The vet was running half an hour late. From behind his closed door, Cullen could hear a dog barking, alarmed notes shifting to the whine of pain, the whimper of betrayal.
It made Cullen restless. It made Sam restless too. He shifted his huge hind legs, and scratched his ear. Cullen put a hand on his head. His fingers traced the skull bone under the thin skin.
Sam was a refuge dog. It felt right to give a home to a dog who had seemed lost and unloved. Sam was as gentle as a kitten, but he was very big and as a bouncy puppy he’d cannoned into a toddler who had roared with shock and pain. All Sam had done was whimper and run under the table, but the family had decided he was too big a risk. The father took him straight to the animal shelter, and handed him over, with a ten pound donation and six tins of dog food.
Cullen ran a hand over Sam’s ears. The thought of that family rejecting Sam made him furious.
‘Don’t worry, Sam,’ he said. ‘I won’t let anyone hurt you.’
Sam looked at him, and Cullen wondered if he was trying to say the same to him. His golden, furry face split in a dog smile.
The outside door swung open, and a tall man came in, carrying a wicker-basket so large and shiny that Cullen thought it might be a reused Fortnum’s Christmas hamper.
Sam gave one short bark, the special bark that meant, ’Hi. Alien presence noted.’ As anyone could tell.
But the man carrying the basket frowned.
‘I do hope he won’t bark more,’ he said. ‘Nikodemos is a trifle phobic about dogs.’ He put the basket down on the wooden seat, sat down himself and smiled at Cullen.
Cullen didn’t feel much like smiling back. The man was insufferable, even though he was undeniably very hot, as in escaped underwear model hot, and the style to go with it, in a white t-shirt that was so moulded to his body that he might as well not have been wearing it. Plus the indecently tight jeans. Plus the shiny leather jacket. Plus the thick glossy blue-black hair, and the golden-brown skin.
Cullen looked away at his own knees and his own very plain and very ordinary jeans and the tail of his red plaid shirt. He kept his hand on Sam’s head.
‘Nikodemos,’ purred the silken voice. ‘I’m not sure we’re among friends. What do you think?’ The man’s voice was a caress.
Cullen watched as he pushed his finger through the grille at the front of the immense hamper. Following the finger, Cullen could see what looked like a black hole, with enormous golden eyes.
The black hole mewed. Not sadly, but firmly, like a great lady used to giving orders.
‘Oh, sweet,’ the man crooned. ‘I know. It’s cream time. But we have to wait, you know that? You’ve been so sickly, dearest.’
‘He’s running very late,’ Cullen said. ‘Sam was meant to see him at five.’
‘Is that his name? Sam?’
Cullen nodded. ‘I mean –not the vet. My dog.’ Idiot. I sound like an idiot.
But the man was friendly. ‘Good name, Sam. Strong. It goes well with him.’
Cullen smiled this time.
‘Would he mind if I patted him?’
Cullen liked the man for asking.
‘He’s really friendly. Go ahead.’
Sam snuffled happily. Clearly, the man’s hand was firm and certain on his head, and clearly, clearly it felt right to him. Cullen pushed aside the sudden bubble of ache to be stroked himself. The man was speaking again, as those long fingers rubbed Sam’s ears.
‘How long have you had him?’
Five since I got back from Helmand. Six since I got out of the pit where they held me. Seven since Samson went rogue and took us all into hell. Nine since half the patrol died.
Yup. I can count. I can sure count.
The smell of the ward was in his nose and his eyes. The sharp sting of antiseptic.
Had he fallen silent for too long? Were his hands shaking? He held them tight on his knees.
He turned to the man. ‘What’s your cat’s name?’
‘Nikodemos. Spelled with a K. Supposed to have helped bury Jesus Christ, but it’s also an old name for a magician’s cat.‘
‘Are you a magician?’ He’d meant it to sound light, but it came out like part of a CIA interrogation. He swallowed. But the man smiled, that cool, easy smile.
‘In a way. I’m a software designer.‘
‘Ah.’ Cullen drew a blank, as he often did. He was no good at small talk, but the man was so beautiful and his smile so genuine that he tried to go on. ‘Um. And what’s wrong with Nikodemos?’
‘He’s got some kind of tummy trouble. I looked at him yesterday and there’s an enormous bulge in his side. Like a tennis ball. I’m sure it’s not normal.‘
Cullen said, hmm and ah.
‘What about Sam?”
‘He needs a second distemper shot, and a checkup.’
‘Poor boy. I hate injections.’
‘He’s really brave.’
‘Of course you are. Good boy! Nikodemos isn’t brave. He’s a vicious attack cat with vets.’ He poked a finger through the lattice again. ‘I should have brought him in sooner. About six weeks ago, he had some kind of odd attack, kept squalling as if he was in pain, but it was only for about a day, and after that he seemed fine. I just hope I didn’t neglect him, but I was so immersed in a new product launch that I just couldn’t find the time to make a simple call. I couldn’t feel more guilty. I wish I knew more about animals.’
‘Ah. Hm.’ He begged his brain to think of something to say, something other than, do you have any idea how incredibly beautiful you are? Finally, his brain responded, just before the pause became long enough for the other man to decide the conversation was over. ‘Um. Where did you get him?’
‘There’s a rather lovely breeder. Very exclusive. She is very strict about letting her prize kittens go to good homes. I wouldn’t dare ask her about the crying episode. She’d probably come round and shoot me for neglect. I thought she might turn me down when she saw my apartment. I mean, it’s clean, obviously, and I have some pretty things, but my workspace is chaos.’ He made a cute, apologetic face. ‘Now you strike me as a man with a very well-ordered life. I bet you got a gold star from Sam’s breeder.’
‘There wasn’t a breeder. He’s a rescue pup.’
The man’s eyes narrowed. ‘Well, I’d say someone was stupid or very careless. He’s clearly a purebred bull mastiff. They eat their own weight, but they are worth a lot. Not that you’d want to sell him. You can’t buy the look in his eyes.’
‘I’d never sell Sam. But I wouldn’t have been able to buy him, either.’ Thank the gods the man was so willing to talk.
‘Now, I confess I’ve been trying to guess how you put bread on the table. First, I thought perhaps, farmer. There’s something irresistibly down-to-earth about you. But you sit too straight for that, and you are, forgive me, far too obviously fit to be a tractor jockey. I thought of games master at a school, but you don’t have the exhaustingly jolly demeanor. So I’m guessing armed services, but not in active service, because a man with your face would never take up responsibilities like a dog if you were likely to be shipped back to foreign wars. Now, am I right?’
God, what else had those grey eyes seen? ‘You’re very Sherlock. I’ve been home for a few months, and I’m thinking about what to do next.’ Which sounds better than, I’m trying to get to the point where going out to buy a tin of dog food no longer makes me shake for an hour before and an hour after.
‘A man like you will find something. A dog like Sam doesn’t give his heart to just anyone.’
Unexpectedly, the words made Cullen glow, a warm kindly glow in his chest. He knew that was what happiness felt like. It was the first time he’d remembered it for months.
The door to the consulting room opened. ‘Hi, the vet can see Sam now.’ Cullen stood up, whistled once, and the other man, the man whose name he might not ever know, said, ‘Movement at last. Ciao.’
Cullen whistled to Sam, and didn’t look back or smile, because he didn’t want to admit that he was unlikely to see the man again.
But maybe, if he and his black cat were still there when Cullen and Sam were done…
The vet probably did act just as fast as usual, but the fact was that he seemed to take forever. The smell of the disinfectant was burning in Cullen’s nose and throat, and only the need to keep his breathing slow and calm to help Sam allowed him to get through it without breaking into loud sobs or banging his head on the floor. How could a smell, just a smell, make him feel like he was back in the casualty clearing station, his hands on the huge open wound that spurted blood, a wound that had once been Samson’s leg, and his hands so small and weak, trying to compress the torn artery against the leg bone? And Samson’s eyes, pupils pinpoints from the morphine, looking up at him, vague, saying, am I gonna be ok? And his mouth closing tight on the knowledge that Samson wasn’t going to make it.
Why keep remembering? Why keep remembering in the night? Why keep remembering here?
His job done, the vet said a kind something or other to Sam, and Cullen was outside the door, where the smell was less. He closed his eyes in relief.
Then opened them again. The waiting room was empty. The man with the black cat had gone.
Well, maybe ask the receptionist who he was…. He could do it.
No. Absolutely not. He was probably a happily married het guy, whatever signals had seemed to drift along the wooden seat.
So that was that, then.
He filled out the insurance form, and went out into the blank, chilly night.
He still had Sam. That was the thing to remember.
He’d gone maybe twenty yards when he saw a tall figure unwind itself from the streetlight.
‘Oh, good, I was hoping you’d emerge. For gods’ sake come and have a drink with me. I need gentle treatment. I’ve just had the most appalling shock.‘
‘I – thought you would have gone.’
‘Gone, to track down one of the other incredibly hot, brooding men with amazing golden eyes this town affords? Not likely.’
‘You –‘ Cullen felt himself turning crimson. Luckily it was dark. Sam gave a happy bark.
‘Now, come with me. Come on. Didn’t I tell you I’m a sort of magician? I could put a hex on you if you say no. What harm can a drink and a curry do?’
‘None, I guess. Don’t you have to take Nikodemos home, though?’
The man no longer held the vast wicker hamper, now Cullen looked properly.
‘Niko is still with the vet. You see, HER tummy bulge turned out to be kittens. Six of them. She went into labour in the waiting room.’
‘Rub it in. I feel I’m such an idiot. I had to leave her there overnight; two of the kittens were premature. And apparently all Oriental breeds have huge litters, which I have no idea how to manage.’
Cullen found himself laughing. He couldn’t remember when he’d laughed so much or so easily.
‘Stop laughing, you fiend. You mean fiend.’
‘That’s not my name. My name’s Cullen.’
‘Cullen. It goes with you. It fits you. And I’m Dorian. And if you go on laughing like that, I’m going to need two drinks.’
‘Dorian.’ It sounded exotic, and also somehow very ancient. ‘Ok, Dorian. Two drinks it is. There’s a pub nearby where Sam is welcome, ok?’
Dorian’s smile and nod were very quick, and Cullen felt the warm glow of – happiness, yes – that was it. He didn’t dare to think too far ahead, not yet. But at least he’d been able to begin to hope, a bit. And it was all thanks to Sam.
‘Sausage roll, boy,’ he said, and Sam did his pirouette of excitement, and his quick bark. Cullen could have done the same.