Smutty scanned the rows of container grown fruit bushes with delight. Giles’ local garden centre had turned out to be a hidden treasure—one of those places that prioritised plants rather than garden ornaments and assorted pieces of crap. He spotted a particularly handsome specimen and turned to Giles, his reluctant chauffeur for the morning’s mission.
“So what would you say to me planting a few containers of blueberries? You spend a fortune on little packs of them air-freighted in from Chile, and you could easily grow them yourself.”
“Yes. Whatever you think is best. I’ll trust your judgement.” Giles scrubbed at his forehead with his hand. “Why do those birds have to sing so loud? They’re a bloody cacophony. Look, why don’t you pick whatever you want, then come and find me in the cafe? I need more coffee.”
“Is there a spending limit?” Smutty had the impression Giles was loaded, but as the man didn’t tend to splash money about, he didn’t like to assume.
Giles gave a wan smile. “No limit. So long as you don’t buy every last plant, I’m sure I can cover it. Knock yourself out.”
Smutty watched Giles stride down the perennial fruit aisle, admiring the purposeful way that powerful body moved. His own body stirred in response and he grinned, remembering how Giles had ploughed into him last night. He’d only been Giles’ fuck-buddy for a week, but he could certainly get used to it. Smutty was starting to think of Freya’s breakdown as the best bit of luck that had happened to him in years. Possibly ever, but he didn’t want to think about that too hard. Better just to enjoy it for what it was, and remember to leave before he’d outstayed his welcome.
A slip of a lad in green overalls approached Smutty, and he tore his gaze away from Giles’ delicious rear view.
“Anything I can help you with there, sir?”
“For a start, you can stop calling me ‘sir.’ Makes me feel weird,” Smutty said with a smile. He read the lad’s name badge. “Hi Rick. Smutty’s the name, and I’m interested in a few blueberry bushes. Have you got any late cropping varieties?”
Rick grinned back. He had friendly eyes and one of those open, guileless faces you couldn’t help but trust. Smutty warmed to him instantly, but was even more impressed with the advice he gave about the plants, especially as he couldn’t yet be out of his teens. Eventually they’d narrowed down the selection to three varieties—planting a mix would give Giles a harvest throughout the summer months.
“I’m going to need containers and some lime-free compost as well,” Smutty said, wondering how on earth they were going to fit it all in the back of Giles’ Saab.
“But you’re putting these in Mr Rathbourne’s garden, aren’t you? There’s a lime-free raised bed in the kitchen garden you could use. I always wanted to do something with it myself, but Mr Bonneville told me it was a waste of money.”
Smutty frowned. “I feel like I’ve got some catching up to do here. How’d you know I’m with Giles?”
Rick flushed a delicate rose. “I saw you arrive with him. I used to be his gardener, up until the end of last summer. How is the old place?”
So this was his predecessor—in the garden at any rate. Smutty assumed Mr Bonneville must be his other predecessor—the mysterious Fabian who seemed to have singlehandedly destroyed Giles’ confidence. But Rick was waiting for an answer, wasn’t he? “It’s doing well. I’ve had a fair bit of weeding to do, but you left it in good shape. I love what you did with the rose garden.”
“Thanks,” Rick beamed for a moment before concern warped his expression. “And how’s Mr Rathbourne doing?”
Smutty wondered just how much the locals knew about what was going on in Giles’ life. He never had any callers, and his house was outside the village with no immediate neighbours, but gossip had a way of getting around in small communities.
“Giles is doing well. Much better just recently, I think.”
“I’m glad to hear that. He was a good boss. Never wanted to have to leave that place.”
“So why did you?”
For a moment Smutty thought Rick wasn’t going to answer, and wondered if he was prying into something personal. But then Rick leant forward, even though there was no one in earshot, and spoke in low, venomous tones.
“It was Mr Bonneville’s fault.” Rick paused, as if deciding whether to continue.
“Believe me, I’ve never met the bloke, but everything I’ve heard from Giles makes me want to throttle him.”
“So, are you and Giles… er— I know it’s none of my business.” Rick avoided Smutty’s gaze, developing a sudden fascination with the leaves on the blueberry bushes.
Smutty decided to put him out of his misery. “Yeah, Giles and I are together for now, and Fabian’s long gone.” And he was going to stay that way, if Smutty had anything to do with it. “So what happened? I’ve never met this Fabian bloke, but he seems to have knocked Giles for six.”
Rick’s warm eyes hardened. “Oh yeah, that’s his style all right. If he can’t sweet talk you into doing what he wants, he’ll try and force you.”
“Force you? Are you trying to tell me he beat up Giles?” Somehow, Smutty couldn’t picture Giles letting anyone push him around like that. Manipulate him, maybe, but nothing physical.
“No! Shit, nothing like that. Oh, Christ. He just… he wouldn’t take no for an answer.”
Smutty observed Rick carefully, not wanting to leap to unwarranted conclusions. The lad wouldn’t meet his gaze, though, and the way his arms had crossed defensively over his body suggested only one thing to Smutty.
“Are you trying to tell me Fabian abused you?”
Rick blinked and for a terrible moment Smutty thought he was about to cry, but when he spoke again his voice was controlled. “I’m not saying anything. I… I’d better get back to work.”
Rick spun on his heels and marched away, leaving Smutty speechless.
Rick’s words, or rather, the things he’d left unsaid, continued to circle around Smutty’s mind as he looked over the soft fruit bushes. Was he reading too much into that halting confession? It was all too easy to imagine the worst, especially after his own experiences while travelling.
Smutty felt a twinge of anger towards Giles: where had he been when all this was happening? And why hadn’t he got rid of Fabian back then? As far as Smutty could gather from what Giles had let on, they’d only split up a month or so ago.
But then a mulberry sapling grabbed his attention, and Smutty was transported back to the Albion Commune. There had been a fine mulberry tree there, and he and Finn used to climb up it every autumn to find the best fruit, not coming down again until they were sticky and stained red with the sweet juice. Should he plant a mulberry for Giles? It wouldn’t fruit for many years yet, but it would be a beautiful addition to Giles’ ex lawn, now meadow. Perhaps it would even make up for the loss of the one the developers felled when they moved in and turned the Albion land into an estate of bland little houses and sterile paved gardens.
Smutty placed the mulberry plant in his trolley, before being distracted by yet more fruit bushes. Eventually he had to search out a garden centre employee–not Rick, who seemed to have vanished–and arrange for his purchases to be delivered, as there was no way they’d all fit in Giles’ car now. Smutty tried not to think too hard about why he was making long-term plans for a piece of land he’d have to leave as soon as he fixed his boat. No good would come of hoping for things that were never going to happen.
By the time Smutty was done with the delivery arrangements the sun was high in the sky. A perfect spring day with just a few puffy clouds and the merest hint of a breeze, and a Saturday no less. He could make a fortune performing in Bath on a day like this. Then he could fix his boat and move on before he got too deeply attached–to Giles and his land. It would be a wrench, but not as painful as it would be if he waited too long.
With his new resolve in mind, Smutty headed towards the garden centre cafe. Trade was starting to pick up and at least half of the tables were occupied with families. He found Giles sitting in a dark corner, nursing a half empty coffee cup and looking grouchier than ever.
“All done?” Giles asked. “Want a drink while we’re here?”
Smutty had the impression Giles was offering out of politeness rather than a desire to stay any longer, so he declined. “I could do with getting on today. The plants will be delivered on Monday, so I thought I’d spend the afternoon in Bath trying to make a bit of money.”
Giles furrowed his brow. “How exactly?”
“Selling my body. Think I’ll get a good price?” Smutty struck a provocative pose with his arse thrust out and batted his eyelashes.
Giles scowled and Smutty relented. “Juggling, you idiot. Gods, where’s your sense of humour got to today?”
“I don’t know. Sorry. Didn’t sleep all that much last night.”
“Tell me about it!” Smutty winked at Giles. “Can’t say I got much sleep either. You were insatiable. Didn’t think I’d be able to walk straight today.”
Giles flushed. “I didn’t notice you complaining.”
“Oh, I’m not complaining.”
Smutty stepped closer as Giles rose to leave, and for a brief moment they stood inches apart–too close for anyone other than lovers to stand. Smutty wondered where Giles set the boundaries on public displays of affection, then got his answer when Giles gave a shifty look around the busy cafe and moved back to a more socially acceptable distance.
“Uptight, much?” Smutty muttered to himself as he followed Giles out to the car.
Giles continued to look around like he was being watched as they crossed the car park, and didn’t seem to relax until they were sitting in the car. Smutty noticed fine beads of perspiration on his brow. Shit, he wasn’t having a panic attack, was he?
“You’d make a terrible spy,” Smutty offered, in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“What do you mean?”
“All those furtive glances around all the time. You looked like you were worried we were being followed.”
Giles sighed and his head slumped down, almost touching the steering wheel. “I saw someone I used to know and didn’t really want to have to talk to them. That’s all.”
“Another ex? Gods, it’s always the quiet ones, isn’t it?”
Giles snorted. “I don’t know where you got the idea I’m quiet.”
“All right then, moody and uncommunicative. That do you?”
“Sounds more accurate.” Giles actually smiled that time, much to Smutty’s relief.
As Giles backed out of their parking space he took up the subject again. “It was an ex, if you must know. Ex gardener, that is. We didn’t part on very good terms.”
Now they were getting to the interesting bit. “Oh? Argued over the length of the lawn, did you? Were you out checking it with callipers after he’d done the mowing?”
“Haha,” Giles deadpanned. “No. I feel bad about it, though. Fabian fired him and I keep thinking I should have intervened and given Rick another chance. I’m sure if he needed the money that badly we could have arranged some overtime.”
“Yes. He’d been stealing old tools from the glasshouse and selling them on. Apparently some of them can fetch a good price these days. Fabian caught him at it and let him go.”
“And you didn’t even listen to Rick’s side of the story?”
“He was stealing from me! I was angry. And besides,” Giles continued in a softer tone as he turned onto the main road. “Things weren’t going well between me and Fabian, so I didn’t like to question his decision and risk another fight.”
Smutty nodded and stared out of the window at the passing hedgerows. The more he found out about this Fabian, the less he liked him. Was it possible to hate someone you’d never even met?
Giles needed to know the full story, but it would be best coming from Rick himself. It could wait until Monday, when Rick delivered the plants in person. Giles would find out the truth, reinstate him as gardener, and then Smutty could leave with a clear conscience, knowing that Giles would be in a much better position than he’d been in when they first met.
It was a shame the thought didn’t reassure him. Moving on shouldn’t be this hard.