Tribute Act (A Porthkennack novel)

Tribute Act by Joanna Chambers
 
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-683-5
eBook release: 
Jan 15, 2018
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-684-2
Print release: 
Jan 15, 2018
Word count: 
54,400
Page count: 
215
Type: 
Cover by: 
 

This title is part of the Porthkennack universe.

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Nathan Bridges hadn’t intended to settle down in his hometown of Porthkennack—he just ended up staying after saving the family business from ruin. The truth is, Nathan can’t stop himself from stepping in when problems arise. He’s a fixer, the man everyone turns to. But even fixers can’t solve everything.

When Nathan’s sister needs an organ transplant, it’s his stepbrother, Mack, who the family turns to as Rosie’s only potential living donor. Nathan’s curiosity about the stepbrother he’s never met turns to shock when he realises that Mack is his latest—and hottest ever—one-night stand.

Nathan and Mack agree to forget their single night together, but that’s easier said than done. When Mack moves in to Nathan’s place to recuperate after surgery, it’s not just the sexual tension between them that keeps growing. Against all the odds, and despite Mack’s wariness of intimacy, the two men grow close enough that Nathan begins to wonder what it would take to mend the rift that’s kept Mack and his father estranged for over a decade . . . and whether Mack might consider staying with Nathan in Porthkennack for good.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Essential Disc Notes Blog

“Christmas Stocking” by The Sandy Coves spent thirteen weeks in the top forty in 1989, with four consecutive weeks at number two. Written by lead vocalist and guitarist Derek “Dex” MacKenzie, it was the band’s only top-twenty hit and remains a seasonal favourite. The single’s success was helped along by a humorous video featuring Angie Ellis, a well-known soap star at the time, but the comic touches in the video together with the upbeat fast-tempo production mask a pretty simple tune with surprisingly melancholy lyrics. Rumour has it Dex wrote the song about his failing marriage to Karen French. However, despite writing a song in which he begged Karen to stay with him, it was Dex who left the marriage—and the band after almost a decade together—walking out in 1990 for second wife and fellow musician Tammy Ferguson. He launched an unremarkable solo album, Seashells, a year later, but when his first and second singles both failed to break the top one hundred, he was dropped by his record label.

Bonus fact: After divorcing Tammy, Dex moved to Cornwall, married again, and opened his own ice cream parlour. He never released another record.

 

Chapter One

Do you remember last December?

We were so in love last year

I didn’t have to try to please you

You were mine; I kept you near

Thinking now, I don’t know how

We got in such a state, dear

Now we fight most every night

And losing you’s become my biggest fear . . .

— “Christmas Stocking” by The Sandy Coves, 1989

August

“I hope this doesn’t make you late for your night out, Jonathan love,” Mum said.

Always my full name from Mum, even though everyone else called me Nathan.

Her voice was tight with anxiety, and though I couldn’t see her from where I lay with my head wedged into the tiny space under the kitchen sink in Dilly’s, I could picture her wringing her hands as she watched me work.

I didn’t bother answering her, instead continuing to wrestle with the uncooperative plastic waste pipe. The plastic fittings should have come apart easily but were holding firm, and there was something off about the whole arrangement. I peered it at it more closely.

It looked . . . crooked.

“Has Derek been messing about under here recently?” I called out.

“Not for a while,” Mum replied. “Though come to think of it, the sink did block a couple of months ago and he had to clear out the U-bend. He might’ve had some bother getting it back on.” She paused, then added, “In fact, now you mention it, I’m sure he said something about having to glue it back on?”

Fucking great.

Somehow, I managed to stop myself saying that aloud, though I couldn’t suppress a long-suffering sigh.

I could see the problem now. Could see where Derek had forced the fitting too hard and broken it. The repair with . . . Jesus, what had he used? Superglue?

Derek, my stepdad, was a great guy to go to the pub with but he wasn’t exactly the most thorough handyman in the world. A lick and a promise, that was his style. Which usually meant that Yours Truly would end up having to sort out the mess at some point. In fact, when it came to dealing with those sorts of problems—whether at Dilly’s or at home—Derek tended to go for the easy way out. It was a bit of a bone of contention between us.

And one of the many joys of combining family and work.

I squirmed out from under the sink and clambered to my feet, opening my mouth to deliver a rant about Derek and his slapdash repairs—only to close it again when I saw how exhausted Mum was. She generally favoured a glam look, but it had been a long day and her makeup had all worn off. She had dark circles under her eyes too and, worst of all, her roots needed touching up. I frowned to think she’d done a shift today with her roots showing—she wouldn’t even answer the door like that normally.

But of course, nothing was normal right now.

I sighed inwardly, glancing at the clock. It was already after five. She’d be worried about Rosie and anxious to get home, though probably feeling guilty about leaving me with this mess.

Or rather, bloody Derek’s mess.

“Why don’t you head off?” I said gently. “You look exhausted. I’ll sort this out and finish closing up. It won’t take me long. And it’s not far to Gav’s.”

Lies, lies, lies. It was going to take ages to deal with this and the drive was over an hour. I’d have to text Gav and warn him I’d be late for our first big Saturday night out in months.

“Are you sure?” The weary note of relief in her voice was unmistakable.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be half an hour tops here. You go home and put your feet up.”

She gave me a tired smile and kissed my cheek. “Okay. Thanks, love.”

Once she was gone and I’d locked up behind her, I texted Gav.

Mini crisis at café. Will be late. N x

His answer arrived a minute later.

No bailing, Nathan. You promised to come with.

I sighed, heavy, then texted back.

Not bailing - will get there soonest. N

* * * * * * *

The pipework under the sink was utterly fucked. It looked as though, after snapping one of the fittings in half, Derek had somehow forced it back into place and fixed it there with a mix of mastic and superglue, half of which had leaked inside the tube—no wonder it had blocked again so soon. By the time I’d worked out the broken part wasn’t salvageable, driven to the nearest home store to pick up a replacement, driven back, and fitted it properly, it was near enough eight.

I dragged myself out from under the sink, sweaty, tired, and spattered with mastic and grime, and turned on the tap. When the water flowed down the plug hole, I was ready to sob with relief.

“Back in business,” I muttered. Thank Christ. The last thing we needed was to lose half our weekend trading to a plumbing crisis. And if I got a shift on, I just might make it to Plymouth for the long-awaited night out I’d been promising to my best friend for weeks now.

My stomach rumbled. A bacon buttie for breakfast had been my last proper meal, and I’d been too busy for anything else all day. I’d found a Snickers bar in the glove compartment of the car on my way to the home store and had scarfed it down in about five seconds. And that had been it for food today.

I turned to the fridge, stomach cramping with hunger, and examined the contents. There were ingredients for heaps of things, but I was too hungry to cook, or even assemble a half-decent sandwich, and anyway, the kitchen had been cleaned at the end of the shift. I didn’t want to mess it up again. I scoured the shelves for something I could eat immediately. It was pretty much cake or nothing. Well, there was ice cream of course—Dilly’s was, first and foremost an ice cream parlour—but in truth, you got a bit sick of ice cream when you worked with it every day. Instead, I reached for one of our best-sellers—the carrot cake.

Carrots were healthy, right? This would probably count as one of my five a day. Maybe even two if I had a big slice.

I thought about that, then served myself a double portion, added a sinful mound of whipped cream, and shovelled down the lot, eating so quickly I barely tasted it.

When I was done, I stared down at the empty plate unhappily. The cake sat in my stomach like a rock. I could practically feel my blood slowing in my veins, heavy with the fat and sugar I’d consumed.

When I’d lived in London, I’d had to work long hours, but I’d eaten better then than I did now. Which was shameful considering I worked in catering these days. London had so many healthy food places that it had been easy to follow a high-protein, low-carb diet, without having to plan much at all. Plus, having a gym in my office building had meant I’d been able to work out most days. When I’d moved back to Cornwall, I’d boasted to all my London friends about the relaxed and healthy lifestyle I’d be enjoying, but the truth was, I was more stressed now than I’d ever been and had put on, well, quite a few pounds.

Sighing, I packed up the rest of the cake and put it in the fridge, then took my plate to the now-unblocked sink and washed up. All I had to do before I left was stack the chairs on the tables and give the floor a quick once-over with the mop before setting the alarm, locking up, and heading out.

Dilly’s had a great location. Porthkennack was one of those cute little Cornish seasidey places tourists love. The café was on a narrow side street just off the seafront. Even better, my place was only a few minutes’ walk away, a second-floor flat in a cobbled lane up the hill with views of the sea.

My flat was small and cosy—though twice the size of my London place, with a spare bedroom for any friends who cared to visit—and I loved it. I loved living in the touristy part of town, despite how noisy it was, sometimes, on summer evenings. When I first came back to Porthkennack, it had been winter and almost unbearably quiet—I hadn’t been able to sleep for the quiet after my years of living in London. It had been a relief when the first wave of tourists had arrived.

As I climbed the stairs to my flat, wearily rubbing at the aching back of my neck and yawning, I wondered if I could face a night out tonight. Maybe a movie on Netflix and an early bed would be a better bet?

But no. As tempting as that was, I’d promised Gav that I wouldn’t let him down again tonight. Especially since this was his first proper looking-to-get-laid night out since the big breakup with Carrie. And of course, there was the possibility of picking someone up myself—when I considered how long it had been since I’d had sex, I wanted to weep.

My trouble was, I’d never been into one-night stands. Ever since I’d met my first boyfriend at seventeen, I’d bounced from steady relationship to steady relationship. Currently, I was in the longest dry spell I’d had since my teenage days, having broken up with my last boyfriend, Christian, shortly after moving back to Porthkennack. Preoccupied with sorting out the then-failing, now-recovering family business, I hadn’t had the energy for a long-distance relationship with Christian on top of everything else.

Perhaps that had been a clue—that I’d felt like I needed energy to keep it going. But honestly, it fit the pattern of how most of my relationships went—drifting into pleasant coupledom with a guy I liked, only to decide a couple of years later that I didn’t feel strongly enough about him to make a permanent commitment. Maybe it was just how I was built—maybe I wasn’t capable of more? That was certainly what Christian had thought. He’d said he wanted to be loved “deeply and passionately”—and he was right when he’d said I couldn’t give him that.

I did like being in a relationship, though. I liked companionship and sharing a life with someone. I liked having sex with someone who I knew inside out, and not having to wonder what that person thought of my body or whether they liked what I was doing. I liked being able to have unselfconscious, loud, joyful sex, and I wasn’t the kind of guy who found it easy to let go in that way with a stranger.

Whatever my reservations on one-night stands, I still felt like I needed sex. Some of my relationships might have been emotionally lukewarm but they had all been physically successful. I loved sex and I was good at it. I was just atrocious at flirting. Too used to having a steady boyfriend and not having to make the effort to pull someone. It had made me complacent and awkward about the mating rituals of dating and hookups. The thought of approaching a hot guy in a club had me practically cringing. Well, at least until I imagined fucking said hot guy . . . And that thought was exactly the motivation I needed to get me moving towards my wardrobe.

I reached inside and pulled out my oldest, favourite jeans—threadbare, skintight, and butter soft—and a fitted black shirt that I figured I could still squeeze into, even after two slices of carrot cake.

And then I headed for the shower.

 

Chapter Two

One of the downsides to living in Porthkennack was that the nearest decent gay club was over an hour away, in Plymouth. Luckily one of my best friends from my school days, Gav, lived there. What’s more, he was bi, and following the recent demise of his long-term relationship, he was desperate to get out and meet new people, of both sexes.

It was after ten when I finally arrived at Gav’s. After he’d bitched at me for my lateness and forced me to down a couple of large vodkas to catch up with him, we headed out.

“I can’t believe how nervous I am about this,” Gav said as we walked. “My stomach’s in knots.”

“It’s not that long since you’ve been clubbing. We went to Rainbow City at New Year’s.”

“Yeah, with Carrie. But do you realise it’s been almost six years since I went to a club actually trying to meet someone? I don’t know how to do stuff like that anymore!” He shook his head at himself.

“It’s like riding a bike,” I said, as though I didn’t have exactly the same fears. “Besides, it’s got to beat another night in watching TV.”

Gav looked grim. “I suppose.”

I bumped his shoulder with mine. “That’s the spirit. You’re not going to meet someone if you never go out.”

He glanced at me, his expression disbelieving. “You’re one to talk.”

I sighed. “I know. It’s been a while. The last time I hooked up was that night out at Rainbow City, and that’s, what, eight months ago? God, I seriously need to fuck tonight.”

Gav screwed up his nose. “Ugh. It’s too weird hearing you talking about hooking up—you never used to do that.”

“I never had the chance,” I protested. “Five boyfriends over a decade with no time off for good behaviour. Then fuck all for nearly two years.” I kicked at a stone with my foot, sending it skittering into the gutter.

“Yeah.” Gav’s sigh was sympathetic. “It’s only been four months since Carrie moved out and I still feel like I’ve had an arm cut off. We were together for almost six years. I hardly stepped foot in a gay club in all that time, and even when I did, she was with me, so it wasn’t like I was looking. Well, I was looking—we both were obviously—but we weren’t flirting.” He glared at the pavement. “And now I don’t feel like I can do it anymore.”

“If you’re hinting that you’d prefer to go to a straight club, the answer is no way, my friend. I need to get some cock tonight.”

He laughed weakly. “No, don’t worry. It’s not as if I’d find a straight club any easier. I can’t remember how to flirt with guys or girls, Nath. I’m fucking bi-awkward.”

I stretched out a hand and ruffled his pale hair. “It’ll get easier,” I said gently. “You just need to make the effort to come out—force yourself to meet new people. Practice.”

“Aaand once again with the pot, kettle, black.” He grinned at me and I laughed.

“I know, I know.”

We turned the next corner, and there it was: Club Indigo. A couple of bouncers stood at the entrance, lording it over a thankfully modest queue. When they opened the door to let a few people in, a fat house beat leaked teasingly out.

Twenty minutes later, we finally got inside, paid a tenner to the cute twink at the desk, and headed for the bar.

“We need a drink,” I told Gav, grabbing his hand and towing him after me. We were bloody freezing by now, Gav having insisted we leave our jackets at the flat, but we’d soon warm up, given how mobbed the place was.

Snaking through the dense crowd, we reached the bar and promptly ordered two Coronas and two tequila slammers. We did the shots, drained the beers, then ordered another round, snagging a little table with a couple of high stools when two other guys vacated it.

The drinks soon did their work on us, though in different ways. It had been another long, tiring week for me and, although I had a little bit of a buzz going from the tequila, the last thing I felt like was dancing. This was the first time I’d relaxed in ages, and I just wanted to kick back for a while and let the music wash over me.

Gav, of course, wanted to dance. He’d loved clubbing before he’d settled into coupledom with Carrie, and he couldn’t tear his eyes from the mass of bodies writhing to the music. He tried to persuade me to join him, but I waved him off, knowing he’d soon find someone to dance with. I watched him disappear into the throng, white T-shirt glowing like a beacon under the UV lights, his shaggy blond surfer hair and pretty-boy face causing more than one head to turn.

After a couple of songs—and another beer for me—Gav reappeared, this time with a tall, built guy in tow. He had to be, what, six three? Four? Other than the height, he was an ordinary-looking guy: light-brown hair, nice enough face. Not quite in Gav’s league though—not many people were.

“Introduce yourselves,” Gav ordered. “I’ll get the beers in.” He scooted off.

The guy stared after Gav for a few moments before he finally turned to me. He seemed a little dazed. “Sorry.” He held out his hand. “I’m Adam.”

We shook. “Nathan,” I told him, though I doubted he heard me. Already he was sneaking a glance in the direction Gav had gone.

“So,” I said. “You just met Gav.”

Adam was forced to give me his attention again. “Um—actually, no. We work in the same building—different companies but we sometimes end up in the same bar for Friday night beers.”

God, Friday night beers. The office workers’ weekly freedom call. I felt a stab of nostalgia for that TGIF feeling I used to get at the end of the week. It wasn’t a feeling you ever got when you were running your own business.

“I didn’t know Gav was bi,” Adam added. “It was a surprise seeing him here.”

“A good one?” I teased, lifting an eyebrow. Like I didn’t know.

He laughed then. “Very.”

He had a nice laugh, and a genuine smile that turned his ordinary face into a much more handsome one. And God, he was into Gav—as Gav approached us, beers in hand, Adam’s stare became openly admiring, hiding nothing. Not the most mysterious guy in the world, this one.

While Gav set down the beers, Adam slid off his stool and tried to make Gav take it. They bickered flirtatiously about who should sit and who should stand and eventually both decided to stand, which was ridiculous given the height difference. I tuned their conversation out, content to sit back and relax. I had no desire to be a third wheel.

When Adam went to get another round of beers, Gav gave me an apologetic look. “Sorry, Nath, we’re ignoring you, aren’t we?”

I tipped the last of my beer into my mouth, then set the empty bottle down and gave him a lazy smile. “Mate, I am totally fine. Honestly, it’s good to see you enjoying yourself. And the truth is, having a few beers and taking it easy is just what I need. It’s been quite a week.”

“You sure?” he said. “I can ditch Adam if you want to go somewhere a bit more chill.”

“I’m sure,” I said firmly. “Go for it with this guy. Seriously. I’ll be fine—I’ve got your spare key so I can head off any time I decide I’ve had enough. I’ll text you if I bail.”

He frowned. “I thought you wanted to hook up with someone?”

“Yeah, and I still might,” I said, though the yawn that followed those words gave away my lack of enthusiasm. “Sorry. I’m so fucking beat.”

“You’ve been working too hard,” Gav said disapprovingly.

“Yup.” I couldn’t disagree. “Oh, look, here comes your boy.”

After the next round of beers, Gav and Adam returned to the dance floor while I slid off my stool and strolled back to the bar for what I’d already decided would be my last drink. I figured I’d stay another half hour, then text Gav. Maybe get a kebab on the way home. You usually got some salad in a kebab after all. Between that and the carrot cake, I’d be halfway to my five a day!

Most of the crowd were on the dance floor now, so the bar was much quieter. As I waited to be served, my gaze slid over the heaving throng of bodies. I couldn’t even pick out any individual guys, much less pinpoint anyone I was attracted to. The crowd was like one big pulsing, breathing animal form.

I turned away, feeling oddly empty.

And that was when I saw him.

He was skirting the edge of the dance floor, making a beeline for the bar. Most of the clubgoers were reasonably dressed up, but not this guy. Worn jeans, plaid shirt, scuffed-up boots, and a beanie. Seriously, in the middle of a nightclub, a woollen beanie.

I didn’t normally go for guys like this, but for some reason, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. As he drew closer, he slid the beanie off and tucked it in his back pocket. His hair was dark—black maybe, or very dark brown. Difficult to tell in this light—and a startling contrast to his pale skin under the UV lights. He had a lean face with longish stubble, verging on an incipient beard. His eyes were what I really noticed, though. I’ve always been a sucker for dark, soulful eyes and his were gorgeous, with a slight downward tilt at the outer edges.

When he was almost at the bar, he glanced at me, and I flushed, embarrassed to be caught staring. He slowed though, meeting my gaze.

And smiled.

For a couple of beats, we just stared at each other, then he subtly shifted direction, joining me where I stood at the far end of the bar.

My mouth went dry and my heart began to pound with nerves and excitement.

“Hi,” he said when he reached me. “Can I buy you a drink?”

“Um—okay.”

So smooth. Fuck.

“What do you fancy?”

“A beer?” Why was I asking him? More firmly, I added, “Corona.”

He gestured for the barman’s attention with a negligent lift of his chin I envied, especially when the barman immediately moved towards him, and with a smile he hadn’t flashed for me all night.

I watched as my new friend gave the order, bantered lightly with the barman, and paid for our drinks. At last he turned back to me, handing me a cold, wet bottle of beer. He offered me the neck of his own bottle, and I clinked mine against it in salute.

We drank then. I only sipped my beer, but he took a long pull from his, his pale throat working as he swallowed.

My cock stirred.

When he set his bottle on the bar, I said, “Thanks for the beer. I’m Nathan by the way.”

He smiled. “I’m Mack. Pleased to meet you.” Was that a Scottish accent?

I swallowed. “Likewise.”

“So,” he said easily. “Are you looking for some action tonight?”

Christ. There was direct, and then there was direct. Distantly, though, I heard myself say, “Yeah. How about you?”

Jesus, his eyes. I wondered if he actually felt sad right now, or if the impression of melancholy was just an accident of genetics—that slight tilt, and the dark, melting colour.

“Oh, definitely,” he replied, a distinct smile in his voice. “Hopefully we’re after the same thing—what exactly is it you want?”

I didn’t know what to say to that. Did he want specifics? “Well, to blow off some steam, I suppose.”

I was just playing for time with that one, but he smiled as though I’d pleased him. “Sounds like we’re on the same page.”

Are we?

He leaned towards me, and I thought he was going to kiss me right then. Disappointingly, though, he stilled before our lips touched and said, “Shall we . . . pay the bathroom a visit?” He raised an eyebrow in teasing enquiry.

God, I was into him, my cock stiff as a board at having him so near. Even so, my stomach knotted up at his suggestion. I wasn’t into sex in club bathrooms. No matter how hot it sounded coming out of Mack’s mouth, I knew once we got there, I’d probably start hating it, feeling self-conscious and watched.

“No?” he said, at whatever he saw on my face.

I met his gaze. “Maybe somewhere . . . a bit more private? I’m not much of an exhibitionist.”

He didn’t seem to find that too absurd, just asked calmly, “Are you asking me back to your place?”

I made an apologetic face. “I’m staying with a friend tonight, and I think he’s about to get lucky, which means I’ll be on the living room floor . . .”

He seemed to think about that, watching me in silence. At last he said. “Well, I’m at a hotel—we could go there if you don’t mind a walk. It’s on the outskirts of town, though.”

I swallowed against sudden nerves. Whispered, “Sounds good.”

“Okay,” he said, offering me a crooked a smile. Then he lifted his beer, drained it, and set it on the bar. “I’m ready to go whenever you are.”

 

Chapter Three

I found Gav and Adam on the dance floor. They both had their T-shirts off already, Gav’s smooth, wiry chest pressed up against Adam’s broader, more heavily muscled one. Adam didn’t look too pleased to see me, till he realised I was heading off—then his smile was huge. I pointed out Mack, who was standing at the doors waiting for me, and promised to text Gav the name of the hotel. Then I jogged back to Mack and we left.

We walked through town, across the busy centre, and out past the residential suburbs. We walked right out to the edge of town, into that odd no-man’s-land of roundabouts, slip roads, and industrial units that surround so many British towns. It wasn’t a landscape for pedestrians. Pavements were dispensed with and the few drivers we saw stared at us curiously through their windscreens as we cut across grass verges and clambered over traffic furniture till we reached the big, soulless discount hotel where Mack was staying.

We entered the tiny reception area, nodding a hello to the bored clerk at the desk, passing banks of vending machines stuffed with snacks, dead-looking sandwiches, and toothbrushes on our way to the lifts.

“I’m on the fourth floor,” Mack said as we entered the lift. It was only then I realised how little we’d spoken on the way out here. Mack had apparently been content to walk along in silence, and strangely enough, I hadn’t felt the need to fill that silence, as I usually would with someone I didn’t know. There was something oddly restful about Mack. He had a laid-back vibe that made him easy to be around.

Hearing his voice now, though, in the hushed silence of the hotel, brought me out of the comfortable daze I’d fallen into.

I glanced at him as the lift doors swished open and we exited onto the fourth floor. “Is that a hint of a Scottish accent I hear?”

“A bit of one,” he confirmed, though his tone didn’t exactly invite questions.

I followed him down a long snaking corridor to room 443, watching as he shoved the key card in the slot, opened the door, then stepped aside in an old-fashioned way to let me precede him. I felt slightly disconcerted by his manners, but walked past him as invited. The lights came on a moment later, the circuit completed by Mack inserting the key card into the slot by the door that closed slowly, heavily, with a quiet click of finality.

It was a surprisingly nice room for a budget place, dominated by a huge double bed. There was only a narrow strip of floor space around the bed, but who needed floor space with a bed that big? There was a decent bathroom too and a TV mounted high up on the wall.

A battered rucksack and a guitar case lay abandoned in the corner. Stuff had spilled out of the rucksack onto the floor, a scrambled heap of fabric and toiletries, like Mack had been rifling in there for something. The remains of his dinner—a fast-food meal—littered a small table near the TV. The tea and coffee tray had already been ransacked, a little pile of tiny milk cartons torn open and upended on the table, two used tea bags slumped against each other like tiny wet sacks. Mack crossed the room to flip on a lamp in the corner, then killed the main lights. When we got to the stage of taking clothes off, I’d be glad of that.

Mack approached me, his expression watchful and serious. Really, he had ever such a nice face. Something in my chest twisted just looking at him.

He stepped up close to me, without touching. “So. What are you up for, Nathan?”

I met his gaze. “Whatever you like. Blowjobs, handjobs.” I paused. “Fucking if you like—if you have condoms.” I had my own condoms, but I wanted to make it clear that wasn’t negotiable.

Quirk of a smile. “I like . . . and I do. Do you have a preference for top or bottom?”

It was all a bit clinical, this sort of negotiation, but necessary.

“I’d prefer to top,” I said frankly. “It’s not a deal breaker though.”

His smile deepened. “I can bottom.”

His easy acceptance relaxed me. Sometimes I just really wanted to fuck. It didn’t matter whether I was topping or bottoming—it wasn’t about a need to penetrate or be penetrated. It felt more like, I don’t know, a need to immerse myself. Get out of my own head.

I took hold of his hips and moved in for a kiss, but he pulled back a little, evading my mouth.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that. “Everything okay?”

He flashed a grin at me. “Fine, but let’s get straight to the good stuff, yeah?”

I wanted to say that kissing was the good stuff, but it was obvious he didn’t agree and this sort of encounter called for compromise.

“Okay, sure,” I said easily, mentally shoving my disappointment aside.

I reached for the buttons of his shirt, and he didn’t seem to object to that move. He watched as I worked them free, then pushed the soft flannel off his broad shoulders, revealing a plain white T-shirt that he quickly ripped off and tossed aside. His spare, lightly muscled torso was pale, his small, dusky nipples already hard. A trail of dark hair arrowed down his belly, disappearing into his jeans. My mouth watered. I wanted to hit Pause. Have him lie still while I licked him all over, but he was already wrestling with the buttons of his jeans, and it wasn’t like I was going to complain. His urgency was fucking sexy, even though a part of me wished he would slow down and let me look at him properly.

He shoved his jeans and underwear down together, revealing more. Sharp hip bones; a nice, averagely sized cock, hard and red-tipped with need. A dark nest of pubic hair and the long, lean legs of a distance runner.

He kicked his jeans away, then peeled his socks off, sending them sailing over my head with a grin.

The whole strip took about ten seconds, and he didn’t so much as pause before reaching for the hem of my own shirt. A momentary panic seized me as I thought of his gaze on my own far-less-lean body, and I put my hand on his wrist, stopping him.

He blinked. “What’s wrong?”

Immediately I let go. “Nothing.” I forced a smile.

He studied my face for a moment, then gripped the hem of my shirt again, tugging upwards. I lifted my arms to help, but with the shirt being such a close fit, I got caught up in it once it was over my head, and couldn’t see for a moment. It was probably only a second or two at most, but with my eyes covered, I was suddenly horribly conscious of my undefended body, most especially the slight softness around my once-hard belly. I wrenched at the shirt, faintly panicky.

When I finally wrestled it off and tossed it aside, it was to find Mack watching me, an amused twist to his lips. “Got a bit tangled up there, did you?”

I felt my face heat. “Yeah. I must have put some weight on since I bought that shirt.”

Oh, fuck, no! Why did I say that?

Mack just grinned though. “Well, you look pretty good to me,” he assured me, and his eyes were so warm and appreciative that I couldn’t help but return his smile, despite my self-consciousness.

I reached for him again, intent on kissing him, but he lowered his head, busying himself with unbuttoning my fly. “I’m dying to see what you’ve got in here,” he told me as he began to push my jeans down, going to his knees in front of me.

Fuck, he looked good, kneeling naked on the thin hotel carpet. His shoulders were broad but he was rangy. It gave him a slightly ascetic appearance—as though he might be the sort of guy who forgot to eat occasionally, if he was busy with something else. Maybe playing that guitar. Not like me. I’m the prosaic sort that likes three square meals a day.

Mack eased my jeans down my legs. Mine didn’t slide off quite as easily as his. While he was tall and slim, I was of a broader, stockier build, maybe an inch shorter and probably a good bit heavier. My mum used to call me well-made when I was an overweight teenager, which was a nice way of saying that I had a body type that ran to fat if I didn’t watch my diet and exercise religiously.

But judging by Mack’s reaction, he liked what he saw.