ERIC’S train trundled along too slowly through northwest London. He was eager to be out of the city. Prior to the funeral three weeks ago, he had been filled with dread, thinking it would be like reliving the first few days after his parents’ deaths all over again. He never imagined it would be boring.
The guilt of that idea hung around his shoulders like a heavy cloak all the way out of the city. The few members of his extended family who bothered to show up had spent the entire thing waiting for him to break down and cry. He had consistently disappointed them all by remaining stoic and silent right to the end, at which point they all retired to a nearby pub—most likely to complain bitterly that the will had been rather generous to Eric and rather less generous to everybody else.
Mrs. Perkins, his family’s long-time housekeeper, had been the only one there not thinking of picking apart his parents’ estate like a vulture. Even at that moment, she would be back at the house, ensuring it still lived up to the high standards she had always maintained.
Eric leaned his head against the cool glass of the train’s window, silently begging the London suburbs outside to give way to the open fields of the countryside. Since that first awful phone call to tell him about the car crash, he had wanted nothing more than to leave London behind. There was nothing stopping him now that the funeral was out of the way. It was tempting to make life-changing decisions straight away, since he certainly had the means to fulfill them, but wise friends had counseled him against being rash and he intended to give himself time to consider his future options.
Pittlesburne. He had picked the village at random after flipping through an AA road map. It was ideal, the kind of small, secluded place where everyone would know each other and nobody would know him. He could start again.
He closed his eyes and decided not to open them again until London was gone. The village would heal him, he told himself fervently. It had to.
HE FELL asleep at some point, only waking up when the train came to a halt. He had a brief moment of complete confusion—was he at his stop, or just a stop, or had British Rail beat its own estimate and sent him zooming past where he wanted to be? But then he saw the sign on the wall outside. It said PITTLESBURNE. He had arrived.
The station itself was exactly what he had expected from somewhere so far off the beaten path. It was small, old-fashioned, and charmingly colorful due to a profusion of flowers that cascaded from hanging baskets, window boxes, and half barrels. It was also deserted. The train slid away, leaving Eric alone on the platform. He stood there for a moment, breathing in the late summer air and trying to take stock of his situation. He was a twenty-eight-year-old retiree from a promising legal career, both single and wealthy, and he was about to take the first step toward building an entirely new life for himself. He knew people who would have killed to be in his shoes if not for the whole dead parents thing. Even then, some of his friends would have at least considered changing places with him.
He was free, after all. Free to do absolutely anything he pleased.
Buoyed by the thought, he picked up his suitcase and walked out of the train station. There were no cabs waiting outside (of course), which left him slightly adrift. He was used to having other people worry about getting him from point A to point B. After deciding he didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of walking along the side of the road, he discovered a small path with an old map pasted up nearby. The map promised a “picturesque fifteen-minute walk” into Pittlesburne, which sounded ideal to him. He set off at a quick pace, unused to the feeling of dirt and spongy moss under his feet.
The map hadn’t been lying. Pittlesburne was built on one side of a gentle incline, and the view as he made his way down to the village was nothing short of stunning. The lay of the land dictated the village’s shape, which meant that it was composed of little pockets of houses and other buildings nestled in among the trees wherever the ground had been flat enough to build on. At the middle of it all was the kind of old country church Eric had always half suspected only existed in BBC dramas.
“Picturesque” didn’t even begin to describe it. He grinned to himself and all but ran the rest of the way down to the village.
It took him more than an hour to find the guesthouse he had booked, but he enjoyed the process of getting lost. There wasn’t a whole lot to Pittlesburne, just a few shops, two pubs, and the church. He felt as though he had seen everything the village had to offer by the time he finally stumbled across the guesthouse. He wasn’t too worried about getting bored, though. He looked forward to letting the village grow familiar around him.
Like almost every other residence in Pittlesburne, the guesthouse was shielded from the buildings around it by a tall, dense yew hedge. It was old, seventeenth or eighteenth century at least, and covered in a great swathe of ivy. To Eric’s surprise, there were no cars parked outside. A quaint wooden sign out front had the words “GLEBE HOUSE” carved into it.
He rang the doorbell with an odd tingle of trepidation. He had called ahead to make his booking, but suppose it had been lost somewhere? He felt, ridiculously, that being turned away would sour the whole experience of arriving in Pittlesburne. He was suddenly desperate for this to go well.
A pleasant, slightly flustered young woman opened the door. “Oh!” she said. “You must be—”
“Eric Broderick, yes,” he said, extending his hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
“You too. I’m Megan. We spoke on the phone?” She shook his hand and then beckoned for him to come inside. “Your room isn’t quite ready yet. We just had a rugby team staying, if you can believe it. They only left an hour ago.”
Pity, Eric thought. He imagined sharing a small guesthouse with an entire rugby team would be quite an experience. “Don’t worry about the room,” he said, looking around the narrow hallway. “I thought I might go for a walk anyway.” Of course, he had just gone for a walk, but that path from the train station was just begging for further exploration.
“No, no, I won’t be a minute,” Megan said, apparently determined for him to see his room before he went out again. “Just make yourself at home in the kitchen, won’t you? I’ll come back to get you as soon as the room is done.”
She hurried away before he could protest again, leaving him with no choice but to acquaint himself with the downstairs part of the guesthouse. A month before he would have called it tacky, but that had been before he soured on London’s more urbane charms. It was… kitschy.
No, that was how his friends would have described it, most likely with a derisive snort. It was homey and comfortable. Small, old-fashioned, just a bit run-down, and all the more welcoming for that. He decided that he liked it.
He went into the kitchen (which bore the distinction of being large and old-fashioned; apparently there was variety in Pittlesburne after all) to get a glass of water. But as he walked around the big farmhouse-style table, the view from the window stopped him dead in his tracks.
The back garden was both huge and far better tended than he would have expected, given the riotous growth of weeds out front. That wasn’t what got Eric’s attention, though. What made him stop and stare was the very fit-looking young man who happened to be in the middle of standing up to stretch his back as Eric reached the sink.
He was one of those young guys who are on the shorter side, but all muscle—“compact” was the word that sprang to Eric’s mind. This particular specimen possessed blond hair that was ever so slightly dampened by sweat and the kind of tan one did not normally find among residents of the British Isles. Aiding Eric’s appreciation of said tan was the fact the young man was shirtless, revealing that the bronzed tone of his skin reached down at least as far as where his underwear poked up from the back of his jeans.
Eric’s brain kicked back into action after a good ten seconds of mindless gawking on his part, and he was able to take in the rest of the scene: the wheelbarrow, the pile of fresh grass clippings, the garden rake lying on the ground nearby. The captivating country lad was the gardener, it seemed.
Better than a whole rugby team, Eric thought, experiencing a painful rush of lust for the first time since his parents’ deaths. It took him entirely by surprise. He was used to viewing his potential sexual conquests with a kind of cool detachment, as though they stood in a lineup and he was choosing them based on a checklist of their merits. He was not used to having his heart suddenly begin to hammer in his chest at the sight of a man—no matter how attractive a man—or to having a man captivate him so utterly that he felt rooted to the spot. It wasn’t just the young gardener’s body, although that was admittedly perfect. It was how he stretched as though resting for the first time during a hard morning’s work, and the way the sun seemed to accentuate every line of his lithe musculature. Eric wanted to make every part of the picture his.
“That’s my boyfriend.”
Eric returned to the present, using the mental equivalent of grinding gears. Megan stood behind him, her arms crossed over her chest. She nodded out the window. “Tom, my boyfriend,” she said. Was it his imagination, or did she put particular stress on the word “boyfriend”?
“Ah,” Eric said, trying to sound entirely disinterested. “And he works here?”
“That’s right. He’s staying here, actually.”
“I still live at home. Tom had to move out of his parents’ place because… well, he just did.” She blushed, apparently having strayed into uncomfortable territory. “Well. Your room is ready, if you’d like to see it?”
“I’d love to,” Eric said, managing to sound sincere despite himself.