“Sorry,” Giles mouthed, hoping Smutty could lip read. He freed one of his hands and pointed at the back of Fabian’s head. “He’s upset.”
Smutty continued staring as Giles struggled out of Fabian’s needy embrace. The horrified expression had softened into a puzzled frown, but something else hid beneath it, disturbing Giles.
“That’s quite enough now.” Giles put a hand on Fabian’s chest to stop him from diving in for another hug. “Fabian, there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Giles swept his eyes over his lover. Smutty looked beautifully dishevelled, like a spirit of the garden, although he knew all Fabian would be able to see was a scruffy hippy of indeterminate ethnicity. Ah well. Polite introductions were something of a problem anyway when he didn’t even know Smutty’s real name.
“Fabian, this is Smutty. Smutty, meet Fabian Bonneville.”
Smutty’s eyes grew round as saucers. He took a few uncertain steps towards them. “Is that– It can’t be…”
Fabian was still clinging to Giles’ arm, and Giles felt him tense and tighten his grip.
“I’d rather not have to deal with the staff right now.” Fabian muttered in his ear, before continuing in a louder voice: “Delighted to meet you, Smitty. If you’ll excuse us now, I need to speak with your employer in private.” Fabian’s accent could have cut glass.
“It is you, isn’t it?” Smutty took another step closer. His eyes had darkened, wonder and accusation warring within them.
Giles looked from one to the other. “I’m sorry, are you already acquainted?”
“I’ve never met the man before in my life,” Fabian insisted. “I think you must have mistaken me for somebody else. Now be a good fellow and run along.”
Giles had seen many a waiter or shop assistant quail when Fabian used that tone on them, but Smutty didn’t look in the slightest bit intimidated. Instead of scurrying away to do Fabian’s bidding, he took another couple of steps until he was standing a few feet away. Giles edged away from Fabian, closer to Smutty.
“No, it’s you. You’ve had your nose and teeth done, but I’d know you anywhere, Finn. Don’t go pulling that snotty gentleman act. I know exactly where you came from.”
Finn? The childhood friend who screwed Smutty over? Giles wanted to laugh, but Smutty looked deadly serious. “You’re mistaken. I’ve met Fabian’s grandparents. He’s from money.”
“Fooled you too, has he? He probably hired them to act the part. He was always a great actor. Really good at getting others to take the blame for things he’d done. Not that his mum ever bothered trying to discipline him.”
Fabian’s face hardened into a mask. “Giles, darling, I don’t appreciate being spoken to like this. Let’s go inside.” Fabian headed towards the front door like he owned the place. “And you,” he said, turning back to Smutty, “You need to speak to your betters with a more respectful tone. If it were up to me, you’d be out of a job right now.”
“Oh yeah? You’d fire me like you did with Rick? Tell Giles some bullshit story to cover up your dirty deeds?” Smutty taunted, but doubt had crept into his eyes. “Giles, aren’t you going to let this git–whoever he is–know what’s going on here?”
“Smutty–” Giles looked from one to other, at a loss.
“I’m going in,” Fabian announced, pulling his keys from his jacket pocket. “I’ll see you in the breakfast room when you’ve finished dealing with your gardener.”
“Fabian–” But Fabian was already unlocking the door, and he headed in without a backwards glance.
“He still has keys? Fuck, Giles, what the hell is going on here?” Smutty’s arms were folded belligerently, but the wounded expression in his eyes made Giles want to hug him tight.
He reached out a hand, but Smutty flinched and took a step back.
“Thanks for all your support there,” Smutty said, his voice bitter. “I’m glad to know that when push comes to shove, I’m just the staff. Makes my decision a lot easier, doesn’t it?”
“What? No! I never said that. I’m sorry, I’m confused. What was all that about Finn?”
Smutty frowned. “I dunno. I thought for a minute there… But he wouldn’t blank me like that, would he? And besides, even if he looks mostly the same, I dunno. That mole on his cheek’s gone too.” Smutty pointed to a spot on his left cheekbone and now it was Giles’ turn to frown. Fabian did have a small scar there. He’d said it was from a fight at boarding school, but how likely was that? Fabian wasn’t a fighter; he was more the kind of man who persuaded others to fight for him, keeping his hands clean and blameless.
A horn blared loudly, derailing his train of thought. There was a single track lane with a sharp bend at the end of his driveway, so any drivers with sense would sound their horns on the approach.
“Shit, it’s the bloody plants,” Smutty said, and Giles turned to watch the garden centre truck pull in to the driveway.
“I’ll see if they can come back later,” Giles said.
Smutty shook his head, making his dreadlocks dance. “Nah, don’t give ’em any more hassle. Not if they’re short-staffed. I’ll help unload. You go see to your boyfriend.”
“He’s not my boyfriend!”
Smutty’s smile was twisted, unrecognisable. “Didn’t look like that from where I was standing. He wants you back.”
“He was just upset.”
Smutty raised his eyebrows but said nothing.
“You’re the one I want,” Giles pleaded. “Fabian and I are over. Besides which, he’s getting married.” Giles still wasn’t sure if he believed that, but he hoped it might help convince Smutty the man wasn’t a threat to them.
“Morning Mr Rathbourne!” Rick’s voice cut into Giles’ thoughts, and he belatedly noticed his former gardener climbing down from the cab of the truck. He was a picture of freckle-faced good cheer. “Where d’you want these putting, then? Ooh, like your new wheels.”
“Actually it’s not my c–”
“Rick, good to see you again,” Smutty interrupted loudly, his voice falsely hearty. “Could you come inside before we unload? There’s something I’d like to get your opinion on.”
“But you can’t–” Giles began, shutting his mouth hastily at Smutty’s glare and sharp shake of the head.
“I’ll need you to unlock the door,” Smutty said. “Since I don’t have my own key.” The bitterness was still there, and Giles wished to God he’d thought to pay a visit to the key-cutters the day before. It’d have to wait until Monday now, but Smutty was getting a full set of house keys if that was what it took to reassure him. Giles fumbled his key into the lock and turned it. Hell, he’d even hand Smutty the passwords to his computer and bank accounts. He’d trusted Fabian with them, after all.
Once he’d opened the door Smutty pushed past him, leading a confused looking Rick by the arm.
“What’s going on?” Rick asked.
“This will only take a moment,” Smutty insisted, heading towards the breakfast room door. He paused, his hand resting on the doorknob. “Sorry about this,” he said to Rick, resting an arm around his shoulders, “But I need you to put Giles straight about a few things.”
Smutty opened the door and Giles looked past him to see Fabian lift his head in surprise. He was lounging on the daybed under the window, Giles’ copy of the Telegraph spread out on his lap; the very picture of studied nonchalance. The pose didn’t ring true, and it certainly didn’t match up to the distressed then angry demeanour he’d shown outside.
But then Fabian caught sight of something that made his lip curl in anger. At first Giles thought it was Smutty that had set him off again, but when he followed Fabian’s gaze, he realised the source of that ire was young Rick.
The lad squirmed in Smutty’s hold, looking every bit as uncomfortable as Giles felt.
“What’s that thief doing here?” Fabian demanded, the paper falling from his lap and scattering across the polished floorboards. He rose without his usual grace, grasping the back of one of the dining chairs with a white knuckled hand.
“I didn’t steal nothing!” Rick’s eyes moved wildly, as if seeking an escape route. “Let me go. I don’t want to talk to that lying cunt.”
“I’m sorry,” Smutty said, as he steered Rick into the room. “I feel like a right bastard making you do this, but I need you to tell Giles the real reason you were fired.”
“No! You can’t make me,” Rick cried.
“What’s going on?” Giles asked, following them in. The grim expression on Smutty’s face and Rick’s rising panic had him worried. “Look, I don’t care about the tools, all right? I wouldn’t have fired you for that if it had been my choice.”
“I didn’t steal any fucking tools! Jesus, will you tell him, please?” And now Rick’s eyes were focused on Fabian, who was frozen on the spot, his mouth opening and closing.
“If you won’t, then I will,” Smutty announced, scowling at Fabian. “Rick here told me you’d abused him and then fired him so he wouldn’t spill the beans to Giles.”
“No, that’s not what I–”
“How dare you!” Fabian interrupted, his face flushed with anger. “That’s not what bloody well happened, and I didn’t even fire the little cocktease. He asked me to make up that story to cover for his cowardice. Can’t even own up to what he is.”
“H-how could you say that?” Rick pushed out of Smutty’s grasp and Smutty didn’t resist. The gobsmacked expression on his face echoed Giles’ feelings. Everything was shifting and lurching inside his head, and one more truth-heavy word would be all it took to shatter his illusion of the past.
Rick took unsteady steps towards Fabian. “You told me you’d leave him if we… If I let you. You said you’d buy a flat in Bath for us. I totally fucking fell for it, didn’t I? You were never gonna go through with it.”
Fabian’s breath came fast, but he drew himself up ramrod straight and stared defiantly around the room, before settling his glare on Rick. “Yes, well seeing as how you wouldn’t come out of the closet far enough to actually have sex with me, I don’t really think you’re ready for an adult relationship,” he snapped.
This new information zigzagged around inside Giles head until he fitted it into his version of events. It slid in with a sickening inevitability. “You cheated on me,” he rasped. “With a teenager?”
Fabian spun around, a wildness in his eyes Giles had never seen there before. “What the hell was I supposed to do? You weren’t giving me what I needed. And anyway, he was eighteen. There’s no need to make it sound so seedy.”
“How many others were there?” Giles asked. Then a more urgent worry crested on a wave of bile. “Did you use protection?”
“Jesus Christ, what do you take me for? Of course I was careful. I’m always careful.”
Giles took in the hard, mercenary expression on Fabian’s face, seeing the man unmasked at last. This ruthlessness had always been there, he realised, just under the surface. He’d caught glimpses at times. Unguarded contemptuous expressions caught in mirrors, bitter yet oh-so-witty diatribes against others. He’d written them off at the time, persuaded himself he’d been mistaken, but now it all added up.
What had he ever seen in the man?
“You think I’m an arsehole now, don’t you?” Fabian asked. “Well you’d be the same if you’d had my upbringing, my mother. This is the best I can be.”
And then Fabian pulled that look again, that little-boy-lost look that had captivated Giles in the first place. He wanted to put it down to Fabian’s evident skill in acting, but it felt like the first genuine emotion he’d seen from the man all morning.
“You can’t blame it all on her,” Smutty said, shocking Giles into an awareness that there were others in the room. “You made your own choices too. And I still think it’s an abuse of power to coerce Rick here into bending over for you.”
“What would you know about it?” Fabian snarled at Smutty. “Were you there? He came onto me first. Always hanging around and batting his eyelashes. Making sure I got a good look at him with his shirt off whenever the sun came out. Paying me compliments all the time. That remind you of anyone, Jupe?”
Giles’ brain felt like it was melting. Jupe? Did that mean… Surely not. Fabian couldn’t have pulled off a lie that big, could he? He looked from Fabian to Smutty. Their gazes were locked, their breathing rapid. The atmosphere between them grew so thick Giles could taste it on the air. They were either about to fight or fuck, and he couldn’t tell which.
Smutty had never looked at Giles in that way, with that smouldering intensity. His stomach flipped, and he tried to swallow back the acidic jealousy.
Rick burst into tears and ran from the room.
“Jupe?” Giles asked.