The alarm clock ripped Giles Rathbourne from the warm blanket of his dreams and dragged him rudely into another empty morning. He glared at its smug face, fighting the urge to defenestrate the bloody thing. He didn’t want to break the window. Not again.
Tea. Giles had a medical need for tea. The morning always looked better after that first cup had taken the sharp edges off. He stumbled downstairs, tying the belt of his dressing gown as he lurched into the kitchen. The April sunshine assaulted his eyes and he groaned. He didn’t need to be up this early. It wasn’t like he had a job to go to any more—not now they’d kindly informed him he’d be better off “resting” until he was ready to return.
Memories of his last day at Wintermead Prep rose up inside him on a wave of burning shame. It was four weeks ago now, but he had a feeling the mortifying recollections wouldn’t fade for a long time. He had a good excuse for his behaviour, of course. Two years of slowly-brewing stress and incipient alcoholism had finally come to a head after Fabian had walked out on their relationship. After a long night seeking oblivion at the bottom of a bottle of ten-year-old Scotch, he’d had a shocking lapse of judgement and gone into work. Just his luck for the day to have kicked off with taking Year Twelve for double English Lit. That class had always wound him up, and the alcohol had loosened his tongue enough for him to inform the little sods exactly what he thought of them. The deputy head had come to investigate what all the noise was about, and the officious bastard hadn’t been spared a tongue-lashing either. Then there was that ill-advised sprint through the quad that culminated in him throwing up in the fountain right outside the Headmaster’s office.
No, he could understand why they didn’t want him back right now. He had a feeling they wouldn’t want him to return until the new school year in September, if at all.
Giles sighed and glanced at the drinks cabinet as the kettle hummed. A wee tot of something in his tea would ease the throbbing behind his eyes, but he had a routine and he was going to stick to it. Up at seven, housework all morning—his house was spotless now but there was always something he could find to do like scrubbing the curtain rings clean—painting after lunch and no opening that cabinet or venturing into the cellar until after six in the evening, no matter how much those bottles called to him. The routine was the only thing keeping him from losing the plot entirely. Keeping him sane . . . if you could call a man who had spent the previous morning carefully dusting every last lightbulb in the house sane.
He was squeezing out his teabag when he first became aware of the noise. It was a boat engine—nothing unusual there as his garden backed onto the canal and he often heard them chugging past. This one didn’t sound healthy, though. There was an irregular beat, punctuated by ear-splitting bangs.
Giles peered out of the kitchen window. It was hard to see anything much past the tangle of ancient fruit trees and brambly undergrowth, but he caught a glimpse of bright blue paint under the plume of white smoke.
Then the engine died.
The silence was deafening. Giles could still see the boat through the vegetation, stuck there at the end of his garden. That just wouldn’t do. He needed his privacy. Someone would have to tell the boat owner to move along.
Giles was halfway through his orchard before he realised he was still in his dressing gown and slippers.
“Shit!” Smutty steered Freya into the bank with the last of her forward momentum, then grabbed hold of the mooring pins and mallet. He hoped she’d just overheated, but the misfiring and smoke had him worried it might be something more serious. What if she’d blown a gasket? That wasn’t the kind of thing he knew how to repair, and he had a feeling it would cost more than he had left in his account.
“Come on girl,” he said, patting her roof as the engine made ominous settling-down groans. “I just paid good money for you. Don’t you give up on me now.”
He was out in the wilds near Bradford on Avon, but at least he’d managed to find somewhere with a decent area of rabbit-cropped grass by the canal-side for him to work on the engine. He probably should have moored up on the towpath side, but he’d liked the look of the wild side better. That was him, always walking on the wild side. He gave a wry smile as he remembered some of the more debauched episodes from his winter travelling around Australia. At times things had got a little too much even for him. Gods, what if he was starting to get too old for the itinerant lifestyle? He wasn’t about to start hankering after settling down, was he?
Smutty shrugged off the thought and smiled as he hammered in the first mooring pin. Okay, so it was a bugger having the engine fail on him mere hours after signing over his money, but he couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful spot to moor up while he figured out how to fix her. He could just make out blossoming trees beyond the tangle of brambles that bordered the close-cropped grass. Looked like apple blossom, although it was hard to tell from this distance. He’d have to take a stroll up there later and check them out.
He was hammering in the second pin, lost in fond memories of the orchard at the Albion Commune where he’d spent his childhood—the bits of it when his mum wasn’t moving them around, that was—when he became aware of a prickling sensation at the back of his neck. Felt like someone was watching him. Smutty turned and grinned. The guy was glaring at him, but it was hard to take a man seriously when he was dressed in one of those old-fashioned, royal-blue quilted dressing-gowns and a pair of fluffy slippers shaped to look like animal feet, complete with a row of claws at the toes. Mind you, he always smiled at strangers, no matter how nutty they looked, because his mum had taught him that a stranger was just a friend he hadn’t met before, and so far his experiences had backed her up pretty well. He just had to try and forget about the few times that philosophy had let him down.
Maybe the guy had taken objection to the way he looked. Smutty checked out his outfit—it was a little ragged but no worse than usual—black jeans and an orange t-shirt. Nothing objectionable there. The hair threw some people, but he tended to get more compliments than insults about the dreads. He kept them short for safety, no longer than two inches so they stood out around his head like a corona. It was part of the whole fire-dancing act, and the red, orange and yellow dye job made it look like his head was ablaze.
“All right, mate? Anything I can do for you?” he called.
Dressing-gown bloke stalked across the short grass towards him. Smutty took a moment to tie the rope to the second pin so that Freya was secure, then looked up again. The guy was almost on him, and up close he had a whole new set of impressions. Forget about the crazy dress sense and hostile expression—just look at those eyes! They glowed a bright, turquoise-blue, lambent in the morning light. He didn’t think he’d ever seen such beautiful eyes, so it was a shame that the effect was currently spoilt by the bloodshot whites. The unearthly blue was striking against the pallor of the guy’s skin and the dark brown hair that tousled on his head—and his chest too, but Smutty tried to keep his gaze above the shoulders. Best not to check someone out when they were about to rip into you, although he couldn’t help but wonder if Dressing-gown bloke was wearing anything underneath the robe. Based on the rest of the guy’s outfit, it would probably be something bizarre like a pair of Superman briefs.
“What the blazes do you think you’re doing in my garden? This is trespass, I’ll have you know.” Dressing-gown bloke spat the words out, but Smutty could hear the refinement in his accent. It would be good to hear that deep voice mould itself around more agreeable words. He had no doubt that he’d be able to calm the guy down quickly enough, though—he was usually pretty good at that sort of thing.
“Sorry mate. I thought it was public land. Didn’t see any fences or buildings or I’d have moored up on the other side.” Smutty glanced back over the canal to the narrow strip of grass next to the dusty towpath. No, this side was much better. He wanted to stay here if he could get away with it. He straightened up, pleased to notice that the guy was about the same height as him so he wouldn’t end up unintentionally intimidating just because he was tall. He held out his hand. “Name’s Smutty. Just bought the boat and then had the engine die on me. I could do with mooring up for a bit while I figure out what the problem is. Probably won’t take too long. What do you say? You’ll hardly know I’m here. Not unless you want to, anyway.” Smutty couldn’t help the flirtatious note that slipped into his voice, but he did his best to look wide-eyed and trustworthy.
Dressing-gown bloke eyed Smutty with scepticism and looked at his hand like it was filthy—which, come to think of it, it probably was.
“How long will it take?” he asked, scowling even harder and twisting his face all out of shape.
“Depends what it is, really, but I should have an idea in the next hour or so if I can get the engine stripped.” Smutty tried to tone down his smile so he looked like a professional who could get the job done. It seemed to do the trick, as the guy’s shoulders dropped and his stance loosened from combative to resigned.
“Giles Rathbourne,” he said. The scowl morphed into a grimace and Giles rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Bastard headache!”
“Want me to make you a cup of chamomile tea?” Smutty offered. “I’ve got fennel if you prefer.”
“Why the hell would I want that muck? I need caffeine!” Giles squeezed his eyes shut and started to massage his temples.
“Can’t help you there, Giles. I’m a clean-living sort of fella.” And he was . . . most of the time. If you didn’t count full moons and fire festivals.
When Giles eventually opened his eyes they were watering, but the hard glint had gone.
“What kind of a name is Smutty, for Christ’s sake?”
Smutty grinned. If Giles liked stories, then the guy would be eating out of his hand soon. Well, maybe not, but at least they should earn him the leave to stay.
“Funny you should ask that. It’s from back when I started learning fire dancing and I’d end every practice completely covered in soot . . .”