Authors: Anna Martin
“It’s a game.”
“Okay, cricket the game, not cricket the chirpy little bug. Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
When they laughed, with him, he was pretty sure, not at him, he felt a sudden rush of affection for these people. They were probably his friends. That was a good thing.
“I play for the village cricket team,” Ryan said. “Opening batsman.”
“Am I supposed to know what that means?” Henry asked, propping his chin on his hand, his elbow on the table.
“It means I go first. When they throw the ball, I hit it with the bat.”
“Oh! We have that in New York too,” Henry said, taking his turn to do the teasing. “It’s a more civilized sport. We call it baseball.”
“Civilized?” Shenal said, scandalized. “Oh no. Ohh no. You’ve done it now.”
“Done what?” Henry asked.
“You’re in. Just so we can prove a point,” she said.
“To play cricket?”
“Oh, no I’m not.”
“I think you are,” Paul said, grinning too.
“I don’t know the first thing about cricket.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Ryan said. “It’s only twenty-twenty. You’ll pick it up soon enough.”
“Twenty-twenty? Seriously, guys, you’re killing me here.”
Shenal leaned forward and caught him in an intense stare.
“You listening?” she demanded.
“In twenty-twenty cricket, each team plays one innings. That means—”
“I know what that means,” Henry interrupted. “You play an inning in baseball.”
“Good. Don’t interrupt me. Each innings consists of twenty overs, hence, twenty-twenty, got it?”
“Yup. What’s an over?”
“Getting there. An over consists of six balls bowled towards the batsman for the opposing team. Twenty lots of six balls, then they swap.”
“Got it. How do you score?”
While Shenal and Henry traded tense, snappy sentences, Ryan and Paul watched in fascination.
“You can score runs in two ways. One”—she counted off on her fingers—“by literally running from one end of the playing area to the other. Two, if the ball you’ve hit reaches the boundary of the field
it’s touched the ground, you score four points. If it clears the boundary without touching the ground you score six.”
“You can be dismissed, or deemed ‘out’, in a few ways, but the main ones are either being caught out or if the bowler hits the wickets behind the batsman or if, while you’re running, a fielder from the opposing team throws the ball at the wickets and hits them.”
Paul leaned over the table and murmured to Ryan, “I’m going to get another round in.”
“With you, mate.”
As they shuffled out of the booth, they caught the end of the conversation.
“How do you know all this?”
It’s practically our national sport.”
ran into Ryan again within days, this time in the village. It was, as everyone kept saying, small enough that while Henry was walking back to the hotel from the bakery, he bumped into Ryan, who was on his way out of the bank.
After exchanging pleasantries, Ryan looked past him down the road.
“Do you want to stop into the pub?”
It was barely midday. Henry told him so.
“For some lunch,” Ryan said, laughing. “Stella’s not on today, so she can’t tell me off.”
“Yeah, okay,” Henry said. “Sure.”
The pub clearly welcomed a fairly brisk lunchtime trade, offering deals on hot and cold sandwiches and “crisps,” or “chips.” Although he was getting used to missing certain things from home (just when would this country get on board with the idea of good bagels?), the way the pub served up their chips was starting to convert him.
“So,” Ryan said, as they settled into one of the booths. He had a pint. Henry, due to the time of day, had ordered orange juice. For him it was closer to breakfast than lunch, but he appreciated that the other man got up at the crack of dawn.
“So?” Henry echoed.
“You’re staying at the hotel, still.”
“Yeah,” Henry admitted. “I’ve sort of looked for somewhere to rent, but there isn’t exactly a huge variety of apartment blocks around here. And I don’t really want a house.”
“You’re not moving into Nell’s place, then?”
“No,” Henry said and sipped at his drink. “It sort of feels weird. The house itself needs too much work done to it. It’s not in any fit state to live in yet. And the gatekeeper’s cottage, where Nell’s lived all these years, it feels like her home. I wouldn’t feel right living there.”
“That’s fair enough. I was actually talking to Stella the other day….”
“Yeah. The farmhouse has a converted attic space. It used to be my room when we were kids. My parents stuck me up there to get me out of the way. Because of the way the house is built, it has its own entrance too, out the back of the house and down the side.
“Stella thought you might be interested in renting it.”
“You want me to move in with you?” Henry blurted before he could stop himself.
Ryan laughed. “If you want to put it like that. I’m not a great person to live with. I can’t cook at all. Stella makes meals for me and stacks them up in the freezer. It’s the only way I survive. And I love crap TV. And I have a furry bastard of a dog. But yeah. If you want to get out of the hotel, I won’t charge you an arm and a leg, and you can come and go as you please. And it’s closer to Nell’s house, of course.”
“Let me think about it,” Henry said, trying, and failing, to keep the hint of apology from his voice.
“Of course,” Ryan agreed. “Just give me a call.”
Henry lasted a day before making the call and saying “I’ll take it.”
It made good sense. Living in the little hotel was going to cost him a fortune in the long run, and he kept saying he wanted to settle, to find somewhere in this country to call his own. There really wasn’t anywhere locally where he was going to find a sleek, modern apartment—which would be his first choice of living accommodation.
“You should come over and have a look at it first,” Ryan said. It was easy to agree.
During his first visit to the farmhouse, they’d stayed on the ground floor, with the doors to various rooms shut. That made sense. He was there for business reasons, not personal ones. This time Ryan welcomed him in with a smile, Hulk sniffed around his shoes, then wandered off, and Ryan already had the kettle on to make him a cup of tea.
“How are you?” Henry asked.
“Not bad, actually. Been up since five, but not bad.”
“Five?” Henry echoed faintly.
“Yeah. ’Tis the life I chose….”
Henry accepted the blue-and-white-striped mug with thanks, and Ryan picked up the matching red-and-white-striped one.
“Let me show you around.”
“So, this is the kitchen,” Ryan started, smirking.
“We call that the mudroom,” he continued, gesturing to a small porch area that led out onto the deck at the back of the house. It was, appropriately, covered in mud, several jackets, boots, umbrellas, and coconut mats. There was also a scruffy dog bed and a range of multicolored chewy toys.
“That’s the dining room,” Ryan continued as they wandered through the house, mugs of tea in hand. “I only ever use it when my parents are home. Mostly, I keep the door shut so Hulk doesn’t get in there and shed dog hair all over the place.”
They passed a living room, which was all hardwood floor, big, sagging leather couches, a huge TV, and a real fireplace. Henry immediately loved it, but Ryan was already heading for the stairs, and he jogged the last few steps to catch up with him.
“I’ll take you up this way and down the back stairs so you can see both ways through the house,” Ryan said, as Henry tried not to stare at the other guy’s butt (which was waving seductively right in front of his face) and instead diverted his attention to photos of Ryan and Stella. The framed prints started at the bottom of the stairs with baby pictures and moved through school pictures as they ascended, ending with what Henry assumed was a rather recent picture of them both outside the pub. Ryan had his sister in a headlock, but she was laughing, her elbow digging into his side.
“My room is on this floor,” Ryan said dismissively and turned up the next flight of stairs.
The attic room was beautiful. There was no other word for it. Light spilled in through two windows that were set into the gently sloping roof, and the whole room was decorated in warm honey tones. Again, the floorboards here were stripped bare, there was a soft, shaggy rug in one corner, and the bed was a large double, wrought iron with white sheets.
“Wow,” Henry muttered softly. “You lived up here when you were a teenager?”
“Yeah, but my mum has redecorated since then,” Ryan said. “The first thing she did was give it a deep clean to make it presentable. There’s a little bathroom over there—it only has a shower and a toilet and a sink, but it works, you know.” He shrugged. “And that’s the fire escape route.”
Henry pushed the door open and leaned out. The stairs that led down the back of the house were steep and incongruous, but he supposed if he wanted his own entrance to the room, he could come and go without Ryan even knowing he was there.
The bathroom was pristine white, but a fine layer of dust prevented it from shining. Henry guessed it wasn’t used all that often, and decided it wouldn’t take much effort at all to clean up. There was a water glass next to the sink that held a lonely, brand-new red toothbrush, the only speck of color in the room.
“I’ll take it,” he said again.
“Yeah?” Ryan said, his face breaking into a wide smile. “Cool. You can move in whenever. I’ll find the other set of keys for you. Stella has one set, but she hardly ever uses them. It’s more for emergencies, you know? Um… there’s Wi-Fi throughout the house. You actually get a pretty good signal up here. I’ll find out the passwords and stuff. And there’s a little TV in the second bedroom downstairs, I’ll find that and bring it up for you.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
Ryan shrugged. “No one else is using it, so you might as well.”
Moving in with Ryan was both liberating and strangely suffocating. There was no denying that there was something about the other man Henry was strangely attracted to. Ryan had the whole deep, brooding thing going on. Plus, he worked outside. With his hands. On a farm, for God’s sake.
That did mean, though, that Ryan was awake at the ass-crack of dawn and was mostly done by midday. He took a few hours off over lunchtime, napped for about an hour between two and three, then did other odd chores for the rest of the afternoon.
For Henry, who liked to keep late hours and considered five in the morning an excellent time to return from a night out, not the sort of hour one might want to get up to start work, it took some adjusting to. Ryan wasn’t particularly loud, but Henry was a light sleeper, and the sound of the boiler roaring to life and the pipes starting to clatter when Ryan took his morning shower nudged him out of sleep.
Still, the bed was exceptionally comfortable, and his room faced away from the sunrise, so most mornings he was able to sleep on for a few more hours. His long walk to Stretton House had been shortened, so Henry felt justified in spending a little while longer in the shower, making coffee, eating breakfast, before leaving and starting his own working day.
The immediate, fiery crush Henry had developed for Scott Castle had started to wane, although the embers were still there for stoking by Henry’s subconscious, mostly when it was a warm day and Scott stripped off his shirt to reveal his muscular, tattooed chest. For all of Scott’s obvious masculinity (which Henry’s subconscious
approved of) there was something about Ryan’s quiet, witty nature that was starting to be even more appealing. Even though his days were filled with interactions with Scott, his evenings were spent with Ryan, cooking and talking or watching TV.
Work on the house moved at a pace Henry hadn’t anticipated. It seemed like only weeks from when they started that he was able to begin ticking rooms off his list as complete. Or complete as far as the building work was concerned, anyway.
The kitchen was going to take the most renovation, just by the sheer nature of what he was trying to accomplish there. The dining room really just needed decorating, which would come after the building work was completed, and he took it upon himself to do the dirty jobs, sanding the woodwork and stripping the walls ready to be painted.
The library got a deep cleaning and a new carpet fitted, and the rooms Nell referred to as the “sitting room” and “parlor” again needed little more than cleaning and redecorating. These rooms, though, had high ceilings and intricate coving that needed specialist restoration. That too would be done once the dirty building work was complete.
Even though Stella had warned him about the locals being nosy, Henry was truly surprised at the number of people who turned up unannounced and uninvited, although not unwelcome, to introduce themselves and request a tour. He found himself not minding when one of the builders would come find him, usually rolling their eyes at the interruption.