An hour later, Giles stood in a shady spot outside Bath Abbey, watching the man he’d spent the last week with turn into someone he barely recognised. Someone who spoke with an Australian accent and worked the crowd like a born raconteur, all the while quite literally playing with fire.
“But Kun Man Gur, the rainbow serpent, was so angry with the flying fox he blew out a stream of fire that burnt the land.” Smutty punctuated his story by taking a quick swig from his flask, then holding one of the flaming torches to his lips.
Flames rolled out of Smutty’s mouth in a blast of heat and Giles recoiled, stepping on the foot of the woman behind him. She drew in a sharp, annoyed breath. “So sorry,” he mumbled, before turning back to the performance. Smutty was juggling the torches again, sending one leaping high above the others that whirled between his hands. And all the while he continued telling his strange little tale of Aussie talking animals to the audience that had gathered around the fragile barriers they’d constructed earlier. The crowd must have been about ten deep by now, and Giles calculated that if they all left Smutty as little as a pound, he’d have made at least a hundred from a mere twenty minutes of work.
Not that it was easy work. Giles watched the sweat rolling down Smutty’s bare chest, the flames licking at his fingers. His body was smeared with sooty marks and his voice sounded distinctly raw since the fire-breathing stunt. He wasn’t going to hurt himself, was he? Giles watched keenly for any sign of exhaustion or impending disaster, but all he saw was a man perfectly at ease with his movements, his body gliding almost effortlessly, muscles rippling in synch with the flickering of the flames.
The story ended with the creation of the desert, and the flying foxes temporarily chastened. With his last words Smutty fell to his knees, arms outstretched, catching the remaining torches as they spun down towards him. He bowed his head for the burst of applause then rose, grinning widely, as the tourists continued to cheer.
“Just put the torches out,” Giles muttered underneath his breath. Seeing this many people so close to the flames made him twitchy—especially when some of them were children, and the only thing holding them back was a lightweight barrier constructed of posts and rope that had all come out of Smutty’s backpack. He breathed a sigh of relief when Smutty extinguished the torches in the bucket. Coins were already starting to fly through the air towards the battered old top hat on the paving stones. Many were missing their target, but Giles noticed a couple of people bending over the barrier to place bank notes in there as well.
Smutty glowed with the exertion and attention, and Giles also flared into warmth as he watched him crouch down to talk with the children, setting them all giggling with something he said. Smutty’s hands were constantly on the move, Giles realised, like birds flapping around him, but perfectly controlled and graceful.
When Smutty rose again Giles managed to catch his eye and mouthed “coffee break?” hopefully. Smutty had said he’d need a good break after his first performance, and Giles was parched just from watching him. Giles dreaded to think what the state of Smutty’s mouth must be like after that little stunt. His overactive imagination conjured up a horrific vision of blistered gums and tongue, but the way Smutty smiled and shook his head at him didn’t suggest he was in any kind of pain.
Wait a minute—shook his head?
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, thank you for your generosity,” Smutty began, in a hoarse voice. “I’ve had a request for an encore, so I’d like to show you something from my ancestral homeland, New Zealand. The Maori people have a traditional weapon called poi, and while theirs aren’t usually on fire, I like to think a few flames improve just about anything.” Smutty winked and twirled, showing off his tattoo to a round of wolf-whistles from the women.
Giles groaned as Smutty pulled another contraption that looked like an instrument of torture out of his backpack. A tennis ball sized metal cage with the wick inside, strung onto a long chain that ended in a rubber coated grip. And a second one to match. Smutty drenched both the wicks with paraffin and touched a match to them as they lay on the ground, smiling like he was satisfied with the way they blossomed with sooty flames before settling down to a more controlled blaze. What the hell was he going to do with those? Giles had to fight the urge to stride through the barrier and throw Smutty over his shoulder then march him off to the coffee shop. The man needed to rest, damn it. It was dangerous, playing with fire.
But when Smutty began spinning the poi, Giles forgot to worry. This was completely different to the torches leaping high into the air—this time the flames were attached to Smutty’s hands via the chains, but somehow that gave him even more opportunity to make them dance. Fire whirled around Smutty’s body in wheels and spirals. One moment he had his arms outstretched, his hands making tiny motions while the poi raced and darted in a mesmerising pattern each side of his body. A slight adjustment to his limbs, and the poi spun in front of him instead, weaving in and out of each other’s orbit in a way that just didn’t seem possible. Giles had to tear his eyes away from their blinding display to concentrate on Smutty. He hardly seemed to be moving at all, but Giles could see the strain in his body and the intensity in his expression.
Smutty’s eyes gleamed with reflected fire and a dark excitement that stirred up something inside Giles. Something wild and painful. Something unlooked for.
As his heart squeezed tight, Giles’s stomach lurched.
He had the horrible feeling he’d just fallen in love.
Like two ships passing in the night—if one was a narrowboat and the other a luxury yacht.
Disgraced private school teacher Giles Rathbourne has been sent home on extended sick-leave and is stuck in a rut of obsessive housework and drinking. His ex may have been a snobbish bastard, but without him, Giles is adrift, rattling around his huge, lonely house. When a dreadlocked narrowboater’s engine breaks down at the end of his canal-side garden, Giles is furious at this invasion of his privacy—for a while.
Smutty might not have ever held down a proper job, but the fire-dancing, free-spirited traveller can recognise an opportunity for mutual benefit when he sees it. Giles’ extensive gardens are in as desperate need of attention as the upper-class hunk is himself, whereas Smutty knows a thing or two about plants and needs a place to moor up.
A simple business arrangement between two men who have nothing else in common? It would be—if they could keep their hands off each other!