Tricky

I come awake slowly and force my eyes open. The room is full of a dim light, and I raise my head, looking around blearily. We’d left the curtains open last night, and I can see huge flakes of snow drifting past the window. It’s a morning for staying in bed, and as if to mock that idea, the alarm clicks on, and the dulcet sound of Mariah Carey singing, “All I Want for Christmas is You” blares out.

I groan. “Must we have this cacophony?”

Dylan stirs and mumbles something, pulling the blankets over his head until only a tuft of brown-blond hair peeks over the top. He was at his office party last night and had reeled home in the early hours, happy and handsy.

I eye him for a second and then, smiling wickedly, I pull up my phone and programme the next song to be Wham’s ‘Last Christmas’. He’s doing Whamageddon with Jude so that’ll teach him.

I put one foot tentatively out of the duvet and wince at the coolness before steeling myself and leaving the snug warmth of the bed. After dipping into the bathroom, I pad downstairs pulling my dressing gown on as I go.

Charlie Hunnam greets me at the foot of the stairs, grumbling. “It’s not midday,” I inform him. “Stop complaining.”

I open the back door letting in an arctic blast of air. The garden is already white with snow and the sky is full of more. Devon will be beautiful and I’m looking forward to being there. The cottage is gorgeous during the winter.

Charlie saunters out to water a few bushes and I close the door and switch the coffee machine on to start my first cup of the day. While it’s brewing, I make Dylan his tea and open the door to an indignant Charlie, who seems to be under the impression that I’m his footman and should have been waiting ready by the door for him.

He takes the biscuit I offer him with an air of martyred disappointment and retires to his basket, curling up with a contented grunt.

I check my phone while waiting for the coffee and answer a few urgent emails. The office closes today, and several senior partners greet this time of year with nihilistic despair. Maybe I’d have been like that if Dylan hadn’t come along. I try to imagine my husband’s face if I announced I would work on Christmas Day. Ire wouldn’t even cover it. Dylan treats every holiday as if he’s got the budget of Jeff Bezos’s party planner and woe betide anyone who doesn’t fall into line with him.

When I come back into the bedroom, Dylan has somehow managed to extricate himself from the covers, and he gives a piteous moan and holds out his hand for the mug of tea.

“Good morning,” I say extra loudly and he grimaces and holds a hand to his head.

“Must you?”

“What, my darling?”

“Must you be so loud?” The last is whispered in a dire voice, and I smirk, setting my mug on the table and shrugging off my dressing gown. I slide into the still-warm sheets and grin at him.

“You’re a very interesting shade of green. Hang on.” I reach into the bedside table and pull out the paint chart we were looking at yesterday. I run my finger down the little colour chips. “Hmm. You appear to be the exact shade of Farrow and Ball’s Calke Green, which is very handy. We won’t need a sample pot after all. We can just prop you against the wall.”

“So many words,” he grumbles. “You’re very cruel to mock me.”

“Did you expect anything else?”

He offers me a wry smile, the pisstaking curl of his lips still having the power to make my heart flutter. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he assures me.

He puts his mug down and throws himself back onto the pillows. “Is it dim in here, or is my vision finally failing me in my last breaths?”

“Dylan, you have a hangover. You are not dying, or if you are, you’re doing it very noisily. Not that I’d have expected anything else. If you’d been on the execution block in Tudor times, they’d have had to gag you when your farewell speech took everyone else’s allotted slot.”

“Yes, but I’d have been very fetching in a doublet and hose.”

“Anyway, it’s snowing.”

What?” He lifts his head up and then winces. “I’m sorry I can’t even summon the enthusiasm for that. I’ll just stay here nice and quiet.”

“Good grief. It’s like you’ve been body snatched and replaced by a normal person. I’m not sure I’ll pursue getting you back if that’s the case. It’s quite nice.”

“Gabe, I’m pretty sure in my wedding vows it mentioned not taking such a delight in my hangovers.”

“You lie, Mister Foster.”

I grab his hand, straightening out the long elegant fingers and admiring the gleam of gold on his ring finger. I kiss it, not missing the delighted curve of his mouth.

I lever myself over him, holding myself up on one hand, and he bites his lip, his eyes tired but still full of mischief.

“So,” I say, kissing him and feeling his hands come up, tangling in my hair. “I was reading about this special remedy for hangovers.”

He cocks his head. “Oh?”

“Oh yes. It’s entirely natural.”

“Because you and natural medicine go so well together. You have a more intimate relationship with Lemsip packets than Reckitt, who makes them.”

“Hmm. You could be right. It’s just very interesting that scientists have recently extolled the benefits of a blow job for hangover alleviation.”

He starts to laugh, the sound as endearingly merry as ever, and I watch him, loving his face and every inch of him. “Most men have stated that belief at some point or another.”

“Ah, but you know what an enquiring mind I have, Dylan.”

“I do indeed.” He lifts an eyebrow. “Well, I suppose I am your husband. If you’ve got to experiment on anyone it should probably be me.”

“You’re so good to me.”

He heaves a brave-sounding sigh. “It’s my curse in life.” I grin at him, and he winks before shoving at my head and pushing me below the covers. “Off you go then, my little scientist. Experiment away.”

Five minutes later, I lick my lips chasing the last stray drops of come and move up the bed. Dylan is lying with his hand over his eyes, his chest heaving, and his cheeks cherry red.

“Are you still alive?” I ask, amused.

He groans. “I think you might be onto something with that experiment.” His eyes open, and he stares at me, the love evident. “Is it okay if I don’t do you? I might throw up,” he says rather pathetically.

I bite my lip but can’t stop the loud laugh that comes out. “Fucking hell, Dylan. You silver-tongued devil. It’s like living between the covers of one of Jude’s romance novels.”

He grins still looking pale. “I’ll owe you.”

I fall back onto the pillow resting my head on my arms and staring at the ceiling. “You will indeed,” I say with relish already planning how he can repay me.

***

A few hours later, a knock on the door distracts me from my papers. “Yes?” I call.

The door opens and Alistair pops his head around. “Magnus is here, Gabe.”

I throw my glasses down on the desk. “Thanks. Tell him to come in.”

Alistair vanishes, and in a few seconds, the door opens, and Magnus saunters in. He’s dressed in his usual hand-tailored three-piece suit, this one pinstriped.

I met him years ago at a legal conference when he was noteworthy for his supreme confidence and charming sarcasm. We’d bonded over whisky, pisstaking, and the fact that we both liked our sexual partners to last barely longer than an ice cube in a heatwave. He was one of the few friends I allowed to get close before Dylan came along and changed everything.

He’s now a renowned KC and married to a famous artist, but he never changes. One of his most charming characteristics is the ability to be himself in any situation.

“Good morning,” I say, grinning at him as he slides into the chair opposite my desk. “I must say I’m bloody ready for lunch. Congratulations on the Frobisher case. It’s always heart-warming to see criminals released back into society just in time for Christmas.”

He winks, his eyes full of humour. “Ah, my friend. I am the gift that keeps on giving. I am sure Mr Frobisher will make a valuable contribution to society.”

“Are you?”

“No.”

I laugh and stand up to grab my jacket. “We’re lunching at the Ivy, and you’re buying, seeing as you’re the conquering hero.”

“I like that description. Make sure you tell Laurie.”

“It won’t change his attitude towards you.”

“Ah, and that is my punishment in life.” He crosses his long legs flicking a piece of lint from the expensive material of his suit trousers. I note the pink and green Nikes adorning his feet with amusement. “Speaking of Laurie, I must do an errand for him before we eat.”

“Is it painting my portrait? I’m sure he’s dying to do that.”

“It is his only wish you understand, yes? What is the Prince of Wales next to Gabriel Foster?”

“He’s painting William? Well, that’ll put the value of his paintings up. I might even buy a few.”

He smirks. “You are a cultural desert.”

“Oh definitely. What errand?”

“I need to call into the dog shelter for him. He promised them a portrait for their charity auction, and it’s ready.”

“Did he paint the chairman?”

“No, a cocker spaniel.”

I snort. “Okay. I’ll tell Alistair we’ll be a couple of hours. I’ll drive.”

“Why not me?”

“You’re a little casual in your stopping distances.”

“Not where it counts. I have extraordinary stamina.”

“I’m relieved to say that’s a matter between you and Laurie.”

We walk out companionably, and the journey to the shelter is filled with scurrilous gossip and legal talk. I look around as I park. “I don’t think I’ve ever been here.”

He gets out and walks around to the boot to pull out the painting that has more material wrapped around it than a mummy. I join him and take an end as it’s heavy.

“Laurie and I are very invested in it. We got Endof from here.”

“And they’re still open for business?” I say thinking of the lively dog that they own. It’s madder than an army of march hares.

He laughs. “I think they should increase their liability insurance when they sell such defective animals but Laurie rarely listens to me.”

“That’s probably why he’s still sane.”

We carry the painting down winding paths dusted with snow. Fairy lights are strung in the trees, the buildings are well-lit, and “Stop the Cavalry” plays on a radio somewhere, mingling with the sound of barking. We come to a small building painted white and I follow Mags in, manoeuvring carefully down the corridors until we come to a door.

“Drop it here,” Mags grunts, and I obey, stepping back and looking around.

“It seems like a nice place.”

“And needing of rich donors who have money to throw into the abyss,” he observes.

I repress a smile. “Get me a form then, Dick Turpin. You hardly need a mask and a horse with your version of daylight robbery.”

“A mask would be a tragedy. It would cover up my good looks.”

We look up as a man appears carrying a cup of coffee and a bulging folder. “Magnus,” he exclaims, smiling. He looks beyond him. “Good heavens. Is that Laurie’s picture?” Mags nods. “It’s so generous of him. That should raise a lot of money.”

“One or two pounds, maybe,” Mags says gravely. “But we must humour Laurie even though his painting is worse than that of a two-year-old who needs a nap, yes?”

The man looks flabbergasted and I repress a smile.

Mags gestures at me. “This is Gabe. He has deeper pockets than Richard Branson. Let us empty them.”

I roll my eyes and shake hands exchanging pleasantries with the manager.

Eventually he turns to Mags and gestures to his office. “Do you want to bring it in, Magnus? I’ve got some paperwork for you.” He smiles at me as I go to pick up the painting. “No need. Thank you, Gabe. I’ll help.”

I step back. “I’ll have a look around while you talk.” I wink at Mags. “It’ll allow me to see what I’ve bought.”

He chuckles and vanishes into the office, murmuring, “Give me five minutes, and then we will get lunch.”

I nod. Hands in my pockets, I walk out of the building whistling “Last Christmas”, wishing Dylan could hear it and wondering if my version counts in Whamagheddon.

Following the winding paths, I find myself outside a low-slung building painted in rainbow colours. I open the door and walk into a cacophony. Barking and excited whines fill the warm air, and I stand to the side as a couple walks past me, towing a rather excited poodle.

“Sorry,” she gasps. “He’s a bit excited.”

He’s a bit barmy, I think, looking at his rolling eyes but refraining from saying it out loud. Instead, I smile politely and hold the door open. The lady with them is wearing an overall embroidered with the name of the dog shelter and smiles at me. “Oh, are you looking? I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Looking for what?” I ask but it’s to the air as they vanish up the path. Shrugging I take a right through a heavy door and find myself in a corridor that’s edged with big glass enclosures. The silence is stunning after the noise in the foyer, and I wander along, passing mostly empty cages. It’s like a canine Marie Celeste. Somewhere ahead of me, a radio is playing, and I can hear somebody whistling.

I pass a window and find where most of the occupants are. They’re all on a patch of snowy grass with staff in the shelter overalls playing with them.

I’ve just turned back, intending to find Mags, when a slight noise stops me in my tracks. I look around and find someone who obviously wasn’t feeling the fun outside. I’d missed him on my walk down because he was tucked in his basket in a corner of his enclosure.

“Hello, mate,” I say softly, something making me crouch and look through the glass at him. He has a blue fleece blanket cuddled close and his big light brown eyes watch me cautiously. He’s obviously a few months old and some sort of mixed breed. His coat is grey with patches of white on his chest, and he has a long nose like an anteater. His whiskered face is solemn and he’s shivering violently.

My heart clenches. “Poor boy,” I say quietly. “I wonder how you got here.”

“He was found on the side of the motorway,” a voice says from behind me. “He’s lucky to be alive.”

I straighten turning and then stare at the man standing there. He has long blond hair, warm brown eyes, and a slim, rangy body. He’s gorgeous although not as beautiful as my husband. He also looks vaguely familiar and I wonder if I’ve met him through Dylan at some point. He’s wearing a T-shirt advertising the shelter and carrying a broom so he obviously works here.

“That’s bloody terrible,” I offer, and he nods, his expression sad.

“There are a lot of horrible people around,” he says earnestly. “You should have to get a licence to own a dog. It’s a privilege, and you should pay for it, and anyone who mistreats them should go to prison.”

“You’re not wrong. I often think the world would be better if dogs ran it. They’d be a lot better behaved than the politicians.”

His whole face lights up making me blink. “You’re so right. So, do you want to meet him?”

“Who?”

He nods behind me at the cage. “The little chap behind you. He’s a Bedlington Whippet.”

“Bless you.”

He chuckles. “It’s a cross between a Bedlington terrier and a Whippet. They make lovely pets.”

I bite my lip. “Oh. Oh no, I’m not looking for a dog. I’m just waiting for a friend.”

“You’re not looking, but he is, and I think he’s chosen,” he says solemnly, and I spin around.

The dog is now standing by the glass, looking at me with big, trusting eyes.

“Oh shit,” I whisper.

‘I really think the dog chooses the person, you know,” he says chattily, tapping the monitor. A door swings open, and he eases his long body into the enclosure, talking gently to the dog, who watches him but doesn’t move from where he’s standing.

“Shit,” I whisper again. I open my mouth to tell him I’m not looking for a dog, but instead, I look down where the dog is still watching me trustingly, and I find myself walking into the cage. Instantly he takes a few steps towards me and then stops.

I crouch and hold out my hand. “Hey, mate,” I say gently.

He watches me somewhat dubiously, and then I inhale as, in two strides, he’s with me, perching his two front paws on my knees and looking at me in an assessing way.

“There you are,” the man says. “He’s chosen you.” I look at him, and he shrugs, giving me a deprecating smile. “What can you do?”

“Is this some sort of new diabolical selling tactic?” I ask and he laughs. The sound is as beautiful as the rest of him.

“Nah, mate. I just know destiny when I see it.”

“But I’m not looking for a dog,” I say despairingly. “I already have one.”

“What kind?”

“A border terrier.”

“Well, this little one is absolutely fine with other dogs. He loves them. Give yours some space, and this one will work his way into his heart. He’s gorgeous, aren’t you, lovely?”

The dog looks at him and pants looking almost as if he’s smiling but still staying close to me.

“He feels safe with you,” he observes. “It’s funny, isn’t it?”

“What is?”

“Humans meet people they feel comfortable with but they dismiss it as a silliness. Dogs know better. They know the one.”

“And I’m it?”

He looks at me assessingly. “Seems that way to me. What about you?”

“Yes,” I say without thinking, all my attention on the thin body nestled into me. He’s still shivering and something about how he pushes himself into my leg touches my heart. I stroke his head feeling the silky fur soft beneath my fingertips.

“Ah, here you are.”

All the occupants of the enclosure look up as Mags appears in the doorway. “Making friends, yes?” he says, grinning at me.

“I blame you for this,” I say darkly, and he starts to laugh.

“Mags,” the young man exclaims. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, Dean,” my friend says, his face warm with liking. “How are you?”

“I’m fine. Just got back from a shoot in Antigua.”

“And Jonas?”

Dean’s face lights up, full of so much love and happiness that I blink. “He’s brilliant, thank you.”

I look at Mags for clarification. “Dean is a model. A supermodel,” he adds.

“Oh my god, I thought I knew you but wondered if you were a friend of my husband’s.” For some reason Dean seems to like that as his eyes twinkle. “I must have seen you on the cover of something.”

“More than likely,” the young man says cheerfully. He smiles at me. “But I’m sure we’ll meet again.”

“You are?” There’s a serene certainty about him that’s mindboggling.

He nods. “Oh yes. Definitely.” He grins at Mags. “Are you and Laurie coming for dinner at the weekend? Pip and Olivier are over for Christmas.”

“How very loud for you. I have never known anyone who can talk as much as Pip.”

Dean laughs and then turns to me. “Well?” he says, nodding at the small dog that seems surgically attached to my trouser leg. “Are you taking him?”

“Don’t you have to do background checks?” I say desperately.

“I’m a very good judge of character but maybe it’s best to check.” He turns to Mags. “Do you know this man?” he asks very seriously.

Mags’s eyes twinkle but he replies just as seriously. “For many years.”

“He’s lying,” I interject. “We just met today.”

Dean flicks me a smile. “And is he good to his dog, Mags?”

Mags winks at me. “The best dog owner in the world.”

“I thought that was you,” I offer.

“I don’t so much own Endof as endeavour to harness his energy for good rather than evil.” He turns to Dean. “Gabe is a good friend and his husband is wonderful. This dog would have the best home and want for nothing.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” I blurt out. They both look at me. “We live in London, and it’s so cramped. Surely, he should have a home with more land?”

Mags’s eyes are full of enjoyment of the situation. “But you are moving to Devon near a beach, yes?”

“Well, that’s brilliant then,” Dean proclaims but then his face becomes serious. “But if you don’t want him that’s absolutely fine,” he says carefully. “He will get a home, I promise you. He’s very cute. So, you don’t need to do anything you don’t want to. A dog is a very serious business.”

This is my escape clause.

I look down at the dog opening my mouth to decline the offer so we can get out of here and go for lunch. Instead, I look into his eyes, his whiskery face, and that long, anteater nose twitching. And then I say very firmly, “I want this one, please.”

“Yay,” Dean says and the dog presses closer.

Two hours later, I look at my new dog sitting in the back of the car, looking at me in a hopeful fashion that breaks my heart.

“I blame you,” I say to Mags. “And that is precisely what I am going to tell Dylan.”

“Was this an impulsive gesture?” he says. I glare at him, and he can’t control his smirk. “I am sorry. Sometimes, my English lets me down. Is impulsive the right word?”

“Yes, that is the right word. Another appropriate word for your role in the current situation is twat.”

“Ack, you love me. Well, look at the time. We have lost the table by now. MacDonalds, yes?”

“Words fail me.”

“I like MacDonalds. I like the wrapping on the little cheeseburgers. Laurie never lets me have them because of my cholesterol.”

“I’m going to let you have fifty of them.”

He starts to laugh and I join him.

“So, when are you coming down?” my best friend asks.

I cradle the phone on my shoulder while I reach for my mug and then settle back on the sofa. My hangover has eased after two bacon sandwiches. “Probably Boxing Day. Gabe doesn’t break up until today and we don’t fancy the chaos of the M4 on Christmas Eve.”

“Probably wise. When are Henry and Ivo getting here?”

“They’re coming two days after us when they get back from Capri and staying until January the second.”

“Henry will need that long to recover from his hangover.”

“He’ll need to get his fluids back, too, with his usual excessive drooling over Asa.”

He gives a happy sigh. “All my boys together.”

“I spy trouble.”

“Thank you, Mystic Meg. So, when is the big move?”

“We’ve earmarked the second week in March.”

“And then I get you back. Life isn’t the same without you.” Asa says something in the background, and Jude’s voice gets fainter. “Not including you of course, my dearest darling. Dylan obviously comes far beneath you.”

“That’s not true, is it?” I ask.

“Nah. But it makes him happy.” We both laugh and I savour the joy of knowing I’ll be back with my best friend soon. “How’s the house looking?” he asks.

“Beautiful. The builders wrapped up last week and the painters finished yesterday. A couple of walls still need the plaster to dry before they can be painted, and the carpets come in the new year.”

“What have you done again?”

“I knew you weren’t listening.”

“Only because Gabe and Asa got very architecturally detailed. My brain stopped working which probably wasn’t helped by the wine either.”

“We’ve had a two-storey extension, which gives us a master suite and an office for me, so I don’t have to share one with Gabe anymore.”

“How did it go sharing an office with Gabe?”

“As well as you’d expect,” I say gloomily. “With his attention to tidiness the only one who could live comfortably with him is Marie Kondo.” He snorts and I grin at the familiar sound. “We’ve also added a glass extension to the kitchen which will be lovely as we can have a dining room in there. I like that it’s open plan, and there’ll be a fantastic sea view. I can’t wait.”

I hear Gabe’s keys in the lock. “I’ve got to go. We’ll see you in a couple of days.”

“Yeah, come and have dinner with us.”

“You’re not cooking, are you?”

“No, which is lucky for you. Peggy’s in Scotland visiting her cousin, so Asa will do something.”

We exchange goodbyes and I end the call. “Hello,” I call. “If that’s my lover you can’t be here because my husband will be home soon. However, if it’s my husband then yay.”

Silence greets that, and then I hear furtive muttering, and Gabe says in a low voice, “That’s a good boy.”

That’s sufficiently interesting to get me off the sofa so I amble out to the hallway. “What’s up?” I ask.

Gabe is standing dressed in his expensive suit but looks unusually rumpled. Numerous carrier bags are strewn on the floor, and he has a dog lead draped around his neck.

“If you’re expecting me to take you for walkies, think again, my love,” I say lightly and then movement makes me stop dead in shock as a small dog with shaggy fur and a long nose edges around Gabe and presses close to his legs looking up at me with soft eyes. He has a blue fleece blanket in his mouth. “Oh my god.”

“I can explain,” Gabe says hurriedly. A strand of dark hair has fallen over his forehead and he has a dirty paw print on his usually spotless white shirt.

“Can you?”

He considers that for a second and then nods. “It was all Mags’s fault.” I start to laugh and his mouth twitches. “It honestly was.”

“What exactly was his fault, and who is this little man?” I kneel and the dog looks dubiously at me. “How are you, mate?” I say, keeping my voice low and even.

The dog presses further into Gabe’s legs and my husband pets him. ‘Go on,” he says softly. “Dylan’s good.” The dog looks up at him and he nods very earnestly. “Promise.”

My lip twitches, but I restrain my laughter, sitting quietly with my hand held out, palm up unthreateningly. The dog edges close, shivering, and I stay there as he sniffs my hand. He relaxes a little and I tentatively pet one of his ears. They’re velvet soft.

“So?” I finally say.

Gabe rubs his nose. “This is a dog.”

“Thank you so much. I thought you’d brought a giraffe into the house.”

“Twat.” I chuckle, and he shakes his head before saying in a rush, “Mags went to the dog shelter because Laurie had painted a cocker spaniel, and I went for a stroll, and he found me. The supermodel at the dog shelter says dogs do that. They choose us,” he finishes in a solemn voice that makes me want to kiss him.

I parse through the jumble of words. “They have a supermodel at the dog shelter?”

He spreads his hands out. “I know.”

“Hmm. So, is this our dog, then?”

He bites his lip. “Sort of. Yes.” I open my mouth, but more hurried words come rushing out, and it’s so unlike my usual urbane husband that I settle down with my back to the wall and my legs stretched out to enjoy it. “I know I should have asked you, but it was all a bit of a rush, and before I knew it, we had another dog, and I’m sorry.”

“Are you?”

He settles down next to me and the dog curls its thin body against him immediately. He drops his blanket and licks Gabe’s fingers delicately with a very pink tongue. Gabe watches him with a smile playing on his lips.

“No,” he finally says. “I think this is our dog, Dyl. He was abandoned by a motorway.”

“Fucking wankers,” I say immediately.

“I know. And when I saw him, he was so fucking pathetic and —”

He stops, and I nudge him. “What?”

He tugs gently at the dog’s ear. “It’s ridiculous but he sort of reminded me of me.”

“Oh, Gabe,” I whisper throwing my arm over his shoulders and kissing him. It’s testimony of how far we’ve come that he doesn’t rebuff me with snark but instead kisses me back. When we separate, the dog is watching us, his head cocked. “I love you,” I say fiercely and he cups my face.

“Not as much as I love you.”

I look down at the dog. “Well, we’d better introduce him to Charlie Hunnam. He’s in the kitchen in his basket.”

“Do you think they’ll get on?”

“Of course.” He immediately relaxes and I reach out and ruffle his hair. “They might have a few spats, but they’ll get used to each other, and he’ll be company for Charlie.” I get to my feet, looking down at him. “So, what’s his name?”

He looks startled. “I don’t know. I thought you’d do that.”

I wink at him. “Nah, this one’s all yours. I doubt it’ll be as epic as mine, though.”

“What could be? How else could we pass our days making salacious remarks and tagging on the name Charlie Hunnam?”

“Don’t yuck my yum,” I advise him. “Come on. Let’s break it to Charlie that he’s no longer an only child.”

“You’re a very special person, Dylan,” he says seriously as I pull him to his feet.

“I know. Hopefully, it will reflect in the size of my Christmas present.” He opens his mouth and I wag my finger at him. “Are you going to say something with more innuendo than the whole of the seventies?”

“Probably.”

When I hear Dylan’s first soft snore my eyes fly open. Turning my head on the pillow I look at my husband. His face is soft with sleep, his hair ruffled. I shake my head smiling at the soppiness in my heart towards this special man. Then I ease out of bed. My body is aching after the last bout of sex, and moving quietly, I sling on my dressing gown and tiptoe out of the bedroom, avoiding the creaky floorboard with the ease of practice.

When I enter the kitchen, I switch on the light, illuminating the occupants asleep in their new baskets. I’d bought Charlie one at the same time as the new fellow. Charlie patters over, nudging my hand, and I crouch to give him some attention. “You’re still important,” I tell him seriously, but he just licks my chin and bounces happily back to bed.

He’d been startled when we introduced the new boy but he’s a friendly dog and had greeted him exuberantly. The new one had been too nervous to play, but Dylan had assured me that would change as soon as he felt comfortable. I’d bowed to his superior knowledge as his family has always had dogs.

A cold nose on my hand brings me back to the present. “I need to find you a name, mate,” I say, rubbing his soft ear. One of them sticks up giving him a startled look. He’s going to be a fairly big dog given the size of his paws. He nestles into me and I grin down at him. “I’m going to sort out the presents. Want to help me?”

He bounces alongside me, a shadow at my heels as I walk into my office and grab the presents I’d stored there. I look down at him. “This is the way Christmas goes,” I warn him. “It’ll be noisy and full of people, and sometimes you’ll want to hide, but it’s also sort of lovely.”

I walk into the lounge and set the presents around the tree, where they join Dylan’s for me and those for family in Devon.

“It starts early,” I carry on as he watches me like I’m the source of all knowledge. My husband could definitely take some lessons from him. “Dylan is more enthusiastic about social events than a Butlin’s redcoat entertainer.”

It’s chilly, so I reach out to switch on the fire. Then I wander back into the kitchen and pour myself a whisky. I grab a couple of mince pies from the tin that Dylan keeps full for the entirety of December and head back to the lounge, where I settle back on the sofa, enjoying the heat of the fire and the pretty twinkle of the tree lights.

The dog jumps up next to me and sits, observing me. I smile at him. “This is your home now,” I tell him. “You’ll get used to it, and I think you might love living here. I promise we will never abandon you,” I add fiercely. I point my finger at him. “I can tell you this in confidence because I was like you once. I was a stray, too.” He cocks his head to one side. “I never had anyone but myself, and then Dylan came along. You’ll love him,” I continue, scratching his ears. “He’s a good person to love.”

The dog stretches and I smile because he looks a little like an ostrich with his thin neck. “The thing about love is that it’s tricky,” I continue. “Sometimes it can really hurt, and you have to trust in something that you can’t see or hear and can only feel. Tricky,” I say. I watch as he sits up straight as if answering a call and then I grin. “That’s your name then, mate.” I hold out my hand, and to my astonishment, he puts his paw in it. I shake it solemnly. “Hello, Tricky. It’s good to meet you. Welcome to the family.”

Half an hour later, I slide into bed.

“Alright?” Dylan mutters but I can tell he’s still mostly asleep.

“The best,” I say frankly. A few minutes later I feel a slight weight depress the mattress. I raise my head, looking at Charlie, who is already curled up in the hollow of Dylan’s legs. He alternates between his basket and our bed. Tricky is sitting on the bed next to me.

“We will pretend this never happened,” I say sternly, and he pants, looking for a second as if he’s laughing. Then I lie back and with Dylan’s weight on my side and all the canine members of our family accounted for, I drift off to sleep.

It hardly seems like five minutes have passed when Dylan shouts in my ear, “Merry Christmas.”

I sit bolt upright. “What the fuck?” I mutter.

He laughs ruffling my hair. “Come on. Presents.”

“How old are you?”

“Old enough to show you a good time if I like my gifts,” he says dropping me a saucy wink that makes me laugh. “I’ll put the fire on and sort out the presents. You make some toast and tea,” he orders and disappears out the door.

I look around. The dogs are nowhere to be seen so Dylan has obviously let them out. Sliding into pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt and putting on the Santa hat Dylan left as an implicit instruction, I head downstairs to the rather forceful Christmas elf I’m apparently living with.

When I enter the kitchen, I find the dogs sitting together in Charlie’s basket, looking comfortable and snug.

“Good morning, boys,” I say. Charlie bounds over and licks me before going in search of Dylan, who he correctly identified as the primary source of food in this house at the beginning and has never seen a reason to deviate from this conviction.

Tricky walks up next to me, tentatively wagging his tail, and I bend to kiss his nose. “Want some toast?” I enquire and his tail wags harder.

I stick on the kettle and make toast cutting the crusts off Tricky’s piece and handing him tiny squares. He gobbles them down and I grin at him.

“What are you doing?”

I jump at Dylan’s voice. “Nothing,” I say quickly.

“Really? Because it actually looks like you’re feeding him toast.”

“He was hanging around looking sad. And his name is Tricky.”

He cocks his head, a smile playing on his full lips. “Why?”

I scratch my head awkwardly. “Love is tricky,” I mutter.

He pulls me to him, dropping a hard kiss into my hair. Then, breaking the moment as adeptly as usual, he grins at me. “How can Tricky possibly be sad when he’s wearing a collar that cost more than my suits?”

I roll my eyes. “I can’t help it if you dress like an out-of-work illusionist.”

He laughs. He looks as handsome as ever in green plaid pyjama bottoms and a white t-shirt, showing off his golden skin and the bulge of his biceps. “It’s a designer collar, Gabe.”

“He’s been homeless. I thought Louis Vuitton would cheer him up.”

“Well, he certainly looks happy.”

“I bought Charlie one, too,” I say indignantly.

“Spiffing. They can be twins in your over-the-top consumerism.”

“Have you always used such long words, and did I always find it aggravating?”

He laughs and grabbing a mince pie he wanders out of the kitchen shouting about tea.

I look down at the new addition to our family. “Happy Christmas, Tricky,” I say, and he nudges my hand, giving me a lick. I pat him and wander into the lounge with him at my heels. I can’t wait to see Dylan’s face when he opens the presents I’ve bought for him. I’ve gone completely over the top, as usual. I’d love to give him the world but what looks like half of Harvey Nicks will have to suffice. I grin. It’s a certainty that our morning will round off with great sex and then a huge meal later on. Happy Christmas, indeed.

Rule Breaker by Lily Morton

Rule Breaker

Is it wrong to want to murder your boss? Dylan doesn’t think so until a chance encounter opens his eyes to the attraction that has always lain between them, concealed by the layers of antipathy.