I look up at the noise and try to make some sense of it. The door is half-hidden behind a cabinet displaying hand-carved knights and queens and open chessboards inlaid with gold leaf. The scratching…no, more a sighing…is a familiar sound once I settle into hearing it properly.
I straighten from my position hunched over a small watercolour I’m attempting to restore. I recall when this image was painted. One of my charges was a talented young lady whose skill for capturing beauty was lost when she gave everything up to become a wife.
Things have moved on, changed to where I don’t recognise the London of today. Still, I know what the sigh means.
* * * * *
Josh reread the list and mentally checked off each thing in his head with an accompanying tap of his pencil. “Inventory” was first on the list. Beneath that single word he wrote “Expert?”. Who knew how much all this stuff was worth? There were books in here that he was sure would be happy in a bargain bin at a supermarket, others that looked valuable. He’d need to get someone in who knew antique books just in case there was enough money in the place to give Mum a settled retirement.
The door opened and he glanced up, blinking into the light spilling in from outside.
“We’re not open,” he said, attempting to focus on whoever had moved into the space. Some tourist seeing lights and thinking that the Closed sign actually meant “come on in and browse”.
“Hi,” a voice said. The owner of the voice stepped forward into the gloom of the interior, pulling the door shut behind him, tripping over the still heaped-up post, and righting himself with a wry look at the pile.
Josh noticed two things as he blurted an apology for the mess on the floor. The man was big, tall and broad, and he had a takeaway coffee in each hand. Josh hoped to hell one of those was for him.
Then he caught himself wishing for things that weren’t going to happen and stopped with a shake of his head.
“I’m sorry, but we’re closed,” he repeated.
The man moved closer and held out a coffee. “I know. I’m Michael. I have the shop next door, saw you go in, thought you’d like coffee.”
As he drew closer Josh had a proper look at the man who proclaimed himself neighbour. Tall—well, Josh had that much from the way he’d filled the doorway. Michael’s hair was near ebony black and would have looked stupid on someone as pale as Josh. On this man, with his warmer skin tones and dark eyes, it looked just this side of dangerous to Josh’s libido. Josh stood immediately, took the cup with his left hand, and extended his right.
“Josh Blakeman,” he introduced himself.
Michael shook Josh’s hand warmly. “I was so sorry to hear about your loss,” he said. The familiar words meant nothing. Josh had heard them a million times, repeated by everyone from his work colleagues to the barman at the King’s Head. Everyone felt it was what needed to be said. Josh had yet to work out, even after eleven months, exactly what to say in return. Instead he sat back down on the stool and took off the lid of the coffee cup.
“You knew my dad?” Josh asked. He expected the usual pleasantries, but there were none from this man who filled the empty shop with his quiet presence. Josh coughed to cover the odd silence, suddenly worried as to why this man was still standing here with his face carefully blank of emotion. What did he want? He had cheekbones to die for, and…wait…hello dimples.
A spur of want poked insistently at Josh’s subconscious. It had been a long time since he had felt anything for another man. He’d found out his ex had been screwing him over way before Josh had ended up in the hospital, and that had been a few months back now.
Michael didn’t seem to be uncomfortable with the silence. He pulled out a selection of sugar packets and a stirrer from a pocket. “Just in case,” he said as he placed everything on the already muddled desk. “I gave you coffee, but this one is tea if you’d prefer that.”
“No, coffee is fine.” Coffee was way past fine. The first sip was heaven even as it scalded the roof of his mouth. He savoured the taste of the second sip as he rolled the liquid on his tongue to cool it. “Thank you.”
Michael went silent again and seemed intent on checking the shop space out as thoroughly as Josh had done just now. He didn’t touch anything, nor did he move, but his gaze fell on the floor and the tall bookshelves and the door separating this shop from what Josh presumed was his. He looked serious, thoughtful, and there was sadness there too.
“So, you knew my dad?” Josh asked again.
This time Michael shook his head, his attention pulled back to Josh at the question. “Not really, though I took the shop next door a little while ago,” he admitted. “But who knows anyone in London, with everyone always so busy rushing this way and that?” The dusty lightbulb cast a luminous shimmer about the stranger, and the way he stared at Josh was a little disconcerting, intense and thoughtful.
Josh didn’t have time to think on the odd use of the words or the way they were spoken in such a formal manner. He was just about to comment that he didn’t remember his dad rushing anywhere when Michael turned on his heel and left the shop with a wave and a goodbye. The silence after he’d gone made Josh struggle to believe that anyone had actually been in the shop with him. Only the rising scent of his caffeine fix told him that he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.
RJ Scott has been writing since age six, when she was made to stay in at lunchtime for an infraction involving cookies. She was told to write a story and two sides of paper about a trapped princess later, a lover of writing was born.
As an avid reader herself, she can be found reading anything from thrillers to sci-fi to horror. However, her first real true love will always be the world of romance where she takes cowboys, bodyguards, firemen and billionaires (to name a few) and writes dramatic and romantic stories of love and passion between these men.
With over sixty titles to her name and counting, she is the author of the award winning book, The Christmas Throwaway. She is also known for the Texas series charting the lives of Riley and Jack, and the Sanctuary series following the work of the Sanctuary Foundation and the people it protects.
Her goal is to write stories with a heart of romance, a troubled road to reach happiness, and most importantly, that hint of a happily ever after.