I unbuttoned as quickly as I could, my fingers fumbling a bit with fatigue. Mycroft's carriage had dropped me off several streets away from the safe house where Mrs. McGill lived. There actually was a charwoman of the same name, a widow with one son in prison and another who'd become one of my Irregulars. When I needed to become her, she stayed inside with her sewing while her son James kept watch. But for now, I was in James' bedroom assuming my own persona.
For the neighbors' benefit, I was a down on my luck tutor who gave the young lad lessons in exchange for her mending and sewing. A bit complicated but it had worked for the last few years, I wondered if I'd have to give her persona up, now that so many others knew of her. Cold cream took care of the makeup needed to turn me into a 52 year old woman who'd seen hard times and the lukewarm water in the basin took care of the sweat and dust from all the heavy lifting I'd been doing.
I left the clothes draped over the chair. Mrs. McGill would clean, mend and press them for me. I stopped and took a deep breath for the first time in hours. The corset had left bruises on my ribs and I wondered what John would say about them. Smiling, I finished buttoning my shirt and tucking it in before I shrugged on my jacket. In less than an hour I would be home.
Home. A word I'd never understood until John came into my life and created one for me. Oh, the house might belong to Mrs. Hudson but the rooms, and more importantly the feelings that filled them had been put there by John. I had until I reached 221B Baker Street to go over this case. Once I reached there, I planned to forget everything but my lover and the fact that we were both alive and safe.
I stopped briefly and left some money with James for his mother before leaving quietly out the back. Walking briskly, I luxuriated in the freedom of striding without the hampering skirts and the too tight shoes. Bringing my pipe out of my pocket, I paused for a moment under a street lamp to get it properly lit. A policeman on his beat watched carefully before recognizing me and we exchanged nods before he continued on his way and I resumed my journey.
There were a few loose ends to this little drama but most of them were in Mycroft's capable hands. However, the small fry from the Baron's espionage tangle were criminals from the Limehouse vicinity and it would be up to me to see to taking care of them. Some of the servants on holiday were blameless and I wondered if the German government would immediately send over a replacement who would consider keeping them on.
Smoke wreathed around my head in the chill early morning air. A clock in a nearby tower struck four and when I passed a pair of men on their way to work, I thought once again of what made our country great. Was it the pride in our workmanship? Love of Queen and country? Our belief in our natural superiority? Or was it simply the inability to bow down before another, be he lord or commoner?
Chuckling to myself, I decided I would ask John what he thought. I enjoyed watching that little wrinkle appear between his eyes and the faraway look in them while he pondered some conundrum I'd advanced. He brought balance to my thinking and even more than that, he brought such joy into my life that sometimes I could hardly bear to let him out of my sight.
My steps quickened yet again while I thought about the delights awaiting me at home. Warmth. Comfort. Love. All the things I had eschewed from my life so I could become a thinking-machine, devoid of emotion. But he had rescued me when I didn't even know I needed rescuing. Brought me into his heart and warmed all the cold corners of my soul. Had my reasoning faltered? My deductions withered?
No, I thought not. The toll that the emotions of this case had wrought was simply the price of loving John and by extension, our friends. How quickly the Harbottles had gone from acquaintances to friends. Young David's courage under extremely stressful conditions had shown me the true temper of the man. Josiah's fortitude and rock solid belief in Watson and me was humbling.
Wenton's daring and passionate protection of my brother had been yet another surprise. And Mycroft's pursuit of justice all the way up the ladder of command to Her Majesty showed me just how much he cared for the people of England, starting with his younger brother. Had there been something different about him tonight? Something said or done that would cast a bright light on a seeming difference?
I mused on the scenes as I replayed them in my mind. Had I been focusing on John to the detriment of my duty? Smiling around my pipe stem, I answered a soft yes to my own question. Looking up with relief at the windows of our sitting room, I spied the dim glow of a dying fire. Putting the key in the lock, I quietly let myself in and relocked the door. Shedding my coat, scarf and hat, I watched them drip on the marble tiles of the ornate coat rack in the front hall.
Slowly, I made my way up the steps to our rooms, feeling every one of my years. I was getting too old to be out at all hours of the day and night. Perhaps I needed to start training a few of the Irregulars to start taking over some of the duties of detection. Thus it was that I was smiling when I opened the door to our sitting room and found my dearest friend asleep on the settee before the fire.
Kneeling beside him, I watched him sleep. All the alarms of the last 24 hours had left him with lines of care creasing his eyes and cheek. He was paler than usual and a frown still wrinkled his brow. I smoothed it out gently with one finger then softly touched the graying hair at his brow. I was responsible for so much of the worry and stress that plagued him.
"Holmes." He sighed my name and opened sleepy blue eyes still clouded with the remnants of the drug he'd ingested. "Are you all right?"
His concern was always for me and I felt an uncommon sting, which I had to rapidly blink away. "I am fine, John. You are the one who was drugged. How are you?"
"The stimulant I injected Josiah and myself with has worn off and I will probably need to sleep a good eight hours to recover fully." His eyes were at half-mast and I smiled at his attempt to stay awake.
"Then I shall put you to bed and join you for a few hours sleep. For some reason, I'm feeling rather fatigued myself." I pulled him up, enjoying his chortles at my under stated comment. With one arm around his waist to steady him, we made it up the stairs and into his room.
I sat him on his bed and hastened to light the lamp on his bedside table. When I turned back, he was fumbling at his buttons with unaccustomed clumsiness. "Here now, John. That's my job. You well know how much I enjoy undressing you."
Yawning, he gave in and let me speedily disrobe him. He shivered at the touch of the cold sheets yet by the time I joined him beneath the blankets, he'd already heated them for me. Turning into my embrace, he sighed and pressed close to me. "Love you, Sherlock."
"As I do you, John. You were very resourceful during this whole imbroglio. And I am so glad you are safe."
"Always safe with you, love." His sleepy voice died away almost before he finished the endearment but I heard it plainly.
Pressing a kiss to the crown of his head, I set my internal clock for three hours and followed him into sleep.
I heard David's voice first then Mrs. Green's answering and the memories of recent events flooded my mind. My eyes tried to pop open but it felt as if they'd been glued shut during the night. I ached all over from my neck down to my toes and I heartily wished the brass band playing in my head would go away. But even those pains were as nothing when I remembered what we had fought during the last 24 hours. My irrational fear that David was in trouble brought me upright in our bed with a moan. I had to see him to be sure he was all right.
"Josiah, lie back down right now." His voice came hoarsely from the door and I pried my eyes open to see him cross the room with Mrs. Green right behind him with a loaded tea tray.
"Are you all right, David?" I hardly recognized my own voice. We both sounded as if frogs had taken up residence in our throats.
"Bruised only, Josiah." He stuffed pillows behind my back and the touch of his hands was all I needed to quell the debilitating fear. Curling up beside me, he fussed a bit over the blankets and made sure no breath of cool air would find me.
"Those drivers are all a bunch of fool 'ardy chaps." Mrs. Green plunked the tea tray down on the bedside table and removed the tea cozy from the teapot in one smooth motion. "Lucky you both are that it wasn't worse than a good shaking up. Although it probably didn't do your poor shoulder no good, Master Josiah."
I took the proffered cup of tea, brewed just the way I liked it. "I'm afraid you're right, Mrs. Green. I believe I'll simply stay in bed the rest of the day."
"Not much of the day left." She twinkled back at me while straightening the bedclothes around us. "Tis a fact that you've slept the whole blessed day away and probably the best thing for you. I'm making stew for your supper. T'will strengthen you right up."
"Even if Josiah isn't hungry, Mrs. Green, I could eat a horse." David grinned at our housekeeper.
"You're still that growing boy, Master David, no matter how many years you've got. I'm going to go check on me bread and give the potatoes a stir. You just finish that tea and I'll be back in a bit to bring your meal." She poured us both another cup before leaving us for the kitchen.
David leaned over as soon as the door shut behind her, kissing me tenderly but quite thoroughly. He'd been up for some time if his shaved cheeks were any indication. I was content to allow him control of the kiss only murmuring a little when he finally pulled away. His eyes were clear and I could see that he'd come to terms with our adventures.
"I love you, Josiah. Mr. Holmes sent a note around earlier that said Uncle John was sleeping off the drug and you should too." He stopped and took a sip of the steaming tea. "It's almost four in the afternoon."
"And how do you feel about what happened?" I almost held my breath while I waited for his reply.
Those clear blue eyes had a far away look to them. "I'm stronger than I thought. I was so afraid of the Baron that I thought I'd be paralyzed if I ever fell into his hands. And it was distasteful in the extreme when he touched me. But . . ."
I waited with baited breath while he tried to find the right words to explain his feelings. His grin, when it came, was rueful and he shook his head before meeting my worried gaze. "I'm afraid I rather enjoyed pitting my wits against his. Play-acting while Holmes sought for the map. I was so worried about you that there was little fear left for myself. He made me angry and that gave me courage."
Relaxing back against the pillows behind me, I brought his free hand up to my lips. "My brave imp, you are only now seeing the strength that you've always possessed. I've watched you grow into a splendid man from such a brave child. I'm so proud of you."
He blushed, his eyes tear-bright. "I couldn't have done it without you, Josiah. It is your love and faith in me that made me keep trying to be the kind of man you could admire."
"More than admire, David. I love you more than anyone in the world." I rubbed my stubbled cheek against his smooth palm and watched him wriggle at the teasing touch. "After dinner, I think a bath is in order. I can still feel the grime of that dreadful warehouse. And the hot water will wash away what remains of this adventure."
His smile lit the room and he leaned over to kiss me before slipping from the bed and out to the bathroom to light the gas on the water boiler. I mused on what he'd said. We've never been able to lie to each other, which always made Christmas an exercise in futility. He truly had come to terms with his strength of will. I had obviously not done as good a job as I'd wanted in respect to telling him of his many attributes.
He was a brilliant, determined and courageous young man. If he could only see what I saw every time I looked at him, I thought. Then I remembered the look in his eyes when he was telling me of his ordeal and I relaxed a bit. Perhaps words weren't what I needed when actions could speak for me. A vacation by the sea would give us the time and space to come to terms with all the emotions this ordeal had stirred up.
I drank my tea and thought about the possibilities of travel. It was still winter but some of the southern shires had protected coastlines where we could walk in the bracing sea air and recover our balance. John had come back positively glowing from their sojourn in Cornwall. A sudden notion halted the cup in my hand in mid air. Could that have been when they acknowledged their love for each other?
No doubt the smile on my face resembled one of our cats eyeing the remains of a fish dinner. Coming back into the bedroom, David caught the tail end of my grin and began to laugh. "Oh, Josiah, if you could only see your face. You're plotting something, I can tell."
I finished my tea. "Yes, I am, love. I'll tell you all about it while we're bathing."
"Mrs. Green said dinner is almost ready. Do you want to eat in here or shall I get your robe so we can eat at table?" He cocked his head and left the decision up to me.
Suddenly, the bed felt lumpy and all my muscles needed to stretch. He read my face perfectly and grabbed my robe from the foot of the bed, coming around to my side, removing the tea tray to the side table and pushing away the covers. Using my good arm to push myself off the mattress, I slid into his arms and let him steady me while the room did a little dance around my spinning head.
"I've got you, Josiah." He murmured softly and I sighed happily at the wonderful thought.
"Yes, you do, my imp." I kissed the silky hair at his temple and felt him press against me, his hands holding me tight.
"Always." He pulled back just enough to look up at me. "When I'm with you, I'm stronger then when I'm alone."
I let him carefully dress me in the heavy robe and waited until he was tying my sash before I tilted his head up so I could see his eyes. "It is the same for me, David. When we are together, I am a veritable lion of courage. You are the other half of my soul and I am incomplete unless you are with me."
He reached up and brushed his thumb across my lips. "My brave lion. Perhaps, you'll roar for me after our bath."
I burst out laughing at the teasing look in his eyes. He grinned triumphantly and led me into the outer rooms for dinner. My appetite had returned with a vengeance so even the awkward inability to butter my own bread didn't stop me from finishing a large bowl of Mrs. Green's savory stew. David ate steadily too even though Mrs. Green had fed him once already at noon.
The delicious meal left me feeling rather sleepy but also in need of the bathroom. Our charlady sent us off with an admonishment to David not to let me drown. She rather disapproved of the constant bathing we did in the winter. Shaking her head over our risking of pneumonia because of excessive immersion in water, she began clearing the table while David led me to our bath.
Pulling the curtain around me, I relieved myself with a sigh of relief while listening to my lover prepare the tub. Thinking wistfully of our last bath, I restrained my libido and finished voiding my body of waste. Thank goodness for modern plumbing. I could still remember my youth and the chamber pots tucked discretely within the bedroom cupboard. This was much better and more sanitary to boot.
When I stepped from behind the curtain, a naked lover bent enticingly over the side of the tub greeted me. Sighing, I struggled to pull my nightshirt over my head only to have him laughingly spring to help me. My shoulder ached but the dull throbbing was bearable as he pulled me to the sink and the shaving equipment. I watched him with loving eyes while he shaved me clean of the heavy whiskers.
I felt much more civilized after the shave and he helped me carefully over the side of the tub and into the steaming water. Stretching out into the faintly green water, I inhaled deeply. David had sprinkled in the winter green bath salts with a heavy hand and my slightly stuffy nose cleared completely in the medicinal vapors. The only thing better would be my partner and I opened my eyes to find him watching me with a faint look of worry on his expressive face.
"Come and join me, beloved. I don't think I can reach my toes and they feel rather neglected." I put a sorrowful look on my face that he saw right through.
"I don't want to jar you, Josiah." He hesitantly climbed in and knelt between my splayed legs, facing me. He reached for the soap and began to rub it into a frothy lather.
"I promise to tell you if there's pain, David but at the moment there really is none. Just an ache that even now the warmth is easing." I shifted a little, resting against the sloping back of the white enameled tub.
"Good. Now just relax and let me take care of you." He smiled and ran his hands over my chest, soaping the black curls into a bubbled confection. Everywhere he touched, I felt warmth blossom. He has magic hands that can either calm or excite me into complete bliss.
He cleansed me from head to toe with a special foot massage that had me purring in contentment. Laughing, he kissed me awake from my floating trance. "I shall ask you to purr for me again, very soon, Josiah. Now, I need you to let me help you out of the tub so we can get dry."
I was feeling rather limp and I watched David dry himself with deft touches while the water ran out of the tub. The slide of white cotton over his skin was mesmerizing and I felt my breath grow shallow when he bent to dry his long legs. Suddenly, I felt my groin grow interested in the proceedings and I sat up hastily. He smiled at my movement and let the towel fall to the tiled floor, leaving me to worship him like a connoisseur of living breathing art.
I wondered if Michelangelo had had such a beautiful young man to inspire him while he carved his marble David. I was content to let him dry me off while I gently touched all the places on his glowing body that reminded me of just how lucky I was. His broad shoulders, the pert nipples that hardened at my touch, the flat stomach that rippled beneath my fingers and the beautiful cock that lifted to my hand like a bird into his nest.
He shuddered imperceptibly and paused in his drying of my back to lean his forehead against my good shoulder. "Please, Josiah, do not hasten me into a quick release. I feel as if a sudden touch would trigger me too quickly and I would like to take my time tonight."
"I am in your hands, love. What ever you want, however you want it." I gave him a last soft caress and then moved my hand to his hip out of danger's way.
He hugged me close and whispered in my ear. "It shall be wondrous, beloved. I promise you that."
Now it was my turn to shiver and I nodded while he finished drying me off. Once he'd belted my robe around me, I watched while he swathed his body in his own robe. It took me a moment to remember that we were not alone and it was only late afternoon. Mrs. Green was quite forgiving of our relationship but we tried not to flaunt it before her or subject her to any action that might strain her good will.
We left the steamy bathroom and passed through the outer room, which had been cleaned and tidied of our meal. Mrs. Green had just finished remaking our bed and she eyed us a bit disapprovingly but with a twinkle. "It's about time you finished weakening yourselves like that. What ever that nice doctor would say about such goings on, I can't imagine. I know you've slept the day away, Master Josiah but I expect you'll be glad to take another nap."
I nodded and felt the truth of her words. "It doesn't seem possible but I think you're right, Mrs. Green. I'm feeling quite ready for sleep."
"After a massage, Josiah." David removed the pillows at the head of the bed and stacked them on the nearby chair.
"Good idea, Master David. Is there anything else you need tonight?" She eyed us from the doorway and smiled at our fervent no. "Then I'll be off. Oh, a message came while you were bathing. It's on the 'all table."
"Thanks, Mrs. Green. We'll see you in the morning." David followed her out while I disrobed and slid between the cool sheets. A moment later and my lover was coming back in with a sheet of parchment in his hand. Closing and locking the door behind him, he shrugged off his robe and sauntered across the room while reading the note.
"From Holmes?" I asked while my eyes feasted on his glowing flesh.
He laughed out loud. "Yes, indeed. It says that he's making Uncle John stay in bed to recover fully from our adventure. He invites us to dinner tomorrow so we can speak without having to worry about who's listening. And he asks if we've read the afternoon paper?" He laid the note aside and crawled in beside me, pushing the covers to the foot of the bed. "We'll have to do that tomorrow. Right now, the only thing I want to read is your body. I think I'll pretend I'm blind so I'll have to use my fingers to map your skin as if it were braille."
I relaxed and let him have his way. The massage oil that he smoothed over my skin smelled faintly of the same wintergreen he'd put in our bath. I tingled everywhere he touched. He kneaded my legs into limp noodles before lightening his caress into a sensual skimming that made me move restlessly in the still air. Then I felt it. A finger sliding up my cock to gently rub just under the flaring head. Shivering, I opened my eyes and watched him watching me.
"You promised to take me, David. Back before the insanity started. I think it's time you show me how much you love me." I whispered into the silence.
He smiled gently and slid his fingers down to prepare his way. I felt him breach the muscle and soothe the oil deep inside of me, while I raised my hips to encourage him. He kissed the tip of my hardening cock while he scissored his fingers within me. I was panting by the time he slid inside, completing the connection we often felt between us. I touched his face softly and those beautiful blue eyes opened for me, giving me such a look of love that I felt it like a caress.
Then he was moving within me, slowly gathering speed and hitting my gland with an unerring precision that shivered me into helpless climax long before I was ready. He managed three more thrusts before releasing into my depths and settling onto my chest and into my leaden arms. Harsh breathing was all I could hear and the precious weight of my lover all I could feel.
"I love you, Josiah. Let's concentrate on the book business for a while, all right?"
I feathered a kiss to the sweat dampened hair beneath my chin. "I love you too, David. I promise we'll take a long vacation after we take care of selling off enough books so we can go someplace warm."
He raised his head and smiled down at me. "I'll take that promise, love. Now, let me clean us up so you can sleep more comfortably. Tomorrow, we'll see what orders have come in."
He slipped from my body, kissing me in apology then leaving our bed to go in search of a wet cloth and towel. I clenched my inner muscles to keep from leaking onto our clean sheets and thought about what we would need to do to keep our book store going while we healed from this dramatic adventure. David returned and cleaned me up before crawling into bed and pulling up the covers.
"Sleep, love. Leave the planning for tomorrow. We're safe now. Go to sleep and dream of us on a sandy beach with sunlight all around us while the waves wash onto shore."
I cradled him in my arms and let his soothing voice lull me to sleep. Sweet dreams indeed.
End chapter thirteen