Nikola Jovanović paced the outer balcony of his room, his cloak flapping in the chilled wind that smelled of rain. Below, his servants worked to prepare a meal he would not eat, clean a manor he rarely explored, and welcome guests he would rather not have in his home. He leaned against the railing and looked out over the city, glowering as the wind whipped his hair about his face. The only reason he had allowed the gathering was in order to be closer to one man.
One man that had become his obsession – a foreigner with eyes like oak-kissed amber and hair the color of molasses.
He'd been petitioned by the young man's father to school him in ancient histories and music. A young man he'd been watching for years now, though neither the parents or the child knew of that interest. He had spent the last three years arranging this particular event, and he was not going to waste a single moment of the year he had carefully arranged for.
It was for that young man that he now opened his doors, welcomed into his private sanctuary those whose blood made his mouth water and his heart pound. One gathering, he kept telling himself, to meet the head of the village, the young man and his parents, and a handful of other socially elevated men and women. And then...
Then, he would be alone with the hazel-eyed man whose name rolled off his tongue like fire.
"Aric." Nikola's scowl lightened as thunder ripped the peace of the night. He heard the sound of car doors, of hushed voices, and he turned from the balcony just as the sky fell. "Welcome, Aric."
It was a laborious challenge for Aric to keep his breathing even and calm instead of heaving a dramatic sigh of annoyance. When his father had proposed he study abroad instead of remaining in England, he had thought of Amsterdam, Barcelona, or Florence. Even St. Tropez would have been acceptable; it wasn't like his family couldn't have afforded to send him there. In those cities, he would have at least had something to look forward to when all eyes weren't turned to him, expecting him to remain within the lines of fundamental religious decency.
But no. In place of the bright lights, pounding basslines, and mind-numbing vice, he was in some obscure corner of Fuckoffistan with his father breathing down his neck as they took in the antique trappings of a would-be tutor. His father couldn't possibly be serious about this place, with its carpeted staircases and wall sconces that dripped with candle wax. With a sweeping glance of the room, he had to fight to stifle the groan that bloomed in his throat and ended up making a show out of a fit of coughing.
There was no visible electricity.
He was in hell. Without any extra batteries.
The only redeeming feature of this monstrosity of a manor was the beautiful, grand piano he had glimpsed in one of the parlors. Other than that, it looked like a drab environment, and he couldn't imagine spending more than a single evening in such a place. Perhaps there would be a way to make his father reconsider. His father always touted that he was a reasonable man, and with his upbringing, he was surely going to conclude that electricity was a necessity that could not be overlooked, no matter how much expertise the lord of the castle had.
Aric finally lifted his eyes to his father and instantly despaired in the ecstatic expression on the man's face. He was relieved when a servant passed by and no one stopped him from accepting a glass of wine when it was offered to him. His mother's disapproving glare did nothing to dampen his sudden urge to drink until the damned candlelight made swirling patterns across his vision, and he hid his face behind the fine crystal as he drank deeply, barely appreciating the excellent quality of the crimson beverage.
Amid the bustle of the small assembly, he was suddenly drawn to the staircase. The energy of the room seemed to change, and the silent figure that descended the lushly carpeted steps caused him to pause in the middle of a swallow, leading to a small fit of coughing that required no acting this time. Righting himself, he ignored his mother's fussing in favor of staring at the regal blond, who moved with otherworldly confidence and grace.
It was the man's clothing that made the corners of his mouth twitch with a mixture of amusement and disbelief. Anachronistic was the only word he could think of to describe the atrocious garb, which hearkened back to the seventeenth century or some equally heinous period in human history. There was no mistaking that this was the Lord Nikola his father had mentioned, but why on earth would he wear an embroidered cape in his own household?
Was he cold?
Did he have some sort of skin disease that he didn't dare show in public for fear of scaring off those who would otherwise respect him?
Fuck. He was curious, and curiosity always led to disaster where he was concerned. He took another drink, unable to tear his gaze away from the caped lord when crystal-clear eyes locked onto his. They were piercing, vibrant, and he had difficulty swallowing as the tall, broad figure slowly approached, stopping short of him without so much as blinking.
There was a long pause as they simply stared at one another. He had expected the lord to extend some sort of greeting to him, but he realized a bit late that the expression in those blue eyes was expectant and gauging. He was being judged for a first impression. He should have had some respect for the one who accepted his family into such an opulent home, should have been polite and quiet.
"Shall I kiss the ring upon your hand, o caped crusader?" So much for 'should have'. He also should have refrained from making the overly-dramatic bow that he did when he spoke. Then again, he didn't really want to stay here anyway, did he?
Nikola's face remained impassive as he stared at the impudent young man, and then slowly turned his gaze to Aric's father, who sputtered a hasty apology. "I do not tolerate such behavior, Jonathan. It will be trained out of him while he is my pupil."
"What do you mean 'while I'm his pupil'? You said it was still under negotiation!" Aric seethed at his father, his hazel eyes hot with resentment. Anger eclipsed the fear that crept up on him.
"He hasn't accepted you as a pupil yet," Jonathan hissed at Aric, clearly trying to retain his decorum in front of the lord of the manor. Turning back to the impressive figure, he clasped his hands to keep them from trembling. "I am sure Aric would be glad of any refinement you can endow him with, Lord Nikola. Should you take him as a student, he may begin his schooling immediately."
The hope in his father's voice made Aric clench his jaw and stifle his verbal outrage. His father had decided the matter already. He had no say in this, just as in most of the matters that surrounded his own life. Public opinion and the damned neighbors had more pull in his life than he did, and it disgusted him. It was why he kept secrets, why he truly lived more during the years he was in Catholic boarding school, away from his family, than when he had to conform under his mother's watchful gaze. Now it seemed he would have the piercing gaze of this Lord Nikola instead. He wasn't sure which would be worse.
Nikola nodded once, his eyes sliding back to Aric. "You will know my answer by the end of this evening," he promised. "Come. Let us go into the drawing room where we might discuss young Aric's possible classes, what you seek for him from his study with me, and payment. Your lovely wife may remain with the ladies in the sitting room."
Aric was swept away into his designated room before he could give any sign of protest. He caught his mother's eyes as she went into an adjacent room, and the message to behave himself didn't require any spoken words. He gritted his teeth so tightly his jaw began to ache. Silent and relatively obedient, he took the seat that was offered to him, crossing his legs in an effeminate manner he knew his father hated, though it was perfectly proper.
A manservant poured snifters of brandy, offering everyone but Nikola a drink. Nikola's eyes remained on Aric, intense and calculating, though it was his father the man addressed. "You wish for him to learn his histories and music?"
"Yes," Jonathan replied, his expression hopeful. "While Aric's grades are decent, a year abroad with such an esteemed tutor would do wonders for his university applications."
"What instrument does he play?"
"Piano." Jonathan smiled. "He is quite accomplished at it."
Nikola gave Aric a bemused smile. "Not accomplished enough, I am certain."
Aric forced a smile that was painfully saccharine. "Are you? Did you look up my clips on YouTube? Do you even have a computer in this place?" He sipped his brandy, thankful for the excellent quality. He had sampled enough over the last couple years to recognize the plum flavor as Slivovitz. It temporarily took his mind away from the fact that he was going to be stuck in a castle without basic, modern amenities.
"No, but I have seen you perform." Nikola's eyes flashed before returning his attention to Jonathan. "He is insolent."
Jonathan nodded. "He is in need of a tutor who is willing to teach him to behave as one of his class and upbringing should. His mother and I have tried our best, but he has always resisted."
Nikola smiled faintly. "There is little use for resistance under my tutelage. He will discover that soon enough." He looked as though he might say something else, but a bell rang loudly through the lower level of the manor, and Nikola rose from his chair. "Supper is ready. Let us adjourn to the dining room."
It annoyed Aric, the way they spoke as if he were not in the room. Lord Nikola's orders held an old-cultured confidence that demanded they be followed without question. Closing his eyes, he swallowed down a scathing remark and simply rose when his father pulled at the sleeve of his tailored suit. The dining room was just as luxurious as the rest of the manor that he had seen so far, the furnishings dated, but well-cared-for. Torchlight and a roaring fire set the heavy drapes and dinner table aglow in warm light, a far cry from the artificial lights to which Aric was so accustomed.
The men and women took their designated places at the large table. Aric knew they all were to wait until Nikola sat, and the thought to be disobedient crossed his mind once again, but what was the point? It was obvious that he was staying, whether he liked it or not. Lord Nikola spoke as if he had already been accepted before he had arrived. His eyes looked over the tall blond again, but the period clothing made his head hurt ever so slightly, so he looked away just as Nikola sat, signaling for the rest of the assembly to do the same.
Nikola was not served food as the others were. He merely sat at the head of the table, listening to the small talk that flittered about him, his eyes never leaving Aric. "Have you brought all of Aric's belongings as I asked you to, Jonathan?"
Aric was silent as his father gave the response he intuitively knew the man would. "Our driver has them in the car and awaits your order to retrieve them." The words made Aric cringe as he swallowed a mouthful of food. It was endlessly disconcerting, having Nikola's gaze fixed on him as he ate. He noticed that the noble neither ate nor drank in the presence of others, and he forced himself to drink more wine in order to quell another wave of curiosity that overcame him.
"He has had enough to drink, Josef," Nikola said. The servant about to refill Aric's glass nodded, leaving the guest's wine glass empty. "Overindulgence of alcohol dulls the mind and wits, Aric."
"That was more or less the point," Aric muttered, trying to hide the worst of his displeasure by continuing to eat his meal without a fuss. Dear God, he was going to be living with a prude.
Aric heard a chuckle from the head of the table and realized he'd been overheard. This Nikola fellow had some serious hearing, apparently. The rest of the meal progressed without incident, though, and Nikola quickly bid goodbye to his guests, leaving only Aric, Jonathan, and Miranda in the foyer with him.
"Miranda, perhaps you would care to wait for your husband in the car?" Nikola asked, though of course it wasn't really a question.
Miranda smiled and bowed. "Of course." She turned to Aric, leaning in to press a brief, proper kiss to her son's cheek. "Try to behave, Aric," she whispered. Bidding good night to the noble, Miranda slipped out the door.
"Josef has fetched Aric's things and taken the luggage to his appointed room. I will expect your payment to the bank account within forty-eight hours, Jonathan, and Aric will be returned to you next May." Nikola's eyes fell to Aric. "Unless you choose to house him here an additional year, as we discussed."
The absolute terror that filled Aric's eyes was coupled with stubbornness that forbade him from begging his father to reconsider. Jonathan ignored the reaction, nodding once to Nikola. "Understood. You have our deepest gratitude, Lord Nikola. My wife and I look forward to your progress report in six months." Turning to Aric, he placed a hand on his son's shoulder.
"Father," Aric tried, his expression softening ever so slightly for the first time that evening. He could not force any other words through his clenched jaw, no words of parting or love.
"Behave for Lord Nikola. Learn all that you can from him. We shall see you in a year's time." Jonathan's voice was firm, and free from any trappings of tenderness to Aric's ears. It was not the first time he had been sent away to free his parents of the burden, and he simply kept his silence, his expression hardening again. He balled his hands into tight fists while he was hugged, likely only for Nikola's benefit, and did not watch as his father gave a formal bow to Nikola and retreated, leaving Aric alone in the room with his new tutor.
Nikola watched Aric long after the door shut, the silence heavy and nearly oppressive. Finally, he began to walk up the grand staircase. "Come with me, Aric. I will show you to your room and explain some of the rules you will now abide by while in my care."
Aric's eyes were downcast as he followed. It was as if he moved in slow motion, like a dream where the corridors stretch out to eternity, the destination visible and yet forever out of reach. He hated his parents, who couldn't be bothered to care about his happiness. He hated his family, with their good, old-fashioned values. He hated his life and all the damned expectations placed on him, but he followed Nikola. What choice did he have, after all?
Passing by door after door, Nikola spoke softly, his words calm, lyrical, and heavily accented. "You will limit your consumption of alcohol. As I said, it dulls what talent you have managed to scrape together for yourself under the stifling gaze of your family. I will not teach a dull-wit, no matter how intriguing he may be. I keep my hours between sunset and sunrise, and thus, so will you. You will wake, bathe, dress, and be in the dining room by sunset every day. Following your meal, we will begin eight hours of study. Once we are done, your time is your own, though I do suggest you spend at least two hours each night studying what lessons I have given you that night." Nikola paused outside large double doors. "I am a grueling taskmaster, Aric, and I expect the best from you because I know you are capable of much more than you've accomplished thus far in your short life."
"And how, may I ask, did you come by such knowledge, Count?" Aric asked, his voice low and acidic as they moved through the shadows.
Nikola opened the door to a large room and ushered Aric inside. "Your father contacted me some years ago about you. I have watched on several occasions since."
"Should I be flattered or insulted?"
"You should be whatever it is you are," Nikola said, his smile enigmatic. "This will be your room. Mine is beside it, connected by that door."
Aric took in the room, with its large, four poster bed and the lush fabrics of the comforter, upholstered chairs, and drapes. The far wall had a series of windows, custom-cut to fit the arches and curves of the ceiling. It was a beautiful room, he had to admit, but it was not him. He followed Nikola's gesture to the door that connected their rooms and sighed. It seemed he would be under constant supervision. Unlike boarding school, there were no others for him to speak to or distract himself with. Instead, he had that wooden door. Unbuttoning the jacket of his suit, he removed the garment and tossed it over the back of a chair, not bothering to glance back at Nikola as he released his hair from its leather tie. "Forgive me for my lack of jubilation."
"You will find that your time here will not be wholly unpleasant. After all, every situation in life is as you make it."
"Do the philosophy lessons begin now, or may I retire?" Aric sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose after he removed his tie and undid the top three buttons of his crisp, white undershirt.
"Your lessons began the moment you crossed the threshold into my home." Nikola stepped out of the room, glancing back at Aric. "Goodnight, Aric. I will see you at sunset."
The only sound that signaled the blond's departure was the fluttering of his cape, and Aric was left to ponder Nikola's appearance, and the reasoning behind his absence during the sunlight hours. When he had unpacked his bags, slipping his clothing into the wardrobe and dresser, he undressed and brushed his hair. Placing his toys and lubrication in a drawer beside his bed, he grabbed his iPod and slid beneath the heavy covers. The weight of the sheets, coupled with the familiar bassline of his favorite trance techno mix, soothed him, but his mind still raced, and it wasn't long before he reached into his drawer for his lubricant. His legs tenting the brocade, he stroked himself to arousal, tilting his hips so he could slip two fingers within his body. His panting and gasps of pleasure were all but silent, though they seemed to echo in his ears along with the rush of his pulse, which throbbed in counterpoint to the music from his earphones. He rocked back and forth between fingers and fist until his back arched and his lips parted in a silent cry of release.
In the aftermath, as he massaged the evidence of his climax into the skin of his abdomen, Aric felt the jet lag and exhaustion of the day catch up with him. Curling up on his side, he tried to forget that his parents had abandoned him, tried to forget the foreign country he was forced to live in for a year.
He tried to forget the imposing blond with piercing blue eyes who slept just behind that thick, wooden door.