Table of Contents
A Faerie Story
About the Author
A FAERIE STORY
A Faerie Story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Elsborg Cover design by B4Jay
Edited by Deco
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned or transmitted in any manner without written permission from Barbara Elsborg, except for brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For all enquiries please contact Barbara Elsborg at email@example.com
Image/art disclaimer : Licensed material is being used for illustrative purposes only.
With thanks to Rita, Jo, Katerina, Angela, Angelika, Karen and Ali for their thoughts!
Also to members of my Facebook Group Barbara’s Besties—who kindly offered their names. Amor, Carly, Katerina, Fiona, Samantha, Patricia, Anita, Angela, Cari, Nese, Alexu, Meredith and Cynthia. Bet you didn’t think I’d get that many of you in!
And to Rachel at Signal Boost Marketing!
A Faerie Story
Once upon a time,
the fate of three men was decided in a world where it was forever Christmas.
A faerie forced to flee his homeland
Kaegan lives in fear of his vicious twin brother. Tormented and abused, his only option; is to escape to the one place he knows he’ll be safe: Inverkillen, a haven of magic, eternal Christmas where he has the chance to live the life he craves. But leaving Faerieland means taking a huge risk.
A man searching for a second chance
Aiden’s world is broken. Life is a dark and wretched place—until a chance encounter with Kaegan gives him hope for a brighter future. But fate has never been Aiden’s friend. No sooner has Kaegan come into his life, than he’s gone. Aiden is resigned to loneliness, but after he makes a startling discovery, he takes a decision that could be the biggest gamble of his life.
An anguished soul ready to end it all
Pascal is afraid to love. He’s determined not to risk his heart when he knows everything can be snatched away in a single moment. A fateful meeting leads to a night of enchantment and passion, leaving Pascal hungry to know more about the mysterious Kaegan. But when morning comes, Kaegan is gone, leaving Pascal to follow the one clue he has to the beautiful stranger’s whereabouts.
Three men in search of a second chance, deep in a snowy wilderness. Will Christmas cast its magic to give them the greatest gift of all: their Happy Ever After?
When three men were boys
Kaegan curled up in the centre of the werethorne bushes, gritting his teeth as the spiky barbs sought a way through his clothes. It was the first place he’d found to hide that his brother might not think to check because no one would be stupid enough to crawl into somewhere so uncomfortable, let alone mildly poisonous.
His heart pounded so hard it ached. Herne was crashing around not even trying to be quiet, convinced it was only a matter of time before he found Kaegan. No point trying to make himself unseen because Herne would sense the disturbance in the air and be on him in a flash.
“Come out, come out wherever you are.” Herne’s sing-song voice was riddled with malice.
Kaegan didn’t even blink. One of the werethorne’s berries hung right next to his mouth and his lips had already begun to swell. As long as he didn’t spend too long in the bushes, he’d be fine. Otherwise he’d be covered in purple spots for days and the butt of everyone’s jokes.
“I know you’re there.”
Kaegan stopped breathing. He only allowed himself to exhale when he heard his brother moving away. Once Kaegan had turned his head from the berry, his lips thanked him. He was so tired of this, the constant torment, the not knowing when or where Herne would choose to ambush him. Kaegan had delayed leaving school today thinking he’d avoid the punishment promised for doing better than Herne in a test, but Herne had caught up with him on the route home, causing Kaegan to bolt across the meadow and into the werethorne patch.
“You better run, little rabbit.” Herne sounded closer.
Despite telling himself not to move a muscle, despite knowing the slightest twitch could give him away, Kaegan’s body sensed oncoming pain and he found himself curling into a tighter ball. A twig snapped. No! He was tempted to make a break for it, but what was the point? Herne was bigger, faster, physically stronger, and almost always caught him in the end.
“It’s no fun if you don’t run.” Herne heaved Kaegan out of the bushes by the scruff of his neck then sat on his legs, pinning him to the ground. His eyes glittered. Not a good sign.
Kaegan swallowed hard when a silver-bladed knife appeared in his brother’s hand.
“If you don’t run, how can I use you for target practice?”
Last week Herne had chased after him, throwing several long thin knives. They’d whistled past Kaegan’s ears until one had hit him in the backside—not a miss-throw—and brought him crashing down, much to his brother’s amusement.
“Let’s play noughts and crosses.” Herne dragged the blade down Kaegan’s arm, ripping his shirt, leaving a line of ruby-red beads on his skin.
Kaegan sucked in a breath at the biting pain.
“Want to be a nought or a cross?” Herne grinned.
A smile from Herne always meant trouble. Maybe more trouble than a scowl because when his brother was pissed off, he made mistakes Kaegan could sometimes twist to his advantage.
“Choose.” Herne glared.
Kaegan’s silence was one of his few effective weapons. Though not very effective because Herne drew another line parallel to the first. Deeper. Kaegan bit his lip to stop himself crying out.
Herne drew the knife twice across the two lines to make a bright red grid. Kaegan tried to wriggle free, but with Herne’s weight on his body, his knees pressing onto Kaegan’s hands, his brother had no trouble keeping him where he was.
“I’ll be the cross.” Herne cut the mark in the centre square. “Where do you want your nought?”
“Not going to tell me? I’ll decide for you.”
He cut Kaegan again. Blood trickled down his arm onto the grass and Kaegan felt the earth groan. The elements were the few things in this world that truly loved him. He thought about pulling on his magic, then thought again.
Ironic that he was supposed to be the most powerful faerie in the kingdom but wasn’t allowed to use his magic against another faerie. Unfair and infuriating with a brother like Herne who was always trying to provoke him into retaliating. If he did fight back, it was always Kaegan who was punished, even for giving Herne the slightest mental shove. He was careful to avoid injuring his brother though Herne exaggerated every bruise whether inflicted by Kaegan or not. Kaegan’s other problem was that he wasn’t good at controlling the power he had. His father said it would come with age. All Kaegan wanted was to be like every other faerie.
“You’re such a disappointment,” Herne hissed. “Three hours and I’d have had the power and I’d know what to do with it.”
As the seventh son of a seventh son of a seventh son Kaegan should have been a wonder. Instead he seemed to be a disappointment to everyone but his father. To his twin brother, Herne, born three hours before him, and therefore the sixth son, Kaegan was an abomination.
“No wonder no one wants to be your friend,” Herne snarled.
Herne had made sure of that, telling lies about Kaegan from the moment he learned to talk. Before he learned to talk. Crying and rubbing his arm when they’d lain side by side in the crib as if Kaegan had pinched him when it was the other way around. Their mother had favoured Herne from the beginning. The more beautiful child, the stronger one, the one who adored her, the one who gave her his first words. Kaegan hadn’t spoken until he was four. Even now, many thought him mute because he rarely chose to speak.
Herne cut him again and again while Kaegan stared into his brother’s face without blinking, his fury bubbling toward explosion. I hate you so much. If Kaegan hadn’t been pretty sure the penalty for throwing Herne to the other side of the field would be a lengthy imprisonment or worse, he’d have done it, assuming he actually could do it.
“Look! I won!” Herne joined three crosses with one long slice of his knife and beamed at him. “Let’s play again, but on your face.”
Kaegan’s fury snapped into uncontrolled rage. As Herne slashed at him, Kaegan grabbed the knife, flicked it round and struck Herne’s arm. Well, that was what he meant to do. But he missed his arm, hit Herne’s face and his brother screamed.
“What are you two doing?”
That was the voice of their oldest brother, Farun.
Kaegan scrambled to his feet. Herne lay on the ground groaning, clutching his face and there was so much blood… Farun gave Kaegan a horrified look and scooped Herne into his arms. Kaegan ran. He ignored Farun’s calls and headed towards Diamond Beach where there were lots of caves he could hide in.
As he raced down onto the sand, he saw a few of Farun’s friends kicking a ball and realised he’d have to go all the way around the headland so they wouldn’t see where he hid. A risk when the tide was on the turn. Eventually, Farun would come after him and pick up his friends on the way. Kaegan ran past the first few caves. If they wasted time searching those, they might worry about getting cut off and give up. He sprinted to a small distant cave he’d been in before and darted inside.
When he risked a glance back, he saw no one in pursuit. He made his footprints disappear so he didn’t give himself away, then climbed up several feet onto a ledge. He lay on the wet slab with his heart pounding and peered through a small hole in the rock that gave a view of the beach. This wasn’t a place he could stay in for long. The incoming sea would fill the cave to the roof. All he was doing was delaying the inevitable.
Kaegan put his hand on his arm and healed the cuts, biting his lips against the pain as his skin knitted together. One of the few things he was good at. Just as well when Herne was always finding a way to hurt him.
Oh God, Herne. Your face… What have I done?
He continued to watch through the narrow gap and it wasn’t long before Farun and his friends rounded the headland. His brother directed one into the first cave. It hadn’t occurred to Kaegan that they’d split up. He gulped.
Please, please. Kaegan pressed himself down against the rock slab, pleading with the spirit of the stone. Hide me somewhere safe. The sound of Farun calling his name filled him with fear. What did I do to Herne? What will they do to me? Kaegan muttered every entreaty he could think of, pulled on his magic, and suddenly felt himself falling.
For a long moment, he thought he’d tumbled from the rock, but he found himself curled up in a place he didn’t recognise, one where it was night time. When the blinding pain in his head faded, he registered he was crouched in a doorway in another world, one where beauty fell from the sky. Big, fat white flakes fluttered to the ground and Kaegan’s jaw dropped. Snow! He’d read about it, but never seen it. He pushed himself to his feet but his knees shook so violently, he had to put a hand against the door to steady himself.
This place had high-rise buildings, glittering glass towers, fast-moving vehicles and so many people. Kaegan looked out of place. His shirt was ripped and bloody, his trousers too thin and he was barefoot. He didn’t feel cold but he couldn’t blend in looking like this. He was afraid to call on his magic here, afraid to move from the doorway in case he couldn’t find his way back to it. What if he couldn’t get home? No one would know where he’d gone.
Do I want to go home?
His heart calmed.
He stood marvelling at the flakes falling from the sky and put out his hand. When one landed on his palm, it melted to a drop of water and as he licked it up, someone opened the door behind him and Kaegan jolted forward.
“Sorry, kid,” a man said and walked off down the street.
Kaegan wanted to explore. Just a little bit. Even if he wanted to go back, he couldn’t return yet. He might find himself trapped in a cave filled with water. He moved out of the doorway and examined it carefully. There was a name on a metal rectangle. SMS Systems. Directly across the street was a shop selling candles. Kaegan risked walking a little way away from his gateway, then looked back to check the door was still there. It was.
Don’t get lost.
The snow wasn’t settling on the pavement, though he wished it would. Kaegan tipped back his head and opened his mouth, catching the flakes on his tongue. Snow was the most magical thing he’d ever seen.
He walked down the street and emerged onto a far busier road, unlike anything in Faerieland. Big and small vehicles moved in both directions. Crowds of people of all shapes and sizes bustled along carrying bags and parcels. The shop windows were enormous, full of colourful, interesting things. Everywhere looked bright and shining.
He tipped his head up and gasped. Overhead, huge blue and gold winged creatures, studded with twinkling lights, soared the length of the street. Faeries? No, angels. Kaegan stood with his mouth open. Music poured from the stores. Christmas. Information about this world was sparse in Faerieland but Kaegan had read everything he could about it, talked to those elderly faeries who’d visited. He’d been led to believe it was a bad place but that didn’t seem true.
“Are you okay, sweetheart?” A woman stopped in front of him. “Where’s your mummy and daddy? What happened to your shoes? Have you had an accident?”
Kaegan didn’t know how to respond. If he said the wrong thing, he might get into trouble.
“I…I’m fine,” he muttered, his voice croaky through lack of use.
“No you’re not. It’s snowing. You’ve no shoes, no coat. How old are you?”
“And your mother lets you dye your hair.” She tsked. “There’s blood on your shirt, on your arm. Shall I call for help?”
“No, home is close. Thank you.”
“Do you have money to get back?”
He shook his head again. The woman pulled out her purse and handed him a piece of paper. No, not paper. Money. Ten pounds. “Thank you.”
“I know this is probably a scam, but…” She sighed and walked away.
I should have put myself in a coat and shoes. A hat. Risked using my magic. There were too many people around to do it now. He walked a little way along the street looking into the shop windows, checking out the clothes, taking in what he needed to wear. He decided to try a little magic and give himself shoes at least and when he was in the midst of a group of people, he did just that. No one reacted. There were no signs of disturbance and he heaved a sigh of relief.
He added a sweater and a hat in the next twenty yards. His white-blond hair, tipped with blue, stood out in this world. As did his ears. He didn’t dare risk doing anything about those. He might end up looking like an elephant. An animal he’d only seen in books.
Every so often, he turned and looked back to make sure he could recognise the street he’d come from. The longer he walked, the more confident he became. He checked out every store he passed. In one window, he saw a big ball with snow swirling inside it and at the base, a penguin turning in a circle on an ice floe. There were smaller glass balls all around with different contents. They were so beautiful that he couldn’t resist going into the shop.
“Can I help you?” a man asked.
Kaegan saw the man didn’t trust him and he took the money from his pocket. “I’d like to buy a snow world, please.”
“A snow globe? Which one?”
Kaegan sucked in a breath when he took in the large display behind the counter. “Which can I afford?” He offered the man the note.
“Which would you like?” The man sounded kinder now. Perhaps he’d worried Kaegan would steal from him.
“The one…with the three boys playing in the snow. Can I afford that?”
The man lifted it from the shelf and put it on the counter. “Yes.”
Kaegan picked it up, shook it and smiled when he saw the snow swirl. Not real. But still… “This please. I’d like this.”
The man wrapped it up for him in tissue paper. “Here you go. Merry Christmas.”
Words he repeated to strangers as he walked down the street. Kaegan loved this world, full of fascinating things. It made his heart sing. Someone he didn’t know had given him money. Maybe because she felt sorry for him but it was very kind. Now he had something special from this world to take home.
He shuddered. I have to go home. He had to face up to what he’d done. He shouldn’t have healed his arm and then at least his parents would have seen what Herne had done. Running meant he’d given Herne time to lie.
Kaegan slowly made his way back to the doorway. Enough time should have passed that the tide would have been in and gone out again. Now he had to hope he could persuade the door to let him back through. He did what he’d done before. Mentally pushed, asked politely and he found himself back on the ledge. The cave entrance was covered by water but to his relief, the tide had turned. He reluctantly made his sweater, hat and shoes disappear, but not his snow globe. Now all he had to do was wait.
It was dark by the time he emerged onto the beach. No sign of Farun or his friends. Or the gardie. The faerie police. Kaegan wished he had a safe place to leave the globe but outside his room, he didn’t. He crept back to the house, climbed in through his bedroom window and put the globe under the board in the floor where he’d hidden other treasures—his special curled shell, the pieces of polished glass, the feather from the iren bird… Then he put the board back in place.
He went back out of the window and round to the front door. The moment he entered the house, Farun emerged from the dining room and shouted, “He’s back.”
His mother came into the hall, spitting with fury. “Where have you been?”
“The tide cut me off. Is… Is Herne okay?”
“Okay? Okay?” It was as if she turned into a swirling ball of snakes. “You slice open your brother’s face. You blind him in one eye, run away and now you ask if he’s okay? You are a despicable coward.”
I blinded him? Kaegan pressed his hand to his mouth.
His father joined his mother in the doorway. “What happened to you? Where’s all that blood come from? Did Herne cut you?”
“Don’t make this about Kaegan,” his mother snapped. “One son blinded by another. How are we to explain that?” She turned to Kaegan. “Get out of my sight.”
Kaegan gulped and fled to his room. He’d be lucky if he wasn’t put in prison. He hadn’t meant to do that to Herne. He’d been defending himself. Except he shouldn’t have. He knew the rules. Kaegan wished he could run back to the world he’d left, where it was Christmas and everyone was happy. Could he survive there on his own? Not while he was a child.
He understood he’d been thrown a rope that could save him or maybe hang him. Making a gateway was forbidden by royal edict. But even if anyone found out what he could do, apart from having to catch him, how could any punishment he might be given make his life worse? Herne already hated him, what would he be like now? But I’ve discovered a place to hide where no one will find me. That thought gave him hope.
Pascal and his older brother Étienne sat on the floor of the chalet surrounded by Christmas presents and torn paper. Their parents had unwrapped their gifts in a much more leisurely way and still had quite a few to open. Étienne’s biggest present was new skis. Pascal’s was a telescope, but now he’d seen his brother’s skis, he wished he’d asked for those. They were both anxious to go up onto the mountain but their father had made it clear they had to wait until all the presents had been opened.
“Hurry,” Pascal whispered under his breath as his mother scratched at the tape on the side of a parcel.
A ball of wrapping paper hit his head, thrown by Étienne. Pascal threw it back at him. This was the first time they’d been away from home on Christmas Day. When their father had suggested they rent a chalet in the French alps, he and Étienne had been ecstatic.
“Oh thank you so much. That’s beautiful, Jean-Paul,” their mother said.
Pascal looked back to see her holding a large snow globe. There were three trees inside and a howling wolf standing on a rock. She shook it and a blizzard enveloped everything.
“It’s pretty, Maman,” Étienne said.
“How many more do you have to open?” Pascal pushed to his feet and went over to the tree. “Five? How can you still have five?”
She laughed. “Go and get ready for the slopes. It’s fine. I’ll make dinner. Be back here in two hours.” She turned to their father. “You can go with them.”
“No, I’ll stay and help you. Étienne, keep your eye on Pascal. Pascal do as your brother tells you.”
“Absolument, Papa.” Pascal grinned and rushed back to the room he was sharing with Étienne.
Étienne was as keen to be on the slopes as him and once they were dressed and kitted out with helmets and goggles, they skied down to the lift. Pascal was four years younger than his fourteen-year-old brother but just as good, if not better, on skis and snowboard. Faster, definitely.
As they went up on the chair lift, there was a bang and everything shook.
Pascal gripped the sides of the swinging seat. “What was that?”
“Aren’t they supposed to do that before the slopes open?”
Étienne shrugged. “Maybe they’re higher up on the mountain. Nowhere near us. I’ll follow you down, okay? Stick to the groomed slopes. Stop on that flat part by the snowmaker and wait for me.”
“I want to go top to bottom,” Pascal whined.
“Not this first time. Stop halfway.”
They slid off the chair at the top and skied right. There was hardly anyone up there, but the conditions were perfect, the sky bright blue. Heavy snow had fallen overnight and covered all the icy patches they’d clattered over yesterday. Étienne joined him at the top of the slope and they fastened the clips on their boots, before sliding their wrists into the pole straps.
“Hold your ski pole handle over the strap,” Étienne said. “And don’t go off piste.”
Pascal rolled his eyes and pushed off down the slope. He could see their chalet far off to the right, thought of the meal his mother was making and his mouth watered. He went faster, carved a turn across the slope and glanced back to see Étienne about twenty metres behind. As Pascal turned again, he heard a weird noise, like a low whistle. He glanced up the slope and to his horror, he saw billowing snow pouring down the mountain.
“Étienne!” he yelled. “Stay left.”
Pascal turned again away from the avalanche and glanced back, relieved to see Étienne had done the same. A cloud of snow was roaring towards them, seizing everything in its path; trees, rocks and if there were people in the way, them too. It was impossible to outrun an avalanche but he had to try. Except he was going too fast and needed to turn. There were trees on his left side and he didn’t want to get caught up in those at this speed, so he turned right, heard Étienne yelling about getting into the trees and moments later Pascal was smothered in snow.
He lost his poles, his skis flipped off and he tried to swim, kicking his legs and waving his arms to stay as close to the surface of the snow as he could. He was still being barrelled down the mountain and as his speed of descent slowed, he stuck a hand in front of his face and kept it there. If he was buried, he needed an air pocket to breathe. His father had drummed instructions into both of them about what to do in case of avalanche.
Pascal was terrified. He pushed his other arm up above his head hoping it was out in the air, then he stopped moving. Before the snow grew hard, he pushed it away from his face and gave himself a little room to breathe.
Merde! If Étienne was trapped too, who was going to find them? The weight of the snow on his chest made it hard to inhale and he wondered if he was going to die. Was there any point shouting? Wasting air and energy when he probably wouldn’t be heard?
“Étienne!” The relief when he heard his brother’s voice made him gasp out a sob. He tried to wave the arm he held straight up and felt something clutch his fingers.
“I’m going to get you out.”
Étienne’s muffled voice made the breath catch in Pascal’s throat. Little by little the weight on his chest lifted. Then he saw light through his goggles and finally his brother’s face. Pascal began to cry. Étienne kept pulling at the snow with his gloved hands, dragging it away from Pascal’s body until he could help to free himself. Étienne heaved him upright, Pascal lifted his goggles and they clutched each other.
“You lost your skis,” Pascal sobbed.
“So what? Mon dieu, I thought I’d lost you. How could I go back down the mountain without you? I was trying to tell you to get into the trees. The flow knocked me over but didn’t cover me. If you hadn’t managed to get your hand up, I wouldn’t have known where you were.”
Pascal looked around. Everything looked different. “No,” he gasped. “No. Where’s the chalet?”
Étienne stiffened at his side.
“Can you see it?” Pascal cried harder.
“They’ll be okay.”
“How can you say that? How can you know?”
“We need to get down the mountain.”
Without skis it was a long, slow journey. One they completed in silence, apart from Pascal’s muffled sobs. They saw no one as they headed down but as they drew closer to the base, there were a lot of people milling around.
“The chalet,” Étienne muttered. “Go left.”
Pascal was exhausted. He could barely lift one foot in front of the other but they waded through the snow and into the trees.
“There’s our car,” Étienne said.
They slithered into the place where their father had parked. The avalanche hadn’t touched the car but had almost engulfed the chalet.
“Go down to the base of chair lift and tell people to come and help,” Étienne said.
“I can’t.” Pascal collapsed to his knees.
“Then stay here.” Etienne ran down the hill.
When Pascal’s heart had stopped racing, he pushed to his feet. I have to do something. He waded to the part of the chalet he could see, trying to figure out where the door was. Had the building collapsed or just been covered?
“Maman! Papa!” he yelled and listened. There was no sound.
His father had a shovel in the car. Pascal waded back and sighed when the boot clicked open. He dropped his helmet and goggles inside, returned with the shovel and started to dig. His energy returned. When he found the steps leading up to the front door, he kept digging. By the time Étienne returned with several men, Pascal had exposed part of the door. The men moved him aside and Pascal was furious.
“I want to help,” he shouted.
Étienne wrapped his arms around him. “You’re too little. They’re faster and stronger.”
But when Étienne went to help the men, Pascal took his shovel and headed to the side of the chalet where they’d last seen their parents. He managed to find the door to the cellar under the house and kept digging until he could open it. There was no snow in there and he breathed a sigh of relief. He crossed the cellar floor, climbed the steps and pulled at the door, banging on it when it wouldn’t open.
He put his ear to the wood but he could hear nothing. Pascal went back down the steps and looked for something in the garage he could use to break open the lock. When he spotted the axe, he gulped. He clattered back up the steps, slammed the axe hard into the lock and dropped it. It hit his foot but encased in the ski boot, he felt nothing. He picked up the axe and kept striking the lock and suddenly the door swung open. Half of the doorway was blocked by snow.
“Papa,” Pascal shouted.
This time, he thought he heard a muffled cry. Pascal hacked at the wall of snow with the axe, knocking it back into the cellar until he could struggle forward through the drift. There was debris everywhere. Pictures that had been on walls. Clothes he recognised. Pieces of wood. He had more digging to do to get into the living room. The door opened out, which meant he had to make enough space to pull it toward him.
When he squirmed through, he saw the devastation the snow had caused, pouring in on the far side, breaking the wall and roof. Half of the living room was barely touched. Chairs in place. Christmas wrapping paper on the floor. The tree was showered in snow but still stood. Were his parents inside the mound of snow on the other side of the room? On the floor at his feet was the snow globe. He picked it up and tucked it inside the front of his jacket. Maman will want this. I’ll keep it safe for her.
He heard his mother’s voice from outside and sobbed with relief. He’d started back the way he’d come when the building suddenly shifted. As he scrambled back to the cellar, he heard a whooshing sound behind him and was thrown forward. There was a terrible pain in his chest and the world blanked out.
When Pascal opened his eyes, he saw Étienne staring down at him. Behind him were his parents.
“Are we all dead?” Pascal croaked. Oh God, that hurts.
“No,” his brother said. “You nearly died.”
Pascal groaned as he moved.
His mother caught hold of his hand. “Keep still, mon ange.”
“Hurts to breathe.”
“The chalet collapsed,” his mother said. “You bruised your heart on the snow globe.”
“Did I break it?” Pascal could feel himself slipping into sleep.
“Oh good. And we’re definitely not dead?”
“We’re not dead,” Étienne said.
“Great.” But Christmas was ruined.
Aiden stood by the door wearing his coat with lots of pockets. He’d struggled with the zip but finally managed to pull it up. His mother had told him to get dressed ready to go shopping but then she’d gone into her bedroom and not come out. He still waited. If he wasn’t ready when she did come out, she wouldn’t take him with her to Leeds.
It was Christmas Eve and he wanted to see all the beautiful things in the shops and the decorations on the streets. There was no sign of Christmas in their flat. No tree, no special food, no cards. Aiden had made her a card at school because his teacher said he had to. It was a picture of him and his mum looking up at a tree in the middle of a forest that he’d covered in lots of different coloured lights. When he’d given it to his mum, as he’d expected, she’d thrown it in the bin. Along with the model of the snowman he’d brought home.
Aiden tried to get the card and snowman back later but they were spattered in curry. His teacher had told him it was the best card she’d ever seen a five-year-old draw. Aiden liked drawing. He worked hard at school. He always tried to be a good boy because if his mother thought he was being bad, she hurt him. She had lots of ways to hurt him.
The bedroom door opened and he held his breath wondering if she’d be in a happy mood or an angry one. She was already wearing her coat, which meant they’d be going out, and his heart beat faster. She grabbed her handbag and keys and stalked towards him.
“Who said you could come?” she snapped.
His eyes widened. “P-p-please.”
She gave a long sigh that Aiden took to mean he could go with her and he followed her out of the flat to the lift. She touched up her lipstick as they went down and smiled at herself in her little mirror. She never smiled at him. Ever.
When the lift doors opened, she strode towards the road not caring that he couldn’t move as fast as her. His left leg hurt today and he limped after her as quickly as he could. She ran across the road without holding his hand. Aiden looked both ways and hurried after her. One of her friends was at the bus stop and they started to chat. About men. Aiden tried to make himself invisible at his mother’s side.
He knew he was supposed to love her and he tried, but she wasn’t like everyone else’s mummy. Other mummies waited at the school gates and hugged their children when they came out at the end of the day. She didn’t take him to school or collect him. He didn’t have to cross a road to get to school so she said he was fine. She didn’t do his spellings or his reading with him. She’d never ever read a story to him. He wasn’t allowed to go to anyone’s house and no one was allowed to come to his. Aiden didn’t try to make friends. He got laughed at because of the way he walked and jerked, and because he was terrible at games and PE, and because he stuttered. And because sometimes I smell.
When the bus came, he climbed on after his mother and sat on the seat behind her and her friend. They were making plans to go out that night and Aiden felt a flicker of hope that he might get to watch TV for a while.
His mother’s friend turned and smiled at him. “So what have you asked Santa for?”
Aiden kept his mouth shut. He knew there was no such person as Santa Claus. If there had been, he’d have had presents last Christmas and the ones before, but he hadn’t. Mummies and daddies bought the presents and hid them until Christmas morning. But he didn’t have a daddy and his mummy hadn’t hidden anything. He’d looked, just in case. He’d found wraps of powder he’d seen her pay a lot of money for but no toys.
“Answer Ellie,” his mother snapped.
“I’d like some gloves and a hat with flaps to keep my ears warm,” Aiden whispered.
His mother rolled her eyes.
I’d like books and games and toys. New shoes. A dog. Most of all I’d like a new mummy.
When they got off the bus, his mother and her friend went to a café. They told him to sit at a table and not let anyone take the chairs. They returned with coffees and cakes and a chocolate chip cookie wrapped in plastic. Aiden’s heart thumped. Was it for him? He didn’t dare reach for it. The two of them had slices of chocolate cake, with a thick layer of cream inside.
Aiden had once had a small piece of chocolate cake when it had been the birthday of a boy in his class. It was the best thing he’d ever tasted. He’d risked asking his mother if he could take a cake to school on his birthday and she’d laughed at him. She hadn’t remembered when his birthday finally came. No card, no present, no cake. No one had wished him a happy birthday. Not even his teacher.
“He’s an ungrateful little sod,” his mother hissed. “You keep the cookie, Ellie. Give it to one of yours.”
Aiden’s stomach gurgled as the cookie disappeared from the table.
When it was time to leave and the two pushed to their feet, Aiden was slower. He swiped a finger over the smear of cream and chocolate left on his mother’s plate and licked his finger clean before he followed them. His mouth watered, wanting more.
“Keep up,” she snapped at him.
Her friend went off and his mother took him into Superdrug.
She grabbed a basket, then bent down and whispered, “If I pick something up, turn it over in my hand, then put it down, you pick it up and put it in your pocket.”
Aiden’s heart sank. There was a camera close to the ceiling. But when he stood behind his mother, he was hidden from view. He filled his pockets with makeup, shampoo, condoms… She put a couple of things in the basket. By the time they reached the till, Aiden felt sick with anxiety. He’d done this for her a lot. Part of him wished he’d get caught but she’d told him if he did, they wouldn’t take him away from her, just tell them off, and she’d punish him for letting her down.
Once they were well away from the shop, she transferred all the things he’d taken into one of her shopping bags. Aiden limped around the town after her and stole whatever she told him to. He’d never taken anything for himself though he’d been tempted. When they emerged from H&M, he had underwear, jewellery and a sweater stuffed inside his coat.
Aiden limped after her into Leeds Market. She paid for the fruit and veg in there, pushing Aiden away while she chatted up the guy serving her. The stall opposite sold toys and Aiden watched two girls pick up snow globes and shake them. There was a ballet dancer in one and a mouse on skis in the other. One snow globe had a polar bear standing on a piece of ice, looking down at her cub, and it was so beautiful, it took his breath away.
The stall holder was busy serving the girls’ mother and Aiden slid out his right hand and pocketed the globe without anyone seeing. His heart hammered, and he froze where he stood, waiting for a hand to clamp down on his shoulder, but nothing happened. His mother walked away from the stall opposite and he followed, the snow globe burning a hole in his pocket.
When they emerged from the market, it was snowing. Aiden gave a startled laugh.
“Oh fuck,” his mother muttered.
She said that word a lot. Usually when she had a man in her bedroom. She made a lot of noise then. Aiden wasn’t sure what they were doing in there. He supposed stuff like he’d seen on the TV when she didn’t know he was watching.
They went into a couple more shops before they caught the bus home. A bottle of wine and a bottle of vodka taken by Aiden and clasped under his arms inside his jacket, went into her bag along with the six pack of beer she paid for. She never thanked him. Whenever she looked at him, there was disgust on her face. He knew it was because he wasn’t perfect.
Aiden was clever. He could read better than anyone in his class. He remembered things really well but she didn’t care about that. His right side was okay but his left wasn’t. She told people he was born crooked. Not her fault. Probably his father’s. Whoever he was—she always said. One of those things.
When they were back in the flat, Aiden put his coat, the snow globe still in the pocket, behind the couch. His mother unpacked everything, discovered he’d missed a lipstick she’d wanted and cuffed him around the head and hurt his damaged ear. Aiden cried out in pain and bit his lip to stop himself making any more noise because if he did, she’d hit him again.
“You useless piece of shit,” she hissed.
Aiden crawled into his bed behind the couch which sat across a corner of the room and curled up. His mother wanted nothing to remind her she had a child. Everything of Aiden’s was behind the couch: his clothes, toothbrush, school bag. His bed was made from two old sun lounger cushions. He had a grey blanket to cover him and that was all. No pillow. He spent most of his time behind the couch. His mother didn’t want to look at him because he reminded her that she’d given birth to an imperfect child. Aiden didn’t want to look at her either. An imperfect mother.
She took drugs before she went out that night, melted something in a spoon, pulled it into a syringe and injected herself. He didn’t know what she was taking, but it made her happy, so that was okay with him. While she was out, he wrapped up the snow globe in toilet paper, tucked it under his bed, then watched TV while he ate toast smeared with strawberry jam. He had to be careful what food he picked to eat. If it was something she wanted and he’d eaten it, she hit him. There was a tin of Quality Street in the cupboard and he risked taking two chocolates. He wanted to eat them slowly, make them last but they were gone in an instant and he hid the wrappers deep in the bag of rubbish under the sink.
When Aiden looked out of the window, he could see it was still snowing, settling now on the pavements and tops of cars. He wasn’t supposed to go out but he wanted to. He put on his coat and shoes and checked his pocket to make sure he had his key. No one was around. The lift was empty. When he walked outside, a flurry of flakes plastered his face and he laughed. He wouldn’t go far.
Not enough snow to do anything with but it made everywhere look pretty, covered all the dirt, turned litter and rubbish into curious shapes. Aiden didn’t want to attract anyone’s attention, especially someone who knew him. He walked away from the flats and headed down a side road where the snow lay thicker. There was a skip on the left-hand side and a child’s bike poked from the top.
Even if the bike was any good, which it probably wasn’t, he couldn’t take a bike home. But he held onto the side of the skip and pulled himself up to look inside. It was mostly bricks and pieces of wood but he saw a little face looking up at him and he just managed to make a grab for it before he fell back.
Aiden shook the snow off what he held and smiled. It was small soft toy, a dog with a leg and ear that were only loosely attached.
“Hello, Doggie,” Aiden said and tucked him inside his coat before he made his way home, feeling the toy soaking through his T-shirt and sweater but warming his heart.
But when he’d got it back to the flat, he panicked. He didn’t know where to hide Doggie that his mother wouldn’t find. He squirmed behind the couch. Maybe Doggie would be okay under all his clothes. He put on his pyjamas and went to clean his teeth. His hair was getting long. He needed to cut it with her scissors but he liked it to cover the scars on his ears. He’d leave it a few more days.
Back on his bed, he felt under the couch to see if there was a way of hiding the dog and the snow globe. He managed to pull a piece of material loose, slipped his hand inside, found a space and smiled. They’d both fit and he could get them in there quickly when he needed to.
He woke when he heard his mother come home with a man. They were laughing. The man didn’t have a voice Aiden recognised. He went back to sleep holding Doggie in one hand and his present in the other. This was the best Christmas ever.
Boys become men
Kaegan knew someone was in his bedroom the moment he walked into the house. He’d stopped protecting his room some years ago because it made Herne think there was something in there Kaegan didn’t want him to get his hands on. There wasn’t. His boyhood treasures had long gone. As he slid silently up the stairs, he heard his mother’s voice.
“No one must know,” his mother said.
“No one.” She cut Herne off.
Kaegan pushed open the door. “Can I help you?” He glanced from his mother to his brother. His gaze didn’t linger on his brother’s face, scarred beyond faerie help by Kaegan. One eye sightless. Herne held books Kaegan had never seen before.
“Explain what these were doing in your room,” his mother snapped. “Books on how to make explosives.”
“I’d imagine Herne put them there.”
She slapped Kaegan across the face and behind her back, his brother smirked.
“You put us all in peril by your actions.” She glared at him.
“It’s our duty to report him to the gardie,” Herne said.
Kaegan repressed his shudder. The faerie enforcers had already given him a taste of their brutality on several occasions.
“Don’t be a fool, Herne,” she whispered. “You think they’ll believe he works alone?”
The uncertainty on his brother’s face was of some comfort.
“I know nothing about those,” Kaegan said. “But if you report this, I’ll bring you down with me, Herne.” Thanks for the idea, mother.
A muscle jumped in Herne’s jaw. “Don’t you think you’ve done enough. Look at me. Your fault.”
“Get rid of them.” She thrust the books at Kaegan.
He made them disappear from her hand without touching them. Thank you, sea for hiding them. In his mind’s eye, Kaegan could see them sinking into the water. He wondered how much books from the Other Side had cost his brother. A lot, he hoped.
“Where’ve you been for the last three days?” she asked.
“Working on a new design for a boat.”
“And not coming home?”
“I slept by the water.”
Herne made a scoffing sound and his mother raised her eyebrows. “I’ll be speaking to your father.” She flounced out of the room.
Herne kicked the door closed and grabbed Kaegan by the neck.
“Were books the best you could do?” Kaegan made himself smile. “Really, Herne?”
His brother laughed. “Just a little message to say I’m going to destroy you.”
“You’ve been trying for almost thirty years and not succeeded yet.”
Kaegan knew he shouldn’t provoke him but he was tired of Herne’s malevolence and in way Herne was succeeding because his war of attrition had worn Kaegan down and stolen his joy in everything but the Other Side.
“Tell me where you go.” Herne tightened his hold on Kaegan’s throat. He pressed his mouth against Kaegan’s ear and nipped the lobe with his sharp teeth, hard enough to make Kaegan yelp. “I know you leave our world. Tell me how? Where’s the gate? Where do you go? What do you do? Take me with you next time or I’ll make sure you end up in prison.”
Spots wavered in Kaegan’s vision and as he verged on passing out, Herne let him go. Kaegan sucked in a breath.
“Have you found some boy to fuck?”
“Why? Can’t you find one to fuck you?” Kaegan asked.
Herne planted his fist in Kaegan’s stomach and he doubled over in pain. “Tell me where the gate is.”
When Kaegan stayed silent, Herne hit him again, pummelled him down onto the floor, then kicked him. Kaegan clenched his fists.
“Hit me back. I know you want to.”
Kaegan made himself unseen and crawled as fast as he could to the window. Herne would sense the disturbance but wouldn’t see where Kaegan had gone. That didn’t stop him banging around the room like a bull, kicking and lashing out until his foot caught Kaegan’s head and the spell failed. Herne yanked open the window, caught hold of Kaegan and laughed as he threw him out. Kaegan sprawled on the ground groaning.
“Run, little brother,” Herne snapped.
Kaegan rolled over and curled up. No point running. The only way of escaping was to create a gateway but he wouldn’t risk doing that so close to anyone, especially his brother. How to make a way out of the kingdom was a secret Kaegan held tight to his heart.
Only the appearance of his father saved Kaegan from more punishment. He put out his hand and helped Kaegan to his feet.
“Fall from your window?”
“I forgot to put out my wings.”
If it wasn’t for his father, Kaegan would have left this world long ago. So go. Don’t wait any longer. Leave now before Herne forces the truth from you. He let out a shaky exhalation as the thought repeated in his head. But leaving for good was a huge step because he might never be allowed to return. Kaegan knew he’d been spending too long on the Other Side. He was the author of his own misfortune. Herne’s cruelty would increase as he tried to prise the truth out of him.
“Come and play teks with me,” his father said.
Kaegan limped after him into the house. If he left for good, how long would his life light continue to shine? Perhaps he’d be dragged back here so it could be stamped out. There was no one to ask apart from his father, the only seventh son of a seventh son in the kingdom. The problem was that asking his father those sorts of questions would be more or less forewarning him of what he intended to do and if his father was questioned, he’d be punished after Kaegan had gone. He’d be punished anyway. Another reason for staying when he wanted to flee.
When they reached the study, his father pushed a drink into his hand and Kaegan gingerly sat on the chair. “Thank you.”
His father opened the board and laid out the pieces. “Herne, I assume?”
Kaegan said nothing.
“You could fight back. Are you worried you wouldn’t be able to control yourself?”
“I already showed I can’t. Every time I look at Herne, I see the results of my lack of control. Safer to never touch him.”
“I’m not sure that continues to be true. Boyhood spats have turned more dangerous.”
“If I’m not allowed to use my power, then why is being the seventh son so important?”
His father held out his hands with the two teks pieces for Kaegan to choose a colour. He got blue. His father’s turn first.
“Apart from having a stronger affinity than most with the elements, and being good at healing myself, I’m not aware of having any special ability,” Kaegan said.
His father gave a short laugh. “Really?”
Kaegan’s heart thumped. “I’m physically weaker and smaller than most faeries.”
“For a reason.”
“I’m tired of fighting Herne,” Kaegan whispered. “I’m tired of saying sorry.”
His childhood had been blighted by Herne’s malevolence. Blinding him in one eye had persuaded everyone to Herne’s side. At school Herne had always made sure he sat next to him or behind him. No matter how hard Kaegan tried to join up with someone else, Herne was inevitably his partner. Blaming him for every failure, taking credit for any success.
Even when they’d done with school, his black-hearted twin never missed an opportunity to make Kaegan’s life miserable. Herne twisted people’s minds against him, teased and humiliated him. All for those three hours that hadn’t been Kaegan’s fault, and the loss of his eye that had been his fault. The more Kaegan was praised, the more Herne made him pay for it so Kaegan resorted to not trying too hard.
“Then find another way to deal with him.”
Kaegan rolled his eyes. Easier said than done.
“Your go.” His father nodded.
Kaegan made his move. Even now he was an adult and working, his life had barely improved. Although he and Herne worked for different employers, they both still lived at home because that was the faerie way until they married. He suspected Herne had deliberately stayed single just to spite him whereas marriage would have trapped Kaegan forever.
“How’s work?” His father made another move.
“Frustrating. No one wants to buy something different, the boats I’d really like to make.” He suspected Leon only employed him because he was his father’s brother, the sixth son.
“Was Leon jealous of you?” Kaegan asked.
“No. Grateful he wasn’t the seventh.”
“I wish I wasn’t the seventh.”
His father put his hand on Kaegan’s. “Not that move. Take care.”
Kaegan looked at the board and shifted a different piece.
“You are lucky,” his father said. “It’s an honour, a privilege. You don’t need physical strength to fulfil your potential.”
“Is it fair that my life has been one long struggle? A difficult birth—according to my mother who delights in telling others that she popped Herne out in a flash but not me. Not the unexpected twin, the puny one. Maybe after I was pulled out limp and lifeless, it would have been better had you not breathed into my mouth and returned me to the world.”
His father looked aghast. “Has your life been so bad?”
If you’d been around more, you’d have noticed. “Blackness is creeping over me. I can feel its choking grasp strengthen every day.”
His father reached across and clasped his hand. “Fight it.”
I’m tired of fighting it.
Once upon a time Kaegan had been astounded by the world and the beauty he found in everything, except perhaps in himself. And my brother. The natural hope and exuberance of his childhood had long faded. This world was turning darker and darker. Things that had brought him joy, no longer did. If he left it too long before he made his decision over whether to go or stay, it might be too late.
“I’ll speak to Herne,” his father said.
“You’ll make everything worse.” Kaegan pulled back his hand.
“I’ll find a way to make it better. Be patient.”
Kaegan made another move. “Teks,” he said.
“Damn it. I taught you too well.”
“You let me win to cheer me up.”
“Do you feel cheered?”
Kaegan smiled and nodded, hoping his father couldn’t see the truth.
When Kaegan was summoned to his father’s study the next day, he arrived to see Herne and his mother there too. His father sat at his desk, his wife behind him, her fingers stroking the carved wooden dragon that lay along the top of the chair back. A chair Kaegan had made. Almost as if his thought caused her to remember, she pulled her hand away and glared at him.
Their father sat forward and smiled at Kaegan. “You’ve been given a task by the king and queen. They want you to organise their New Year’s Eve ball, a celebration of the fortieth anniversary of their marriage. It has to be magnificent, something never seen or done before, an event that will be remembered forever. The honour is enormous.”
“You can work together on this,” said his mother. “I do not want my sister disappointed. If necessary, ask your other brothers to help. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable.”
“We won’t let you down,” Herne said.
“I know, my love.” She smiled at Herne.
Kaegan didn’t want to work with Herne on anything. He looked up and caught his father’s gaze.
“You have the power and the vision to make this happen,” his father said.
“But Herne has the determination,” his mother added. “The strength of will. The focus. The steel. No more disappearing, Kaegan.” His mother pinned him with her gaze and Kaegan felt as if she’d shoved him into a cage.
“We’ll start planning now.” Herne slapped Kaegan so hard on the back that he knocked him into their father’s desk, rattling a glass of wine.
“Do not let the family down.” His mother looked at him, not Herne.
“Never.” Herne pulled Kaegan out of the room.
The moment the door was closed, Herne caught hold of him around the neck and shoved him against the wall. “You are not going to fuck this up, you hear me? Mother wants to make her sister envious of what you—we can do.”
Kaegan gurgled from the pressure against his windpipe and Herne relaxed his hold.
“A circus,” Herne said.
“A circus of freaks, then.”
Herne bared his teeth. “Masked ball.”
“On the water. No, under the water. You can control the sea.”
Herne slapped Kaegan’s head and made his ears ring. “Come up with an idea and discuss it with me before you tell anyone else. Understand?”
And you’ll tell everyone it was your idea and take all the credit. And impress that artist’s daughter you fancy.
Kaegan wriggled free and walked rather than ran to his room. He hadn’t planned to leave for good just yet, his new home on the Other Side wasn’t finished, though he had a niggling feeling he’d never finish it, because every time he went there, he added something else, but there was no way he was working with Herne. Kaegan liked the idea of his brother struggling over this task without his help. For the first time in ages, he smiled and meant it.
Now he’d made the decision to go, he didn’t waste a moment. He closed the door of his room, picked up his gold, and left by the window. He moved quickly through the town, head down, speaking to no one, hiding his presence, hoping not to be noticed, but in the end, it didn’t matter. He was going where no one would find him.
He took steps to ensure no faerie could follow through any gate he’d previously made. Closed the one to Cornwall and the one to his new home in Scotland, a place that had enchanted him with its beauty. He didn’t want a direct route there from Faerieland. The last gate, the one through the rock on the beach, opened in London. The tide was in and he had to wait, but the moment he could reach the cave, he waded to it. Kaegan closed the gate after he went through, hoping he’d done enough to seal it permanently.
London wasn’t where he wanted to be, but he didn’t want to risk going straight to Scotland in case he was followed. He’d move around the capital for a few days, maybe try to find someone who might like to go to Scotland with him. More than one someone. He longed for friends and only out of necessity, had he built his house in the middle of nowhere.
Kaegan stayed invisible until he’d decided on the right clothes—jeans, boots and a coat. His gold was in his pocket; he could change it for pounds or simply make whatever he required. Once he’d disguised his pointed ears, he looked like everyone else on this London street, though he was nothing like any of them. Nor would he be like the Kaegan of old. It was as though coming out of Faerieland freed something inside him. He’d miss his father, but no one else. Kaegan was going to be confident, bold, happy. He could do what he liked. Be who he wanted.
This was just the beginning.
Pascal’s brother was making the worst mistake of his life and he couldn’t figure out how to make him see that. Don’t marry Sabrina. She’s not right for you. You’ll regret it. She’s a fucking anaconda. She might be beautiful, but she’s deadly. Actually telling him all that was the obvious way and Pascal had tried to, repeatedly, but Étienne wouldn’t listen. To be fair, his brother had listened and then thumped him. Most recently yesterday, but nowhere that would show because presumably having a best man with a black eye was something his brother’s beloved would not accept marring her photographs.
Sabrina probably didn’t want him as a best man at all but when Pascal had offered to back out, tried to back out, Étienne had made it clear Pascal was going to be at his side, regardless of what he thought of his bride-to-be. Pascal was to smile, to be charming and was to not let him down, particularly in the contents of his speech. No unacceptable comments about his new wife. “Unacceptable to whom?” Pascal had asked, and pissed off his brother even more.
You owe me. Words Étienne had never said until yesterday but had been understood between them since the day Pascal had last fucked up his brother’s love life. I do owe you. That’s why I have to open your eyes to the vampire you want to marry. Words that earned him another thump. Pascal didn’t fight back. He never had. It wasn’t as if he didn’t understand that he was upsetting his brother. If he hadn’t loved and admired Étienne so much, he’d have just bitten his tongue and played nice.
I’m doing the right thing. Except no one would see it that way.
Two days now until the wedding. The castle in Kent was costing Étienne and their parents a fortune. Sabrina’s parents were dead. She had no siblings. She was poor. How fucking convenient. Three more words uttered a couple of months ago that should have stayed in Pascal’s head but had slipped from his mouth.
The presence of his parents had prevented a fist somewhere painful but his mother had expressed her disappointment by giving him the silent treatment, which from a woman who lived to talk, was a clear indication of how far he’d overstepped. His father had given him a dressing down and Étienne hadn’t spoken to him for a week, which took some doing when they worked together. Well, Pascal worked for his brother and if he said anything else about Étienne’s precious Sabrina, Pascal didn’t expect to be working for him much longer.
If that’s what it takes. And he meant it.
Close family had arrived at the castle yesterday. Everyone thought the bride-to-be was charming and beautiful and so in love with his handsome brother. Aren’t they sweet? Aren’t they adorable? Aren’t they just perfect together?
No, they fucking aren’t.
Pascal had ignored digs about when he was going to settle down with a woman like Sabrina. He found all his relatives irritating. Pascal had thought Sabrina was too thick to notice the atmosphere between him and everyone else, but she’d given him a look that told him she found it amusing. Salope!
The trouble was that Pascal didn’t have anything specific to tell Étienne that would convince him not to marry her. She doesn’t love you. She loves herself too much. And Pascal would know all about that. It was something he’d been accused of on more than one occasion. Selfish, self-absorbed… He had more in common with her than he liked to admit. They both put on a front. Neither of them much cared what anyone thought. To everyone but him, Sabrina appeared beautiful, kind, thoughtful and considerate. He could add a whole lot more to that list, which was part of the problem. No one could be that perfect.
She laughed at Pascal’s jokes, which should have endeared him to her, but he could see through her to the user she was. Sabrina was a wannabe actress, currently starring in her most lucrative role as his brother’s fiancée. She’d apparently been in a few TV commercials in the UK. Not for laxative or panty-liners because Pascal had asked. Her laugh on that occasion had been frosty.
But it was easy to see why his brother had fallen for her. She had impeccable manners, behaved as if she were a princess and had the ability to sound fascinated by even the most boring of conversations—and his father could bore for France once he got going—plus her smile was infectious.
To everyone but him.
“Bonjour.” Étienne dropped into the seat on the terrace next to Pascal.
“Bonjour,” Pascal said. “Though I feel I should tell you that I chose to have breakfast out here because I didn’t want to sit with anyone.”
“And I chose to sit out here so I can watch my beloved in the pool.”
Pascal glanced over the low balcony.
“Look at her.” His brother waved and Sabrina waved back before performing a perfect swan dive into the heated outdoor pool.
Show off. Everything with her was a performance. Pascal sucked in his cheeks.
“How could anyone not want her?” His brother gave a happy sigh.
“She’s too perfect.”
“Does she ever make you angry?”
“No. She never moans or nags. Sex with her is out of this world.”
“Probably because she’s an alien.”
“And I’m marrying her whether you like her or not.”
“Does she get mad when you leave your dirty clothes on the floor?”
“I put them in the laundry bin. And I’ve stopped cutting my toenails in the washbasin.”
Pascal gaped at him. “For the two years we lived together in Paris, no matter how often I challenged you about that, you carried on doing it.”
Pascal flailed. “She’s…English.”
“So is our mother.”
“She doesn’t want children.”
“Did she use the word yet?”
“Don’t you think that’s something you need to be sure about?” Pascal raised his eyebrows.
Étienne glared at him. “Our business. Not yours.”
“Yeah, it is your business. You want kids. You’ve always told me you want four, which is just as well because I’m not likely to have any. How does she feel about that?”
“Nothing to do with you.”
Pascal ground his teeth. “I—”
“Not another word,” his older brother snapped.
“I’ve heard you, Pascal. Enough! I can’t believe someone who rarely sleeps with the same person twice has the nerve to give me relationship advice.”
Pascal bit into a croissant to stop himself speaking. The buttery flakes melted on his tongue. Not bad for a croissant made in England.
Étienne poured himself a coffee and topped up Pascal’s. “I’m actually wondering if you’re jealous.”
Pascal coughed, the croissant now clogging his throat. “You’ve forgotten I’m gay?”
Pascal glanced over his shoulder and dropped his voice to a whisper. “We don’t use the bi word anywhere near our parents. We agreed.”
“They’re inside the castle.”
“Still too near.”
If his mother caught a hint of his attraction to both sexes, she’d be providing him with a list of suitable girlfriends, arranging accidental meetings and choosing names for grandchildren. Pascal might be bi, but his fantasies revolved more around men than women. Men were less trouble. They weren’t looking for a ring, they just wanted to fuck, and one thing Pascal loved was fucking. That and walking away.
“Didn’t want to bring anyone to the wedding?” Étienne asked. “I told you last minute was fine.”
His brother sighed. “Anyone would think you didn’t want to find someone to settle down with.”
Because… Pascal swallowed hard. The risk was too great. Getting attached was dangerous. Bad things always happened to him. What if he found someone to care for and lost them?
“Been a long time since your last conquest?” Étienne flashed him a look.
“Ages. Last Thursday.”
His brother was blind to anything he might say about Sabrina so he had to find another way to convince him. It wasn’t as if Pascal didn’t know he’d break Étienne’s heart if he succeeded. He’d already done that two years ago. Goose bumps accompanied the memory. No matter how often he’d been told the accident wasn’t his fault, he’d always feel it was. He should be pleased Étienne was happy again but Sabrina was a mistake and he wasn’t going to give up trying to show how much of a mistake she was. Not yet.
Two months from meeting to moving in together. Three months and she had a ring on her finger. Nine months to marriage. Much too fast. Insta-trap, not insta-love. Étienne hadn’t even let him meet her for months. Pascal had felt insta-dislike. He paid a detective to check on her and the guy had taken weeks and a lot of Pascal’s money to come up with nothing. Absolutely nothing, which made Pascal even more suspicious. So he’d gone to another firm who’d also drawn a blank and then a final one, due to report to him today.
He’d not told Étienne what he’d been doing though he’d wanted to. How could two private detective agencies not find anything? Wasn’t that suspicious in itself? In case the third firm came up with nothing, Pascal intended to stick as close to Sabrina as he could without looking as if he were a stalker. He’d use his phone to record anything indiscreet she might say or do.
“Christmas,” Étienne said and Pascal wished he’d not eaten the croissant.
“What about it?”
“We’re going to invite Maman and Papa to our place and I want you there too.”
“You know I don’t do Christmas.” He hated it, hated everything about it.
“Think about it, please.”
He and his brother were sitting in companionable silence, only because Étienne was busy eating, when Sabrina walked up from the pool in a thick white robe. She was rubbing her long blonde hair with a towel and bent to kiss Étienne before she sat beside him.
“Bonjour, ChouChou. Bonjour, Pascal.” She smiled. Even her French accent was too good though her vocabulary was limited.
You’re English. Speak English. “Morning,” Pascal mumbled.
His coffee tasted wrong. Her fault.
“Anything you need me to do for you today?” Pascal asked. Polish your broomstick? Wash your wand? Catch a few toads?
“What did you have in mind?” she asked.
He opened his mouth but decided he’d probably better keep those ideas to himself. Judging by the glance his brother shot him, he had an idea of what Pascal had been thinking.
“Well, you don’t have any bridesmaids. I could do your hair. Trim it. I’ve some sharp nail scissors. Or I could paint your nails. I’m thinking lime green to match your dress.”
She laughed, which was his intention. He needed her off-guard. She was more likely to show her true colours.
“Don’t let him anywhere near your hair,” Étienne said. “He once shaved my head when we were boys. We’d been given money to go to the hairdresser’s, but Pascal convinced me we could buy ice-cream sundaes instead.”
“I did practise on the dog.”
“Father nearly killed you.” Étienne smiled. “His favourite retriever with a bare strip down its back. He was more upset about that than the mess you made of me.”
“Why don’t you have any bridesmaids?” Pascal asked. “English weddings aren’t like French ones. English brides like having friends follow them around plying them with champagne, asking them if they’ve made a mistake.”
“Pascal!” Étienne snapped.
Their mother had asked her the question about bridesmaids before and Pascal was interested to see if she gave the same answer.
“I just want it to be me and Étienne.” She took Étienne’s hand and squeezed his fingers.
“And me.” Pascal forced a smile on his face. It was the same answer. French weddings didn’t usually have ushers or a best man, but their mother and Sabrina had wanted to do things the English way in England. Sabrina was the daughter she’d always wanted. A thought that made Pascal want to vomit.
“The three of us and eighty guests.” Étienne pushed to his feet and bent to kiss Sabrina. “I need to go on a secret mission. Stay and have breakfast with Pascal. Be nice. Don’t bite each other’s heads off.”
“He needs the bathroom,” Pascal said.
Étienne glared. “I do not.”
Sabrina laughed. As she watched his brother go, Pascal pulled out his phone, pretended to check something and pressed the record app before he put it on his lap out of sight under the serviette.
“And of the eighty guests, how many are your friends or family?” Pascal asked.
She wobbled her lip. “It’s not my fault my parents are dead and I have no siblings.”
“Isn’t it?” Oh shit. That was cruel and also recorded.
“You can be very unkind, Pascal. Hard to believe you’re Étienne’s brother.”
“He got the charm. I got the good looks.”
She rolled her eyes, but it was true.
“Every English bride has bridesmaids.” Pascal poured himself more coffee and didn’t offer her any. His mother would be so disappointed in him.
“Upset you won’t have someone to seduce?” She poured coffee for herself.
“There are plenty of ushers. I’m not choosy.” He’d already fucked two of them in the past. Not that his brother knew. University friends of Étienne who’d said they were straight, but Pascal had just seen that as a challenge. Not much of one as it happened.
“You don’t like me, do you?” she said.
“You noticed? And I’ve tried so hard to hide the way I feel.” He pulled a puppy-dog face.
“I don’t like you either,” she said.
He clamped his hand over his heart. “Thank Christ for that.”
A waiter came with more coffee and pastries. A few words of thanks and a smile from Sabrina and the guy looked as though he’d lick her feet if she asked him to.
“Where was it you did your degree?” he asked. “Cambridge?”
“History of Art?”
“Might come in useful to know the difference between Manet and Monet if you don’t make it as an actress. It’s an a in case you’re wondering.”
“I will make it.” Her smile tightened.
“Well, Étienne has plenty of money, but you already know that.”
“I don’t care about money.”
“Now you’re telling fibs.”
“I am not.” Her jaw twitched.
He nodded towards her hand. “You’d have been happy with a ring that cost less than a small car?”
“I didn’t ask him to spend so much. He chose it not me.”
“And you didn’t linger outside De Beers and say’ that one, or that one or that one’?”
“Fuck off, Pascal.” But she was the one who pushed to her feet. “He’s mine now. You hurt him badly by your careless actions and I healed him. It’s time you ended these silly games and accepted Étienne and I are getting married.” She leaned forward. “By the way, you miserable git, I don’t want the Grinch at our house at Christmas. Spend it on your own.” Then she stalked off.
Shit. His fingers shook as he stopped the recording. Even that last comment wasn’t going to make his brother see sense.
It wasn’t until much later in the day that the detective called him. Pascal moved away from his chattering father and lifted the phone to his ear. When he heard what the detective had to say, Pascal knew his brother would never forgive him for this. Although maybe Étienne didn’t have to know. There was a chance of persuading Sabrina to just leave.
Pascal called her on the phone and asked her to meet him by the fountain at the front of the castle.
“I have something I need to tell you and I don’t want anyone else to hear.”
If she brought Étienne, Pascal would let his brother listen to what he had to say. If she came alone, Pascal’s phone would be recording in his pocket.
She came alone. “What do you want? Thought up another insult to hurl?”
Start small. “Does Étienne know it wasn’t Cambridge University but Anglia Ruskin you went to? Both in Cambridge but hardly the same place.”
She shrugged. “I didn’t lie. I went to a Cambridge university.”
“Ah. But the addition of that a makes all the difference. Remember the lesson of Manet and Monet?”
She gave him a tight smile.
“What made you change your name?” he asked.
“A stalker,” she snapped.
“Does the name Robert Harvey mean anything to you?” Pascal watched her closely.
She went so pale, he thought she was going to faint. Instinct made him reach for her before she nosedived into the water, but she pulled away. “Get your hands off me. Don’t touch me.”
Shit. Not something he wanted on the recording.
“I might want you gone,” Pascal said. “But I don’t want you to drown.”
“Really? That’s not what happened before, is it?”
For a moment, Pascal couldn’t breathe. Maybe his lack of oxygen was the reason he fired the next bullet. “How are you planning for Étienne to die?”
She gaped at him. “What did you say?”
“You heard me.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Pascal couldn’t stop now. “Your last husband died in suspicious circumstances. A fall from a cliff on your honeymoon. They interviewed everyone in the hotel you were staying at including a guy called Robert Harvey. And you know Harvey. You were at school with him. You went out with him for two years. So I can’t help wondering how long Étienne gets with you. Until you’re sure you have all his money? Then he has a tragic accident and you ride off into the sunset with Harvey?”
“Your parents aren’t dead. Why tell everyone they are? You have a brother. Tom. Lives in Chelmsford near your parents. A plumber. You’re a better actress than I took you for. Change of hair, accent and background along with a change of name. Care to explain?”
She glared at him. “I love Étienne.”
“Really? Well, I guess you might, but you’re also a lying bitch, so you might not. A relationship based on lies isn’t the way to begin your married life. I’ve already spoken to Étienne about a prenup. One of his ushers is a lawyer. He’s drawing something up.” A lie of his own.
“How dare you!”
“I dare because I love my brother. I’m not going to let you wreck his life. You’re done, Sabrina. If you don’t back out of this wedding, I’ll inform Étienne about Robert Harvey and your family. Pack your bags and leave and I’ll tell my brother you changed your mind. I’ll even pay you to go.” He pulled out his wallet. “Euros or pounds?”
She slapped his face and stormed off. He’d done what he could though not as effectively as he’d have liked. For all he knew, her first husband had died in a tragic accident and the presence in the hotel of a former boyfriend was no more than a coincidence. Maybe her family had disowned her. Maybe there really was a stalker.
He just didn’t think so.
There was a rehearsal dinner tonight. If she was still around, he’d tell Étienne everything.
Less than an hour later, Pascal was talking to one of the ushers, wondering if he had the chance of a fuck, when his mother called him to her room. He could tell from her tone of voice that he was in trouble. When he got there, his father was in the room too, and Étienne. His brother looked both devastated and furious.
“Did you employ a private detective to check on Sabrina?” Étienne asked.
Pascal nodded. Three of them.
“What did you say to her?” his mother snapped.
“I asked her about her claim to have gone to Cambridge University when she didn’t. I also asked her about her previous husband. How he’d died. What an old boyfriend had to do with his death. How long before Étienne was due to die. She’s a con artist. A black widow. I told—”
“Shut the fuck up,” Étienne spat. “You think I didn’t know she’d been married before? That she didn’t go to Cambridge University? She told me. Her family don’t speak to her. She pretends they’re dead to protect herself. She changed her name to protect herself. She’s hidden nothing from me. Now she thinks I don’t want her.”
Anxiety churned Pascal’s gut. “How can you still want her?”
“I love her,” Étienne bellowed. “A word that you have no hope of ever understanding because you think of no one but yourself. You have no idea what commitment means, what love means. You’re a selfish bastard. You fucked up my life once and now you’re doing it again. You’re just jealous that I’m happy. Well you’ve got what you wanted. She’s left me and I don’t know if I can persuade her to come back. So you can just fuck off because I never want to see you again.”
“Shut up,” his brother snapped.
Étienne stepped right up to him. “That’s all you care about? You think I’d still want to work with you, to employ you after you’ve done this? You…moron. I understand now how Sabrina feels about her parents and brother. You’re dead to me, Pascal. You’ve ruined my life. Twice. Bit of a habit, isn’t it? Well it stops here. You have no heart. If I see you on the street, I’ll walk the other way. Get out of my sight.”
“How could you, Pascal?” His mother was crying. “After what happened before.”
“Pack your things and leave,” his father said. “You’ve gone too far. I’m ashamed to call you my son.”
Pascal couldn’t bring himself to say he was sorry, because he wasn’t. He walked out, didn’t even go back to his room to collect his stuff. He had his phone and wallet. That was all he needed. He went down to reception and fortunately, there was a cab outside. Fifteen minutes later he was at the local train station.
As he sat waiting for the next train to London, he emailed the detective’s report to his father. There was nothing else he could do apart from give everyone time to calm down. While he was still waiting, he had a notification that the email hadn’t been delivered. When his calls to first his father, then his mother were unanswered, Pascal realised maybe there was no bridge to come back on.
What have I done?
Aiden handed James a plate with half of a chicken wrap and went back to the breadboard get his half. He didn’t want to risk carrying two plates at the same time in case he dropped one. He was feeling wobblier than usual.
James tsked. “I always have a sausage sandwich on Saturdays.”
“I thought this would be a change.” Aiden settled on the couch opposite his boyfriend. “It’s healthier.”
“It tastes like crap.”
“How often do you eat c-crap?”
“Every time you f-fucking c-cook,” James mocked.
“Maybe you’d like to do the c-cooking then f-for a change?” Don’t start an argument. “I did ask you earlier and you s-said you were okay with a wrap.”
“I changed my mind.”
Aiden sighed and bit into the wrap, which fell apart in his fingers but tasted good. Lettuce, avocado, tomato and spicy chicken. It didn’t escape his attention that James was wolfing his down despite his comment and none of the contents of his wrap had escaped.
“I’m going out this afternoon. To Mum’s,” James said.
Aiden looked up. “But I thought…”
“We said we’d go out together. Shall I come with you? We c-could go to the cinema after.”
“No. They just want to see me.”
That didn’t surprise Aiden. No matter how hard he’d tried to get them to like him, he’d never be good enough for James’s family. One of the perils of having a bisexual boyfriend. Apart from all the other things they didn’t like about Aiden, him not being a woman was top of the list. James’s family still hoped he’d settle on the right side eventually.
“Don’t you have something you want to get for me for Christmas?” James winked at him.
“It’s ages until Christmas.”
“You’ll probably have to order it.”
“You’re t-talking about that sweater with the reindeer’s head sticking out?”
“Oh no, I remember. The sweater with the r-reindeer’s arse.”
Aiden ducked as James threw a book at him, but it caught his cheek. He gasped in pain and only just managed to stop his plate falling to the floor.
“You should have caught it.”
“Yeah, well if you’d th-thrown it to me instead of at me.” His cheek was throbbing and when he felt a trickling sensation, Aiden suspected he was bleeding. He felt his cheek and looked at his fingers. Yes, he was.
“You can’t catch for toffee.” James stood up and left his empty plate on the seat instead of taking it to the sink.
Aiden thought about pointing that out and changed his mind. “Shall we get a t-takeaway tonight and download a film?”
“Not sure what time I’ll be back.” James grabbed his jacket. “Late though. Don’t wait up.” He slammed the door.
Aiden took a shaky breath. Why am I still here? James didn’t want him and he no longer wanted James. His increased stuttering told him that, as if he needed confirmation. He ought to pack up his belongings and leave right now. It wasn’t as if he had much to take. He pushed to his feet and limped to the bathroom, his left arm twitching. He wiped the blood from his face. A graze rather than a cut, but that wasn’t what he was looking at in the mirror.
How long since he’d seen a happy, smiling reflection? Too long. He stared at a face full of sadness, resignation…defeat. That wasn’t him. All his life he’d been a fighter, maybe not brimming with confidence, but he tried hard. Over the last few months his resilience had been ground out of him. James might be stressed because of some problem at work, though he hadn’t even used that as an excuse this time, but it was never a reason to hurt him. Not just with sticks and stones, words too. He doesn’t care about me at all.
Though James hadn’t meant the book to hit him.
Sure about that?
No. Actually, he was sure James had meant to hit him and the bastard hadn’t even said sorry.
Aiden sagged. He ought to have walked out long ago. He should never have moved in. But he hadn’t known then what James would be like. Even after he’d found out, he’d still kept giving James another chance.
I’m sorry I hit you.
I’ll never do it again.
I didn’t mean to do it.
I’m sorry I said that.
I was only teasing.
I promise to be a better boyfriend.
Actually, he’d never said that last one. Aiden went back to the couch with his phone and checked the local agency’s website for bedsits in his price range. It didn’t take long to get thoroughly depressed. There was nothing immediately available and little in his price range. Rather than sit and mope, he put his drawing pad and pencils in his backpack, pulled on his coat and headed out. He needed to cheer himself up and sitting in the flat searching for a new place to live wasn’t the way he wanted to spend his precious Saturday afternoon, even though he knew that was what he ought to be doing.
As he crossed the bridge that led to the station, he saw James on the platform below holding a bouquet of flowers. Why was he waiting for the Victoria train? Who were the flowers for? James always said they were a waste of money. It wasn’t his mother’s birthday or his sister’s.
He isn’t going to his mother’s.
Aiden’s throat thickened. It wasn’t the first time he’d thought James had been lying about where he was going or why he was late back from work. If Aiden had been able to run, he’d have hurried for the train and followed him but he couldn’t move quickly enough.
On the way to the Natural History Museum he kept thinking about James and what he was going to say to him that night. By the time he sat down outside the museum, he was wound up tight as a ball of string. I need to calm down. Drawing was a kind of therapy. He was good at it and it soothed him, stopped his mind racing, sometimes stopped him twitching. He hoped it worked its magic today because the muscles on his left side were in spasm. He couldn’t even stick his hand in his pocket because it would look as if he were jerking off. In desperation, he sat on his fingers and stared up at the museum.
All manner of intricately carved creatures, living and extinct, adorned the building’s fabulous façade. Aiden particularly liked the pterosaurs and sabre-toothed cats though he had a soft spot for gargoyles that were supposed to fight off evil and offer protection. When he was a kid, he used to draw and write stories about gargoyles. At break and lunch, he’d find a quiet spot in the playground and escape into another world. Quite often, he didn’t even hear the bell that called them back inside.
His stutter and his obsession with gargoyles were partly why he’d ended up with the nickname G-G-Gargoyle. His surname was Garside and after Billy Sutton had found his drawing book and showed it everyone, Aiden was only ever called G-G-Gargoyle. It didn’t help that he limped along with his shoulders hunched and his head down. Along with all the other things wrong with him, Aiden found it hard to walk in a straight line.
In an ideal world, he’d have loved to have been able to create things from stone. He’d wanted to be a stonemason when he was in his teens, but that dream had died when he was forced to accept his limitations. He was just too uncoordinated. He could rub out a mistake on a drawing, but it would be much harder to correct one he’d made with a hammer and chisel.
He picked a gargoyle to sketch that day. He worked fast, finding he made fewer slips that way and quickly became absorbed in what he was doing. He didn’t even realise anyone had sat next to him until a guy said, “That’s really good.”
Aiden gulped when he saw who’d spoken. “Th-thank you.”
The owner of the voice looked to be in his mid-twenties and had the most incredible hair, white-blond and silky straight with dark blue tips. Not just his hair was amazing: he had smooth skin, delicate bone structure, sparkling blue eyes and a lovely smile. He had to be a model or a pop star or something. Way out of Aiden’s fourth division league.
“You must have exceptional eyesight. You’ve even captured that little bird nesting in the curve of his tail.”
“The sparrow. I like sparrows. Th-they’ve been red-listed as a species that needs conserving. There were twelve million in the ’70s and only s-s-six million now.” Is that the best I can do for conversation?
“They’re cute birds. What happened to your face?”
Uh oh. “An accident.” Aiden stared at his sketchpad.
What? Why challenge him? “Yeah.” Because although James had probably meant for the book to hit him, it was unlikely he’d meant him to bleed. It might have stained James’s couch.
“Can I buy you a coffee?”
Aiden stiffened. “I have a boyfriend.” Oh God. Why had he said that? It might be true, but once he’d found another place to live, it wouldn’t be. It wasn’t true now. James might not know it, but they were done. “Sort of,” Aiden added, after far too long. And what did sort of mean? I’m such a dickhead.
“I can still buy you a coffee, can’t I? Or is your sort-of boyfriend going to leap out from behind some bushes holding a gun?”
“He’s more into Tarkatan Blades and Wrath Hammers.”
When that got him a blank look, Aiden added, “He likes playing Mortal Kombat on his Play Station.”
“It is. I don’t like it.”
“I wouldn’t either. So coffee?”
No one ever hit on him. Ever. Very few people were nice to him. Aiden was shocked, flattered and thrilled. It’s a coffee, not a bloody date, you twat.
The guy was staring at him as if he could tell what had looped through Aiden’s mind. Hopefully that wasn’t true.
Aiden nodded. Not speaking was safer. He really didn’t need to look even more stupid.
“How do you take it?”
“B-black. No s-sugar. Thanks.”
“Okay.” The guy stood up. “Don’t leave, will you?”
“My name’s Kaegan. What’s yours?”
Kaegan smiled. “Little fiery one. Oh you are perfect.”
“What does your name mean?”
“Big fiery one.” His grin brought one to Aiden’s face.
Aiden developed a painful lump in his throat as he watched him walk away. He wasn’t just impressed the guy knew what Aiden meant, he was impressed full stop. Aiden was far from perfect but just hearing it said made him feel different. Stronger. Wanted. It had been a long while since he’d felt wanted and since the person who’d appeared to want him was James, Aiden wondered if he’d ever meant it. It had been even longer since his cock had reacted like this in public. Good thing he was sitting down.
Kaegan was taller than him, maybe six two or three, he wore pale grey jeans, black boots, a dark blue peacoat, and was possibly one of the most beautiful guys he’d ever seen. Exotic. Entrancing. Energising. And he sat next to me when there were other places to sit. Aiden sighed, turned over a page in his sketch book and started to draw him.
He’d have to make sure James didn’t see this. If Aiden so much as looked at another guy James got all huffy. He worked quickly, adding colour to the hair tips and eyes, trying to complete the sketch before Kaegan came back, though he could always finish it later. Aiden had a good memory and not just for faces. Almost photographic, which was not always a good thing when there was stuff he’d prefer not to remember. Like the whole of his childhood.
Kaegan managed to slip back to his side without Aiden getting a chance to turn the page. Wow he’s quiet, slinky like a big cat.
“Oh.” Kaegan gave a heavy sigh.
Was that a good oh or a bad one? “Don’t you think it looks like you?” It did.
“Perhaps too much like me.” Kaegan offered him the coffee.
What did that mean? Aiden put down his sketchpad and pencil and took the drink.
“You flatter me,” Kaegan said.
“No, I don’t. This is what I see. Though I left off your spots.” Which you don’t have. Please laugh.
Kaegan chuckled, then furrowed his brow. “You’re like me and yet not. How interesting.”
Aiden wasn’t sure what he meant. Gay? Any guy with hair like that had to be at least bi.
“Are you like me?” Kaegan asked.
“I’m gay.” But nothing like him. Aiden didn’t turn heads because of his beauty. He turned them because he limped and leaned to one side when he walked. Because he stuttered and dropped stuff and twitched and…
Kaegan smiled. “That’s a start.”
Aiden sipped his coffee to save himself from having to say anything. Or maybe to stop himself.
“What do you do apart from drawing?” Kaegan asked.
“I work for an insurance company.”
“Do you like it?”
“Because sometimes I have to tell people they’re not going to get the help they desperately need, either because they were underinsured, or because they’d forgotten to renew their insurance, and they blame me and get angry and I don’t like it when people get angry.” Because anger makes bad things happen.
“Why don’t you do something else then? You like drawing.”
Aiden huffed. “I can’t make a living by drawing.”
“Have you tried?”
“Do you want the picture you drew today?”
Of you? God, yes. “You mean the gargoyle?”
Kaegan chuckled. “You want to keep the one of me?”
Aiden knew he was blushing. He could feel the heat in his cheeks.
“Can I have the one of the gargoyle?” Kaegan asked.
Aiden carefully ripped it from the pad and offered it to him.
Kaegan took it. “How much?”
“Nothing. It’s a gift. A thank you for the coffee.”
“No wonder you can’t make a living by drawing. Can I see what else you’ve done?”
Aiden handed him the sketch book and their fingers brushed. A jolt of lust thickened his cock. Fuck. Stop that right now. Think about James. Who’d rarely shown much interest in his sketches. Who’d made him bleed. Who didn’t even like him anymore. Who was soon to be Aiden’s ex. We’re done, we really are. I’m going to tell you tonight. I don’t want to think about you anymore. I don’t want to dread Christmas with you. Aiden exhaled as if James had finally left his life. The relief in seeing a future without him lightened his heart.
Kaegan stared at each page as if he was memorising every single thing Aiden had drawn. It was a real mixture. Mostly photo-realistic stuff—the Thames, the London skyline, pieces of wood he’d found interesting, penguins at London Zoo, dirty puddles in Camden, houseboats in Surrey Quays, people all over the city of every type, size and colour…and things from his imagination—his perfect room, his perfect house on a windswept beach… Maybe now he had a sketch of his perfect partner.
In my dreams. He won’t want me. Feeling optimistic was one thing, being realistic was more sensible.
Aiden pushed to his feet and went to drop his cup in the waste bin. He wanted Kaegan to see what he was like, a guy with physical challenges, a guy whose body didn’t work properly. Aiden wasn’t bad looking, he looked younger than he was, but he’d never been first choice once anyone had seen him walk or spotted his arm or cheek twitching or heard him talk. Though his stammering hadn’t been too bad for once.
He walked back to the bench and sat down. What will he say?
Kaegan’s eyes were wide. “You find beauty in everything. You’ve no idea how much I admire that.”
“Beauty? Interest maybe.”
“Beauty.” Kaegan’s tone was firm.
“Even the dirty puddle?”
“Yes, because you saw something special in the ordinary. You drew the rubbish floating in the water as if the pieces were little boats sailed by tiny creatures.”
The breath caught in Aiden’s throat. He had thought that when he’d drawn it. He’d even drawn the tiniest of creatures using a magnifying glass but he was amazed Kaegan had been able to see them.
“Your passion shines in your work.” Kaegan gave the pad back to him. “Your sort-of boyfriend is not in there.”
Aiden tensed. “How do you know?” There were plenty of sketches of men but not one of James.
“I just know.”
“You’re right. He’s not in there.”
“But I am.”
Aiden chuckled. “That’s true.”
“Now you’ve captured me forever.”
Aiden didn’t react to that. In a way Kaegan was right. He was now in Aiden’s head. Aiden wouldn’t forget him.
“I wish I could draw with your skill,” Kaegan said. “I’m okay but not good at faces. Your work is exceptional. So real. Photographic. The one you’ve drawn from behind glass in the rain, it’s amazing.”
“Why isn’t your sort-of boyfriend in there?”
“I gave the one I did of him to his mother.” Who’d at least said she liked it but still refused to believe Aiden hadn’t touched up a photocopy of a photograph.
“I like making things,” Kaegan said.
“Of a sort.”
“Is that what you do for a living?”
“Until recently I designed and helped build sail boats.”
Aiden’s leg twitched and he stretched it out, rubbing at his thigh. Kaegan’s hand wrapped over his and Aiden jerked free.
“Do you want to know what’s wrong with me?” Oh fuck, why did I say that?
“There’s nothing wrong with you.”
Aiden’s heart swelled.
“No spots that I can see. Though of course, I’ve not seen all of you. Is there something you need to tell me? You’re wearing ladies’ underwear? Though there’s nothing wrong with that. You have a bifurcated cock? Your sort-of boyfriend’s face tattooed on your arse?” He gave a mock gasp. “Not his name on your cock? How could I give you a blowjob?”
Aiden almost choked with laughter.
“There’s nothing wrong with you. I already told you that you’re perfect.”
“That was before you saw me walk.”
“What’s wrong with the way you walk?” Kaegan looked genuinely bewildered. “You didn’t walk that way deliberately, did you?”
“Then it’s part of you and it doesn’t matter. Physical limitations don’t define you. Only the way you think.”
Aiden’s fingers were twitching and Kaegan caught hold of his hand and squeezed gently. The lump in Aiden’s throat grew larger. What should he do if Kaegan suggested going somewhere? To a hotel room? If he told Aiden he wanted to fuck him? Oh God. Was that even likely? If he did, Aiden would say no and it would kill something inside him.
Why the hell hadn’t he found a bedsit that afternoon? Why hadn’t he packed and walked out for good, gone to a cheap hotel? If he had, he’d be free, he could say yes to whatever Kaegan asked him to do. I want to say yes to whatever he asks me to do. In a few hours’ time, James was no longer going to be in his life. Say yes!
But he was jumping way ahead of himself. Why would this guy be interested in him? Aiden pulled his hand free of Kaegan’s hold and sat on it. The guy was just passing the time, being friendly, flirting. Maybe for a bet. Aiden looked around to see if anyone was watching.
“What’s the matter?” Kaegan asked.
Do not tell him what you were doing, that you were looking for people who might be watching or maybe a TV camera.
“Nothing.” Aiden’s shoulders fell. Flirting. He was useless at flirting. Every time he’d tried, he’d failed. No one had ever flirted with him. Until now. His insecurity began to strangle him.
“You were happy, now you’re sad.” Kaegan brushed his fingers over Aiden’s face.
Aiden turned away. Oh fuck. I want you to touch me but I can’t let you. “Life’s not simple.” Yet.
“It can be made simple. Take a chance. Seize the moment. Open your mind to possibilities.”
Aiden let out a choked laugh. “I work in insurance. Every day I see the results of people taking a chance. I’m the sort of guy who always reads the instruction booklet, especially with electronic stuff. I’ve never had a speeding ticket or one for parking where I’m not supposed to. I try not to walk the same way to work every day in case I’m tempting fate. My mind is always open to the possibility of disaster. I’d probably be the best prepared mentally for any catastrophe and more than likely the first to die.” Shit. Too much.
“Taking a chance doesn’t mean disaster is inevitable. Taking a chance can change a life for good. Take this chance I’m offering you.”
Letting you fuck me? Asking me to give you a blowjob? This guy had no idea how much Aiden wanted to say yes, yes, YES!
“Run away with me right now,” Kaegan whispered, his mouth so close to Aiden’s ear that he felt the words crawl inside and swirl in his head. “Be with me for Christmas.”
Aiden could have cried with…happiness and frustration. Was this actually happening or was he imagining it? “I…can’t.”
“Don’t you want to?”
“I can’t just walk out on my…sort-of boyfriend without telling him to his face that we’re done. Or walk out of my job.” And what the hell was he thinking? He knew nothing about this guy. He might be another James. Worse. Into inflicting pain, suffocation, orgies. A fantasist. A con artist. A murderer. A werewolf. Oh God. Stop it.
He took a deep breath. What if there really was a TV crew filming this? Aiden had a sudden image of the encounter being shown on TV, some Christmas comedy show called Duped, hilarious to everyone except those featuring in it.
“Don’t you want to run away with me?” Kaegan looked disappointed.
Why not tell the truth? Why not open his heart and reveal his feelings? Because I’ve been hurt too many times. The need to protect himself kept his mouth shut.
Kaegan sighed. “I’m going too fast. Pushing too hard. I’m sorry. Meet me tomorrow. Let me take you out on a date and show you I’m what you’ve been looking for.”
“Okay,” Aiden heard himself say.
“Jimminez restaurant. It’s near London Bridge. Seven o’clock. Make your sort-of boyfriend disappear. You have a new one now.”
Kaegan found it unfathomably hard to walk away from Aiden. When he’d first seen him, sitting on the bench, chewing his bottom lip in concentration, he’d felt a shiver of what he thought was recognition run up his spine, an urge to walk the other way. But he’d never seen this guy before in his life. He’d watched him for several minutes, glad he’d resisted the impulse to leave, and even considered making a duplicate Aiden for his world until he registered how frustrating that would ultimately be. Nothing could be as good as the real thing.
Instead, he’d walked up to him, sat down and talked. Something he rarely did. Something he never needed to do because he was usually the one approached, on this side at least. Want to come for a drink? To my hotel? Give me a blowjob? How about a fuck? Kaegan wasn’t interested in being picked up. Only interested in doing the picking.
He’d scarcely been able to believe Aiden could see that sparrow, or the detail on the gargoyle, the minute signs of weathering on its face and tail, the tiny scratches. The drawings were amazing. The guy had no idea how talented he was.
The sweetest face, the most kissable mouth, the darkest hair, the longest, blackest eyelashes he’d ever seen not produced by mascara and eyes as green as grass. Faerie eyes. Kaegan smiled. Though not a faerie body. Aiden’s issues with his body were nothing to Kaegan but he could see why Aiden might think otherwise.
When Aiden was drawing, his tongue kept slipping out to wet the curve of his upper lip and Kaegan felt it as a lick of his cock. The urge to bundle the guy into his arms, press his mouth to those elegant fingers and delicate wrists, and explore every inch of him had almost overpowered Kaegan’s reason. Thoughts of their naked bodies pressed together along their entire lengths, Aiden arching his back in ecstasy as he came…
Kaegan was greeted by the blast of a car’s horn as he started to cross the street and he stepped back onto the pavement with a quiet laugh. Those thoughts had crowded out his common sense and apparently his sense of self-preservation. He didn’t want to get run down while he was daydreaming, no matter how good that daydream was.
There was something else about Aiden that called to him. His insecurity, his vulnerability. Kaegan could make those go away. Aiden seemed as out of place as he was, but the sensation of his otherness had faded as they talked and Kaegan decided lust had befuddled him. Maybe leaving Faerieland for good had fully opened his eyes, made him see what he could have on this side. Friends. Lovers. Except not in London. He wanted to go home to Scotland.
Kaegan had felt Aiden’s yearning to go with him and to his shame, he’d even tried to push—just a little—to edge him over the line with a touch, a smile, but to his utter astonishment, his magic hadn’t worked. Even an attempt to look at Aiden’s memories, to find out more about him had met with failure. That had never happened before.
Just to check, he brushed against the next person he passed and felt a jolt of mustn’t forget to buy the fish. Need to get back before four… He smiled. Lust was dangerous. Lust muddled minds. Lust made fools of sensible faeries. He needed to remember that.
Still, he hadn’t needed magic to know Aiden was