Ruth’s favourite place had always been her head.
Inside her mind, the sort of excitement she struggled to process in real life became accessible. She could slow it down and compartmentalise it, like a TV show she controlled utterly. And she could translate it, too. That was the best part.
Ruth’s stylus flew over the screen of her graphic tablet as she sketched out the story unfolding before her eyes. Not the eyes that saw light shining off the tablet’s pristine glass, but the eyes that saw entire worlds beyond this one.
She’d found the sweet spot. The zone. That precise point in time and space and possibility when a story began to flow like water, and the artist was able to keep up with the current.
In the peace of her shitty little flat, Ruth’s easily-shattered focus was, for once, razor-sharp.
Until the phone rang.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she muttered. The sweet spot became sour. Ruth was thrust out of her own head and back into the real world, into herself. The image, the story, was left behind.
For a moment, Ruth looked down at the scene she’d just outlined. Lieutenant Lita Ara’wa glared at her captain, an 8-foot-tall, golden alien, from over a huge, living desk. The desk smelled and felt like Derbyshire peat, but that was a detail only Ruth would ever know. In a moment, Lita and her captain would commence rage-fuelled hate-sex on top of the Derbyshire peat desk.
Which, come to think of it, didn’t sound very hygienic. Maybe one of them should catch something…
Aaaaaand the goddamn phone was still ringing.
Its shrill chime threatened to snip the golden thread of Ruth’s idea—which could not be allowed to happen.
Chewing at her lower lip, Ruth thrust out a hand in the direction of her phone’s repeated chime. After a few unseeing, experimental gropes at the bed’s rumpled sheets, she came up empty-handed.
But the phone kept ringing, loud and clear. It had to be there somewhere.
Eyes still trained on the tablet, Ruth shuffled across her bed. Lita and the captain should definitely catch something, she decided. An unfamiliar Earth disease. What could one catch from Derbyshire peat? Frowning slightly at the image before her, Ruth reached out toward the space where—if muscle-memory and instinct served—a bedside table sat.
Muscle-memory and instinct did not serve.
In fact, not for the first time, they failed her completely. Ruth shuffled a bit too far, leaned a bit too hard, and fell right off the bed.
“Ah, fuck.” The cool, wooden floor of her bedroom was a familiar location, but that didn’t ease the sting in her hip and elbow.
Ruth stayed still for a breath, because serious pain usually waited a second to make itself known. Just as she decided that nothing was damaged, the blasted phone stopped ringing.
And, of course, in that precise moment, she spotted the bugger. It was on the floor, next to a nearby stack of Avengers comics. Exactly how it had gotten there, Ruth had no idea. Perhaps she’d thrown it.
With a sigh, she scrambled over and grabbed the phone.
1 MISSED CALL: HANNAH
Oh. Any hopes of ignoring the call and returning to work evaporated. Rising to her feet, Ruth called her elder sister back.
“Hey,” Hannah answered. “You’re up.”
“Unfortunately.” Ruth pressed a hand to her belly as she stood. Sometime in the last few minutes, she’d become aware of a concerning, nauseous feeling low in her gut. She headed out into the hall, weaving expertly through her stacks of comics, and explained, “Inspiration struck.”
“Well, it’s good that you’re awake. I wish you’d get your sleep schedule on track.”
Sigh. Ruth had been gifted with a mother who did not nag. As part of the bargain, she’d been given an elder sister who did nothing but. “My sleep schedule is fine,” Ruth muttered, stepping into the bathroom. “I’m not one of your—” Of your toddlers, she’d been going to say. Because she was an insensitive, ungrateful cow. She swallowed the words and hoped they’d gone unnoticed.
“What time did you get up?” Hannah demanded. Thank God for dogged determination.
“In the afternoon?”
Ruth ignored the question, because the answer was obvious. She yanked down her pyjama bottoms and enormous granny knickers to find the expected splotches of blood staining their crotch. “Oh, dear,” she mumbled.
“Are you talking to yourself again?”
“Nope.” Ruth grabbed a box of tampons from the bathroom cabinet and found it quite tragically empty. “Shit.”
“You are talking to yourself,” Hannah insisted. “Oh, Ruthie. You really should get a cat.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Ruth tucked the phone between her shoulder and chin, tearing off a length of toilet paper. “Cats despise conversation.”
“Perhaps a goldfish, then.”
“You’d rather I talk to a goldfish?” Ruth wadded up the tissue and shoved it down her knickers. Emergency manoeuvres were called for.
“I’d rather you talked to people,” Hannah corrected. “Real, live people. Why don’t you come out with me tonight?”
Ruth paused in the act of pulling up her pyjama bottoms. She couldn’t help it. At the prospect of spending a Friday night out—like, out out—her body froze.
There was a pause. Then her stiff joints released, her muscles relaxed, and her breath calmed just enough for her to say, “No.”
Hannah sighed. Perhaps unsurprised, probably disappointed. “Not in Ravenswood. We could go to the city.”
As much as Ruth hated to deny her sister anything… “I’m on deadline, Han.”
“You make your own deadlines.”
“And I’m a bitch of a boss.” Ruth arranged her pyjamas, then headed out into the hall, grabbing a jacket. “I have to go.”
That was enough to distract even Hannah. “Oh, God. Are you alright? Do you want me to bring you some ice cream?”
“I have plenty of ice cream. Bye, Han. Love you.” Ruth put the phone down before her sister had a chance to say those last words back.
She didn’t really feel worthy of hearing them.
* * *
“You shouldn’t do that, you know.”
Evan Miller stifled a sigh.
He didn’t need to look over his shoulder to know who those words had come from. After five days at Burne & Co., he was more familiar with those cultured, charming tones than he’d like.
So Evan continued to focus on the length of iron before him, holding it up to the light, making sure that he’d drawn it out just far enough. His muscles ached and sweat trailed down his brow as the forge cooled. He was almost ready to leave, but now he wanted to find some reason to stay. Just ten more minutes, or maybe twenty. As long as it took for his visitor to get the hint.
Evan had been waiting all week for Daniel Burne to lose interest in him, and so far it didn’t seem to be working. Maybe Evan was the problem. Maybe, by not rushing to befriend the boss’s kid, he’d made himself stand out too much.
Daniel Burne was rich, handsome, good at his job despite the possible nepotism, and king of this small town. He probably didn’t understand why Evan rebuffed his friendship. That was the problem with popular people; they needed, more than anything, to be noticed.
So it came as no surprise when, instead of going away, Daniel moved further into the workshop. He wandered within Evan’s line of sight and leant against the wall, folding his arms.
This time, Evan didn’t stifle his sigh. He released it loudly, a drawn-out gust that spoke a thousand words. But his mother had raised him to be a gentleman, so that sigh was the only hint of annoyance that he allowed to escape.
“What’s up?” Evan asked, lowering the iron finial.
Daniel’s auburn hair gleamed bright in the light of the dying fire. He tossed his head toward the line of cooling finials at the edge of Daniel’s workshop. Eventually, they’d form a gate for the Markham family.
“You shouldn’t be doing Zach’s work for him,” Daniel drawled. “If he wants to slack, let him face the consequences.”
There were lots of things that Evan could’ve said to that. Like, “You do know that Zach’s mother has cancer, right?” Or, “Since I’ve known him 5 days and you’ve known him since childhood, you should be more eager to help than me.” Or maybe, “Do you have any fucking conscience whatsoever?”
Instead Evan said, “I’m done now, anyway.”
Avoiding conflict was his mode of operation. They’d taught him that at basic training, once they’d figured out his hair-trigger temper. Always avoid conflict.
It worked, partly. Daniel nodded, and didn’t say another word about Zach or the gate. But he did hover as Evan put away his equipment and checked the forge’s temperature. And when Evan headed for the exit, Daniel was right on his heels.
“You walking?” Daniel asked, his long strides matching Evan’s easily.
“Yep,” Evan replied.
“It’s been a long week. Let me drive you home.”
“That’s okay,” Evan smiled. “I like to walk.” It was true; he needed physical activity like he needed air. Plus, he had to be gentle with Daniel. It wouldn’t do to alienate the boss’s kid, even if that kid happened to be a grown man.
“Oh, come on.” Daniel grinned back, a wide, white-toothed smile. Evan hadn’t seen much of Ravenswood yet, but he’d seen enough to know that the small town’s inhabitants adored Daniel Burne. And if he hadn’t, the easy expectation in Daniel’s green eyes would’ve made it clear. This man had never been told ‘no’, and never thought he would be.
Those were the men you had to watch.
“Alright,” Evan relented as they broke out into the cool, evening air. It was just after five, so Ravenswood’s streets were busy. Which meant that there was an old woman heading into the town centre on foot, and two Volvos making their way there via road.
“Great!” Daniel clapped Evan on the back, a firm slap that spoke of a camaraderie they had not forged. It was funny; in the army, that sort of immediate connection had come easy. But here, with this man, the familiarity set Evan’s teeth on edge.
“I parked in town,” Daniel said. “Just ‘round the corner.”
Evan nodded. Since ‘town’ referred to the centre of Ravenswood, and Ravenswood itself was about three miles long—surrounding farmland included— nothing was very far from anything else.
But Daniel managed to pack the next five minutes with a lifetime’s worth of meaningless chatter anyway.
“So, where are you living? Those new flats?”
The flats had been built in 2015, but here in Ravenswood, that counted as new.
“Yep,” Evan confirmed. “Elm Block.” The town’s habit of naming everything in sight was something he quite enjoyed.
Daniel, apparently, did not agree. His already-pale face blanched slightly, his brow furrowed. “Serious?” he asked. “Elm?”
Something in his voice had changed. It was tight, strained, slightly scratchy.
Evan slowed down, his eyes focusing on Daniel with curiosity rather than veiled disdain. “Yeah. Why?”
“That’s bad luck, mate,” Daniel said. He nodded his head over and over again, disturbingly emphatic. “Very bad luck. I suppose you had no-one in town to guide you. There’s some very shady characters living in Elm, you know.”
Evan’s brows flew up. “Shady characters?” he echoed. “In Ravenswood? I haven’t been here long, but that doesn’t sound right.”
“Trust me,” Daniel said darkly. “We all have our burdens to bear.”
Evan bit back a snort. Apparently, he could add Drama King to the list of Daniel Burne’s irritating qualities.
“Be careful,” Daniel continued. “I’m just saying.” Then he jerked his head towards a huge, blue BMW a few metres away, parked across two spaces. “That’s mine.”
Evan blinked at the monstrous thing for a moment, trying to come up with a compliment. He failed. To fill the silence, he returned to the ominous topic of his little block of flats.
“I only have one neighbour. Haven’t met them yet, but I think it’s someone elderly. They don’t seem to leave the house.”
“Hm,” Daniel grunted. “Well—”
His sage wisdom was thankfully interrupted. As they neared the BMW, a small figure came rushing around a nearby corner and knocked right into them both.
Ruth entered the town car park with a lot on her mind. Major highlights included:
1. Her stomach cramps, which had gone from mild irritation to knuckle-biting pain in the space of twenty minutes.
2. The indignity of waddling about town with loo roll stuffed down her knickers.
3. The absolutely extortionate price she’d just paid for a packet of substandard tampons that didn’t even have bloody applicators.
4. Mrs. Needham, newsagent proprietor and town gossip, who would tell everyone that Ruth had come in to buy tampons as if they were Year Eight children instead of grown adults.
5. How much the average person might know about the theory of relativity. Because, the less people knew about it, the more she could get away with fudging the details for the latest issue of her web comic.
Was it really surprising, with all that to ponder, that she ran headlong into a pair of enormous men?
Ruth landed on the tarmac with an unladylike grunt. At least it was more elegant than the word currently burning through her mind: Motherfucker!
This was to be imagined, you understand, as an outraged yowl of pain.
For an instant of blissful, foolish shock, Ruth blinked down at the ground. Then she looked up slightly, just a touch—enough to see two pairs of sturdy, boot-clad feet before her. The sight of those feet, along with her embarrassment, took Ruth from mildly irritated to unreasonably angry.
But really. Those boots were entirely too solid and quite abominably stable. The men hadn’t even wobbled. They might at least pretend to be slightly unbalanced, since she was literally on the floor. Such firm uprightness in a situation like this struck her as rude.
“I’m so sorry,” one of the men said. She didn’t know which, because she refused to look up at their faces. She had quite enough to process right now without bringing faces and expressions and human lifeforms into it.
But one of the men, presumably the one who had spoken, ruined things completely by bending down to her level. He could do that, you see, because he hadn’t fallen. The prick.
He crouched before her, bringing his faded jeans into view, and then his tight, black T-shirt—what a ridiculous outfit in February—and then… well, some rather interesting musculature.
That musculature broke through Ruth’s haze of unreasonable annoyance, prodding her sharply. It said, Look at that chest! Look at those biceps! You’d better check out his face, just to see if it’s equally impressive. Quality control, and all that.
Reigning in the urge to throw a temper tantrum—she was feeling fragile, what with the tissue in her knickers—Ruth looked up.
“Holy shit,” she said.
The most beautiful man on Earth frowned at her. “Are you alright? Did you hit your head?”
Ruth didn’t bother answering. Talking to this guy could not possibly be as worthwhile as simply looking at him. In fact, talking to him might ruin the effect. Or ruin her concentration, at least. So he continued to ask unanswered questions, and she continued to watch his lips move.
They looked soft. The thick, dirty-blonde beard covering his jaw looked soft too, matching the too-long hair falling over his brow. His bone structure, unlike his hair, didn’t look soft at all. Nor did his furrowed brows or his piercing eyes, blue as a summer sky. Of course, skies were never blue in England—but she’d seen the sky in Sierra Leone, had spent hours staring up at it from her grandmother’s garden. That was the best slice of sky on Earth, so she felt authorised to make the comparison.
The stranger’s voice was raw and satisfying, threaded with something that might’ve been concern, and it soothed Ruth’s embarrassment-induced irritation beautifully.
But then came a voice that brought it back ten-fold.
“Don’t bother,” said Daniel Burne. “She’s slow.”
Ruth’s head snapped up, her gaze settling on the person she hated most in the world.
His smile was as cruel and as gorgeous as ever. For a moment, Ruth’s heart lurched. But then she looked back at the stranger, who was still crouched beside her—who was frowning—and she felt slightly consoled.
The stranger was far more handsome than Daniel. How he must hate that.
Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Ruth stood. She ignored the fact that the tissue in her knickers felt slightly dislodged. She ignored the fact that there must be grit and dirt on her pyjama bottoms, and even ignored the fact that she was in her pyjamas at all, with only a jacket to hide them.
Ruth folded her arms across her chest and took a deep steadying breath, staring Daniel down. She said, “If I’m slow, what kind of man does that make you?”
His lip curled. “Opportunistic, perhaps.”
Direct hit, of course. She’d expected nothing less.
Her jaw set, Ruth turned on her heel. Daniel wasn’t worth talking to, anyway. He was beneath her notice. He was a gnat. But gnats were infuriating too, when you couldn’t squash them.
“Wait!” the stranger called.
Ruth ignored him. She walked faster. She could see her car now, just a few metres away, gleaming like an oasis in the desert.
Then she heard the heavy footsteps of a man running behind her. “Miss!” he called. “You dropped your…”
Ruth stopped. Her hands balled into fists. She spat out, “For fuck’s sake,” and her breath twisted before her like smoke in the evening air.
The man was right behind her now. “I’m sorry,” he said. He seemed to say that a lot.
She turned to face him. He really did look apologetic. Maybe because she’d fallen, maybe because Daniel was a prick, or maybe because he was holding out the box of tampons she’d dropped.
At the newsagent, Mrs. Needham had asked if she wanted a bag for five pence, and Ruth had thought, Goodness me, five pence on a bag when I have two good hands? And said, “No, thank you.”
Now she was rather wishing she had parted with the five pence.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” the man asked. “I’m sorry about… Daniel’s behaviour.” He said Daniel’s name with the sort of tone she’d use to say kitten killer. Maybe that’s what this gorgeous stranger thought: that Ruth was a kitten.
She snatched the tampons from him, turned her back, and walked away. He’d learn the truth soon enough.
The only question was—which truth?
Ruth started her engine and pulled out of the car park with almost reckless speed. Still, she wasn’t fast enough to miss an intriguing tableau.
The stranger striding away from Daniel. Daniel shouting after him.
Ruth lowered her car window, just a touch, to catch the words.
Daniel called, “You’re really pissed? Over a girl like her?”
A girl like her. It was a familiar phrase, especially from Daniel’s lips.
But there was nothing familiar about the stranger. He tossed a glare over his shoulder and called back, “Don’t worry about the lift. I’ll walk.”