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Authors: Josephine Myles

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BOOK: Boats in the night
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filthy—which, come to think of it, it was. All part of the joys of boat life, after all.

“How long will it take?” Dressing-gown bloke asked, scowling even harder and

twisting his face all out of shape.

“Depends what it is, really, but I should have an idea in the next hour or so if I can get the engine stripped.” Smutty tried to tone down his smile so he looked like a professional who could get the job done. It seemed to do the trick, as the guy’s shoulders dropped and his stance loosened from combative to resigned.

“Giles Rathbourne,” he said. The scowl morphed into a grimace and Giles rubbed the

heel of his hand against his forehead. “Bastard headache!”

“Want me to make you a cup of chamomile tea?” Smutty offered. “I’ve got fennel if

you prefer.”

“Why the hell would I want that muck? I need caffeine!” Giles squeezed his eyes shut and started to massage his temples with his fingers.

“That stuff’ll do you more harm than good, and you won’t find any on my boat. I’m a

clean-living sort of fella.” And he was… most of the time. If you didn’t count full moons and fire festivals.

When Giles eventually opened his eyes they were watering, but the hard glint had


“What kind of a name is Smutty, for Christ’s sake?”

Smutty grinned. If Giles liked stories, then the guy would be eating out of his hand soon. Well, maybe nothing quite that intimate, but at least they should earn him the leave to stay.

“Funny you should ask that. It’s from back when I started learning fire dancing and

I’d end every practice completely covered in soot…”

Chapter Two

Giles listened to the boater with the crazy hair spin some unlikely tale involving

juggling flaming torches and an innocent nickname from a small child, entranced by the

‘smuts’ all over his skin. Utter bollocks. No doubt it was a name he’d earned some other way, most likely involving some creepy kink. Maybe something involving cuffs and ball-gags and… well, Giles didn’t really know much about that scene, and he certainly didn’t want to.

Most unsavoury—especially before his morning cuppa.

“—and it wasn’t until I tried to wash the stuff off that I realised it was—”

“Look, the sooner you get going on that engine the sooner you’ll be able to move

along, right?” Giles snapped.

Smutty gazed at him with those deep brown eyes and all the sunshine fled from his

face, making Giles feel like an obstreperous git for interrupting his story. Still, couldn’t be helped. It was done now, and there was no way he was apologising to a trespassing gypsy.

“Yeah, don’t worry, mate. I should be out of here in the next hour or so. If I can’t get it fixed, I’ll see if anyone comes past who can give me a tow.”

Giles nodded curtly, and turned back towards the house. God knew why the memory

of those wounded eyes wouldn’t clear out of his vision. There wasn’t any point feeling guilty about how he’d treated a complete stranger, was there? Especially one who was quite clearly a degenerate of some kind.

By the time he got back to his kitchen the tea was lukewarm, with those unappetising little scales that always formed on the surface if he didn’t get the milk in quick enough.

Bugger. He made a pot instead and took it into the breakfast room, trying to regain some sense of normality by immersing himself in the paper as usual. This particular morning, though, the political machinations in Whitehall failed to catch his interest. It would have been easy to blame the hango— er… headache, which had eased somewhat with the application of tea, but which still pounded away like a primitive drumbeat.

Yes, easy to blame that, but it didn’t explain why a song was threading its way

through his mind, beguiling him with faded memories and bittersweet nostalgia. He heard his mother’s voice, sweet and low, singing to him at bedtime. It had been one of his favourites,

‘The Raggle Taggle Gypsies’, telling the tale of a privileged young bride who ran away from her new husband to sleep out under the stars with the gypsies she’d heard singing at the castle gate. The lilting tune wove through his thoughts, stirring up childhood dreams. He smiled as he remembered his eight-year-old self setting up a gypsy camp in the orchard, and how the sunlight had filtered through the patterned fabrics of his mother’s old scarves and quilts.

Maybe it was simply the result of walking through the orchard for the first time in

years, but he hadn’t thought of that summer in a long while. It was no wonder, considering what had happened that August night at the end of his last summer of happiness.

But it was useless to dwell on ancient grief, just as it was pointless to remember how he’d played in carefree innocence before the sun had been torn from his sky.

He should get on with his cleaning. Once kitted out in his old jeans and an ancient

university rowing team sweatshirt, Giles considered his options. There wasn’t anything left to do inside and he wasn’t feeling up to tackling the attic yet—too many memories waiting to ambush him—but perhaps he could start on the gardens. Yes, they’d been neglected ever since Fabian had laid off the gardener last summer. Giles still wasn’t entirely sure why Rick would have been stealing the old tools from the glasshouse—he had a set of superb British-made ones which Giles had paid for—but Fabian had been adamant that he’d caught him in the act and had spoken darkly of how much money the vintage ones would fetch at a flea market. At least Fabian hadn’t wanted to involve the police; Giles wouldn’t have wished that on young Rick. The poor lad must have been hard up to even consider stealing from him. It seemed so out of character. So… wrong.

But what would Giles know about it? He was a terrible judge of character. You only

had to look at how things had gone with Fabian to see that. Best just to stick to inanimate objects and plants. They couldn’t surprise you. They wouldn’t trample your dreams to death and spit on you when you were down.

He’d start with the rose garden. Her presence would be strongest there, but he thought perhaps he could handle it today. The spring sunshine and the faint clinking he could hear from down where Smutty was working on his boat were reassuring. They would help keep the ghosts at bay.

To his surprise, Giles realised it was good to know that there was another living soul around the place.


“Bugger!” Smutty wiped the sweat from his brow, remembering too late his oil

covered hands. The engine trouble definitely wasn’t something he could fix. He’d taken out the valves to check them, exposing the cracked cylinder head in all its DIY-defying glory.

“That’s the last time I buy a boat from a friend!”

had seemed too good to be true, the asking price well below what it should have been, even taking into account her rather dismal state. Her previous owner was a taciturn fellow called Grouch, whom Smutty had talked down from a bad trip at a party shortly after returning to England. Grouch had been living in
for a couple of years, moored up in a private spot but not cruising anywhere on her. Smutty had assumed this was simply because Grouch liked to stay in one place—not all boaters had the wanderlust—but maybe it was down to the fact he knew the engine was on its way out.

When was he going to learn to think things through properly before jumping in? He

should have been clued in by the state of the outside: all peeling paint and rust spots. You’d have thought he’d have figured out by now that you bloody well should look a gift horse in the mouth. This particular gift horse had rotten teeth and a bad case of halitosis.

That Giles bloke was not going to be happy.

Smutty glanced up the slope towards where the house must be, currently obscured by

the trees. He should go and tell him now—get it over with. Then he could just hang around until the next likely-looking boater cruised past who might be willing to tow him to the nearest boatyard. He had to get
out of the water soon anyhow, as if her engine was in this much trouble, he didn’t want to imagine the state of her hull. Probably more rust than steel. He wiped his hands down on his T-shirt then headed up towards the apple trees.

The orchard was like something from a fairytale. The ancient trees were covered with grey-green fronds of lichen, and Smutty could just make out clumps of mistletoe at the tops of the taller specimens. His mum would have described it as a sylvan wonderland and

meditated under the oldest tree. Mind you, his mum was the kind of woman who insisted he call her by her first name. Not Deirdre, of course, but the one she’d chosen for herself: Starlight.

Something squelched under Smutty’s foot and he looked down to discover a rotten

apple mashed all over the sole of his boot. They were everywhere, hidden in the long grass.

Looked like this place wasn’t very well maintained. It was a shame, but then again, there was a lot of hard graft involved in gardening and smallholding.

Nostalgia twinged inside him, bittersweet. It had been way too long since he’d felt a connection with a piece of land. Growing up, he’d always had Finn and the Commune to come back to every summer, but now it was gone and the community disbanded. All because the landowner died intestate and her son wanted to sell it off to the developers so he could retire to Marbella. It made Smutty angry, and there weren’t many things that had the power to do that.

But all traces of anger evaporated when he cleared the trees and was treated to his first view of Giles’s house. Smutty drew in a sharp breath and let it out slowly, feasting his eyes on the expanse of honey-coloured limestone and gleaming sash windows. Clearly, this Giles was loaded. There was a vast area of what might once have been lawn—although was now more of a wildflower meadow—leading up to the rear of the house where he could spy the hummocks of overgrown flowerbeds. Ancient stone walls lined with trained fruit trees bordered the ‘lawn’, and his eyes were drawn to a half-open gate in one of the walls.

Smutty waded through the ocean of long grass. Scents of wild garlic, rotten apples

and sweet wildflowers made a refreshing mix, and he filled his lungs gratefully. When he reached the gate, he edged through the gap between the wrought iron gate and the crumbling wall, into an enclosed garden. It was a sun-trap, and the sweet fragrance of narcissus and hyacinth infused the air. Despite the beauty of the scene, though, his gaze was captured by one element: Giles, bent over a raised flowerbed, perfectly still.

Not wanting to intrude, Smutty turned to slip back out through the gateway, but

tripped over a loose paving stone and fell against the iron gate. The hinges creaked in protest.

Smutty turned around to make his excuses but the words were stolen from him by a

pair of bright-blue eyes staring out from a stricken face. They were pleading for help, for succour.

Oh gods, how could he possibly resist?

Chapter Three

Smutty was inexorably drawn to Giles, as if an invisible thread were pulling him in, closer and closer. He didn’t want to move too fast, didn’t want to scare the man off. Right now Giles reminded him of some skittish creature, ready to fly away at the slightest provocation. For all the earlier display of obnoxious entitlement, Smutty could tell that Giles was fragile. It had been there all along, in the bloodshot eyes and the scent of despair. He’d have picked up on it sooner if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the boat.

As Smutty approached, Giles dropped his gaze to something in the flowerbed. When

he was close enough to make the form out, Smutty drew in a sharp breath. A tiny bird lay there, a nestling, not yet feathered. Its skin was like parchment, stretched taut over the fine bones. The eyes seemed unformed, still covered with a translucent layer of skin, yet its beak gaped open as if demanding food. As they watched, the body twitched one last time, then lay still.

“I couldn’t save it,” Giles said, his voice flat. “I couldn’t do anything. I was totally bloody useless.”

Smutty crouched down next to him and rested a hand on Giles’s shoulder. “There’s

nothing you could have done. The mother wouldn’t have accepted it back into the nest even if you knew which one it came from, and there’s no way you could have kept it alive yourself.

It’s just Mother Nature’s way, sometimes.”

“Then Mother Nature is a heartless bitch.” Giles swiped a hand through the weeds in

the flowerbed, but despite being momentarily flattened, they soon sprang back up again.

“She gives every creature its chance at life, and in death, they give back.” Smutty

recited the words he remembered Starlight using that time Finn had accidentally killed a nest of young mice when turning the compost heap. The boy had been distraught and as Finn’s own mother was too wrapped up in herself to be any bloody use, Starlight had decided to take over that role. “Come on, let’s give it a proper send off.”

Smutty squeezed Giles’s shoulder before letting go and starting to clear a small site in the overgrown flowerbed. At some recent time the garden here had been well tended. The only weeds were annuals, the soil clinging to their roots rich and dark. He looked up at the rose bushes in the centre of the bed. They’d obviously missed a prune this last winter, but they were in pretty good shape. There were roses all over the garden, he realised. Not only the tea roses in the beds but the climbers and ramblers covering the walls and threading their way through the wrought iron pergolas.

“This place must be stunning in June,” he said, imagining it a riot of scent and colour.

Giles sniffed and looked away, as if trying to hide his emotions. “It is,” he replied shortly.

“I always wanted a flower garden in the commune. Was told it was a waste of land

that could be used to grow food, though.” Smutty gave a wry smile—communal living wasn’t always idyllic. But it wouldn’t do to get lost in nostalgia when Giles was clearly suffering.

“Would you like to pick a few flowers? As an offering, I mean.” Smutty added when Giles gave a blank stare. “You know, to place in the grave.”

BOOK: Boats in the night
13.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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