Oh, yeah. She's performing, all right."
Jim's fingers flexed as he fought the desire to wrap them around the bastard's throat. Annie's boss might object. He turned without a word and made his way into the theater. Early, Jim slumped in his chair, his unfocused eyes on the red curtain. It said something about the depth of his preoccupation that he only blinked a few times when the curtain went up. And it took him until nearly the interval to realize he hadn't seen Annie.
Jim sat forward and scanned the crowded stage, wondering if the ticket-seller had lied. No, he was fairly certain he'd heard her voice -- a little husky, but clearly Annie's -- he just hadn't been paying attention to it. Jim's eyes roamed over the cast, picking out and discarding, not seeing her in any of the elaborately made-up characters. Stage paints could not hide her from him. Long experience with Artie made him a past master at seeing through grease paint and wigs. Jim's eyes snapped back to one particular figure with a painful jerk, making the connection before his brain.
She was there all right. Playing the Honorable Leslie Arbuthnot, younger son. The air was too thick and hot for Jim to breathe in. He forced himself to blink, and to lean back in his chair, and swallowed thickly. Her dark, curly hair was tamed into a masculine style close about her head. Her shirt was starched and white, her waistcoat, cravat and coat burgundy. Her trousers clung lovingly to her hips and the length of her legs.
Annie turned to respond to the leading lady, and the way she shifted her weight was a man's, her stride the loose-limbed gait of a cocky young fellow. Everything, from the set of her shoulders to the way she planted her feet, was so innately masculine that if Jim hadn't been intimately familiar with what was under those clothes, he'd have been fooled. No one, he'd seen no one but Artie so completely disappear into a role.
Jim tried to swallow again, and found his mouth too dry. He cleared his throat, vaguely aware of a man glaring at him from the next box. He barely noticed the intermission despite the tumult of movement and raised voices, and when the curtain came back up, Jim paid very close attention indeed. Yet he couldn't have said one coherent word about the play.
He was out of his seat almost before the curtain fell, making his way to the back at a fast walk, his discretion less to do with the people around him than the tremor in his limbs and the heat in his groin.
Jim pushed through the crowd backstage and opened Annie's dressing room door without bothering to knock. She turned, still in full costume, surprise fading quickly into something else. Jim had the presence of mind to lock the door before advancing on her.
He took her head between his hands and kissed her with all the hunger that throbbed through his body, his fingers slipping in grease paint. He only released her to turn her in his arms, and pressed up against her again, needy against her back, his arms tight around her waist as he nuzzled at her neck.
"Yes," she gasped, as if he'd spoken. "Oh yes."
Jim tossed his hat aside and reached for the fastenings of her trousers, familiar from this angle. When he had her drawers around her thighs, and his own as well, he took her hands in his and pressed them to the top of the dressing table. She was panting almost as hard as he was. He took her hips in his hands and her body in one powerful thrust.
Jim labored in a kind of waking dream, trapped in the gasping pleasure of his body. She was hot and slick around him, moving in quick, pleasured jerks. His hands sculpted the jacket-clad shoulders, the bare skin of her hips, narrow waist, straining thighs. She pushed her head back against his shoulder and he nuzzled her cheek, deliberately rubbing his jaw over the slick dark greasepaint that gave her a hint of beard shadow.
His eyes were open, and he was aware of almost a detachment in the way he looked at her -- the dark tousled head bent away from him to expose the vulnerable white skin of the nape, the burgundy jacket dropping away to where he held it bunched at the waist, and that pale skin again, rising into the swell of buttocks. Jim's eyes closed, his hips instinctively plunging faster.
She made a noise, and Jim covered her mouth with his hand. Her breath came fast against his palm. He pressed a little harder and she writhed against him, the noises coming from her now faster, louder. Muffled by his hand, they sounded deep, harsh. Almost--
Climax hit him so suddenly, and so fiercely, he grunted.
Bucked under its mastering hand. Spilled himself, and groaned, and
eventually found himself again, lying shaking against her back.
He was still shaking when he climbed the steps of the train more than an hour later. The odd, unsettled feel of his own limbs disturbed him.
Annie had chattered cheerfully at him on the couch they shared at Sadie's, eating little cakes with dainty relish. She didn't seem to mind his curt responses, nor even to truly notice them. Nor did she do more than kiss him teasingly before claiming a charming and blushing exhaustion and asking him to walk her home.
Thus it was that Jim found himself back at the train much earlier than usual. He could, perhaps, have stopped off somewhere for a drink but, his nerves unstrung, he thought only of reaching safety.
He ought to have stopped for a drink. The storm under his skin reached a crescendo when he found Artie reading in the parlor, almost as if he were waiting for Jim. He nearly walked back out. Artie would notice how off-balance he was; he would ask, and expect an answer. Jim felt like a stranger in his own skin, and couldn't for the life of him have said why.
"Early, aren't you?"
"Something wrong with that?" Jim tossed his hat at the stand in the corner. It missed the top prong and caught, swaying, on a lower one.
"No. Just wondered if anything was wrong."
"Don't know why there should be." Jim poured himself a brandy with sharp precision, not sure why Artie's quiet concern should set him on edge. He drank it off in one gulp and thumped the glass down on the sideboard. "Going to bed."
"Hold on, Jim."
Jim twitched away from the finger that touched his cheek.
"Grease paint, Jim?" A deep purr of amusement and lechery that vibrated in disconcerting counterpoint to the jangling of Jim's nerves. "I take it back -- nothing wrong at all. Come on."
Startled by the brisk change of tone, Jim almost flinched. "What?"
"Get that on the sheets and no laundress in the country will bother trying to get it out." Artie slipped past Jim. "Well? Do you want help or not? Soap and water's no use, you know."
"Then get in here." He'd already disappeared into his compartment, and when Jim hove into the doorway, it was to find Artie standing by his desk, an open jar sitting on the polished wood, a towel close at hand.
"You can let an expert handle this." Artie reeled Jim in by the shoulder and dipped his fingers in the jar. "I wonder," he said as he smeared the cream on Jim's left cheek, his steadying palm warm on the other, "that no one stopped you on your way home. You look rather as if you've been set upon by bruisers." He carefully wiped Jim's cheek clean with the towel and used the gentle pressure of three fingers to tilt Jim's head the other way so he could start on that side. "But then, perhaps I'm not surprised they kept a wide berth after all. You do," he repeated in an entirely different tone of voice, "look rather as if you were set upon by bruisers."
Jim stood quite still, muscles jumping in his belly, as Artie cleared off all trace of grease paint, the crisp odor of the cream -- Artie's own concoction -- sweeping away the sharp tang of the paint. Jim curled his fingers into his palms to keep himself from pulling away before it was all gone.
He took in a breath, and with it came the scent of grease paint, sharp and fresh. His fists shook at his side. A ball of fire dropped into his belly and expanded painfully, sizzling across his nerves. He stepped away, evading Artie's hands, and swept the soiled towel from his shoulder, his eyes darting from Artie to the towel to the desk. The desk. Even with all the jars tight-closed, the odor of grease paint lingered. Lingered in Artie's room and, to some extent, on Artie himself. There were ways to cut the odor, and most of Artie's characters deliberately smelt of other things -- whether it be whiskey, bay rum, or pure unwashed body -- to compensate.
Grease paint. Jim's skin was so tight he could hardly breathe.
He'd been attracted from the first to the smell of grease paint on
Annie, charmed to find she often missed some. He'd sat in this very
room, his spent cock twitching at the odor of grease paint, and thought
it was Annie he desired. But it wasn't Annie who'd taught his body to
grow taut at the smell of grease paint. It was Artie.
Jim lay fully clothed on his bunk and stared into the dark. The nighttime music of New Orleans came faintly through his open window. Every so often, the slightest of breezes stirred the heavy air, and the curtains danced in welcome.
He listened, his mind carefully blank, to Artie. He'd never noticed how thin the partitions were. It had never really mattered. Now, though, he could be nothing but aware of Artie's presence on the car, the whisper of a turned page, the clink of a glass against strong white teeth. Jim listened to Artie read; he listened to him move about the car, checking windows and doors -- usually Jim's job; listened to the gurgle of water pouring from pitcher to basin; listened to the soft rustle of clothes sliding off skin, and wondered for the first time if Artie slept in the nude.
Probably not. In their line of work, it was best to be ready. A man could fight off attackers in the nude, but there was a certain emotional comfort to being clad, even if only in a nightshirt.
He thought of Artie climbing nude into bed anyway, naked limbs slipping over cool sheets. Though the sheets would not be cool -- the heat seemed to increase as the night progressed, rather than tapering off. Stealthily, Jim removed his boots, his jacket, vest, shirt, and lay back on the bed.
He was still for a long time, listening. He thought he might even be able to hear Artie breathe, and his lungs struggled to match that faint, barely heard susurration.
Sweat dewed Jim's body. He let his hand rest hot on his chest, fingers skidding restlessly on his damp skin. Perhaps, in such heat, Artie had thrown off the sheet and lay there, his body naked to the night. Jim locked a groan behind his teeth, his cock stirring in the baking confines of his trousers, the image of Artie's dark hair and pale skin against bone-white sheets dancing before his eyes.
Hot and throbbing against his fingers, Jim's cock rose demanding from between his trouser flaps. He bit his lip to swallow his sounds and stroked himself with the image of Artie sweating and sleeping atop his sheets until his lip bled and his seed spurted onto his belly. And then he lay there, his fingers dabbling in the milky mess, and let himself think.
Annie was easy. Or not easy, but at least not a problem. There were no promises between them. And if Jim had been using her a bit more thoroughly than he'd imagined, she had been using him as well.
Artie, now. Artie would be harder. Jim snarled at the inadvertent pun. Did Artie want? Did he desire as Jim did? He had almost thrust Jim into Annie's arms. That did not speak of desire. And yet, wasn't there something in his eyes at times? Something that might have been jealousy?
Jim snarled again. Something that might have been dust. Artie went after what he wanted. Usually got it too. And if Jim had to play such love-sick games -- seeking for hints and hidden clues in his partner's every more -- then he was looking for something not there.
Jim sighed. He ran his fingers up his chest. He was starting to get sticky. Ought to get up and wash. His fingers drifted back down again and cupped his spent sex.
If, he thought after several minutes of dark gentle drifting, what he wanted to see in Artie was not there, then he would simply have to make it there. Awaken it, if he could. Jim, too, went after what he wanted. Like Artie, he usually got it.
Jim padded softly to the bureau, dipped a flannel in the pitcher, and began to clean himself off, whistling soundlessly.
He was going to court Artie.
"Tell me again why we're here?"
"Because." Jim slipped the silk-lined cape off Artie's shoulders and handed it and his own to the ma”tre'd. "It's the best restaurant in town."
Artie looked doubtful, but he let Jim seat him, and smiled gamely at him across the small table. "Weren't we in that the first night?"
"No, that was the most expensive. This is the best."
"And you know this how?"
"I asked around." He broke off when the waiter poured a rich burgundy into their glasses. "They've a new chef, fresh from Paris, and guaranteed to work wonders."
"Guaranteed, eh?" His eyebrow raised, Artie shook open his napkin. "All right, I'll give it a try." He picked up his wineglass and saluted Jim with it. "And we'll see if he lives up to his reputation."
Jim lifted his glass to Artie. "I look forward to your verdict," he said before drinking the wine he'd picked out before Artie ever entered the restaurant.
It would be favorable. It could hardly be anything else. Jim had spent a great deal of time finding the perfect place -- a restaurant with a red-velvet silence, an atmosphere as rich as the food he meant to feed his partner.
As for the food, Jim had asked around all right. He'd asked
around until he found the greatest gourmet in a city of gourmets and
then he pulled out all the stops in his arsenal of charm and judicious
name-dropping to hire the man's personal chef away from him for an
evening. One evening, one meal. It was costing him a small fortune, but
it would be worth it.
"That...." Artie trailed off with a hum and a bemused shake of the head. "That was...." He made as if to whistle, but the breath emerged without sound.
Jim looked quickly away from Artie's puckered lips. He satisfied himself with wrapping an arm around his partner and steering him a straighter course. Artie seemed almost intoxicated, though he'd certainly not imbibed beyond his capacity. It was almost as if he were drunk on food. Jim grinned, careful not to let the depth of his triumph show. "Passable was it?"
"Passable!?" Artie dragged himself partially out of the circle of Jim's arm to stare accusingly at him. "Passable! That was so far beyond-- Never mind," he interrupted himself with a disgusted snort that was halfway to a laugh, "I'm speaking to a man who likes hot dogs."
"Nothing wrong with hot dogs." Jim dared to bring Artie back in close to his body only because he was once again steering him toward the train. Artie's evening clothes brushed against his own with a soft rough sound, almost the noise Jim imagined the hair on their bodies would make when-- "There's no reason," he forced himself to go on, his voice rough, "to malign the things."
"Oh yes there is. There's every reason."
And Artie spent the rest of the walk to the train outlining those reasons. In depth. With much exaggerated waving of the arms and theatrical pitching of the voice. Jim was laughing so hard, he was startled to realize they'd arrived at the train, and even more startled to find Artie regarding him curiously.
"You've missed the play."
Jim glanced away. "Seen it."
For a minute, Artie was silent. Finally, he said, "Like that, is it?" He let out a breath that might have been a sigh, but when Jim turned to look, Artie was only smiling gently. His eyes flicked from Jim's face to the cloudless sky. "Ah well. Such things are rarely written in the stars."
Jim was silent, not sure how to go about saying he never thought it was without insulting a friend of Artie's, nor how to explain his sudden lack of interest in the young actress.
"Unless you broke off with the young lady last night--" Artie paused no longer than the time it took to glance quickly at Jim and nod to himself. "--there are certain forms to be observed."
Artie was already walking away, his cape swirling about his legs. "I'm rather fond of the little imp, James. I won't have you hurting her."
Jim hurried to catch up, the weight of his own cape uncomfortable in the still night air. It was too warm for such a garment, but as he watched Artie's cape alternately envelope and display his body, he didn't object to the sweat that ran down the back of his own neck. The moisture that dewed Artie's skin was even more appealing, gleaming compellingly in the moonlight.
"I don't want to hurt her either."
"I know that. And I think I know her well enough to say you haven't." Artie turned a quick smile on him. "And you're not going to find yourself in the middle of a jealous scene, if that's what you're worried about."
Jim wasn't, particularly. Unless it was his own. Almost despite himself, the words, "How well do you know her?" slipped out.
Artie chuckled. Though it wasn't lecherous, it was clearly fond, which was worse.
"Well?" Jim demanded. He closed his eyes and drew in a breath. He'd never thought of himself as a jealous man.
"James my boy." Artie took Jim's arm, and the hot flush of mortified anger cooled. "She's my cousin. A step or two removed." His shoulder rode against Jim's in a shrug. "I've never bothered to work out the exact relation."
"And you--" Jim stopped and cleared his throat. "That thing I said the first night about procuring--"
"Back to that, are we?" Artie guided Jim around a drunk passed out in the roadway. "I'll have you know she saw you, oh round about a year ago -- that mission in Richmond. Her troop was performing, and I took the opportunity to see her."
"I remember the mission." He'd spent half of it in Washington, and not been pleased to be told on his return that he'd have to pick his partner up at the theater. Not to mention being regaled with the gossip about Artie taking up with some bit of calico who pranced the boards of that self-same theater. Jim hadn't known he was jealous at the time. "But I don't remember Annie."
"No, you wouldn't. You were too busy fuming at me for keeping you waiting in front of the theater to notice her watching from the windows." He gave Jim's arm a little shake. "She as much as told me, in her next letter, that if I didn't introduce her to 'that positive Adonis' she'd ring a peal of abuse down on my head the next time we met."
"So she-- You--" Jim gave it up. There was no way to say anything to the point that wouldn't be insulting to one or the other of them, and no reason to be. He was as happy with the results as Annie no doubt was, though for entirely different reasons.
Annie had, not surprisingly given the hour, already left the theater. Artie merely steered Jim toward Sadie's, as if Annie could have gone nowhere else when her swain failed to appear. It was only as they passed through the door into the taproom that Jim realized Artie meant to come in with him. Jim's tongue immediately assumed the approximate taste and texture of India rubber.
"Don't worry, Jim." Artie rapped briskly on the parlor door. "If it's not Annie, I'll just apologize politely and we'll go."
"Yes?" It was undoubtedly Annie's voice, and a moment later the door was open and Jim and Artie were on the other side of it.
"Milady." Artie made a flourishing bow.
Annie curtseyed formally. "Milord." Her smile was impish. "And Jim." He inclined his head, perhaps a bit too stiffly, but she only said, "And a good evening to you gentlemen. Care to join me for tea?"
"I'm afraid we can't, my dear." Artie politely refrained from mentioning that they'd recently eaten, a meal that now sat heavily in the pit of Jim's stomach. He was irritated with himself -- James West, who faced down madmen and predatory women and even a few ferocious cats without blinking, struck speechless by a slip of a girl. Only it wasn't Annie's potential reaction to an ill-considered word that churned Jim's stomach.
"Back to work, is it?"
"Something like that."
"Pity." Annie arranged a light shawl around her shoulders -- as much for appearance as the capes Jim and Artie wore, and a great deal cooler. "There's a dance at the old quadroon ballroom tonight -- open subscription -- I was rather hoping you gentlemen would join me."
Jim shuddered at the thought of having to play the pretty, going through the steps of the dance with body after body in his arms that wasn't Artie's.
"Too bad." Annie swung herself around to the tune of an imaginary orchestra, her dress belling around her. "I suppose I'll just have to find a beau there." She waltzed up to Artie and put her hands on his shoulders, the movement of her body pulling him into a gentle sway. "Don't be a stranger, Tem. And do try to write back occasionally."
She gave Artie a kiss on the lips that was perfectly innocent. The kiss she gave Jim was by no means chaste, though it was nearly as brief. Her hand brushed him through his clothes, and his skin tightened in arousal that was not, entirely, a result of the fact that she still smelled of grease paint.
"It was fun while it lasted," she whispered, her breath warm on his skin. Then, with a swirl of skirts and a smile, she was gone.
The door fell softly shut, leaving Jim and Artie alone in the parlor, a room made familiar by the nightly sojourns of two weeks. A room that whispered of sex, the rustle of clothing gathering in the thick velvet curtains, muted moans lingering in the corner by the hearth. Jim wanted to shove Artie up against the door and take his mouth with all the desperation of the newly initiated, drag him down on the couch and divest him of his elegant suit and cover the taller body with his own.
He wanted. Wanted so badly he shook with it. So badly there was no course but to turn away, to leave that place and walk until he could stand under the darkling sky and breathe.
He knew when Artie joined him. "Thank you."
"Lying for me."
"We'll probably be called back to Washington in a day or two anyway."
Jim cleared his throat. "Chicago, actually. The telegram came through this afternoon while you were in your lab. We'll leave in the morning." Not too early -- Jim had things to do still.
Artie's eyes were dark and unreadable in the cool blue moonlight. "Our last night here," he murmured. "You might have spent it with her."
"I preferred to spend it with you."
It's no easy thing to step from car to car on a moving train with a cup of coffee in one's hand. Jim opted for a sturdy mug, rather than risk the delicate china teacups Artie preferred.
He made it without spilling the steaming liquid and pushed open the door to the forward car. Artie looked up from his latest invention.
Jim lifted the mug toward him with a smile. "Coffee? Don't worry -- I didn't make it." Not that he failed utterly at the brewing of coffee. It was only that Artie refused to drink it the way Jim made it.
"And risked life and limb to bring it to me?" Artie reached for the mug with gratifying appreciation.
"It's not that bad." No, the true sacrifice had been denying himself at breakfast so there would be some of Artie's coffee left to bring to him.
Artie's eyes laughed at Jim over the rim of the mug. "No, not bad at all for a man half acrobat and half monkey."
"I'm going to pretend that was a compliment."
"Oh, it was, James. It was."
Neighing and stamping was, for a moment, audible over the thrum of the wheels. Jim's eyes went to the door at the other end of Artie's lab.
"The natives," Artie said, "have been more restless than usual today. They're making enough noise for a whole herd. Why don't you go calm them down a bit? You have, after all," he added, lifting his mug in salute, "already appeased the dragon at the gate."
"Now, Artie, you can hardly think--"
"That you were headed for the stables anyway? Perish the thought." Artie put the mug in middle of a pile of tools arranged just so to keep his coffee from sliding off the table when the Wanderer took a curve and made a shooing motion with both hands. "Go on."
It was no wonder the noise had put Artie in mind of a herd of horses. Jim made sure the door latched behind him and went to pet the three questing noses that appeared from the stalls at his entrance. Good thing Artie wasn't as familiar with the gelding the Service had supplied him as Jim was with Blue -- he'd have noticed the unfamiliar timbre of some of the neighs coming from the stables and come to investigate.
First was Artie's nag. Not a bad animal, all in all, Jim thought as he stroked the sweaty neck. Just not right for Artie. He hoped to foist the animal off on the Chicago office while they were there.
Next his own Blue, who was active enough to keep Artie distracted from the third stall, should he happen to glance through the door. Not that he was likely to. Jim spent some time petting Blue's nose and talking quietly to him. Blue settled a bit, his ears swiveling to listen. It wasn't the movement of the train that set him dancing, but the horse in the next stall.
With a last pat, Jim left Blue for the new mare. Her eyes were a little wide at the gentle rocking of the train, but overall she was adapting well. Jim rubbed the white blaze between her eyes and whispered to her, ignoring the way Blue stamped and snorted. Jealous. He'd get over it, and fairly soon. Jim could tell by the way Blue sidled a little closer to the wall that separated him from the mare whenever he wasn't displaying his irritation for Jim's benefit.
"He likes you," Jim whispered to the nervous mare. "Good thing. You're going to be riding together from now on."
She whickered, her velvety nose moving against his fingers as she lipped his palm in search of a treat. She was a taking little thing, her gait smooth, mouth tender. She'd be the perfect mount for Artie -- gentle and smart. A little time, a little training -- training Jim would be happy to undertake -- and she'd be outperforming Blue who, much as Jim loved him, was stubborn enough to chew nails when the mood took him.
Slow and gentle, still talking quietly to her, Jim set about saddling and bridling the mare. It took him a few minutes to adjust all the straps and buckles, and she stood quietly through it. Blue was dancing in his stall at the sight of the tack.
"Settle down," Jim told him. "You're next."
He timed it just right. He was tightening the last buckle on Blue's saddle when the Wanderer began to slow. She blew three blasts on the whistle as she came to a stop on a siding where she could take on water and coal. And where, while the crew took a long lunch break, Jim would set the next phase of his courtship in motion.
Jim was walking the mare out of her stall when Artie came through from his lab. He was looking toward the open side door, the rumble it made opening no doubt having been what alerted him to the fact that this wasn't a routine stop, and didn't immediately notice the new horse. "Is anything--"
"Nothing's wrong," Jim assured him in the calm voice he always used around a new horse. Blue wouldn't even flinch at a gunshot at this point, but that took time and trust. He led the mare toward the ramp.
"So that's what you were up to while I handled the chores."
Jim had known precisely how much time he had that morning to track down the owner of the mare he'd spotted at the horse fair. Artie always insisted on shopping for supplies himself -- as the self-appointed chef, he was, after all, the one who knew what he'd need. Jim took the grumbles in stride, knowing Artie would be extremely put out if anyone tried to take the task away from him.
"Hope you don't mind the break," was all he said. "Thought we should give our new passenger a chance to stretch her legs."
Artie leaned against the open door and watched Jim lead the mare down the ramp. "Pretty. What's her name?"
"Don't know yet. I make it a point never to name another man's horse." He flipped her reins over a branch and went back for Blue.
"Whose is she, then?" Artie pushed off the door and walked down the ramp to look her over. "And why's she wearing my saddle?"
Jim knew the moment the light dawned by the sudden turn of Artie's head, but he didn't turn away from walking Blue down the ramp.
"Jim." Artie voice was quiet, almost strained. "I don't--"
"You'll like her," Jim told him. He let himself look at Artie, who was watching him with something that looked like surprise, and something else, which put rosy flags of color high in his cheeks. "Why don't you try her out?"
"Try her-- How much did you--?"
"Just try her out." Jim swung into Blue's saddle. "Come on," he said, looking down at Artie from the back of his dancing horse, "they want to run."
And run they did, through small groves of sweet green trees, and fields of golden grasses. Blue took the lead, as always, but the mare kicked up her heels and followed close. Jim looked back often, and the relaxed confidence of Artie's seat told him more of the worth of his gift than any words.
"So," Jim said when they arrived back, dusty and grinning, at the train, "what's her name?"
Jim watched Artie carry an utterly decadent dessert to the table, taking the sway of the car with easy grace, and knew that he was going to jump the gun.
He was not a man blessed with an overabundance of patience. Oh, he could wait out criminals as easily as blinking, and give him a task to perform, no matter how rote, and he'd keep at it until it was done. But he hated waiting around, and he wasn't the least like Artie when it came to planning a campaign. Especially this sort of campaign.
What, after all, did Jim know about courting? The only courting he'd ever done was in the service of a mission, and Artie had given him pointers every step of the way. Not that he couldn't have managed on his own, but Artemus did have a sense of what was not only romantic, but elegant. Courting a woman was an intricate dance of social events, flowers and jewelry. Jim had taken Artie to supper, catering to his discriminating palate. As he could hardly lead him out in a waltz, that would have to stand in for the social events. Bought him a horse -- a gift as expensive as gems, and more useful to Jim's way of thinking. As for flowers.... Jim snorted.
"Something funny?" Artie was already smiling expectantly.
Jim cleared his throat and reached for his wine glass. "It, ah... it wouldn't bear repeating."
With the flick of an eyebrow, as if to say 'if you won't let me be the judge of that, then so be it,' Artie returned to his dessert.
Perhaps he was going about it wrong, but damned if Jim could see the right way. He would have to pick the most difficult path. At least when you courted a woman, she knew she was being pursued and responded accordingly. At least, so he presumed. He tried his best to avoid it. Courting, after all, could lead to marriage if one wasn't careful.
Jim returned his glass to the table with careful precision, as if it were eggshell thin. The realization was... overwhelming. Were marriage possible, it would be what he wanted from Artie.
That put a whole new face on things. If all one was after was a quick roll in the hay, or two -- or more -- then jumping the gun was a reasonable risk to take. With greater importance attached to the answer, the risk increased exponentially.
Perhaps tonight was not the night. Perhaps he ought to do more first. But what?
The problem was that he and Artie were too much in each other's pockets. What was one more supper among so many? Even a supper lavishly rich and enormously expensive? A horse? Jim had been nagging Artie to buy one for ages -- no doubt Artie thought his partner had simply decided to take matters into his own hands. And while Jim could keep trying -- assuming he could think of more gestures to attempt -- he rather thought it would garner the same result. A bemused smile and his partner's genuine appreciation. Not a worthless prize, but not the windfall he desired.
What then? Continue in his fruitless gestures until the impossible happened and Artie's mind made the same insane leap Jim's own mind had made -- translating loving friendship into something a great deal more inappropriate? Or plunge ahead in the most likely foolish hope that, once he knew what Jim wanted, Artie would want it just as desperately?
Jim would not have had the reputation he did were he given to prudently considering all the odds before taking action.
"Nice, isn't it? Having the train to ourselves."
Artie raised an eyebrow, a gleam in his eye that Jim couldn't quite make out. Probably amusement -- Jim was fully aware that he often amused Artie. He'd have found it annoying if he'd thought there was one iota of anything but affection in it. "It seems to me that we frequently do."
"True." Jim swallowed the last of his wine. "But it's always a... relief to me, after being surrounded by city crowds, dirt and bustle-- Not that I don't like New Orleans."
"Of course not," Artie murmured.
"It's always a relief to get back to the train, where it's just us. You. And me."
Artie regarded Jim steadily for far too long before smiling and saying, "My sentiments exactly."
Relief made Jim's mouth dryer than nerves had. Nor was there any good reason for relief. Jim had said nothing to the point, and Artie's response was no more than Jim had come to expect. He was making a hash of it, and the only good thing was also the surest sign of his failure -- the fact that Artie hadn't the foggiest idea what Jim was up to.
Jim reached for his wineglass and found it empty. Artie filled it for him, and he drank off half the tart wine in one gulp. His next breath came out with a cough.
Artie shook his head, a faint smile on his face. He stood and began to gather up dishes. Jim jumped to his feet.
"I can do that." He took a plate out of Artie's hands and said, far too fiercely, "Let me. You cooked."
"I usually do." Artie topped up his glass and took it over to the couch, where he sat, crossing his right leg negligently over his left knee. He hadn't dressed for supper -- they rarely bothered with waistcoat and jacket while dining en famille, as it were -- but Artie could look elegant in anything. Except when he chose not to.
Jim carried the dishes into the galley and stacked them in the sink. When he'd brought the last ones in, he stood, his hands clutching the rim on the sink, and stared at the wall as if it were a window onto the passing countryside, calling himself seven kinds of fool. He glanced down at the mess in the sink and decided that seven wasn't enough. The last thing he wanted to do was wash dishes. For one thing, it would take him away from Artie far too long. For another, a man hardly presented a romantic picture with water-wrinkled hands and a damp shirt-front.
One of them, however, would have to wash up, and it was hardly the act of a would-be lover to leave the dishes to Artie. Jim scowled. They failed to mention these things when they talked about the glamour and glory of government work.
"Just pour a bucket of water over them," Artie called from the parlor. "Morning's soon enough."
Jim hesitated only a minute. He dumped the half-full bucket of lukewarm water sitting on the stove into the sink and went back to the parlor. He could make it up to Artie later.
Artie was still sitting in the corner of the couch, his legs crossed, a wineglass in one hand, the other arm stretched along the back of the couch. He looked every inch the gentleman in repose, and Jim couldn't have thought him handsomer if he were naked.
Then again. Jim blinked, his mouth arid. He turned quickly to the sideboard. "Brandy?"
Jim paused with one hand on the decanter, but not because he hesitated to have brandy if Artie wasn't going to join him. Artie was amused again, and that voice, rich and dark with laughter and affection, pierced right to the heart of him.
"You go ahead."
Jim had to take a breath before he was able to lift the decanter. He only sloshed a little, and managed somehow not to spill any. He put his back to the sideboard and his glass to his mouth.
Artie drained his wineglass and set it aside. He patted the cushions beside him in an unmistakably welcoming gesture.
The desert of Jim's mouth soaked up the brandy without becoming one bit wetter.
"Come on, Jim. I don't feel like shouting." Artie patted the couch again.
Jim was ruefully aware that there was nothing seductive about the gesture -- more like calling a dog, really. Now there was a lowering thought. Jim snorted again.
"Something else not worth repeating?"
"Definitely not." Jim went to sit by Artie. He deliberately took that inviting pat literally and sat close to Artie. If Artie wanted him to sit farther away, he'd have to say so.
Artie, however, only turned his upper body further into the corner of the couch to put his face more fully toward Jim. The arm draped along the back of the couch was nearly touching Jim's shoulders. He could feel the warmth of it through the fine linen of his shirt. "Now, James my boy. What is it?"
Jim's mouth framed the word 'what,' but didn't give it any voice. Artie, however, needed no prompting.
"You've been trying to work up the courage to ask me something all night, and quite frankly, it's starting to make me nervous." He smiled, not looking the least bit nervous, and tapped Jim's shoulder. "You're not setting me up to wear another feather cape, are you?"
"Artie! Do you honestly think I'd--"
"I know damn well you would."
And, what was worse, he was absolutely right. Not only would Jim do it again if he had to to preserve the safety of his country, he realized to his chagrin that he'd happily do it purely to see Artie once more half-clad and regally barbaric. He hadn't paid near enough attention the last time.
Jim cleared his throat. No time like the present. Artie had kindly provided him with the perfect opening, as usual giving Jim precisely what he needed. A sudden fierce hope assailed Jim that Artie would be as prompt to answer this need, and he was forced to clear his throat again.
"All right. You're really starting to make me nervous now. What the devil's the matter?"
"I, ahm, I wanted...." He couldn't think of anything to say that wasn't either hopelessly rude or ridiculously coy.
"Out with it, James."
Jim snarled, and abandoned words, and kissed him.
It would have been easy, under the circumstances, to catch Artie fish-faced or gape-mouthed. But instead Jim found firm, warm lips under his own. Lips that, after a brief hesitation, began to kiss him back.
Jim's relief gusted out, and Artie broke the kiss, drawing back just far enough that Jim could feel Artie's smile against his lips.
"What was that?" Artie's lips brushed Jim's when he spoke, a flurry of tiny kisses.
"A kiss. I should think," Jim murmured, "that by this point in your life, you'd know one when it happened to you." Longer sentences were even better, even if it was difficult to keep in mind what he wanted to say with Artie's silky lips brushing his.
Artie snorted inelegantly and, much to Jim's regret, drew back far enough to meet Jim's eyes. "Not the kiss, Jim. That great exhalation."
"A man can't sigh in relief, then?"
"What do you," Artie asked, leaning back into the corner of the couch, his eyes gleaming in the lamplight, "have to be relieved about?"
"Oh, I don't know," Jim drawled, grateful to hear his voice strong and steady when he shook so hard inside he thought he might fly apart. He braced his arm on the back of the couch, where it brushed Artie's. "The fact that you didn't shoot me. Or belt me. Or," he shifted to the only truly likely scenario, "tell me that was very nice, but--"
Artie let his head loll back against the couch. "That was very nice, Jim, but--"
Jim cut him off by the simple expedient of kissing him again. He had to brace his other hand against the arm of the couch and lean halfway over Artie to do it, and the heat of Artie's body rose into his in a heady wave. Jim took Artie's lips once, again, careful determined kisses, tasting supper and wine on Artie, hoping his partner enjoyed the flavor of brandy on his breath. Jim pushed his luck, and took three kisses before turning to brush his cheek against Artie's, a rough shivery sensation spiced with the scent of Artie's cologne.
"Why didn't you?" Jim murmured against Artie's ear, their bodies so close that each breath Artie took expanded his chest against Jim's.
"I just did."
"You didn't mean it." But Jim drew back far enough to see Artie's face, not quite as certain as he sounded.
"I didn't?" There was a softness at the corner of Artie's mouth, as clear as a tell.
"No. You didn't."
"Ah well. I'm sure you know best." Artie touched one finger to Jim's cheek, brushing idly back and forth as if he enjoyed the rough scrape. "Why would I want to?"
Taken aback, Jim pulled away. "If you didn't want--" He was silence by a warm finger.
"Why," Artie said slowly and distinctly, "would I want to stop you?"
"Oh." Jim sagged a little, and went willingly when Artie tugged. His head cradled on Artie's chest, he took in a richly Artie-scented breath and, made brave by the steady thud in his ear, said, "You want what I want."
"I don't know, Jim. What is it you want?" Artie's hand stroked smoothly over Jim's back, a gentling touch, as if he were prepared to wait while Jim framed an answer. But Jim had one ready-made.
"For how long?"
"As long as you'll have me."
Artie's hand stopped its slow stroke. "And will I?"
Much as he hated to do it, Jim pushed himself up to see Artie's face. "Will you what?"
Artie's eyes were very dark. "Have you."
It hit Jim like a slug of rotgut whiskey, exploding in his chest before it reached his belly. "Oh God," he whispered, his lungs seizing so fiercely, he wasn't even sure whether what he felt was fear or desire.
"Should I take that as a no?" Artie paused, and when Jim didn't answer, took him by the shoulders and put him a little away. "Or yes?"
Jim had never lied to Artie, except when a mission demanded it. The words came out in slow counterpoint to the racing of his heart. "I don't know."
"Perhaps then," Artie said, bringing Jim in close, his hands broad and warm on Jim's cheek and the nape of his neck, "you expect me to bend?" His mouth so close Jim could taste his breath, Artie kept Jim a fraction of an inch from the kiss he desired.
"I don't--" Jim tried to pull back and found Artie wouldn't allow that either. He could have broken the hold, but Jim didn't feel like fighting. His skin prickled, though whether it was simply the heat of Artie's body or something more shameful, Jim couldn't tell. His mind latched onto one word, something ferocious buzzing through his head. "Bend?"
"It's been tried, James my boy," Artie murmured, and something too fierce to be jealousy snarled in Jim's throat, choking him. "When I was in the theater. I never cared to be convinced."
His lungs loosened and Jim drew in a warm breath. "And now?"
Artie's lips finally touched Jim's, the contact so brief as to be acutely painful. He released Jim and settled himself against the couch, his apparent ease belied by the glitter of his eyes. "I don't know, Jim. Why don't you convince me?"
It was, without doubt, a challenge. Jim never backed down from a challenge. With a growl, he straddled Artie's legs, pushed Artie's shoulders against the back of the couch, making no effort to gentle his grip, and swooped down to take Artie's mouth. He'd never kissed like this, never plundered another's mouth without regard to gentleness. And Artie not only allowed it, he kissed back.
Jim's body shook with need. He pressed against Artie, catching him against the couch with the weight of his body. Only like this could he cradle his hips against the slight give of Artie's belly, feel Artie's breath expand against the bottom of his rib cage, strain his neck and bend Artie's head back to press his mouth down on Artie's. Later he would take pleasure in Artie's height, his greater heft, in raising his face for Artie to kiss. Later. If there was a later.
Jim forced himself to break the kiss. He pressed his face against Artie's shoulder and waited until his breath slowed a bit. Artie's hands were on his hips -- steadying, not embracing. That would have to change.
Jim stood, thankful when his legs held him. He was ruefully aware that his readiness showed all too well in his tight trousers. The fact that Artie's eyes dropped briefly to his straining erection was both shaming and heartening. He held out a hand to his partner.
Artie took Jim's hand and allowed himself to be drawn to his feet and down the hall, but that infernal eyebrow was raised, and there was a twist of a smile at the corners of his mouth. Jim was being humored, and he didn't like it one bit.
Well, if you don't like it, then stop acting like a starving wolf and do what he told you to do. Convince him.
Artie's stateroom. He allowed it with that same gentle amusement, not asking why Jim didn't pick his own room. He deftly lit the lamp and turned to face Jim in the rosy light. Jim fastened the door and took a steadying breath that, redolent with grease paint, did little to calm him. If he could press forward on a mission with his head pounding from concussion, his throat raw from knockout gas, then he could do this. This, after all, mattered far more than any mere question of national security.
Artie stood his ground when Jim advanced, the expression on his face somewhere between curiosity and challenge, as if Jim were some sort of experiment Artie had set in motion and now watched with interest. He blinked when Jim kissed him -- Jim could feel the sweep of lashes against his cheek. No more ravening beast. Jim made his kiss teasing, a light promise of pleasures to come, a courting kiss, worthy of the merest shrinking miss. And as he kissed Artie, little coaxing touches with, occasionally, a daring brush of tongue to soft lips, he walked Artie backwards.
When the bed came up against Artie's legs, he sat down. The kiss broken, he looked up at Jim, a smile dancing around his mouth. "Am I an innocent now, to be coaxed and cajoled?"
"Don't you deserve a little gentleness?" Jim bent his head to steal another short kiss, still enamored of the opportunity to bend down to his partner. "A little consideration?"
"Perhaps." Artie brought his hands up to Jim's waist, where they rested, spanning muscle and bone, warm through Jim's thin shirt. "I think I liked it better before," he said, an unmistakable tease in his voice. "You might at least act as if you were interested."
Jim shuddered. Daringly, he took one of Artie's hands and dragged it down his body. "Oh, I'm that, all right." His gut clenched at the feel of Artie's lax fingers slipping one at a time down the length of his aching cock.
"Then," Artie said, as if it were the simplest thing in the world, "convince me."
His hands tightened on Jim's waist when Jim bent to kiss him again, and opened his mouth on the kiss, and breathed in, tasting Artie's breath, the spice of his cologne, the pitch-deep musk of his body. He pressed his tongue to the soft give of warm lips and pushed, and tasted him more directly. Artie's tongue met Jim's, twining like a climbing vine.
Jim reached for the buttons of Artie's shirt, almost regretting that he wasn't in jacket and waistcoat, because it would have been such pleasure to divest him of them. Then his hands slipped through the placket of Artie's shirt to find warm smooth skin, and the regret vanished. As far as Jim could reach, he found hard broad muscle under velvety skin.
Jim abandoned his quest through the placket of Artie's shirt and took the fabric on both hands, his knuckles scraping Artie's sides. Forewarned, Artie released Jim and raised his arms, and the shirt came easily out of his trousers and up over his shoulders. Jim had to break the kiss to pull it the rest of the way off.
He tossed it to the floor, his hands already seeking reacquaintance with Artie's warmth as his mouth returned to its task. Shoulders, the thick ball of muscle fitting his palms perfectly; biceps, smoothly rounded with a strength that didn't show when Artie was clothed. Jim brushed his fingers over the bright canvas of tattoo that curled around Artie's arm, delighted to realize he could almost feel the design. Artie shivered at Jim's light touch, and the faintly raised lines of color became the slightest bit more pronounced.
Jim broke the kiss again. He was pleased to hear Artie's breath come just a bit faster and see the high color invading Artie's cheeks. He bent his head and raised Artie's arm, tracing the tattoo with lips and tongue. Jim pushed Artie back on the bed and followed him down, pushing his arm above his head to continue the exploration. The skin stretched taut, firm curve of muscle yielding to the pressure of Jim's tongue. He traced to where Artie's smell was strongest and rubbed his face in the furred armpit, surprising himself with his questing tongue, fascinated by the idea of tasting the essence that filled his lungs.
Artie made a soft sound of surprise, his fingers tightening almost painfully in Jim's hair. Jim closed his hand over Artie's, disentangling himself to press that arm against the bed and bury his face in the other armpit. He abandoned it regretfully, aware of Artie's rapid breath, the torso that arched without desire of escape. His hands still confining Artie's wrists, Jim licked up one strong arm from the pit toward the elbow, his tongue tracing the deep groove between muscles, and gave in to the impulse to nip where the skin was most tender.
"Jesus!" One of Artie's hands escaped. It flattened against Jim's cheek, then slipped to the nape of his neck and turned his head. Artie kissed him deeply.
"Convinced?" Jim nipped the prominent arch of collarbone before dropping his lips to the tempting velvet of a flat nipple.
"I-- ah! I'm convinced you're wearing too many clothes."
It was a great disappointment that Artie could get out so many words. Jim bent his considerable attention on Artie's nipple, so different from a woman's. The hard underlying muscle, instead of disconcerting tastes trained by softness, only intrigued him the more. Artie's hands shook as they yanked up Jim's shirt, the fabric catching under Jim's chin. Jim couldn't be bothered. He only came up for air when Artie grabbed the back of his head and forcibly shifted him. As it was only to the other nipple, he didn't object, giving the neglected nub a nip before soothing it with his tongue.
The sounds Artie was making could not properly be called words. His hands rubbed restlessly up and down Jim's back and, though the touch of those hands had filled Jim's dreams for several nights now, he found the response of Artie's body far more fascinating than the pleasure of his own. If he'd had much mind or time to spare for thought, Jim would have marveled at that -- he'd always left his women sated, but their pleasure was not his primary goal. But here and now, he could think of nothing Artie could do to him that would be half as enthralling as what he could do to Artie.
Artie's belly was soft under Jim's cheek. Not the flaccid flab of a sedentary man, but the gentle give of necessary vulnerability in a man otherwise hardened by the lives they lived. Jim wanted to wrap his arms around Artie's hips and press his face against Artie's belly, and there remain through all the watches of the night. But the waistband of Artie's trousers was in the way, and the urgency of Artie's body seeped through the fine fabric to heat Jim's chest.
Jim's hands shook as they loosened the fastening of Artie's trousers. When it was open, and the fastening of Artie's smallclothes with it, Jim spread the flaps to show a vee of pale skin and the dark thatch of hair. Utterly unable to resist, he buried his face in that tempting opening, drawing in Artie's scent there like a man addicted. Artie's heat throbbed against his chin. His groan growled through his belly when Jim pulled back. He dragged his hands down Artie's thighs, feeling the muscles tense and quiver in their fabric cage and turned his attention to Artie's shoes and stockings, relieved he'd not worn the knee-high boots that were so appealing and so damned difficult to remove.
And when he slid Artie's trousers away, Jim knelt like a supplicant, feasting on the lush planes of his lover's body with hot eyes that sought to quench themselves in looking.
"Jesus, Jim." Artie's voice was a mere thread of sound. "You're killing me. Do something."
"Something" he could do. Something he would do, wanted to do more than he could ever have imagined. His mouth watered with it. The proud column of Artie's cock rose from the bed of his dusky-hued balls, listing just the slightest bit to the right. Jim's hands clutched Artie's thighs as he leaned to press his lips to the base of Artie's cock and draw in the smell of him. And licked.
"Oh! Oh, God." Artie's fingers brushed Jim's hands, his head, his shoulders, like birds uncertain where to light. They closed, finally, around Jim's wrists. "Jim."
Salty-firm flesh under his tongue. Jim licked again, root to tip, his tongue dabbling in the pearl of moisture that beaded pleadingly on the head. Artie's spice was strongest here, a sharp musk that seemed to invade Jim's nose and burn on his tongue. He breathed out through his open mouth to savor the taste and smell, and Artie's belly convulsed at the warm current of air fanning his wet cockhead.
Enthralled, Jim did it again. Artie's cock twitched and Jim captured the movement on his tongue. Hot and smooth, velvet on iron. Jim closed his mouth over the head and swirled his tongue around it. Artie's hands tightened on Jim's wrists until his fingers tingled with the pressure.
Jim had never done this before, had never have expected to feel so hungry for it. If he could have swallowed Artie down, starting with his cock, he would -- fill his belly with the essence of the man. He wanted to devour Artie, leaving nothing left for anyone else.
He raised himself up on his knees to put his head directly over the weeping shaft and shifted his hands from Artie's thighs to his waist, the drag of Artie's hands on his wrists making him slow, clumsy, like a man in handcuffs. Desire cramped Jim's belly.
Moaning at the heat in his mouth, his belly, his groin, Jim pushed down over Artie's cock. Pulled back, sucking, swirling his tongue. Down again, the hard heat filling his mouth, his throat. He backed off when it seemed he'd choke, but pushed further the instant the feeling faded. Artie was grunting, words that sounded like protest, like encouragement, raw guttural things that went straight to Jim's cock, aching in his too-tight pants.
Jim lifted up, all the way off, and blew softly across Artie's wet cock. Artie cried out, the whitish milk of his pleasure beading on the tip of his cock as if it, too, were a cry of protest. Jim's tongue itched to lick it off, but his throat called the stronger, and he swallowed Artie to the root. Artie's whole body convulsed. His hands left Jim's wrists cold and wanting and burrowed into Jim's hair.
Jim released Artie's hips and fisted his hands in the bed clothes. Artie held Jim's head steady as he pushed up slowly, deliberately filling Jim's throat. Out. Back in. Autonomy taken from him, Jim was able to lift his eyes, to see Artie's body laid out before him like a landscape, shining in the warm glow of the lamplight. The muscles in Artie's arms and belly were corded with effort, speaking more of Artie's desire than the thick weeping of the cock in Jim's mouth.
He waited through a dozen slow thrusts, waited through half of one more, until Artie filled him deep and full. Then Jim closed his lips tight around the straining shaft, and swallowed.
Jim was watching when Artie's belly convulsed, sweat beading freely on his gleaming body. The only thing he could not see was Artie's face, and he regretted that lack even as he felt Artie's shaft thicken and pulse. Hot spurts of pleasure hit the back of his throat, and Jim lifted off a little, sucking all the while, to catch Artie's seed on his tongue. To savor it, and swallow it, a conscious and deliberate act of cannibalism.
When Artie subsided, panting, Jim gently released his cock and licked it clean where it lay quivering on Artie's belly. He touched his lips to Artie's balls and rubbed his cheek against Artie's thigh while he tore open the fastenings of his trousers and touched the part of him that throbbed so fiercely.
He only just had his cock in hand, squeezing down sharply to appease the ache, when Artie's fingers stroked with stark sensuality through his hair.
Swamped by a murky flood of desire, Jim gasped, and turned his head, swallowing down Artie's sated cock like a man starving.
"For god's sake, Jim. Leave off!" Artie sat up and pushed Jim off. Jim listed back on his heels, barely aware of the heels of his boots digging into his butt, his hand still wrapped around his cock, compressing it with the ferocity of desperation.
Artie took a breath and ran a hand through his hair. Then smiled, and ran the same hand tenderly through Jim's. "I'm convinced, I said. Get your clothes off and get in bed."
When Jim only blinked at him, Artie grabbed Jim under the arms and hoisted him to his feet. Warm rough hands ran up over Jim's shoulders, down his chest and belly, around his hips, his sweat-damp trousers clinging a moment before sliding off. His touch was like a breath of fresh air in the humid swamp of Jim's desire. Jim's chest lifted in a long breath. Artie traced down Jim's forearm to the tips of his fingers.
"Very nice," he murmured. "Let me?" He coaxed Jim's fingers to loose his cock, turned Jim's hand, and kissed the fingertips.
Artie glanced up at him, one eyebrow cocked in amusement. "Better?"
Jim swooped down for a kiss. "Much." He drew in a shaking breath when Artie's clever fingers ran lightly down his belly and cock, nearly setting him off. He stepped back quickly, and almost fell on his ass.
Artie snorted. "Might want to take your boots off, before you do irreparable damage."
Artie kissed Jim's belly suddenly, and as suddenly shifted back to lie on the bed, his sprawled limbs trumpeting welcome.
Jim shucked his boots and crumpled trousers faster than he ever had in his life, but when he put his knee on the bed preparatory to climbing up, Artie pushed it off with his foot.
"We'll need something." His hand ghosted over his own chest. "To smooth the way."
Superheated air filled Jim's lungs, choking him. He turned away blindly. Artie's desk. Disguise book, powder, grease paint. Jim's hand hovered over that last, his chest seizing on a moment of pure lust. No. Artie would object. To the color if nothing else. He picked up the jar of cream Artie had used to remove the paint from Jim's face a few nights ago and turned back to the bed. His mind had not entirely left the grease paint, however, and he knew that one day, if he was very lucky, he was going to pin Artie down and paint him head to foot in swirls of greasy color and rub his entire body luxuriously against Artie's until they were both smeared with the barbaric canvas of Jim's desire.
What met him on the bed nearly made Jim's heart stop. His cock lurched almost as strongly as his stomach. Artie lay on his belly, his face turned towards Jim, his legs splayed and welcoming. He propped himself up on one elbow and took the cream from Jim's hands, and the breath from his lungs with a devouring kiss.
"Come on, Jim. You've convinced me."
Jim's hands mapped the long smooth curve of Artie's back. Artie laid his head on his arms and shifted under Jim's hands, a luxurious stretch. It called to him, that movement; like a horse's lead, it drew him onto the bed and between Artie's muscled thighs.
The jar, open, was thrust into his hands, and Artie rose up on his hands and knees in a movement of sinuous grace. Jim's cock throbbed and wept a long hot tear of anticipation onto the bedclothes. He dipped his hand in the jar and pushed two fingers into the tight heat of Artie's body.
"Easy, Jim," Artie gasped. He shifted sharply, the uneasy shy of a nervous horse. Jim's hands instinctively soothed him, one palm running with rough precision over the long muscles of his back. The other hand never ceased its gentle invasion, fingers stroking the soft inner walls. He didn't let himself think about how that would feel when he plunged his aching cock inside.
Jim leaned his head against Artie's back, rubbing his cheek against the smooth muscles and listening to the rushed beat of his heart. His fingers drew out and pushed in, spread and came together. It was so tight, so close, he knew he would not fit. Without looking, he reached for the jar, dipped in his other hand. Artie murmured and shifted under Jim's weight when he closed his hand around Artie's dangling cock. It was uncertain of arousal, softer under his hand than it had been in his mouth, but he could feel the pulse under the surface, the quiver of life returning. He pressed kisses to Artie's back and dreamily rubbed his face in the slick dew of sweat, his fist stroking Artie's lengthening cock as he introduced a third finger, pushing it deep, then pulling out with his fingers spread, and diving back in until Artie was groaning under him, his voice rising deep through his chest.
Jim's cock ached, harder than it had ever been. Thicker as well, he thought. He drew his fingers reluctantly from Artie's heat, and used the cream still on the hand that had stroked Artie's cock to slick up his own. Wiped his hands on the sheet so they would not slip on Artie's hips.
Artie was heated silk around him. Opening unwillingly, dragging tight and hot up the length of him. Groaning and panting and shivering around Jim's thickness.
"Slow." Artie shifted, and Jim's grip tightened, arms automatically bracing to keep him in place. "Easy, Jim. Go slow."
Oh, but he was. He wished he could go slower, sinking with exquisite leisure into Artie's depths, feeling every tiny fraction of an inch that he penetrated, one at a deliberate time.
Jim laid his weight on Artie's back, bearing him to the bed, where he could lie full-length on Artie's body, and let his hips drive that last little distance in an orgiastic plunge that must have taken minutes. Jim's breath escaped him in a keening sigh when his hips were flush with Artie's, his balls lying softly against their counterparts. He thought Artie did the same, and spared a moment to imagine what it was like, to lie trapped under a man's body, the heated weight of his cock plumbing you to your depths.
His hips twitched at the thought, pulsing his cock in Artie's tight channel. Otherwise, Jim lay still, savoring the feel of Artie's smooth shoulder under his cheek, the sweep of his back pressed to Jim's chest. The heat and silken tightness of him.
Eventually, he stirred and raised himself a little, and kissed Artie's shoulder. "Now?"
Artie said nothing in response. He let his body speak for him in the deep indrawing of breath, the quivering thighs that spread ever wider, making room for Jim. In, most especially, the raising of his hips.
Jim caught them once again in his hands, lifted them a little further to match him as he rose once again to his knees. He steadied Artie, then began a slow withdrawal. Slow as his thrust. Cool air painted his shaft. He looked down to see it reappear from between the plump rounds of Artie's buttocks, and was lost, reversing direction to plunge suddenly back in. To watch himself vanish into Artie's body.
Artie grunted, a deep animal sound. His hips lifted, knees spread wider. He could not more clearly have demanded to be mounted, taken, possessed.
Jim pulled almost fully out, only the tip of the head remaining confined by the grasping muscles. The whole strength of his body behind it, he thrust home again, his balls slapping against Artie's. Artie grunted again, groaned. He shivered in Jim's grip like a wild animal seeking release. Jim would give him release all right -- just as soon as he had his own. Just as soon as he'd driven Artie's own release screaming from his body.
He thrust with deliberate strength, a hard pounding rhythm that drove grunts and groans from Artie's throat. Jim was growling, twisting his hips as he drove in, finding over and over again an angle that made Artie cry out.
Suddenly Artie was writhing around him, struggling with a strength that nearly overmatched Jim's. Growling, Jim bit at Artie's shoulder, sharp bites that only incited him more. Only when he wrapped his arms around Artie's waist to restrain him did Jim feel the hot spurts of Artie's seed and realize that he was spending.
The realization and the hard wild struggle sent Jim over the
edge as well. His weight bore Artie to the bed as he drove himself
deep, deeper, and spent his seed in his partner's depths.
The Wanderer yawed and swayed over a switch and woke Jim by the unpleasant expedient of tossing him to the floor. He lay for a moment, shivering in the cool pre-dawn air, and wondered why he felt as if he'd gone ten rounds with an unbroken horse.
A moment later, the room blinked into view and he knew.
No Artie in the bed. Jim forced himself to his feet, and wrapped Artie's dressing gown around himself, ignoring the extra inches that dragged on the floor. No, of course Artie wasn't in the bed. If he had been, Jim doubted he'd have ended up on the floor. Unless Artie kicked him out of bed.
Which, under the circumstances, might not be out of the question. Jim braced himself with unconscious ease against the sway of the train and stared at the passion-destroyed bed. There was no doubt what had taken place in this bed. Except, perhaps, in the mind of one of the participants.
Jim remembered Artie saying he'd have to convince him. And he remembered Artie saying he was convinced. He also remembered being told in no uncertain terms to get his ass in the bed. He rather doubted, under the circumstances, that anything about last night's activities could be called coerced.
But could it be called love?
Jim picked up the jar of cream that had ended up on the floor, somehow miraculously upright. He found the lid and replaced it, and returned the jar to the desk. Picked up a pot of grease paint and opened it. The heady fragrance rushed through his head and plucked at his prick.
Hastily, Jim reclosed the jar and put it down. He dragged his fingers harshly through his hair.
From somewhere in the car, over the rumble of iron wheel on iron rail, the sound of whistling arose. Jim turned toward the sound and stood staring blankly at the wall, listening. From the direction and the accompanying clinks and clanks, Artie was in the galley. And from the sound of it, not only was Artie fixing breakfast, but he was in a damned good mood.
The mood was typical of Artie's morning behavior. So was breakfast. Artie had always gotten breakfast ready before Jim rose. Got it ready, brewed him coffee, and met him at the door with it. Knew enough not to talk much to him before he'd drunk it.
No, Jim thought suddenly. Not always. Artie had always cooked, and he'd always made enough for both of them, but he had not always had everything ready by the time Jim rose, nor made certain the bacon was cooked as crisply as Jim liked it. Nor refrained from conversation until Jim was ready for it. And if Jim had wanted coffee, he'd had to at least pour it himself. That was the way it was, up until....
Jim paced across Artie's stateroom and back. He didn't know when it changed. All he knew was that, for years now, Artie had been taking care of him.
He sat down on the rumpled bed. The bed in which he and Artie had spent the night -- and Jim wasn't in the least uncertain about the strong arms that had been holding him every time he woke up. The bed in which they'd had sex. In which Artie had let Jim....
Let? Or led?
He was, after all, dealing with a man who preferred to take the more convoluted path. Jim had seen Artie, on more than one occasion, get himself thrown out of a jail cell. It wasn't enough merely to effect his own release -- often a nearly impossible undertaking in of itself. Artemus took the manipulation of his jailers to such an extreme he'd get himself pulled, kicking and protesting, out to be dumped in the street. With such a man, the obvious was very rarely that.
Breakfast. Coffee. Dinner. Supper. Expensive restaurants or Artie's own cooking. Clever gadgets. Last-minute rescues. Tickets to the theater, to the opera. Hours in horse fairs, looking at animals Artie wasn't all that fond of. Card games at midnight. And Jim had found it difficult to think of appropriate courting gestures.
He laughed. He ought to have had no problem at all. He had,
after all, been watching a master at work for years. Cousin Annie
wasn't the beginning. She was the latest in a long and carefully
Artie whistled as he moved deftly about the galley. Jim crossed his arms over his chest and leaned one shoulder against the door.
"You sly old fox...."
Artie stopped whistling. For the briefest moment, concern crossed his features. If Jim hadn't been so intimately familiar with Artie's every expression, he might have missed it. Expressionless now, Artie studied Jim's face, and Jim found himself utterly unable to avoid breaking into a grin.
Artie smiled. "I've always found, James my boy, that a man better appreciates those things he has to work for."
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