Chapter One

The crunch of tires on gravel pulled Jason from the letter he was reading. A glance out the window confirmed that Kale’s maroon and beige Killian S Model had turned off the road and was speeding up the long, tree-lined drive. The convertible, one of the newest cars on the market, was capable of a stunning seventy kilometers an hour. The thrill on Kale’s face as he topped out with the top down made the car well worth the price. Jason folded up the letter and shoved it into his desk drawer. Its troubling contents could wait until later.

Jason hurried downstairs. Kale had been at the art gallery all day, and Jason’s skin crawled with the need to see him. Jason could have accompanied Kale into Calea, but he liked to encourage Kale’s independence, even if Jason would have preferred to spend the rest of time by his side. Jason wasn’t needed at the gallery, so he’d left Kale to it.

“Jason, I’m home.” Kale’s voice boomed through their modest house.

Jason hopped down from the third stair to the floor and ran into Kale’s strong arms. “Welcome back, love.”

Kale chuckled. “I was gone for what, seven hours? No need to get this excited.”

“I can’t help it. I missed you.”

“Aww. Isn’t that sweet? I missed you too. You could have come along, you know.”

“Yes, but this is your opening. I didn’t want to be in the way. You want to go for a walk and tell me about it?”

Kale’s smile lit up his face, and Jason marveled at how much lighter he looked. He’d retained the glow of freedom ever since the day they’d crossed the border into Naiara two years ago, making Kale a free man. He still bore the scars of slavery on his body and mind, but there was now a luminous quality to him. From his sandy hair to his pale green eyes to his honey-toned skin, there was an undeniable glow about him.

“Sure.” Kale tossed his satchel onto the hall table and reached for Jason’s hand in a familiar gesture. Their affection had become more relaxed and habitual, without the need to hide or temper their feelings. Naiara had freed more than just Kale’s body.

The sun heated Jason’s skin, and he unfastened his cufflinks to roll up his sleeves. He wished he had thought to remove his vest. Even at home, Jason dressed more formally than Kale, who preferred a tunic-style shirt like the one he presently wore and simple cotton or wool trousers.

They meandered through the gardens along the cobblestone path Kale had laid with his own hands. The light fragrance of the dozen or so variety of flowers that Kale had planted sweetened the air. The summer sun was still high in the sky despite the evening hour. Birds twittered to each other in the grove of trees past the gardens. It was their own little slice of paradise outside the old city walls. The eight acres was more than enough for the vegetable garden Kale tended, the flowers, an orange grove, and a pond that straddled the back of their property line.

Jason steered them over to some shrubs. “I groomed these bushes earlier today. I hope I didn’t ruin anything. There were some stray stems.” With all the work Kale was doing for his art show, he didn’t get to spend as much time in the garden as Jason knew he would have liked. Jason tried to help out when he could in the yard, but it was Kale’s domain.

Kale knelt and inspected the bushes in question. “You did great.” He stood and pulled Jason in for a quick kiss. “Thanks for taking care of them for me. This show has taken more of my time than I realized it would.” Kale took Jason’s hand, and they continued their stroll.

“It’s my pleasure. I like to feel useful.”

“Yeah, because earning all the money to keep us in our current lifestyle isn’t useful at all.”

“You know what I mean.” The truth was that nobody would have guessed Jason was a steel magnate from the way they lived. The one real external indicator of Jason’s wealth, besides their car, was their complete use of the new electrical appliances, even in the kitchen. Outside of the city, it had been impossible to find a house completely wired with electricity, so Jason had simply paid for the lines to be extended to their dream home. And by dream home, he meant their small, two-story cottage with pale yellow siding and dark red shutters. “Is everything ready for tomorrow?”

“Everything except for me. Josie had to shoo me out of the gallery. Every picture has been framed and hung perfectly. She and Carmichael really know their stuff. Do you know they redo the lighting for every show to make sure each piece is perfectly accentuated?”

“It doesn’t surprise me, especially from a gallery of their caliber.”

“I mean, I knew they did that for big artists who come in, but I didn’t expect they’d do it for me.”

Jason squeezed Kale’s hand. In the year and a half since they’d moved to their new home, Kale had become a renowned artist. He even earned enough off his art and commissions to cover their living expenses. The art studio on the second floor of their house overlooked the back garden and was well used, though Kale still preferred to draw outside when the weather permitted. “I don’t know when you’re going to realize that you are a big artist. How many people do you think ever make a living from their art? Tomorrow’s opening is a big deal for Carmichael’s. They’re going to make a lot of money on your show.”

“I hope so. I’d hate to think they’re wasting all their efforts. They’re only doing it because we’re friends with Josie.”

“And as I recall, we’re friends with Josie because she was so enamored with your drawing of that homeless woman she saw you working on in the park. I had to keep my hands all over you for her to finally get the message that only your art was available.”

Kale chuckled. Jason had always loved the sound and look of Kale laughing, the way his eyes crinkled at the edges, forming lines that crisscrossed those still etched in his skin from the years he’d spent laying rail in the sun. “Well, you know if you ever got really worried, you could steal me back across the border to Arine, make me your slave again.”

The joke hung uncomfortably in the air. While Jason was happy Kale could make light of his past in Arine, he still hated that those thoughts were in Kale’s mind.

“Hey.” Kale stopped and turned Jason toward him. “I’m only joking. I love you, Jason. I know I don’t say it enough, but my gods, there’s no one else I’d rather spend my life with.” Kale’s lips descended, brushing lightly against Jason’s. He pushed further, his tongue delving into Jason’s mouth. When Kale retreated, the bitter taste of coffee lingered.

“Hmm. Did you stop by Beans and Books on the way home?”

“I picked up a new novel. We were running out of reading material. I also ran into Lisa. She’s a ball of nerves about the lecture day after tomorrow. Trumbly Hall is the biggest venue she’s ever spoken in.”

“She has no need to worry. She’s an excellent public speaker. I swear, if any change for the better comes to Naiara, it’s going to be with her leading the charge.”

“I told her we’d attend.”

“Good. What’s her subject matter to be?”

“The lack of a strong social net for the poor.”

“Not women’s rights?”

“No. She’s going to argue that women’s rights make little difference when so many women are trapped by poverty.”

“Clever. It should be interesting.” They had reached the end of the stone path near a stack of boards. Kale had plans to build a gazebo as soon as he wasn’t needed in the city so much. This art show was the first time Kale had been exclusively showcased, and he was putting as much time as he could into ensuring it was a success for the gallery owners.

“Neissa’s probably here already. We should head in so we’re not late for dinner. It also wouldn’t hurt to get some weeding in before the sun sets.”

“Don’t worry about it. I weeded the vegetable patch after you left this morning. I’m sure there’s plenty left for you to do, but it will wait until later. You don’t need to be famous artist, horticulture expert, and lover extraordinaire all at once. It makes us mere mortals feel inadequate.” Jason wrapped his arm around Kale’s waist and squeezed him close, smiling as he kissed Kale’s neck.

“I know. I’ve been slacking. Why do you think I’ve let you top every time for the last few weeks?”

Jason felt heat rise in his cheeks. After all this time, he should be used to Kale’s teasing. Kale lifted Jason’s hand that wasn’t around his waist to his smiling lips and kissed it before holding it to his heart. He still wasn’t one for flowery words, but he had become much less inhibited in his physical affection.

“I appreciate all your help, Jason. I know you have your own work to do with the business. Your support means a lot to me.”

“You’re welcome. You know you’re worth it. Besides, Martin has the business running so smoothly, I’m hardly needed anymore.”

“Don’t be so modest. I know you could have been busy with more than a dozen charities these last few weeks, but you decided to take care of things here so I wouldn’t have to.”

“Then you should thank Neissa as well. She’s been a great help.”

“I intend to. I know how lucky I am.”

Neissa was the lady they’d hired to cook dinners for them, since neither Jason nor Kale could cook more than the basics. They managed breakfast on their own, and Neissa usually had leftovers or something light arranged for lunch. Once a week, she spent a day cleaning. Other than that, Jason and Kale took care of the house themselves. Living simply let them focus on the important things in life: each other, friends, and causes that were close to their hearts.

While Kale freshened up for dinner, Jason went back to his office to go over Martin’s letter again. The actual message from Martin was quite short, just a small paragraph stating that he had received the accompanying letter from Mr. Smithson, Jason’s attorney in Perdana. Rumors had reached him of Robert Wadsworth’s declining health. Jason didn’t know what to make of it. A part of him knew he should care about his father’s condition, but he couldn’t muster the will. Down the hall, the bedroom door closed, and Jason hid the letter away before joining Kale in the dining room.

Throughout dinner, Jason couldn’t keep his mind from wandering up to the letter in his desk. He didn’t want it to affect him.

“Jason? Jason? Did you even hear what I asked?” Kale stared at him, brows creased with worry.

“Sorry, what was that?” Jason picked up a roll to try to hide his distraction.

“Nothing important. What’s on your mind?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t, Jason. Is something going on that I should know about? You don’t need to shoulder everything yourself just because of this show. Tell me.” Kale reached over and placed his hand on Jason’s arm.

“I’m just thinking about some correspondence from Martin, wondering how I’m going to reply. There’s nothing wrong.” It was true enough, and there was no reason to burden Kale.

“All right. But if you need help with anything, or just to talk something through, let me know.”

“Of course.” The rest of the meal passed in the comfortable silence of two people perfectly at home with each other.

When they were done, they went up to the bedroom. Once they were both undressed, Kale retrieved the new book from his satchel and began to read The Grisly Tale of Hunter Humphreys. It was their nightly ritual. Jason would curl up against Kale’s firm body, and Kale would read, his voice rich, strong, and warm. Jason felt relieved that they had a new book to hold Kale’s attention until he was too tired to keep reading. Jason didn’t think he’d be able to be physical tonight, not when his thoughts kept wandering back to that letter.