Frost Fair

Gideon Frost is willing to do whatever it takes to earn enough money to save the printing shop that was left to him by his father. But when faced with the prospect of having to engage in acts society deems unnatural and the law declares punishable by death, he realized there are limits as to how far he’ll go. Then he meets the privileged and handsome Joshua Redfern, the one man who tempts Gideon to break his own rules.

Joshua Redfern has no title or important relations, but his independent fortune allows him a life that is more than comfortable. And more importantly, it enables him to offer assistance to the unfortunate but beautiful Gideon just when the man needs it most. Joshua realizes his interest in Gideon is far more than charitable, but is the man similarly attracted or merely indebted? When the Thames freezes over and London hosts the great Frost Fair of 1814, trouble and necessity bring Gideon and Joshua together. But just as ice is destined to eventually crack, will the circumstances break these two men as they learn that life isn’t always fair?

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CHAPTER ONE

“…and I assure you, Mr. Malter, that as soon as I have the money, you will have it, before I’ve had a chance to buy even so much as a pastry.” Gideon Frost “assisted” the paper merchant’s agent out of the tiny printer’s shop and closed the door on him, locked it and pulled down the blind. Then the smile he’d been holding throughout the interview with the increasingly irate clerk slid from his face as slowly and surely as snow slipping from a roof. The man could still be heard outside, complaining of the debt-ridden printer and his shoddy work to anyone who might be listening. Gideon stayed quiet, waiting until he eventually heard the man’s footsteps and complaining voice fading away.

He was grateful that Simeon & Sons had sent such a small and easily manhandled debt-collector, but he knew that he’d been lucky in that. He would not remain so for long.

As he walked back through the shop into the claustrophobic working space-cum-bedroom, Gideon rubbed his chilled hands together and tried to regain the good humor he’d had before Malter’s visit. Debts. Too many debts and these days, too many debt-collectors. He had no doubt that this one was nothing more than a shot across the bows. The fussy little Malter would bear no relation to the man that, Gideon was sure, would be along later today, or at the latest tomorrow. The next one would be bigger, a lot bigger, and probably armed. Things had got desperate. Money had to be found, and fast.

He hated closing the shop, but it had to be done. The likelihood of selling an engraving or a lithograph this late in the day was utterly remote. It was late January, and few people were interested in buying such luxuries after the excesses of Christmas; and the daylight, already muted by the dark gray sky, was fading fast, making the few people that were around drift away, no doubt thinking of hearth and home.

Locking up, Gideon made his way through the narrow shop-lined streets, wincing as the bitter ice-chilled wind cut through the layers of clothing right through to his bones. He couldn’t remember when it had been as cold as this; icicles hung from every roof and the frost hung around in the streets long after daylight broke. The sun was almost constantly hidden by black menacing clouds, keeping the temperatures down. A fog was building too, rising from the frozen ground, creeping along the quiet alleys. It would be thick by tonight, Gideon thought.

Frost’s shop was near the Strand end of Fleet Street-a decent location for passing trade and for visitors to the prisons-but it was a freezing walk from there to St Paul’s, and before he’d even reached Ludgate Hill, he was chilled to the bone and not in any mood for the business he had come about.

Damn it, he thought, another few pennies are not going to beggar me. With a wry smile at his own delusions he stepped inside The Bell, nodding to his father’s acquaintances-printers and journalists, to a man-and slid down into a shadowed booth with his tankard.

Acquaintances, he thought to himself. Not friends. His fingers tightened around his mug at the memory of how no-one had raised a finger to help his father when he’d got ill, despite Gideon being sent around the area with pleas for aid. Anything would have done, he thought. We didn’t want food, or paper. Just someone to run the press until his arm was healed.

Gideon had tried, but he’d been too young to run the business well enough for the both of them. He didn’t have the breadth of acquaintance that his father did, nor the easy charm, being less garrulous and a lot more shy than his open-handed father. His talent was for engraving, and between the bread-and-butter printing work (there were always pamphlets being printed by some wit, wag or Whig), Gideon’s pictures of London scenes and the occasional commission of a portrait, the little shop had just managed to keep its head above water. Until Gideon’s father had caught his arm in the press. The wound had festered and, in the end, it had killed him.

Gideon had constantly to remind himself that it was the press and the infected arm that had killed him, not his father’s printing peers, but he found it hard not to feel bitter. His father had often loaned a fellow printer some ink, some paper, some skill in repairing the mechanism. He hadn’t been a saint, far from it, but he had helped others.

At the pathetic, sparse burial, Gideon hadn’t spoken to anyone. He had been too angry. And when all the debts were paid, and he realized he’d nothing left except the press, he swore to himself that he’d never ask a man for help-not if he died in consequence.

Outside the grimy windows he could see that the light had finally gone, so he pulled on his gloves and went back out into the street. As anticipated, the fog was thicker now; already it was almost impossible to see the other side of the street. As he strode up Ludgate Hill, St Paul’s loomed, ghostly and white, over the area. The uphill walk and the ale had warmed him a little and he was more prepared for his work as he reached the Churchyard. There were already a couple of figures in the shadows moving away from the street, and Gideon thought he might be lucky. St Paul’s Churchyard, with its proximity to the mighty cathedral, seemed, at first glance, an unlikely place for male prostitution, but it was well-established. There were other places, Gideon knew, but the theatres cost money, and Cock Lane and Lad Lane were too damned far in this cold. Besides, more gentlemen came to this area. Perhaps not aristocracy-at least Gideon had never knowingly encountered any-but there were men with money to spend for a talented hand or mouth.

The proximity of the great church seemed to thin the fog, so he slipped into the deeper shadows on the cathedral side and walked as quietly as he could along the path around the edge. His nerves always set in when he was this close to selling himself. Fear of meeting someone violent, fear of the constables, fear of meeting someone he knew. Here and there under the trees he could make out shapes, moving furtively and no doubt engaging in the minimum of small talk before commencing their activities.

Behind the Chapter House, dark and secluded, there was a paved, small courtyard and Gideon made for that. He knew damned well that men sold themselves even during the day here, and indeed in St Paul’s Walk, and even within the walls of the Cathedral itself, but he had not sunk that far-yet. Sometimes he wondered if one day it might come to that, because he never seemed to make enough money honestly.

In the courtyard, the fog parted to reveal a tall man, cloaked, wearing a tall buckled hat. Whether he was offering trade or waiting for it, Gideon didn’t yet know, but he stepped quietly in, moving softly towards the dark figure, his heart pounding in his chest. It wasn’t unheard of for constables to lay in wait for the ‘unnaturals’ that frequented the churchyard, but Gideon had come too far to stop now, and the thought of another debt collector’s visit drove him on. He fancied he knew this part of London as well as any Bow Street Runner, and he was fitter and leaner than most of them; he’d give them a run for their money before he’d allow himself to be caught.

The man was smoking a pipe, and the glow lit his face with an unearthly hue, highlighting a broad forehead, decorated with fashionable curls, and a slim, rapacious nose. Not handsome, but not bracket-faced, either. Gideon steeled himself.

“Good evening, sir,” he said, then, realizing how damned loud his voice sounded, he pitched it lower, and added a more common slant to his tone. “Lonely?”

“I have been waiting for company,” the man said, “and the wind is so chill I’ve damned near lost the use of what I’d use.”

“I think that you will need to be warmed then, sir,” Gideon said, stepping closer. The scent of the pipe was warm and pleasant, redolent of roaring fires and spicy ale. They were inches apart; the man did not back away and Gideon knew the dance from here. His hand touched the man’s jacket, then dropped lower to find with annoyance and surprise that the man hadn’t even readied himself, and was still buttoned up. “I thought you’d be ready for me, sir,” he said to cover his annoyance.

“Oh I am,” said the stranger. “You’ll see.” The pipe flared again and Gideon felt a shiver of fear. Perhaps the man was a constable, perhaps this was one visit too many. But in the light of the dying embers of the pipe, Gideon could see the man had a small smile, as if he’d just realized what Gideon meant.

Oh “It’s my first time here,” the man continued. Gideon rather doubted that, but a lot of the sodomites gave that excuse, if they talked at all. “And in any case, I fear your hands might be colder than my piece.” he said, and Gideon felt a gloved hand catch hold of one of his own. “Dash it, even through my gloves I can tell. Veritable blocks of ice. What is your name?”

Confused, Gideon backed away, shaking his hand loose. This was not how things were supposed to go. Other visits here had been almost wordless; an exchange, a dicker for price, a swift fumble, palm tight around prick to conclusion and a hurried parting. That was the tradition, the steps of the dance. Some men did more-out there in the dark he could hear unmistakable grunting that told a tale of a hurried, cold coupling-but Gideon never let anyone swive him for money.

“No names here, sir. If I don’t suit, I’ll…”

“No.” The man knocked out his pipe against the wall. “Damn me. I had thought this would be more of an adventure, and all I am is freezing. Come. Let me make you a proposition. We can continue here, you can stroke my arbor vitae for me with those cold hands for a shilling-or you can come have a drink with me and rouse me thoroughly. For a guinea. Whaddyousay? Blamed if I’m standing around in the cold-even for a handling-when there’s comfort to be had.”

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