Charles Heppel usually got to his knees for one of two good reasons. The first was his vocation, telling stories to young children while down on their level. He shouldn’t mention his second reason for kneeling, not while in charge of an infant, but today he got to his knees for a brand-new reason.
“I’m not hiding,” he told the baby he carried. “I’m saving Uncle Rex from himself.” Charles peered around his Land Rover, watching a stranger who’d shared their train down from London, and who now waited in the station doorway. “Because we both heard what that man said on his phone, didn’t we?”
The baby blinked, his blue eyes wide and solemn, which meant this was a learning moment—a chance for Charles to roleplay emotion—so, he made a comical, shocked face. “He promised your Uncle Rex a happy ending!”
The baby clapped his hands then, his laugh a rusty gurgle that Charles would echo if he wasn’t trying to stay hidden. Instead, he murmured, “That isn’t a good thing, Adam. Not like in your bedtime stories.” He peered again, keeping his voice low. “Because Rex’s wedding is only a week away, and he’s turned over a new leaf.” Charles was certain of that, but maybe this visitor wasn’t. “And that’s not the worst thing he promised Uncle Rex, is it?”
The object of his scrutiny turned as if he heard that whispered question, so Charles scuttled sideways. “He promised him that Devesh wouldn’t find out. We can’t let that happen, can we?”
Charles craned his neck, observing blond hair and a pretty face. “He is Rex’s usual type though.” The man even had a lively smile as if the world amused him. But Charles couldn’t let himself be swayed by someone who looked a good time, or by a momentary kindness on the train that he now reconsidered.
“It was nice of him to give back your fish when you dropped it.” Charles wiggled a toy with shimmering scales. “He pretended it was almost too slippery to hold, didn’t he?” And that had stopped Adam from crying, but it couldn’t excuse preemptive marriage wrecking, could it?
Charles worried at his lip, one Adam poked at with a tiny finger, prompting him to keep talking. “Your slippery-fish rescuer might be a jolly kind person, and he certainly looks like a fun time, but if he gives Uncle Rex a happy ending, it could end in disaster.”
Charles frowned, the baby copying, trying out every emotion Charles modelled for him.
“Of course, it could be that Devesh is on board with sharing.” Charles thought again. “But I don’t think he is. Or at least not that kind, even though sharing is his whole job. But share his finacé?” Charles shook his head, which the baby also mirrored. “I’ve seen how Devesh looks at Rex. Like this…”
He pretended to chomp on Adam’s belly as if he’d gobble him up, loving how he squirmed and giggled. Loving that his tummy was so much rounder these days as well, his underfed days long over. It made saying this easy. “You see, there’s nothing wrong with being loved by lots of people. You’re loved by me and Daddy, aren’t you?”
The baby copied his firm nod.
“And by everyone at home, like Uncle George and your cousins. By Rex and Devesh and the duke, who I’m almost certain would keep you on Kara-Enys if I let him. You’re loved by Guy who fills our freezer with all your lovely dinners, and by Ian who takes your photos. Everyone at school adores you, and don’t even get me started on how much Keir and Mitch spoil you, but you see, Rex only used to love people with one long and pointy part of his body. Lately, he’s been doing it with his whole heart.”
“Da?” the baby asked.
“Yes, he’s been loving Uncle Devesh with everything that he’s got.” Charles was as sure of that as he could be, listing examples while keeping an eye on this pretty interloper. “He’s been much better at taking time off work to fly up to Devesh every weekend. And he can’t stop touching him. I mean, he was always handsy,” Charles allowed. “But Rex’s heart? That was always off limits.” Or maybe walled-off was a better descriptor. One that had crumbled lately, thank goodness. “Now it’s like Devesh is his magnet. He can’t stay away from him.” And didn’t Charles know how that felt?
He thought of Hugo, his heart clenching at Rex losing out on similar happiness for a one-off with someone pretty from the city.
“I can’t believe Rex would risk it. Not when he and Devesh are so compatible. I can tell they are whenever they stay at the rectory with us.”
Maybe he should let them know how thin the bedroom walls were.
“So I know they don’t have issues in the bedroom. It’s far too soon for that honeymoon to be over.” He hugged Adam. “Especially as they haven’t even had the wedding yet.”
“Da,” the baby agreed, back to solemn.
Charles shifted Adam to his other hip so he could lean out further, narrowing his eyes at a stranger who wasn’t only pretty. His smile also came with dimples. They deepened as he scrolled on his phone, looking cute instead of bad news. “He really is Rex’s old type.” Charles let out a long sigh that the baby copied. Then he kissed a cheek that had filled out lately.
Adam was finally flourishing, and wasn’t that the perfect word for Rex too? “He has flourished since he and Devesh got together. I’ve never seen him happier, and believe me, Adam, I’ve seen Uncle Rex through several happy endings of my own.” Frankly, Charles was surprised at what he’d overheard on the train—and more than a little sad about it.
Also, he wasn’t sure of his own judgement, not when this seemed out of character for someone as loved-up as Rex. That prompted him to slip out his phone to ask for a second opinion. “Hugo. I need to ask you a question. Are you busy?” Charles had to speak up over the noise of a train arriving. “And can you hear me?”
“Just about. Go ahead. I’ve always got time to listen to you.” And didn’t that sum up what Charles wanted for Rex? This kind of love and commitment? Surely that was worth more than any other happy ending?
“Okay.” Charles took a deep breath. “What would you do if you thought a good friend was about to go off the rails?”
“Off the rails? What do you mean, Charles?” Hugo kept listening, giving him the time to voice his worries.
“I mean, what would you do if someone you loved dearly was about to make a big mistake? At least, I’m guessing it would be a mistake.” Charles spoke up over the rattle and hum of that train. “What would you say if they got up close and personal with someone young and pretty?”
Hugo choked on what sounded like laughter. “Charles, if this is your way of telling me you’ve suddenly found the energy for sex, I’d probably think you were fibbing.”
“Because you told me this morning that your penis must be broken. You were just tired, Charles, just like you were exhausted last night when you ran out of steam midway through making dinner.”
“Thank you for taking over. I know it was my turn. I was just…”
“Wiped out because you’ve been losing sleep over Adam’s first speech therapy session?” Hugo suggested. “How did it go? What did the speech therapist say?”
Every Rex-related worry faded at that reminder of why they’d been on the train in the first place. “Oh, the speech therapist said Adam is perfect.” Charles kissed that chubby cheek again. “She said he’ll say something other than da soon. He’s soaking up all the vocab we’re giving him like a sponge. She played games that proved it. Like saying cup but giving him the choice of a cup or plate to point at. He got every single one right. He knows the words—can process them with no problem. That’s more than half the battle.”
“That’s wonderful news.”
“She says he’s already got intonation down. She understood what each da meant just like we do. He is communicating. And she said it’s no surprise that he’s taking his fine old time after his tough start.”
The noise of the train departing almost masked Hugo’s murmur. “Good. I know you were worried but I also had every faith in your instinct that he would develop in his own time, like I have every faith that you aren’t about to run off with someone prettier than me.”
Now Charles had trouble speaking, a lump in his throat at exactly the kind of trust he so wanted for Rex. “I’m coming home now,” he managed to get out. “And I’ll make dinner.”
“Too late,” Hugo told him. “I’ve prepped it while we’ve been talking. Now, who is it that you’re really worried about?”
“Da!” Adam batted Charles in the face with his fish again. “Da! Da! Da!”
Charles struggled to hold what suddenly seemed a very slippery fish of his own. “Calm down, Adam. I’m talking to your daddy—”
“About me?” Rex said from behind him. He also reached for Adam, who wriggled wildly until he was safe in his godfather’s arms.
Charles got up from his knees, his phone still raised to his ear. “Where did you come from?”
Rex pointed across the road from the car park, his helicopter in a field beyond it. Then he focussed on Adam. “Your daddy always liked my big chopper.”
Over the phone, Hugo’s chuckle came with a long-suffering sigh. “I’ll see you at home, Charles.” Some sage advice also followed. “Why don’t you trust your instincts again?”
Charles took a deep breath and did that. “You love Devesh, don’t you, Rex.” It wasn’t a question. He was sure of it the moment he said it.
Rex was equally convinced. “More than anything. Otherwise, why would I sneak away like this to meet Jack to collect the wedding ring I commissioned for him?”
Jack wasn’t only pretty. He was also Rex’s PA, who handed over a treasure he’d brought from Southall. “Because my boss here was terrified a courier would lose it.”
Rex took the small, square box Jack passed to him. “I was going to wait to get him a ring when we were in Jaipur—find Dev something made by a local craftsman. But then his grandmother offered me something perfect.”
Rex showed off a ring. It shimmered in the sunlight.
“Oh!” Charles took it. “It’s iridescent. And silvery like a mackerel.”
“Yes.” Rex took it back. “They’re scales made by Dev’s great-grandfather, taken from a carving of a—”
And that’s how Charles heard his son’s very first word in a station car park.
Adam shouted, “Fish!”
He felt so much better.
I do love writing bonus scenes. I hope this one was fun for you too.
There will be more from Jack in December!
In the meantime, my next book is set on a farm alongside those treacherous cliffs Rex pointed out to Dev.
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