What happens when a broken man has to trust in the impossible?
Chapter One is an antique book shop and is the last tangible thing Josh and his mom have left of his dad. Nestled in a quiet square a few steps from London’s St Pauls Cathedral, it is boarded up with whitewashed windows and no new stock.
The place is a sad reminder of loss and it has to go, but destroying a business that has been in his family for generations is not a role Josh is looking forward to.
Michael is the owner of Arts Desire, the shop next door. With his rainbow pride mugs and his sunny positive outlook he is the complete opposite to what Joshua thinks he needs in his life.
But, when Josh and Michael become friends, Josh learns that finding true love starts with making big decisions, and that everyone deserves their own Christmas miracle sometimes.
- Cover Art by Meredith Russell
- Editors: KJ Charles & Erika Orrick
- Word Count: 32,200
Guilty Indulgence – 5/5 – “….This is a great read that will make you believe in Forever. The author takes the time to build the relationship and it’s that trust that is earned over time that leads to the choices both men must make. This book will definitely be added to my Holiday Keeper list!….”
Joyfully Jay – 4.5/5 – “….Absolutely precious. This book is full of perfectly sweet aww moments that I loved from beginning to end. And I’ll be honest, angel/demon/religious books are not my thing most of the time, but there are certain authors I make exceptions for. Scott is one of them. And I’m glad I read it. It’s a story of new beginnings, of forgiveness, and of moving on. It’s everything a holiday story should be—heartwarming and sweet with a fulfilling happily ever after. I loved it….
….The structure of this story is quite brilliant. The way it’s set up is that the story is mostly written in Josh’s third person POV, but at the beginning of each chapter there is a first person present tense POV from Michael that sounds more like a journal entry. It turns out that he’s talking to the door. (You’ll understand when you read it.) It’s a lovely way to get inside both characters’ heads.
I am head over heels for this story. I loved it from beginning to end and want to read it again. In fact, I may do just that. I highly recommend Angel in a Book Shop by R.J. Scott….”
Gay List Book Reviews – “….A story of healing, hope, family, magic, forgiveness, loss, redemption, choices and possibilities, falling in love and taking chances. A Christmas novella that warms the heart and left me smiling….”
Boy Meets Boy Reviews – 5/5 – “….In RJ Scott’s enjoyable style this story unfolds. Choices and actions, decisions and doubts. It’s not handed to us readers on a platter, but the silver lining definitely shines in this cloud. I really enjoyed this read, and I think anyone who has a love of Christmas stories will. It’s well worth a read….”
Love Romance and More – 4.5/5 – “….For a relatively short story, Angel in a Book Shop is wonderfully complete. We really get to know the two characters, are given a clear picture of their world, their thoughts and their background. At no point did I find myself wishing I knew a more about one thing or another. The beautiful words and vivid descriptions turned reading this book into an almost sensual experience….”
Rainbow Gold Reviews – 10/10 – “….Again I will say this story is beautiful, mystical, and breathtaking. It is wonderfully written, one that I will be re-reading many times. RJ Scott knows how to write a book that sucks you in from the beginning, holds your attention till the very end and leaves you talking about it for days after. While it takes place at Christmas it most definitely can be read any time of the year. This is one that I strongly recommend you get. I promise it will not disappoint. So thanks RJ for another hit….”
The Blogger Girls – “….The love story between Josh and Michael is very sweet and heartfelt. The story is fast paced but well fleshed out, and you have lots of feels for both of these guys. There is no relationship angst or drama (besides the big reveal), but it is packed full of emotions, caring and love between two men who are both yearning for more. And with RJ Scott, you know they are going to get it.
Overall Impression: I really liked it….”
I don’t often recall in detail every time I am part of a family. I remember the big events: the wars, the births, the weddings, and the deaths. That is why I am here, after all, and I write everything down as faithfully as I can. Still, time marches on so quickly and I am happy to let it pass. Until I find the man who will make me decide that time has to slow down so I can stay.
One day I will meet the person who will make me feel. He will be strong and certain and perfect for me, and I will want to ascend to become human just to be with him.
And yes, I know it is a him. I’ve always known.
* * * * *
For the longest time, Joshua Blakeman stood unmoving on the path outside the shop. People walked around him, some tutted, some brushed past like he could be pushed out of the way. Not one person stopped and asked him if he was okay. He never expected them to. He was a strange man wrapped tight in a winter coat with a beanie covering his head and a scarf obscuring his mouth, and he was blocking their way to work.
Behind him the number fifteen bus wheezed its way to a stop, and some of the people who had shoved past him now fought to get places on the bus. Josh heard no cursing or arguing; everyone found a place silently. He knew what that was like. For the past seven years, he had used his messenger bag and puffed up his five ten to intimidate and bully his way to a space in the standing-room-only spot on the Underground trains. He’d become so good at it that with judicious use of his bulky bag, he could get from Baker Street to St Paul’s in under fifteen minutes.
But that was yesterday. That was a whole lot of yesterdays. Way before his breakdown. Way before everything went to shit and he ended up here standing and staring.
This was his life now, this small rat run between the Tube and the bus at St Paul’s. No one even knew it was here, or at least no one ever stopped. There was no Starbucks, no Costa, no newspaper sellers, no history of anyone famous living in the square. There was absolutely no reason at all for a commuter to take a moment to see what was in Horus Gardens. Tourists would sometimes wander into this place, this small silent square, and sometimes, very rarely, they stayed. The green was somewhere to sit in peace before the next stage of the day. They could be going to Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, they might have tickets for the London Eye or a cruise on the Thames. They all had purpose, and all they left here in the square was litter.
“Fuck’s sake,” someone cursed in Josh’s face as they barrelled into him. They didn’t add anything, just moved away, leaving Josh with the scent of last night’s garlic and this morning’s deodorant and aftershave.
Josh wondered how near to a breakdown that person was. Were they weeks away, hours, or had they only just sold their souls to commerce and were still fresh as a newborn?
“Sorry,” he offered, even though the person had long gone.
He didn’t move, though. He just stared at the sign in front of him, the big letters CLOSED painted in scarlet on a board covering the door, and at the swirls of white that misted the windows.
In there was everything Josh didn’t want, and everything he needed.
“Jesus Christ,” a woman snapped as she swerved to avoid him. “Bloody immigrants.” She left the scent of Chanel and the insult was a new one. Idly, he glanced down at himself. He wore a Marks and Spencer overcoat, Levi’s jeans and leather boots, and the scarf wrapped around his head was cashmere, John Lewis’s finest design. Still, he was standing here like an idiot, and that meant he was instantly labelled as whatever kind of nuisance people could think of to lay on him.
“Sorry,” another man said as he caught Josh’s knee with his briefcase. The man clearly wasn’t sorry. Josh knew that dismissive and irritable tone of voice well. He’d used it enough himself.
Finally he stepped closer, just one small move, the keys a heavy weight in his pocket. Then another step. By some miracle no one else collided with him, before finally he reached the entrance of Chapter One and the recessed door. At least in this sheltered area, the ice didn’t force itself through the wool of his coat. Here there was silence and he wasn’t going to be in everyone’s way.
He pulled the keys from his pocket and worked his way through them to find the one marked FRONT. The neat capitals in his dad’s handwriting sent a chill through his heart that wasn’t entirely due to the late October winds. Fumbling at first, he finally managed to get the key in the lock and opened the door. The jingling tone of a silver bell announced his arrival, and he had to shove hard to push an accumulation of junk mail and letters aside. Some of them looked official, but he’d already sorted the bills due online and over the phone. All of the places who dealt with the book shop had a home contact address for Josh and his mum. He could worry about the mail later.
The rush of smells hit him, the staleness of an interior that hadn’t seen daylight in nearly a year and the scent of books sitting just as the day his dad had left them. The large space was filled with bookshelves but devoid of what had given it purpose and life—his dad, Andrew Blakeman. Grief knifed Josh hard, and he stood still as the weight of it pushed him down. At least this time he wasn’t a path-block as he stood utterly still.
The last time he’d been in there, his dad was behind the counter with his dark-framed glasses and his white gloves, and he’d been working on a new acquisition, repairing a binding so the book could be sold. Josh’s fingers twitched at the thought. He’d apprenticed with his dad for a few years, until the lure of computers dragged him away. He knew leather and panels and plates, and he could finesse his way through a discussion about gilting if he wasn’t pushed too hard with questions.
A box sat in front of the counter, piled with what looked like second-hand books, a copy of Marley & Me poking out the top. His dad always had people dropping boxes of books in, and Josh had never understood why his dad hadn’t just told them to take the boxes to a charity shop.
Because any book is precious and you never know what gem or family heirloom you may find in with the Grishams and the Kings.
Ten months since his dad had died and still the words were carved into his memory like it was yesterday.
His phone sounded in his pocket, and he stripped off his gloves and pulled it out. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t keep checking the damn thing, but even after this amount of time, he still hadn’t lost the conditioning to answer. The single word, Mum, on the screen had him nearly pocketing the damn thing again, but he couldn’t do that. She would want to know.
“Joshua, sweetheart, did you make it there okay?”
Josh didn’t like to remind his mum he’d managed to get into the City safely for seven exhausting years and she hadn’t worried then. That would have earned him one of those patented Mum sighs of patience and a comment on how things had changed now. That was a can of worms he did not want to open again today.
“I’ve just got inside.”
“How does everything look? Is it okay?”
Josh checked around himself. Nothing had moved from the day his dad had died. Only he and his mum had keys, and no one else had been inside. Even the notebooks were open on the desk to orders, and a small pile of local newspapers talked about the wettest December since records began. Ten months, nearly eleven, and the place was still the same.
“It’s okay,” he summarised. “Dusty.”
“Thank you for doing this,” Mum said. “I know I’ve been in to see to the heating, but I couldn’t touch the books, his books, I just…not yet.”
“It’s fine, Mum. I’ll check the pipes, sort the post, and work my way through the list.”
“And Josh, don’t forget Phil asked for a second key. If Chapter One is sold he’ll need to let in agents and prospective purchasers.”
Josh swallowed his instinctive reply. No way in hell was he talking to Phil or giving him a key to this place. Uncle Phil, his dad’s brother, had shown an inordinate interest in this small property recently under the guise of supporting his sister-in-law. He said he only wanted to help, but Josh got a bad feeling about how much Phil was hanging around. Josh’s dad had left this place to his wife, and it would be Josh selling the shop and the inventory and making a new life for his mum. Not Uncle Moneygrubbing Phil. But the minute his mum said she wanted to sell, Phil had demanded she get in proper help.
Josh will do this for me. It will be good for us all.
Now was not the time to argue with his mum. “Okay,” he said instead.
“I hope this isn’t too much for you,” she said. The words were soft, and Josh wondered if she’d even meant to say them out loud.
“Mum, I’m fine. I’ll call you, okay?” He ended the call quickly and laid his phone on the counter. The shop was dark because of the wood nailed to the window frames, and keeping the door open for light was not going to work in this cold. He flicked a switch and the overhead lights came on. The bills were still being paid on the minimal electricity, the business rates, and water. The list was endless, especially for a business that sat idle and didn’t have a balancing income.
Cold from outside rushed in on a gust of October wind, and he pushed the door shut. Finally, when he’d turned up the heating, he was able to remove his coat and hat, then go in search of a kettle. The heating had been kept on low for the entire year, with his mum popping in every so often to check all was okay. Even now he wondered why she wasn’t there organising the stock. But she seemed to think it should be him, said he could use the time to consider what he was doing next.
And what the hell was it that he was doing next anyway? He’d never work for a financial institution again, and the thought of being one of those self-employed IT guys filled him with dread.
He had no milk but black coffee was a possibility if there was any here. His dad had kept a small kitchen and offered browsers in the shop a choice of coffee—albeit instant—or tea. The small fridge was empty, thankfully. Josh had nightmares at the thought of what all this time would have done to any food or drink left in there.
There were sachets of coffee, and he allowed the old pipes to disgorge spluttering water at the sink until the stream was settled before he filled the kettle. With a black coffee warming him from the inside, he was more able to coherently catalogue his surroundings.
The place wasn’t damp, which was good. There was stock in there that could be rescued and sold. They wouldn’t get much for it, and a lot of the books would need to go to charity, but they could maybe recoup enough to cover the heating that would be needed to see this place through another winter.
The sign from outside the second-hand book shop lay forlorn on the floor, propped up between his dad’s small displays of periodicals and Chick Lit, and Josh crouched to inspect it. ‘Chapter One’ it read in antiquey cursive writing. It was a cool name for a book shop, even Josh had to admit that. The sign was rusting and was more than likely only fit for the garbage. He traced the metal C and moved the sign a little so that it wouldn’t press too hard into any stock that could be salvageable.
Maybe they could get something for the sign. A reclamation place or something? He’d seen stranger things happen on the TV. Someone might want it for their converted barn or some other arty farty shit he wasn’t aware of. The sign was as old as the business, and that was over a hundred years of old.
The wooden floors were dull, but a run-over with stain or something and they’d look good again. Josh added that to the list of things to do when all the bookshelves were removed. Talking of which… He examined the base of the nearest shelving system, wondering if the flooring had been put in before or after the shelves were built. The whole thing nearly reached the ceiling, but it appeared to be sitting on top of the wooden flooring, thank goodness. In fact, there was a small space under each bookshelf and a strong memory hit him.
Of him as a small boy and a Top Trumps car game and losing one of the Fiat cards under one of the behemoth units. And of his dad’s comforting voice telling him that there were plenty more game cards and that Josh should take fifty pence and go buy another set more from the newsagents next door. That singular grief hit him again. His dad had been so young to die. Only sixty-four, and with so much to look forward to.
“Everything will be okay…”
Josh looked up from the floor, startled at the words, then shook his head. There was no one there, and yet again his head was fucking with him. Voices. Now he was hearing voices. Something moved in the corner of his vision, and he stood up quickly, grabbing at shelving to steady himself. Darkness brushed over him, and he closed his eyes against the start of another headache. He was used to them now, and he waited for the pain, but there was none, only heat that made his cheeks flush and his hands tremble where they gripped the shelf for support.
This is new.
He waited until he was sure he could stand without support, then continued his investigation of the structure of the place. For the longest time, he leaned against the large oak door that led to next shop. When he was little, probably around the same time as the Top Trumps incident, he used to imagine the door led to Narnia, or somewhere else with just as many exciting adventures. As an adult he knew it was permanently locked but led to the shop on the other side. Whoever owned next door had likely bricked over it all by now, and Josh wasn’t sure why his dad and granddad had left the door this side in place. He traced some gouges in the wood. Old and worn and smooth, they formed initials and patterns that could be four hundred years old, dating back to when this row of houses and shops was first constructed in the higgledy-piggledy roads of an older London.
So much history in those marks.
Josh crossed to the cash desk and the seat behind it. Always best to find somewhere to sit so he didn’t end up on his back looking up at swirling lights, which was basically how he’d staged his dramatic exit from Swanage Brothers Investment Bank in the summer. Then again on the Tube. And again in the supermarket. Until finally they’d shoved him in a ward with wires and monitors and treated him to a lot of wagging fingers about his brain and work, with several added did he want to die like his dad?
Sitting there had him face to face with his dad’s last day. The notebook was more a diary, and one Josh was familiar with. In there was a small list, orders to dispatch, a phone number and the words “Jane Austen” next to them. Chapter One didn’t sell just books being published now, it had also had a healthy backlist of rare books that his dad delighted in finding and matching with new owners. One of the last conversations Josh had ever had with his dad was about a near perfect set of Jane Austen books that he’d found.
Josh made a mental note to check into that. Maybe Chapter One owed money somewhere, or books to someone. The notebook was as good a place to start. Taking the pen from next to the notebook, he turned the page and wrote a big TO DO at the top.
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 there 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. No point in learning about them himself if he wasn’t going to be here long.
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 decidedly posh voice said. The owner of said voice stepped forward into the gloom of the interior and pulled the door shut behind him. He then tripped over the still heaped-up post, before 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 which he hadn’t dropped on the floor when he stumbled. Josh had the random thought that he hoped 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 a 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 ten 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 there 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 then. 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 light bulb cast a luminous shimmer about the stranger, and the way he stared at Josh was a little disconcerting. Not just the staring but the intensity of the gaze which was focused on Josh.
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.
Sipping thoughtfully, he added something to his list. Item six. “Find nearest coffee shop”. After all, it had to be close for Michael to be able to deliver the drink still hot to Josh. Then he sat back in the chair. What did Michael do? The last Josh recalled of the shop next door, it had still been a newsagent. Aram Singh had owned it with his family, and they had a paperboy whose name was Jamie or something. Odd, the memories you recall when you’re not thinking about them.
Michael didn’t look like a Singh, and he didn’t look like a newsagent either. In fact, he looked like the sort of man that Josh would sit to next to at work, when he’d worked—a dark suit, shirt and tie. No coat, though, or gloves or scarf or anything. It was only a few steps from this door to his, Josh guessed. He tried to picture the shop front next door, but all he recalled from that morning was the press of humanity and the desolation of loss as he stared at Chapter One.
Finishing the coffee, he resolved to pay back the kind gesture and maybe check out what kind of store sat next to this place. Maybe it was successful to the point the owner might want to buy this place and knock through.
Item seven. “Get our own estate agent not connected to Phil”. Then he added the word “eventually” and underlined it twice.
Where to start? Oh yes, inventory. He glanced around the shop, from the paperbacks in the racks at the front to the older books at the back. At least he’d heard of Dan Brown, so that informed his decision to start there.
Item eight. “Bring boxes for storage. Who wants the books?”
He counted twelve copies of Dan Brown’s newest title and a further six of Harry Potter and pushed them along to the shelf before marking the books by title and author with a count next to them on a new page in the notebook. Then he stopped. This was stupid. What am I doing? There was no methodology in what he was doing. He needed his laptop and an idea of what the hell he was trying to achieve here.
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve been ill,” Mum had said, her gaze fearful and her blue eyes filling with tears. She’d looked so frail, and Josh’s first instinct to give in and make her happy wasn’t easy to battle. But he wanted to do this. He had time, he didn’t have a job, he was burned out, tired, grieving, and he needed to do this. Then there was Uncle Phil. He had no right to the money, but Josh had a bad feeling he scented his and Mum’s weakness and intended to take advantage of it.
“I’m not a kid, I know my own limits.” Josh had defended himself quickly, but he couldn’t fail to notice Phil’s smirk at the words. Bastard.
Mum looked from Phil to him, pleading with her watery eyes and her shaking hands. “And you’ll call Phil if you need help?”
Mum had been looking for that strong male support and obviously she hadn’t seen it in Josh. That had hurt then, and it still hurt. His dad was gone, and Josh should be the man of the house now.
So he’d promised there and then that he would simply look and that he would call Phil, and they would work together on cataloguing and selling Andrew Blakeman’s life work. He’d lied then, and he was using all his best delaying tactics now. Take this morning’s call. That had been a reminder from Mum. Give Phil a key if you have to. Let him look if you need help. Don’t take it all on yourself if you can’t handle it.
“Phil just wants to help you,” Mum kept saying over and over, “and I don’t want you worrying.”
Item nine. Change locks.
When he glanced at his phone, he saw it was one o’clock, past lunchtime, and he’d been so lost in trying to get his head around what he was supposed to be doing that he’d actually done very little. His stomach rumbled, and his decision was made. He needed to find that coffee shop and get a sandwich. Tomorrow he could bring something in from home, but today he would treat himself. He considered the Italian sandwich shop around the corner from where he used to work, but he couldn’t bring himself to go. There could be people from his old job there, buying prawn and avocado on brown with more coffee just to get through the day.
Instead he stopped for a moment outside Chapter One and looked outward into Horus Square. Typical of older London, this was a close-built square of houses set around a green that offered two benches, large oak trees and blackened fake-iron railings. Most of the tall town houses had small gardens onto the green, but they were all sideways on and it was only Chapter One that faced outwards. That and the premises next door of course.
Josh turned to look at the name of it, what it was. He could just maybe go and say thank you to the man inside.
Arts Desire, the sign said. Not a hanging sign, but an actual painting on the glass of the shop window. Josh didn’t hesitate. He went in and the tinkle of a bell over the door had a head popping up from behind a long polished wooden counter.
“Hello,” Josh said. He didn’t add anything else, which was kind of lame as conversation starters went.
“Hi,” Michael said as he levered himself upright using the counter. He brushed at imaginary dust on his pristine shirt, and Josh realised the man had removed his suit jacket. There again, he could; this shop was nice and warm. Toasty warm and scented with vanilla, as if there were candles somewhere in there.
Memories assailed him of the smell of tobacco and the lure of penny sweets in plastic boxes. “This used to be the Singhs’ shop,” Josh said, “last I was here.”
“Mr Singh…” Michael tilted his head in thought. “Oh, yes, I recall his name on the lease. He was the last owner and newsagent with a small café, then there was the Abbots before that, who used the space for health food, but now it’s me.” Michael indicated the shop with an expansive wave of his hand. Josh followed the move and saw so much he couldn’t take it all in. Paintings on the wall ranged from lifelike to random splotches of colour: frames, cards, glass cabinets with figurines, and chessboards all set out with pieces on display. Stairs curved in a metal spiral to another level and light flooded in from an upstairs window reflecting on the mirrors that hung everywhere and catching every small crystal hanging in the space.
“It’s very…” He trailed off, and Michael smiled at him.
“Busy, artistic, bright?”
“All of the above,” Josh admitted. But that didn’t make it a bad thing. There was light in this place, and colour and eccentricity that warmed his cold soul. “I just thought I’d come in and say thank you for the coffee.”
Michael leaned his elbows on the counter and rested his head on his hands. The pose seemed so at odds with the shirt and tie. There was a playfulness in the way he relaxed in his kingdom. “You’re so welcome,” he said with a smile. “I have a huge espresso machine in the back. You want me to show you?”
“You made the coffee?”
“Come see.” Michael straightened, and Josh didn’t argue. He followed Michael through a curtain of glittery butterflies hanging on delicate threads in a waterfall of colour. The room behind the shop space reminded Josh of the kitchen in Chapter One, small and cramped. But there was a big difference here. In the book shop, the kitchen was a hovel, with a small fridge, a kettle, coffee sachets and a flickering bulb. Michael’s had evidently been upgraded when part of it was a café. The coffee machine was all highly polished chrome with a multitude of knobs and dials, and teetering in a neat pile, all still wrapped in plastic, were the kind of cardboard drinks containers you would see any coffee drinker clutching as they dashed from Tube to work.
“Wow” was all he managed to say.
“I know, it’s cool. It was left by the Singhs and all I needed to do was get in a maintenance guy to make sure it all worked. I use mugs generally.” He indicated the small sink that was set into a work surface on the other wall. “But I didn’t want to burden you with the washing up.”
That made sense, but also led to an unwelcome conclusion. “So there’s no coffee shop near here?” He couldn’t help the disappointed tone. Coffee meant cakes or pastries or paninis, and his stomach rumbled again as if to underscore its displeasure.
Michael frowned. “Yeah, if you go back to the main road and head down to St Paul’s, there’s the usual.”
“I’m not desperate enough to fight the crowds,” Josh said. He’d been hoping for a small café somewhere quiet.
“Are you hungry? Here.” Josh looked down at what he was being handed. Freshly wrapped sandwiches. Ham and mustard. “You can have these.”
“I can’t take your lunch.”
Michael jiggled another pack in front of Josh. “I have others,” he said. “I buy enough for two days normally.”
Josh’s polite gene kicked in and warred with his empty stomach, which had seen little more than coffee since six pm yesterday.
Finally his stomach won and he nodded his thanks. “If you let me bring you some tomorrow.” He really felt like he could stand to have some kind of connection outside of the book shop in this small area, and Michael seemed like an okay kind of guy.
“Deal. Do you want a cuppa with that?” Michael was already at the kettle, filling it with water. “I can do coffee if you want?” He indicated the machine, but Josh shook his head. He’d had enough coffee for a while.
“That would be lovely.” Again with the lame, Josh. There was an amount of silence that edged on awkward, and Josh cursed inwardly. He hated awkward silences. Then, inspired, he asked a question that was guaranteed to encourage a conversation to last at least as long as the kettle boiled. “So how long has this shop been here?” he asked. “I don’t remember Dad mentioning you.”
“March time,” Michael said, distracted by the kettle switching off. “How do you like your tea?”
“Milk, no sugar, thank you.”
Michael turned his back and busied himself with the tea, finally presenting Josh with a bright white mug filled to the brim with tea and emblazoned with a rainbow and the words Pride 2013. Then he indicated two chairs that Josh hadn’t even noticed were there, and the men sat. The kitchen wasn’t a big area for a man as tall and solidly built as Michael, let alone when you added Josh’s five ten frame, skinny though he was. Still, somehow they managed to place mugs and sandwiches on a surface yet have space to sit comfortably.
Josh felt pain tug at his temples, and he removed his glasses, placing them next to the mug.
Immediately Michael leaned forward. “Headache? I have pills.”
“No, I’m fine.” Please, no more pills. “Just, it’s dark next door, and I think I strained my eyes.” He was lying, but Michael couldn’t know that. Josh had become a very good liar in the last few months.
The silence that followed was uncomfortable for as long as it lasted until Michael pulled over a small radio and pressed a button for a local station. The noise was welcome. Josh could stop concentrating so hard on his breathing and actually relax.
He guessed it would be useful to talk to Michael about footfall and the kind of people that shopped around there. It was good information to support the sale of Chapter One as and when Josh was ready.
“Do you get many customers?”
Michael shook his head. “Most of my business is done online.” He reached over to a box on the side of the units and pulled out a card, which he passed to Josh.
Josh read the words. “Arts Desire”, followed by a simple web address and an email. Josh was impressed that the little shop had a website. He’d fought hard to get his dad to move into the twentieth century let alone the twenty-first, but all his dad had done was laugh and say he’d get around to it one day.
Only he didn’t.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked gently.
“No,” Josh responded without thought. “Sorry, yes, I’m fine. So, the website?”
“Sometimes a tourist will walk in, but they don’t buy really. I generally use this place to meet clients who are looking for a particular piece of art.”
“So it works well.”
“My, uhm…family…they own the building, so other than the usual expenses, it’s not too difficult to cover the bills, and I’m happy here in my own world.”
“My dad said that. One day. To me. He said that.” Josh was aware he was snapping out small pieces of a sentence, and he consciously stopped himself. “He said he loved what he did, surrounded by the books, and he didn’t mind if he didn’t see a single person.”
“But he must have, to stay in business so long?”
Josh considered the question. How did Michael know how long his dad had been there? Probably by the state of things. What was next door was no fly-by-night shop, it was old and smelled ancient and had books in there that people would never think to read now. It was clearly an old man’s place with whole generations of history on its bookshelves.
Josh finished his sandwich, which was probably one of the best ham and mustard sandwiches he’d ever tasted. I must have been hungry. “The shop was my granddad’s. He inherited the space from a cousin who died in the Second World War. He had my dad late in life so I never met him.”
“War is sad,” Michael offered gently.
Josh blinked at the other man. That was kind of an odd thing to say really, in the context. “Anyway,” he continued. “There was a book once, part of an estate sale. Dickens. Dad sourced and sold it, and that meant my family had enough money so the shop continued and it gave Dad a financial cushion.”
“That’s a nice position to be in. So you’re selling the shop?”
Josh pushed away the guilt that threatened to derail this entire conversation and nodded. “I just need to inventory and get some of the books into sales.”
“Is that something you can do?” Michael sounded like he was surprised Josh could do something like that.
Josh would be surprised if he managed it but he had spent time in the shop as a kid, and he at least halfway knew what he was doing. Massaging his temples briefly, he put on his glasses again and marvelled, not for the first time, how the world came so sharply into focus.
Dark brown eyes. That was what Michael had. Gorgeous liquid chocolate brown eyes, and up close he could see that his dark hair really was as near to black as Josh had ever seen.
“Hmm… Sorry?” he asked, having completely lost track of the question.
“Do you have experience with books? Is that what you do for a career?”
“Me? No. Well, I used to help my dad when I was younger, but I work in the City. Worked, actually. Up until this summer just gone.”
“That’s admirable, taking time off to look after your family.”
Josh didn’t correct him. He wasn’t going to tell a complete stranger what he’d done. Even if the stranger did have the most beautiful eyes and soft pink lips and had mugs with gay pride slogans on them.
Even if something in Michael’s eyes compelled him to confide it all.
Abruptly he moved, placing the mug in the sink and the sandwich container in the bin. “Thank you, it was nice to meet you.”
“And you,” Michael said. “It was nice to have company.”
Josh fled before he spilt everything in his head. He was back in Chapter One before he said a single word, but the curse he let out in the book shop was loud.
So loud Michael could probably hear it through the walls.