Even the brightest places have shadows.
Stevie is sweet and shy—the only hint of an independent spirit comes from his lilac hair. For years he’s harboured a crush on his best friend, Adam, who is everything Stevie isn’t. The problem? When it comes to love, Adam is a bit slow on the uptake.
On top of that, Stevie fears the escaped killer known as Harlequin is targeting his friends, and clings to his role managing the merry-go-round for some semblance of normality. But someone is watching from shadows even the summer sun can’t penetrate.
Realising that life can be all too short, Adam takes steps to ensure that Stevie will be his. All his protective instincts kick in when Stevie attracts some unwanted—and very dangerous—attention, but he can’t take care of him alone. The group of friends needs to band together because the bright lights and whirling horses of the merry-go-round won’t be enough to keep Stevie alive. Some killers are far too good at hiding in plain sight.
Publisher: Pride Publishing
Heat Level: 3
Romantic Content: 4
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 18-25
Protagonist 2 Age: 18-25
Tropes: Alpha Character, First Time
Word Count: 21056
Setting: South coast of England
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
Stevie was first through the door at Mo’s Café, so he got to pick the table. He chose one in the back corner and tucked himself into the seat nearest the wall. Zach’s dad had given them a lift before driving on to the park, so Zach wasn’t far behind him. He grabbed four menus, plonked them on the table then took the place opposite Stevie. Inside, Stevie smiled, because it meant there was a chance that Adam might sit next to him and he’d get the opportunity to lean against his warm, muscled arm.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Zach said, grinning.
“No, you don’t.”
“Oh yes, I do.”
“What is this, the Christmas pantomime?” Stevie wanted to give his friend a good smack.
“He’s behind the rock,” Zach said.
“Christ, you can be irritating. And I damn well hope he isn’t behind the rock, whoever he is. I’m already jumping at shadows with this Harlequin character on the loose. Garth could have been killed.”READ MORE
“Sorry.” Zach’s apology sounded genuine. “I’m sure Garth’s okay after his day off to recuperate. He’ll be here soon and he’s managed to find himself a gorgeous personal bodyguard. Clem is perfect for him.”
“How is it you can always find the sparkly lining in every dark cloud?”
“Because otherwise, I’d be hiding under the duvet. Though I can’t imagine any crazed psychopath coming into my bedroom, spotting the duvet and leaving because of the impenetrable barrier between me and him.”
“I’m scared, Zach. Garth’s already been hurt and I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.”
“You think Adam will let a bad guy get near you? You have your own bodyguard too.”
Stevie ducked his head. He examined the worn melamine tabletop, keeping one eye on the door. It opened with a jangle from the old brass bell that hung above it, letting Mo know a new customer had arrived. Garth, dressed in skin-tight ripped black jeans and a leather jacket over his blue uniform polo shirt, came in first, shadowed by his boyfriend, Clem. Stevie wondered if ‘boyfriend’ was the correct term for the fierce, muscular guy who towered over Garth, even though his friend almost reached six feet in his thick-soled biker boots. Clem made Stevie feel even more vertically challenged than usual. He got a crick in the neck looking up at him.
“Hey, guys.” Garth slipped into the seat next to Zach. “Ready for a new day of murder and mayhem?”
“Garth…” Clem’s tone was full of warning.
“What did I say?” Garth batted his lashes over blue eyes accentuated by black eyeliner.
“Don’t joke about it,” Stevie said. “It’s not funny. You got hurt.” He knew that underneath Garth’s jacket, his arm was stitched and bandaged thanks to a knife wound delivered by a contract killer. “This isn’t some Hollywood movie where the blood is really tomato ketchup.” To emphasise his point, he grabbed the sauce bottle from the middle of the table and gave it a shake.
“Sorry.” Garth reached across the table and took Stevie’s hand. He gave it a squeeze. “A black sense of humour is not one of my better qualities. I need to work on my timing. Please put the sauce down before it explodes all over us.”
“You need to work on not being a brat,” Clem muttered, taking a seat at the adjacent table, facing the door. “I’ll be helping you out with that later.”
Stevie didn’t miss Garth’s full body shiver. It was good to see his friend happy despite the current circumstances. He and Clem were well suited.
Mo appeared next to the table, brandishing a notepad and pen. “You boys ready to order? And if you had any manners at all you’d introduce me to your new friend.” She gave Clem a pointed look.
“Clement Chadwick, ma’am.” Clem got to his feet and kissed Mo’s hand. Garth gaped.
“Well, aren’t you a sweetheart,” Mo gushed, blushing. She fanned herself with her notepad. “You’re welcome here anytime. Big guy like you needs a lot of feeding.”
Stevie swung his head from side to side as he looked from Mo to Clem and back again. Mo was bright pink and acting like a love-struck girl.
“It’ll have to be tea and toast this morning, Mo,” Zach butted in. “We’re running a bit too late for the full English and Adam’s not even here yet.”
“Coffee for me please, Mo,” Garth added.
The bell jangled again and the door opened to admit Adam. Stevie’s heart beat a little faster. The sight of Adam’s broad shoulders and beaming smile would never grow old.
“Sorry I’m late.” Adam slipped into the seat next to Stevie. He sat so close that their thighs touched and Stevie forgot how to breathe. “Mum and Dad are heading off to Spain for a couple of weeks and I had to drop them at the Gatwick Express stop before I came over, and then I couldn’t find anywhere to park the car. I’m kind of glad they’re not going to be around for a while.”
He didn’t expand, but Stevie knew exactly what he meant and guessed that everyone else did too. His friends were much more subdued than usual.
“Dad’s really stressed,” Zach said. “He’s taking this situation very personally. He looks older somehow, greyer.”
Stevie nibbled on his lower lip. He hated for his friends to be upset and Zach’s dad was like a second father to him. When Mo brought two racks of toast and a basket filled with miniature pots of jam and marmalade, Stevie just stared, his appetite gone. He accepted a mug of tea and managed a couple of sips, but any sense of taste seemed to have deserted him. He might as well have been drinking hot water. Adam put an arm around his shoulders and squeezed.
“Everything is going to be fine, Stevie. You know I’ll look after you.” His words gave Stevie a warm feeling and he leaned against Adam’s bigger frame.
“But who will look after you?” Stevie whispered. “I couldn’t bear it if you got hurt.”
“How about I do the worrying for the both of us?”
Stevie wanted nothing more than to climb into Adam’s lap, but Clem interrupted his train of thought.
“I know it’s not an easy thing to ask, but you all need to behave just as you normally would today,” Clem said. “There will be a few undercover officers posted around the park but we don’t have the resources to flood the place with our people. I’m not going to insult you with platitudes, but these animals we’re after don’t want to be noticed. They rely on blending in and they don’t want to draw attention, especially from the police. I’m sure they’re well-practiced at spotting coppers.”
“Well, they weren’t doing a very good job at staying under the radar when they committed murder in the ghost train,” Garth snapped. “Oh. I’m so sorry.”
Stevie glanced around the café, checking if anyone had heard Garth’s outburst, but no one had taken a blind bit of notice. Bacon took precedence over everything, apparently.
“And that’s why you mustn’t talk about it,” Clem said. “The people spinning stories to the press are very convincing. A homeless guy looking for shelter died of natural causes. The story will be in the papers today—we hope that Harlequin will be content that Garth can’t identify him and will leave him be. Last night’s attack can be written off as a random mugging. If he tries again, there’s no way anyone would believe in coincidence. No one is that unlucky.”
“And on that delightful note.” Zach slurped his tea. “We should be going. The last thing Dad needs is for all of us to show up late for work.”
Everyone finished their drinks and Adam rammed a huge piece of toast into his mouth. Stevie stared at him, fascinated, as Adam crunched his way through it.
“What? I’m hungry. Don’t judge.” Adam’s comical expression eased some of Stevie’s tension, but he wouldn’t be completely happy until they were all safely home in bed that night.
Once inside the amusement park, they all went in different directions. Stevie approached the merry-go-round with a sense of wonder that never changed. The beautiful ride, which dated back to the 1930s, took pride of place in the centre of the park. Rows of carved horses intermingled with elaborate carriages. The dominant colour was gold and the lights, which had been added at a later date, made the paint glow. It was much more spectacular at night but still impressive during the day.
Stevie was very proud to have been given responsibility for the merry-go-round. This was his third summer working at the amusement park and for the previous two years he’d sold candyfloss from a striped wooden stand near the gate. He’d enjoyed winding spun sugar onto sticks, but this year, Zach’s dad had put him in charge of one of the most popular rides. The merry-go-round, or carousel as some people called it, came second only to the huge rollercoaster in terms of popularity, though Stevie’s customers tended to be younger. Later in the evening the ride would be full of adults reliving their childhoods.
In the centre of the merry-go-round was a lockable cabin, a little bigger than a storage cupboard, which housed the controls and a space for Stevie’s personal items. He punched in the code that granted him access, shrugged off his jacket then rolled it up to put in his locker. All he had to do was flick three switches—one for the music, one to activate the lights and the third to set the ride in motion. It slowed and halted automatically after a set time but there was also an emergency stop that Stevie could use if he needed to. He put the lights and music on then did a quick walk around to check that no litter had blown onto the ride during the night. Everything was clear. The horses glistened in the sunshine, their carved manes flying in an imaginary wind. Stevie couldn’t help but smile. At its top speed, the carousel was a spectacle that couldn’t be matched by anything else in the park.
It wasn’t long before parents and their kids began to line up in the roped queueing system. Stevie counted on the number of people the ride could take and let them choose their own horses. When most of them were seated, he helped the few stragglers find a place to sit. Really small children had to be accompanied either by an adult sat behind them on a horse or in one of the royal carriages that held four people and didn’t rise and fall like the horses did. He did one final circuit to check that everyone was safely positioned then went back to the cabin to press the on switch. Setting the first ride of the day in motion gave him a special thrill. He watched the gleeful expressions on the children’s faces as the ride got faster and the view of the park blurred into a spinning myriad of rainbow colours. In an age of electronics and gadgets, it was refreshing to see kids get pleasure from something so simple.COLLAPSE