Charlie Ash is ready to start a new job and a new life at Aldershill Manor. As a historian, he’s thrilled to dive into the estate’s archives. And he can hide from all the memories of his messy break-up back in California, where the man he’d thought he’d marry left him instead. He can find solace in exploring Aldershill’s famous gardens ... until he’s caught in the rain, and found by a gardener.
Lionel Briar enjoys making people happy, as long as he doesn’t have to talk to them. He does not like tourists, small talk, or social obligations. But he does like plants and history and his job, taking care of Aldershill’s historic gardens, helping beauty grow. He likes gently tending the world.
So when Lionel discovers the estate’s adorable new historian getting drenched by a summer thunderstorm in his gardens, he offers Charlie the shelter of his home on the grounds ... a moment of rescue that just might bloom into love.
Just around the bend, and up the small rise; the old hermitage beckoned: an eighteenth-century fantasia of ornamental tower-curved stone and climbing roses and tumbling ivy, tucked into a garden corner by the stream. The honeysuckle and irises by the door, drenched in rain, perfumed the afternoon. Old stones welcomed wet feet, going up the shallow steps.
Lionel opened the door, tugged Charlie in -- the young man was looking at the tower with wide-eyed delight, as if expecting dragons and princesses -- and only then realized that he’d done more touching of another person, in the last five minutes, than he’d done in the last three years.
His hands catching a slim arm when Charlie’d slipped, earlier. His hands brushing ungloved fingers, handing over a jacket. His hands resting on Charlie’s shoulders, nudging thinness inside.
It’d felt right. It still felt right. He didn’t know why.
Charlie hadn’t protested being nudged, either. Though he was now gingerly peeling off Lionel’s coat, wincing, apologizing. “I’ll just stand over here, I’m dripping everywhere ...” His hair, darkened by rain, had flattened into treasure-box colors: old gold and shimmering amethyst.
“You’re not a problem. You need to get warm.” Lionel yanked off his own boots, winced as the tangle of his hair got into his face, shoved it back. “I’ll find you some clothes.”
“I’ll be right here.” Charlie waved a hand at him. “Which is already better than being out there, thanks.”
Lionel did not know how to answer, and so escaped, heart beating faster than it should’ve done. He felt Charlie’s presence at his back as he went.
The hermitage had been converted to a residence sometime in the nineteen-thirties, and then updated in the seventies, and then again much more recently, with the influx of visitors and finances to the estate. It was an odd shape, only four rooms, the one main tower and the three smaller towers joined on at the back, all of them short and snug. But the walls were white-plastered and the wood floorboards were pleasant, and books lined most of the main room, and the central fireplace would heat the whole space, once he got that going.
Lionel had always liked the hermitage. They fit each other, awkward but hopeful, part of the garden grounds.
He tried to hurry, crossing the main room, opening the third door. He tried not to drip on his sofa or his books or the braided rugs, not too much, at least.
The wardrobe and his bed took up ninety-five percent of the space in the bedroom tower, and that wasn’t an exaggeration: he barely had room to walk around. He liked his bed, though. The wood had been hand-carved by a local artisan, crafted from a fallen oak on the estate; it belonged here, and had a purpose. Right now it gazed at him in silent four-poster astonishment, as Lionel flung open the wardrobe and dove into denim and flannel and knit.
Too large, everything would be too large -- sweatpants, perhaps, heavy socks --
His hair, wet, got into his eyes. He swore. Found a hair tie, and contained it.
He ran back out. Charlie had obediently remained in place by the coat-rack, dripping onto the mat, which was designed for that. His lips were more pale, and he was shaking, though he was trying to hide it.
He was still beautiful. Those cheekbones, that chin, the way his eyes were framed by the knowledge of laughter. Lionel swallowed roughly. Thrust clothing his way.
Charlie took the offering, but paused. “Should I ... go and change in your bathroom? I mean, unless you want me to sort of do that right here, and not get anything else wet.”
Lionel’s cheeks got warmer. He felt it, wondered if it was visible, tried to recall how to speak to humans instead of rosemary and yarrow. “You. Either door. Bedroom. Or bath. You can.”
“Thank you again,” Charlie said, and went off to the second door, which led to the hermitage’s small but serviceable bath. He was careful, Lionel noticed, to leave muddy shoes back on the mat, and to drip as little as possible along the way. Precise, and considerate.
Precise, considerate, beautiful, and in Lionel’s house. Lionel exhaled, and wanted to collapse back against the aged stone tower wall and let it hold him up. He didn’t, because he was still gently damp. But he wanted to.
A person. A man, obviously an adult but also obviously younger than Lionel himself, probably by a good ten years. Someone he’d only just met.
And now here. In his home. How’d that happened? What had possessed him to offer? For that matter, why had Charlie said yes?
He scrubbed a hand across his face. He also needed to shave. And evidently he’d had a leaf in his hair the whole time, which he only discovered upon dislodging it.
He took a deep breath, let it out. What mattered most was the next step. Charlie was here now, and Charlie needed to get warm. Which meant a fire, and tea. Perhaps biscuits. Or bread.
He could do those things. Concrete, clear-cut, things. Warmth and comfort. Yes.