Played! (A Shamwell Tales novel)

Played! by JL Merrow
 
Author: 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-611-8
eBook release: 
Jun 12, 2017
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-612-5
Print release: 
Jun 12, 2017
Word count: 
~68,500
Page count: 
~258
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Shamwell Tales universe.

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All the world’s a stage . . . but life doesn’t come with a script.

Posh boy Tristan Goldsmith has one last summer of freedom before he joins the family firm in New York—no more farting around on stage, as his father puts it. But the classically trained actor can’t resist when the Shamwell Amateur Dramatics Society begs him to take a leading role in their production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As an added incentive, he’ll be giving private acting lessons to a gorgeous local handyman who’s been curiously resistant to Tristan’s advances.

As a late-diagnosed dyslexic still struggling with literacy, Con Izzard’s never dared to act before. With arrogant yet charming Tristan helping him with his lines, he finally has his chance to shine. But Con’s determined not to start a romance with a man he’s convinced only wants a casual fling.

Tristan’s never been one to back down from a challenge, especially when he realises his attraction to the tall, muscular handyman isn’t just physical. Just as he thinks he’s finally won Con’s heart—and given his own in return—disaster strikes with a slip of the tongue that shatters Con’s trust and sends him running for cover. This show may be over before the curtain’s even opened.

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

This title comes with no special warnings.

Chapter One

A Plague on Both Your Houses

There was a frog in the kitchen.

Again.

Tristan crouched down to glare at it, quite certain that such incursions would not have been tolerated had Nanna Geary still been alive. And while she had now, at the ridiculously young age of eighty-two, passed on to her reward, he was damned if he’d let her house be invaded on his watch.

The frog stared back at him with an inscrutable amphibian gaze.

“This,” he told it firmly, “has got to stop. Do I hop into your pond and frolic among the lily pads? I do not. So why you feel you can make free of my living area, I really cannot imagine.”

The frog blinked once. Then, in a series of spring-loaded manoeuvres almost too quick for Tristan’s startled eyes to follow, it hopped behind the fridge.

Damn it. This called for desperate measures.

Tristan picked up Nanna Geary’s phone and dialled a number he’d had the foresight to memorise.

“Yeah?” The voice was deep in timbre, yet clearly young. Excellent.

“Hello. I perused your advertisement in our local emporium. All—

“You what?”

“I read your card in Tesco,” Tristan clarified with a sigh. Some people had no appreciation for the beauties of the English language. “All household job’s—I assume the apostrophe was ironic?—done, resonible rates.”

“Er, yeah.” The man on the other end of the phone sounded somewhat nonplussed, possibly due to the way Tristan had stressed the “ibble” at the end of resonible. “What’s the problem?”

“Biblical.”

“What?”

“I have a plague of frogs.”

Pause. “Is this a joke?”

“If it is, it’s on me. I keep coming down in the morning to find a frog in my kitchen. Not something one wants to see before one’s first cup of coffee. And let me tell you, I’m something of a connoisseur of unwelcome morning sights.” At least, Tristan comforted himself, this one hadn’t been in bed with him.

Yet.

He wouldn’t put anything past the vile green creature. It was probably hoping for a kiss, and far be it from Tristan to brag, but he had an impressively wide experience of where kisses tended to lead.

Over his dead body, in this particular instance.

A frog,” the handyman was saying. There was another pause. “So technically, yeah, that’s a plague of frog. One of ’em.”

“Semantics. The plural, in this case, may be taken to include the singular.”

“Right . . . Look, I think you want pest control, anyhow.”

Finally we reach agreement. So how soon can you be here?”

“No, I mean you want someone who works in pest control. Um. You’re in the village, right?”

Tristan rolled his eyes. “I’m certainly in a village. However, there appears to be an elegant sufficiency of villages in this vicinity. Perhaps one might essay a tad more specificity, hmm?”

There was a silence, then the voice on the other end was back. “Well, go on, then. Essay me specific.”

Tristan frowned. Unless he was very much mistaken, there had been a soupçon of sarcasm in the handyman’s tone. “Shamwell,” he said shortly.

“Thought so. Right. I’ve got this mate. Where are you? I’ll send him round.”

“Excuse me? I’m sorry, I believe I must have had some kind of catatonic fit and missed the part of the conversation where I told you to feel free to invite all your friends to my house. Perhaps you’d like to create a Facebook event, make it a free-for-all—”

“Look, do you want rid of this frog or not?”

Obviously.”

“Then lemme give Sean a call. He’s a professional. What’s your address?”

Tristan sighed. “Twenty-two Valley Crescent.”

There was a pause. “That’s Mrs. Geary’s house.”

“Was.” Tristan’s voice came out perhaps a little on the sharp side. He missed Nanna Geary. She’d always loved to hear about Tristan’s latest triumph on the stage, and she’d certainly never told him to go and get a proper job. “Now it’s mine.”

“Right.” The handyman’s tone was equally abrupt. “I’ll send Sean over.”

“Immediately?”

“Well, he’s probably on a job right now, but soon as he can make it, yeah.”

“Make it soon. This is an emergency.” Tristan hung up. It was often best not to give these people a chance to make excuses.

Then he went back to sorting through Nanna Geary’s belongings. It was, Tristan had to admit, not proceeding as quickly as it might. He kept getting distracted by memories from his childhood. He’d been set back half an hour already this morning by coming across her old boiled wool jacket, a stiff heavy thing in the vilest shade of green imaginable—really, next to it, this morning’s uninvited visitor would be a thing of beauty. The smell of wet dogs and camphor emanating from it had taken Tristan right back to rainy afternoons playing games of rummy in a dripping gazebo, because Nanna Geary thought boys needed fresh air even when the weather was dreadful . . . He sighed and folded it reverently before adding it to the charity shop pile.

Tristan was knee-deep in women’s underwear when the doorbell rang. Most of it was of the sturdy thermal variety, but he’d been shocked and delighted to find some black lace nestling at the back of the drawer of, well, drawers.

“Nanna Geary, you saucy little minx,” he murmured as he got to his feet, detached a wayward suspender belt from his sleeve, and made his way downstairs.

There was no hall, as such, in Nanna Geary’s house. The front door opened directly from what she had liked to call the living room, comprising as it did both lounge area and dining room. Tristan strode along its length and flung the door wide.

The man looming awkwardly on the doormat was delicious. Tall, muscular, and delightfully rough around the edges, with dark stubble on his chin and unruly jet-black hair. He was casually dressed in jeans and a singlet, perfectly accessorised with a touch of the grime of honest toil. Things were definitely looking up. And up, and up. Actually, the man’s height was bordering on the offensive, but Tristan was a forgiving sort. He beamed at the stranger and barely restrained himself from a Hel-looo gorgeous. “You must be Sean.”

The man’s face twisted, and he rubbed the back of his neck, displaying some nicely honed triceps and a tuft of armpit hair. Tristan’s inner princess swooned dramatically. “Yeah, about that. Sorry. Sean says he don’t do frogs, cos they’re not classed as pests. Says they’re good for slugs and all. I’m Con.”

“Con? Short for Conor? Now you come to mention it, you do have something of the look of the Black Irish about you.”

Con frowned. “If you think I’m black, mate, you shoulda gone to Specsavers.”

Tristan rolled his eyes with a dramatic air he felt sure, had they been on stage, would have carried right to the back of the gods. “The hair, dear child. I was referring to the hair. So is it?”

“What, black? No, it’s just sort of dark brown.”

Con was now looking at Tristan like he was the one spouting nonsense, which Tristan felt, in the circumstances, to be grossly unfair. “I meant, your name. Conor?”

Inexplicably, Con blushed. “No. It’s Constantine.”

Ah. That explicated that one. “Never mind. There are worse fates. Take me, for instance: a Jewish boy named for a Cornish adulterer made famous by a Nazi composer. God knows what my parents were thinking of. I suppose you’d better come in,” Tristan added, stepping back from the door.

“Uh . . . I just came over to explain about Sean not coming.” The shuffling of his feet was heading in the wrong direction. Time to nip that firmly in the bud.

Of course, thoughts of nipping, firm, and even bud were, with the excellent visual aid standing in front of him, having a predictable effect on Tristan’s libido. Down, boy, he told himself sternly.

“Now you’re here, you can hardly leave me besieged by amphibians. Or even amphibian, singular. Come on, come in.” Tristan made impatient beckoning motions. “And wipe your feet, please.” Nanna Geary would have a posthumous fit if he let anyone tramp mud onto her living room carpet.

“’S’okay. I’ll take my boots off.” Con toed off his alarmingly large footwear on the doormat and finally stepped inside, looking around him as he did so. In his socks, his height was merely mildly irritating. Tristan could live with that, particularly when coupled with the rest of the package.

Mmm. And there was another Freudian choice of words. Tristan could definitely see himself coupled with Con’s package . . . Damn. The man was speaking again.

“Just moved in, did you? I didn’t even know the place was up for sale yet.”

“It wasn’t.” Tristan supposed he’d have to explain himself or risk finding out just what the police in this area thought of squatters. “Nanna Geary left it to me.”

Con blinked—then beamed, his whole face lighting up with the twinkle in those soulful, dark eyes. “You’re Tristan, aren’t you? I thought you looked familiar.”

Whilst having his reputation precede him wasn’t a totally new experience for Tristan, neither was it always a positive one. Still, he felt reasonably safe in assuming Nanna Geary hadn’t said anything too terrible about him. “The one and only,” he conceded modestly. “But I really think I’d remember if we’d ever met.”

Con’s smile was a little lopsided, curving up farther on one side than the other. It was annoyingly endearing. “Old Mrs. Geary showed me your picture. She used to talk about you all the time. Reckoned you’re the next Laurence Olivier or something.”

“Well, I prefer to think of myself as the first Tristan Goldsmith, but—”

“She said it was a real shame, you going to work for your dad’s business in New York. Leaving acting behind. Said it was a terrible waste, what with you being all talented and that.”

“Yes, well. Talent, sadly, is not noted for paying the bills.” Or appeasing paternal figures, alas.

“So, what, you taking a few days off to get the place sorted out?” Con looked around Nanna Geary’s living room, which was much as she’d left it aside from the regrettably small stack of boxes by the stairs that was all Tristan had so far managed to pack for the charity shop.

“I haven’t actually started yet. At Goldsmith & Klein, that is. That’s the firm. In New York. So I’ll be here until October.” Even Father had grudgingly agreed that settling Nanna Geary’s affairs was an acceptable excuse for one last summer of freedom. “Though why that should be any of your concern—”

“I liked her. Your gran, I mean.”

Tristan didn’t correct him; after all, there were literal truths, and there were essential truths, and while Nanna Geary might not have been a blood relation, she’d been his grandmother in every other way that counted.

“She was a nice old lady,” Con went on, his expression engagingly fond. “I did a few jobs for her around the house and the garden—cleared out that pond last year, in fact.”

Tristan raised an eyebrow. “So what you’re saying is, it’s actually your fault I’m suffering from this plague?”

“Uh . . .”

“Right. You can sort the wretched thing out, then. Last I saw it, it was behind the fridge. Come on, this way. Chop chop.” He sent Con a winning smile.

Con hesitated but nonetheless padded into the kitchen, which, now Tristan came to think about it, really hadn’t been designed for people of Con’s size. He seemed to fill the space entirely, Alice in Wonderland style, giving the curious impression that it was the kitchen that had shrunk.

Not to mention Tristan, who was starting to get a crick in his neck from looking the man in the eye. “Do you have to be so tall?” he asked distractedly, scanning for signs of frog.

“I can kneel down if it’ll make you feel better,” Con suggested with a smidgeon of surliness.

Well, nobody could be expected to let that one go. Tristan sent Con a flirtatious smile. “Maybe later,” he purred.

Con blushed and looked away.

Tristan stifled a laugh. He resumed his search, only to give up in frustration a moment later. “Bugger it. The wretched thing’s gone into hiding. Or gone out the same way it came in. Whatever the hell that was.”

“Doubt it,” Con said, sounding amused.

Tristan glared at him, suspicion blooming. “Is this some Welsh-style conspiracy to stop newcomers invading the village? Have you been planting vermin in my house? What next, arson?”

“What? You ought to see someone for that paranoia, mate. Nah, it’s obvious, innit?” He gestured at the kitchen door.

There was a cat flap in it, but surely not? “If you’re trying to convince me the frogs around here have learned to use cat flaps . . .”

“Nah, but the cats have. It’ll be Meggie, bringing you a housewarming present.”

Tristan folded his arms. “Meggie died two years ago.” Tristan had very fond memories of Meggie, who, despite the name, had been an overlarge neutered tom who’d strongly reminded Tristan of a less lurid Bagpuss. “If you’re trying to tell me I’m being haunted by some kind of feline poltergeist—”

“Doubt it, seeing as she was fine last Tuesday. Must be a different cat—I think Mrs. Geary got her just before I moved to the village, cos she was hardly more than a kitten when I first saw her. So, yeah, not part of a village conspiracy, all right?”

“Nanna Geary got a new Meggie?” Tristan was horrified. Meggie couldn’t simply be replaced. What had Nanna Geary been thinking of in any case, getting a new pet in her eighties? And why hadn’t she mentioned it to him?

Tristan knew he should have visited more this last year, not just relied on phone calls, letters, and that time she’d flown all the way up to Edinburgh to see him in the Scottish play, bless her. Life with a touring production might not exactly lend itself to taking odd days off here and there, but he could have managed something, damn it.

Of course, he’d been meaning to come to see her in the summer. Properly meaning to, not just saying he would. He hadn’t expected to run out of time so quickly.

“Yeah, but don’t worry,” Con was saying, as if he thought Tristan gave a damn about a cat he’d never even met. “The neighbours over that side”—he pointed vaguely up the hill towards number twenty—“have been looking after her. S’pose she’s just noticed someone’s living here again.”

“Right, well, that can be the first order of the day—you can nail that bloody cat flap shut.” It was hard enough coping with the thought of never seeing Nanna Geary again; Tristan was damned if he’d deal with some feline usurper to boot. And anyway, it wasn’t like he was going to be staying here for long. Best not to confuse the wretched animal. “Now I come to think of it, there are quite a few jobs you could be getting on with.”

Tristan looked around and grabbed Nanna Geary’s shopping-list notepad, with attached pencil, from its hook on the wall. He thrust it at Con, who took it with a strange appearance of reluctance. Hah. Now it was Tristan’s turn to regain the upper hand. “Here. Take notes. The ivy along the garden fence is getting completely out of control, and the back door keeps sticking. Oh, and the window frames all need painting, and the bathroom—”

“Hang on, hang on. You gotta slow down, yeah?”

“I wasn’t talking that quickly. How far have you got?” Tristan peered at the notepad. And frowned.

Con’s untidy scrawl extended to one word, and even that was being charitable.

“‘Dor’?” Tristan asked, almost spraining his eyebrows in the process.

Con flushed and hung the notepad back on the wall with exaggerated care. One fist, Tristan couldn’t help but notice, was clenched by his side. “Look, you want me to do a job—that’s a job, right,” he added pointedly, “the singular don’t include the plural—you call me and I’ll come do it when I’m free, all right?”

Tristan folded his arms once more and resisted the urge to tap his foot. As he was currently, he realised for the first time with a swiftly stifled pang of embarrassment, wearing a pair of Nanna Geary’s tartan slippers, the gesture would in any case have lacked oomph. “You’re free now, aren’t you?”

“No, as it happens. I’m s’posed to be over in Bishops Langley in ten minutes. I wouldn’t have come over at all, ’cept you kept saying it was such a bloody emergency.” Con folded his arms, and Tristan couldn’t help but notice the strength in those uncovered biceps, particularly as compared to any other biceps that might be in the vicinity. Dark brows lowered over stormy eyes, the man a veritable Heathcliff to Tristan’s Isabella.

Catherine. He meant Catherine, damn it.

They glared at one another for a long moment.

“Fine,” Tristan ground out. “I shall await your leisure.”

Con drew a breath, then clearly changed his mind about whatever he’d been about to say. “Yeah. See you.” He stomped to the door, jammed his feet into his boots, and left, closing the door softly behind him.

Bastard. Guilt surged anew at having visited Nanna Geary so infrequently in recent months.

Tristan would have been camped out in her living room twenty-four seven if he’d known this was the sort of company she’d been keeping.

 

Chapter Two

All the Devils Are Here

Con stormed out of Mrs. Geary’s house wanting to punch something. Preferably her grandson’s face. Poncey, smug, entitled prick.

How did someone as nice as Mrs. Geary end up with such a total git of a grandson? She’d had proper class, she had. She’d never treated him like he was just the odd-job man. Always brought him his tea in a cup and saucer when he was working round her place. There’d always been a bourbon biscuit or a custard cream to go with it too. He’d used to stop work, and they’d have a bit of a natter while they drank their tea, ’specially after she’d found out his gran had just died and he didn’t have any other family. Well, none that counted.

The way she’d talked about this Tristan bastard, Con had expected someone totally different. Someone who was actually nice. Course, he was an actor, wasn’t he? Probably put on some manners when he was with his gran. Wouldn’t have wanted her to leave him out of her will, now would he?

And he’d had to be good-looking, hadn’t he? And pretty obviously gay. He looked a bit like Mo, if Con thought about it, which he didn’t, all right? Mo was ancient history. Tristan was small—well, a good head shorter than Con, at any rate—with a bit of a curl to his dark hair and God, those sharp brown eyes of his . . . Like he’d been laughing at Con inside the whole bloody time, and reckoned even if he’d said the joke out loud, Con would’ve been too bloody thick to get it.

Con fumed his way up the road to where he’d wedged the van in between a Mini and a Renault with a dent in the side. He wasn’t in the mood for Heart of Darkness right now, so he changed the CD to Harry Potter book one before he eased the van out into the narrow channel between the rows of parked cars that lined Valley Crescent. Most of the houses were dead old, so driveways weren’t exactly a thing.

Stephen Fry’s soothing voice did its job of calming him down a bit as he drove. Funny, really, what with him being a posh git and all. Then again, maybe it was just how it always reminded Con of Gran. She’d bought him a Harry Potter audio book a year for Christmas, right up until she died, and they weren’t cheap either.

Harry’s Aunt Petunia would’ve loved Tristan, Con reckoned, with his plummy voice and ninja sodding spelling ability. What the bloody hell did it matter if Con had spelt a word or two wrong? The bloke had still known what it meant.

Course, Tristan probably wouldn’t have thought much of her. Aunt Petunia, that was. Tristan probably didn’t think much of anyone except himself.

Shit. This wasn’t helping. Con wished he still had the latest Terry Pratchett, but it’d gone back to the library. Con got a lot of his audiobooks from the library, always had—they were way too expensive to buy all the time—but it was a pain not being able to listen to them again whenever he wanted. Course, he had all of Gran’s old books at home. Trouble was, more than half of them were on cassette tapes, and it was getting harder to find things you could play ’em on. And, well, Mills and Boon romances weren’t exactly the sort of thing he’d want to be caught listening to in public. Even if they were actually a lot better than you’d think, as a rule.

He got a few digs for the Harry Potters, come to that, but they could just shove it.

* * * * * * *

Con was in a much better mood by the time he drove back to Shamwell at the end of the day. The afternoon spent clearing gutters and replacing tiles in the sunshine probably had a lot to do with it. He wasn’t a roofer, but that sort of thing was easy enough if you had a head for heights. Con actually liked being up high—you could see stuff, and the air was clearer, somehow.

Harry was at Hogwarts now—Con had skipped ahead a bit—and the descriptions of all the food at the welcoming feast had his stomach rumbling louder than the van’s engine.

He parked the van round the back of the post office, and headed up to his flat. It was pretty poky as flats went—just one bedroom, which was also the sitting room; a kitchen that was too small to swing a mouse in, let alone a cat; and a shower room, because there wasn’t space in it for a bath. Which would have horrified his gran but was fine by Con—bathtubs were always too small for him to really get comfortable in anyhow. Oh, and there was a small walk-in cupboard, or if you were an estate agent, a “dressing room.”

But small as it was, the flat was home. It hadn’t been easy making the rent when he’d first moved to the village, but work had picked up steadily since then. Villages like this, people didn’t like to look in the yellow pages when they wanted some work done. They’d go round and ask their neighbours who they got in to do such-and-such. And Con would tackle pretty much anything, as long as it wasn’t too technical and there weren’t any safety issues, and even if he said so himself, he was dirt cheap, so word got around fairly quick.

His mate Heather liked to say it was his looks that got him half his jobs, but Con reckoned people were a bit more savvy with their money than that.

He’d be seeing Heather down the pub tonight, her and Sean. Con smiled as he kicked his boots off and nudged them with his foot until they stood more or less neatly by the door. He’d be able to tell Sean what a narrow escape he’d had, not going round to deal with Tristan bloody Goldsmith and his Plague of Frog.

Con padded into the kitchen to fill the kettle. Maybe he should live down to Tristan’s expectations and organise an actual plague of frogs. That’d send the bloke screaming for his mummy. Con grinned to himself. He could see it now—Tristan all wide-eyed and panicking, and Mummy, who probably looked exactly like him, only smaller and not as pretty—

Shit. Had he just thought Tristan was pretty? Must be time to get some food down him before he got any more light-headed. Con opened up the fridge and pulled out ham, eggs, and cheese. By that time, the kettle had boiled, so he grabbed a mug and bunged in a teabag.

Quarter of an hour later, Con was sitting on the sofa in front of the telly, a plateful of omelette, beans, and toast warming his lap. Nothing like a hearty meal after an honest day’s work. He bet that tosser Tristan wouldn’t know an honest day’s work if it bit him on his well-shaped arse . . .

Oh, bloody hell. Con switched over from the news to an old Top Gear. If Jeremy Clarkson and his mates being all ultra-blokey couldn’t stop him thinking about that poncey git, nothing could.

* * * * * * *

The Three Lions pub was right on the edge of the village centre, where the high street turned into The Hill and stopped having shops and stuff on it. Con walked past the wine bar, Badgers, on his way. Now that was much more the sort of place Mrs. Geary’s grandson would meet his mates for a drink. If he had any mates.

Con laughed at himself. Nah, course Tristan would have mates. They’d all be stuck-up posey gits like he was, who thought they owned the world and probably did and all.

He reached the pub just as Sean was getting off his motorbike in the car park, so instead of diving straight in, he wandered over to greet him. “All right, mate?”

Sean pulled off his helmet and ruffled his hair up from where it’d gone a bit flat. It was really short at the mo, so he ended up looking like a ginger hedgehog. “Yeah, I’m good. You?”

“Good, ta. How did your sister’s checkup go?”

“Great—still cancer-free and no sign of it coming back. Debs has even got a date tomorrow, actually—she got talking to this bloke in Tesco, and he asked her out. Me and Rob are looking after the lads.”

Sean was looking pretty happy about it, which Con didn’t reckon was down to the prospect of babysitting his twin nephews. He’d heard they could be a bit of a handful. “Yeah? That’s great. So, you know, if it works out, think you and Rob’ll move in together?”

Sean laughed. “Bloody hell, it’s only the first date. Give ’em a chance! But, well, you know. Might have crossed my mind, yeah.” He ducked his head. “Hey, how’d you get on with the bloke with the frog?” he went on as they walked over to the pub door.

Con groaned. “Bloody nightmare, he was.”

“Bit of a tosser?” Sean asked, pausing just outside the entrance.

“Too bloody right. Ex public schoolboy who thinks he’s too good for this place, and we’re all just a bunch of peasants he can order about.”

Sean gave him a sidelong look. “He can’t help it if he’s posh, you know. He didn’t ask for his family any more than you asked for yours.”

Shit. He’d forgotten Sean’s bloke was an ex public schoolboy too. “Yeah, but . . . your Rob. He’s posh, right? And educated and all that. But he never makes me feel stupid, or . . . or like he thinks I’m common, or anything. Not like this bastard, with his big words and his jokes about my bloody spelling, the git.”

“Okay, point taken. He’s a dick.” Sean grinned.

“Yeah, and would you believe he’s old Mrs. Geary’s grandson? That nice old lady who used to go to all the Sham-Drams stuff, remember her? She left him the house in her will. Christ, why is it always the bastards who luck out in life? If someone left me a house, I’d think I’d won the bloody lottery.” Tristan probably thought it was just his due.

“Yeah, but didn’t your gran leave you something when she died?”

“Well, yeah, but she never had much, Gran didn’t. The flat was rented from the council, so by the time I’d paid for the funeral, there was just a few hundred quid left from her savings account and some bits of furniture.” Con’s mouth twisted, the memory still a bitter taste. “Caroline took all her jewellery.”

“That’s your mum, right?” Sean’s tone was cautious. Con hadn’t said a lot about his family to his mates here—it’d all still been a bit raw when he’d moved to the village—but they knew some of it. Like how he felt about his—about Caroline.

Con nodded. “Turned up to the funeral after three bloody years of us not knowing if she was alive or dead. Said she ought to have Gran’s rings and her locket as she was her daughter, ‘and it ain’t like you’re ever gonna ’ave a girl to give them to, you big nance.’” He mimicked her tone, still able to hear her mocking voice in his head.

Sean winced. “Sounds great, your mum.”

“Why’d you think I don’t call her that anymore?” That, and the fact she’d barely been around since he’d turned three. Con shrugged, feeling a bit bleak. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got other stuff to remember Gran by. Bet she never even kept it—the jewellery, I mean. Probably just sold it straight off and spent the money on booze. Only thing I’m ever likely to inherit from her is a bill from the off-licence.”

“All goes to prove my point, doesn’t it? You can’t choose your family. Now, are we going in this pub, or are we just going to hang around outside till it gets dark?”

Con gave a sheepish grin. “Sorry. Keeping you out here moaning on about stuff.” He pushed the door open, and they stepped inside.

Sean clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. What are mates for? Hey, look, Hev’s here already.”

Heather was sitting at a table by a window, tapping away at her phone. She looked up as they waved, and gave them a smile. Con liked her smile. It was genuine, like the rest of her—not all painted-on eyebrows and bleach-blonde hair extensions like a lot of girls these days. Next to girls like that, Con always felt like he’d just wandered down off a mountain somewhere—all rough and unpolished. Heather kept her hair its natural dark brown, crinkly like her Jamaican dad’s and just pulled back into a bouncy ponytail, most of the time. You could relax with someone like that.

Course, it was just possible he was channelling his gran there. She’d had some very firm opinions on modern fashions. Con smiled at himself and made a do you want a drink? gesture, but Heather held up her bottle of Beck’s and shook her head, then went back to her texting, so he turned to Sean. “What’re you drinking?”

“I’ll get ’em. Pretty sure it’s my round. Pint of bitter?”

Con nodded. “Cheers, mate.” He leaned on the bar while Sean ordered the drinks, looking round. The place was pretty full—mostly of men, but the one or two women there besides Heather didn’t look uncomfortable or out of place or anything. The Three Lions was a lot friendlier than the town centre pubs he’d been used to in Bedford.

“Here you go, mate.”

Con took the pint Sean handed him and took a long, slow swallow, savouring the dry, hoppy taste.

Sean grinned at him. “Better now?”

“Yeah. Well, getting there, anyhow.” Con even managed to smile back.

They wandered over to Heather’s table. “Won’t be a mo. Just gotta . . .” she said without looking up as Con and Sean pulled out a stool each and sat down.

Sean and Heather had had a thing, once upon a time, but they seemed to be fine as just friends now. Con wasn’t sure how that worked, so it was probably just as well Sean had been snapped up by Rob before Con could work up the nerve to ask him out. Sean was a good mate, and good mates were hard to find.

Course, in a small place like this, finding blokes who were into blokes and who you actually fancied wasn’t easy either. Bit of a shame Tristan turned out to be such a total wanker . . .

Con was glad of the interruption to his thoughts when Sean spoke up. “Listened to any good books lately?”

“Having a go with Heart of Darkness, but it’s a bit grim.”

Sean grinned. “Yeah? Who’d have ever thought it from the title, eh?”

“Shut up. Hev recommended it. And it was free on Amazon. It’s very . . . I dunno. Literary. ‘The word “ivory” rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it,’” he quoted, laying on the ominous tone a bit thick to get a laugh. “That sort of stuff.”

“Yeah? You want to go back to those Discworld books. You had me in stitches with those bits from . . . Which one was it? One of the ones about the city guards.”

“Probably Guards! Guards! then. I can see why you forgot the title. Nothing to link it with the subject at all.”

“Tosser.”

“Dick-brain.”

Heather stopped tapping at her phone and bunged it away in her bag. “For God’s sake, can’t I leave you for five minutes before it descends into name-calling? Men.”

“All right, Hev?” Sean said, straightening his face. “Rehearsals going okay?”

She groaned. “Don’t bloody ask. We’ve barely even started rehearsals, and it’s already a nightmare.” Con smiled, and she gave him a sharp look. “What?”

He shrugged self-consciously. “You know. Midsummer Night’s Dream, nightmare? Sorry.”

“Oh. Yeah, well, it’s not funny. Alan’s saying he can’t do Puck after all, cos he had this big split with his girlfriend and now he can only act in tragedies, which, like, what? And that means Patrick’s got to do Puck, cos he’s the only one who’s even got a hope of not looking stupid. So now we’re short a Bottom.”

Sean laughed. Heather looked daggers at him, and he straightened his face out quick. “Sorry. Just sounds a bit funny, that’s all.”

“Yeah, laugh a bloody minute, I am. I’ll just go do a gig at the Comedy Store.” Heather stared into her Beck’s like she wished she could dive in.

Con felt pretty bad for her. Patrick and Alan were two of the society’s best young male actors. There wasn’t a lot of competition, to be honest. Half the male actors in the society were the wrong side of sixty, let alone thirty.

“Actually, that reminds me of something,” he said slowly. “Not the Comedy Store or the . . . Bottom. The other bit. You know old Mrs. Geary’s grandson? Tristan, you remember? The one she was always on about like he should be heading up the Royal Shakespeare Company.”

Heather perked up a bit. “Ooh, yeah, I remember her talking about him. What about him?”

“Well, he’s here. In the village. She left him her house. I was round there today.”

“Yeah? You met him? What’s he like? Is he staying?” Heather leaned forward, an eager expression on her pretty, dark face.

Con frowned. “Thought you were going out with Chris, now? And anyway, I don’t think he’s into girls.”

“Checking you out, was he?” Sean laughed.

“Nah, nothing like that,” Con said quickly. His face was hot, probably because Tristan bloody well had been checking him out. Con knew he hadn’t meant anything by it, though, so why mention it? “He’s just a bit, well . . . Can’t really see him with a girlfriend.”

Heather tsked. “I’m not after that. I just wondered if he’d be up for some amateur dramatics while he’s here.” Con and Sean exchanged looks. “What? I’m serious. We’re having a crisis at the moment, and it’s all on me. I mean, everyone said it was a mistake to do Dream, there’s just way too many young parts, and there was me being all ‘No, it’s fine, we can do it.’ Should’ve bloody listened, shouldn’t I?”

“Oi, you’d better not be thinking of cancelling it. I’ve been sweating blood over that forest scenery.” Con had got involved with the Sham-Drams fairly early on when he came to live in the village. He liked the challenge of doing the scenery and some of the props—it was a bit more creative than his usual run of work.

Sean laughed. “Literally? Cos I reckon that’d be a whole other play.”

Con grinned. “Yeah. Lord of the Flies or something. Or what’s that Shakespeare one you were telling us about, Hev? The one where everyone gets hacked to pieces?”

Heather flapped a hand in a don’t change the subject sort of way. “Titus Andronicus. So go on,” she insisted. “Do you think he’d be up for it?”

“Well . . .” Con took a swallow from his pint. “He’s not moving in permanently. He wants to fix the house up—s’pose he’s planning to sell it. But he reckoned he’d be staying until October.”

“Which is perfect, cos the performances are at the end of September,” Heather interrupted. “So go on, do you think he’d do it?”

“S’pose I can imagine him doing Shakespeare.” Con shrugged. “He likes big words.”

“What’s he look like?”

Small and dark and gorgeous. What Gran used to call fey. And yeah, like he was going to tell his mates that. “Uh . . . short. Ish.”

“That’s anyone compared to you.”

“And he’s, uh, got dark hair. Sort of curly.” Con caught her looking at him and shrugged, feeling a bit on the spot. “That’s it, really.”

“Is he good-looking?”

Con swallowed, wishing he’d never mentioned the bloke. “Uh, yeah? Maybe?”

Heather looked like she’d won the lottery. “Oh my God, you fancy him!”

“I bloody don’t.” Con’s face was getting hot again, which only made him more annoyed. “He’s a git, all right? Total poseur.”

“Yeah? To hear Mrs. Geary talk, you’d think the sun shone out of his solid-gold bum. Well, we don’t have to like him. Just recruit him.” She gave Con a sly look. “Course, you’d be perfect for a rude mechanical.”

“Yeah, well, you know that’s not gonna happen. I don’t do acting, all right?”

Heather gave him a challenging look. “Have you ever tried it? Seriously. You might like it. Bottom’s a great part—he gets the laughs and the girl.”

Sean laughed at that bit. “Don’t reckon the last one’s much of a selling point for Con, right, mate?”

Heather carried on like she hadn’t heard him. “And if we could put you on a poster, we might get a few more young people joining the society.”

“Leave it out,” Con muttered. He never felt comfortable when she went on about his looks. So he was tall and his job had given him a few muscles? He wasn’t anything special.

Sean leaned forward. “Leave him alone, Hev. You know it’s not his fault he can’t do it.”

Which wasn’t exactly good for Con’s ego, even if he knew Sean meant well.

Heather frowned. “Don’t gang up on me. And that’s crap, anyway. There’s loads of professional actors who’re dyslexic. Orlando Bloom, Tom Cruise, Keira Knightley . . . I’m just saying, it doesn’t mean he can’t learn lines.”

Con stood up. He was fed up with this. “He’ll just let you two sort it out between you, all right? Let me know when you’ve decided if I’ll ever make it as a useful member of society, yeah?”

“Oi, mate, sit down. We didn’t mean . . .”

“Sorry, Con,” Heather said, looking like she meant it.

Con sat down. He sighed. “I just . . . Look, I’m not saying the dyslexia’s got nothing to do with it, all right? But I just don’t fancy the idea of getting up on stage in front of everyone. Scenery, that’s my thing. Anyway, how come you’re not hassling Sean about having a go?”

“Oi, don’t look at me!” Sean backed his stool off a couple of inches.

Heather rolled her eyes. “Sean’s not a member. You are,” she said, like that justified it all somehow. Con would’ve thought twice about signing up to do the scenery if they’d mentioned upfront they’d be press-ganging him into anything else they felt like. “Look, if you don’t want to do it, that’s fine. Just see if you can get this Tristan to come along tomorrow night to rehearsals.”

Con stared. “Me? Why’ve I got to do it?”

“Because you know him.” The way she smiled was worrying. “And if he’s gay, he almost certainly fancies you, so it’ll be a piece of piss for you to get him to do what you want, won’t it?”

Oh God.

He was never going to get away from Tristan bloody Goldsmith.