Pansies (A Spires Story)

Pansies by Alexis Hall
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-306-3
eBook release: 
Oct 10, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-307-0
Print release: 
Oct 10, 2016
Word count: 
120,400
Page count: 
449
Type: 
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Spires universe.

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Alfie Bell is . . . fine. He’s got a six-figure salary, a penthouse in Canary Wharf, the car he swore he’d buy when he was eighteen, and a bunch of fancy London friends.

It’s rough, though, going back to South Shields now that they all know he’s a fully paid-up pansy. It’s the last place he’s expecting to pull. But Fen’s gorgeous, with his pink-tipped hair and hipster glasses, full of the sort of courage Alfie’s never had. It should be a one-night thing, but Alfie hasn't met anyone like Fen before.

Except he has. At school, when Alfie was everything he was supposed to be, and Fen was the stubborn little gay boy who wouldn’t keep his head down. And now it’s a proper mess: Fen might have slept with Alfie, but he’ll probably never forgive him, and Fen’s got all this other stuff going on anyway, with his mam and her flower shop and the life he left down south.

Alfie just wants to make it right. But how can he, when all they’ve got in common is the nowhere town they both ran away from.

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Prologue

Tuesday was Nora’s favourite day of the week.

Nobody liked Mondays, and she was no exception, but she thought it was unfair for the bad feeling to taint Tuesday too.

Tuesday offered all the possibilities of a new week with none of the disadvantages of being Monday.

It was also the day when Aidan O’Donaghue came.

Aidan O’Donaghue, who was not from around here, who wore a waistcoat and drove a Ford Thunderbird, and whose mouth tasted like the sky.

While she waited for him, she made up a basket of sunflowers, chrysanthemums, and glossy green aspidistra. She hummed softly to herself, muddled snatches of whatever had been playing recently on the radio. She’d never been able to hold a tune, but it didn’t stop her singing.

Not on a Tuesday, anyway.

He had come into her shop for the first time nearly a year and a half ago. It had been chance, pure chance. His mother’s birthday. Through the big front windows, she’d seen his car, a bold splash on the kerb.

She’d made him a bouquet of white roses and blue moon freesia, her fingers trembling a little among the petals. Because his eyes were all the colours, and his lashes were tipped with gold, as though some careful artist had liked him enough to try and gild him.

Nora was dreamy for days afterwards.

He came back the next week to tell her his mother had loved the flowers. Somehow they started exchanging pieces of information, as shyly as children swapping barnacle shells and coral twists, mermaids’ purses and unicorn hair.

It began with names.

Then she learned he was the regional manager for Woolworths. That his father was Irish, and had been in the Army. That his mother was French. And he spun the world for Nora in her little shop: glittering American cities with skyscrapers wreathed in cloud, stars spread as thickly as freckles across a desert night, the heather-purple highlands of Scotland and the glass-blue lakes hidden in the Welsh mountains.

She also learned that he smiled with the right side of his mouth before the left and that the dimple there was deeper than its fellow.

One day when he came to see her, she locked the door behind him and flipped the sign to Closed. She took his big hand and led him into the back room, which smelled of pollen and perfume and damp leaves and growing things.

For a long time they said nothing. Looking had somehow become a different thing now they were alone. And Nora was greedy for it, this newfound freedom to bask unchecked in blue-grey-brown-green eyes and a mouth so full of kisses. Then he reached out and began to unpin her braids, slowly combing out the corn-yellow tresses of her hair. Her mother wouldn’t let her cut it. Called it her crowning glory. Aidan O’Donaghue’s blunt fingers moved through it with unimagined tenderness. When it was all set free, he drew her to him and kissed her.

Everyone thought Nora was a good girl. A quiet girl. Even if she was a little odd sometimes, with the things she wanted and didn’t want.

But that afternoon she was neither good nor quiet.

When they were together, they talked as infinitely and endlessly as they touched each other, and she never asked, or thought to ask, for promises. She had no need of them. She was South Shields born and bred. A sand dancer. The sea was everything she knew. She would no more have thought to keep him as she would have thought to hold the waves. She simply loved him, as she loved the flowers that lived their lives in a brilliant moment, and the whispering tides that came and went with the turning of the moon.

It was strange, she thought to herself this particular Tuesday, not quite six months from the first, the way everything could change, and nothing.

Certainly not her. Or Aidan O’Donaghue. Who came into her shop, wearing the sun in his hair and carrying the world in his eyes. Who, every Tuesday until this one, had given her his body like a gift. And who had, perhaps unintentionally, given her another gift, even more precious than the first. The promise of a life, curled deep inside her, already loved and waiting to be free.

Just like always, he turned the key and flipped the sign, but she did not lead him to the back room. Instead she took his hand, as she had the first time and every time that followed, and drew it down instead to rest against her stomach.

His eyes went wide.

Then he pulled away.

She bowed her head against the pain. Expecting it had not made it easier, as she had dared to hope it might. It was a little piece of loss, amidst all her joy.

I love you, she thought fiercely, to the life beneath her fingers, I will always be with you.

Her friends and family wouldn’t understand. They would watch her and tsk, as they so often did. They would whisper she had been careless. But it wouldn’t matter, because she hadn’t been. She had loved and been loved, and from that love had come a child, who would know the sea and the sky and all the worlds between.

“Nora.”

She turned slowly.

Aidan O’Donaghue. His eyes wet and bright like summer rain. In his hand was a piece of the thin green wire she used for her bouquets. “I’ve had enough of Tuesdays. I want to stay. Will you let me?” And as she watched, he went to one knee on the stone floor. “Will you marry me?”

She thought about it a moment. Her friends and family would like this. It would somehow make them approve of her. But what they wanted was not what Nora needed, and she already had everything she needed: her lover, her child, her shop, the wild seas, and the rough air. “No, Aidan. I won’t marry you.”

The colour fled his face. “Nora, I—”

“But you can stay with me . . . with us.” Us. “As long as you want.”

What difference did it make, really, promises given in buildings and written in books? These things that let the world believe in what you had. Why did that matter, if she believed in it? If she believed in the way he looked at her and the way he touched her. The words he’d already given her. Their child. The life they could make together.

“I do.” He coloured a little, perhaps startled by his own certainty. “I want every day.”

She nodded, breathless and giddy suddenly on the realisation that he believed too, just like she did.

He laughed up at her, but he was shaking as he gently wound the piece of wire about her fourth finger. “Then this is today.”

She stretched her hand into the dusty sunlight.

“Tomorrow there will be another, and another, until your hands are full of all my days.”

And she looked at him, kneeling there, and smiled. Brighter than all the flowers in her shop.

 

Chapter One

“An’ wharraboot ye, pet?”

“Huh?” Alfie made a valiant attempt to look like he’d been paying attention. “What about me what?”

Great Aunt Sheila jabbed him in the ribs. “When’s it ganna be your turn?”

Oh God. Was that going to be the question now?

“Well, you know . . . it’s just . . . how it is,” he mumbled.

The DJ, who was probably somebody’s uncle or somebody’s neighbour or somebody’s neighbour’s uncle, was playing Erasure’s early nineties classic, “Always.” Which at that moment swept into a passionate crescendo.

Sheila cupped her hand to ear. “Eh?” This was local speak for I’m sorry, could you say that again?

“I’m not really . . .”

“Eh?”

Always, da-da-da-dah-di-do . . . “I don’t think I’m the marrying . . .” Harmony, harmony, oh fuck it. “The thing is, I’m sort of gay.”

“Eh?”

“I’m gay.”

“Ye wha’, pet?”

“Gay. I’m gay. I like cock.”

Whoa, that was way too loud. It seemed to echo in the silence and— Wait, silence? Of course silence. The song had ended a couple of seconds ago.

Which meant Alfie was standing there. In the middle of his best friend’s wedding. Yelling about cock. While everybody stared at him.

He wasn’t an expert, but he was pretty sure there were better ways to come out.

Great Aunt Sheila rolled her eyes. “Well, we all knaa that, pet. But it’s nae reason not te be settled doon in this day an’ age.”

“Oh right. Right.” He was too dazed to manage anything more coherent. Who was we? And how did they know? When he barely did himself?

“There’s more te life,” Sheila went on with the dogged wisdom of the far too bloody old, “than bums.”

Alfie waited, hopefully, to die. And didn’t. “Thanks. That’s . . . Thanks.”

Uncle DJ had finally remembered he was meant to be providing music, not allowing the room to fill up with awkward revelations of homosexuality, and hastily fired up the “Macarena.” While everybody was distracted, Alfie reeled away to the relative safety of the finger buffet.

The centrepiece of the whole arrangement was a tinfoil hedgehog skewered with cheese and pineapple pieces on cocktail sticks. This was as close as North East England got to a canapé. He ate one out of long habit. The pineapple was dry, the cheese too rich and faintly sweaty. It tasted of home.

He could feel about thirty people trying not to look at him, so he began vigorously helping himself to the potato salad. It was basically a bowl of wobbling mayonnaise with a few unhappy potatoes bobbing in it.

Then came the clicking of dress shoes behind him, and he had no choice but to turn and face his best friend. Kevin was shiny-faced with groomly joy, and stuffed uncomfortably into a morning suit that had clearly been chosen by someone else, presumably the bride. Alfie had known Kevin for nearly his whole life, and he’d never seemed like a heliotrope cravat sort of bloke.

“I divvent knaa ye were a puffter,” he said.

Alfie picked up a sausage roll so big he could barely get his hand round it, and then wished he hadn’t. “Yeah, sorry.”

“Eee, well.” There was a pause. “Are ye sure?”

He nodded. It was one of the few things he was sure about.

“I dunno, man. Doon sooth for five minutes, first you’re talking like a reet ponce and the next thing we knaa you’re an arse bandit.”

Sweat prickled the back of Alfie’s neck, oozing beneath his collar. “You don’t just turn gay the moment you go past Leeds. And believe me, your arse is very, very safe.”

“Oh aye. Like ye haven’t been after it for years.” Kevin slapped himself soundly on the buttocks and grinned.

It was meant to be a joke, so Alfie dutifully tried to find it funny. Nope. “I really haven’t. Sorry if I wrecked your wedding. I didn’t mean to tell you like this.”

“Dan’t be daft, man.” There another pause, somewhat more fraught than the last, and then Kevin went on plaintively: “I just divvent gerrit.”

Alfie ran his hands through his carefully spiked hair. The least he owed his friend was some sort of explanation, but he hardly knew how to start. He’d left South Shields his father’s son. And now he . . . well . . . wasn’t?

“It’s complicated,” he tried. But then the words came tumbling out of him and couldn’t be stopped. “It took me a long time to sort of . . . figure it out. Even longer to get my head round it. I just never thought I was, y’know, that way. But I guess I am? I mean, I must be.”

Kevin blinked. “Wha’ ye gan on aboot?”

The sweat clung cold to Alfie’s body. What was he doing? This wasn’t how they talked to each other. They were mates. They took the mick, they had a laugh, they didn’t emote at each other like southerners.

“I just meant,” Kevin was saying, “I divvent knaa how ye go from, ‘Oh, that’s a bloke ower there,’ to ‘I fancy banging him like.’”

Alfie shrugged. He didn’t know either. “Look, I’m sorry if—”

“Alfie, ye knaa you’re still me best mate. Ye always will be.”

Relief and gratitude rushed over him, but they were followed by a nasty sort of resentment that the words were necessary in the first place. That Kevin had needed to say them and that Alfie had needed to hear them. As if there had ever been the possibility of another answer. Which, of course, there had.

Kevin grinned. “Even if ye are a shirt lifter.”

If his hands hadn’t been full of phallic sausage, Alfie might have put his head in them. “Kev . . .” But there was no point. It had been kindly meant. So maybe this—why couldn’t he even think it sometimes?—would just be something else for Kev to rip the piss out of, like his hair or his tattoo. Comfortably meaningless. “Well, you’re still my best mate too, even if you’re a complete knob.”

Kev laughed and flung an arm across Alfie’s shoulder. “Takes one te know one.”

“And I should know, right?” Oh God. Now he was doing this shit to himself. But he had to say it, to prove it had no power over him. And it worked. Kev spluttered, caught between shock and amusement, and it was close enough to winning that Alfie was able to be generous. “Congratulations, by the way.”

For a moment Kev looked blank. “Blummin’ hell, I’m married.”

“Till death do you part.”

“Or we get divorced.” He gazed proudly across the room at his bride. “What do ye think, though? Didn’t I do well, eh?”

Lisa—he was pretty sure she was called Lisa—seemed nice enough: pretty, friendly, a bit of a glint in her eyes. What Alfie really wanted to say was As long as she makes you happy. But he knew it wasn’t what Kev wanted to hear—that he’d probably think it sounded gay.

Which left Alfie trying to remember who he used to be. “What is she,” he managed, “a mental case?”

“Oi.”

“Well, she’s out of your league, mate, so there’s got to be something wrong with her.”

Kevin beamed like this was high praise. “I’d better get ower there or I’ll never hear the end of it. She’s feisty when she’s roused.” He gave Alfie’s shoulder a final, rough squeeze and headed back to his new bride.

Alfie watched him go, smiling a bit, happy and sad and confused all at once. Since he’d picked up the sausage roll, he tried to eat it in the least dodgy way possible, and it settled lumpenly in his stomach.

Now Uncle DJ was playing “The Power of Love,” swaying ecstatically behind the mixing desk, and Great Aunt Sheila’s voice was somehow managing to drown out even Céline Dion. “An’ ye knaa what else?” she was telling her rapt little audience. “I think wor Maureen’s a lesbeen.”

Nobody was looking at Alfie. Except they were not looking at him so very pointedly that he knew the moment he turned his back they’d all start staring at him. Like everyone was playing some kind of weird visual game of Grandmother’s Footsteps.

It was at times like this that he really wished he smoked. Or did coke. Or whatever gave you an excuse to slip out of the room when you needed to. So he did the next best thing. He pulled out his phone, reacted to the blank screen as though he’d received some kind of important message, and hurried outside. The air was blissfully cool for a few seconds, and then just cold. He shivered. His coat was still in his room.

God, he really was a soft southern ponce.

He used to go clubbing in the middle of winter wearing only jeans and a T-shirt. Kev the same. Just two lads out on the toon. The girls had flocked to them. Stroking the tattoo on his arm with soft hands.

The Little Haven Hotel was one of those places that seemed to exist only in the backwaters of the North East. It had a timeless, custom-built blandness, but the visitor information made a big deal of its unique location: an expanse of yellowing scrub grass overlooking the grey-brown mouth of the Tyne.

He wandered down to the beach. Most of the light had faded, leaving the scene as still and silent as a black-and-white photograph. The sand was silver-stained by the tide. The red groyne lighthouse that guarded the jetty like a stubborn old man was nothing but a hunch of shadow in the distance. And across the bay, the answering light from the North Shields dock gleamed like a pale star.

It was even colder here. But he had forgotten how clean the air could be. Fresh air, literally fresh, breathed from the edges of the sea.

He’d sat on this beach so often with Kev. They had shared their first bottle of White Lightning here. Alfie had never touched cider again. Even apparently good cider, proper cider, organic, artisanal blah blah blah cider, tasted of nothing but vomit and sand.

The memories felt so clear and so distant at the same time.

He took out his phone again—barely one bar of reception—and turned on Grindr. It took ages to load.

Maybe he really was the only gay in the village.

Finally, he was rewarded with about fifty profiles, none of them inspiring. He wasn’t really in the mood to cruise, but he desperately wanted to be with someone.

Someone who wouldn’t ask any questions. Someone who might find something to recognise about him. Even if it was just that they both liked men.

He was updating his profile to say he was only in town for a night and looking for—when he suddenly couldn’t be bothered anymore. Couldn’t be bothered in this really massive way. And in a moment of overwhelming dissatisfaction, he deleted the app. He put his phone away and stuck his hands in his pockets. Listened to the swooshing of the tide. The distant, mournful gulls. It was too overcast for stars, so the world was a strip of artificial light, squashed between two shifting darks.

Eventually he climbed back up to the hotel. He could hear music seeping faintly from inside. Thankfully, he couldn’t quite work out what it was.

He hesitated in the car park. He really, really didn’t want to go back to the party.

His TVR Sagaris was tucked into one of the bays. He could get in it and drive back to London and never ever come here again.

Leave his best friend and his new wife to live their lives without him.

Which couldn’t make all that much difference to them, since he lived in London and they lived here, and he wasn’t who Kevin thought he was anyway.

He unlocked his car and climbed in. He wasn’t actually going to drive away. That would be shitty and cowardly. But he felt more like himself with his hands on the wheel, surrounded by the familiar smells of oil and leather.

He’d been telling himself for nearly a year that he’d come out to Kevin eventually. But he’d basically been lying. He would have liked to have come back here on special occasions, just like he had this weekend, and acted like everything was exactly the same as always. And that he was the same too. Alfie Bell, a little bit wild, a little bit wicked, but with his heart in the right place. A good, honest lad. The sort you’d be proud to raise. To call your friend, your brother, your son.

Maybe he’d drive for a bit. Find a pub where he could be just like everyone else. Have a beer. Smile at the lasses. Be one of the lads.

And then come back, better and stronger and feeling less like two people, both of them unfit for purpose. Probably no one would even notice he was gone.

He pushed the key into the ignition, turned it, and the car roared into life as only a TVR could. He slipped out of the parking space and turned onto River Drive, accelerating as it widened out into Sea Road. There was very little traffic, and he let himself flirt at the edges of the speed limit. The sense of power was effortless. Free.

He opened all the windows so the air went tearing past, ruffling his hair. The sea was a distant shadow, the beach a flat gleam, the old funfair a skeleton of metal. He used to hang out in the amusement arcades with Kev, trying to hook cuddly toys they didn’t want, and squandering twenty pence pieces on those machines where you bet on mechanical horses. And never won.

In the summer, they rode the rickety old rollercoaster and chased each other in circles on the dodgems. He’d even had a Saturday job working the waltzers. He’d felt free then too, riding the boards through the whirling carts as if he stood on the deck of a ship.

As he drove by the Rattler, he impulsively veered off the road and into the car park. It was a pub in the station house of the abandoned railway line that used to connect South Shields to the colliery at Whitburn. Part of the building was actually a carriage from one of the old steam trains, the ramshackle Rattler itself. It apparently called itself “a bar and restaurant” these days, rather than a boozer, so it wasn’t exactly Alfie’s sort of place. At least, it wouldn’t have been. Except in London he went, without even a trace of shame, to cocktail bars and wine lodges all the time.

Cold as it was, he took off his jacket and tie and left them draped over the passenger seat. And so nobody paid him much attention as he stepped inside. It was kind of dark in there, with lots of wood panelling and little booths tucked into the carriage bits. A winter-afternoon-with-the-family type pub, but not very crowded now. Which was fine. Probably just what he was looking for.

There was a man propping up the bar. He had his back to the room, but his weight was resting on one leg, which outlined the curve of his spine and, well, everything that came after.

Alfie tried to ignore the flicker of discomfort that he noticed these things. That he was a man who found bits of other men provocative. Whether or not they were trying to provoke him.

His thoughts felt as loud as a siren.

It didn’t help that he kept trying to imagine how it might feel. If he knew that man. If he could go up behind him and press their bodies together. Gather him up. The tight-fragile bowstring of his too-thin back. The succulent invitation of his arse.

Yes. Succulent.

Provocative and succulent. Alfie Bell was fucking doomed.

He went to the bar and ordered a pint of John Smith’s, stealing what he hoped was a discreet look at the other guy. He had a pale, sharp face, all angles and edges and taut little frown lines. His hair was silver blond, as fine as dandelion fluff, dyed bright pink at the tips, and long enough to brush his shoulders.

Alfie stared at his beer.

The bloke next to him: gay, right?

Another glance: he was drinking rosé.

He had to be.

Alfie wondered if he could say something. He knew how to chat up girls. It was easy. You smiled and you said, “Get you a drink, pet?” And they smiled back and said yes. In theory, it should have been no different with men, except Alfie got all nervous about it. His ex-boyfriend, Greg, said everyone did and you just learned to deal with it. But Alfie had never been nervous before. And that made him even more nervous.

“Can—” he tried, “can I get you a drink?”

The man started and turned. Behind the heavy frames of a pair of vintage glasses, his eyes widened. Then his face went blank, shuttered up like shop windows, but not before Alfie had caught the flash of pure, bright hate. It was the kind of look he had lately learned to fear. He’d seen something like it on his father’s face. An instinct of revulsion.

So maybe the bloke wasn’t gay after all. Maybe he was a quirkily dressed homophobe. An idea that didn’t seem too far off the mark when he snapped, “Why the fuck would I let you do that?”

He spoke like Alfie, though: as if somebody had sanded down the rough places of his accent. It would have been nice. Comforting. Something else they had in common. Except for the things they didn’t.

Alfie stared at him. Straight into those fury-glinting eyes. “Well, I don’t know.” He kept his voice calm. Confidently unbothered. Even if inside he was a mess of confused hurt and anger that someone would just despise him on sight. Based on nothing. “Maybe because you’ve nearly finished and want another?”

The man glared. “I don’t.”

“That’s fine, then.” He turned away as indifferently as he could manage.

Over the years, Alfie had got pretty good at dealing with shit like this. Well, not quite like this. But certain sorts of people would take one look at him, even if he was doing something perfectly normal like walking to work or buying a coffee, see only height and strength and the edge of a tattoo, and try to start something. To show off. Or make themselves feel big. When he’d been younger, he’d encouraged it. Even liked it. The attention. And the power of knowing he made others uncomfortable. Now, he didn’t care. He had enough on his plate without also letting strangers convince him he had something to prove.

But there was still no way he was backing down. Just because of some overreacting little prick in arty specs. Can I buy you a drink? was hardly Can I stick my dick in you?

He took a long swallow of his pint. He wasn’t going to rush, but he was going to finish it and then get the hell out of here. And try not to think about what had just happened. Or the man who was still standing beside him. He could almost feel him somehow, body heat and a sort of trembling ferocity. Weirdo.

Suddenly the stranger spoke again, his voice tight and high, still pissed off. “What the fuck was that about?”

Alfie turned slowly back.

God, even mindlessly angry, he had such pretty eyes. Soft green, apple-coloured, framed in gold lashes, bright behind glass.

And that was not a helpful thought.

He was confused. Annoyed and trying not to be, and lonely and attracted and a fucking mess. “I suppose I just thought you looked”—hot—“like you needed another drink. And that you might be”—hot—“interesting to talk to.”

The man’s eyes narrowed. “Riiight. So you buy me a drink, and we talk, and our souls connect and our minds meet, and what then?”

“What then?”

“Yes. What then?”

Alfie tried not to squirm. In his experience, women definitely did not do this. When you said, Can I buy you a drink? they didn’t immediately call you out on the subtext. He genuinely wasn’t sure if he was meant to be punching the guy or trying to kiss him. Right now, he kind of wanted to do both.

He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “Look. I’m sorry. Yes, I made some assumptions, and I can see that’s offended you. I tried to talk to you because . . . because . . . I fancied you, alreet . . .” Shit, his accent. “But that doesn’t mean I expect anything. Or that I’m going to, y’know, force you against the Rattler.”

A tinge of colour crept over the man’s pale cheeks. But then his face went blank again. “You fancy me. Yeah. Okay. Very funny. You can fuck off now.”

It was probably good advice. And a less lost Alfie might have heeded it. “Mate, what’s your problem? I tried to hit on you, you didn’t like it, I’ve said I’m sorry. What more do you want?”

There was a long silence. The man traced a circle round the rim of his wineglass until it shrieked. His hands were thin, like the rest of him, the nails ragged, stripped to the quick, the skin dry and flaking. He had a piece of green wire coiled round the fourth finger of his right hand. “This is a joke, right?”

Alfie was pretty sure he was missing something, but he had no idea what it was. “Which bit?”

“All of it. Any of it.” The stranger adjusted his glasses, pushing them back with the heel of his hand, holding Alfie prisoner on the other side. His mouth—God, he had pretty lips as well—curled into a sneer. “You’re just supposed to be gay?”

Okay. Enough was enough. “Why, was I meant to check with you first?”

“Hah.” That one little word contained a whole world of un-amusement.

Alfie drained his glass with grim determination, left three quid on the counter, and turned to go.

The other man’s voice called him back one last time. “And you fancy me?”

Alfie glanced over his shoulder. “Yes, I blummin’ fancy you. My mistake.”

 

Chapter Two

Alfie got out of there before anything else could go wrong. The cold air came at him like some kind of anti-hug, but it was actually almost nice. It felt real, unlike everything that had just happened.

Which was what, exactly?

He told himself that this was going to make a great story for when he got back to London. How he came out at his best friend’s wedding with the line “I like cock” and then got savaged by a guy he could snap with one hand.

His gaydar had probably been irreparably stunted by twenty-eight years in the closet. He was like one of those animals that got raised in captivity and couldn’t cope among their own kind when they were released into the wild. One of those whales that just hung around near the rescue boat being sad and confused.

“Prove it.”

He spun round. The pissed-off guy had followed him out.

“What?” It was only a short distance to his car. He’d feel a bit of a prat running away from a tiny bloke in a pink jumper, but he was also starting to wonder if he hadn’t tried to pull a genuine mental case.

“You want me?” For the first time a trace of something that wasn’t outright hostility crept into the other man’s voice. Something a bit uncertain, a bit . . . needy. Alfie knew he was being an idiot, but it sort of turned him on. “Then prove it.”

Alfie’s first instinct was to tell him he was nutters and make a dash for his car.

The man folded his arms tightly across his chest, hugging his own elbows. It wasn’t exactly a pose that said, Come and get it, big boy. “I’m right here. I’m waiting. Come and show me just how gay you think you are.”

This was weird. This was wrong. Totally weird and totally wrong. But it was also exactly what Alfie had wanted since he’d laid eyes on those narrow hips, the fragile spine, and the hinted mysteries of that taut, restless body. Well, not this exactly. It would have been a pretty niche fantasy. But the possibility of . . . something.

He took a few steps forward. Until he was standing sociably close. Then intimately close.

Since being gay had become undeniable, he’d had one serious relationship and a bunch of hookups. They’d basically been okay. Nothing special. In the moment, they’d made him feel realer. Afterwards, not so much. And he was still a bit shaky on how they worked.

Women were easier. There were rules about who did what. Which tongue went where.

With guys, it was like meeting someone for the first time and not being sure whether you were supposed to hug or shake hands. An embarrassing tangle waiting to happen.

He’d also never tried to kiss anyone who seemed so absolutely opposed to being kissed. While also apparently inviting it.

He slipped a hand around the back of the man’s neck, sliding gently beneath the fall of his hair. He wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to do next, but as it turned out, he didn’t have to think about doing anything. Because everything just sort of happened.

For a moment, he was standing there, being confused, touching skin that felt ridiculously, impossibly tender, and wondering if maybe it was acceptable to do a bit of hair tugging, since there seemed no way to actually get to the kissing bit without a pretty significant change of angle.

But then the guy moaned. Actually moaned. Soft and helpless and fucking gorgeous. And he rocked forward, falling against Alfie’s body like he’d lost the ability to do anything else. His hands clutched at Alfie’s shoulders, then clung, clumsy-awkward, just a little bit desperate, and Alfie suddenly felt about ten feet tall and strong and right and wanted, and from there it was all effortless. All instinct.

He dragged the other man close, maybe a bit rougher than he meant to be. Made a snug little cradle with his spare arm. Got him tucked into it. And then he was bringing his head down, and the guy—shit, he didn’t even know his name—was tilting his head back, and there was this moment when all there was in the whole fucking universe was a pale, moonlit mouth parting in anticipation, in welcome, and then they were kissing.

Kissing like Alfie had always imagined it was supposed to be. Movie-star-magic-silver-screen-fireworks-in-the-sky kissing. Endless and restless, like the sea beating in the distance. Like listening to a shell, except it was everything and everywhere, the taste of salt water rich and sharp between their lips.

And a strange sort of sweetness too. It took him a moment to place it.

“Hey,” he whispered, breaking the kiss. “Hey, you smell of flowers.”

The other man was shaking—shaking, really shaking—in his arms, his fingers curled urgently against Alfie. A rock climber trying not to fall. “Take me somewhere.”

“I’ve got a room at the—”

“I don’t care, take me somewhere.”

This was another terrible idea. He was supposed to be at a wedding.

But the next thing Alfie knew they were in his car, zooming back to the hotel. It was a five-minute drive, but it seemed to go on forever. And Alfie’s cock couldn’t decide if it was nervous or excited.

Which pretty much went for the rest of him as well.

He stole occasional glances at his passenger. Each time they passed beneath a streetlamp, the sudden glare would light up his face, and Alfie would get a fresh shock at the sheer loveliness of him. It was like recognising somebody from a dream you once had.

“Look mate, what’s your name?”

The man turned his head slightly. It was too dark to see his expression properly, but Alfie thought he caught the twisty glint of something that might have been a smile. Not a very happy one. “Fen.”

“Fen?”

“Fen.”

He wanted to ask more, like what kind of a name was Fen, except in a polite way, but they’d arrived.

He locked his car and led the way to his room, too busy worrying about running into someone from the wedding party to worry about the lack of conversation. Besides, what was he supposed to say? Fen very obviously wasn’t interested in talking.

It all made him feel a bit weird. But not weird enough to stop.

The Little Haven was probably the poshest hotel in South Shields. For a Londoner, however, it was embarrassing. Barely a step up from a Travelodge, with its teal-checked carpet and its 1970s’ furniture. Alfie had cringed when he first saw it. Then cringed at his cringe.

Down south, everyone saw him as this bluff, solid northern bloke. It set him apart from the rest of the equity capital markets team, but it was also the foundation of his success. Clients trusted him. His opponents feared him. And he was very, very good at what he did.

But now he was back up north, it was starting to feel like he’d become, somehow, less than himself. Sort of a sketch. Just blunt lines and the basics. What a fucking joke. Not north, not south. A straight gay man.

He turned and tried a welcoming gesture. “So this is me like.”

Fen was staring at the awful carpet.

And suddenly all Alfie could think about was the man’s mouth under his, so absolutely right that nothing else seemed to matter. Fuck it. “Come ’ere.”

To his surprise, the guy—Fen—did. This time, Alfie didn’t even hesitate, just caught him and kissed him, hard and deep and as rough as he wanted.

This game they were playing, this notion somehow formed between them, that Alfie had a clue what he was doing, was something he could really get behind.

He splayed his hands across Fen’s back, slid down that supple curve and just . . . grabbed his arse, as if that was a totally reasonable thing to do, grinding their bodies and hips and cocks together.

Fen went wild and shuddery, his mouth turning slack against Alfie’s. And he was sort of moaning and sort of muttering, and what he seemed to be saying was “Ohgodohgodohgod.” So Alfie grabbed that too, sucking the words from Fen’s tongue, licking them up from all the velvet crevices of his mouth with the last of the salt spray and the sweet-sour trace of cheap wine.

“Fucking love how you taste.”

Fen just whimpered, eyes so tightly closed it looked like he was frowning, his fingers latched into the dips between Alfie’s biceps.

“So . . .” Alfie dutifully repeated what Greg had said to him that first time because it was apparently the rules “. . . what you into?”

Fen’s eyes fluttered open. God, those lashes. Better than a girl’s. Alfie swooped in, pushed Fen’s glasses out of the way, and kissed his eyelids closed. His eyelashes were so soft. They tasted a little of salt as well.

“Oh,” said Fen. “Oh.”

And trembled all over again.

Alfie was kind of dizzy with joy and disbelief. Touching men, in general, was still kind of magical to him. Just the freedom of it. How fucking good it felt. He’d had some pretty enthusiastic reactions before, but nothing to match this one, or even come close. It was, honestly, a bit amazing that this hot, angry, weird guy was letting Alfie put his big hands all over him.

And acting like he’d been waiting for it his whole life.

Alfie rubbed his cheek against Fen’s, then nuzzled his way up into his hair. His jaw was rough, but the stubble was so pale you could barely see it. “Well?”

Fen tipped his head back, giving Alfie his throat, pale and slender. “You can . . .” He lost control of his breath entirely as Alfie swept his tongue over that vulnerable, shuddering Adam’s apple. “You can do whatever you like to me.”

Fair enough.

“I’m going to suck your cock, okay?”

“Okay.”

But when Alfie tried to drag him out of his fraying pink jumper, Fen froze. His eyes lost their pleasure-blur. “You first.”

Alfie shrugged. “All right.”

He wasn’t vain—at least, he didn’t think he was—but he took care of his body, and you could tell. He tugged open the buttons on his shirt, peeled it off his arms, and tossed it onto the floor.

Fen stared so long and so hard it was a wonder it didn’t burn the skin right off Alfie’s bones. After what felt like forever, he reached out a shaking hand and ran it over the tribal tattoo that swept in thick black lines all the way up Alfie’s left arm, across his torso, and down his back. The skin beneath the ink prickled with awareness. “This is new.”

“Naw, had it since I was like seventeen. My best mate was supposed to be getting one as well, but he chickened out.”

Fen leaned dizzily forward and pressed his mouth worshipfully to a flourish that finished just over Alfie’s heart. He bowed his head, whispering in a swirl of hot breath, “I’m so fucking stupid.”

Once again feeling like he’d probably lost the plot, Alfie petted Fen’s hair. It was soft as his eyelashes. Silky. Not like his body at all. Or his hands, which were rough and dry and strong. “Don’t be like that. I know I look a bit of a hooligan and the ink’s a bit daft, but I was a kid—didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

“I like the way you look,” muttered Fen. “And I’m so fucking stupid.”

Alfie tried to think of something reassuring he could say. Because I’m not a serial killer was probably exactly what serial killers said before they serial-killed you. And maybe it was pretty stupid for a guy who was all of five foot six, and basically made of bones and air like some kind of exotic bird, to go waltzing off for casual sex with an enormous tattooed stranger. But, stupid or not, who said it had to turn out bad? For either of them.

It was already the best stupid thing Alfie had ever done.

Way ahead of the tattoo. And coming out to his family.

“Look,” he tried, “if it makes you feel any better, I’m kind of new to this. I only realised I was, y’know, gay, like two years ago. How’s that for fucking stupid?”

Fen’s head jerked up. “Seriously? You mean—”

Alfie nodded. “So we still doing this, or what?”

Though he didn’t answer, Fen’s eyes flicked downwards. And Alfie could take a hint. He stepped back, toed off his shoes, ditched his socks, and finally shucked both trousers and boxers.

Fen actually put his hands over his eyes like one of those see-no-evil monkeys Alfie’s grandma used to have. So Alfie took him by the wrists and pulled gently until, at last, Fen yielded. And looked. Stared. The longing and the greed naked on his face.

Heat rushed over Alfie’s skin like he’d been touched. His voice came out all husky. “Your turn.”

Fen nodded and let Alfie tug the jumper over his head, emerging a few awkward seconds later in a tangle of fraying wool, steamed-up glasses, and floofed-up hair.

That had gone better in Alfie’s head. But better was relative when the result was a half-naked Fen, blinking dazedly and pushing static-wild silver strands away from his face.

Alfie heard himself make a sort of growling sound. “God, you’re hot.”

He was too. Beautiful, if you were allowed to say that about a man. Sleek and strong and smooth, all white and gold, dusted here and there in softly curling hair, and a few shining drops of sweat.

And the next thing Alfie knew, he was in there, all over him, hands and mouth and tongue and nails, and Fen was letting him, twisting and moaning and chanting “ohgodohgodohgod” again.

“Now the rest.” Alfie’s hands fumbled with belt and zipper, and Fen wasn’t much help either, but somehow they got him out of his clothes.

Which meant they were both naked. So very naked.

For a moment, neither of them moved. Or dared to touch. Fen’s breath was harsh in the room, and Alfie thought his heart was probably thumping loud enough to piss off the neighbours.

“You . . .” said Alfie. “I . . .”

Fen dug his hands into his own hair and pulled, his eyes closing tight as barnacles, deep lines that looked like pain creasing his brow.

Alfie went to his knees. The carpet was rough as well as awful, but he didn’t care. He was looking up at Fen, who still wouldn’t look back. He ran his hands up the outside of Fen’s legs. Coarse hair and lean, hard muscles like a runner. On the inside, though, it was all secrets, like the skin at the back of his neck. Smooth and tight and quivering when he put his lips to it.

“Oh. Oh.”

Fen’s hands tightened in his own hair. He kept returning these dazed, shocked little noises for every kiss Alfie gave him.

It was a fair trade, Alfie reckoned, because they went straight to his cock, like Fen had his hand wrapped tight round it. Or his mouth.

And when he got up to Fen’s cock, all it took was the first brush of his lips to make Fen cry out. Alfie managed to get his arms around him as his knees buckled, just in time to half catch him and bring him tumbling messily onto the bed.

For a moment, Fen just lay there, pale and sacrificial, breathless, arms flung wide, chest heaving. Then he pulled himself into a sitting position, blinking at Alfie who was still crouched on the floor.

Alfie peered up at him. “All right?”

Fen frowned and adjusted his glasses like maybe he thought they were lying to him about what he saw. “Oh I don’t know. Probably not. I don’t care.”

Alfie hoped he was going to say more, but he didn’t. He just reached down and the flaky-rough tips of his fingers drifted over Alfie’s face. Alfie closed his eyes for a second, swallowing a sound, overwhelmed somehow by the simplicity of touch, and reached out to Fen’s wrist. Took his hand prisoner. Kissed his fingers. Drew them into his mouth, and made Fen shake again and spread his legs. Invitation. Surrender. More than enough encouragement.

Fuck, it was hot. All that exposed skin. And Fen’s cock, rising insistently and a little bit desperately, powerful and vulnerable at the same time.

Alfie swiped a bead of moisture from the tip. Salt again, but purely male, underlaid by sweetness and the taste of skin. Alfie ran his hands up the inside of Fen’s thighs, holding him wide, velvet, sleek muscles trembling against his palms.

Fen went rigid and then his hips pressed forward, and Alfie let him. He let Fen slide the head of his cock between his lips and tried to think of nothing but the deep, hot thrill of it.

Never mind that he was kneeling on the floor with another man’s dick in his mouth.

Never mind that he was kneeling on the floor with another man’s dick in his mouth, and he wanted it so badly, he thought he might come.

He bowed his head, taking Fen deeper. Because the invasion was part of the pleasure. And it was an invasion, a sick, wonderful, perfect invasion, stretching his mouth, just on the edge of choking of him.

He told himself it was nothing to be ashamed of, shuddering and groaning around a man’s cock, taking those harsh, stuttering thrusts.

Then Fen made a noise so like a sob. One of his legs came up to rest on Alfie’s shoulder. And Alfie stopped thinking about anything but the man he’d made do that. Feel like that.

The man who was coming apart beautifully and fearlessly above him and with him. Because of him.

“Oh God.” Fen clawed into his shoulders. “S-stop. Or I’ll—”

Alfie drew back. “But I want . . . I want you to.”

For a moment, they were silent, breathing hard, staring at each other, Fen’s eyes banked behind misted glass. Then he said, “Fuck me.”

“Uh.” Alfie curled a hand absently about one of the other man’s knees, nestled his head against his leg. “I don’t really . . . not casually, like.”

“Saving yourself for marriage?”

“Just . . . more than . . . Just a proper relationship. Something real.”

Fen was wearing a look Alfie couldn’t read. It reminded him of the way he’d been at the Rattler: brittle and angry and not liking Alfie very much. “Well, didn’t you grow into a nice heteronormative young man?”

Alfie pressed an openmouthed kiss to the inside of Fen’s thigh. Sucked at the skin until he moaned. “This not enough for you?”

“No, it’s, it’s . . . Oh God, Alfie, I just want to feel you.” His voice got so ragged Alfie barely heard him whisper. “Please.”

Alfie’s heart gave a sort of lurch. “Fuck, mate, I’m really sorry. I haven’t got anything.”

“W-what?”

“I haven’t got anything. I thought I was going to a wedding. Not out on the pull.”

Out of nowhere, Fen laughed. Like his smile, it didn’t seem very happy. He covered his face with his hands again, pale hair falling wildly through his fingers. “Oh God, I just begged you to fuck me. Oh God.”

“Mate, Fen, it’s all right.”

“It’s not. It’s really not.”

Alfie gazed up at him, bewildered, suddenly miles away from whatever the man was thinking, as if all that touching meant nothing at all. “I liked it.”

“Hah. I bet you did.”

There was an endless silence. Alfie’s cock ached.

“I can go out?” he offered hopelessly. “The big Asda is 24/7, right?”

God, what would he look like? Running in there half-dressed at eight o’clock at night to buy extra strong condoms and a tub of lube.

That was Daily Mail gay.

But if he had to do it, he had to do it. He wanted that tight, angry note out of Fen’s voice.

Wanted his secrets. The softness in him. Everything his body gave.

Fen took his hands away from his face, blinking slightly owlishly, his eyes flat and green through a haze of glass and gold. “You’re going to drive to the nearest superstore for condoms? All because I want you to fuck me?”

Alfie grinned. “I’ll pick you up a box of Milk Tray while I’m there.”

“Don’t go.” There was a pause. “Just . . . just . . .”

Alfie rose, and Fen reached out to embrace him, and they fell together onto the bed. It groaned and creaked beneath them, and Alfie winced internally, and maybe a little bit externally, because it was a sex noise. Not necessarily a gay sex noise. But some part of him thought people might instinctively know how to tell the difference.

Then Fen raised his knees to cradle Alfie’s hips, pulling their bodies more tightly together, and Alfie sweetly, helplessly, drowned in skin. Fen’s hands swept over his shoulders, and he felt taken and held and wanted.

“You feel so good.” Fen’s breath was hot against his neck. “So strong.”

His hips writhed under Alfie’s, nudging their cocks together, which was so completely and perfectly the right sort of not enough that Alfie could only groan.

“So safe.”

Alfie kissed him under the chin. Then again at the base of his throat. The tender, beating spot beneath his ear. Everything was heat and sweat and corn-silk secrets.

“Alfie?”

“Yeah?”

“H-hold my hands.”

“Erm, what?”

“Hold my hands, pin them down.”

Alfie hesitated.

Fen’s eyes fluttered open, caught Alfie with their hunger and their pleading, and would not relinquish him. “Don’t hurt me. Just . . . just hold me.”

Alfie wasn’t really into what he thought of as kinky stuff, but he was very, very into Fen. And he would have agreed to pretty much anything when he was asked in a voice so frayed with longing.

“Like this?” He wrapped a hand around one of Fen’s wrists and pressed it tentatively against the bed. Fen arched and whimpered, closed his eyes tight, and nodded. Offered up his other wrist, not like a sacrifice at all, and Alfie kissed it before he claimed it.

He expected Fen to feel fragile beneath his hands, but he didn’t. He didn’t at all. His wrists were slender, yes, but supple, like maybe an artist’s or a musician’s, used to moving and working. The muscles on his forearms stood out so strongly Alfie wanted to lick down the straining ridges of them. Except they were both as good as trapped. His hands holding Fen’s hands. Their bodies locked together.

So Alfie kissed him and kept kissing him until they were both beyond breathless, and everything was wet and hot, and Fen was moving under him, not struggling but clumsily driving their bodies together.

Alfie’s mouth was full of groans, incapable, so he pressed it against Fen’s neck, tasting sweat and fever.

“Yes, oh . . . oh yes.” Fen’s voice was sweet and wild, heedless, his head thrown back, straining against the hotel pillows.

Their bodies writhed and twisted, rough, uncertain pleasure conjured between them like flame from flint. It was beautiful and maddening, and Alfie never wanted it to stop.

Fen was all in pieces: broken words and fading gasps, touching Alfie everywhere and nowhere in flashes of too-much-too-little sensation, soft and harsh and strong and fragile, all skin and sweat-slick heat. He rolled under Alfie, restless but relentless, a wave with its own currents, its own tides, turning everything to bliss, his cock pressed between them, sliding within and against the constrictions of their pressed-together selves. His heart was beating so hard and fast that Alfie almost thought he could reach down, gather it into the palm of his hand, and hold it safe against the world.

“God,” he muttered. “Fen.”

Fen’s eyelashes flickered in answer. Sweat gleamed on his brow and his upper lip, made the hair stick to his neck and shoulders like curls of gilt on marble. He was flushed, flushed all over, as if he was some fresh-made creature from a world of silk and fire.

“You’re . . . so . . . beautiful like.”

Fuck, what was he doing, what was he saying?

But then Fen stiffened, shuddered, and came with a shattered cry that sounded as close to despair as it did to pleasure. He fell back against the pillows, breathless, eyes still pressed tightly closed in stark contrast to the sudden slackness of his body.

Alfie, thrown into uncertainty again, hastily released his wrists and rolled away, landing on his back at Fen’s side.

Fen was still shaking, his hands clenched and abandoned on the pillow where Alfie had left them.

The silence went on forever, and Alfie wasn’t sure what to do about it. He tried to ignore the fact his cock was bouncing in the air like a commuter trying to hail a taxi through rush-hour traffic.

“Uh, look.” When Fen opened a tiny sliver of one eye, Alfie pointed to the twin silver-white smears that crossed their bodies. “Matching.”

Fen’s eye closed again.

He tried desperately to think of what to say. But his blood was too busy carrying oxygen away from his brain. “Like that jewellery with the white silhouettes. My mam used to have one.”

The slap of skin on skin resounded through the room as Fen’s hand crashed onto his own chest and began to scrub ineffectively at the mess there.

Shut up, Alfie. Shut up, right now. “I think it was a brooch.”

Fen mumbled something.

“Eh?”

“Cameo.” His head half turned in Alfie’s direction, his eyes easing reluctantly open. His expression was blank, his eyes reflected nothing, and he sounded annoyed.

“What?”

“It’s called cameo. It’s a form of carving.”

“Oh right.” There was another endless silence. “Thanks.”

Slowly, so slowly that Alfie barely saw the movement, Fen’s body curled in on itself like wilting petals.

“Are you . . . Was that . . . Is everything . . . okay?”

No answer.

Alfie had no idea what he was supposed to do now. He was getting the sense things had gone badly wrong, but he couldn’t figure out exactly where. It had seemed fine, better than fine, a lot better than fine, when they’d been touching. So he reached out a tentative hand and brushed it over Fen’s pale, shivering shoulder. Gooseflesh rose immediately to greet him, and he felt the tension ease from the muscle.

He shuffled a little closer over the wrinkled sheets, and to his surprise, Fen twisted round, tossed his glasses aside, and rolled straight into his arms. Alfie wrapped him up and pulled him close, fitting their bodies into a new togetherness. Fen’s head found a place to nestle against Alfie’s neck, and one of his hands curved possessively over Alfie’s upper arm, his fingers sliding over the spirals of ink.

Alfie’s erection, which had flagged a bit during the cameo business, came bouncing eagerly back. He winced. “Sorry, mate.” He shoved a hand between their bodies and tried to stop his cock pushing into Fen like it was hinting. “Just ignore it.”

Fen pulled back just a little, enough to raise his head again. Without glasses, his face looked different, younger, his eyes exposed and vulnerable. “Why would I want to do that?”

“Well, it was fine. What we did before. It was so good. I don’t need—” But Alfie had absolutely no chance of finishing that sentence because, suddenly, there was a hand on him, and all his words vanished into a gasp.

Fen’s touch was rough, almost too rough, but Alfie arched into it anyway, wanting it, wanting those long, merciless fingers, the rasp of dry skin against tender. It was like he could feel all the deep furrows of Fen’s palm pressed into him like a brand. Like a new tattoo.

He meant to say, You don’t have to do this, but he couldn’t catch his breath. His world was spiralling into Fen’s hand. Into the long, sure strokes that dragged him to the precipice of ecstasy and pulled him back again.

It made him ache. But wonderfully.

Fen was watching him, expressionless, his eyes burning. Though when he spoke, his voice was far from steady. “You want me.”

It wasn’t quite a question, but Alfie nodded.

Fen’s hand tightened. “Say it.”

Alfie kind of thought the fact they were in bed together, and he was frantically thrusting into the tight channel of Fen’s fist, had given the game away there. But he could barely keep a thought in his head, let alone construct an entire sentence.

Fen pulled back, and Alfie heard himself make a sound that was almost a whimper, his body stilled with the pure shock of rejection.

“Say it,” whispered Fen a little desperately. “Tell me how much you want me.”

Alfie’s mouth had gone completely dry, but he managed to scratch out the basic idea. “I want you. Please, Fen. Touch me.”

He was immediately rewarded by a touch so sweet it made him groan shamelessly for more. And Fen gave him more until he came so hard it made his ears ring, stars the colour of Fen’s eyes dancing in the sudden darkness of his pleasure. He fell stickily against Fen, too blissfully spent to care much about anything just then, including the state of the sheets.

Fen was still and silent again, but not pulling away. Alfie didn’t know what to say again, but he was full of questions. He wanted to know about the man who lay in his arms. But he didn’t dare. Instead he watched, through half-closed eyes, as the man slowly—miraculously—relaxed. His breathing grew deep and steady. He slept.

Not everyone Alfie had casually sexed had left immediately afterwards. A few of them had stayed the night. But this felt different. It felt trusting, in a way nothing had for quite a while. He knew it was creepy to stare while Fen was sleeping, but there was something very . . . very enchanting about him just then, curled up against him like a pale comma in the half-light. He looked younger and gentler and, in a strange way, less pretty, the irregularities of his features pronounced. He was all points and planes, sharp bones and angles, a fairy creature stripped of glamour. And he had the longest lashes Alfie had ever seen. He wanted to touch them. To feel their softness, their tiny, spindle-needle points. He could still remember the faint taste of salt from when they had brushed against his lips.

He reached down and carefully drew the duvet over them both—well, mainly over Fen, who was so thin he looked like he needed all the warmth he could get. His body was such a collection of contradictions. Alfie didn’t know how he could be so skinny and so inviting at the same time. But then that was hardly Fen’s only mystery.

He eased a stray lock of hair away from where it had tangled over Fen’s eyes. Fussing. He was fussing over a sleeping stranger. But there was this sense of familiarity about him that was probably more about Alfie being back here than Fen himself. It made him sort of lonely for a past that had always maybe been a lie.

He must have moved or jostled him, because Fen startled into wakefulness. He gave a distressed little murmur—the sort of sound you made when you weren’t sure where you were—and half pulled away. “Oh God, I . . . I . . .”

“’S’okay.” Alfie drew him back down. Tried to soothe him with long strokes to all that lovely skin, rough and smooth and tender like Fen himself.

“I haven’t been sleeping well.”

“’S’okay,” said Alfie again. “I’ve got you.”

Fen snuffled, almost laughing maybe, and vanished under the covers, his very cold toes nudging their way between Alfie’s knees. His fingers swirled idly across Alfie’s arm and chest, crossing back and forth over the lines of his tattoo, before coming to rest over his heart.

After a moment, he asked, “Are you okay?”

It was the first time Fen had shown him anything that wasn’t sex or anger. Alfie was so dazzled by the attention—by the unexpectedness and the sweetness of it—that he blurted out the truth. “Dunno. It’s weird being back with everybody knowing . . . knowing I’m, y’know, gay. And realising I can’t ever go back. To them or to me or to anything.” He shut his mouth with a snap. It was definitely long past time to stop saying things. “Just ignore me. I’m not making sense.”

“Saudade.”

“You what?”

“It’s the name of that feeling.”

“Are you sure? Because it sounds like one of those posh cabbages.”

Fen turned his face into Alfie’s shoulder, stifling a sound that was almost . . . no, definitely a giggle. “It’s Portuguese. It’s the intense longing for a place or a person or a time you know is probably gone forever.”

“Like nostalgia?”

“Nostalgia’s more sentimental, I think? Missing past happiness. Saudade can encompass a yearning for things that have never been.”

Alfie preferred to think of himself as a simple man. He liked his emotions, when he had to have them, to be unambiguous: anger, protectiveness, love, desire. But he got this. Found it surprisingly comforting to know there was a name for this restless, needy ache.

Fen seemed to have dozed off again while he was thinking. That was okay. He didn’t really want to talk, but he liked having a body tucked up next to him. Especially when the body in question was gorgeous and naked, and smelled of fresh sex, and you, and something sweet and slightly dusty. Like flowers. Maybe Fen really was magical. And Alfie would wake up in the morning with fairy dust on his eyelids, and there’d be nothing left of Fen but petals and seafoam.

He drew him in a little closer, not wanting to let him slip away just yet. Obviously Fen wasn’t going to vanish storybook-style, but he was still going to leave in the morning, and so was Alfie. That was kind of sad, really. It made him wonder what life could have been like if he’d stayed in South Shields. Met a nice boy and settled down. Well, maybe not a nice boy. Someone like Fen, who was wicked and sexy and fearless, and about as far from nice as you could imagine.

No point thinking about it really. Building sandcastles in his head. Except he sort of was, holding a stranger in his arms, as he drifted slowly off to sleep.

from Publishers Weekly

Hall's sex scenes are a heady mix of hot play-by-play, breathy exhilaration, emotional discovery, and endearing awkwardness.