Dirt Boy

In a faraway kingdom, there was a boy with a heart of gold and hair the sandy-brown color of dirt. He had eyes a hazel brown and green that mimicked the land. He was a beautiful boy, and many loved and adored him, but when his father suddenly died in a tragic accident, he was left to the care of his father’s apprentice and his two stooges.

They took advantage of the boy’s kindness and made him clean, cook, and care for the household while they lavished in the lap of luxury, living off the boy’s riches. His father had been the greatest blacksmith in all the land, and Phantom had apprenticed under the boy’s father for many years with stooges, Brone and Tristan.

They called the boy Dirt Boy for his dirty face, since caring for three men and the household alone left him little time to care for himself. At day’s end, he was so exhausted, he would fall into a heavy sleep in the basement where Phantom had moved the boy’s belongings. It was dark, cold, and dingy, and with all the cleaning he did daily, it left no time for him to make his own space more livable or clean.

At first, Dirt Boy didn’t mind caring for his father’s apprentices, young men his father had considered like sons of his own, but as they took over his home and did little work at the forge, Dirt Boy began to realize they were nothing more than poachers, and he, little more than their servant. The first time he refused to clean, Phantom had beaten him. He was strong from the years at the forge, and Dirt Boy much less so. Tending to the household had made him stronger than most, but nowhere near as strong as someone who could bend and shape metal like magic.

Dirt Boy didn’t refuse his chores again.

Soon, money became scarce from their lavish spending, and the apprentices were forced to work the forge again, bringing in coin for their lifestyle. It gave Dirt Boy no reprieve from chores, but it did give him solitude that he craved. It wasn’t until there were no bells summoning or mouths screaming his horrible nickname, demanding he do one thing or another for one of them, that he realized just how much he yearned for peace and quiet.

He came to crave the days the men were gone at the forge, even if their soot-covered clothes provided him more work in the form of washing and mending worn clothing.

Years passed with him living as nothing more than Dirt Boy, and even he struggled to remember his own name. But he held onto it, whispering it to himself in the moments before he drifted to sleep, wondering if he would ever escape the men who held him captive in his own home. Men who had spent every cent of the coin that had been meant for his future.

But as the days kept passing without an end in sight, the kernel of hope in his heart burned down to an ember.

“A ball?” Brone asked one day while Dirt Boy swept the lounge. “To marry off the princess? Are you sure?”

“Quite,” Phantom replied in a clipped tone. “All eligible men are invited to attend, and I will try my hand at marrying her. Think of the untold riches! We would never have to work a day at the forge ever again.”

“Why do you get to marry her?” Tristan asked. “Why not one of us?”

“Because you are both imbeciles.”

They glowered, and Dirt Boy tried to make himself small. He had no interest in the princess, but he hoped she would liberate him from these cruel men. Then, he instantly hated himself for the thought.

If they are cruel to me, how much worse would they be to the kingdom?

No, he decided. He hoped none of them could woo the unsuspecting princess. If it meant the kingdom wouldn’t befall his suffering, he would gladly be Dirt Boy for the rest of his cold existence.

“Well, even if you believe us so, three of us trying to win her hand increases the odds of one of us ending up on the throne.” Brone shrugged. “Or…we can keep the competition from reaching her to begin with.”

Phantom’s grin was wicked. “And this, my pet, is why you are the smart one.”

Tristan rolled his eyes. “Whatever. I could care less which of us it is. It only matters that we split the profits, just like with the forge.”

Dirt Boy stiffened, and he tried to disappear behind the elaborate drapes against the wall. That didn’t mean what he thought it meant, did it? It was merely a callous way of viewing his father’s death. Not…

“The Blacksmith was easy enough to do away with,” Phantom said dismissively, turning Dirt Boy’s blood to ice. “Such a trusting fool. Now, we have his house, his forge, and even his dutiful child as a servant.”

“What if he woos the princess?” Brone suddenly asked. “He’s rather kind, if not stupid and quiet.”

“And he’s not ugly either.”

“Worry not,” Phantom said. “I’ll be sure he doesn’t make it to the ball.”

Dirt Boy could hardly breathe, his whole world shattering to pieces at his feet. His father…his home…his life…his freedom. They had murdered his father and taken him hostage, and he’d stupidly gone along with everything the whole time. Were they going to kill him to keep him from meeting and possibly wooing the princess?

They wouldn’t need him if they lived at the palace.

Heart thundering in his chest, he didn’t dare breathe while the men continued their conversation about preparations for the event. It seemed to take hours before they left the lounge, and Dirt Boy finally slipped from behind the curtains, resolving to warn the princess. Before he could, Phantom blocked his path.

“There you are,” he said with a cold smile on his handsome face. No, this man would have no trouble wooing a princess if she cared only for looks. “We need your help preparing for an important party tonight.”

“O-Oh. A…party?” Dirt Boy tried to hide the fear in his chest, trying not to sound as if he’d just spent the afternoon eavesdropping on their conversation. “That should be fun.”

Icy blue eyes narrowed on him, but Phantom merely shrugged. “Indeed, it should. Come now, we have much to do and little time to prepare.”

Begrudgingly, Dirt Boy helped the men prepare, all the while trying not to flinch and tremble every time one of them came near him. These men had killed his father, and he was simultaneously filled with stirring rage and terror. Would they kill him, too?

By the time they were ready, it was full night, and Phantom stopped and turned to Dirt Boy while the other men loaded into the carriage. “You will clean every nook and cranny of the house while we’re gone. If there’s even a speck of dirt present when we return, you won’t like the result.” His eyes were daggers glaring at Dirt Boy. “Are we clear?”

“C-Crystal.”

With a curt nod, he climbed into the carriage, and it wheeled them toward the palace.

Every speck. Every. Speck. Even if he hadn’t spent the afternoon hiding and the evening preparing them for the ball, Dirt Boy would never be able to clean the house before they returned. Not to that level of cleanliness. He wouldn’t be able to rest tonight, let alone warn the princess.

I am useless, an utter failure to my kingdom and my father. I wish—

Before he could finish the thought, a bright flash of light filled the yard, and Dirt Boy raised his hands to shield his face. When the brightness was gone, he lowered his hands, staring in shock and awe at the strange but beautiful man standing before him, like a creature out of myth, his dark beauty was so enchanting.

“Well, don’t stand there looking at me stupidly. Make your wish. I’ve got places to be and people to annoy,” the man said, glaring at Dirt Boy.

“I-I…”

“Oh, for shit’s sake. Make the damn wish already.”

“A…wish?”

The man heaved a sigh, pulling at the sleeve of his black tunic. It was embroidered with delicate filigree that would’ve taken hours and great skill to stitch on. Eerily enough, Dirt Boy was certain there were skulls stitched onto the handsome suit. “Yes, your one wish. But what they don’t like me to tell you is that, if you word it just right, you can get a lot out of it.” He grinned, mischief twinkling in his brown eyes. “So word it carefully, kid. You only get one—oh, and it has to be within my power, yada, yada, yada.”

“What strange creature are you?”

With a flourish and a bow, the man said, “A dark mage and wish granter, at your service. Don’t call me a fairy godmother. I will cut you.”

Dirt Boy took a step back. “A Magical…”

“Yes, yes. Now, make a wish.” He looked at a contraption on his wrist. “Your keepers are getting rather close to the palace, and you’re running out of time.”

Dirt Boy’s eyes went wide, but he thought long and hard about his wish, trying to figure out just the right phrasing to get everything he needed from the magical man. “I wish that my chores were done and I, dressed fit for a ball, was on my way to the palace.”

“See, kid? Not hard at all.” The man clapped his hands, and there was suddenly blinding light engulfing everything, cleaning and dusting, cutting the lawn and repairing damaged things he hadn’t even considered while making the wish. “I don’t sing. So if you were expecting that service, then next time, don’t be brooding before making a wish.”

Dirt Boy side-eyed the magical man, not sure if there was something wrong with him. He didn’t think about it for long. He was suddenly wrapped in wisps of darkness, snaking around him and engulfing his rags and filthy face in tingling magic. When it was done with him, he felt no different, but he found his hands clean of dirt for the first time in years. Even his nails were clean and unbroken. When he rushed to the fountain, his reflection was that of a prince. Only, he wasn’t a prince. He was just a servant boy playing dress-up.

His tunic was a cream white, embroidered with gold filigree. The buttons were gold; the lapels and trim, too. His trousers were much the same, and he had the most curious shoes. They were black with rubber soles and string lacing them together. He’d never seen anything like it.

“Modern comforts,” the magical man said. “Can’t go wrong with good footwear.”

“You are a bizarre creature indeed.”

He grinned another playful smile. “You have no idea, kid. None at all. Now, if I remember correctly, you were already on your way…” Before he could finish the sentence, the two of them were whisked into a charcoal black carriage, the magical man inspecting his nails in the darkness of the cab. “While I hate to be a party pooper, I should probably warn you that the magic ends at midnight, which,” he paused to check his wrist again, “is in as little as an hour and a half.”

“That’s plenty of time to warn the princess.”

There was a secret in the man’s smile. “Indeed, it is. Good luck, Prince Charming.”

In a blinding flash of light, he was gone.

“I’m not a prince!” But there was no one to hear him.

Dirt Boy settled into his seat, wondering if he shouldn’t call himself by such a lofty name instead. It wouldn’t do to introduce himself to the princess as “Dirt Boy.” He could always use his true name, but what if Phantom discovered he’d attended the ball? No. He would use the name the Magical had given him.

When he arrived, a footman opened the door to his carriage, and he stepped onto a lush, red carpet. He followed the line of smartly dressed attendees into the palace, his expression full of awe as he took in the lavish structure and rich decorations. Jewels and gold covered all surfaces, including the walls, chandelier, and banister. The walls were even made of stone and marble.

When he descended into the ballroom, a man announced him as Prince Charming, and he hoped his appearance was so altered by his clothing and the lack of dirt on his face that Phantom wouldn’t recognize him after so many years. He hardly recognized himself. It was like taking off a mask and donning a person’s face for the first time in forever.

The princess was seated on a throne next to the king, and she was a sight to behold. Eyes like emeralds, hair a deep brunette, skin a gorgeous light-brown. She was resplendent in a dress of jade and gold, her hair and makeup emphasizing her delicate frame. She was the most beautiful woman Prince Charming had ever seen, and he hoped his warning would protect her from his captors.

Too late, Phantom stepped up, offering his hand, and the princess took it, a tight smile on her face.

Prince Charming’s heart crashed in his chest. How could he get her away from Phantom without being recognized? Maybe he could use a proxy? But what other man here would hear him and believe such a tale?

His eyes landed on a man with hair like homespun gold and eyes like sapphires, his smile pearly white teeth and a single dimple that was as heart-stopping as it was gorgeous. Swallowing, Prince Charming took a hesitant step toward the beautiful man, wondering if he would pass on the warning. If he was being honest with himself, he had ulterior motives for approaching the finely dressed man.

“Um, excuse—”

“Well, if it isn’t Prince Charming himself, come to speak to moi.”

There suddenly wasn’t any air in the room, and he struggled to breathe. “P-Pardon?”

“That’s what they called you when they announced you,” the golden man said with a flirty smile. “And I said to myself, ‘Yes, indeed, he is Charming.’”

Sweat slicked his hands now, and he felt color flushing his cheeks. “It’s…it’s just a title, I suppose. It’s not actually my name.”

“And what is your name, Charming? I’m Vincent of the Ravenhart, at your service.” He offered a hand, and Prince Charming took it. Vincent raised his hand to his lips, pressing a kiss to his knuckles.

Breathlessly, he responded, “It’s…E-Evander.”

“What a delightful name for a delightful man,” he said, still not releasing Evander’s fingers, which still tingled from the kiss the man had placed upon them. “You wouldn’t happen to be here because your overbearing father refuses to acknowledge you have no interest in the princess and have absolutely zero desire to court, woo, wed, or bed her, would you?”

“Um, what?”

Vincent’s smile grew, revealing that heart-stopping dimple again. “You’re just here for social niceties, yes? Or are you here for the princess like every other egotistical male in the room?”

“Oh, I—the princess! Yes, actually.”

“Pity.” He released Evander’s hand, and it left him feeling suddenly colder. “Well, it was a pleasure meeting you, Charming.”

“That’s not—”

But Vincent excused himself, smile fading before his back was fully turned, weaving through the crowd.

There was a pit of despair unspooling in his stomach as he watched the blond walk away, but he had to warn the princess. He couldn’t let himself be distracted any longer. It was clear no one here would help him, so he would have to face off against Phantom himself.

He wove through the crowd, trying to make his way to the dance floor, but when he got there, he was surprised to find the princess dancing not with Phantom, but with a handsomely dressed man in black, a wicked grin on his face as his eyes remained locked on the princess’. She grinned up at him, something playful glimmering in her own green gaze.

The Magical! Evander smiled, watching the two feed off each other’s energy as they danced a flawless dance together. They were a perfect match, and he knew the princess was in no danger of marrying the wrong man, not with the adoring expression on her face as she stared up at the man leading her over the dance floor.

A warning bell rang, and Evander realized the magic would run out before long. He needed to get back to his home before he could be missed. He elbowed his way through the crowd, trying not to run, but knowing he had little time before his carriage would disappear and leave him stranded.

On his way out the door, he crashed into someone. “Oh, I’m sorr—”

“No problem at all,” Vincent said, holding him steady. Holding him against his chest.

His heartbeat picked up pace, and he wasn’t sure if it was from his quick escape or the man grinning down at him. “I—I need to go.”

“But the party has only just begun.”

“Yes, but I—” Evander shook his head. “The princess is safe, so I must be on my way or I will not be.”

The blond’s brow furrowed. “You’re in danger?”

“I didn’t mean to say that!” But with the man’s arms still around him, he was having difficulty thinking. “I really must be going.”

“A dance?” he asked hesitantly. “Can you spare time for one dance before you go?”

His lips parted in wonder, staring up at the man. “I wish I could.” And if he had wishes left, he wondered if this was what he would’ve wished for instead.

Heart breaking, he pulled out of Vincent’s arms, running down the stairs and into the courtyard. The man called after him, and he had to force himself not to hear his own name being hurled at him with a plea and longing. It had been so long since anyone had spoken his name but him, it was like a spell all on its own.

He made it to his carriage, tears streaming down his face as it took him back to his living nightmare. At midnight, the carriage turned into darkness and shadows before completely dissolving into the night. His garments followed suit, going from perfect white to dirt-stained rags. When he caught a glimpse of his reflection, he was Dirt Boy again.

“I will never be anything but this,” he whispered to his reflection before entering the still-clean house. At least that remained, if nothing else. He would live through the night.

Chest empty, he closed his eyes, imagining sapphire eyes and an inviting dimple asking him to dance, and he dreamed a beautiful dream.

In the morning, he was angrily roused from bed, and he awakened with a start.

“Get up!” Phantom snapped, dragging him from his bed and flinging him onto the floor. “You useless mongrel! I said, get up!”

Dirt Boy scrambled to his feet, afraid for his life, unsure what he’d done wrong. “S-S-Sorry, sir. What can I help you with?”

“Making breakfast, for one! It’s nearly the afternoon!”

He’d…overslept. He’d stayed out so late that he’d overslept, and now, his sovereign was angry. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll make it right away!”

“Yes, you will!”

Dirt Boy scrambled to the kitchen, making himself busy preparing the meals.

“What are you doing?”

He whirled around, heart pounding in his chest when his eyes landed on the Magical. The man was leaning against the counter, biting into one of Phantom’s prized pears.

Dirt Boy snatched it from him. “What am I doing? What are you doing? That’s not yours!”

He shrugged, grabbing an apple from Brone’s plate next and taking a large, juicy bite. Mouth full, he repeated, “What are you doing? I didn’t send you to the ball for this.”

“For—the princess is safe. That’s all that matters.” He quickly replaced the destroyed fruit with fresh ones on the plates. “And from what I saw, you should be with her, should you not?”

His lips kicked up into a grin. “Mmm, yes. Such a feisty spitfire, my princess. Such a precious little creature. She’ll be a wonderful queen. But you aren’t supposed to be here.”

“I live here. This is my house.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” he muttered, taking another bite, brow furrowing. “If not to meet your true love, why did you bother wishing at all? That was the point of going to the ball.”

“My—” His cheeks flushed, and he stared at the three plates in front of him, filled with fruits and cheese. “No. It was to warn the princess.”

“The noble ones are always so thick-headed,” he muttered. “I guess I have to do everything myself.”

“You, what?”

Instead of answering, the Magical snapped his fingers, grinning, and there was a knock on the door. “Don’t mess it up this time.” Then, in a dissolving blackness, he was gone.

“How does he do that?”

“Dirt Boy!” Phantom shouted. “Get the door!”

“Yes, your highness,” he muttered under his breath, stomping up the steps. He pulled the door open and nearly choked on air. “O-Oh.”

Vincent stood there, brow furrowed, looking around the room. “Hello, my name’s Vincent of the Ravenhart, and I was wondering if the lord of the house was home.”

Dirt Boy’s heart sank, and he realized the man didn’t recognize him. How could he? There were nothing but rags and dirt to indicate his status as a lowly servant now. He wouldn’t be looking for Evander the Prince Charming in a dirty servant opening his own door.

“Who is it?” Phantom demanded, shoving him out of the doorway. His expression bunched in confusion. “Who are you, and what do you want?”

“I’m Vincent of the Ravenhart, and I was just asking your doorman to speak to the lord of the house.”

“That’s me.”

Vincent’s brow furrowed. “No, there must be some mistake. This manor belongs to the young Lord Evander, does it not?”

“There is no one here by that name,” Phantom said crisply. “Your mistake. Now, leave.” He tried to slam the door shut, but a well-polished shoe blocked the door.

“That’s impossible. The manor is listed as belonging to Lord Evander of the Forge. I asked after the records myself. It’s belonged to him for many years, according to his late father’s will. So, again, I ask where the young lord is. Because you are not him, and I would hate to have to bring it to the attention of the authorities that someone is pretending to be the Lord when he most certainly isn’t.”

“You act as if you know the young lord,” Phantom said, smile brittle, eyes ice. Dirt Boy knew he would suffer greatly after Vincent left. “There’s no need to involve the authorities. I wasn’t trying to claim to be the Lord, I was merely meaning I’m head of the household in his stead. You see, he’s quite ill. Bedridden from a rare disease.”

Vincent snorted. “Indeed. Well, if he’s available, I would like a word with him.”

“At the risk of exposing yourself to illness? No, no. I recommend you be on your way. It’s for the best.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

Dirt Boy took a chance, knowing he would likely be beaten the moment the door was closed anyway. “I’ll—I’ll go prepare the lord for a visit,” he said hastily. “Please, come inside and wait in the lounge.”

Phantom’s face was a wicked snarl, but he dared not do anything in front of a witness. “Yes, do come in.”

Vincent looked between the two of them, brow rising. “I believe I will.” He gestured to someone behind him, and the damn Magical stepped into view, grinning a secret grin. “This is my attendant and close friend, Lord Jeph. I hope he’s more than welcome to meet with the young lord as well.”

Phantom must’ve recognized the Magical from last night because his glare rerouted to Jeph. “Yes, welcome. Come take a seat.”

“Don’t mind if I do.” He pushed past Phantom like he owned the place. “Do you have any pears? I find I’m famished and have a craving for one. You, servant boy, go fetch me one.”

Dirt Boy glowered at him but dipped into a low bow. “As you wish, Lord Jeph.”

“And some cheese, too! I love cheese.”

Rolling his eyes, Dirt Boy headed for the kitchen, afraid Phantom would follow him. But he would likely keep an eye on the guests. How long would he hold the charade before they realized there was no Lord Evander? That was a title he had no hope of ever reclaiming, and yet…the Magical was here…with the beautiful Vincent.

What’s his game?

“Whew. That was close,” Jeph said, and Dirt Boy nearly dropped the plate of fruits and cheeses he’d gathered. “Careful. I like eating my food. Not wearing it.”

“What are—”

“Relax. It’s a simple spell, really. Your keeper thinks I’m still there, making small talk, but I’m here with you. So, let’s get you cleaned up, shall we?”

“Why are you doing this?” Dirt Boy couldn’t keep angry tears from leaking down his face. “You have no idea the cruelty that will befall me once you leave. Is it my death you crave? If it is, you’re doing a fine job of digging my grave!”

He rolled his eyes. “The drama. Yes, you and Vincent are a fine match indeed.”

“I—what?”

“If you stop fighting me, you’ll find I’m trying to help you. I can lead a man to true love, but I can’t make him accept it. Nor can I make them fall in love, but I don’t think either of you two morons will have any trouble in that department.”

“I…I don’t understand.”

“For the love of Vincent’s stars and every god to grace this earth, I am trying to save you. Now, stand there and stop talking. It’s giving me a headache.”

Dirt Boy glowered, but he stayed quiet while the Magical worked his power.

“Tibbity-tobbity-whatever-the-fuckity.”

Before he could question if there really was something seriously wrong with Jeph, the man’s magic swirled around him, turning his rags and dirt to fine clothing befitting a lord.

“There. That’s better.” He took the tray of food from him, giving him a shove toward the door. “Now, get out there and charm his pants off—just not literally. Wait until I’m out of the room for that.”

Dirt Boy’s cheeks flamed. “That’s crass!”

“I’m a crass person, and you’re wasting time.”

“No, I—he didn’t recognize me. I’m not sure I want to charm someone who can’t see past status. To even stop to consider that was me. I’m just Dirt Boy. He’s looking for a lord.”

Jeph rolled his eyes so hard, they might have passed through the back of his skull. “For starters, you really don’t understand how awful you look in the dirt and rags. Even I have trouble believing you’re the same person, but I watched you transform from one man to the other. If not, I wouldn’t give you a second glance, either. It’s hard to believe you a lord when you look like a homeless beggar.”

Dirt Boy flinched. “Then leave this beggar to his misery.”

“That wasn’t—I’m not—” He heaved a sigh, scratching his jaw. “I’m not trying to insult you. I’m merely saying you’re literally unrecognizable when you’re covered in dirt. I’m sorry if the truth hurts your feelings. He’s come all this way looking for you. Do you want a chance at happily ever after or not, kid? Cuz we can walk away right now, and you can go back to your basement for the rest of eternity. And I’ll be forced to console the whiniest human being this earth has to offer because you broke his heart.”

“That’s preposterous! I can’t break someone’s heart when they don’t even know me.”

“You made quite the impression.” Jeph grinned. “Going once.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Going twice.”

“He can’t possibly—”

“Last chance.”

“Fine! I want a happily ever after!”

“That, I can do.”

With a wink, he disappeared into the shadows, and the image of Lord Evander was left standing there, wondering what to expect. Slowly, he left the kitchen, self-conscious and aware that this could blow up in his face. What if Vincent realized he was a fraud? What if he realized the truth and changed his mind?

They barely knew each other, after all, but Jeph said they were…true loves.

Would his true love reject him because he was Dirt Boy, son of no one, owner of nothing but rags and filth?

There was only one way to find out.

He stepped into the lounge, heart hammering in his chest, and waited for Vincent to notice him. When the man did, he hastily got to his feet, stammering and tripping all over himself. It was charming, and before he knew it, he was smiling, warmth spreading through his chest.

“Good afternoon, Lord Ravenhart,” he said evenly. “My doorman tells me you came all this way to see me. What a surprise and a delight.”

“It is a delight, and I’m terribly sorry to intrude on you when you’re not feeling well.”

At this, he furrowed his brow in mock-surprise, turning questioning eyes to Phantom. “Not well? Phantom, are you telling tall tales again?”

Through gritted teeth, he said, “Of course not.”

“Of course not, my lord,” Jeph corrected, taking a bite of a pear that shouldn’t be in his hand, not that Phantom noticed the lack of tray in Evander’s hands. It was on the table, nonetheless. “That’s how you properly speak to the lord of a manor, is it not? What did you say your function here was again? Aren’t you a horse’s ass or something?”

Phantom’s cheeks turned red with rage. “Are you insinuating I’m a stable boy?”

“Oh, nothing like that. I meant that you were a jackass.”

“I am not a donkey!”

Jeph shrugged. “Could’ve fooled me.”

Evander couldn’t help himself, he laughed, knowing it would bring his death. “No, Phantom is nothing of the sort. He’s my father’s former apprentice at the forge. He died several years ago, you see. An unfortunate accident, I’m told, and I took in Phantom and his colleagues out of the kindness of my heart, did I not, Phantom?”

“Quite.”

“Well, I wish to speak with you in private, if that’s okay?” Vincent asked hopefully. “If it’s not too forward of me to presume you’d grant my request?”

“You may not!” Phantom snapped, jumping to his feet.

“I would be delighted to.” To Phantom, he said, “I’ll be entertaining my guest here in the lounge if you could see to breakfast. I’m afraid the cook is running behind.”

He was seething, fuming, and there was murder in his eyes. “As you wish, sir.”

He stormed off in a huff, and Jeph uncrossed his leg from his lap, tossing the core of his pear onto the tray. “Well, that’s my cue to cause some mischief. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” He winked, disappearing into darkness again.

“He is a strange, strange man.”

Vincent grinned. “Indeed, he is. But he’ll keep them from bothering us.” He took Evander’s hands in his. “I believe you owe me a dance.”

“Here? Without music?”

“We can make our own music.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know how to dance.” His cheeks warmed. “Being the son of a blacksmith hasn’t afforded me many lessons in decorum. Not having a mother has helped little, as well.”

“No mother or father? That is much too sad.”

He shrugged helplessly. “It’s all I’ve ever known. Mother died in childbirth, and father worked hard to sustain our way of life. We had staff until he passed—” He stopped, realizing what he’d just said. “I mean, more staff. Now I’m afraid there’s little left without Father working.”

“That can’t be true. Are your father’s apprentices not in your employ? It’s your forge and manor. Why else would you house them if not to continue bringing in a profit?”

And there it was, the lie that required telling or for the truth to be lain bare.

“Truthfully?” he asked cautiously, carefully withdrawing his hands from Vincent’s and stepping back. “There is no money. Not for me. Not for a long time. I’m a prisoner here. These clothes are little more than magic conjured by your friend. I’m the footman who opened the door.”

The blond’s lips parted in horror, and he was Evander no longer. He was Dirt Boy. Always Dirt Boy. Except, the clothing didn’t return to rags. Nor did the dirt return. He felt like it was there, all the same.

“It’s okay,” Dirt Boy whispered, blinking back tears. “You can leave. I don’t blame you.”

“Why would I—” He cut himself off, shaking his head. He took the two steps required to close the distance between them, taking Dirt Boy in his arms and sealing their lips together with true love’s first kiss. “I’m not leaving you, Charming. I’m here to ask you if I may court you with the intent of marriage. I’m here to sweep you off your feet and pray you’ll agree to be mine.”

Stunned, he stared up at the two sapphire eyes beseeching him, naked and vulnerable. “Y-Yes. I would like that. Very much.”

“Good, because I think Jeph has dealt with the interlopers who’ve overstayed their welcome.”

And when Evander turned to look out the window, he saw Phantom, Brone, and Tristan, running for their lives as smoke and glittering shadow chased on their heels, never to be seen again.