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.