Chapter Sixteen

Smutty turned to Giles, his lips drawn in a tight line. “That’s me. Jupiter Moonbeam. Can you blame me for keeping a name like that quiet?” He watched the pain blossom in Giles’ eyes and hated himself for being the cause. But he couldn’t help having a past, could he? A past with a whole heap of unfinished business to deal with. Stuff he didn’t want Giles to have to hear, if possible.

“Could you go after Rick?” he asked Giles. “Check he’s okay? He shouldn’t drive in that state.”

“No, of course not. I, er…” Giles scrubbed a hand over his forehead. He looked like he always did before his morning cuppa. At that moment, Smutty would have happily abandoned his anti-caffeine stance and poured coffee down Giles’ throat, just to help him deal with the situation.

“I need to talk to Finn,” Smutty said, gently. “Alone. I’ll explain everything later, okay?”

Giles nodded once. Smutty’s arms ached to hold him, but he was gone.

Leaving Jupiter and Finn.

Finn glared defiantly, but it was so easy to see through the gaps in the brittle armour. That frightened, fucked-up kid was still there, peeking out at an unfair world and plotting how to survive. Smutty cursed under his breath, trying to harden his heart. Why the hell did he have be so bloody compassionate? This man had caused untold hurt to him and to Giles. And Rick too, by the looks of things.

Smutty glanced at the table, already set for elevenses, because Giles couldn’t do things by halves and had to put jam out in little china pots with specially shaped spoons. The man even used a toast rack, for fuck’s sake. Smutty couldn’t do this here, among Giles’ things, his perfectly-ordered life. He didn’t want to taint it with the screwed-up melodrama of two Essex boys. Boys who used to live in a battered old caravan and who had to lower the dinette table every night to have somewhere to sleep.

Freya would be a more fitting location.

“Let’s go somewhere private,” he said. “Follow me.”

Smutty walked to the french windows and opened them up. The light had changed during their time indoors, pulling a shadow over the land. He looked to the west to see a bank of dark clouds moving inexorably across the sky, as a cool breeze whipped through his hair, carrying the taste of rain.

“I’m not going out in that,” Finn grumbled, and Smutty could hear the Estuary accent slipping back into his voice.

“Don’t be such a pussy. I’ve seen you sitting in the tops of trees during worse than this.”

“That was a long time ago.”

“Yeah, well we won’t have to stay outside. I’ve got a boat.”

“A boat? Moving up in the world, are we?” Finn sneered, but followed Smutty out and along the path through the meadow.

The walk out to Freya was both too long and not nearly long enough. Smutty tried to keep his mind blank. To have no preconceptions and just dwell in the moment, all the better for keeping himself alert to Finn’s bullshit and all the things he left unsaid. Talking to him had always been an exercise in reading between the lines to get at the person under the act. But it was impossible to completely quash those old feelings as they rose inside him. Not after Giles stirring them all up again last night, so they stung like fresh blows rather than the dull ache he’d expected time to have granted him.

“Here she is,” Smutty said as they cleared the trees. “Meet Freya. She’s new to me, so don’t expect much. Her last owner didn’t look after her too well.”

“Can’t be any worse than the dump we grew up in.”

“Yeah, thanks. That’s my childhood home you’re talking about there.”

“Should have known you’d be sentimental about that rusty tin can. You always were a soppy git.”

“Fuck off,” Smutty retorted, but he almost felt like smiling. It was Finn! It had been like losing one of his limbs when Finn had run off, leaving him wounded and incomplete. Who else knew him as well as this man did?

But that was a disloyal thought. Finn didn’t know the first thing about him these days, did he?

Much as he didn’t know who Finn was anymore.

Smutty climbed onto the front deck and opened the doors, not bothering to see if Finn would follow. He knew he would. Finn needed closure as much as he did.

Freya was gloomy, little light entering her portholes now the ragged edge of the storm clouds covered the sun. Smutty lit the two lanterns, but it still felt too dark, too intimate. He set about lighting candles, sticking them into the empty wine bottles he’d liberated from Giles’ recycling bins. He felt Freya rock in the water as Finn stepped on board.

Smutty waited until Finn had closed and bolted the doors behind him, then turned to face him. The space felt too small, too claustrophobic for someone carrying as much baggage as Finn did. Smutty stared into those eyes, still that delicate grey-green he remembered so well.

“You never went for coloured contacts, then?” he asked. “I’m amazed, considering you’ve had everything else done.” He missed that bump on Finn’s nose, the mole and the crooked front teeth. Those flaws had only highlighted his beauty, as far as Smutty had been concerned.

“Not everything. My hair’s all natural.” Finn preened, and a memory accosted Smutty: both of them naked, sweaty. Finn poised above him, buried to the hilt inside, that long, silky hair brushing across his nipples and setting his skin ablaze.

Fuck. He didn’t want to remember any of that. “I liked it better longer,” he said shortly.

Finn took a step forward, but Smutty wasn’t going to back away.

“Yes, I remember. You used to get this look on your face when I was brushing it. That’s when I first knew. What you were. What we both were.”

That was another memory Smutty didn’t need: Finn bending over to get a comb at the knots underneath, baring the nape of his neck while his hair fell around his face like strands of spun gold.

Finn had taken another step while the memories rose thick and fast. He stood no more than a heartbeat away. Smutty’s pulse began to race while his skin flushed with heat. He had to do something. His gaze met Finn’s, but it was impossible to pull away from those eyes. Eyes that he’d once cherished. Eyes that had haunted his dreams for years.

Finn’s lips curved in a predatory smile.

***

Giles followed the trail of open doors through the kitchen to the garden. He cast his gaze over the meadow, wondering if he’d have to follow a track through the long grasses. It would be tricky, what with the breeze hastening and whipping the stalks around. But no, there was another open door: the gate to the rose garden.

He found Rick sitting on one of the arbour seats, his head in his hands. Rick didn’t look up when Giles sat down next to him, but a subtle shift in his position indicated he was aware he wasn’t alone.

Giles waited, not trusting himself to speak just yet in case he screwed things up even further. Instead, he studied Rick, trying to work out just what it was that had caught Fabian’s eye. His unruly auburn hair was certainly striking–glowing Titian red even in this stormy light–but all Giles could see was a gangly limbed youth, not yet grown into his own body. Maybe Fabian wasn’t all that picky, or maybe it was the appeal of that innocent, trusting nature.

This was the moment when Giles had expected to feel jealous, faced with incontrovertible proof of Fabian’s indiscretions, but he was surprised to experience something more akin to empathy. After all, hadn’t he and Rick been hoodwinked by the man?

“Mr Rathbourne,” Rick said, lifting his head and revealing red-rimmed eyes. “I’m so, so, sorry. I shouldn’t have– I didn’t mean to– Oh shit! You must hate me.”

Giles laid a hand on Rick’s shoulder and squeezed. “I don’t hate you. I think I’m grateful, in a strange kind of way. Now I know I wasn’t paranoid for no reason.”

“You knew he was cheating on you? Why d’you stay with him, then?”

“Why did you want a relationship with him when you knew he’d gone behind my back?”

Rick chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully. “Yeah. Okay, I wasn’t really thinking straight, was I? It was just such a buzz, finding out a sophisticated guy like him was attracted to me.”

“I remember,” Giles murmured, thinking back to how charming Fabian could be when he put his mind to it. He’d swept the twenty-eight-year-old Giles off his feet, that was certain. It wasn’t difficult to see how easily a naive and inexperienced lad like Rick could be taken in.

Giles’ insides gave a sickening jolt as he recalled that Smutty was now on his own with Fabian. Or Finn. Or whoever the man really was. But Smutty wasn’t naive and inexperienced, was he? A little too prone to seeing the good in everyone, perhaps.

Giles groaned. Smutty had been in love with Fabian, once upon a time. What if he still was?

“You okay, Mr Rathbourne? Need me to get you anything?”

A shotgun to see off the competition, perhaps? But no. Giles had never been interested in hunting, unlike Fabian’s set. “I could murder a coffee. Come on. Let’s get you one before you have to drive back.”

“Thanks, but I’ll be all right now,” Rick said. “Should get on with unloading and back to work, I reckon. Looks like it’s gonna piss it down any minute now.”

They both peered up at the dark clouds, now covering half the sky.

“Are you happy at the garden centre?” Giles asked. “If not, perhaps I could take you back again.”

Rick gave him a puzzled look. “But you’ve got a new gardener, haven’t you? I thought you and that Smutty bloke were…” Rick blushed an endearing shade of fuchsia. Dear God, Giles hoped he didn’t turn quite that colour when Smutty embarrassed him. “And anyway,” Rick recovered. “I like it there. Got friends. Workmates. There’s this one guy… well, he’s really cute.”

“Oh yes? Interested, is he?”

Rick frowned. “I dunno. I mean, he’s friendly and he don’t have a girlfriend, but how d’you tell if someone’s gay when they’re not saying?”

Giles gave a wry smile and rose. “You’re asking the wrong man, I’m afraid. I’ve always been terrible at that sort of thing. Fabian used to say I was abominably ignorant.”

“That man’s a right wanker. You should totally kick him out of your house, you know?”

Giles considered the words, spoken with all the self-righteous indignation of youth, but perhaps Rick had a point. He squared his shoulders and took a deep breath.

“Let’s get you safely out of the way first, and I may well do just that.”

Rick grinned, before dropping his eyes to the ground bashfully. “Thanks, Mr Rathbourne. I really appreciate you being so understanding and all.”

“Quite all right,” Giles said. “Now come on. There’s plants to unload. I’ll give you a hand.”

And right after that, there was a pernicious weed that needed uprooting, once and for all.

***

Chapter Seventeen

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