Played! (A Shamwell Tales Novel)
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.
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Themes: abandonment, acceptance, angst, disability / disfigurement, enemies to lovers, family, financial gap / class disparity, geeks / nerds, history, homophobia / transphobia, interracial/multicultural, learning disability, racism, self-confidence, self-discovery / self-reflection, the power of stories, trust issues
A Plague on Both Your Houses
There was a frog in the kitchen.
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 — "
"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?"
"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.
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?"
"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."
"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.