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Sol: Learning to Love #2

 

Chapter One

 

 

Sol lowered his paintbrush after midnight and glanced over his shoulder.

 

What was that?

The art studio was empty, almost derelict, like the rest of this old building, cavernous with only one lamp battling its shadows. The light flickered, and in the wall of glass beside his easel, Sol saw his own reflection, listening with his ear cocked.

 

Nothing.

Trees crowded on the far side of the glass as if ready to reclaim the building—steal it from the boarding school it belonged to and return it to nature. Ivy had already found ways to creep in. Sol nudged a leaf with his paintbrush, its tip the same deep green that bordered the portrait he worked on.

 

There’s still something missing.

From his smile, maybe?

 

Ugh, I should scrap it and start over.

 

Another sound cracked the shell of silence he always worked his best in. An owl’s hoot, maybe? He’d seen plenty swoop past in the year and a half he’d lived here. Bats too, darting between this gothic structure and the tree line at twilight. They’d flitted past the glass when he’d started to paint that evening, Sol making the most of being alone before the school year started.

In a few days, he’d be surrounded by people from breakfast time to dinner, crammed into a classroom too small for his students’ clamour. But for now, here in a studio the rest of the world had forgotten, he could paint until dawn if he wanted.

I might need to pull a few all-nighters to get this done in time for Marissa’s birthday.

He stood back and studied a portrait that should already be finished. His nephew Cameron smiled out from the canvas, but Sol didn’t return his grin. Couldn’t. Not while something about his smile wasn’t convincing. Cameron’s eyes were accurate, he decided, ink-dark like his own if a touch less shadowed.

Does his smile need revision?

Cameron hadn’t given him much to work with lately, moody, fifteen, and pushing every boundary. Sol came back to his easel and flipped the painting, checking proportions, but whatever was wrong still didn’t jump out. He tilted his head to reconsider, and something in his neck clicked, the crack gunshot loud in a space it still felt strange to be alone in.

I should be happy that Cameron’s moved out to live with the boarding students again. Pleased that he’ll make friends, and I’ll get the whole flat upstairs to myself. There’s no reason to worry about him. He’s at the bottom of the hill, not in another country.

But habits he’d formed since becoming Cameron’s guardian were hard to shake off.

I'll check my phone. That sound might have been him calling.

He turned out the lamp, plunging a studio that hadn’t housed students for decades into darkness until his eyes adjusted. Moonlight spilled in, leaving his painting silvered.

Now Cameron looked like Marissa.

Sol studied his sister’s face, not his nephew’s, her eyes alive with humour, smile hinting that she would tease him at any moment. He turned away rather than see it and hurried upstairs. The steps up to his staff flat creaked, and the sound of water dripping echoed, but as he opened the door to his flat, all he heard was silence.

He scooped his phone up from where it charged, seeing a missed call but not from his nephew.

Austin.

What did his ex want, after more than a year of zero contact?

He headed for his bedroom, switching on a light that flickered like his lamp downstairs had, and discarded his phone on the bedside table. Better that than return a call, which at this time of night, might be a drunk reprise of complaints Sol couldn’t fix.

It rang again almost as soon as he started to undress, his shirt partially unbuttoned as he answered.

“What do you want?”

Austin didn’t answer right away, prompting a stab of remorse for gruffness that should have lessened by now. Sol asked another, gentler question. “You okay, Aus?”

“Yes.” Austin’s voice was familiar, brittle in a way he’d only noticed after bringing Cameron home to live with them. “Can you talk?”

“It’s late. Can it wait?”

Again, Austin didn’t answer, the pause longer this time before he sighed.

That sound gave Sol flashbacks. He closed his eyes and saw Austin picking through the debris that living with a teen had scattered, not saying that he hated the invasion, unless their bedroom door had been closed, but showing it plenty.

“Listen, Aus—” Sol started, but Austin found his voice.

“It’s your sister’s birthday at the end of the month, isn’t it?”

Sol sat on the edge of the bed. “How—?”

“I got a calendar reminder.”

Of course, he had. Austin’s whole life was scheduled. Had been since they’d met in their last year of uni, every minute timetabled for career progression. At the time, that had fascinated Sol. Had been a case of opposites attracting. But when it mattered, he hadn’t been what Sol needed. Cameron either.

“It made me think that it was time I got back in touch with you.” Austin didn’t exactly sigh again, but his tone caught Sol’s attention, not brittle now but somehow fragile. “Video call?” he asked. “I’m not calling to pick up where we left off, but it would be good to see you.”

Seconds later, Austin filled Sol’s phone screen, his shirt partially unbuttoned as well. He’d loosened his tie, and his fair hair was tousled instead of neat, for once. “Hi,” he said, and for a moment, a smile Sol used to wake up next to flickered like the lightbulb above him.

“Hi.” Sol swallowed around a lump of something he’d almost forgotten.

Regret at how they’d ended?

No.

It had been better to find out they hadn’t been cut out for the long haul at the first bump they’d hit in the road. After all, opposites couldn’t attract forever, could they? “How can you look thinner, Aus?” he finally managed to ask. “There was nothing of you to start with.”

Austin’s weak smile strengthened. “I got a new job. Tons of presentations,” he said with relish. “Meeting lots of new people.” The thought made Sol’s insular skin crawl. “Too busy to eat most days.”

“That’s not a good thing. And another new job? What happened to the one in Cheltenham?” That had been Austin’s get out of jail card. His reason to leave them both in London right when Cameron had needed a steady presence.

“I’ve been headhunted. That’s the reason I’m calling.” Austin’s voice switched back to brittle. “I’ve been to dinner with my new boss tonight. He told me a few things.” He pulled his tie all the way off, his shirt collar shifting with the movement, revealing love bites as stark on his throat as the tattoos inked on Sol’s chest.

“Those from your new boss too? I’m surprised his mouth was free for long enough to talk.” Sol tapped the side of his neck. Austin’s free hand flew to the marks he’d noticed, his palm barely big enough to hide them.

Fuck, that looks more like a savaging than a love bite.

“I didn’t want—” Austin recovered his composure, lowering his hand to grab a glass of red wine that sloshed before he gulped a mouthful. “I didn’t call you to talk about that. It’s none of your business.” He lifted his chin in a way that Sol had also almost forgotten; Austin’s degree could have been in defensiveness instead of management accounting. “Besides, I’m sure you’re seeing other people. Found a boyfriend yet? Or a girlfriend this time?” His eyes narrowed. “Or did you hook up with that old flame, now you’re back in Cornwall?”

“I don’t have any old flames here.”

Apart from Jace Pascoe, his past whispered.

“Huh.” Austin took another sip, his lips stained a deep garnet. “Not even that one you never got over? I thought that was why you chose to move back there.”

Outside, another lone owl hooted. “It’s too late for this, Austin.” Too late for point-scoring. For revisiting confessions made before they’d got together that Austin hadn’t ever forgotten. Too late for anything but getting to the reason for this phone call. “What did you call me for?”

Austin pushed his hair back from his forehead, his eyes huge now that his face was so much thinner. “I looked you up on LinkedIn. Are you really still working at that boarding school?”

“Glynn Harber? Yeah. Why?”

Austin emptied his glass. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Because, setting aside the fact that I’m amazed you’re teaching when you top the charts for introversion, I thought you might want to know that it’s in trouble. The school, I mean.” He leaned forward and whispered, “Big trouble. I’m not meant to tell anyone,” as though someone might overhear him.

“What kind of trouble?”

“Money.” Austin shrugged. “Same as lots of small private schools. They don’t have strength in numbers like my new employer.”

“You’re working for a school now?”

“Kind of, but not exactly. I’m still in accounting. The company that headhunted me has fingers in lots of school pies. I’m one step away from making junior partner.”

He should have been happy about reaching that rung of the corporate ladder ahead of his own schedule, but Sol saw Austin worry at his lip.

“That’s how I heard about your school going under. You should get out before it happens, Sol. I’ve emailed you the details of a vacancy at the school I’ll be based in for a while.”

“In Cheltenham?”

“No. In Bristol. I’m here in a hotel until I find a place to rent.” He tried to sip from his glass again before realising it was empty. “It’s a nice city. And a good school. Great exam results, and zero tolerance for bad behaviour.”

That was a dig Sol ignored. He wasn’t about to move his nephew away from Cornwall again, not after he’d already dragged him to live in London once before giving up and returning. And not when the last couple of years had been so rocky for him. Plus, Glynn Harber was a busy school, hardly one on the brink of closure.

His gaze snagged on his flickering lightbulb and the water stains on the ceiling.

 

Okay, so it could do with some investment, but it was hardly failing. His classes last year had been crowded. Too crowded for the poky classroom he’d been allocated until this building was renovated. Bustling in a way that still made his soul twitch and wish for his old life working alone, before—

No.

He wouldn’t wish for a life before Cameron. Or for a life with Austin again, although he didn’t think that was why he’d called him.

“Take a look at the job ad I’ve emailed to you,” Austin said, then froze as someone knocked on the door behind him. And there—right there—was more of that fragility Sol had noticed. Austin glanced at the door and then turned back to his phone, both his eyes and his voice pleading. “Listen, I never told you I was sorry for giving you an ultimatum. Now I can see that I put you in a tough spot. Gave you no choices but bad ones to pick from.” He glanced over his shoulder again before adding, “Read my email, will you?”

 

Another knock landed on his door, harder this time.

Austin ended the call without giving him time to answer. Or to ask if Austin was okay. Sol sent a text to do that, and Austin pinged him back with a thumbs up.

Sol cradled his phone for a long time, thinking. Then he pulled off his clothes and got into bed, the lateness of the hour tugging at him.

Austin still filled his thoughts. It had been good if strange to see him. A laying of old ghosts, maybe? But as dawn streaked the gap between his curtains with pink, his thoughts circled back to one of Austin’s questions.

Or did you hook up with that old flame?

Hook up with Jace Pascoe?

Fat chance now he lives on the far side of the Atlantic.

 

***

Want to find out what happens when Sol discovers his old flame is much closer than he thought?

Pre-order Sol: Learning to Love #2 here and find out on October 14th!

All books in the series standalone, but if you haven't already read book one, you might enjoy reading Charles first, here!