Authors: Barbara Elsborg
Tags: #MM;m/m;romantic suspense
When Conrad stumbled, arms shot out and stopped him falling.
“I don’t know how you managed to rescue him,” one of the cops said. “It was a brave thing you did.”
No, it was idiotic. He wasn’t thinking. Though what was the alternative? Letting him drown?
“Hang on to me.”
Conrad was too tired to let his pride refuse the offer. While one policeman carried the board and Conrad’s coat and crutches, the other helped him up the beach and down the path to the house. As he pushed open the door, Deefor ran in.
“Hey,” Conrad said. “You don’t live here.”
The cop not holding him tried to grab the dog and Deefor shot between them back toward the beach.
“You get warm. We’ll see to the dog.”
Conrad closed the door and leaned against it, black spots speckling his vision. He let the emergency blanket fall, toed off his sodden trainers, stripped out of his wet, sandy clothes where he stood and, ignoring the crutches, shuffled to the bathroom.
A warm shower helped, but it felt like every bone in his body had been rubbed raw with a cheese grater. He dressed again, still feeling chilled, and went back into the kitchen. As he switched on the coffee machine, there was a knock at the back door. The two cops stood there.
“He runs off every time we get near him,” one said. “We can’t spend any more time chasing him. We’ll call animal services.”
Conrad staggered as a small dark shape whizzed between his legs. The cops groaned.
“Looks like he’s decided where he wants to be,” said one of them. “Is that okay? We can sort something out tomorrow.”
Deefor curled up on the floor next to the radiator and put his head on his paws in a decent attempt at looking pathetic.
After the police left, Conrad filled a bowl with water and carefully set it on the floor, pain flaring as he bent over. The dog rose to its feet and took a long drink.
“I suppose you’re hungry too.”
He opened the fridge and ran his gaze over the contents. After
WE DO 4 U
employees had managed to fuck up his grocery shopping on three occasions—when he asked for fillet he didn’t want frying steak and spaghetti could in no way be the same as ramen noodles—Conrad had switched to ordering online from a large supermarket twenty miles away. He’d been going to cook steak and a baked potato for his dinner but he had neither the energy nor the appetite. He chopped the meat into pieces, pushed it onto a plate and put it on the floor.
The coffee was ready but if he didn’t lie down in the next few seconds, he was going to fall. He used his crutches to get to the bed, levered off his shoes, lay down, pulled the duvet over him, vaguely remembered he’d not drawn the curtains and wondered if he’d drop off to sleep before his head hit the pillow. Was that even poss…?
Archer woke. On a mountain. The rope slipping. His grip faltered. But the nightmare didn’t fully form and he slept again.
He woke. In the sea. Floundering in a world of water, saturated to the bone. He inhaled water, swallowed water, breathed water as it pulled him down but he kept fighting.
He woke. On land. Shivering. Opened his mouth and struggled to draw thick air into aching lungs. His head hurt. His body ached. Someone’s face above his. As Archer’s eyes closed, he told the man to run before he dragged him down too. But he worried nothing had come out of his mouth.
Each time he came round, he edged further from confusion and nearer reality. Images became clearer, voices more distinct, his breathing easier. Not dead. Not dying. He lay still, eyes shut and listened.
Concussion. Water inhalation. Dehydration.
He was alert enough to appreciate the irony of the last two and understand that the first explained his confusion and the pain in his head. What happened? He struggled to remember. On the point of lucidity, he was pulled away again, his body’s need to close down too much to resist.
Next time, fucking wake up properly.
He woke feeling thirsty. The clock on the wall said seven. His head ached and he was concerned over what he might have blurted out while unconscious. He managed breakfast, was polite to the nurses and waited for the police. Archer would have much preferred not to have come to their attention, but now he had, he needed to behave in the appropriate way.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Hart?” asked the older of the two uniformed cops.
“Groggy.” Apparently he’d had a couple of stitches in his head. “I think the tether broke on the surfboard and it flipped up and knocked me out.”
“You were lucky you were spotted. The guy who pulled you out is a hero. He went into the sea on crutches. He could easily have drowned. It’s a miracle he managed to save you. He’s a brave man.”
A pang of disquiet lodged in Archer’s stomach.
A man who succeeded where I failed.
“Where’s my dog?”
“He’s at Marram Cottage with the guy who rescued you. Is that your car in the lot at Shennan Sands?”
“Yes.” He was sure they already knew that. They’d have checked the registration and tied it to the name he’d given the company from which he’d hired the board and wetsuit.
“Where are your keys?”
“I hid them. Didn’t want to risk losing them in the water.”
“Is there anyone you’d like us to contact?”
“No thanks. What about the board and the wetsuit?”
“We’ll give the company a call. They can collect them from us.”
“Not wise to go surfing on your own,” said the younger cop.
“You’re right.” He let his eyes flutter closed. He wasn’t sleepy but he’d given the police as much as they needed.
When they’d gone, he opened his eyes. Archer picked his target carefully. Male. Not young. A porter not a nurse.
A few minutes later, he had a promise of a lift back to his car at the end of the porter’s shift. The guy even supplied a jacket to put over his hospital gown and bootees for his feet. Archer signed himself out against medical advice; his stitches would dissolve so there was no need to return. He allowed the porter to wheel him to his car and gave him fifty quid from the glove box when he dropped him off next to his vehicle at Shennan Sands.
Archer intended to thank the man who’d saved him, pick up Deefor and leave, but when he looked through a bedroom window of Marram Cottage, he changed his mind.
Conrad had a difficult night. After his initial slump into a deep sleep in the afternoon, he’d woken a couple of hours later and been unable to settle. He’d been tempted to knock himself out with a handful of pills but was too exhausted—lazy—aching—to get up, even to draw the curtains. He’d also spent the night fully dressed, which might have saved him a bit of effort this morning except for the fact that he needed to shower. He rolled onto his right side with a wince and a wet tongue swept across his cheek. He snapped his eyes open and recoiled when he saw Deefor lying on the bed next to him.
“Did I invite you to share my bed? I don’t think so. Get off.”
Deefor licked him again more enthusiastically.
“Christ. Must you? You haven’t even cleaned your teeth.”
The dog took that as an invitation to keep going and after struggling to fend him off, Conrad pressed his face into his pillow to escape the wet tongue, torn between annoyance and laughter. Every time he lifted his head, Deefor snuck in another lick, his hot breath hitting Conrad’s ear, his paws digging into his shoulders.
Deefor rubbed his body on Conrad’s neck.
“Are you bloody scent marking me?”
He turned and pinned Deefor down, tickling his stomach and growling while the dog still tried to lick him. Conrad laughed. The first genuine burst of pleasure he’d felt for a long time. The most active he’d been in bed for a long time thanks to a dog.
Remember not to say that to anyone. It really won’t sound good.
Deefor tugged at his sleeve.
“Okay. I’ll get up if you get off.”
The dog jumped down and Conrad flung away the covers. He slid onto his back to do his exercises. Deefor whined.
“I can’t move until I’ve done this. You’ll have to wait. “
When he groaned in pain, the dog stopped whining and stared at him. Conrad found himself chuckling again. He grabbed the hoist, pulled himself up and swung his legs over the side of the bed. Deefor ran to the open bedroom door.
After he’d finished the sitting up exercises, Conrad took a deep breath, rose to his feet and took his first step. His knee buckled and he almost went down.
He should know better than to expect some miracle every time he got up, but he did. No miracle with his cock either.
He made it to the bathroom without using the crutches and felt a surge of satisfaction. Maybe he
dispense with them. He’d managed yesterday after a fashion. He showered, dressed and headed for the kitchen. He’d leave the treadmill and the bike until the afternoon. The exertions of yesterday had taken their toll and his entire body ached this morning.
Deefor sat in front of the fridge. Conrad got the message and gave the dog the remains of the packet of ham. Sheer luck he’d not thrown it away. He had no idea whether dogs were allowed to eat processed meat, probably not, but it had gone before Conrad refilled the water bowl. He looked at the wet sandy clothes on the floor and sighed. Since he’d sacked the people who picked up after him, he’d have to deal with the clothes himself, but not yet. Deefor ran to the back door and jumped up.
When he opened the door to let him out, he saw the guy he’d pulled from the sea sprawled across the step. Conrad blinked in astonishment, assuming for a moment he must be hallucinating, but after a longer blink the guy was still there and not moving.
Deefor peed on a rock, bounded back to the house, jumped over his owner and trotted inside.
“So much for being man’s best friend,” Conrad said. “Doesn’t he even get a lick?”
Clinging on to the doorframe, he crouched down and his stomach lurched in a way he’d not experienced for some time.
Would that be since yesterday, dickhead?
While he’d been with Malachi he’d never been tempted by another guy. He might have admired a tight arse, bright eyes or cheeky grin but Malachi had been all he’d needed.
The guy was around Conrad’s age, and about his height.
The thought was accompanied by a significant thickening in his groin, and he gave a quiet moan. Of course, this was the perfect time to get the hard-on he’d been longing for, over a dead body lying on his doorstep. No doubt a heterosexual dead body.
Well, not dead but unconscious, which was only slightly better. What the hell was the guy doing here? Oh right, he’d come for his dog. But the back door? Though Conrad wouldn’t have heard a knock at the front while he’d been in the shower. He brushed the guy’s cheek with his fingers, shocked by how cold he felt.
After attempts to rouse him failed—he wasn’t going to kiss Sleeping Beauty, though the thought had crossed his mind, but he didn’t want to get thumped in the face for his trouble—Conrad managed to get his arms under the man’s shoulders and heave him inside. The rain started just as he pulled him over the threshold.
But once he’d dragged him into the kitchen, he couldn’t go any farther without resting. He shoved the door closed and collapsed on his back at the guy’s side, his heart pounding hard enough to hurt. When he’d hoped for life to be less boring, looking after an attractive albeit unconscious man and his demanding dog hadn’t been what he had in mind. He knew he ought to phone for an ambulance. The guy probably needed to be back in the hospital. He wondered why they’d let him out.
He turned his head to face him and found the surfer staring at him with the darkest blue eyes he’d ever seen, his pale face already assuming an olive hue in the warmth of the kitchen. His gaydar pinged but lack of practice made it too unreliable for Conrad to be sure. His cock tried to come out and take a look for itself and he begged it not to.
“We have to stop meeting like this,” Conrad said.
The guy gave a choked laugh.
“I was trying to drag you to my bed, but didn’t quite make it.” A gentle flirt which would be ignored or…not. He had no idea if this guy was gay. All he knew was what he wanted him to be. Conrad held out his hand. He needed to keep the guy’s attention north of his dick until the idiot organ had come to its senses and normal blood flow had resumed
“I’m Conrad Black.”
He had a firm handshake and Conrad would have liked it to last a little longer but shaking hands while they lay flat on their backs on the floor was awkward and rather bizarre.
“How are you feeling?” Conrad asked. That was sparkling.
Shut up before you discuss the weather.
“As if the sea chewed me up, then spat me out.” He touched the back of his head and winced. “And clouted me with something hard.”
“That’ll teach you to head butt a shark.”
Archer smiled, his eyes seemed to shimmer, and Conrad felt something shift inside him. A movement away from the past, a slide toward the future—accompanied by more action in his groin.
Damn. Damn that I even have to think damn after longing for this response for months. But damn.
“The police told me you saved my life. Thank you, though that hardly seems adequate.”
Conrad could think of a way he could thank him, but he wasn’t going to be blurting that out any time soon. “Anyone would have done the same.”
“I’m not sure about that.”
“And I’m not sure they should have let you out of the hospital. Yesterday you swallowed half the North Sea. Today you pass out on my doorstep. You’re probably still concussed.”
Archer pushed himself to a sitting position and stood up in one seamless movement. Conrad still lay on the floor, his cock deflating in resignation.
He made that seem so easy.
He didn’t want to move and look like the gimp he was, but he could hardly stay on his back like a stranded turtle. He took a deep breath and rolled over, then pushed up onto his knees. From there he crawled a few feet to a chair and hauled himself upright.
Okay, now you’ve seen what I am.
He kept his back to Archer as he stepped carefully to the coffee machine, trying not to limp or lurch, and switched it on. “You want coffee, some breakfast?”
“It’s eleven thirty.”
Christ, is it?
“Yeah, well I haven’t had breakfast.”
“Okay, then. Why not?”
Conrad heard him take off his coat, pull out a chair and sit down, and felt a thrill of delight that he hadn’t just picked up Deefor and left. He pulled two bowls from the cupboard, carried them to the table, returned for the muesli and milk, then the mugs of coffee, went back again for a knife, two spoons and a banana.
He could feel Archer watching and was pleased he hadn’t offered to help, though he wondered why not. Most people would have. They’d have been fussing at him to sit down, telling him they’d do that for him. Conrad sat opposite, cut the banana in half, offered one part to Archer, then chopped his into pieces over his muesli. He realized he’d been so preoccupied with his visitor that several minutes had passed without him thinking about how much it had hurt to be on his feet.
“What happened to you?” Archer asked.
“A shift into hyper-drive took me by surprise.”
“Your flux capacitor need adjusting?”
“And in this world?” Archer asked.
“I was hit by a car a couple of months ago. Someone tried to kill me.”
Archer’s eyes widened. Conrad had said it to shock but why the fuck had he even told him that?
“Why?” Archer asked.
“I like that question much more than
are you sure?
I have no idea why someone would want me dead, but I’m sure they did.”
“You piss someone off?”
“I piss lots of people off but I don’t think any of them would actually resort to murder.”
“The police haven’t found the driver?”
Conrad shook his head. “They looked but they’re not looking now. The car had been stolen and was found burnt out. They don’t think I was hit deliberately.”
“But you do.”
“Presumably whoever did it still wants you dead.”
“Thanks for that cheery thought.” Which lurked like a raptor in Conrad’s mind but he was surprised it had popped into Archer’s. “I
had the sense not to broadcast where I’m staying.”
Oh God, are you a threat to me?
Archer pushed away his empty bowl. “But there are people who know?”
“Yes.” This conversation was worrying him.
“Then the wrong people can find out.”
Conrad gave a small shrug. “I suppose so.”
Archer looked around. “You’re isolated, easy to sneak up on and currently not at your best physically. It wouldn’t take much to kill you.”
“If I hadn’t dragged your arse out of the sea yesterday, I’d be feeling worried.” Actually, he
worried. Anxiety nibbled at his gut.
“Fortunately for you I’m not a threat.”
Conrad wasn’t so sure about that. Apart from a concern that it might not have been a coincidence Archer was surfing right opposite the cottage, Conrad’s anxiety about impotence now appeared to have taken a new twist. His dick was waving around in his pants like a sand eel, but because he was sitting at the table, his groin was hidden. He hadn’t had this problem since he’d been a teenager.
Deefor ran to Conrad, jumped up at him, ran to the door and ran back. “You need to pee again?”
Really? Because I don’t want to get up right at this moment.
Archer pushed to his feet and Conrad almost said, “I didn’t mean you,” before he thought better of it. When Archer opened the door, Deefor took two steps into the rain before he shook his coat and returned to the radiator. Archer huffed and slammed the door. “Next time open it yourself,” he said to the dog and dropped back at the table.
Deefor moved from the radiator and settled at Conrad’s feet.
Archer wrapped his hands around his coffee. “You can hardly walk. How the hell did you manage to get me out of the sea?”
“I have no idea.”
“You could have drowned.”
“You weren’t far out.”
“You can drown in a couple of inches of water and the sea was rough yesterday. You can die of hypothermia within minutes. Why did you do it? You don’t even know me.”
He looked genuinely curious, which Conrad found strange.
“How could I have lived with myself if I hadn’t tried?”
“And if I’d drowned?”
“Then I’d done the best I could.”
“And when my wife and kids looked at you as though you hadn’t tried hard enough?”
Conrad didn’t let his disappointment show but his cock wilted. “Then that’s their problem not mine.”
Archer’s lips curved in a smile. “You’re very confident.”
“I need to be in my line of work.”
I’m an expert in
confident but the spell in the hospital had changed him, reduced him somehow, reminded him he was mortal.
“What do you do?”
Archer raised his eyebrows. “Prosecuting or defense?”
“You have a preference?”
Conrad hesitated, then asked, “You don’t want to know why I prefer defense? How I can possibly defend someone I know is guilty?”
“But the opposite is how can you prosecute someone you suspect is innocent? Not that simple, is it?”
Conrad liked that answer. “The law is rarely simple. I recently had a case where a guy spent ten years in prison for something he didn’t do. The evidence at the original trial was damning, but it turned out he’d been set up.”
“Would you defend someone you knew was guilty?”
“If they admitted they were and said they were going to lie in court, no, I wouldn’t. I’d recommend they plead guilty. If they told me they didn’t do it and I suspected they were lying, yes, I’d defend them. It’s not my place to determine guilt. That’s up to the jury.”
Archer finished his coffee in one long slurp. “Innocent until proven guilty.”
Does that apply to you too? Are you just a surfer who had an accident?
Conrad couldn’t help being suspicious. It was inbred in him and worse after the accident.