TOMAS watched the train pull out of the station, his eyes following it until it was a memory under the glare of the sun. The platform was almost deserted, save for two old ladies talking, nodding, and laughing as they walked toward the ticket office, disappearing through the old wooden doors into the unknown of the outside world. A breeze ruffled his hair, and he swatted at the invisible hand, tilting his head in response to a whisper just out of reach, a feeling of almost déjà vu. There was no one there. He was alone.
This holiday had been his sister Kathleen’s idea, a chance for him to get in touch with his inner self and find the elusive muse which seemed to have deserted him for a better place. Tomas was a writer, but he hadn’t written anything in months. He’d start, type one or two lines, delete them, and start again, repeating the process for hours at a time. Nothing felt right; the magic was gone. Two bestsellers and a publisher who wasn’t taking too kindly to the non-appearance of book number three. Yes, Tomas knew it was a three-book deal. Yes, he knew he hadn’t decided what this last book was about yet. Actually, that wasn’t exactly true, but the idea was only a seed, a kernel just out of reach, a rainbow with colors misty after rain, not quite solid, not quite real, just frustrating as hell.
Not quite real because he didn’t want it to be. This book would come from the soul, his soul, and he didn’t want that on display. The muse could go to hell. He was not writing this.
He shivered as a chill ran up his spine. Sighing, he bent to pick up his backpack. It was old, tattered, and comfortable, yet still large enough to carry everything he needed; with each journey he picked off more threads which had come loose, yet the fabric still managed to hold together. It had accompanied him everywhere over the last ten years and was something familiar to hang on to. He needed that right now. Tomas liked the familiar; it made up for the feeling of not belonging, of being on a journey that he wasn’t sure was ever going to end. He traveled light, and always had; it made leaving easier. If he left first, others would not leave him. Not that that was exactly a problem these days. He had very few friends; his habit of switching off and ignoring what he didn’t want to answer had alienated most, but he liked his privacy, and if people couldn’t deal with it, that was not his issue but theirs.
One last glance at the platform and he walked through into the ticket office and out the far door. Kathleen was wrong. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere was not going to do anything. However, it was a way of avoiding his publisher, especially as Tomas’s mobile was still broken and he had not bothered to get it fixed. Hopefully, Fraser would give up and find someone else to hassle. The man was persistent, if nothing else, and while Tomas had not exactly been averse to their few meetings over coffee, he also felt bad in having to tell Fraser he was still not writing. Tomas took his commitments seriously, but this was different, and a matter on which avoidance could only work for so long.
The street outside the station was empty apart from a long-haired grey cat which was lazily washing itself. It stopped, looked Tomas up and down, and then returned to what it was doing, obviously deciding that this human was not worth the effort. Tomas wasn’t sure whether that should be taken as a compliment or not. Not worth the effort also meant he was not considered a threat.
Tomas preferred animals to people. They didn’t bother hiding under a façade of polite disinterest while nodding and pretending to care about what he had to say. Expressing himself through the medium of print meant that he did not need to deal with people directly but could still speak his mind.
Dumping his backpack on the ground, the messenger bag holding his laptop still across his shoulder, Tomas found a shady spot and leaned back against the wall, arms folded. His ride was late. He would wait. It wasn’t as though he had a deadline to meet. It was quiet here. After London, the village of Oakwood felt like stepping back several decades in time to a world less complicated and slower. For the moment, at least, he’d embrace that illusion and focus on the thought that perhaps this place might have potential after all. He could just keep to himself, find a nice tree to sit under, and catch up with some reading.
The sound of a car engine interrupted any hope for a short nap before Tomas had the chance to close his eyes. He didn’t bother moving, but instead waited for the car to pull up in front of him. If this was his ride he would find out soon enough. If it wasn’t, he could wait a while longer. Whoever it was, the driver did appear to be in a hurry, the brakes squealing as the car came to an abrupt halt.
“Damn it, I thought I’d fixed that problem.” A man about Tomas’s own age, although he could have been slightly younger than his mid-twenties, climbed out of the car, slamming the driver’s door behind him. He glanced around, his mouth curving into a grin when he saw Tomas. “Trouble with these old cars is that they can be temperamental as hell at times,” he said conversationally. “Love them, though, just gotta know how to treat them right.” The accent was very definitely American, although strangely it did not seem out of place in the middle of an out-of-the-way English village.
Tomas nodded, running an appreciative eye over the car. It was a green Morris Minor, probably from the early fifties, and very well-restored. An interesting choice for this man, who was dressed in a pair of jeans and an old T-shirt, his nails stained with grease even though his hands were clean. His hair was a messy, nondescript brown, a little on the long side but not enough to need tying back. “That is true of most things and people,” he replied.
“Yeah, it is.” After wiping his hands down his jeans, the man offered his right one to Tomas to shake. “Donovan Campbell. I’m guessing you’re Tomas Kemp, and that for once the train was on time, or if my luck’s really screwed today, early for the first time in ten years.”
Accepting the handshake, Tomas couldn’t help but smirk. “That would depend on whether you consider five minutes enough time to be sufficiently screwed.”
Donovan stared at him for a moment and then laughed. “That would depend on who I’m with.” He bent to grab Tomas’s bag. “You are Tomas, right? I’d kinda like to make sure I have the right guy before I take off with your luggage.” He raised an eyebrow. “Like to travel light, huh?”
“You wouldn’t be holding my bag if I wasn’t.” Tomas shook his head when Donovan reached for his messenger bag after stowing the backpack in the boot. “I’ll keep this with me, thank you.”
“Guess you’ve got all your stuff in it?” Donovan opened the driver’s door, gesturing toward the passenger side. “I’m not a writer, but I’ve heard how protective you guys can be about your manuscripts.” He waited till Tomas was buckling himself in and then turned the key in the ignition. “Heidi’s a big fan of yours; she’s read both your books. She was really excited when she found out you’d be staying at the inn.”
“Wonderful,” Tomas muttered under his breath. He didn’t need a fan hounding him about when his next book would be published. “I don’t talk about what I’m working on,” he said, not bothering to pretend to be apologetic when he wasn’t. “She will have to wait for it like everyone else.”
Donovan shrugged. “Not a problem, just smile and be nice to her, okay?” He glanced at Tomas and then back at the road before pulling out into the nonexistent traffic.
“Whatever,” Tomas said, his arms tightening around his laptop as the car hit a pothole, lurched, and continued on its way. There was a lot to be said for the idea of going back to writing by hand. This village was quaint and rural. It might be interesting to do things the old-fashioned way and see if that might jolt the stubborn, pig-headed muse into submission. Not that Tomas was going to write this, but he might write something else. Anything else.
“Look,” Donovan said. “I don’t care whether you’re a paying customer or some big shot writer Heidi’s got the hots for. If you’re rude to her, I’ll throw you out on your ass.”
“I have no intention of being rude.” Tomas shifted his attention to the scenery passing by his window at a rapidly increasing speed. “I came here for some privacy and I would appreciate that wish being adhered to.” Green followed green, broken by the occasional brown-thatched cottage, the distance between them growing the farther out they traveled. Crossroads Inn was on the outskirts of the village, far enough to be private, close enough for convenience. Rural England at its best or worst; Tomas hadn’t figured out which yet.
“Whatever.” Donovan rolled his eyes, throwing Tomas’s earlier word back at him. “Life is easier when people get along.” He indicated left and turned into a country lane. “I don’t know what your problem is, but if there’s anything I can do to help, I’ve been told I listen well over a beer.”
“You don’t know me. Didn’t your mother tell you it’s dangerous to offer help to strangers?” Tomas knew he was alienating Donovan further, but he didn’t care. This was easier, he told the part of his mind that whispered loudly that he needed a friend. Letting someone in as a friend gave them the power to hurt him later by leaving. This way it wouldn’t matter.
Donovan slammed on the brakes. “I thought you were okay,” he growled, “and I’m usually good at reading people.” He glared at Tomas, then shrugged. “If you change your mind, you’re paying, though. I might be a nice guy, but you’ve just pissed me off.”
“Fine with me.” Tomas returned to looking out the window. Ignoring was preferable to arguing and usually achieved the same result. It was also less effort.
Another left turn, this one up what appeared to be a long driveway, revealed an old wooden building covered in ivy, roses climbing up the front wall by the door. However, Tomas’s attention was taken by the grounds, but more in particular, by the large tree sitting in the middle of what appeared to be an empty field to the side of the inn. Tomas didn’t know much about trees, but this one seemed very old, and for some reason, very much alone. It stood tall and proud, its branches overhanging to offer shade, surrounded by the green of the grass, a mixture of brown and gold, leaves prematurely changing color as though to herald the autumn which was still several months away.
“That’s our oak.” Donovan stopped the car. Tomas climbed out and took a few steps closer toward the tree, still staring at it, his fingers clutching the strap on his bag. “It’s an old guy for one of these and nearly a thousand years old according to the locals. It feels like it’s always been here and always going to be. One of those universal constants you can rely on, like the sun rising in the east and setting in the west.”
“Nothing lasts forever.” Tomas shook his head, forcing himself to focus on the moment. Dreams were for those who had the energy to pursue them.
“Cynical kind of guy, huh?” Donovan retrieved Tomas’s backpack and began walking toward the front door.
“No.” A warm breeze ruffled Tomas’s hair, brushing it from his face. He swatted at it. “Just realistic.”
THE next day he woke to find a small black cat sitting on the end of his bed, watching him. It had rained during the night, drops of water dancing across the window and pitter-pattering on the roof in an erratic rhythm, keeping him awake until after midnight. A glance at his watch informed him that it was nearly lunchtime, making the comment he was tempted to make about loud music playing downstairs at an ungodly hour a moot point. Even a shower didn’t improve his mood, although the cat seemed to find him standing dripping wet, only clad in a towel, somewhat amusing.
Finally, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he wandered downstairs in the direction of what he vaguely remembered from the day before as the kitchen. Heidi looked up as he walked in, and smiled. She was a slender woman with long dark hair tied back in a ponytail, dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, with laugh lines already forming around her eyes, although she appeared to be similar in age to himself and Donovan. Tomas hadn’t yet figured out whether she and Donovan were a couple. The evening before they’d constantly been in each other’s space, laughing and teasing each other, yet for some reason he didn’t get that vibe from them. There was a level of comfort there; their banter had reminded him of the evening he and Kathleen had spent together celebrating his birthday earlier in the year. Their surnames were different, so it was unlikely they were siblings, although he still didn’t rule it out as a possibility.
“Not one for being up at the crack of dawn with the birds, huh?” She too seemed amused by his bedraggled state. He pulled his T-shirt down where it had started to ride up. It was his favorite, and he wasn’t about to throw it out, even if it had shrunk several sizes and gone through at least one load of washing with Kathleen’s red underwear. Heidi giggled. “Not very many guys would feel comfortable wearing something that shade of pink.”
“It’s caramel red,” he told her, helping himself to coffee. “Am I too late for breakfast?”
Heidi laughed. “Sure it is, and no, you’re not. Donovan’s gone into the village to get supplies, but I can make you some bacon and eggs if you’d like.”
“Thank you. That would be appreciated.” Tomas sipped his coffee, added a couple of spoonfuls of sugar, and settled himself at the table, waiting for the caffeine to kick-start his system.
“You’re welcome,” she said, pulling out the pan and looking through the fridge for the ingredients. “There’s some black pudding in here too, if you’d like some. I’m not fond of it, but some of the guests like it.”
“No, thank you.” Tomas shuddered. “Just bacon and eggs will be fine.” He closed his eyes and breathed in the coffee aroma. “This is good. Is it local?”
“No.” The smell of frying bacon filled the air. The fridge opened and closed again, followed by the sound of cracking eggs. “It’s Colombian, and you can’t buy it here. Donovan has a few connections and a serious coffee addiction. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Tomas opened his eyes just in time to see her grin at him. “Although I suspect you could match him on it. He’s like you in the mornings, except he starts his somewhat earlier.”
“Most people start their day earlier than I do,” Tomas admitted. He was a night owl, often seeing the dawn rise before falling into bed and sleeping until lunchtime. It had always suited his routine for writing, the words flowing through the vampire hours to fade with the first rays of sunlight.
Heidi placed a plate in front of him. “Eat up,” she said. “Man cannot live on coffee alone.” Helping herself to a cup, she sat down opposite him. “You’re not what I imagined.”
“Oh?” Tomas raised an eyebrow; a fork full of bacon paused midway to his mouth.
“I expected someone more….” Heidi shrugged. “You seem very sad, very lonely. I didn’t get that feeling from reading your books.” She took a gulp of coffee, watching him carefully. “They say that writers often put something of themselves into their characters, but I can’t pick which one might be you.”
“You’ve only just met me,” Tomas pointed out, lowering his fork. “Don’t presume to know me, or to judge me.” She did seem genuinely interested, and he didn’t get the feeling she was prying, more that she was a person who cared about others. That was rare, too damn rare, but it didn’t mean Tomas was going to just go along with it either.
“Donovan was right.” Heidi shook her head and drained her coffee, walking over to place the empty cup in the sink. “Just rinse the dishes and leave them in the sink when you’re done, okay? I need to go do some paperwork. This place doesn’t run itself.” Reaching the door, she turned to look at him. He mopped at the egg on his plate. “It stopped raining while you were in the shower. Go for a walk and get your head out of your ass. It might help.”
BOOK under his arm, Tomas tried to ignore the cat at his feet. Once he got to the front door, he slipped through and closed it behind him. The animal seemed to have attached herself to him, following him around. It was unnerving knowing that someone or something was watching him. He didn’t like being watched, even though he spent many hours observing others. He hated the spotlight; it made him feel as though he was on show, that all his thoughts and dreams were out there for the world to see.
Heidi had been right about writers often putting something of themselves into their characters, but he had not been about to tell her that. It had taken him long enough to admit to himself the reason why Alan Blackthorn had been so good at infiltration. It was bad enough that his friend Ethan had read the first draft of Red Sunset, figured it out, and called him on it, noting the similarities between Tomas and a character able to blend in to his surroundings and become anyone he wanted but the one person he needed to be—himself. Ethan was a little too observant at times and one of the few people Tomas had allowed to get close, only to find that he now couldn’t be convinced to back off.
Stepping off the front porch, Tomas scanned the grounds for a suitable place to sit and read his book. The old oak stood before him, demanding his attention as it had upon his arrival. It was alone, standing guard in the middle of the field, a good five-minute walk from any buildings. The ground was still damp underfoot, but Tomas had his jacket to sit on and use as a makeshift blanket. Above, the sun peeked through what was left of the earlier storm clouds, bringing with it a welcome warmth in contrast to the persistent breeze.
Ambling across the field, he stopped midway, turning to look at the old building behind him. The cat had her nose pressed to one of the upstairs windows, watching him, reminding him of a small child who had been chastised. Tomas felt a moment’s guilt for leaving her behind, but he needed to be alone. He would make it up to Blackthorn later. Sighing, he rolled his eyes. It had been no surprise to learn that Heidi was responsible for the name. She really was a fan of his books, and he had been rude to her over breakfast, even if he’d attempted to deny it.
He was here to find peace and quiet. A good rest would help him write again. If he ignored this particular muse long enough, another would take its place, and that stupid story idea would disappear into the ether where it belonged. A voice in his mind whispered to him about being true to himself, and how it would be so much easier if he just gave in now as he would have to eventually anyway.
“Go away,” Tomas muttered, picking up his pace again. “You’re not prepared to help me, so why the hell should I even listen to you.” He stopped again, his face turned up toward the sky. “I’m arguing with myself. Happy now? Are you?”
As he expected, there was no answer. There never was. Tomas wasn’t sure what he expected, but a voice from the heavens wasn’t high on the list. He was going crazy. Yes, that was it. He could live with that. It was better than the truth. Fantasy often was. It was one of the reasons he had turned to writing in the first place; it provided a safe outlet for everything the world could not be allowed to see.
Unfortunately it was also not real.
Some days he wished it was. Tomas had spent hours lying on his bed, imagining what it must be like to truly fly in space, to pilot the machines his imagination had created. To fight for an important cause. To find someone to love and have that love returned in kind.
He frowned. Where the fuck had that come from? His books were about a war, about friendships, not romantic relationships. The pilots did not have time for that kind of thing and could not afford to risk becoming close in that way, however many hints there were that those friendships could have led to more.
Reaching the tree, he sat down, leaning back against it, trying to find a comfortable spot. He placed his book on the ground, his reading mood gone. Above him the sun peeked through the foliage, giving the leaves closest to him an almost unearthly glow. He hadn’t been in the village twenty-four hours and he was already wondering if coming here was such a great idea. A bee flew around him, watching him, then continued on its way.
Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the breeze, the feel of it through his hair, against his skin. It was gentle, warm, and inviting. Instinctively, he brought his hand up to his cheek, wondering what it would be like to have real fingers caressing him, wanting him.
A twig snapped on the ground beside him, and he opened his eyes. A man was standing watching him. Tomas swallowed, returning the man’s smile with a shy one of his own before he had even thought about what he had done.
The man had long legs, enclosed in tight, form-fitting brown trousers and black boots to mid-calf. Tomas opened his mouth to speak and closed it again.
“I’m sorry, did I disturb you?” The man’s voice was soft, a light tenor. His hand came up to brush blond hair from eyes that were the color of the ocean, or was it the sky? The white shirt he wore was loose and untucked, the top laces undone to expose a well-muscled yet lean chest. Tomas shifted back against the tree, suddenly feeling very self-conscious about his own very scruffy jeans and T-shirt. He ran a hand through his hair in an attempt to smooth down the ends, which always insisted on spiking up at awkward angles.
“No.” Tomas glanced around the field, not sure what he was expecting to see. It was empty apart from the two of them. Surely he had only closed his eyes for a few minutes. It wasn’t enough time for someone to cross the distance between the tree and the inn. On the other side of the field was some kind of shed, but it was too far away. “I didn’t see you before. Where did you come from?”
The blond chuckled. “It’s nice to meet you too.” He sat down next to Tomas without waiting for permission, propping himself against the tree. Holding out his hand, he smiled again. “My name is Cathal.”
“I’m Tomas.” Tomas shook Cathal’s hand. The blond’s handshake was firm, the skin-to-skin contact sending heat through Tomas’s body. He licked his lips; they were dry.
Cathal let go of Tomas’s hand, it seemed to Tomas almost reluctantly, but he put that down to wishful thinking. “I know. I saw you arrive yesterday.”
“Oh.” Donovan or Heidi hadn’t mentioned Cathal, even though they had talked about all their neighbors, giving Tomas a heads-up on whomever he might come across while out walking, with a warning to be polite, as though they expected that he would not be. “I didn’t see you.”
“Very few do.” Cathal picked up Tomas’s book, turned it over, and began reading the blurb, frowning. “Is this good? The cover illustrations look interesting. I don’t see new books very often, and I love exploring ideas.”
“Yes, it is.” Tomas watched Cathal run his fingers over the dustcover of the book; his touch seemed almost reverent. “Would you like to borrow it? I have other books to read.”
“I would like that a lot, thank you.” The wind pulled at the pages of the book in Cathal’s hand, flipping them back and forth. He laughed. “I may have it a while. I think my sister would like to read it, too, if that is all right with you.”
“That’s fine with me.” Tomas frowned. “Do you live near here? Do you come here often?” He wasn’t sure how long Cathal was going to stay but wanted to make sure they could meet again. It wasn’t a reaction he usually had to people he’d just met, but something about Cathal intrigued him. If Cathal had the book, it gave him good reason to want to see Tomas again.
“I can come here as often as you would like,” Cathal said, looking up from the book. He cradled it against his chest. “I enjoy talking to people, especially those who listen.” A slow blush colored his cheeks, his pale complexion dusting a faint pink. He glanced around, suddenly nervous, his voice dropping to a half whisper. “I like talking to you, Tomas. I was hoping we might be friends, if you would allow it.”
Tomas frowned at the turn of phrase, wondering how anyone in their right mind could turn down the opportunity to spend time with Cathal. Meeting his eyes, Tomas risked another smile. “I like talking to you too, and I would like to get to know you better.” He paused. “If you would allow it.”
Tilting his head as though listening for something, Cathal’s smile faded to a frown. “I need to go,” he announced, pulling himself up to stand. “Will you be here tomorrow? I might be able to return this evening, but I can’t promise it for certain.” Again, he glanced around nervously. “Evening might be better, or early morning.” Cathal nodded firmly. “Yes, morning. That would be safer.”
“Safer?” Tomas didn’t like the conclusions he was drawing. “Are you in some kind of trouble, Cathal?”
Cathal smiled again, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “No, of course not.” He bent over and, without giving Tomas the chance to move, brushed his lips against Tomas’s. “My friends call me Cat.”
“Cat,” Tomas whispered. “I….” God, this wasn’t like him at all. Something tugged at a corner of his mind, telling him that he knew Cathal from somewhere, but that was impossible. “I’ll be here this evening, in case. Can’t you stay longer?”
“No.” Cathal shook his head. “I will be here when I can. I’m sorry I can’t promise more than that.”
“I’ll wait for you, Cat,” Tomas promised, knowing that he would. However long it took, he would wait. He reached out his hand for Cathal’s. Cathal smiled sadly and shook his head again. The sun winked at them, the brightness making Tomas’s eyes water. He brought up his hand to shade his face, closing his eyes temporarily against the light.
When he opened them again, Cathal was gone.