Giles listened to the boater with the crazy hair spin some unlikely tale involving juggling flaming torches and an innocent nickname from a small child, entranced by the “smuts” all over his skin. Utter crap. No doubt it was a name he’d earned some other way, most likely involving some creepy kink. Maybe something involving cuffs and ball-gags and . . . well, Giles didn’t really know much about that scene, and he certainly didn’t want to. Most unsavoury—especially before his morning cuppa.
“—and it wasn’t until I tried to wash the stuff off that I realised it was—”
“Look, the sooner you get going on that engine the sooner you’ll be able to move along, right?” Giles snapped.
Smutty stared at him with those dark-brown eyes, all the sunshine fled from his face, and Giles felt like an obstreperous git for interrupting his story. Still, couldn’t be helped. It was done now, and there was no way he was apologising to a trespassing gypsy.
“Yeah, don’t worry, mate. I should be out of here in the next hour or so. If I can’t get it fixed, I’ll see if anyone comes past who can give me a tow.”
Giles nodded curtly, and turned back towards the house. God knows why the memory of those wounded eyes wouldn’t clear out of his vision. There wasn’t any point feeling guilty about how he’d treated a complete stranger, was there? Especially one who was quite clearly a degenerate of some kind.
By the time he got back to his kitchen the tea was lukewarm, with those unappetising little scales that always formed on the surface if he didn’t get the milk in quick enough. Bugger. He made a pot instead and took it into the breakfast room, trying to regain some sense of normality by immersing himself in the paper as usual. This particular morning, though, the political machinations in Whitehall failed to catch his interest. It would have been easy to blame the hango— headache, which had eased somewhat with the application of tea, but which still pounded away like a primitive drumbeat.
Yes, easy to blame that, but it didn’t explain why a song was threading its way through his mind, beguiling him with faded memories and bittersweet nostalgia. He heard his mother’s voice, sweet and low, singing to him at bedtime. It had been one of his favourites, “The Raggle Taggle Gypsies”, telling the tale of a privileged young bride who ran away from her new husband to sleep out under the stars with the gypsies she’d heard singing at the castle gate. The lilting tune wove through his thoughts, stirring up childhood dreams. He smiled as he remembered his eight-year-old self setting up a gypsy camp in the orchard, and how the sunlight had filtered through the patterned fabrics of his mother’s old scarves and quilts. Maybe it was simply the result of walking through the orchard for the first time in years, but he hadn’t thought of that summer in a long time. It was no wonder, considering what had happened that August night at the end of his last summer of happiness.
But it was useless to dwell on ancient grief, just as it was pointless to remember how he’d played in carefree innocence before the sun had been torn from his sky.
He should get on with his cleaning. Once togged up in his old jeans and an ancient university sweatshirt, Giles considered his options. There wasn’t anything left to do inside. He wasn’t feeling up to tackling the attic yet—too many memories waiting to ambush him—but perhaps he could start on the gardens. Yes, they’d been neglected ever since Fabian had laid off the gardener last summer. Giles still wasn’t entirely sure why Rick would have been stealing the old tools from the glasshouse—he had a set of superb British-made ones which Giles had paid for—but Fabian had been adamant that he’d caught him in the act and had spoken darkly of how much money the vintage ones would fetch at a flea market. At least Fabian hadn’t wanted to involve the police; Giles wouldn’t have wished that on young Rick. The poor lad must have been hard up to even consider stealing from him. It seemed so out of character. So . . . wrong.
But what would Giles know about it? He was a terrible judge of character. You only had to look at how things had gone with Fabian to see that. Best just to stick to inanimate objects and plants. They couldn’t surprise you. They wouldn’t trample your dreams to death and spit on you when you were down.
He’d start with the rose garden. Her presence would be strongest there, but he thought perhaps he could handle it today. The spring sunshine and the faint clinking he could hear from down where Smutty was working on his boat were reassuring. They would help keep the ghosts at bay.
To his surprise, Giles realised it was good to know that there was another living soul around the place.
“Bugger!” Smutty wiped the sweat from his brow, remembering too late his oil covered hands. The engine trouble definitely wasn’t something he could fix. He’d taken out the valves to check them, exposing the cracked cylinder head in all it’s DIY-defying glory. “That’s the last time I buy a boat from a friend!”
Freya had seemed too good to be true, the asking price well below what it should have been, even taking into account her rather dismal state. Her previous owner had been a taciturn fellow called Grouch, who Smutty had talked down from a bad trip at a party shortly after returning to England. Grouch had been living in Freya for a couple of years, moored up in a private spot but not cruising anywhere on her. Smutty had assumed this was simply because Grouch liked to stay in one place—not all boaters had the wanderlust—but maybe it was down to the fact he knew the engine was on its way out.
When was he going to learn to think things through properly before jumping in? You’d have thought he’d have figured out by now that you bloody well should look a gift horse in the mouth. This particular gift horse had rotten teeth and a bad case of halitosis.
That Giles bloke was not going to be happy.
Smutty glanced up the slope towards where the house must be, currently obscured by the trees. He should go and tell him now—get it over with. Then he could just hang around until the next likely-looking boater cruised past who might be willing to tow him to the nearest boatyard. He had to get Freya out of the water soon anyhow, as if her engine was in this much trouble, he didn’t want to imagine the state of her hull. He wiped his hands down on his t-shirt, then headed up towards the apple trees.
The orchard was like something from a fairytale. The ancient trees were covered with grey-green fronds of lichen, and Smutty could just make out clumps of mistletoe at the tops of the taller specimens. His mum would have described it as a sylvan wonderland and meditated under the oldest tree. Mind you, his mum was the kind of woman who insisted he call her by her first name. Not Deirdre, of course, but the one she’d chosen for herself: Starlight.
Something squelched under Smutty’s foot and he looked down to discover a rotten apple mashed all over the sole of his boot. They were everywhere, hidden in the long grass. Looked like this place wasn’t very well maintained. It was a shame, but then again, there was a lot of work involved in gardening and smallholding. Nostalgia twinged inside him, bittersweet. It had been way too long since he’d felt a connection with a piece of land. Growing up he’d always had the Commune to come back to after the travels Starlight dragged him on, but now it was gone and the community disbanded. All because the landowner died intestate and her son wanted to sell it off to the developers so he could retire to Marbella. It made Smutty angry, and there weren’t many things that had the power to do that.
But all traces of anger evaporated when he cleared the trees and was treated to his first view of Giles’ house. Smutty drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly, feasting his eyes on the expanse of honey-coloured limestone and gleaming sash windows. Clearly, this Giles was loaded. There was a vast expanse of what might once have been lawn—although was now more of a wildflower meadow—leading up to the rear of the house where he could spy the hummocks of overgrown flowerbeds. Ancient stone walls lined with trained fruit trees bordered the “lawn”, and his eyes were drawn to a half-open gate in one of the walls.
Smutty waded through the ocean of long grass and edged through the gap between the wrought iron gate and the crumbling wall, into an enclosed garden. It was a sun-trap, and the sweet fragrance of narcissi and hyacinth infused the air. Despite the beauty of the scene, though, his gaze was captured by one element: Giles, bent over a raised flowerbed, his shoulders shaking.
Not wanting to intrude, Smutty turned to slip out of the gateway, but tripped over a loose paving stone and fell against the iron gate. The hinges creaked in protest.
Smutty turned around to make his excuses but the words were stolen from him by a pair of bright-blue eyes staring out from a tear-streaked face. They were pleading for help, for succour.
Oh gods, how could he possibly resist?