If they looked, would they ever leap?
Good-looking, confident, and doted on by his widowed mum, Michael is used to thinking only of himself. Getting shoved off an Isle of Wight pier by an exasperated ex ought to come as a wake-up call—but then he meets Rufus and he’s right back to letting the little head take charge. Rufus is cute, keen, and gets under Michael’s skin in a disturbing way.
Would-be chef Rufus can’t believe his luck when a dripping wet dream of a man walks out of the sea on his birthday, especially when Michael ends up staying at the family B&B. Life is perfect—at least until Michael has to go home to the mainland.
Rufus can’t leave the island for reasons he’s entirely neglected to mention. And though Michael identifies as bi, breaking his mum’s heart by coming out and having an actual relationship with a guy has never been his plan. With both men determined to keep their secrets, a leap of faith could land them in deep water.
"Merrow delivers a fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek tale full of memorable secondary characters, romantic chemistry, and local scenery." –Publishers Weekly
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Michael stomped along Sandown Pier, his footsteps loud on the wooden boards. The salt-laden wind was blowing right through him, last night’s beer had left him with a headache, and Trix was still talking. He should never have agreed to come on this holiday—for God’s sake, who went to the Isle of Wight in February? Far as he was concerned, there was bugger all romantic about freezing your balls off, and it wasn’t even like it was Valentine’s Day. That’d been over two weeks ago.
It was time he ended this. Way past time. It just wasn’t working. Couldn’t she see that? Michael wasn’t even certain he was really that into girls, if he was honest with himself, which as a rule he tried not to be.
Trix had seemed all right when she turned up at his kickboxing club a few weeks ago and they started sparring—she’d punched harder than any girl he’d met, and she had a kick like a pissed-off mule. So he’d invited her out to run with him one Saturday morning, which had ended in some X-rated shower action back at hers. She’d taken him mountain biking, which wasn’t really his thing, but getting frisky in the forest . . . Yeah, he could get behind that. He was bi, she was bi; it was like they were made for each other, right? Perfect for a bit of fun. But the trouble was, when they’d got on the ferry, he’d found out that once she had her breath back, she just never stopped talking.
Michael was sick of trying to tune it out. He’d been hanging around hoping she’d get the message and dump him, but enough was enough. Time to cut his losses and head on home. “Sorry, love, but we gotta split up,” he said, not waiting for her to finish what she was saying because he was twenty-six already and he might not live that long.
Trix stared at him, her mouth hanging open and silent for once, and backed off a few steps. “Hey, careful there,” Michael said, cos they’d reached the concrete bit at the end of the pier, where boats could pull in or park or whatever boats did, and the railings were pretty low.
Then what she’d just been saying finally percolated through his brain: “Michael, babes, I love you so much, will you marry me?”
“Uh . . .” he started.
She didn’t give him a chance to get any further. Her cherry-red lips drawn up in a snarl, she ran at him.
Caught unprepared, Michael didn’t offer any resistance as she gave him a bloody great shove with ten stone of kickboxing muscle behind it. His lower back hit the rail, ’cept it wasn’t a proper rail on this side, just a bit of old chain. It swung taut—and then something gave way, and it wasn’t taut anymore, and he was falling.
Right off the end of the pier.
It was a bit nippy that day, and Rufus wrapped his wool coat tighter around himself as he promenaded down the beach and under the barnacle-encrusted supports of Sandown Pier, master of all he surveyed. Well, technically not master of all or, in fact, any of it, but there was no one around to challenge his claim, so he could pretend it was all his.
Mostly, obviously, it was sand, but that was all right. Rufus would never forget the first time he went to Brighton and was horrified by that quarry pit they had the nerve to call a beach there. No, as the name might tend to imply, they had proper beaches in Sandown. Which was just as well, as some might say there wasn’t much else to shout about, particularly in the winter, when the hotels and most of the shops were shut up for the off-season. Rufus, however, liked to think there was a certain desolate charm to the place.
At any rate, if you wanted to go for a solitary walk on your birthday, and said birthday happened to be at the end of February, you could pretty much guarantee you wouldn’t be overwhelmed by seething throngs of people on the beach.
It was only the fifth real birthday he’d had, having been born twenty years ago on leap day, February 29. Some people considered it unlucky, but Rufus preferred to think of it as special. Unusual things could happen on a day that only came around once every four years. After all, he’d happened on a leap day, and people were always telling him he was special, although he had a strong suspicion they didn’t necessarily mean it in a good way.
Today, his firm belief in the specialness of leap days was amply justified.
There was a man walking out of the sea towards him, just like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale, only he wasn’t wearing little blue trunks, which, given the current temperature, was probably just as well. No, he was fully clothed and sopping wet in the biting wind.
Rufus stared at the man, wondering whether, in the face of this unexpected birthday present, he ought to reconsider his halfhearted Church of England agnosticism and convert to worshipping Poseidon. And whether the sea god would expect him to sacrifice his firstborn in gratitude, which was likely to prove something of a problem, what with him being gay and all.
Rufus’s unexpected gift from the gods was tall and nicely broad-shouldered, with a fair bit of muscle—not all of that bulk was due to the Puffa jacket dripping from his shoulders. Dark-haired, although it was probably a bit lighter when it wasn’t plastered to his head with seawater. His eyes were the blue of the bay on a sunny day. Unlike the dull, muddy green it was on this particular day, which was more the colour of Rufus’s eyes. He was gorgeous, this bloke was, in a rough-diamond, macho-man way. He had the kind of looks you’d expect to see on the face of someone brandishing a cutlass and demanding you give up your booty.
Rufus was ready to give it up all right. No question. This man was literally a wet dream, and he was walking straight towards Rufus.
Could he be a selkie? Rufus briefly considered the possibility of seal-shifters (a) being real and (b) bothering to turn up on the Isle of Wight. In February. Yeah, get real. Anyway, from the pissed-off expression, this bloke looked like more of a sulkie.
“You’re late,” Rufus said, unable to stop himself.
The wet man frowned. Wetly. “You what?”
“You’re late. The New Year’s Day swim was two months ago. And, just so you know, they usually wear actual swimming gear.”
One dark eyebrow lifted a bit, causing a trickle of seawater to run a little more quickly down his face. He grimaced and swiped at it with one huge paw. “That what you’re hanging around here for? To ogle the blokes in their Speedos?”
“No, obviously, because I know what month it is.” Rufus paused, but it didn’t look like he was about to get beaten up in this precise moment. And he was fairly sure he’d be able to run faster than the man in front of him, what with all those wet clothes weighing him down. “So is that what you’re wearing under that lot? Speedos?”
“You wish.” Then he shivered. “Christ, it’s colder than a witch’s tit in a brass bra. You live round here?”
Rufus nodded. “Yeah. Not far. Queen Street. My parents have got a B&B.” He swallowed, because this was starting to seem like it might be about to turn into one of his dreams or a porno or something (not a lot of difference, if he was honest, most of the time). Was this the bit where the wet guy winked at him and said, Come on then, don’t you want to get me out of these wet clothes?
What the wet guy actually did was scowl and say, “Well? You just gonna stand there and watch me die of hypothermia, or are you gonna get me somewhere warm?”
“All right, it’s this way. Rufus,” he added. “I mean, that’s me. Rufus Kewell.”
The man gave him the usual disbelieving look.
“Yes, yes, I know. Mum saw Rufus Sewell in Middlemarch and got totally besotted. Had a signed photo on her bedside table and everything, which I think Dad was amazingly understanding about. Bit of a shame I don’t look anything like him. Rufus Sewell, that is, not Dad. Apart from the height, of course. And the eyes. And the cheekbones, maybe, although actually I think mine are better than his. But as you can see, I’m totally blond. And he’s not.”
The look went on a little longer. “Michael,” the stranger said at last. “Talk a lot, don’t you?”
Rufus nodded. Couldn’t argue with that. “Are you here on holiday? Sorry, stupid question.” It had just popped out automatically, like the way if someone said they liked their coffee strong, you always felt you had to ask, Like your men? Well, Rufus did, anyway. “Who comes to the Isle of Wight on holiday in February?” he asked rhetorically, with a self-deprecating laugh.
“Me, actually. With my girlfriend.”
Well, there had only been a very small chance he’d be gay, Rufus thought philosophically, although if Poseidon thought he’d be getting any sacrifices now, he was very much mistaken.
Michael glanced back at the pier. “Ex-girlfriend,” he amended. Then he laughed.
Rufus perked up. Then he perked straight back down again, because even an ex-girlfriend probably meant Michael wouldn’t be up for having a boyfriend, and even if he was up for it, he didn’t live locally. But god, he was hot. Like everyone’s favourite dark and brooding hero, but with an extra dollop of dark and a great big barrelful of brood.
“Do you want to come to mine and get dry?” Rufus asked hopefully, because even if, as was almost certainly the case, nothing would come of it, he’d still stand a very good chance of getting an eyeful.
On the Isle of Wight in winter, you had to take your pleasures where you could find them.
Michael gave him a withering look. “Does a hobbyhorse have a wooden dick?”
“Not in my experience, no,” Rufus said politely. “Big childhood disappointment, actually. But I’ll take that as a yes.”
He led the way along the Esplanade, deserted but for a few dog walkers and an elderly couple, who paused their bent-backed amble to stare myopically as Michael squelched past. “You’ll catch your death,” the old lady tutted helpfully.
“Christ, how far is this place?” Michael muttered.
“Not far. Just up the slipway, past the trampolines—at least, there aren’t any there now, but if it was summer, there would be—and we’re almost there.”
“Jesus. You ever try to walk this far in wet jeans? My bollocks are gonna be rubbed raw by the time we get there.”
Should Rufus offer to kiss them better?
He side-eyed Michael’s broad, muscular shoulders and large, capable fists. Probably not quite this soon in their relationship.
The small car park outside the Eldorado B&B was empty, which was good, as it meant Rufus’s dad and stepmum were still out and therefore unable to ask awkward questions, such as why Rufus was bringing a soaking-wet stranger into the house.
Although come to think of it, they’d probably just put it down to him being Rufus.
“This way,” he said. He led Michael around to the side and let him into their large, well-equipped kitchen. The front door, with its Victorian fanlight and antique bell push, was for guests. Meaning paying guests.
Rufus’s room was upstairs on the first floor, one of the poky ones round the back. Well, that was his room during the summer season. Officially, in the winter, he had the nice big room at the front with the bay window, but he hadn’t quite got round to moving his stuff in there yet this year.
Given that they had bookings for the Easter school holidays, he was beginning to suspect he might have left it a tiny bit too late to bother.
Michael looked around. It didn’t take him long. “Bloody hell, it’s like a sodding shoebox with a bed in it. I’ve seen abandoned kittens with better accommodation than this. Your mum and dad not like you, or what?”
“It’s cosy,” Rufus said firmly. “Don’t drip on the duvet.”
“What am I supposed to do with my kit, then? Hang it out the window?” He’d got his jacket off and dumped it on the floor, and was peeling off his sweater, which looked a bit sad and saggy. “Shit. I like this jumper.”
“Maybe it’ll come up all right in the wash?” Rufus hazarded. “You get all your stuff off, and I’ll bung it in the machine.”
“Yeah, and then what? Not like I’m gonna fit into anything of yours, is it?” He was down to his jeans now, pulling his see-through T-shirt over his head as he spoke, to display a darkly haired, muscular chest that, yes, was likely to prove a challenge to any of Rufus’s T-shirts.
Rufus paused for a moment, pretending to be deep in thought while he gazed his fill. “I’ll get you one of my dad’s shirts. He won’t mind.” Well, he probably wouldn’t notice, which came to the same thing.
Unfortunately, this meant Rufus had to leave the room right when Michael was undoing his jeans. Fortunately, this meant that when he got back to his bedroom, Michael was standing there stark bollock naked.
He had one foot up on the bed and a hand holding his junk out of the way while he peered at his inner thigh. “Christ, look at that. Rubbed fucking raw.”
Rufus swallowed, and looked. Well, he’d been invited to. It was only polite. “Yeah, that does look a bit sore. I could get some Savlon cream?” he suggested.
“Nah, I’m not that much of a wuss.” Michael let go of his junk and took his foot off the bed. His cock fell, thick and long, between his muscular (and slightly chafed) thighs, in front of a pair of heavy, thickly furred bollocks.
Rufus probably should have realised Michael was giving him a funny look, but in his defence, he was a bit distracted.
“Oi. Are you perving on my dick?”
Rufus’s face, which, let’s—hah—face it, had been feeling pretty warm already, went red-hot. “No.” It was possibly the least convincing lie he’d ever told. In a long, sad line of unconvincing lies that went all the way back to “No, I never play with dollies.”
“You’re perving on my dick, aren’t you? Jesus. Here I am, only seconds away from near-death of hypothermia, chafed so bad I practically need a skin graft, and you’re perving on my bloody dick.”
That was totally unfair. Rufus wasn’t just perving on his dick.
“I could take you back down to the beach and throw you back in, you know,” Rufus muttered sullenly.
Michael laughed. “You and whose army, pretty boy?”
Rufus bristled. “I could be a master of jujitsu.”
“No, you couldn’t,” Michael said, although it sounded kindly as well as scornful. “That oriental stuff’s all style and no fucking substance, anyhow. Show me any black belt, any discipline you like, I bet I could beat him in a fight.”
“What are you, some kind of ninja?”
“Nah. Kickboxer. So are you gonna give me that shirt or what?”
“Oh. Sorry.” Rufus handed it over, resolving to avoid all unwanted perving from now on. He’d never been kickboxed. He was fairly sure he didn’t want to start now. “You know what’s good for hypothermia?” he couldn’t help adding. So much for that resolution.
Michael gave him a look. “Is this where you offer me skin-on-skin contact to get my temperature up? What do you think this is? Some kind of gay porno?”
Rufus swallowed. “Um, no?”
Michael stepped closer. “Do you want it to be?”
Oh god, yes. “Um. See, this is the sort of question I might have to think about. I mean, you just told me you’re a kickboxer, and you came here with your girlfriend, so what I’m really asking is, if I say yes, is it going to get me laid, or is it going to get me—”
“Shut up,” Michael said, not too roughly, and kissed him.
Michael knew he was being a shit. But Christ, the kid was just asking for it, in more ways than one. Standing there staring at Michael’s dick with his tongue hanging out between those pretty red lips. And it wasn’t like Michael was gonna be getting any from Trix tonight, or any other night come to that, so why not show the kid a good time?
Jesus, how old was he, anyway? He knew how to kiss, but that meant sod all. “You legal?” Michael asked, taking a regretful step back. He was already getting hard just from that brief contact, and he’d have liked the opportunity to get even harder, ta very much.
“I’m twenty,” the kid squeaked, his gaze fixed firmly to Michael’s rising dick like it held all the secrets of the universe.
Yeah, right. “No fucking way.”
Rufus smirked. “Way.” Jesus, he was cute when he was being cheeky. Then he had to ruin it. “Although it is my fifth birthday today. I thought at first you were my present. I mean, I did get to unwrap you.”
Fucking marvellous. Michael might be a shit, but even he drew the line at screwing anyone without the mental capacity to consent. He sighed and started pulling on the borrowed shirt, his dick deflating rapidly.
Rufus stared at him with big, wide eyes that seemed brown one minute and green the next. “What did I say?”
“Look, you’re cute, yeah? But you probably oughtta just sit tight and wait for your carer to get back.”
“No, no—wait.” Rufus grabbed hold of Michael’s arm, as if he thought Michael was actually going anywhere dressed in nothing but a borrowed old-man shirt with his dick hanging out. “See here? My driving licence. Date of birth, 29 February 1996. So I’m twenty, yeah, but it’s my fifth birthday. I’m a leapling. And a caulkhead, meaning I was born on the island, but that’s kind of not relevant right—mmph.”
Michael had stopped listening after “1996.” His dick chubbing up again nicely, he yanked Rufus back against him and carried on with that kiss. Yeah, that was good. He dropped his hands to grab a couple of handfuls of firm little arse. Fuck, yeah. He was having that. “You got condoms?” he breathed into Rufus’s ear.
“Um. Yes?” Rufus looked around the room like he thought they were gonna jump out of a drawer and throw themselves at him. “Somewhere—”
“Don’t bother.” Michael’s dick just didn’t have the patience. And while he might’ve been kicked out of the Boy Scouts at age eleven, he was always prepared. He grabbed his sodden jeans and felt in the back pocket. Yep, condom and lube. Good thing they came foil wrapped. “You need much prep?”
“You’ve done anal before, right?”
“Yes! Lots of times.”
Rufus might as well have had a big red neon sign above his head, flashing LIE. Michael sighed. This really wasn’t his day. “Look, you can just suck me off, okay?”
“No! I mean, yes, but . . . I want to. Do, you know. Anal. I really, really want to. It’s leap year, right? Time to try something new.”
“Ever had anything up there?”
Rufus nodded—then dived under the bed. He came back with a large shoebox, which he opened. “See?”
Yeah, Michael saw, all right. It was kinda hard to miss a bright-purple dildo, especially one of that size. He was grudgingly impressed.
Also starting to feel a bit inadequate, but bugger that.
No, wait. He focused back on Rufus’s pert little arse. Bugger that. He smiled. “Better get your kit off, then.” Still kneeling on the floor—and Michael had zero problem with that—Rufus stripped off his sweater and T-shirt together, revealing a slender, hairless torso, not bulky but lean. Nice. “You work out?”
Rufus blushed. “I do yoga.”
Michael grinned. “Bendy little fucker, are you?”
There was that cheeky smile again. “Oh yeah.” Rufus stood up, undid his jeans, and pushed them and his boxer briefs off in one quick motion. Then he climbed onto the bed and lay back, grinning at Michael from between legs that were spread wide, his feet pointing to the ceiling and his hands around his ankles. His dick, which sprouted from a nest of neatly trimmed blond fuzz, was fucking perfect—hard, leaking, and just a little bit smaller than Michael’s.
Shit. Michael was in love. He scrambled onto the bed and grabbed hold of that arse with both hands. “Fuck me. You’re gonna feel this for weeks.”
Rufus’s eyes opened wider, and the grin faltered a bit, but he didn’t move. “I can take anything you can give me.”
“Cocky sod. Let’s see how you like this.” Kneeling, Michael smoothed on the condom with the speed of one hell of a lot of practice, lubed up his fingers, and shoved in two at once—slowly, cos he wasn’t a total bastard.
Rufus’s eyes rolled up in his head. “Oh god.”
“Plenty more where that came from.” Michael added another finger, pinching a nipple with his other hand to take the kid’s mind off any possible discomfort. He was thoughtful like that.
“Oh god,” Rufus said again. Then, “Oh god,” as Michael hit the magic button inside him. His whole body jerked, his dick leaking a sticky trail onto his belly.
Michael pulled out his fingers and slapped some more lube on his cock. “Ready for this?” Because Christ, Michael was. His dick was so full and hard he felt light-headed from the lack of blood to the brain.
“Yes, god, yes . . .” Rufus’s eager babbling was a sweet little boost to the ego.
Michael pushed inside. Jesus, that arse was perfect. Hot and tight, it grabbed hold of his dick and lured him into virgin territory, and Michael wasn’t gonna pretend that wasn’t an extra thrill. You always remembered your first, right? Michael was gonna make this one to tell the grandkids about.
Well. Maybe not literally.
He groaned as he bottomed out, hips pressed to Rufus’s arse. So fucking good.
Rufus was staring at Michael like he was the fucking Holy Grail.
“All right there?” Michael asked, a bit short of breath.
Rufus didn’t answer, still staring at Michael wide-eyed and openmouthed.
“Oi,” Michael prompted, with a gentle slap to Rufus’s arse. The vibration travelled through to his dick and felt pretty good, so he did it again just for fun. “You okay there?”
“Yes, god,” Rufus blurted out. “Please move.”
Michael laughed. “Only cos you asked so nicely.” He pulled out almost all the way, then slowly thrust back in, drawing a long, low groan from Rufus that gave Michael the shivers and had the added bonus of covering up his own moan. Jesus, that felt good. “Ready to go up a gear?”
Rufus nodded frantically.
Michael let go. He pounded Rufus’s arse harder and harder, his balls slapping against skin with a rhythmic thwack. Jesus, this wasn’t gonna last—
Rufus’s face went from slack-jawed pleasure to screwed-up ecstasy as he shot all over his own chest, dick untouched, gasping out some weird bloke’s name—P’Simon?—but Michael didn’t give a monkey’s cos he could finally, finally let go. With a groan of relief so loud they must have heard it back on the mainland, Michael emptied his balls into that tight little body.
Panting hard, Michael stayed where he was until the last of the aftershocks had died away. Then, before the lethargy could hit, he grabbed the base of the condom and pulled out. Fuck, that had been awesome. He stripped off the condom and dropped it on the floor, then gave Rufus a sloppy kiss.
“Got a pen?” he asked, his voice coming out breathless.
Still looking dazed, Rufus scrabbled around in his bedside drawer. “Pen, pen . . . Yes. Here you go.”
“Right. C’mere.” Michael grabbed Rufus’s face with both hands, kissed him one last time, then scribbled down his phone number on Rufus’s forehead. “Next time you’re in Southampton, gimme a call and we’ll do this again.”
He gave Rufus the pen back, tugged on his still-wet jeans—Fuck, that’s gross—grabbed his jacket from its sodden puddle on the floor, jammed his feet into his trainers—Jesus, that’s even worse—and squelched away.
Rufus was left lying on the bed, staring at the door, his chest wet with spunk and his head in a whirl. He felt changed, different. No longer a virgin—not that he hadn’t fooled around before, but no one could ever say he hadn’t had proper sex now.
He’d heard the first time was always supposed to be crap, something to get out of the way before you met the bloke of your dreams, cos you didn’t want to start a perfect relationship with rubbish sex. But that had been amazing. He could hardly believe big, scary Michael had been so gentle with him. Even when he was being rough. Did that make sense? Oh, who cared. It’d been perfect.
It felt like a dream. Had it even happened? He moved, and felt a twinge in his arse that said yes, yes it had. And when he got out of bed, his carpet was wet, there was a definite whiff of seawater in the air underneath the reek of sex, and as a clincher, the mirror above the tiny washbasin in his room showed an eleven-figure number scrawled on his forehead. Rufus looked at the pen still in his hand.
It was a permanent marker.
Oh, buggering bollocks.
Rufus ran the tap until the water was scalding, squirted out a generous dollop of soap, and scrubbed furiously at his forehead. Shit, shit . . . Shit. He hadn’t made a note of the number first. Oh god. Rufus closed his eyes in despair. The most gorgeous bloke he’d ever met, the best shag he’d ever had—technically, the only shag he’d ever had—and he’d just washed away his one means of getting back in touch.
He was an idiot.
Rufus opened his eyes to glare at himself in the mirror. And realised the number was still there, only marginally fainter than before. Thank Poseidon.
He grabbed a piece of paper and painstakingly wrote down the number, double- and triple-checking to make sure he hadn’t got any digits round the wrong way. Then he put it straight into his phone just to make certain.
Then he switched off his phone and put it in his bedside drawer. Just in case his fingers might slip, hit Call, and propel him straight into needy clingy stalker territory. Three days—that was the minimum time before calling, wasn’t it? Or was it two now, what with shorter attention spans these days? If he left it too long, Michael would be back in Southampton. He might be on his way back there already. Maybe a quick text right now wouldn’t hurt . . . Rufus found his hands straying towards the drawer and folded his arms quickly to keep them in line.
Of course, that just left him back at square one—with a bloody great phone number written on his head. Maybe if he combed his hair forward? Yeah, and spent a couple of months growing it first. Rufus sighed. Camouflage. It was the only option. Baseball cap pulled low? That might work.
If he owned a baseball cap. Hm. Beanie? He had one of those. Except Dad would ask him why he was wearing it in the house.
Rufus had to think fast. They could be home at any minute. He sprayed on some deodorant, sprayed a bit around the room for good measure, pulled on his clothes, and sneaked into Dad and Shelley’s room on tiptoe. Even when they were out, he instinctively felt sneaking was essential. It had been a total no-go area for him after they first got together—he’d definitely come to appreciate the usefulness of earplugs that first summer—and even two years later it gave him a weird feeling going in there. But maybe Dad still had that old 1970s-style tennis sweatband . . . No, wait. This was even better.
He grabbed one of Shelley’s animal-print scarves from the loopy thing that hung on the wall and tied the wispy fabric around his head. Then he peered at himself in her dressing-table mirror, the view a bit fuzzy because she liked to put on lots of bronzing powder with a big floofy brush and hated dusting. Hm. Maybe not the leopard. The zebra?
Yes. Yes, that was much better. Much manlier.
He went downstairs to put the kettle on. As he finished filling it, Dad and Shelley walked in.
Rufus had a moment of panic—would they be able to tell, simply by looking at him, what had happened? But no, that was ridiculous. Just cos he felt different didn’t mean he looked it.
“Happy birthday, love!” Shelley said with a big smile, and came to give him a hug, although she’d done both already, first thing this morning. Dad had probably told her his last birthday, when he’d been sixteen, had been a little bit crap, what with Mum dying of cancer. Not on the day, because even Rufus’s luck wasn’t that shitty all of the time, but soon after. So she was probably trying to make up for that. Well, and for not being Rufus’s real mum, although he was never quite sure why she seemed to think that needed making up for. After all, it wasn’t her fault.
Dad, being his real parent, just nodded at him. “Had fun with your presents?” he asked gruffly.
Rufus froze guiltily, before realising that of course Dad meant his actual presents, which had been a beautiful red and black Vitamix blender and a blowtorch that came with its own little set of cute porcelain ramekins. Not, say, any bits of rough trade that might have been washed up on Sandown beach. “I’m saving it for tonight. I thought I’d do duck with a Pinot and raspberry jus, served with potato and tarragon rosti, and followed, obviously, by orange crème brûlée.”
Their eyes glazed over like ham cooked in honey and marmalade. Rufus frequently got the feeling they weren’t really into it when he talked menus.
“You know,” Dad said a bit hesitantly. “The offer still stands if you want to go out for a meal instead.”
“Yeah, love,” Shelley put in, hanging on to Dad’s arm. “You sure you want to cook on your birthday? You wouldn’t catch me doing that.”
Rufus was way too tactful to point out it was pretty hard to catch Shelley cooking on any of the other three hundred and sixty-four-stroke-five days of the year, either. But Dad had the decency to look embarrassed. Last time he’d been caught with a spatula in his hand, he’d been looking for something to help him even out the grout on the guests’ bathroom tiles.
Shelley was staring at him, a frown on her carefully made-up face. Oh god—could she tell what he’d been up to? Did he look different after all? More mature? Less innocent? Totally shagged?
“Rufus, love? Why have you got one of my scarves tied around your head?”
Oh. That. If he crossed his fingers, she might see, so Rufus surreptitiously crossed his toes inside his Crocs. “I, um, thought it might make me look more butch. Like Rambo, you know, in Dad’s old DVDs? Is it working?”
“Cup of tea, anyone?” Dad said quickly.
Shelley grabbed on to that lifeline with both hands. “Ooh, that’d be lovely, ta.”
Rufus guessed that was a no, then. “Never mind. Maybe the butchness quotient will increase once I’ve worn it in. You don’t mind me borrowing it, do you, Shelley?”
“Course not, love. I know what it’s like when you’re young. You never have enough stuff. Me and my sister used to share clothes all the time. You miss out on that, being an only child.”
Dad coughed. “Lads don’t tend to do that sort of thing.”
“Sez you.” Shelley kissed Dad on the cheek. Sweet, but ew. “Maybe not when you were a lad. I bet boys of Rufus’s age do it all the time.”
“No, we’re all too busy playing FPS games on our Xboxes and mugging old ladies while dressed in hoodies,” Rufus contradicted her with a fond smile. He liked Shelley, probably because she never tried to actually be a mum to him. “And Dad? FPS means first-person shooter, and an Xbox is a—”
“You know, you’re not too big for me to put you over my knee,” Dad interrupted with