I heard a voice at my shoulder: ‘I say, are you English?’ The voice was clear, bell­like. I turned. An unwigged, golden­haired young man was peering at me. His skin had the gilded pinkness of an Englishman in the South. I felt myself wince; my eyes flickered, even in the gloom of the church. He was a few years older than me, a man rather than a boy.

He wore a royal­blue coat, so deep in hue it seemed to jump off his body. His cravat was badly tied. No one in Paris would wear their cravat other than tightly wrapped like a tourniquet around their Adam’s apple. And he was handsome, very handsome; as hand­ some a man as I had ever seen.

‘I am Mister Horace Lavelle,’ he said, a marvellous half­smile on his lips. He was gazing at me, with amused intensity. ‘You are English, aren’t you? I can tell.’

‘I am Mister Benjamin Bowen,’ I said, my eyes glancing nervously across the floor of the church.

‘Where are you looking?’ His voice was all lightness. I looked up at him and now he was observing the ground, too. Then he lifted his eyes – they were like sapphires, very bright, very alert – and grinned at me. ‘Were you admiring my shoes? They are rather lovely, aren’t they?’ About what were we talking? I did not understand.

‘Excuse me?’ I murmured.

‘My shoes. Do you know where I got them?’ he said.

I simply stared at him, not sure how  I  should answer.

‘I stole them. From the Elector of Bavaria,’ he stated.

I saw him watch my eyes widen. ‘Truly?’

‘No,’ he said, ‘of course not!’ He must have seen my relief. He leaned forwards to whisper: ‘It was the Queen of Poland.’

He rocked backwards and roared, a loud, glorious, shameless laugh. It rang up into the eaves of the church, echoing, and then fell back down – onto me. The Latin­ speaking nuns watched us, their faces mean with a suspicion of . . . something. ‘You are just arrived?’ he asked. I said yes. ‘I thought so. I have not seen you in this hellhole the last two weeks.’

Two weeks? No person of Quality stopped in Aosta for two whole weeks. Why had he lingered here so long? ‘We have just been to Paris,’ I said.

His brow twitched briefly. ‘We?’

‘I am here with my brother. My brother, Edgar.’

With big, playful movements, Lavelle pretended to look around the nave, up and around, as if searching for something. Then he looked back at me, arching an eye­ brow: ‘I have noticed you these twenty minutes. I see no brother.’ Twenty minutes? Had he been watching me, truly, for twenty minutes, and I had not noticed him all that while? ‘You are quite alone. Do you have a brother at all?’

I knew that he was teasing me. He was amusing. But still, what was it about him that felt so ... perilous? ‘My brother is ill,’ I said. ‘He has eaten some spoiled yoghurt.’

‘Puking himself all the way to Rome, is he?’

He burst into loud laughter again, every bit as riotously as before. Now the nuns were wearing their annoyance like armour.

‘You are making enemies,’ I said.

He blew through his lips, to show his disdain. ‘I don’t care. Oh, how the Italians like to show their ill humour. It makes up for their lack of personality.’

‘How can a whole nation lack personality?’ I asked. ‘Ha!’ he responded. ‘Haven’t you just been to

Switzerland?’ The whole time he gazed at me, I felt his blue eyes burning.

‘You must like Aosta if you have been here two weeks,’ I said. I was becoming nervous under the intensity of his stare. ‘Have you been to see the Arch of the Emperor Augustus?’ I tried to be clever. ‘It’s all grey bricks.’

‘Oh, sir, are you truly asking me about the Emperor Augustus? Truly, are you asking me about some bricks you saw once?’ His face loomed towards mine. ‘Boring grey bricks,’ he said. And I began to grin, and he grinned again – again and again. ‘Who cares?’ he continued. ‘I couldn’t give a fuck. Next you will be quoting Montesquieu at me.’ His grin turned devilish. ‘If we are going to be friends,’ he said, ‘learn this: I do not give a fuck!’

 

He said the word so loudly, I was struck mute. And then I realised what he had just said as much as how he had said it. Did he truly mean that we were friends? How were we friends? He kept on talking, filling my brain with words. ‘Would you not prefer to ask me about what the women are like in Aosta? Would you not prefer to know what they will do if you get them drunk?’ He laughed in that same shameless way, in the way one might to show one was speaking in jest. ‘Was it Augustus or Tiberius who kept a harem of young boys and girls that he fucked when he was an old man? And is it Suetonius or Tacitus who chastised him for being a sodomite?’

Part of me wanted him to shut his mouth. And the other part? ‘Why are you in Italy?’ he asked, when I had still said nothing.

‘We are on Tour.’ I hesitated. My mouth was dry. ‘My brother and I.’

‘Oh, this mythical brother of yours?’ ‘I do have a brother.’

He smiled mockingly. ‘And a bevy of sisters too, no doubt.’

‘No,’ I said, stumbling over my thoughts. ‘Just a brother.

We came to Italy for the culture.’

‘You  are in Italy ... for the culture? Oh, you fibber!’  he cried merrily. ‘Really, Italians? What culture do these sweaty morons have to speak of?’

I could hear my mother’s voice in my head: Petrarch, Boccaccio, Dante, Leonardo, rhapsodising, hymning the names. Now he called them sweaty morons! ‘The whole point of the Tour is to see the culture. At least, that’s what most people think.’

He fixed me with his eye then shrugged nonchalantly. ‘Mister Bowen, as I say, I do not give a fuck. Did you not hear me? And I particularly don’t give one solitary fuck to what people think.’ And then he smiled, and walked away, out of the nave. He did not look back. He did not need to. He knew I would follow him. Part of me thought, turn and walk away. But every other part of me yelled, go after him. So I ran to his side.

‘Then why are you here?’ I asked urgently. With perfect timing, Lavelle stopped so that I almost ran into him. He looked up at the ceiling. The muscles in his thick, hairless neck tensed. His face tilted back; the suffused light from the church windows fell on his face. Then slowly he breathed in, and licked his lips absent­mindedly. How beautiful he was. I thought of the two sinners captured in the Park. I was jealous of them then – no, not of their deaths, of course, but of their knowledge of men. The mysteries of sex to the virgin. Lavelle came nearer to me and I felt his magnetic glow. His skin was luminous, and his lips glistened. His breath touched my face. His eyes were alight with intention. It was like I was being drawn upwards, towards him, into him, my feet leaving the ground.

 

  • The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle

  • __________________________
    'Seductive, decadent, cruel and utterly thrilling - just like Horace Lavelle himself. This is The Talented Mr Ripley for the twenty-first century.' Emma Flint, author of Little Deaths

    'An enjoyable dip into decadence.' Observer
    __________________________
    Brothers Benjamin and Edgar have so far led a quiet life, but change is afoot as they enter a world of glorious sights and People of Quality on their Grand Tour of Europe. But a trunk full of powdered silver wigs and matching suits isn't enough to embed them into high society.

    As Edgar clings on to conventions, Benjamin pushes against them. And when the charming, seductive Horace Lavelle promises Benjamin a real adventure, it's only a matter of time before chaos and love ensue.
    __________________________
    'A fizzing, seductive queer romance.' i Paper

    'Wildly entertaining and painfully heartbreaking ... Neil Blackmore writes with a fizzy wit that bounds his characters off the page.' Ben Aldridge

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