Will Ash mend his broken heart?
After months of furtive assignations, Ash’s lover leaves him for a life of riches and respectability. Angry and heartsore at his rejection, Ash has no one to confide in.
Neighboring farmers Seth and Dougal accidentally discover his secret. Ash has been taken advantage of, and they decide to teach him what real love is.
Can Seth and Dougal help Ash mend his broken heart?
Ash refused to dance at his lover’s wedding. He was damned if he was going to be a hypocrite.
Looking across the barn, Ash could see the bridal pair mingling with their guests, the bride animated, the groom resentful. Fiona Livingston and Robert Buchanan had been man and wife for only a few hours, and already Robbie was in a huff. Though he was ostensibly the groom’s best friend, Ash thanked God Robbie had plenty of brothers; there had been no need for Robbie to ask him to stand as best man. He would certainly have refused if such a request had been made—there was no way Ash could have descended to that level of farce, whatever his mother would have expected from him.
Robbie glanced at Ash several times, and Ash threw glowering looks back at him. The two friends had not exchanged a word throughout the entire day, and if anyone had noticed, no one had thought it particularly odd. Robbie had always been moody, and Ash was noted for his reticence.
Staring aloofly upon the assembly, Ash watched the colorfully dressed couples whirl around the dance floor. More than one eye was cast at him, for he made quite a picture propping up the wall. He was considered one of the most handsome young men in Arisaig, a small settlement in northern Vermont. He had inherited his mother’s rich chestnut locks as well as eyes of a fine sapphire hue, his physique was lean but muscular, and like most of the local men, he was tall. His eyes often sparkled with wicked humor, and his generous mouth, turned up at the corners, gave him a perpetually good-natured expression. To add to his attractions, his father had left him a goodly inheritance when he had died several years ago.
The unmarried damsels of Arisaig had been acquainted with Ash since childhood, but none could claim to know him really well. While sanguine enough with his male friends, he was uneasy with the girls who, since they had grown into young ladies, all too often left him tongue-tied. It was beyond him to pay flattering compliments, and he was truly dismal at flirting, but most of the ladies knew him well enough to take no offense at his laconic tongue. When engaging Ash in conversation, a lady knew she would take the lion’s share of any talking.
Under other circumstances, he enjoyed dancing and holding a girl in his arms—there was little need to speak, and he was a good dancer—but tonight he could not face touching anyone like that. It was too intimate to put his arm around a waist, to hold someone within the circle of his arms, to feel the warmth of a hand clasping his own. He had had the forethought to pretend to sprain his ankle the day before, and not even the most insistent maiden could expect him to lead her out. As there were far more men than women present at the wedding ceilidh, he did not reproach himself for his churlishness—no lady would be in want of a partner because Ashton Moore declined to dance.
Though he was not dancing, he was hardly left to his own devices among the throng of his neighbors. No one, however, attempted to chatter with him for longer than a few minutes. His usually smiling mouth was a hard, flat line, and his surly countenance and curt responses to conversational gambits caused the guests to shrug and seek out more amiable company, of which there was no lack.
Indeed, the number of people at the gathering was considerable, for the Livingstons were a prosperous family as well as an open-handed one. They were delighted to host a large wedding in their enormous barn to honor their only daughter, and every household within a hundred miles, from the smallest child to the oldest grandparent, had been invited to celebrate.
Unused to such a crowd, tired of the heat in the barn, deafened by the incessant chattering of voices and scraping of fiddles, Ash slipped outside when no one was watching. His ears thrummed with relief from the surcease of noise. He breathed deeply, welcoming cool air into his lungs, grateful for its touch on his heated brow. Though it was turned spring, the night air was winter-cold and crisp, and the soggy landscape was frigid.
A collection of men had gathered under a nearby tree, similarly disinclined to dance. Ash snorted with bitter humor when he saw opaque bottles being discreetly passed between them, wondering briefly if he should seek such a remedy. While getting half seas over was tempting, it was too risky. He might just lose his restraint and tell Robbie exactly what he thought of him—loudly and forcefully, and in front of his new wife. That would not end well for anyone.
He had no desire to talk with anyone. Nodding politely to the group, Ash stalked along a muddy path, venturing far from the barn and hiding himself on the far side of a distant haystack. He settled himself amongst the dry hay and stared out over the bare fields, watching the moon rise. Faint strains of music reached him, drowned out briefly by the call of an owl. He sat brooding for a long, unmeasured time when there was a rustling noise, and he looked up to see Robbie peeping around the haystack. He had no notion how the happy groom had managed to sneak away from his own wedding. He rubbed at his eyes crossly—he had thought he would be safe out here.
“What do you want, Robbie?” His voice was weary.
“I must talk to you, Ash. You’ve been avoiding me for weeks.”
It was typical of Robbie to lay blame elsewhere—it was he who had first shunned Ash. By the time it became convenient for his friend to acknowledge him, Ash was too angry to want to see him. Ash clenched his fists in frustration, then forcibly relaxed them. He should have known this confrontation would come sooner or later.
Robbie flopped down next to Ash, leaning back in the hay and crossing his ankles. His hands rested on his sturdy thighs; strong tanned hands, roughened by work.
“I just wanted to apologize to you.”
“For getting married? Or for not having the balls to tell me yourself? I had to hear it from Ma. You got a notion how that felt?”
Robbie stuck his lip out. It made him look like a sulky baby, thought Ash scathingly, and he usually whined like one when he made this face as well.
“I said I was sorry,” said Robbie, his voice peevish.
“Yeah, I’m sorry too.” Under his breath Ash added, sorry you’re such a god-damned coward. It would do no good to say it aloud.
“I had to marry her, Ash. She’s with child.”
Ash blinked. “Whose is it?”
Robbie lifted his chin. “Mine, of course. Who do you think?”
“You were lying with her?” Ash was incredulous. “While you were fucking me?”
“It ain’t the same.”
“The hell it ain’t!”
“All right, I should have telt you.” Robbie sounded exasperated, as if somehow it was Ash’s fault he could not control where he put his dick. “But we talked about girls, and what it would be like. And when she let me, I just couldn’t stop myself.”
“So you’re okay with cheating on me.”
Robbie looked uncomfortable. “It ain’t cheating, Ash. You and me, we ain’t keeping company. We can’t marry.”
“It don’t mean we can’t live together. Like Seth and Dougal.”
“I ain’t like them. I want a wife and children. I need a normal life, and Fiona will give me that. She’s a woman, and men are made to lie with women.”
“So the last year means nothing because I ain’t a woman?”
“Och, what we did, that was boy stuff. We’re men now. Like it says in the bible, we have to put away childish things.”
Already disillusioned, Ash barely felt any indignation that Robbie could so lightly dismiss their love, and even resort to the bible to justify himself. It would do no good to argue about it; Robbie always won their arguments anyway. He tore his eyes away from that once-beloved visage, from the corded column of Robbie’s throat where he had torn off his neckerchief and opened his shirt. Ash knew well the gorgeous chest it led to: the skin as smooth and fine as silk contrasting the crisp golden-brown hair that trailed down to his flat belly; the defined pectoral muscles that mounded perfectly under his palms; the warm hollow he would lay his head in after they had both spent themselves, when Robbie was not averse to cuddling.
“Fine.” His voice was tight with tears he refused to shed. “Leave me be, Robbie. Go back to your bride.”
Robbie touched Ash’s hand where it lay on his knee. “I want to be friends, Ash; can’t we be friends?”
Ash took a deep breath. “Maybe one day. Not now.”
Shifting in the hay, Robbie leaned against Ash’s arm, close enough that Ash could almost taste his moist, whiskey-laden breath as it misted across his face. His lover’s hair tickled his face and he knew a temptation to lift a hand and brush back the fair lock that always fell across his tanned forehead. Resolutely, Ash looked straight ahead, his hands tightening on his thighs, but he could not curb the desire that quivered through him as Robbie stroked across his stomach, circling the spot where his navel lay. His cock twitched.
Copyright © Jules Radcliffe