Loving a total stranger can be very hard work sometimes.
How do you love someone who exists entirely in the shadows? How do you love a man who describes himself as dead? How do you get that ghost to love you back? Ex-SAS soldier Ben Rider falls in love with his enigmatic married boss Sir Nikolas Mikkelsen, but Nikolas is living a lie. A lie so profound that when the shadows are lifted, Ben realises he's in love with a very dangerous stranger. Ben has to choose between Nikolas and safety, but sometimes danger comes in a very seductive package.
Ben Rider woke to the debilitating knowledge that there was someone else in the bedroom with him. He lay very still in his sleeping bag, listening to the silence of the abandoned house. The dog, Radulf, was vibrating with warning on his legs. Neither of them knew the man standing in the shadows, nor did they doubt his identity. He was, after all, the man Ben had been sleeping with for over four years and living with for the last six months. His partner. You got to know someone pretty well that way, in the roll and tumble of desire-or you were supposed to. Ben had realised two days ago he knew nothing at all about this man-not even his real name. Everything Ben had been told, everything he'd come to believe, had been based upon a lie. He had once accused the man of being nothing more than a shadow dance; a figure of masks, illusions, and transitory alliances. He'd thought he'd broken through the layers that protected this enigmatic man's existence: diplomat, titled aristocrat. He'd thought the man had opened up and accepted him into his life. After all, Ben had allowed him into his body. It was all a sham, and Ben was hollow with the depth of the betrayal.
Six months. How had it all gone so wrong?
Six Months Earlier
Ben Rider crested the ridge, pushing, feeling strong, his legs aching slightly from the hard pace he'd been setting. Satisfied with his time, he stopped and bent, hands on his knees, breathing evenly. He'd done this run every morning since returning from Iraq and his times were gradually improving, the stress and inactivity of his last op finally worked out by the punishing regime. Straightening, he turned and began the easier jog downhill, hard on the knees but not even testing his breathing.
He glanced once more at his watch. Just over an hour gone-he should be home in less than forty minutes. He grinned as he ran, planning all the ways he could wake Nate, all the interesting ways he could warm down-they could warm up. Nate's tempting, sleep-pliant body played in Ben's mind, distracting him from the pain in his right knee where a steel toecap had once tried to end his running days. The sensation of sinking into the accommodating form took Ben's mind off the nagging stitch from the still healing bullet wound in his side. He wasn't even thinking about his cracked molar, which he couldn't blame on the job but on dumb luck and possibly first-class food on British Airways. He was feeling a hot shower pounding on his naked skin and hearing the rasp of Nate's stubble against his as they kissed under the water. He was revelling in the luxury of downtime after a successful mission, riding high on the thought of spending a whole day with Nate. Nate was willing to give Ben a whole day when others in his life were not. But he refused to think about the other man in his life. It made him too angry. He made him too angry.
He smelt the smoke first but thought only of the pleasure of autumn and the evocative aroma of burning wood that heralded the beginning of November and bonfire season. He didn't hear the siren until he'd emerged from the forest and had begun the last, short stretch along the local B-road that looped around and led to the cottage. The ambulance screamed past as he stood pressed into the hedgerow. It was only then a faint tingle of anxiety made itself felt in the base of his spine. He began to run again, picking up the pace from his usual warm down on this stretch of the road. Now he could hear more sounds-hard to identify-possibly shouting but almost drowned out by roaring. And then he saw the flames. He'd never seen a house fire before and hadn't realised flames could reach so high, be so all consuming.
No, not a house fire-a cottage fire. His cottage. He ran through the gate. It was a scene of chaos: fire engines; the ambulance, lights still blinking blue but sirens off; men everywhere shouting; and the flames coming out from every window consuming the thatch. Someone grabbed his arm, but he hit out automatically, sending the paramedic to the ground, and ran on toward the door. The heat beat him back. He began screaming Nate's name, running back to the ambulance, realising he would be there not in the burning building-but it was empty. He whirled around, saw the downed medic and hauled him up, shouting in his face. And then he saw the figure being handed out of the bedroom window from a man in breathing equipment to another on a ladder. He felt another hand on his arm, a squeeze. He shook it off and went forward. Thank God, Nate was still asleep. But how could someone sleep through this? He wanted to shake him and wake him up; not even to make love to him as he'd been planning, but just so the guy could go on with his life, the simple one he'd enjoyed.
Ben had seen enough bodies in his life to recognise the difference between sleep and death. It wasn't much, when all was said and done, but enough. Enough to ruin the lives of those left behind, those who still had to sleep and wake every day and go on living.
He didn't watch them load Nate into the ambulance and tear out with an unnecessary siren. Instead, he sat on the dry stonewall at the front of the cottage and watched it all burn.
It was the start of bonfire season, after all.