Strays (An Urban Soul story)
This title is part of the Urban Soul universe.
Work, sleep, work, repeat. Nero’s lonely life suits him just fine until his best friend, Cass, asks him to take on a new apprentice—a beautiful young man who’s never set foot in a professional kitchen. Despite his irritation and his lifelong ability to shut the world out, Nero is mesmerised by the vibrant stray, especially when he learns what drove him to seek sanctuary on Nero’s battered old couch.
Lenny Mitchell is living under a cloud of fear. Pursued by a stalker, he has nowhere left to run until Nero offers him a port in a storm—a job at the hottest restaurant in Shepherd's Bush. Kitchen life proves heady and addictive, and it’s not long before he finds himself falling hard and fast for the man who has taken him in.
Fast-forward a month and neither man can imagine life without the other, but one thing stands in their way: a lifetime of horrors Nero can’t bring himself to share with Lenny. Or can he? For the first time ever, happiness is there for the taking, and Nero must learn to embrace it before fate steps in and rips it away.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The policewoman slid a cup of grey tea across the interview table. “Tell me again, sir. How many times have you seen this man at your place of work?”
Lenny Mitchell sighed and dragged a hand through his electric-blue hair. “I told you. I don’t know exactly. He’s just there sometimes.”
“Standing across the road? At the bus stop?”
“I see.” The policewoman made a note. “Have you considered the possibility that the man you’ve described is simply catching the bus?”
Lenny levelled the woman with an acid glare. Seriously? “Catching the bus to where? My flat? So he can loiter there too? Or the club where I used to work so he can tell everyone he’s my boyfriend like he did before?”
“Which club is that?”
“Shades, in Brent Cross.”
“The strip club?”
“No, the gay club.”
The policewoman jotted another note. “Okay, so you say this man has been present outside your home and your place of work, and that he’s written you letters, and contacted you on social media. Do you have evidence of this? Copies of the letters? Screen shots?”
I’m such a fucking idiot. Lenny shook his head. “I deleted my Facebook and Twitter when he started harassing me, and the letters were taken from my flat.”
“Did you report it?”
“And you haven’t received any since?”
The policewoman’s left eyebrow twitched. “So you have no evidence to corroborate your story?”
“‘My story’? I’m not making it up.”
“I’m not saying you are, Mr. Mitchell, but without evidence there’s little we can do if we find this man and he denies your allegations. Have you reported him to your landlord or your employer?”
“I don’t know who my landlord is. I rent through an agency, and my tenancy is nearly up, anyway. And my previous employers at the club thought I was the fucking lunatic.”
“What about your current employer? At the restaurant?”
Lenny shrugged. “My bosses are really busy. I don’t want to bother them.”
The policewoman went back to her notes. “Okay, well . . . like I said before, without evidence and an ID for this man, there’s not much we can do except give you some advice on staying safe.”
Unbidden, the dull eyes that seemed to follow Lenny everywhere flashed into his mind, prickling his skin like tiny feather-drops of battery acid. “His name’s Gareth. He told the bouncers at Shades when he was pretending to be my boyfriend. I wrote it down for you.”
“Oh, yes, so you did.” The policewoman cast another disinterested glance at the notebook Lenny had handed over, pages filled with the incidents and sightings, and plain freaky shit that had driven him from Croydon to Camden in the first place. “Well, this is all very helpful, Mr. Mitchell, but as I said—”
“Yeah, yeah. Take a leaflet and fuck off. I heard you.”
* * *
The music in Misfits pumped a subtle, thudding beat, keeping time with Lenny’s pulse as he rushed from table to table, pouring champagne and delivering towering burgers from the sizzling chargrill. He’d worked in quieter restaurants, but even on his worst day—and today was definitely among them—he couldn’t deny that waiting tables at Camden’s hottest food spot was almost as good as dancing up a storm at the club. The place buzzed, vibrant and frenetic, and four months into the job, it felt as much like home as anything had of late.
And the free ice cream helped with that. Midway through his shift, he took a break and loaded up with a bowl of Hackney-brown biscuit—a devilish mix of chocolate, caramel, and bourbon biscuits—and decamped to the bin yard to smoke a fag and catch some sun before the evening rush. He pulled out his phone and scanned the news website, but with no social media accounts to suck away the minutes, his cracked iPhone held little appeal.
He dropped it on the step beside him and finished up his ice cream, the last of his favourite flavour for a while, a fact that made his heart weep as he scraped the bowl clean. Misfits was famed for its burgers, but Lenny reckoned the ice cream—artisan-made at an East End dairy owned by the same company: Urban Soul—was its true gem. Where else could you get flavours like his beloved Hackney-brown biscuit, and Walthamstow’s marmalade cream?
Lenny ate every drop and moved on to the jellybeans he’d stashed in his pocket. Staff got a free burger on every shift, but Lenny stuck to the sweet stuff. Craved it. Let the sugar carry him until it was time to go—
A movement in Lenny’s peripheral vision cut his thoughts dead.
It was always the same: Lenny glanced around, almost forgetting what he might find, and then the sensation of being watched slammed into him, and drove his stomach to his knees.
Lenny stared hard at the vacant building behind the restaurant. The large bay window was now empty, but that didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be the next time he looked. Never was. His faithful tormentor always liked one last look before he scarpered back to whatever cave he’d crawled from.
This time was no different. Lenny forced himself to blink, holding his eyes shut for ten beats of his stampeding heart. Then he opened them and met the hollow gaze that had become his near-constant companion. Today, their encounter was brief. Another five beats and then the short, pasty man backed away from the window and disappeared into the depths of the empty shop.
And you still didn’t take a photo, dickhead.
Damn it. On the restaurant floor such a thing was impossible, but the few times Lenny had found himself face-to-face with his stalker, his phone in his hand, the moment had passed before he’d pressed the button, like he was the one hypnotised by what he was seeing.
The irony was beyond fucking annoying. Lenny stood, the ice cream he’d eaten for dinner curdling in his churning stomach. Reason told him he should be used to this shit by now—ten months after it had first invaded his life—but it hadn’t got any easier.
With weighted legs, Lenny trudged back inside and reclaimed his section twenty minutes early. The evening rush filled Misfits to the brim, turning every table ten times over, giving heart to the eclectic restaurant’s reputation. But the buzz that had carried Lenny through lunchtime was long gone, replaced by jittery hands and a dry mouth. He made mistakes, took his orders wrong, and forgot the side dishes that earned him a bonus at the end of each month.
Eventually, his shift manager lost patience with him and ended his shift prematurely. For the first time ever, he was the team’s weakest link. And despite the humiliation, he couldn’t even go home, at least not sober. A bucket of rum and Coke was the only way he could face the dark alleyway that led to his Chalk Farm studio flat.
Lenny took a seat at the bar and drank through the tips he’d managed to make before his day had gone to shit. His fourth Sailor Jerry’s was sliding down a treat when Ricky, the barman, set an envelope down in front of him. Lenny tilted his already booze-heavy head to one side. “What’s this?”
“Dunno. Tash found it in the staff room with your name on. Figured you’d left it there.”
Ricky went back to his work. Lenny stared at the envelope, the unease the rum had dulled reigniting with a vengeance. It was brown—he usually left white ones—but the writing was unmistakable. Perfect, like always, curved and script-like. With trepidation roiling in his gut, Lenny drew the envelope towards him. Experience told him he wouldn’t find anything pleasant inside, but the masochist in him had to look.
He tore it open. At first glance, it appeared empty, but then a single nail clipping fell onto the bar—clean and neat, with tracings of the blue polish Lenny had worn on his toes until yesterday.
Fuck. Lenny’s heart skipped a beat, and he spun around so fast he toppled from his stool, barely righting himself before he crashed to the floor. He scanned the restaurant, studying the yuppies, students, and tourists. There was no sign of a stained anorak and grubby jeans, but that did little to calm the panic fast rising in Lenny’s chest.
He kicked his stool away. It clattered into the bar, and Ricky shot him a quizzical glance. His gaze was one Lenny knew well, but as his brain imploded—terror and rum melding in a sickening mix—all Lenny could see was another set of eyes.
Lenny stumbled out of the restaurant and into the muggy night air. Every instinct screamed at him to run, but where would he go? His pockets were stuffed with the leaflets the police had given him, but what good were they now?
Despair washed over him. He dropped the leaflets onto a nearby bench and sat down. His back hit the dented metal with a thud that should’ve rattled his bones, but he felt nothing beyond the hopeless dread he’d lived with for so long. His trip to Kentish Town police station replayed in a loop in his head. “We need evidence, Mr. Mitchell.” Lenny had some now—but did he? What use was a clipping of his own fucking toenail? There might be fingerprints on the envelope. But Lenny was too far gone to catch the rationale before it slipped through his fingers. Too drunk, too scared, it didn’t matter, because whichever way he turned, he was fucked.
He’s never going to stop.
Lenny leaned forward and dropped his head into his hands. The world around him spun. His heart beat an ominous tattoo, and only the rum still swirling in his veins gave him any reprieve.
A car stopped in front of him. A door slammed. Familiar voices echoed in his head, but he didn’t look up. Couldn’t, even when someone called his name. The bench shifted as someone sat down beside him. Lenny’s pulse raced impossibly faster, and he braced himself for those dirty fucking hands finally touching his skin.
But they never came. Instead, warm fingers closed around his wrist, and a rough voice he’d heard somewhere before gently spoke his name.
“Lenny, mate? Do you need some help?”
Prep, cook, clean, sleep. Prep, cook, clean, sleep. Rinse and repeat. The process was as natural as breathing, but as Nero Fierro moved from kitchen to kitchen within the Urban Soul empire, no two days were ever the same.
Today—a humid Tuesday morning in mid-July—found him holed up at the Stew Shack, an old pub in Greenwich that had been converted into a stew-and-ale bar, and wondering what the fuck he was going to cook for the evening rush. He studied the shelves in the dry store, half a mind on the pork shoulder and spicy chorizo he’d stashed in the walk-in fridge, the other half on the steamy day brewing outside. Summer at the Stew Shack meant heady, spicy stews cooked over the fire pit in the cobbled garden, a task he enjoyed, even if it did expose him to the curious eyes of the yuppies and hipsters he cooked for. Because that was what you found in Greenwich these days: yuppies, hipsters, and bloody tourists. Fuck it. Let’s blow their heads off.
Nero grabbed paprika, chillies, and fennel seeds, and chucked them in the prep box under his arm, then went to the fridge and retrieved pork, chorizo, and peppers. He was bashing the shit out of a bulb of garlic when he sensed a presence behind him, felt a tingle on the back of his neck, and heard a chuckle he’d recognise anywhere on earth.
Sure enough, Nero spun around and there he was—all lean, mean, six foot of Cass Pearson, Nero’s boss and co-owner of the many restaurants Nero cooked in. He was also the closest thing to a best mate Nero had ever had. First bloke you ever fancied too—but Nero silenced that devil for today. He didn’t see Cass that way anymore . . . at least, not often. Besides, Cass was taken not once, but twice, sharing his life with the two other men Nero happened to work for. Lucky them.
Nero turned back to his pestle and mortar. “What the fuck do you want?”
Cass rounded the counter and hopped up on the clean side opposite Nero. “Nice to see you too, mate.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nero scowled. It was good to see Cass, though his surprise appearance was bound to mean a royal pain in Nero’s arse. “What do you want?”
“I’ve got a job for you.”
“Course you ’ave. Let me guess, you want me to go to Dagenham or some shit and set up a vegan cupcake shop?”
“Close. It’s a bakery in Vauxhall—artisan, organic sourdough, all that hipster stuff you love.”
“This is your idea?”
Cass snorted. “As if. I ain’t the ideas man, you know that, but Tom and Jake are busy, so it’s up to me to get it off the ground until they come along and change everything.”
Sounds about right. Nero finished up the garlic and moved on to hacking up meat with his cleaver. “This what you’ve been doing with yourself lately? ’Cause I ain’t seen you in the kitchen.”
“I’ve been around.”
“No, you haven’t.”
Nero turned away, because truth be told he did miss Cass, and the years of working long nights side by side seemed a lifetime ago. “What do you need me to do for this wanky bakery?”
Cass chuckled, unfazed as ever by Nero’s lack of enthusiasm. “Help me build the kitchen, source the ovens, find a team. Maybe some menu development too?”
“What kind of menu?”
“Artisan sandwich shop by day, jazz café by night.”
“Seriously?” Nero rolled his eyes. “Why can’t you lot do one thing at a time?”
“Because it don’t pay to leave a premises idle at night when it’s working anyway. It’s gonna be a twenty-four-hour operation once we get the bakery set up. Speaking of which, do you think you could nick some of the sourdough starter from here and brew a new one?”
“You want me to take a bucket of yeast home with me?” Cass’s smirk said it all. Nero sighed. “Anything else?”
Cass’s expression sobered. “Actually, there is something I wanted to ask you.”
Nero had figured as much. Why else would Cass hoof it all the way down to Greenwich for a conversation he could’ve had over the phone? “Is it something that will piss me off more than babysitting a sourdough starter?”
“Probably. You might like it eventually, though. At least, I hope you will.”
“Right. Pass me them onions.” Nero retrieved his favourite knife while Cass emptied a bag of onions into his prep box. “Dunno what could be worse than a hipster bakery, unless you’re about to suggest I teach school kids how to make sausages again.”
Cass laughed. “To be fair, Tom didn’t know how cabbage that was when he suggested it. You can’t blame him for not knowing you’d never pass a CRB check.”
Nero grunted and brought his cleaver down on his board with a brutal thwack. That particular incident was the only time he’d been thankful for his epic criminal record. Grubby hands and snotty noses? Fuck that. “Go on, then. Spit it out.”
“I need you to take someone at Pippa’s for me—one of the servers from Misfits.”
“Get him in there to work.”
Nero tossed more meat in his pan. “I don’t run Pippa’s. Why don’t you ask Steph? Sure she’s got room for him on the bar.”
“Actually, I was thinking he could go in the kitchen with you, if you agree to hold the place for a few weeks. Jimbo’s got his holiday coming up, so I could use you there anyway.”
Nero had been half expecting to spend the coming months at Pippa’s, since Jimbo, the incumbent head chef, spent every summer surfing in Hawaii. “I can do that. What kind of background has this kid got? Has he done posh gastropub shit before?”
“He’s never been in a kitchen.”
Nero set his cleaver down. “Okay, you have my attention.”
“I don’t need your undivided attention, mate. Just asking you to do me a solid.”
“By having some front-of-house knobber in the kitchen with me? Why would you ask me to do that?”
Cass said nothing, which said everything. Nero reclaimed his cleaver and finished hacking up the pork shoulder. “He’s not going to be much good to anyone at Pippa’s. Why can’t Rascal’s take him?”
“Is that where you’d go if you wanted to keep your head down?”
So this kid was in trouble? Great. But Cass had a point. Rascal’s was Urban Soul’s rowdy street-food canteen in South Bank—the last place anyone would go for a quiet life. “I suppose he could wash up.”
“Or you could train him to commis for you. You said you needed a PA?”
“I was taking the piss,” Nero said sourly. “Not asking for numpty to look after.”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You’ve always got choices, Nero. You know that.”
And there it was, the reason Nero could never refuse Cass: because without the opportunity that Urban Soul—that Cass—had given him, his choices would’ve been limited to the arsehole of nothing. “I’m not back at Pippa’s till Friday. He could start after the weekend?”
Silence. Again. Nero eyed Cass, taking in the face and form of the friend he knew so well, but would never truly understand. “Fuck’s sake, mate. What is it, eh? You want him in sooner? Fine. Say so. You know I’ll do whatever you need.”
“That’s not why I’m asking you. I’m asking you to take him in because I think Pippa’s is the safest place for him right now. Living and working there, he can stay indoors the whole time if he wants to.”
Take him in . . . living and working . . . “You want him to live at the flat with me?”
“It’s complicated, and I’m still trying to figure it out myself.” Cass mussed his already messy hair, worrying it, tugging, in a way that left Nero torn between wanting to stop him and joining in. “All I know at the moment is that he’s in trouble and I want to help.”
Why? But Nero didn’t ask this time. Didn’t need to when the memory of Cass scooping him from the kerb outside Feltham YOI had yet to fade, even after all these years. “Another stray, eh?”
“One more can’t hurt.”
Nero let the idea percolate as he tumbled garlic onto the counter. “Shepherd’s Bush isn’t a world away from Camden. If he’s in trouble there, it’ll follow him.”
“Would you leave London?”
“I moved a twenty-minute train ride north to be with someone who loved me. It’s not like that for Lenny. He’s got no one, as far as I can tell.”
Lenny. Nero turned the name over in his mind and tried to match it with the team he’d last worked with at Misfits, but came up blank. The fiery open kitchen at Misfits was his nemesis, and he kept his eyes down when he was there. Saved apologies later when he’d ripped someone’s head off. “Babysitting at Pippa’s, Vauxhall. Got it. Anywhere else you want me?”
“I want you everywhere, mate. You know that.” Cass winked and slid off the counter, his smirk lightening the pensive air he’d arrived with. “But if you wouldn’t mind settling for two for a while, I’d appreciate it.”
“Pay rise in the post, is it?”
Cass shrugged. “If you want one. Tom said you told him to shove your promotion where the sun don’t shine.”
“I told him to stick his posh-twat titles up his arse. Never said I didn’t want the dosh.”
“You’ll need to explain that to him when you see him then, ’cause he’s kinda getting the feeling you still don’t like him after all these years.”
Nero scowled. How many times did he have to explain that he liked Cass’s partner—lover—whatever—well enough, he just didn’t . . . get him? Nah. Fuck that. Jake, Cass’s second boyfriend and third link in the trio that ran Urban Soul, was waaay cooler than Tom. Nero loved him like a brother, even if Jake did call him a pirate cunt when his Tourette’s was bad. “When do I get my lodger?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll call you?”
“Yeah? You’ve been saying that shit for months, but my phone don’t ring.”
“Don’t be a tart, mate. You could always call me.”
True enough, but Nero rarely called anyone. “Guess I’ll just sit by the phone, then, eh?”
“Got nothing better to do, I reckon, but Nero?”
“Keep Lenny close, if you can. Don’t let him be scared.”
Sunday night, Nero came home to find a skinny hood rat asleep on his couch. Brilliant. He shut the front door, and the kid jumped awake like a startled hare and slid off the couch in a heap of long, slender limbs.
“Easy, mate.” Nero tossed his keys into the bowl and hung his coat on the hook. “You’ll have to get used to me coming and going if you’re gonna sleep there.”
And sleep there, on the couch, he’d have to, ’cause as much as Nero loved Cass, he wasn’t giving up his bed for anyone.
Lenny, Nero assumed, got slowly to his feet and then sat back on the couch. “Are you Nero?”
Nero nodded and went to the kitchen, leaving Lenny to it. He had a sourdough starter to feed, goddamn it. He was adding flour to the bubbly mass when Lenny appeared in the kitchen doorway, platinum hair, as light as Nero’s was dark, sticking up in every direction.
“How long have you lived here?”
Nero screwed the cap back onto the starter jar. “In Shepherd’s Bush? Or this flat?”
“Um, both, I guess?”
Great. Lenny the Lodger was a nosy fucker. “I’ve lived here, in the flat, a couple of years. Since Cass stopped using it. Might as well, with Jimbo kipping with his bit of stuff down the road.”
“Cass said you were his best friend.”
“Did he now?” Nero opened the fridge. “You hungry?”
“Now? It’s one o’clock in the morning.”
“So? When do you think chefs eat if they’re cooking every other arsehole’s dinner?”
Lenny shrank back into the doorway, retracing the tentative steps he’d taken into the kitchen. “Oh, um . . . sorry. I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’ll get out of your way.”
He disappeared. Bemused, Nero returned to his fridge rummaging, turning up eggs, potatoes, and a tired onion. A second raid revealed some manchego cheese. He fried up the spuds with the onions and added smoked paprika, then swirled in the eggs, leaving them to cook on a low heat while he chopped up the manchego. After sprinkling the cheese on top and flashing the omelette under the grill, dinner was done; a simple supper that was definitely enough for two.
Fuck’s sake. Nero didn’t have much of a conscience, but letting even a stranger go hungry was something he just couldn’t do. He dished up and carried two plates to the living room, half expecting to find Lenny had gone back to sleep. But the kid was huddled on the couch, a coat bunched around his drawn-up knees.
Nero set the plates on the coffee table. “Ain’t you got a duvet?”
“Left it at my old place. Didn’t want to go back there.”
Ah. That was right. The kid was in trouble. Still, Nero was surprised Cass hadn’t kitted him out before leaving him to Nero’s mercy. “So you’ve left all your things behind?”
“Didn’t have much, to be honest. The flat came furnished, and Cass took my books back to his house.” Lenny shifted on the couch, making himself impossibly smaller. “He offered me some sheets and stuff, but I said no. He’s done enough for me already.”
“Yeah? Cass is like that. Grumpy twat, but he’s a fucking old woman deep down—a nutty one, like his nana.”
Lenny said nothing. His eyes drifted to the plates on the coffee table before he seemed to remember himself and his gaze returned to the floor. Nero regarded him, taking in his wild, bleached-blond hair and perfect eyebrows. His wide brown eyes and the freckles dusted across his nose. He had a perfect mouth too, curved with a full bottom lip—
Jesus, stop eye-fucking him. You’ve sworn off the boys, remember?
Nero swallowed. Truth be told, he’d never been on the boys, unless a few drunken fumbles with Cass years ago counted. There’d been no others he’d wanted enough to hook up with since. How could there be when up until this moment, Cass had been the most beautiful man he’d ever seen?
Whoa. It had been a long time since he’d dwelled on his attraction to Cass, but it didn’t take a genius to figure it had been a hero complex. Cass had saved him and given him a life, a career, a purpose, and in return, Nero had fallen a little in love with him. You sad fuck. But Nero was over that now. Had been for yonks. Didn’t even wank about it—
“Are you okay?”
“Hmm?” Nero returned to the present to find Lenny staring at him, his wide eyes wary. “Er, yeah. I made dinner. Eat up. I’ll get you some bed stuff.”
He stood abruptly and went to the airing cupboard, pulling out the spare duvet, a blanket, and a couple of pillows. At the back, he found a set of covers that looked like they belonged in a hotel, clearly left over from the days Tom—Cass’s first fella—used to stay over.
Nero returned to the living room. Lenny was poking suspiciously at his slice of omelette. “Does this have meat in it?”
“Why?” Nero sat down. “You veggie?”
“Yes. I’m gluten intolerant too, unless it’s biscuits. I can eat those.”
“Fussy, are ya?”
Lenny snorted. “Nah, mate. Just misunderstood.”
Nero absorbed Lenny’s brief sass and matched it with his bleached hair, double pierced ears, and the scuffed Doc Martens tucked down by the side of the couch. “There ain’t no meat in your supper, no gluten either, so unless you’re one of them vegan loonies, you’re good to go.”
“Vegans aren’t loonies. They’re saving the world.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Nero set the pile of bedding on the arm of the couch. “You can have my bed any night I’m not here, but this should do you for now.”
“I don’t know how long I’m staying.”
“Makes two of us. Eat up.”
Nero grabbed his plate and sat in the armchair. He dug into his supper, making short work of it until he realised Lenny was frowning at his left hand. Took him long enough. Nero did his best to ignore it, but Lenny’s attention made the stump of his missing finger throb, like it always did when someone noticed it for the first time, until the new person in his life trained themselves to studiously not look at it, at least until they got drunk and shouted their questions in Nero’s face.
Suppressing a sigh, Nero put his plate on the table and toyed with the idea of stomping off to bed before Lenny reached the second stage of his morbid fascination, but something kept him in his seat as Lenny visibly forced himself to look away. And without Lenny’s distracting gaze on him, memories, unbidden as always, came to Nero. Noises. Scents. Sensations he couldn’t quite decipher. The phantom pain in his missing finger became excruciating as blackness filled his mind, clouding his vision. The cosy flat disappeared, and he was back in that cellar, dank and dark. He could even smell the cable binding his wrists, the rotting vegetables, and the smoke from his tormentor’s pipe—tobacco smoke that fast became that of a burning bedsit in Bethnal Green, flashing blue lights, and more shackles on his wrists—
“That was really nice. Thank you.”
Nero blinked. “What?”
“Supper. Anyone would think you were a chef.”
The barest hint of a smile danced on Lenny’s lips. Nero reached deep and forced a tight grin of his own, though given the way the light faded from Lenny’s gaze it was apparently far from convincing. “Cass says you need a job. Asked me to train you in the kitchen downstairs. You up for that?”
Lenny shrugged. “Haven’t got much choice. Got student loans coming out of my arse.”
It was a tale Nero had heard before from the parade of students who floated through Urban Soul’s various businesses every summer. “Where did you go to uni?”
“UCL, but I dropped out last year.”
“What were you studying?”
“Seriously?” Nero raised an eyebrow. “You don’t look like a doctor.”
“I’m not. I quit, remember? Didn’t even make the first semester. And now I’m here.”
It was on the tip of Nero’s tongue to ask how the two things were connected, but he swallowed the question. Whatever had led Lenny to be sitting on his couch was none of his business. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning, then.”
He stood and took the supper plates to the kitchen, leaving them in the sink to deal with in the morning. It was his intention to head straight to bed, but something drew him back to the living room. He stopped in the doorway as Lenny curled up on the couch, his pale hair shimmering on the dark cushions, and was glad Lenny had buried his face in the back of the sofa. He’d expected to be indifferent to his new flatmate—or at least irritated as fuck by whatever bad habits he was bound to have—but he was oddly intrigued and wondered if Cass had been too. Then again, Cass had a nose for waifs and strays, and for trouble.
Nero’s missing finger throbbed harder, and he was suddenly profoundly tired, like Lenny’s woes had bled out of him and merged with Nero’s dormant ghosts, sapping the life from both of them. Fuck this. He called time on his brooding and went to bed.
Nero woke Lenny at dawn, shaking him far more gently than he ever had anyone else who’d had the misfortune to kip on his couch. “Up with yer. Come on. Got deliveries to put away.”
“Wha—?” Lenny sat up, his hair a riot. “What time is it?”
“Time to work.” Nero stomped to the kitchen and retrieved his cigarettes. He usually held out until after breakfast to light up, but something told him he’d be waiting awhile for Lenny to get going.
He stepped out onto the fire escape, blowing smoke into the clear morning sky. Below him the city was already awake and buzzing—buses, sirens, tradesmen shouting. In the distance, the fish supplier was idling at a red light. There went Nero’s precious few moments of peace.
He stubbed out his half-finished fag. His head told him to go back inside, trudge downstairs, and sign for the three kilos of hake he’d ordered the day before, but he didn’t move. For the first time ever he was in no hurry to get to the kitchen, his mind lingering on the blond stray on his couch. “Keep Lenny close, if you can. Don’t let him be scared.” What the fuck did that mean?
With a sigh, Nero went back inside. Lenny was in the bathroom, taming his wild hair, dressed only in a pair of jeans tight enough to make Nero’s eyes water. He forced himself not to stare and pulled his phone from his pocket, firing a text to Cass. Still waiting on your call . . .
He watched the screen a moment, then remembered Cass wasn’t downstairs making coffee and grilling bangers for breakfast, and was likely asleep. Lucky him. Nero pocketed his phone and knocked on the open bathroom door. “Get a shift on. You got whites?”
“Oh.” Lenny turned, revealing a skull tattoo on his chest and a pierced nipple. “I’ve got some old T-shirts?”
“T-shirts,” Lenny repeated. “I’ve got trackies too?”
Nero’s mind slowed to a crawl as he stared at Lenny. He had a chest tattoo of his own, an intricate tiger and butterfly design that spanned his sternum, but Lenny’s was far smaller and bolder, like a stamp of darkness over his heart, contrasted by his milk-pale skin.
Lenny stepped closer. “I can wear my Docs, though, right? I’m not putting my feet in any manky old boots like Deano’s.”
“Kitchen manager at Misfits? Sorry, I thought you knew everyone. Cass told me you’re the KM for the whole company.”
Nero leaned on the doorframe, absorbing the faint heat from Lenny’s body even though he was halfway sure he was imagining it. “Sounds like the kind of crap Tom would say.”
“Does it? I’ve never met Tom.”
“I heard he’s pretty cool.”
Cool wasn’t a word Nero often associated with Tom Fearnes, though he couldn’t deny the man possessed a poise and presence Nero had often envied. And he shares Cass’s bed.
Lenny raised one of his perfect eyebrows. “You’re not a morning person, are you?”
Perspective returned to Nero as abruptly as it had left him. He pushed himself off the doorframe. “I like mornings just fine. Are you ready?”
“Erm, I think so?”
“Good. Get some clothes on and meet me downstairs.”
Nero fled the flat, changed into his whites in the staff room, then dashed to the kitchen to meet Fred, the perpetually cheerful fish man, who was waiting at the back door.
“Late today,” Fred said. “Been out on the town?”
Nero grunted. “Chance would be a fine thing.”
“You should be a fisherman, lad. Be done by lunchtime.”
“I’d stink, though, eh? Besides, I don’t like rain.”
“You young’uns. Don’t make ’em like they used to.”
Nero signed for his order and bid Fred a good day. As the fish van disappeared, the meat lorry took its place, and so it went on until Nero had accepted four separate deliveries that all needed putting away. First, though, he had to find Lenny some clothes, ’cause there was no way he was spending the day with him wearing those jeans.
He left the stacks of boxes and crates and went to the staff changing room. In the spare lockers were various odds and sods of kitchen-wear. A white jacket seemed around Lenny’s size, but the only trousers that weren’t huge were women’s—Debs’s, if the pink animal print was anything to go by.
“Oooh, I like those. Are they yours?”
Nero glanced over his shoulder. Lenny stood in the doorway, hair tamed, a faded Clockwork Orange T-shirt covering his chest, and a healthy dose of— Damn, is that eyeliner? Nero grunted and turned back to the trousers. “They ain’t mine. I can give you my spares if you want, but we’ll have to tie you in with a cling-film belt.”
“Sounds interesting.” Lenny ventured into the staff room, his hand brushing Nero’s arm as he passed. “And fun, but I’m happy enough in the pink.”
He plucked the trousers from Nero’s grasp and undid the button on his jeans. Nero backed away. “You’re putting them on now?”
“Er . . . yeah? You’re wearing yours?”
He had Nero there. “Right. Okay. Um. Here’s a jacket for you. Meet me at the kitchen door when you’re ready.”
For the second time that day, Nero made his escape and retreated to the temporary safety of the kitchen. He began unpacking the vegetable delivery, setting aside what he’d need that day, and storing the rest in the walk-in fridge and dry storeroom. On his return trip, he passed the prep area to find Lenny frowning at a box of globe artichokes.
“What are these?”
“That some type of thistle?”
Nero reached carefully around Lenny and plucked an artichoke stem from the box. “What kind of thistles have you been eating?”
“I’ve never eaten anything that looks like that.”
Cass had a talent for lacing his words with an innuendo so subtle Nero was never sure it was really there. Lenny, it seemed, played that particular game even better. Either that or his sinful jeans had gone to Nero’s head.
Stop ogling him. What the fuck is wrong with you?
Nero dropped the artichoke and continued on his way. At the back door, he waited for Lenny to join him, sensing his presence behind him like a slow burning fire creeping up on him. “You gonna help me, or what?”
Silence. Nero forced himself to glance around again. Lenny was hovering by the fridge, a frown Nero would be proud of darkening his features. “Can’t you just pass me stuff?”
“Pass you stuff?”
Lenny shrugged, all traces of his previous playfulness gone, even with the pink animal-print trousers hugging his slim waist. “I can put it away if you tell me where it goes.”
In his head, Nero roared, like he would at any other fucker who didn’t do as they were bloody told, but Cass’s ominous words resonated, echoed, and despite the odd heat Lenny’s presence seemed to stir, Nero felt chilled to the bone. “Keep Lenny close, if you can. Don’t let him be scared.”
Easier said than done when it was plain Lenny wasn’t going to venture closer while Nero was at the back door. “Wait there.”
Nero stepped over a box of venison and made short work of shoving the stacked deliveries through the door and into the kitchen. “There. How ’bout them apples? Can you work with me now?”
Lenny stared like Nero had grown horns, then a slow smile eclipsed the unsettling fear that had been there. “You’re supposed to be a grumpy motherfucker.”
“Cass tell you that too?”
Nero’s fingers itched to send Cass another abusive text, but, as per Cass’s own kitchen rules, he’d left his phone in the staff room. “I ain’t grumpy, just busy. Now you gonna help me, or what?”
Lenny shrugged. “Make me your bitch.”
Only if you return the favour.