Finding Mr. Fabulous
A pre-edit first chapter...
I, Rex Heligan, can’t be the next Duke of Kara-Enys. Not when I’m actually a terrible person with black blood instead of royal blue. I must be a throwback to when my family were Cornish smugglers instead of lords and city bankers.
Because my first response to seeing a thief through Timothy Smallbone’s study window is laughter.
I should call the police instead of chuckling. Or hurry inside to let Smallbone know that someone’s getting handsy in his study. I do neither, taking a second look instead, checking that it is a thief I’ve spotted.
It’s hard to see much detail at night with the lower ground floor of this Kensington townhouse deep in shadow. At least I assume the room I stop beside is still a study. It’s been years since I set foot inside, back when Viscount Marlow was its owner. My grandfather used to play chess here whenever we were in London. Now it belongs to someone I wasn’t fond of at school and who hasn’t improved as a director of the bank I work for. And who, for some unknown reason, has invited me to a dinner party. One I’m sure he’ll want me to choke on.
I spot another flicker of movement through the window.
There is somebody skulking inside this study, their movements stealthy. I catch a glimpse of a sharp jaw. A sheen of raven hair. The glint of a tooth digging into a lip, and then he's gone.
I double back along the building, moving just as carefully as the thief who searches a desk while I wage an internal battle.
Just because Smallbone’s been a dick about cancelling my leave lately doesn’t mean I can ignore this. Petty wanker or not, his father knew mine, a connection that compels me to do the right thing instead of watching. Or maybe that’s down to genetics, all Heligans programmed to defend instead of waver.
I call the police, or at least I mean to, only my phone chooses that moment to ring.
I answer quickly, quietly, even though there’s no chance the thief can hear me above city traffic. “One moment.”
He does lift his head from the desk drawer he delves in though, and, for a split second, our eyes almost meet, offering another glimpse of someone who should look furtive.
If anything, I glimpse fury. Or that’s how it seems until his gaze drops and he digs through that drawer again with purpose.
I lift my phone. “Let me call you back.”
“No. Because you bloody well won’t, will you, Rex?”
My grandfather is my favourite person on the planet. My only person on the planet. He’s also brutally honest.
“Another pretty blond will fall onto your penis, and I won’t hear from you for a fortnight. Won’t know if you’re dead or alive, will I? You won’t even come up for air long enough to come home and visit.”
“That was one time, Pops.”
He isn’t done grumbling. “It isn’t only pretty blonds keeping you from visiting, is it? What’s this I hear about your leave being cancelled again?”
Bloody Jack and his love for gossip.
The next time I’m in the office, I’m going to seal my PA’s loose lips with his shiny new laminator. On second thoughts, he’d only enjoy the attention. Plus, it doesn’t solve my cancelled-leave problem. One I’d hoped to rectify man-to-man with Smallbone before the news reached Cornwall.
“It’s a mistake, Pops. I’m fixing it tonight.”
“You need to.”
My grandfather grumbles some more as I move carefully, slowly, tracking the thief’s progress. He’s abandoned the desk for a display cabinet of Smallbone treasures. I see him heft something rock-like, which makes sense, this house paid for via gemstone-mining profits. Whatever the thief holds glitters, and for a moment my Heligan DNA fails me.
“Take it,” I murmur.
“Take what?” Pops asks.
"Nothing." I'm not going to tell him that this theft feels like justice for all the petty thefts Smallbone's made from my quota of leave. Instead, I change the subject. "Anyway, I don't make a habit of disappearing with blonds." Any hair colour is fair game as long as it's attached to men on the same one-and-done page as me.
"Do you know what I'd like you to make a habit of, Rex?"
My grandfather still grumbles, but I hear a difference. This rough edge means he's teasing, and that's better after his sounding low during phone calls lately. It also means that, fuck it, I don't care if Smallbone's about to lose every gem his family stripped from far-flung nations. The thief can have the lot with my blessing as long as I get to go home soon to see my grandfather happy.
"Go on," I tell him, wanting to hear more of that from him. "What do you want me to make a habit of, Pops?"
“Anything that stops Heppel major from calling me, demanding to know where you are again.”
“George Heppel? Again?” I lean against a lamppost, this gossip more fun than my leave being cancelled again. “When did he call you the first time?”
“When you and his brother fell off the face of the planet, too busy shagging to check in with anybody, remember? He thought you’d kidnapped Heppel minor.”
I didn’t kidnap George Heppel’s youngest brother. It was Charles who must have Stockholmed me because, even years later, I still react to his name like always.
For a moment, the windowpane reflects a stranger. Someone wistful—almost regretful—while the thief moves on to try the drawers of a filing cabinet.
I truly don't care if he steals everything he finds there because my grandfather laughs as if he can see me practically mooning over the only person I ever broke my one-and-done rule with, and that sound? It's magic.
Music to my ears, which is another reminder of Charles, who laughed me all the way into his bedroom more times than usual for me.
“Anyway,” my grandfather says, “Heppel major has lost track of someone else. Not his brother this time. His old adviser. That historian fellow who used to work for him.”
“Historian. Archivist. You know the type, Robert.”
“You called me—” I stop there, not wanting to spoil this happy phone call with a reminder of a relative we both miss. “It doesn’t matter, Pops. Who has George lost track of?”
“I already told you,” he grumbles again. “The chap who sorted through all the relics in his attics for him a couple of years back.”
I picture someone stuffy in a tweed jacket like my old history master.
My grandfather says, “Decent chap, apparently,” while someone far from decent scours Timothy Smallbone’s study. “Digs through historic homes. Draws up family trees and finds missing branches. George is meant to be at Smallbone’s dinner with him tonight. Planned to introduce him around. Find his man a new patron with an attic to pick through, only his train got cancelled last minute. George’s, I mean. He mixed up your number with mine, calling me in a panic thinking I was you. I told him I’d pass on his message.”
“To stand in for him. Introduce his history adviser chap around. I promised that you would do it for him.”
He’s quiet for a long moment, the only sound a faint slap of seawater against a harbour wall I wish I leaned on next to him at home on Kara-Enys.
“Rex?” he coaxes. “Tell me what Heligans always keep.” It’s the same prompt he gave me right through childhood. “What do we never, ever break?”
“Our word, Pops.”
“So help me keep mine now, will you? Do it now and when you’re Duke after I’m gone.”
I don’t want to think of a world without him but I swallow and nod, then answer aloud, my voice husky. “I will.”
“Good, so find this fellow for Heppel, yes?”
“What’s he called?”
“Singsmith.” He clarifies, “That’s double-barrelled. Singh-Smith. George sounds fond of the man, so make sure he gets out of there in one piece?” He asks that as if I’d ever say no to him. “Don’t let Smallbone rip him apart. You know how much he likes the sound of his own voice. I…” He clears his throat and proves that he’s still sharp enough to cut to the heart of human nature. “I don’t like that the bank appointed him as a director. He acts like he’s the boss of you, Rex.”
He is, or at least he’s manoeuvred himself to be, no escaping that I report directly to him these days. Pops echoes the worst part of this management reshuffle.
“Or how he gets to call the shots on your calendar. He likes lording it over you. And I hate to think of you taking it from him just because…”
Because he holds the purse strings to a project that Pops and I both value.
That’s the only reason I take Smallbone’s bullshit.
Pops knows that. He still sounds grumpy. “He could make your life a lot easier, Rex. But he’s always been jealous of—”
“Anyone with a title?” I straighten my shoulders. “I can take a bit of shouting for being an earl if it keeps our project funded.” I eye the study window. I can’t see the thief but I can see the door is still closed. He’s likely still inside the study. “But I can probably give Smallbone someone else to shout at tonight.”
Pops snorts. “Now, now, Robert. Don’t do—”
“Anything you wouldn’t?” I joke but I can’t ignore that he’s called me by my father’s name again. Or that his tone turns heavy like the weight of the world is on his shoulders. “It’s Rex, Pops. Rex, not—” Fresh movement means I stop there, the thief back in sight, although closer to the door now. “I won’t,” I promise again quickly. “I’ve got to go. I’m already late. Speak soon, Pops.”
I slide my phone away as passing headlights illuminate the flash of a white shirtfront. The thief wears a similar bowtie to the one I tied myself this evening. I touch mine, the silk smooth under my fingers.
Most thieves don’t dress for dinner, do they?
I jog up the steps, entering the house fully intending to do the right thing by raising the alarm with its owner only to come to a full stop once I’m past the foyer.
This isn’t the house I remember from childhood.
I used to hopscotch over black and white floor tile right here while Pops and Viscount Marlow played chess, or sit on the steep townhouse staircase, reading ancient Beanos. Those steep stairs and chessboard floor tiles were constants.
Tonight there’s no sign of either.
The whole ground floor's been gutted. Expanded, like… I take a few more steps, confirming that Smallbone must have bought out a couple of his neighbours' properties along with this one. Now it's the width of three townhouses, and yet somehow it's less than I remember—disconcerting proof that money can't buy class even if it comes from gemstones. This remodelled house might be bright and modern but, by Christ, it's soulless.
And that’s the word that hits me again once I follow the sound of voices to find this building’s new owner talking about me.
“Trust Heligan to keep us waiting.” Timothy Smallbone stands in a doorway, his back to me, but I don’t need to see his face to picture his expression. A sneer laces what he says next. “I swear the whole Heligan family have no manners.”
My eyebrows rise along with my blood pressure because Smallbone had the worst manners when we were at prep school, particularly when it came to bullying. His next sentence proves that good manners still elude him. What he brings up stills me—guts me—slicing me through as if he’d stabbed me.
“Or what’s left of his family, anyhow.” Smallbone’s voice turns oily. “He’s the last of the line, you know. The Heligan name will die with him.”
He’s wrong. The first Queen Elizabeth decreed my family’s titles, not Timothy Smallbone. I think we know the unique succession rules she granted with our Letters Patent better than him.
“Rex Heligan?” someone asks, disbelieving. “But he’s only in his early thirties. That’s more than young enough to marry.”
Smallbone snorts. “Queer,” he says, dismissive like that precludes me from marriage or a family. Not that I want kids or the ball and chain I’m amazed Charles snapped around his ankle with the next man he laughed into his bedroom. I also don’t want to hear Smallbone snort again about me. He goes ahead regardless. “And with his reputation?”
He sniffs, and I’m bloody glad there’s a thief in his study. So bloody glad I even hope he’s got deep pockets.
What can I say? I’m just as stroppy as my grandfather with an extra side of petty. I’m also increasingly close to the end of a tether Smallbone’s been fraying all year.
That tether unravels further the more Smallbone relays to his captive audience. “Even if he wasn’t queer none of his heirs would be legitimate. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s already here. Probably sowing his wild oats with one of the waiters in a dark corner. A duke one day?” He huffs. “The Heligans used to be smugglers. Still are. That’s what their precious Safe Harbour project is, isn’t it? Modern-day smuggling, only they expect the bank to fund it.”
I lift my hand, and I’ll never know whether it’s to tap his shoulder or to slug him. I’m stopped by a woman speaking.
“Shame about how he lost his father though. Awful drowning. Especially tragic for the little lad.” Her voice drops. Not low enough. I still hear her clearly. “Terrible thing. Finding his father’s body after it’d been in the water for weeks? Left young Heligan an orphan, didn’t it? I remember reading about it.”
Reading about it?
Try living it.
I close my eyes but that only puts me back on the beach at home, staggering away from what the sea finally gave us back to bury. I open them to the sight of Smallbone’s back, and if I had a knife I’d plant it between his shoulders for his next comments.
“Rex Heligan is as reckless as his father, which means the estate will come up for sale sooner rather than later. Pretty island, Kara-Enys, but wasted. Prime for development instead of being a magnet for refugees and vagrants. He’ll run out of cash soon and have to sell it to someone who knows how to run a business.”
He means him.
Over my dead body.
“If not,” Smallbone promises, “the Heligan estate will end up as washed up as his father.”
And that’s enough.
More than enough.
I pull back my raised fist, ready to knock his block off, only he says a name that stops me. One that reminds me of my promise not only to behave but also to find someone else in this dear old house Smallbone’s ruined.
He says, “Now I hear that George Heppel isn’t coming but has left me with a guest I wouldn’t have invited without him.” He lowers his voice. “Indian chap. Or partly. Anyone seen this Singh-Smith fellow?”
“Did you say Indian?” someone asks. “Was he by the door earlier? I thought he was a waiter.” At least they have the manners to sound aghast. “I gave him my empty glass and he took it. Didn’t mention he was a guest. Even gave me a little bow. Clicked his heels together and headed downstairs with it.”
I back off then, connecting dots that form a clearer image as I find the stairs and jog down. Slower footsteps click across the marble behind me, Smallbone perhaps tired of waiting for his supper.
Those footsteps follow as I get to the foot of the staircase and jog to the far end of the hallway. I open that study door to find someone in there who isn’t a waiter at all. The jury’s still out on whether he’s a thief. He’s definitely Heppel’s man though. Even in the dark, I see his nod when I ask, “Singh-Smith?”
He gets up from where he knelt next to a set of shelves, sliding something into his pocket.
He’s taller than me, once standing.
Could be armed and dangerous.
But Smallbone was right about one thing—Heligans are idealistic. I want to believe George Heppel wouldn’t put his trust in someone crooked. Wouldn’t vouch for him by bringing him to a society dinner to help him find a patron. Part of me doesn’t care if this man is the thief I first thought. Not if he steals something that leaves Smallbone stinging as much as his gossip stung me. Everything he said so blithely is seawater in a cut no amount of time heals. Despite that, I make myself partially do the right thing.
“Put back whatever it is you just stole.”
Singh-Smith doesn’t answer. Or at least he doesn’t right away. Not until footsteps click along the hallway. Then he gets verbal in a hurry. “I haven’t stolen anything,” he whispers. He also pushes past me, or tries to.
I stop him, and he struggles until I shove him against the wall and mention his old employer. “What about the Heppels? Did you steal from George too?”
“No!” He stills as footsteps approach. Another door along the hallway creaks open. “I wouldn’t ever steal from them,” he whispers. “Or from anyone. I’m not a thief. I’m—”
“An archivist? An historian-in-residence? Those seem perfect covers for someone light-fingered.” We’re hip-to-hip, no disguising a bulge between us, for once not a penis pleased to see me. It’s something even harder. “Unless you particularly get off on the thought of getting caught in the act, whatever’s in your pocket says you’re a liar.”
I half expect him to struggle again. To escape, or at least try to. I’m not prepared for his snort of laughter. Or for a passing car to light the flash of a wide smile.
“Oh, I don’t mind an element of danger,” he murmurs, “but only with men I trust, not with complete strangers. And what’s in my pocket is all mine.”
“A likely story.” The click of footsteps resumes, another door opening even closer to this room. “Tell it to Smallbone. I’m sure he’ll believe you.”
I’m actually certain of the opposite. Maybe this man is too. Light glints off an incisor digging into his lip again.
"Put it back," I urge him, doing what my grandfather modelled through my wilful childhood, appealing to my better nature. "Whatever it is can't be worth everyone talking about how you fooled George Heppel, can it? That he gave you the run of his home when you were a thief the whole time? Do you want people to think that about him? That you're a petty criminal who pulled the wool over his eyes instead of—" I repeat one of the descriptors my grandfather mentioned. "—someone who investigates family trees for their living? Put it back, or I can't defend you. You're on your own the minute that door opens."
And it will soon. We both know it, those footsteps ever closer.
He wets his lip. That sheen catches the scant light. So do his eyes—bright yet bottomless as he asks a desperate question. “You mean there’s another option? A way to explain why I’m in here?”
“If you return what you’ve taken? Yes. That’s a promise.” Heligans don’t break those.
He shoves against me one more time as though testing my strength.
We're well-matched that way even if he has a height advantage. I wouldn't exactly say we scuffle, but I've always enjoyed a bit of mutual tussling with someone up for… Well, maybe not for a fight, but there's precious little of the physicality I love in being a reluctant banker.
Him pushing me is physical enough that my breathing quickens. His does too, and it’s the most excitement I’ve had in ages.
Of course, Smallbone ruins it. Or tries to. He slams another door along the hallway, signalling as clear as day that he’s coming. That he’ll find us. That both our careers might be over.
“Okay, okay,” my thief whispers. “But I didn’t steal it.” He rummages in his pocket, shoving whatever he’d taken onto a shelf beside us. His gaze darts to the door, and I like what I see—not panic but determination along with a hint of that fury I first glimpsed through the window. “Whatever the other option is, I’ll take it.”
I make it happen, and yes I might be a more compact version of every Heligan before me, but I’m more than strong enough to hoist him up and pivot. “Pretend you’re with me and make it look convincing.”
“Yes.” I sink with him onto a sofa. He straddles me there and I catch the back of his head, only pausing long enough to warn him.
“I’m going to kiss you—”
Outside, Smallbone stamps ever closer.
“—so don’t bite my bloody tongue off.
I can't wait for you to read what happens next. (Of course Rex's story was always going to start with a bang!)
Finding Mr. Fabulous is currently with my editor so I'm on track to publish it well before the April 26th release date.
This excerpt is exclusive to newsletter subscribers and may not be reproduced