“BEN? YOU there?”
“Yeah, just give me a minute, will you?” Ben Leyton called over his shoulder in the general direction of his laptop. He finished pouring the milk into his tea and took the time to peer out the window for a moment. The street below was quiet and dark apart from the soft glow of the streetlight in front of the bookshop.
“So how’s it going?” Ange Duncan grinned at him from the computer screen. She’d always been one of his constants, a close friend with whom he could talk stuff through. They’d met at university, and something had clicked between them. “Not keeping you from your beauty sleep, I hope?”
“Nah, it’s fine. You know I’m a night owl.” Ben took a sip of his tea. Despite the time difference between the States and New Zealand, he and Ange had managed to keep up their regular Skype chats. During the six weeks he’d been in Flint, they’d tried different times before settling on late evening for him, which worked out to be late afternoon for her. They both had flexible schedules that tended to shift a bit, so some weeks they caught up more than others.
“How’s work going?”
“Fine.” Ben rolled his eyes. “Well, fine apart from Melanie. I swear I don’t know how that woman got a job working in a café. Her social skills are zilch. One of the customers complained last week, and the boss had a word with her. She was over-the-top friendly for a couple of days before she started to revert.”
Ange laughed, her gray eyes twinkling. “I think most workplaces have a Melanie, Ben, although so far we’ve been lucky.” Ange worked at a community library part-time and was studying for her PhD in Anthropology at Victoria University in Wellington. “But mostly it’s okay, yeah?”
“Yeah. It’s sweet as.”
“Apart from everyone asking you sweet as what?” Ange had been amused when she’d heard about that one. The first time he’d used the phrase he’d had to explain it. Who would have thought there was such a difference between their two cultures? It was the little things that still tripped him up on occasion, although he was getting there slowly.
“I’ve got some of the locals using it now.” Ben grinned. “Once I told them the point of it was that there was no comparison, they thought it was pretty awesome, especially when I pointed out there were variations on it too.” He sighed ruefully. “I suppose it makes up for all the stuff I’ve had to learn. I had no idea serving coffee could be so complicated.” He’d referred to coffee with creamer his first day on the job as a flat white. The woman had looked at him blankly and asked why he was talking about house paint. In hindsight, he should probably be thankful he hadn’t handed her the coffee and called it a straight black.
Ange pulled a face. “I don’t blame you for taking your coffee black. The very idea of creamer, or cream for that matter….” She shuddered.
“I’m told it tastes good, but I can’t get my head around it,” Ben agreed. Although he could ask for milk if he wanted, he didn’t see the point in making a fuss.
“Hey, I got those photos you sent. I’ll print them out later in the week and go see your granddad, see if it’s the right place.”
“Thanks.” Although many people traveled around a lot during their overseas experience—usually referred to as an OE—Ben had decided to settle in one place for a while and then go from there. Flint, a smallish city by Lake Erie in Ohio, seemed a good place, especially as his granddad had visited there years ago and spoke highly of it. “It looks the same to me, but it’s hard to tell, as the trees would have grown quite a bit since the fifties. Granddad never mentioned the plaque on the park bench, so I included a close-up of it. I reckon that will help.”
When Ben had first become interested in photography, his grandfather had encouraged it and loaned him his old camera with which to practice his skills. Before he’d left for Flint, the old man had given him a copy of a black-and-white photograph taken in a park there. The use of light and shadows in it had fascinated Ben, and since his arrival, he’d spent a lot of time taking his own photos of that same park, playing around with different settings and effects. Spending time there also reminded him of his grandfather, to whom he’d always been close. Ben hadn’t expected the homesickness to hit him this hard. Knowing he was somewhere his grandfather had once been helped in a weird sort of way. Sometimes he closed his eyes and just listened to the wind, pretending he was still home in New Zealand.
About a week ago, he’d reopened his eyes to catch a glimpse of someone watching him. He’d blinked, not sure whether he’d imagined it or not, but when he’d looked again, the guy was gone.
“Ben?” Ange’s voice pulled him back to reality.
“Yeah, sorry. Just thinking for a moment.”
The next night had confirmed Ben’s imagination hadn’t gone into overdrive. But, as before, when Ben tried to make some kind of contact, the guy had disappeared. He seemed to have some serious ninja skills, and it was frustrating Ben no end. The few glimpses he’d had were of a brunet man of slim build, well dressed, and very sexy.
“You’ve found someone, and you haven’t told me?” Ange teased him. She sobered slightly. “I hope you’re being careful, Ben, and not having long conversations with strange men you don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t do that!” Ben retorted indignantly.
“Yeah sure, of course you wouldn’t.” Ange rolled her eyes. “I’ve known you since we were both at uni, Ben. You talk to everyone.”
“Do not!” He took another sip of tea, grabbed a chocolate biscuit out of the packet on the table, and dunked it in his drink. Perhaps he needed to approach this from a different angle. If the guy was determined to keep his distance, it didn’t mean Ben couldn’t at least take a photograph of him. Although he knew it wasn’t very logical or sensible, not knowing who this guy was and why he kept hanging around was nagging at him. It wasn’t just when he was at the park taking his photos either. It was one of the reasons he made sure he swung by that particular spot each night as he made his way around the wider area. But why was the guy hanging around that part of the park? Perhaps because it was the first place they’d seen each other? It was as good an explanation as any.
“Don’t give me that look.” Ange had that intense expression on her face, which meant she was thinking. “You’d tell me if you were in any trouble, right?”
“I’m not in any trouble, Ange. Honest.” Ben licked the tea off his biscuit, then popped the rest of it into his mouth. “And, for your information, there’s nothing wrong in making conversation. The customers at work aren’t complaining, and it’s a good way of learning about people, especially as I’m so far away from home.” He attempted a pathetic kind of puppy dog expression.
She poked her tongue out. “Okay, whatever. I’m allowed to worry about you, though. That’s what friends do.” Her tone softened. “I miss you, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” He smiled. “I miss you too.”
THE GUY was there again. Ben was sure of it, though there was no way he was going to draw attention to the fact he knew. He glanced around, trying to keep his demeanor as nonchalant as possible while he adjusted his camera.
He took a step back and to the side, making a show of being interested in one of the bushes to his left, held his camera up, then quickly spun on his heel and snapped several photos in succession.
Huh? The park bench was empty.
But the guy had been sitting there just a moment before. Ben could have sworn he’d seen him out of the corner of his eye just before he’d taken the photo. He scowled and checked his camera screen. Yep, the bench was empty. In reality and on film, or at least what passed for film in the age of digital cameras.
“Fucking hell,” Ben muttered under his breath. He grabbed his backpack and sat down heavily on the offending bench. Puffs of white floated in the air when he exhaled. His jacket wasn’t quite enough to keep out the cold, so he rummaged around in his bag for his Thermos and pulled it out. Hot coffee would hit the spot perfectly and give him time to think about his next move.
The guy had to be somewhere, right? Ben sighed and took a welcome sip of coffee. This was crazy. What if well dressed and sexy was some kind of stalker?
If he was, what did that make Ben?
“Is this seat taken?”
Ben looked up from his coffee and nearly choked when he saw who had spoken. “No,” he managed to splutter as he struggled to catch his breath.
“My apologies,” said the guy Ben had tried to photograph earlier, his casual tone implying the way he disappeared and reappeared, seemingly out of nowhere, wasn’t unusual. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t,” Ben started to say, then amended it at the raised eyebrow he got in response. “Well, yeah, you did.”
His companion chuckled. “Unless you’re in the habit of choking on your coffee?” He sniffed the air. “It smells good, so I’m presuming it wasn’t the taste.”
“Yeah, it does, and no, it wasn’t.” Ben mentally kicked himself for sounding so lame. Up close, it was harder to ignore his body’s interest in the man sitting next to him. The English accent wasn’t helping. Ben had always had a thing for English accents. He gripped his cup firmly in his left hand and held out his right. “Ben Leyton.”
They’d been watching each other for nearly a week, so it seemed silly not to introduce himself. He ignored the warning whisper in the back of his mind that he’d maybe just given his name to some kind of stalker.
“Simon Hawthorne.” Simon shook Ben’s hand briefly, then shoved both his gloved hands into the pockets of his thick woolen coat. It looked expensive, as did the scarf and trousers he wore. Simon glanced down for a moment before clearing his throat, nearly catching Ben in the act of examining his equally expensive boots. When he looked up, Ben got a good look at brown eyes, several shades lighter than his own.
They stared at each other before Simon turned away. Ben gripped his cup tighter to hide his nervousness. It would be so easy to lose himself in those eyes.
This was crazy. He didn’t usually fall for other guys this fast, and the only other time he had, it had been a total disaster and he’d made an idiot of himself. “You’re not from around here, are you?” Ben said finally. Simon frowned rather than answering, so Ben elaborated. “The accent, I mean. You’re English.”
“Oh,” Simon said, “right. That. I was born in England, yes, but I haven’t been there in many years. Flint is my home now.”
“You must have moved here when you were a kid, then.” Ben flushed, aware that Simon was staring at him in what appeared to be amusement. “I mean, you don’t look that old, younger than I am, anyway.”
So much for coming across as smooth and sophisticated. If Simon’s upper class accent and clothes were any indication, he was way out of Ben’s league.
“I’m a lot older than I look,” Simon said. “According to my driver’s license, I’m in my thirties.” Ben had been way off on that guess. He would have put Simon in his early twenties, perhaps younger.
It was a weird way of putting it. “According to mine, I’m twenty-five,” Ben countered. “You’re not taking the piss, are you?”
“Excuse me?” Simon’s eyes widened.
“You’re not making fun of me, are you?” Ben translated. He should have known better than to use the expression, especially as it wasn’t the first time he’d been asked to explain what it meant.
Simon shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t do that. Thank you for the explanation, but I am familiar with the expression.” He frowned, as though puzzled by the accusation.
There was definitely something Ben was missing about this conversation. “Look, maybe we need to get a few things straight,” he said quickly. “You’ve been watching me. Why?”
“I… noticed you a few weeks ago.” Simon shrugged. “I was curious.” He paused for a moment, as though collecting his thoughts. “At the risk of being forward, I was wondering if I might buy you a coffee sometime, to make up for the fact I made you choke on yours.”
“Are you asking me on a date?”
“I’m asking you out for coffee.” Simon hesitated. “Unless I’ve got completely the wrong end of the stick, and if I have I apologize.”
“You haven’t.” Ben took a deep breath. “Got the wrong end of the stick, I mean. Coffee sounds great. Thanks.” Something else Simon had said suddenly registered. “You said you noticed me a few weeks ago. I only spotted you about a week ago. Have you been watching me this whole time?”
“No.” Simon shook his head. He shifted back toward the edge of the bench, putting a little more distance between them. “I’ve been… indisposed.” He smiled a little at Ben’s concerned expression. “Don’t worry. It’s nothing you can catch. Not now.”
There was sadness, almost resignation, in his smile. Ben reached over instinctively and placed a hand on Simon’s arm. Simon flinched, but although he didn’t ask Ben to remove his hand, Ben did anyway.
“How long have you been in Flint?” Simon asked finally, a little too brightly. “You’re not from around here either, are you?” He took his hands out of his pockets and placed them on his lap. “I’ve been trying to place your accent, but I can’t.”
“It’s Kiwi.” Ben laughed at Simon’s blank look. “I’m from New Zealand. I’ve been in Flint about six weeks. Finished my degree and decided to do the OE thing and see the world. My granddad spent some time here years ago, and I was curious to see the place for myself. I reckon I can always travel a bit farther afield once I’ve been here awhile. It’s as good a starting point as any.”
“Overseas experience.” Ben wondered how much time he was going to have to spend on explanations. Although he’d had a fair share of them since he arrived, this conversation was already beginning to set a record.
“You’re a photographer.” Simon seemed to be more relaxed than he’d been when they started talking. “I noticed your camera before. It’s one of those newfangled computer things, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it’s a digital. You don’t know much about cameras, do you?” Ben fished it out of his bag and held it out for Simon to look at. Usually he wouldn’t let anyone near his precious camera, but he had the feeling Simon would be careful with it. “Photography’s not my day job. More of a hobby, but I’d like to do something with it, maybe sell some stuff to one of the local papers.” He took a deep breath. “I’d love to get good enough to have something accepted for National Geographic, but that’s probably a bit of a pipe dream. For now, I’m focusing on playing around with different effects, and twilight’s good for interesting shots.”
“If that’s what you want to do, you should pursue it. Dreams are important.” Simon took off his gloves and turned the camera over in his hand, examining it closely. His fingers were long and well manicured, his skin tone rather on the pale side, although not unhealthily so. “It’s very small,” he said. “My telephone has a camera in it, supposedly, but I’ve never used it. It took me long enough just to work out how to answer the damn thing.”
“I can probably show you if you want,” Ben offered.
“Don’t you get tired of taking pictures at this time of day?” Simon handed Ben back his camera. “Everything’s much the same, just different shades of gray and brown, especially once the light starts fading.”
“I like that kind of thing.” Ben shrugged. “Besides, that’s when it gets interesting. Here, look, I’ll show you.” He brought up the menu screen and went back through the last few shots he’d taken. “See how the light through the trees is different between this picture and the one before it? It changes the whole feel of it, as though they’ve suddenly got a different story to tell. That’s what I like about this stuff, the stories behind the pictures.”
Simon leaned in closer. His fingers brushed against Ben’s. They were cold, but not unpleasantly so. A warm tingle ran through Ben where they’d touched. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about photography like this before, although I can see what you mean.” He glanced up at the trees above them and then again at the picture on the screen. “It’s like when you play a piece of music and let yourself feel it. Really feel it. That’s what you’re doing with the lighting, isn’t it? You’re varying the timbre, but instead of sound, you’re using images.”
Ben blinked. “I’ve never thought of it that way, but it makes sense, yeah.”
“Sorry.” Simon seemed embarrassed by his outburst. “I don’t usually put those kinds of thoughts into words.” He reached for his gloves.
“You should do it more often,” Ben told him. It had been a while since someone had got what he was trying to do, and he’d missed this kind of conversation. “Are you a musician?”
“Not a professional one, but I do play, yes.” Simon smiled. “Piano. Classical mostly, although I occasionally like to play a bit of jazz. My uncle taught me many years ago.”
“My grandfather plays. He’s good too. He tried to teach me, but I suck at it. I prefer to listen.” Ben ventured another question, hoping he wasn’t being too nosy. “Do you see much of your uncle?”
“He’s dead.” Simon’s expression flattened, as did his voice. He pulled on his gloves and started to stand. “He died a long time ago.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked, especially as we’ve only just met. It was rude of me.” It was obvious he’d encroached onto a subject that was best avoided, although Simon had been the one to mention his uncle in the first place.
“It’s fine, and you weren’t,” Simon said, but he avoided Ben’s eyes. “I’d still—”
Ben’s phone interrupted whatever Simon had been going to say. He ignored it, but apparently the damage was done.
“Is that your telephone? Perhaps you should answer. It might be urgent.”
“It’s just a text. She can wait.” Ange had thought it was funny to program his phone to play the opening bars of “Slice of Heaven.” At least it only did it when it was her number. The rest of the time it behaved itself with its original ringtone. She’d also pointed out that if he hated the sound of it that much, he could always set his phone on silent, a suggestion he’d chosen to ignore.
Simon’s eyebrow rose. “She?” Something indecipherable crossed his face. “You should answer it. Ladies take offense if dismissed without good reason.”
That sounded more like something Ben’s granddad would say, rather than somebody Simon’s age. He definitely had an old-fashioned streak about him.
“Okay, but can you get out your phone? We can trade numbers.” Ben couldn’t help but grin at Simon’s blank expression. “I’ll give you my mobile number so you can contact me. You promised me coffee, yeah?”
“Oh, right.” Simon frowned. “I don’t know how to do that. I was going to give you my card.”
“Your card?” Ben retrieved his phone and flipped it open. He read the text and quickly sent a reply. “It’s Ange,” he explained. “We’re going to Skype later, and she’s letting me know she’s going to be a bit late.” There was no harm in letting Simon know he was expected somewhere later and would be missed if he wasn’t there. Weirdly, Ben didn’t get the feeling he had anything to worry about in that regard with Simon. His gut feeling told him Simon was someone he could trust, but he had no clue why.
Simon fished a phone out of his pocket and handed it to Ben. He then took out his wallet and gave him a card. “It’s my business card,” he explained. “In case my students need to contact me.”
“Students?” Ben kicked himself for repeating what Simon had said yet again. He hoped he didn’t sound too much of a dork. Glancing down at the card, he read it twice to make sure he hadn’t made a mistake the first time. “Professor Hawthorne? Seriously?”
“I told you I’m much older than I look. I teach history at Flint University.” Simon nodded toward his phone. “You were going to give me your telephone number.”
“Oh yeah.” Ben found the menu on Simon’s phone and thumbed through different screens till he found the right one. “Nice phone.” It was way out of Ben’s price range and probably always would be.
“Thank you. My friend Forge persuaded me to buy it.” Simon shrugged. “He’s determined to drag me into the twenty-first century, however much I resist it.” He lowered his voice. “I must admit, though, it is useful to be able to be contacted on occasion.”
Ben reopened his own phone. “Your mobile isn’t on your card, so I’m adding it to mine. That okay?”
“Of course. I was going to write it on the back of the card if you’d wanted it.” Simon was watching what Ben was doing with some interest. “You make it look very easy. Have you used one like this before?”
“I looked into them once, before I bought mine.” He’d wanted to do his homework on everything out there, even the stuff he couldn’t afford. “A friend had one and let me play around with it. They’re quite user-friendly once you know what you’re doing.”
“That comment only serves to confirm that I have no clue what I’m doing with the blasted thing. Do you use your telephone to—” Simon stumbled over the word. “—Skype with your friend?”
“I prefer to use my laptop for that. The screen’s bigger, and our conversations tend to go for a bit.” Ben grinned. “I’m thinking this Forge is right. You seriously need dragging into this century.”
Simon scowled. “There’s nothing wrong with being a little old-fashioned,” he said, retrieving his phone.
“I kind of like it, actually,” Ben admitted. He bit back the part about how having a mix of the two was better when he saw Simon’s smile. It lit up his face, and there was a twinkle in his eye that hadn’t been there before. Ben shifted slightly, glad he was wearing a long bulky jacket. “So,” he said, his voice hoarser than he intended. “You’ll phone me about meeting for coffee, then?”
“Yes.” Simon studied him for a moment, then shoved his hands back into his pockets. “Or you could contact me?” He sounded almost hopeful.
“Okay.” Ben went to grab his pack, stopping when a thought struck him. “Hey, before you go, could I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Can I take a photo of you?” Ben knew he shouldn’t have asked as soon as he said it. He could have sworn he glimpsed something akin to fear in Simon’s eyes, but then it was gone, to be replaced by a cold, flat expression.
“No.” Simon shook his head. “I don’t… photograph.” He spun on his heel, and when Ben looked up again after hefting his pack onto his back, Simon was gone.
Ben sighed and mentally rolled his eyes. “I just wanted a picture,” he muttered, not sure who he was annoyed with more, himself or Simon. “What is it with you and photographs? Anyone would think I was trying to steal your soul.”
HE HADN’T handled that at all well. Simon stomped through the park toward the exit, his booted feet crunching dry leaves. He stopped to kick a stone, not realizing how much force he’d put behind the action until he heard it plop loudly into the pond some distance away.
The conversation with Ben had gone quite successfully, considering Simon had had to sidestep several questions he couldn’t answer. Couldn’t answer or wasn’t prepared to?
Simon snorted. He didn’t want to venture onto that subject just yet. If he could avoid it altogether, that would be just fine with him, although logically he knew it would have to come up sooner or later. He just wanted time to get to know Ben, and be sure he was the one before telling him the truth.
The wrought iron park gates loomed just ahead. They were like him in a way, old-fashioned and left over from another age. He sat down on the bench just inside the park and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to pull his thoughts together.
But it wasn’t just his thoughts that were the problem, was it? Simon groaned and shifted uncomfortably. Fuck, he was hard; more so since he’d accidently brushed his hand against Ben’s. He’d thought he was going to come there and then for a moment, with the rush of excitement and need that had coursed through him.
Who was he trying to fool? Ben was definitely the one, Simon’s soul mate, the person he was meant to be with. He’d been with other men before, but it had never felt like this. Hell, he and Ben hadn’t even slept together yet. Their kind didn’t react like this otherwise, at least not to this extreme, and Simon himself definitely didn’t.
He glanced around and checked he was alone before sliding one hand under his coat. He stroked himself lightly, his body shuddering in anticipation as his thoughts wandered, his desires playing out in his mind. Kissing Ben, running his fingers through Ben’s thick black hair. Simon groaned aloud, imagining undressing Ben, stroking his chest, tangling his fingers through more of that dark hair, Ben meeting his gaze, moaning softly as Simon grazed his neck with the tips of his fangs.
Simon loved touching, especially silky strands of thick hair under his fingers, against his tongue. His other lovers had had dark hair, like Ben, although Ben’s eyes were a deeper shade of brown than either Stephen or Albert’s. Ben was so alive and excited about life, sharing his thoughts and dreams as though they were already lovers, instead of strangers who had only just met.
Other images flooded Simon’s mind, jarring him back to reality. His hand stilled on his erection, memories cutting through the moment, slicing through a fantasy he wanted so badly. He opened his eyes quickly, wanting to be rid of them. No! It was safe now. Wasn’t it?
Stephen lying in a pool of blood, his eyes open and staring, the sounds of shellfire breaking the silence of the still night air as Simon dropped to his knees in horror.
Years later, another World War had tempted him to lower his guard, to let someone in, only to rediscover all too clearly the consequences of doing so.
Albert screaming, calling for help, his breath choking off in a horrible gurgling sound as Simon arrived too late, just in time to see his lover’s body slump in the arms of a man who was more monster than human.
“I’m not yours, John,” he’d yelled, at the vampire who had made him. Simon had grabbed Albert, claiming him, holding him close. “I don’t want you. Leave me alone!”/
Simon had vowed no more after Albert. He couldn’t do this, couldn’t allow anyone else to be hurt. Wouldn’t let himself love, only to lose, again.
Then why had he spoken to Ben? He should have stayed away, taken the fact he’d first seen Ben at the one time of the year they couldn’t be together as a hint from the universe, and gotten on with his life. Their relationship had no future in it. Even if Simon’s maker hadn’t been heard of in fifty years, it didn’t change the rather big difference between them.
Ben was human. Simon wasn’t. Not anymore. No matter how much he wanted to pretend he was.
He hadn’t lied when he’d told Ben his driver’s license said he was in his thirties. It did, even if he wasn’t. Physically, he was twenty-two. He had been for nearly one hundred years.
The town clock struck the hour, eight times.
This was ridiculous. He didn’t have time to brood like this, to dwell on the past. It was dead and gone. Nor did he have the right to give in to a fantasy that would never be. What had he been thinking? He didn’t do this, hadn’t done this for a very long time. Pulling himself together, Simon strode briskly through the park gates and headed for home. A familiar hunger pulled at him. Perhaps that was what this was? He hadn’t fed properly since the day before, so of course he’d be very aware of any human close to him. Ben’s skin had been warm and inviting, his heartbeat, for the most part, steady.
For the most part? Ben’s heartbeat and his breathing had sped up minutely when they’d touched. Perhaps the attraction was mutual? Unless Ben was in the habit of talking to strangers and accepting invitations to meet for coffee?
If he still wanted to do that after the way Simon had left. Stupid, he’d been so stupid. In allowing Ben to take his picture in the first place and then in telling him he couldn’t be photographed. At least Ben didn’t seem to realize Simon had been in front of the camera and he already had the picture he’d sought.
Why the fuck did Ben have to be a photographer? Even if they did see each other again, h