Cornish pastry chef Seb Wright dreads the summer tourist season. The cash injection to his artisan fudge pantry is more than welcome, the extra work, less so. Then one summer, a shadowy Good Samaritan catches his eye. Irish Traveller Dex is bewitching, a beautiful sullen enigma who turns Seb's world upside down until he disappears in the night, vanishing like a mystical summer rain.
Twelve months later Dex is in the midst of a dark storm. A slave to his master, 'Uncle' Braden, he spends his days cleaning caravans and his nights working in Braden's other businesses. His short summer with Seb seems a lifetime ago. Lost in the savage violence of the murky underworld, he doesn't dare dream he'll ever find his way back, until one night, a brutal crime opens the door for a chance escape. A new life beckons, old faces emerge, and immersed in the heady vibe of London’s East End, new love begins to heal his fractured heart.
SEB WRIGHT tugged off his bandana and pushed his dark, sweat-dampened hair away from his eyes. The thick, syrupy scent of vanilla hung heavy in the air. He was exhausted and in desperate need of a shave, but with the kitchen clean and the shop stocked, his workday had finally come to an end.
He put the last of his equipment away and wandered to the back area to wash up and get changed. His legs felt like lead and he considered making the five-minute walk home in his grubby chef whites, but tired as he was, a fudge-smeared pastry chef meandering through town in the middle of the night wasn’t a good look for business.
Not that there was anyone around to see him. Yawning, he reached for his clothes and glanced through the window at the Cornish harbor town he called home. Padstow, Cornwall—population 3,162, according to Wikipedia, and in winter, he could believe it. Short, blustery days gave way to long, stormy nights when the sea lashed the harbor like a demon from the dark and there wasn’t a soul to be seen outside.
In summer, though, it was a different world. The sea was calm and still and the streets became a riot of uncontainable energy.
Seb longed for and dreaded those days in equal measure. Longed for because it signaled the dreary austerity of winter was over, but dreaded because it meant the relentless chaos of the tourist season had begun. That was the problem with seasonal income: the fluctuation from one extreme to the other. His inherited artisan fudge pantry was one of a kind. When it did well, it thrived, but the long winter months were harsh, and this year, he couldn’t wait to see the back of it.
In a daze, he walked home through the silent streets. It was long after midnight, and spring had been wet and quiet, but the weathermen promised an all too rare balmy British summer was just around the corner, and he needed to be ready. After a week of late nights, it seemed he finally was.
He turned onto one of the cobbled side streets that filtered off the main roads like estuaries. His cottage was right around the corner between a traditional pasty shop and a not-so-traditional den for henna tattoos. There was a scuffling noise behind him, but he paid it no heed. Walking around in the dead of night didn’t bother him; it never had. He knew Padstow like the back of his hand. He’d grown up here, and after working in London through most of his twenties, he’d found his way back to the family business like a good local boy. It would take more than a cat rifling through bins to make him look around.
He continued on his way, fantasizing about the extra-large beers stashed in his fridge. His stomach growled. He’d eaten nothing but tastings from pots of warm fudge all day, and he knew the girls from the pasty shop would’ve saved him some leftovers. Only appendicitis and the worst hangover in the world had ever dulled his appetite for the pasties Gem and her girls had been baking in Padstow for as long as he could remember.
Seb stopped under the streetlamp by the chip shop and pulled out his wallet. The girls in the pasty shop never let him pay for his dinner, but he always slipped a fiver through the letterbox anyway. Winters in Cornwall were hard, and they all needed every penny.
He found his wallet surprisingly well stocked until he remembered his planned predawn trip to the dairy farm in the morning. He suppressed a sigh and shoved his wallet in his back pocket. The farm was a fifteen-mile round trip in a borrowed car, and with the supermarket just a mile up the road, supporting local businesses was a pain in the arse.
That’s what you get for having pretentious organic principles.
Seb gave his quasi older brother a mental eye roll. Then the wind from the ocean picked up and whistled through the narrow street. He shivered. The cold didn’t usually bother him. He glanced around, rubbing his arms. Was it his imagination, or did the shadows seem darker than usual?
He shook himself, amused at his ominous train of thought. That’s what you get for working eighteen hours four days straight. Man up, you daft twat.
Still, he found himself glancing over his shoulder anyway.
One of the shadows moved. He was sure of it. The dark shape seemed to dance across the narrow street with the same scuffling noise he’d heard before. He froze. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end. His breath caught and his heart thumped, and all at once, he knew he wasn’t alone.
Seb shook his head and turned away, searching out the peeling white paint of his front door. He was tired, that was all, so tired he was imagining shit that wasn’t there. It was a shame he wasn’t delirious or drunk instead. The fun he could have with that….
Unbidden, he remembered when he’d last brought a companion back to this very street the previous summer. They’d barely made it to his tiny backyard, where he’d let Carlos the Portuguese fisherman fuck him over the back wall. Clichéd? Maybe, but it had been bloody good. He wondered absently if the Angelina was heading back to the West Coast this year.
A cool hand clamped down on Seb’s shoulder.
“What the—” He whirled around, his heart in his mouth. “What the fuck?”
The owner of the hand took a step back. “You dropped your wallet.”
“What?” Seb sucked in a much-needed gulp of air, hoping the stranger with the soft Irish brogue couldn’t hear the thundering stampede of his heart, or the stupidity in his moronic one-word response.
“Your wallet,” the stranger repeated, holding out his hand, a slight smirk coloring what Seb was fast realizing was a beautiful face. “You dropped it by the chip shop.”
Seb took the wallet and shoved it into his back pocket. “Thanks.”
The stranger started to turn away. Seb caught his arm. “Wait.”
The street was dark, lit only by a single street lamp, but even in the dim light, Seb could see the boy was blond, really blond, and his shrewd eyes were wide and light. Gray, maybe. His features were angled and perfectly proportioned, and his frame was lean… too lean. Closer inspection revealed tatty, dirty clothes and a frayed, holey rucksack slung over his shoulder.
The stranger was a vagrant. Bloody hell. He’s one of the tramps from behind the docks.
Even as the thought crossed Seb’s mind, it seemed somehow wrong to brand the beautiful boy with such ugly words. Not many tourists knew about the small crowd of homeless people who populated Padstow in the warmer months. They touted for work during the day and slept by the water at night. It was a side of the affluent portside town most visitors never saw.
Even Seb had never seen his face before. “How old are you?”
“What?” The stranger raised an insolent eyebrow.
Seb ignored the tingle of energy the gesture evoked. “You look too young to be out on the streets at this time of night.”
Seb frowned before he could stop himself. Twenty-two? Fat chance. Seb was twenty-six, and there was no way just four years separated him from the slender youngster, but even as he processed the thought, the stranger was on the move again. He pulled his arm from Seb’s grasp, and this time, he was gone before Seb could formulate a response.
Did that really just happen? As Seb drifted the last twenty meters or so to his cottage, retrieved his dinner from the shop next door, and paid for it, he wasn’t entirely sure.
THE FOLLOWING morning, Seb woke gasping for breath and drenched in sweat, dragged from a haunting dream of a platinum-haired presence in his bed, writhing beneath him. The encounter had felt surreal, like the young man in his bed was a ghost, but it was hot as hell. He looked down at his still-hard dick and groaned aloud. Christ, he hadn’t had dreams like that since he’d watched Carlos sail away from him nearly a year ago, and even those dreams hadn’t been quite like the one still lingering in his sleep-clouded brain. It had been years since he’d wanted to top anyone, much less fantasized about it. And since when had dirty dreams become so poetic?
He lay still for a moment, listening to the seagulls call good morning to each other, and considered taking himself in hand. Considered letting his eyes close and drifting back to white-blond hair, pale skin, and the earth-moving sex he’d dreamed about.
“For God’s sake, man, just get up.”
There was no one around to hear his grumble save his elderly cat, Esme, who offered him a waspish stare from the windowsill. Barely dawn it may have been, but his feline companion was an early riser, and it was clear by her scowl she’d been waiting on him awhile.
Seb rolled from the bed and wandered into the bathroom, yawning and scratching his belly. He stepped under the tepid shower, washing the sweat of his imaginary amorous night away, and once dressed, he ambled downstairs to feed Esme.
At the kitchen sink, he stared through the window at his limited view of the sea. The sun was out, bright and bold, and the air was distinctly muggy, at least muggy for a late-May morning. Perhaps for once his luck was in, and summer had indeed come early.
After breakfast, he made his way to the shop, noting the streets seemed busier already, even at the arse crack of dawn. He let himself in to Alfie’s, named after his great-grandfather, who’d founded the business in 1929, and went straight to the computer, booted it up, and checked for overnight Internet orders.
There were a few. He boxed them up while drinking a cup of strong builder’s tea and left them in the office for Nicole, his single permanent employee, to post on her lunch break. After that, he set about replenishing the specialty flavors the display counter was running low on. Coffee and rum first, then the newfangled salted caramel he was still on the fence about.
He saved the traditional vanilla to make later, when the shop was open. It was part of the charm of Alfie’s—the fudge being made in the shop window—and he’d being doing it since he was ten years old. These days, he didn’t notice the faces pressed to the glass or the people milling around him, but all the same, it was far less hassle to get the complicated flavors out of the way while he had some time to himself.
The fudge making process came to him as naturally as breathing, swirling the butter and sugar in a pan that was older than he was, pushing the finished fudge around on the cooling slab until it was ready to set and be cut. Most days, he thought he could make fudge in his sleep. Some days, he probably did, especially in the summertime.
Nicole joined him around ten, and at midday, he left her assembling gift boxes and took a break. He wandered down to the waterfront and bought a crab sandwich from the wooden shack whose owner had seen the same promise in the weather he had and opened his doors early.
He sat on the big stone wall by the boats and ate his lunch. When he was done, he cast his gaze around the bustling seafront. It wasn’t anywhere near as busy as it was going to get come July, but there was still an undeniable shift in the air, an energy that would remain until the middle of September. Even the casual tourist stalls were already set up down by the small sandy beach and open for business—the candy floss, the popcorn, the fake tattoos, and hair braiding….
Seb swiveled back to the hair-braiding stand. The vendor was engrossed in weaving brightly colored thread into the long hair of a wriggling child, head down, eyes down, but even with his face hidden, the shock of white-blond hair was unmistakable. Seb twisted farther round to get a better look, taking in the thin, undernourished arms and the pale skin he’d hardly seen in the dark of their midnight encounter.
It was him, it had to be.
As though he could feel eyes on him, the young man glanced up. For a moment, it felt like his fathomless gray gaze locked with Seb’s, but in reality, Seb knew it was unlikely the lad had noticed his lone figure sitting on the portside so far away.
Seb stared at him far longer than he should have, and long after the man had turned his attention back to his work. For some reason, he was strangely reassured the beautiful young vagrant had found himself a job. At a couple of quid a pop, braiding children’s hair wouldn’t pay much, but it would at least buy him a hot dinner every night.
Or the drug to feed whatever addiction has him out on the streets….
Seb silenced the judgmental monster in his brain by getting to his feet and dusting crumbs from his worn-out jeans. Growing up as the token gay in a small, traditional town had taught him harsh stereotyping ruined lives, and somehow, Seb knew the young blond deserved better than that.
IN TYPICAL British style, the warm weather didn’t hold, but it lasted long enough to keep Seb busy. In recent years, that seemed to be the trick with the fickle Cornish summer: start off with a golden blaze of clear blue skies and end with a damp, gray squib.
It was the middle of June when the weather took a turn for the worse. It wasn’t all that cold, but it was wet, and the wind sweeping in from the Atlantic Ocean was vicious without the sun to temper it.
The chilly snap made Seb think of his parents enjoying their retirement in sunny Spain, but more often than he cared to admit, he found himself wondering about the mysterious blond vagrant. He caught sight of him on the beach from time to time, so he knew he was still around selling hair braiding, and by the look of him, sleeping rough down by the water.
One blustery Saturday evening, Seb closed the shop and paused a moment before turning to face the music. After one of the busiest days of the year so far, the place was a mess. The weekend staff had left for the day and Nicole had dashed off early to deal with a family crisis, so he knew he was in for a long night if the place was to be ready for another crazy day.
Seb opened the fridge. If he was tackling this bombsite alone, he needed a beer, but the shelves were bare. Cursing, he pulled a hoodie on over his grubby chef whites and braved the rain to run to the off-license a few streets away.
He was on his way back with a four-pack of Stella when he spotted the young blond. He was sheltering in the doorway of the beachwear shop across the street from Alfie’s and didn’t seem especially worried that he was already soaked to the skin.
Something pulled at Seb’s chest. It took just a few seconds to decide to cross the street, and less than that to actually do it. He was on top of the vagrant before he realized he hadn’t planned what to say. “Er, remember me?”
The blond raised a lazy eyebrow and ran his inscrutable gaze over Seb. “Should I?”
“You rescued my wallet a few weeks back.”
Recognition colored the young man’s features; recognition and an infinitesimal shade of suspicion. “I didn’t take anything from it.”
Seb held up his hands in a placating gesture. “I know. I wanted to say thanks, and see if you wanted to come inside and get out of this rain.”
“Inside? Like, in your shop?”
Seb jerked his head toward Alfie’s. “Yep. That’s it, right there. I’m going to be there awhile cleaning up. You’re welcome to come in and dry off for a bit.”
For a moment, the young man stared at him like he’d grown two heads, and then a shiver passed through him, and he shrugged with an indifference that couldn’t be faked. “Okay.”
Seb led the way around to the back door. Once inside, he rooted out a towel and tossed it the young man’s way. “What’s your name?”
“Why?” The question was flat, but the young man’s face was hidden by the towel as he rubbed it over his hair, and Seb couldn’t see if he was offended or not.
“Why not? Is it a secret?”
“No, it’s Dex.”
Seb filled the kettle. “Dex? Short for Dexter?”
“No, just Dex.”
Seb turned the name over in his mind. Dex. Dex. Dex. It seemed to suit the enigmatic young blond, though he couldn’t say why.
“Is your name Alfie?”
Seb swallowed a laugh. “No, that was my great-granddad. I’m Seb.”
Dex smirked. “Sebastian?”
“Only my mum calls me that. Do you want a brew?”
Dex lowered the towel and folded it into a neat square. “No, it’s okay. I should probably be going.”
“It’s still pissing down out there.” Seb pointed to the window. “Stay, it’s no worries. I’ve got lots to do, anyway. Are you hungry?”
Dex glanced around, taking in the mess of a chaotic day. “For fudge? Doesn’t look like you’ve got much left.”
“I have more in the storeroom, but no, I meant real food. I can make you a sandwich, and I think I have some crisps somewhere.”
Seb rummaged in the cupboard beside the fridge without waiting for an answer. He could tell Dex wanted to say no, but at the same time, the kid was hungry. He had to be. No one got that thin on three square meals a day.
He unearthed a multipack of Hula Hoops and slid them across the counter. “There you go. I’ll make you a butty. Cheese and pickle do you?”
Dex pulled a face that made him look even younger than the twenty-two years he claimed to be. “Have you got Marmite?”
As it turned out, Seb did. He shoved his forgotten beer into the fridge and set to work making sandwiches for them both. When he was done, he brewed mugs of hot, sweet tea. Both sandwiches were gone by the time he turned around.
He suppressed a smile, knowing Dex wouldn’t take kindly to being ribbed, and watched with amusement as Dex absently slid a Hula Hoop onto the end of each finger. It was an endearing, childish thing to do, and he found himself fascinated.
To break the spell, he picked up his cooling mug of tea. “I’m going out front to clear up. Help yourself to anything you want.”
As he left the room, he pondered the sanity of leaving a vagrant unattended, especially one with the rough lilt of a Traveller accent, but he couldn’t bring himself to go back and watch over Dex. Something inexplicable told him to give the kid some space, and that’s just what he did.
Later, when the shop was in some sort of order, he came back to the kitchen to find Dex with his hands in the sink. Around him was a whole day’s worth of used equipment, clean and stacked, ready to be put away.
“I didn’t know where to put it,” he offered by way of explanation.
Seb raised an eyebrow, running his gaze over the spotless kitchen. Dex had probably saved him another two hours of work. “You didn’t have to do that.”
Dex dried his hands on a tea towel and averted his eyes. “That’s how it works, isn’t it? You don’t get nothing for free.”
“You gave me my wallet back.”
Dex shrugged. “And you gave me shelter from the storm.”
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