Out! (A Shamwell Tales Novel)
When love wars with principle, which one will win?
Mark Nugent has spent his life in the closet—at least, the small portion of it he hasn’t spent in the office. Determined to make amends to his neglected teenage daughter from a failed marriage, Mark swears off work—and love—so he can give her a stable home environment. But Mark’s resolve to keep his heart under wraps is tested when he meets an out and proud young man he’s instantly drawn to.
Patrick Owen is a charity worker with strong principles. He doesn’t trust easily, but he’s blown away by his attraction for the older man who’s so new to his own sexuality. Yet Mark is adamant he’s not coming out to his daughter—and Patrick refuses to live a lie.
What with Mark’s old-fashioned attitudes and his flirtatious ex-colleague who’s determined to come between them, Patrick begins to wonder if they’ll ever be on the same page. And when Mark’s career as a tax advisor clashes with Patrick’s social conscience, sparks really start to fly—in all the wrong ways.
(Note: This is a revised second edition, originally published elsewhere.)
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Themes: acceptance, age gap, angst, bullying, coming out, disability / disfigurement, family, first love, gender expression, homophobia / transphobia, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, stalking / harassment, trust issues
Mark clenched and unclenched his hands in his lap — fortunately hidden by the large oak table they were all sitting around. This should not be at all nerve-racking. He'd spent twenty years building a successful career as a tax advisor in the City of London. He'd faced down boards of directors and pointed out the errors of their ways. He'd brow-beaten so many inspectors of taxes on behalf of his corporate clients it was a wonder the country hadn't gone bankrupt.
He should be able to face a meeting of the Shamwell Spartans Fun and Funds Foundation.
The trouble was, there was no hiding behind his professional persona here. This was a social situation, which had never been his forte. Mark couldn't help being reminded of his school days. He'd changed schools on an almost annual basis, and he'd always hated being the new boy. Having to negotiate all the little cliques that inevitably formed wherever two or three were gathered together. Everyone here knew everyone else here — except him.
The upstairs room of the Three Lions pub was fairly large, with white-painted walls that made the best of the light coming in through small, many-paned windows. The ceiling beams, black with age, stood out in stark contrast. There was a mingled aroma of beer, furniture polish, and somebody's enthusiastically applied aftershave tragically failing to cover his stale sweat.
The website had said the Spartans was open to all villagers of the male gender (was that even legal these days?) between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five. Mark was comforted to find he wasn't the only one there who was edging towards the upper end of that range. Several heads were greying to greater or lesser degree — unlike his own, Mark was happy to say with almost complete truth — and he strongly suspected Barry the chairman's thick, dark head of hair of being a dye job. There were also a couple of early receders who'd made the best of it by shaving the lot off.
Barry knocked on the table with an actual, old-fashioned gavel. "Right, you lot, if you can shut your gobs for a moment, I want you all to welcome our new member, Mark Nugent. He's just moved in to the village. Mark, you want to introduce yourself?"
"Thank you, Barry," Mark said with a confident smile. He stood, realising even as he did so that what might be right for the boardroom might, in this context, just make him look like a self-important prick. But sitting straight down again would make him look like an idiot. He had a split second to decide: sessile fool or erect . . . prick?
Mark decided that, on the whole, he'd rather be a prick.
"Not a lot to tell," he began self-deprecatingly. "I'm a chartered accountant and chartered tax advisor, formerly based in practice in London and now taking a career break to concentrate on my family. I'm a single father with a daughter of fourteen who's just started at . . ." Damn it, what was the bloody name of the place? ". . . one of the local schools. She was the one who encouraged me to come along here, in fact."
Actually, her words had been more along the lines of "For God's sake, Dad, get some bloody hobbies. You're driving me mental hanging round the house all the time."
"And I hope I'll be able to use my professional expertise to further the aims of this excellent group. Thank you, gentlemen." Mark cleared his throat again. Yes, thank you, and I hope you enjoyed this evening's order of pomposity. Plenty more available at a very reasonable hourly rate.
Mark hoped he was imagining the variety of amused, incredulous, and horrified looks that had turned his way. The one saving feature of the evening was that Florrie — no, Fen, damn it — wasn't here to witness it. He could hear her exasperated Daaa-aaad in his head, even now.
"Right, well, thanks for that, Mark. I'm sure we'll be able to find . . . something for you to do. Anyway — Oh, hang on. We oughta tell you who we are, don't we? Me you know, and that's — " Barry rattled off a list of names going round the table, most of which Mark immediately forgot. "Right, now we all know each other — " He was cut off by the door opening.
A man walked in, his gait the confident, easy swagger of young, good-looking men everywhere. Clearly on the younger end of the Spartans' age scale, the newcomer might have just stepped from the pages of a fashion shoot. Or out of one of those adverts for online dating agencies Mark had been trying to ignore lately. He was dressed in a pale-blue casual shirt that Mark was ninety-five percent certain wasn't designer but looked it anyway on his slim, fit figure, paired with jeans that hugged him, if not lovingly, then certainly with lust in mind. His eyes, set off by the shirt, were a startling blue, lively and bright. Cropped in close at the sides, his sandy hair was styled up on top with gel — was that why he was late? Maybe he'd needed the extra time to do his hair — bringing his height up to a level that, if it wasn't six foot, wasn't far off either. Just an inch or so shorter than Mark, in fact.
He was . . . hot. And, Mark reminded himself hurriedly, even in the statistically unlikely event that this young man was attracted to (a) men and (b) older men in particular, firmly off limits. Mark had his daughter to think of. The thought filled him with a heady mix of pride, purpose — and insidiously creeping depression.
The newcomer flashed them all a cheeky smile, and now apparently Mark had a heart arrhythmia to add to his woes. What the hell was the matter with him tonight?
"Patrick. Finally," Barry said with good-humoured reproof. "We'd just about given up on you."
Patrick's reply was pitched low, with just a hint of roughness under the light Essex accent. "All right, lads? Sorry I'm late — total bastard of a day at work, and then when I get home, Mum's got it into her head she's gonna put up a shelf in the kitchen. Managed to drill into a water pipe. So there's me stuck with my thumb in the hole like a little Dutch boy while she calls that plumber she fancies."
There was a collective wry chuckle, accompanied by the odd muttering of "Women, eh?"
"Anyway," he carried on. "By the time this plumber bloke gets there, I'm soaking wet, which, from the way he eyes me up, makes me think Mum could be barking up the wrong tree there, so I had to go and get changed."
Mark was mesmerised by the image of Patrick, soaking wet and peeling off his clothes. So much so that he almost didn't catch Barry's reply: "What, and you didn't stay to chat him up?"
That was interesting . . . Except no, it wasn't, because young, fit fashion models didn't look twice at middle-aged men. And responsible fathers didn't shock their troubled teenage daughters by getting mixed up with boy-toys.
Damn it. Mark's mood crashed again.
The blue eyes twinkled. "What, and step on Mum's toes? I'd never hear the last of it. You never know, maybe he swings both ways."
"Go on, admit it," the better looking of the shaven heads — Roger? Rodney? Roderick? — said loudly. "You just needed the time to do your hair."
Patrick's response was a hearty laugh. "Rory, mate, you know you're just jealous."
Barry cleared his throat. "We were just getting to know our new member. Mark, this is Patrick."
Caught by surprise, Mark stood once more — damn it, legs, why do you keep doing that? — and offered Patrick his hand.
Patrick raised an eyebrow, making Mark feel even worse, but took his hand and shook it firmly. His grip was warm and smooth, and all sorts of thoughts Mark should not be thinking started to run through his head like an X-rated earworm.
"Good to meet you," Patrick said. "New in the village? I don't think I've seen you around."
"Ah, likewise." Mark's mind wasn't really on his response. The room was stiflingly hot. It couldn't be good for the ancient timbers, not to mention the environment. Why the bloody hell didn't someone turn the heating down?
And was Patrick implying that if he'd seen Mark, he'd have noticed him?
No, surely not.
Was he? Mark realised he was still holding Patrick's hand and dropped it like a hot potato. Fortunately nobody seemed to have noticed. He sat down hastily as Patrick took a seat at the other end of the long oak table.
Oh God. Mark's life had just turned into the classic midlife crisis.
This young man was apparently attracted to men, gorgeous, and sharp in just the right way. His smile set Mark's stomach in turmoil, and his voice had a similar effect on . . . other areas.
And he was young enough to be Mark's son, for God's sake.
Mark was doomed.
Barry banged on the table once more, and the susurration of murmurs that had sprung up abruptly ceased. "Right. Three-legged sponsored pub crawl — who's up for it?"