Ashraf never thought he could fall in love. So when he falls hard and fast for marine biologist Jamie Singer, it’s a shock to the system—in more ways than one.
Even if he can wrap his head around what love is and how relationships work, Ashraf’s not sure this is viable. He’s hydrophobic. And Jamie’s entire world revolves around the sea. What’s the point of trying if so much of Jamie’s life is inaccessible to Ashraf?
But Ashraf has vastly underestimated the pull of loving Jamie. For the first time, he wants to face the water, rather than flee from it. He has underestimated the power of love in making people brave, stupid, or a little bit of both.
Maybe it’s time to take a leap—and sink or swim.
|Publisher:||NineStar Press, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)|
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HE WAS GETTING funny looks.
It was an airport. Of course he was. It didn't matter that he was waiting at the arrivals gate, and he didn't have a bag. Ashraf always got funny looks in airports.
For once, though, he didn't care.
Because the flight from Sydney had clicked over to "arrived" nearly forty-five minutes ago. And Australian accents were starting to float out of the tunnel. His phone had already beeped in his pocket twice.
Jamie: Landed safe, see you soon, love you! xxx
Followed, not ten minutes later, by a second.
Jamie: Don't go to mosque tonight? I want you all to myself. Please? xxx
Six weeks was almost over.
Mosque could definitely wait.
He saw Professor Hanley first, with his customary battered backpack and fresh-from-the-jungle look. The man was a walking biohazard, and ticked every one of the absent-minded professor stereotypes, from the shabby jacket with the patched elbows to the Einstein-after-electrocution haircut. At his elbow loped his research assistant, George, looking like he'd not slept for the whole trip. He probably hadn't. And behind them, weighed down with souvenirs and suntans, their brand new PhD students, Meg and Jamie.
Ashraf began to smile.
The sight of Jamie, even after six weeks, was as familiar as though it had been six hours. That fluffy beanie hat. The strays of light-brown hair escaping around the edges. The spray of freckles that had eluded the sun cream. The small ears and sharp jaw, where Ashraf liked to trail his fingers down from shell to shoulder and feel the life underneath his touch. The bright, brilliant brown eyes that would dim shyly when he did.
That lit up like fireworks in the dark when their gazes met.
The yell was like coming home. Warm. Wanted. Safe — even if the weight that smashed into his chest was anything but. Ashraf staggered, squeezing tight around skinny shoulders and trying to breathe past the scarf that smothered his face. Legs snaked around his thighs and clung too. He hadn't had a four-limbed hug in six weeks, and he never wanted to put them down.
But he did.
If only to catch both arms around a lean back, and kiss them.
Fists clutched at the front of his jacket. That beautiful face turned up into his own. Feet pushed up into perfect ballet points, and Ashraf could have stayed right there, holding his entire world in the circle of his arms, holding that weight like it was nothing, forever.
Even if he wasn't allowed.
The kiss was broken by a laugh, a nose rubbing against his own, and the brightest eyes in the world.
"Welcome home, Jamie."
"Missed you," Jamie enthused and wriggled against his chest as though hugging, without actually putting their arms around him. "What are you doing here? I was all set to surprise you at work!"
"I win," Ashraf said simply and squeezed. Jamie squeaked, coming up off their feet entirely. "I borrowed Tariq's car."
"Oh my God!"
"So do you need to go back with the others, or ..."
"Or," Jamie said firmly and bounced up on the balls of their feet again to deliver a short, sharp kiss. "Let me just say goodbye. Stay right there. Right there!"
Ashraf obeyed. He couldn't stop smiling. He was getting funny looks again, but for an entirely different reason. Six weeks had been hard — but harder than he'd realised when Jamie smiled like that. Missing them had turned into a sharp, awful pain just with that one smile, and Ashraf didn't even like the ten feet that parted them as Jamie ricocheted around the others, collecting hugs from Meg and the professor, and pompously shaking George's hand before dragging him into a hug too.
So when they came back, still wearing their entire personality on their face, Ashraf reeled them in by the jacket and locked his arms around the small of their back.
"Hello," Jamie whispered against his mouth.
Ashraf silenced them, but only briefly before the laugh spoiled it, and Jamie was nuzzling his cheek.
"You've not shaved."
"I like the bearded look. Very professorial."
"Bet Tariq doesn't know you borrowed the car to pick me up."
"Bet he'd be pretty upset to get sin all over it too."
"Want to get sin all over it?"
A smile creased against his cheek, and teeth gnawed lightly on his jaw before the warmth, the weight, the wonder, pulled away. The loss was staggering. Painful. Too soon.
"Come on," Jamie said. "Take me home in style."
Ashraf slid their fingers together and decided to take the scenic route.
IT WAS A long drive home. But Tariq's car was a soft-top, and the sun was out. And Tariq had a hundred speeding fines and didn't care — or pay them — so Ashraf put his foot down, and England rushed past in a blur of concrete barriers, roadworks, and dusty trees. Jamie was all enthusiasm to Northampton and then fell asleep with their scarf over their head and shoulders like a hijab. Ashraf pulled in at the services to put the roof back up and took the rest of the journey in quiet peace.
He'd only been with Jamie since this past May, but it still surprised him how it all felt. Ashraf wasn't really one for relationships. Had always thought he'd turn into one of those old professors with a collection of dusty old books, a huffy Persian cat, and a thing for cognac. Given he didn't drink, he wasn't sure how he was going to develop the thing for cognac, but that had been the destination.
Then Jamie had kissed him at that bus stop.
They'd been — not friends, exactly, but on nodding terms for a long time. They'd both been regulars attending the university debate club, and Ashraf hadn't even known their name. Then one evening, they got to talking after a particularly interesting motion, and Jamie asked Ashraf to walk them to the bus stop as it was after dark.
Then they'd kissed him and breathlessly asked him out.
Ashraf had sunk, right then and there.
It had been a strange experience. The whole street had vanished around him. The only thing he could see was Jamie's eyes, and he'd noticed every detail about them. The tiny threads of black that streaked through the deep brown, subtle and understated. The way their eyelashes curved. The freckle under their left eye, maybe on their nose and maybe just shy of it. The way their gaze roamed the middle-distance, looking at some invisible six-foot-tall object when they stammered out the question.
And his own heartbeat, thundering in his chest. His own breathing, raking through his throat.
He'd never fallen in love before, but Ashraf was fairly certain that had been what it was. The feeling, the cause.
Once, he'd have laughed at the idea of driving from Newcastle to London in a friend's car to pick someone up from the airport. Let them get another flight. Let them get a train. But he'd wanted to surprise Jamie, and get another one of those beautiful smiles. And even though the company was crap, being fast asleep and boring for a little while, he didn't regret a minute of it.
Jamie performed the passenger trick of waking up ten minutes from their destination. They woke up quickly, stretching and smacking their elbows off the roof before giving him a dirty look.
"You closed it," they said accusingly.
"You'd have lost your scarf."
"Eh. I have other scarves."
"You'd have complained," Ashraf said flatly, and Jamie laughed.
"And you would have pulled a face, ignored me, and bought me another one."
"You did last time. Hey. Why are we going this way?"
"Uh, because that's the way to the flat?"
Jamie stuck out their lower lip. "I don't want to go to the flat."
"Shane will be in."
Ashraf racked his brain. "You have a row or something?"
"No, dipshit. I like Shane fine, but I'm not up for a third wheel right now, get it? Your house. Go."
Ashraf flicked the indicator and changed lanes with a laugh.
"I thought you'd want to drop off your gear and shower."
"I can do that at your house."
"Want to stay the night?"
Ashraf smiled as he joined the main road crawling towards the coast. He'd never driven out that far, but it seemed like everyone and their mother wanted to today.
"Make you a deal," he said.
"If you let me hug you for a bit, I'll spring for whatever dinner you want."
"What ever dinner I want?"
"Even if it's homemade?"
Ashraf pretended to think about it. "Hmm ... yeah, okay."
"Deal," Jamie said immediately and wriggled down in the seat to put their boots on the dash. "Drive, motherfucker. You got a sex bomb to get to bed."
Ashraf laughed ... and nudged the accelerator down just a fraction further.
Jamie was the active sort — always swimming, always dancing, always on the move — but it was moments like this that Ashraf loved the most. When the world slowed down and stilled, and he could drift grounded only by the smooth, soft skin searing hot against his own. The tickle of hair at his neck. The gentle brush of every breath over his chest. The sensuality of having a bare breast pressed against his arm, and the delicate trust of the toes tucked between his knees.
And disturbed by a rumble of thunder outside. The sound washed over them both and broke the peace like ripples on a still koi pond. Jamie stirred. Ashraf caught at the knee bent over his belly and stroked the smooth cap before it was tugged away. A kiss warped by a wide smile landed on his mouth.
"Feed me," Jamie implored, and Ashraf sighed.
"All right, all right ..."
He left Jamie naked in the tangled sheets and padded equally naked out down the stairs into the main room. The house was tiny, little more than one studio flat placed on top of another, a spiral staircase joining them. The ground floor was a single room, a kitchenette crammed into a messy living room brimming over with books. The first floor was almost all bedroom, with windows on both sides, and a tiny bathroom no bigger than that of an aeroplane squeezed into a spare corner. All the furniture was old, and none of the décor matched. Ashraf's prayer mat was a splash of colour over the back of the brown leather sofa, and the stairs were decorated with drying laundry. Outside, it was just as squashed. The front opened straight onto the pavement, and there was no back garden at all. And it was in the middle of a narrow street of terraced houses, all crushed into the gap between a now-destroyed mill and the shell of a long-closed factory.
But Ashraf loved it.
It was home.
He found a couple of stray Chinese ready meals in the freezer, stabbed the cling film tops, and leaned against the counter with a book while they turned in the microwave. He got through a chapter on the substandard nature of the Russian arms supplied during the Spanish Civil War before the smell of chicken in black bean sauce began to permeate the air. And once the smell had leaked out —
Boards creaked overhead.
Ashraf smiled as he opened the little door and dumped the meals into one big bowl to share. By the time he'd fished forks out of the cutlery drawer, the TV had been switched on, and he turned to see Jamie stretched out on the sofa, wearing Ashraf's tartan pyjama bottoms and nothing else. They had — of course — already commandeered the remote.
They both ate in relative silence. It was a comfortable, familiar thing. Jamie was bleary-eyed with sleep, nodding off more than once against Ashraf's shoulder, and Ashraf turned the volume down on the TV and let them. When he'd put the empty bowl aside, he turned to slide his leg under Jamie's thighs and tipped them both down onto the cushions to cuddle.
Jamie sighed, draped an arm over Ashraf's waist, and squeezed.
"Missed you," they murmured, burying their face in Ashraf's neck.
Ashraf smiled and said nothing. Slowly, Jamie settled. They twisted onto their side, jammed under Ashraf's arm and into the impossibly small gap between him and the back of the sofa, and dozed with their leg slung over both of Ashraf's in an oddly possessive gesture. Their head dropped slowly until Ashraf could press his nose to a warm, delicate crown, and inhale a familiar, long-lost scent.
His heart ached.
"Love you," he whispered, and the arm about his waist squeezed again.
Ashraf folded up a hand to stroke a single finger down bare ribs. He felt soft skin. The gentle pucker of a scar that couldn't even be seen. The graceful swell of a small breast. When he stroked the nipple with the back of his nail, the responding hum was heavy and peaceful. Pure bliss swept over him, like sinking into a hot bath.
It was like being allowed to breathe, for the first time in six weeks.
When had it come to this? When had cinema dates and Italian lessons over German meatballs turned into something so perfectly wonderful? When he had fallen, really fallen, in love?
"Would you —?"
He touched the back of his nail to that nipple again. Felt the weight of a thigh over his hips. Saw, at the very end of the sofa, the abandoned beanie hat. And between himself and the hat, his stolen pyjama bottoms.
"Move in with me."CHAPTER 2
ASHRAF WAS AWAKE before the first light of dawn.
He always was — Fajr and breakfast weren't things he liked to combine — but usually when he was done, he would put the prayer mat away and start to get ready for work. It meant he always got in early, and could usually leave early. It was a good deal.
That morning, though, he sat back on his heels and stared at the bed.
Jamie was normally a light sleeper, but they were clearly still jet-lagged. They had turned over into the warm spot Ashraf had left behind, and their face was almost completely buried in his pillow. It was a marvel they hadn't suffocated. Their hair was a bird's nest, their naked legs still marked by twenty-four hours of airline compression socks, and the serene divinity of their bare form, as beautiful as Allah could make any living being, was disturbed by the strangled snore.
Ashraf smiled and shuffled forward on his knees to grasp a bare ankle and kiss the scuffed heel of a much-loved foot.
He was still getting used to this. Having someone else in his space, and actually enjoying it. His lack of relationships was something he'd never missed before. In truth, he would have been perfectly happy to live out his days without them. But now he had Jamie, it would hurt like hell to let them go. It was an adjustment he wasn't entirely done with making.
Did other people sense their partner's presence as Ashraf did? Jamie stayed resolutely asleep as Ashraf showered again, trimmed his beard, put a load of laundry in, ate — but he could almost feel them in the house, like a peaceful ghost. He had company, even though he was entirely alone.
And it fell away when he stepped outside and closed the front door behind him. He set off to work with a smile.
Ashraf worked at the university. It had been a return, of sorts — he'd done his PhD at Newcastle, but his first research post had been at York and the second at Liverpool. He'd been gone five years before the lecturer's position came up, and he applied more out of hopeful nostalgia than anything else. He returned to the Toon to find it hadn't really changed — to a nice office and plenty of time for his research, and a small teaching responsibility of a couple of modules on Roman archaeology. It wasn't even his specialism, but Ashraf was an Italian history graduate with an interest in ancient history and anthropology. Of course, the Romans had been part of it.
He liked his job, and he liked Newcastle. It had been a struggle for a long time — the accent was horrific, never mind the impenetrable dialect — but the people were friendly and had been patient with him. It was easy to stay in the safe cocoon of the city centre and the university buildings. It had a river, but he didn't need to see it; it had a beach, but it was easily avoided. He'd made a handful of friends, and the students seemed to enjoy his seminars. The head of the department liked him and his work and had promised that after a couple of years, Ashraf would almost certainly get a proper professorial post. He'd found a nice house, returned to a welcoming mosque, and — though he'd never looked for one — found a partner. The future was good, and this was home now.
And getting better, judging by the beauty in his bed that morning.
Ashraf cycled into work. It was cool and sunny. A wind was blowing in from the unseen sea, more refreshing than any cup of coffee. Not that it stopped him from getting said cup, after locking his bike to the railings at the front of the building. The order was memorised by heart: two tall mochas and a skinny cappuccino with extra sprinkles. He juggled them expertly as he shouldered his way through several doors, hiked up two flights of stairs, and shuffled backwards through a door marked with a still-strange sign.
Dr Layton, Dr Blake, Dr Zaccaria.
Ashraf smirked and delivered a mocha into Kath's grasping hands.
"And good morning to you too."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Life Underwater"
Copyright © 2018 Matthew J. Metzger.
Excerpted by permission of NineStar Press, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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