Giles woke to the gentle swaying of the boat as Smutty moved around. It was strange, living, eating and sleeping all in one room, and he appreciated Smutty’s considerate quietness. Giles lay there feigning sleep for a while, trying to decide what he could say to convince Smutty to stay. What was the best approach to adopt, now he’d discovered the real reason for that skittish behaviour? Smutty might have claimed that twenty years was long enough to forget a hurt like that, but some things would always remain painful.
Giles cast his mind back to his mother. So kind, so vibrant. All it took to wipe that out was a careless flame or two.
She’d been holidaying with an old school friend for a few days. Lucille Rathbourne always loved anything outdoorsy, but Giles’ father claimed to be allergic to roughing it, so he stayed at home to look after Giles while Lucille and Meredith had taken off to a cabin in the Scottish Highlands for a long weekend.
The coroner returned a verdict of accidental death by burning. There was evidence that both women had been drinking, and that one of the candles they’d used to light the cabin had fallen over as they slept. He’d assured Giles’ father that the women would have succumbed to the fumes long before the flames would have reached their bodies, but Giles had still had nightmares about being burned alive for most of his adolescence.
Giles’ eyes flickered open when he heard Smutty strike a match, but was relieved to see him light a paraffin lamp rather than a candle. How had he ended up falling for someone who danced with fire? Fate seemed to be playing tricks on him, but maybe it had been what he needed. Maybe Smutty would help him form new associations to overlay the old.
Or maybe he simply cared so deeply for the man, he’d take him any way he came, even if that included a whiff of paraffin and a body tattooed in flames.
The sound of the doors opening roused Giles from his thoughts, and he cracked his eyes open to watch Smutty step out onto the front deck. He should join him. He’d take his cues from Smutty. He wouldn’t try and browbeat him into staying. He’d just enjoy spending time with him, however long they had together.
Giles pulled on his clothing and stepped out onto the deck. Smutty gave him a quiet smile and reached out for his hand, then turned back to look over the water.
“See that light? Isn’t it beautiful?”
Giles turned to where Smutty indicated, and the breath caught in his throat. The morning sun was still low in the sky, and the beams passed through the branches of the trees on the other bank, forming glowing shafts of light in the mist over the water.
“It’s stunning,” Giles whispered.
Smutty sighed and leant back against Giles’ chest. It felt so right to wrap his arms around Smutty’s warmth and rest his cheek against a mat of fiery dreadlocks.
“I want to stay here. I really do…” Smutty began.
“But?” Giles prompted. There was always a “but.”
“It’s not just the thing with Finn, although that’s part of it. My whole life I always had the commune to return to. I loved that place. Not just the people, but the land. When I got back from Australia one year to find out they’d all been evicted and the land had been sold… I felt rootless. Just drifted after that. Never let myself get attached to any one place in case it happened again.”
“I think I understand,” Giles said. “I feel that way about this place.”
“You should make more of an effort with the gardens, then,” Smutty said, but the teasing lilt to his voice couldn’t hide the underlying sadness. “Your lawn was a disgrace.”
“You could teach me,” Giles said. “I’d like that.”
“I’d like that too.” Smutty gave a wistful sigh.
“You know you can have it if you want it. This place as your home. With me.”
“I know. But it could all be taken away so easily, and then I’d have nothing again.”
Giles spoke slowly and steadily into Smutty’s ear. “I can’t promise you exactly what the future will hold, but I can promise you I’m not the kind of man who lets things go without a fight. I’d never just tell you to leave. I’d try and fix it if things ever went wrong between us.”
“Is that what happened with Fabian?”
It was a fair question, Giles had to admit, but it still hurt. “I fought to try and save what we had, yes. I was fighting to keep him for months before he finally left. But once he did, I… Well, I came to realise that no matter how hard you fight, you can’t save what you never had. Fabian never loved me. I’m not sure he’s even capable of love.”
Smutty turned in Giles’ arms until they were facing. “I know I’m capable of love.”
Giles’ heart leapt. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
Smutty leaned in until their foreheads touched. “I’m saying: no promises, but I’m not going anywhere today, okay?”
Giles nodded. It wasn’t quite what he’d dared hope for, but it was something.
“Thank you,” he murmured.
While they kissed, the sun crested the trees and began burning the mist off the water around them.
Giles headed up to the house for his morning dose of caffeine, feeling bereft. Smutty had said he wanted to get an early start on the garden, but he’d agreed to come up to the house for elevenses later on. It was unreasonable for Giles to expect Smutty to spend every minute of the day with him, of course, but not knowing how long Smutty would stay made him greedy to hoard the memories while he had the chance.
After downing his tea, Giles contemplated putting on some old clothes and joining Smutty in the garden. Would he appreciate that? Or would he rather be left alone? God knew, Giles didn’t want to crowd the man and send him running. It sounded like Smutty had done enough running in his life. What he needed was to slow down, put down some roots somewhere. Here, preferably.
The phone’s insistent trill cut through Giles’ thoughts. He answered, with half his mind still on the Smutty problem.
“Good morning, Mr Rathbourne. Bernard Cooper here, manager of Cooper’s Garden Centre. I was hoping it might be all right to deliver your plants today as I’m a bit short-staffed tomorrow.”
“Oh, yes, of course. I don’t know if Sm–my gardener’s had time to prepare for them yet, though.”
“Don’t worry. They’re all in pots, so as long as you’ve got somewhere to put them in the meantime and keep them watered, they’ll be fine for a few weeks at least.”
Giles agreed, hoping it would be okay with Smutty, then went to pull on his oldest pair of jeans and a polo shirt that had seen better days.
He found Smutty in the kitchen garden, tearing weeds out of one of the beds. It looked like an impossible task as the place was so verdant with unwanted plants, yet Smutty had clearly found a few he wanted as he’d left them in place.
A surprised grin greeted Giles when Smutty noticed him there.
“I thought you might need some help,” Giles said. “The garden centre called to say they need to drop the plants off today.
“And there was me thinking this was your weekend look.” Smutty hooked his muddy fingers into Giles’ belt loops and pulled him closer. “I like the scarecrow vibe. It suits you.” He kissed the tip of Giles’ nose.
“I should dress like a gardener more often,” Giles said, dazed, as his arms came round to pull Smutty even closer.
“You definitely should.” Smutty twisted out of Giles’ grip, much to his disappointment. “And you should work like one too. I’m going to need a load of leaf mulch for the soil around the new fruit bushes. I raked a load off your front lawn last week and left it in a pile under the tree. Wheelbarrow’s over there. You can pile it up in the corner.”
Feeling like he’d been dismissed, Giles set about fetching dead leaves. The first load was the most troublesome as he hadn’t taken a fork with him, but after kitting himself out with gloves and tools, the work was surprisingly enjoyable. The birds were busy building their nests, the air was fresh, and it felt good to put his body to use.
As Giles hefted another forkful of soggy leaf matter into the barrow, releasing an earthy scent that somehow reminded him of bonfires, the low rumble of a decelerating engine tickled his ears. Giles turned, fully expecting to see a truck appear through his front gates.
An ice-blue Mercedes convertible with a tan soft top pulled in instead. He’d never seen the car before but perhaps that wasn’t surprising as it looked fresh from the showroom. From this angle he couldn’t make out the driver, but who in his small circle of acquaintances would drive a car that flashy? Giles could think of only one candidate. His heart began to hammer and he had to take a couple of deep breaths to calm himself.
The car circled around the central lawn and purred to a halt outside Giles’ front door.
Giles took off his gloves and tossed them onto the barrow. His palms were damp so he rubbed them on his jeans before striding across the lawn to where the driver was climbing out of his car.
“Giles, whatever are you doing there? You’ll get all dirty and sweaty.” Fabian wrinkled his nose like the thought disgusted him. “You really need to hire a new gardener.”
“What do you want?” Giles demanded.
Fabian’s face fell. “Darling, there’s no need to be rude. I have some news for you.”
Giles folded his arms across his chest. He wasn’t going to succumb to Fabian’s manipulations ever again. “Go on then. This had better be good.”
A momentary hardness flickered in Fabian’s eyes, before the imploring look was back again.
“Now Giles, don’t be mad with me, but when you told me it was over I did something rather rash.”
“And this concerns me how, exactly?”
Fabian sighed, wrung his hands and looked up at the sky. “I’m getting married.”
“That was quick work. Who’s the lucky man?” Giles couldn’t help the bitterness leaking into his voice. If this turned out to be someone Fabian was seeing while he was still with Giles…
“No, you don’t understand.” Fabian gave Giles a look he didn’t recognise at first as he’d never seen that expression on Fabian’s face. But as Fabian began speaking again in a shaky voice, he realised it was fear.
“I’m getting married to a woman.”
Giles shook his head in disbelief. “But you’re gay.”
“I know. Giles, help me!” Fabian flung himself into Giles’ arms. “I still love you,” he sobbed, and Giles’ arms automatically came up to comfort him, even if it was the last thing he really wanted to do.
Giles held onto Fabian as he sobbed disconsolately, but then a movement caught his eye.
Smutty had just rounded the corner of the house, and was staring at them both in horror.