Robert Rees is called in to finish an art restoration commission when his father goes into hospital – a pair of Elizabethan portraits. Trouble is, there’s more interest in the paintings than Rob bargained for; people want to get their hands on such priceless treasures, and they’re not particular about their methods. Just as well his brother’s mysterious friend Fox is looking out for him … or is it?
There were two motorbikes parked by the workshop when I pulled in off the lane. Mike's Kawasaki and another, bigger, beast in black and chrome. As I got out of the car, my brother came running from the workshop, his face white in the swathe of light from the open door.
"Rob!" he yelled. "Ann's gone!"
"Yes," I said calmly. "Mr B has her and we have his money. Or rather, Dad does. Why the panic? Did you think she'd been nicked?"
"As in Baverstock." I peered more closely at him. "Mike? Are you okay? You look as if you've seen a ghost."
"I'm fine." His smile seemed a bit forced. "Just a bit hung over, and finding her gone was a jolt."
"I'll bet. Too much imagination, Stud."READ MORE
"Huh!" Then he seemed to remember something, and the smile was turned up to full wattage. "Rob, come and meet an old pal who's going to solve a problem for us."
"Oh?" I said. "I wasn't aware we have a problem. Apart from Dad."
"Exactly. I meant what I said, you know. Those paintings could well be hot, and Baverstock may or may not know it. Then there's Dad's fall which might not have been an accident or even a fall. So-"
"Mike, you're not making much sense."
"Yes, I am. I don't like the idea of you being here alone, or the panel when we're both away seeing Dad, so - "
"I am perfectly capable of looking after myself!" I snapped. "Will you stop equating gay with limp wrists! I'm not a fainting waif and I'm no pushover! It wasn't me who ducked out of Karate classes because they interfered with my love life!" I had a green belt in Shotokan Karate, hardly Bruce Lee material, but it kept me fit.
"So," Mike continued, ignoring me, "I've arranged a backup bodyguard."
"What?" I scowled. "Who? Uncle Joe? What could he do? Huff distillery-breath on them?" It began to rain heavily, which did not improve my temper.
"Fox," he said brightly. "He owes me a favour, so I asked him to stay for a while. Until Adam's finished and gone back to Baverstock."
"Oh. Did you." Fox? What kind of name was that? If he was one of Mike's friends, he probably smelled like one and was as house-trained; a spotty would-be biker with delusions of style. Or the real deal. This was Mike's idea of being a responsible adult? My nerves had been stretched raw from the moment I received Lisa's phone call telling me about Dad, and this was the last straw. I had a choice between anger or anger with violence, and the first swept over me before the second could get a toe in the door. Besides, satisfying though it might be, punching Mike's lights out would get us nowhere. "Nice of you to consult me first," I snapped. "You can tell your old pal Fox his company is not required, so he can jump on his toy bike and pedal off back where he came from!"
"Don't be hasty, Rob! Just stop and think for a - "
"I have, and foxes are superfluous to requirements!"
" - moment. He can sleep in my room - "
"No! Of all the arrogant, stupid, selfish - if you're so concerned about me and the bloody panel, why don't you and Donna move in here? Hmm? Thought of that, Stud? So hop it, both of you!"
I spun on my heel and stalked into the cottage, slamming the door behind me. It was old, of solid oak, and slammed very satisfactorily. After a short pause, a bike fired up and roared away.
One bike. A sharp tattoo of brass on brass rattled in my ears as someone played a tune on the lion-and-ring knocker. I jerked the door open, smiling with all my teeth. "Fox," I said, not feeling the need to moderate my words with Mike's strange friends. "On your bike." The figure on my unwelcome mat was clothed head to foot in dripping wet motorcycle gear - black leather topped off by one of those black full-face visored helmets that looked like a leftover from the Star Wars epics. He took off his gloves, and then his helmet, and ran his hand through his matted hair.
"Robert Rees," he said. His voice was quiet, deepish and slightly husky, and started a slow curl of warmth through my blood. "Can I come in?"
In the light spilling from the room I could see he was pale, the almost transparent pallor that goes with naturally auburn hair. His was not just red, it was a copper mane that came past his collar in heavy waves. The warmth became a pulse of interest, and I flattened it quickly. I'd been dateless far too long, obviously. He was about my age as far as I could tell, just under six feet tall and looked as if he'd escaped from a Hollywood Brat Pack: all lean grace and cheekbones and thin high-bridged nose, and a gold ring in one earlobe. He also had a chin with a jut to it that begged to be introduced to a fist. He looked like fire and ice. He looked like trouble. 'Can I come in?' Who was he trying to kid? Not a chance ...
The impulse sort of faded away and, "Yes," I heard myself say. I was moving aside to let him walk past me before I fully realised what I was doing. His eyes were very green and as our gazes met, he smiled. The conviction I was imagining things edged into my mind and took over. This biker lout was no more trouble than Mike. A pest and a pain in the backside, but that was all.
"Thanks," he said. "Mike told me to say he's sorry he upset you, but he is worried."
"Huh. I'll wring his neck when I get hold of him, but it's not your fault. You can stay for a day or so, I suppose." I shut the door on the night. I felt oddly disconnected from my irritation with Mike and my unwanted guest, and couldn't recall why he was unwanted, just that he was. The beginnings of a headache twinged behind my eyes. "Have you got any gear?"
"Yes, on the bike."
"Bring it in, then. There's another tarp in the workshop if you want to cover yours up. You look as if you could do with a hot drink. Coffee?"
"Thanks. Black, no sugar."
"Go on, then. And wipe your feet!"
By the time I'd put the kettle on, he was back, panniers draped over one shoulder, hair straggling wetly over his face. He dropped the panniers and held out a hand to me. "Thanks for the hospitality," he said and I wondered if he was being sarcastic. "I am house-trained, I promise."
That got a bit close to reading my thoughts and I could feel my colour rising. "So I should hope," I snipped, shaking hands automatically. His paw was narrow and long-fingered and chilled, the grip firm without being a power play. I glanced down at our joined hands.
On the first finger of his right hand was what looked to be an antique gold ring, the armorial design on the bezel worn close to obliteration. Hmm. So the Brat Packer was wearing a fancy ring. That didn't quite go with the image. I wondered briefly where he got it from, then it fuzzed and slipped from my mind. "Furniture isn't improved by being dripped on," I said sternly, determined to play the bitch to remind him he was here under sufferance, and if it sounded more bitch-queen, then tough. It might even scare him off. "These are the house rules and if you don't like them you know what you can do about it. Since you're the resident Doberman, you can sleep on the sofa in the living room. It's a lot closer to the workshop than Mike's attic. You can also do the cooking and washing-up for both of us while you're here, so I can spend more time on Dad's work. Do you have any problems with that?"
"No, Rob," he said meekly. Too mealy-mouthed, by half.COLLAPSE
"A good clean writing style conveys the ordinary twisting around into the extraordinary with nary a slip."
Rainbow Awards Honourable Mention (2012)
Length: 52,000 words/186 pages