Matt Blyth was not a morning man. When his alarm went off at five a.m. it shocked him awake. What the hell? Dragged rudely out of dreamland, where he’d been sailing across the Atlantic on a luxury cruise ship, to the darkness of his bedroom on Monday morning. Then he remembered the reason for the alarm. Boot camp. Today would be his first session. What had made him think that was a good idea?
He forced himself out of bed. No time to think about this. Just do it.
He stumbled to the bathroom and threw water in his face and raked wet fingers through his dark, wavy hair. Ten minutes later, dressed in joggers and running shoes, he was out of the house. He felt nauseated with the lack of sleep but pushed through it. Minor discomfort would not deter him, not when he was set on doing something he wanted. He was twenty-eight years old. In a little over a year he would turn thirty, that first great milestone of age. He was determined to be in his best shape ever when the dreaded day came. Even if it meant getting up well before dawn to slog it out and sweat for an hour before work.
The morning, which felt like the dead of night, was damp and cold. The sky was still ink black as he steered his car off the estate and onto the road that would take him out of town. It wasn’t far to the assembly point, a little over two miles. Soon, when he got used to these God-awful early rises, he wouldn’t need the car, he would jog to the meeting place. But not yet. Not today.
Matt turned on the radio. Music usually got him going but the radio was tuned to a local station, just in time for the news. He let it play. He liked to know what was happening in the area, as well as getting the sports results and weather.
The lead item blasted away the final cobwebs of sleep.
“Durham Police have cordoned off an area of the river bank in the city following the discovery of a body late last night. Police refuse to speculate whether the death is connected to that of student Conner Welsh, whose body was discovered just two weeks ago downriver of the latest finding. Mr. Welsh was severely beaten before being strangled. Durham FM News will bring you further information on the latest death as we receive it.”
Two bodies dragged from the river within a fortnight. That was unheard of in a small city like Durham. Murder of any kind was rare. He hoped the latest death was nothing more than an accident—a tragic coincidence—in no way connected to the murdered student. Drunk students had always been drawn to the riverbank. Too much alcohol and a loss of balance could have fatal consequences. From what he’d heard, Conner Welsh, the previous victim, suffered a nightmare ordeal before going in the water. He prayed it hadn’t happened again.
The story continued to trouble him as he followed the winding country road, though he tuned out the rest of the bulletin and missed the sports update. The image of the murdered student had been a regular feature in the local press these last two weeks. A smiling, happy boy. Young and good-looking, a university student, Conner had everything to smile about. But some sick bastard had thought otherwise. Matt hoped they quickly found who was responsible, for the sake of Conner’s family and the wider community.
Thin fingers of light began to crawl across the sky when he pulled into the car park at Binchester Woods. A handful of vehicles were already parked and a group of people in sports clothes were limbering up and stretching against the picnic table.
So there were others just as crazy as he was, coming out to exercise at this early hour.
There was no sign of Annabel’s Fiat among the parked cars. Typical. This crazy venture was her idea. “C’mon, Matt,” she had enthused in the office kitchen. “We’ll motivate each other. And think how great it will be to get it over with so early in the day. No more having to drag our tired butts to the gym after work. Our evenings will be our own.”
He had texted her the night before to make sure she was still up for the challenge.
Definitely she had replied and had added a smiley face.
Matt locked the car and headed toward the group of people. There were four men and three women, all of them swaddled in layers from head to foot.
“Is this the meeting point for boot camp?” he asked, certain it must be. Why would they be here otherwise?
A large man stepped forward. He carried a hardback notebook and a pencil. “It is. I’m Clint. I’m instructing the group today.”
“Hi.” They shook hands. “You spoke to my work colleague on the phone. Annabel Faith. She made the booking for both of us.”
Clint consulted his little notebook. “Matt, is it?” He ticked him off his list. “Is your friend with you?”
“No. But she only has to come from town. She shouldn’t be long.” She had better not be.
Clint was huge. Exactly how Matt imagined a boot camp instructor would look—an enormous, ex-military, brick shithouse. With his steely crew cut and dark, hooded eyes, he looked like a hard case who would take no prisoners. He was sexy too, in a strange, scary way. Not really Matt’s type, but he could see the appeal.
Clint enquired about his current level of fitness.
“Decent, I’d say. I train at the gym three or four times a week and like to run at weekends. I eat plenty of protein and take it easy with carbs. I’m just looking to improve my overall levels of fitness.” All true, if slightly exaggerated.
Clint looked him over closely before making notes in his book. “Good. Any health concerns I should know about before you start?”
“Sure? This is an intense course.”
“That’s what I’m looking for. Something I can’t get at the gym.”
Clint nodded, satisfied, and closed his book. “You’ve come to the right group. Whipping bodies into shape, that’s what I’m known for. No messing, no time wasting, no excuses—just exceptional results. A guy in my group last year made the front cover of Men’s Health magazine. Those are the kind of results I aim for.”
Matt stretched while they waited for the rest of the group to arrive. Clint told him they would leave at five-forty-five sharp. “Get here later than that and we’ll be gone.”
There was still no sign of Annabel. Punctuality wasn’t one of her strong points. If she intended to turn up at all. Knowing her, she would still be curled beneath her duvet. He was mad for listening to her in the first place. She never came through, always full of enthusiastic ideas but with little success in achieving them.
More vehicles began to pile into the car park and soon there was a group of around twenty assembling for the class. They were mainly men, aged twenty through to mid-forties. Intense, serious-looking men who didn’t mess about over fitness. Real go-hard-or-go-home types. Maybe it was a factor of the unsociable hour, but there wasn’t much conversation going on. That suited Matt. Nobody wanted small talk at this time of day.
He cast an appraising eye over the group. They were fit, masculine, real men’s men, but, a little bit like Clint, he found them rather asexual. Not his type at all. Not that he was looking anyway, but hey, a little eye candy could provide great motivation.
Just before the appointed start time another vehicle pulled into the car park and a man in blue running pants and a gray hoodie jumped out and jogged toward Clint. They spoke briefly and the instructor made a few hurried notes in his book.
Matt’s interest was piqued by the new arrival. This was more like it. Even from a distance, he could see this guy was something very special. With short, dark blond hair and a light beard, he was as manly as the rest of the group but seemed to lack the focused intensity that made them so fearsome.
He even smiled as he left Clint to join the group. A lovely, winning smile that wrinkled the corners of his sparkly eyes and illuminated a broad, handsome face.
“Hi, guys,” he addressed the group as a whole in a warm American accent.
“Hi,” Matt replied while the others responded with a non-committal grunt or nod.
Unselfconsciously, the newcomer began to stretch.
Matt found it hard not to stare. Wow. This guy looked good from a distance but was even better close up. He had the broad build of a man in his thirties and, though he was swaddled in layers like the rest of them, Matt could discern the strong lines of his shoulders and butt through that clothing.
But it was his face, with its twinkly eyes and golden skin, that was so exceptionally handsome.
Matt, with his wavy brown hair, brown eyes and angular face, was good-looking. He wasn’t vain or conceited about it, he knew he was attractive, but couldn’t help feeling inadequate beside the glorious American. With a face like that, he could do anything he wanted and the world would accept it—model, actor, politician, king.
Take it easy. Matt turned away. It was the only way to keep from staring.
He had the beginnings of an erection.
He’d wanted eye candy and now he had it. He’d have to be careful that the American didn’t become a distraction rather than a motivation.
Clint Dexter’s boot camp was advertised as the toughest, most effective workout in the county. Hard work and effort get results! proclaimed the poster in the window of his town center fitness studio. Nobody trains you harder.
It was no lie.
Without equipment, weights or gimmicks, Clint pushed his group on the most intense and physically grueling workout Matt had ever known. Clint was old school in his methods. Like an army sergeant breaking in the new recruits, he drove them uphill and into the woods. There was no let-up. He shouted and blew whistles, breaking up the run with demands for press-ups, squats, lunges, then straight back onto the track, going higher up the steep hill. There were no breaks. No moment to catch a breath.
Matt believed he was in good shape. Epic mistake. Every muscle in his body seemed to ache. His lungs were ablaze as he drew one arduous breath after another. Shit. He’d never known anything like this. And it didn’t stop. For the whole hour Clint worked them hard—no slacking, no respite.
Matt was glad to see he wasn’t the only one struggling with the course. He might be the newbie but even the seasoned old-timers were taking it badly. Everyone was red-faced and grimacing with pain.
Finally Clint guided them back down to the car park. It was over.
“Make sure you all stretch down thoroughly,” he shouted as he walked among the group. Most people were bent double, clutching their knees and gasping. “You’ll pay for it later if you don’t take the time now.”
“Some group, eh?”
Matt realized that he was standing beside the handsome American. The course was so exhausting that he’d stopped paying attention to the blond hunk after the first five minutes. His hair was soaked, plastered to his head, and his face burned red, yet he exuded a sexiness that would have caught Matt’s breath if he wasn’t already wrecked.
Matt struggled to speak. “My first time,” he gasped.
“Yeah? Me too. I thought I was fit until this morning. This guy has destroyed me.”
“I doubt anyone is fit enough for this.”
The American laughed. “You could be right. I’ve had personal trainers in the past. Let me tell you, none of them worked me half as hard as this dude. Not ever.”
“Think you’ll do it again?”
“Absolutely. A month of this and we could compete as Iron Men.”
“You might be right. If we survive a month. My heart might not be able to take it.”
“I’m Dale,” he said. “Hi.”
“Hello. I’m Matt.”
“Nice to meet you, Matt,” Dale said cheerily.
Matt was struck again by just how good-looking Dale was. God, his eyes—they were as blue as a cloudless August sky.
As he stretched his tired muscles, Matt tried not to be affected by the proximity of Dale, but it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t just the way he looked, it was his manner and the confidence he exuded. Even the smell of him, the sweat from all that hard work, was an aphrodisiac. It was a long time, if ever, since a man had had such a devastating effect on him. When Dale bent over to touch his toes and gave Matt the full benefit of his glorious rump, he had to turn away. Tenting the front of his pants with a hard-on was not the kind of first-day impression he wanted to make.
The sun finally put in an appearance, breaking weakly through the clouds above the jagged tree line.
“I’ve got to beat it,” Dale said, straightening up and thrusting a hand at Matt. “Will you be here for the next session?”
Matt took his hand and was transfixed by those eyes. This must be how a rabbit feels as he’s about to become road kill. “Wednesday? Yes, I’ll be here.” Truthfully, he hadn’t been sure he had more than one early start a week in him, but that was before he met Dale. If he needed a reason to drag his tired butt out of bed, this was as good as he’d find.
“Great. I’m glad to see I’m not the only new guy. We’re in this together now. Got to give those regular guys a run for their money, don’t you think? So I’ll see you Wednesday. Bye for now, Matt.”
Dale jogged toward his car, giving Matt one final glimpse of his beautiful bouncing butt.
What was that? Matt felt as though he’d been picked up, spun around and dropped back down again. Had Dale been flirting? Or was that just American friendliness? Probably, Matt reasoned. He was so used to British reserve and surliness that he’d misread the signs. Dale was being friendly, that was all.
He shouldn’t hope for more.
* * * *
Two hours later, showered, dressed and breakfasted, Matt walked through the doors of Benedict and Taylor, the long-established law firm where he’d worked since finishing college, ready to face the day. He really was ready. Despite the early start and punishing routine in the woods, he felt amazing. More energized for a Monday morning than anyone had a right to be. Maybe it was worth it and those people who worked out before the rest of the world had had their first cup of coffee weren’t as crazy as he’d always thought. Exercise did have its benefits, besides meeting sexy strangers, and this early feeling of energy was a previously undiscovered one.
One look at Monica, sitting bleary-eyed on the reception desk, chugging from a bucket-sized carton of takeaway coffee, convinced him he was right.
“Rough night? Rough weekend? Year?” he asked.
“Very funny,” she sneered, booting up the computer. “It’s Monday, unless you’ve forgotten. Only freaks come in to work on Monday with a smile on their face.”
“I’m smiling, aren’t I?”
“Like I said—freaks!”
She sipped her coffee, looking him up and down. In his dark blue suit, pale shirt and narrow tie, clean shaven with his unruly hair combed into a neat style, he bore little resemblance to the wild creature who had stumbled out of bed all those hours before. Wearing a suit each day was part of the job and Matt Blyth wore it well. Six-foot-two with broad shoulders and a slender waist, he had the classic male physique that suits were designed for. The cheapest, off-the-rack two-piece still looked great on him.
“You do look unusually happy,” Monica said, narrowing her eyes. “Why? Did you have a lottery win over the weekend? Or did you strike it lucky in other ways? A tumble in the sack?”
“It’s the joy of life, Monica. You should try it sometime.”
“Huh? You should try sitting here eight hours a day, five days a week and listen to people bitch because they can’t get an appointment. See how joyful you feel then.”
Matt’s office was on the first floor of an imposing Victorian mid-link terrace in the heart of the old city. He bounded up the stairs, two at a time, to retrieve the planner from his desk. This is ridiculous. Surely he couldn’t feel this good because of a little extra exercise. If so, he should have done it years ago.
Every morning from nine till nine-twenty Edward Benedict, senior partner in the firm and Matt’s direct boss, held a brief team meeting in the ground floor conference room. The aim was to assess any outstanding work, go through what had come in overnight and fix what everyone had to do that day.
Edward was at the head of the table when Matt entered. He was a well-built man in his mid-fifties, with thick gray hair and a broad, often red face. He regarded Matt with serious eyes over the top of his wire-framed glasses. With the table only two-thirds full, Matt was glad he wasn’t the last to arrive.
“Morning,” he greeted the room and took a seat beside Trish Coleman, the firm’s bookkeeper. She had been with the practice almost as long as Edward.
“Have you heard?” Trish asked as he poured a glass of water from the jug on the table. “There’s been another murder in town.”
“I heard they had found a body. Have they confirmed it’s murder?”
“Not officially. Not yet. But I’ve heard it from various sources already this morning. It looks exactly like the boy they found the other week. Same circumstances and everything.”
“Shit. Poor kids. Have they ID’d the body?”
“Not that I know of.” Trish Coleman, with contacts in most other law firms and within the police force itself, was the first person to find out everything. Whatever she said would be easy to dismiss as gossip but Trish had been right about so many things, so many times before, it was stupid not to listen. Gossip was her life. If she decided to change careers she would make an excellent journalist. Her contacts were outstanding. “There’s something else,” she said, relishing the power of her knowledge. “The first victim, Conner Welsh—what hasn’t been released so far is that he was severely assaulted—sexually. Before and after death.”
“I know. Isn’t it awful?” Her eyes were indecently excited. “There’s potentially a serial killer. A sexual serial killer. On the loose, right here in Durham.”
“That’s all idle speculation,” Edward said firmly. He’d never approved of Trish’s gossiping. Gossip worked both ways and he was suspicious of any information about the firm she might share with a rival in return for tittle-tattle.
For Matt, the shine was taken from his previous good mood. The discovery of another corpse was bad enough without the prospect of a sexual predator stalking the city. Unlike his boss, he was inclined to believe what Trish said. She was rarely wrong. The police needed to move quickly on the case before anyone else was killed.
Annabel Faith was the next to arrive. Edward glanced frostily at his watch as she came in, but it was not yet nine o’clock. Annabel had joined Benedict and Taylor six months after Matt and had been his best friend in the practice since her first day. There was less than a year between their ages and Annabel was like the young sister he had never had.
In a black trouser suit and silk blouse, Annabel had clearly spent some considerable time getting ready that morning. Her makeup was immaculate and her soft blonde hair had been straightened into a sharp style. Matt looked her up and down.
“So what’s your excuse? Hair dryer emergency?”
“Sorry, sweetie, but I just couldn’t face it. Not this morning.”
“Neither could I but I still made the effort. It’s what we agreed after all. You could at least have sent a text and told me you weren’t coming.”
“I didn’t think you’d have your phone on you.” She helped herself to a breakfast muffin from the pile on the table and sat beside him. “I said I was sorry, sweetie.”
“I told them you would definitely be there,” he lied. “The instructor was really pissed. The entire group waited for you.”
Her mouth widened, as she was about to take a bite. “Oh my God. Really? Were they mad? What did they say about me?”
Edward called the meeting to order. Not everyone was there yet, but a bit like Clint Dexter, he was a sucker for punctuality and starting on time. Matt decided to keep quiet for a while. It would do Annabel good to stew a little.
As usual, Edward went around the table, getting his staff to read out one by one what they had listed in their diaries for the day. It was the standard list of mundane matters, the kind of work that kept modest firms like this one ticking over.
“I’ve got two clients at court this morning,” Matt said when it came his turn. “Magistrate’s stuff over at Newton Aycliffe. One breach of the peace and one driving offense. Both are pleading guilty so it shouldn’t take more than an hour. I was going to spend the rest of the morning preparing a trial I have tomorrow.”
“Which trial?” Edward observed him over the rim of his glasses.
“Newby versus Lewis. A family matter. Dad is going for access rights to his son.”
“Mother is being difficult but I think we can win. Her main argument against our client getting access is that he has a new girlfriend. Nothing to do with his suitability to have the boy. If I can get that across to the judge, I think I can get our client what he wants.”
“Good. And this afternoon?”
“Appointments every half hour until six. Two new cases. It’s a full schedule. And I’m on call tonight. This morning is the only time I have to prep the trial,” he added hastily. Edward had a habit of spotting what he perceived to be gaps in his workers’ schedules and filling them, with little consideration for the amount of work required before and after even the most mundane case.
“That’s fine. Annabel?”
Less prepared, Annabel blustered through a sparse calendar and tried to make herself sound busy. In reality she had little going on that morning, other than a few follow-up phone calls, and only appointments booked for the afternoon. Edward saw straight through the ruse.
“Take the files from Matt for the magistrate’s cases. You can handle the sentencing. Matt, take the morning to prepare your trial for tomorrow. I think you’ll need it.”
“Thank you, sir. It’s appreciated.”
“You bloody crawler,” Annabel said afterward, coming to Matt’s office to collect the files she needed for court.
He laughed. “I didn’t ask for this. The boss saw right through that crap you gave him. You’ve got bugger all to do today.”
“I like to keep things light on Monday, you know that.”
“So does Edward, that’s your problem.”
She pulled up a chair and sat, leafing through the files without taking much notice of what was inside. It was routine stuff. Nothing she couldn’t deal with on the fly at court. “So how did it go this morning? Were they really pissed I wasn’t there?”
“You’d love that, wouldn’t you? But no, they weren’t pissed. Nobody noticed to be honest, except me. This guy Clint, he doesn’t wait around for people. If you’re not there on time, too bad.”
She flicked her hair across her shoulder. “What’s he like? The instructor? A hottie or nottie?”
Annabel was a serial fiancée who had recently broke off her latest engagement. She was back on the market and finding a new man was her number one priority.
“He’s okay. He’s very fit but probably not your type.”
“Hmmm. How old?”
“Fortyish. Thereabouts. It’s sometimes hard to tell with those really muscular men. Too much muscle can be ageing. He might not be as old as all that.”
“I need to find out for myself.”
“Then you need to get your butt out of bed on Wednesday and be there at five-forty-five.”
“You’re going back?”
“I am. Unlike you, when I commit to something I see it through.”
He decided not to tell her about Dale. Not yet. Selfishly, he hoped Annabel wouldn’t show on Wednesday. He wanted the American to himself. At least until he had time to figure him out. The more he thought about him, the more convinced he became that Dale had been showing definite signs of interest this morning. Crazy, for sure, but Dale was so goddamn beautiful, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity of seeing him again.
Even if it was just a sweaty yomp around the woods. When a man looked as good as he did, a moment of his time was better than nothing.