For his first command, John Cavendish is given the elderly bomb vessel HMS Meteor, and a crew as ugly as the ship. He's determined to make a success of their first mission, and hopes the well-liked lieutenant Alfie Donwell can pull the crew together before he has to lead them into battle: stopping the slave trade off the coast of Algiers.***
Alfie knows that with a single ship, however well manned, their mission is futile, and their superiors back in England are hoping to use their demise as an excuse 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, Alfie is torn between the security of his past and the uncertain promise of a future with the straight-laced John.
On the cluttered front of an empty warehouse, its great doors gaping wide, white flashes of lightning lighting up dangling chains, the last group of men parted before them and ran. They stood shoulder to shoulder in the rain, suddenly alone.
John turned, saw Alfie watching him; pale hair eerie in the night, wide eyes gold. Rain trickled down Alfie's face, streaking through the blood and dirt. He licked his lips, panting, his mouth open slightly, gleaming with water. "John, I...."
The look of shock, vulnerability, was just the same as he had worn that day John walked in on him when he was playing the flute. Off balance, taken unawares, and he was so…oh so beautiful. Why not? After all, why the hell shouldn't I?
Seizing Alfie by the wrist, John hauled him into the warehouse's private darkness, shoved him up against the wall and kissed him--desperate, demanding, furious. The storm crested and broke in him as he forced his way into Alfie's mouth. Warmth, and rain trickling off their hair onto his lips, and Alfie's solid body trembling against him, and for a lightning flash he had no thought at all; abandoned to sensation like an animal. Only slowly did he recognize the shaking of Alfie's pinned arms, the shudder of his chest, and the low, irregular gasp of his breath for what it was. Head back against the wall, eyes closed, he was sobbing very quietly, stripped of his authority and broken at John's touch.
The spirit stove in John's rooms sighed and guttered, damnably slow. All the time it struggled to heat the water Alfie sat at the table with his head in his hands, rain, blood, and mud dripping off him onto the clean floor. He took the teacup with numb fingers and did not drink, instead cradling it, bent over the steam.
There was so much John wanted to say. Principally "I've been an ass. I'm so sorry. I don't dare ask for your forgiveness but tell me what I can do now, to mend you. Please. Please don't carry on like this. I can't bear it." But he couldn't force it out. "You'll catch your death," he said instead. "Come, let me lend you some dry clothes."
Alfie looked up, his gaze as bleak and bedraggled as his clothing. He made to speak, but as he did so, there came a sudden, shocking hammering noise. They both flinched. Then John put down the linen towel he had been using to dry his hair and opened the door. Light shone out across a self-important, down at heel, middle-class man and the two bruisers with cudgels who lurked behind him.
"Certain accusations have been made concerning the late Captain Lord Lisburn," the man said, unconsciously patting his own belly. Indeed, he looked almost pregnant with satisfaction.
"What is that to me?" said John coldly, trying inconspicuously to stand in the man's line of sight. It did no good, he merely stepped to one side and looked past John, straight at Alfie.
"Some very serious matters have come to light about the captain's...ahem...relations with one Lieutenant Alfstan Donwell. I have been directed to take the gentleman in, for questioning. Enquiries about the harbor indicated he was last seen with you. So I came here. I presume this is him?"
John froze. So it had come to this after all; the death they had both been courting had found them here in his own rooms. He considered lying, considered drawing his sword and taking all three men down, hiding them somewhere. But as his soul revolted at the thought, Alfie slowly dragged himself to his feet. "Yes. Lieutenant Donwell at your service. What can I do for you?"
"Hand your sword to me and come with us."
"Alfie," John whispered, aghast. Alfie reached out and squeezed his wrist--he thought reassuringly, though it was hard to tell through the explosion of pain. His thin, new skin parted beneath the touch.
Alfie frowned at the blood on his fingertips as if he couldn't work out what it was. "Goodbye then, John. Pray for me."