Familiar or Not

an excerpt

Chapter One

Strolling around his gallery, Julen paused to glance out of the window. A rather tattered mummy shuffled past, waving jovially as he noticed Julen's attention. Rolling his eyes, Julen turned away. It was the same every year. Halloween was still several weeks away, but the stores were stuffed full of fake cobwebs and plastic spiders, orange and black was de rigueur, and people were already holding parties complete with tatty mummies, ratty werewolves, and batty vampires.

Stopping in front of a mirror near the door, Julen patted his hair. Thick, long, and gloriously lavender, he smirked. Halloween. Meh! On the positive side, living in New Zealand meant that Halloween was a harbinger of summer.

The melodic chimes heralded a customer, but when Julen looked around, it was only his Aunt Cassandra.

"How are you, dear? Just wanted to pop in and say ‘hello'."

"Hello, Auntie." Julen dutifully kissed her on each cheek. It wasn't as if he didn't see Cassandra regularly. They lived in the same apartment block. He raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow. "And what else?"

"Oh, nothing in particular." Cassandra waved a hand around. "You know, these masks are perfect for this time of year. Perhaps you should get more in."

Shaking his head, Julen stood with his hands on his hips. "My shop sells native and primitive art, as well as my more modern stuff upstairs. The masks, and the other art works, sell well all year round. You know I dislike Halloween. Far too commercial now."

"You really should enter more into the spirit of things, dear." Cassandra wagged a finger at him. "I mean, look at you. Lilac. What kind of colour is lilac for any self-respecting witch? Not content with that ridiculous jumpsuit, you've even dyed your hair."

With a laugh, Julen twirled around. "Actually, it's lavender. I suppose you want me in black."

"Julen! That suit looks sprayed on. There's nothing wrong with black. But you can always wear something red, or orange to add colour. Just like me."

His aunt's scandalised tone only made Julen laugh harder. While the suit wasn't sprayed on, it didn't leave much to the imagination either, and you certainly didn't wear undies unless you wanted unsightly lines. He'd left his boots with his coat. His shop had glorious underfloor heating, and he loved to walk around in bare feet. The freedom fitted his more bohemian attitude.

Cassandra was by contrast, and as always, immaculately dressed. Her black, above the knee skirt was teamed with a black cashmere sweater, and her crimson pashmina matched the elegant red wool hat tilted at the perfect angle. The splash of colour was further accented by the red stripe down her black boots.

Immaculate. And dull. Not at all the look that Julen enjoyed.

"So, what do you think of our new neighbour? I believe he works just across the road from you?"

Cassandra's artificially casual tone didn't fool Julen for a minute. "I've met him, chatted a few times, and that's it, Auntie. He's a human."

"So? He's a very attractive human. There's nothing wrong with them, you know."

"Yes, I do know." Julen sighed. "Look, I know my lack of a love life worries you. I just haven't met my Mr Right."

"You need to let yourself go a little. You won't find Mr Right squirreling yourself away and not going out. I thought Aleck a very charming man. Perhaps we could have a soiree, invite him along, and get to know him a little better?"

"I don't think so, Auntie. Don't interfere. You know that's a recipe for disaster."

"What possible harm can there be in having a little Halloween party, and welcoming Aleck to our community? I'll work on it. I also wanted to remind you that your brother and his band are playing at the Charmstone tonight. Now I know you like being a home bunny, but it would be nice for him to have our support."

Julen's shoulders slumped. He loved his handsome, gregarious big brother, and knew Nic wouldn't ask him outright to be there. Cassandra played dirty sometimes. He glowered at her, but she simply smiled back at him.

"What time?" Julen folded his arms, trying to be magnanimous in defeat.

"I'll call for you at seven thirty. They do those delicious platters. We can share one. Then we can discuss the party."

"Aunt Cassandra-"

"Bye, dear." Cassandra ignored Julen's growl of her name, kissed his cheeks, and hurried from the shop.

Watching her from his doorway, Julen shook his head. Nothing he said or did now mattered. Whether he wanted one or not, there would be a Halloween party. And Aleck would be there. Julen closed his eyes.

To pretend he wasn't attracted to Aleck would be an outright lie. There was something very appealing about those mocha eyes, and the dark stubble, and the fact the man was broad and muscular hit Julen's buttons hard. However, he was also staid, not one for small talk, and shown nothing more than a polite, neighbourly interest in a somewhat flamboyant art shop owner who happened to live a floor above him.

"I have a bad feeling about this."