Robbie started awake when something squeezed his leg under the table. Blinking furiously, he felt a wave of relief when he realised the presenter hadn't noticed him nodding off. He was grateful that Hathaway had chosen a seat at the back end of the seminar room, but then Robbie supposed since he'd been to university he knew how bloody boring lectures could be.
“Wakey-wakey,” Hathaway whispered in his ear, the puff of breath making him start again. A pat to his thigh this time, and Robbie looked down, still half-stunned, to see James' hand there, now sliding away.
“M'awake,” Robbie murmured, eyes front as he pretended to be absorbed in whatever the bloke down in front was droning on about. Something to do with evidence gathering in the electronic age, he remembered vaguely, or had that been the lecture this morning? At the minute, Robbie had no idea either way. He did remember he and James were in Bristol, and that they were doomed to another morning of this bollocks tomorrow.
“Of course you are, sir,” Hathaway murmured back, and now Robbie could almost feel the brush of his lips. “You were just resting your eyes.”
“Hush,” Robbie said out of the corner of his mouth, and he could sense Hathaway's smug smirk as he too turned back to face the lecturer. Robbie surreptiously looked about to see if anyone had overheard them, and bugger, the copper on the other side of him was clearly bottling a laugh. He glanced at Robbie, his eyes dancing with merriment, and Robbie gave him a small, tight nod in return.
Wonderful, Robbie thought. I'm surrounded by smartarses today.
When they were finally released for the day – after Robbie had done everything he could short of tapdancing to stay awake for the rest of the lecture – the bloke who'd smiled at Robbie earlier introduced himself. “DI Paul Donovan,” he said. “Bristol police. Where're you lads from?”
“DI Robbie Lewis, Oxford,” Robbie replied, taking the proferred hand, “and this is my sergeant, James Hathaway.”
“Good to meet you,” Donovan said, smiling at Hathaway as they shook hands. He was about fortyish, a shaved head and broad-shouldered build lending him an impressive presence that belied his average height. “First time in Bristol?”
“For me, not for him,” Hathaway answered. “Sadly, we haven't seen much of it. Got in late last night.”
“Well, you're in luck, because some of the lads and ladies are throwing a do tonight for two of our own. They're getting married tomorrow, and there's a 'farewell to happiness' party on at the coppers' local.”
“Oh, we wouldn't want to be party crashers,” Robbie said. Yesterday they'd had to run round like silly buggers wrapping up the paperwork on their latest case before driving down here. They hadn't reached their hotel until after midnight, and he was knackered.
“You're not crashing if you're invited, are you?” Donovan said, smiling. “The Palace Hotel, corner of West Street and Lamb Street, seven o'clock. Hathaway here'll convince you.” With that, he clapped Hathaway jovially on the arm and headed out, while Hathaway staggered a little under the force of it.
Robbie raised his eyebrows at him. “Well, convince me, then.”
James shrugged. “Spirit of inter-service cooperation, sir.”
“Is that what they're calling getting rat-arsed with your fellow coppers these days?” He sighed. “I don't usually fancy going to parties where I don't know a soul.”
“You know me. And Paul,” James pointed out.
Robbie pretended to glare at him for a moment before relenting. “I suppose it would be polite to pop round and make an appearance. Pub's only a few minutes' walk from here.”
Hathaway's eyes danced. “It might be fun to see you rat-arsed.”
Robbie snorted. “I didn't mean me. I can drink you under the table.”
Mouth curling into one of those almost-smiles of his, James took a step closer, and Robbie had to tip his head back a little to maintain eye contact. Bloody stork. “Is that a challenge, sir?”
Robbie opened his mouth to tell him to stop being ridiculous, but no sound came out. James was watching him as though Robbie's answer meant more to him than it should, as though the question were really something important. He couldn't say how he knew this, but he was certain of it.
“If you like,” Robbie finally managed. James stared at him for a moment longer, then stepped back with a little nod, as though Robbie's answer had been satisfactory. Robbie released the breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding.
Had he once called Hathaway enigmatic? Bugger, he hadn't known the half of it. As the lad turned and left the now-empty lecture hall, Robbie trailed along behind him, stumbling over his own feet.
After an adequate but unmemorable meal at the hotel restaurant, Robbie and James parted ways. Robbie had a quick shower and changed into the one set of casual clothes he'd brought with him. He hadn't been expecting to do much socialising, so it was a lucky thing he'd packed any at all. As he was buttoning his shirt, he heard a soft knock at the door. Distracted, he opened the door to Hathaway standing there.
Hathaway always looked young to him, but in jeans and a tight t-shirt under an open short-sleeved Oxford, he could have passed for a university student. This spring had been much warmer than usual, and Hathaway's skin was already beginning to acquire that golden cast it usually had later on in the summer. Combined with his blue-green eyes, he cut a striking figure. Despite James' sometimes prickly personality, Robbie was still mystified as to why he didn't have the women lined up round the block. It wasn't as though the lad were hard to look at, and he was bright and talented and kind to boot. He should have been married by now, settled, raising a family.
And then it occurred to him that he was standing in the doorway of his hotel room with his shirt half-buttoned, staring at his sergeant like a stunned idiot. Shaking his head, he muttered, “Sorry. A bit tired.”
James' brows drew together in a show of concern. “Still up for going?”
Robbie drew himself up. “'Course I am. A Northerner never backs down from a challenge.”
That earned him a brief, surprising grin. “All right, then,” Hathaway said, “first round's on me.”
The May evening was warm, and by the time they'd walked the handful of blocks to their destination, Robbie was beginning to get overheated. He'd had a beer with supper, but he'd need another one soon.
The street was busy, people milling about on the pavement outside the pub and in front of the one across the road. Squinting, Robbie read the sign on the place opposite. “The Bristol Bear Bar?” Odd name, he thought.
Hathaway didn't answer; when Robbie glanced at him, his cheeks looked as flushed as Robbie's probably were. Turning back, he noticed that the crowd outside the bar was all male, and mostly big lads wearing open shirts or no shirts at all. Well, it was a warm night, but still – oh.
“Right, then,” Robbie said, clearing his throat. “Best get on.”
The Palace Hotel wasn't a hotel any longer, but a newly refurbished pub that had lovingly restored the old building's Victorian architecture to its former glory. Privately, Robbie thought the interior was a little on the overdone side, but he supposed that was the way they liked things back then.
Unlike the crowd outside the other bar, the group here was fairly evenly mixed. Robbie took in the small dance floor, where couples of various combinations were dancing together, and another piece of the puzzle slotted into place. “I think...” he began, but trailed off when he saw Paul approaching them with another man in tow.
“Glad you could make it,” Paul said warmly, shaking both their hands again. “Johnny, this is Robbie and James, from the Oxford police. This is Johnny, the madman who's agreed to put up with me til death us do part.”
“So it's your wedding tomorrow, then,” Robbie said, trying not to pull a face at his own stupidity, because bloody obviously.
Paul, to his credit, didn't seem taken aback by the inane observation. “That's how I knew you wouldn't be crashing the party,” he said, nudging Robbie with his elbow.
“Congratulations,” James offered.
“Don't congratulate me yet. He might still run like blazes tomorrow.”
“Oh, hush,” Johnny said, smiling. He was younger than Paul, Robbie guessed, perhaps as much as a decade, and he was taller and leaner with a shock of ginger hair and bright green eyes. They looked a bit like chalk and cheese, but the affection between them was clear as day. For a moment, Robbie felt an odd pang he couldn't place.
“Are you both coppers, then?” James asked.
Johnny shook his head. “I'm a teacher,” he said.
“Puts up with little bleeders every day,” Paul said. “Might as well be in the line of fire.”
A brief cloud flashed across Johnny's face, one Robbie had caught on Val's face a time or two when she thought he wasn't looking. It was always hard on the spouses, that much was certain; anyone who decided to take that on had real courage.
“How long have you known one another?” Robbie asked.
“About a year now, isn't it, love?” Paul said. Johnny nodded. “We didn't want to waste any time. When you're sure, you don't want to muck about, am I right?”
“Proper thing,” Robbie said.
“How about you?” Paul asked. “How long has it been?”
Robbie stared at him for a moment as he tried to suss out what Paul was asking. Just as it was starting to dawn on him, he felt a hand cup his shoulder. He looked up and met Hathaway's eyes.
“Six years now, isn't it?” James said, gaze so intent that Robbie got the message immediately.
Robbie blinked. “Erm.” He turned back to Paul. “Yeah, about that.”
“Good for you,” Paul said. “I could tell right off you were well suited.”
“Thanks,” Robbie said weakly.
Paul grinned. “Listen, grab yourselves a drink and have some fun, yeah? Nearly everyone here is a copper, and there's not an arsehole in the bunch. We're about to start a dancing contest – just for a laugh, you understand.”
“I'm rubbish at dancing, I'm afraid,” Robbie admitted, even as his mind conjured up a rather vivid picture of him dancing with Hathaway. “But I'm aces at pints.”
Paul laughed. “Whatever you like, mate,” he said affably, gripping Robbie's other shoulder briefly before heading off into the gathering throng on the dance floor with Johnny close behind.
“What was all that in aid of?” Robbie demanded of James when they were out of earshot.
Hathaway regarded him steadily. “He's a nice bloke, and he's getting married tomorrow. I didn't want to cast a pall over the occasion by telling him he'd got it wrong.”
“No, we wouldn't want to cast a pall,” Robbie muttered.
The music abruptly kicked up five notches – Robbie imagined that was the dance contest beginning in earnest – and James had to lean in close to be heard. “Don't worry, sir. I promise not to molest you,” he said, mouth brushing Robbie's ear.
Robbie's jaw clenched. “Come on, let's get drunk,” he growled, making a beeline for the bar.
Two hours later, Robbie wasn't exactly drunk, but he was considerably more relaxed than he'd been upon entering the pub. Or rather, since he'd realised that a complete stranger had thought he and Hathaway were a couple. It wasn't the first time it had happened, of course – and it wasn't as though it never happened to other coppers, all jokes about better halves aside – but it was the first time Robbie was worried he'd revealed something that was closer to the truth than he wanted to admit.
It hadn't honestly crossed his mind until about a month ago, one late night when they'd been bashing through a difficult case. Hathaway had eventually nodded off on Robbie's sofa, exhausted, and Robbie had looked over at him, at the pale fan of his lashes against his cheeks and the slight furrow on his brow, as though he were still puzzling over the facts even in sleep, and he'd felt – he didn't know what he'd felt. He did know it struck him and knocked him arse over tit, and by the time he'd righted himself Hathaway's eyes were open and watching him.
How come you never tried it on? Ali's voice in his head. Because I loved my wife – true, in some ways, even now, but it was more than that. Hathaway was – too young, and too clever, and sometimes bloody infuriating. But he also made Robbie want to get up in the morning, spend another day being a copper, when everything else told him to pack it in. And in that moment, sat there with that too young, too clever lad blinking up at him, head lolling against the back of Robbie's sofa, Robbie had been shocked to realise he was thinking about it, where he never had done with Ali or anyone else he'd worked with. Thinking about taking James' face in his hands and –
Robbie had practically leapt up off the couch. “Just going to get a glass – of water,” he babbled inanely. “D'you want anything?”
James had blinked at him for another moment, then shook his head slowly. “I'm fine, thanks,” he said, his voice rough and low, something undefinable in his expression, and Robbie had fled to the kitchen where he took two minutes trying to remember what he'd bloody come in there for.
“Another pint, sir?” Hathaway's voice snapped him out of his reverie, and Robbie shook himself to clear his head.
“No, thanks,” Robbie said, gaze studying his sergeant. Hathaway had matched him drink for drink, and as Robbie had predicted, he was very much the worse for wear. He was listing to port and didn't seem to be aware of it. One more pint and he'd probably topple like a felled tree.
James beamed at him. “Are you conceding defeat, then?”
Robbie held up his hands in mock surrender. “Victory is yours, my lad.”
“Oh, thank God,” Hathaway groaned, propping his elbows on the table and resting his head in his hands. “I'm about to pass out.”
“Best give me your smelling salts, then. I might be needing them.”
“Didn't bring them,” Hathaway said morosely from between his fingers. “You'll have to leave me to die.”
“Never,” Robbie said. “Any road, you'll live, though you'll probably feel like shit in the morning.”
Hathaway lifted his head. “Your accent gets more pronounced when you drink. I like it.”
Robbie stared at him. James stared back.
James pointed an unsteady finger in the general direction of the loo. “I'm just going to – ah –”
Robbie could only nod, and Hathaway rose on wobbly legs and stumbled off to the gents. Sighing, Robbie drained the last of his pint and went in search of something non-alcoholic for both of them.
When he returned to the table, James was still absent, but after a quick scan of the room Robbie spotted him on the dance floor. He was dancing with the serious, too-contained air of someone who was aware he was very drunk and trying mightily not to show it, and Robbie felt a wave of affection wash over him at the sight.
“Having a good time?”
Robbie turned to see Paul smiling at him. “We are, yeah. Thanks for inviting us.”
Paul nodded towards the dance floor. “You'll have to pour him into bed.”
Robbie tried not to flush at the thought of putting James to bed. “He doesn't usually drink that much.”
“He's all right,” Paul said, unconcerned. “Nice lad.”
Robbie took a sip of his ginger ale. “He is that.”
“Tough where you work together,” Paul mused. “Having to keep it quiet. I know, I've been there.”
“Well, I'm almost ready to retire and he's said he's packing it in when I do, so...” Robbie trailed off, frowning. Blimey, he was going on as though they really were a couple. But it was nothing more than the truth.
“What else would he do if he weren't a copper?”
Robbie watched Hathaway jerk vaguely in time with the music, and smiled. “Anything he set his mind to,” he said.
Paul chuckled. “Is he really that brilliant, or are you just that smitten with him?”
Before Robbie could think of an answer, Paul laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “Oi, don't mind me. I'm just happy to see someone else making a go of it. Things have gotten better in the last few years, but it's still a hard slog. I mean, it's tough enough being black, mate. When I came out, I didn't know if I'd get anyone to answer the call the next time I needed someone.”
Robbie nodded towards the crowd. “Looks like you have plenty of backup now.”
“A few of them were right bastards, but not nearly as many as I was expecting. And most were more supportive than I could have hoped for.”
“I'm glad,” Robbie said. “Things have changed for the better since I started, that's for sure.” Hathaway turned his way then and waved, grinning. Robbie chuckled in spite of himself.
“Why don't you come to the wedding tomorrow?” Paul asked.
“I – I don't know if we can,” Robbie stammered. “We have to get back to Oxford –”
“On a weekend? Do you have a case on right now?”
“Well, no –”
“Then come. Oxford isn't that much of a drive. Conference is over at noon, and the ceremony's at three. You can even make it for part of the reception.” He nodded at Hathaway. “He can be your designated driver, considering he probably won't want to even look at alcohol tomorrow.”
“That's –” Robbie floundered for a plausible excuse, then remembered James' earlier words. Don't cast a pall. “Thanks. I'd like to, if it's all right with James.”
“Check with him and let me know in the morning, then.” Paul's gaze shifted beyond Robbie's shoulder and he smiled. “Speak of the devil.”
Before Robbie could turn around, a pair of long arms wrapped around him from behind, and Hathaway's chin landed on his right shoulder. “Hullo,” he said, his low voice a barely audible rumble above the din of the dance music. “I seem to be very drunk.”
Paul laughed. “I think you're the only thing holding him up, mate. Best take him home.”
“I think you're right,” Robbie said. James' hand began wandering across his chest, and Robbie caught his wrist and held it. He stuck out his free one to shake Paul's hand. “Thanks again.”
“See you at the seminar – if you make it,” Paul said, winking.
After Paul had gone, Robbie managed – with difficulty – to disentangle himself from Hathaway's grasp. Turning, he took Hathaway by the shoulders and peered into his eyes. “If you're going to be sick, best do it before we leave the pub. I'm not going to hold you up while you chunder in the street.”
James shook his head minutely. “'M'good. I only get sick on wine, not beer. Just tired.” As if to prove his point, he slumped against Robbie's hands.
“Oi, you're too heavy for me,” Robbie protested, shoving at him gently until he was more or less upright.
“You carried me once,” James pointed out.
“That was years ago. My back wasn't so bloody old. And I was desperate.”
“My hero,” James said, swaying towards him and snaking an arm around Robbie's shoulders.
“Give over,” Robbie muttered, but he let Hathaway keep his hold as they walked towards the exit.
“Drink this,” Robbie commanded, thrusting the glass of water at Hathaway.
The lad raised his chin slowly, as though his head was too heavy for him to lift. He was sitting on the edge of the hotel bed after having more or less successfully removed his shoes, belt and button-up shirt. “Thank you,” he murmured, his hand moving just as slowly to grip the glass. Their fingers tangled, and the glass nearly tipped.
“Whoa, hang on,” Robbie said, steadying the glass with his other hand. “You'll spill it all over yourself.”
“'M'not a child,” James muttered, petulant tone belying his words.
“No, you're pissed out of your skull. Here.” Carefully, he adjusted his grip and managed to transfer the glass without incident. James drained it and held it out to Robbie.
“No, thank you.” James stared at his hands, now folded in his lap. “I'm sorry.”
“Eh, you're allowed a booze up now and again.”
“I didn't mean that. I meant – making you go along with that.”
“You didn't make me do anything.” James lifted his gaze to Robbie's. “Though we sold it a little too well. Paul thinks we're such a lovely couple he's invited us to the wedding.”
“Oh,” James said. “What did you tell him?”
“Said I'd ask you.”
“And are you asking?” James' voice was uncharacteristically hesitant. Robbie realised he was standing close, nearly between Hathaway's knees, but he couldn't make himself move, break that eye contact.
Robbie opened his mouth, closed it again. “If you'd like to go, we can go. I'd prefer to be home before dark, mind.”
James' mouth twitched. “Very sensible, sir.”
“Oh – go to bed, Sergeant,” Robbie huffed, finally taking a step back. Hathaway rose to his feet, a little unsteady, but better than he'd been when they left the pub.
“Not going to tuck me in?” The words were teasing, but James' voice – Robbie forgot to breathe for a moment. That voice couldn't mean what he thought it meant.
“As you said, you're not a child,” Robbie managed.
James shook his head. “No,” he murmured. “I'm not.” He hesitated, then closed the distance Robbie had just created between them.
“James,” Robbie rasped, when James took Robbie's face in his hands, his expression a mixture of determination and terror, “you're in no fit state –”
Hathaway chuckled, a bitter sound. “I'm in the perfect state. I'd never have the balls if I weren't drunk.”
“If you ask me now, I can't give you any answer but no.” James sucked in a breath and dropped his hands, and Robbie shook his head. “Not for the reason you think. Because I won't take advantage.”
James bit his lip; Robbie watched his expression change as the realisation dawned. “Are you saying –”
Robbie thought, God, he's too drunk and I'm not drunk enough. “I'm saying,” he began, then faltered. “What I'm saying is – ask me tomorrow.”
James stared at him, clearly gobsmacked, then barked a startled laugh. “Oh, God, I wish I were sober. Or that you were less chivalrous. No, I don't wish that.” Suddenly, he laid a hand on the middle of Robbie's chest, fingers splayed.
“Here now, none of that,” Robbie chided, taking James' hand and squeezing it before gently moving it. “I'm not that chivalrous.”
James unleashed a smile that was pure mischief, and Robbie knew it was time to scarper. “Get some sleep. We've a wedding to go to tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir,” James said, and Robbie made himself turn away so that he wasn't tempted to kiss that happy smile right off James' face.
By the time Robbie's alarm went off in the morning, he had hardly managed to sleep all night, tossing and turning at the thought of what he'd done, what he'd said. There was no going back now; Hathaway knew Robbie wanted him, and Christ, it seemed as though Hathaway wanted him back. By the time he'd stumbled out of bed in the morning, he had himself half convinced the whole conversation last night was unreal, impossible – and then he'd seen Hathaway's face light up at the sight of him when he'd answered the door, and Robbie had to face the fact that it was all too real.
Hathaway didn't even have the decency to act properly hung over, while Robbie felt like twenty pounds of shit in a ten pound sack.“Good morning,” James said, his voice low with promise. There was a look in his eye that made Robbie's skin go hot, and he grabbed his bag and stepped out the door before either one of them could start something they wouldn't be able to finish before the seminar started.
“Morning. Let's go,” Robbie said, heading towards the lifts without a backwards glance. Thankfully, Hathaway followed without an argument, and the lift was full of tourists heading out to enjoy what had been predicted to be a beautiful weekend.
“I've already checked out for us,” James told him as they walked through the lobby. “Here, give me your bag and I'll put it in the boot. Why don't you get us a table in the dining room?”
James' hand brushed Robbie's shoulder, fingers curling around the strap, and Robbie suppressed a shiver. “Thought we could just pick up something on the way to the seminar,” he said, knowing it sounded like he was trying to avoid any opportunity to be alone with Hathaway. Well, perhaps he was, but he had another morning of training to get through; he wasn't up for the kind of conversation they'd be likely to have right now, and certainly not before his morning cuppa.
Hathaway's response was a blank stare as he shifted the bag to his own shoulder. “Whatever you like, sir,” he finally answered, putting just enough emphasis on the sir for Robbie to realise he'd gone and buggered it up.
Well, the lad would have to live with it for now; Robbie was too bloody old to have a heart-to-heart in the middle of a hotel lobby. “Shall we, then?” he said, inclining his head towards the exit. James' curt nod was the only answer he got; sighing, he followed in Hathaway's wake, wondering what the hell he'd let himself in for.
If yesterday's session had been long and boring, the morning seminar was threatening to last longer than the Hundred Years War. Robbie was intensely aware of Hathaway's silent presence beside him the entire time, the tension radiating off him in waves. No doubt the lad had a whole scenario worked out in his head, where Robbie had had second thoughts and was preparing to let him down gently when he could summon up the nerve to do it. It reminded him of times he'd fallen out with Val, her giving him the cold shoulder until they made up, and he was strangely reassured. At least that much was the same. He'd have to sort James out at lunch, so that they could enjoy the wedding.
Finally, the lecture was over. James shifted in his chair, but before he could get up, Robbie laid a hand on his leg under the table. Hathaway stiffened, then slowly turned to look at Robbie.
“What do you say we grab some lunch before the wedding?” he asked softly.
Hathaway frowned slightly, clearly confused. “Are we still going?”
Robbie dropped his voice even further. “I haven't changed me mind. Have you?”
James shook his head slowly, his expression shifting from disbelieving to gobsmacked to tentatively hopeful.
“Well, then,” Robbie said gruffly, “let me find Paul and get the details from him.” He rose and scanned the crowd; Paul had come in late and they hadn't had a chance to chat, but he could see him now in a corner of the room. Robbie caught his eye and Paul smiled and beckoned to him. Before he could make it, though, he heard someone say his name.
“Robbie Lewis, as I live and breathe. That you, lad?”
Robbie turned to see a face he hadn't seen in – God, twenty years. “Reg?”
Reg Sinclair took Robbie by the shoulders and shook him. “Christ, you're an old bugger!” he exclaimed. “I hardly recognised ye.”
“Could say the same for you,” Robbie said, grinning. Only two or three years younger, Reg had always fancied himself cock of the walk back in their DC days. There was still a swagger in his step, but his hair was thinner than Robbie's and he'd gone a bit to paunch. Of course, Robbie wasn't in a good position to be throwing stones. “Where are you now?”
“Still in Inverness,” Reg said. Robbie nodded; Reg had returned to his home town nearly two decades ago after first making Sergeant. “I heard about Val. I'm sorry.”
“Thanks,” Robbie said, the familiar pang only a little dulled by the years. “How's Kitty?”
“I wouldn't know,” Reg said briskly. “She got tired of the winters – and me – not long after we moved up home.”
“Eh, that's too bad.”
“No worries. I've a lovely lass now, and she's from the Orkneys, so she likes the weather just fine.” He chuckled, and Robbie joined in. “Listen, why don't I buy you lunch and we can catch up? You don't have to head back to Oxford right away, do you?”
Robbie hesitated. He glanced over at the spot where Paul had been standing, and spied James chatting with him. “Erm, well, no, but – my sergeant's here with me.”
“You rate your own bagman now? Congratulations!”
“Yeah,” Robbie said, rubbing the back of his neck. “You don't mind if he comes along?”
“Not at all! Can't wait to tell him all sorts of tales of your youthful indiscretions.”
“Oi, I think you're mixing us up, aren't you?”
“I'm sure I can remember something embarassing.” Reg grinned at him, and Robbie returned a watered-down smile of his own.
“Can't wait,” Robbie muttered, making Reg laugh.
“Dear God,” James said, head thudding against the back of the seat after they'd dropped Reg off at Bristol Temple Meads station an hour and a half later.
“God won't save you from Reg Sinclair,” Robbie said ruefully.
“He certainly doesn't fit the stereotype of the taciturn rural Scotsman.”
“Don't let him hear you say that. Inverness is a bustling metropolis in Reg's eyes.”
“Yes, I know,” James said. “He had me half-convinced that it's where the 'real policing' is.”
“Not like Oxford. Sleepy little town. Hardly anything going on.”
James stared at him for a moment, and then they both burst out laughing. Sobering after a few moments, James said, “It was nice to hear about you when you were starting out. You were a bit of a hellion.”
“I told you, he was lying through his teeth. I was dead boring.”
“And you played rugby.”
Robbie nodded. “I've thought about coaching – you know, when I retire.”
“You should.” James' gaze hadn't left his face, and Robbie felt his cheeks begin to heat at the scrutiny. Then it occurred to him that he was staring at James right back, taking him in as though he'd been away from him for weeks. He'd never felt so self-conscious as he had during lunch, trying to keep from doing anything that might give away the game to Reg. It had made him feel like a criminal, and he hated that.
James took a deep breath before speaking, as though he were preparing to dive into deep water. “Last night – it wasn't the beer, and it wasn't new.”
“It's fairly new for me,” Robbie admitted. “I've never – I mean, this is –” He huffed out a frustrated breath. “I wish we didn't have to talk about it.”
James' mouth curled. “We don't. I could kiss you instead. I'd like to kiss you.”
“God,” Robbie breathed. He took a quick glance out the windscreen; it seemed to him as though half of Bristol were milling about the bloody car. “We can't. Not here.”
“I know,” James murmured. His gaze dipped to Robbie's mouth.
Robbie forced himself to turn away from James. Jamming the key in the ignition, he muttered, “We're going to be late for the wedding.”
“Yes, sir,” James said, but this time the sir had a smile in it.
To be brutally honest – not that he would ever say it aloud – Robbie hadn't been keen on going to a wedding. Not because it was two blokes, but because he hadn't been to one since he'd lost Val, and he worried that it would bring back memories he didn't fancy reliving in public.
But when the brief ceremony was over and the happy couple were walking down the aisle hand in hand, Robbie felt nothing but pleased for them. He clapped along with the rest of the crowd, and exchanged looks with James, who was grinning to beat the band. Robbie had never seen so many teeth on the lad as he had today, but then he supposed he had a reason to smile. Robbie still couldn't quite believe he was the reason, but life didn't always make a great deal of sense.
James sobered and leaned in. “All right?” he asked.
Robbie nodded. “Yeah. I'm right pleased for them.”
This time, James' smile was more subdued. He held Robbie's gaze for a long moment, and Robbie felt his heart speed up.
“Come on, then,” Robbie said, before he could do something ridiculous like kiss James in front of a roomful of strangers, “let's go raise a glass and wish them well.”
The reception was more informal than other ones Robbie had attended, but he supposed it fit with what he knew of Paul's personality. He had explained last night that his parents and older brother owned the best West Indian restaurant in town, and they had insisted on preparing the food. The dinner was set up buffet style, with enough to feed an army, and there was a variety of offerings from lamb stew and roast beef to jerk chicken, curry goat and callaloo.
Robbie ended up chatting with Paul's Aunt Ida, a marvelous lady who had a wealth of stories about growing up in Bristol in the early Sixties. Robbie shared some of his own childhood in Tyneside, and they had a good laugh. James eventually gravitated to the dance floor, and while Robbie felt a bit guilty about neglecting him, he was relieved as well. He hadn't entirely gotten over his apprehension, and now that they were here, he was thinking more and more about the drive home, and afterwards. Would James invite him in? Should he say yes? God, it was like being nineteen again, besotted with a girl and not knowing what to do. How far did they go on a first date these days?
As Robbie was working up his courage, Paul and Johnny stopped by their table, making the rounds. “How are you doing, Auntie?” Paul asked, kissing Ida's cheek.
“Just fine, just fine. I have my own lovely lad to keep me company,” she said, patting Robbie's hand. Robbie smiled at her, caught her hand and kissed it.
“Careful, Auntie. He's already taken.”
“Ah, that's all right,” Ida said, winking at Robbie. “I don't mind sharing.”
“Well, I think Robbie might.” Paul nodded towards the dance floor. “Your James has a handful up there. You might want to rescue him.”
Robbie frowned, searching for Hathaway. He found him after a moment, dancing with a bloke he recognised from last night. “Is that one of your work mates?”
“Nigel, yeah. He's a bit of a –” Paul shot a quick glance at Ida “– well, let's just say he's a busy lad and leave it at that.”
“I'm sure James can take care of himself,” Robbie said. “But we should be headed home soon anyway. Thanks so much for inviting us – it was really lovely, and I wish you all the best.”
“Thanks,” Paul said, smiling. “The same to you and your lad. Just be sure to send us an invitation to yours, yeah?”
Robbie flushed, but nodded. With a last shake of Paul and Johnny's hands and a hug for Ida, he made a beeline for the dance floor. As he drew closer, he could see Hathaway's expression: on the surface it was bland, but Robbie could see the subtle signs of annoyance gathered at the corners of his mouth and in the faint line between his brows. As he caught sight of Robbie, those signs faded into a slight, private smile.
Without hesitation, Robbie tapped Nigel on the shoulder. “May I?”
Nigel – a bloke nearly as tall as Hathaway and twice as broad – turned his head to look at Robbie. Before he could respond, James stepped out of Nigel's loosened hold and took Robbie by the hand.
“Yes, you may,” James said, tugging him closer.
“Now, wait a –” Nigel began. Robbie fixed him with a look he hoped was menacing enough, and the lad immediately subsided. Turning back to James, he took him in his arms and tried to remember what his feet were supposed to do.
“God, thank you,” James murmured when they were far enough away. “I even tried stepping on his toes. Didn't work.”
“You didn't have to dance with him if you didn't want to.”
“I didn't want to cause a scene,” James said. “He's rather drunk already.”
“Hm,” Robbie said. “Well, we can take off anytime we like. I've said our goodbyes.”
“I want one dance with you,” James insisted, tightening his hold on Robbie. “And you lied, you're not rubbish at all.”
“I took lessons. It's only that it's been forever since I last danced. Thought I'd have forgotten.”
“Like riding a bicycle, I imagine,” James said dryly.
Robbie mock-glared at him. “Are you being cheeky?”
“Never,” James said, grinning. They stared at one another, and then James leaned down to press his cheek to Robbie's. “I want to do something I shouldn't.”
“What's that?” Robbie asked, though he knew the answer.
James pulled back just enough to be able to look in Robbie's eyes. His gaze searched Robbie's face, asking permission, and Robbie nodded minutely, his heart tripping over itself in his chest. They slowed, the music fading in Robbie's ears, as James leaned in and pressed his mouth to Robbie's, softly. It was as chaste a kiss as Robbie had ever received, and yet when it was over after a handful of seconds, he was shaken, his hands itching to grab hold of the lad and never let go.
“Let's get out of here,” Robbie rasped. James nodded, and then they were moving for the nearest exit.
They made it as far as the car park. Robbie had just fumbled his keys from his pocket when suddenly James was there, cupping Robbie's cheek and kissing him hard.
Christ , Robbie thought, the keys clattering to the ground, and that was about it as far as the thinking went. Robbie returned the kiss, his own hands rising to James' face, and felt as much as heard James groan against his mouth and open to him. It wasn't nearly as odd as he imagined it would be; apart from the faint rasp of stubble and having to crane his neck back a bit, the mechanics of kissing James were no different to the mechanics of kissing anyone else. But the feeling of it – it was as though Robbie had stuck all his fingers in an electrical socket. James was shocking in his ardour, though Robbie supposed the devotion and love he tasted underneath was less of a surprise than he'd care to admit.
And then James tilted his head and swept the tip of his tongue across Robbie's lower lip, and Robbie broke away, gasping. “James, Jesus.”
James ran his hands over Robbie's shoulders, down his arms. His lips were red and his hair was a mess – oh, that was Robbie's fault, he supposed. “Too much?”
Robbie glanced around. God, he'd been royally snogging James in the middle of a car park and he hadn't even given it a second thought. He bent over and picked up the keys. His hands were trembling. Shit, he had a ninety-minute drive ahead of him, with James sat beside him the whole way. It'd be a miracle if he didn't drive the Vectra right off the bloody road.
Belatedly, Robbie remembered James had asked a question. “Too much for here,” he said. “Not too much for somewhere more private.”
James' eyes lit up. “I have somewhere more private, and it's much closer than Oxford.”
“How's that, then?”
The happiness Robbie had seen in James' expression earlier was nothing compared to the look on his face now. “When I said this morning that I'd checked out of the hotel – that wasn't a complete truth.”
Robbie frowned. “Oh?”
“I kept one of the rooms.”
“Did you,” Robbie croaked. “That's – erm.” He didn't know what to say. That's mad? Terrifying? Absolutely bloody brilliant?
James flushed, face falling. “I mean, it's not–” he stammered “–we don't –”
It was like a physical pain, seeing the lad uncertain when he'd been so eager and happy only a moment ago. Without thinking about it, Robbie reached up and pulled him down for a quick kiss. “You're brilliant.” He pressed the keys into James' hand. “Only you'd better drive, yeah?”
James released a breath, then nodded. As Robbie moved to the passenger side, he was proud that he could still remember how to walk.
“I keep thinking I'm going to wake up,” James murmured, arching his back as Robbie's hand slid from his newly-bared ribs to his impossibly smooth flank.
Robbie kissed one of James' nipples, surprised when the soft tickle of chest hair only heightened his excitement. “You feel too real for this to be a dream.”
“Is that – a compliment?” James panted, writhing as Robbie suckled at him.
“Definitely,” Robbie growled, fingers slipping under the waistband of James' shorts. James sucked in a sharp breath, then wriggled out of his boxers as Robbie rolled away and did the same. When they came together again, Robbie kissed him in reward and let his fingers find his goal by touch alone.
“Oh, yes, God, oh, that's –” James babbled, hips thrusting mindlessly, pushing himself through the tight circle of Robbie's fist. “Please, harder.” Robbie obliged, powerless to deny the lad anything. He firmed his grip and sped his strokes until James groaned and stiffened and came apart in Robbie's hand.
James swore softly and threw an arm across his eyes. “Sorry, sorry.”
Robbie pulled his arm away. “What on earth are you apologising for?”
James only sighed dramatically, and Robbie leaned in and kissed his pouting mouth. “Don't sulk. You're young enough to have another go later.”
James rolled onto his side and caught Robbie's mouth in another kiss, longer and deeper. Robbie sank his hand in James' hair and thrust his tongue past James' lips, his own need insistent against James' belly. God, the things he wanted to do to the lad –
“Anything, you can do anything to me,” James whispered, and Robbie gasped, astonished he'd spoken that aloud. After a moment, James took Robbie's hand and guided it down his body to his arse. Robbie kneaded the firm flesh, and James groaned and raised one leg to hook it behind Robbie's thigh and draw him closer.
“Would you want that?” James asked, breathless. He shifted, and one of Robbie's fingers slipped between his cheeks.
“Would you?” Robbie asked, hardly believing they were talking about it.
James' groan was all the answer he needed, but then he kissed Robbie and breathed “Yessss” against his lips, and just the thought of it, God, the thought of how it would feel, James' body yielding to him, taking him in, that was enough, and with a few jerky pushes against James' belly, he groaned and came in long pulses without so much as a touch.
James froze for a moment, his eyes wide and astonished. Then he buried his head in the juncture of Robbie's shoulder and neck and began to shake. It took Robbie's shag-addled brain a few seconds to realise he was laughing silently.
“If you think I'm apologising for that, you're daft,” Robbie said, slinging an arm around his shoulders and snugging him in tight.
"Wouldn't dream of it," James murmured, and Robbie felt the press of lips against his neck before the world faded into darkness.