Like two ships passing in the night—if one was a narrowboat and the other a luxury yacht.
Disgraced private school teacher Giles Rathbourne has been sent home on extended sick-leave and is stuck in a rut of obsessive housework and drinking. His ex may have been a snobbish bastard, but without him, Giles is adrift, rattling around his huge, lonely house. When a dreadlocked narrowboater’s engine breaks down at the end of his canal-side garden, Giles is furious at this invasion of his privacy—for a while.
Smutty might not have ever held down a proper job, but the fire-dancing, free-spirited traveller can recognise an opportunity for mutual benefit when he sees it. Giles’ extensive gardens are in as desperate need of attention as the upper-class hunk is himself, whereas Smutty knows a thing or two about plants and needs a place to moor up.
A simple business arrangement between two men who have nothing else in common? It would be—if they could keep their hands off each other!
Wheels of fire spun against the night sky, searing their way across Giles’s vision in an endless dance. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust well enough to see Smutty, standing there below the spinning torches, catching and propelling them up again. Giles stayed back under the cover of the trees, not wanting to alarm the juggler and risk him causing himself an injury with the flaming clubs.
But that wasn’t the only reason he waited and watched. Smutty had stripped down to the waist and his lean torso glowed in the ever changing illumination. His skin gleamed with sweat—he would have seemed a bronzed statue if it weren’t for the constant motion, the rippling play of his muscles catching the light in a mesmerising dance as he juggled.
Giles’s eyes felt like they’d been singed, melted into place as the heat radiated through him, awakening desires long since stowed away in secret places. He made the effort to lift his gaze to concentrate on Smutty’s face. He’d have expected the man to look nervous, worried even, considering how close he was to getting badly burnt, yet the expression on his face was serene. It didn’t even look like he was watching the clubs so much as the space between them, his hands anticipating where each would be without the need for visual confirmation.
The pattern of the juggling changed, and now one club was spinning higher than the others, slowing at the top of its arc before falling back again. Giles couldn’t be sure if it was the same club each time, or if the three were being swapped. Come to think of it, he wasn’t entirely sure how many clubs there were. He tried to follow just one of them, heedless of the way his feet were drawing him closer, right into the circle of light around the brazier.
The club he was following flew high into the sky, and when it came back down again it was caught and held in the same hand as the other two. Giles looked up into Smutty’s smiling face.
“That was incredible,” Giles said, when the silence seemed to have stretched out for too long. “How d’you ever… I mean, how on earth do you learn how to do that? Don’t you get burnt?”
Smutty chuckled, a warm sound, and moved in closer, dunking the flaming torches into a metal bucket. They hissed and a cloud of steam rose out. “I thought I told you earlier, but maybe you weren’t listening. I get the impression you’re not much of a morning person.”
Giles shook his head. “No, I’m not really. Sorry. I think I was probably a bit of an ogre, wasn’t I?”
“No worries, I’m good with ogres. Here, have a seat.” Smutty indicated the battered old camping chair next to the brazier.
“What about you?” Giles couldn’t take the only seat. Couldn’t sit there with his eyes at nipple height, trying not to stare at what he couldn’t have.
“I’ll just get another off the boat. Won’t be a mo.”
While Smutty was gone, Giles sat and attempted to pour them both a glass of wine. It was difficult, what with having no flat surface to rest the glasses on. He’d have been better off bringing tumblers, or maybe even mugs. He ended up gripping the stems of both glasses between his thighs while he poured a small amount into each, and was so occupied in his task that he didn’t notice Smutty’s return until he looked up to see him settling down into a chair just opposite. Giles had a moment’s irritation at the black shirt that was now covering Smutty’s torso, but it was swept away when he raised his gaze.
He hadn’t allowed himself to notice yet, but Smutty was breathtaking. The firelight brought it out—the warm tone of his skin, the generous lips, the exotic, deep brown eyes that seemed to be teasing Giles with some secret knowledge. Suddenly, the crazy dreadlocked hair made sense.
“You’re mixed race, aren’t you?” Giles blurted out before he could stop himself.
Smutty stared at him with wide, inscrutable eyes, and Giles willed the waters of the canal to rise up and sweep him away just so he could pretend he’d never said something so gauche.
“Is that going to be a problem?” Smutty asked, his voice inflectionless.
“God, no! Of course not. Why would you think— But of course, I’m sorry. You’ve probably had to deal with all sorts of, er, unpleasantness. Racism, that kind of thing.” Giles managed to stop himself before he dug a hole too deep to pull himself out of. It didn’t help that Smutty was staring at him blankly. “I mean, I can sympathise. I’ve had to suffer other people’s prejudice myself. On account of my, er, my being gay,” he finished, his cheeks burning.
Giles risked a quick glance at Smutty. He hated outing himself. Every time he had to do it felt like the first time. That sickening lurch inside as he stumbled through the words, utterly unable to predict what reaction they would cause. He thought by now he’d seen them all: his father’s silent sorrow and reproach; the awkwardness, pity and occasional downright hatred from colleagues; and every now and then, a rare moment of calm acceptance. Right now that was the best he could hope for.
What he wasn’t expecting was laughter.