It takes more than a shared past to make a future together.
When Kwesi—Kez—Zakari, cardiology consultant secretary at St. Cross Children’s Hospital, hears that his aunt’s building has caught fire, his settled life is turned upside down. Not only is his aunt now homeless, but he’s also thrust back in contact with someone from his past—someone he’s been trying to forget for five years…and failed miserably.
Callum Wright never seems to get things right. He needs to do one more wrong thing before he can get his life back in order. Instead, he undergoes a literal trial by fire, and choosing the path of good returns his old friend to his life. Kez’s council-estate-to-professional-world transformation reminds Callum of how he’s never been able to get anything right…least of all his feelings for the man.
Kez hasn’t got over the reckless act of betrayal that caused their separation five years ago. Atoning for the guilt he still harbours at having turned his back on his friend in the past, he helps Callum get his future in some sort of order—a difficult feat when all those quashed feelings resurface for a man who can’t, and shouldn’t, ever be trusted.
All Kez can do is repeat that this time, he really, seriously, most definitely, won’t be fooled again.
Reader advisory: This book contains references to drugs, threats of violence and scenes of fire and the aftermath of fire. There are references to male sex workers, homophobic insults and verbal abuse of a disabled character.
General Release Date: 27th August 2019
The yellow toy candy egg that was perched on the shabby chest of drawers wobbled with every foot stomp from outside. It stared at him. Mocked him. Forced him back to a life he’d tried escaping.
Pacing the dishevelled bedroom in his fifth-floor flat, Callum scraped his hair back and tied it into a messy topknot. With nothing more than a pull-out bed and a wardrobe, the space was so small that his uneasy strides took him full circle. This bloke cannot get here quick enough.
He had to swat away the beads of sweat sprinkling his bottom lip with the ball of his thumb—his fingers were useless with trembling. He wiped his hands down his ripped jeans then rubbed his palms together, needing his hands back at full function. Get a fucking grip. It’ll all be over in a minute. Adrenaline had him jumping on the spot and the crash of his heart pained his chest with every energetic leap.
Fuck. All. This. Shit.
Deep thuds from above and below pounded louder, like a herd of fucking elephants were marching down the communal stairway opposite his single occupancy. Why can’t these people use the damn fucking lifts?
Catching his reflection in the smeared mirror hanging on the wardrobe by one rusty nail, Callum paused. Not for thought—more for context. He glanced away just as quickly. The clothes strewn about the room covered every inch of the grey tiled carpet and his fraying rucksack propped up by the door was ready and waiting for his swift exit. His stomach growled, which temporarily masked the heavy stomps from outside. At least after this, he’d have a bit of dough and could buy a decent meal. He’d had enough of the tinned crap from the food bank.
The candy egg caught his eye again. Just one? No one would know. Might take the edge off.
Fuck. He needed gloves. He ransacked the flat—every room, every drawer, every cupboard, under every discarded item of clothing—stopping in the living area for composure. He checked in his stone-washed-jeans pockets, a last resort. Come on! Snatching his bag, he then ripped open the zip with trembling fingers. He hung it upside down over the once-red fabric sofa that was now stained with varying amounts of he didn’t want to know what. Nothing of interest fell out. Just the two throwaway phones. He checked the display on one, then switched it off, smacked it against his leg to release the SIM card and stamped on it with his steel-toe-capped boot.
The front door rattled on its hinges and Callum’s heart leapt into his throat along with a sizeable amount of bile. He peered through to his bedroom just in time to witness the plastic egg falling from the chest of drawers and being captured within the soft cotton of a tattered jumper. Bollocks. He couldn’t touch it. He couldn’t. Not without the damn gloves.
Bang, bang, bang. Knuckles rapped the front door, drilling through Callum’s temple and whatever resolve he might still have had left. Thank fuck.
Pulling himself together, he trampled over the clutter to flick the latch up, making the clang ricochet off the oppressive walls. He nudged open the door just enough to fit his face through the gap.
An Indian man stared back at him, eyes wide. “Gotta get out, son. Fire.”
“What?” Callum clung onto the door, unwilling to open it farther.
“Leave everything. It’s spreading.” The man, Callum suddenly recalled, lived three doors down from him in one of the larger flats. This was the longest conversation they’d ever had—Callum had become a bit of a recluse.
As his grip released, the door drifted open wider to reveal a horde of families rushing down the fire escape steps opposite. All panic-stricken. No forming an orderly queue. His neighbours halted up ahead by the stairwell—four young girls all clinging to their mum’s skirt, glaring in frustration as the woman yelled something to him in her mother tongue.
The man responded to her in a quick-fire language that Callum couldn’t decipher, then, with fear apparent in his dark eyes, gripped Callum’s arm. “Please. Come.”
“Wait.” Callum held up a finger, when the sudden stench of thick smoke drifted to his nostrils. He coughed.
“Now!” The man yanked him again, but soon gave up when fog clouded around his family. He left, rushed to their aid and ushered them all down the stairs.
Callum’s eyes streamed. He couldn’t leave. He couldn’t. Not yet. Not now, for fuck’s sake! He looked through the flat to his bedroom, to his bag, his stuff, his life. The plastic toy egg—
Then he slammed the door shut behind him and lunged for the staircase.
Slapping a palm on the railing, he paused. Others bundled past him, bashing him in their hasty retreat. Callum’s legs wouldn’t move. He shut his stinging eyes for a moment, then, when he opened them, peered along the corridor to the flat at the end. The door was shut.
Growling, Callum launched himself off the steps and ran the length of the corridor, landing with a balled fist at number fifty-nine. He banged, hard, coughing through the surrounding smoke and the rising heat enveloping him. She could have left already?
He’d never forgive himself if he didn’t find out for sure.
Stepping back, he lifted his leg and lined up the outsole of his heavy-duty standard work boots at the door. He sucked in a deep breath that was clouded with bristling fumes, then slammed his sole, full force, onto the PVC. The pressure-pain ricocheted up his leg to his hip and the door flung open, ripping half the wood from the frame along with it.
Coughing, Callum bolted inside the flat. “Eve!” He held his sleeve up to his mouth as he stormed through the corridor.
The living area was vacant, no one inside. The kitchen opposite also empty. Farther still, he pushed open the door to the first bedroom. Neatly kept, not slept in. Not for years. Callum’s heart sank through to his feet.
“Callum! What are you—” Eve’s tight braids that had used to be wound into an on-the-top bun were left dangling over her shoulders as she emerged from the main bedroom. Her hair used to be solid black, but now there were speckles of ash white running through, serving Callum a dreaded reminder of how long it had been since he’d last seen her this close. But he couldn’t think about that now. Or they’d both be dead and buried, like the past was supposed to be.
“Fire. We need to get out.” Callum’s mouth was dry, but he ignored the parch in his throat to grab her arm.
“What? Callum, no!” She resisted, yanking away from him. Her long night dress was only mildly covered by a towelled dressing gown that hung down to a cast on her left foot. He’d heard about her fall, but he hadn’t had the guts to ask how she’d been doing. He hated himself for that. “Fires are contained to the flats. We stay put and secure the doors.”
“Everyone is leaving.” Callum’s panicked voice elevated in urgency and he widened his eyes in plea.
The screech of a long and loud blast from the internal fire alarms burst through to the room and Eve staggered back.
“Your door’s broken now, anyway!” Callum dug fingertips into the soft fibres of Eve’s dressing gown as smoke trailed in through the open front door and down the corridor. “Auntie, please.” The endearment fell from his tongue without conscious thought, even if he hadn’t uttered the word in so long. He had no right to call her that. He didn’t deserve it. Not anymore.
Eve bit her bottom lip, drawing troubled eyebrows in. She stared at Callum, her chest rising. And for a moment Callum thought this would be how it all ended. And wouldn’t that make for a piece of fucking irony? Eventually, though, she nodded and allowed Callum to usher her out of the flat. She had to hobble, the cast on her foot making it difficult to walk, let alone rush. Callum stayed at her side, coughing through the rising fumes and taking all Eve’s weight for her.
As they reached the stairwell, the smoke had thickened, distorting much of Callum’s view and preventing any clean air from reaching his lungs. Grabbing Eve’s wrist, he held her towelling sleeve to her mouth. “Breathe through that.”
They tumbled down the first flight, awkwardly falling into each other or the wall, to stop at the separating landing. A little boy, no more than five or six, stood against the wall and wailed, calling for his mummy.
“That’s Thomas!” Eve choked out the boy’s name in urgency.
Callum didn’t think. He rarely did. With a clenched jaw, he let Eve go and grabbed the boy to haul him up to rest on his hip. The boy wrapped thin, quivering arms around Callum’s neck and clasped his hands together.
If this fire didn’t kill Callum, strangulation would.
“Where is his mother?” Eve asked.
“Everyone left, Auntie.” Callum tapped the boy’s arm, attempting to loosen the kid’s tight grip. It didn’t work. Delving deep to find a courage he didn’t know he had, he linked his arm through Eve’s and hobbled them all the rest of the way down the stairs.
As they emerged into daylight, he set the boy to the ground but clung to his tiny, trembling hand. He wasn’t sure it was any comfort to the snot-nosed kid, but, for some reason, it was to Callum.
“You’re all right, yeah?” Callum wasn’t sure if that was a question, or just hope vocalised.
The little kid didn’t answer. Which was okay with Callum. He wouldn’t have known what to do if he’d been given the negative anyway.
“Thomas!” A woman’s petrified scream sounded up ahead. Her approaching voice was distorted by the other sounds that rippled Callum’s skin. He could see her mouth moving, but no words were decipherable. Slipping down onto her knees, the panic-stricken woman snatched the boy to her chest. “Eve!” She stood. “Thank you! I lost him on the stairs. Are you okay?”
Eve shook her head, tears trailing down her cheeks as she slipped away from Callum and into the woman’s outstretched hand.
“Let’s get you to an ambulance.”
Dazed, confused, Callum lost them all. Alone, he stumbled up the path and passed the fenced-off playground, where the one lone swing swaying in the breeze appeared as inviting as it ever had. Bashed, Callum was forced back to the present, his head a haze of cotton wool. Dozens of firemen decked out in full head gear rushed toward the entrance of the building.
Only once he’d reached the pedestrian walkway littered with onlookers did Callum stop and turn.
Flames sizzled from the fourth floor of the block and drifted upward, blurring the outline of the concrete. Gasps, cries and sobs stabbed Callum’s eardrums, whilst flashing emergency lights, thick black smoke and bright orange sparks saturated his vision.
Involuntary retching pained his chest. He couldn’t get a handle on himself. Bending double, he threw up into the gutter, his limited stomach contents now discarded down the drain for the rats to consume.
“You okay, mate?” A light tap to his back stopped the pitiful display.
Callum stood, tufts of hair falling from the band to irritate his eyes, but he could still see the concern flickering behind the fireman’s shielded mask. “Yeah.” He nodded and looked back up at his childhood home. “Lucky escape.”
Never a truer statement.