Okay folks, it’s getting late on this side of the pond, in the UK, and I am thinking of calling it a night. If you’d like to ask me anything, I’ll come back in the morning and answer it tomorrow. (My tomorrow is likely to be your middle of the night.)
Thanks so much for putting up with me!
I’m going to leave you with a few excerpts from Seeing Red, because I realize I forgot to mention there were puppies.
Bad boys don’t tame easy.
Victor is a bad man. Is there anything he won’t do for power and money?
Destroy a local business so he can buy it cheap? Kick out its owners and turn it into a cash cow? He relishes the chance.
Idris is a good man in possession of a renowned tea-house. He’s put his heart and soul into the place. It’s everything he has and wants…
Except for Victor.
He wants Victor too.
Can the love of a compassionate man restore a predator’s withered soul? Or is Idris doomed to lose his life’s work, and his heart with it?
A contemporary mm romance, Seeing Red is a long-awaited new installment of the critically acclaimed Trowchester Series.
A blur of movement heralded an almighty, thunderous boom. Heart in his mouth, Idris recoiled, the frying pan held out in front of him. But his eyes had adapted by now. He could make out the form of a man, sprawled on top of his dumpster, twisting and lunging back to his feet. The silhouettes of two more men were closer to the river, one—facing away—had paused in the act of dropping a sack into the water. The second seemed to be watching as the fallen man lurched to his feet.
Idris thrust his phone back into his pocket and took hold of the pan with both hands. It didn’t look like a bunch of local thugs come to threaten him. It looked like…
Details had begun to reveal themselves now he was accustomed to the full dark. The fallen man wore a suit that gleamed faintly in the moonlight reflected from the river. His silhouette was slender, sharp. Gold glinted at his wrist. The others had the bulky shapes of older men, wrapped up against the evening’s chill. Flat caps. More like the demographic Idris had been fearing.
A fight between a businessman and a couple of local toughs? But why?
He had lowered the pan and was almost ready to step out and intervene when the businessman lunged for the nearest tough, teeth bared like a rabid fox straight out of the trash. “Put the fucking dogs down and get the fuck out of here,” he shouted, his voice trembling—with fear? Nerves? Excitement? Idris couldn’t tell.
All at once there was a gleam in the man’s other hand too. He grabbed the nearest tough by the dufflecoat toggles and made a wide, sweeping gesture. The blade of a knife gleamed in the moonlight. Idris went cold all over, his lips tingling, and something moved him forward as if he had been shoved. “What’s going on here in my back garden? I want you to know I’ve called the police!”
“He fucking stabbed me, the fucker!”
“Just leave it, mate. Let’s get out of here!”
The two older men dropped what they were carrying and fled, kicking something on the ground as they went. Idris was left alone, face to face with the man with the knife. He raised his pan again, tremblingly aware of the bloodstain on the businessman’s hand and shirt-sleeve, of how suddenly the stabbing had occurred and how slim were his chances of defending himself in hand-to-hand combat, copper-bottomed frying pan notwithstanding. He really quite wanted to throw up.
After a long still moment in which Idris watched the man and the man watched him right back, it dawned on Idris that he was not being attacked. He lowered the pan to his side and studied the strange apparition in his back yard. The man was very tall, slender, with a bony, masculine face that still managed to be arrestingly beautiful. He was twitching all over with what must be aftershocks of adrenaline or aggression, and his eyes still reminded Idris of something wild and afraid, startled by a human presence and poised between fight and flight.
Disconcertingly, something about the sharp suit and the bloodstains worked a magic on Idris that all the abs on Grindr had not. He found himself blazing hot and flustered.
“What happened here?” he managed, just as the man flicked the knife closed and tucked it into the inside pocket of his jacket.
Not answering, the man strode over to the riverbank, squatted down and picked up something bulky, cradling it in his narrow arms. When he turned, Idris saw it was puppies. A trio of squirming little dogs, two of which were still clawing their way out of a sack.
It all became clear with a sunburst of realization. Idris dropped the pan in the garden and closed the distance, reaching out to touch the pups’ little ears and pet their foreheads. Their whimpers died off, and one of them made an attempt to lick his fingers.
“Those men were going to throw them in the river?” he cried, forgetting the knife. Forgetting that well-dressed businessmen didn’t typically carry weapons for street brawling. “And you stopped them!” The man was a hero. No need for more explanation than that.
The man was also trembling, and now that they had said their hellos to him, the dogs had begun to whine again.
Idris didn’t fight people off, but here was a need he could fulfill. “What’s your name?” he said. “No, never mind. Come in! Come in and let me make you a cup of tea. I don’t think all the embers are out yet. We’ll put these boys in front of a fire and get them some food.”
“I…” The businessman shook himself as if he was waking up. His eyes found Idris’s again, and again Idris’s mind derailed. Holy shit, look at that mouth. He wanted to lick it… and that was just rude even in the privacy of his own mind. “I, uh, just let me pick up…”
He bent to the thing that the men had kicked—it turned out to be a stylish leather shoulder bag, its contents now strewn across the back garden. Idris found a phone under the dumpster’s wheels and handed it over, thrilled to have long fingers brush his own as it was reclaimed.
“I’m Idris, by the way,”
Could he take one of the dogs himself? Not really. There was nowhere to keep one where it would not set off Lalima’s allergies.
Yet they needed someone, he thought, saddened. Now that he looked at them closely he could see how dirty they were. Their coats were matted and patchy, their ribs visible beneath the shrunken skin. They slept heavily, and he didn’t know whether that was normal for puppies, or if they were lethargic from prolonged mistreatment.
‘Poor little bastards’ indeed. Thank goodness that Victor had been on the spot and able to fight for them.
As if the thought had summoned him, the man himself came striding back. Idris choked on his drink, heat flashing once more into his skin and into his groin as well. He crossed his legs and lifted one of the dogs into his lap to conceal anything.
The suit had given Victor a certain untouchable air, like something on which the stray hand would cut itself. But now he wore a soft, turquoise silk button down and black skinny jeans, grayed and soft with age and wear. Idris hadn’t noticed a bin smell, but he did notice the scent of soap and shampoo—an almost continental fragrance of blended coffee and whiskey. Victor was a vision, dressed as though he was about to go clubbing, and Idris’s infatuation—somewhat dashed by the house—flared up again like a tongue of flame.
“Wow,” he said. “You are so beautiful.”
“Don’t!” Victor flinched, his mouth turning down. He poured himself a drink with curt movements as though he’d been insulted. “I know I don’t look like much, but don’t make fun.”
“No, I meant it!” Idris exclaimed. “How can you not see? You’re—”
“I look like them,” Victor dropped to his knees beside the dogs, which put him dangerously close to Idris’s side. He brought a blast of warm, humid air with him, his hair still damp from the shower. Even watered, it was still bright, a bronze rather than the red-gold it was when dry. Idris reached up for it without thinking, touched the ends that curved over his ear, and then swept his fingertips over the soft arch of his ear down to the lobe as if he was petting another dog.
“Hm?” he asked.
“Scrawny, half-starved, feral. Like I’ll bite you as soon as look at you.”
Idris smiled, because although there was an element of truth in that, it didn’t sound like such a bad thing. “Would you?” he teased, “Bite me? That sounds like a promise.”
Victor took in a breath as if prepared to snap. Then he seemed to realize that he was being flirted with and laughed, awkwardly. “Not on a first date.”
“But you are gay,” Idris checked. The man had not flinched away from the touch on his ear, but he hadn’t really encouraged it either. Idris didn’t want to be a creep. “And you are, perhaps, a little interested in me?”
“I’m pan,” Victor too reached out for one of the puppies. His favorite, Idris noticed, the one marked like a fox. As he shifted to lift her up, he shuffled forward until his hip was in contact with Idris’s thigh, and then he slumped gently sideways so that they were touching all down one side. “And I am. Interested. But I’m wary. I don’t know why you would want me—except for money. And you won’t let me pay you. I don’t understand.”
“You were brought up poor?” Idris’s inner voice was now more of a clench of pity and anger in his gut. “And you see yourself in these dogs?” Stray dogs, un-fed, unwanted, dogs that were being taken out to be drowned. “I won’t ask you the story behind that,” Idris put out an arm and pulled the man closer to him, relishing the way Victor melted into him, letting his meagre weight rest against Idris’s sturdier frame. “But I want to remind you that we both fell in love with these dogs the moment we saw them. Those who mistreated them before… not everyone is like that.”
“They are, though.” Victor’s head came down to rest on Idris’s shoulder, tentatively. His cynical words made even that little gesture of trust seem enormous, more than Idris deserved. “It’s kill or be killed out there, and I’m not… I’m not going to be killed.”
Of course, he had fought off two men only a couple of hours ago—bigger men than himself. That must have taken some courage, and he was probably now exhausted from the adrenaline crash. With that and whiskey on top of it, he was confessing private insecurities to a man he had only just met.
As much as Idris would have liked to carry on supporting all his weight, hearing his murmured confessions, and perhaps sliding his fingers into that drying hair and stealing a kiss or two, he realized that this was absolutely not the time.
They had done a good thing here. Idris would not sully it by continuing to make a pass at a man who was more vulnerable than usual, whose judgment might be impaired, and who might therefore regret it in the morning.
“Let me get you to bed,” he said, and then hurriedly, realizing it could be misinterpreted, ”you need to sleep. In the morning, I’ll convene an emergency book-club meeting and we can meet up again then. All right? I think you’re too tired for anything else.”
“Out of the habit,” Victor raised his head slightly and smiled fuzzily.
“Out of the habit of… rescuing dogs?”
“Fighting, ’cept—except with words. I guess I am tired.”
“You really are,” Idris agreed, unfolding so that he could pull Victor’s half-melted body to his feet. “Where’s the bedroom?”
“Heh. You’re eager.”
“I’m not staying.” Idris stamped on his own mental toe. Trying to fight down another wave of arousal and infatuation, another urge to put the man to bed and himself with him, he deliberately thought about slugs—how they used to ooze in through the old kitchen door before the contractors had hung the new one. About how he would sometimes arrive in the morning to find Lalima had poured salt on a slug on the kitchen tiles and there was now a pile of slime and extruded guts to throw out and scrub away. Half a minute of this and he was no longer in danger of levering Victor’s pliable state into an invitation.
“I wish you would stay. But I knew you didn’t like me really.”
Not just leave, Idris needed to flee. He didn’t dare take this conversation into the bedroom—he was a good man, and he intended to stay that way. “Just come over here to the couch,” he said, leading Victor to the sofa he had uncovered. When Victor’s knees hit it, they folded and he sat easily, letting Idris cover him with the dust sheet in lieu of a blanket. “Then you and the puppies can take a nap together. Give them a little food when you wake up, and I’ll phone you tomorrow.”
“I wish you’d let me pay you,” Victor lamented softly, well on the way to falling asleep already. “Don’t have to pretend you care.”
“I care,” Idris insisted, backing away. “I’m doing this because I care.” He had another pang at the thought of leaving his four new, vulnerable charges alone in the soul-less house. But the house was Victor’s home, which he had presumably arranged to his own liking. He would be safe here, even if it didn’t feel like it. So…
Idris closed the door behind him quietly and ran away.
When he returned, spring sunshine was streaming through the wall of windows, and the sitting room was almost dazzlingly bright. He flicked the control to polarize the glass and cut the glare to a manageable level, and as he did so, the puppies began to stir, scrabbling desperately at the side of their basket.
Peeing, he thought, just in time to lift out the first and plop it on top of the dust sheet before it let out a tiny trickle of liquid the same color as the sunlight.
He was too late to the other two, who had lolloped over the edge of the basket but were now lying in small puddles of their own. And the towels in the basket were damp and stained from their leakage overnight. Ugh.
Victor moved the basket out of the way of the liquid, going into the kitchen to put the coffee machine on and to rummage through the cupboards to find where the housekeeper had put the cling-film. When he returned, it was to find that all three dogs had walked through the mess and were spreading it, on their filthy paws, all over his white furniture. One of them—the littlest—was chewing on the rag rug that Victor had made himself over a couple of evenings when migraine had driven him away from the computer. The other two had knocked over the decorative standard lamp, broken the bulb, and now were gnawing through the wire.
He stopped at the door in astonishment—he’d barely been downstairs for more than five minutes, and now there was pee and glass all over the floor and an electrical fire in the making.
Laughter caught him by surprise. What nutters! This house had never had so much life in it.
Coffee in one hand, he scooped up the puppies in the other, intending to dump them in the empty log-basket by the fire for safe-keeping while he swept up the glass, but the stench that came off them when he was that close made his eyes water for a different reason. They had seemed perfect in the night, but in the clear light of the morning, he could see the mange in their coats, the scabby patches where the hair had fallen out altogether, and the snarled knots in their tails and ruffs where the hair had matted together to form elf-locks, like rats fused together by their own urine in the sewers.
Wrinkling his nose—the smell was familiar and made him think of things he didn’t want to remember—he hauled them up another flight of stairs and dumped them into one of the guest baths. All three immediately began yipping in outrage and trying to climb out.
He unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled back the sleeves of his shirt. Then, on second thoughts, he hauled it all the way off and faced his victims clad only in a vest and trousers. They gazed up at him indignantly, baring their teeth, and he laughed again as he reached for the shower nozzle, because he appreciated that spirit of defiance.
The yammering increased when the first shower of spray hit them, but as the water warmed, the three pups seemed to discover a love for it. They chased the spray, lapping at it and biting at the shower-rose when Victor lowered it enough for them to lunge. He hadn’t thought of buying dog shampoo, and he was wary of using human products on anything so small and alien, but simply by letting them play in the water until what drained off the puppies was no longer brown, he thought he had done enough for a start.
They enjoyed the hair-drier too. And when he had cut the intractable knots out of their coats, they looked much more presentable, though the sores on their sides had begun to bleed.
Victor didn’t want to admit it to himself, but spending an hour playing had cleared up his headache and left him ready to bounce into the day, seize it by the throat and shake it into submission. He snapped a picture of the freshly washed pups before going down to clean the floor, to set them out a bowl of wet and dry mix and more water. Then he made an appointment with the vet for later in the day to get inoculations and treatment for the skin lesions.
Doing things had always soothed him. When he was active, usefully employed, he could outdistance his thoughts. He sent the photo to Idris without checking any of his texts, deliberately turning his mind away from the man…
No one had ever been so kind to him before, and without knowing him at all. Why had he been so kind, so helpful? Why had he smiled and touched the tip of Victor’s ear as if Victor was one of the puppies—a thing that deserved to exist simply for its own sake? And having done that, why hadn’t he stayed when Victor asked? Why—
He was not thinking about that.
To help him avoid the bruise of that rejection, to channel that hurt into something productive, he fired up his PC and visited the sites where a financial profile of any business could be bought at a price. This was almost always a good way in to the vulnerabilities of an organization.
His mind cleared as he pored over the figures, the dogs asleep again in a dog-basket now covered in cling-film.
The Mermaid tea-rooms had recently had their kitchens upgraded, had they? Here was a thread of large payments to the contractor, much larger than their monthly income.
Where there was a large expenditure, there was often a loan…
And yes, there was a loan, from a small local building society. How very ethical—investing in the community, avoiding the shady dealings of the global banks. Victor grinned nastily, blood on his tongue now, metaphorically, as personal considerations slipped away in the thrill of the hunt.
A small local building society was often struggling harder than it showed on the surface.
He dug further; discovered that the building society had never really recovered from the banking crash of 2008. They were funding many local businesses, and the whole structure was barely holding on.
Emailing Kyneton Capital’s buy-out division, he gave them detailed instructions to buy out the whole building society and the Mermaid tea-rooms’ loan in particular. Since it was a flexible business loan, he could then raise the interest rate.
The building society would of course inform the tea-rooms of the change in terms, but if the letter mysteriously went astray, the owners of the tea-rooms would not know they were deep in un-payable debt until it was too late.
Then Kyneton could foreclose on them, forcing them to sell up. Victor would win the promotion, fire Jack and be lord of all he surveyed, rich, respected and finally safe.
And if Idris didn’t like it, maybe he would look back on the time that Victor had trusted him enough to ask him to stay and remember how he’d turned his back and walked out the door.
Bastard. He deserved whatever was coming to him.