House of Cards (A Porthkennack novel)

House of Cards by Garrett Leigh
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-544-9
eBook release: 
Jul 17, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-545-6
Print release: 
Jul 17, 2017
Word count: 
66,000
Page count: 
249
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.

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Calum Hardy’s life has unravelled. Reeling from the betrayal of a man he once loved, he boards a train heading south, with no real idea where he’s going except a world away from London.

Brix Lusmoore can hardly believe his eyes when he spots one of his oldest friends outside Truro station. He hasn’t seen Calum since he fled the capital himself four years ago, harbouring a life-changing secret. But despite the years of silence, their old bond remains, warm and true—and layered with simmering heat they’ve never forgotten.

Calum takes refuge with Brix and a job at his Porthkennack tattoo shop. Bit by bit, he rebuilds his life, but both men carry the ghosts of the past, and it will take more than a rekindled friendship and the magic of the Cornish coast to chase them away.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Prologue

Calum Hardy dipped the needle into the black ink and pressed his foot to the pedal of Dottie, the faithful old-school coil machine he’d had since his apprenticeship in Camden. Rob kept telling him he should upgrade to one of the quieter, shinier models on the market, but so far Calum had ignored him. Rob might know everything about everything, but when it came to tattoos, Calum was his own man—ha—sometimes, at least, if he didn’t count Rob’s name on everything except the debts and the overdrafts.

“I’m so nervous.”

Calum blinked as the client attached to the leg he was about to etch broke his reverie. “That’s totally normal. Just try not to tense up. It’ll hurt less if you’re relaxed.”

The girl smiled wanly. “That’s why I came to you. My friend told me you’re gentle.”

“I am, but it’ll still hurt, so you have to see the needle for what it is—a tiny sliver of metal. You’re stronger than that, right?”

“I guess.”

Calum left the girl to her nerves and focussed on the candy-skull stencil he’d already applied to her thigh. This moment was his . . . and Dottie’s.

He pressed the pedal again, waiting for Dottie’s comforting buzz, but nothing happened. A split second later, the lights went out, plunging the shop into darkness. Power cut. Great. Third time this week. Calum set his gun down and went to the front door of the shop. He glanced out into the street and caught the eye of the maintenance worker who’d been the bane of his life all week long.

The worker shrugged. “Sorry, mate. Give us an hour or so.”

Nice of him to say, but it was already 6 p.m. Candy-skull girl was Calum’s last client of the day. Grumbling, he went back inside and gave her the news. She looked a little too relieved for his liking and left without rebooking, muttering something about omens.

With her gone, Calum lit a candle and cleaned up the shop, a job done by the receptionist in most studios, except that Calum’s receptionist was Rob’s cousin, and she downed tools at 4 p.m. each day, taking little notice of Calum’s protests.

Calum left the shop an hour later, and after stopping to buy a cheeky bottle of Rob’s favourite rum to hopefully drink in bed later, turned in the direction of home—a one-bedroom flat two streets away. He called Rob, but as usual, there was no answer. Rob only took Calum’s calls when he wanted something. Shame, because with Calum at a loose end, they could’ve grabbed some dinner, a drink . . . maybe more. It had been a while since they’d had some quality time to themselves. Work, play, work again, there always seemed to be something keeping them apart.

The flat where Calum lived alone loomed into view. Rob was likely down the road in the Ship, drinking up a storm on the shop’s expense account. Calum considered joining him, but then remembered Rob’s reaction the last time he’d dropped in on him unexpectedly. Rob hadn’t said a word—hadn’t needed to—but the look in his eye that night still haunted Calum in his weaker moments.

Give him space, remember? Stop smothering him. Damn. When had loving someone become so complicated? All Calum wanted was a cuddle and a bag of chips.

He let himself into the flat, his mind meandering in the uncomfortable space he usually found himself in when he considered his skewed relationship with Rob, which was likely why he often stopped himself doing just that. An empty mind was a happy one, right? Calum snorted softly. What a load of shite. He dropped his keys in the bowl. His gaze fell on a pair of dodgy loafers by the kitchen door—Rob’s latest fad—and beside them, a pair of chavvy Nikes that were far too big for either of them.

Calum frowned. It was unlike Rob to come over when Calum wasn’t there unless he needed cash from the jar on top of the fridge, and he never, ever, brought his mates round. God forbid; Calum was way too boring for Rob’s clique of wankers, who seemed to do nothing but snort mandy and talk about fisting.

Voices drifted down the hallway—no words, just sounds that set Calum’s teeth on edge. His frown deepened. Surely not. Rob had been distracted lately, leading Calum to suspect he might have been—but no . . . not here. Rob wouldn’t do that, would he?

There was only one way to find out. Calum steeled himself and trod silently down the hallway to the bedroom. The door was ajar, and unless whoever was inside was watching some hard-core porn, what he’d find on the other side was already solidified in his brain, etched on his soul, before he even looked.

But he did look. Calum stared at the tangled mess of flesh in his bed: sweat-sheened skin, curled toes, arched backs, and scraping nails. Shame none of it was his, because in another world—one where the dude getting fucked by a six-foot beefcake wasn’t his boyfriend—the scene playing out in his bedroom would’ve been hot. But there was nothing hot about watching Rob hammer the final nail into a relationship that had been wonky from the start. As Calum leaned against the doorway and absorbed it all, he felt nothing but the oddest kind of solace. This was the window of opportunity he hadn’t truly known he’d been waiting for. This is your chance. Pack your shit and go.

If only he could make his feet move, and his brain compute what his heart had feared for months: that his relationship with Rob was toxic and his whole life was a crock of shit. Of course he’d suspected Rob was banging other people. How could he not? Everyone else bloody did. But seeing it in the flesh was something else. Sickening, humiliating . . . and so freeing that Calum wanted to cry.

He finally backed up, hoping he could tiptoe away as unnoticed as he’d arrived. Fuck his stuff. He’d go to the shop and kip there, come back for his things when Rob went to work. He’ll let me go this time. But even as Calum thought it, he knew it wasn’t true. How many times had Rob told him—warned him—not to step out of line? “I’ll ruin you, Calum. You’re nothing without me.”

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”

Calum froze, his heart in his mouth, every instinct screaming at him to keep walking and not look round, but the masochist in him won out. He turned to face Rob, who was still bent over the bed, his brawny pal balls-deep inside him, and his face curled in a smirk that showed exactly how Rob felt about being caught. Calum clenched his fists. “Doesn’t seem like you need me here.”

“You can suck my dick if you want.”

“No, thanks.”

Rob’s hawkish gaze narrowed, and his belligerence morphed into anger. “Don’t be a twat.”

“Me?” Calum laughed bitterly. “I’m not the twat here, but tell you what, how about I leave you to it? That way it doesn’t fucking matter.”

He took a step back, spun on his heel, and ran for the door before Rob got close enough to give him that look—the one that always seemed to penetrate Calum’s soul and extinguish any thoughts of his own. The one that Calum had never been able to hide from, ever since the first time he’d caught Rob out in a lie. “What do you expect when you’re so uptight, Cal? I’m not flirting, I just need to let off some steam.”

Calum stumbled, his foot catching the bookcase in the hallway. He steadied himself on the wall, cursing his wobbly legs, but footsteps behind him spurred him on. Get out, get out, get out.

“Not so fast.” A cool hand closed around Calum’s wrist. A twisted vampire analogy flashed into his brain, and he almost laughed again. Almost, because there was nothing funny about Rob’s bruising grip. “Don’t walk away from me when I’m talking to you.”

“Why not?” Calum spat. “Looks like you’re managing fine without me.”

Rob’s grip tightened. “So? You’re not even supposed to be here. You said you were working late.”

Like that made it okay. “Power cut. I can’t ink in the dark.”

Rob smirked. “No?”

The barely veiled derision made Calum’s skin itch. Rob’s name was on the lease of the shop, but though he had no problem spending the profits, belittling Calum’s work had always been a hobby of his. The fact that Black Star Ink was booked months in advance, with cancellations snapped up within seconds of announcement, apparently meant nothing to him. “Does it matter where I’m supposed to be? Point is you’re fucking someone in my bed.”

“Don’t be so dramatic.”

Calum twisted his arm. “Let go.”

“Why? What are you going to do? Run to your mother or some shit? Grow up. It’s just sex. You can watch if you don’t want to join in.” Rob’s expression softened slightly and he stepped closer, bracing his hand on the wall, effectively blocking Calum’s escape route. “Come on, Cal. You know I love you, right? I just get a bit suffocated sometimes. Martin’s a friend. You want me to have friends, don’t you?”

Calum had fallen for that speech more times than he cared to remember, and perhaps tonight would’ve been no different if Martin hadn’t appeared in the bedroom doorway, wrapped in Calum’s duvet and laughing his over-ripped arse off.

“I’m leaving,” Calum ground out. “Get back on his dick. I’m done with this shit.”

Rob made a grab for Calum’s other arm, but Calum was too quick for him this time. He got his knee between Rob’s legs and shouldered his way free, wrenching his arm from Rob’s grasp.

“Calum, stop it.”

“No.”

Calum.”

The warning in Rob’s tone was clear, but Calum didn’t stop to let the weight of it reel him in. He ran for the door, Rob cursing behind him, and charged down the stairs and out into the night. The damp air of the wet autumn evening hit him as he threw himself into the crowds of commuters flowing up the street to the nearby station. He’d made it to the coffeehouse on the corner when he heard his name.

“Calum! Stop!”

No chance. Calum kept going, head bowed, shoulders stiff, until he came to the zebra crossing and the fast-moving, brutal London traffic forced him to a standstill.

“Calum.”

“Fuck off.” Calum didn’t turn round. The traffic stopped. He strode across the road, dodging Rob’s reaching hands.

“Stop.”

“No.”

“Calum!” Rob caught Calum’s arm and dragged him off course, pulling him from the crowd and behind a nearby bus stop. “I said, stop.”

“Get off me.” Calum fought Rob’s hold, twisting away. Rob lashed out, catching him with a glancing blow to his cheekbone. Bastard. Calum’s eyes watered, and he hesitated long enough for Rob to grab his arm again and yank him back, slamming him into a nearby wall.

“Get a bloody grip, Calum. Where the fuck do you think you’re going to go? The shop’s in my name, remember? You bail on me, I’ll shut it down.”

“Do it.” Calum fought Rob’s hold on him and shoved him away. “I don’t give a shit anymore.”

Rob fell theatrically to the ground, drawing the attention of onlookers, like he always did when Calum found the balls to bite back, letting everyone know that his six-foot-three lover had laid a hand on his much smaller, slimmer frame. “You won’t give up the shop. It’s everything to you.”

“It ain’t nothing if it’s got your bloody name on it. I told you. I’m done.”

“Done?” Rob laughed and scrambled to his feet, putting himself in Calum’s face again. “Are you kidding me? Four years of your bullshit and you think you’re going to walk out on me?”

“My bullshit? I’m not the one taking someone else’s dick.”

“Like you’d even know how. Like you’d even know how to fuck me if I asked you to. Give me a break, Calum. It’s not like I screwed your best mate. I just needed something extra. Come on. We’ve talked about this. It’s not my fault you only want to bottom.”

Calum closed his eyes, fighting the poisoned logic that always swept over him when Rob got in his face. The logic that told him Rob could do whatever the fuck he wanted because he always came back to Calum in the end, put his arms around him, and said he loved him. The logic that told him Rob meant it, because no one would lie about that, right?

Wrong. “We didn’t talk about it. You got wasted and decided I should go out and fuck women so you’d have an excuse to get blown by every bloke that looked your way.”

“And what’s up with that? You like pussy, don’t you?”

That Calum had been with women before Rob had always been a bone of contention. “You’re not really gay, though, are ya, Calum? You’re not one of us.” Calum gritted his teeth. As far as he’d seen, being gay in Rob’s scene was all about drugs and pain. “It’s just chemsex. Don’t be so bloody frigid.”

“I don’t want to fuck anyone else.”

“Maybe you should. Then you might be better at it.”

In years—no, days—gone by, Rob’s words would’ve cut deep, slashing Calum and what remained of his self-esteem to bits, but now, as he stared Rob down, he felt nothing except a big black hole where his life had once been. He shoved Rob away. “Fuck. You.”

“Cal—”

“Fuck off!”

Calum sidestepped Rob’s reaching hands and pushed past him, throwing himself into the steady stream of pedestrians heading towards the train station. Behind him, Rob shouted his name over and over, but Calum didn’t stop, didn’t look round, didn’t breathe, until the station swallowed him up, cocooning him in its humid warmth.

The respite was brief. After a few minutes, Calum’s phone rang in his pocket, blaring out Rob’s ringtone. Calum silenced it, but it rang again and again until he dumped it in a nearby bin. Knowing it wouldn’t be long before Rob followed him into the station, he jogged down the steps and made for the nearest ticket machine. He stuck his debit card into the machine and jabbed desperately at the screen until a ticket to who-the-fuck-knew-where printed out. He snatched it and stumbled farther into the station, waving it at a uniformed station worker.

She glanced at the ticket and pointed ahead. “Platform eight. Hurry. It’s leaving soon.”

Heart in his throat, Calum dashed through the station. The ticket barriers appeared in the distance as someone shouted his name from behind. Calum ran harder, shoulder-barging past anyone in his way. Rob had an Oyster Card, so the barriers wouldn’t stop him, but they would at least buy Calum some precious time to make the train idling on the distant platform.

He shoved his ticket into the barrier slot and barged through the gates. Rob shouted again as the last-call alarms began to sound on the train that was still fifty feet away, and Calum gritted his teeth. Goddamn it. He’d make that fucking train if it killed him, because the alternative would likely do the same. I can’t look him in the eye one more time. I’m done. So fucking done.

It was pathetic to his own ears as he sprinted towards the platform, but he pushed the wave of self-loathing aside and made the train with seconds to spare, stumbling on board as the doors closed behind him, snapping a sharp breeze over the back of his neck. Head down, he sidestepped along the aisle, searching for a vacant seat. Something thumped the window, but he didn’t react.

He found a seat and slumped into it, biting his lip against the surge of anxious adrenaline rushing up from his stomach. Don’t puke. Don’t puke. Damn. He needed a drink, a big one, a strong one, anything to quell the panic rising in his chest. What have I done? Rob wouldn’t forgive this, even if Calum went back now, and he had Calum’s whole life in his hands—the shop, the flat. Everything. I’ve lost it all.

But as the train rumbled to life, an eerie calm abruptly descended on him, like a guillotine had cut his desperation off at the neck. I don’t care. And he didn’t. All he wanted was peace . . . and quiet, and on the crowded train, with people all around, for the first time in years, he had it.

Lightened, Calum rested his head against the cool glass and felt months of tension drain away. His fragmented mind told him he still loved Rob, but his heart was ominously silent. And it was the silence that comforted him as the train began to move.

It was half an hour before he remembered he didn’t have a clue where it was going, and for a long while, he couldn’t make himself care about that either. He’d get off once the train had left London and find a hotel for the night. Worry about the rest in the morning. The thought of crawling home to his parents was galling, but he’d always known that leaving Rob would send him to skid row.

You don’t have to do this. Just get off the train and go home. But despite the suddenness of what had just happened, as hard as he searched, Calum couldn’t find any regret amongst the bucketload of fear dancing up a storm in his gut.

Fuck this.

He sat up, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, and looked around the train, wondering if anyone had noticed the pathetic bloke sniffling in the corner, but the elderly Indian couple opposite were far more interested in their supper than him. Calum eyed the curried potatoes they were eating, and his mouth watered. Rob didn’t like Indian food, preferring the MSG-laden gloop from the dodgy Chinese on the corner. Sod it. I’m having madras for breakfast tomorrow.

Like a culinary act of rebellion would fix it all, Calum folded his arms tight across his chest and leaned against the carriage window, absorbing the weaving motion of the train. The adrenaline that had carried him this far began to fade, leaving him boneless and drained. He closed his eyes and let his mind drift, picturing his parents’ house in Reading: a poky two-up-two-down with a box room—Calum’s room—over the garage. Going back there would kill him, but there was one advantage: Rob would have no idea where he’d gone. In all the time they’d been together, he’d never visited Calum’s family home. Never cared enough to bother. His apathy had slowly destroyed Calum, but now, as the train rumbled on to who-knew-where, he knew it was, without doubt, the kindest gesture Rob had ever made.

And he still had a bottle of rum stashed in his bag.

 

Chapter One

“Peg, I don’t give a shit how busy you are, I don’t want them crates in my yard.”

“‘Yard’? Jesus Christ, boy. You’ve been out of London years now and you’re still jabbering like a cockney?”

“Whatever. Get them gone.”

Brix Lusmoore put the phone down on his infamous aunt before she could rip him a new one, and ran a frazzled hand through his too-long straggly hair. How had the day become a shambles already? He’d barely woken up.

He dropped his phone on the kitchen counter and went to the window, eyeing the crates of counterfeit DVDs that had mysteriously appeared on his patio overnight, except there was no mystery in it really. Aunt Peg always had her nose in a pie she shouldn’t, and if she wasn’t behind the shadowed delivery in his back garden, he’d eat his bloody hat.

Not that he had a hat. Brix folded his favourite bandana and tied it around his wayward hair. Early it might have been, but he had shit to do, and he hadn’t eaten breakfast yet, a cardinal sin where he was concerned. And the rest.

Fuck you. Brix gave the whispering demon the mental bird and tore himself from the window, drifting to the fridge to take his chances. Nothing inspired him, which was unusual. It took a lot for Brix not to be hungry, but he felt odd this morning, like the wind had changed and the sea had brought a message to shore—he didn’t feel like eating at all. Too bad that leaving the house without breakfast was something he’d pay for. He didn’t have time for that crap today.

Brix grabbed some bread and a jar of Mrs. Ivy’s strawberry jam—his favourite fallback when he couldn’t face another bowl of soggy cereal. He hacked off a wedge and smeared it with jam, shoving it in his mouth as he searched for the keys to his rusty old van. If he was going to be in Truro on time to meet the farmer, he had to move fast.

He found the keys beneath a sack of corn, reminding him to feed the girls and dump it in the shed before he left. Outside, he scattered pellets and corn on the damp soil, amused, as ever, by the ballsy politics of his small flock of rescued hens—a dozen or so, in all, but soon to be more if he got his arse in gear.

With the girls fed, he climbed into the van, started it up, and reversed down his steep, sloping driveway, onto the street below. Porthkennack roads were notoriously narrow, and despite knowing the town like the back of his hand, it took all his concentration to manoeuvre the van through the twists and turns until he hit the southbound A road.

Truro was a forty-minute drive on a good day, and today was a good day. It seemed like he’d only just finished his slapdash breakfast when the sign for the small-scale commercial poultry farm came into view.

He made the turn and coaxed the van down the dirt track that led to the two huge barns. The farmer was waiting outside, leaning against his own truck, a stack of wooden crates to his left. Brix pulled up and jumped out, the cash he needed already in hand. Experience had taught him that these transactions needed to be done fast, before he wound up feeling guiltier than if he’d not come at all.

He handed the farmer the envelope. “A bull’s-eye, yeah?”

“Can give you another five if you’ve got an extra cockle.”

Brix considered it. Fifty quid was already a lot for forty chickens heading to the slaughterhouse, and five for an extra tenner made them expensive per bird, but then, he wasn’t buying them for their monetary value. “Sold. Load ’em up.”

The farmer crammed five more chickens into the cramped crates that were probably bigger than the cages they’d come from. Brix paid him, loaded the crates onto the van, and then made his escape before the plaintive clucking of the doomed hens still on the farmer’s truck reached his ears.

A little way away from the farm, he pulled into a lay-by and retrieved his phone from the dashboard. He brought up the group message he’d set up the day before and typed in the postcode of the meeting place, then sent the message with a smirk. These meets always reminded him of the warehouse parties he’d frequented in Brixton all those years ago, the ones that had no location until a van pulled up outside a disused factory and set up a rig. Oh, how life had changed.

With the message sent, he set off again, heading for the quiet location where he’d meet the band of folk who were as soft-hearted as him, mainly ex-city types who’d never kept birds before, wanting to do their bit to keep the countryside going.

Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the deserted quarry. He parked up and got out of the van, opening the back doors to give the hens some air. His fingers itched for the cigarettes he’d quit more than a year ago, a phantom tic he’d yet to shake. God, he missed a solitary smoke. Ironically, a snatched fag had often felt like the only time he could breathe. But it’s different now, ain’t it? And it was. Life back home in Porthkennack was as uniquely familiar as it had ever been, and for the first time in years, Brix wouldn’t change a thing . . . except one thing, maybe—

Brix’s phone rang in his hand. He jumped and studied the screen. Peg. Typically, she hung up after one ring, obviously trusting that he’d call her back and foot the bill. And she was right. Brix placed the call. She picked up straightaway.

“Ah, there you are, boy. I’ve been looking for yer all morning.”

“Yeah? Where’ve you looked?”

Peg clicked her teeth impatiently. “That’s enough of your cheek. Have you seen your dad?”

“Not since Monday. Why?”

“Ah, you know.”

Peg spoke, as ever, like Brix was a fly on the wall to every hustle and scheme she had her sticky fingers in, but he resisted the urge to call her out. Reminding her for the second time that morning that he’d spent most of his life trying to avoid his family’s dodgy dealings would only set her off, and he didn’t have time for a Lusmoore loyalty rant today.

“I haven’t seen him.”

“Aye, okay. Well if you do, tell ’im I’ve got his dosh here from the bookies. If he’s not home by tea time for it, I’m having it for housekeeping.”

Brix rolled his eyes. His father and Peg had been bickering for as long as he’d been alive. “He’ll be out on the boat till lunchtime. You know that. Have you moved those crates yet?”

“Lord, is that the time?”

“Peg, don’t take the piss—”

“Now, you listen here, boy. Don’t go giving me none of your lip. I’ll fetch them later when I’m good’un ready and not a minute sooner. Tell yer dad to get his sorry behind home.”

It was Peg’s turn to hang up, leaving Brix shaking his head. Damn woman was a hornet’s nest, and a royal pain in Brix’s arse, though her call had reminded him he was about due a check in with his cantankerous father.

A vehicle rumbled up the dirt track to the quarry. Brix pocketed his phone and rounded the back of the van to take a look. Another car was behind it, and a Land Rover behind that. Game on. Fuck Peg’s smuggled fags and booze, and counterfeit crap; it was time to do something that mattered.

Brix waited until all eight recipients of his group message had assembled by the quarry, and then unloaded his precious cargo. “Okay, folks. Who’s having what? I’ve got fifty girls here, all looking for forever homes.”

A man who appeared even less like a chicken keeper than Brix raised his hand. “We’re taking six.”

Brix nodded. “Got room for an extra? Farmer gave me a few more than I was expecting.”

“I’ll take a couple, just don’t tell the missus.”

“Awesome.” And so it went on. Brix rehomed forty-two hens, leaving him the five he’d committed to taking himself and three extra he’d need to place with whichever friends he hadn’t already foisted rescued chooks on, which wasn’t many. In fact, as he loaded the leftover birds and the crates onto the van, he couldn’t think of anyone who’d have the room, no one except . . . Aw, shit. Perhaps he’d be seeing his father sooner than he’d planned.

Brix shut up shop, pocketing the nominal monies folk had paid for their chooks—barely enough to cover the fuel—and got back in the van. Damn thing stank of chicken shit, but the stench was worth seeing the hens packed off to new homes, even if it did mean giving up his lucrative Saturday slot in the studio.

On cue, Brix’s phone rang again, the number for Blood Rush lighting up the screen. He plugged in the hands-free, then put the van in gear, reversing in an arc until he was facing the right way. “Yeah?”

“Morning. Did I wake you?”

“What do you think?”

Lena, the studio’s receptionist, chuckled. “I think you’ve been up for hours, saving all the chickens in the world from the pot.”

“Very funny.” Brix hung a left. “How many of my girls have you got up at the commune?”

“Eighteen at last count, so don’t try it.”

“But—”

“I mean it, sunshine. All the lectures in the world about commercial egg production won’t give me any more room. You don’t want the poor things stacked up worse than where they came from, do you?”

Of course he didn’t, and she knew it. Brix sighed. He’d have to go home and make more space, and take what he couldn’t house to his dad. “So if you haven’t called to take my extra girls off my hands, what do you want?”

“I called to see if you can do an extra hour on Thursday. Some dude’s coming all the way from London, so he wants a long sitting.”

“All the way from the big smoke, eh? Surely he isn’t coming just to get inked?”

“That’s what he said. He nabbed your cancellation when I posted it first thing. Said the city studio he was booked at closed down overnight. Artist did a moonlight flit or something.”

Fair enough. Brix was used to folk coming from all over the South-West to get inked at Blood Rush, but there was no shortage of awesome tattooists in London. Perhaps the dude was after a particular style. Brix let his mind drift over the designs he’d compiled the night before, ready for the week ahead. “Is this the dot work you emailed me about at 5 a.m.?”

“The very same. I’ve priced it at four hours, so if you stay till six on Thursday, you can wrap it up.”

Brix concurred, wondering for the umpteenth time how he’d manage without her. Lena looked pretty much like every soul who came to work at Blood Rush—neon haired, inked, and dangerous—and she ran Blood Rush so well he often joked that if she could do the ink herself he’d be out of a job. “What time is my afternoon appointment?”

“Two thirty. Are you going to be late?”

Moi?” Brix turned onto Truro’s Station Road. “You say it like I’m late all the time.”

“You are. I had to break into your house and pour a bucket of water on your head last week.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Brix couldn’t defend his tardy ways. He hadn’t even learned to tell time until social services had forced him into school when he was twelve. Before then, he’d relied on the sun, just like his dad. After all, who needed a watch when you had nowhere to be? Sometimes he missed those days.

Brix said good-bye and disconnected the phone from the hands-free, tossing it on the seat beside him. He turned the radio on and fiddled with the dial, searching for something that wasn’t commercialised crap. Radio Padstow was the only setting he found that didn’t make him want to launch the stereo out of the window. Fuck, I’m getting old.

He set the pirate-rock track to a low volume as the van rumbled past the train station. The station was the busiest in Cornwall, and Brix was used to seeing all types of folk flow in and out of it on any day he happened to pass by, but as he crossed the bus entrance, a lone figure on a bench caught his attention. The man was slumped, hood up, with his head in his hands, and Brix had never seen such a picture of abject misery.

The van slowed, Brix’s foot subconsciously easing off the accelerator. Something about the set of the man’s broad shoulders was familiar. Brix eased to a crawl as he passed the bench and then stared hard in the wing mirror. The man’s hands were clenched into tense fists, but dark ink stained the tendons of his right hand, snaking out into an intricate web of black-and-grey Brix would recognise anywhere. Jesus Christ, it can’t be. But it had to be, because the unique design was the first of its kind that Brix had ever done, etched nervously onto the trembling hand of his gorgeous new apprentice eight years ago.

Brix shook his head—I’ve got to be seeing things—but he pulled up and jumped out of the van anyway. Whoever the raven-haired, bearded fittie was, he looked like he needed help. “You all right there, mate?”

The man didn’t move. Brix ventured closer, his gaze drawn to the ink. The dots spread out over flawless skin, weaving an image Brix already knew—a stag, with its antlers wrapped around the index and little finger, strong and proud, interwoven with the delicate touch that made dot work so special. It had aged well. Brix reached the bench and knelt down, tracing the antlers with his fingertip. “Calum? Is that you?”

Chapter Two

“Calum? Mate?”

“Huh?” Calum looked up blearily and blinked at the latest apparition to cross his path since he’d fallen off a train at the bottom of the world. Great. Now he was imagining the first bloke he’d ever got a hard-on over. Would this nightmare never end? Not that imagining Brix Lusmoore was much of a nightmare. Even in the midst of the clusterfuck Calum’s life had become, Brix was bloody gorgeous. Shame he wasn’t real.

Calum let his gaze drop back to the damp concrete he’d been staring at since he’d discovered that Rob had cleared out their joint bank accounts, rendering his debit card—his only card—totally fucking useless. With no phone and no money, and nowhere to run, Calum was stranded. And drunk.

Very drunk.

“Calum.”

Brix’s ghost spoke again. Calum ignored it as a phantom hand, darkly inked with familiar pirate tattoos, closed around his, squeezing, shaking, and punctuating every utterance of his name.

Calum. Dude. Anyone home?”

Nope. Even if Brix had been real, Calum definitely wasn’t home, because home was where Rob was fucking someone else in his bed. Bastard.

The ghost stood and disappeared. Calum mourned the loss of its warming touch, but was mostly relieved that his sanity had only been briefly questionable. Then the world tilted and the phantom hand returned, grasping Calum’s arm and hoisting it over a set of slim shoulders that were far too bony to be a dream. “Is it really you?”

“Depends who you think I am,” Brix said. “If you call me Cunty-Bastard-Rob again, I’m gonna bloody deck you.”

Cunty-Bastard-Rob. Calum let out a strangled giggle as the half litre of rum he’d drunk on the train threatened to make an abrupt reappearance. “Rob is a cunty bastard.”

“I’m sure he is. Don’t explain why you’re all banged up and trashed on a rusty bench, though, does it?”

Calum touched the slight swelling on his face and supposed it didn’t, but though Brix had pointed the wound out, he didn’t appear to be asking for an explanation. “What are you doing here? Thought you were dead or some shit.”

“Close, mate, close. Been a long time, eh?”

“Yes.” Calum thought hard, searching his rum-riddled mind for any clue as to exactly how long it had been since he’d last seen Brix Lusmoore, but as he stared at the blue-grey eyes he’d often pictured in his dreams, he honestly had no idea. All he remembered was waking up in London one morning to the news that Brix had packed his stuff from the flat he’d shared with a mutual friend and disappeared into thin air. “Brix?”

“It’s me, Cal.”

Cal. Brix was the only soul on earth who’d ever been able to shorten Calum’s name without making his teeth itch. “Where’ve you been?”

“I’ve been right here.”

Brix’s textured gaze was off. Calum was missing something—years of something—but his brain and mouth didn’t feel connected, and his only response was a nonsensical grunt.

Brix didn’t seem to notice, apparently too preoccupied with keeping Calum upright. The absurdity of the scene almost made Calum laugh again, but he didn’t. He stared at Brix, and as he absorbed that Brix wasn’t a hallucination born of too much rum and not enough sleep, his equilibrium deserted him. He lurched sideways, despite Brix’s hold on him, and for a terrifying moment believed he would fall.

He braced himself for impact, perversely craving it, like the pain of his bones slamming into the concrete would erase the sting of Rob’s betrayal. But he didn’t fall. Brix held firm, and as he guided Calum away from the bench to a nearby van, Calum realised that this was what he remembered most about Brix—not his shaggy, dirty-blond hair, awesome ink, or hypnotic gaze, but the subtle strength in his lanky arms. Strength that had made Calum feel safe from the moment they’d met in London all those years ago.

Brix deposited Calum in the passenger seat of the battered van. “Where’s your stuff?”

“What stuff?”

“Your things. You gotta bag?”

Calum shook his head. “Nope.”

“Okay. Are you with anyone? Someone you want me to call?”

Calum couldn’t contain a humourless bark of laughter. “I ain’t gotta phone, Brixie, and even if I had, no fucker would care if you called.”

“I don’t believe that.” Brix’s frown was troubled. “Listen, I can’t leave you by the side of the road in this state. How about you come back to mine for a shower and a kip?”

The only place Calum could remember Brix living was the Camden flat he’d abandoned. He shook his head, reeling at the dizziness that came next. “I’m not going back to London. Fuck that. I’ll walk to my mum’s.”

“In Reading?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Calum started to get out of the van, but Brix pushed him back with strong hands. “Don’t be a dick. Man, I’d forgotten what an arse you are when you’ve been on the juice. Just come back to mine for a bit, yeah? It’s half an hour away. I’ll make you some coffee, some grub, and we’ll figure out whatever’s got you in this mess.”

“Mess?”

“Yeah. Cal, it’s good to see you, but you look like hell.”

Calum didn’t doubt it, and lacking any brighter ideas, he pulled his legs back inside the van and clumsily shut the door.

Brix climbed in the other side and the van rumbled to life. Calum cast a lazy glance at his rescuer, absorbing his strong jaw, his elegant neck, and his beautiful coiled forearms. He’d always had a fetish for forearms, especially Brix’s. Again with the strength. How had Calum forgotten that? An odd urge to touch Brix swept over him, but it was eclipsed by an overwhelming need to close his eyes.

He gave in and shut the world out. The darkness, combined with the gentle rolling of the van, and Brix’s silent presence beside him, was so soothing he almost moaned aloud. The noise in his brain quieted, but for one thing. “Brix?”

“Yeah?”

“Your van stinks of shit.”