Authors: Barbara Elsborg
Tags: #MM;m/m;romantic suspense
How long before he wasn’t ambushed by memories of him? It was like having some animal in his body that kept clawing and biting at him yet also kissed and soothed him. He wanted it gone. He didn’t want it gone.
Right up until the moment Malachi had moved out, Conrad had believed there was nothing he didn’t know about him. Not just every dip and curve of his body and where he liked and didn’t liked to be touched, but every twist and turn of Malachi’s life, which had been pretty fucking grim and not dissimilar to that of some of Conrad’s clients. Malachi could easily have taken the wrong path, but Conrad had led him down one of his own making.
He’d made it clear early on what he wanted, the games he liked to play, and thought Malachi had wanted it too. Only later had he come to wonder if that was as true as he’d once believed. He refused to accept Malachi had
been pretending. And yet the doubt was there. Didn’t matter now anyway. The room was gone. Well, not the room but the contents.
After Malachi had left the house, Conrad had tossed the projectors and other equipment into a pile and used a mallet to smash everything until there were pieces scattered everywhere and he was too exhausted to do more. He spotted a broken watch he didn’t recognize and guessed it was Harper’s and a sign that Conrad’s time with Malachi was finally over. Only then had he dropped to his knees and finally let himself mourn for the love he’d lost.
They hadn’t done all their fucking while they pretended to be someone else but most of it had been with Conrad as a viking, vampire, slave trader, pirate, lawyer—the list was endless, and Malachi always the victim. His role never changed. Conrad had told him virtually nothing about his family or his childhood, but Malachi hadn’t pushed. Sometimes Conrad needed to be pushed.
Make it happen.
Every time Malachi had moaned about something he wanted to happen, that was what Conrad had said.
Make it happen.
He stared at his useless legs.
Move. Bloody move.
Maybe he needed to say it out loud because obviously his legs weren’t listening to his brain.
“Move,” he muttered through clenched teeth. “Fucking move. Just give me some hope, some glimmer.”
The cover shifted over his toes and Conrad gasped.
Did I do that or did I imagine it?
He clenched his fists, imagined wriggling his toes and the cover moved again.
“Fucking hell,” he gasped.
Two months later
Archer sat outside a café overlooking the harbor at Seahouses in Northumberland, the morning sun shining on his face, his fringe flapping in the wind and his dog curled up under the table. He dropped a piece of toast and Deefor caught it before it hit the ground. He’d already fed him back at the car but Deefor had hollow legs as far as toast was concerned. As he looked down, the dog cocked his head on one side and blinked his big brown eyes.
“Not going to work,” Archer said. “You’ve already had your breakfast. This is mine.”
Deefor rubbed against Archer’s foot and Archer tossed him another scrap. A month ago he’d gone into an animal shelter looking for something big, black and fierce, a dog that would bark at the sound of anyone approaching, and let him get a good night’s sleep, an ability that seemed to have deserted him, and somehow emerged with a runty mongrel who rarely made a sound. When all the other dogs had clamored for attention, Deefor had sat at the back of his cage staring straight at him, no trust at all in his eyes. Archer regretted saying “That one” the moment the words came out of his mouth but he knew there was something in the dog he saw in himself. An undefined misery. He hoped they could cheer each other up and to an extent, they had.
He flicked through the paper as he sipped his coffee. Diesel emissions causing health problems. Members of parliament not to be trusted on expenses. Three skydiving friends die while proximity jumping. Archer read that article. Wearing wingsuits, the three had jumped from a helicopter in Switzerland, stayed close to the side of the mountain for too long and missed a chance to pull their ripcords. A lapse in judgment. One moment in time. That was all it had taken. It made him think of his friend Chris and it was a reminder that if he wanted to stay alive he could never let his attention slip.
Once he’d finished his coffee, took the paper inside and paid. Deefor jumped up when Archer came out and followed him down the road toward the harbor car park. He didn’t use a lead. If the dog wanted to leave him he could, but Deefor never strayed far from his side.
The van he’d been waiting for had arrived, and a group of people next to it were picking out wetsuits. When Archer had seen the surf projections yesterday, he’d booked the equipment online. It seemed an efficient way to do business without the need for a shop. Everything could be collected from and delivered back to the same point.
By the time he’d picked out a suit that would fit his lanky six-three frame, the other surfers had gone.
“Where are they heading?” he asked.
“Embleton Bay.” The driver, a youngster with sun-bleached hair who didn’t look old enough to drive, pulled a surfboard out of the van. “We’ll be back here at three. Don’t be later than three thirty.”
Archer tossed the wet suit into the rear of his Audi Q3, reclined the passenger seat and fed the nose of the surfboard over the parcel shelf and into the footwell. He opened a back door for the dog but Deefor sat on the tarmac and looked at him.
“Get in, Deefor.”
The dog didn’t move.
“You have to sit in the back. There’s no room in the front.”
He still didn’t move.
“I’ll leave you.”
Deefor jumped in and Archer slammed the door.
He drove out of the car park and up the hill toward the town. He was looking forward to this. The surf conditions were forecast to be excellent all along the coast. Offshore winds and storms at sea brought big waves to the beaches of North Druridge Bay, Warkworth, Embleton, Beadnell, Seahouses and Bamburgh. But he didn’t want to surf with a load of youngsters and decided to head to Shennan Sands, an isolated beach with a small parking lot, which limited the number who’d be there.
The place was a pain to get to. A single-track, winding road with few passing places, though he didn’t meet any other vehicles. He’d been here a few times to walk Deefor in the early evening. The parking lot was empty when he arrived and he stripped next to the car, quickly pulling on his trunks and then the wetsuit. The sun might be shining in a clear blue sky but it was November and on the northeast coast of the UK it was rarely going to be anything but chilly.
He locked the car, hid the key in a specially constructed box inside the front left wheel arch and headed barefoot over the dunes with the board, Deefor trotting beside him. It had been a couple of years since he’d surfed and he felt an unexpected surge of excitement. As he made his way to the water, Deefor ran in circles, chasing birds, sniffing puddles left by the retreating tide, leaving a few of his own.
When Archer reached the water, he looked back. A couple of isolated houses sat in a gap in the dunes. They had a perfect view of the sea. He wouldn’t mind living in a place like that. He’d been traveling around the UK since he’d left France, never staying more than a few days anywhere, but maybe it was time to risk staying longer.
Archer tethered his ankle to the board, picked it up and walked into the water. He shuddered at the chill but kept going. When it was too deep to walk, he climbed on and paddled, gasping as cold waves broke in his face. When he was far enough out, he turned the board to face the shore, sat on it and looked over his shoulder, licking the salt from his lips.
Surfing involved a lot of hanging around waiting for the right moment, picking what you hoped would be the ultimate wave and accurately judging the point at which to commit yourself. He liked the challenge because it had a lot in common with what he used to do. The bad thing about surfing was the amount of time it gave him to think. He’d made an art of not thinking and recently his brain seemed to be catching up on lost time.
At the sight of an extra-large roll of water heading his way, he lay on the board and started paddling. He caught the wave and skimmed along, a smooth fast ride until he tried to get to his feet and promptly fell off. He went down in a rush of white foam and churning sea, his nose and mouth full of bubbles, but he came up chuckling. He climbed back on, rubbed the water from his eyes and paddled out again. It took him a few more wipeouts before he got the hang of it.
One of the lessons he’d learned over the last two months had been that failing was something he could accept. He’d never failed in any of his assignments, which was the reason he wasn’t dead or in jail. But recently he’d given up trying to learn the guitar, had not succeeded in getting more than a couple of chapters into
War and Peace
, and, after buying water colors, paper and brushes, acknowledged he’d never be an artist. He still hoped to find something he was good at.
As time passed and his identity remained intact, he breathed more easily and felt a future beginning to gain shape. He’d made one more call to Phoenix from a phone box on the other side of the country and the broker told him he still hadn’t been able to identify the shooter. Archer didn’t believe him. He cut off the call when Phoenix offered him another job.
Now as he rode a monster wave all the way into the shore, he let out a whoop of delight. The sound astonished him. He’d held his emotions in check for so long he’d thought they’d been lost to him forever but it seemed they were still there, waiting for the right moments to burst free. It was as if he was coming to life, and yet in his heart he knew death clung to his heels. He was living with the knowledge that whoever wanted him dead could still be looking and in a way he understood he was waiting for death to catch up with him. He wasn’t sure if he could ever escape that.
Not every wave was kind. On several occasions he’d been forcibly submerged, compressed by the water to the point he’d wondered if he’d pop up again, only for the sea to spit him out as if he’d been reborn. Except he hadn’t. His past was what it was. His present was a lie and he didn’t know what his future held. One moment it seemed possible and the next a distant dream. His biggest worry was that if he stopped running, he’d die.
The moment Conrad woke, he slid his hand to his cock, an auto-response, and as usual, his stomach clenched in disappointment. Not that he was counting the number of erection-less mornings, but he was. Against his better judgment, he pulled an image of Malachi into his mind. The dark-haired, bright-eyed guy was lost to him now but if thinking of Malachi groaning beneath him didn’t make his cock swell he doubted anything could. He squeezed, pulled and caressed without success.
Fuck, fuck, fuck.
Conrad didn’t respond when he heard the
at the bedroom door though he took his hand off his dick. He kept his eyes closed but resistance was futile. Mrs. I’m-not-going-to-take-no-for-an-answer would do what she had been contracted to do regardless of whether he wanted it or not. The irony that he was paying her to harass him wasn’t lost on Conrad. She didn’t yet know it, but this would be her last day. He’d had enough. He just wanted to be left alone to stew in his misery.
The door creaked as it opened.
“Good morning, Mr. Black. It’s another lovely day.”
Her voice aggravated him. The fact that it was a lovely day aggravated him. He kept his eyes closed. Maybe she’d think he was dead and leave him in peace.
“Sit up for your breakfast. There’s a good boy.”
I don’t want any breakfast. I’ve never been a good boy. And I’m fucking thirty-six not six.
It was only because he’d made the previous housekeeper cry that he kept those thoughts in his head.
“You need to keep your strength up.”
Why? What do I have to look forward to apart from battering you to death?
“The physiotherapist will be here in half an hour.”
Conrad was also paying to be tortured by a succession of brutes who in their former lives must have trained the Gestapo.
“Up you get,” the woman said. “No use pretending to be asleep.”
While he lay in bed with his eyes closed he could imagine his life wasn’t shit.
Actually, he couldn’t.
“I wasn’t pretending,” he muttered. “I was coming around slowly.” To another relentlessly boring, fucking predictable day. To think he’d thought being here would be better than the convalescent home he’d been advised to go to.
“Sit up and have your breakfast.”
Conrad opened his eyes hoping beyond hope this was some vile dream and he was not where he knew he was. But no, the mistress of hell, a red-haired fifty-year-old in a pink flowered dress and yellow apron emblazoned with a smiley face had flung back the curtains to let the sun pour in, and now the treadmill and exercise bike stood taunting him. She bustled around picking up his clothes from where he’d let them fall the night before, tsking as she gathered up everything he’d dropped and ignored because they were too much trouble to retrieve.
“Need a hand sitting up?” she asked.
“No,” he snapped.
He reached for the strap on the hoist hanging over the bed and after taking a deep breath hauled himself into a sitting position. Pain flashed down his spine, slithered around his hips and tightened like a boa constrictor before shooting down his legs. He gritted his teeth.
If another fucking doctor told him feeling pain was good, he’d butt them in the head and show them it wasn’t.
Whatever-her-name-was plumped up the pillows behind him and he eased back against them.
“Thank you,” he said dutifully but with no small amount of resentment.
“See? That wasn’t so hard.”
Sitting up or saying thank you? Both were equally difficult. She rolled the tray holding his breakfast in front of him. He had little appetite but he swallowed a few mouthfuls of muesli and half a banana because he knew she’d nag if he didn’t and the less she said to him the better. The sooner she left, the better.
“Shall I get you your tablets?”
“You ought to take them with your breakfast.”
Since when have you been my doctor?
“I don’t need them this morning.” Which was a lie.
She tsked some more, left the room to do whatever it was she did to put his place back to rights, and he heaved a sigh of relief.
When he’d asked to interview candidates for the position of bully aka part-time cleaner and cook, the owner of the agency said all her employees were warm and chatty personable individuals. Conrad hadn’t wanted warm, chatty or personable. He’d wanted silent, morose and efficient, but apparently WE DO 4 U were all out of those. He’d now tried five of them and they’d all driven him crazy in different ways.
He’d rather manage without anyone. He sipped the coffee and scowled. How hard was it to make coffee that tasted of coffee? Another reason she had to go.
The need to use the bathroom weighed on him more and more heavily but he had to work himself up to the effort it would require to get there. Once he’d rolled the breakfast tray aside, he flung back the duvet and stared at his legs.
Useless fucking stupid things.
Why couldn’t they just do what his brain told them to do?
The succession of physiotherapists assured him that they would eventually. Time and patience. The constant reminders of how lucky he was never improved his mood. Yes, curiously enough, he knew he wasn’t dead. Yes, amazingly, he was aware he might have lost the use of his legs forever. Yes, of course he was a pain in the neck. Ironically, one of the places he didn’t have pain. He’d been a moody bastard before this had happened and now he seemed stuck in a downward spiral.
Though he knew he
lucky. Lucky the damage to his back happened at the point it did and not higher up. Lucky he wasn’t a paraplegic or quadriplegic or dead. Well, if he’d been left paralyzed from the neck down, regardless of whether he could breathe for himself or not, he wouldn’t still be here sinking deeper into misery. He’d have made a one-way trip to Switzerland.
The need to piss receded and he did the exercises he was supposed to do before he even tried to get off the bed. He shifted his legs from side to side and pulled them up and down before he sat fully upright, spine straight, and slid his legs over the side to do the rest.
Lift…count to ten…lower.
Left leg…right leg…both legs.
Over and over and over until sweat beaded on his brow and his pulse raced. He clenched his teeth in anger as much as with pain. He detested feeling so weak.