Soul to Keep (A Rented Heart novel)
This title is part of the Rented Heart universe.
Recovering addict Jamie Yorke has returned to England from California. With no home or family to speak of, he sticks a pin in a map and finds a small town in the Derbyshire Peak District. Matlock Bath is a quiet place—he just needs to get there, keep his head down, and stay clean. Simple, right? Until a chance meeting on the flight home alters the course of his so-called life forever.
Ex-Army medic Marc Ramsey is recovering from life-changing combat injuries while pulling nights as a trauma specialist at the local hospital. Keeping busy is a habit he can’t quit, but when Jamie—so wild and beautiful—bursts into his life, working himself into the ground isn’t as compelling as it used to be.
Marc falls hard, but chaos lurks behind Jamie’s fragile facade. He’s winning his battle against addiction, but another old foe is slowly consuming him. Both men have weathered many storms, but the path to the peace they deserve might prove the roughest ride yet.
This title comes with no special warnings.
discussion of drug use, referenced to childhood abuse, obsessive compulsive behaviors
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The was a notion in life, even in the dark depths of Jamie’s twisted childhood, that there was a manifest destiny in California, but for Jamie, it was the end of a dream he’d never wanted—a world of perpetual summer that he’d fallen into when the alternative had been certain death. There’s nothing here for me. At least, there wasn’t anymore.
“Are you sure?” Marvin asked for the third time since Jamie had told him of his plans to return to England. “Where will you go?”
“Anywhere. There’s plenty of places I haven’t been.”
“You won’t go back to Norwich? Or London? I know things were shitty before, but they’re both big cities.”
Glad that Marvin was currently distracted by the financial reports he’d been buried in all week, Jamie shuddered. There were numerous reasons not to return to London or Norwich, but fear was the loudest—fear of the past, of old enemies, and of himself. Mostly himself. I can’t go back. “I want to go somewhere new. Start again.”
“I don’t see it.” Marvin spun around in his ergonomic office chair. “You get kinda cranky when you’re on your own too long.”
“You never leave me on my own.”
Marvin grinned without an ounce of denial, but it was fleeting, and his expression sobered a moment later. “I’m serious, dude. You’ve done so well this past year, but you’re not done yet. Are you sure you’re ready to face something so drastic? Why not go to Liam and Zac? They can help you settle.”
Jamie shook his head. Liam Mallaney owned Sea Rave, the company that Jamie and Marvin both worked for, and he was the best boss in the world, but he’d also laid claim to the heart of the only man Jamie had ever loved. Asking him for another handout was one humiliation too many.
Besides, Zac was nauseatingly happy now—an emotion that Jamie was fleeing California to escape. The vibrant West Coast buzz had kept him alive when he’d had little desire to do it himself, but he’d woken up this morning with an absolute certainty that he’d had enough. I want to go home . . . Wherever that was.
“You should at least tell him.”
Jamie scowled at Marvin. The bloke was awesome, but he’d been in Cali for too long, and his moral compass grated on Jamie’s cynical English soul. “I can’t take a piss in this place without Liam hearing about it, so I reckon Zac’ll know where I’m headed before I do.”
“That’s not fair.” It was Marvin’s turn to frown. “I only tell Liam about work stuff, and your general state of being alive. And even if I wanted to tell him anything else—which I don’t—what would I say? Seriously, mate—you barely leave the apartment. Maybe you’re bored, and you don’t have to leg it all the way back to England to fix that.”
In theory, Marvin could be right. By choice, running the Sea Rave staff canteen and keeping up with his rehab program did take up most of his time, but the disquiet in his gut—brewing stronger with every clear-skied day that passed—wasn’t about that. “I’m not bored, Marvin. I’m sunburned, and hot, and I’m tired of having sushi for breakfast. I’m tired of going for runs on the beach, and I’m tired of being nice to every idiot that crosses my path because no one over here understands my warped sense of humour . . .”
Marvin’s grin widened.
“Don’t bloody laugh at me,” Jamie snapped.
Marvin spread his hands. “I’m not, mate. I promise. It’s just that you’re starting to sound like every other Brit who passes through here, and I didn’t think I’d see the day when you ever sounded like anyone else.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
Marvin shrugged. “That you’re one of a kind, kid. And I’m really gonna miss you.”
Jamie closed his eyes and turned away. Marvin had never voiced his obvious fondness for Jamie before, but there had been many days when the sensation that he desired something other than fraternal friendship had been strong enough to confine Jamie to the quiet sanctuary of his ocean-view bedroom. Counting the sea pebbles he’d collected calmed his racing mind—sometimes—but he couldn’t do that forever.
* * * * * * *
A week later, Marvin drove Jamie to LAX. He’d apparently given up trying to persuade Jamie to stay and had instead turned into his mother. “You booked your taxi at Heathrow, didn’t you?”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “No. You did. Twice. Just in case one of them doesn’t show up.”
Marvin tapped his elegant fingers on the steering wheel, partly in rhythm with the ska music he had blaring from the speakers of his Jeep, and partly with a clear frustration that he’d run out of time to explain. “I booked one for Jamie, and one for your surname, Yorke. Jump in the first one you see and blow out of London, yeah? It’ll only take a couple hours to get to Derby.”
The city of dreams. Jamie almost laughed, but the daunting prospect of passing through London sucked away any humour he might’ve had. The hour he’d have to spend in baggage claim was enough to make him feel sick.
Marvin’s hand on his shoulder startled him. “It’s going to be fine, J. Just get in the cab and head north. You’ve got a place to kip, and a few quid in the bank. All you’ve got to do is stay clean and find a job. And if you fuck it up, or can’t find work, Liam’s got your back.”
“I don’t want him to have my back. He’s done enough for me already.”
“So? You know as well as I do that it won’t stop him doing a little bit more. It’s a hand up, not a handout, mate.”
Jamie grumbled under his breath and watched the desert as it whizzed by, but he couldn’t deny that Liam’s assistance had helped his great California escape come by even quicker than he’d hoped. After a long night of staring at a map, Jamie had stuck a pin in the East Midlands and randomly chosen a small town close to the Derbyshire Peak District. The very next day, an email with a Rightmove link to a list of flats in Matlock Bath had appeared in his inbox: Choose one. I’ll sort it. Come and see us when you’re ready. Jamie had ignored the last part with a painful twinge of guilt. One day Liam would realise that it was the one offer Jamie would always refuse.
“Are you going to get a car?” Marvin dragged Jamie back from the ledge. “You packed your license, right?”
Jamie patted the pocket with his wallet in. “It’s only valid for twelve months, though. I’ll have to take a UK test after that.”
“So do it.”
“I might not need to if I find a job in the town.”
Marvin tapped his fingers faster. “We’ve talked about this. Don’t be afraid to explore the world around you because of your addiction. You’ll find gear anywhere if you want it enough. Living like a hermit in the arse-end of nowhere isn’t going to change that.”
“I’m not going to the arse-end of nowhere. I’m going to Matlock Bath. It’s got three fish and chip shops on one street, so it’s gotta be buzzing.” Jamie forced a grin to appease the concern that was fast marring Marvin’s handsome face. “I’ll be fine, honest. I just need a change—some wind and rain, a few grey, miserable days to remind me who I really am, you know? I can’t find that here.”
Marvin sighed. “I knew you wouldn’t stick around forever. I guess I hoped that we’d have you a little while longer.”
We. Marvin spoke like the true Sea Rave man he was, but Jamie didn’t miss the flicker in his dark gaze, and Jamie turned away from it for the last time. He’d miss Marvin like the brother he’d never had, but he had to go.
The airport loomed into view twenty minutes later. Marvin parked up and retrieved Jamie’s carry-on and small case from the boot of the Jeep. “You could’ve taken the guitar. I can always get another one.”
Jamie shook his head. “Cory’s guitar belongs with you.”
“Does it? I never play the thing.”
“Neither did I. Just liked counting the strings. Besides, I can’t take your dead brother’s guitar. It ain’t right.”
“What if I wanted you to have it?”
“It would still be wrong.” Jamie shouldered his bag and thrust his hands into his pockets under the pretence of checking for his passport and his double set of plane tickets—one for the connecting flight to Chicago, and the other for the final leg across the Atlantic. He knew Marvin was going to hug him—hold him tight against his broad bulk and say with his embrace what Jamie had never let him say out loud, but Jamie wouldn’t hug him back. Couldn’t, because that would make leaving him real. Would make everything real.
And Jamie was forever learning to live with reality.
“You sure you’re okay to travel?”
Marc glanced up at Glenn, who was hovering at the door of his hospital room with all the appearance of a stern matron that his swath of tattoos and lumberjack beard would allow. “I can get my prosthesis on without bawling and you signed me off yourself.”
“Only because you’d forge my signature if I didn’t.”
“Bullshit. I’m fine, and you know it. You just want me to stick around to keep you company while Carla’s gone.”
Glenn didn’t deny it, but the matron face remained. “Dude, seriously. You’re seventy-two hours postsurgery. I know the stump swelling has gone down in superhuman time, but at least stay a few more days to recover?”
“I’ve got extra padding, and I’ll use my crutches on the journey, okay?”
“You shouldn’t be wearing the pros at all right now.”
“It’s just for the journey,” Marc repeated impatiently. “Bloody hell, man. It was a nerve repair graft, not an amputation.”
“Yeah, ’cause you need any more of those. Be sending you home in a wheelbarrow soon.”
The military gallows humour made Marc smile, even though both he and Glenn had been civvies for a good few years now. “I’m fine, mate. Honest. It’s only an eight-hour flight. I’ll be home in time for breakfast.”
“Home alone,” Glenn said darkly. “Your ex-girl won’t put you up for a while?”
“Cheryl?” Marc chuckled. “No chance. Besides, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes, thanks. Stop fussing.”
Glenn let it go, and Marc was glad of it. He’d come to Chicago for his surgery to get the hell out of dodge for a while—amongst other reasons—but as fun as it would be to hole up with Glenn for a few days, he had to get home.
A few hours later, he hobbled onto a Virgin Atlantic plane and stowed his crutches in the overhead locker, waving away the flight attendant who offered to help. “I’m fine, luv. Thanks.”
She moved on, and Marc hopped to his extra-legroom seat at the front of the economy cabin, the one expense he allowed himself when he travelled, though it was a necessity more than a luxury. He’d learned the hard way what happened to his renegade leg when it was cooped up in one position for too long. Fuck that noise. A bit of room to stretch and some kip, and he’d be right as rain, helped along by the shot of morphine Glenn had stuck him with before he’d left the hospital.
Marc loosened his prosthesis so that he was barely wearing it at all, pulled his old woollen hat low down his head, and closed his eyes, hoping to make good on his promise to Glenn to sleep across the Atlantic. And for a while, he did. Military life had engrained in him the ability to pass out just about anywhere—submarines, ditches, the edge of a cliff—and he missed take-off completely. The plane was halfway to London when he woke.
He blinked and sat up, sharp pain in his leg yanking him abruptly from the lingering morphine blanket. A flight attendant tapped him on the shoulder. “Seat belt on, please, sir. We’re expecting some turbulence.”
Fuck. Marc blinked at the flashing sign and shifted awkwardly in his seat to fasten the belt around his waist. He glanced around for something to prop under his leg to keep it as still as possible. Turbulence didn’t frighten him, but he could do without getting chucked around like a pinball. That shit was gonna hurt.
He took his hoodie off and jammed it under his thigh, wincing as the plane began to shudder and shake, slanting from left to right at angles that would’ve alarmed him if he hadn’t spent twenty years screaming through the air in Chinooks. As it was, the disturbance was irritating, and toe-curlingly painful. Metal toes, obviously.
The repeat of Marc’s inner exclamation echoed his thoughts so absolutely that it took a moment to compute that he hadn’t said it himself. Then movement beside him caught his attention. Somehow, he’d slept through his neighbour stepping around him to get to the window seat, a scenario that would’ve been unthinkable a few years ago.
With gritted teeth, Marc glanced left. Blinked. And then stared, the juddering of the plane, and the consequential agony, briefly forgotten. Wow. There was no other word for the man curled up in the seat beside him. The guy was young and slender, pale skin stained with dark tattoos, black hair, and—well, that was about it, really. With the lad curled into a ball, his arms wrapped around his head, Marc couldn’t see his face. Only his white knuckles and strained tendons, clear signs of someone who was absolutely terrified.
The plane jolted and dropped a few feet. Marc’s stomach barely flickered, but the man beside him gasped and tightened his arms. Bless him. He thinks we’re going down.
The grumpy Brit in him didn’t much care, but Marc had spent most of his life overwhelmed by the inability to leave a crisis that didn’t concern him well alone—an affliction that had led him to be on this damn-fucking plane in the first place.
His hand reached out of its own volition and clamped down on the lad’s shoulder.
A spark of heat hit Marc, though the other man’s skin felt conversely chilled. Bloody morphine. Marc shook himself, and then his neighbour—gently, at first, but then with more force when he didn’t respond. “Hey, buddy. It’s okay—it’s just a bit of turbulence.”
For a long moment, nothing happened, and Marc assumed he’d have to leave his trembling row companion to his fate, but then the man raised his head, and Marc was instantly trapped by the bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Stormy and deep, they were electric, and they swallowed him whole. Bugger me. If he’d thought the man was attractive before he’d seen his face, Marc was a bloody goner now. Tortured. Fragile. Beautiful. And young, though there was a hardness in his gaze that Marc recognised—an edge he’d seen a hundred times over in men who’d lived through something that probably should’ve killed them.
The plane lurched sideways. Someone in the seats behind let out a low scream, and the young man’s eyes widened briefly before he screwed them shut again. Marc mourned the loss, but beyond that, the notion of leaving him trapped in the cycle of his own fear was too much.
Resolved, he shook the lad for a second time, and clasped his hand. “Hey. Look at me. There’s nothing to worry about. It’s a spot of turbulence. It’ll be over soon.”
Blue eyes snapped open again. “What are you? A fucking pilot?”
“No. But I know enough about aircraft to know that it would take a lot more than this to drop one. Planes are designed to stay in the sky. What’s your name?”
“Your name. I’m Marc.”
Marc grinned. Even a sneering rebuke was better than fear. “So . . . I want to know your name. Won’t kill you to tell me, will it?”
A violent shudder passed through the plane. Perhaps unconsciously, the young man’s fingers wrapped around Marc’s like shivering vines, clutching Marc’s hand tight like they’d never let go. “Jamie,” he blurted. “I’m Jamie.”
Jamie. Marc turned the name over in his mind and absently rubbed Jamie’s shoulder. James, Jimmy, Jimbo, he’d known them all, but never a Jamie. “Okay, Jamie. I want you to listen to me a minute and think of the sea. Can you do that?”
A scowl lurked behind Jamie’s terrified stare, but he nodded jerkily. Marc squeezed his hand. “Good. Now I want you to imagine the tides and currents that you see in the ocean, and picture a boat on the surface. Have you ever seen one that doesn’t bob up and down, or lurch from side to side?”
“Um . . . no?”
“Of course you haven’t, and you won’t. Even in the stillest bay or lagoon, there’ll always be tides and currents, and the air is no different. Planes are built to ride the waves, no matter how big, and as uncomfortable and scary as turbulence can be, it’s not dangerous. I promise.”
Jamie said nothing for a long moment, then he blew out a shaky breath and uncurled his legs from beneath him, revealing leanly muscled calves that were encased in charcoal-grey skinny jeans. On his feet were the kind of battered high-tops that Marc had spent the eighties avoiding.
The plane bounced. Jamie inhaled again and fixed Marc with a waspish stare. “You’d better not be bloody shitting me.”
He had a London accent. Marc couldn’t say why that cheered him, but it did. “It’s true. Google it when you get home.”
“If I get home.”
“You will.” Marc reluctantly let his hand slide from Jamie’s shoulder. “In fact, if this turbulence doesn’t pass in ten minutes, I’ll give you my car.”
“Not really. My car’s a heap of shit, but it won’t come to that.”
On cue, the shuddering of the aircraft eased and a collective sigh of relief echoed in the cramped cabin. Marc cocked an eyebrow at Jamie, who finally let loose the dark scowl Marc had expected. “Guess I’ll buy my own car, then.”
“Beats flying if you hate it so much.”
Jamie shrugged and disentangled his fingers from Marc’s without seeming to care that they’d been holding hands for a solid five minutes. “I don’t hate it. I’ve just not done it a lot. This is only my third flight ever.”
“Three isn’t so bad.”
“My second was this morning when I flew in from LA.”
LA? Maybe Jamie was a showbiz kid. He was certainly pretty enough. “When was your first?”
“A year ago, but I don’t remember it.”
Jamie tapped his fingers in a strange rhythm. Marc raised an eyebrow—there was a story there, Marc could taste it—but Jamie turned his face to the window and the dark sky beyond, effectively ending the conversation, and Marc let him be. They were strangers, after all. What right did he have to the secrets behind Jamie’s stormy gaze?
With the plane now calm, Marc went back to managing the pain in his leg, which returned full force without Jamie’s distress to distract him. “But that’s always your problem, ain’t it? You faff around in everyone else’s shit and never look after yourself.”
“Piss off, Nat.”
Marc silenced the old friend who didn’t seem to understand irony and rubbed his thigh, trying to ease the cramp that was building in response to the burning sensation below his knee. Another dose of morphine would’ve done the trick, but that wasn’t going to happen unless he wrote himself a prescription at Heathrow, and he was too eager to get home to piss around at the airport pharmacy. Nah, fuck that. He pulled his hat back down his face and fought the pain with nature’s best weapon.
* * * * * * *
He woke sometime later to the cabin lights coming on in preparation for landing. The cabin smelled of stale microwaved food, and he was glad he’d missed the in-flight meal. He started to straighten up, but a warm weight on his shoulder got in his way. What the fuck? But even as confusion danced through his sleep-addled brain, he already knew it was Jamie, and the sight of the tousled dark head lolled against him came as little surprise.
Which should’ve been a surprise in itself, but it wasn’t.
Jamie appeared unaffected by the quiet buzz of activity around them as passengers and crew made ready for landing. Marc considered leaving him to sleep, but the fear in Jamie earlier haunted him. Fuck it. He should see this.
For the third time in as many hours, Marc gently shook Jamie back to awareness. “We’re landing.”
“Oh.” Jamie sat up and glanced at the window. “I don’t like that bit.”
Marc noted Jamie was tapping his fingers again. “You should try it in a cargo plane sometime,” he said. “This shit is easy.”
Jamie said nothing. Marc considered another round of shaking him, but with Jamie upright and conscious, it seemed a little overboard. Instead, he settled for science, hoping that he didn’t sound too much like a geeky plane spotter.
“Put it this way,” he said. “We’re on a jumbo, so it’s going to be noisy because it’s a big plane and the airflow comes up over the top, but it’s actually one of the safest planes to land. Sit back and enjoy it. I’ll tell you if there’s something to worry about.”
“Yes, but you’ll know anyway. The best way to tell if there’s a problem on a commercial flight is to check out the flight attendants. Look at them now—do they seem worried to you?”
Jamie cast a glance behind them to where the crew were buckled in their seats. Marc didn’t have to follow his gaze to know that they’d be huddled up chatting without a care in world, like people who flew dozens of times a month with no drama usually did.
“Trust me, mate.” Marc allowed himself to touch Jamie’s arm one more time. “You’re safer now than you’ve ever been in a car.”
He left it at that and closed his eyes for landing, bracing himself for the impact that would rattle what was left of his battered leg. Somehow, once again, the perpetual discomfort had eased while he’d been engrossed in Jamie—like his eyes took Marc to another world. Weird.
But Marc had run out of energy to contemplate it much. Postsurgery fatigue had caught up with him, even though he’d slept for most of the flight, and it was all he could do to haul himself out of his seat when the plane taxied to a stop.
He waited for most of the other passengers to disembark, distantly noting that Jamie was still staring out of the plane window, and then—after clipping his prosthesis tight again—manoeuvred his aching body to the overhead locker. Retrieving his crutches proved harder than chucking them in had been, and with no friendly flight attendant in sight, Marc braced himself on a seat and fumbled for them, hoping his balance would hold out a little while longer.
It didn’t. But as his renegade legs gave way, a lean body, buoyed by a surprising strength, steadied him. Again, his subconscious seemed to know it was Jamie before his brain computed Jamie reaching around him to pull the crutches from the locker.
Marc regained his equilibrium as Jamie held the crutches out for him to slip his arms into. “All right, mate? Got everything?”
“Er . . . yeah.” Marc looked over his shoulder. “Just need my bag.”
Jamie grabbed the last remaining bag in the locker and steadied Marc again while he shifted his weight from crutch to crutch and strapped it onto his back.
“Thanks,” Marc said when it was done. “I’m normally pretty good at staying upright, but it’s been a long day.”
“And it’s barely dawn.” Jamie’s smile was thin, his face as wan as Marc felt after eight hours on a plane. It was on the tip of Marc’s tongue to ask if he could buy Jamie breakfast, but Jamie spoke before he could. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you. Thanks for helping me not asphyxiate myself.”
And then he was gone, darting down the aisle and off the aircraft before Marc found the words to respond in kind. Marc hobbled after him, his balance still off after sitting for so long, but by the time he reached the jet bridge, there was no sign of Jamie.
Marc manoeuvred himself to the terminal, trying not to overtly scan every face in baggage claim—a tough ask, as the need to know exactly who was around him was an ingrained habit.
But as hard as he tried, he looked anyway, and Jamie was nowhere to be seen. And why would he be, numbnuts? Got two Scotch eggs, ain’t he?
Great. Nat was back, and he’d brought Wedge with him. And just like that, a reality that didn’t involve ethereal strangers on trans-Atlantic flights came crashing down. Wedge had offered to pick Marc up from the airport, but life had got in the way since. Wedge was on the other side of the world right now, and who knew when Marc would hear from him again. I can’t lose another friend.
With heavy legs and a heavier heart, Marc dragged himself to the taxi rank to get a cab to Euston Station. He found one fast and threw himself into the back, preparing himself to doze off or at least make a mental list of all the things he needed to do when he got home. But as he pulled his trusty hat down and closed his eyes, real life eluded him, and in its place, Jamie returned, his ghost of a smile wider than it had been on the plane, more real, for all it was a figment of Marc’s imagination. And for once, he let his mind run free and take him to a place where warm slender hands didn’t disappear into the horizon.
A place where those hands stayed put and chased away every ounce of pain in Marc’s battered body.
A new place to live always smelled the same. Jamie turned a slow circle in the small space he now called home and wondered if the clean carpets were the correlating factor. He closed his eyes and recalled Zac on his hands and knees of the King’s Lynn flat, scrubbing whatever muck Jamie had traipsed in from outside. At the time, he’d thought Zac a fastidious lunatic, but he got it now. That flat had been the first thing Zac had ever had for himself, and keeping stuff clean was important.
Guilt burned Jamie’s abused veins, and he snapped his eyes open before his brain took him to the dark-red stain that had ruined those carpets forever. The image was never far, and nor was the urge to soften its impact, but he didn’t have time for that today. He had to find a job, or the tiny bay-windowed bedsit wouldn’t be his home for long.
He dropped his bag and kicked the door shut behind him, but the pressing need to find work didn’t stop his mind from drifting to the surreal twenty-four hours he’d spent on the road.
And in the air.
An odd heat flooded Jamie’s cheeks. His first-ever flight had passed in a haze of fevered sweats and stomach cramps—cold turkey at thirty-five thousand feet—and his second flight, LA to Chicago, had been unremarkable enough for him to even enjoy it. But somewhere over the Atlantic last night it had all gone wrong. Turbulence: fuck that noise. Without the rugged white knight in the seat next door, Jamie was fairly certain he’d have died from the terror alone.
And what a white knight Marc had been. Only the desperate need to escape London as fast as possible had driven Jamie to abandon him on the plane. Dark hair, dark eyes, and tanned skin, the bloke had looked like a brooding stuntman. His hands—
Jamie ventured farther into his new home in an effort to distract himself from revisiting the fear that had brought him Marc’s magic hands in the first place. A breeze filtered through the open kitchen window, and a piece of paper fluttered from the counter to the floor. Jamie picked it up, unsurprised to see a letter from Marvin, and a note in Liam’s hand. In the week it had taken Jamie to quit his job in Cali and book his flights home, Liam had moved mountains to ensure that he had somewhere to go, even when Jamie had refused his offer of a bed in Holkham.
And so Liam had helped him rent the bedsit instead—a plain, neutral space for Jamie to lay some roots—and left him a list of SOS numbers with a scribbled note at the bottom: Call me anytime. We will always take care of you.
The sentiment did funny things to Jamie’s heart. He’d encountered Liam Mallaney enough times to believe that the words were heartfelt and true, but his motivation remained a mystery to Jamie. Liam was Zac’s boyfriend . . . partner, lover—what-the-fuck-ever—and he knew all too well that Jamie’s screwups had almost got Zac killed several times over. What was Jamie to him except a fucking liability?
The guilt-ridden loser in Jamie wanted to ball the note up and toss it out of the nearby open window, but the realistic idiot won out and carefully folded the note and tucked it into a drawer. He had an appointment at an addiction centre already set up for Monday morning, but if a year of abstinence-based recovery had taught him anything, it was that the monsters within had no consideration for scheduled resistance.
With his emergency numbers stashed away, Jamie set about unpacking the case of belongings he’d accrued while he’d been in America—clothes, books, and a Bluetooth speaker that connected to his iPhone. He plugged the speaker in now and queued up a DJ Shadow playlist, even though it made him want to score some smack and build himself a snake pit on the spotless cream carpet.
The craving and resulting desperation for immaculate order hit him hard, and he spent the morning cleaning the already spotless flat and organising his treasured possessions with military precision. Size or colour coded, sometimes both. Neat stacks of six, counted six times to be sure. It wasn’t much, but the regimented order soothed his itchy brain.
By lunchtime, he was starving and ready to drop with exhaustion, but he didn’t eat or sleep. Instead, he wrapped up in a hoodie and his thin denim jacket, and left the flat in search of the one vice he’d held on to.
Life always seemed easier with a fag jammed in his mouth. He lit up and crossed the road from the small newsagents to walk by the water. The river ran parallel to Matlock Bath’s vibrant high street, and seemed to be the focal point of the pretty town. Fish and chips, ice cream, and weird hippie-trippy outlets made up most of the shops along the waterside, with a few stores selling biker gear, and the place was buzzing. Like a seaside town without the sea . . . or King’s Lynn without the ghosts and with a hell of a lot more colour.
Jamie made short work of his cigarette and resisted the urge to spark another. Beat the binge, eh? It sounded like a Weight Watchers’ slogan, and he couldn’t help a smile, or the lure of a bag of chips from one of the numerous chippies across the road. He ate them on a bench outside a shop that sold homemade incense and scented candles. The musky smell reminded him of Venice Beach, and for a moment he missed the California sun beating down on his back. But the feeling was fleeting. In Cali he’d have been eating a quinoa burrito and drinking something green and grassy. Fuck that. California had saved his soul, but he’d eaten enough birdseed to last him a lifetime.
Jamie finished his chips and gave in to the urge to smoke another cigarette while he considered his surroundings. The high street was carved out of a deep valley and most of the dwellings, Jamie’s flat included, rose up the sides like windowed caves nestling in the cliffs. It was gorgeous, and he was glad his pin had landed here. King’s Lynn had felt wrong from the start, and it hadn’t been long before the murky underworld of nearby Norwich had called Jamie’s name. But here Jamie heard nothing but silence, and for the first time in years, it didn’t frighten him much.
* * * * * * *
Home. Finally. Marc kicked open the door to the old manor house and let it slam behind him. He whistled lowly, and Natalie appeared before he’d even dumped his bag.
The slinky black cat jumped onto his shoulder, chirping her annoyance that he’d been gone so long, and nipped his ear for good measure. Not that her ill humour was uncommon whether he stayed at home or not. Her nature was as cantankerous as the man who’d sarcastically gifted her to him to keep him company.
“Do you good to spend more than a week at a time in that damn-fuckin’ house.”
Yeah, yeah, though Marc couldn’t ignore the voice in his head forever. He set Natalie down, followed her to the kitchen, and threw some Go-Cat in her bowl. Then he retrieved his phone from his pocket and sank into the nearest chair to fire off the text both Nat and Glenn would be waiting on: Home safe. Cat’s not dead.
Nat’s reply was instantaneous: Call you later.
Marc sighed and cast the phone aside. Since when had he become the one who needed to check in with every fucker he’d ever met? Before he’d come home for good, it had been everyone else who needed mothering, Nat included.
A heated lance of pain shot through Marc’s leg, cutting his rebellious thoughts dead. Nat forgotten, he set about removing one of his boots, and then the loose sweatpants he’d travelled home in, and then finally the prosthesis that was digging into the tender stump where his lower leg had once been. He massaged the mangled flesh, forcing himself to look at it. He wasn’t in the mood for an agonising bout of phantom limb pain, and facing his ruined body helped . . . sometimes.
When he’d soothed his sore stump, he turned his attention to the surgical dressing that was a few inches above. He peeled it back and peered at the three incisions underneath. He’d clean them properly later, but for now he was satisfied that the stitches had survived the journey home when he shouldn’t have been wearing his prosthesis. Cheers, Glenn. Showering was going to be fun—not—but he’d worry about that later. Before then, he had some Jamie-fuelled dreams to catch up on, and a phone call from Nat to avoid.
* * * * * * *
It was dark when Marc woke to the insistent shriek of the landline phone. There was no way he’d get there in time, so he didn’t bother trying, and instead settled for crutch-hobbling to the kitchen. His growling stomach told him that it was probably about time he ate something, but lingering nausea from the general anaesthetic, combined with the burning throb in his leg, left him with little appetite.
Coffee seemed like a fair compromise. The stove-top kettle had just come to the boil when the house phone rang again. Marc’s gaze flickered to the clock and saw that it was nearly one, which meant either that someone had died, or that a fellow grunt was pacing a dark house while the rest of the world slept.
“Took your time,” Nat growled when Marc finally reached the phone. “Thought I was gonna have to jump in the motor and check on your miserable arse.”
“No need. The cat’s fine.”
“Don’t be a cunt.”
Marc rolled his eyes and bit back a sharp retort. This could go on all night if one of them didn’t blink and let the words flow. He’d never met a military man that was good on the phone, and Nat was worse than most. “I’m okay, Natty. It was a minor procedure. Be right as rain in a few days. Back at work on Monday—you know how it goes.”
The last bit wasn’t entirely true. Healing dependent, he’d be off the prosthesis and on crutches for a week or so to protect the wound, and he wasn’t due back at work for the rest of the month.
And Nat knew it too, though he let the bullshit pass. “How was your flight?”
“No idea. I slept through it.” Marc wasn’t about to tell Nat about his encounter with Jamie. “Have you heard from Wedge?”
“Yeah, no drama so far, at least none that they didn’t expect.”
Nat didn’t elaborate, and Marc didn’t ask. He’d come to accept that he was better off not knowing much about what his old comrades were up to. The knowledge meant nothing but impotent worry when there was fuck all he could do to help. “What you doing up, anyway?”
“Same as you, I’d imagine.”
Marc unplugged the landline phone and hopped to the nearest chair. “I’ve been asleep all day. What’s your excuse?”
“I wish I knew sometimes,” Nat said tiredly.
He didn’t have to say much more. How many nights had Marc stared at the ceiling, drowning in silence? “Connor all right?”
“Yup. Sleeping like a baby.”
“Maybe you should go join him.”
Nat chuckled. “I will when you’ve stopped nonanswering me down the garden path.”
“What does that even mean?”
Marc sighed. “What do you want to know? That I’m not bleeding to death in this big old house? Because you can rest easy on that front: everything went fine, and I’m home safe.”
“Yeah? And what next? You can’t live in your place indefinitely while it’s full of your ma’s junk.”
Marc had been intending on doing exactly that. He’d inherited his mother’s house while he’d still been in Iraq and had yet to find the time or inclination to clear it out entirely. “There’s plenty of space for me.”
“Only if you live in the kitchen.”
“Not true. I cleared the living room and the downstairs bathroom over the summer. I don’t need anything else.”
“Sell up, then. What good is that big house to you if you only use three rooms?”
“I can’t sell it with all this shit in— Jesus, Nat. What do you care about the state of my dead mother’s house?”
“I don’t. I just don’t want you to bounce around in a mansion full of junk because you won’t admit that you can’t fix it up all by yourself. Why won’t you let me and Connor help you?”
“Because you live a hundred miles away and have a life of your own.”
“So pay someone else to help you. Get a house-clearance company in.”
“I can’t do that.”
Marc knocked his fist against his forehead. Damn it, Nat. They’d been through this a million times. Marc’s mother had been dead four and a half years, and he had little emotional connection to the huge house, or the rooms and rooms of clutter she’d hoarded over her lifetime, but something wouldn’t let him condemn it all to a soulless clearance firm. “I haven’t got time to deal with it right now.”
“You never have time for anything that’s good for you.”
“Fucking right, not that it matters. You never listen to me anyway.” And that’s what got you into this mess.
Nat didn’t say it, but he didn’t have to. Marc recalled their conversation of nine years ago like it had occurred only yesterday. “Don’t go back. You’ll get yourself killed.”
The prophecy had proved only half-correct, but when Nat had come to Marc’s bedside six years later, his simmering anger had been clear to see. Was still clear to see whenever he caught sight of Marc’s gleaming prosthesis, along with the bucket load of guilt Nat wore like a second skin. The bloke was addicted to tragic responsibility, and in that he and Marc were the same.
“Listen,” Marc said wearily, “I’ll put an ad in the paper, okay? Get some old retired bird to come and help me.”
“You’re gonna get an old dorris to carry all that crap down those stairs?”
“Okay, maybe not an old dear, but someone local who wants to earn a few quid. I’ll get the place cleared and then get shot of it. Then I can fuck off somewhere else and get out of your hair.”
“You’re not in my hair. Never have been. I just want you to have a home, like the rest of us who are too decrepit to run with the big boys these days. You can’t hide from normality forever.”
“How’s the hip, by the way?”
The easy chemistry and positive connection between the two leads fuels a believable, satisfying relationship in which they’re compatible everywhere from the kitchen to the bedroom, and it’s easy to root for their happiness.
[T]he book is sure to satisfy readers who enjoy grittiness and intensity mixed in with their romance.
Soul to Keep is a haunting romantic narrative with some unique takes on disability and recovery.