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Restaurant owner Tom Fearnes has loved his partner Cass for as long as he can remember, but their work often keeps them apart. When he meets a striking young man named Jake on the vibrant streets of Camden Town, their heady first encounter takes an unexpected turn.
Jake Thompson can hardly believe his luck when he wakes up in Tom’s bed. Tom is gorgeous, kind, and . . . taken. Tom’s explanation of his open relationship leaves Jake cold, but Tom is too tempting, and when hard times force Jake to accept Tom’s helping hand, he finds himself between two men who’ve lost their way.
Cass Pearson is a troubled soul. He loves Tom with all he has, but some days it feels like he hasn’t much to give. Jake seems like the perfect solution. Cass risks everything to push Jake and Tom together, but Jake resists, wary, until the darkness of Cass’s past comes to call. Then Jake finds himself the last man standing, and it’s time to dig deep and shine a light for the men he’s grown to love.
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Tom Fearnes shook hands with the estate agent and watched absently as she disappeared into the bustling streets of Camden Town. Around him, busy Londoners jostled each other for space, and none of them took much notice of him blocking the pavement. He tuned them out and scrutinised the vacant building in front of him, frowning. The disused guitar shop wasn’t quite what he’d been hoping for, inside or out.
But, but, but . . .
Tom dismissed the boarded-up shop front, and glanced around at Camden’s popular markets and music venues. The familiar buzz of a new venture tickled his veins. He was in the right place, he could feel it, but the only vacant premises on the vibrant strip of Camden High Street were all wrong. Too small and overpriced, each one was a definitive no-go, which left his plans for a spring restaurant opening a distant dream.
Deep in thought, Tom tore himself away from the unsuitable shop and drifted towards the Tube station. He dodged a few slow-moving people, and swore under his breath like a grumpy native. Camden wasn’t his usual stomping ground, but he was an adopted Londoner through and through, and dawdling tourists got on his nerves, especially when—great—the sheer number of them closed Camden Town Tube station.
Tom glared at the metal shutters and caught the eye of a nearby Underground worker. “Is Chalk Farm open?”
The woman shook her head. “Closed for congestion. Try Mornington.”
Tom sighed. Mornington station was a ten-minute walk in the wrong direction from his Hampstead flat. He’d have to go all the way back to Euston now and get on a different line. Either that or hole up somewhere and wait for the crowds to clear.
He turned south towards Mornington and considered his options. He was bloody knackered and busy, and with the guitar shop a nonstarter, he needed to get home and begin the search for a new restaurant site all over again. Hmm. Thinking about his company’s latest culinary venture reminded him that he hadn’t eaten all day. His stomach growled, and he glanced around, looking for a place that wasn’t too rammed. A PGB pub caught his eye. It wasn’t the kind of place he usually frequented, but he could see a few empty tables through the window.
He braved a zebra crossing and pushed open the restaurant door. The inside of the pub smelled of cheap lager and burned meat fat. A surly hostess showed him to a table by the door, dropped a sticky menu in front of him, and left him to it. Tom watched her stomp away with a wry smile. Checking out the competition was always fun, especially on a Sunday evening. Tired and beat down from a long weekend, it was the sign of a sound kitchen team if a restaurant was still churning out great food.
Tom settled in his seat, shed his coat, and ran his gaze over the menu. To the untrained eye, it appeared impressive—vast and diverse—but Tom knew better. Any restaurant offering steak, pizza, curry, and a Moroccan tagine was seriously confused. And lazy. He knew the development manager for this particular brand and had heard most of their food was produced in a factory in Sheffield.
Boil in the bag bollocks . . .
“Can I get you a drink?”
Tom glanced up and blinked, for a moment imagining the words had been spoken in an entirely different context. Wow. There was no other word for the streak of masculine beauty waiting by his table with a notepad. Long fingers tapping on the paper, elegant hands and fragile wrists. Slender arms, slim shoulders, and a beautiful, pale neck. And his face, damn, his face. High cheekbones and flawless skin were set off by a tiny silver ring curving out of his perfect nose.
“Can . . . I get you a drink?”
“Uh . . .” Tom fumbled with the drinks menu. “Pint of Beck’s, thanks.”
The waiter disappeared. Given the attitude of the hostess, Tom didn’t expect him back anytime soon, so he was surprised when a frothy pint of lager materialised a few minutes later.
“Are you ready to order?”
Not even close. Tom absorbed the young waiter’s melodic northern accent and scanned the menu again. “What do you recommend? Anything good?”
“Depends what you like.”
“Yeah?” Tom heard the waiter’s indifference loud and clear, but the youngster’s dark beauty cancelled out any offence he might have felt. “What about the pies?”
“We’re out of the beef and ale.”
“Is the chicken any good?”
Silence. The waiter wrinkled his nose. Tom glanced at his name tag. Jake. Labelling staff like meat was a concept that irritated Tom, but he liked the kid’s name; it suited him. “What’s the steak burger like?”
Jake shrugged. “It’s . . . okay.”
The pause said it all. “Just okay, eh? Where’s the meat from? Is it British?”
“It’s from Uruguay.”
“Nice. You’ve convinced me there’s nothing in this place worth eating. How do you know I’m not a mystery guest?”
The kid scowled with barely suppressed derision and shook his head. “We don’t have those anymore; they’re not cost-effective. We have anonymous online surveys instead. You scan the Q-code on the menu with your smartphone.”
Tom swallowed a chuckle. He was familiar with the concept of online guest satisfaction surveys; he owned a stake in a company that hosted them. The Q-code thing was new to the industry, though. Not many businesses had it yet. “I’ll have the fish and chips.”
Jake made a strange noise and waved his hand. “You don’t want to know where the fish is from?”
Is he taking the piss? “No, thanks. I’d rather live in ignorance.”
Jake snatched the menu back and disappeared. Tom forced himself to not watch and retrieved his phone from his coat pocket. He was engrossed in a commercial property website when Jake returned with his food a little while later.
“Do—do you want any sauces?”
Tom poked at the anaemic piece of battered fish on his plate, but noticing Jake’s mild stutter, he decided to cut him some slack. “I’m good, thanks.”
Jake sloped off without further comment. With a healthy amount of trepidation, Tom picked at his supper while he checked his diary and caught up on emails. As the director of his own thriving restaurant business, he had plenty to do.
Jake meandered past a few times. He didn’t check on Tom, but the third time, Tom sensed his waif-like presence, he flagged him down, held out the plate of greasy slop, and asked for the bill.
Jake seemed unsurprised by Tom’s lack of appetite. He brought the bill with a substantial discount and promptly disappeared again. The restaurant had filled up while Tom had been engrossed in his emails and soggy fish, and Jake seemed to be the only waiter on the floor.
Tom waited awhile for him to come back, but when it became apparent it wasn’t going to happen, he gathered his things and made his way to the bar. The unsmiling face of the hostess greeted him. She took the bill folder and put his credit card into the payment machine.
“Was everything all right with your meal today?”
“Nope,” Tom said, though he kept his tone light. “It was cold, greasy, and presented on a dirty plate.”
The hostess stared, but whatever retort she may have made was cut off by a deafening crash. Tom cringed. He knew the sound of smashing plates all too well. He looked over his shoulder and saw Jake surrounded by a sea of obliterated crockery.
Jake dropped down and punched the floor. He started to gather the shattered plates, but couldn’t seem to get a grip on them. A broken bowl slipped out of his hand. “Bollocks, shit, fuck!”
Tom took an instinctive step forwards, saw the strain in Jake’s shoulders, the angry twitch in his muscles, and felt a sudden, intense urge to help him that seemed beyond humble sympathy. But he stopped himself. There was nothing more humiliating than a stranger acknowledging whatever disaster had befallen you, and Lord knew, the flush creeping over the back of Jake’s neck told Tom he was embarrassed enough.
An irate-looking manager—who’d been conspicuously absent until now—appeared from nowhere and shoved Jake aside. “Leave it. Go out the back and pull yourself together.”
Jake’s arm shot out at an odd angle. “Wankers.”
The manager glared. “For God’s sake, go.”
Jake scrambled to his feet, darted to the kitchen door, and slammed it behind him. Tom relaxed a little. The scene was one he’d witnessed, and performed in, many times over. Who hadn’t dropped an armload of plates in the middle of a busy shift? But even as the diners around the mess went back to their food like nothing had happened, Tom got the distinct sensation that he was missing something. And he didn’t like the manager’s manner. There was nothing more unprofessional than letting a crowded restaurant see your frustration. It could be forgiven in a young waiter, but not a manager.
“Enter your PIN please.”
The hostess’s bored voice startled Tom. He’d been so engrossed in Jake’s calamity he’d forgotten she was there. He followed the prompts on the screen.
“Do you pool your tips here?”
“No. Your server keeps them.”
Tom handed her a folded banknote. “Good. Tell Jake I appreciated his candour.”
The girl’s face remained impassive. Tom sighed and passed the payment machine back. Where did places like this find these people? Even Jake’s scornful derision was better than nothing at all.
Tom made his way to the restaurant’s exit feeling slightly sick with the weight of the few oil-sodden chips he’d managed to eat. Tired too. A long, lonely weekend of property searching had left him craving a warm bed and missing Cass. Always, always, missing Cass. But his low mood lifted when he stepped outside into the mild September air. He loved London at any time of year, and autumn was his favourite season. Mellow and warm, even when the air turned cooler.
The unmistakable scent of city nightlife got to him too. Camden felt different when the sun went down, heady and exciting. Suddenly, the twenty unanswered emails clogging his inbox felt less important. He checked his watch: 7 p.m. The weekend crowds had eased, and he probably should’ve gone home, but his abortive dinner—and the pint of beer on an empty stomach—had left him restless. He didn’t feel like going home to an empty flat.
He wandered along Camden High Street. A pub caught his eye, one of those oh-so-cool bars with bare brickwork, graffiti, and a bazillion tea lights. The kind of place Tom knew he’d be too old for in a few years’ time. He drifted inside. London being London, no one glanced up. He bought a pint of overpriced lager and found a table in a dark corner. The mellow chillstep music was soothing, and for a while, he resisted the call of his laptop and people watched instead . . . analysing the clientele he’d be targeting if he ever found the right premises. Camden was an eclectic locale. Hipsters, punks, goths, yuppies, he could see them all in the bar. And he’d seen them out on the street too, dark and edgy . . . too cool for their own good. Camden felt like a place for the young . . . the up-and-coming who wanted to stamp their mark on the world a different way. To make it here, whatever restaurant Tom opened would need to be more than a mainstream brand.
But how? Young people desired luxury, but lacked the money to procure it. And Tom had noticed in recent years that his younger clientele were becoming less adventurous. They wanted safe, uncomplicated food . . . wanted it to look the same wherever they went, and that didn’t leave much scope for creativity. Simple, posh, and cheap. There had to be a way to have it all.
Tom tapped his fingers on the table, brainstorming concepts, lost in thought. He nearly didn’t notice the appearance of the slender, dark-haired man in the seat beside him sometime later. A twitching bundle of limbs he belatedly recognised as the waiter from the faceless restaurant down the road.
Tom blinked. “Excuse me?”
Jake winced, and it was a moment before he spoke again. “Hello.”
Tom smiled, unsure if he was about to get punched in the face. “Hello again.”
“Hi.” Jake jerked, like a bolt of electricity had just run through him. “You . . .” he stopped, started again, and slid a leather-covered book across the table. “You left your diary.”
Tom reflexively reached for the diary that held his whole life. The diary that rarely left his sight. “How did you know where to find me?”
“I saw you come in here when I was on my break. Figured I’d take a look when I finished work and see if you were still here.”
Tom shoved the diary into his laptop bag. Jake muttered something. Tom straightened up. “Sorry, what?”
Jake shook his head. “Nothing. I’m just ticking.”
Ticking. Tom had heard the phrase before. A lightbulb clicked on in his brain. “Tourette’s?”
“Shit, fuck, bollocks. Yes. Shit.” Jake winked. “Fly him to the moon.”
Tourette’s. Bloody hell. That explained a lot—the stuttering, the sudden tremors in Jake’s limbs, and the badly timed swearing. “Is that why you called your boss a wanker?”
Jake shrugged. “Sometimes my tics are in context.”
Tom grinned, though inside, his mind was reeling. Tourette’s wasn’t a condition he knew much about, but he’d already seen firsthand how disruptive it could be. Even now, he saw Jake struggling to keep still. “Can I buy you a drink?”
“No, thanks. You left me a fifty-quid tip. I can buy my own.”
Jake got up as abruptly as he had sat down, and walked to the bar. Tom watched him go, admiring the liquid way his body moved when he wasn’t ticking, and speculating if he’d come back.
It seemed like an age before Jake reappeared with two pints of lager. He set one in front of Tom, then hovered, his left arm rippling. Tom gestured to the chair beside him. “Sit down, please. I could use the company.”
Jake sat down. He cradled his drink in one hand and glared at his twitching arm until it stilled. “Wankers. Sorry. It’s worse when I meet new people.”
“Don’t apologise,” Tom said. “It doesn’t bother me.” And it didn’t. The young man next to him was a far cry from the vibrating ball of frustration he’d been in the restaurant, and his tics seemed natural. As Jake relaxed, Tom could almost see them slowing down and fading in their intensity. “I’m Tom, by the way. In case you were wondering—”
“Why would you think that?” Jake held out his hand. “I’m Jake.”
“I know.” Tom met his grasp. Felt a spark, like Jake’s excess energy had travelled into him. “It said so on your name tag.”
Jake twitched and a series of clicking noises escaped him so fast Tom wondered if he’d imagined them. “Yeah, sorry your dinner was pants. The food is always crap in there.”
“It’s not your fault. You tried to warn me.”
“Not on purpose. TS makes me brutally honest.”
“TS?” Tom floundered a moment and released Jake’s electric hand. The loss of contact defogged his brain. “Oh, you mean your Tourette’s.”
It wasn’t a question, but Jake shot Tom a glance that had “idiot” written all over it. Tom let him have that one. “I don’t think it’s your Toure . . . sorry, TS, that makes you a terrible waiter.”
Jake leaned forwards. “Oh yeah? What did I do that was so bad?”
Up close, he was even more beautiful than Tom had first imagined. Dark, soulful eyes. Wavy hair that hung a little too long. And he smelled good, like cigarettes and youth.
Tom covered his fascination with a pull on his beer. “It’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. As a guest, I shouldn’t know that standing in front of me is the last place on earth you want to be.”
“Fly him to the moon.”
Jake rolled his eyes. “Don’t indulge me. That’s one of my favourite tics. If you play along, I’ll forget I’m doing it and they’ll all come out.”
“Okay . . .” Jake was clearly comfortable talking about his TS. “Is that so bad? The tics, I mean.” Tom gestured around. “No one seems to notice them.”
“That’s because I’ve found my volume switch. I don’t shout anymore, at least not often. A few years ago, I hardly left my bedsit.”
“Yep. I didn’t want to be a weirdo shouting in the corner all the time, so I learned to mute myself. I had to. It was either that, or walk around with my mouth taped shut, though I did do that for a few months.”
The image made Tom smile, but the sadness in Jake’s dark gaze tempered it. “So what do you hate so much about where you work? What put that frown on your face before you even got to me?”
“What do you care?”
Tom shrugged. It was a fair question. “Call it research. I’m in the industry.”
“The . . . wankers . . . restaurant industry?” Tom nodded and Jake considered his question. “I hate being told to be the same as everyone else,” he said eventually.
“A chain restaurant probably isn’t the best place for you, then. They make every high street look the same.”
Jake huffed his agreement. “The company I work for has five pubs in the city, and they’re all identical. The food, the decor. They even have a script to make us all sound like robots. Winds me up.”
This time, Tom didn’t bite back his smile. Jake’s gripe reinforced the puzzle Tom had been pondering all day. “So if you could redevelop the restaurant you worked in, how would you do it?”
“I wouldn’t. I don’t care enough. I’m only working there because it was the only job I could get.”
“Maybe you would care if it was a concept you liked,” Tom countered. “Food you liked, or an ethos you believed in.”
Jake snorted, but it was hard to tell if it was a tic or a reaction to Tom’s words. He waited a moment, but Jake said no more, so Tom drained his drink and went to the bar for another round.
Jake eyed him when he got back. “You know, you look way too young to care about all this business bollocks.”
“I’m thirty.” Tom pondered Jake’s age. His slender frame and smooth skin made him look eighteen, but his eyes gave him away. He’d seen more of the world than he should’ve done. “What about you?”
“Twenty-four,” Jake said. “Too young for you?”
“Depends what I was going to do with you.”
The words slipped out before Tom could stop them, aided by three pints of strong lager. In his head, he heard Cass laugh. Smooth.
Tom waited for Jake to rebuke him. Call him a pervy twat. Perhaps even get up and leave.
But Jake just grinned and put his elbows on the table. “I reckon you should start at the top and work your way down.”
Jake was joking, at least Tom thought he was, but the loaded exchange changed the tone of their conversation, and as the beer flowed, the air between them got hotter. It was nearly midnight before Tom realised he’d forgotten to go home.
He leaned away from Jake with a rueful smile. Somehow, they’d ended up almost nose to nose. “I should get going.”
Jake stood and passed Tom the jumper he’d taken off during their conversation. “Yeah, me too.”
They left the pub and stepped out onto the street. Tom shivered. The temperature had dropped while they’d been holed up inside. Jake put a cigarette in his mouth. Lit it. “Don’t mind, do you?”
“Have at it.” Tom didn’t know what else to say. It was late, but he wasn’t ready for the night to end. “Um, Tube station?”
They walked to Camden Town Station. Jake twitched a lot as they ambled along. Tom wondered why. In the pub, Jake’s tics had all but disappeared—or maybe Tom had just grown used to them—but outside on the street, it was clear Jake struggled. After a while, Tom took Jake’s arm. Whether it helped or not, he couldn’t tell.
Jake calmed somewhat when they got underground. He turned to Tom and smiled. “Thanks. It helps when someone touches me. Give me something to focus on.”
Tom scanned his Oyster card and slipped through the barriers. He waited for Jake to do the same before he shrugged. “No worries, providing you don’t mind a stranger touching you.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers.”
Tom stared at Jake. He didn’t believe that for a second. Jake was gorgeous, and even with the TS wreaking havoc through his nervous system, he oozed sex appeal. Who in their right mind wouldn’t want to touch him?
“I’m surprised, actually, that you walked this far with me. Most people lose their nerve when we get outside.”
Tom frowned, leading the way to the platform. “Is it worse outside?”
“Sometimes. Depends on the situation. My tics are coming out now because I’m tired, but earlier, when I found you in the bar, I was nervous . . .”
“And when you were working, you were pissed off, right?”
“Right.” Jake leaned against the grubby platform wall. “That was extreme, though. It’s been a while since I’ve lost my shit that much.”
Tom mirrored Jake’s position. He closed his eyes briefly, sure he could feel the warmth of Jake’s body. “What happened? I mean, I know you hate your job, and I saw the plates on the floor, but what made it worse today than any other day?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“You make me want to.”
Jake smirked. “Fair enough. If you must know, I was pissed off because the barman stole my tip from my biggest table. The bloke’s a prick, and when I called him out on it, I ended up ticking like a fucking lunatic instead. I tried to calm down, but then some old bird tripped me up. My boss called me an idiot, and the TS got away from me after that.”
“It must be hard to find a happy medium when so much stimulates your tics.”
“There are a few things even TS can’t spoil.” Jake chuckled, deep and low. The gravelly sound reminded Tom of Cass again, but a train pulled in before he could let the thought fully manifest.
They found seats on the train. Jake muttered to himself as he sat down. A woman across the aisle stared, but Jake didn’t seem to notice, and Tom was surprised to find that her attention didn’t bother him either.
The train rattled through Chalk Farm. They sat in companionable silence for a while, save Jake’s sporadic mutterings, until Jake nudged Tom with his elbow.
“Why did you come into the restaurant today? I could tell you were pissed off as soon as you walked in. Thought you were going to be one of those tables that moaned my ear off.”
Tom chuckled. “I did moan, at the girl on the bar, but I don’t think she noticed.”
Jake laughed too. “Yeah, there’s not much to Courtney. She knows a lot about hair extensions, though, in case you’re ever interested.”
“Can’t see that happening.”
“So . . .” Jake whistled and made a strange popping sound. “Why did you come in if you knew you were going to hate it so much?”
“You’re a shrewd one,” Tom said. “I always figured I had a pretty good poker face, but if you must know, it was a spur-of-the-moment thing. The Tube station was shut and I couldn’t be arsed to walk to the next one.”
“Oh.” Jake seemed disappointed. “I thought you were spying for head office, or some undercover exposé or something.”
“Sorry, mate. I’m not that interesting.”
“Yes, you are.”
The train stopped in Belsize Park. Jake tore his stare from Tom and frowned. “Shit, I’m going the wrong way. I live in Kentish Town.”
He dropped his head and groaned. Alarmed, Tom put his hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay? Do you want to get off?”
A barrage of tics swept through Jake before he straightened up and grinned. “Too late now.”
And indeed it was. The train had closed its doors and already left Belsize Park behind. Tom relaxed and took his hand off Jake as his tics faded. He seemed unconcerned with being on the wrong train, like it happened all the time. Perhaps it did. “Where do you live?”
“Hampstead, during the week, at least.”
“Where do you live at the weekend?”
“Berkhamsted. I have a house there.”
“You sound rich,” Jake stretched his legs out in front of him. “I didn’t think that was possible from working in restaurants.”
Tom shrugged. He wasn’t rich, but for his age, he’d done all right. “I don’t work in restaurants. Not anymore, at least. I own them. Come on. Let’s get off here.”
The train rumbled into Hampstead. Tom took Jake’s arm as he twitched getting off the train and held on to him until they got to the end of the platform.
“You don’t need to babysit me.”
“Hmm? Oh, sorry.” Tom released the death grip he had on Jake’s arm. Jake grabbed his hand and put it back. “You can touch me, Tom, but do it because you want to, not because you feel sorry for me.”
Something about the way Jake said his name made Tom’s chest feel warm. He stared at Jake, feeling the charge where he held Jake’s slender wrist. “I don’t feel sorry for you. I just didn’t want you to fall.”
“No, it’s not.”
Tom let go of Jake’s wrist again, suddenly aware of how close they were standing. It was late—no early—the early hours of Monday morning, but the Tube station was still busy, like it always was. London wasn’t New York, but it was still a city that never slept.
Jake didn’t move, not even to tic. The only sign of life in him was his dark addictive gaze and the tiny flicker of his tongue as he licked his lips. His brief stillness was mesmerising. Tom stared at him, lost, until Jake clumsily touched his cheek. “Why do you touch me, then?”
Tom didn’t answer with words. What could he say? They’d just met, spent only a few hours in each other’s company, and yet, Tom couldn’t say good-bye. He took Jake’s arm for a third time and led him above ground. Outside on the pavement, he pointed to a row of converted Edwardian houses in the distance. “My flat’s over there. Fancy another drink?”
The Hampstead flat was old and beautiful—high ceilings, hardwood floors, original fireplaces—but it was also small and expensive; a combination that always wound Tom up.
Not tonight, though. He unlocked the door and waved Jake in, absorbing the forbidden scent of the cigarette Jake had smoked on their short walk home. “Do you want a drink?”
Jake squinted up at the ornate coving in the tiny hallway. “No, thanks. I think I’ve had enough.”
Tom hung his coat on the hook. He didn’t want a drink either. He wanted to kiss Jake . . . kiss him hard, but the moment seemed elusive.
“Wankers. I like your bum. Shit.” Jake slapped his hand over his mouth.
Tom laughed. “Kind of you to say.”
Jake stood stock-still for a few seconds, then let his hand drop. “Sorry. You do have a nice arse, though.”
“Thanks. Yours is pretty nice too. Can I take your coat?”
Jake shrugged out of his coat, but instead of handing it over, he leaned in front of Tom to hang it behind the door himself. The movement brought his neck within inches of Tom’s mouth. For the first time, Tom noticed an intricate tattoo hidden by Jake’s shaggy hair. The design was black and moody, with distressed typography. The words gave Tom pause. Don’t ask me why.
“What does your tattoo mean?”
Tom touched his finger to Jake’s neck. “This one.”
“It means I was a pissed-off teenager. I got all my ink when I was angry.”
“Are you still angry now?”
Jake shook his head. “No. I found the cure.”
Tom traced the script, following it until it disappeared into the complex shading around Jake’s spine. Jake shivered, but not like the abrupt shot of a tic that Tom was fast beginning to recognise. “And what was it? The cure, I mean.”
“Learn something. Read a book. Explore someone. Anger is just a hole where your life could be.”
Something changed. Tom’s pulse quickened. He stilled his finger, but left it on Jake’s skin, absorbing the rising heat between them. Jake glanced over his shoulder, his gaze a wicked mix of rueful desire, and in that moment, Tom knew Jake wanted him too.
Jake leaned back, and Tom kissed him, but the kiss wasn’t as explosive as Tom had played out in his head. He didn’t grab Jake’s chin or bite his lips. He didn’t pull his hair, or press him against the wall. Instead, he fell pliant under the gentle brush of Jake’s mouth on his, wound his arms around Jake’s waist, and pulled him close. Held him tight like they’d kissed a thousand times over.
Tom felt Jake connect with every part of his body. His scalp tingled, his cheeks, his chest. His dick hardened in his jeans. He cupped Jake’s face with his hand and drew a thumb over his cheekbone.
Jake pulled away. “Show me your bedroom?”
Tom didn’t need telling twice. He spun Jake in his arms, kissed him again, and backed him through the open bedroom door. They hit the bed. Tom was taller than Jake, wider, stronger, and he steadied their stumbling.
Jake tugged at Tom’s clothes. Tom toed off his shoes and unbuttoned his shirt while Jake unbuckled his belt. His jeans fell to his knees. Tom shrugged out of his shirt and considered Jake. He was wearing biker boots, skinny jeans, and a T-shirt as thin as he was. The look was grungy and cool, but Tom had seen enough. He wanted Jake’s clothes on the floor, scattered on the polished wood.
He undressed Jake—T-shirt first, clingy jeans next—and shed the last of his own clothes. For a moment, they stared, naked and still, and took in each other. Tom was fair haired and solid. Broad shoulders, chest, and thighs. In contrast, Jake was pale, fragile looking, and covered in sinister ink.
Tom closed his hand around Jake’s cock, feeling the weight of it. “What do you like to do?”
“I like to suck dick and get fucked.”
The bluntness took Tom by surprise, though he couldn’t say why. Not that he was disappointed. The girth of Jake’s cock was alluring, but Tom didn’t bottom. And he loved getting head. Who didn’t?
Still, he wanted something more first. Wanted to feel Jake everywhere, so if they never touched again, he’d know he’d made the most of this beautiful, enigmatic young man.
He lay back on the bed and pulled Jake over him, kissed him, and ran his hands all over his body.
Jake responded in kind and ghosted his palms over Tom’s chest. “You didn’t look this muscly with your clothes on.”
“That a bad thing?”
Jake hummed around another kiss. “No. It suits your eyes.”
Tom shoved his hands into Jake’s silky hair and tugged so he could see Jake’s face. “What does that mean?”
“What I said.”
Fair enough. Tom kept his hands in Jake’s hair. It was soft and clean, and Jake seemed to like Tom’s nails digging into his scalp.
Tom rolled them over and covered Jake’s slim frame with his broader body. He found Jake’s cock and captured it in his hand without breaking their kiss. Jake jerked beneath him. A tic? To be sure, Tom opened his eyes and squeezed Jake’s cock again.
Jake arched his back and groaned. “Fuck yeah.”
Encouraged, Tom drove his tongue into Jake’s mouth. He’d been intrigued by Jake the moment he’d laid eyes on him, and now he was sure of his path. He was going to fuck Jake, fuck him until he screamed his name.
Jake broke their kiss and tugged on Tom’s shoulders. “Bring me your dick.”
Tom followed his direction and straddled Jake’s chest, which, unlike his back, was untouched by ink. He held his cock a hairsbreadth away from Jake’s full lips. “Not going to bite me, are you?”
“No. Touch calms me down. I hardly tic at all if I’m in bed with someone.”
That was good enough for Tom. He slid his dick into Jake’s mouth and sucked in a breath. The hot, wet heat of Jake’s tongue felt amazing, and Jake digging his nails in his thighs made it feel even better. He closed his eyes and let sensation sweep over him. He grabbed a handful of Jake’s hair. “Yeah, like that.”
Jake teased Tom’s balls, then he pulled back with a soft, heated puff of air. “Tell me what you want.”
Tom opened his eyes. “You like dirty talk?”
“I’m curious. I told you what I like.”
Tom grinned and brought his cock back to Jake’s mouth. “Maybe I’d like you to figure it out.”
Jake took the hint. He drew Tom into his mouth again, lightly at first, with only the gentlest pressure, then he ramped up the volume and grazed Tom’s cock with his teeth.
Tom groped around behind him and gripped Jake’s cock, wishing he was flexible enough to lean back and return the favour, like Cass had so many times for him. He felt a deep flush heat his skin and knew they couldn’t play this game for long.
He pulled out of Jake’s mouth and tapped his lips with the head of his dick. “You bottom?”
“Always, at least so far.” Jake stuck out his tongue and licked Tom lightly enough to make Tom’s eyes roll. “That okay?”
It was more than okay. Tom clambered off Jake, walked on his knees to the bedside table, and fumbled with the drawer. He rolled a condom on, slathered lube onto his dick, and turned to find Jake relaxed and ready for him.
Tom considered his options. True to his word, Jake hadn’t ticked at all since they’d taken their clothes off. It was hard to believe he was the same frustrated waiter who’d lost his cool in the restaurant. He offered his hand as he lay back and stretched out. “Come here.”
“Want me to ride you?”
Hell yeah. “Yeah.”
Tom sat up on his elbows, watching as Jake sank down on him. He took his time easing Tom inside his body. Tom’s cock was thick and long, and Jake’s brief discomfort was clear, until it faded and he bit down on his lip in a way that made Tom’s toes curl.
Jake flexed his muscles, then he lifted himself up so slowly Tom couldn’t hold back a low groan.
Jake smirked. “You like that?”
He growled. “Do it again.”
Jake obliged, and it was the start of the most languid fuck Tom had ever had. He’d first put his hands on Jake with a clear image in his mind, an image that saw him bending Jake in half and driving into him, perhaps even flipping him over and pushing his face into the pillow. But it didn’t happen. Jake worked his magic and with every long, slow roll of his hips, Tom fell deeper and deeper into something he didn’t quite understand.
Tom took his weight off his elbows and raised his arms over his head, gripped the edge of the bed, and arched his back.
“You look so hot right now.” Jake leaned down and pressed their chests together, trapping his cock between them. “Even more than I thought you would.”
Tom thrust his hips up. Made them both gasp. “Yeah? You look pretty fucking beautiful yourself.”
Jake’s eyes widened, like Tom’s words had sent a jolt through him. Or maybe it was something else. With his quivering thighs and sweat-sheened skin, Jake seemed on the edge of release.
Tom gathered himself and drove up into Jake, heeding his spine-tingling pace, but twisting his hips, searching for the angle that would unravel Jake’s smirking composure.
He found it on the third go.
Jake fell slack on top of him and moaned, low and plaintive. Tom grinned and pushed Jake’s hand towards his cock. “Make yourself come.”
Jake resisted. “Don’t need to. You’re doing it.”
Tom thrust harder, and Jake gave in, jacking himself until he seized up and came over Tom’s chest. “Oh God . . . Fuck.”
“Yeah?” Tom drove his hips up, absorbing every clench and spasm of Jake around him. His world narrowed to the dark, flushed man writhing on top of him, the feel of hot skin on skin, and the heavy scent of sex in the air. Then pleasure twisted his gut, drove the breath from his lungs, and forced a guttural groan from deep in his belly.
He came with a yell that was smothered by Jake’s frantic kiss. He met Jake’s embrace, and they collapsed together in a tangle of clumsy hands and rough, biting kisses, the kind of kisses he had imagined when he’d first set eyes on Jake.
When it was over, they lay breathless and exhausted. Jake shivered. Tom hooked the rumpled sheets with his foot and drew the duvet over them. Jake hummed his appreciation. “Your bed smells nice.”
Tom smiled into the darkness and touched the soft mane of inky hair he felt like he’d known forever. “Stay awhile, if you like.”
“Careful. I sleep like a log. You’ll need a foghorn to wake me up.”
Tom rubbed Jake’s shoulder. He didn’t sleep much, never had, but he knew someone else who slept like the dead once he finally found rest, and it was a characteristic he found endearing. He tightened his arms around Jake and listened to his unfamiliar breathing even out. Felt the faint tics ripple through him and felt his affection for him grow with each shudder and jolt.
Jake wasn’t the man he’d longed for in his bed that night, but though he missed Cass enough for his chest to ache, Jake’s slender bones wrapped around him felt pretty bloody perfect.
It was 9 a.m. when Tom’s phone rang the following morning. He fumbled for it among the stacks of paperwork on his desk, prepared to do battle with yet another cowboy supplier, but then he saw the photo ID of the caller and his heart skipped a warm, pleasurable beat.
Tom smiled and pressed the speakerphone button. Cass was the executive chef at their flagship restaurant, his business partner, lover, and soul mate of the last nine years. “Morning, gorgeous.”
Cass hummed in reply, throaty and deep, like he’d just woken up. “You left something pretty in bed.”
Tom’s grin widened as he checked the time. Cass had spent the night at the flat above Pippa’s, their restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush, and he wasn’t much of a morning person when he didn’t have to be. What was he doing in Hampstead so early? “Very funny. How do you know that? I thought you were going straight to the house after the stock take this morning.”
“Couldn’t sleep. I did the stocks last night instead. More productive than counting sheep, eh?”
“You’re preaching to the choir.” Tom leaned back in his chair and stretched the kinks out of his spine. His own inability to sleep past dawn was what had driven him to leave Jake alone in bed in the first place.
Tom got up from his desk and walked to the window. He felt lighter, like he always did when he told Cass he’d been with another bloke. Their relationship was a mystery to many, but it worked for them. They shared a life, and from time to time fucked other people. Didn’t change the fact that they loved each other to death.
“So, who is the pretty thing you left in bed for me?”
Tom let Cass’s teasing question hang. Pretty was just the half of it. He’d watched Jake sleep for hours, traced his tattoos, counted his tics, and admired his fragile beauty. Cass was the only man who’d ever captivated him so completely . . . and so fast.
“Earth to Tom?” Cass chuckled, and even through the phone, Tom felt his presence like a second skin. He had the dirtiest laugh on the planet. “Sounds like he’s something special. Shame he didn’t hang around for me to see it for myself.”
“Yep. Think I scared the shit out of him. I offered him a cuppa, but he scarpered like a bat out of hell.”
Tom winced. He’d never have left Jake if he’d known Cass was going there. Jake wasn’t the first bloke one of them had brought home who’d assumed the other would be out for his blood. “I didn’t tell him about you last night. I was going to head back soon, buy him brunch, and do it then.”
“Wasn’t a one-night thing, then.”
It wasn’t a question, but Tom considered it anyway. Did he want to see Jake again? Naked or otherwise? Yeah . . . yeah, he did. “Did you get a chance to talk to him?”
“Not really, but I gave him the note you left. He took it with him, if it’s any consolation.”
It wasn’t, and Tom had a feeling Cass knew it. “Anyway, aside from insomnia, what are you doing at base camp? Everything okay?”
Base camp was their nickname for the Hampstead flat, but in reality, Cass rarely made the long Tube ride across the city when he stayed late at Pippa’s. He worked hard enough without adding a hellish commute to his day, a reality Tom often found tough to swallow when he was missing Cass as much as he had been recently. Cass sighed, like he’d heard Tom’s lonely thoughts. “I thought we could drive home together for Manday Monday. I forgot you had to work today.”
“Any idea what time you’ll be back?”
Tom felt a twinge of guilt twist his gut. Monday was the only consistent day of the week Cass didn’t work, and Tom did his best to keep the day free so they could spend quality time together at their real home, a ramshackle house away from the city. But life didn’t always work out that way, and today he’d be lucky if he made it home in time for supper. “Don’t wait up.”
Cass sighed again, but it was pissed off rather than rueful this time. “Okay, but don’t forget I took tomorrow off as holiday. We should do something.”
He hung up before Tom could admit he had forgotten Cass had a few outstanding lieu days to use up before Christmas.
Tom wandered back to his desk and tossed his phone on an open folder. He had back-to-back meetings scheduled for most of the following day too, one of the cons of running six businesses that had nothing in common. He rubbed his neck and sighed. Life would be far easier without principles.
Easy. Tom thought of Cass, and, not for the first time that morning, thought of Jake too. Yeah, life could be easy, but who wanted that?
Not Tom. He spent the rest of the morning wrangling with advertising firms and rescheduling his Tuesday meetings. It was nearly lunchtime when his phone rang again. The caller ID for Pink’s, the tiny fish café they owned in Covent Garden flashed up. “Morning, Nero.”
Nero, the grouchiest chef in the world, grunted a response. “The rep from the recycling company called here for you. Said he was confirming your meeting tomorrow.”
“Shit. Is that really tomorrow?” Tom thumbed through his diary and found the appointment—Barry Herbert, Green Stuff Logistics—neatly written in for the following Sunday. Bloody Sunday? What the fuck was I thinking when I wrote that? “Shit. I had it down for the wrong day. Don’t suppose you want to fill in for me, do you?”
“You taking the piss?”
Nero had a point. The bloke was blunt on a good day, and bloody rude the rest of the time. “Did he leave a number?”
Nero reeled it off and hung up. Tom called the rep and tried for a reschedule, but it wasn’t good news.
“Could be difficult. I’m heading home tomorrow night. Do you want to liaise with my PA and set something up with head office?”
Not really. In fact, it was the last thing Tom wanted to do. Green Stuff Logistics had their home in bloody Reading, and Tom barely had time for meetings in London.
Still, there wasn’t much he could do but agree and make the appointment. He’d built his company from scratch and put everything he had into making it thrive, but nothing was more important to him than Cass.
Even so, it was close to midnight by the time he staggered off the last train into Berkhamsted and caught a cab home. He let himself into the old Victorian house and followed the sound of the TV to the living room, hoping to find Cass awake, but no such luck. He was stretched out in front of the fire, fast asleep. Tom hovered in the doorway a moment, enjoying the view, but Cass’s presence reeled him in, like it had the moment they’d met nearly a decade ago. He dumped his bag, kicked off his shoes, and padded across the bare wood floors they hadn’t had time to varnish yet. He crouched down and pushed Cass’s hood back so he could see his face. Chiselled cheekbones and dark stubble greeted him. He waited a moment to see if Cass would reveal his moody-blue eyes, but the love of his life remained asleep.
With a reluctant sigh, Tom kissed his cheek, dug some breakfast supplies out of the freezer, and went to bed alone.
Tom woke at dawn to find Cass had crawled into bed with him during the night. He held him awhile, breathing him in, but eventually his usual restlessness got the better of him, and he left Cass to sleep.
He trod softly down the stairs, through the unpainted hallway and derelict dining room, and headed for the kitchen, the only finished room in the house. He put the kettle on the range and warmed himself over the hob while the water came to the boil. Then he took his mug of hot tea and stood by the kitchen window, one of his favourite pastimes when he was lucky enough to wake up at home. The garden was wild and beautiful, a tangled mess of gnarled branches and overgrown shrubs, and after a week in the city, watching the birds dance in the trees was a balm to his tired eyes.
There was a scrabbling noise at the back door. Tom wandered over and granted entrance to the lean streak of feline attitude who fought him for Cass’s affection.
Souris sashayed into the house, shooting Tom a glare that left him in no doubt of his place in her world. The tiny tabby belonged to Cass, and only deigned to come home when she knew he was there, or at least sensed he was imminent. She spent the rest of her time with the old lady across the road and treated Tom with disdain. This morning, she stalked past the food he put in her bowl and disappeared into the house to find Cass.
Tom returned to his post with a wry smile. Perhaps the cat had the right idea. Was there anything better than a lazy day with Cass? Probably not, but as Tom stood by the unpainted kitchen window, his mind drifted to another dark-haired man who’d recently shared his bed. In the misty light of the early morning, he took a moment to appreciate the similarities between Cass and Jake. Some were obvious—tattoos, dark hair, and slim bones—but others less so. Others were things most people wouldn’t notice, especially in Cass, like the vulnerability that drew Tom in until he couldn’t let go.
Cass, Jake, Cass, Jake.
Though Cass owned his heart, Tom knew he’d see Jake again. He had to . . . that is, if he could get to Camden anytime soon.
Wiry arms slid around Tom from behind. “What are you thinking so hard about?”
Tom closed his eyes and absorbed the warmth that spread through his chest. “You?”
Cass chuckled and pressed his face between Tom’s shoulder blades, biting gently through his T-shirt. “Yeah, and the rest?”
Tom turned away from the window and pulled Cass to him in a long, hard hug. “What are you doing up so early? Thought it would be gone noon before you showed your face.”
Cass was silent a moment, his face hidden in Tom’s chest, then he shrugged. “The cat punched me. Think she’s hungry.”
“She’s not hungry; she’s an arsehole. I already fed her.” Tom inclined his head at the full cat bowl. “I’ll feed you too, if you like. What do you want for breakfast?”
Cass lifted his head and grinned, his sleep-tousled hair sticking up in every direction. “Make me a cuppa and surprise me.”
He sloped off to the shower, leaving Tom to roll his eyes and throw some bangers under the grill for sausage baps. Cass was a typical chef: he worked hard, played hard, and only ate a proper meal when someone else cooked it and put it in front of him. Tom’s repertoire was basic, compared to Cass’s at least, but when he had time, there was almost nothing he liked more than taking care of his boy.
They spent a lazy morning on the sofa. Cass put his head in Tom’s lap and dozed through reruns of Top Gear and Only Fools and Horses, while Tom balanced his laptop on the arm of the couch and answered the emails he couldn’t ignore. True to form, it was gone noon before Cass decided he was awake enough to go out.
They wrapped up warm and left the house for their habitual walk through the woodland that surrounded their home. Tom shut the back gate and held out his hand. Cass grasped it, and they set off down the bridle path that took them through the nearby Ashridge country park. The woods were peaceful and almost deserted, populated only by a few dog walkers. A young labradoodle pup ran up to them and pounced on Cass.
Cass laughed and scratched its ears. “I want one.”
Tom thought of their contrary cat and snorted. “No chance. You have to come home at night if you have a dog.”
Cass kept his gaze on the pup, a longing smile on his face, and Tom had to fight to remain unmoved. His position was fair, in his mind, at least. Cass’s insistence on remaining on the front line of their business was a major bone of contention. He was an equal partner in their company. There was no need for him to work seventy-five-hour weeks in the kitchen. He could do anything he wanted—
Tom caught his train of thought and reined himself in. Cass was doing what he wanted. Anything else would bore the arse off him, and working seventy-five hours a week was far better than how Cass had spent his time before he’d found his calling selling artisan sausages on London’s famous Borough Market. Didn’t make being apart any easier, though, and knowing it was unnecessary grated at Tom’s nerves, even on a good day. Why was it so hard for Cass to just . . . be?
The dog’s owner whistled. The pup woofed and scampered away. Cass reluctantly watched him go. Tom fought again to ignore the yearning in Cass’s gaze, and reclaimed his hand. They walked until they returned to the canal and stopped at a pub by the water’s edge. Cass went inside and brought back pints of ale and three bags of crisps to the table Tom had claimed.
Tom rolled his eyes. “Quavers? Really?”
“Piss off.” Cass ripped the bags open and pushed one bag Tom’s way. “I know you’re not too posh for Quavers.”
Tom gave Cass the finger. His private school education was something Cass liked to poke fun at. Cass’d grown up in the back end of Tower Hamlets, and to him, Tom’s childhood seemed like a Disney film.
“So tell me about the lanky hottie in our bed yesterday.”
Tom swallowed a mouthful of beer. Though Jake had been on Tom’s mind, Cass hadn’t mentioned him all morning, which Tom had taken as a sign he wasn’t that interested. “What do you want to know?”
“Where did you meet him?”
“In Camden. I grabbed some dinner in one of PBG’s places.”
Cass wrinkled his nose. “What the fuck for? I’d rather starve.”
“I know, I know. The food was rubbish, but the scenery wasn’t bad. Jake was my waiter.”
Cass smirked. “You picked up your waiter? That’s so cheesy.”
“Not quite. I went for a drink after. He found me in the bar and brought my diary back to me. I’d left it on my table.”
“That’s even worse. So, Jake, eh? I like that name, and I liked his ink. He has some epic tattoos.”
“So do you.” Tom took a pull of his pint and considered Cass. He and Jake had different eyes. Jake’s were warm and brown, while no one on earth had stormy blues quite like Cass. “Did you notice anything else about him?”
“I didn’t get much chance. I told you, he legged it.”
“You didn’t talk to him?”
“Not really.” Cass set down his beer, perhaps sensing Tom was trying to tell him something. “And he didn’t say much at all, apart from calling me an arse-bandit wanker, which I thought was pretty rich. Why? What am I missing?”
Tom reached for the crisps between them. “He has Tourette’s. You know what that is, right?”
“I think so,” Cass said after a moment’s thought. “Is that the swearing thing Keith Allen did that documentary on?”
“I don’t know, but there seems to be more to it than swearing. Jake called them tics . . . the swearing and stuff, but it was more physical than just shouting, like it went through his whole body.”
Tom explained the incident in the restaurant and the behaviour he’d witnessed in the bar and on the train. “It wasn’t so bad when we were fucking, though. I forgot about it, to be honest, and it felt like he did too.”
“So you fucked him, then?”
Tom chanced a glance around, but there was no one close enough to overhear them. “Yeah, I guess, but to be honest, for most of it, it felt like he was fucking me.”
Cass burst out laughing. “Really? That’s bloody brilliant. I wish I’d seen it. You’re such a control freak.”
“Yeah well, you like it.”
“True.” Cass sobered himself with clear effort. “Is that what’s got him under your skin so much? The fucking? Or is it the Tourette’s?”
Tom hooked his legs around Cass’s under the table, and reminded himself how lucky he was to be with someone who understood him so well. “I don’t know,” he said eventually. “I had a good time with him, and I liked him, a lot, but it feels unfinished. Like I forgot to do something that really bloody matters.”
“Sounds like more than fucking.” Cass drained his pint and dropped the glass on the table. “Maybe you should stick around next time.”
Next time. They left the pub with the notion swimming in Tom’s head, though Cass said no more on the subject. They completed the loop around the town and stopped at the Dragonfly, the bistro they owned on the high street.
Cass wanted to check the kitchen, but Tom stood his ground and parked him in a cosy alcove with a cup of tea while he wandered back of house under the pretence of doing so himself. Gloria, the bistro’s head chef, greeted him with open arms. Tom returned her crushing embrace with a wry smile. Gloria didn’t need her kitchen checked. Cass aside, she was the best chef they had.
“I saved some cassoulet and dauphinoise. Take it home for you and Cass. You both work too hard.”
Tom wasn’t about to argue, especially when Gloria was pushing her epic cassoulet on him. He bade her good-bye, retrieved Cass, and together, they made their way home.
They spent the rest of the day painting their bedroom, an activity that ended with Cass bent over the bed and covered in sticky white fingermarks. It was late by the time they sat down to the mountain of food Gloria had donated to them.
Cass eyed the overflowing dishes. “We always have too much food. Maybe you should track down your new friend. Feed him up a little.”
“You’d be okay with that?”
Cass shrugged. “Why not? You always know when someone needs your help. You’ve got a sixth sense or something. The fact that he’s hot is a bonus. Find him. Fuck him. Fix him. It’s what you do.”
“That’s not what I do.”
“Yes, it is.” Cass shoved his fork in his mouth like the conversation was done, but then he held out his hand. “You fix me all the time when I listen, and if he . . . Jake wants to see how, bring him home. I’d like to meet him.”
The thought of Cass and Jake in the same place together made Tom warm all over. He took Cass’s hand. “I’d rather you came home more often first.” He didn’t miss the bleak undertone lacing his words, but he tried to ignore it. “And I don’t fix you, babe; you fix yourself.”
“Do I? Some days I’m not so sure.”
Tom squeezed Cass’s hand. “What’s on your mind?”
“Hmm? Oh, nothing. Not really. Just hard to believe I’m really here sometimes, you know?”
Tom didn’t. He’d tried over and over to get his head around Cass’s continual belief that he didn’t deserve all that he’d worked so hard for, and still didn’t get it. Cass had come from nothing and now he had the world at his feet. Why couldn’t he be proud of that? Proud of them and all they’d achieved? Lord knew Tom was, but he’d lost this argument with Cass too many times to spoil their precious time together.
Instead, he squeezed Cass’s hand again, loved him a little bit more, and tried to find a plausible business reason to pass through Camden the following day.
This was one of the most enjoyable books I have read. The characters were developed and well rounded. They were fun and made me have an emotional investment in their lives. The writing was simply fantastic. Great descriptions of environments, emotions, TS, jobs, everything. I would recommend this to anyone wanting a fantastic romance. This just blew me away.
They love and love harder for the sakes of making what they have work and it is beautiful in its unfolding.
I don’t know how [Garrett Leigh] keeps creating these original, beautiful, damaged souls – and truly, no two are alike – but I hope she never stops. Misfits is another one that is not to be missed.
Misfits was an absolutely beautiful story and I loved every page of it. . . . Misfits has been added to the list of those I plan to reread because I cannot wait to fall in love with Tom, Jake, and Cass all over again.
The characters, the feels, the plot…every added element worked to make this story a superb read.