Release Date: Apr 13, 2009
Publisher: Running Press
Publisher Link: http://www.perseusbooksgroup.com/runningpress/book_detail.jsp?isbn=0762436581
Amazon Kindle: False Colors
Amazon: False Colors: An M/M Romance
Blurb: 1762, The Georgian Age of Sail: For his first command, John Cavendish is given a ship—the HMS Meteor—and a crew, both in need of repair and discipline. He’s determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfred Donwell will stand by his side as he leads his new crew into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers. Alfie knows their mission is futile, and that their superiors back in England will use the demise of this crew as impetus for war with the Ottoman Empire. But the darker secret he keeps is his growing attraction for his commanding officer—a secret punishable by death. With the arrival of his former captain—and lover—on the scene of the disastrous mission, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John. Against a backdrop of war, intrigue, and personal betrayal, the high seas will carry these men through dangerous waters from England to Africa to the West Indies in search of a safe harbor.
“I feel... I am such a burden to you,” said John, watching Alfie open the shutters of their lodging house on Castle Street and stand for a moment outlined against the fragrant sky. He could tell from the set of Alfie’s back that the man was sighing; whether in relief at the end of another anxious night, or in pleasure at the view and the fresh early morning air, John wasn’t sure.
He hadn’t been able to see the view himself – carried ashore in the grip of high fever, the axe wound badly infected and wrongly treated by a terribly apologetic Dr. Harper. Alfie had made the arrangements, banned Harper and brought one of the local physicians, applied the salves, changed his bandages, held him tight as he shook and raved, soothing his fever with cool cloths. Somehow he had also managed to make sure the Meteor’s men were fed and housed, given such shore leave as they could be trusted with, and the ship herself careened and scraped.
He was owed more than a moment of standing and admiring the harbor; more than John could very well say. Yet though he knew he was being selfish by speaking, cutting short Alfie’s moment of contemplation, John still felt weak and prone to tears, and he wanted the familiar presence back by his side, not all the way over there across the room, inaccessible.
“Not a burden but a joy.” Alfie returned, just as he’d hoped, to draw up the room’s single, black Spanish chair beside him and take his hand. At the touch, John closed his eyes and smiled, comforted.
“You are…” he said, for the lemon sharp sunlight touched only the end of the bed, illuminating bare plastered walls, ancient floorboards and the faded red coverlet, leaving the further end of the room, where he lay, in deeper darkness by contrast. A warm, private darkness in which things could be said which could never be said in daylight. “You are the best man I have ever met.”
The morning crept over Alfie’s face and made his eyes glisten, softened his slightly coarse features until his face seemed as fair and oval as one of Joshua Reynold’s idealized portraits. When he licked his full lips they glistened too, turned up and inwards, in a self-depreciatory smile of great sweetness. “You can’t have met many then, Sir.”
His warm hand held John’s, reassuringly, and if a part of John wondered whether hand-holding was still in order, now he was getting better, he was not willing to give it up just yet. In fact, watching Alfie sitting there between light and shadow, elbows planted on his knees, with his coat off and his cravat undone – shirt gaping to reveal the strong column of his throat, the dip and ridge of his collarbone – he felt almost as though he witnessed something holy. As though he saw through flesh to glimpse God’s work in its pristine, unfallen condition. He wanted to reach out and touch it; to explore it with his fingertips, to properly appreciate the artistry of it.
“You awe me,” he said, trying to express something of this. “I never yet met a man so tempestuous and yet so…” but he couldn’t say ‘tender’, not even in this animal-smelling little world they had shared together for so many days. “Loyal,” he said, instead.
Alfie’s smile untucked, his lips parting to show his fine white teeth. “You don’t ask me what I see when I see you.” He raised his free hand and unstuck the limp hair that stuck to John’s forehead, pushing it away from his face. “It might surprise you.”
John, who hadn’t noticed the tickle of hair loose on his face, before, nevertheless sighed with relief to have it gone. But the gesture reminded him once again of the musty sickroom smell of the place, and his own smell, having lain a fortnight abed, sweating through the hot Spanish days. “Well, your hours of nursing should soon be over,” he said. “I mean to sit up today, by the window, perhaps. Can you see if our landlady will draw me a bath and change the bed? The stink of me is enough to drop the local pigeons out of the sky.”
“It’s true.” Alfie grinned. “I was watching them plummet past the window when you woke. I’ll do it now, if you’ll eat first.”
Closing his eyes, John let the bed enfold him once more. There seemed to be a little more to him now than mere insatiable desire for sleep – a space for him to become again a rational being. The itchy wrongness of all his limbs subsided, and he probably could eat something undemanding, if he tried. He touched the bandage that swathed him from one side of the body to the other, and it was dry. If he pressed, his hand no longer felt as though it would sink in up to the wrist. “Mm…” he said, drifting into a warm, umber colored mist, on a boat made of eiderdown, and only woke up again when the servants banged the bathtub against the walls as they were trying to get it through the door.
He watched drowsily as the girls scurried up and down stairs with pitchers of water, filling it. White bloused and dark haired, their skin glowed golden from the sun, and their liquid eyes were knowing, amused. Their skirts brushed across the floor, the whisper mixing with pouring water into a sound soothing as rain. The open door let in the aroma of cadereta de langosta cooking, and an acrid rubbish tip smell beyond the back door of the kitchen, where piles of parings were fought over by poor children and mangy dogs.
Closer to him, he could smell the lavender they added to the water. John watched as they set out soap and towels. Alfie brought out his shaving kit from the chest at the foot of the bed, and thoughtfully stropped the razor as he watched this activity with the demanding eye of a good First Lieutenant. John smiled at the thought, for there was a flavor of the military about the whole operation. A flavor he found more reassuring than the fact that when the bath was full, a fire lit in the grate and two kettles of water reserved for rinsing, only one of the girls went away. The chambermaid – a burly creature with very fine eyes, but the beginnings of a black moustache, and the prettiest one, whose wavy hair was bright hennaed red at the ends, remained.
John did not like this so much, nor that when Alfie helped him to sit up, get the nightshirt over his head, the two of them looked at one another and smiled.
“I help you,” said the redhead, with arched, suggestive eyebrows, “on bath. Adoncia, she help your friend.”
A distaste for all things corporeal washed over John then; for loose women and – because he was fair-minded – for the loose men who encouraged them. He was always getting these offers and it tired him. Was it so hard for them to believe there might be one man in this world with some modesty and self control, who didn’t wish to swive the first piece of skirt to throw herself into his lap? He pulled the coverlet tight over himself and leaned into the arm Alfie had put around him, to help him stand, feeling more dirtied than ever.
“Come on now, girls,” Alfie gave her a roguish grin and a regretful look, “give the man a chance! Can you…?” this to John, as he encouraged him to get to his feet. John had no desire to get up and stand naked before the women’s measuring eyes, but he tried, for Alfie’s sake.
Not even pride could keep him on his feet. He would have slithered gracelessly to the floor and lain there, gasping and helpless as a fry dropped on deck by a passing gull, had it not been for Alfie’s strength. There was something deeply comforting, in fact, in being held so, like a child in its father’s arms. Sighing, he let his head rest against his friend’s cheek and closed his eyes.
“You see?" Alfie said wryly. "Nothing standing at present. You’d be wasting your time. Just change the bed today, and come back in a day or so.”
Dimly, John felt he should be insulted by this, but he was too grateful to be lifted over to the bath and gently sat down in clean warm water. The rest of the world went away while he breathed in scented steam, his vision going as misty as the surface of the water.
“I don’t think so. Listen…” he could hear Alfie spinning some implausible tale about religious vows and penances, and wondered why he couldn’t just tell the truth. Didn’t everyone in this room believe that fornication was a sin? Why then was it so difficult to understand that the thought of it filled him with unease?
“There,” said Alfie’s warm brown voice at his back, after a moment of blankness when he must have fallen asleep again. The sounds of bed-making and scornful Spanish conversation behind him only threw into relief how much John wanted them all to go away. He looked up and found Alfie giving him a sideways look, lopsided and wry, ancient as the oldest profession. “But are you sure you won’t? She’s a pretty, plump little thing, you don’t fancy her soaping you down, with her arms too short to reach around you without her pressing her fine bosom to your back – the water making the white blouse on her transparent as a veil?”
Suiting his actions to his words, Alfie had unwound the bandage and set it aside, and was now soaping John’s shoulders, big hands firm and warm, slippery, but ever so slightly rough against John’s skin. His insides tightened and his belly fluttered with a sudden wash of lust, thin and pitiful in his weakness, like over-watered grog. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t talk like that!”
“I don’t know many men who would say no.”
“Shame on them!” John hissed. Why, chastity was simple. He didn’t understand why everyone seemed to find it so difficult.
Alfie did not reply to his anger, only bent his head and smiled that damnable knowing smile. He had taken off his waistcoat and rolled up his sleeves, and his own linen was soaked, molding itself to a lithe but powerful chest. Pressing down on John’s head he tipped it forwards, and John found himself sluiced with water which trailed in skeins of silver off his newly shaggy hair into the bath. He closed his eyes against the soap, but an animal sense seemed to radiate from his flushed skin, allowing him to feel the man bending over him as though they were pressed together. Encircled by Alfie’s presence, his body seemed to pull towards the other man’s as one pole of a magnet to the other – and that was before Alfie’s fingers were in his hair, soothing and slippery and very warm. Alfie’s voice was all but inaudible, a velvet touch against the side of his face. “I know few women who would say no to you.”
He couldn’t find the anger this time, floating as if on opium clouds. “Shame on them too.”
“You’re very beautiful, John. Inside and out.”
There was something about being whispered to in that smoky dark voice that made him shift beneath the ministering fingers, discomforted. What did the man think he was doing? Had he made some agreement with the girls that required John to join in? He…didn't know if something like that would come as a relief. Surely it was better that Alfie be a pander than a…. “I don’t think you should say that to me.”
“Permission to say a thousand other things, very much along the same lines, Sir?”
“No,” John’s conscience, never very quiescent, raised its head like a gazelle scenting a lion on the wind. “Permission denied.”