The Power of Zero: Book Two
Jack Horwood doesn’t do families. Or Christmas. From the time his mother sold him to her pimp to the moment he walked out on the man he loved, Christmas has always been about change and painful choices. This year seems no different. Helping Daniel and Nico recover from their imprisonment and hunting down those responsible puts Jack in a frame of mind he doesn’t want to inflict on anyone. Least of all Gareth and the tentative relationship they’ve started to rebuild.
But Gareth, for whom Christmas is all about new beginnings, won’t let Jack take the easy way out. He makes him face his ghosts instead. Even when said ghosts invade their bedroom.
When Daniel’s parents are found, Jack is determined to settle the matter without involving Daniel at all. But fate decrees otherwise, and it’s Gareth who helps him finally understand that the strongest bonds are those forged together. Once he gets that, Jack can step up and make a decision designed to lay his ghosts to rest—for good.
THE SCENTS of cinnamon and vanilla swirled in the kitchen’s warm air. They mixed with the enticing aromas of roasting meat and baking bread while the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, sang tidings of comfort and joy. The whole atmosphere had a deeply peaceful tint… until strident guitar riffs tore through the soothing harmonies like a knife through a freshly baked loaf.
Gareth dropped the wooden spoon on a convenient plate and wiped his hands on the dishcloth he had slung over one shoulder. By the time he reached the ringing phone, X Japan’s Toshi was wailing louder than the choir, and Gareth couldn’t hold back a smile.
Leaving anything electronic in Jack’s reach was risky. Talking to people, reading e-mail, and sending the occasional text wasn’t nearly enough functionality in a phone as far as Jack was concerned, and Gareth had long stopped wondering what his handset would do next. Jack fiddled with it on a daily basis and had probably programmed it to stop traffic, launch rockets into space, or order pharmaceuticals the moment Gareth sneezed. Ringtones were his most recent obsession. They changed based on who was calling, the time of day, and even the location someone was calling from. When Gareth pointed out that he couldn’t remember one ringtone for each person in his contact list, let alone three, Jack’s face had gone blank in the same way it did when someone told him a joke he just didn’t get.
Disinclined to mire himself in lengthy explanations, Gareth gave up arguing and simply answered the phone when it lit up and made noise, just as he’d done before Jack had started improving it. He didn’t even ask why Jack had chosen X Japan’s “Rusty Nail” as his personal ringtone, or inquire why it was the only one that didn’t change with time and tide. He simply memorized the sound of guitars and Toshi’s voice and smiled every time he heard it. If Jack had wanted a song that took Gareth far away from the spirit of Christmas, then he had succeeded.
A background of traffic noise, metallic clangs and clatters, and the buzz of countless conversations made the younger man hard to understand. Borough Market was a hive on any normal day and on Christmas Eve it was bound to be mayhem. Add the misery of mobile phone reception in the city and Gareth was grateful the distinctive ringtone had told him who was calling.
“Vacuum-packed chestnuts are fine,” he said, when he’d made sense of the wavering snatches of Jack’s voice. “If you can find fresh ones, buy those too. What? Oh, half a dozen nets would be good. And don’t forget the coffee,” he reminded him, though hell would freeze over before Jack forgot to visit his favorite coffee shop to pick up a bag of freshly roasted Arabica beans to last through the Christmas period.
Gareth set the phone down and turned back to stir the Cumberland sauce simmering softly on the stove. The joys of Christmas were a long way from his mind despite the seasonal music and peaceful atmosphere. Nancarrow Mining, where both he and Jack worked, closed over Christmas and New Year’s, with only emergency personnel on standby. They’d finished work the previous Friday, and Gareth had been indulging his kitchen fetish for the last three days. By now he should have felt suitably mellow. Instead, the cooking and baking spree had barely kept the lid on his unease. The bottle of wine he would usually have enjoyed as he cooked remained unopened in the well-stocked wine rack, and the frown that creased his brow didn’t ease as he considered the results of his labors filling the large kitchen.
Pyramids of mince pies adorned one end of the kitchen counter, taking up space right beside a long row of jars. Gareth loved relishes and chutneys, the jewel-bright colors and the muted ones, the sharp bite of the vinegar that cut the sweetness of pomegranates, mangoes, squash, and onion, the heady aroma of pickling spice and cinnamon and the hit of fiery chili. He made Christmas-themed relishes every year—to last throughout the season as much as to give away. Two large hams sat beside the regiment of jars: boiled, studded with cloves, baked and glazed to perfection, ready to feed the hungry while Gareth’s favorite, his grandmother’s famous venison pie—golden crust in elaborate pleats and thickly covered in sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg—took pride of place, flanked by a lavishly decorated beef Wellington and a pork pie topped with cranberry compote.
He had no idea who, besides his mother, his sister, and their newest protégés, would choose to show up for Christmas dinner the next day. So he’d made sure there was plenty of food to go around, even if the wild hordes chose to descend on Richmond. Open house at Christmas was a tradition that Gareth had started while he served in the Army and did not plan to give up now that he was a civilian. Initially intended for those of his men who had no families or whose families lived too far away for them to make it home, Gareth’s Christmas dinners had turned into cheerful reunions over the years. And he loved it that way.
Jack had missed out on family occasions while growing up, and seeing how much he appreciated simple things like dinners at home, Gareth had expected Jack to love the idea of a big Christmas get-together. The almost-panic in his eucalyptus eyes and the bout of insomnia that had plagued him for most of the month had come as a shock. When the hint of panic had transformed into a shuttered gaze and forced cheer, Gareth had tried everything he could think of to draw him out.
But Jack wasn’t talking.
He simply pretended that nothing was the matter, when a blind man could see that he was hurting.
At work, Gareth had watched Jack juggle for hours each day, unsure whether the vacant gaze masked thoughts of corporate network security or horrors long past. He’d watched Jack’s fingers, usually so sure and swift, stumble across the keyboard, their rhythm broken and uneven. He’d watched him at home trying to make casual conversation when his mind was clearly spun into its own hell. And he had no idea how to help.
“The mind has the ability to overcome many of the body’s limitations,” Alexandra Marston, Nancarrow Mining’s resident psychologist, had told him when, cautious and reluctant and unsure, he’d gone to talk to her. “But you can make use of those limitations too. Push him far enough into physical exhaustion and his body will shut down to protect itself. And once he’s slept, he should be able to think more clearly.”
Like every other former soldier, Gareth Flynn was familiar with the effects of sleep deprivation. He’d been taught how to deal with it too. Didn’t mean he wasn’t grateful for Alexandra’s support. Jack couldn’t talk about his time working for MI6 except in the most general terms, making it difficult for Gareth to determine exactly what bothered his lover. Alexandra, an MI6 operative herself, didn’t have that problem. She had heard every word that Gareth hadn’t said—and she’d not even mentioned sleeping pills… or therapy. And while Gareth hated to push when he could not accurately predict the outcome, he had done as Marston had suggested. And then, two nights ago…
“Does it still bother you?”
The soft touch woke Gareth from his doze. He lay as he’d fallen asleep, diagonally across the bed, a stack of pillows under his head. The lamp glowed on the bedside table, and outside the window inky blackness proclaimed the lateness of the hour. Jack was stretched out beside him on top of the quilt, head propped on a palm, while his fingertips traced the scar on Gareth’s shoulder.
Jack’s voice was as soft as the touch of his fingers. His gaze was so intent, Gareth could practically hear thoughts and memories chasing each other in his lover’s head. Despite training, work, and vigorous sex, the deep shadows under Jack’s eyes still spoke more of sleepless nights than physical exhaustion, and Gareth wished Jack would just share what bothered him.
But sharing his troubles had never been Jack’s way.
“It’s been almost ten years,” he said softly. “Plenty of time to forget about it.”
“December 23,” Jack replied, voice a mere breath. “The last day of our tour.”
Understanding lit Gareth’s mind. Not so much at Jack’s words, more at his tone of voice. “December 23,” he mused. “Also the day you left the Army. Why am I starting to think that was not a coincidence?”
Jack didn’t answer, and that in itself was answer enough.
Gareth sighed and sat up. He didn’t know why the idea of a big family Christmas, on top of everything else going on in Jack’s life, had triggered such an intense bout of soul-searching. He only knew he had to do what he could to stop it. Jack walking out on his chosen career and family eight years ago had been a painful blow. Jack walking out on him—them—now would be worse.
Please, don’t let me fuck this up! The silent prayer was a heartfelt plea, and Gareth took a moment to firm his resolve and let it steady him. He straightened his spine and drew a deep breath. “May I ask where you put it?”
“Don’t ‘what’ me, brat. Your letter of resignation.”
Shock turned Jack’s face perfectly white. His mouth opened and closed several times before brain and vocal chords connected into a stuttered “My what?”
“So you’re not planning to walk out on me tomorrow?”
The horrified indignation in Jack’s voice soothed Gareth’s nerves. He reached out and closed a hand around Jack’s bicep, pulling him up so their faces were level. “Then talk to me,” he implored.
Jack’s gray-green eyes were fringed with long, dark lashes. He could hide very effectively if he chose. Right then, he didn’t flinch under Gareth’s scrutiny. His gaze was steady, as was his voice. “I screwed up, and it almost cost you your life. I need to remember that.”
“You also saved my life that day. You need to remember that too.”
Jack’s lashes swept down, and this time he was hiding. Well, Gareth was having none of that. He took a firm grip on Jack’s chin and forced his head up.
“You’re not hearing me, Jack,” he growled. “You seem to believe that the truth is a one-way street when it’s not. Every truth has at least two sides. So maybe you got too absorbed collecting that intel and I got shot. But you also saved my life. Both things are true, whether you like it or not.”
“You’re saying that failure can be redeemed?”
“I’m saying that it’s pointless to fixate on endings and overlook that they’re also new beginnings.”
A deep breath shuddered out of Jack’s throat. His voice, when it came, was whisper-soft. “Always?”
Tension bled from Jack’s frame like air from a punctured balloon, and when Gareth stretched out and pulled him close, sleep claimed Jack in moments.
Never mind that Gareth wanted answers. That he wanted to shake his lover until he explained what the hell was going on. Jack was asleep, and Gareth—disinclined to wake him—could only gnash his teeth and possess himself in patience once more.
Jack slept the rest of that night and most of the following day, the deep sleep of the totally exhausted. He barely stirred while Gareth moved through the house, cleaning, cooking, and preparing for the festivities—and Gareth considered this one of his biggest wins ever. He surfaced, ravenous as only Jack could be, in time for Gareth to feed him dinner and tuck him back into bed to sleep some more.
And now Jack was gone, ostensibly to visit Nico and Daniel, the two teenage boys they’d rescued from a pimp three months earlier, before he popped into their Strand office to make sure nothing untoward was happening at the company they both worked for. He had to check in at Scotland Yard later too, where Lisa Tyrrell and Clive Baxter were hard at work putting together the case against Mitrovic. He had even offered to pick up the last of the shopping on the way back.
All totally innocent, acceptable activities, and yet Gareth cursed himself blue for ever agreeing to let Jack out of his sight. He still wasn’t convinced that Jack would stick around. Not given the state of mind he’d been in the previous month.
A hiss from the stove reminded him that he had things to do, and Gareth rescued the Cumberland sauce before it burned, taking comfort in the fact that Jack had called. If he’d really planned on bailing, chestnuts—fresh or otherwise—would surely not feature in Jack’s thoughts.
The bowl of oranges caught Gareth’s eye and his mind turned to the dinner he had planned for the two of them that night: a mix of rich, sophisticated flavors with a sprinkling of decadence. And if he wanted to have everything ready in time, he had better get started.
For someone who couldn’t cook to save his life, Jack certainly loved to eat. He wasn’t shy about experimenting with food and trying out new flavors, either. Gareth appreciated that. He reached for the largest of the oranges and started to cut long strips of peel, imagining the heady aromas of baking orange skin suffusing the kitchen. The scent took him right back to his childhood, and without him realizing it, the comforting smells and cherished routine settled his mind.
Gareth spent the next hours chopping celeriac, peppers, and fennel for the most colorful of Christmas soups. He pounded bread, garlic, chili, and olive oil into a fiery paste and peeled potatoes for mash. He bathed a plucked goose in boiling water before popping it into the oven to roast, and stewed red cabbage in a mix of red wine, sugar, vinegar, cloves, and cinnamon. The kitchen smelled like an alchemist’s idea of heaven and when Gareth selected the ripest of the six pineapples in his store and decapitated it with a mere flick of his wrist, he had almost convinced himself that his world was—and would remain—whole.
“I CAN’T do this… Christmas stuff,” Nico admitted softly. He’d settled himself beside Jack on the swing seat, boots idly skimming the grass as he pushed them back and forth. Both were in jeans, T-shirts, and fleece tops—no coats, hats, or gloves—but sitting out in the garden in the watery sunshine wasn’t uncomfortable.
Christmas in England. Go figure.
“A roomful of coppers is bad enough. I can’t see how they even listen to anything I say. Most of the time, they all talk at once. Or they shout.” Nico drew a deep breath and then almost wailed the next words. “And Gareth said anyone can come to his Christmas party!”
“Yeah, I know,” Jack agreed. He wasn’t too keen on crowds and parties himself, even if he was reasonably sure that he knew most of the people who were going to turn up. “All that family stuff is scary, right?”
Nico swallowed and ducked his head as Jack had known he would. The boy had lost his parents in a car crash, and his sister when they were sent to different children’s homes. Anything to do with families, with ties he lacked, made him nervous.
“It’s not really a family thing. Gareth’s party, I mean. He started it precisely because some of his men didn’t have families to go home to. Or they were living too far away. He says it’s his way of celebrating the family he’s made for himself.”
“Can you do that? Make your own family?”
“Sure,” Jack said, sounding far more convinced of that fact than he actually felt. “You’ve done it with Daniel, haven’t you? You’re like brothers. Twins almost, the way you two are joined at the hip. And talking of which, what does Daniel say about all this?”
“I think he fancies it. Makes me feel like a wuss.”
“You’re not,” Jack said immediately. Nico was further from being a coward than anyone Jack knew. Both boys had been victims of a child prostitution ring, had been kept locked up by a pimp and abused until they’d escaped barely three months earlier. They’d been malnourished, drugged, and beaten, not to mention scared three parts out of their minds, yet neither was giving up.
After Goran Mitrovic’s arrest, Nico had decided to help the police, even though it forced him to remember events and details he really rather wanted to forget. And Jack, who had been through a similar ordeal and who had made a crusade of fighting pimps and hunting the men who bought children for sex, had found himself feeling unexpectedly protective of the two boys.
“Everyone reacts differently to crowds,” he said. “Could be that Daniel feels a bit left out now that you’re talking to the police, or that he simply feels safer with the lot of us around. Him wanting to go to the party when you don’t doesn’t make you a wuss. You’ve spent a lot of time this month working with Lisa and Clive. Making an effort to remember everything that happened isn’t easy, Nico. Just being in a room with a bunch of strange men isn’t easy, right? It’s only normal that you’re craving silence.”
It was also why Jack was here. Gareth’s mother, who was fostering the boys, had called him the moment Nico had started to withdraw into himself. It wasn’t Nico’s usual MO, and Jack got why she was concerned. Of the two boys, Nico was the more outgoing one, the one who faced problems head-on. Daniel, emotionally more fragile, grew quiet and hid, to the point of refusing to talk to anyone and not leaving his bed. Finding Nico out in the garden staring at bare branches was rather unusual.
“Tell me what happened,” Jack requested quietly. “Do I need to put someone’s head through the wall?”
“No, nothing like that.”
Nico went quiet again. Jack didn’t push. He had known the teen long enough now to be able to judge the silence. This was Nico trying to find the right words to explain what bothered him. And Jack had no problem waiting.
“What do you think will happen?” The question came about a quarter of an hour later.
“When it’s all over. When… he is in prison.”
“I suppose we’ll find a school for you two to go to. Or a teacher to work with you if you can’t face school just yet.”
“Will they… split us up? Send us to an orphanage?”
Jack wrapped his arm around Nico’s shoulders and hugged the boy. “No. Anyone trying to separate you and Daniel will have to go through me. And Gareth. And Aidan,” he said. “I’m sure Lisa and Raf will have a thing to say about it too.” He turned Nico so he could see the boy’s face and take note of the dark, troubled eyes. “There’s a whole bunch of us and we all have your backs. Yours and Daniel’s. And it sounds very much as if I do need to put someone’s head through the wall. Tell me.”
Nico didn’t look up. “Apparently we’re too memorable together,” he mumbled. “Easy for the pimps to find. One blond, one dark, both whores.”
“What the fuck!”
“No, Jack. It’s okay. They didn’t say it to me. I… just overheard it.” Nico held tightly to Jack’s sleeve and Jack let himself be pulled back onto the swing seat.
“It’s definitely not okay, Nico.” He kept the anger out of his voice as he spoke. He wasn’t mad at Nico, after all. Here was the reason he went with Nico whenever the teen spoke to the police. Too many ignorant, insensitive assclowns in that place. Men, and a few women, who would fold like wet paper if faced with the events in Nico’s past, running their mouths regardless. And one of them was going to get it in the neck in very short order. “Listen to me,” he said seriously. “Mrs. Flynn has looked after orphaned teens for years. You know that. She’s told you and she’s told social services that she’s perfectly happy to have you and Daniel stay with her until you’re old enough to go to uni or find your own place. Gareth lives just a little way down the road and so do I. You’re never short of people to stay with.”
“But he said that the pimps would find us—”
“I got that,” Jack soothed. “It’s not that you two are too memorable that puts you on the radar, you know? It’s that you’re helping to have Goran jailed. We’ll have to work out some security measures to make sure nobody can get to you. Lisa would do that for any material witness, which is what you two are. There’s no orphanage in your future, believe you me. And anyone who says differently—”
“I don’t want you to have to fight.”
Nico wasn’t wholly convinced yet, but he sounded a little more like himself, so Jack let his amusement show. “I won’t go in there swinging fists, Nico. I’m a hacker, or have you forgotten? Anyone tries it on and I’ll make sure all their savings go to the nearest cat charity and their microwave plays show tunes.”
“I SUGGEST you lend a hand before I drop this lot!”
Gareth hadn’t heard the car in the driveway or the key in the lock, and the tsunami of relief that washed through him at seeing Jack standing in the kitchen doorway, weighed down by shopping bags, almost buckled his knees. He reached for bags and boxes and dumped them on a free corner of the long counter without looking, before he spun back and wrapped Jack in a hug that threatened to break ribs.
“Nothing. Just… missed you,” Gareth mumbled, faintly embarrassed. Jack had a knack for bringing out all his protective instincts—always had, ever since the skinny, smart-mouthed seventeen-year-old had been placed in his Army unit. Only back then, when he’d had no idea of the extent of Jack’s courage, he’d been far better able to hide that fact.
He turned to the untidy pile of groceries in the middle of his kitchen. “Looks like you bought all of the market.”
“Felt like it too. Still, I got everything on your list and even something I didn’t expect to find.” Jack bent and retrieved a tall wooden box from one of the bags littering the floor. “See what you think of that.”
The box was heavier than Gareth expected and it clinked softly as Jack handed it over. When he pried open the lid and saw the deep blue case with the gold insignia and pale yellow label inside, the breath caught in Gareth’s throat.
“That is—” He checked the label again and did the math in his head for good measure. “—thirty years old.”
“Yep. Special Release, 30-Year-Old Auchroisk for your pleasure.”
“I can’t drink that!”
The camera on Jack’s phone went off with a flash. “Just in case you dispute later that you said that,” he commented smugly. “And since I have no compunction about age, hand that bottle over and I’ll do the honors.”
Gareth clutched the box to his chest like a precious infant. “No way, you heathen. A fine malt like this one would be wasted on you.”
“And here I was hoping you’d offer to educate me in the finer points of Scotch appreciation.”
“Oh, were you? Well, let me get you started by pointing out that you appreciate fine malt by the mouthful, not by the bottle.”
Jack’s amused chuckle lit a beacon of warmth in Gareth’s chest. He hadn’t heard that sound in far too long, and he mentally bowed his head to Alexandra Marston, convinced that, without her advice, his patience would have given out too soon.
Gareth watched, bottle still cradled in his arms, as Jack unpacked and displayed each item in his haul for approval as if he planned to return it to the shop should it not meet Gareth’s expectations. Soon, nets of chestnuts and sprouts vied for space on the long counter alongside packs of prosciutto, strings of chipolatas, a large tub of freshly made sausage meat from Gareth’s favorite butcher, and jars of gherkins pickled in sweet vinegar.
“And why we need four liters of double cream I’ll never understand, but here you are.” Jack emptied the final bag and stacked blue-and-white plastic tubs on the last bit of available counter space.
“Wait ’til you meet my sister,” Gareth replied. He moved the box with the precious whisky to a safe place on top of the kitchen units before he started to stow Jack’s purchases. “The way the stuff disappears around her, she’s either half cat or she bathes in it.” He made space for the tubs in the overfilled fridge. “This way I still have spare cream in the freezer if anyone else wants any.”
He checked through the contents of the fridge one last time, wondering if he’d remembered everyone’s favorite treats, and then shook his head. It was too late to worry now, really.
“Don’t… steal the ingredients!” Gareth complained as he straightened from his crouch and found Jack with his fingers in a saucepan. “Go make yourself useful.”
“Hey!” Jack retreated from the stove, hands up. “Who volunteered for shopping duty when it’s a zoo out there? At the very least, you could provide a little treat.”
“Who says I haven’t?” Gareth reached for a plate and heaped a spoonful of pomegranate relish on one side, followed by a dollop of his fiery chili mustard. Then he opened the warming oven and pulled out a pie, all golden and inviting. “You want a burgundy with that,” he suggested as he put the treat on the plate. Now that all the shopping was done, he had no compunction in making sure Jack stayed home.
“What don’t I want a burgundy with?” Jack asked rhetorically, scanning the kitchen for an open bottle. Confusion manifested on his face when he couldn’t find one even though Gareth had been cooking for hours. “Are you sure you’re okay?” Jack queried as he located an appropriately labeled bottle in Gareth’s store and poured two glasses. As soon as he bit into the warm pie, he forgot his concerns. His eyes widened and he didn’t even notice the gravy trickling down his chin as he tried to taste, chew, and swallow all at once.
“Oh, that’s gorgeous!” he moaned obscenely around a second bite. “What is that?”
“No way.” Jack put the pie down, picked up a fork, and started to dissect the filling. “It’s got cherries in it!”
“Morello cherries, yes,” Gareth confirmed, giving the orange-colored and orange-scented soup on the stove a gentle stir. “And bacon, onions, and spices. They keep the pie moist and make the gravy.” He waved a hand to the larger version on the sideboard. “Most people like to eat it cold, with pickles. I think it makes a damn good hot pie too.”
Jack had gone back to devouring the pie, and his words were a little hard to make out. Gareth didn’t mind. He sipped his wine, content now that Jack was home, and watched his lover inhale pie and relish with barely a break to draw breath.
“Boy, I needed that!” Jack sighed when the plate was bare. “For food this wonderful, I’d even brave the zoo, Scotland Yard, and Nico’s demons. Now—” He stood up and stretched. “—is there anything I can do without ruining it?”
“Sure.” Provided he was kept away from fire, Jack was proving surprisingly handy in the kitchen, and Gareth planned to take full advantage. “You can peel chestnuts, get the sprouts ready, wrap chipolatas in prosciutto, and make stuffing.”
“Wish I hadn’t asked.”
It was some time later when, wrapped in soothing aromas and comforting actions, Gareth looked up from his work. “We can call it off, if it bothers you so much,” he offered softly.
Jack laid the knife down and came around the kitchen island to stand behind Gareth and wrap his arms around his waist.
“No,” he said, resting his cheek on Gareth’s shoulder, right over the scar. “I’m not that much of a coward. And if you’re right about endings being new beginnings, then I need to lay a few ghosts before I miss out on another one. Besides—” He swiped his fingers through the pot in front of Gareth and took a step back to taste. “—it would be a crime to let all that glorious food go to waste.”
“That’s your dinner, brat. I can’t see that going to waste.”
GARETH HAD been right, at least where the food was concerned. By the time the soup was a promise of velvety, orange-and-fennel-scented richness and the goose was roasted to perfection, Jack had started to regard cooking with Gareth as a new form of torture. He had prepared a mountain of sprouts, peeled blanched chestnuts until his fingertips were sore, and been smacked over the head more than once with a wooden spoon for sneaking strips of the rather tasty prosciutto he was supposed to wrap around the chipolatas.
“I bought extra so I could eat some,” he whined, only to hear Gareth laugh.
“I doubt you bought that much extra. And anyway, dinner is ready when you are.”
“Want me to light the fire?”
Jack left Gareth to the contemplation of the contents of the wine rack while he lit the fire he’d set just that morning. A small flame sprang up from the thin shavings of kindling. The fresh pine he had added to the stack of wood hissed and caught fire, releasing scents of peace and woodland to mingle with the enticing aromas of roast goose and baked orange. The drapes were closed against the dark and damp of an English winter evening, and a golden glow suffused the room as the fire caught and grew.
Lighting the tall tapers on the dinner table and watching the tiny flames reflect on porcelain and crystal only added to Jack’s feeling of comfort and safety, and he wondered why he never felt like this in his own home, however many candles he lit.
The pop of a cork from the direction of the kitchen held the answer. And it was obvious.
Gareth made the difference.
Jack could lean on him without being thought weak. He watched Jack’s back without having to be asked, and he provided reason when Jack was too tired to think straight. Gareth Flynn was someone Jack didn’t want to be without—and for whom he was even prepared to brave ghosts.
In fact, Gareth did for him what he was trying to do for Daniel and Nico. That was the simple sum of it.
“What’s so amusing?” Gareth crossed to the dining table, carrying a tray that held a tureen of soup and a bottle of sparkling wine in a chiller.
Jack hadn’t realized he was smiling. He didn’t feel like explaining his epiphany just yet. It seemed silly that he’d been too busy settling into his new job at Nancarrow Mining, getting used to working for his former CO once more, and helping Nico and Daniel, to notice what was right in front of his face. He waved his hand, encompassing the candlelit tree, the fire, the table dressed in gleaming white linen, fine porcelain, crystal, and sparkling silverware. And more intangible things like warmth, the sense of being wanted, and the inviting aromas of Gareth’s cooking.
“This,” he said after a moment. “You. Christmas.” He stepped around the table and wound his arms around Gareth’s neck, pressing close. “I don’t do Christmas,” he said softly, brushing his lips over Gareth’s in a barely there caress. “Never have. I always used to work. And nobody’s ever….”
Gareth dotted a quick kiss on Jack’s forehead. “Which is exactly why I do it, of course,” he quipped. “Workaholics like you need a civilizing influence. And you like my cooking.” He pried Jack’s arms from his neck and turned him around. “Now sit down before the soup’s cold and the fizz goes flat!”
Jack complied without a word, happy in his anticipation of a spectacular dinner. He didn’t even bother to check his smile.
“TIME TO open your present?” Jack queried once they’d cleared the table and were ready to settle in front of the fire. Content didn’t even begin to describe how he felt. Exceptionally well fed, certainly. Also at ease, comfortable—happy?—and definitely curious. He hadn’t minded paying the high price that one of the rare bottles commanded. Now he wanted to find out how a 30-year-old malt—a whisky just older than he was—compared to his usual fare, which was less than half that age and cost only a fraction of the Auchroisk.
Gareth wasn’t carrying the distinctive blue case when he came back into the lounge. Instead, the tray in his hands held shot glasses, matches, something that looked like a miniature copper paddle, and an unfamiliar white glass bottle.
“You said something earlier about laying ghosts,” he said as he sat the tray down on the low table before the fire. “I thought I’d help with that.” And under Jack’s bemused gaze, he filled the shot glasses with a clear liquid, lit a match and set it alight.
The spirit burned with an eerie blue flame that wavered and danced though there was no draft in the room.
“Moor spirits masquerade as guiding lights and lead travelers astray on their journey.” Gareth’s voice rang softly through the semidarkness. He knelt by the low table with his back to the fire, and the tiny blue flames glowed in the shadow he cast. “Like many ghosts, they illuminate only a single path of their choosing and hide other and maybe safer routes. To lay those ghosts, you need to find the courage to douse their flame and find your way by the light of your soul.”
He picked up the copper paddle and placed it over one of the shot glasses. When he removed it, the blue flame was gone.
A shiver washed down Jack’s spine as he watched the lonely blue flame on his shot glass dance and weave. He thought about losing his home as an eleven-year-old the night before Christmas. He thought of another Christmas, of an outcrop of rock in a barren landscape, his hands slippery with blood as he gripped his rifle, determined to save the man who now sat beside him. And he thought of the loneliest, scariest Christmas in his life… when he had walked away from everything he’d ever wanted.
Ever since the day his mother had sold him for a fix, Christmas had been a time of year when his life changed. Could it ever be otherwise?
He watched Gareth from under his lashes, noted the way he waited patiently for Jack to make his choice. Gareth surviving his close brush with death was one good Christmas memory Jack had, one ending that deserved to be turned into a new beginning.
“Lay your ghosts,” Gareth said softly, holding the paddle out by the handle.
Jack’s breath wasn’t entirely steady and neither was his hand, but he took the small paddle without hesitation, placed it over the glass the way Gareth had done, and extinguished the flame.
“Here’s to new beginnings.” Gareth lifted his glass in a toast and waited for Jack to join him.
“To new beginnings,” Jack echoed his words.
And when he finally lifted the shot glass to his lips, the fiery spirit was surprisingly soft, sweet with the scent of wild herbs and with a long slow burn that settled in his stomach and chased the cold away.
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