It’s just the sort of event Hathaway hates. The Police Federation Annual Conference. Brighton Conference Centre for two days under the hot sun of June. Being nice to strangers, and making small talk about the job. All the things he is terrible at.
Lewis, of course, is brilliant at it, though whether it is from years of practice or because of his naturally genial, outgoing nature, Hathaway isn’t sure. There is no doubt that his guvnor makes friends easily amongst his own kind: jobbing coppers and salt-of-the-earth working class lads made good. He doesn’t have much time for the ambitious types, like Peterson, for which James is very grateful, because he doesn’t either.
It is when he sees Lewis working the room like this at morning coffee, saying hello to old friends, making new contacts, that his affection for the man blooms exponentially, even as his awareness of his own failings grows in equal measure. James is hopeless with people, and he knows it. No amount of training would ever have made him a good parish priest. He just doesn’t have the common touch. Too clever by half, as Lewis always tells him. He comes across as stuck up and aloof. He comes across as a snob.
He blames the public school system. And Cambridge. He blames the fact that he had the education of the rich without the wealth to support it. Mostly, though, he blames himself for just not being good enough. In that, at least, he is a good Catholic.
He is thinking about slipping out for a soothing smoke when Lewis beckons him over. He has been deep in jovial conversation with a man of a similar age as himself, though anyone less like Lewis could not be imagined.
‘James, come and meet Tom Barnaby!’
Barnaby has shrewd eyes the colour of sapphires, and a heavy, scored face that puts James in mind of a bird of prey. He shakes James’ hand with the air of a country yokel, but James can tell he is reading him like a book.
‘Nice to meet you, James. Robbie has been telling me all about your encounter with Midnight Addiction.’
‘Oh that,’ James smiles, cringing inside. ‘I’m still not convinced I’ve got the smell out of my hair.’
‘Very good collar, though, by all accounts,’ Barnaby says.
‘I think the credit should go to Inspector Lewis,’ James points out. ‘He was the one who worked out the business with Esme Ford.’
‘Mind like a bloodhound,’ Barnaby laughs. ‘Nothing ever gets past our Robbie, eh?’
‘Nothing ever gets past you either,’ Lewis laughs in return, just as another man comes up behind them with an inquisitive expression.
‘Ah, Jones!’ Barnaby cries with evident delight. ‘My bagman. This is DS Ben Jones. Jones, this is Inspector Lewis of Oxfordshire, and his sergeant, James Hathaway.’
Jones smiles at them both, shakes hands genially, leaning in to their circle of bodies. He is fractionally taller than his DCI, with soft brown hair and gentle eyes. And James can see immediately from the way he glances at Barnaby that poor Jones is in exactly the same predicament as himself. Poor sod.
Tom Barnaby has known Lewis for years. Not intimately, of course, but they’ve met on many such occasions as this, and always got on well. Not that Lewis would fail to get on well with anyone, Barnaby smiles to himself. At least, anyone who isn’t a complete pillock.
‘You know who he is,’ he whispers to Jones as they take their seat in the auditorium.
The young sergeant turns to him, with a questioning frown.
‘He was Morse’s bagman.’
Jones’ eyebrows nearly jump off his face. ‘Him? Really? That Lewis?’
Of course he’s impressed. Morse was a legend in his own lifetime, the old sod. Barnaby met him once, and he’s not likely to forget the experience. Irascible drunk that he was, with his shock of pearly hair and those Aegean blue eyes that never missed anything – at least if the man behind them didn’t want to. Morse had a reputation for being curiously blind when he chose. Especially about women. It counterbalanced his brilliance. It was part of the myth.
Lewis had been part of the myth too, and Barnaby couldn’t for the life of him work out why he’d put up with the miserable git for so long. Lewis was clever, cunning in his own way, not highly educated like Morse, but vigilant and insightful. Morse had held him back in so many ways, but Barnaby had to acquiesce to the argument that Lewis wouldn’t be the superb detective he was without Morse’s teaching.
He remembers the old Lewis, the man he first met. Bright, genial, charming, a friend to everyone. He loved women too. Loved their company, talking to them, laughing with them, admiring their beauty. Lewis had frequently been one of the first up to dance when the party after the formal conference dinner started. But Barnaby would have bet his own kidneys, then as now, that despite all the enthusiastic moves on the dance floor, Lewis was in bed by ten with only his cocoa and a book for company.
Even when that foxy little sergeant, Alison something – what was it now – had become his bagman, Lewis had not even twitched. He loved his wife. Everybody knew it. That was what made the events that followed so tragic.
Barnaby hadn’t seen Lewis again until his return from the Caribbean some years later, but the rumours had passed through the profession like wildfire of his descent into grief and drink after his wife was killed. When Lewis finally returned to the Federation Conference, the man Barnaby had greeted warmly was a man diminished. A man changed. It was as if he had lost some part of himself, something integral to his soul. He had become more like Morse, disappointed, gruff, even bitter.
The following years had seen slow change. Lewis kept turning up with his Chief Superintendent, a lush, beautiful woman with sharp eyes and a nose for advancement, whom Barnaby liked in spite of himself. There was obviously nothing between them, though. She was continually exasperated by her wayward DI, but Lewis got results despite all the bad habits he had picked up from Morse, and that was what counted with her. The annual meetings went by, and Barnaby watched Lewis’ recovery, slow and painful, but definite. These days he walks not so much like a ruined man, Barnaby decides, but a scarred one, as if he has a permanent limp in his soul.
As he watches Lewis, a few seats away, exchanging a few quips with his sergeant, he thinks of Joyce. What would Barnaby be like if he lost her? Would he be like Lewis, broken, crushed? Or would he soldier on, continuing to be the man he is? He dwells on Joyce, her gentle smile, her smooth skin, imagines – not for the first time - what it would be like to lose all that forever.
No. Can’t think about Joyce. Not today. Not when -. No, not today.
That sergeant, now. Hathaway was it? Almost a carbon copy of Morse. Not in looks of course. The boy is beautiful, all tortured soul, brilliant intelligence and over-education, shy and awkward, just like the old man was. Innocent told him about Hathaway last time he had seen her. Full of praise for the young man. Not least because the clear improvement in Lewis’ wellbeing (and his clear-up rate) seemed to come, at least in part, from the unremitting support and unspoken devotion that the younger man offered. Totally selfless, Innocent said. Not like Morse. Morse couldn’t think about anybody himself, most of the time, if what Lewis said was true.
Barnaby watches the two of them together, Lewis and Hathaway, the way they interact, the subtle conversation they conduct with their eyes, all that goes unspoken. Surely Lewis must be able to see how Hathaway feels about him? It is brave of Hathaway to sit there knowing all that he is hiding. Because you can’t hide a microbe in a room full of coppers.
There are no secrets in here, Barnaby thinks, looking around at the solid, unremarkable faces, ordinary men and women whose ordinary features mask the extraordinary - suspicious souls and inquisitive minds. No, no secrets could survive in this concentration of coppers.
I wonder if they’ve worked out mine?
Which draws him back to the man sitting next to him, his own devoted bagman. What is it with bagmen anyway? Jones has been absorbing the news that he has touched Morse’s greatness, by proxy at least, in shaking the old Geordie DI’s hand. He’s a sweet lad, so bloody keen and enthusiastic. Likes to do things by the book. Like we all did when we first started, Barnaby smiles to himself. I’ll train him out of that. If I can keep him long enough. If I can sort out this mess we’ve got ourselves into.
He catches sight once more of Hathaway’s face as he turns to look at his boss, just as the chairman of ACPO, the lugubrious chief constable of Somerset, takes the stage to give his speech. Barnaby should be readying himself to listen intently, given that the man is from a neighbouring constabulary to his own, but he’s more interested in the shine in Hathaway’s eyes. Surely, Lewis must see it too? And if he does, what the hell is he doing about it? Because if Barnaby knows anything about Lewis, it is that he is a man of towering integrity. He’d never string the poor lad along.
‘- are you going to do about it?’
James doesn’t like to eavesdrop but somehow it comes naturally to a copper. It’s one thing doing it on cases, but overhearing a conversation – and a heated one at that – between your superior officers is quite another thing.
‘What can I do about it?’ Barnaby’s naturally florid face is now plum with frustration. ‘That’s why I asked you.’
‘How should I know? It’s not like it’s ever happened to me!’ Lewis is looking a bit flushed himself.
‘You really have no idea, do you?’ Barnaby resettles his weight back on his heels, drawing his chin in, and regards his fellow officer with a kind of wry sadness. ‘Can’t see the nose on the front of your face. Hathaway!’
Lewis makes a breathy explosion. ‘You’re off your head, man!’
‘For God’s sake, can’t you see the way he looks at you? Following you around like a lovesick spaniel –you can’t honestly tell me-‘
‘Hathaway wouldn’t – ‘ Lewis’s eyes bulge. ‘He wouldn’t look twice at an old fool like me, even if he were that way, which he isn’t.’
‘He’s had girlfriends in his time.’ Lewis’ face takes on the quality of an iron girder. James’ own seems to be morphing into something approaching a chilli pepper.
‘In his time? So has Elton John, but that doesn’t mean-‘
‘What about your Jones, then? What makes you think he’s soft for you?’
This is the painful moment when James becomes aware of the man standing next to him, holding a post-lunch coffee in either hand. One for him, one for his DCI. Poor Jones. White as a sheet. The coffee trembles inside the cups. He looks at James, blinking hard, his eyes beginning to brim. Even in his own sorrow, James’ heart goes out to the poor man.
Meanwhile, the debate has rumbled on, and the redoubtable DCI Barnaby exclaims, ‘I’m married, for God’s sakes!’
‘But that’s not your first objection?’ Shrewd old Lewis, James thinks proudly, taking the slopping cups from his fellow officer in silent support. Always gets to the root of the problem.
‘He’s my bagman,’ Barnaby groans. ‘And Hathaway is yours.’
‘And you never shag your bagman,’ Lewis says. ‘Never transgress the unwritten law.’
‘Regulations,’ Barnaby points out. ‘I’m pretty sure it is written down somewhere.’
It grates with James that Barnaby, clever though he is, doesn’t get Lewis’ reference. His heart melts very slightly at the thought. They have their own language, he and Lewis, made up though it is of rolled eyes, good-natured insults, gentle flirting and quotes from all sorts, from the Metaphysical poets to Monty Python. That’s what all men do, James supposes, rather than actually talking about things. And yet, since he’s never had such a language with anyone else, never been close enough to anyone else to engage in such banter, he knows he may be incorrect. Perhaps they don’t. Perhaps Barnaby and his Jones don’t have the same gently mocking interactions that he and Lewis do. In which case, he is suddenly glad to the roots of his being. He wouldn’t want to think that anyone else has ever shared such a joshing intimacy as he has with the man he loves.
‘You’re wrong about James. He doesn’t fancy me. He’s just me mate.’ Lewis sounds very definite about that. Definite enough to sound as if he’s trying to convince himself as much as he is Barnaby.
‘I thought Jones was after my daughter,’ Barnaby says, a little distant. ‘At least, to begin with.’
‘You can’t leave it, Tom,’ Lewis says. ‘It’s not fair on the lad.’
‘He’s a bloody good bagman, that’s the worst of it,’ Barnaby says, shaking his head.
‘That’s why you’ve got to sort it out. No sense wasting a good copper because feelings get in the way. It’s happened before, we both know that. Remember that Lynley bloke?’
Barnaby shakes his head sadly. ‘Terrible mess.’
‘Have a word. Don’t leave it.’ Lewis subsides a little, to James’ eye. Obviously thinks he has diverted the conversation away from his own bagman. But Barnaby is too much of a terrier for that.
‘You too. Hathaway’s good. Too good. Don’t hold him back like Morse did you.’
Lewis humpfs at the reference. Looks at his feet. Considers. ‘I still don’t believe it.’
Barnaby shoots him a look of unalloyed pity. ‘Open your eyes,’ he says.
James needs air. He scrambles for the door, leaving poor Jones’ coffee cups on an empty table in the foyer, and Jones adrift in his own humiliation. Outside, the sun is blistering on the bleached paving slabs, making the tarmac tacky under his feet as he crosses the road, threading his way through stationary cars stuck at the traffic lights on the corner. He can hear the blood rushing in his ears. He feels like his brain might actually explode and dribble out of them. He manages to get onto the promenade, and stands there, trying to get his breath. Overhead, a single herring gull hovers on the breeze, hanging there like the prophet of doom. It might was well be an albatross.
An old lady is struggling along the walkway on a pair of walking sticks. She stops and peers at him, squinting in the harsh light.
‘Are you alright, love?’
It takes him a moment of blinking at her to realise why she is concerned. He wipes the tears away with the back of his hand, and looks at the knuckles, slick with his own misery.
‘Yes, yes, I’m fine. Thank you.’
‘Nice cup of tea will fix it,’ she smiles. ‘And then go and talk to her. I’m sure you can talk her round. Pretty face like yours.’
She winks at him. She actually winks.
Oh God, he thinks. I’m pulling old ladies on Brighton seafront.
‘Thank you. Yes, I will.’ He manages a watery smile and she hobbles away, her heart warmed with the thought that she has been kind, and perhaps touched the glory of young love that she hasn’t known in decades. He watches her go. If only she knew, he thinks. She’d probably be disgusted. Or not. Maybe she’d be kind. Maybe she’d understand this hopeless affliction.
He’ll have to ready himself. For separation. For the end of his happiness. Lewis has given him the happiest years of his life. Given him unconditional friendship, laughter, understanding. He has forgiven James when he didn’t deserve it. He has understood his aloofness, accepted his awkwardness, gently teased and encouraged him out of his isolation. Lewis has been his rock. And now he will be cut loose, set adrift in the world once more.
A wave of loneliness hits him. Deep desolation. The inside of his body feels cold, as if a chill wind has blown through him.
He aches for Lewis’s kind smile, and knows he will never receive it in quite the same way again.
Over his head, the herring gull wheels.
Delegates are starting to gather after the lunch break when he gets back. He winds his way through the crowd, eyes peeled for his guvnor, feeling hollowed out and broken. His skin feels tight to his skull. His cheekbones ache.
Lewis is absent.
He is not in his chair in the conference hall, or by the coffee bar, or lingering with the old lags in the bar. He is nowhere to be seen.
James glimpses Jones, looking stunned and wretched in a corner, and notably sans DCI. He goes over.
‘Have you seen Lewis?’
Jones shakes his head. ‘He hurried out after he and Barnaby had that talk. I think he was heading for the prom.’
At which point, Barnaby appears at his shoulder.
‘Hello, James, looking for your wayward inspector?’ Barnaby is all smiles, as if nothing has happened. And in effect, nothing has. He and Jones were not supposed to have overheard the discussion about them, after all.
‘Don’t suppose you’ve seen him, have you?’ James manages to ask, finding he has to smother the sudden desire to wring the man’s neck for wrecking his happiness.
Barnaby shrugs and turns to his bagman. ‘You?’
‘Just saw him heading for the prom a while back,’ Jones repeats, his face carefully schooled to show no acknowledgement of what has passed between the two senior officers.
Just then an announcement comes over the tannoy. All delegates to return to their places, the afternoon session is about to begin. Or something like that. Its hard to tell with all the feedback. James knows instinctively that Lewis has done a bunk. He won’t be back for a while, and he’ll expect James to do what he always does, which is to take copious notes, and fill him in later. So he slips away with a courteous smile and takes his seat. There is a yawning gap beside him where the warming presence of Lewis should be.
James Hathaway has never felt so alone.
Twenty minutes into a turgid discussion of criminal profiling involving a panel of very senior officers and forensic psychologists, James’ phone vibrates against his thigh. It’s a text message from Lewis. Part of him is delighted that Lewis has finally mastered the technology. Part of him is enormously relieved to know that his guvnor is safe. But most of him is shaking as he fumbles to retrieve the message.
Need time alone. Take notes. See you back at room later. L.
And that’s it. Curt, and to the point. Not hiding anything. Not giving anything away either. Staring at the screen, James finds he can’t stand it. Can’t stand putting off the inevitable any longer. He needs to be in the older man’s presence, even if it is just to be punched in the mouth. He needs Lewis. He is on his feet before he knows it, treading on other people’s as he shuffles sideways along the row. He feels sick, but at least he is moving now. Moving towards something, even if its only the inevitable goodbye.
‘Couldn’t leave be, could you? Tell me, what part of “I want to be alone” don’t you understand, sergeant,’ Lewis snaps.
It is like a slap in the face. James is already in such a state that those words almost make him cry again. Instead, he holds his ground, knowing this is his last chance to save everything he values in this world.
‘Sorry, sir,’ he says, though he’s not. ‘I just think every suspect has the right to defend himself.’
‘What are you on about?’ Lewis has to hold his hand above his eyes just to see James against the brilliant afternoon sun. James’ shadow falls across his features for a moment. He looks strangely withered.
‘Chief Inspector Barnaby. I overheard.’
Lewis stares at him for what feels like a lifetime. Then he looks away, having clearly drawn his conclusions. ‘You’re giving me a crick in me neck. If you’re going to stay, for God’s sake sit down.’
Ever obedient, James sits on the edge of the bench beside his boss. His friend. The love of his life. Delete as appropriate. James doesn’t know how many of those precious words will be deleted by the end of this conversation.
‘I never expected anything from you,’ he says, looking out at the glittering sea and longing for a fag.
‘You’re not denying it, then?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t describe it quite the way he put it, sir. Lovesick spaniel is a bit steep. I hope I’ve been a bit more subtle than that. But no, I’m not denying it.’
They sit there for a while. It’s not the usual companionable silence. James knows Lewis is thinking. Mulling things over. He can feel the tension in the man. He is wound as tight as James has ever seen him. He exudes it, as if the air is coalescing, time juddering to a halt around him while he works things out. Usually that’s the feeling that precedes a Lewisian explosion. Usually, he’d dread that. Today, he’ll be glad if Lewis just says something – anything at all.
‘How long?’ Lewis eventually growls.
James fumbles for the right thing to say, and ends up plumping for the truth.
‘Practically from the first moment.’
‘Really?’ He feels Lewis turn slightly, registers his surprise, his need to see James’ face, to see if he really means it. James can’t look him in the eye right now. It would be too much. Tearing his guts out and laying them out on the sun-warmed promenade is hard enough without having to look into those searing blue eyes while he does it.
‘Really.’ Because how else do you say it? How can you say: you were the most beautiful, broken, perfect human being I had ever seen. It was instantaneous. Inevitable. I knew right from the moment you opened your mouth that I was lost. That I was put on this earth to love you, for that sole purpose, for that alone. And I will never love anyone else. I know that now.
But he has to say something else, because ‘really’ won’t satisfy a mind as inquisitive as Lewis’s. So he goes on. ‘Are you for me? That’s what you said. Turned out I was.’
The moment stretches out. A child shrieks in the shallows at the chill of the water on little pink feet. Music throbs from the funfair at the end of the pier. The waves chew softly on the buttery shingle. The air is full of the scent of candyfloss and frying doughnuts and seaweed.
Then the impossible happens.
Lewis reaches out with his big, heavy hand, and laces his thick fingers through James’ where they lie, long and pale, on his own thigh.
Eventually, James’ sniff betrays him.
‘I’m so sorry, lad,’ Lewis says, his voice gentle, low, tender.
‘I know. It’s not your fault. You never wanted this. I don’t expect you – well, anything. I don’t expect anything. You don’t have to do anything. I’ll get a transfer application on Innocent’s desk first thing Monday, I promise. Just don’t- I don’t want to lose you as a friend.’
He can’t look. He only hears the strangled noise that comes from the beloved throat of the man beside him. A noise of pain that is suffocated, crushed down.
‘No transfer,’ Lewis croaks. ‘You’re not going anywhere.’
The tears come even stronger then. Tears of gratitude.
‘Thank you. Thank you,’ James whispers.
Lewis’ fingers tighten around his own. ‘Oh, pet, you’ve not a clue, have you?’
And now he has to look, and finds Lewis’ cornflower blue eyes sharp and bright, glittering a little, moist. Lewis reaches out with his free hand and touches James’ cheek, wiping away a stream of salt. So gentle. How can a man with hands that big be so gentle? James has always wondered that. But he long ago realised that Lewis was a bundle of contradictions, just like himself, and maybe that’s why they work.
‘You were always there,’ Lewis says, his voice a soft caress. ‘Picking up the pieces. You found Monkford. I never even bloody thanked you. You’re the most thoughtful man I know.’
James can feel the blush start, and wants to look away, but Lewis’s fingers press his chin lightly, keeping it up, making sure he goes on looking into those omniscient eyes. Nothing is going to get past the older man this time, and he finally realises he doesn’t want it to. He’s tired of concealing it all, exhausted by the tidal wave of lies-by-omission that has become his life. He wants freedom, even if it means the humiliation of Lewis rejecting him. At least it will be a different kind of pain.
‘My James,’ Lewis whispers, leaning forward.
This can’t be happening, James thinks, as their lips connect.
It feels like he has been hit by a thunderbolt. Or a miracle. It’s like being kissed by an archangel. Is this how Mary felt when God made her pregnant? James may possibly get pregnant right now, here on the sunny prom in the salty breeze, womb or no womb, just from the scorching way Lewis kisses him. Because of course that is how Lewis would kiss, as if the whole world is ending and his lips might provide the combustion, the atom bomb that rights the globe on its axis and saves humankind. He might look like a genial Geordie, but James knows from experience that there is a weapon of mass destruction inside that unassuming exterior, whether it’s the terrifying temper, the angel of righteousness, the genius that lays waste to all excuses, or the boy-next-door charm that creeps up on you from behind and blasts you with the sexual potency of a tiger. James knows for certain he’ll be a puddle on the floor if they don’t come up for air soon. Or pregnant. Because right now, that actually does seem a realistic possibility.
Then they are panting and smiling against each other’s lips, and James says ‘well, that was unexpected,’ and Lewis laughs.
‘There’s more where that came from, pet,’ he says, and his voice is growly and deep with desire, so that James has to swallow hard and close his eyes tight, just to stay conscious and not slither off the bench. Lewis seems keen to resume where he left off.
Eventually, when they are hot and sweaty, and almost blue from lack of oxygen, and James’ lips are fairly raw from Lewis’ kisses, his boss pulls away and whispers softly in his ear.
‘Better slow down, or we’ll get arrested. Don’t want to offend the good citizens.’
‘I wouldn’t worry, sir. This is Brighton, after all. I doubt the locals will even notice two blokes snogging in a beach shelter.’
Lewis chuckles. ‘I’d love to see Innocent’s face, though.’
And that’s when they dissolve into giggles, and James ends up with his head resting on his boss’s shoulder, lost in a blissful sigh. They sit there quietly for a while, slumped against each other on their bench, while the day trippers and holiday makers walk by, oblivious. It’s heaven. Lewis’ body is warm and solid against him. The scent of his aftershave is delicious; he’s worn the same brand for years – James has always assumed it was Val’s favourite – and it smells safe and calm. And unbelievably erotic.
And that’s all very well, but it’s not answering any of the questions in James’ love-addled brain. So in the end, he has to straighten up and turn to the man he loves.
‘I don’t understand. Is this just a conference fling thing? Because I don’t think you’re the conference fling type.’
Lewis gives him a sleepy smile, which is almost painfully sexy. ‘Got it in one.’
‘So its – what? Are you, I mean –‘
Lewis seems amused that his highly articulate sergeant has been rendered effectively inarticulate by a few well-judged kisses.
‘This is us, James. This is what we are. We just never worked it out before. It took me a long time to realise how I felt about you, but I did in the end. Never thought you’d feel the same, so I just kept it to meself. Been sat here all afternoon trying to work out what I was going to do about it. But if you want to, if you’re willing to take on an old crock like me, well, I want to.’
James mouth goes dry. ‘You want us to be – together?’
‘Never been with a bloke before,’ Lewis admits. ‘But this feels right. With you. It feels like it did before.’
Before, James realises. The word sinks into his battered soul. Before. It means that Lewis is comparing the way he feels about James now to how he felt about his wife. It means Lewis sees them as equivalent. It means that Lewis really does love him.
‘If you want, that is,’ Lewis trundles on, not realising he has just caused an earthquake in James’ heart. ‘I mean, if a proper relationship is what you want. I know I do. It’s daft, you know. You throwing your career away like this. But if it’s what you want, then-‘
He doesn’t get any further. James silences him with a kiss. The kind of kiss that closes all further debate.
‘I still don’t understand,’ James says as they walk back towards the conference centre, shoulders brushing. He’s indulging in a smoke. Lewis has his hands in his pockets and a slight swagger in his hips, as if he’s just pulled the prettiest girl at the dance, and wants every man he passes to notice.
‘Why were you so angry? If you felt the same, I’d have thought, well-’
‘Didn’t go much on Barnaby working it out before I did, especially from just a few glances at you, when I know you better than probably anybody.’
‘No probably about it,’ James tells him, wanting to hold Lewis’ hand, wanting to parade back into the conference like they’re the bride and groom at their wedding feast. Because that is how it feels. Frankly, he’s amazed that his feet are even touching the pavement.
‘He’s pretty sharp, Barnaby,’ he muses. ‘Perhaps it was easier to see if you had no preconceptions.’
‘Perhaps,’ Lewis shrugs. He glances up at James, who has the distinct feeling that the man is envying his cigarette. Which makes him suddenly and distinctly hot under the collar again.
Lewis intercepts his flush, and grins the grin of a crocodile.
‘Later, love,’ he purrs.
Fuck, James groans internally. I am so fucked. I am seriously so fucked.
Trying to pull himself together, he tries another tack. ‘So what about him and Ben Jones, then?’
‘Ah, well,’ Lewis says, shaking his head. ‘Barnaby is married.’
End of story, in Lewis’s book. He would never have transgressed the marital vows, and he classes Tom Barnaby as his equal.
‘Poor Jones,’ James says. And genuinely means it. Because he knows all too well how it feels. But in the Cawston sergeant’s case, there will be no happy ending.
It’s black tie tonight. DS Ben Jones is sitting on the edge of his bed, peering at his own reflection in the mirror over the dressing table, and trying to tie his bow tie. It doesn’t help that his hands are shaking. He’s got about fifteen fingers right now, and none of them seem to be doing what they are told.
‘Come here,’ says a voice from behind him. His hands drop as another pair, wrinkled and dextrous, snake around his shoulders and pick up the silken ends of the tie. Jones sits there patiently, staring at his own miserable face, while his boss takes care of the bow. When he’s done, Jones has to admit he looks quite dashing.
They are sharing a room. He and Barnaby. Budget cuts. In the run-up to the conference, he had viewed the arrangement with trepidation bordering on hysteria. The thought of being closeted through the night with Barnaby was horror-inducing. What if he moaned in his sleep, gave himself away? What if Barnaby liked to sleep naked? What if, worst of all, nothing bloody well happened?
Now Barnaby is circling the bed to sit opposite him, on its twin, and Jones has the same sinking sensation in his gut that always preceded a ‘serious talk’ with his father when he was a boy. The kind of ‘serious talk’ that ended with little Ben being sent to his room ‘to think about what he had done’. Barnaby sighs as he settles onto the edge of the bed, and Jones isn’t sure if its just the normal noise of an older man sitting down, or if its bitter disappointment.
Like Jones, Barnaby is wearing a white dress shirt with sharp creases emphasised by a diligent iron. Unlike Jones, he doesn’t look as if his shirt has a mind of its own, and is trying to make a break for it. Jones wishes he had bought his own shirt, instead of hiring the whole rig for the occasion. At least that way he might have felt less starch-bound. It’s hard enough to cope with his boss’s serious face without feeling like his shirt is standing up when he’s sitting down.
Barnaby swipes a hand around his own square features.
‘Jones,’ he begins, and Ben knows exactly what he’s going to say, and he can’t bear the thought of it, can’t stand to have those words floating around in the air between them like the scarlet letters of old.
‘I know,’ he says, to stop it happening.
‘You know what, exactly?’ Barnaby’s eyes taken on that intensity they always have when he is questioning a suspect. Jones has seen High Court judges quail before that look.
‘I accidentally overheard your conversation with DI Lewis, sir,’ he manages to say, simply, and looks away., at the floor, at his feet, and his hands on his thighs, at the hangnail on his left index finger, at anything, just so he doesn’t have to see the look on Barnaby’s face right now.
‘Oh. You did.’ Barnaby sounds faintly surprised.
‘Well, I suppose that saves us a lot of exposition, then.’
Barnaby clears his throat. He sounds as if it is he who is embarrassed, instead of Jones.
‘Then you’ll know –‘
‘You’re married. Yes, sir.’
‘I thought it was Cully,’ Barnaby says after a while.
‘It was, sir. To begin with. But then. Well. Anyway, I’m sorry to have disappointed you.’
There is a soft intake of breath. More surprise? Surely there isn’t anything he can’t know about me, Jones thinks. Not now. Not with the state I’m in.
‘I’m not disappointed, Ben,’ Barnaby tells him gently. He tries to look up, manages only to get as far as the middle of the older man’s chest, where his shirt studs glitter in the evening sun. ‘Actually, I should be apologising to you.’
‘Me?’ That does jolt him enough, finally, to look into the familiar face. Barnaby looks pained and sad, for some reason Jones can’t fathom. ‘I’m the one that’s embarrassed you, sir!’
‘I’m not embarrassed,’ he says. ‘I don’t know what I am, to be honest. It’s complicated.’
Jones can’t help staring as Barnaby goes on.
‘Things are frequently not as simple as they seem. You and I have seen that, often enough, haven’t we? All I can say is that I’m sorry I can’t be what you need. And that if you feel a transfer would be best for you, then I will support you. But I want to make it clear that I enjoy working with you, and want that to continue.’
Jones gapes at him. He can’t believe his luck. After all this, Barnaby wants to keep working with him.
‘I want to impress upon you,’ Barnaby continues. ‘That our working together might not be what is best for you. That is entirely for you to decide. I don’t want you to feel tied, or under any obligation. And certainly not under duress-‘
‘It’s not that at all!’
Barnaby manages a weak smile, more of a grimace really. ‘I’m sorry I’ve put us in this awful situation,’ he says.
‘I’m the one that fell in love with you!’ Jones cries. ‘It’s not your fault!’
‘Ultimately, as senior officer, I am responsible for your wellbeing,’ Barnaby tells him, his voice sounding more exhausted than controlled. ‘I should have seen it coming.’
‘With respect, sir, you may be good at your job, but you aren’t psychic!’
Jones retreats to bed as soon as it is decent to escape the throng. He takes a miserable shower and crumples his horrible stiff shirt into his overnight bag. It is like folding sheets of corrugated iron. It fights him every step of the way. In the end, he abandons trying to force the zip closed, and the damn thing busts out of the bag as if it is making for the door of its own accord.
A metaphor for his life, he thinks, pulling the duvet over his head. Everything gets away from him.
Later, in the apricot darkness of the city night, he hears the soft click of the bedroom door. Barnaby creeping in, trying not to disturb him. There is the rustle of his woollen jacket as it slips from his shoulders, the slither of his silken tie as it comes undone with a gentle tug. And oh, how Jones wishes he was the one doing the tugging.
Well, he will just have to get used to this. Barnaby has made his position clear enough, although his talk of things not being as they might seem was a bit ambiguous. Perhaps he was trying to admit that he was at least attracted to his sergeant, to another man. After all, he comes from a generation where such an admission would be a major issue.
Lying on his side, Jones tries hard to listen to the noises on the street below while his boss uses the bathroom. Saturday night clubbers are rolling past on the pavement below, laughing and shouting, on their way from pub to nightclub or party. Then there is the constant swish of the sea. He can’t think of it as anything other than a ‘swish’. That is the noise the sea has always made in his ears, since his first childhood seaside holiday. Metaphors like that get stuck in your head, he decided long ago. The sea goes swish. Birds go tweet. And senior coppers definitely do not coo sweet nothings into their subordinates’ ears.
So it comes as a surprise when the bed creaks a foot or so away, and he realises that Barnaby is sitting on its edge, looking at him. He can’t help but turn over.
The street lights are filtering through the gaps in the blackout curtains, casting Barnaby’s sharp face into harsh relief. Long, hawk nose, square jaw, creased mouth, round, clever eyes.
‘I’m drunk, Jones,’ he sighs.
He looks a little slumped. His shoulders are rounded, as if weighed down by some dreadful burden, and Jones can’t bear the thought of that, can’t bear for his dear one to be struggling alone with some cruel demon.
‘It’s Saturday night,’ he says, taking his weight on his elbow, and offering an encouraging smile. ‘Even coppers get to let their hair down on a Saturday night, don’t they?’
Barnaby manages a sad smile and a nod, as if acknowledging his attempt to lighten his load.
They look at each other.
‘Joyce,’ he manages, after a while.
‘She isn’t – she doesn’t-‘ He looks sadly at his hands. It dawns on Jones now that his boss is about to admit something to him, some secret from deep in the labyrinth of his marriage. Barnaby is not one to confide. Still less is he the sort to talk about his feelings, or about his wife. Of course, his wife quickly becomes part of the job when you work with him. Jones knows that too well. Tom Barnaby comes into your life as a package deal, with both Joyce and Cully in tow, no questions asked. He has joined them at their table so many times that he wonders if Joyce and Cully view him, and every one of his boss’s sergeants, as an adopted son.
Meanwhile Barnaby heaves a huge sigh, and on the outbreath, begins to talk.
‘When we had Cully, when Joyce had Cully, things didn’t go well. That’s why we never had another child. There was a lot of damage. Because of the birth, I mean. She couldn’t - Well, for a long time, we didn’t- It’s not that it’s bad. Just. We still – and it’s nice, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say I’m not satisfied. I don’t want you to think that. But it’s not what I thought, well, you know, that marriage would be like this.’
He must be drunk, Jones realises. Very drunk. To be so inarticulate. Never mind the substance of what he’s actually telling me. My God, they must have been married about thirty years! Most of that time without a decent fuck – the poor sod.
‘I love her,’ Barnaby rambles on. ‘I really do.’
‘I know,’ Jones tells him gently.
Barnaby looks suddenly as if he might cry. The picture of his strong eagle face riven with such sadness twists something vital inside Jones’ chest.
‘She met someone. Last year. A woman. Elizabeth. She said she’d like to explore her sexuality a bit more. She said she had no intention of leaving me. That it wouldn’t affect us. And I believe her. She wouldn’t do that. She thinks I should do the same. Explore a bit. See someone else. She says it helps.’
He turns his head, looks away, over at the corner of the anonymous room, at the shadows, at nothing. He looks so lost, so lonely.
‘That’s where she is now. Tonight. This weekend. With Elizabeth,’ he says.
Jones can tell he isn’t jealous. It’s not that. He’s just sad. Desperately sad. He feels like a failure. As a husband. As a man. Jones reads it all in his boss’s face, and understands.
He flops back the edge of his duvet.
‘Come on, get in,’ he says.
Barnaby looks at him, confused.
‘I’m not asking for sex. I’m saying you need to be cuddled. And it might as well be me that does it. No strings. Nothing expected. Your honour is safe with me, sir.’ He follows that with a little mischievous smirk, hoping to lighten the mood a little.
And he means it. He doesn’t want anything. He would never take advantage of someone this drunk anyway. No, what he is offering is comfort. And something inside Barnaby’s beer-addled brain seems to get it.
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘Thank you.’
Jones helps the older man with his shoes and socks, helps him slip off his braces and struggle out of his expensive woollen trousers. The crisp shirt comes off, cufflinks and shirt studs fumbled with numb fingers. Then Jones lies back, and Barnaby gets in, and then the heavy form of the DCI settles against his body, his head on Jones’ shoulder, with a sigh. Jones pulls the duvet over both of them. It is snug, two men in a single bed, especially with one so tall and one so broad. Reminds Jones of passionate nights stolen as a teenager with a girlfriend at college.
Barnaby instantly falls asleep in his arms, snoring softly into his t-shirt. Jones lies there, his arm going numb under that solid body, and stares at the shadowy ceiling, hardly daring to believe that this is happening. He wonders what will happen tomorrow. Will Barnaby be embarrassed? Will they pretend it never happened? Or just chalk it up to too much beer in the bar after the dinner? He can’t even begin to guess. But never mind that. For now he has the hop-fragrant, warm form of his DCI in his arms, and nothing else matters.
Its nearly midnight when Lewis lets himself into the bedroom he is sharing with his sergeant for the night. Thank God for budget cuts, he silently thinks. Because he has spent the whole painful, sweltering evening, encased in the uncomfortable carapace of his evening suit, dying to get upstairs and strip James to his golden skin.
Its been delicious torture.
And now here he is, in the darkened room to which James retreated half an hour before. The lad is silhouetted in the window. The French windows are open, and he is leaning on the railing of the little Juliet balcony, overlooking the seafront, enjoying a smoke. Lewis can see the long, lean line of his back and legs, the soft curves of shadows under his buttocks, so attractively cupped by his dress trousers, the sweep of neck, and cheek hollowed out as he sucks on his cigarette. A thin line of smoke is snatched from his slightly parted lips by the night breeze.
Lewis stands there for a moment, unable to move for the beauty of it.
Never dreamed I’d get this lucky, he realises. Not a second time.
Then James seems to become aware of his presence and glances over his shoulder, a slight smile on his lips. Lewis joins him at the railing, and they lean on their forearms, looking out over the promenade. The lights of the pier are still gaudy in the salty distance. Lovers walk hand-in-hand through the pools of light under the street lamps. The bunting between the lamp posts snaps in the breeze.
‘Wind’s got up,’ James observes, his voice smoky and deep.
‘Mmm,’ Lewis replies, not inclined to conversation.
James seems to understand the unspoken. He takes the cigarette from his mouth and examines it briefly, then stubs it out on the underside of the balustrade, and flicks it into the wind.
‘That’ll land on some poor bugger’s head,’ Lewis observes.
James turns to him and shrugs.
‘I’ve got other fish to fry,’ he says, and reaches out. ‘I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything all evening.’
‘Me neither,’ Lewis tells him, aware of the hot, smoky breath on his cheek, the long hands snaking up his back. He looks up into those grey-blue eyes.
‘I want to make love to you,’ he says, with every fibre of his being.
James’ eyes flutter closed for a second. When they open, they are suffused with desire.
‘I wish you would,’ he whispers.
James’ tongue carries the flavours of ashes and hops. It flicks delicately against Lewis’, teasing the tip. He knows just how to kiss. Lewis never thought of James as an experienced lover. Now he realises he’s glad. It’s a new world to him, making love to another man, and he’s relieved at the knowledge that at least one of them knows what they are doing.
James hands slide over Lewis’ upper body as they kiss. Lewis’ shirt feels perilously thin under his palms. Long, bony fingers work the buttons open, dispense with tie and cufflinks. Cool hands slip inside, under the flap of the front, and find belly, and nipples hard with need. Lewis groans into James’ mouth.
‘Something you want to say?’ James whispers in his ear, words hot and moist with desire.
‘Fuck,’ Lewis says, as concise and accurate as he is capable of right now, his senses suddenly overwhelmed with the deep, rich scent of James’ body, the electricity of his touch.
‘We’ll get to that,’ James chuckles, wickedly.
James tows Lewis to the edge of the bed, where he sits down. Looking up at his boss, he carefully undoes Lewis’ belt and fly. Lewis feels like his heart is going to burst out of his throat. A long hand slides over the front of his trousers, then slips inside the zip.
‘Oh, God,’ Lewis moans, letting his head fall back and staring at the ceiling. The way he’s throbbing, he’s got to get a grip or it’ll all be over in seconds. It’s been way too long since anybody touched him like this. The odd drunken brief encounter in the Caribbean, and one night of misguided, wine-fuelled lust with Laura long ago do not a functional sex life make. He’s rusty and overwrought with want.
‘James, pet,’ he manages to whisper. ‘Slow down or it’ll all be over a bit too quick!’
‘It’s alright,’ James breathes in that dark, sexy tone of his that really, really doesn’t help. ‘’We’ve got all night. We can go again.’
‘I’m a bit old for encores,’ Lewis confesses as James eases his trousers and pants over his hips.
He fixes Lewis with his hungry eyes.
‘You always under-estimate yourself,’ he says, and presses his face to Lewis’ crotch.
That’s it, Lewis decides. Whatever happens, happens. He gives up, and cups the back of the lad’s sandy head in his palm.
‘Tell me what you want, love,’ he breathes.
‘I want everything. I want you in my mouth. I want you in my hand. I want you inside me. I want your skin against mine. I want your body on mine. I want you to fuck me till I can’t think anymore. I want you to take me and make me yours forever.’
Lewis’ knees almost give way.
James looks up at him, and there is a brief flash of fear in his eyes, as if now that he can finally be honest, now he can finally say what is in his heart, he is terrified he has given too much away and ruined it all. And Lewis isn’t having that. He won’t have his beautiful James holding anything back, or thinking he can’t have all those things he wants.
So he pushes James back onto the bed, and climbs on top of him, so that they are nose to nose.
‘God, yes,’ he tells him. ‘All of that. I want all of that too. Any way I can have you, I want you. You just say the word. Whatever you want. Anything.’ And then he kisses James with everything he’s got, just to hammer home the point.
There is a breathy interval of scrabbling off clothing. They are both shaking so much that buttons become fiendish impossibilities. Socks are the work of the devil. Lewis is pretty sure he is hyperventilating by the time he stretches out against the length of James’ long, naked frame. Their skin is super-heated. They are jittery with need.
‘God,’ James pants. ‘I never thought it would be like this.’
Lewis slides his hand down James’ belly. ‘Tell me.’
‘I can barely-‘ He gasps as Lewis circles his fingers around his twitching cock. It is long and slender, just like James, a deep pink even in the shadows of their unlit room. It has a curve to it, unlike Lewis’, which is straight and thick and solid, and pressed against James’ hip. It feels strange, holding another man’s cock, gripping a hot velvet shaft at this angle when he is so used to holding his own.
‘So beautiful,’ he breathes.
But James is circumcised, and Lewis isn’t quite sure how to stroke him without hurting him, without the luscious slide of a foreskin to guide him. And when James reaches out, it is clear he is just as foxed by a foreskin’s presence, hooding the ruddy head of Lewis’ prick.
Wordless, they show each other.
Lewis spits on his palm and slides it across the sensitive head of James’ cock. The lad moans.
His hand curls around Lewis’ cockhead, slithering the foreskin round and back. Lewis’ cock twitches in response.
Lewis kisses him. Their tongues touch, tip to tip, then dive in and dance together as their hands begin to move. Then they are grinding up into each other’s fists, and James is groaning and whimpering with need, and they both stare down at what they are doing, unable to look away from the sheer filthy eroticism of wanking each other so shamelessly.
Ironically, it is James who comes first in the end. Lewis feels it coming, feels him stiffen, the shaft of his cock straighten that final, minute fraction. Then the precious twitch and pulse, and Lewis doesn’t know whether to look at the beauty in his hand, or the lovely face thrown back against the pillow in pleasure. James thrusts his hips up helplessly, a sound torn from his throat that is part way between a cry and a sob. Three or four impressive spurts and he subsides into a trembling, shuddering wreck while Lewis gently ekes out the last of the pleasure for him. Then they slow to a gentle stop, and lie together, their breathing the only sound, coming down from the thrill, feeling the honesty of the moment, their togetherness.
Eventually, Lewis rouses himself enough to reach for the box of tissues on the bedside table, thoughtfully provided by the hotel. They mop each other up.
James looks down at Lewis’s groin. ‘You didn’t-‘
Lewis smiles. ‘We’ll get to that.’
James suddenly gets that familiar wicked look on his face, the mischievous one that warns Lewis he’s up to no good. He slithers down the bed.
‘What the-‘ is all Lewis manages before his cock is deep in James’ hot, wet mouth.
It’s been years. God, literally so many years that he can’t remember when he last felt this. Even so, it’s different with a man. James’ mouth is larger, for one thing. For another, he knows what it feels like to have a cock. He knows exactly what to do to tease and thrill. His tongue finds all the sensitive spots, the place on the underside of the head that makes Lewis gasp when he flicks it with the hardened tip of his tongue, the toe-curlingly good tingle on the side, and tantalising bump of the head against the roof of James’ mouth, and the right way to gently roll Lewis’ balls in his hands, just so, to slow things down. He knows how to hold Lewis on the agonising edge of ecstasy for a ridiculously long time, while looking up at him with those mockingly innocent blue eyes, till Lewis is writhing and begging for release. And then he goes down on him, sucking hard enough to be just the delicious side of pain, taking a ridiculous amount of Lewis’ length down his throat, and Lewis tries desperately to hold back but he can’t withstand that onslaught, and he cries out as he comes, pulsing down James’ throat.
Pale dawn peeps through the cracks between the curtains. DCI Tom Barnaby turns over, drifting into conscious. The gentle glow turns to the shock of sudden awareness when there is a yelp and a thump.
Barnaby peers over the edge of the bed.
Ben Jones is lying on his back on the floor, blinking.
‘Ow,’ he says.
‘Sorry, I forgot,’ Tom says. ‘You hurt?’
Jones shifts a little, his face twinging with discomfort. ‘Just a bit bruised, I think.’
Mischief comes into Tom’s head. ‘Shall I kiss it better?’
‘Oh, come on! That’s just cruel,’ Jones grumbles, and peels himself up off the floor. He uses the edge of the bed to lever himself up, which makes it easy for Barnaby to grab him and upend him back under the duvet. Back into Barnaby’s own arms. For a second, Jones seems confused, but then he relents, and his body softens against Barnaby’s. They snuggle together into a comfortable position, with Jones’ head resting on Barnaby’s chest.
‘Single beds, eh?’ Barnaby says, pulling the duvet around them.
‘Mmm.’ Jones nuzzles against Barnaby’s skin. ‘This okay?’
‘Lovely,’ Barnaby smiles, and it is. Very, in fact. It’s different from waking up with Joyce, of course. She’s more fragrant in the morning, but less cuddly. Perhaps that’s just because they’ve been together so long, he isn’t sure. Still, he decides there are merits on both sides. It’s not fair to want both, but he finds he does.
‘I’m giving you very mixed signals, aren’t I?’
‘A bit.’ Jones’ voice is muffled against Barnaby’s own skin.
After a while the younger man props his head up on his hand and looks down at Barnaby with gentle eyes.
‘I understand, though,’ he says. ‘Invidious position. You’re my boss, so there’s issues there. And married. Emotional challenges, regardless of having permission. You’re a man of integrity. This can’t come naturally to you.’
He should have the sense to get up and climb back into the other bed. Slip between the cool sheets and pretend this never happened. Chalk it up to the booze. To the hangover headache that’s drilling into his temples and making his tongue furred.
Instead he reaches out and gently strokes Jones’ cheek. The stubble rasps against his fingertips. Jones’ eyelids flutter closed. He sighs. Barnaby finds himself sighing too.
‘I’ve missed this,’ he says, and his voice comes out soft with emotion. ‘We don’t do this. This closeness. Not really, not anymore. I don’t know where it went.’
‘Too many early starts and long nights,’ Jones supposes.
They gaze at one another.
‘I can’t give you what you want,’ Barnaby says in the end. ‘Or what you deserve.’
‘And what’s that?’
‘A family. A home. A stable relationship.’ All the things I’ve had with Joyce, is what he doesn’t say.
‘I don’t want that from you. I’m not an idiot. I know what I’m getting into here. And besides, if I did meet someone, I know you aren’t the kind to stand in the way of my happiness.’
‘You know I wouldn’t,’ Barnaby tells him firmly.
‘Well, then.’ Jones leans down and brushes his lips along the line of Barnaby’s jaw. ‘I don’t want you to leave your wife, and you don’t want to leave her. It’s not like you’re betraying her, because she wants you to be with someone else, and you’ll tell her about me. And as for the work side of things, I don’t feel in any way compelled, and no one else will find out if we are careful.’
Barnaby can’t help rolling his eyes. ‘If there’s anything I’ve learnt from working in Midsomer, it’s that someone always finds out.’
‘Then tell me what you want,’ Jones says, and there’s an edge to his voice. He wants to know. No more mucking about. No more mixed signals. This is the moment Barnaby has to decide.
He looks into Jones’ toffee-coloured eyes, and sees the undeniable love there. He knows it’s a risk, but he also knows Jones is right. No one will get hurt if they are honest with each other. That’s a bit naive, says the doubting voice in the back of his head.
But when he examines his heart, Barnaby finds he can’t doubt the feelings he has for this young man. So earnest, so keen, so loyal. He remembers that moment on the beach last year, with Jones throwing stones into the water, and Barnaby talking about retirement. A seaside home, he’d said. It had to happen eventually. And there was the look of panic in the lad’s face. The look that said ‘don’t go!’ And Barnaby didn’t want to go. Because of that look. Because of Jones. Couldn’t help but be drawn back to that need, that loyalty. That love.
‘Ben,’ he whispers as he touches Jones’ cheek again.
And when Ben Jones leans down and presses his lips to Barnaby’s, it feels utterly right.
‘We’ve transgressed the unwritten law,’ James murmurs into Lewis’ shoulder. And Lewis chuckles.
‘Never shag your bagman,’ he agrees. ‘I’ve lost my integrity for good.’
‘Never,’ James croons into his ear, hot morning breath after a night of clammy sleep in each other’s arms. Lewis is stiff from the cramped bed, from the unfamiliar position. He’s forgotten how to share, how to cuddle through the night. One thing he does know, though. He wants to remember how to do it all again. With James.
‘I’ll retire,’ he says.
James props himself up on his elbow so he can see down into Lewis’ eyes. ‘You know what I think about that,’ he says.
And Lewis does.
‘If you go, I go,’ James said, all those months ago outside the pub, when Lewis was contemplating packing the job in, capitulating to Lyn’s nagging and moving to Manchester.
‘A lot of innocent people won’t get the truth and the justice they deserve if you go,’ he tells James honestly. ‘You’re too good. It’d be a waste of a bloody good detective.’
James lays his head on Lewis’ shoulder. ‘I don’t know. I can’t get any distance. It tears me up, this job. I’d never have stood it all this time if it hadn’t been for you.’
‘I won’t be going anywhere,’ Lewis points out. ‘But you should go for inspector. I’ll stay long enough to for you to get through. Once you’ve got your own bagman, I can leave with a clear conscience. We can be together openly then.’
‘And that’s what you want?’
‘To be able to walk down the street holding your hand? Of course.’
James lies there, still. Lewis can practically hear the cogs whirring.
‘If that’s not what you want-‘ he starts, suddenly gripped with doubt. James clearly isn’t having Lewis entertaining doubts, however. They are in the middle of a hot, filthy kiss before he has time to draw breath. James finds the sensitive spot on the side of Lewis’ neck with his little pearl barley teeth, and Lewis has to gasp out, ‘Oi! Watch it, I’ve got to be out in public today!’
James crawls on top of him, apparently undeterred. He has designs on Lewis’ collar bone now, and his nips send delicious little fizzing shocks to Lewis’ cock.
‘Oh, God, we aren’t going to make breakfast, are we?’ Lewis rasps.
He’s pretty sure James would be agreeing with him loudly, if his mouth were not otherwise engaged.
Tom Barnaby lies on his back amid sheets still damp with sweat. He can hear the shower humming in the ensuite, and the sea rasping at the shingle beach. Seagulls screech their unmistakable seaside dirge amongst the chimneypots. His body is glowing like cooling iron. He can’t quite believe he has just had fantastic sex with his bagman. He’s not sure he will ever be able to look at Jones’ lips in quite the same way again.
Just then, the shower shuts off, and after a few moments, Jones sidles back into the bedroom, his torso beaded with water, a towel slung loosely around his narrow waist. He scrubs at his hair with a hand towel. He looks good enough to eat.
Barnaby has never really thought of himself as having a substantial sex drive. That’s one of the things that has made living with Joyce’s difficulties easier. He knows he is lucky in this coincidence. And at his age, he knows the libido slows.
Or is supposed to.
But right now, looking at Ben’s lithe frame, the slightly olive cast of his skin, the way his nipples ride like brown seeds over his ribs, he finds that his mouth is watering and, age or no age, he’s ready to go again.
Jones catches the look in his eye and raises an eyebrow.
‘Really?’ he grins.
Robbie Lewis is pulling his socks on. Black ones, as usual. James is padding round in lavender ones. Lewis has a soft spot for those lavender ones on those long, bony feet.
‘I was thinking,’ he says, ready to hazard an idea.
James sits on the bed beside him, flapping one end of his lavender tie over the other, his collar turned up. He peers at himself in the dressing table mirror.
‘How novel,’ he quips.
‘Watch it,’ Lewis says, giving him a playful shove. ‘You’re not an inspector yet!’
‘Well, come on then, brainbox, what is it you were thinking about?’ James tucks his tie ends around. Strange custom, Lewis has always thought, though he never questioned its necessity. Why do we tie silk ribbons around our necks and think it makes us look smart?
‘Well, we’re at the bottom of the rota, and we’ve got a few days owing. I thought maybe, when the conference is over, we might stay a few more days. Enjoy the seaside together.’
It makes him feel a little vulnerable to suggest it, this little fantasy that came to him in the shower. Golden visions of walking with James along the prom, hand in hand, in a place where nobody knows them, free from comment, free from gossip.
‘A proper dirty weekend in Brighton,’ James says.
‘Hardly,’ Lewis says. ‘It’ll be mid-week.’
James eases the knot of his tie into place under his chin, and turns his collar down neatly.
‘I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Robert Lewis, you are a bloody genius.’
He turns to Lewis and kisses him soundly.
‘Do I take that as a yes, then?’ Lewis grins.
‘I’ll ask at reception if we can get upgraded to a double on the way down, shall I?’
‘Careful, you might make a good sergeant one of these days.’ Lewis gives James’ knee an affectionate squeeze and gets up to track down his shoes.
A number of sore heads mean that James and Lewis are not the only ones late for the first Sunday morning session. James notes that the delegates from Midsomer are conspicuous by their absence for the first twenty minutes of the discussion on community policing. Eventually Barnaby and Jones sneak in and find seats at the back of the hall, but James doesn’t miss their arrival. Neither does he miss the roses in their cheeks, or the way they keep sneaking looks at one another and trying to hide it. Something inside him wants to stand up and cheer when he sees their surreptitious intimacy.
Later, at coffee break, he wanders out onto the prom for a fag, and finds Ben Jones basking on the wall outside, eyes closed, face turned up to the sun.
James slips back inside and grabs them both a takeaway coffee. It is only when his shadow passes across Jones’ face that the Midsomer sergeant registers his presence. James hands him a coffee and sits down beside him.
‘Thanks,’ Jones says, blinking sleepily.
James lights up his cigarette, and they sit there in companionable silence for a while.
‘You sorted it out then,’ Jones observes eventually.
‘That obvious, is it?’ James gives him an embarrassed, sidelong glance.
‘You have the look of a well-shagged man,’ Jones grins.
‘As do you, if I may say so,’ James nods.
They study the traffic queuing past the conference centre.
‘Do you think its ever quiet on this road?’ Jones wonders idly, after a while.
‘It might have been about four this morning,’ James says, and takes a long suck on his coffee. ‘I’m not sure I noticed.’
‘Occupied with other things?’
‘Quite possibly.’ James can’t help grinning. ‘One thing in particular.’
‘Too much information,’ Jones groans, and James starts laughing. Its bloody wonderful. Its all just so completely, ridiculously wonderful.
‘We’re staying on after the conference closes,’ James tells him, not sure where this sudden confidence came from. They’ve barely spoken a word to one another before now, but somehow their parallel experiences have made them friends.
‘Nice,’ Jones says, sipping at his coffee. It is pretty grim stuff by Hathaway’s standards, but it is hot and wet, and a good way to share sympathy or open a conversation.
They watch a gaggle of foreign exchange students being shepherded along the beach by some harassed looking teachers. Other delegates from the conference mill around them in their serious, if ill-fitting, suits, some of them sipping coffee, some cramming down chocolate bars in lieu of breakfast, one or two, like James, toking a swift cigarette before the next session opens. Issues in Budgeting on Major Investigations. It’s a crucial one for everyone in attendance, but James is hoping it won’t prove as dry as it sounds, because he has a pretty good idea that Lewis will use it as dozing time, and expect James to summarise.
Later, he hopes. Maybe over a nice curry and a beer. Or perhaps in bed.
A little sizzle of pleasure crackles down his back, the echo of Lewis’ hands on his skin. He is hoping they will get to lots of other, more intimate practices before their stay is over.
‘Stop it,’ Jones says, making James jump.
‘That. You’re thinking about sex. I can practically hear you! I’m never going to get through the next session if I keep thinking about-‘ And here he stops, arrested by some memory of last night, James presumes, or this morning’s delayed start. His cheeks take on a very noticeable glow.
‘Sorry, can’t really concentrate much this morning,’ James tries to excuse himself. ‘Can’t imagine why.’
‘Me neither,’ Jones says, rolling his eyes.
‘I’m glad for you,’ James tells him, and genuinely means it.
‘Things are never what you think they are,’ Jones nods. ‘I never expected this. Its complicated.’
‘But it works.’
‘Yes. I think so. I hope so.’
‘What about you two? How are you going to manage?’
James stares out at the glittering silver of the waves for a moment. The future seems astonishingly inviting for the first time in his life.
‘I’m going for Inspector,’ he says, realising as he does that for the first time he actually means it. ‘He’s going to get me through OSPRE, and then he’s retiring. And then we can be together openly.’
Jones offers his hand, and they shake. ‘That’s brilliant news. Good luck.’
‘Thanks,’ James says, suddenly feeling shy. ‘What about you two?’
Jones shrugs. ‘Just taking it one day at a time. I’m happy with that. Its more than I ever expected.’
Barnaby heaves his suit carrier into the boot of the Jag, and slams the lid shut. Jones is already in the car when he slides in.
The lad is clicking his seat belt into place. He has taken his jacket off and laid it on the back seat. His pale blue shirt clings to his shoulders. Nice shoulders, Barnaby reflects, and the memory of sliding his hands over them sneaks into his head. The smoothness of the skin, the firmness of the muscle. He is surprised to find that even after two sexual encounters, a very late night, a substantial hangover, and four sessions of police conference matters in one long, hot day, he still feels interested in the idea of sliding his hands all over Jones again at the first available opportunity. Maybe this was what Joyce was talking about when she said: ‘it helps’.
He rests his hands on the steering wheel for a moment as a thought forms in his head.
‘Remember that time we went to Wales?’
‘Land of my fathers,’ Jones frowns. ‘Yes, why?’
‘I’ve always felt we didn’t do it justice. Plenty of good walking, and pleasant guest houses. How do you fancy a return trip?’
The edge of lasciviousness in Jones’ grin does not detract from the obvious delight in his expression.
‘You’re full of good ideas today, sir,’ he says.
James leans on the balustrade. The sun is going down in a blaze of glory like a Viking funeral, as if setting alight once more the wreckage of the fire-damaged West Pier. The promenade lights are just starting to flicker on, multi-coloured glass bulbs swinging in the breeze. The air is full of the scent of ozone and seaweed and candy floss.
And Lewis’ aftershave.
Lewis, who is beside him, leaning his comforting bulk against James’ side to watch the inferno of the sky. Lewis, who only an hour ago was making blithe conversation with the starchiest of colleagues at the final plenary session. Lewis, who then followed James up to their newly acquired double room, and swiftly, passionately, stripped him naked and licked his every breathless inch. Lewis who is now softly jangling his car keys in his pocket in a speculative manner that James always associates with the imminent suggestion of beer.
James turns his head a little, so that he can see the mischievous twinkle in his boss’s eye. And oh, how he loves that naughty twinkle.
‘So,’ Lewis starts. ‘How about a pint before supper?’