“I was talking to my mum.”
There was no reason why those words should send a shiver down Eros’ spine. Wendy Crieff was, as evidenced by Martin’s fond affection for his mother, a perfectly amiable lady. All males must have this basic primordial terror in their hindbrain, Eros mused. Fear of the in-laws. He imagined having Hera as a mother-in-law and shuddered. “Yes, dear?”
Martin opened his mouth for another bite of cheese. Eros placed it with care, brushing Martin’s lower lip with his fingers. They were ensconced on the couch in the living with the coffee table pulled up and spread with finger food.
“Well, I, I mean, we - we’ve never had a proper house-warming. And Fitton’s Euporian festival is in ten days. It would be nice to get together with my family.”
Eros hummed. “County fair day? Sounds delightful.”
Martin shifted, legs brushing against Eros’ “And… after the festival, I’d like to have a celebration here. Small. Just friends and family. Barbecue. That sort of thing. Mum’s dying to see the house.”
“Oh.” Eros considered. “Can you handle hosting a party by yourself?”
“I can cook, you know I can!” Martin protested.
“Yes, darling, and you’re a good one. But for a crowd?”
“Ah.” Martin deflated. Eros took pity on him.
“What about hiring caterers?”
Martin wrinkled his nose. “Not sure I want a bunch of strangers handing out food. Besides, it takes the fun out of a barbecue if you can’t do it yourself.”
“Best be careful Arthur doesn’t help with that,” Eros said. “Imagine the singed eyebrows. You ought to ask your mother to help co-host. But if you are determined, you can have supplies prepared by professionals and still burn the meat on your own..”
“I wouldn’t! But that’s a good idea. Thanks.” Martin leaned over, touched the edge of the table, and reached for a plate by memory. At last he held up a grape with a smile. “You always have the best advice.”
Eros bent his head, nipped the grape free and kissed Martin’s fingers. “Anything for you, dearest.” A thought occurred. “Have you told your family? About me, I mean.”
Martin picked up on his unease. “You mean, telling them I’ve wound up married to the god of love? Not yet, but I was hoping to do it at the party in private. It’s something I’d like kept in the family.”
“You’re an odd one, Martin Crieff,” Eros said. “Do you realise most mortals in your situation would shout the news to the stars? Not ashamed of me, are you?”
Martin leaned away. “No, of course not! But… I don’t want the attention.” His smile was lopsided. “I’m not cut out for that lifestyle, all paparazzi and hangers-on trying to get to you through me. We couldn’t live here any more if people knew. Probably need gates and body guards.”
Eros caught his hand and pressed a kiss to it, penitent. “Very wise.”
Martin turned Eros’ hand over and rubbed a thumb over his knuckles, eyes downcast. “I like being here with you. The privacy.”
“Now you’ve pointed out the detriments, I don’t want to share you with the world after all,” Eros said.
Martin turned his eyes up, squinting into the blackness where Eros sat. “It’ll be nice, having people over.”
“But why didn’t you before?” Eros said. “You’re not a prisoner here! Go out, make friends!” He didn’t enjoy the idea that Martin still felt himself trapped.
Martin shrugged. “I was never much at meeting people, and my… my schedule is odd. Besides, it didn’t seem fair to have a pub night out when you can’t join me.” His cheeks flushed but he essayed a grin. “I live the life of a cat. Between naps in the day, watching telly or playing Flight Sim and work, it’s amazing I have time for you.”
“You’d better. Cat’s life, mm? Are you going to get all promiscuous and rub up against me? Here, kitty.”
Eros picked up a strawberry and held it to Martin’s lips. Martin bit it in half with a snap of his teeth and began to lick the juice trickling down Eros’ fingers. Eros’ cock stirred. “Oh, kitten. You gorgeous thing, you are so good at this. I’m going to make you yowl.”
“If I don’t make you first,” Martin retorted. “I’ve been sleeping with a god named Eros since last Boedromion. It’d be strange if I hadn’t learned a trick or two.” He grasped Eros’ wrist to hold him still. Closing his eyes, he used the tip of his tongue to flick and tease the rest of the strawberry crushed in Eros’ fingers.
Eros’ cock twitched. “ Fuck . You little tease, that tongue of yours will get you in trouble.” Eros said, throat gravelly. “Bed or couch? Choose fast.”
“Here,” Martin said. His eyes were dark, lips pink with juice. “That way, we can have a snack afterwards.”
Eros scooped up the jug of cream meant for the strawberries. “Good kitty. Very practical.” Ah, sweet bliss, having a hot young lover crawl up into his lap, hands already working Eros’ trousers loose. He closed his eyes, the better to imprint the sensations in his memory.
“Good morning, chaps!” Arthur’s cheerful presence filled the Portakabin.
“And good day to you too, Arthur,” Douglas said. “Where’s our master and commander?”
“Doing a libation. I’m going to make tea, d’you want any?”
“Yes, thanks.” Douglas leaned back in his chair and looked at Martin, who was leaning on his hand, blinking at his fuel calculations. “And you, my captain? You look like you need it.”
Martin swallowed, Adam’s apple bobbing and nodded.
Arthur switched on the kettle. “Did you hear? We’re going to fly Lord Leverhulme to Canada! He’s going to -”
“No, no.” Douglas held up a hand. “Don’t tell me. I want to be kept in suspense as to the laird’s reasons.”
“All right. But Canada again! Brilliant! Do you think we’ll see any more polar bears?”
Bored, Douglas twirled a pen, waiting for Martin to field the question. Martin gulped again and shrugged. Douglas lifted a brow. Martin had been uncharacteristically silent since he arrived. “So Martin,” Douglas said, choosing the question with care. “What are your plans for the Euporian festival?”
“What’s the matter, Skip? Cat got your tongue?” Arthur asked.
Douglas watched the flush creep up Martin’s neck and the hunch of his shoulders with enjoyment.
“Fine,” Martin said. “Since you brought it up…”
“Oh, Skip. Your voice is all scratchy!” Arthur was all concern. “I’ll make your tea with honey! And lemon.”
“Don’t use the scented hand-wipes,” Martin begged in his rough voice.
“I’ll do my best for you, Skip... oh, there are the lemons!”
Martin’s eyes slid away at the mention of lemons. Douglas grimaced. “Your plans?” he prompted.
“Yeah.” Martin coughed.
Douglas couldn’t help himself, he really couldn’t. “Sore throat? I hope it’s not contagious.”
Martin flushed redder and shook his head. Douglas grinned. “Oh, Arthur,” he sang out. “Could you fetch my lozenges from my flight bag? The throat kind. You’ll have to rummage a bit, they’re hidden quite deep . ”
“Go to Hades,” Martin croaked. “It’s just a little irritation. This isn’t a joke.”
“Marriage to a god hasn’t made you any less a target for my teasing. And it is funny, my captain.”
“What is?” Arthur wanted to know.
“Martin sounding like a bar singer on a rough night,” Douglas deflected.
“He does a bit,” Arthur agreed. “Here’s your tea, Skip.”
“Thanks.” Martin sipped, saw Douglas watching the movement of his throat with a faint grin and scowled. “See if I invite you to my party.”
“A party? When? Can I come?” Arthur exclaimed.
“After the festival in Fitton. If the weather’s good, there’ll be a barbecue. I wanted to invite you and Carolyn. Douglas too,” Martin added. “If he’ll behave.”
“I’ll even help with the grilling. You haven’t had steak unless you’ve had one cooked by one Douglas Richardson,” Douglas offered.
“Oh, brilliant!” Arthur said. “Can I bring a friend?”
Martin shrugged. “Why not.”
“Bring a friend to what?” Carolyn entered, mini-wine bottle in hand.
“Martin’s Euporian party,” Douglas supplied. “We’re all invited.”
“Your first party, isn't it? We’d be pleased to come,” Carolyn said. “I assume the spread will plentiful, considering your spouse.”
“Will we be meeting your husband at last?” Douglas said.
Martin stiffened and shook his head.
“But won’t he be there?” Arthur asked. “It’s your house, and parties usually go quite late, and you did say he was noc… nock-tickle? He only comes out at night, because of the geese.”
“What?” Carolyn rolled her eyes. “Never mind, don’t explain, Arthur. You mean he’s nocturnal. Dear child, you don’t want to get too close to the gods, believe me. Worship from afar, because they are trouble for mortals when they interact directly.”
“Aw,” Arthur complained.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Douglas said. “They can be quite delightful in their up-close interactions.” He winked at Martin.
Martin bridled. “Douglas, can you not? Winking at your superior officer is not appropriate workplace behaviour!” His voice rasped into a painful pitch.
“Yeah, Douglas, leave Skip alone,” Arthur said. “He can’t talk.”
Carolyn asked, “Martin, whatever is wrong with your voice? Are you coming down with something?” Martin buried his face in his hands.
Douglas couldn’t help chuckling.
The fairy-lights twinkled in the gardens of Red Lodge Farm as the sun began its descent. Martin smiled at his mother as she deftly popped one of the remaining kebabs onto a plate and passed it to a waiting guest. Thank Eros and the heavens that Martin had done as advised and drafted Wendy into the party plans. Bring a friend? Arthur had made several new friends at the festival in Fitton, and now Martin’s garden was full of hungry students from a nearby agricultural college. His mother’s suggestion about arranging for extra garden furniture meant that everyone was comfortable.
Arthur had abandoned his impromptu disc jockey duties and was talking to Martin’s niece and nephew, Agatha and George. Arthur held up a cluster of sparklers and they cheered. Martin watched as Douglas knelt before them and carefully lit the fireworks. “Off with you, don’t get near anyone with those,” Douglas said.
“Arthur, could you go with them?” Martin called. Arthur grinned at him and bounded after the children, waving his own sparkler.
“Perfect weather, isn’t it,” Douglas remarked, wandering to join them. The sleeves of his linen jacket were rolled up to expose strong forearms. He looked casual and handsome, hair falling loose around his face. Martin looked at his own arms, pink from a mild sunburn that was sure to peel and freckle and sighed.
His mother lowered the lid of the grill. “Can I get you a drink, Mr Richardson? Martin?”
“Whiskey, if there’s any, Mrs Crieff, thank you,” Douglas said, on his best behaviour.
“Call me Wendy, please. I’m so pleased to meet one of Martin’s friends.”
“Then I’m Douglas to you,” Douglas said.
Gods, he charms everyone! “I can get it, Mum,” Martin said. “Douglas, I thought you said you were a sober alcoholic?”
Douglas paused, a look of chagrin passing over his face. “Yes. Familiar situations like parties bring up old habits. I don’t know what I was thinking. Just water, please.”
“No, I’ll take care of you, Douglas,” Wendy said with a pat to his arm. Obviously she was feeling sympathetic after that little confession. “You have a nice chat with Martin. I’d love another chance to poke through your kitchen, Martin, if you don’t mind. Your house is so lovely.”
His entire family had been impressed with the tour, though Simon had wondered aloud about a how a god’s taste could run to old English farmhouses. Their awe had been nothing compared to their reaction when Martin revealed the name of his husband to Simon, Caitlin and his mother. Silence had reigned for a few seconds. Then loud astonishment from Simon and Catlin mingled with his mother’s glad congratulations.
“It is quite the place,” Douglas said.
“Yes,” Martin agreed. “Never imagined I’d have anything like this. I like having guests. It gets lonely on my own.”
Douglas’ brow furrowed. “But you’re not on your own.”
“Yes, well,” Martin sighed. His eye fell on a young couple twined together, swaying to the thump of a pop ballad. The westering sun lit their hair with gold. The girl threw her head back and laughed, her rather ordinary lit by the rosy glow until she was beautiful. Or maybe that was just the look of love reflected in her features from her young man, Martin thought.
“Ah, young love,” Douglas said, following his gaze.
“Yes,” Martin said, voice low. “Lucky, aren’t they. They’ll go home, go to bed together, wake up in the same bed in the morning and do it all again tomorrow.”
Regret dropped over him, weighing down his heart. His family thought it was wonderful Martin had Eros, and it was. He had this house, the sex was amazing, they talked. It was lovely. But they didn’t understand. Martin didn’t think anyone could. If someone offered him the chance to change places with that boy this moment? To have an ordinary life, share laughter and kisses not just in the night but in the sunlight? To see your lover, smile at his smile… There was a lump in Martin’s throat. Not for me.
He was aware of Douglas giving him an odd look. “It’s nice, isn’t it,” Martin managed. “Doesn’t look like they need my hus… Eros’ blessing.”
“No, they don’t,” Douglas said.
An awkward silence fell, interrupted by the arrival of his sister Caitlin. Her expression was serious. “Martin, can I talk to you?”
Douglas tilted his head and strolled a short distance away to take a glass from Wendy. Simon joined Caitlin, caging him.
“What is it?” Martin said.
Caitlin pushed her hair back from her face. “I don’t know how to say this, but we’re worried about you. This god stuff was weird right from the start.”
“Are you all right?” Simon said.
“You bring this up now?” Martin said, stung. “You couldn’t have spared a prayer for me before? I’ve been married three seasons!”
“Okay, yes, you’re right, we should have done something earlier,” Caitlin said. “But whenever you called, you were always assuring us everything was fine. It just seemed… off.”
“You seem a little stressed, Martin,” Simon said.
“I’m hosting my first party!”
“Are you happy?” Caitlin asked, straightforward as ever.
Martin hesitated. “It’s not perfect. But yes. I am. I’m… I’m fond of him.” Wasn’t he? He had his flying, and he would try to resign himself to the rest.
“He’s the god of love, of course you’re ‘fond’ of him!” Simon said. “I’d think his godly influence would make anyone more than fond!”
Martin shook his head. “It’s not like that.” But the doubt raised by Simon’s declaration lingered - would Martin even know if he was being subtly influenced? He wasn’t. He wasn’t.
“Okay. Okay.” Caitlin gave Martin a hard hug and glared at Simon. “He says he’s fine, and he looks it. That’s all I needed to know. But if you ever have any problems, Martin, call me.” She gave him a sisterly punch on the bicep and left him with Simon. He rubbed his arm, smiling crookedly.
Simon cleared his throat. “Your husband. He really is… the Eros?”
Martin gave a brief nod. He wondered what Simon would say if he told him he’d known Eros since he was a child. It had been a wonderful secret for so long. But no. He was reluctant to even bring it up with Eros. After all, his spouse had his secrets. He swallowed. Being with Eros was wonderful, but… it wasn’t exactly a relationship where they were open with each other. It shouldn’t be surprising that Martin kept something close to his chest, was it?
“But how do you know?” Simon said. “Caitlin didn’t want to bring it up, but she’s a sopping romantic when it comes to your marriage. Or pragmatic. Not sure which.”
“He has wings. He told me he… is who he says he is, and I believe him.”
“And you trust him?” Before Martin could answer, Simon went on. “I mean, you’ve never seen him, right? Are you sure he is what he claims? Don’t forget what the Delphic Oracle said.”
Terrible and pure, an ancient creature of darkness and fire. Martin wasn't likely to forget.
“You’re literally and figuratively in the dark. I would hate to see my little brother get hurt,” Simon concluded.
Martin pasted on a smile. Okay, it was time to head off this line of conversation, he was getting spooked. “I do only know Eros in the dark, Simon. You have to admit, that part is true.”
“We’ll just leave aside the terrible part,” Simon said.
“What about fiery?” Martin dared to waggle his brows. Simon huffed in pretended disgust.
“No details. If you sure you’re all right, then?”
Martin nodded, maintaining his smile. “I think so.” He hoped so. He spied Douglas drawing closer with relief.
“Any barbecue left? Oh, great, thanks!” A large young man with beer on his breath pushed between Martin and Simon to seize a leftover sausage from a platter. “Good party!” He turned, knocking Martin off-balance. Martin yelped as his arm came in contact with the grill.
“Oh, sorry, mate!”
“Martin, are you okay?”
Martin turned his arm over, hissing in pain. There was a large red mark showing livid on the pale underside. “It’s just a burn.”
Douglas was at his side, grasping his shoulder. “Come on, we need to get cold water on that right away.”
Wendy was worried. “Oh, Martin! Can I help?”
Little George appeared at Wendy’s side, patting her hip to catch her attention.
“Grandma, can you help me get my shoe? Agatha threw it into a shrub.” She hesitated.
“I’ve got this,” Douglas reassured her.
She smiled, distracted. “If you sure? What good friends you have, Martin. Yes, I’m coming, pet, don’t pull Grandma’s skirt.” She set off on her rescue mission with George tugging her hand.
Martin allowed himself to be guided into his own kitchen. Douglas turned the tap to cool and held Martin’s arm under the flow. Martin sighed in relief. “Oh, that’s good.” The burn was about the size of the heel of his palm. Douglas touched around the edges, examining it.
“No blistering. A moment longer and you’d have needed a trip to hospital.”
“It’s not that bad,” Martin said.
“You were lucky,” Douglas said. “You ought to be more careful.”
“It was just an accident. Lucky it was me and not one of the kids.”
The corner of Douglas’ mouth lifted. “If you call getting scorched good fortune, who am I to argue?”
There was a pause. Martin was aware that Douglas’ large hand still circled his wrist. As if just noticing, Douglas loosened his grasp and drew his hand away.
“I couldn’t help but overhear a bit of what your brother and sister were saying,” Douglas said.
Martin tensed. Douglas had overheard that his husband was Eros? He hadn’t wanted anyone at MJN to know! Martin braced himself for the teasing. It didn’t come.
“And I thought to myself, ‘Even if Martin Crieff isn’t always lucky’,” Douglas nodded at the burn. “‘He is fortunate.’ Even if your circumstances are a little odd.”
“Odd,” Martin said. “You can say that again.”
“Well, what’s he like?”
Water ran down Martin’s arm, cooling the burn while he considered what to say. “Funny. Generous, obviously.” He waved a hand around, indicating their surroundings. Douglas leaned a hip against the counter and watched him. Martin bit his lip. “Kind. Really nice, actually, for a god, not that I’ve known… well, any.” His cheeks heated. “Handsome, as far as I can tell.”
Douglas raised his brows. “In essence, he’s a paragon who happens to think you’re terrific.” His smile was twisted. “You see? Fortunate. Count your blessings.”
Douglas looked out the window where the purple of twilight was dimming the garden. Snatches of conversation and laughter drifted. His voice was so low that Martin almost didn’t catch it. “Look at me. All my long life, and no one to love me.”
Martin looked at Douglas’ strong profile and couldn’t think of a thing to say. Douglas spared him the trouble, breaking the spell by turning back. “Turn your arm more and you can rest it. Here.” He took Martin’s hand and positioned his arm so the wrist rested on the lip of the sink. “That should do it. It needs at least ten more minutes under the water.”
“What do you mean, no one to love you, what about -”
The door opened and Arthur entered followed by a girl. “Skip, do you mind if Clarisse uses the upstairs toilet, the other one is… Skip, what’s going on?”
Martin was suddenly aware of the warmth of Douglas’ hip pressed into his side, the size of him, his hand still holding Martin’s. He flushed and shifted away. “Douglas was helping me with some first aid. I got burned. Yes, go ahead and show her where it is, Arthur.”
Arthur wrinkled his brow. “I can help bandage you, Skip, if you need me.” At Martin’s head shake he looked hurt but left to direct Clarisse to the second toilet.
Douglas was grinning his old smile. “No need to blush, my captain. We weren’t doing anything wrong.”
“No, but it just looked… oh never mind.” Martin blew a breath and frowned up at his first officer. “You were being so nice, and then you had to be yourself again.”
“Who else would I be?” Douglas tipped a mocking bow. “I’ll try harder. Where’s the first aid box?”
“Cupboard by the range,” Martin said. He relaxed as Douglas made a joke and they fell back into their familiar bantering routine.
The sensation of fingers tracing the edge of the gauze taped to Martin’s arm woke him. “Hm? You’re here.”
“Mm. You smell of sunblock and grilled meat.”
Martin knuckled his eyes and scooted up the pillows. “Ugh. Sorry about that. Should have had a shower. Gods, what time is it?”
A nose nuzzled in the curls behind Martin’s ear, tickling. “I don’t mind. It’s the scent of daylight and fun. It’s an hour before dawn.”
Martin stifled a yawn. Four hours of sleep wasn’t bad. “The party was great. Wish you could’ve been there, you would have loved it.”
“It looks like it was quite the do, judging from what the cleaning crew will have to handle. What happened?”
“Arthur brought along friends.”
Eros chuckled. “I see. No, I meant your arm.” His fingers swept up and down the inside of Martin’s arm, raising gooseflesh.
“This? Just a stupid accident with the grill. Doesn’t even hurt much. I think I strained my stomach more eating potato salad.”
“And now the smell of burned meat makes more sense. Poor dear.”
Martin wrinkled his nose. Now he was more awake, the scent of smoke clinging to his hair was unpleasant. “Do you want to take a shower?”
“Not tonight. Do it after I’ve left. There wouldn’t be enough for a proper ravishing against the wall in the shower.”
“It’ll take you an hour to ravish me?”
“Don’t be silly, I’m just an old god with no stamina. You’d be ravishing me, to my complete and utter delight.”
Martin laughed. “But not tonight.”
“No. Tomorrow, at the crack of dusk.”
Eros drew Martin to lay back against him, tucking his head against his shoulder. A comfortable silence settled around them. Martin’s blinks were getting longer and longer when his husband spoke.
“I do wish we had time.”
“For the shower?”
“That, too. But I meant in general. That we had more time together.”
Martin turned his head. It was useless to remind Eros that the terms of their marriage precluded Martin being with him in the daytime. He tried to make a joke. “I’d have to stop doing overnight trips. Or you’d have to lock me up in a dark house all day. That’s no way to live.”
“No, it isn’t.” Eros’ tone was brooding.
“Unless… is there a way for you to be with me in the day? You don’t have to show me your whole self if you’d rather not, I’m not an idiot like Semele.”
“Semele died because she saw Zeus. I won’t risk that.”
“Just… appear as yourself, more or less.”
A sigh was Martin’s reply and the flicker of hope was quenched. “I do call you when you’re away. And text,” Eros said.
“Not the same thing,” Martin said. He shifted away to lie on his side facing Eros, hiding his face against Eros’ bicep.
“But we are together at all times. So to speak.”
“I’d like to think so. Your soul-spark is so bright, I’d spot it no matter where you are. I’ll always watch over you to the best of my abilities.”
Martin pressed his forehead against firm muscle. “You’re so poetic.” He was trying hard not to be disappointed at this romantic glibness. Either you were with a person or you weren’t. He remembered the laughing couple from the party and closed his eyes. “Well, nothing short of some horrible accident would stop me flying.”
Eros lifted his arm to gather Martin tight against his side. “I know what it means to you, I wasn’t going to ask.” Martin felt the tension in Eros’ body. “But don’t talk about accidents, I don’t want to think about it.”
Eros’ rich voice was low. “I’m not ready for you to leave me, love.”
“You know I’m not going anywhere,” Martin said. He twined an arm around Eros’ waist. Eros pressed a hard kiss to his temple.
No more was said, Martin lapsing into drowsy silence until Eros slipped from Martin’s arms. A last lingering kiss was placed upon his lips, and Martin was left to face the day on his own.