The gardenia blossom in Ellen O'Connor's hand was starting to wilt, the edges of the snowy petals turning from cream to brown under the fiery Georgia sun. Ellen's skin, as milky as the flower's center, was protected by gloves and sleeves and parasol and the deep shade of an aged magnolia tree, under whose spreading branches she sat, perched on a delicate settee surrounded by the young gentlemen of courting age from every plantation within three counties.
Alexander Harriman noticed the flower first - he often noticed pretty things. Both the gardenia bloom and Miss O'Connor were lovely, but Alexander found himself reluctant to get closer to either of them, preferring to linger at the back of the group of suitors and look out across the close-cropped pastures to the fields stretching as far as he could see.
"La petite belle not to your liking, cher?" The voice was rich with laughter and lightly accented, and so close that Alexander jumped slightly. He turned and found himself facing a young man with curling light hair, bright blue eyes and a sardonic smile.
"Have we met, sir?" he asked, feeling stiff and awkward.
"We have not, for I believe I'd remember you. Must you be so tall?" The smaller man stepped back, so that his neck was not craned so far up to look Alexander in the face. He placed one hand against his abdomen and executed a precise bow. "William Robilliard, late of New Orleans," he said, holding out a hand.
"Xander...er, Alexander Harriman." He reached out and clasped William's smaller hand, dropping it quickly.
"What say we wander up to the house?" William said. "I dare say there's better things to do than dance attendance on this delicate flower, oui?"
Alexander snorted and stepped out toward the house. "Ellie and I were children together," he said. "That delicate flower once broke my nose."
William laughed and clapped Alexander on the back. "That's true, then you must know the ladies of the kitchen. You think they'll likely spare two fine young men a cool drink on a hot day?"
"I can do better than that - I know the men of the fields, and I know where they stash their beer."
"Then I'm glad I met you, Xander Alexander Harriman."
Before Alexander could reply, they arrived at the small building that housed the well. He opened the door and slipped inside, motioning for William to follow. Walking past the main well, Alexander knelt down next to a smaller, square hole in the floor and grasped the knotted rope protruding from it. He pulled hand-over-hand, drawing up a bucket that held a half-dozen corked brown bottles.
"Don't let me forget to pay Big Sam back," Alexander said, handing William a bottle and taking one for himself. "It's likely cooler down by the creek. Shall we?"
"Indeed we shall," William replied, grinning.
The creekbank wasn't far away, but it was considerably cooler. Both men stripped off their waistcoats and kicked off their boots and socks before settling in the shade.
William took a long draught of his beer, then turned, shading his eyes from the glare of the afternoon sun off the water. "So, it's Xander, then?"
"It was my nursery name, what Mammy called me."
"I like it. Mine called me Will when I refused to answer to Billy."
Xander glanced over. "I can see that - I bet you were a wild child."
"Still am, cher - still am."
Xander looked away and took a sip of his beer. "You reckon I could call you Will?"
"I'd like that...Xander," Will said, and Xander felt the low buzz of his laugh as a flutter in his belly.
They drank their beers and watched the sun sink lower in the sky. The breeze picked up a little, bringing welcome coolness.
When his beer was gone, Will set the bottle aside and reached over to pluck Xander's from his hand. He turned it up and drank the last, then stared at Xander while licking the final drops from his lush lips. "Tell me, Xander," he drawled in that lilting, honeyed voice. "Have you bedded any of you father's slave girls?"
Xander blushed and ducked his head. He was sure that Will was mocking him. After all, it was accepted that planters' sons, and the planters themselves, would have relations with the prettiest slaves. In fact, Xander's father had no problems with the custom, and neither did either of Xander's brothers. But he...hesitated
Xander looked up to find Will looking at him, not laughing, but simply smiling and with dancing blue eyes. "No," he said, shaking his head. "It never seemed right - them not having a choice and all."
Will didn't look away or stop smiling as he leaned back to drop the empty beer bottle onto the grass behind him. "So," he drawled, leaning toward Xander again. "Does that mean that you're a romantic - wantin' the lady to want you, too; does it mean you're a realist - not wantin' to foul your own nest or does it mean something else entirely?"
Xander kept looking at Will, studying him. His tone was teasing, but his eyes were kind. "What about you?" Xander asked, deflecting the question.
Will laughed out loud. "Not I, sir," he said, placing a hand over his heart as if swearing an oath. "Not after my older brother, Charles, sired a coterie of brats on the house girls. My maman made me swear to look elsewhere."
"Did I what?"
"Look elsewhere?" Xander watched closely, and for the first time Will looked away, his fair skin coloring lightly.
"Must I tell you all my secrets?" he asked.
Xander found himself wanting to reach out and turn Will's chin back to him, wanting to feel if there was a rasp of beard stubble on that angular jaw, wondering if Will's skin was as silky as it looked. Instead, he clenched his hands in the grass in front of him
Will looked back then, and blue eyes regarded Xander seriously. "I might...if you looked at me that way."
Will's voice was soft and a little husky, and Xander could feel his heartbeat speeding up, could feel some feeling rising in him, making his chest tight and his hands clammy. Will rested his own hands on the grass, close to Xander's.
"When I turned eighteen this spring, my father took me to New Orleans' finest bordello." He paused, then licked his lips again. "A man needs more than one bottle to tell a story this embarrassing."
Xander inched his fingers closer to Will's. "You don't have to."
Will moved his hand so that the backs of his fingers were barely brushing Xander's. "You've a kind heart, cher."
They looked at each other for a long moment, then Will let out a short, barking laugh. "I'll give you the short version, and then you can answer my questions, Xan. Papa picked out a girl for me - she was all painted and perfumed - she looked like a china doll. Blonde hair and blue eyes, name of Darla."
Xander heard a note of annoyance in Will's tone. "Would you have chosen differently?"
"Yes," Will said, glancing up. "I prefer dark hair."
Xander's heart skipped a beat, and he fought the urge to reach up and smooth his tumbled sable locks.
"Anyway," Will continued, "she took me upstairs; the place was all velvet and gilt and mirrors - what the fine ladies would call tacky, I'm sure. She led be to her room. It smelled like gardenias, sweet and heavy. She pushed me onto the bed and went down on her knees to unlace my boots."
Xander realized he was leaning forward, hanging on every word. He felt overly warm, and his skin felt like it was too sensitive. He could feel acutely the rasp of his starched cotton shirt against his back and the constriction of his trousers. He bent one knee, arranging his legs to cover the tell-tale bulge at his groin. Will was looking at the ground anyway, his face flaming; he kept his head down and sighed before continuing his tale.
"She crawled up on the bed and unbuttoned my trousers, and I thought my heart was going to beat right out of my chest. And then she touched me and..." he paused, his face flaming, shoulders slumped. "And then it was all over."
Xander tried very hard, but he just couldn't stifle the laugh that bubbled up. And that single, undignified snort of amusement broke the dam. He rolled onto his back, whooping. He laughed long and hard, the warmth from the ground soaking into his back. When he paused to take a breath, he realized that Will was totally silent. Xander's heart sank as he took in Will's bowed head and shaking shoulders. A wave of shame swept over him.
"Will?" He reached out tentatively to touch one shoulder. "I...I'm sorry..."
Then Will looked up with tears running down his face, and Xander saw that he was laughing, his body trembling with the strain of staying quiet. The gentle touch to Will's shoulder turned into a tight grip.
"You...you scalawag! You bastard!" Xander looked at Will, now cackling loudly, with disbelief, then pounced on him, laughing and growling and cursing as he pushed Will onto his back. Will yelped in surprise at the attack, then laughed harder as he tried to dislodge Xander by heaving his shoulders off the ground.
Xander pushed down, unwilling to give quarter, and Will shifted strategy, pressing up with his hips to gather his feet under him. Xander countered by dropping his full body weight onto Will...and froze.
In the rush of amusement and shame and worry and outrage, Xander had forgotten his earlier arousal. He was forcibly reminded when his groin pressed against Will's, meeting an answering hardness.
Will's laugh turned into a breathy moan and his eyes met Xander's. They were awash with shock and heat and something Xander couldn't identify. Their bodies were sealed together all along their length and their faces were mere inches apart. Will's gaze flicked back and forth between Xander's eyes and his mouth.
Will's voice was rough when he spoke. "Can I kiss you?"
Xander stared down at Will. He knew he should say no, knew that he should scramble to his feet and say something cutting and leave this place, leave Will alone on the grass. But he couldn't. Not when having Will under him, hard and panting and asking made him feel alive and real like nothing else had in all of his nineteen years. No, Xander decided. No, he would not deny this, he would not turn his back on this. He might regret it later, might beg forgiveness from God or whoever was listening, but he would have this. He looked down at Will and whispered, "Yes."
Will relaxed under him, and brought a hand up, letting his slender fingers twine into the hair at the back of Xander's neck, let them rub gently at his scalp, without pressure. And it was Xander who closed the distance between them.
Will seemed to sense his inexperience, and he took control of the gentle kiss, tilting Xander's head and his own to find the angle that made them fit together. Will's lips were soft and warm, and Xander dug his fingers into the ground on either side of Will's body. When the tip of Will's tongue swept his bottom lip, he gasped, and that soft and agile tongue slipped inside to stroke lightly over his own.
Xander felt Will press up against him, and allowed himself to be pushed onto his side, so that they were facing each other, without breaking the kiss. Xander hesitantly placed his hand against Will's chest.
"Yes, Xander, touch me," Will whispered against Xander's lips, so Xander let his fingers trace the muscles of Will's chest and shoulder and the side of his throat. All the while, Will's lips moved against his, nipping and sucking and teasing, and Xander thought he was going to die from the fire in his veins.
Feeling unutterably bold, Xander slid his hand to Will's waist and untucked his shirt, pressing his palm flat to the hot, soft skin of Will's abdomen. He stroked gently, feeling the line of silky hair that led downward and the twitch of firm muscles. Will groaned and pressed toward the touch, and Xander felt his stiff collar being unbuttoned, followed by light fingers at his neck, undoing the buttons of his shirt.
When fingertips traced the center of his bare chest, Xander moaned into Will's mouth.
"Let me touch you, Xander," Will murmured. "Let me show you."
"Anything," Xander whispered. "Please."
Xander sank back into the kiss and turned his mind away from anything that wasn't Will's wicked mouth and clever fingers and hard, hot body. Will got his shirt open and pushed apart, and Xander did the same. When Will leaned down to lick and nip at his chest, Xander arched his back and panted, breathing in the scents of grass and sweat.
Will hesitated with his fingers tucked into the waistband of Xander's trousers and waited until Xander opened his eyes and pulled back to breathe. "I can make you feel so good, cher - if you'll have me," Will said, his voice rough with strain.
Xander nodded, and watched Will's face as he concentrated on slipping each button from its hole. When they were all opened, Will did the same for the buttons on his drawers, and Xander felt the gentlest touch of fingertips against his hardness. He had to close his eyes as the jolt of sensation rushed through him. He thought fleetingly of the earlier conversation, and laughed shakily.
"Something funny, cher?" Will asked, bumping his nose playfully against Xander's cheek, his hand mercifully still.
Xander opened his eyes and looked into Will's dancing blue ones. "I just know why it was over so quickly with the fancy lady now," he said.
"Feels good, then?" Will punctuated his teasing question with a light stroke.
"Dear God, yes," Xander hissed, pressing forward for more contact.
Will kissed him then, at the same time reaching into his drawers and touching him fully, wrapping his hand around Xander's shaft and dragging it slowly up the length of him. Xander knew he wouldn't last long; he'd only done this to himself a few times - when he could no longer stand the tension, and the threat of going to hell was less frightening than the threat of dying from the ache. He tightened his own hands on Will's shoulders and moaned into the kiss.
Will touched him with perfect pressure, stroking him gently but firmly while sliding his tongue over Xander's in the same rhythm until Xander stiffened and spent into William's hot hand with a strangled yelp.
Xander pulled his mouth away from Will's and buried his face in Will's bare shoulder, panting against the sweat-sheened skin. When he came back to himself, he could feel Will's wet hand against his hip, Will's own hardness pressed against his thigh.
"I want to do that to you," Xander said. "But I don't know how."
Will gathered one of Xander's hands in his own and led them down to his own groin. "I'll show you," he whispered. They unbuttoned trousers and drawers together, uncovering Will.
Xander let Will wrap both of their hands around him, let Will show him how to hold, to stroke. After a moment, Will pulled his hand away, letting Xander explore. Xander touched the shaft, the tip and the bunched skin below, noting Will's reactions - groans and gasps and quiet sounds. He had pity when Will thrust impatiently at his fingers and tightened his hand to touch Will the way he had been touched. He watched Will's face in awe when the shaft in his hand swelled slightly, then released.
They rolled apart and lay on the grass on their backs until they caught their breath, watching the sun sink lower toward the horizon. Xander didn't know what to say, didn't know what was expected of him, so he remained silent. Finally, Will turned up on his side, his shirt and trousers still open, but his drawers more or less pulled into place.
"Come visit me in New Orleans, cher. In the spring. Come for Mardi Gras; they even have parades now. Say you will?" His voice was uncertain, but his eyes danced with mischief. "We usually have quite a crowd, so you'd likely have to share a bed with me."
Without thinking, Xander found himself nodding. "I will," he said.
Will grinned, then leaned forward to kiss him. They were interrupted by the sound of the large bell ringing up at the house.
"The barbeque is on," Xander said. "We'd best join the others." They pulled apart slowly, and Will dug in his pockets for a linen handkerchief. He held his trousers up with one hand as he made his way to the creek's edge to dampen it. He wiped himself down, then rinsed the cloth and brought it to Xander, who did the same.
"Keep it," Will said to Xander when he tried to return the handkerchief. "To remember me by."
Xander leaned forward and gave him a quick kiss. They dressed and put their boots back on, then gathered the empty beer bottles and walked back toward the house. They stopped in the well-house to replace the bottles, then walked up to the main house to join the others for dinner.
Xander and Will stayed on the fringe of the group and ate their dinner and drank their lemonade. As others began taking their leave, Xander and Will approached Ellie, who looked tired, sitting on the porch steps, her back ramrod straight.
"Why, Mr. Harriman, Mr. Robilliard," she said. "I've barely seen you all day."
"Miss O'Connor," Xander said, grinning at her. "We were quite lost in your sea of admirers."
Will took Ellie's hand and kissed the back of it lightly. "I'm afraid we stood no chance, ma'am."
Ellie smirked at Xander over Will's head. "You boys were down at the creek drinking Big Sam's beer, weren't you?"
Xander nodded, and Will looked from one to the other, smiling.
"Don't mind us, Mr. Robilliard," Ellie said. "We're friends from our nursery days. I know that Xander would rather have a bottle and some quiet company than watch me speak politely to every dullard and sot in the county."
"And I know that Ellie's cursing that horrible corset and wishing for a hot bath and a good book right now," Xander smirked.
A polite cough from another suitor behind them stopped their quiet conversation. Will and Xander each reached in their pockets to hand Ellie one of their calling cards. She took them both, glancing for a moment at the plain engraved type of their names and addresses, then crossed her wrists and handed the cards back.
"I think the two of you would make good friends," she said, smiling slyly at Xander. She then schooled her expression into one of genteel welcome and shooed the two boys away with a languid gesture.
They walked down the steps, where a groom met them with their horses. They mounted up, and stayed side by side up the driveway. At it's end, Xander looked to the left, toward his father's plantation, and Will right, toward town.
"My train leaves in the morning," Will said.
"Then I suppose we part here."
Will smiled. "Write to me, cher. We'll make plans for spring."
Xander nodded, and they turned their horses and moved away from each other. Xander was lost in thought when he heard hoofbeats behind him. Will stopped his horse alongside Xander's and reached across to grab the lapel of his coat, then kissed Xander hard on the mouth.
"Come to me in the spring," he murmured, pulling back.
"I will," Xander answered breathlessly. "I will." He watched until William was out of sight.