Out! (A Shamwell Tales novel)

Out! by JL Merrow
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-609-5
eBook release: 
Jun 26, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-610-1
Print release: 
Jun 26, 2017
Word count: 
81,000
Page count: 
316
Type: 
Cover by: 
Audio release: 
Oct 20, 2017

This title is part of the Shamwell Tales universe.

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When love wars with principle, which one will win?

Mark Nugent has spent his life in the closet—at least, the small portion of it he hasn’t spent in the office. Determined to make amends to his neglected teenage daughter from a failed marriage, Mark swears off work—and love—so he can give her a stable home environment. But Mark’s resolve to keep his heart under wraps is tested when he meets an out and proud young man he’s instantly drawn to.

Patrick Owen is a charity worker with strong principles. He doesn’t trust easily, but he’s blown away by his attraction for the older man who’s so new to his own sexuality. Yet Mark is adamant he’s not coming out to his daughter—and Patrick refuses to live a lie.

What with Mark’s old-fashioned attitudes and his flirtatious ex-colleague who’s determined to come between them, Patrick begins to wonder if they’ll ever be on the same page. And when Mark’s career as a tax advisor clashes with Patrick’s social conscience, sparks really start to fly—in all the wrong ways.

(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

Mark clenched and unclenched his hands in his lap—fortunately hidden by the large oak table they were all sitting around. This should not be at all nerve-racking. He’d spent twenty years building a successful career as a tax advisor in the City of London. He’d faced down boards of directors and pointed out the errors of their ways. He’d brow-beaten so many inspectors of taxes on behalf of his corporate clients it was a wonder the country hadn’t gone bankrupt.

He should be able to face a meeting of the Shamwell Spartans Fun and Funds Foundation.

The trouble was, there was no hiding behind his professional persona here. This was a social situation, which had never been his forte. Mark couldn’t help being reminded of his school days. He’d changed schools on an almost annual basis, and he’d always hated being the new boy. Having to negotiate all the little cliques that inevitably formed wherever two or three were gathered together. Everyone here knew everyone else here—except him.

The upstairs room of the Three Lions pub was fairly large, with white-painted walls that made the best of the light coming in through small, many-paned windows. The ceiling beams, black with age, stood out in stark contrast. There was a mingled aroma of beer, furniture polish, and somebody’s enthusiastically applied aftershave tragically failing to cover his stale sweat.

The website had said the Spartans was open to all villagers of the male gender (was that even legal these days?) between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five. Mark was comforted to find he wasn’t the only one there who was edging towards the upper end of that range. Several heads were greying to greater or lesser degree—unlike his own, Mark was happy to say with almost complete truth—and he strongly suspected Barry the chairman’s thick, dark head of hair of being a dye job. There were also a couple of early receders who’d made the best of it by shaving the lot off.

Barry knocked on the table with an actual, old-fashioned gavel. “Right, you lot, if you can shut your gobs for a moment, I want you all to welcome our new member, Mark Nugent. He’s just moved in to the village. Mark, you want to introduce yourself?”

“Thank you, Barry,” Mark said with a confident smile. He stood, realising even as he did so that what might be right for the boardroom might, in this context, just make him look like a self-important prick. But sitting straight down again would make him look like an idiot. He had a split second to decide: sessile fool or erect . . . prick?

Mark decided that, on the whole, he’d rather be a prick.

“Not a lot to tell,” he began self-deprecatingly. “I’m a chartered accountant and chartered tax advisor, formerly based in practice in London and now taking a career break to concentrate on my family. I’m a single father with a daughter of fourteen who’s just started at . . .” Damn it, what was the bloody name of the place? “. . . one of the local schools. She was the one who encouraged me to come along here, in fact.”

Actually, her words had been more along the lines of “For God’s sake, Dad, get some bloody hobbies. You’re driving me mental hanging round the house all the time.”

“And I hope I’ll be able to use my professional expertise to further the aims of this excellent group. Thank you, gentlemen.” Mark cleared his throat again. Yes, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this evening’s order of pomposity. Plenty more available at a very reasonable hourly rate.

Mark hoped he was imagining the variety of amused, incredulous, and horrified looks that had turned his way. The one saving feature of the evening was that Florrie—no, Fen, damn it—wasn’t here to witness it. He could hear her exasperated Daaa-aaad in his head, even now.

“Right, well, thanks for that, Mark. I’m sure we’ll be able to find . . . something for you to do. Anyway— Oh, hang on. We oughta tell you who we are, don’t we? Me you know, and that’s—” Barry rattled off a list of names going round the table, most of which Mark immediately forgot. “Right, now we all know each other—” He was cut off by the door opening.

A man walked in, his gait the confident, easy swagger of young, good-looking men everywhere. Clearly on the younger end of the Spartans’ age scale, the newcomer might have just stepped from the pages of a fashion shoot. Or out of one of those adverts for online dating agencies Mark had been trying to ignore lately. He was dressed in a pale-blue casual shirt that Mark was ninety-five percent certain wasn’t designer but looked it anyway on his slim, fit figure, paired with jeans that hugged him, if not lovingly, then certainly with lust in mind. His eyes, set off by the shirt, were a startling blue, lively and bright. Cropped in close at the sides, his sandy hair was styled up on top with gel—was that why he was late? Maybe he’d needed the extra time to do his hair—bringing his height up to a level that, if it wasn’t six foot, wasn’t far off either. Just an inch or so shorter than Mark, in fact.

He was . . . hot. And, Mark reminded himself hurriedly, even in the statistically unlikely event that this young man was attracted to (a) men and (b) older men in particular, firmly off limits. Mark had his daughter to think of. The thought filled him with a heady mix of pride, purpose—and insidiously creeping depression.

The newcomer flashed them all a cheeky smile, and now apparently Mark had a heart arrhythmia to add to his woes. What the hell was the matter with him tonight?

“Patrick. Finally,” Barry said with good-humoured reproof. “We’d just about given up on you.”

Patrick’s reply was pitched low, with just a hint of roughness under the light Essex accent. “All right, lads? Sorry I’m late—total bastard of a day at work, and then when I get home, Mum’s got it into her head she’s gonna put up a shelf in the kitchen. Managed to drill into a water pipe. So there’s me stuck with my thumb in the hole like a little Dutch boy while she calls that plumber she fancies.”

There was a collective wry chuckle, accompanied by the odd muttering of “Women, eh?”

“Anyway,” he carried on. “By the time this plumber bloke gets there, I’m soaking wet, which, from the way he eyes me up, makes me think Mum could be barking up the wrong tree there, so I had to go and get changed.”

Mark was mesmerised by the image of Patrick, soaking wet and peeling off his clothes. So much so that he almost didn’t catch Barry’s reply: “What, and you didn’t stay to chat him up?”

That was interesting . . . Except no, it wasn’t, because young, fit fashion models didn’t look twice at middle-aged men. And responsible fathers didn’t shock their troubled teenage daughters by getting mixed up with boy-toys.

Damn it. Mark’s mood crashed again.

The blue eyes twinkled. “What, and step on Mum’s toes? I’d never hear the last of it. You never know, maybe he swings both ways.”

“Go on, admit it,” the better looking of the shaven heads—Roger? Rodney? Roderick?—said loudly. “You just needed the time to do your hair.”

Patrick’s response was a hearty laugh. “Rory, mate, you know you’re just jealous.”

Barry cleared his throat. “We were just getting to know our new member. Mark, this is Patrick.”

Caught by surprise, Mark stood once more—damn it, legs, why do you keep doing that?—and offered Patrick his hand.

Patrick raised an eyebrow, making Mark feel even worse, but took his hand and shook it firmly. His grip was warm and smooth, and all sorts of thoughts Mark should not be thinking started to run through his head like an X-rated earworm.

“Good to meet you,” Patrick said. “New in the village? I don’t think I’ve seen you around.”

“Ah, likewise.” Mark’s mind wasn’t really on his response. The room was stiflingly hot. It couldn’t be good for the ancient timbers, not to mention the environment. Why the bloody hell didn’t someone turn the heating down?

And was Patrick implying that if he’d seen Mark, he’d have noticed him?

No, surely not.

Was he? Mark realised he was still holding Patrick’s hand and dropped it like a hot potato. Fortunately nobody seemed to have noticed. He sat down hastily as Patrick took a seat at the other end of the long oak table.

Oh God. Mark’s life had just turned into the classic midlife crisis.

This young man was apparently attracted to men, gorgeous, and sharp in just the right way. His smile set Mark’s stomach in turmoil, and his voice had a similar effect on . . . other areas.

And he was young enough to be Mark’s son, for God’s sake.

Mark was doomed.

Barry banged on the table once more, and the susurration of murmurs that had sprung up abruptly ceased. “Right. Three-legged sponsored pub crawl—who’s up for it?”

 

Chapter Two

“What’s the story with the new bloke?” Patrick asked Rory as they leaned on the bar downstairs, far enough away from Mark that he wouldn’t be able to hear, although he kept his voice down just in case. After the meeting had finished, they’d all headed down for the usual pint or three. Mark, Patrick had noticed, had seemed a bit doubtful about it and kept checking his watch, but he’d come along after a bit of persuasion. So, not a hot date he wanted to get off to. Maybe he had someone waiting for him back home?

Patrick reckoned he ought to find out about that.

Barry had steered Mark over to one side—the bloke took his responsibilities as chairman seriously—and was leaning back against the bar, clearly in full flow about the Spartans, his beer gut jiggling as he went overboard with the hand signals. Mark, a head taller and light years fitter, was nodding along and doing a reasonable impersonation of a bloke who wasn’t desperate to escape. Patrick smiled to himself. Yeah, that looked familiar. Poor sod would get home tonight and wonder how the hell he’d managed to sign himself up for the pub crawl, the fun run, and to be an elf in Santa’s sleigh come December.

Not to mention the induction ceremony. Which, obviously, Barry wouldn’t. Not until the bloke was well and truly hooked.

Rory smoothed a hand over the five-o’clock shadow on his mostly bald head. He was in his early forties, so wouldn’t be long for the Spartans, which was a shame. Couldn’t be easy, facing the prospect of being told he was too old for something he’d given so much of his time to. At least Patrick had a couple of decades before he’d have to worry about that.

“Uh, I think he said he was a chartered accountant or something? He’s got a teenage daughter, I remember that. Doesn’t look old enough, does he?” Rory’s kids were seven and five, the youngest just started at the local primary school. “Why, you interested?”

Not sure, but I think he is. “Not if he’s married I’m not,” Patrick said firmly.

“Nah, single dad. Must be divorced.” Rory winced, maybe because his own divorce had only just gone through. He’d had a few gloomy pints to “celebrate” after the last Spartans meeting. Then he frowned. “Oh. So he’s not gay. Sorry.”

Patrick laughed. “Bisexuals really are invisible as far as you’re concerned, aren’t they, mate?”

Rory made a helpless gesture that nearly had him spilling his pint. “Well, it’s a bit confusing, innit? I mean, don’t get me wrong, I got no problem with people being gay, and obviously I got no problem with people being straight, but bisexuals, I just don’t get it. Why can’t they just pick one and stick with it?”

He was a good bloke at heart, Rory was. Just not very up on issues and stuff. “They do,” Patrick said patiently. “Then when that one goes tits up, they pick another one and stick with it. Just like anyone else, except they’re a bit more open-minded about who they go out with. It’s not that difficult a concept, mate. It’s not even that uncommon. I’ve been out with girls in my time.”

“Yeah?” Rory looked at him doubtfully. “You sure it wasn’t just a phase?”

Patrick let that one go, because he reckoned if he started having a serious discussion about bisexuality versus sexual fluidity, Rory’s head would probably explode. “And there’s Sean. He used to go out with Heather from the Sham-Drams.”

“The rat bloke? Yeah, but he’s just got engaged to Lucy’s teacher. She made ’em a card and everything. So he’s gay now, right?”

“No, he’s just in a relationship with a bloke. He used to go out with Heather, and that didn’t make him straight. Love’s not that simple, all right?”

“Which is what I’m trying to tell you, innit? It’s all so bloody confusing.” Rory shook his head and scratched the beginnings of a beer gut. “No wonder it didn’t work out, me and Evie.”

Poor bastard. Patrick clapped him on the shoulder. “You oughta give the lads a go.”

“No fear. With my luck, I’d just chat up the wrong bloke and end up getting a kicking. Nah, give me women any day. They’re . . . soft. And they smell nice. And they know about stuff like curtains and sewing name tags on the kiddies’ clothes.”

“You’re a real Renaissance man, aren’t you?” Patrick said with a grin. “Gotta go. There’s a mate over there all on his tod—I’d better go and say hi.” He picked up his pint and left Rory to join in a spirited discussion on whether the under-eights in the local kiddies’ football club were going to win the County Cup or not this year. Given what Patrick had heard about their performance as under-sevens, he wasn’t holding his breath.

Con, who Patrick knew from the local amateur dramatics society, was sitting at a table in the corner. He was wearing a soft bottle-green shirt that made his shoulders look about six foot wide—having a bloke had definitely smartened him up a bit. “All on your own tonight?” Patrick asked as he dropped into a chair.

“Nah, I’m here with Heather. She’s just nipped to the ladies’.”

“Your bloke off wowing them in the West End?”

Con nodded. “Yeah, it’s been going really well for him. He’s got another gig lined up as soon as this one finishes its run.”

“Yeah? Good for him, but seriously, mate, I know you and Tristan live together now, but do you ever get to see him? Your sex life must be almost as tragic as mine.”

“Self-employed, aren’t I?” Con grinned. “I can choose my own hours. Good to see you, anyway. Spartans night tonight?”

“Yep. We’ve just been having a meeting upstairs. You ought to join us,” Patrick added. Con was a handyman studying to be a carpenter—those sorts of skills could come in, well, handy. And he was a good bloke. With some free time in the evenings, what with Tristan’s unsociable hours.

“Not sure it’s really my thing,” Con said with a shrug. “Isn’t it all about lads’ nights out, getting pissed, and putting on really bad drag?”

“Well, some of it is,” Patrick admitted with a laugh. “Then there’s the induction ceremony, where they make you put on a leather skirt and helmet and drink half a yard of ale. Don’t think anyone’s mentioned that to the new bloke yet.”

“New bloke?”

“Mark somebody.” Patrick cast a glance over at the bar, meeting Mark’s gaze head-on. The guy flushed and looked away. Patrick grinned as he turned back to Con.

Con was peering at the bar. “Which one’s he? There’s a couple of blokes over there I don’t know.”

“He’s the one talking to Barry. Tall, fit, light-brown hair, dark-brown sweater . . .” Patrick paused, but what the hell. “And if I’m not mistaken, he fancies the pants off me.”

Con frowned. “Isn’t he a bit . . . old?”

“Well, he’d have to be under forty-five to be in the Spartans. Unless he’s telling porkies, of course. It’s not like Barry ever asks to see anyone’s birth certificate before he lets them come to a meeting.”

“Yeah, but even forty-five . . . That’s old enough to be your dad.”

“So? Nothing wrong with a bloke with a bit of experience, is there?” Patrick said it mostly to wind Con up. From the way Mark was acting, Patrick reckoned experience was one thing the bloke didn’t have a right lot of. At least, not with men.

Still, that could be fun too.

A bit wide-eyed now, Con took a slow swallow from his pint, then put the glass back on the table. “You always go for older blokes, then?”

Amused, Patrick raised an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

Result. Con blushed. Yeah, he hadn’t forgotten that time Patrick had tried to chat him up. Course, what with the broken leg and being in hospital, Patrick had been a bit off his game at the time. More to the point, he’d been too slow off the mark—Con had already fallen for Shamwell’s biggest drama queen. Sorry, professional actor.

“Oi, what’ve you said to Con? His face is clashing with his shirt something chronic.” Heather sat down with a wicked smile and pushed up the sleeves of her sweater, showing off her slim, tan forearms. She was a pretty girl, in a natural sort of way—she didn’t wear much makeup, and she never straightened her hair—and a decent actor. Patrick had been in quite a few Sham-Drams productions with her. “Hope you’re not talking dirty to him while his bloke’s not here.”

“Nah, just telling him about Mark.”

“Mark?” Heather raised an eyebrow at Patrick.

“New Spartan,” he explained.

“New gay Spartan, Patrick reckons,” Con threw in. “And he fancies him.”

“Oh my God! So who is he, then? And hang on, he fancies you, or you fancy him? Or both?” She peered at the bar. “I can’t see anyone I don’t know except that tall bloke talking to Barry . . . Oh my God, is it him? Isn’t he a bit, well, old for you? When did you get into daddy kink?”

Patrick laughed and gave her a one-fingered salute. “Just cos he’s a bit older than me doesn’t make it a kink. That’s ageist, that is.”

“Yeah, but I mean, what is he? Late thirties? Forty? That’s like your mum’s age. Actually, you know what? I could totally see him with your mum. You should introduce them. Maybe he’s bi.”

“Mum’s forty-four. And she can find her own blokes, all right?” And frequently did—a bit too frequently for Patrick’s liking.

Maybe Heather was thinking the same thing. “Yeah, but they’re all such total losers. I mean, no offence, but your mum’s taste in men is bleedin’ tragic. So what’s he doing in Shamwell, then, this not-a-daddy-kink bloke?”

Patrick shrugged. “Dunno. I missed the start of the meeting where he introduced himself.”

“So go chat him up now and find out, then.”

“Nah. I think I’ll wait. I’ll be seeing more of him anyway.” He laughed. “If he makes it to the induction ceremony, I’ll be seeing a lot more of him.”

Heather giggled. “Make sure you tell me when it is, all right? I don’t want to miss it.”

“Why—you got a thing for older blokes in leather skirts?”

“It’s not the skirt that does it for me. It’s the fact that’ll be all he’s wearing. He looks like he’s pretty fit, for an old bloke.”

Con frowned. “That’s all they get to wear, is it? Gonna be a bit nippy, this time of year.”

“He’ll have a cloak on too,” Patrick said, a bit distracted himself by the image. Yeah, this Mark bloke would look a damn sight better than most of the lads did in the Spartan getup. He’d had nightmares about some of the beer-guts . . . “And there’s the helmet.”

“Ooh, yeah, don’t forget that,” Heather said. “I’m looking forward to seeing his helmet.”

Con choked on his pint.

Patrick grinned. “And his six-foot weapon. Don’t forget that.”

“Is he gonna be poking people with it?” she shot back.

“Fancy a poke from him, do you? Even though he’s old enough to be your dad?” Patrick added pointedly, and took a mouthful of beer.

“Oi, I thought you said he was gay?” Con interrupted. “Sorry, Hev, looks like you’re out of luck.”

“Bum.” Heather made an exaggerated frown face.

Patrick put his glass down on the table. “What I said was, I reckon he fancies me. Maybe he goes for women too. Course, if you want to have to explain to Chris you’re planning on cheating on him with some bloke you’ve never even spoken to . . .”

And who’s old enough to be her dad,” Con put in, a bit unhelpfully to Patrick’s mind. He’d already said that, hadn’t he? There was no need to keep going on about the bloke’s age.

She pouted. “Hey, maybe me and Chris have got an open relationship?”

Patrick laughed. “So that was some other girl I heard the other night threatening to cut his bollocks off with a spoon if he didn’t stop looking at the new barmaid’s tits?”

He glanced over at the bar automatically—and caught Mark’s gaze on him again. There was something in the bloke’s eyes Patrick couldn’t read, not that he got more than a nanosecond before Mark looked away. Did he know they’d been talking about him? Nah, he couldn’t have heard anything.

Still, Patrick felt a bit bad about it, somehow. It had to be hard, starting fresh in a new place—especially such a small village, where everyone knew everyone else. Maybe he should do a bit more to make the bloke feel welcome.

Maybe he’d suggest they pair up for the pub crawl. Yeah, that was it. He’d do that. Now would be a good time. Patrick took another swallow of his beer and put his glass back down. He was just about to tell Con and Heather he’d be back in a minute, when Heather glanced up, surprised. “Your bloke’s leaving.”

“Yeah?” Patrick looked round again. Mark was already halfway to the door, shrugging his overcoat on as he walked. It was a classic style and looked good on him—he had the height to carry it off.

And Patrick had just lost the chance of going over to talk to him. Well, if he tried to catch him now, he’d just look daft.

He could wait.

“Um,” Heather said, looking worried. “You don’t think he knew we were talking about him, do you?”

Patrick frowned, then shrugged. “Not a lot we can do about it now, is there?”

Still, he’d make a point of asking the bloke about the three-legged pub crawl next time he saw him. Make sure he felt welcome here.

They ended up staying until closing time. It was ten minutes’ walk back to the little house Patrick shared with his mum on the edge of the Hillside estate—just long enough for the night-time chill to seep through his leather jacket and almost make him wish he’d worn that naff woolly scarf his mum had made in her one and only attempt at knitting and had wrapped up for him as a gag gift for Christmas.

Even the neighbour’s cat’s fur felt cold as he stroked it with one hand, fumbling for his keys with the other. They had a brief stare-off when he opened the door—the cat knew it wasn’t allowed in, but it never stopped chancing its paw—then it flicked its tail and stalked off. For some reason, it reminded him of Mark, and an unwelcome surge of guilt made Patrick kick off his Nikes on the doormat with a bit more force than necessary. He hadn’t meant to make the bloke feel uncomfortable. Ah, what the hell. He’d make it up to him.

Patrick hung up his jacket and padded into the living room, where his mum was snuggled up on their squashy yellow sofa in her penguin pyjamas with a glass of wine, her bobbed, straw-blonde hair all damp at the ends. She smiled as he walked in.

“Hello, love. Have a good evening?”

“All right.” Patrick threw himself down on the sofa next to her, then frowned as the comedian on the telly let out a massively annoying, braying laugh. Fingernails down the blackboard of the nation’s souls, that laugh was. “What are you watching that git for? He’s that one who was in the papers for not paying his taxes—earned millions and tied it all up in offshore trusts so he could cheat the rest of us poor sods.”

“Yeah, but it’s not like he did anything illegal,” Mum said, gesturing with her glass. “And, anyway, he’s funny.”

“You won’t be laughing when they close down your department because the hospital budget’s been slashed. He’s the one laughing, with his one percent tax bill, and the rest of us are the bloody joke. Bastards like that don’t give a toss about anyone else.” Patrick grabbed the remote and changed channels.

“You’re all grumpy. What happened at the Spartans? They didn’t vote to let women in, did they?” she added sarcastically.

Mum could be a bit funny about all-male things. Patrick blamed his dad, which was easy cos he never saw the bastard and hadn’t since he was thirteen. Hadn’t wanted to either.

“I’m not grumpy.” Patrick realised he was frowning and made an effort to stop. He was way too young for Botox. “It just pisses me off when people don’t pay their way, that’s all. All these MPs moaning about benefit cheats and making people jump through hoops to get the money they need to live on, when it’s a drop in the ocean compared to all these rich bastards and corporations making millions and paying no tax at all.”

“There are some people who cheat the system, as you well know.” Mum gave him a pointed look and took a sip of wine.

“Yeah, and you can leave Dad out of this. I’m talking about the innocent majority who get tarred with the same brush.”

Instead of arguing, Mum just gave him a sympathetic smile. “Bad day at work, love?”

Trust her. She always could read him like she’d downloaded him onto her Kindle.

“Yeah. Sorry.” He sighed. “You know I’ve been trying to get sponsors for this fun run? I rang up that big pharmaceuticals company in Stortford, and they were all keen on helping out the disabled—until they found out SHARE’s a charity for the mentally disabled and, worse, adults. Then all of a sudden it’s ‘Sorry, I’m afraid we’ve exhausted our budget for this year, but we’ll definitely keep it in mind for the future.’ Load of bollocks. He’s fine with helping cute kids in wheelchairs—or even cute kids with Down’s—but once they grow up, they can just sod off. Don’t fit the corporate image.”

“Poor love. Didn’t Spartans cheer you up, though?”

“Well, yeah, but then I get home to find that smug git on the telly,” Patrick teased, leaning back and stretching out his legs. “There was a new bloke at the meeting tonight. Think he’s into me.”

Mum sighed dramatically. “What it is to be young and beautiful. Where’s all the decent straight blokes gone? That’s what I want to know.”

Patrick grinned. “No such animal. You told me that years ago.”

“Yeah, but that was when I was young and bitter.”

“Instead of old and bitter like you are now?”

She chucked a cushion at his head. Patrick caught it with a smirk and tucked it behind his neck.

Mum humphed. “I’ll have less of that, my lad. I’m not old. I’m just . . . less young. And less bitter. Mellow and mature, that’s me.”

“What, like a lump of cheddar cheese? Yeah, you keep telling yourself that, Mum.” Patrick paused. “Hypothetically speaking, what would you think about me going out with a bloke who was mature?”

“I’d think he was a dirty old man leading my little baby boy astray. Hypothetically speaking.” She gave him a sharp look.

“Mum, I’m twenty-five. I haven’t needed leading astray for years.”

“Maybe not, but what d’you want to go out with some old fart for? I know it’s been a while since you’ve had a proper relationship, and I know I go on at you for being too picky, but that doesn’t mean you have to drop your standards completely. You just need to get out more. Have a night out in London or something. Go on Grindr—”

“Mum! First, I dunno what you think you know about Grindr, but it’s not about finding a relationship, okay? And I’m not dropping my standards. Just cos he’s a bit older than me doesn’t mean he’s a loser.” Shit, Mum had that glint in her eye that meant an interrogation about the “hypothetical” old fart was coming. Patrick decided it’d be safest to go on the attack. “Anyway, you can talk. What about that dustman you went out with just because he asked you? That bloke was rank.”

“There’s nothing wrong with working in refuse collection.”

“I never said there was. Just, next time pick a bloke who actually bothers to have a shower once in a while, okay? I still can’t believe you let him get within five feet of you.”

“We didn’t kiss much or anything. I had a cold at the time, all right?” Mum topped up her glass. “It took me a while to notice.”

“It took me thirty seconds. And I was standing upwind.” Patrick stood up and stretched. “Gonna get an early night. Today was a killer.”

“Not so fast, my lad.” Mum shot out a leg covered in mini penguins to bar his way.

True, he could have stepped over it, but . . . Patrick gave in. It usually saved hassle in the long run. “What?”

“This mature bloke. You going to tell me about him, or do I have to start stalking you online again?”

Patrick laughed. “I hope you’re better at it now than when I was fifteen. That was embarrassing, that was. There’s nothing to tell. Seriously. He’s a bit older than me, and he’s just come along to the Spartans for the first time.”

“How much older? And what does he do for a living? He’d better not be married,” she added darkly.

“Don’t know, don’t know, don’t think so. His name’s Mark. And now you literally know as much as I do.” Patrick yawned, hoping she’d get the hint.

Mum’s leg didn’t budge. “Well, if you really like him, flippin’ well ask him out before someone else snaps him up. There was that bloke you liked last year—that one with the muscles, remember him?—and you missed the boat on that one.”

Patrick smiled despite himself. “You mean Con, right? Nah, it wouldn’t have worked out, me and him. Just as well I never got around to asking him out till it was too late. Him and Tris are a great couple.”

“You always say that, but just cos they find someone else doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have worked with you. It just means they got fed up waiting.”

“Worried I’m going to end up left on the shelf? Well, I can see your point. Not a very safe place to be—not if you put it up, anyhow.”

Mum glared at him. “I’ll have you know I’m very good at putting up shelves. Not my fault they put the water pipe in the wrong place.”

Patrick laughed. “Yeah, right. Anyhow, I’m off to bed. Don’t go starting any more DIY projects, will you?”

“What, at nearly midnight? No chance. I’ll get you up nice and early in the morning for it, all right?”

“You do and you can expect a few choice words from your little baby boy. Night, Mum.”

“Night, darling. Sleep tight.”

Patrick padded up the stairs and pushed open his door. He’d been fifteen, nearly sixteen, when they’d moved here, Mum wanting a fresh start, so there wasn’t a lot in his room to remind him of his childhood. He’d been old for his years, anyway, he reckoned, what with Dad being . . . the way he was. Mum had let him decorate the room how he liked it, so it was in rich, deep blues. Made a good contrast to the rest of the house, which she’d done in bright, aggressively cheerful tones.

They’d toned it down a bit since then, but the first year they’d lived there, the place had looked like it was on acid, all lime green and orange.

She’d even let Patrick get a double bed, the twin of hers down the hall. Not that his bed had seen a lot of action over the years. Patrick hadn’t taken a vow of celibacy or anything—far from it—but he didn’t bring anyone home if he wasn’t one hundred percent certain about them.

As he laid his head on his pillow, Patrick wondered what it’d be like to have Mark lying next to him. Then he laughed silently.

Mum’d probably tar and feather the poor bloke for taking advantage of her little baby boy.

 

Chapter Three

Mark left the pub early after the Spartans meeting. He wasn’t entirely happy leaving his daughter alone for too long—and if he was honest, Patrick’s little group of friends over in the corner wasn’t making him feel any more relaxed, what with all the laughter and the frequent glances in his direction.

He hadn’t, of course, been disappointed to see Patrick make a beeline for the tall and ruggedly handsome young man sitting on his own. To have been disappointed would have implied he’d had some hopes in Patrick’s direction, which, obviously, he didn’t.

And equally clearly, once the pretty, mixed-race girl had joined them, Mark hadn’t listened to Barry with only half an ear as he tried to work out who, if anyone, was with whom. Patrick and the other young man certainly hadn’t seemed to be acting like a couple—at least, not like the couples Mark had seen in his few furtive forays into London’s gay scene after splitting up with Ellen.

They—the forays, not the couples, about whom he wouldn’t presume to judge—hadn’t been particularly successful, either in terms of romance or of coming to terms with his “new” identity. Most of them had left him feeling like that schoolteacher—usually the PE teacher, for some reason—who tried to be cool by dancing with the kids at the school disco, while everyone laughed at him behind his back. Not to mention, he’d been paranoid he might bump into David, his PA. It’d been a revelation, though, seeing young men in their teens and early twenties casually kiss one another on the street after a night out. Had things really changed so much in the last twenty years? Mark couldn’t imagine daring to kiss a boy on the street at a similar age. Of course, he’d still been trying to make a go of it with girls back then. If kissing boys had seemed more acceptable, his whole life might have been different. He might never have gone on holiday with Ellen—the holiday that turned out to have such lasting consequences.

He couldn’t regret the way his life had gone—after all, it had brought him Florence. But it would have been nice not to have felt so alone. Even now, Mark’s gaydar seemed to be perennially on the blink. In his youth, coupled with a crippling lack of self-belief, it had been nonexistent. The only gay man he’d been reliably certain he’d known had been so stereotypically camp, he’d been known locally as Ray the Gay.

Mark winced at the memory. Yes, a bit of generally accepted on-the-street kissing would definitely have helped there. At least, if it could have taken place without upping the hate-crime statistics. Not, of course, that hate crime had been a recognised offence back then. Sometimes Mark felt like he’d grown up in the Dark Ages.

In a village like Shamwell, though, there were probably a lot of conservative types around even now. Public displays of affection between those of the same gender were probably frowned upon. It was one of the reasons he’d chosen the place—it’d help him stand firm in his determination to put his daughter first and avoid looking for hookups while she was living with him.

Of course, he hadn’t expected to meet anyone like Patrick.

Mark and his daughter had been living in Shamwell for precisely one month, having found a house in the centre of the village. Or rather, Mark had found it, as Florence’s sole contribution to the house-hunt had been a sullen “Whatever” every time he’d showed her the latest wodge of details that’d come through from the estate agent.

Florence wasn’t happy about moving to a country village. She wasn’t happy about changing schools and leaving all her friends. She wasn’t happy about anything, at least as far as Mark could tell. Reminding her it was all her own fault just didn’t seem to have the desired positive effect.

It’d all started with the phone call from Ellen three months ago. Mark had been halfway through his Lean’n’Mean chicken curry and a bit annoyed to be interrupted. “Ellen, I’m eating. Can I call you—”

“Do you know what your daughter’s done now?” Ellen’s voice was shrill and a bit painful to listen to over the phone, so Mark moved the receiver an inch or two away from his ear.

“Not being a mind reader, no, I don’t.” Mark cringed at his tone. He’d tried to keep it light, but he had a nasty feeling he’d only managed supercilious.

That was what usually happened when they spoke on the phone these days. Or off the phone. Mark had hoped the lingering bitterness might have faded after more than a year apart, but apparently he’d been wrong about this—as, indeed, he’d been about so many things, at least if you listened to Ellen.

Looking on the bright side, though, since they’d split there had seldom been any occasion to leave passive-aggressive notes for one another. Mark hadn’t, of course, kept any of Ellen’s notes, but he was fairly sure the course of the marriage breakup could have been charted by the increasing spikiness of her handwriting.

“Oh, it’s all right for you, isn’t it?” she was saying. “You with your warehouse bloody flat and your lack of responsibilities and your bloody career. You can afford sarcasm. Go on, make your little jokes. I’ve got all day.”

“Ellen . . .” Mark looked sadly at the remains of his curry as it congealed on his plate. It hadn’t been that nice to start with. He doubted letting it cool to room temperature would improve the flavour.

“And if you bloody tell me to bloody calm down, I’m warning you . . .”

“Sweetheart, what is it?” Damn it. That was the second thing that always seemed to happen.

“Don’t you dare call me sweetheart. Don’t you dare.” There was a loud sniff.

And there went the third. “Ellen, I’m sorry.” For everything. “Please, just tell me what she’s done.”

There was a pause for audible nose-blowing. “She’s been excluded.”

It didn’t quite register at first. “Wait—you mean she’s been expelled?”

“They don’t call it that these days. They call it excluded. But I suppose I can’t expect you to know anything about schools.”

“Now that’s not fair, Ells. Look, will you just tell me what happened?”

“She and a group of friends got together,” Ellen said, enunciating her words with bitter clarity, “and they vandalised a teacher’s car.”

What?” Mark stared, horrified, at the phone in his hand, then hastily put it back up to his ear. “What kind of people have you been letting her hang around with, for God’s sake?”

“Letting her? Letting her?” At Ellen’s ear-piercingly shrill tone, Mark moved the phone farther away again. “I’d like to see you bloody well try and keep her away from them. She’s fourteen, Mark. What do you want me to do? Lock her in a playpen?”

“You just need to be firm with her. Let her know the boundaries—”

“You know what? You do it, for once in your life. You have a go at getting her to behave. You live with her and see if you do any better. I’ve had enough of being the one who has to say no all the time. You try it and see how you like it.”

“Ells, sweetheart—”

“Don’t you say another word. I’m serious, Mark Nugent. It’s about bloody time you took some responsibility for your only child.”

“Ellen—”

“I can’t, all right? I just can’t, not anymore. You don’t know what it’s like, worrying about her being out all hours and doing God knows what with God knows who.” Her voice, which had been getting higher and higher, broke into sobs.

Mark had been getting ready to remind her of all the twelve-hour days he’d worked when Florrie had been little, building up his career—what the bloody hell was that if not taking responsibility for his family?—but all at once, a new plan had popped, fully formed, into his head. It wasn’t just a plan. It was a good plan.

“Right,” he said firmly. “Pack her things—she’s moving in with me.”

What?

“That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Well . . . But . . . How long for? Next weekend? A week? Until I find her a new school?”

“No, of course not. Indefinitely. I’ll find the school.”

“You don’t know anything about schools! And I’m not having her in some inner-city comprehensive full of girl gangs and drug dealers—”

“Of course not,” Mark said soothingly. “I’ll get a new place. Somewhere in the country. Somewhere it’ll be safe to raise a teenager. The centre of London is no place for Florrie to grow up.”

“That’s what I keep telling you. You always do this. You take what I say and you make it sound like it’s all your own idea and I’m the one being unreasonable. You always have to bloody well know best—”

“Ellen, I really think it’s what’s best for Florence that’s important here.”

There was a pause. Mark wasn’t certain, but he thought he could hear Ellen counting under her breath. Her voice was definitely a semitone less shrill when she spoke again. “But you hate commuting. And the country.”

She had a point. Then again . . . Hadn’t he been feeling already that he’d gone about as far as he could in Whyborne & Co? “I’ll give up the job,” he said decisively. “Florence is more important.”

What?

“I’ll take a year out from work. And once she’s back on track, I’ll look for something new.”

“And just what are you planning to live on? Don’t think I’m paying for this. You know I don’t earn much, not after all those years out looking after your daughter.”

“Oh, you needn’t worry about money. Bonuses have been excellent for the last few quarters.” Not to mention, without Ellen to insist on family holidays—a total waste of money as far as Mark was concerned, seeing as he always seemed to spend half of them on the phone or on his email dealing with things that had come up at the office—he hadn’t been spending a great deal.

“What?” Ellen sounded bewildered.

“This is what you want, isn’t it?” Mark said cautiously.

“Well, yes, but I never thought you’d actually agree! Mark, you barely even know her these days.”

That, Mark thought, was unfair. He’d done his bit by Florence—he was never late with the child support payments, and he’d bought her everything she’d ever asked for. He was damned if he’d let his child suffer the disappointment of being promised the earth and then thrown a lump of mud. “All the more reason to do this, then. I’m not having my little girl grow up a stranger to her father.”

There was a strange snorting sound down the telephone. “Your little girl? Oh, just you try calling her that. Just you try it.”

Mark wasn’t entirely sure what she was getting at there, but it would probably be safer to let it go. For his eardrums, if nothing else. “Anyway, it’s decided,” he said firmly. “I’ll let them know at the office tomorrow, and start looking for a house. A proper home for her to grow up in.”

“We had one of those,” Ellen muttered. “Until you broke it.”

* * * * * * *

Mark slept soundly that night, his dreams full of idyllic walks in sunlit meadows with his daughter—whom his subconscious seemed to have aged down to about eight, but that was just a minor detail. When he woke, he found his resolve had only strengthened. He was going to do this.

He expected his announcement at the office to meet with a certain amount of surprise and (he hoped he wasn’t flattering himself unduly) some dismay. He’d underestimated the amount of sheer, uncomprehending disbelief he’d face, however.

First thing in the morning, Mark strolled into his office with an airy step, hung up his trench coat and considered how to go about breaking the news. The correct thing, he knew, would be to speak first to Charles, senior taxation partner and his immediate superior. However, for several reasons, Mark thought he’d speak to David, his PA, first. Should he call him into his office? Mark stared for a moment out of his window at the magnificent view of the Thames, stretching down to the London Eye. Damn, he was going to miss that view . . . Focus. No, a more casual approach would be better.

David would undoubtedly milk every drop of drama out of the situation however Mark dropped the bombshell, but at least this way he’d be able to escape if things got too overwrought.

He could see David through the open door of his office. He’d hung up his long, full-skirted military coat, unwrapped the vast lengths of a cashmere scarf from around his neck, and removed his slim-fitting dark-grey suit jacket, and now sat looking like an advertisement for tailored shirts in deep purple. Mark couldn’t see his computer screen from here, but the rapidly changing expressions that flitted across his sensitive, finely boned face suggested he was checking his Twitter feed.

Not for the first time, Mark wondered why he didn’t find David attractive. He was undeniably beautiful—but it was the sort of beauty Mark could admire only in an abstract manner, like a pre-Raphaelite painting or the Taj Mahal. Mark would hesitate to call David’s beauty feminine—for a start, if David heard him, he’d probably launch into a sulk epic enough to dwarf even the Great Stationery Order Debacle—but there was a certain fineness to his features and grace to his movements that might have had something to do with it.

Nevertheless, it had been David’s arrival as his PA two years ago that had first prompted a no doubt long-overdue self-examination on Mark’s part and led, finally, to the breakup of his marriage. Which, come to think of it, had probably also been long overdue, given that the results of Mark’s soul-searching had been the ninety-nine percent certainty that he was queer as a three-pound note.

Ellen hadn’t taken the revelation particularly well, even though Mark had been at particular pains to point out she should be relieved to hear their dismal sex life wasn’t her fault.

Anyway, it was time now for action, not introspection. Checking that no one else was in earshot, Mark ambled casually out of his office and perched on the edge of David’s desk in what he hoped came across as a relaxed attitude. “David, I’ve got something I need to tell you.”

David raised a dark, and possibly plucked, eyebrow, a worrying gleam in his eye as he leaned in just a little too close. “Really?” he breathed.

Mark cleared his throat. “Yes. I’ve decided to take a career break. For at least a year, maybe longer.”

David startled back and almost knocked over his skinny vanilla latte. What was more, Mark was ninety-seven percent certain it wasn’t just one of his usual melodramatic gestures. “Give up work?” David squeaked, now gripping the edge of his desk as if he needed something solid to hold on to. “You? But you live to work.”

“What? Nobody lives to work.” David was making it sound like he had absolutely zero outside interests, which was patently untrue. There was the running, for a start. All right, he’d let that lapse a little of late, but he hadn’t had time to find a good route since he’d moved . . . a year ago. And there was the theatre, which had been part of his decision to move into the centre. There were dozens of shows he’d been meaning to see. He just hadn’t had anyone to go with, that was all.

“Not unless they’re called Mark ‘Weekends are for Wimps’ Nugent. Were you aware that when polled, fifty-seven percent of junior staff were under the impression you don’t even have a home to go back to? A further twenty-two percent thought you have got a flat, but it’s so long since you’ve seen it, you’ve forgotten where it is. A small but significant five percent think you’re actually a robot who never sleeps and just plugs himself in to charge overnight.”

“What? That’s ridiculous. I don’t come into the office every weekend,” Mark protested.

David cocked his head and pursed his lips. “No, of course not. It’s the paperwork fairies that leave a neat stack of correspondence for me to find in my in-tray every Monday morning.”

Charles waddled past with a sour expression and a muttered, “Thought you were the paperwork fairy. Isn’t that why they call you Camp David?”

Mark winced. There was more than one reason why he wasn’t out at work. Sorry, he mouthed to David behind Charles’s broad, retreating back. Thank God the man hadn’t come by a couple of minutes earlier.

“Oh, I don’t mind him. He’s just tetchy because the Hausfrau’s put him on another diet. Ve haff vays of making you thinner.” David broke off and stared at Mark, wide-eyed. “Oh. My. God. That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?”

Mark frowned. “Diets? Charles’s wife? What’s The Trout—I mean, Traute—got to do with me giving up work?”

“Not Charles’s wife. Yours. You’ve found another one, haven’t you?” The eyes turned sorrowful. “You’re leaving me for another woman,” he wailed.

And that was the other reason Mark wasn’t out at work. David’s flirting, bad enough when Mark had been safely married to Ellen, had increased exponentially once he’d become single. If David ever got wind of the fact that Mark wasn’t as straight as he seemed . . . Mark shuddered. “No. There’s no other woman. No woman at all, I mean. I simply want to spend some time with my daughter.”

“Who is not a woman?”

“Not in that context she isn’t!” Mark was frankly appalled at the thought of Florence being counted as a woman in any context. She was practically still a baby, for Christ’s sake. She wouldn’t be a woman for . . . for decades, if he had anything to do with it. “She’s a child, and she needs my guidance.”

“Really? Isn’t she a bit young to be filling in a tax return?”

Mark flushed. “Tax isn’t the only thing I know about.”

“Oh really? Let me see. Mark Nugent: his limits . . .” David started to count on slender, well-manicured fingers. “One, knowledge of popular culture: nil. Two, music: nil. Three, sport: nil, so how you manage to stay so trim is beyond me. Four, tax: immense. Can spot a loophole at twenty paces and tie a tax inspector in knots with it, presumably to the satisfaction of all concerned but, most of all, to that of the client.” He paused to bat disconcertingly lush eyelashes at Mark. “You can ensnare me in one of your loopholes anytime. What are we up to now? Oh, yes. Five, sex: well, one would have to presume a basic working knowledge, given that you apparently managed to produce a daughter, although—”

Thank you, David,” Mark cut him off. “That’ll do.”

“Are you sure? I’ve got loads more appendages to count on.” David waggled his fingers suggestively.

“Quite sure, thank you,” Mark said firmly, not wishing to see anything else waggled. “Anyway, I need to go and give Charles the bad news.” Mark stood up and was about to walk off, determined to get it over with, when David’s soft hand landed on his arm.

“You’re serious about it, then?” David’s solemn expression was disconcerting on a face seemingly designed for frivolity.

Mark nodded, although not without a curiously empty sensation in his belly. “I am. Look, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. Charles would have to be an idiot to let you go—you’ll be needed to help out whoever takes over my clients.” He gave David an awkward pat on the shoulder.

“Oh, it’s not that. But you were my one constant in life. I always thought you’d be sitting at that desk until the day you keeled over from a heart attack and the cleaners had to cart you off with the rubbish.”

Mark stared. David sounded worryingly serious. “All the more reason to take a break, then, surely?”

“If only to spare poor Mrs. Patel the shock. But what are you going to do all day? I presume the little moppet will be spending her days at school. Are you sure you’ve thought this all through?” David’s soft brown eyes were doing a passable impression of saucers, and his hands fluttered anxiously.

“Calm down. It’s all going to work out. I’m selling the flat and moving to the country. We’ll get a house, a proper home. Somewhere with a sense of community. So I’m sure I’ll get involved in . . . community things. You should come and visit, once we’re settled,” Mark went on hastily to forestall any demands for specifics, and crossed mental fingers David wouldn’t take it as a sign of interest. “Bring your boyfriend,” he added as insurance.

He was sure that David would, one day, make someone a wonderful wife. But Mark had had one of those, and it hadn’t worked out.

David wasn’t looking happy. “It’s a midlife crisis, isn’t it? Next we know, you’ll be dyeing your hair and getting a trophy girlfriend who’s younger than your daughter.”

“I hope not, seeing as Florence has only just turned fourteen. And what do you mean, dyeing my hair? My hair doesn’t need dyeing.” Mark ran a hand over his head. The touch of grey at the temples just made him look distinguished, didn’t it?

“Of course not. You don’t look a day over forty-five.”

“I’m thirty-nine!”

David looked momentarily startled, then flashed him a winning smile. “Figure of speech?”

“Right. Anyway, I need to talk to Charles.” He strode off purposely, pretending he hadn’t noticed David had opened his mouth to say something. Mark might not have been having a midlife crisis before, but he was beginning to think their conversation was about to spark one. He knocked on Charles’s door for form’s sake, then walked straight in.

Charles looked up with a dyspeptic expression. Too late to back out now, though.

Mark plastered on a smile. “Charles? Have you got a moment?”

“Do I have a choice about it?”

Assuming the bad-tempered question was rhetorical, Mark grabbed a chair from the side and sat down on it in front of Charles’s desk. Best just to rip off the plaster—or, as David would no doubt put it, the waxing strip—as quickly as possible. “I’m handing in my notice.”

Charles’s expression seemed to congeal. “Do I look like I’m in the mood for jokes?”

“It’s not a joke. I want to spend some time with my family.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. You’re not a Tory politician. No need to resign. Just pay the bloody rentboy off and buy the wife a bunch of flowers.”

Mark blinked. “You do remember I’m divorced? And . . . rentboy? Seriously?” Mark was more than a little insulted at the implication he’d have to pay for it. He’d never paid for it in his life. The fact that he’d never actually had it, if it meant gay sex, was, he felt, a minor detail.

“So what is it, then? Drink? Cocaine? Gambling?”

“It’s my fourteen-year-old daughter, actually. Florence has been having a . . . difficult time. She needs more of my attention than I’m able to give her at the moment.”

Charles humphed. “Drugs? Or boys? Just promise her a new iPhone if she gives it up, that’ll do the trick. Works with my girls, anyway.”

Mark had always looked up to Charles, in a professional sense. He was beginning to suspect, however, that as a parenting role model, the man lacked a certain something. “No, I really feel this is something that requires personal attention.”

“So take a week off. God knows it’ll be bloody inconvenient with Goldsmith’s year end coming up, but Norton has been pushing to get involved with their account. About time I gave him a chance to make an arse of himself.”

Mark winced. Norton was an ex-public school boy, all mouth and expensively tailored trousers. Chances were he would make an arse of himself. Mark’s certainty, already slightly dented by his conversation with David, wavered further. Could he really justify leaving all his clients in the lurch?

Florence’s sweet, childish face, as portrayed by her final primary school photo, flashed into his head. Yes. She was worth more than all the multimillion-pound clients in the world. “No, my mind’s made up. I’ll work out my notice, of course, but with accumulated leave built up . . .”

“You’ll be leaving the day after tomorrow? Bloody marvellous.”

“Well, Wednesday week, actually, but close enough.”

Charles’s expression, already sour, turned positively acidic. “Thank you for making my Monday complete. I was just thinking I needed another ulcer. I hope you realise what you’re doing. You’ve been with this firm all your working life and always been the one man I could count on. Never let your personal life get in the way of the job. Until now. I suppose this is the point where I’m supposed to say that I’ll be keeping your job open in case you have a change of heart? I won’t be. Now get out.”

Mark swallowed and got out.

On the whole, that had gone rather better than expected.