The Bruise-Black Sky

an excerpt



Chapter One

"Why do you think your mother married your father? Given what he was-and don't say women always think with their wombs. It's annoying."

"In my mother's case, sadly, it's probably true. She was pregnant. With us. Me."

"Oh, sorry, I didn't think of that. Why did she-?"

"Ben, I've told you the story of Sergei and my mother many, many times. I can't tell it to you all again!"

Ben looked chastened and laid aside the photograph he was studying. Nikolas smirked quietly as he took a drag on his cigarette. It was one of the most convenient advantages of having a boyfriend who had only recovered his memory six months ago, that he could, when he wanted to, avoid questions he didn't want to answer, pretend he'd told Ben something before. As Nikolas very rarely wanted to be interrogated about anything, he used this tactic quite often. Ben was under the impression he remembered a lot less than he actually did. It was doubly convenient, Nikolas reflected, as it kept Ben off balance about the accuracy of the things he did recall, and thus truths could now be distorted...

Six months on and he was smoking openly.

One day, it might occur to Ben that hating Nikolas smoking didn't really fit well with apparently also giving him full permission to do just that.

Things were working very well indeed for Nikolas.

Most satisfactory...

Ben had moved onto another photo. Nikolas could see it out of the corner of his eye. He knew Ben would only be seeing two identical blond boys on a windswept beach, matching jerseys and shorts, one centre frame, smiling for the camera, one a little off to the side, staring angrily at the crashing waves. Nikolas recollected it slightly differently-a little boy being clucked at by doting grandparents, "Look, Nina, Nika's so adorable, take a picture of him with his bucket and spade," and the other, standing to the side, thinking, I have a bucket and spade, too. Why don't you want a picture of me?

He'd got in the photo though. That was all that counted.

He plucked the picture from Ben's fingers and swapped it with one of him in his uniform. Not a general-yet-but it was impressive, nevertheless. Ben snorted and took up another from Denmark and the childhood he'd been excluded from but appeared to want now for his own.

Nikolas took another drag on his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke over the bed, his other hand idly stroking Ben's firm, naked backside, warm from the bright sunlight pouring in through the glass roof.

He didn't have time for this lazing around and reliving old times. He was pondering the most worrying dilemma he'd ever had in his life, a life that had not stinted itself when throwing up problems for him. He had just begun yet another list of pros and cons in his head for this latest one, thought of a good title-pros and cons-mentally underlined it and had the first entry, when he heard an irritating tapping noise.

"What are you doing?"

"Sending a text."

"Ah, that's what that thing is-a phone. I meant who are you texting?"

"Emilia."

"Tell her Bronislav is well."

"I'll tell her Mr Darcy is, yeah."

Emilia and Nikolas disagreed on her horse's name. No one gave him any sympathy (or respect). They refused to acknowledge he was still recovering from a recent existential crisis where he'd had to admit to a group of men that he was gay. Nuzzling a horse whilst calling it Mr Darcy was too much to expect on top of this.

"What does ‘has he said yes yet' mean?"

Nikolas grunted. "I have no idea."

"Said yes to what?"

"I don't know, Ben! Tell her no he hasn't."

"Nik..."

Nikolas swiped Ben's phone from his hand and tossed it across the room into the armchair. Ben would have probably protested, but he was being entered, and that always took his whole focus.

It was why Nikolas sometimes seized him unexpectedly and took him so abruptly-it stopped the annoying nagging for a while.

In this case, it also allowed him to return to his terrible dilemma.

Ben could have had no idea when he'd offered to get a tattoo that it would turn into such a huge thing in Nikolas's mind. Six months on, it was still temporary, still being drawn on and embellished every so often. At the moment, it had the addition of an arrow. The simple M turned into an N and then an A, the middle V was now shaped as an arrow pointing down into Ben's smooth cleft. This was only a joke Nikolas had added few days ago, but it was indicative of the problem obsessing him: he wanted Ben branded as his, but, at the same time, he didn't want him marked or altered in any way. Ben had done that once to go undercover-blond hair, blue eyes, tattoo-and Nikolas hadn't liked it one bit. So thus, the painful predicament...Label Ben as his...but consequently mark him. It was too awful to decide, but the pondering of it, which always involved the temporary drawing being studied and stroked, inevitably led to studying and stroking a little lower, and hence they were in bed in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and not, as Ben remarked, out saving the world.

Ben joked about a lot of things these days. Being without his memory had apparently been a holiday for Benjamin Rider-Mikkelsen from which he'd returned...impudent. Nikolas had been forced to tread a very fine line in his own home. Or Ben's house, anyway. To be fair to Ben, Nikolas had been given permission to do what he liked in his London property. Snort snuff porn or watch coke, Ben claimed he didn't care. Nikolas knew, however, Ben was lying about both these assertions, and that he'd be in very serious trouble if he did either-right way around or not.

It wasn't fair.

Also (and yes, he was whining in his head; who else did he have to complain to?), he now had to tiptoe around Babushka. When he and Ben had tentatively suggested she come and live with them in England, although they fully understood if she said no, given she had a lifetime of friends in her home town in Siberia, Ulyana Ivanovna had chortled that they were all old fogeys and sent designs for her new cottage. So they were building her a cabin in the grounds while she temporarily resided in one of the guest suites.

Babushka adored Nikolas, but unfortunately for him, that adoration had taken the form of...mothering...deciding what was best for him...attempts to improve him...

He was-

"Hey!" Ben rolled over, dislodging Nikolas. "Am I in this bed on my own?"

And if that didn't exactly prove his point! Since when did Benjamin Rider-Mikkelsen comment on his technique?

Ben mocked-punched Nikolas and then pulled him down to lie on top of him, kissing around his stubble and biting gently into his neck. "Do you need a rest, old man?"

Nikolas rose, sleek and genuinely furious, over the chuckling figure beneath. Ben shook his head fondly, glancing at Nikolas's cock, which was heavy and risen with thwarted desire. "No, I didn't think so. Stop thinking and more fucking, maybe?"

Things were going to have to change again.

This was just intolerable.

***

As soon as they were done, Ben padded to the kitchen ostensibly to make them both some tea. He actually headed straight for Nikolas's phone, which had been left on the counter when the need for sex had overwhelmed them just before lunch. He picked it up and snorted faintly at the Harry Black tape holding it together. He'd bought Nikolas a new phone for his birthday a couple of months ago, but Nikolas preferred this one. It needed tapping occasionally to get going, but it worked. It was the only thing in Nikolas's life that was not...perfect...just so...and it said a lot about Nikolas that Ben would never attempt to explain to someone who only saw the surface man and judged him on how he behaved or what he said.

He tapped the screen gently now, scrolled to the inbox and found a communication trail of twenty recent texts between Nikolas and Emilia.

Of course, Ben wasn't allowed to read Nikolas's communications-phone, email, or letter. Of course he wasn't. That was just understood between them.

Ben quickly discovered what "has he said yes" meant. Emilia was about to complete her first year at the wildly expensive boarding school Nikolas paid for her to attend in Scotland. She'd invited them both, with her grandmother, to the end of year events-speech day, fete, dinner, and a ball...

She'd invited them.

Them both. As a couple.

Nikolas Mikkelsen and Ben Rider-Mikkelsen.

The formal invitation was in the post, she'd emphasised.

Uh-huh.

Ben went back across the swim lane, through the bedroom, dodged Nikolas's hopeful attempt to drag him back to bed, ignored the complaint about the absence of tea, and went into Nikolas's study. He rummaged through the pile of correspondence on the desk. Who had handwritten letters these days? Why was it all in Russian?

He found the gold-embossed invitation under a hopeful begging letter from the Mare and Foal Sanctuary, which was only a couple miles away from them. Faces of sad, abused ponies with bedraggled coats and tiny, shaky foals made him wince.

Emilia had signed the card herself in purple ink and added a smiley face.

The event was next week, and she was still asking for their reply!

He went back into the bedroom, snatched up his own phone and began to reply to her text.

"What are you doing? Where's my tea?"

He finished the acceptance. Yes didn't take long to type, after all.

He tossed the phone back onto the chair and returned to the kitchen to find a snack for himself. If Nikolas wanted tea, he'd have to shift his lazy butt to find some.

Ben had to concentrate these days to be the boss in this relationship, as it didn't come naturally to him. Acquiescence was his default setting. But if he acted before thinking, snatched every opportunity to control and corral Nikolas, and tried not to worry about the consequences, he managed to stay ahead of his natural desire to lie back and let Nikolas decide everything. Hard work, but worth it.

He had the advantage that Nikolas was totally confused and off-balance about what he remembered and what he didn't.

When it suited him, when the timing was just right, Ben planned to recall that he hadn't given Nikolas permission to smoke at all. He wanted to let Nikolas enjoy his nicotine fix for a bit longer so the giving up again was additionally difficult. It was good for Nikolas to be challenged. Character building.

He smirked as he poured himself a nice, strong cup of tea and cut a large slice of cake just for himself, and sat at the kitchen table with Radulf at his feet.

Life was good.

Most satisfactory...

Nikolas Mikkelsen was free to walk any time he wanted. Clearly, he didn't want to.

He wished he'd thought of this strategy for dealing with Nikolas nine years ago. Or not. It was only fun because Nikolas kicked so hard against the pricks, so to speak.

He saw a stack of outgoing correspondence, much of it also in Russian. One envelope was in English, however, addressed to the Mare and Foal Sanctuary. Not yet sealed. He opened it. Do, then think. It was challenging, but if he didn't practise, he'd lose the momentum.

He pulled out a cheque for a million pounds in Nikolas's beautiful, cursive writing.

Ben swallowed deeply, his hand shaking a little.

He put the donation reverently back into the envelope.

He poured another cup of tea, cut a new slice of cake, and took them carefully over the bridge into their bedroom.

Sometimes his decision to entirely corral and control Nikolas was subverted by the fathomless depths of the love he held for him.

***

Nikolas discovered they had accepted Emilia's invitation that evening when he returned to the house from the under-construction cottage in the grounds. He liked visiting the builders, and not for the reason Ben accused him of. Had he been gifted with another life-one that had not seen him incarcerated in a Russian prison when he was seventeen-he would have become an architect or civil engineer. A history that would not have seen him inheriting his grandfather's billions, either, he supposed. Hedonistic indulgence and studying hard at university didn't sit too well together, but he did like building things, designing them. Had anyone bothered to notice him when he was on the beach with his bucket and spade, they'd have witnessed the great constructions he made out of sand and water, damming, channelling and controlling nature. Changing it to suit how he wanted things to be. Nika had collected shells in his bucket and made pretty patterns out of them. Wuss. His castles and fortifications had been superb. Now he had a glass house to his name and soon this cottage built of oak to match the stables and the pavilion alongside the tennis court.

He'd sited it in a clearing in the woods. He understood Babushka instinctively and knew she would want to be surrounded by trees. He'd also countermanded her claim that she only needed two bedrooms-one for herself and one for Emilia during the school holidays-and was having it built with four. He fully expected Ulyana Ivanovna to realise that her lack of English isolated her in her new life and that she would thus want to invite some of her "old fogeys" over to visit. Likewise, Emilia could bring friends from school if she wanted.

Wandering into the kitchen from his successful site visit, he was greeted by the very pleasant sight and smell of Ben cooking.

Six months on, and they were enjoying the fruits of Ben's determination to master the complexities of their state-of-the-art kitchen. He'd sensibly put the Cordon Bleu book Kate had bought him to one side and started with simple things he could understand. Nikolas didn't care too much what Ben cooked because he rarely ate more than a mouthful of anything if he could get away with it, but he did like the whole ambience of the thing-just sitting in the kitchen while Ben was working, watching him, sharing a bottle or two of wine, giving Ben the benefit of his wisdom and experience.

There was nothing he knew about food that Ben wanted to hear, especially anything related to the culinary habits of gulag prisoners, but Ben did like him here and used him as a reference, translator, and taster.

About to tell Ben that the thatching on the cottage roof was starting the next day, Nikolas was blindsided, therefore, when Ben announced, as he was grinding some spices, "I've booked us flights from Exeter to Inverness next week. Tim and Squeezy'll be here to look after Radulf. Or he could go to Philipa's, I suppose."

"What do-?"

"Babushka'll need a new dress for the ball, so Philipa's taking her shopping to Exeter tomorrow-unless you want to take her? Might be easier with the language thing...Can you call her for dinner? We're ready."

"But-"

"Oh, course, I suppose we could drive. Then we could take Radulf, and Babushka could see some of the countryside. That might be cool. What do you think?"

"I-"

"Go call her then. She's watching Strictly-"

"Ben." Nikolas put his hand over Ben's to stop the terrible grinding noise. "What are you talking about?"

"Emilia's end of year next week. We're going."

"I-"

"I know."

"Then why-?"

"Because-"

"Will you fucking let me finish one sentence? Please!"

"Don't swear at me, Nikolas."

Nikolas actually felt his jaw drop a little and had to resist the temptation to tap it shut theatrically. He blinked.

Ben grinned and kissed him. "Go fetch Babushka. Please."

Temporarily flummoxed, but thinking of a suitable reply, Nikolas turned to do as Ben asked and heard a murmured, "We'll practise our dancing later."