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This book is hysterical and romantic and fun and devastating and sweet and oh my god this book, it’s amazing I loved every second of reading it would definitely 10/10 recommend
02 December 2020 (10:27)
Book has a catching title but storyline sucks. Overall it's average novel but in middle story is just given extension with many useless incidents and unnecessary description of events. You will find it hard to reread it.If u have too much time give it a read else I will suggest u not to.
21 March 2021 (17:14)
Cheeeesy story. But Luc I luv u. And Luc ; I would like it very much if you and Oliver can spare some time to meet up with Alex and Henry.*
*Red, White and Royal Blue.
*Red, White and Royal Blue.
03 April 2021 (19:16)
Red, White and Royal Blue was SOO GOOD. Hoping this one gives me the same or an even better experience
02 August 2021 (11:32)
my honest opionion....this book was confusing. i couldn’t make it past the first few pages.
28 August 2021 (16:28)
If it was realistic they would be having unprotected sex with every guy they meet
02 November 2021 (00:44)
Thank you for downloading this Sourcebooks eBook! You are just one click away from… • Being the first to hear about author happenings • VIP deals and steals • Exclusive giveaways • Free bonus content • Early access to interactive activities • Sneak peeks at our newest titles Happy reading! CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP Books. Change. Lives. Copyright © 2020 by Alexis Hall Cover and internal design © 2020 by Sourcebooks Cover design and illustration by Elizabeth Turner Stokes Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks. The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author. All brand names and product names used in this book are trademarks, registered trademarks, or trade names of their respective holders. Sourcebooks is not associated with any product or vendor in this book. Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410 (630) 961-3900 sourcebooks.com Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is on file with the publisher. Contents Front Cover Title Page Copyright Chapter 1 Chapter 2 Chapter 3 Chapter 4 Chapter 5 Chapter 6 Chapter 7 Chapter 8 Chapter 9 Chapter 10 Chapter 11 Chapter 12 Chapter 13 Chapter 14 Chapter 15 Chapter 16 Chapter 17 Chapter 18 Chapter 19 Chapter 20 Chapter 21 Chapter 22 Chapter 23 Chapter 24 Chapter 25 Chapter 26 Chapter 27 Chapter 28 Chapt; er 29 Chapter 30 Chapter 31 Chapter 32 Chapter 33 Chapter 34 Chapter 35 Chapter 36 Chapter 37 Chapter 38 Chapter 39 Chapter 40 Chapter 41 Chapter 42 Chapter 43 Chapter 44 Chapter 45 Chapter 46 Chapter 47 Chapter 48 Chapter 49 Chapter 50 Chapter 51 Chapter 52 Chapter 53 About the Author Back Cover To CMC Chapter 1 I’ve never seen the point of fancy dress parties. You have two choices: either you make a massive effort and wind up looking like a dick, or you make no effort and wind up looking like a dick. And my problem, as always, was not knowing what kind of dick I wanted to be. I’d pretty much committed to the no-effort strategy. Then I’d panicked at the last minute, made an ill-fated attempt to track down somewhere that sold costumes, and found myself in one of those weirdly high-streety sex shops that flog red lingerie and pink dildos to people with no real interest in either. Which is why, when I rocked up to a party already well into the too hot, too loud, too crowded stage of its life cycle, I was wearing a pair of problematically sexualised black lace bunny ears. I swear, I used to be good at this sort of thing. But I was out of practice, and looking like a cut-rate rent boy serving a very specific fetish was not the ideal way to make a triumphant return to the scene. Worse, I’d arrived so late that all the other lonely, shit people had given up and gone home already. Somewhere in that pit of flashy lights, bleepy music, and sweat were my actual friends. I knew that because our WhatsApp group—currently called Queer Comes The Sun—had devolved into a hundred variations on the theme of “where the fuck is Luc.” But all I could see were people I vaguely thought vaguely knew people who vaguely knew me. Wriggling my way to the bar, I squinted at the chalkboard listing the night’s bespoke cocktails and eventually ordered a Sloe Comfortable Conversation about Pronouns Up Against the Wall, since it seemed like it would be both nice to drink and accurately descriptive of my chances of scoring that evening. Or, indeed, ever. I should probably explain why I was sipping on a nonbinary beverage while wearing the world’s most middle-class excuse for fetish gear in a basement in Shoreditch. But, honestly, I was beginning to wonder that myself. Basically, there’s this guy called Malcom who I know because everybody knows Malcom. I’m pretty sure he’s a stockbroker or a banker or whatever, but in the evenings—by which I mean some evenings, by which I mean about one evening a week—he DJs at this transgender/gender-fluid club night called Surf ‘n’ Turf @ The Cellar. And tonight was his T Party. His Mad Hatter’s T Party. Because that’s Malcom. Right now, he was at the back of the room in a purple topper, a striped tailcoat, leather trousers, and not much else, laying down what I think they call “sick beats.” Or maybe they don’t. Maybe that’s something nobody has ever said ever. When I was going through my club-kid phase, I didn’t even bother to ask the names of my hookups, let alone make notes on the terminology. I sighed and turned my attention back to my Comfortable Lack of a Screw. There should really be a word for the feeling you get when you do a thing you don’t particularly want to do to support somebody else but then realise they didn’t actually need you and nobody would have noticed if you’d stayed home in your pyjamas eating Nutella straight from the jar. Anyway. That. I was feeling that. And probably I should just have left, except then I’d have been the arsehole who showed up for Malcom’s T Party, made no effort with his costume, drank an eighth of a drink, and then fucked off without talking to anybody. Pulling out my phone, I sent a forlorn “I’m here, where are you?” message to the group only to see the clock of doom pop up beside it. Who’d have thought an event that took place literally underground and surrounded by concrete would have bad mobile phone reception? “You do realise”—warm breath brushed my cheek—“that those ears aren’t even white?” I turned to find a stranger standing next to me. Quite a cute stranger, with that pointy, foxy look I’ve always found weirdly charming. “Yeah, but I was late. And you’re not wearing a costume at all.” He grinned, looking even pointier and even foxier and even more charming. Then flicked his lapel aside to reveal a sticky label that read ‘Nobody.’ “I’m guessing that’s an irritatingly obscure reference.” “‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ the king remarked in a fretful tone, ‘to be able to see Nobody!’” “You smug git.” That made him laugh. “Fancy dress parties bring out the worst in me.” It wasn’t quite the longest I’d spoken to a guy without fucking the whole thing up, but it was definitely climbing the leaderboard. What was important here was not to panic and try to protect myself by transforming into an unbearable wanker or a gargantuan manslut. “I hate to imagine who they bring out the best in.” “Yeah, that”—another grin, another flash of his teeth—“would be Malcom.” “Everything brings out the best in Malcom. He could make people celebrate having to pay 10p for a carrier bag.” “Please don’t give him ideas. By the way…”—he leaned a little closer—“I’m Cam. But since you almost certainly misheard me, I’ll answer to any one-syllable name with a vowel in the middle.” “Nice to meet you, Bob.” “You smug git.” Even through the strobes, I caught the glitter of his eyes. And found myself wondering what colour they were away from the shadows and artificial rainbows of the dance floor. That was a bad sign. That was perilously close to liking someone. And look where that had got me. “You’re Luc Fleming, aren’t you?” he asked. Why, hello other shoe. I’d been wondering when you were going to drop. Eff my effing L. “Actually,” I said, like I always said, “it’s Luc O’Donnell.” “But you are Jon Fleming’s kid?” “What’s it to you?” He blinked. “Well, nothing. But when I asked Angie”—Malcom’s girlfriend, currently dressed as Alice because of course she was—“who the hot, grumpy guy was, she said, ‘Oh that’s Luc. He’s Jon Fleming’s kid.’” I didn’t like that being the thing people told each other about me. But then again, what was the alternative? That’s Luc, his career’s in the toilet? That’s Luc, he’s not had a stable relationship in five years? That’s Luc, where did it all go wrong? “Yeah. That’s me.” Cam folded his elbows on the bar. “This is exciting. I’ve never met anyone famous before. Should I be pretending I really like your dad or really hate your dad?” “I’ve never even met him.” A cursory Google would have told him that, so it wasn’t like he was getting a major scoop here. “So I don’t particularly care.” “Probably for the best because I can only remember, like, one of his songs. I think it was about having a green ribbon around his hat.” “No, that’s Steeleye Span.” “Oh wait. Jon Fleming’s Rights of Man.” “Yeah, but I can see how you got them confused.” He gave me a sharp look. “They sound nothing alike, do they?” “Well, there’s a couple of subtle differences. Steeleye’s more folk rock, whereas RoM’s more prog rock. Steeleye used a lot of violins, whereas Dad’s a flautist. Also, the lead singer of Steeleye Span is a woman.” “Okay”—he flicked another smile at me, less abashed than I would have been in his position—“so I don’t know what I’m talking about. My dad’s a big fan though. He’s got all the records. Keeps them in the attic with the bell bottoms he hasn’t been able to get into since 1979.” It was beginning to sink in that, about eight million years ago, Cam had described me as hot and grumpy. Except, right now, it was clearly 80/20 in favour of grumpy. “Everyone’s dad’s a fan of my dad.” “That must mess with your head.” “A bit.” “And it must be even weirder with the TV thing.” “Kind of.” I poked listlessly at my drink. “I get recognised more, but ‘Hey, your dad’s that guy off that stupid talent show’ is marginally better than ‘Hey, your dad’s that guy who was in the news last week for headbutting a policeman, then vomiting on a judge while off his face on heroin and Toilet Duck.’” “At least it’s interesting. The most scandalous thing my dad’s ever done was shake a bottle of ketchup without realising the lid was off.” I laughed in spite of myself. “I can’t believe you’re giggling at my childhood trauma. The kitchen looked like something out of Hannibal. Mum still brings it up every time she’s annoyed, even if it’s not actually Dad she’s annoyed at.” “Yeah, my mum brings up my dad when I piss her off as well. Except it’s less ‘This is just like the time your father got a tomatoey condiment all over the kitchen’ and more ‘This is just like the time your father said he’d come home for my birthday, but instead, he stayed in LA snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s breasts.’” Cam blinked. “Eeesh.” Shit. Half a cocktail and a pretty smile, and I was singing like a lovable urchin on a barricade in France. This was the sort of stuff that ended up in the papers. Jon Fleming’s Other Secret Coke Shame. Or maybe Like Father, Like Son: Jon Fleming Junior’s Childhood Behaviour Compared to Father’s Drug-Fuelled Rampages. Or worst of all, Still Crazy after All These Years: Odile O’Donnell Rages at Son about ’80s Fleming Hooker Binge. This was why I should never leave the house. Or talk to humans. Especially not humans I wanted to like me. “Listen,” I said, with zero poker face, despite knowing how badly this could go wrong, “my mum’s a really good person, and she brought me up on her own, and has gone through a lot so…like…can you please forget I said that?” He gave me the type of look you give someone when you’re mentally shifting them from the box that says “attractive” to the box that says “weird.” “I’m not going to tell her. I don’t even know her. And, yes, I might have come over to hit on you, but we’re quite a long way from meeting the parents.” “Sorry. Sorry. I…I’m just protective of her.” “And you think she needs to be protected from random guys you meet in bars?” Well, I’d ruined this. Because the answer was basically “Yes, in case you go to the tabloids, because that’s a thing that actually happens to me,” but I couldn’t tell him without putting the idea in his head. I mean, assuming it wasn’t there already, and he wasn’t playing me like a flute or a fiddle, depending which ’70s band he thought I was in. So that left option B: Allow this funny, sexy man I’d like to at least try for a one-night stand with to believe I was a paranoid creep who spent way too much time thinking about his mother. “Um.” I swallowed, feeling about as desirable as a roadkill sandwich. “Can we go back to the bit where you’d come over to hit on me?” There was a longer silence than I would have liked. Then Cam smiled—if slightly warily. “Sure.” Another silence. “So,” I tried. “This hitting-on-me thing you’re doing. I’ve got to say it’s pretty minimalist.” “Well, my original plan was to, y’know, try to talk to you a bit and see how it went, and then maybe try to kiss you or something. But you kind of torpedoed that strategy. So now I don’t know what to do.” I drooped. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just really bad at…” I tried to find a word that properly encapsulated my recent dating history “…everything.” Perhaps I was imagining it, but I could almost see Cam deciding whether or not he could be arsed with me. To my mild surprise, he seemed to come down on the side of arsed. “Everything?” he repeated, and tweaked the tip of my bunny ear in a fashion I chose to interpret as encouraging. This was a good sign, right? This had to be a good sign. Or was it a terrible sign? What was wrong with him that he wasn’t running away screaming? Okay. No. I was in my head, and that was the worst place for anyone to be, especially me, and I needed to say something light and flirty and right the fuck now. “I might be okay at the kissing.” “Mmm.” Cam leaned in a little farther. Holy shit, he was actually going for this? “I’m not sure I trust your judgment. Perhaps I’d better check for myself.” “Um. All right?” So he checked for himself. And I was okay at the kissing. I mean, I thought I was okay at the kissing. God, I hope I was okay at the kissing. “Well?” I asked a moment later, sounding relaxed, playful, and not at all desperate and insecure. His face was close enough that I could see all the tantalising details, like the thickness of his eyelashes, the beginnings of stubble along his jaw, and the crinkles at the corners of his lips. “I’m not sure I can draw an accurate conclusion from a single data point.” “Oooh. Sciencey.” We expanded the data set. And by the time we were done, he had me pressed up against the corner of the bar, and my hands were tucked into the back pockets of his jeans in a really half-arsed attempt to pretend I wasn’t blatantly feeling him up. Which was when I remembered that he knew my name, and my dad’s name, and probably my mum’s name, and quite possibly everything that had ever been written about me, and all I had in return was that he was called “Cam” and tasted nice. “Are you?” I said, breathlessly. And in response to his confused look, “You know, sciencey. You don’t look sciencey.” “Oh. No.” He grinned, all foxy and delicious. “That was just an excuse to keep kissing you.” “What do you do, then?” “I freelance, mainly for sites that wish they were BuzzFeed.” I knew it. I fucking knew it. He had been far too eager to overlook my many, many flaws. “You’re a journalist.” “That’s a pretty generous term for it. I write those lists of x things about y where you won’t believe z that everybody hates but seem to read anyway.” Twelve Things You Didn’t Know About Luc O’Donnell. Number Eight Will Shock You. “And, sometimes, I make those quizzes where it’s like pick eight pictures of kittens, and we’ll tell you which John Hughes character you are.” The rational version of Luc, the one from the parallel universe where my dad wasn’t a famous shithead and my ex-boyfriend hadn’t sold all my secrets to Piers Morgan, tried to tell me I was overreacting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t listening. Cam tilted his head quizzically. “What’s wrong? Look, I know it’s not exactly a sexy job, and I don’t even have the comfort of saying ‘Someone has to do it’ because we totally don’t. But you’ve gone weird again.” “Sorry. It’s…complicated.” “Complicated can be interesting.” He went up on tiptoes to smooth a lock of hair behind my ear for me. “And we’ve got the kissing down. We’ve just got to work on the talking.” I gave what I hoped wasn’t a sickly grin. “I’d rather stick with what I’m good at.” “Tell you what. I’ll ask you a question, and if I like the answer, you get to kiss me again.” “Um, I’m not sure—” “Let’s start small. You know what I do. How about you?” My heart was racing. And not in a fun way. But, as questions went, that was harmless, right? It was information at least two hundred spambots already had. “I work for a charity.” “Wow. Noble. I’d say I’d always wanted to do something like that, but I’m far too shallow.” He turned his face up to mine, and I kissed him nervously. “Favourite ice cream flavour?” “Mint choc chip.” Another kiss. “Book that literally everyone else has read but you haven’t.” “All of them.” He drew back. “You’re not getting kissed for that. It’s a total cop-out.” “No seriously. All of them, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Dickens ever wrote, All Quiet on the Western Front, that one about the time-traveller’s wife, Harry Potter…” “You really do own your illiteracy, don’t you?” “Yeah, I’m thinking about moving to America and running for public office.” He laughed and kissed me, staying close this time, body pressed to mine, breath against my skin. “Okay. Weirdest place you’ve ever had sex.” “Is that for number eight?” I asked, with a bleaty laugh that was meant to show I was incredibly cool and unconcerned. “Number eight what?” “You know, twelve celebrities’ kids who like to fuck in weird places. Number eight will shock you.” “Wait.” He froze. “Do you honestly think I’m kissing you for a listicle?” “No. I mean…no. No.” He gazed at me for a long, horrible moment. “You do, don’t you?” “I told you it was complicated.” “That’s not complicated, that’s insulting.” “I… It’s…” I’d pulled this back before. I could pull it back again. “It wasn’t meant to be. It’s not about you.” This time, there was no ear tweaking. “How is it not about me if you genuinely have this concern about my possible behaviour?” “I just have to be careful.” For the record, I sounded extremely dignified when I said this. And not at all pathetic. “What the hell would I even write? I Met a Has-Been’s Kid at a Party? Celebrity’s Gay Son Is Gay Shock?” “Well, it sounds like it’d be a step up from what you usually write.” His mouth fell open, and I realised I might have gone the tiniest bit too far. “Wow. I was about to say I wasn’t sure which of us was the arsehole here, but thanks for clearing that up.” “No, no,” I said quickly, “it was always me. Trust me, I know.” “Really not sure that helps. I mean, I can’t figure out what’s worse. That you think I’d fuck a mildly famous person to get ahead. Or that you think if I was going to make such a profoundly degrading career choice, the person I’d pick to make it with was you.” I swallowed. “All good points. Very well made.” “Shit on a hot tin roof, I should have listened to Angie. You are a world of not worth it.” He stalked off into the crowd, presumably to find someone less fucked up, leaving me alone with my lopsided bunny ears and a profound sense of personal failure. Although I guess I’d accomplished two things tonight: I’d successfully demonstrated my support for a man who in no way needed it, and I’d finally proved beyond all reasonable objection that nobody in their right mind would date me. I was a cagey, grumpy, paranoid mess who would find a way to ruin even the most basic human interaction. I leaned against the bar and stared at the basement full of strangers having a far better time than me, at least two of whom were probably having a conversation right now about what a terrible human being I was. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could suck it up, act like an adult, find my actual friends, and try to make the best of the evening. Or I could run home, drink alone, and add this to the list of things I was unsuccessfully pretending had never happened. Two seconds later, I was on the stairs. Eight seconds later, I was out in the street. And nineteen seconds later, I was tripping over my own feet and landing flat on my face in the gutter. Well, wasn’t that just the ill-fitting crown on my inbred Hapsburg prince of an evening? And no way was it coming back to haunt me. Chapter 2 It came back to haunt me. And the way it haunted me was a Google alert that threatened to vibrate my phone off the bedside table. And, yes, I’m very aware that tracking what people are saying about you on the internet is generally the act of a tosser or a narcissist, or a narcissistic tosser, but I’d learned the hard way that it’s better to know what’s out there. I flailed, sending a different piece of vibrating technology—for gentlemen wishing to explore a more sophisticated kind of pleasure—spinning to the floor, and finally managed to close my fingers round my phone with all the grace of a teenager trying to hit second base. I didn’t want to look. But if I didn’t, I was going to throw up the sticky mess of dread, hope, and uncertainty that had turned my insides to baby food. Probably it was less bad than I feared. Usually it was less bad than I feared. Except occasionally it…wasn’t. Peeping through my eyelashes like a small child braving an episode of Doctor Who from behind the sofa cushions, I checked my notifications. And I could breathe again. It was okay. Though obviously in an ideal world, pictures of me lying in the gutter outside The Cellar in my bunny ears wouldn’t have been splashed across every third-rate gossip site from Celebitchy to Yeeeah. And in a truly ideal world my definition of okay wouldn’t have sunk quite that low. But, with my life being a never-ending pit of suck, my dismaydar has gone through some serious recalibrations over the years. I mean, at least the pictures showed me fully clothed and without anybody’s cock in my mouth. So, y’know, win. Today’s nail in the coffin of my digital reputation had a strong “like father, like son” theme, because there’s a magic porridge pot’s worth of footage of Jon Fleming making a tit of himself out there. And I guess “Bad Boy Jonny’s Wild Child Son Collapses in Drugs Sex Booze Shame” is a better headline than “Man Trips Over in Street.” Sighing, I let my phone thunk to the floor. Turns out, the one thing worse than having a famous father who blew up his career like a champagne supernova is having a famous father who’s making a fucking comeback. I’d just about learned to live with being compared to my reckless, self-destructive absentee father. But now he’d cleaned up his act and was playing the wise, old mentor every Sunday on ITV, I was being compared unfavourably to my reckless, self-destructive absentee father. And that was a level of bullshit I was not emotionally prepared for. I should have known better than to read the comments, but my eyes slipped and fell on wellactually69, who’d been massively upvoted for suggesting a reality TV show in which Jon Fleming tries to put his junkie son back on the straight and narrow—a show which theotherjillfrompeckham declared that she would “watch the shit out of.” I knew, in the grand scheme of things, none of this mattered. The internet was forever, and there was no getting away from that, but by tomorrow, or the day after, I would be below the fold, or whatever the e-equivalent of the fold was. As good as forgotten until the next time someone wanted a twist on the Jon Fleming story. Except I still felt fucking terrible, and the longer I lay there, the fucking terribler I felt. I tried to take some comfort in the fact that at least Cam hadn’t put me on a list of Twelve Pricks Who Will Freak Out on You in a Nightclub. But as comfort went, that landed somewhere between “cold” and “scant.” Truth be told, I’d never been the best at self-care. Self-recrimination, I had down. Self-loathing, I could do in my sleep, and often did. So here I was, a twenty-eight-year-old man suddenly feeling an overwhelming need to call his mother because he was sad. Because the one upside of my dad being who he is, is that my mum is who she is. You can Wiki this stuff, but the tl;dr version is that back in the ’80s she was essentially a French-Irish Adele with bigger hair. And at about the time Bros were wondering when they’d be famous and Cliff Richard was spilling mistletoe and wine on a million unsuspecting Christmases, she and Dad were caught up in this love-you-hate-you-can’t-live-without-you thing that produced two collaborative albums, one solo album, and me. Well, technically I came before the solo album, which happened when Dad realised he wanted to be famous and wasted more than he wanted to be in our lives. “Welcome Ghosts” was the last thing Mum ever wrote but, honestly, it was the last thing she had to. Nearly every year the BBC, or ITV, or some movie studio uses a track from it over a sad scene or an angry scene or a scene it doesn’t fit, but we’ll cash the cheque anyway. Stumbling out of bed, I adopted out of long-ingrained habit the Quasimodo pose required for anyone over 5’6” to move around my flat without getting clocked in the face by an eave. Which, given I’m 6’4”, is the accommodational equivalent of having chosen to drive a Mini Cooper. I’d leased the place with Miles—my ex—back when it had been romantic to live in the twenty-first century equivalent of a garret in Shepherd’s Bush. Now it was rapidly becoming pathetic: being alone, stuck in a job that was going nowhere, and still unable to afford a home that wasn’t mostly the underside of a roof. Of course, it might also have helped if I’d tidied it, like, ever. Shoving a pile of socks off the sofa, I curled up and got to FaceTiming. “Allô, Luc, mon caneton,” said Mum. “Did you see your father’s whole package last night?” I gave a gasp of actual horror before remembering The Whole Package was the name of his stupid TV show. “No. I was out with friends.” “You should watch it. I’m sure it will be on the catch-up.” “I don’t want to watch it.” She gave the most Gallic of shrugs. I’m convinced she plays up the French thing, but I can’t really blame her for it because all she got from her father was his name. Well, that and a pallor Siouxsie Sioux would envy. In any case, even if having a dad who runs out on you isn’t genetic, in our family it’s definitely hereditary. “Your father,” she declared. “He has not aged well.” “Good to know.” “His head is bald as an egg now and a funny shape. He looks like that chemistry teacher with the cancer.” This was news to me. But then I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to keep in contact with my old school. To be honest, I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to keep in contact with people who live on the wrong side of London. “Mr. Beezle has cancer?” “Not him. The other one.” Another thing about my mum: relationship to reality, questionable at best. “Do you mean Walter White?” “Oui oui. And you know, I think he is too old to be hopping around with a flute these days.” “We’re talking about Dad, right? Because otherwise Breaking Bad got hella weird in its later seasons.” “Of course your father. He will probably break a hip.” “Well.” I grinned. “We can hope.” “He bid on a young lady with a harmonica—it was a good choice, I think, because she was one of the most talented—but she went with one of the boys from Blue instead. I enjoyed that very much.” If left unchecked, Mum could talk about reality TV basically forever. Unfortunately—with wellactually69 and friends buzzing around my head like internet hornets—my attempt to check her came out as “I got papped yesterday.” “Oh, baby. Again? I’m sorry.” My own shrug was very non-Gallic. “You know how these things are.” Her tone softened reassuringly. “Always a squall in a…a…shot glass.” That made me smile. She always does. “I know. It’s just every time it happens, even when it’s trivial, it, well, it reminds me.” “You know it was not your fault, what happened. What Miles did, it was not even truly about you.” I snorted. “It was specifically all about me.” “Someone else’s actions may affect you. But what other people choose to do is about them.” We were both quiet for a moment.. “Will it…will it ever stop hurting?” “Non.” Mum shook her head. “But it will stop mattering.” I wanted to believe her, I really did. She was, after all, living proof of her words. “Do you want to come round, mon caneton?” It was only an hour or so away if I cadged a lift from Epsom (1.6 stars on Google) Station. But while I could more-or-less justify ringing my mum every time something bad happened to me, literally running back to her literal house slipped under even my low bar for self-respect. “Judy and I have found this new show that we are watching,” offered Mum in a way that I think was intended to be encouraging. “Oh?” “Yes, it is very intriguing. It is called RuPaul’s Drag Race—have you heard of it? We were not sure we would like it at first because we thought it was about monster trucks. But you can imagine how happy we were when we discovered it was about men who like to dress as women—why are you laughing?” “Because I love you. Very much.” “You should not be laughing, Luc. You would be very impressed. We are often gagging on their eleganza. That means—” “I’m familiar with Drag Race. Probably more familiar than you.” This was what happened when you won an Emmy. Your audience became your audience’s mums. “Then you should come, mon cher.” Mum lives in Pucklethroop-in-the-Wold—this tiny, chocolate box of a village where I grew up—and spends her days getting into scrapes with her best friend, Judith Cholmondely-Pfaffle. “I…” If I stayed home, I could try and achieve grown-up things like plates and clean clothes. Although in practice, I would probably pick at my Google alerts until they bled. “I am making my special curry.” Okay, that settled it. “Fuck no.” “Luc, I think you are very rude about my special curry.” “Yes, because I prefer my arsehole not on fire.” Mum was pouting. “For a gay, you are far too sensitive about your arsehole.” “How about we don’t talk about my arsehole anymore?” “You brought it up. Anyway, Judy loves my curries.” Sometimes I think Judy must love Mum. God knows why else you would brave her cooking. “Probably because you’ve spent the last twenty-five years systematically murdering her taste buds.” “Well, you know where we are if you change your mind.” “Thanks, Mum. Talk to you soon.” “Allez, darling. Bises.” Without Mum talking nineteen-to-the-dozen about reality TV, my home was suddenly very quiet, my day very…long seeming. Between work, friends, acquaintances, and sporadic attempts to get laid, I usually managed to use my flat as an overpriced, badly maintained hotel. Turning up only to crash out and leave again the next morning. Except Sundays. Sundays were tricky. Or had got tricky as the years had got away from me. At university they’d been for brunch and regretting what you’d done on Saturday and sleepy afternoons. Then, one by one, I’d lost my friends to dinners with in-laws or decorating the nursery or the pleasures of a day at home. It wasn’t that I blamed them for their changing lives. And I didn’t want what they had. I wasn’t cut out for it. Since, as far as I could remember, Sundays with Miles had spun pretty quickly from marathon sexfests to smouldering resentathons. It was just moments like these. When it felt like my world was notifications on my phone. Notifications I was trying very hard to ignore. Because I knew Mum was right: if I could get through today, they wouldn’t matter tomorrow. Though, as it turned out, we were both wrong. Super, super wrong. Chapter 3 Monday started out as it usually did—with me late for work and nobody caring because it was that kind of office. I mean, I say office. It’s actually a house in Southwark that’s been half-arsedly converted to the headquarters of the charity I work for. Which happens to be the only charity or, indeed, organisation of any kind that would hire me. It’s the redheaded step-brainchild of an elderly earl with a thing for agriculture and a Cambridge-educated etymologist who I think might be a rogue AI sent from the future. Their mission? Saving dung beetles. And, as a fundraiser, it’s my job to convince people that they’re better off giving their money to bugs that eat poo instead of pandas, orphans, or—God help us—Comic Relief. I wish I could tell you I’m good at it but, really, there are no metrics to measure something like that. I mean, we haven’t gone bust yet. And what I tend to say at interviews for other jobs I don’t get is that there isn’t another faeces-based environmental charity that raises more money than we do. Also, we’re called the Coleoptera Research and Protection Project. The acronym for which is definitely pronounced CEEARAYPEEPEE. And definitely not CRAPP. Working at CRAPP has a number of drawbacks: the central heating that blazes all summer and cuts off all winter, the office manager who never lets anybody spend any money on anything for any reason, the computers so old they still run a version of Windows named after a year, to say nothing of the daily realisation that this is my life. But there are some perks. The coffee is pretty decent because the two things Dr. Fairclough cares about are caffeine and invertebrates. And every morning, while I’m waiting for my Renaissance-era PC to boot up, I get to tell jokes to Alex Twaddle. Or rather, I get to tell jokes at Alex Twaddle. While Alex Twaddle blinks at me. I don’t know much about him and I certainly don’t know how he got his job, which is, theoretically, executive assistant to Dr. Fairclough. Somebody once told me he had a first-class degree, but didn’t say in what or from where. “So,” I said, “there are these two strips of tarmac in a bar…” Alex blinked. “Strips of tarmac?” “Yes.” “Are you sure? That doesn’t seem to make much sense.” “Just go with it. So there are these two strips of tarmac, and one says to the other, ‘Aw man, I’m so hard. All these lorries roll over me, and I don’t even feel it.’ Then, just as he’s finished talking, this piece of red tarmac walks in. And the first piece of tarmac gets up, and runs away, and hides in a corner. And his mate goes over to him and says, ‘What are you doing? I thought you were supposed to be hard.’ And the first piece of tarmac says, ‘Yeah, I’m hard, but that guy’s a cycle path.’” There was long silence. Alex blinked again. “Why is he frightened of cycle paths? Did he get into an accident?” “No, it’s that he’s hard, but the other guy’s…a cycle path.” “Yes, but why is he frightened of cycle paths?” Sometimes I lost sight of whether this was my hobby or a punishment I was inflicting on myself. “No, it’s a pun, Alex. Because ‘cycle path,’ if you say it fast and in a sort of Cockney accent, sounds a bit like ‘psychopath.’” “Oh.” He thought about it for a moment or two. “I’m not sure it does, actually.” “You’re right, Alex. I’ll do better next time.” “By the way,” he said, “you’ve got a meeting with Dr. Fairclough at half ten.” This was not a good sign. “I don’t suppose,” I began, already sure it was hopeless, “you have any idea why she wants to see me?” He beamed. “None whatsoever.” “Keep up the good work.” I trudged back downstairs to my office, the prospect of having to interact with Dr. Fairclough hanging over me like a cartoon rain cloud. Don’t get me wrong. I have a lot of respect for her—if I’m afflicted by some kind of beetle-related crisis, she’ll be my first call—it’s just I’ve got no idea how to talk to her. To be fair, she clearly has no idea how to talk to me either. Or possibly anyone else. The difference is, she doesn’t care. As I crossed the hallway, the floorboards creaking merrily with every step, a voice called out, “That you, Luc?” Sadly, this was undeniable. “Yes, it’s me.” “Do you mind popping in a moment? We’re having a bit of a sticky situation with the Twitter.” Team player that I am, I popped. Rhys Jones Bowen—CEEARAYPEEPEE’s volunteer coordinator and head of social media outreach—was hunched over his computer, pecking at it with one finger. “The thing is,” he said, “you know how you wanted me to tell everybody about the Beetle Drive?” The Beetle Drive is our office nickname for the annual dinner, dance, and fundraiser. I’ve organised it every year for the past three years. The fact it’s the big-ticket item on my current job description tells you all you need to know about it. And, for that matter, my job. I tried very hard to keep my tone neutral. “Yes, I remember mentioning it sometime last month.” “Ah, well, you see. It’s like this. I’d misremembered the password, and I was going to get them to send me another one to the email I’d used to set up the account. But as it turned out, I’d misremembered the password for that as well.” “I can see how that would cause problems.” “Now I knew I’d put it on a Post-it note. And I knew I’d put the Post-it note in a book to keep it safe. And I knew the book had a blue cover. But I couldn’t remember the title, or who wrote it, or what it was about.” “Couldn’t you,” I asked carefully, “have reset the password on the email?” “I could have, but by that stage I was a bit scared to see how far the rabbit hole went.” To be honest, this happens a lot. I mean, not this precisely but something along these lines. And I’d probably have been more concerned if our Twitter account had more than 137 followers. “Don’t worry about it.” He put out a hand to reassure me. “No, it’s okay. See, I was on the loo and I always take a book in with me, and I sometimes leave a couple in there in case I forget, and I see this one on the windowsill with a blue cover and I take it down and I open it and there’s the Post-it. And it’s a good job I was already sitting down because I fair near shat myself, I was that excited.” “Lucky on both counts.” Somewhat keen to move past the toilet, I continued. “So, if you’ve got the password back, what’s the problem?” “Well, you see, I seem to be running out of letters.” “I emailed you with what to say. It should definitely fit.” “But then I heard about these things called hashtags. Apparently it’s very important to use hashtags so people can find your twitters on the Twitter.” To be fair, he wasn’t wrong about that. On the other hand, my faith in Rhys Jones Bowen’s social media optimisation instincts was not exactly running at a historic high. “Okay?” “I’ve been brainstorming a lot of different ideas, and I think this is the tag that describes what we’re trying to achieve with the Beetle Drive.” With a quite unwarranted air of triumph, he slid over a piece of paper on which he had painstakingly handwritten: #ColeopteraResearchAndProtectionProjectAnnual FundraisingDinnerAndDanceWithSilentAuction OfEtymologicalSpecimensAlsoKnownAsTheBeetleDrive AtTheRoyalAmbassadorsHotelMaryleboneNotTheOne InEdinburghTicketsAvailableFromOurWebsiteNow “And now,” he went on, “it’s only letting me put another forty-two letters in.” You know, once upon a time, I used to have a really promising career. I’ve got an MBA, for fuck’s sake. I’ve worked for some of the biggest PR firms in the city. And now I spend my days explaining hashtags to a Celtic twit. Or not. “I’ll make a graphic,” I told him. He perked up. “Oh, you can Twitter a picture, can you? I read people respond very well to pictures because of visual learning.” “You’ll have it by lunchtime.” And, with that, I headed back to my office where my computer was finally up and running, and wheezing like an asthmatic T. rex. Checking my email, I was disconcerted to discover a handful of supporters—quite significant supporters—had pulled out of the Beetle Drive. Of course, people were flaky, even more so when you wanted them to give you money, and especially when it was money for dung beetles. But something about this made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle. It was probably random chance. It just didn’t feel random. I quickly checked our public footprint, in case our website had been hijacked by amateur pornographers again. And when I found nothing remotely worrying (or interesting), I ended up e-stalking the dropouts like the guy from A Beautiful Mind, trying to figure out if there were any connections between them. As far as I could tell, no. Well, they were all rich, white, politically and socially conservative. Like most of our donors. I’m not saying dung beetles aren’t important—Dr. Fairclough has told me at length, several times, why they’re important, which has something to do with soil aeration and organic-matter content—but you need a certain level of privilege to care more about high-end bug management than, say, land mines or homeless shelters. Of course, while most of us would say that homeless people are human beings and therefore deserve to be looked after, Dr. Fairclough would argue that homeless people are human beings and, thus, plentiful and ecologically somewhere between insignificant and a net detriment. Unlike dung beetles, which are irreplaceable. Which is why she looks at the data and I talk to the press. Chapter 4 At 10:30, I dutifully presented myself outside Dr. Fairclough’s office where Alex made a show of letting me in, even though the door was already open. The room, as ever, was an eerily ordered carnage of books, papers, and etymological samples, as if it was the nest of some particularly academic wasps. “Sit, O’Donnell.” Yep. That’s my boss. Dr. Amelia Fairclough looks like Kate Moss, dresses like Simon Schama, and talks like she’s being charged by the word. In many ways, she’s an ideal person to work for because her management style involves paying no attention to you unless you actually set something on fire. Which, to be fair, Alex has done twice. I sat. “Twaddle”—her gaze flicked sharply to Alex—“minutes.” He jumped. “Oh. Um. Yes. Absolutely. Does anybody have a pen?” “Over there. Underneath the Chrysochroa fulminans.” “Splendid.” Alex had the eyes of Bambi’s mother. Possibly after she’d been shot. “The what?” A muscle in Dr. Fairclough’s jaw twitched. “The green one.” Ten minutes later, Alex had finally acquired a pen, some paper, a second piece of paper because he’d put his pen through the first one, and a copy of the Ecology and Evolution of Dung Beetles (Simmons and Ridsdill-Smith, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) to rest on. “Okay,” he said. “Ready.” Dr. Fairclough folded her hands on the desk in front of her. “This gives me no pleasure, O’Donnell…” I couldn’t tell if she meant having to talk to me or what she was about to say. Either way, it didn’t bode well. “Shit, am I fired?” “Not yet, but I’ve had to answer three emails about you today, and that’s three more emails than I normally like to answer.” “Emails about me?” I knew where this was going. I’d probably always known. “Is this because of the pictures?” She gave a curt nod. “Yes. When we took you on, you told us that was behind you.” “It was. I mean, it is. I just made the mistake of going to a party the same night my dad was on ITV.” “The consensus among the press appears to be that you were lying in a drug-fuelled haze in a gutter. In fetish wear.” “I fell over,” I said flatly, “in a pair of comedy bunny ears.” “To a certain class of person, that detail adds an especial element of deviance.” In some ways, it felt almost like a relief to get angry. It was better than being terrified I was about to lose my job. “Do I need a lawyer? Because I’m beginning to think this has more to do with my sexuality than my sobriety.” “Of course it does.” Dr. Fairclough made an impatient gesture. “It makes you look like entirely the wrong sort of homosexual.” Alex had been watching the conversation as if it was Wimbledon. And I could now hear him murmuring “wrong sort of homosexual” under his breath as he scribbled. I did my best to offer my reply in the most reasonable tone I could muster. “You know I could really hard-core sue you for this.” “You could,” agreed Dr. Fairclough. “But you wouldn’t get another job, and we’re not strictly firing you. Besides which, as our fundraiser, you must be acutely aware that we don’t have any money, making litigation rather pointless from your end.” “What, so you just brought me here to brighten my day with a little casual homophobia?” “Come now, O’Donnell.” She sighed. “You must know I have no interest in what variety of homosexual you are—incidentally, did you know that aphids are parthenogenetic?—but unfortunately several of our backers do. They, of course, are not all homophobic, and I think rather enjoyed having a delightful young gay wining and dining them. That, however, was rather predicated on you being essentially nonthreatening.” My anger, like every man I’d ever been with, didn’t seem inclined to stick around. And had left me feeling tired and pointless. “Actually, that’s still homophobic.” “And you may certainly call them up and explain that to them, but I somehow doubt it will make them more inclined to give us their money. And if you are unable to get people to give us their money, then that rather limits your usefulness to our organisation.” Well, now I was scared again. “I thought you said I wasn’t going to get fired.” “As long as the Beetle Drive is successful, you may go to whatever bars you please and wear whatever mammalian appendages you like.” “Yay.” “But right now”—she cast me a cold glance—“your public image as some kind of barebacking, coke-snorting, buttockless-trouser-wearing pervert has scared away three of our biggest donors, and I need not remind you, our donor list is straying perilously close to single digits.” Maybe not the best time to tell her about the emails I’d received this morning. “So what am I supposed to do?” “Rehabilitate yourself fast. You need to go back to being the sort of harmless sodomite that Waitrose shoppers can feel good about introducing to their left-wing friends and smug about introducing to their right-wing friends.” “For the record, I’m really, really offended by this.” She shrugged. “Darwin was offended by the Ichneumonidae. To his chagrin, they persisted in existing.” If I had a single gnat’s testicle of pride, I would have walked out there and then. But I haven’t, so I didn’t. “I can’t control what the tabloids say about me.” “Of course you can,” piped up Alex. “It’s easy.” We both stared at him. “Friend of mine from Eton, Mulholland Tarquin Jjones, got into a terrible pickle a couple of years back over a misunderstanding with a stolen car, three prostitutes, and a kilo of heroin. The papers were beastly to him about it, but then he got engaged to a lovely little heiress from Devonshire, and it was all garden parties and spreads in Hello from then on.” “Alex,” I said slowly. “You know how I’m gay, and this whole conversation has been about me being gay?” “Well, obviously I mean a boy heiress, not a girl heiress.” “I don’t know any heiresses of either gender.” “Don’t you?” He looked genuinely confused. “Who do you go to Ascot with?” I put my head in my hands. I thought I might be about to cry. Which was when Dr. Fairclough took control of the conversation again. “Twaddle does have a point. With an appropriate boyfriend, I daresay you’d become endearing again very quickly.” I’d been trying very hard not to think about my abysmal failure with Cam at The Cellar. Now the memory of his rejection flooded me with fresh humiliation. “I can’t even get an inappropriate boyfriend.” “That is not my problem, O’Donnell. Please leave. Between the emails and this conversation, you’ve already taken up too much of my morning.” Her attention snapped back to whatever she was doing on her computer with such intensity that I half thought I’d actually stopped existing. Right about then, I wouldn’t have cared if I had. My head was swimming as I left the office. I put a hand to my face and discovered my eyes were wet. “Gosh,” said Alex. “Are you crying?” “No.” “Do you want a hug?” “No.” But somehow I ended up in his arms anyway, having my hair awkwardly patted. Alex was supposed to have been a serious cricketer at school or university or something—whatever serious meant for a sport that was basically five days of eating strawberries and walking slowly—and I couldn’t help notice he still had the body for it, lean and rangy and solid. On top of which he smelled implausibly wholesome, like freshly cut grass in summer. I pushed my face into his designer cashmere cardigan and made a sound that definitely wasn’t a sob. To his credit, Alex seemed entirely unperturbed by this. “There, there. I know Dr. Fairclough can be a bit of a rotter, but worse things happen at sea.” “Alex.” I sniffed and surreptitiously attempted to wipe my nose. “People haven’t said ‘worse things happen at sea’ since 1872.” “Yes, they have. I said it just now. Weren’t you listening?” “You’re right. Silly of me.” “Don’t worry. I can see you’re upset.” Having dragged myself about two inches above rock bottom, I became painfully aware I was crying on the shoulder of the office doofus. “I’m fine. I’m still trying to process the fact that having been basically single for half a fucking decade, I have to get a boyfriend overnight or lose the only job that would have me—working for a charity whose standards for employment are so low that they’d hire you and Rhys.” Alex thought about this for a moment. “You’re right. That is terrible. I mean, we’re complete duffers.” “Oh, come on,” I growled. “At least be offended. Now you’re making me feel like a total dick.” “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” There are times when I almost wonder if Alex is secretly a genius and we are but pawns in his grand design. “You’re doing this deliberately, aren’t you?” He gave a smile that was either enigmatic or just vacant. “In any case, I’m sure you could get a boyfriend easily. You’re nice-looking. You’ve got a good job. You’ve even been in the newspapers recently.” “If I could get a boyfriend, I would have a boyfriend.” Alex propped his hips against the side of his desk. “Chin up, old thing. We can crack this. Now, do your parents know anybody suitable?” “You remember that my dad is a recovering druggie on reality TV and my mum is an ’80s recluse with exactly one friend?” “Yes, but I assume they still have a club?” “They don’t.” “Don’t worry. Plenty more options.” A pause. “Just give me a moment while I think of them.” Oh hello, rock bottom. Nice to see you again. Do you want to be my boyfriend? After several long moments, Alex perked up like a beagle scenting a rabbit. “What about the chaps you went to school with? Ring them up and ask if any of them has a nice sister. I mean, brother. I mean, gay brother.” “I went to school in a tiny village. There were three people in my year. I’m not in touch with any of them.” “How peculiar.” He tilted his head quizzically. “I assumed you must have been a Harrow man.” “You know there are people who went to neither Eton or Harrow?” “Well yes, obviously. Girls.” I was in no state to explain the socioeconomics of modern Britain to a man so posh he didn’t even think it was weird that you pronounced the t in Moët but not merlot. “I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but can we please get back to you trying to fix my love life?” “I have to admit I’m a bit stumped.” He fell silent, frowning and fiddling with his cuffs. Then, out of nowhere, he beamed at me. “I’ve thought of something.” Under normal circumstances, I would have taken this with the giant grain of salt it deserved. But I was desperate. “What?” “Why don’t you say you’re going out with me?” “You’re not gay. And everyone knows that you’re not gay.” He shrugged. “I’ll tell them I’ve changed my mind.” “I’m really not sure that’s how it works.” “I thought these things were meant to be fluid nowadays. Twentieth century and all that.” This was not the time to remind Alex what century it was. “Don’t you have a girlfriend?” I asked. “Oh, yes, Miffy. I’d quite forgotten. But she’s a terrific girl. She won’t mind at all.” “In her place, I would mind. I would mind a lot.” “Well, maybe that’s why you don’t have a boyfriend.” He gave me a faintly wounded look. “You sound very demanding.” “Look. I appreciate the offer. But don’t you think if you can’t remember you’ve got an actual girlfriend, you might have trouble remembering a fake boyfriend?” “No, you see that’s the clever thing about it. I can pretend that you’re my boyfriend, and nobody will think it’s strange that I’ve never mentioned you before because I’m such an utter nincompoop that it could very easily have slipped my mind.” Terrifyingly, he was beginning to make sense. “You know what,” I said. “I will genuinely think about it.” “Think about what?” “Thanks, Alex. You’ve been a big help.” I made my way slowly back to my office, where I was relieved to discover I hadn’t driven off any other donors in the interim. Then I sat at my desk with my head in my hands and wished— God. I was too fucked up to even know what I was wishing for. Obviously, it would have been nice if my father wasn’t on TV and I wasn’t in the papers and my job wasn’t in jeopardy. But none of those things, either together or individually, were really the problem here. They were just a few more dead seabirds bobbing on the outskirts of the oil spill that was my life. After all, I couldn’t fix the fact my father was Jon Fleming. I couldn’t fix that he hadn’t wanted me. I couldn’t fix falling in love with Miles. And I couldn’t fix that he hadn’t wanted me either. It was while I was wallowing that I came to the realisation that Alex hadn’t been entirely unhelpful. I mean, he hadn’t gone so far as to actually be helpful—small steps, small steps—but he was, broadly speaking, right in that people you knew were an effective way to meet people you didn’t know. I grabbed my phone and fired up the WhatsApp group, which somebody had recently rechristened Don’t Wanna Be All Bi Myself. After a moment’s consideration, I sent a series of siren emojis followed by Help. Emergency. Queervengers Assemble. Rose & Crown. 6 tonight and was secretly kind of touched by how quickly the screen lit up with promises to be there. Chapter 5 It was slightly selfish of me to choose the Rose & Crown for the meet-up because it was way closer to me than it was to anyone else. But since I was the one having the crisis, I felt entitled. Besides, it was one of my favourite pubs—a gawky seventeenth-century building that looked as though it had been airlifted in from a country village and plonked down in the middle of Blackfriars. With its disconcertingly expansive beer-garden and hanging baskets, it was practically its own little island, the surrounding office blocks almost leaning away from it in embarrassment. I ordered a beer and a burger and staked a claim to a picnic table outside. As it was what passed for spring in England, the air was a bit nippy, but if Londoners let little things like cold, rain, a slightly worrying level of pollution, and getting crapped on by pigeons bother us, we’d never go outside at all. I was only waiting a couple of minutes before Tom showed up. Which was ever so slightly awkward as fuck. Tom isn’t, strictly speaking, a friend. He’s a friend-in-law, being the long-term partner of the group’s Token Straight Girl, Bridget. He’s both the hottest and the coolest person I know, on account of looking like Idris Elba’s cleaner-cut younger brother and being an actual spy. Well, not exactly. He works for the Intelligence Division of Customs and Excise, which is one of those agencies that exist but never get in the papers. It gets even more complicated than that because, technically, I saw him first. We went on a couple of dates and I thought it was going really well, so I introduced him to Bridget, and she fucking stole him from me. Well, she didn’t steal him. He just liked her more. And I don’t resent it at all. I mean, I do. But I don’t. Except when I do. And probably I shouldn’t have hit on him again when he and Bridget went through that bad patch a couple of years ago. They were on a break, so it was less shitty of me than it could have been. And, anyway, all it wound up doing was making him realise how much he loved her and wanted to fix things with her. So that felt great. Basically Tom does to my self-esteem what he does to people traffickers and gunrunners. Although my self-esteem is way less entrenched. “Hi,” I said, trying not to dig a hole in the grass and wriggle into it like an endangered dung beetle. Tom gave me a very continental and slightly soul-destroying kiss on the cheek, plonking his beer down next to mine. “Good to see you. It’s been a while.” “Yeah. Hasn’t it.” I must have accidentally looked traumatised because Tom went on, “Bridge is running late. I mean, obviously.” I laughed nervously. Late is her default. “So. Um. What have you been up to?” “This and that. Big commercial fraud case. Should be wrapping up fairly soon. What about you?” From three years of hanging out with Tom, I knew that commercial fraud was industry code for something significantly more serious, although I’d never quite worked out what. Which meant having to tell him I was organising a party to raise money for poo bugs was the tiniest bit mortifying. But, of course, he looked terribly interested and asked a bunch of really insightful questions, half of which I should probably have been asking myself. In any case, it kept the conversation going until the James Royce-Royces arrived. I met James Royce and James Royce (now James Royce-Royce and James Royce-Royce) at a university LGBTQ+ event. In some ways, it’s strange the two of them work so well together because their name is pretty much the only thing they’ve ever had in common. James Royce-Royce is a bespectacled chef with a way of expressing himself that… Look, I’m trying to find a tactful way to put it, but basically he’s just phenomenally camp. James Royce-Royce, on the other hand, looks like a Russian hit man, has a job I don’t understand involving unspeakably complex mathematics, and is incredibly shy. Currently they’re trying to adopt, so the conversation very quickly became about the “truly hellacious” (James Royce-Royce’s term) amount of paperwork involved in what I’d naively assumed was the straightforward process of getting babies from people who don’t want them to people who do want them. I honestly couldn’t tell if it was more or less alienating than talking about actual children. Next we got Priya, a tiny lesbian with multicoloured extensions who somehow managed to pay her bills by welding bits of metal to other bits of metal and selling them in galleries. I’m sure she’s genuinely very talented, but I am totally unqualified to judge. She used to be the only other singleton in my immediate friendship group, and many were the evenings we spent drinking cheap prosecco, lamenting our mutual unlovability, and promising to cash out and marry each other if we were both still alone at fifty. But then she betrayed me by falling in love with a married Medievalist twentysomething years her senior. And then, even more unforgivably, making it work. “Where the shit were you on Saturday?” She hopped onto the table and glared at me. “We were supposed to be sitting in a corner judging people.” I gave one of those I’m-pretending-not-to-be-mortified shrugs. “Showed up, bought a cocktail, got the knock-back from a pretty hipster, left in disgrace.” “Huh.” Priya’s mouth quirked into a crooked grin. “So fairly normal evening for you.” “I want you to know that while I do have a comeback, that’s actually completely fair.” “Which is why I said it. Anyway, what’s this great calamity?” “Bridget,” said James Royce-Royce, “has not yet graced us with her presence.” Priya rolled her eyes. “That’s not a calamity. That’s business as usual.” Since waiting for Bridge could last anything between twenty minutes and never, I spilled my guts. About the pictures, the donors, and how I was totally fucked job-wise if I didn’t get a respectable boyfriend stat. James Royce-Royce was the first to react. “That,” he declared, “is the most outrageous transgression against all forms of decency. You’re a fundraiser for an environmental charity, not a contestant on Love Island.” “I agree.” Gorgeous Not-Dating-Me Tom took a sip of his drink, throat working as he swallowed. “This isn’t okay on any level. It’s not my area, but you’ve got a case for an employment tribunal here.” I gave a sad little shrug. “Maybe, but if I tank our fundraising by being too gay, then I won’t have an employer to tribune.” “Seems like”—Priya paused to retie the rainbow lace on her Docs—“you’ve got two options. Get fired or get grafting.” This earned her an over-the-glasses look from James Royce-Royce. “Priya, my darling, we’re trying to be emotionally supportive.” “You’re trying to be emotionally supportive,” she said. “I’m trying to be useful.” “Emotional support is useful, you Technicolour reprobate.” Tom, who didn’t have the same fond memories of their bickering, sighed. “I’m sure we can be both. But I’m not sure we should be encouraging Luc to go along with this.” “Look,” I told him, “that’s super right-on and very kind of you, but I don’t think I have a choice. So I need you all to get on board and find me a man.” There was a worryingly long silence. Finally Tom broke it. “Okay. If that’s what you want. But you’re going to have to narrow the field a little. What are you looking for?” “Didn’t you hear me? A man. Any man. As long as he can wear a suit, make small talk, and not embarrass me at a fundraiser.” “Luc, I…” He pushed a hand through his hair. “I really am trying to help. But that’s a terrible attitude. I mean, what are you expecting me to do? Call up my ex and be like, Hey, Nish, great news. I’ve got a friend with incredibly low standards who wants to go out with you?” “Well, the last time I had high standards, the guy dumped me for my best friend.” James Royce-Royce sucked in an audible breath. And, suddenly, everyone was studiously looking in different directions. “Sorry,” I muttered. “I… Sorry. I’m a bit upset right now, and I use being a prick as a defence mechanism.” “Not a problem.” Tom went back to his beer. It took me a second or two to realise I wasn’t sure if he meant “not a problem because I’m not offended and don’t consider you prickish” or “not a problem you’re a prick because we’re not actually friends.” Fucking spies. And it’s not like he was wrong. I was asking a lot here. “The thing is”—I started picking the label off the nearest bottle—“I’ve not been able to do the relationship thing for…for a while. And probably you’re all going to spend the next thirty years arguing with your partners over who gets stuck with me for Christmas. But I can’t—” “Oh, Luc,” cried James Royce-Royce, “you’ll always be welcome at Casa de Royce-Royce.” “Not entirely the point, but good to know.” “Wait a minute.” Priya looked up from her boots and snapped her fingers. “I’ve got it. Hire someone. I can think of at least thirty people who’d jump on the gig.” “I can’t tell if I’m more disturbed that you’re recommending I solicit a prostitute or that you apparently already know thirty prostitutes.” She gave me a confused look. “I was mostly thinking of out-of-work actors or performing artists, but whatever works. Though now you mention it, I think Kevin did a bit of escorting in the late 2000s, and Sven still does pro-domming on the side.” “Wow.” I put up the world’s most sarcastic double-thumbs. “He sounds perfect. Which part of ‘trying to keep out of the tabloids’ do you not understand?” “Oh, come on. He’s lovely. He’s a poet. They won’t find out.” “They always find out.” “Okay so”—Priya seemed a tad frustrated with me—“when you said a man, any man, you actually meant any man who fits into a very narrow, middle-class, and slightly heteronormative definition of acceptability.” “Yes. I work for an obscure ecological charity. Narrow, middle-class, and slightly heteronormative is our target demographic.” There was another lengthy silence. “Please,” I legit begged, “you must have some friends who are neither sex workers nor too good for me.” Then James Royce-Royce leaned in and whispered something to James Royce-Royce. James Royce-Royce’s face lit up. “That’s a splendid idea, sugarplum. He’d be perfect. Except I think he married a chartered accountant from Neasden last July.” James Royce-Royce looked crestfallen. I yanked the label fully off the beer bottle and crumpled it up. “Right. My options thus far: someone who’s probably already married, thirty prostitutes, and a bloke called Nish who used to date Tom and will, therefore, see me as a bit of a comedown.” “I didn’t mean,” said Tom slowly, “to make you think that I thought that Nish would think he was too good for you. I’d be happy to introduce you. It’s just, from his Instagram, I’m pretty sure he’s seeing someone.” “Well, I’m fired.” I thonked my head onto the table, somewhat harder than I intended. “Sorry I’m laaaaate.” Bridget’s voice rang clarion-like across the beer garden, and I turned my face sideways in time to see her wobbling urgently over the grass in her ever-impractical heels. “You won’t believe what’s happened. Can’t really talk about it. But one of our authors was scheduled to have this massively prestigious midnight release tonight and the lorry carrying the books to Foyles went over a bridge into a river and now not only are half of them ruined but the other half have been scavenged by extremely well-organised fans and there are spoilers all over the internet. I think I’m going to get fired.” And, with that, she collapsed breathlessly into Tom’s lap. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close. “That’s not your fault, Bridge. They’re not going to fire you over it.” Bridget Welles: my Token Straight Friend. Always late, always in the middle of a crisis, always on a diet. For whatever reason, she and Tom are genuinely good together. And although I’m messed up about Tom because of my own shit, it’s kind of nice that she’s found someone who sees what an amazing, loving person she is and who isn’t also as gay as a box of ribbons. “Luc, on the other hand,” said Priya, “is definitely going to get fired unless he gets a boyfriend.” Bridge honed in on me like a laser-guided date launcher. “Oh, Luc, I’m so pleased. I’ve been on at you to get a boyfriend for ages.” I peeled my head off the table. “A+ priorities, Bridge.” “This is the best thing ever.” She squeezed her hands together excitedly. “I know the perfect guy.” My heart sank. I knew where this was going. I love Bridget, but she only knows one other gay person outside our immediate social circle. “Don’t say Oliver.” “Oliver!” “I’m not dating Oliver.” Her eyes went big and hurt. “What’s wrong with Oliver?” I’d met Oliver Blackwood exactly twice. The first time, we’d been the only two gay men at one of Bridget’s work parties. Someone had come up to us and asked if we were a couple, and Oliver had looked utterly disgusted, and replied, “No, this is just another homosexual I’m standing next to.” The second time, I’d been very drunk and very desperate, and invited him to come home with me. My memories of what happened next were hazy, but I’d woken alone the next morning, fully clothed next to a large glass of water. On both occasions, in uniquely humiliating ways, he’d made it very clear that we each had a league, and his was very much out of mine. “He’s… not my type,” I tried. Priya was obviously still narked I’d turned down her prostitutes. “He’s exactly the kind of man you said you were looking for. Which is to say, incredibly boring.” “He’s not boring,” protested Bridge. “He’s a barrister…and…and he’s very nice. Lots of people have dated him.” I shuddered. “And that’s not a red flag at all.” “Alternatively,” suggested Tom, “you could look at it like this: between the two of you, you’ve had a completely normal, healthy dating life.” “I don’t know why it never works out for him.” Bridget seemed genuinely bewildered that her awful friend was single. “He’s so lovely. And he dresses so well. And his house is so clean and tastefully decorated.” James Royce-Royce pulled a wry face. “I hate to say it, darling, but he seems to be exactly what you’re looking for. Refusing to even meet with the man would be deeply ungracious.” “But if he’s so fucking perfect,” I pointed out, “with his nice job and his nice house and his nice clothes, what the hell is he going to want with me?” “You’re nice too.” One of Bridget’s hands landed consolingly on mine. “You just try very hard to pretend you aren’t. And, anyway, leave everything to me. I’m super good at this sort of thing.” I was pretty sure my dating life was about to go off a bridge and into a river. And quite possibly wind up with spoilers all over the internet. But, God help me, it looked like Oliver Blackwood was my best hope. Chapter 6 Three days later, against my better judgment and despite my protests, I was getting ready for a date with Oliver Blackwood. The WhatsApp group—One Gay More—was alive with advice, mainly about what I shouldn’t wear. Which seemed to amount to everything in my wardrobe. In the end I went with my skinniest jeans, my pointiest shoes, the only shirt I could find that didn’t need ironing, and a tailored jacket. I wasn’t going to win any fashion awards, but I thought I’d struck a nice balance between “has made no effort” and “is disgustingly desperate.” Unfortunately, too much texting, faffing, and selfie-taking for the approval of the peanut gallery had made me late. On the other hand, Oliver was a friend of Bridget’s so he’d probably developed a certain tolerance for tardiness over the years. As I cantered through the door of Quo Vadis—his pick; I wouldn’t have dared go for anything so classy—it quickly became apparent he had not, in fact, developed any tolerance for tardiness whatsoever. He was sitting at a corner table, the light from the stained-glass windows dappling over his frown in shades of sapphire and gold. The fingers of one hand tapped impatiently against the tablecloth. The other cradled a pocket watch on a fob, which he was in the process of checking with the air of a man who had done so several times already. Seriously, though. A fob. Who even? “I’m so sorry,” I panted. “I…I…” Nope, I had nothing. So I had to fall back on the obvious. “I’m late.” “These things happen.” At my arrival he’d risen like we were at a tea dance in the ’50s, leaving me totally at a loss for what I was supposed to do in response. Shake his hand? Kiss his cheek? Check with my chaperone? “Should I sit down?” “Unless”—one of his brows tilted quizzically—“you have another engagement.” Was that a joke? “No. No. I’m, er, all yours.” He made a be-my-guest gesture, and I wriggled gracelessly onto the banquette. Silence stretched between us, as socially discomforting as mozzarella strings. Oliver was much as I remembered him: a cool, clean, modern-art piece of a man entitled Disapproval in Pinstripes. And handsome enough to annoy me. My own face looked as if Picasso had created it on a bad day—bits of my mum and my dad thrown together without rhyme or reason. But Oliver had the sort of perfect symmetry that eighteenth-century philosophers would have taken as evidence for the existence of God. “Are you wearing eyeliner?” he asked. “What? No.” “Really?” “Well, it’s the kind of thing I think I’d remember. I’m pretty sure this is just what my eyes look like.” He looked slightly affronted. “That’s ridiculous.” Thankfully, at this juncture a waiter materialised with the menus, giving us an excuse to ignore each other for a few happy minutes. “You should start,” remarked Oliver, “with the smoked eel sandwich. It’s a speciality.” Since the menu came in the form of a broadsheet, with hand-drawn illustrations and a weather report at the top, it took me a moment to find what he was talking about. “It damn well ought to be for a tenner.” “Since I will be paying, that need not concern you.” I squirmed, which made my jeans squeak against the leather. “I’d be more comfortable if we went halfsies.” “I wouldn’t, given I chose the restaurant, and I believe Bridget said you work with dung beetles.” “I work for dung beetles.” Okay, that didn’t sound much better. “I mean, I work for their preservation.” Another of his eyebrow twitches. “I wasn’t aware they needed preserving.” “Yeah, neither are most people. That’s the problem. Science isn’t exactly my strong point but the short version is, they’re good for the soil and if they go extinct, we’ll all starve to death.” “Then you’re doing good work, but I know for a fact that even the big-name charities pay far less than the private sector.” His eyes—which were a hard, gunmetal grey—held mine so long and so steadily that I actually started sweating. “This is on me. I insist.” It felt weirdly patriarchal but I wasn’t sure I was allowed to complain about that, on account of us both being men. “Umm…” “If it will make you feel better, you could allow me to order for you. This is one of my favourite restaurants and”—he shifted position and accidentally kicked me under the table—“my apologies… I enjoy introducing people to it.” “Are you going to expect me to trim your cigar later?” “Is that a euphemism?” “Only in Gigi.” I sighed. “But fine. I guess you can order for me. If you really want to.” For about 0.2 seconds, he looked perilously close to happy. “I can?” “Yes. And”—God, why was I always so ungracious?—“sorry. Thank you.” “Do you have any dietary restrictions?” “Nope. I’ll eat anything. Um. Foodwise. That is.” “And…” He hesitated. Then tried to pretend he hadn’t. “Are we drinking?” My heart did the half-dead fish flop it always did when conversation strayed even tangentially close to any of the things that had been said about me over the years. “I know you’ve got no reason to believe this, but I’m not an alcoholic. Or a sexoholic. Or a drug addict.” There was a lengthy silence. I stared at the crisp, white tablecloth, wanting to die. “Well,” Oliver said at last. “I’ve one reason to believe it.” In an ideal world, I would have behaved with terrible dignity. In the world I actually lived in, I gave him a sullen glance. “Which is?” “You told me otherwise. So are we drinking?” My stomach had gone into a wild free-fall. I hardly knew why. “Can we not, if you don’t mind? While I don’t have medical problems with alcohol, I do tend to make a bit of a tit of myself when plastered.” “I’m aware.” And to think I’d almost liked him. Although technically I didn’t have to like him, I just had to make him think I liked him for long enough that he’d date me for long enough that I wouldn’t get fired. It was fine. I could do this. I could be charming. I was naturally charming. I was a quarter Irish and a quarter French. You couldn’t get more charming than that. The waiter returned and, while I sat in sulky silence, Oliver placed our order. The whole experience was slightly strange, since I still hadn’t figured out how demeaning I should be finding it. I definitely wouldn’t have wanted it to happen regularly. But there was also some pathetic, lonely part of me that enjoyed being so publicly possessed. Especially by a man like Oliver Blackwood. It felt perilously close to being worth something. “I can’t help but notice,” I began, when the waiter departed, “that if this fish sarnie is all that and a bag of chips, you aren’t having one.” “Yes. Well.” Surprisingly, Oliver went a teeny bit pink around the ears. “I’m a vegetarian.” “Then how do you know about the magic eel?” “I’ve eaten meat before, and I like it. It’s just I’ve reached the point that I can’t justify it ethically.” “But you’re cheerfully going to sit there and watch me chow down on bits of dead animal like some kind of creepy carni-voyeur?” He blinked. “I hadn’t thought of it that way. I just wanted you to enjoy the food, and I’d never impose my principles on people who don’t necessarily share them.” Was it me, or had he basically said “I think you’re behaving unethically, but I assume I can’t expect any better from you”? The mature making-this-work-and-saving-my-job reaction would be to let that slide. “Thanks. I always like my dinner served with a sprinkling of sanctimony.” “That’s rather unfair.” Oliver moved again, and kicked me again. “Especially given you’d have been equally, if not more, offended if I’d ordered vegetarian without asking you. Also, I’m sorry I keep catching you with my feet. Yours are never where I’m expecting them to be.” I gave him one my meanest looks. “These things happen.” The conversation hadn’t so much died on us as been taken out back and shot in the head. And I knew I should be playing paramedic but I couldn’t quite bring myself to or work out how. Instead, I crunched on some of the baked salisfy and parmesan that had just arrived (which was delicious in spite of the fact I had no idea what salisfy was, and didn’t want to give Oliver the satisfaction of asking him) and wondered what it would be like being here with somebody I could actually stand. It was a lovely, cosy place, with the brightly painted windows and caramel leather seating, and the food was clearly going to be amazing. The sort of restaurant you’d come back to for anniversaries and special occasions, and reminisce about the perfect first date you shared there. The fish sarnie, when it showed up, turned out to be pretty much the most perfect thing I’d ever eaten: buttery sourdough wrapped around smoky slabs of eel, slathered in truly fiery horseradish and Dijon mustard, and served with pickled red onions just sharp enough to cut through the meaty intensity of the fish. I think maybe I genuinely moaned. “Okay,” I said, once I’d inhaled it. “I was too hasty. That was so good I could pretty much marry you now.” Maybe I was seeing the world through eel-tinted glasses, but right then, Oliver’s eyes had a touch of silver in them. And were softer than I’d thought. “I’m happy you liked it.” “I could eat one every day for the rest of my life. How could you know these exist and give them up?” “I…thought it was the right thing to do.” “I can’t tell if that’s really commendable or really tragic.” He lifted one shoulder in a self-conscious shrug. And the silence between us, while still not comfortable, seemed slightly less jagged. Maybe this was going to be okay. Maybe we’d been saved by a dead fish. “So…uh…” Still riding my sandwich bliss, I felt slightly more able to make the effort. “I seem to remember you being a lawyer or something?” “I’m a barrister, yes.” “And what do you…barrist?” “I—” The toe of his shoe whomped me in the knee. “God. I’m sorry. I’ve done it again.” “I’ve got to say, you play one hell of a hard-core game of footsie.” “I assure you, it’s been accidental every time.” He looked so mortified I took pity on him. “It’s me. I’m all legs.” We both peered beneath the tablecloth. “How about if I…” I suggested, swinging my feet to the right. He shuffled his Italian leather oxfords left. “And I go…” His ankle brushed against mine as we rearranged ourselves. And it had clearly been way too long since I got laid, because I damn near fainted. Dragging my attention away from our under-table negotiations, I found him watching me with this crooked half-smile—as if we’d single-handedly (-footedly?) brought peace to the Middle East. And all of a sudden he was a lot more bearable. Enough more bearable that I could almost see myself putting up with a man who smiled like that, and bought me amazing eel sandwiches, even if I didn’t have to. Which was way, way worse than not liking him. Chapter 7 “Your…your job?” I asked with all the smoothness of a bowl of granola. “Ah. Yes. Well, I”—this time, his foot only stroked the side of mine as it jiggled under the table—“specialise in criminal defence. And you might as well get it over with.” “Get what over with?” “The question that everyone asks when you tell them you work in criminal defence.” This felt uncomfortably like failing an exam. In a blind panic, I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. “Do you have sex in the wig?” He stared at me. “No, because they’re very expensive, very uncomfortable, and I have to wear mine to work.” “Oh.” I tried to come up with another question. Except now all I could think of was “Do you have sex in the robe?” and that obviously wasn’t going to help. “The question people usually ask,” he went on, like he was the only one in the play who’d remembered his lines, “is how do you live with yourself when you spend your whole life putting rapists and murderers back on the street?” “Actually, that is a good question.” “Should I answer it?” “Well, you seem to really want to.” “It’s not about whether I want to.” His jaw tightened. “It’s about whether you’re going to think I’m an amoral profiteer if I don’t.” I couldn’t imagine that he—or anyone—would care that much for my opinion, good, bad, or indifferent. I spread my hands in a go-for-it gesture. “I guess you’d better tell me then.” “The short version is: an adversarial justice system isn’t perfect, but it’s the best that we’ve got. Statistically, yes, most people I defend in court are guilty because the police can broadly do their jobs. But even people who probably did it are entitled to a zealous legal defence. And that’s a principle to which…to which I am ideologically committed.” Thankfully, while he’d been delivering this monologue—which only needed some stirring background music to reach its full dramatic potential—I was served a truly glorious pie. Beef, as it turned out, almost meltingly soft, swimming in gravy and barely contained by its crisp pastry cap. “Wow”—I glanced up from the pie and slammed straight into Oliver’s hardest, coldest glare—“you seem really defensive about this.” “I just find it helps to be honest from the beginning. This is who I am, and what I do, and I believe in what I do.” I suddenly noticed he’d barely touched his…beetroot, I think it was? Beetroot and other virtuous vegetables. His hands were folded against the table so tightly that his knuckles were white. “Oliver,” I said softly, realising I’d never said his name before, and confused by how intimate it was. “I don’t think you’re a bad person. Which you must know means next to nothing coming from me, because you only have to pick up a paper or Google my name to know what sort of person I am.” “I”—now he looked uncomfortable for a different reason—“I am aware of your reputation. But if I’m to know you, Lucien, I’d rather it came from you.” Shit. This had got real out of nowhere. How hard could it be to get a guy to like you enough to date you for a few months but not so much that you had to deal with those weird emotion things that fucked with your head, ruined your sleep, and left you crying on the bathroom floor at three in the morning? “Well, for starters, it’s Luc.” “Luke?” Somehow I could always tell when people pronounced it with a k and an e. “It seems a shame when Lucien is such a beautiful name.” “Actually that’s the English pronunciation.” “Surely it’s not”—he flinched—“Looshan as the Americans would have it?” “No. God no. My mother’s French.” “Ah. Lucien, then.” He said it perfectly, too, with the half-swallowed softness of the final syllable, smiling at me—the first full smile I’d seen from him, and shocking in its sweetness. “Vraiment? Vous parlez français?” There’s really no excuse for what happened next. I think maybe I just wanted him to keep smiling at me. Because for some reason I said, “Oui oui. Un peu.” And then, to my horror, he rattled off God knew what. Leaving me to scrape the bottom of the barrel of my GCSE French, for which I’d received a D. “Um…um… Je voudrais aller au cinema avec mes amis? Ou est la salle de bain?” Utterly perplexed, he pointed. So I was obliged to go the bathroom. And when I slunk back, he immediately confronted me with “You don’t speak French at all, do you?” “No.” I hung my head. “I mean, my mother used both when I was growing up, but I still turned out stubbornly monolingual.” “Then why didn’t you just say that?” “I…don’t know. I guess I assumed you didn’t speak French either?” “Why on earth would I imply I could speak French, when I couldn’t?” I stuffed a teetering forkful of pie into my mouth. “You’re right. That would be a deranged thing to do.” Another of our silences. On a scale of uncomfortable to horrible, I would probably rate this as unpleasant, and I didn’t know what to do. I’d definitely succeeded in swinging the needle away from “dangerously intimate.” Unfortunately it was now pointing squarely at “not a chance in hell.” I half thought about kicking him. Just to see how he’d react. But that was probably about as weird as randomly pretending I spoke French. God. This was why I was never going to get a proper boyfriend or even a semi-acceptable temporary substitute. I’d lost whatever capacity I ever had to relate to people in a romantic way. “How come you’re so fluent?” I asked in a subcompetent attempt to salvage the evening. “My, ah”—he poked sheepishly at the remains of his vegetables—“family have a holiday home in Provence.” Of course they did. “Of course you do.” “What do you mean by that?” I shrugged. “Just, I can imagine it. No wonder you grew up all nice and put-together and perfect.” And way too good for me. “I’ve certainly never claimed to be perfect, Lucien.” “Oh stop it with the Lucien, will you?” “I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you didn’t like it.” Except I did like it. That was the problem. I wasn’t here to like things. Liking things was trouble. “I told you before,” I snarled, “it’s Luc. Just Luc.” “Noted.” A few minutes later, with me looking out the window and Oliver looking at his hands, the waiter came to clear our plates. And a few minutes after that, a lemon posset, topped with rhubarb arrived. It was exquisitely simple—this little white ramekin full of sunshine-yellow cream, topped by a pile of pinkish spirals. I felt awful. “Nothing for you?” I indicated the empty space in front of Oliver. “I’m not a fan of desserts. But I hope you’ll like this one. It’s very good.” “If you’re not a fan, how do you know it’s”—I wriggled my fingers into air quotes—“‘very good’?” “I… That is… I…” “Do you want to share it with me?” It was the closest I could get, right then, to an apology. Because it wasn’t like I could say, Sorry I’m so desperate for this to work, and so terrified of this working that I’m lashing out at you over things like you being quite nice, and not wholly unattractive, and having had an ordinary childhood. He was eyeing the lemon posset the way I’ve always wanted someone to look at me. “Maybe I could have a little? Let me ask for more cutlery.” “No need.” Okay. It was, at the eleventh and a half hour, time to get my sexy on. I broke the pristine surface of the cream, mounding it perfectly onto the spoon, along with a few pieces of rhubarb. And, holding it out to Oliver, I offered him my very best, most hopeful smile. Whereupon, he took the spoon from my fingers, crushing me so utterly I couldn’t even enjoy the way a taste of lemon posset made his whole face go dreamy with bliss. “Thank you,” he said, returning the damn spoon. I plunged it violently into the pudding, shovelling what remained into my mouth as if it was my mortal enemy. Oliver watched me, confused once again. “Should I order another one?” “No, I’m good. Let’s get out of here.” “I…I’ll get the bill.” God. I was undateable. Genuinely fucking undateable. No wonder Oliver had practically vomited when that randomer at Bridge’s party had thought we were going out. No wonder he’d dumped me in bed and run away screaming that time I’d tried to hit on him. No wonder he didn’t even trust me to put a spoon of pudding in his mouth. Chapter 8 I was still in a daze of self-loathing as we trooped onto Dean Street, where we hovered in mutual uncertainty. All the lovely things I’d eaten had turned to rocks in my stomach. I’d fucked this up. I’d fucked this up so badly. All I’d had to do was smile, be nice to him, convince him for a handful of hours I was a semiworthwhile human being. But no. I’d curled up like a hedgehog on a motorway in front of the only man in London willing to go out with me. And now I was going to get fired. Oliver cleared his throat. “Well. Thank you for…for that.” He was wearing the full-length overcoat that every posh person in London owned. Except it suited him. Gave him this air of effortless quality. While I was standing there in slutty jeans. “Anyway,” he went on, “I should—” No. Help. No. If he walked away now, that was it. I’d never see him again. And I’d never have another job again. And my life would be over. I needed a plan. I didn’t have a plan. So I lost my fucking mind and threw myself at him, fastening my mouth on his with all the grace and charm of a barnacle on a whale’s flipper. It lasted seconds before he pushed me away, a knee-buckling blur of heat and softness, that, for the sweetest of moments, tasted of lemon posset. “What the hell was—Christ.” In his zeal to get away, Oliver collided with one of the potted plants outside the restaurant, just about managing to grab it before it came crashing down. Which basically meant he’d spent more time voluntarily touching a ficus than he had me. “It was a kiss,” I said, with a nonchalance I was far from feeling. “Why? Haven’t you had one before? People sometimes exchange them on dates.” He turned on me with such ferocity that I actually took a step back. “Is this a game to you? What has Bridget told you?” “What? N-no.” “Tell me what’s going on.” “Nothing’s going on.” We were sort of dancing down the street at this point, me skipping backwards over the pavement as he stalked after me, shoes clicking and coat flying. There was clearly something very, very wrong with me because it was kind of hot. His eyes gleamed. “Now.” I tripped over the kerb as it flattened unexpectedly at a side street. But Oliver caught my wrist before I could fall, yanking me against his body and holding me there. Making me, I guess, equivalent to a plant in his estimation. God, his coat was cosy. “Please stop playing with me, Luc.” Now he just sounded tired. Maybe even a little sad. “What’s this really about?” Fuck. The jig was beyond up. “I…I’ve been in the papers again recently. So I need a respectable boyfriend or I’ll lose my job. Bridge suggested you.” And, of course, Tom had been right all along. It sounded terrible. I ducked my head, barely able to look Oliver in the face. “I’m sorry,” I went on, inadequately. “I’ll pay you back for dinner.” He ignored that. “Bridget thought I’d be good for you?” “Well”—I flapped a hand at him—“look at you. You’re…you’re perfect.” “I beg your pardon?” “Never mind.” I had no right to touch anything so nice, but I hid my face against his coat. And he let me. “You’ve always acted like you thought you were better than me.” I was close enough that I heard him swallow. “Is…is that what you believe?” “Well, it’s true. You are. Happy now?” “Not remotely.” The pause that followed whistled in my ears like I was falling. “Explain to me again,” said Oliver finally, “why you need a boyfriend?” It was the least I owed him. “Mainly for this big fundraiser we’ve got coming up at the end of April. Our donors all think I’m a bad gay.” He frowned. “What’s a good gay?” “Someone like you.” “I see.” “Don’t worry about it.” I finally managed to peel myself off his coat. “It’s not your prob—” “I’ll do it.” My jaw dropped open so hard it clicked. “You what?” “As it happens, I also have an event coming up that may go more smoothly with someone on my arm. I’ll be your public boyfriend, if you’ll be mine.” He was insane. He had to be insane. “It’s not the same.” “You mean”—one of his cool, grey glances—“I’m to help you with your significant occasion, but you won’t help me with mine?” “No. God no. It’s just you’re a fancy lawyer—” “I’m a criminal barrister. Most people think we’re the scum of the earth.” “—and I’m the disgraced son of a disgraced rock star. I…I can’t hold my drink. I’m unnecessarily mean. I make terrible decisions. You can’t possibly want me to accompany you to anything.” His chin came up. “Nevertheless, those are my terms.” “You know you’ll end up in the tabloids if you spend too long with me.” “I don’t care what people say about me.” I laughed, shocking even myself with how bitter it sounded. “You think that. And then they start saying things.” “I’ll take the risk.” “Really?” God. Dizzily, I found myself reaching for his coat again. “Yes. But if we’re to do this, we have to do it properly.” I blinked at him. Properly sounded ominous. I was not good at properly. “You should know I perform very badly in standardised tests.” “I just need you to make an effort to be convincing. I don’t care about your past, or internet gossip, but”—and here that stern mouth pressed into a hard line—“I would rather not have to explain to my family that my boyfriend is only pretending.” “Wait. Your family?” “Yes, it’s my parents’ ruby wedding anniversary in June. I don’t want to go alone.” “Is it,” I couldn’t help asking, “in Provence?” “Milton Keynes.” “And you seriously want to take me? To meet your folks?” “Why not?” I barked out another laugh. “How long have you got?” “If you don’t want to do it, Luc, you can tell me.” He was never going to call me Lucien again, was he? He was going to respect my wishes like some kind of arsehole. “No, no.” I hastily flung up my hands. “I’ll do it. I just think you’re making a terrible mistake.” “That’s for me to decide.” He paused, a flush crawling over the sculpted arch of his cheekbones. “Obviously, maintaining the fiction will require a certain degree of physical contact between us. But please don’t kiss me again. Not on the mouth, anyway.” “Why? Are you Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman?” His blush deepened. “No. I simply prefer to reserve that intimacy for people I actually like.” “Oh.” Sometimes, you can half believe you’ve been hurt so much you’ve basically been vaccinated. Rendered immune. And then someone says something like that to you. I forced my mouth into a grin. “Well, as you’ve seen, that’s not a problem for me.” My only consolation was that Oliver didn’t look very happy either. “Apparently not.” “But don’t worry. Despite recent evidence, I can keep my lips off you.” “Good. Thank you.” Silence sloshed heavily between us. “So,” I asked, “what now?” “Brunch at mine? This Sunday?” Twice in a week? He’d be sick of me before we even made it to the Beetle Drive. And I’d either be sick of him or I wouldn’t. And “wouldn’t” was too scary to handle right now. “If this is going to work”—he gazed at me solemnly—“we need to get to know each other, Luc.” “You can call me Lucien,” I blurted out. “I thought you said you didn’t—” “It can be your special name for me. I mean”—suddenly, I could barely catch my breath—“your fake special name for me. That’s a thing, right? That couples do.” “But I don’t want to have a fake special name for you that you genuinely don’t like.” There was that light again. Those secret flecks of silver in the cold steel of his eyes. “That would make me a terrible fake boyfriend.” “It’s fine. I overreacted. I don’t care.” “That’s hardly an endorsement.” “I mean I don’t mind.” Was he going to make me beg? Who was I kidding? I was probably going to. This was why relationships sucked: they made you need shit you’d been perfectly happy not needing. And then they took them away. He gave me one of those too-searching, too-sincere looks. “Well, if that’s what you want.” I nodded, quietly hating myself. “It’s what I want.” “Then, I’ll see you on Sunday…” He smiled. Oliver Blackwood was smiling. At me. For me. Because of me. “…Lucien.” Chapter 9 “So,” I said to Alex Twaddle, “a man walks into a bar. And he sits down and there’s the bowl of peanuts. And a voice comes from the bowl of peanuts, saying Hey, your hair looks great. And then this other voice comes from the cigarette machine on the other side of the bar, saying, No it doesn’t, you look like a prick, and so does your mum.” Alex’s eyes widened. “Oh I say. That’s a bit much.” “Yeah, keep that in mind because it’s sort of integral to the joke. Anyway, the man asks the barman what’s going on. And the barman says, don’t worry, the nuts are complimentary but the cigarette machine’s out of order.” “Well, I suppose they wouldn’t have bothered to fix it because you’re not allowed to smoke in pubs anymore.” I should have seen this coming. “You’re right, Alex. It’s the accuracy that makes it funnier.” “I’ll keep that in mind too.” He smiled at me encouragingly. “What’s the rest of the joke?” “That was the joke. The nuts are complimentary, but the cigarette machine is out of order.” “Are you sure that’s a joke? It just seems like facts about a bar.” “Once again,” I told him, resigned to my fate, “you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’ll try and do better tomorrow.” I toodled back to my office, actually in a pretty good mood for once. My date with Oliver had been, as predicated, a disaster. But, somehow, not in a bad way? And there was something strangely liberating about having a pretend boyfriend because it meant I didn’t have to worry about all the usual relationship things. You know, like being shit at them. Even my morning tabloid alert had been borderline positive. Someone had snapped us at the restaurant but, crucially, they’d got the moment before Oliver recoiled from me in disgust. So it had come out looking kind of romantic, with Oliver’s coat billowing around us and his face turned up to mine as my lips came down. The headlines were mostly variants of “Package Judge Club Kid Son In New Gent Squeeze Shock,” which I liked because it suggested I had good taste in new squeezes. New fake squeezes. As I sat down and checked the donor lists to see if anyone else had dumped me, the phone rang. “Oh my God,” cried Bridge. “You won’t believe what’s happened.” “You’re right. I probably—” “I can’t really talk about it, but we’ve just got the English language rights for a really prestigious Swedish author. And everybody has been clamouring to read her debut novel, which is being billed as A Hundred Years of Solitude meets Gone Girl. But there was a lot of debate amongst the team over whether to give it an English title or stick with the Swedish original, and it all wound up being sorted out very last minute and so now the book’s gone to press as I’m Out of the Office at the Moment. Please Forward Any Translation Work to My Personal Email Address.” “I don’t know. I think it’s got a certain meta-textual cachet.” “I’m going to get fired.” “You’ve not been fired yet, Bridge. They’re not going to fire you over this.” “Oh.” She perked up. “That reminds me. How did your date go?” “It was awful. We have nothing in common. I think I might have sexually assaulted him. But we’re going to pretend to give it a go anyway because we’re both desperate.” “I knew you’d work it out.” I rolled my eyes, but only because she couldn’t see me. “That’s not working something out. That’s making something up.” “Yes, but you’ll slowly discover that you’re not as different as you initially assumed, and then he’ll surprise you with how thoughtful he is, and then you’ll