For Real (A Spires Story)

For Real (A Spires Story), by Alexis Hall
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-279-0
eBook release: 
Jun 1, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-280-6
Print release: 
Jun 1, 2015
Word count: 
125,000
Page count: 
437
Type: 
Cover by: 
Audio release: 
Apr 17, 2016

This title is part of the Spires universe.

Ebook $6.99
Print $19.99   $15.99 (20% off!)
Print and Ebook $26.98   $18.89 (30% off!)

Laurence Dalziel is worn down and washed up, and for him, the BDSM scene is all played out. Six years on from his last relationship, he’s pushing forty and tired of going through the motions of submission.

Then he meets Toby Finch. Nineteen years old. Fearless, fierce, and vulnerable.  Everything Laurie can’t remember being.

Toby doesn’t know who he wants to be or what he wants to do. But he knows, with all the certainty of youth, that he wants Laurie. He wants him on his knees. He wants to make him hurt, he wants to make him beg, he wants to make him fall in love.

The problem is, while Laurie will surrender his body, he won’t surrender his heart. Because Toby is too young, too intense, too easy to hurt. And what they have—no matter how right it feels—can’t last. It can’t mean anything.

It can’t be real.

 

       
 
Best Romance: Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of 2015!
 

2015 Rainbow Awards Finalist2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Award Finalist  

Winner: Best Gay Erotic Romance in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Runner-Up: Best Gay Book in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Runner-Up: Best LGBT Cover: Illustration in the 2015 Rainbow Awards!
Finalist: 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!
Finalist: 2015 Foreword Reviews IndieFab Awards!
Finalist: Best Gay Romance in the 28th Annual Lambda Literary Awards!
Winner: Best Erotic Romance in the 2016 Romance Writers of America RITA Awards!

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Chapter 1

Laurie

“Look, I’ve come straight from work, and I’ve had a really long day, and I simply haven’t had time to slip into a spiky collar or a mesh shirt or whatever else you deem necessary to get into your haven of safe, sane, and consensual depravity.”

That was me, making an arse of myself on the door of Pervocracy, the club that was supposed to be different, and inevitably wouldn’t be.

But everything I’d said was true. It had been a really long day. And I’d always hated the requirement to dress up. It was almost as if the Scene ran on fairy-tale logic: A pauper in a ball gown was a princess. A wolf in a nightcap, a grandma. A wanker in a pair of leather trousers, a dom.

The alternative-lifestyle pixie (otherwise known as community volunteer) didn’t look very impressed with me. I couldn’t really blame her. Even putting aside my lack of interest in communicating my sexual inclinations by wearing a silly hat, I’d been unnecessarily rude.

I tried for a more conciliatory tone. “I’m on the list. Dalziel.”

She fingered her iPad. “D-e-e-l—what?”

“D-a-l-z—”

She gave me an Are you fucking kidding? look.

I could have said “Like Dalziel and Pascoe,” but there was such a frighteningly high possibility she was barely alive in 1996 that I decided to give up instead. The universe clearly didn’t want me to go to a BDSM club. Which was absolutely fine with me because I agreed.

“Forget it.”

I turned to make my escape, when the door to the gender-neutral toilets behind her burst open, and the two—for want of a better term—friends who had insisted I come out tonight tumbled into the corridor. Sam seemed to be dressed as a steampunk pirate. Grace was wearing a rainbow-patterned corset and extremely frilly knickers. They had no problem at all communicating their sexual inclinations by wearing silly hats.

“He’s with us, he’s with us! Laurie, come back.”

I came back.

The pixie hesitated. “He’s with you?”

“Yeah, I vouched for him. Look.” Grace leaned over in a squish of breasts and lace and tapped the screen.

“But—” the pixie pouted “—costume is mandatory. It’s important to the culture of the club.”

“I am in costume,” I snapped. “I’m in costume as a really tired and pissed-off trauma doctor trying to get into a BDSM club in the vain hope of meeting a not-too-cack-handed stranger who’ll whip him into some semblance of satisfaction before he goes home again.”

“It’s a good effort,” said Sam, deadpan. “Very convincing.”

“Fine. Fine.” The ALP gave a despairing wave, green-painted fingernails gleaming. “Go on in.”

We went on in. And as I squeezed by, I heard her mutter, “Can’t believe he’s a sub.”

That made two of us.

It had been the best part of a year since I’d bothered with the Scene. About six months ago, Sam had asked me why, but I had no answer for him. No story to tell. No abuse, no drama, no great epiphany. Just glancing round at a party, and realising it could have been any other night. The same people looking for the same things. So I went home and looked up a half-remembered paragraph of Anthony Powell that Robert had once quoted at me: “The image of Time brought thoughts of mortality: of human beings . . . moving hand in hand in intricate measure . . . while partners disappear only to reappear again, once more giving pattern to the spectacle: unable to control the melody, unable, perhaps, to control the steps of the dance.”

And thought: Yes, that. Nothing but a dance to the music of time. As meaningless as it was ultimately unchanging.

Besides, with the internet being what it was, you could get degrading sex with people you didn’t like delivered right to your doorstep. Unfortunately, Grace and Sam didn’t agree. They insisted I needed to get out more. Actually meet people. As if that was ever going to happen at a BDSM club.

But there I was. Not so much out of hope for myself, but in the hope it would make my friends shut up.

Pervocracy fostered a self-consciously carnival atmosphere. And cupcakes. It was like they were saying, See what multidimensional humans we are. We’re not just kinky, we’re hipsters too. But it was the same faces. Just like always.

Grace went to try and get us drinks, so I stayed with Sam as per the rules. They had a cutesy little acronym for it on the charter, but essentially we were meant to be policing each other. Ensuring nobody got hurt. Or rather, that nobody got hurt in a way that they hadn’t explicitly consented to be hurt. All very sensible. All very nice.

So terribly nice.

I was also supposed to have bought a shtick of some kind—like gifts or a Hula-Hoop—to help me be charming and easy to interact with. Except I had about as much interest in being charming and easy to interact with as I did in being nice. Nice had no power over me. It couldn’t make me scream or beg or come or feel whole.

Sam knew nearly everyone. Some of them even remembered me. But I brushed through the conversations. The topics were mainly restricted to art, sex, and ourselves, three things I really didn’t see the point in talking about.

Eventually—because it was that sort of club—we were obliged to watch cabaret.

“It’s at times like this,” I told Grace, looking dismally into my glass of warm lemonade as someone subjected us to erotic performance poetry, “I really wish I drank.”

“And I thought you were supposed to be a masochist.” She put an arm around me and pulled me briefly into her side. I hated how good it felt just to be held.

I scanned the gathered revellers. And, of course, among all the half-familiar strangers, there was Robert, who time will never make a stranger, no matter how much I wish it could. Whatever magnet drew us once was broken now. It had left me simply spinning, a compass without a lodestone, while he didn’t see me at all.

He was with his new . . . boy, lover, sub. Who wasn’t new anymore.

When the ordeal with the performance poetry was over and the music began again, I broke the rules and slipped away from Grace and Sam. Wandered.

The organisers had tried hard to transform this piece of nowhere East London into a space. There were lots of intricate little corners, apparently designed to encourage play in the purest sense of the word.

The last thing in the world I wanted to do was play. In any sense of the word.

Voices—talking, laughing, screaming, coming—washed over me like the sea. The dungeons and the make-out rooms were less an orgy than a queue. In my experience, one of the less well-advertised secrets of group sex was how often it came down to logistics.

Karmic spite sent me stumbling by the playrooms in time to see Robert and his . . . his other.

We’d never been public, Robert and I. What we’d had, what we’d done, had been too private and too precious. We wouldn’t have displayed it before the world any more than we would have let someone watch us in bed on a Sunday morning, where he would bring me toast and tea and The Times, and lazily suck me off. It’d been ours.

Now his and this other man’s.

This other man who suffered for him and begged and wept and carried Robert’s marks and kisses on his skin. The secrets that used to be mine.

I stumbled away before I was spotted—staring like a man through a window at something he would never have—and went in search of Grace and Sam. I found them sprawled on a tatty velveteen sofa. They shifted apart to make room.

“I’m sick of seeing Robert everywhere.”

“Oh, baby.” Grace gave my arm a little squeeze.

“I feel like I’m stuck in a reverse Alanis. Every time he scratches his nails down someone else’s back, I feel it.”

Sam blinked. “Wow, man, that’s a seriously dated reference.”

After six years, they’d pretty much run out of sympathy on this one, and I didn’t blame them. There were only so many times you could wipe up someone’s tears and tell them there were more fish in the sea.

I used to think there were too, but I was tired of swimming. And either Robert was a merman, or I was just a really weird fish with a particularly obscure mating ritual. Even to other weird fish.

“Nice crowd though,” tried Sam. “Friendly. Safety conscious.”

“Kink crowds are the same the world over. The good ones are already taken—” I gestured to them both “—the hot ones only talk to each other, and everyone else is desperate.”

Grace rolled her eyes. “You do know you’re one of the hot ones, right? You could have any dom in this room if you looked marginally more approachable than an underfed piranha having a bad day.”

“I’ve had all the doms in this room.”

“You’re extra-specially hot when you’re slutty,” purred Sam, stroking the inside of my thigh, which, even through my trousers, made me shiver. Which he knew it would. He went on in a very different voice, “Even if you’re blatantly lying.”

Literally the case or not, it still felt true.

“Oh my God.” Grace sat up abruptly. “Look at the foetus.”

We looked at the foetus.

He was on the edge of a conversation, not quite part of the crowd, thin and wary and absurdly young. There wasn’t much of him from this angle, just a curly flop of dark hair and the pale gleam of his wrist as he pushed it out of his face.

“How does he even know about this place?” Sam sounded fifty percent shocked, fifty percent admiring. “At his age I was still sending laundry back home so my mum would do it, not coming to kinky sex parties.”

“He’s adorable,” Grace cooed. “Like a bijou sub-ette.”

“You can’t have him, Gracie. No breaking Britain’s youth.”

“But we could get him a little kennel. Give him his own Converse to chew on. And . . . and an iPod for listening to Panic! at the Disco.”

I’d only half been paying attention. “Listening to what?”

“A popular beat combo,” explained Sam, smirking.

“Someone should talk to him, though.” Grace glanced across the room again, but I could have told her he’d moved away. “He looks a bit lost.”

“What are you going to do?” Sam’s voice softened. “He’ll be fine, honestly. They’re pretty careful who they let in. Think of the trouble we had getting Grumpy Bastard here through the door. And he’s probably just got a deceptive face. He could actually be forty-two or something. Uh . . . dude, where are you going?”

That last bit was for me. But I ignored him.

And found myself in the next room, searching for the boy. He was easy to find. Deceptive face. Bollocks to that. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen.

I put a hand on his shoulder—so frail and sharp—and spun him round. He seemed surprised but not frightened. If anything, slightly irritated.

He wasn’t particularly attractive. He was too unformed, all angles and irregularities, acne divots peppering the edge of his jaw.

I gazed down at him, into his oddly dark blue eyes, the sort of eyes that would always look as though they had liner round them. And I said, “You shouldn’t be here. This isn’t Junior Kink-Off.”

He shook me off with a restless kind of ease. “Thanks for the unnecessary, unwanted advice. I think I’m good.”

I should have let him go. But I didn’t. “Is this your first time?”

“First time at a kinky party? Or first time having a dickhead acting like he knows what’s better for me than I do?” He didn’t give me time to get out a comeback, which was probably a good thing because I didn’t have one. “Yes to the first. No to the second.”

Don’t laugh. Not something I often had to struggle against. But he was a little bit magnificent in his defiance. A little bit magnificent, and a little bit absurd. “I think I probably deserved that.”

His eyes widened, flashing all their blues at me. In a handful of years, I thought he might be stunning. Not pretty, not handsome. But people would look at him.

There was a silence, just long enough to be awkward.

“Wow. Um.” He pushed the hair back from his forehead. “I don’t know what to say. I wasn’t expecting that.”

I shrugged. And now I was awkward too. Damn him. “Well, I know I can be kind of a dick. But I try not to actively persist in it.”

“Wow,” he said again. “Most people just do, y’know?”

I thought about it for a moment. “I suppose you’re right. They do.”

And now he smiled at me. All teeth. The way only people who hadn’t learned self-consciousness knew how to smile.

“I know it sounds patronising but you should be careful.”

“Dude, I’m nineteen.”

I choked on air.

His hair had flopped again—Get it cut, I thought—and he shoved it impatiently out of the way. “Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking. How can a nineteen-year-old possibly know what he wants. Well, I do. I . . . feel it like . . . here.” He tapped a closed fist in the incorrect location for his heart. “I feel it, okay? Like being gay. It’s just there.”

I stared at him. At this too-thin, too-sincere boy. This person.

Because I knew what he meant. I understood exactly. And I’d felt it too, that interior certainty. But over the years, I’d let all the fervour fade. I’d stopped believing in it, somehow. I’d let it become something I did, not something I was.

And then I was suddenly deeply, uncontrollably sad. For this boy who might become me.

His still-clenched fist swung into the air, not quite a full Scarlett O’Hara but nearly. His whole body was practically vibrating with frustration. “I know what I want. I really know what I want. I just don’t know how to get it.”

That sounded all too familiar as well.

“You’ve never . . .?” I asked, with a futile attempt at delicacy.

“Well, there’s the internet. And I’ve messed around with boyfriends or randoms or whatever. But”—his words came too quickly now, their honesty its own challenge—“it’s not right, or enough, or something. Basically, it’s not what I want. It’s not even a little bit like what I want.”

I needed to walk away. Leave the young knight to chase the questing beast on his own. Maybe he would even find it. Plenty of people apparently did. “What do you want?”

His head came up. God, his eyes. In a few years . . . in a few years I didn’t like to think what someone with eyes like that might do to me. Or make me do.

“What I don’t want,” he said, “is someone like me. Like, what’s the point of that, y’know?”

He was silent a moment, chewing at his lip, hands shoved into his pockets. I had no idea what he was thinking, but it seemed to be quite a big deal to him.

So I waited. I waited for him. As I hadn’t for anyone in years.

I didn’t know what I was expecting. Some kind of blurted confessional. Not what he gave me, which was his unwavering gaze and his utter certainty. “I want someone like you.”

It felt as though he’d pulled the entire universe out from under my feet, shaking me loose and into a terrifying free fall. So I tried to make light of it. “Someone far too old for you?”

“Someone who knows who he is, and acts like he owns the whole fucking world.”

Ah. “Look, I . . .” I blushed. I actually fucking blushed. “Look, um, I don’t . . . really switch. At all. It’s not . . . my thing. Not that you aren’t—”

“God, no.” It was almost a relief when he cut over me. Almost. “Not like that. I’m not interested in that. I’m a dom.”

It should have been ridiculous. It was ridiculous. A skinny nineteen-year-old with his adolescence still written on his skin. I nearly said, You’re not a dom, you’re a child.

His expression grew sheepish, and I was glad I’d held my tongue. “Well, thanks for not laughing. It’s the best reaction I’ve ever got.” He sighed. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what to do.”

This was officially beyond me. Telling him to go home, I could do. Being sort of bluntly hit on, maybe. Giving him a spontaneous personal, social, and health education class in the middle of a BDSM club, absolutely not.

“It’s like,” he went on tormentedly, “you’re not allowed to be a dom until you’re forty and six feet tall and own your bespoke bondage dungeon. But I’m probably not going to get any taller, and forty is forever away, so what the hell am I supposed to do now?”

“I have absolutely no idea.” I’d been with Robert, and we’d somehow figured it out together.

“I just want to know what it feels like, y’know?”

“What?”

“Anything. Any of it. Something really basic. Like—” he drew in a deep, surprisingly steady breath “—I want to know how it feels to have some guy on his knees for me. And not a kid. I want a man, a strong, hot, powerful man, doing it because he wants to and because I want him to.”

When I’d thought he’d be stunning in a few years, I was wrong. He was stunning now.

He twisted both hands into his hair until he was all edges and angles, fingers and wrists and elbows. “I think about it all the fucking time. When I jerk off at night. But I’m so bored of the fantasy. I want something real. I fucking need it. I need to know how it really feels.”

I didn’t know why I did it.

Maybe because he was beautiful then, so earnest and vulnerable and unafraid.

I couldn’t believe that lack of fear. It gave me vertigo, as though he was the edge of a cliff and I couldn’t bear the view.

Or maybe it was because Robert was there, Robert and his lover, and I’d never done this for anyone but him. I’d been with others, yes, but I hadn’t given them what I’d given Robert.

And maybe, at last, I was going to take it back.

So I did it. In the middle of some East London party, beneath the eyes of untold strangers, for a nineteen-year-old boy whose name I hadn’t even bothered to ask, I mustered what little grace I could remember, and went to my knees.

Clasped my hands behind my back.

Some doms, maybe even most doms, might have wanted me to bow my head, but I still wasn’t sure who I was doing this for, and I wanted—I wanted—to look at him.

There was a stillness in the room. Because nobody had ever seen me on my knees before. I’d bled and screamed but never knelt.

And in the silence, my boy just gasped. It felt like his mouth on my cock. His eyes were wide, as hazy as stained glass on the brightest imaginable day. He swayed a little and put a hand against the wall to steady himself.

“How does it feel?” I asked.

He swallowed. “Perfect. It’s . . . perfect. Can I touch you?”

Oh God. Too complicated. Don’t. Yes. “Not if you ask me.”

He stepped into the space between my legs, and I had to crane my head right back to hold his gaze. My height counted for nothing now. Here, at his feet.

He ran a finger down the exposed line of my throat. How did he know to do that? I made a sound for him, rough and low and helpless. Then he collared me, his palm warm against my neck, and it was all I could do not to push forward into the safety and the threat of that simple, instinctive touch.

What had I done?

“How does it feel?” he asked.

Perfect. I swallowed under his hand. “Like I’m indulging you.”

But he only grinned, and tightened his grip just a little, not enough to hinder my breath but enough that I felt my every inhalation. As though it was his choice to give them to me. The racing of my pulse filled my head like the beating of a thousand wings.

“Liar.” His foot nudged my cock.

Oh God. I was so hard for him. For this.

“Fuck.” He gave a soft and lovely little moan. “Fuck. I could come from this.”

I had no answers for him.

Except, suddenly, I did, my voice hoarse beneath his hand. “Come home with me, and you can.”

 

Chapter 2

Toby

Oh my fucking God, I’ve pulled the shark. Well, not pulled. Whatever it is when some guy goes to his knees for you in the middle of a club and then offers to take you home.

And it’s like nothing and everything I’ve imagined.

My hand on his throat. My foot against his cock.

I don’t know where I found the courage to do this. But I think it’s because of how he’s looking at me while he kneels there.

He makes me feel like I could do anything.

I hold out my hand to help him to his feet, because it only seems polite somehow, but he ignores it, and he’s up, whoosh, so graceful, and all I can think is how badly I want to strip it from him. Make him give that to me too.

I’m not graceful, and I’m never going to be. Mum says it’s something you grow into, but she’s been saying that for about ten years now. It kind of sucks: the moment you look in the mirror and you realise that there isn’t going to be any more growing out of or growing into or growing full stop. That this is it. What you’re stuck with.

I mean, it’s fine, don’t get me wrong. I’m not Quasimodo. But in my head I’m about six foot two, and I’m hot and dangerous and definitely not fucking cute.

If I got to choose, I’d want to look like he does, and that’s a weird thought. Like there’s a confused zone of lust-envy where wanting to do someone spills over into wanting to be them. Or the other way round.

I don’t even know how to describe him. I’m not even sure there’s a word for it. Not one I’ve ever heard before anyway. I run through them in my head like I’m helping him try them on, but none of them stick. He’s not handsome. He’s not pretty. And beautiful isn’t right either, because he just isn’t. I think he might be a bit ugly actually, but somehow looking at him makes my stomach fizz like paracetamol in Pepsi.

He’s sort of stern and wolfish and chiselled and kind of too much, like his nose is too long and his mouth is too wide and his chin is too sharp. There’s a bit of grey in his hair, and when he’s in profile he looks really crazy harsh, all lines and angles, full of locked-up secrets.

And there’s this weird distance to him. He’s not cold—not exactly—but there’s this sense of wildness almost, like when you’re watching a nature documentary and you see a tiger and you’re all like, God, that’s gorgeous and God, that could totally rip my face off at the same time. It’s not something you can put your finger on, like height (though he’s taller than me) or strength (though he’s stronger than me), but there’s something there. This power. Like being ordinary is just a mask he wears.

I’ve been watching him all night. Like literally unable to stop staring.

Wanting. Imagining this constant depraved porno of all the messed-up shit I want to do to him.

Never for a moment dreaming he might let me.

Certainly not when his first impulse appeared to be reading me a lecture.

But. Oh. My. Fucking. God.

My cock is dying of joy. Birthday, Christmas, Easter, Boxing Day, May Day, even, like, Pancake Day all come at once. I really shouldn’t have worn my pulling jeans. Because right now they’re my strangling-my-knob-off jeans.

I hobble after him, trying not to care that people are staring. Though, actually, not caring isn’t so difficult. Because nobody in that club mattered a damn the moment he came in, looking so passionate and uptight and angry and sad all at the same time. And so perfect, so fucking perfect. Like he belongs on his knees, waiting for me to hurt him.

My gaydar is genuinely defective—I didn’t even notice the gay one in Union J. But I’ve got this other thing. I don’t think there’s a word for it—subdar sounds crap—but sometimes it gets pinged so hard, usually by the sort of people you wouldn’t think would ping that way. Except they do, and I’m usually too chickenshit to do anything about it.

He’s waiting for me by the front desk, calling for a taxi. On account. It’ll tell you what sort of a fucking ridiculously sheltered life I lead because that’s just about the classiest thing that’s ever happened to me. Last date I was on, we had to ring his dad for a pickup because the Tube had stopped running, we were both shit scared of the night bus, and neither of us had any cash.

He tucks his phone away. “Get your coat.”

“Didn’t bring one.”

Next thing I know, he’s dumping his full-length, silk-lined, cashmere-wool blend over my shoulders. For such a big coat it weighs practically nothing at all, and it trails along the ground behind me like I’m a really short-arsed emperor. I want to tell him I don’t need it, but I don’t know how to do that without sounding like a petulant kid. And I really, really don’t want him to think that about me. At least, not until he’s knelt for me again. It’s silly, but before he did that I just sort of fancied him, and I didn’t really care what he thought.

But now I do. I care really hard.

I had no idea it would be like this. That having someone on their knees for you would make you so vulnerable.

I guess it’s because there’s nowhere left to hide from what you’re into. And that’s a pretty naked feeling, standing there with a boner and all this hot, tight need inside you, desperate for somebody to understand.

Also his coat is really nice, and it turns out I’m a bit cold. So fuck my principles.

“And phone someone. You’re going to Addison Avenue.”

Wow, it’s really hard to believe he ever smiled at me. Knelt for me. Looked at me the way he did.

“Okay.” I go outside obediently and pretend to make a call.

Come on, who am I actually going to tell? Hi, Mum, went to a kinky sex club, and now I’m off to the house of a complete stranger so he can get on the floor and I can jerk off over him, because that totally turns me on.

She thinks I’m staying over at a friend’s. Except I don’t actually have any friends anymore because they’re all at university, growing as people.

Truthfully, I probably could have told her. I’ve yet to find something she isn’t cool with, which should be good, right? But there’s still stuff you seriously don’t want to tell your mother about your sex life. Wants to shag boys, I can cope with her knowing. Wants to shag boys while they’re tied up and crying, just no.

So maybe I’m about to do an incredibly stupid thing. And tomorrow morning I’m going to be a headline. Achingly Priapic Gay Teenager Found Floating in Thames. But if this guy was dangerous, he wouldn’t be doing all the safety stuff, right?

Right?

The taxi comes, and we get in and we sit there in silence because I can’t think of a single fucking thing to say. He’s looking out the window with his face turned away, so all I’m getting is this glossy mess of shadow and light over his profile. Makes me feel miles away. Like I don’t know him at all.

Which I don’t.

Shit.

We stop outside one of those white fairy-tale houses. They’re reasonably common in the posh bits of London, but they’re so pretty and costume drama-ish that it’s hard to believe they’re real and that people really live in them. I honestly half expect a rosy-cheeked, honey-blonde woman to come round the corner wanting to know who will buy her sweet red roses.

He unhooks the little iron gate and I follow him up the steps to the front door. It’s so weird. Stairs on a street-level house. But there’s a sort of basement-type thing underneath, I guess for the servants you’d have had if you lived here in 1812 or whatever.

In the hallway, I give him his coat back, and he hangs it up in a cupboard before leading me into what I guess would be a sitting room in an ordinary house, but is probably a reception room in a place like this.

I know precisely fuck-all about interior design, but I can tell it’s super nice. Clean and cream, and during the day I guess it’d be so full of light from those big arched windows. I wonder if this is where he’d sit in summer, all sleek and golden like a lion pretending to be tame.

God, I really want to see him naked.

But we’re not even talking, just standing a polite distance from each other in the middle of this gorgeous room, and I have absolutely no idea what he’s thinking.

At last he breaks the silence, because I sure as hell can’t. “We can do this wherever you like.” He sounds so perfectly collected. Like this is normal. Maybe it is. For him. “Only not in my bedroom or the locked room on the top floor.”

“That’s really Bluebeard of you.”

“Sorry. I don’t use it anymore.”

I’m not going to ask about the bedroom. Don’t need to. No getting ideas above your station, Toby. And I’m honestly not sure if I’m meant to be prowling about the house, seeking an appropriate wanking zone. It’d totally serve him right if I went for something weird like the closet, or the loo, or the pantry. Instead, what comes out of me is, “But what about your carpet?”

Argh.

Don’t laugh at me, don’t laugh at me.

But he meets my eyes steadily, and I suddenly remember why I liked him so much. “I don’t care about the carpet.”

“How about here, then?”

In your living room. God. Fuck. Fuck.

He nods, crosses to the windows, and pulls the curtains. Bedroom or not, that seems intimate, like we’re closed into our own little world. There are dimmer switches, so the artificial light is mellow somehow, not harsh. Magical, as he goes to his knees again. And this time it’s for me, just for me, and it’s even better than before.

Better, and still nothing like enough.

“I want to see you naked.”

Holy shit, was that me? That was me. Shit, I’ve gone too far. I always go too far.

He doesn’t move for a moment, like he’s thinking about it or struggling with it, and I can’t tell if he wants to do it or he doesn’t want to do it, and I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m clearly a bit bobbins at this, but I want it so badly that I kind of don’t care.

Then he’s on his feet again. And he’s doing it. He’s actually doing it. He’s taking his clothes off. His hands aren’t quite steady, and that makes me feel good, so fucking good.

And, wow, his body. He’s not a gym bunny, but that always looks kind of pretend to me anyway, and I want to be like, Stop trying so hard. Eat a muffin. But he’s strong and lean without being intimidatingly ripped, and the light catches the hair on his chest and stomach and forearms so he sort of glows a bit. I love that, and I know I’m staring at him, but what would be the point of asking him to take off his clothes if I didn’t look? Oh, and he’s hard as well, just from this, and I love that too.

It’s kind of embarrassing to tell the guy who’s way hotter than you how hot he is, but I have to. I can’t not. And it’s totally the right thing to do because he gets this gorgeous dark slash over his cheekbones—which isn’t quite a blush—and I get to see his throat work as he swallows. And I can suddenly remember how it felt under my hand.

At last, he’s kneeling again. Same as before: hands behind his back, knees slightly parted, as though he’s just waiting for me to nudge them wider.

Except this time he’s looking down.

Because it worked at the club, I try, “I want you to look at me.”

I wonder if I should mind that he hesitates when I tell him to do something. If this was porn, I’d probably be all, Do it now, bitch, or something. But I can’t say that to him. Jesus. Why would I want to?

And—is it weird?—I like the way he hesitates.

Everything I say, a choice he makes, a step he takes.

Which is how I know it’s real for him. And that makes it real for me.

He lifts his head.

Wow.

It had been too dark at the club, but he’s got these . . . what do you call it . . . heterochromatic eyes. They’re winter-day grey all the way to the inside edge of his irises and then, bam, there’s this ring of gold.

And I love his mouth. It’s got secrets, just like the rest of him. Carefully severe when he’s not reacting or speaking, but right now it’s so soft I want to kiss it.

I don’t.

I sort of fish out my cock, which is totally ready to go, and try not to feel too silly, standing there holding it.

Then I remember something. “Shouldn’t we have a safeword?”

Maybe this isn’t the right thing to say because, at last, he replies, “I’m kneeling at your feet while you wank. If I don’t like it, I can stand up and walk away.”

Well. I guess he’s got a point. But I kind of wish he hadn’t said that. And my cock isn’t madly keen on it either because it actually sort of shrinks a bit, like it’s trying to tuck itself back into the foreskin where nobody can make it feel awkward.

Then I wonder if he’s feeling awkward—even though he’s so amazing down there, naked and golden and supplicant and mine—and maybe he’s trying to protect himself. By making it less. A game we’re playing.

When it’s more than that.

Which is how I remember that what felt realest of all was when I was talking to him. That’s what brought him to his knees, really. Whatever I said. Or some part of it, because I said loads.

So I talk. I stand over him, and I talk. It’s stupid, but I tell him everything.

“You know . . . I . . . kind of . . . like, I wanted you from the first moment I saw you in that boring-arse club.” Something happens to his mouth. Something . . . light, not quite a smile, but its own little yielding.

And, weirdly, everything gets easier. The more I say, the more I find to say, my hand stroking my cock on a kind of lust-fuelled autopilot. “It was like this short circuit in my brain, and all I could think about was you and getting you like this. All these crazy, impossible fantasies. Like maybe if I could sort of . . . kidnap you, or something, and you’d find yourself cuffed and naked and at my feet in some dark room.”

Oh fuck. Now he probably thinks I’m psycho. But he doesn’t flinch away, or jerk to his feet, and whatever I see reflected in his eyes isn’t shock. I’d been about to blurt out that I wouldn’t really, but suddenly I know I don’t have to say that. Not to him. So, instead, I just plough right on with the dirty talk.

“So . . . there you are . . . all helpless in front of me . . . but I don’t think you’re scared . . . or maybe you are, but mainly you look angry. Like you’d fucking kill me if you could get loose, except you can’t, so you’ve got no choice but to . . . like, submit, I guess, to whatever it is I decide I want to do to you.”

He makes this sound, deep at the back of his throat, like it’s a different sound he’s swallowed.

I’m insanely hard again. Like, do you want any pictures hanging hard.

Exactly like him.

And he . . . well . . . wow . . . My cock is just, y’know, my cock. It’s fine. Does the job. Feels good when I rub it against things. But his I could be kind of obsessed with. It’s really . . . beautiful, all strong and straining, needy and aggressive at the same time, and sheathed in gleaming skin, with these drops of moisture crowning the tip, like tiny perfect opals. I think they’d taste of heat and salt and tears and him. If I got a hand round the base, he’d be so exposed, all the tender places, vulnerable and at my mercy. I could run my tongue up those blood-bright, writhing veins. Get under the ridge. Into the slit. Make him scream with the softest of my kisses.

Oh God. Oh Fuck. Oh Godfuckyes.

I work myself ferociously, almost painfully, but it’s amazing, this harsh pleasure zinging all through my cock and from there to my whole body. Best wank ever. The room fills up with the sound of skin moving against skin, as I tell him, “There’s part of me that still worries sometimes that’s kind of messed up. Like a wire got crossed somewhere or a gear is bent, because I see someone like you and this is what I think about, this and other stuff like it. Bad stuff, I guess. Like hurting you. Making you cry. And beg. Except it doesn’t feel bad to me. Or it does, but in a good way. Does that make sense? Like it lights me up inside.”

Another one of those sounds. Stifled and naked at the same time, making me wonder what it’s like when he really screams.

“Fuck.” That’s what I say next. The only thought I can get out. “Oh fuck.” Because I’m wet with looking at him, pre-come sliding between my fingers as I stroke myself up and down, up and down, rough, then rougher, like I’d touch him.

Breathing sort of hurts, and the sound of me trying fills the air, ragged and raspy. And, underneath, there’s the echo of his, and that’s so hot, our bodies not touching, but our breaths all tangled up together. It’s nothing, it’s air, but it seems so visceral, and so there, like our mouths are fucking.

The world has gone all shiny-sharp at the edges, like I’m an envelope coming open, and I feel so good, I feel so fucking good, that I kind of lose control of my mouth. And words are falling out of it that hardly sound like words at all anymore, just these jaggedy, groany things that I’m dropping everywhere.

“I’m going to remember this for, like, my whole fucking life. It’s going to be on me forever. God.” My hand tightens and so does the pleasure, twisting into corkscrews inside me . . . nearly nearly nearly. “Fuck.”

His eyes, his gorgeous fucking magical eyes, never waver. Because I’ve told him to look at me. Even though he’s shaking, and I mean really shaking, like it’s his cock I’m holding, and there’s sweat glistening on him, gathered on the tips of his hair, sliding down his skin, like he’s jewelled in all the tears I want to make him cry.

“And it’ll be on you as well. Because . . . because . . . you want it too.”

I’m not expecting anything, but after a moment he nods, blushing again, and that blush is the sweetest fucking thing I’ve ever seen. It makes me feel like I’m a million feet tall. Like I’m a king.

Because it makes this more than the physical. More than simply the act of kneeling down. And suddenly I know what I felt in the club was right: he’s raw in this wanting and in the rightness of it. We’re the same.

And just like that, in these frantic jerks like my cock’s been electrocuted, I come all over him. I try to control it—and where I’m aiming—but it’s all I can do to stop my knees folding up like deck chairs. I’m all over his chest, across this throat and jaw and cheek. I’d be kind of impressed at myself for the porno load if I wasn’t out of my head, fucking delirious and in that kind of weird pre-embarrassment stage. Where you’re still floaty, lost in the sparkly amazing time-out moment of ohhhhhfuckingyeahhhhh, but you’re starting to get that vague sense that it’s going to be weird and awkward when you blink the stars out of your eyes, and you’re sticky and limp and drippy, and standing over a naked, kneeling stranger who you’ve basically covered in come.

Except that next bit is a long time coming because it’s basically been the best fucking orgasm of my tiny rubbish life. Like recognisably, definitively, memorably good. Like I’d better start a list so it can be at the top good. And all I can do is be stunned and happy and grateful, and at the same time, totally and completely wrung out. I’d probably be crying if I hadn’t spurted, like, literally all my body fluids everywhere.

When my heart stops exploding and I remember breathing is a thing I can do, I open my eyes. He’s kneeling. Still hard as anything. Still looking at me. And suddenly I get really stressed out about what he’s seen: me all goofy and babbling and helpless, coming everywhere.

Very slowly, he lifts a hand to his cheek. Runs one finger through the mess I’ve made.

Then he closes his eyes and sucks the finger clean.

The way he looks when he’s doing it . . . Fuck . . . I can’t . . . And I swear to God, my cock nearly comes back from the dead.

Afterwards, he opens his eyes again and climbs gracefully—always so damn graceful—to his feet. Which has to be some kind of weird little act because if I’d been kneeling that long on carpet, I’d have felt it.

I’ve sort of half forgotten how tall he is. And how remote, locked up again behind his wolf eyes.

“We’re done here.”

That’s what he says to me. “We’re done here.” And we really are. Because that’s all it takes to turn me back into a pumpkin. Not a dom, not a king, not anything special at all. Just some clueless kid who’s somehow got lucky. “Yeah . . . but . . . like . . . what . . .”

“There’s a taxi number and an account code on the board in the hall. See yourself out when you’re ready.”

He’s still stark bollock naked, but he leaves . . . he fucking leaves. Sweeps out of there with all the dignity I’ve never had. Leaving me alone in his beautiful living room, limp dick in hand, staring at the spot where he’d been kneeling.

 

Chapter 3

Laurie

Thirty-seven years old, and I was hiding in my own bathroom from the teenager I’d brought home with me. The teenager at whose feet I’d just been kneeling. Whose pleasure I wore like a garland, and whose taste still lingered in my mouth, salty, sharp, and sweet. And, oh God, I knew nothing about him and I’d taken that risk. Mild though it was, I should have known better.

I thought I heard my front door open, then close.

Thank God. Thank God. He could have looted the place for all I cared, as long as he left.

Sinking to the floor, I tried to still my shaking and told myself that what I felt was relief. To a degree, it was. I feared what I might have done if he’d stayed. Crawled back to his feet, possibly, and begged him to touch me, hurt me, use me, whatever he willed. Let myself be utterly undone by a boy who had barely laid a finger on me.

My throat warmed beneath the memory of his hand.

He had left me so full of aches and empty spaces, my skin too tight to contain it all, and I hadn’t even asked his name. I had meant to keep him just another stranger, someone I could allow to wring from my body something of what I craved in return for a shadow play of submission. But what we’d almost given each other was something else.

No wonder I’d fled. What could there possibly be between that fierce, fragile creature and me? Had I ever been that earnest or that helplessly young, so much raw skin and burning need? Making me burn too, with its strange power.

Against the protests of my knees, I made it to my feet and into the shower, turning the dial until the water beat down like hail. If I had thought I could silence in a clamour of sensation whatever it was he had woken in me, I was wrong. I rested my forehead against the tiles and shuddered and wanted and felt eerily weightless amidst the steam, until I found myself again in the dull familiarity of my own hand. Such a hollow thing, my own pleasure, without something—someone—to give it meaning.

After everything I’d done, or not done, I didn’t deserve to think of him, and I had that much self-discipline, at least. At least, not until after. And then I caught myself imagining that small, slim figure disappearing into the dark.

He would be fine. There was absolutely no reason he wouldn’t be.

Close to twelve thousand car-occupant casualties in London in 2012. Five thousand pedestrians, four and a half thousand cyclists. About twenty-three percent of our trauma calls were knife or gun related. Last week alone, I responded to six stabbings, one requiring a prehospital thoracotomy, and two shootings, though the first had been a hoax.

But he would be fine. And even if he wasn’t, I would have no way of knowing. We were strangers.

I turned off the shower, dried myself, and pulled on a dressing gown. I was tired, but restlessly so, like a bell tossed upon the wind, and I wandered my own house like a stranger.

He had left no trace at all. Not even where I’d knelt and watched him touch himself, and broken on the edge of his words. I crossed to the bookshelf and took down a random volume of Dance from amongst all the medical textbooks and journals, flipping through it as though seeking my future in the family Bible: this relic, this talisman that Robert had forgotten to take with him.

I made myself a cup of tea and didn’t drink it.

Then I climbed to the top-floor room. (“That’s very Bluebeard of you.”) Stood for a while at the centre of its emptiness, waiting for it to mean something, and listening to the rain. I lost all track of time. And, finally, I cried. Because, the truth was, the room no longer meant anything at all. It was simply a space between four walls, and I was lonely and alone. Tired and sad and sick with yearning. And I’d treated someone badly, for no reason other than selfishness and fear, which was never who I’d meant to be. So much shame and loss and frustrated lust. Bitter indeed.

***

I was crawling into bed when my doorbell rang. At first I thought it was a mistake, and shoved my head under the pillow in order to most effectively ignore the buzzing, but it didn’t stop. So I reclaimed my dressing gown and—reluctantly—went to answer.

On the doorstep was an exceptionally bedraggled nineteen-year-old. Every line of his thin body was pulled so tight he almost seemed to be vibrating, but his wet-lashed gaze was fixed on the ground. “Look, I’m going to need that account number, okay?”

“My God, what happened?”

“I didn’t want to take your fucking whore taxi, okay?” His furious eyes met mine. “But there’s no Tube, and the buses are shite, and then it started to rain, and then my phone ran out of battery so I couldn’t use Google Maps anymore, so I had to come back.”

“Where were you trying to go?”

“Tabernacle Street.”

“Shoreditch? That’s miles away.”

His shoulders jerked into a frustrated little shrug. “Five, according to Google.”

“I never meant—”

“You never meant what? Seriously? What didn’t you mean?”

I had no answer for him. He was right. “I’m sorry.”

“Save it . . . just like . . . save it.” He sounded flat and tired and sparkless. My handiwork. “And get me a fucking taxi. I want to go home.”

I hated myself, and the part of me that was cowardly wished for a simple solution: an exchange of pain for forgiveness. But life didn’t work that way, and fucking up was forever. “I really am . . .” And then I stopped. Selfish again, keeping him there in the rain while I protested my sincerity. He had no reason to believe me, no reason to care. I’d given him none. “Of course. Do you want to wait inside?”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m not getting any wetter.”

“Please come in. I don’t want you to catch cold.”

He jammed his hands deep into his pockets and glared up at me. “Yeah. Right.”

At that moment, he sounded very much the teenager, and I wished I hadn’t pushed him to it by treating him so carelessly. I stepped away from the doorway, and—after a moment—he came inside, bringing with him a rush of cold, damp air.

“Shit,” he muttered, shuffling his feet in their saturated Converses. “Your carpet.”

“I really don’t care about the carpet.” The echo of my own words hurt.

I closed the door, flicked on the hall light, and reached for the phone.

“Oh my God.” Whatever was in his voice—the warmth, I think—took me utterly by surprise. And the next thing I knew, his wet body was shoved up against mine, his freezing hands cupping my jaw as he dragged my face down to his. “Fuck. I knew aftercare was a thing.”

I blinked at him helplessly, not even thinking to pull away. “W-what?”

“You’ve been crying.”

“I . . .”

“Dude, I can tell. Your eyes are all red.”

His were the colour of damp irises. Glorious. And I was mortified.

“It was me, wasn’t it? Shit.”

I managed something that might have been a smile. “Don’t flatter yourself, Junior.”

“What’s the matter, then?”

What could I tell him? That I missed so profoundly something I might never even have had. And that the things he wanted were the things I wanted, and I couldn’t find them either. Horrifyingly, my eyes prickled with fresh tears.

He threw his arms around me and hugged me so tightly. That silly, too-earnest, too-beautiful boy. After a moment, I bent down and pressed my face into the damp skin of his neck, breathed in rain and mist and a touch of sweat, and hugged him back. Until he was shaking slightly against me, and the cold had saturated us both.

“I fucking hated you,” he muttered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Like who the fuck does that? Explodes your brain and then chucks you out.”

“I’m so sorry.”

He pulled back and touched the corner of my eye with the tip of one icy finger. “It was me a little bit, wasn’t it?”

“Yes,” I told him. “It was you. A little bit.”

“Good. I mean not . . . good good. But I kind of needed to know it mattered.”

“I’m sorry I tried to pretend it didn’t.”

He peered at me as though he was trying to see through frosted glass. “You’re kind of sorry a lot.”

I nodded. “When I’m a dick, yes.” I didn’t want to get into the complexities of apologising. The terrible powerlessness of being unable to do anything except wait for mercy you couldn’t earn and didn’t deserve. I hated being forgiven almost as much as I feared rejection. It felt too much like a debt you couldn’t pay. Instead, I said, “You shouldn’t be standing around in wet clothes.”

“Why?” He gave me a sullen look. “What are you going to do? Get me out of them?”

The words were more challenge than flirtation but, oh God. A child should not have been able to make me blush. Except he wasn’t a child. Which was why I was blushing.

“Dude,” he went on, “it’s fine. We’re not in the eighteenth century. I’m not going to, like, catch a chill and die on a chaise longue.”

“I could put them through the tumble dryer, if you want?”

He scowled. “Look, I didn’t want your whore taxi, and I don’t want your pity tumble drying, either.”

“Actually, it’s a guilt tumble drying.”

“Wow, you’re really selling it.”

Whether you were on your knees or not, people still had their ways to flay you. I drew in a breath, and it shuddered in the space between us, like my skin to his command. “If I hadn’t made you leave, I would have waited there, at your feet, and begged for anything you wanted to do to me. And, afterwards, I don’t know, maybe you would have stayed the night, and maybe we’d have washed your clothes. It’s nothing I wouldn’t have done before.”

He shoved his hands squelchily into his pockets. “I seriously prefer that version. Especially the begging bit.”

“Well, I’m not begging to dry your clothes. Just offering.”

After a silence that contained the rise and fall of at least six or seven civilisations, he nodded. While he was working off his shoes—without stooping to untie the laces—I went to get him a towel.

When I came back, he was still standing in my hall, his socks balled up and stuffed into one hand. He seemed very small in his dampness, somehow, and his knobbly, naked toes were oddly beautiful.

I imagined his hand in my hair, pushing me down. How it would feel, that moment of instinctive outrage, and then the long, dark slide, the shame and the pleasure of being not-quite-forced to do the things I wanted. I would lick the gleam of rainwater from the arch of his foot.

I led him down into the kitchen.

“Raised ground floors do my head in.” His footfalls landed softly on the wooden floor. “It’s like this is a basement, but it’s not a basement, and you’re not on the same level as the street, but you are on the same level as the garden. How the fuck does that even work?”

“Space-time dilation,” I told him gravely.

I was gratified, so ridiculously gratified, to hear him laugh.

He hovered by the staircase as I opened the door that hid my washer-dryer and fiddled with the programme wheel. “Uh, this is a really nice room.” He sounded painfully uncertain.

“Thank you.”

“And you’ve kind of got your pans on a . . . hangy thing.”

I nodded.

There was about a fraction of a second of silence, even more uncomfortable, if possible, than the conversation. Then he gasped. “Holy shit. Is that an AGA?”

“Hmm?” I glanced at the warmly slumbering behemoth, which was absurd because it made it look as if I didn’t know the contents of my own kitchen. “Oh. Yes.”

Wooed, perhaps by “iconic design, exceptional quality,” he padded into the room, wary as a wild colt, and with a lingering look at the cooking range, finally over to the washing machine. His fingers curled under the hem of his T-shirt and tugged. Then he froze. “You’re not going to watch, right?”

“God. Sorry. No.”

I spun away, a strip of pale skin seared across my vision like I’d stared straight into a camera flash. Then came the swoosh of fabric, the scrape of a zip, and finally the slam of the washing machine door and its slowly gathering hum. Turning back, I found him robed waist to ankle in towel and waist to neck in goose bumps, hugging his own elbows and shaking.

“F-fuck, it’s c-cold.” He made a dash for the AGA, one lean, lightly muscled thigh briefly exposed at the join of his makeshift garment.

Traces of rain glistened still on his chest, throat, and upper arms. There was a barbell in the shape of an arrow through his left nipple and a rash of fading acne marks across his collarbones. He looked unbelievably fragile just then, all bones and youth and awkward angles. But there was something else as well, a deep steady flame—conviction perhaps, or courage, an instinct of valour that too much living could so easily strip away. I wanted to be on my knees again. I wanted to let him burn, as free and wild as our hearts could bear.

“Can you stop staring? I know it’s not much to write home about, but it’s what I’ve got to work with, okay?”

“Sorry.” What else could I say? You’re beautiful. Please let me . . . please . . . When he was half-naked and trapped in some stranger’s house? “I think the spin cycle is about an hour. Would you like something? A warm drink? Another towel? Some clothes.” Good God, why hadn’t I thought of that earlier? “I’ll lend you some clothes.”

“Yeah, that’d help. Just need to get dry and warm up.”

A drop of water, silver-edged in the half-light, slid slowly from the tip of a clump of hair, hung suspended for a moment, and then landed on the side of his neck. He flinched, and it burst into infinite, infinitesimal tributaries, rushing this way and that across his skin.

“You could have a hot bath?” I offered. “If you wanted.”

He shuffled. “You don’t have to. I mean, I know you feel guilty and shit, but this is too much. You could just go to bed or whatever, and I’ll get my stuff when it’s ready and call that taxi.”

I propped my hips against the farmhouse table in the middle of the room. “I don’t think so.”

“Why? Do you think I’m going to nick your AGA if you leave me alone?”

He made me smile, and it felt so strange, standing there in my kitchen, talking to an angry boy in a towel, and wanting to smile. “If you managed to steal it, you’d deserve to have it.”

He huddled in closer, still shivering. It would have been so easy to fold him in my arms, and warm him with myself, but also utterly impossible. Wrong, even. And I couldn’t help internally cringing from whatever it was—my own hypocrisy, perhaps—that made kneeling naked at his feet acceptable, when a simple gesture of comfort was not. The truth was, it was easy to deny the intimacy of the first (though, in fleeing from him, I had failed to do so). Much less the second.

“So. Look.” His hands curled into fists. “This bath, right? Is there bubbles?”

It had been a long time since I’d taken a bath—I usually preferred, or perhaps defaulted to, showering—but I recalled some bottles tucked into a corner. “Probably.”

He gave me a haughty look. I had no idea how he managed it, my little, towel-draped prince, but he did. “Well. All right, then.”

So we trooped upstairs, and I ran him a bath and poured half a bottle of Radox Nourish into the water.

“Dude.”

“What’s the matter?”

“Like a capful is the recommended human average.”

He was right. By the time I thought it prudent to turn off the taps, the bath was mostly a pile of bubbles.

“I’ll, err, leave you to it,” I said. “Take as long as you like.”

“Aren’t I keeping you up? Isn’t it really late?”

“It’s probably about three in the morning, but I have tomorrow off.” I could see him on the brink of asking a million personal questions. “So,” I added quickly, “it’s fine.”

His drying hair was curling again at the ends, and he twisted a longer piece absently round a finger. “You don’t want to keep me company?”

“I’d really better not.” I was actually slightly proud at how calm I sounded.

“Don’t flatter yourself. I meant talk to me, not soap all my dirty places.”

Rather than lose myself in imagining the way his water-slick skin would ripple beneath my hands, I gave him a sharp glance. “Yes, you did.”

“Yeah, all right, I did.” He held my gaze for a moment, and then glanced away, the corners of his lips twitching cheekily upwards. “But what are you going to do, throw me out? Oh wait.”

I shouldn’t have laughed. It would only encourage him. “There’s no mercy in you at all, is there?”

That brought him straight back, his eyes like arrows, cobalt-tipped and deadly sharp. “There is. There’s lots and lots.” His voice had taken on a husky edge. “When I’m properly motivated.”

“Well, I’m not motivating you anymore.” I, on the other hand, sounded like an exasperated school teacher. “So get in the damn bath.”

“You’ll stay though, won’t you?”

God. How could he turn so quickly from wicked to vulnerable? It made me dizzy and sweetly helpless, these bonds of silk and mischief. “What’s next, a bedtime story?”

“Do you have Winnie-the-Pooh?”

“If you don’t get in the bath, I’ll drown you in it.”

He gestured imperiously. “Turn round, then.”

I sighed and did as directed.

I heard the towel fall. Then there was a splash, followed by a yip. “Shit. It’s hot.”

“Traditionally, baths are.” I risked a glance over my shoulder, and when it inspired no squeal of outraged modesty, tucked my dressing gown into place, and sat down on the marble step that led to the sunken bath. It was less undignified than the toilet lid, but I still felt strangely like the . . . attendant, consort, plaything of some capricious, adolescent god-king.

And some part of me thrilled to the notion.

I imagined the unforgiving chill of the marble beneath my knees. The tug of chains at wrists and ankles. Perhaps the pinching weight of clamps . . . perhaps . . . perhaps other violations. He would want his toys adorned.

Oh God. What was I thinking?

The steam in the room was suddenly unbearable, and I twisted, trying to get comfortable in a cocoon of clinging heat.

My guest, my shame, my fantasy princeling, was tucked at one end of the tub, legs drawn up to his chest, so all I could see were the pale humps of his knees and shoulders rising from the bubbles. He grinned at me. “I wouldn’t really make you read Winnie-the-Pooh.”

I sensed some kind of trap, but I had no idea what form it might take. “I’m glad to hear it.”

There was a brief pause. He trailed a finger idly through the foam, making ribbons. “I’d make you read something else.”

I was determined not to ask him what. That would have been entirely foolish.

“How about . . .” His eyes gleamed at me. “How about . . . ‘Thou shalt bind his bright eyes though he wrestle, Thou shalt chain his light limbs though he strive; In his lips all thy serpents shall nestle, In his hands all thy cruelties thrive.’”

I curled an arm over the edge of the bath and hid my face in the crook of my elbow. I couldn’t bear him to see me right then, stripped tenderly to the bone by the blade of his voice.

“‘In the daytime thy voice shall go through him, In his dreams he shall feel thee and ache; Thou shalt kindle by night and subdue him. Asleep and awake.’”

The sound I made, muffled though it was, echoed off the tiles until it seemed infinitely loud, infinitely helpless. I had no idea what he was reciting, but the words hooked into me like thorns.

And, yes, for his wishing and for his pleasure, I would have recited them. For my merciless, smiling prince.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

And, in that moment, I was his, so I answered, “Laurence Dalziel. Most people just call me D.”

“At the club they called you Laurie.”

“My friends call me Laurie,” I corrected him sharply.

“I’m going to call you Laurie.”

I lifted my head. “You call me what I say you call me.”

“It was aspirational.”

“We’re not going to be friends.”

He blinked at me through a coal-dark fringe of water-heavy lashes, and I felt like a prick. “Please.” His eyes got very big. “Please can I call you Laurie? I like it better.”

The kid was dangerous. But I’d known that all along. “Oh all right.” It wasn’t a graceful surrender but, then, they never were.

He splashed me. Playful conqueror. “I’m Toby. Toby Finch.”

I didn’t know what to say—it seemed a little late for pleased to meet you—so I just nodded. Toby. His name was Toby. It seemed as though I’d always known it.

He uncurled without warning and disappeared under the bubbles in a flurry of skinny limbs and gleaming skin. He surfaced again, a second or two later, shaking the water from his hair, and lay back with a sound of absolute sensual abandon. “Being warm after you’ve been cold is totally the best feeling ever.”

Like pleasure after pain. And I was as hard as a horny teenager, just watching him enjoy himself.

He stretched out, straining a toe towards the taps and not quite reaching them. “This bath is epic. I can’t remember the last time I had one. I mean—” he flailed into a sitting position, this time shifting enough of the bubbles that I caught sly glimpses of him beneath them, the shadow his pelvis, the curve of his calf, the ridge of his ribs “—I do wash and shit. We’ve got a shower at the loft.”

I wasn’t supposed to be encouraging him. “You live in a loft?”

“Yeah, at the top of this tobacco factory conversion thing. This guy gave it to my mum.”

“Someone gave your mother a loft?”

“Yeah.” He lifted an arm out of the water and peered at it. “Look, I’m going all pruney.”

I suspected him of none-too-subtly changing the subject, but I let him. As I’d said, we were never going to be friends. “Time to get out, then.”

He did the now-familiar turn around gesture.

I rose, then sighed. This was getting ridiculous. “Toby—” his head jerked up at his name on my lips, and indeed, it was sweet to say it “—Toby, do you really think I’m going to be so overwhelmed with lust at the sight of your naked body I won’t be able to control myself?”

To my horror, he went bright red and curled into a tight ball at the bottom of the bath. “God. No. I’m just . . . I’m just shy, okay? Jesus.”

“You’re . . . what?” I repeated stupidly. The boy who had called bullshit on me at a BDSM club, brought me to my knees, told me all the things he wanted to do to me, shown me need and want and naked ecstasy, and come back to me through a rainstorm because, while he was proud, he wasn’t stupid . . . he was shy?

He pressed his forehead against his knees and said nothing. So I took a fresh towel from the heated rack and opened it out, holding it between my outstretched arms. “I’ll close my eyes.”

“Okay. But no peeking.”

“I promise.”

More splashing. Behind my eyelids, I tried not to imagine the shimmering rush of water droplets down his body. Then I felt him—not so much the shape of him, but the heat of him—and I closed the towel around him, realising only at the last moment that I was now effectively hugging him.

He made another of his unabashedly happy noises. “That’s so nice.”

“Are you a virgin?”

I opened my eyes. Startled at myself, more than anything. Why the hell had I asked that? And so bluntly. It was absolutely the opposite of my business.

He went rigid in my arms and yanked the towel away, spinning round to glare at me. “I said I was shy, not sexually stunted.”

God, what had I started? “You’re still very young. It’s actually perfectly normal—”

“Jesus, dude, I’m not a virgin. The first time I had sex I was fourteen.”

Something flared inside me, as hot and sharp and sick as acid. “Toby, I—”

“It’s not what you think. It was my best mate at school. We said we’d take turns, so I let him do me, but then he wussed out and never spoke to me again.” He shrugged. “But I’ve got laid since. A bunch of times, actually.”

He sounded so proud of it. As though he was still keeping count. “I’m sorry I . . . doubted your promiscuity. It’s just, well, you’ve seen me.”

“Yeah.” He stared up at me, still holding the towel tight around his neck. “Yeah, I have.”

“So, what’s there to be shy of?”

He sighed heavily and rather patronisingly. “Maybe the fact you look like you, and I look like me?”

For a moment, I had no idea what he was getting at. I half thought he might have meant old. And then I remembered the praise he’d lavished on me. At the time, I’d attributed it to a kind of power-intoxication and the heat of the moment, but I had, once again, misjudged my boy. He’d meant everything. Every word. Of course he had.

“Oh Toby.” I hardly recognised my own voice. “You do know you’re beautiful, don’t you?”

He was red again. “I’m okay. Not like you. Not like I’m supposed to look.”

“How are you supposed to look?”

“I don’t know . . . taller, stronger, more muscular. Less acne.”

“Toby, Toby.” It was like some terrible enchantment. The more I said his name, the more I wanted to. “Please. Let me . . .” I had no idea how I was going to finish that sentence. But it didn’t seem to matter.

My hands had covered his, and the tightness of his hold, almost imperceptibly at first, began to relax. I saw, felt, sensed the tension leave his body.

“Yeah,” he whispered, sounding almost drugged. “Yeah.”

The towel slipped, exposing one shoulder, a little of his upper arm, and the sweep of his clavicle with its dark-red rosettes. His eyes, pupil-dark and hazy, did not waver from mine.

God help me. For whatever reason, he trusted me.

I could probably have stripped him and seduced him, and he would have let me, but I was powerless with tenderness. I dried him, uncovering him piece by piece, blotting up water with the towel, my fingertips, occasionally my lips. I stroked his slender muscles, his fragile bones. I kissed the inflamed places of his skin.

He quivered. “Fucking hate it.”

“It’s not severe. Are you using a benzoyl peroxide cream or gel?”

“Tea tree oil. My mum doesn’t believe in chemicals.”

“Just as effective.”

He didn’t reply.

“They’re not ugly, Toby.” I ran my fingertips very gently over a rash of spots just above his nipple. “They’re just there.”

“Yeah, well.” He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Given the choice, I’ll take not there, thanks.”

“They’ll fade with time.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Well, then it’ll just be you and the other eighty percent of the country.”

He growled, clearly unsatisfied by this answer. His mouth was so close to mine. Kissing close. To distract myself—and him—I draped the towel about his hips and knelt down on the carpet. He made a rough little noise, his eyes growing even darker. I slid my hands about one of his ankles and lifted his foot onto my thigh. With the trailing ends of the towel, I collected and banished the water that clung to him. Each and every drop, one by one. I did the same to his other foot, then began working my way up his legs, through the crisply curling hair on his calves, over his knees, to the smooth planes of his thighs, their silky-soft interiors.

“Fuck.” Toby was shuddering against my hands, and his erection had become undeniable. “Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.”

“Are you . . . all right?”

“Yeah. It’s just, like, this is the sexiest night of my life.”

And because it was what I had wanted to do before, and perhaps what I should have done, I slid a hand around his leg and let my head rest a moment against his knee. I closed my eyes. His fingers moving lightly through my hair, and everything was still and dark and silent. And good, so very good.

Time curled around us both and held us tight.

“Y’know,” he said at last, “my clothes are probably done.”

It was a long journey back to my feet, and I was suddenly exhausted. I drew the towel up and tucked it round his shoulders. “Would you like me to call you a taxi?”

He turned his face briefly towards the window, where greyish light seeped beneath the blind. “I reckon the Tube will be running again soon.”

“I don’t want you wandering around on your own in the early hours of the morning.”

“Dude, I’m not a kid. I wander around on my own all the time. Nothing’s going to happen.”

About a hundred and seventy homicides committed in London per year on average. About seventy thousand assault-with-injury offences. Approximately four thousand incidents of gun-enabled crime, approximately twelve thousand incidents of knife-enabled crime. “I know, but I’d still rather you took a taxi. Or . . .” The word was out before I could stop it.

“Or?”

“Or . . . stay the night. What’s left of it.”

His eyes narrowed, and I realised I had once again made myself vulnerable to his unsubtle machinations. Worst still, there was no hiding the fact that I’d done it quite deliberately.

“Stay where? On your sofa?”

“I have a spare room.”

“Thanks, but I think I’ll take my chances with the Tube.”

I made my voice as stern as I could manage. “Don’t manipulate me, Toby.”

He grinned at me, utterly unabashed. “I’m not manipulating, I’m negotiating. You don’t want me to get the Tube home. I want to stay with you. With you.”

Oh, but losing to him was its own terrible pleasure. “If you stay with me, nothing is going to happen.”

I’d expected (hoped?) that he might protest, but he just nodded, and so eagerly I wondered if I’d folded to an opponent with a handful of nothing. The idea troubled me less than perhaps it should have done. “All right. This way.”

And so I took him into the bedroom I had once shared with Robert.

Toby let out a low whistle. “God, man, your house.”

The time I had lavished on it seemed entirely lost. The hobby of another man. I gave him a little push towards the bed.

He dropped the towel and dived into the sheets, but not before I caught the pale flash of his haunches, the dimples at the base of his spine.

I flicked off the light so I didn’t have to watch the shapes his body made beneath the covers as he wriggled himself into a comfortable position, then I stripped off my dressing gown and climbed in gingerly beside him.

He was still wriggling, making odd little purring noises at the back of his throat and tucking himself so firmly into the duvet I wondered how I was ever supposed to get him out of it again.

I didn’t usually sleep on my back, but I thought it prudent to lie that way.

“G’night, Laurie.”

“Do you need an alarm?”

“No, s’fine.”

God. When he was tired, his voice had that husky edge it took on when he was aroused. It had been quite a while since I’d shared my bed with someone. I’d forgotten what it was like to have that awareness of another body. I almost thought I could hear the flicker of his eyelashes. Feel his heart beating.

Which was impossible because he had settled on his side, facing away from me, his whole body compressed into a tight little ball.

I listened to him breathe, until it grew slow and deep and even, and then risked rolling over myself. I didn’t even feel him move, but there he was: pressed right up against me, his back to my chest, his arse snuggled against my thighs. He made a sleepy, contented noise that could only have been entirely calculated.

I wondered if he was smiling.

I put an arm over him and pulled him to me, my hand closing almost instinctively over his wrist to keep him there.

In for a penny . . . When in Rome . . . etc., etc.

A soft pulse of desire went through me, not for sex or pain or humiliation or some other release, but for this, this quiet closeness. Someone to hold in the dark.

He must have felt it. The way I stirred against him, the way my breath caught. I waited, helplessly and half-afraid, for his response, for him to turn and cover me, kiss me and take me. I wouldn’t have resisted. I would have welcomed him, in all his sincerity and obstinacy and his youthful ardour for forbidden things. But he hadn’t lied when he’d promised me mercy. His fingers twisted back to brush my hand, and he settled his body into the curve of mine, giving me this instead.

 

Chapter 4

Toby

I wake at fuck knows what time in a strange bed, in the arms of a man I hardly know, and it’s perfect. I’ve never been held like this before. Kind of so . . . absolutely. His fingers are slack against my wrist, but they’re still there. This comforting weight, like he can’t bear to let me go. I don’t think he’s moved all night long.

I’m super careful because I don’t want to wake him, but I wriggle myself round in his arms until we’re face-to-face.

Laurie.

His breath’s morningy, but so’s mine. I just like looking at him like this. He’s both more and less like himself somehow, stern and soft at the same time. And, lying there in this warm haze with him, I can’t believe all the things he’s given me in a single night: power and submission and kindness. And now this as well. His peace.

He’s also the first person who’s ever taken me seriously. The first person to really make me feel beautiful. I can’t help wondering what the fuck I’m supposed to be able to give him back.

Very, very lightly, I touch his eyelashes. The corner of his lips. He doesn’t stir. And I’m a little bit worried this is what stalkers do.

I know we’re not lovers or boyfriends or friends, and I know that he’s going to wake up, and call a taxi to drive me out of his life. I hope he doesn’t regret me—this stupid kid he took home one night—but I’m going to remember him forever.

I’m not sure I’m the same person who snuck into that stupid club. The only thing I was right about was him. I kind of half wish I’d met him later. When I’m older, and I’m all cool and sophisticated. However that happens. I can’t really imagine it properly though. The best I can come up with is us both wearing tuxedos. And we’re in this sort of . . . bar, I guess, which is all oak and honey and candlelight, and I’m all like, From the top shelf, please, to the bartender. And Laurie looks exactly the same, but I’m kind of hazy, and my brain wants to substitute Daniel Craig, and what the fuck kind of fantasy is this, where I’m played—in my own head—by somebody else?

Besides, if I had met him some other time, I wouldn’t be here now. And he wouldn’t be my first. And I wouldn’t lose that for anything.

I hope he hasn’t totally ruined me.

I’ve no idea what time it is. Late, I think, from the light, which is kind of bright and sharp and sparkly, like you sometimes get after seriously hard-core rain. And it’s such a ridiculously gorgeous room to wake up in, a little bit fairy-tale, especially since he’s got this massive four-poster bed. Or some kind of posh modern take on one, anyway, since there’s no curtains or canopy, just the base and the posts, which are heavily carved with arches and spirals and have that inside gleam of really good wood, so deep and rich you think it’d be warm if you touched it. It’s fancy without being fussy, and, honestly, it gives me a bunch of filthy ideas.

He’d look fucking amazing spread-eagled on a bed like this.

And that’s a fantasy I can definitely imagine properly.

I’m not sure about the technicalities, but I reckon you could get somebody into some pretty interesting positions. And by “somebody” I mean Laurie. Legs up and wide, arms above his head. Exposed, vulnerable, and a little bit degraded. And so, so hot. And I know exactly how he’d look: frowning and desperate and embarrassed and turned on. And mine. Just like I’d be his for letting me do that to him.

God. What would it be like to have someone trust you and want you that much? To put aside fear and pride and shame and inhibition. All the stuff that’s supposed to be so important. Parts of ourselves we’re supposed to protect and care about.

I sometimes wonder what it means that I want someone to do that for me. But then I think it doesn’t matter, and that it’s just a thing I want. And either everything we want is weird, or nothing is. Unless it’s like . . . avocado. I seriously don’t get that. The texture makes me gag, and it tastes like you’re chewing the inside of somebody else’s scrotum. Who the fuck would want that?

After a bit, I slide carefully from his arms and crawl off the edge of the bed. Poor bastard must be beyond knackered, because he doesn’t stir. Just makes this fucking adorable noise, nearly a whimper. It’s probably nothing, but I pretend it’s for me. For the loss of me.

It’s kind of weird to be wandering around his house with my knob flapping in the breeze, so I wrap myself in yesterday’s towel and go down to the kitchen. My clothes have gone a bit fluffy in the dryer, but they’re basically fine, and I pull them on. And then I find myself doing all this weird shit.

I pad around and open all the curtains for him. Pick up The Times from the doormat. There’s no post because it’s Sunday. Then I find myself back in his kitchen, peering into the fridge. It’s well-stocked, actually, in this slightly anonymous I get food deliveries way.

I’m probably supposed to be going away. Slipping off discreetly so he doesn’t have to wake up and freak out about having brought me home and let me stay.

But then I think of him upstairs, so utterly asleep, and the way he held me all night. The way he dried me, so gently and carefully, looking at me like I was precious, and going on about benzy-whatever-it-was. Making me feel all cared-for. Well, that and horny. And now I want to do something back.

There’s not much in this world I know for definite I’m awesome at, but breakfast I can do. I think I must’ve had natural skills in that direction, but half a year at Greasy Joe’s has honed me into a bacon-and-eggs samurai.

I know, right? It’s the sort of shit parents dream for their kids. Little Tabitha’s going to be a doctor. Rory’s going to run for government. Crispin is deworming orphans in Somalia. And Toby, well, Toby’s not so bad with a griddle pan.

But, hey, at least I’m good at something. For a while there I genuinely thought I wasn’t. And, anyway, I’ve always wanted to play with an AGA.

I want to show off and do him a full English, but with the stuff he’s got lying around it would be more like three-quarters, and I don’t like doing things half-arsed. So scramblies it is.

I spend a little while like a contestant on Deal or No Deal, opening all the doors of the AGA and peering inside, trying to figure out what the shit is going on in there until I work out which one is probably the roasting oven. I find a grill rack insert, line up some pieces of bacon and stuff it in there, near the top. Then I find a kind of metal badminton racket that opens and closes, and I guess it’s either for kinky shit beyond my wildest dreams or making toast, so I stick it on the boiling plate to heat.

And then I get performance anxiety because scrambled eggs are like this . . . art form. They’re the wax-on-wax-off of cooking. Simple on the surface but infinitely complex and diverse. Totally magical.

It’s got to the point that all the regulars at Joe’s will say, “You know how I like them, Toby,” and the truth is, I do. I’m literally walking around with twenty different variations of scrambled eggs in my head. Bit of a comedown for somebody who was supposed to be a lawyer, but beggars can’t be choosers. And egg-maker is way better than beggar, isn’t it?

But the thing is, I don’t know how Laurie would like them. And that’s kind of a problem because I want to make him the best fucking scrambled eggs he’s ever had or even imagined possible. Is he traditional or American style? Big curds or small? Preseasoned or postseasoned? Creamy or buttery?

Jesus. It’s carnage in my brain.

So I go for what I like best. Well, usually when I cook for myself, I just go for quick and dirty, but I make for him what I’d make for me if I wanted to show myself a good time. If that makes sense.

I break the eggs into the frying pan, add some butter and seasoning—he’s got proper sea salt and everything—and give them ten seconds in the roasting oven. Basically, there’s two ways to go from here: stir like crazy or hold off, fingers twitching.

I let my fingers twitch and distract myself by putting the kettle onto the boiling plate. Then I grab the pan and gently fold the eggs in. It’s a bit weird, not having them on a hob where I can keep an eye on them, and I’m nervy it’s all going to go horribly wrong. But then I settle into it. I know it’s just scrambled eggs, not like cordon bleu, but there’s something that feels right to me about cooking. It’s calm and focus at the same time. And you get something real at the end of it, something that can make someone happy.

Next time I check the AGA, the eggs are pretty much done, all gold and velvety. I stir in some crème fraîche and some freshly chopped oregano and pile them onto a plate on top of the crisscross-patterned AGA toast, along with lots of butter and the grilled bacon. And, of course, I steal a little of the leftovers, just to make sure I’m not about to serve him a pile of ming. But, no, it’s fine. It’s good. Creamy, but not too creamy, fluffy and indulgent. See, this is the other thing I like about cooking: you always know when you’ve got it right.

I can’t find anything like a tray, but I manage to make it back upstairs, balancing the paper, the plate, and a cup of tea. He’s still fast asleep, curled around the space where I’d been lying, in the warmth that maybe I’d left. I put everything down on the bedside table and perch next to him. I’ve never tried to wake someone up . . . like romantically before. I’ve no idea how.

“Uh . . . good morning . . . Hi.”

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t have woken a napping mouse.

I lean in to shake his shoulder, and it feels like a ridiculously intimate way to touch someone when they’re kind of helpless and out of it and you’re awake. “Laurie?”

If I was going for gentle, I fail hard. He jerks from oblivious to frantic in about a nanosecond. And his face is like this magic mirror of responses: surprise, confusion, loss, awareness. There’s even this moment in the middle when he looks happy to see me, but it’s gone as quickly as the rest. Eventually, he’s Laurence Dalziel again, and says in this dry, resigned way, “Good morning, Toby.”

“Hey.” I grin at him because I’m an idiot. “I made you breakfast.”

First, he’s all bewildered again and then unflatteringly worried. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“It doesn’t suck.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—” He’s still trying to shake off sleep.

“Yeah, you did, but it’s okay. Come on, sit up. There’s tea as well.”

That gets his attention, and he uncurls. The covers kind of fall away a bit, and suddenly I remember he’s naked under there. And holy shit. I mean, I know I’ve seen him already, but the novelty is nowhere near wearing off.

I want all the naked, all the time.

In this light, I see different things, different shadows. Sun dapple on his shoulders. Sparks of gold at the tips of the hair on his arms. Though it’s harsher too, picking up grey sometimes and imperfections on his skin, the places where his body is rough and lived in, its muscles earned.

He was gorgeous yesterday, kneeling and burnished and kind of a fantasy. And he’s still gorgeous this morning, rumpled and tired and real.

Shit. I’m meant to be doing stuff. Not just staring at him lustily, thinking of all the things I want to do to him. And, for the record, some of those things are perfectly normal. Like kiss him.

I pass him the plate, wafting it a bit so the scent of butter and herbs fills the air. He’s still slightly dazed, so I forgive him for the grateful OMG, it doesn’t look awful expression that crosses his face.

“You really didn’t have to.”

I shrug. “I wanted to.”

“What about you?”

Oh yeah. Me. “Wow, I totally forgot.”

For some reason, my stupid makes him smile. God, I’ll be sitting around doing he loves me, he loves me not with a daisy before long, but he’s got such a good smile. Makes the gold in his eyes shine. “We’ll share,” he tells me.

So we sit there in his bed, probably in the middle of the afternoon, and he feeds me morsels of toast and egg, and I feel kind of cherished and turned on and so fucking happy. And I wish I didn’t have to go and get on with my messed-up life.

I wish this was my life instead.

Just great eggs and a hot guy and no worries at all.

And they are great eggs, by the way. I can tell he likes them.

That’s the other kind of beautiful thing about food: watching somebody enjoy it. Admittedly, it doesn’t normally get me horny, but Laurie’s a special case.

“Where did you learn to cook like this?” he asks. I’m both surprised and chuffed he cares. Or maybe he’s just making conversation with his slightly-more-than-one-night stand. Either way, I like this glimpse of him. Relaxed and sleepy-eyed and looked-after. A little unprotected piece of who he is.

“Nowhere,” is what I tell him. But then his head tilts inquisitively, and I can see that he’s not going to let me get away with that. “I kind of cooked for myself a lot when I was a kid.”

“Why?” Now he sounds sharp. “Does your mother not believe in food either?”

Whoops. I guess I’ve accidentally painted myself as some kind of abused, underfed guttersnipe. Which isn’t true at all. When I was younger, Mum and I had some rough times, but I’ve kind of got over it now. She’s my mum, y’know? What can you do? “No, she does. It’s just she doesn’t believe in time.”

“I beg your pardon?”

I have to laugh at the expression on his face. “She’s not a martyred slave of time.” He’s still blank. I get this a lot when I have to explain my mother. “Baudelaire?”

Nothing.

I sigh and crunch the last piece of bacon. It’s so good. Salty and rich, with just the faintest hint of charcoal to give it depth. “She believes you should do things when you feel moved to do them, or else you become nothing but a mechanism of chronology or something. But, me, I’m totally a martyred slave. I want to eat three times a day, and I want the savoury bit to come first and the sweet bit to come second, and I want to sleep through the night and wake up in the morning.”

He sits up a bit straighter, which makes the duvet slip down, and I’m briefly distracted by . . . oh God . . . everything. Nipples and hair and hard ridges of muscle. He’s all rough and delicious and—

Fuck, he’s talking.

“So she just left you to fend for yourself?”

“Dude, no. There was always food. But I got sick of Cup-a-Soups and Super Noodles, so I started experimenting.” He had that social services look I’m pretty familiar with. “Laurie, we do okay.”

“I’m sorry, but your mother sounds like a nutcase.”

“Oi!” Nobody gets to call my mum a nutcase except me. “She’s a genius.” Then he gets the other look I’m familiar with. “And I’m aware they probably seem pretty similar from a distance.”

That’s why I don’t like talking about this stuff. People always get the wrong idea. It’s not the Super Noodles that grind you down, it’s spending your whole life being second. Like, don’t get me wrong, Mum loves me. She loves me more than she loves anyone else in the world. I’ve never doubted that for a moment. But there’s something else: the ever-fading flame of inspiration, or whatever.

That’s where my mother dances.

Not for ordinary stuff like scrambled eggs or school reports or anybody else’s dreams. And I get it. And it’s okay. But she’s never going to understand what it’s like to . . . not have that. She’ll always support me in whatever I do, whether I’m studying law or working for £5.03 an hour as a kitchen porter at a greasy spoon, but that’s kind of the whole fucking problem.

Laurie breaks the silence with, “That was delicious. Thank you.”

“’S’okay.” I go kind of squirmy inside with pleasure. I like it so much when people enjoy my cooking, and that makes me embarrassed and self-conscious. Because it’s kind of pathetically needy, when you get right down to it. Like wanting to be first.

There’s butter glistening on his fingers from the last piece of toast. He’s got good hands. Because, frankly, he’s got good everything. They’re strong and blunt and very, very steady. Except, sometimes, when they’re really not. And that’s a wild thrill all by itself.

I know so little about this man, but I know he unravels hands-first.

I swoop in and clean him up, my tongue getting right down in the tender little V between his fingers, where he tastes so very much like him.

It makes him groan.

And my cock perks up like a Labrador at walkies.

“Toby.” There’s warning in his voice.

I look up at him, the tip of his finger caught between my teeth and cushioned by my lips, and I make my eyes as big as they can go.

“Please stop that.” There’s something else in his voice this time.

And, uh, I’m so confused. Please stop that should in no way press the Go button in your brain. And, honestly, it doesn’t in a real way. I know what the rules are and how to take no for an answer.

But the way he says it.

Right now, it’s ambiguous in the wrong way. But I can so easily imagine it being ambiguous in the right way.

I want him to say that to me and mean it and not mean it, knowing I might not stop. I want him to say it in pleasure, and I want him to say it pain. And I want the power to deny him. Just because I can. Just because his suffering makes me hot.

I let go of his finger with one last kiss.

And then we stare at each other because it’s suddenly awkward as fuck. I’m supposed to be leaving but I’m not, and he’s not asking me to.

“Won’t your mother,” he says finally, “be wondering where you are?”

She probably hasn’t noticed yet. Wait. That sounds bad. She would notice. She definitely would. It’s just her maternal panic sensor is kept on the lowest setting.

I shake my head. “But I should be going, right?”

“Yes, you should.”

“Yeah.” I chase a crumb round and round the empty plate with my finger. “Or we could—”

“No.”

Shit, I’ve gone too far. I always do that. There was reluctance before, but now certainty’s come down like a wall. I keep trying though. Probably because I’m an idiot. But what have I got to lose? “You don’t even know what I was going to ask.”

“I don’t have to.”

Whoa. Talk about quelling. I sigh. “Well, it doesn’t have to be wall-to-wall kinky shenanigans. We could . . . fuck or talk or go for a walk. Anything.”

Shit, could I sound any more desperate? But I kind of am. Also: go for a walk? What the fuck. Who does that?

“Toby.” Wow, I hate it when he’s this gentle. “We can’t do any of those things.”

I really, really don’t want to sound petulant, but I know I will anyway. “Why not?”

“Because I’m thirty-seven, for one thing.”

“And people who are thirty-seven don’t fuck or talk or go for walks? That must totally suck.”

“Not with nineteen-year-olds.”

“Dude, if this was ancient Greece, you’d be buggering me senseless by now.”

“Yes, well, we no longer live in a world of socially mandated pederasty.”

I nearly go, And you say that like it’s a good thing, but for fuck’s sake, it’s not funny. I’m nineteen and I’m not a kid. I know what I want, and he wants it too, so why is it suddenly not okay? “Your main objection is some vague perception of social stigma? Not, like, not fancying me or not wanting to fuck me?”

“It wouldn’t be right.” He pulls the duvet up to his chin, like he’s trying to hide under it. It’s kind of cute, or would be if he wasn’t trying to hide from me and a bunch of true stuff. And that’s when I catch it—the faintest tremor in his hands. Fuck yeah.

“And what we did last night was?”

He goes all red. “It was . . . different.”

I’m kind of hovering on the edge of cross now. I mean, it’s kind of nice he doesn’t want to exploit me or whatever, but fuck it, I’m so ready to be exploited. I lean a little closer to him. I’m being way too intense, but I can’t help it. “Are you telling me what we did before wasn’t sex? Wasn’t intimate?”

He stares at me, all rainy eyes and wildness. Lost, just like me. Then he shakes his head because he’s not a liar. I knew that about him from the first.

“So, what’s the big deal?”

from Just Love – Romance by Any Definition

Alexis Hall really did an outstanding job with this novel. ... The entire novel was written very well, and the pacing was fantastic.

from The Way She Reads

For Real is a powerful, memorable and far from traditional but very hot love story. It’s an amazing book featuring two characters gloriously beautiful in all their flaws.

from A Shared Brain Cell

I was blown away by exactly how much I liked [For Real]. I was intrigued by the change in the usual dynamics, and I liked the idea of an older submissive, and a younger dominant, but I was thrilled that this book was so much more than that.

from Jeannie Zelos Book Reviews

[A] fabulous read that will stay with me and join the keepers file.

from The Novel Approach

I honestly could have read another four hundred pages! The chemistry between Laurie and Toby is completely fabulous; they are wonderful together. . . . For Real is simply fantastic.

Pages