Stand and Deliver


As the peremptory cry rang out, Raymond Doyle, late of The Royal Irish Fusiliers, reined in his horse with a sardonic chuckle and stared across at the other rider who had appeared with such startling suddenness from the thicket beside the road.

"I suppose I should be damned grateful I still look sufficient of a gentleman for you to believe it to your advantage to stop me," he announced in tones that could best be described as mournful.

Pistol held in unwavering hand, his assailant drew nearer, eyes raking him up and down in the bright moonlight. As he came close he rasped out suspiciously, "Don't try and cozen me - get down off that nag and turn out your pockets."

Mildly surprised at the well-spoken voice, Doyle found himself obeying the brusque command, underlined as it was by an authoritative wave of the pistol; he slid one arm through the reins as he pulled the linings of his breeches pockets out to display their emptiness.

"I have three guineas in my purse," he said ruefully, diving into his waistcoat for it, "and that is all. Would you rob me of all I have?"

"Fob - watch - rings -" the masked rider rapped out curtly.

Doyle looked up, the moonlight gleaming on white teeth as he smiled broadly. "How do you think I came by the three guineas?" he demanded.

"You might have stolen it for all I care - hand it over."

Shocked, Doyle looked up. "Of all the heartless.... I'll fight you for it."

Beneath the mask, the arrogant mouth suddenly parted in a smile. "A mill, eh? I must be several pounds heavier than you."


"Brave as a bantam-cock," the rider said mockingly. "Very well, if you want to be relieved of your money by courtesy of a drawn cork, I'm willing to oblige your folly."

The smaller man glanced up and down the deserted road. "We'd best get off the highway - unless you've a mind for witnesses."

"There's a field behind here... follow me."

The pistol was tucked away in a saddle holster and with a swiftness Doyle did not anticipate his horse's reins were wrenched from his grasp: he gave an angry cry as the masked rider spurred his own horse on up the road while pulling Doyle's nag behind him, expecting him to disappear with both mounts and leave his victim to finish the last, long miles of his journey along the Kennet valley to Hungerford on foot. About a hundred yards along, however, as Doyle was thinking of giving up the increasingly futile chase, the rider turned left, off the road and into the woods along a narrow trackway.

"Bridlepath," he said over his shoulder. "Leads over into Inkpen. Come on."

Faintly reassured - but still alert, aware that several kinds of danger could still await him, Doyle followed, cursing the branches as they whipped back into his face behind the horses.

About a half-mile off the road, the path emerged into a field. The rider waited at the gate, eyes glinting down at Doyle through the slits in his mask.

"Open it." The tone was calmly authoritarian, the voice of a man used to command.

Doyle looked up, a slow anger burning in him. Once both mounts were through, he closed the gate and ran swiftly and silently after the horses, coming up on the rider's nearside just as he was about to dismount. Catching his booted foot as it came over the horse's rump, Doyle tugged it sharply, pulling the man into a crashing fall, startling both horses into cantering away across the grass.

Hoping the field was securely fenced but not really caring for the moment if it wasn't, Doyle followed the man down, fighting with all the gutter skills he'd acquired in his Dublin childhood. Disconcertingly, his opponent was almost as dirty a fighter as he, and as he had pointed out, somewhat heavier and Doyle was glad he'd not been bothered to abide by any considerations of gentlemanly behaviour.

For the first few minutes verbal taunts were bandied back and forth between the two of them but before long, both men were far too out of breath to do more than concentrate on their fight. What the outcome would have been had the masked man not set his boot in the heart of a fresh cow-pat just as Doyle lunged with a vicious right to his jaw they were never to know. As it was, already off balance, the heavier man could not dodge in time and went down with a crash that winded him.

Doyle followed him down, straddling the broad chest and pinning one arm to his side, grabbing for the loosely tied cravat to position the head for another blow but his opponent lay lax and dazed, wheezing throatily with every breath.

Out? Doyle was not sure. He leant forward, eyeing the man suspiciously, wanting to see his face, but as his hand touched the mask, the body beneath him moved, reaching up a hand. Had it been for another blow, Doyle would have been ready for it, instead, shatteringly, the hand curved round his skull, fingers twining in his unruly curls and pulling him down into a fervent embrace.

As their lips met, white fire jolted through Doyle's stomach, piercing his gut. It had been so long since....

He cut off the thought. If this bridle-cull thought to shock him into submission by this amorous advance he should soon learn that his victim was not so easily disconcerted! He returned the kiss with an equal fervour, almost biting at him in his passionate response, while one arm went round the sturdy shoulders and he slithered down the straining body, his free hand enlacing the hand he had trapped by its owner's side. The mouth was faintly salty, clean and fresh tasting, adding new incentive to his reception of the surprising assault. He wanted more.

One part of him alert for any other move, knowing very well this had been a trick to stop him removing that mask, he slowed the kiss down deliberately, using all his past experience and expertise, such as it was, to pursuade this firm and arrogant mouth to open completely for him.

The hand in his hair tightened, began to pull frantically at him, tugging him away and he rolled - tucking one leg up to brush his knee at the other man's groin. It was a touch he'd often used with Johnny; the fleeting, unexpected caress had made his lover go limp with wanting and so he was prepared for the abrupt gasp, the suddenly opened mouth.

Their tongues were touching now, straining to twine round each other and with a sense of triumph, Doyle knew he had won, that provided he made no foolish moves they would see this through to the end.

The question was - did he want to?

When Johnny had died in his arms at Quatre Bras he's sworn never again... never again would he succumb to the lure of sweet man-flesh, of strong arms and a lust that matched his own. He'd kept his word too, slaking his needs either with harlots or in solitary content -

Damn it all, he wanted this, wanted this man. He was no common thief, he'd lay any odds on that. A bubble of mirth welled in him - another poor soldier down on his luck, no doubt, there were plenty of half-pay officers around these days: Cowley ought to be doing well, recruiting them. Pity they couldn't be seduced into it; maybe he should suggest it to this one!

With a groan, he surrendered himself to the pleasures he'd wanted for so long, straining passionately at the strong, sturdy body, tugging at the coat buttons, the strings of his shirt; feeling the need and the urgency doubly reciprocated, growing and filling them both. With a wrench, he hauled at the waistband of the dark, rough breeches, thrusting his hand in to find warm, soft belly; hot, hard cock. The man beneath him bucked, crying out something - Doyle didn't know what and didn't care so long as he wasn't resisting this. A tug at his own belt, then a strong, firm hand grasping him, pressing and pumping in just the right way, the way no woman ever quite achieved, instruct them how you will. Their mouths meshed again, and with another groan he was flying, out and over the top, coming in great spurts in those now-stilled fingers. He felt the other body stiffen and paused in his own frantic movements, letting the spasms die before he stroked at the warm cream, rubbing it in to the soft skin of the belly.

They lay quiet for a moment, neither of them quite knowing what to say, Doyle suspected. There seemed no etiquette that would cover such a situation - none that he'd ever heard of anyhow.

At last the still figure beside him stirred and a voice said prosaically, "If I find I am covered in cow-dung, I vow I'll kill you."

Doyle choked on a laugh, rolled on his back and let himself go in a bellow of amusement.

The man at his side propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at him, white teeth just showing in a broad grin.

"D'you always do that?" he asked curiously.

"Always do what? You started this," Doyle pointed out belligerently.

"I started..."

"Yes, you. I just went along with it."

The smile broadened. "Is that what you call it? I'd like to be there the day you decide to co-operate."

Doyle tucked his legs under him and rose in one, smooth movement, carefully holding on to his opened breeches and his dignity. As he tucked his shirt-tail in he grinned, saying, "I'm not sure you're old enough for that quite yet."

"No." Reflectively. "I'm not at all sure I'll ever be that old."

Doyle laughed, running his fingers ruefully through his tangled hair. "Just who the hell are you?"

A shrug as the loose, hessian coat was adjusted. "A gentleman of the road."

Doyle stared at him, wishing moonlight was not such a deceptive visual medium. "You were excessively anxious I should not see your face."

A shrug, another flashing smile. "I am somewhat of a shy and retiring nature, sir."

Doyle kept a straight face with extreme difficulty. "Then heaven forfend I am not present when you come out of your shell, sir."

"I will send you a personal invitation," the stranger promised, looking round for his mount.

Doyle followed his gaze. "Where are the horses?"

"Down there, by the spinney."

They set off across the grass together.

"Do you really have only three guineas on you?"

"I have only three guineas in the world," Doyle said cheerfully.

"Hummm." A small, considering grunt. "And what are your immediate plans in that case?"

"A bed at the Bear in Hungerford for the rest of the night - and tomorrow I have someone to visit."

"A friend in the neighbourhood?"

"Not precisely." Doyle paused. "Why are you so interested?"

Beneath the mask the mouth pursed into a considering grimace and then broadened into a white smile. "I thought to offer you a partnership."

"On the High Toby?" Doyle shook his head. "If I am to hang I want it to be for something more worthwhile than a purse or a pair of earrings."

"I had not considered hanging to be a necessary part of the bargain."

Doyle captured his horse, checked the tiny roll of possessions hung behind its saddle, and mounted. Looking down he said seriously, "Then you had better do so. Your profession is hardly a secure one."

The stranger mounted also, came alongside and held out a hand. "But then I do have more than three guineas to my name." Again that flashing smile as their hands made contact.

On an impulse, Doyle leant forward, capturing the mobile mouth for the last time. "I am glad we met, sir."

The kiss was returned without hesitation. "I have no regrets, either," the stranger whispered, then he was spurring his horse away up the sloping field towards the tiny village of Inkpen.

Doyle sighed. He was undoubtedly a fool for this night's work but he could not regret it, could only regret that he would never see the man again, never have the chance to know that strong, urgent body....

Shaking his head, he urged his horse up the hill.

Paying his shot next day at the Bear Inn, he made enquiries of the landlord as to the precise whereabouts of his ultimate destination.

"Yaxley Manor...out on the Andover Road that be, sir. About eight mile or thereabout, a turning off to the right just past a tumbledown hedge-tavern. Beggin' your pardon, sir, but be you a friend of Sir William's?"

Doyle shook his head. "I bear messages for him from a mutual acquaintance. Why do you ask?"

The landlord shook his head disapprovingly. "A wild young man, sir, by all accounts... and the Manor falling to ruins around him...."

Doyle's lips twisted cynically. "I had heard there was a fortune won and lost again at the gaming tables."

The landlord shook his head. "`t'ould make old Sir Henry turn in his grave if he could see what his young rapscallion of a grandson has let go to rack and ruin since he came into his `heritance. We hear such tales in these parts, all kinds of wildness...." He eyed the curly-headed young man with open curiosity, clearly hoping for some tasty morsel of gossip with which to chill his cronies' blood in the taproom later that night.

Doyle merely smiled, shaking his head. "My business is of the soberest," he said, drawing on his gloves and donning his hat before going out to the stables at the back to collect his horse.

It was a fine, late summer's day and once through the small town of Hungerford with its wide, main street, the road climbed up onto the edge of the Hampshire downs where only the twittering, persistent song of the larks above kept Doyle company and he found himself whistling with them as he rode along.

It was the first time since he'd left the army that he'd felt so cheerful. Not even the chance meeting with Major Cowley and the promise of future employment had lifted his spirits this high. He must have been missing Johnny more than he knew, in spite of the all-too-short time they had been lovers. That someone could come to mean so much to you in a few, short weeks was a revelation. He'd always been the independent sort, even as a child he'd gladly escaped the stuffy atmosphere of his uncle and aunt's house whenever he could, to run wild in the streets of Dublin - they'd both been glad to see the back of him when they purchased his commission and washed their hands of him.

Last night's brief encounter had told him a lot about himself, that his few, passion-filled nights with Johnny were not just a single experience to be put behind him and forgotten. What Johnny had seen in him and vainly tried to make him accept in himself was true, and he would not shrink from it any more. He never had been in the petticoat line, apart from the few, almost inevitable doxies that had come in his way, and now he knew why.

So busy with his thoughts was he that he almost missed the turn for Yaxley, catching sight of the tavern at the last moment when he had well-nigh passed it by.

It was midday when he hammered on the heavy, wooden door, but there seemed to be no one stirring. From the look of the place he was surprised anyone lived here at all. When Cowley had sent him on his assignment, to recruit a titled young gentleman living in a manor house, Doyle had guffawed loudly and long - only to find the old man was serious. Now he could begin to see why: there was no money here, that was abundantly clear. Maybe Cowley wasn't such a fool after all... and someone with a good family name, no matter on what dire straits he had subsequently fallen, could well be of infinite use to them.

He hammered again, impatiently, then went to try and peer through the grimed window nearest the door, but the combination of ill-lit interior and what looked like a century's accumulation of dirt, prevented any view of the house.

"Strange courtesy for a visitor to display."

A drawling, careless voice behind him brought him swinging round. He had not heard the door open at last, nor caught any sound of approaching footsteps through its massive oak, though that was hardly surprising for the legs and feet beneath that heavy, brocaded dressing-gown were bare. Surely no servant would answer the door in such unseemly garb at this hour of the day?

Incredulously, he raised his eyes still further, encountered dark-blue eyes glinting under hooded lids, black hair grown overlong and falling into curls nearly as unruly as his own, and an arrogant mouth with lips thrust outwards in aggressive mien.

Surely he knew that mouth!

Jolted by the staggering discovery he knew his jaw was dropping in uncharacteristic shock.

The mouth softened, widened, broke into a broad and mocking smile. "Well, well, well. I'd know that curly-top anywhere."

Re-gathering his poise, Doyle removed his hat politely at last, bowed to a finely-judged depth and said with deceptive meekness, "Do I have the honour of addressing Sir William Bodie?"

"Bodie," the man said curtly. "The title hardly goes with the background, don't you think?" He gestured largely, encompassing the dilapidated house, weed-covered drive and over-grown shrubbery with one, sweeping arm movement.

"My name is Doyle. I carry messages from a mutual friend, Major George Cowley."

"The Cow?" Bodie laughed. "Is the old devil still alive? I thought he had been killed at Cuidad Rodrigo - but there, the devil looks after his own, they say. Take your horse round that way, sir. You'll find a stable to put him in. I'll let you in the back way." He gave a comprehensive look of disgust around him. "`tis fully as elegant as the front hall you will find, if you are finicky about such matters."

Doyle's lip twitched in involuntary response to the disparaging note as he led his horse round the side of the house, ducking under the low-hanging branches that obscured the drive.

Get this man as a partner, Cowley had said. I want the two of you to work together.

Being a natural loner, Doyle had objected, long and angrily, but Cowley had been adamant. Work with Sir William Bodie or I want none of you, he'd said in effect. Come back with him and I'll pay you, `til then you can starve for all I care.

Well - if he came back with Bodie it wouldn't only be for the Cow's sake, but for his own as well. Suddenly, the idea of a partner was looking most decidedly attractive.

Finding an open door after having tended his horse, he entered the house...and he did not intend to leave it again alone!

-- THE END --

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