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How The Other Half Summers

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Richard concluded, on reflection, that it had all started with Graham.

“You look like shit.”

“Wow, good morning to you too,” he said drily, looking up from his screen and reaching gratefully for the takeaway coffee Graham was proffering. It would be his third of the morning, even though it was barely eight, and yet it still wouldn’t put a dent in his exhaustion.

Graham didn’t flinch. “If you’re not careful – if you don’t start taking better care of yourself – you’re going to burn out. And you know what that means?”

“Yeah, that I’ll accidentally make the nice barista cry by yelling at her when she puts my order through wrong. Already been there today, don’t worry.”

“You made her cry? The one that gives you extra shots in your drink for free when you look particularly close to death? That nice barista? Jeez, Rich, you’re a terrible person.”

Richard rolled his eyes with a scowl, even though he really was feeling rather guilty about it. He would have to go back in and apologise, probably with a very large tip.

“But no,” Graham continued, “that’s not the answer I was looking for. So, I repeat – do you know what that means?”

“No, Graham,” he parroted obligingly, “what does it mean?”

“It means you need a holiday.”

“Yeah, no kidding. Shame there’s no chance of Anne-Marie giving any of us any time off in the next decade.” She was a slave driver – even sick days were hard to come by, with the usual requirement being ‘dead or literally dying.’ It wasn’t just her, though – Richard knew that most government departments were the same from what he’d heard from friends in others. The fact that their work tended to have particularly serious repercussions, though, gave Anne-Marie an extra layer of toughness that was virtually impossible to penetrate. Being able to say he worked for the Home Office (even before he got into the details of what he actually did) had a certain cachet, but he still found himself wondering every so often what it would be like to work somewhere that was slightly less… demanding.

(Demanding, if he was honest, didn’t really do it justice.)

“Now, see, that’s where you’re wrong.”

“How so?”

“Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but someone – and I have no idea who,” he added, with a grin that left Richard in no doubt that he was in fact the someone in question, “has been pressing pretty hard for management to stop being such pricks when it comes to using our annual leave. I would imagine, hypothetically, that that person would have used Kevin as an example to prove their point.”

Richard just shook his head at that. Kevin had been worked in intelligence for the Home Office for more than a decade (but so peripherally to Richard and Graham that they knew him by name only) until a couple of months ago, when he’d had a fully-fledged breakdown at work. While there had been nothing but radio silence from official channels since then, word had filtered across to Richard’s team that he’d not been allowed time off in almost the whole time he’d worked there, and that his doctors had indicated fairly forcefully that the ludicrous days and hours and weekends and holidays that he’d been expected to devote to his job had played a significant role in the deterioration of his mental health.

Needless to say, mentioning it was a dirty move, but undoubtedly effective.

“Anyway, the upshot is that leave may be given out a little more freely in the next wee while. And it’s possible that someone with inside knowledge of these events might have made some preliminary enquiries and bumped certain people up to the top of the list – may, in fact, have put a bulk leave request in for two weeks in early July.”

Richard had forgotten all about his coffee, but it didn’t matter, because he was suddenly wide awake and thrumming with adrenaline.

“What are you thinking?”

“Well, my cousin has this friend, who has this friend, whose uncle has a friend who owns this really lovely beach house. A bunch of us can rent it out for a couple of weeks. He’s already holding it for us – I just have to give him an answer by the end of next week. So here’s what I was thinking: me, you, Martin, whoever else wants to come –”

“Luke?”

“Yeah,” Graham shrugged charitably, “why not, if he can get the time off as well.”

“He hasn’t had a holiday in years – I’m sure he’ll be able to twist a few arms.”

“Anyway – all of us, swanky house, right on the beach, great weather, lots of booze. What do you say?”

“I say I really need to fill out a leave form.”

And Graham just grinned, reaching into his jacket pocket and pulling out a piece of paper.

“One step ahead of you.”

When he unfolded the form, Richard saw that it was already bearing Anne-Marie’s signature.

“Graham, you’re a bloody legend.”

“Can I get that in writing?”

“You wish,” Richard said cheerfully, taking the form as Graham passed it to him, his mind already offering up a variety of fantasies (even if most of them involved nothing more than not moving until midday and spending the rest of the day lounging in the sun and eating and drinking until he fell asleep again). Christ, it really had been a long time.

“So where’s this house? Brighton or something?”

“The Hamptons, actually,” Graham said casually (faux casually, though, like he’d been building up to this moment, the attempt at nonchalance not quite sticking), “so I hope your passport’s still valid.”

Richard didn’t dignify that with a response.

Truth be told, he was far too excited to even try.

Christ, a holiday. A real holiday. One that even involved leaving the country. It was a long time since he’d been able to himself to one of those – travelling for work definitely didn’t count, especially since he usually felt like he needed a holiday to recover from it by the time he got home. He adored his group of friends from work – they were those rare people who were actually very pleasant company outside of the office – and being able to bring his boyfriend with him would just be the icing on the whole spectacular cake.

Luke answered his phone on the first ring, as Richard had known he would.

“Morning, love,” he said, already fizzing over with glee, “I’ve got a proposal for you.”

By the time July rolled around, London had treated them to the feeblest attempt at a summer that it had put on for years, and it showed – the faces on his commute every morning were as grey as the weather had been, as if they’d already given up on the warm season and resigned themselves to another four or five months of rain before the chill of the next winter really settled in.

It was incredible, then, to touch down in New York to be met with wide blue skies – if their moods hadn’t lifted immediately when the plane took off, they sure had by the time the six of them stepped out of the airport, each looking every inch the pale English tourist.

They’d organised a car to get to the Hamptons – but it ended up being a minivan, the only thing that would seat all of them, Adam and Martin (as the smallest) bickering over who would be squashed into the kiddie-sized seats in the very back. Graham had spent the most time in the US of all of them, so he was the driver by default, though there was a lot of complaining about how he felt like a parent chaperoning a school trip, especially once the conversation – as it always did – veered towards inappropriate and immature. (By the time they were out of the city and the number of cars around them had thinned out, Richard felt like he was seventeen again, beginning one of those summer road trips that he and his best friends had taken once they all had their licences – curling around the coasts of Spain, France and Italy, stopping whenever the mood took them, making memories that Richard still liked to take out and consider from time to time when he was feeling particularly nostalgic and in need of a summer break.)

They were an unlikely crew, and yet they all got on astonishingly well. It had something to do with the fact that four of them – Richard, Graham, Aidan and Martin – had all started working at the Home Office at the same time, and all attended the same early generic orientation sessions despite their wildly varying levels of seniority (not to mention the fact that they hadn’t even all started in the same departments). Graham, of course, outranked them all, and always had – how else would he have been able to convince Anne-Marie to give them all time off at once now? – while Aidan had been one of a bunch of fresh-faced kids entering via the Home Office’s intensely competitive graduate programme. It had been Graham, though, keen to show his leadership and mentoring skills from day one, who had suggested that they all go out for a pint after their first gruelling nine or so hours learning the ropes.

Several (several too many, now that Richard looked back at it, for a Monday night) drinks later, they were well on their way to becoming fast friends.

And they’d stayed that way, even if most of the grads who had attended the orientation had since left – the rule, Richard discovered later, was that if they could survive the first year they could survive a lifetime – and over time, the group eventually dwindled down to just the four of them. Adam had come later, part of another graduate intake, but they’d taken a shine to him, little and adorable as he was, and welcomed him into their group – largely at Martin’s instigation, who had been enamoured with his knitted cardigans and hipster glasses and penchant for obscure bands with weird names that none of the rest of them had ever heard of.

Luke, a civil engineer, was the odd one out, but Richard was grateful that they’d all been so friendly when he’d officially introduced him as his boyfriend, letting him slot into the group and including him in conversation until it didn’t really matter that he was the only one who couldn’t debate the finer points of the policy and strategy that had been filling all of their heads for the last several years.

And when they were flying down the highway – Graham not doing the finest job of keeping to the speed limit at the best of times – with Martin’s phone plugged in and his terrible but catchy music blaring out of the speakers, bickering loudly about how Aidan couldn’t let a song finish before skipping to the next one – Richard could barely imagine his life without them.

However, once Graham turned off the main road, lifting his foot until they were travelling at a slightly more reasonable speed and carefully following the mechanic monotone of the GPS’s instructions, the exuberant atmosphere in the van had turned into an incredulous – almost reverent – silence.

The thing was – none of them were wealthy. None of them owned property. Hell, none of them even owned cars. But the houses that they were passing were serving as a very abrupt reminder that there were people out there who did own those things, and had enough money to burn to drop millions on a lavish holiday house that they’d only occupy for a few weeks of the year.

Richard was so preoccupied marvelling at one on the other side of the street – which was, once he thought about it, roughly the size of his whole apartment building – that he barely noticed that Graham was slowing further and turning into a driveway that led to a house which seemed not only ostentatiously large, but also remarkably similar to those that had been coming up in Richard’s wistful Google searches for Hamptons real estate. And once he had cut the engine, they could hear through the open windows what was undoubtedly the sound of the sea.

It was coming from the other side of the house.

The beachfront house.

“Home sweet home, then,” Graham said casually, turning around in the driver’s seat to enjoy the stunned expressions on all of their faces.

All except Martin’s, at any rate.

“Nice try, Graham,” he scoffed, “come on, the detour’s cute and all, but let’s go before someone comes out and asks what the hell we’re doing on their property.”

“It’s not a detour, guys. This is the house I booked.”

“…Are you sure?” Richard asked dubiously, suddenly worried that they were going to lurch into someone else’s house and get done for trespassing – because surely this one, positively palatial, wasn’t what they’d signed up for – but Graham nodded. “Yep, I’m sure – address is the same and it matches everything my buddy told me about it. If you don’t believe me, though, he said he was going to leave the key outside for me.”

“Secure,” Adam commented, as Graham got out of the car, and Martin just rolled his eyes. “Who the hell is going to rob anyone else around here? They’re all as disgustingly wealthy as each other.”

“Even so,” Luke murmured, the five of them watching as Graham scuffled around by the door for a few moments before straightening up and marching back to the car with an envelope in his hand – an envelope that had his name on it.

“Told you I wasn’t kidding. This is it.”

“Fuck me,” Aidan breathed once they’d clambered out of the car to properly survey the house, all pristine and perfect and, apparently, theirs, “this is incredible. Graham, you never told us that we’d be playing millionaires for two weeks.”

“Oh, we’re not. Trust me, this is pretty average compared to some of the others, especially in this neighbourhood – as I’m sure you noticed on the way. Just look over the fence if you don’t believe me.”

“Which fence?”

“Both.”

Sure enough, their house was sandwiched between two more that suddenly made it look like a garden shed – huge, sprawling, worth more than Richard could afford if he worked every day for the rest of his life (hell, every hour of the rest of his life).

“We’re the poor ones. Got it.”

“We’re in the Hamptons,” Aidan corrected, “nothing poor about any of it.”

“Seriously, Graham, how did you manage to land this place?” Luke asked curiously. “I mean, it’s the middle of summer – surely everything around here is booked months in advance?”

“It usually is,” Graham hedged, “but…”

“But what?”

“But the people who were meant to be renting it came for a visit in June as well and they, um, decided it wasn’t for them.”

“Jesus Christ, what’s wrong with it?”

“Don’t tell me it’s got cockroaches,” Martin said, “because if it does, Graham, I swear to god you may be my boss but –”

“No cockroaches,” Graham laughed, “no insects of any kind, I promise. Nothing’s wrong with the house at all.”

“Then what?”

“…Apparently some of the neighbours are prone to quite raucous parties.”

Martin just stared, and he wasn’t the only one.

“…Really? That’s it? They were offended by people drinking and yelling and playing music?”

“Or something,” Graham acknowledged. “I don’t know the details, but I do know that these people were in their sixties and looking for a quiet holiday, and they sure as shit didn’t get it here.”

“Good thing that none of us are really after a quiet holiday, then.”

Luke disappeared as soon as they got inside, racing up the stairs without looking back, and by the time the others had registered what he was doing he was already cawing triumphantly from what they discovered was the master bedroom, having claimed it for himself and Richard.

“That’s bullshit,” Martin complained, once they’d caught up, “being the only couple doesn’t give you the right to the fanciest room by default.”

“But we’re the only ones sharing a bed,” Luke pointed out, “so –”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Aidan grinned, “I can’t speak for you lot, but I plan to be doing a lot of bed sharing while we’re here.”

“Keep it in your pants, stud,” Graham sighed, “there’s plenty of time for that later.”

The room – once Richard had the chance to admire it, once his friends had conceded that he and Luke weren’t going to be parted from it – was really rather large, with its own bathroom and double doors onto a large balcony that looked out to sea and down to the – to the –

“There’s a pool,” Adam said faintly. “This house is metres from the beach, and yet it has a pool.”

But the pool wasn’t functioning too well – that much was made clear by the unhappy greenish tinge to the water that was visible even from upstairs – and as ridiculous as it was to want to use it when there was an ocean directly in front of them, Richard felt oddly put out.

“Do you think we could call someone to come and fix it?” Martin asked dubiously, the six of them standing around it (and Richard, at least, mentally bemoaning his complete lack of handyman skills). “Or is it going to cost as much as the house did in the first place to hire a pool repair man around here?”

“Well, it sounds like there are people next door, so let’s go and ask them.”

Richard hadn’t even noticed the noise – too preoccupied with their ostentatious digs – but it definitely sounded like there was someone (several someones) home at the neighbours’ place. Graham led them to the fence stretched along the boundary, telling them en route that his contact had told him that there was a hidden gate (perhaps on the assumption that they would get on with the neighbours well enough to use it on a frequent basis?) and, sure enough, there were two young guys up by the house.

Perhaps most promisingly, they too had a pool. (It was twice as big – in fact, everything about the property seemed twice as big – but that didn’t really seem to matter.)

“Morning,” Martin waved, like the idiot that he was, but thankfully neither of the strangers seemed to mind. They suffered through Martin’s clumsy introductions and needless announcement that they were staying next door before introducing themselves as Dean and Orlando. Dean was short and stocky with an unruly blond mop of hair and a thick New Zealand accent, while Orlando was taller and dark-haired and English. It surprised Richard – for some reason he had expected the Hamptons to be populated with Americans and only Americans, even if this Englishman had a slightly modulated accent that suggested that he hadn’t been on home soil long-term for quite some time.

“Look,” Orlando said unsubtly, elbowing Dean in the ribs, “they’re young. Well, young enough,” he amended, quailing slightly at the stern face that Graham (as the oldest of the group) gave him.

“Young enough for what, exactly?”

“We occasionally have issues with the neighbours,” Dean intervened, and Graham just turned his gaze to him.

“You have issues with them, or they have issues with you?”

“Well, a bit of both, really. They didn’t appreciate the fact that we don’t tuck up with a book at seven pm on the dot, and we didn’t appreciate them calling the police every time we had music on past nine.”

“Nine? Really?”

“Really,” Orlando confirmed, “hence my enthusiasm at the fact that you might be more inclined to join us than complain about the noise.”

“We’d be more than happy to join you,” Aidan butted in, popping up from behind Graham obnoxiously, “just let us know the time and place.”

“Well, we’ve got some friends coming over for a few drinks tonight, so…?”

“We’ll be there,” he nodded, grinning widely until Graham turned around to give him a disapproving look. It was the same one he employed at work, and it had the same result – Aidan ducked his head, suitably chastised, and Richard bit back a laugh as Graham took over the conversation again, steering it back to its intended topic.

“We actually didn’t just come over to muscle our way in on your social gatherings,” Graham interrupted, shooting Aidan another pointed look. “We seem to be having a small issue with our pool and were wondering if you had any ideas about who we could call.”

“Oh, yeah – there’s a guy who comes and looks after the pool here, so you could borrow him – pretty sure he was here not long ago. Is Jesse still around?” he asked Orlando who just looked at him like – what was that expression? Disbelief?

“Oh,” Dean sighed, “of course. Where’d they go?”

“The shack, I assume, since the curtains are drawn,” Orlando said with a shrug, “so interrupt at your peril.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Dean muttered, “would it kill him to keep it in his pants for a day?” He jogged over to the pool house (a standalone building at the other end of the pool, a miniature version of the house, Richard willing to bet that it was still bigger than their whole apartment back home) and rapped on the door.

And his voice carried.

“Come on, Lee, get your cock out of his mouth and wrap things up, neighbours need him to fix their pool.”

What?

Richard’s jaw dropped, and he was pretty sure his wasn’t the only one. They had met this man only a couple of minutes previously, and the conversation had already devolved to this level?

And then there was the fact that the pool boy was very clearly blowing one of the guys who was renting the house.

He suddenly felt like his life – not to mention his sex life – was embarrassingly tame.

“Sorry about that,” Dean laughed, entirely unfazed but enjoying the looks on everyone’s faces, “he’s kind of gorgeous and one of our friends is, uh, quite a fan.”

No one quite knew what to say to that – which, of course, only made Dean laugh harder, until –

“The shack?” Aidan asked questioningly, picking up on the unfamiliar term, like Richard was sure that they all had, but Aidan was the only one bold enough to actually vocalise it.

“Sex shack, yeah. No one ever sleeps in there, we just use it when we’re getting lucky and don’t want to be disturbed. Curtains closed means it’s all on and don’t come in unless you want to be scarred.”

“How do you decide who gets to use it when?” Aidan blurted, too curious for his own good. (Richard didn’t want to admit that he had been wondering the same thing – not that he ever would have asked.)

“In theory there’s a roster, but – god, sorry. You’re going to think we’re all sex addicts. We just like a good time, and the walls in the house aren’t as soundproof as they should be. Anyway, come by at nine or so tonight, yeah? Meet the others? And I’ll send Jesse over once he’s done in there. And, ah… Welcome to the Hamptons.”

It was a subdued trip back to their place, each of them immersed in their own thoughts, until –

“Do you think they really have a roster?”

“Yes, Aidan,” Graham said drily, “for some reason, that wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Jesse turned up only a few minutes later, entirely unapologetic (then again, he wouldn’t have known that they all knew exactly why he’d been late) and fixed the pool filter in just a few more. He was in fact gorgeous – but based on what they’d seen en route to the house, everyone here seemed to be – and that was only confirmed when he overheard Aidan’s muttering about how he wouldn’t kick him out of bed.

“Shut it,” Graham instructed, “we’ve only just got here – try and keep your bloody mitts to yourself for at least a day. Besides, who knows where else that mouth has been?”

“Actually, I think we all know exactly where it’s just been,” Martin chipped in. Aidan just rolled his eyes, smacking Graham on the ass as he headed inside.

“You’re such a prude, Graham. Live a little. We’re on holiday.”

They unpacked hastily before flinging themselves back in the car and going exploring, ignoring the GPS entirely as they cruised down road after road of the most luxurious properties imaginable, speculating wildly about who could own them and acting like the tourists they were. They stopped for lunch as soon as Aidan started whining about being hungry, and then at an off licence after that to pick up a selection of beers for that night (although they had to drag Martin and Graham away from the spirits section, containing bottles that cost more than their flights over) – and then settled in around the pool to, as Martin put it, commence holidaying officially.

“Graham,” Richard said lazily, “this is the best fucking idea you’ve ever had.”

“Amen to that.”

The afternoon passed gorgeously slowly, time seeming to slow to a trickle as Richard – and the others, if the bliss on their faces was anything to go by – let the past year’s stresses seep away. The sun beat down on them (and that in itself was a treat, given the pathetic non-summer that they’d been experiencing at home) and the sounds of the sea were more than audible and god, they’d only been here for a few hours but already Richard never wanted to leave.

There didn’t seem to be any activity next door for a long time, only the faintest hum of chatter and the odd splash as the sun set – and then, like someone had flicked a switch, it began. Someone turned music on, initially at a moderately peaceful volume, but it seemed that whoever was in charge was just nudging it louder and louder to see what they could get away with until it was thrumming through the air and Richard could practically feel it underfoot. The pool water, too, was rippling slightly, Aidan watching it as if in awe.

And it was still early.

There seemed to be a constant stream of people arriving – some on foot, and some in vehicles, several of which were unashamedly parked in Richard and his friends’ driveway once there was no room next door. All of the guests appeared to be turning up empty-handed, but a brief discussion led them to conclude that it would be rude for them to do so, especially given that they’d barely met their hosts, so with their craft beers under their arms, they headed next door.

It immediately became apparent that the party was a hell of a lot bigger than even they had realised.

“…Why do I get the feeling we’ve grossly underestimated what ‘a few drinks’ means to these people?”

“Not a clue,” Aidan grinned, “come on, team, let’s go and join in the fun.”

They picked their way through the swarms of guests that seemed to be occupying every square foot of the property, from the paved area surrounding the pool to the pool itself to the – yes, that was a bar, an outdoor bar, and it didn’t look like it had been constructed just for the night, either – to the sloping lawn that led down to the beach.

And inside the house… Well. Inside might as well have been a very popular club.

If outside had been a swarm, then this was a crush.

Richard could barely even appreciate how lavish the interior was, open plan and radiating wealth and taste – at least, it would be, if it weren’t crammed with at least a couple of hundred people treating it like a dance floor. Luke reached for Richard’s hand, while Richard reached for Aidan’s, and together they formed an awkward chain of overgrown pre-schoolers, winding their way through the grinding strangers and desperately seeking out some voice of authority.

“Yeah,” Luke yelled in his ear, “underestimated is right.”

Richard couldn’t help but agree.

“You came!” Dean shouted, jumping down from where he’d been standing on the kitchen bench and winding his way through the crowds of people, drink in his hand and sloshing precariously as he stumbled, his eyes bright and amused and already visibly tipsy (and even that was probably an understatement). “Hi! New friends! Welcome to our humble abode!”

Everything he said seemed to end with an exclamation mark, so palpable was his enthusiasm – he seemed genuinely excited to see them, even if it was a little bit mystifying.

“Have a drink! Have many drinks! And, uh,” he added, leaning forward conspiratorially (although the volume of his voice didn’t decrease at all, putting paid to any attempt at subtlety), “we’ve got plenty of stronger stuff kicking around, too, if that’s more your thing. If it’s not… Well, maybe just give the first bathroom you come to a miss, yeah?”

The offending bathroom was easy enough to spot, not least because of the two guys loitering outside (wide eyes, runny noses, attempting to act nonchalant and failing spectacularly) so when Richard needed to go, he kept on heading down the hall, wondering if he’d ever find his way out again. The music didn’t get any quieter, due to the speakers subtly embedded in the ceiling at regular intervals, which only meant that the party itself was very much not confined to the kitchen and living areas, Richard needing to push through throngs of people who had decided that the hallway was just as good a place to dance (or worse, make out). By the time he caught a glimpse of something ceramic through a half-closed door, he couldn’t help but sigh with relief.

The bathroom was – perhaps unsurprisingly – as luxurious as the other rooms of the house Richard had seen so far (only serving to hammer home that their house really had to be one of the cheaper ones on the street), all pale blues and greens with steps leading up to a sunken tub big enough for several people to share – and a huge full-length mirror along the opposite wall that caught Richard’s eye.

Not because of its size, although that was impressive enough, but because there were two half-naked men fucking against it.

The mirror was fogged up from the heat of their bodies – enough for there to be wet handprints visible where one of the men had braced himself against it and then slid his hands downward as doing so became too difficult. His head was bowed and even from a distance Richard could see the sheen of sweat on the back of his neck.

His – partner? What was the correct terminology in this situation, anyway? Richard had never walked on two strangers in the throes before – was standing behind him, head bowed and resting on his shoulder, tilted slightly to give Richard the impression that he was whispering all kinds of filth into his ear as he fucked him. The top’s hands were firm on the other’s hips, holding him in place, and Richard couldn’t help but notice that he had a rather nice – well, everything.

It was all very much on display, after all.

The bottom had lost his pants entirely but was still wearing his shirt, and the top – of whom Richard was being gifted quite the view – was his opposite, his shirt discarded completely and shorts halfway down his thighs, low enough for Richard to clock (in addition to an incredibly broad, muscled back) what was, objectively, a real peach of an ass. He was tall – taller than Richard, even, and that was fairly unusual in itself – and if he unfolded himself from his present position, Richard knew he would have a good couple of inches on him.

The fucking wasn’t exactly quiet, the slick slap of skin on skin almost mesmerising, and Richard found himself admiring the rhythm before he even realised he was doing so – steady and unrelenting and intensely pleasurable, if the almost pained bliss on the other man’s face (not to mention the desperate little whines that kept coming out of his mouth) was anything to go by.

It was when he raised his gaze, though, that he realised his presence hadn’t gone unnoticed.

The taller man blinked at him in the mirror, clearly barely fazed by the company, the tip of his tongue darting out to lick a bead of sweat off his upper lip. A slow smirk spread over his face as he eyed Richard, feet glued to the floor and eyes glued, despite his best intentions, to his mouth.

“Evening,” he drawled, “care to join in?”

What the fuck?

“Do I – what? No – of course not,” Richard stuttered, feeling his blush deepen, “I have a boyfriend.”

“Great,” he said, still grinning (and, perhaps more horrifyingly, not pausing in the coupling at all, the other guy seeming equally undeterred by the interruption – and the suggestion that company would be appreciated), “is he as gorgeous as you?”

“You – Jesus Christ,” Richard gasped, horrified, once the implication had sunk in. He stepped backwards hastily, almost afraid that the man was going to lunge across the room and reach out and try to reel him in, tripping over his own feet as he slammed the door, leaving them to their depraved activities. (The fact that he thought of them as such was unsettling in itself – and how could a man who looked barely out of college, surely half a decade his junior, leave him so flustered?) The low burst of laughter that followed lingered in his ears as he retraced his steps – knowing full well that there would be more than those two bathrooms in the house but too scared to go in search of another, just in case he stumbled upon more surprise sexual encounters.

It was a long time since he’d pissed in the garden at a house party, but that was apparently what he was going to have to do.

“Did you find it?” Graham asked on his return.

“It was, uh – it was occupied.”

“Yeah, Dean said not to use that one.”

“I didn’t,” Richard protested, acutely aware that he was still more than a little red in the face, Graham’s expression shifting from one of confusion to one of unabashed amusement.

“Then… couldn’t you have just waited?” Adam suggested innocently, and Graham laughed, slinging an arm around his shoulders.

“Not that kind of occupied.”

The two men didn’t resurface – which was probably a very good thing – or, at least, Richard didn’t notice them resurfacing. That, however, could have had a lot more to do with the free-flowing booze than anything else – and it was nice stuff, too, far more expensive than any of them could afford normally. Martin had stashed their contribution, somewhat shamefacedly, behind one of the couches, and they’d proceeded to knock themselves out on vintage champagne and exotic-looking vodka and the smoothest scotch Richard had ever tasted.

(None of these things were designed to be binge-drunk, and certainly not binge-drunk together, but that was stopping exactly no one.)

His inhibitions – and spatial awareness, come to think of it, because he had definitely tripped over the furniture at least once during the evening – deteriorated from there. It had been Aidan who had instigated the dancing, but after that there was no stopping them, even if none of the group were coordinated in the slightest and Richard’s ribs hurt from laughing at Graham flinging himself around like a teenager on acid (even though he, along with the rest of them, had declined to partake in any of the variety of other substances that were clearly on offer).

“You know you can’t dance for shit, right?” Luke teased, sneaking up behind Richard with a touch to his shoulder.

“I might do better if I had a partner,” he smirked, the suggestion having the desired effect when Luke stepped closer, his hands settling on Richard’s hips and guiding them in time with the music, making sure that every inch of them was pressed together as firmly as possible.

“This was the best fucking idea ever,” Luke murmured in his ear, sliding one thigh between Richard’s and sighing slightly when he ground down on it obediently, both of their cocks beginning to fill out from the friction and the heady bass that seemed to be thrumming through their bones.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah – don’t think I’ve ever seen you pissed enough to dance in public.”

“Don’t think I’ve ever been around so many people who I can say with absolute certainty that I’ll never see again in my life. Pretty sure I could get you off right here and none of them would notice, let alone care.”

(The words didn’t come out quite as comprehensibly as he would have liked, which probably shouldn’t have been a surprise, but Luke got the gist anyway.)

“Damn, Rich, if this is what happens when we go to parties overseas, you can sign me the fuck up for doing it more often.”

“Get me drunk enough around strangers and there’s no telling what I’ll do.”

His plans – whatever incoherent plans they were – had been scuppered in the end by just how pissed he actually was. He wasn’t the worst of them – at least he was still conscious, which couldn’t be said for Martin, whom he had last spotted face down in one of the sofas in an unflattering sprawl – but it took him a good half hour or so to realise that he was alone on the makeshift dance floor, drenched in sweat and still bopping away mindlessly amongst a crowd of strangers.

It was Graham, the perennial parent, who eventually decided that it was time for them to call it a night (though it could have been because he could hold his liquor better than the rest of them in the short term, and the prospect of scraping his friends off the floor in a stranger’s house their first night in the Hamptons was becoming less appealing and yet more likely by the minute) – even if it wasn’t so much night by then but early morning, the sky nowhere near as inky as it had been the last time Richard had looked. He rounded everyone up, the responses to his insistent claims that it was time for bed met with varying degrees of enthusiasm, although Aidan and Luke did enjoy waking up Martin with a cold glass of water down the back of his neck before hauling him back to their house in as straight a line as they could manage. It was a short distance but a perilous one for six very pissed men, and there had been so many stumbles (each of which was met with raucous laughter from the others) that it was a miracle that they’d all made it back in one piece with not a broken bone between them.

As it turned out, once they’d conquered that trek, finding their beds was another task altogether. Richard, for one, didn’t even make it to the bedroom that he and Luke had claimed, instead falling onto the nearest couch and promptly passing out without even taking his shoes off.

He awoke, of course, at the crack of dawn, long before any of the others. His mouth tasted awful and his head was pounding and it reminded him of the wild nights at university that he thought he’d left behind him years ago. All he really wanted was a long shower and a greasy breakfast to take the edge off how shitty he felt, but neither of those were going to be particularly forthcoming – not least because they hadn’t expected things to get quite so raucous the night before and had decided to delay the trip to pick up breakfast supplies.

It was, in retrospect, a fairly terrible decision.

Just when he was contemplating whether he could actually call Luke to see if he would come downstairs (assuming he, at least, had been able to navigate the stairs without falling down them) and carry him to the bathroom, and whether Luke would kill him for doing so, he heard a tap at the window and looked up to see Dean, looking oddly cheerful and alert for such an early hour of the morning.

“Hey,” he said, like it was perfectly normal to appear in the neighbours’ garden rather than knocking on the front door so early in the morning after such a wild night, “just wanted to let you know that we’ll be having breakfast in an hour or so, if you and any of the others want to come and join us. There’ll be pancakes and eggs and lots of bacon and I always end up over-catering.”

Richard’s stomach gave a traitorous rumble at the thought of a fry-up – a fry-up that was prepared for him, no less – and Dean beamed.

“So – see you soon, then?”

It took nearly that whole hour for Richard to summon up the energy to move from his sprawled position on the couch. He flung himself through the shower and found some clean clothes before doing the rounds to check on the others – but all of them, with the exception of Adam (who was also looking remarkably perky), were still dead to the world.

“Just us,” he called on arrival at Dean’s, having treaded what was apparently going to become a familiar path between the house’s back gardens and through the gate set into the fence, “but I could only round up one more mouth to feed. Jesus, that smells amazing.”

The kitchen was mayhem – but a controlled kind of mayhem that gave the overwhelming impression that Dean had everything under control, from the boiling kettle to the bacon and eggs and pancakes that he’d promised, along with what smelled like tomatoes and mushrooms roasting in the oven and the mountain of chopped summer fruit piled on the chopping board.

Suddenly the fact that they hadn’t had any breakfast things of their own didn’t seem like such a terrible thing after all.

“You reckon?” Dean said, pleased, motioning for them to make themselves at the table – a table that would seat twelve easily, and yet it was just the two of them, perched at the end like children.

(A faint flicker of a memory from the night before surfaced, Graham clambering onto the table and swinging his hips enthusiastically while strangers cheered him on, but it was gone as soon as it arrived.)

“I did leave a note, so the others might come over at some stage, but I wouldn’t bet on it.”

Dean eyed the two remaining packets of bacon, the extra dozen eggs.

“Maybe I’ll leave those for now, just to be on the safe side.”

Dean looked completely at home in the kitchen, and Richard wondered how many summers he’d spent here before. Maybe they rented it every year, through a connection just like Graham’s. It was the only possible explanation for the fact that he seemed to know where everything was – opening cupboards and drawers unthinkingly to grab plates and cutlery and condiments until the table was heaving. He’d refused any help, insisting that the two of them sit down and setting large pitchers of orange juice and tomato juice (“with a little something extra,” he’d said with a grin that turned into a chuckle when Richard choked on the vodka lacing it, the ratio more than a little off) and a pot of coffee in front of them and telling them to drink up.

More astonishing than Dean’s familiarity with the kitchen and all its tools though, was how clean everything was – Richard may not have stayed until the end the night before, and he may have been more than a little drunk, but he was sure that the surfaces hadn’t been quite so pristine, and hadn’t there been empty bottles all over the floor and nestled into the corners of the couches?

“I’m an early riser,” Dean explained, before Richard had the chance to vocalise his confusion. “The others love it – they know that by the time they crawl out of bed I will have already been up for hours, got rid of the worst of the mess, and usually made a decent fry-up to take the edge off their hangovers.”

“…How?” Adam managed, and Richard knew that he too was recalling how pissed Dean had been the night before: he’d also been engaging in a fair amount of dancing on the table that they were now sitting at and grinding on a girl who was a good head taller than him.

“Kiwi constitution,” Dean said with a shrug and what was clearly an attempt at a modest smile, “it definitely has its benefits. As long as I stay away from the white stuff, I’m all good the morning after.”

“The white stuff?” Adam echoed, eyes wide, looking for an instant like a confused kid.

“Cocaine,” Dean said slowly, “come on, I’ve been to London, I know how easy it is to find Class As there. God, you guys must live really sheltered lives.”

He wasn’t intending to be cruel, nor did it come off as such, but it reminded Richard just how small his world was. He had work, and he had Luke, and he had a moderately large circle of friends in different professions – but at the same time, he couldn’t remember when he’d last gone to a house party as insane as the night before, nor (come to think of it) when he’d last knowingly interacted with someone who used cocaine just for the hell of it.

Adam, bless him, had to be in exactly the same boat – more so, even, since Richard knew he’d come from a very conservative family and had been policed fairly strictly even at university. Instead of rebelling, like any normal teenager would do, he’d put his head down and worked hard, and his glee at landing a job in London, away from prying eyes, had been something to behold indeed – even if most of the joy had come from not actually doing the things his family would recoil from but knowing that he could do them if he wanted to. He was much more likely to stay in with a cup of tea or five than go out to do body shots off a stripper at a gay bar. (They had taken him to do so, once, for his one year anniversary at work, and it had been one of the most hysterical nights of Richard’s life.)

“Apparently so.”

“Aw, don’t worry about it. Best to avoid them if you don’t know what you’re doing – and knowing the intricacies of how and where to buy drugs in every capital city in the Western world probably isn’t my most endearing feature.” He whistled a few bars of an unfamiliar tune under his breath, prodding the bacon that was sizzling in the pan, his other hand reaching for the tall glass of tomato juice that he’d poured for himself, entirely unfazed.

“So, uh,” Richard began, not quite sure how to ask the question, “I swear this isn’t meant to be a come-on, but… do you come here often?”

Dean laughed at that, a bigger laugh than Richard had expected such a small person to be capable of producing. (Then again, Adam had a fairly obnoxious bray once he’d had a few too many beers, so maybe Richard was just bad at judging these things.)

“Did my knowledge of the kitchen give me away? Yeah, we come here every year, usually just for a few weeks in summer. We all live in Manhattan, so it’s not like it’s a long drive, especially at short notice when the weather’s good. It’s not always just us, though – I think the personal best was about forty or fifty? We strung up a few hammocks outside and people just slept where they wanted to. The wait for the bathrooms in the morning was a pain in the ass, though, let me tell you.”

“Forty or fifty?” Adam repeated, eyes wide, and Dean laughed again. “It ‘s a big house – but yeah, that was a crazy summer. There were a few more of us here a couple of weeks ago, but everyone usually just stays until the 4th and then heads back to the city – so things are pretty quiet at the moment.”

“Quiet,” Richard muttered incredulously. Jesus, if the last night hadn’t been anything to write home about, he couldn’t imagine what would be.

“Believe it or not, that was actually pretty sedate by our standards – no police, no ambulances, no major breakages, no fist fights... How long did you say you’re here for?”

“Two weeks?”

“Yeah, I’m sure we can put on something a bit more memorable before you go. Do you want anything other than maple syrup on your pancakes?”

“Maple syrup is fine,” Richard said faintly, watching Dean stir the giant bowl of pancake batter (actually, it was barely a bowl, more like a bucket) like this was something he’d done a thousand times before.

Hell, maybe it was.

“Don’t worry, the smell of breakfast usually gets them out of bed pretty quickly,” Dean said, catching Richard’s uncertain gaze and entirely unconcerned that he was clearly preparing far more food than the three of them could eat themselves, “and they’ll be starving, so it will be a complete free for all. I can guarantee you that there won’t be any leftovers. Come on, drink up, and tell me how crispy you like your bacon.”

Just as Dean had predicted, the gorgeous smells soon pervaded the house, and by the time the first batch of food was ready, they had two more companions – albeit the kind of companions that were slumped around the table and looking decidedly worse for wear (though they both managing a fervent ‘thank you’ to Dean for breakfast and his impressive cleaning job). Orlando was much paler than he had been yesterday, his hair sticking up every which way, and Dean introduced Richard and Adam to Evie, the fourth and final house guest: another American who was about Dean’s height, friendly and funny and sitting closer to Orlando than she would have if there was nothing more than platonic friendship between them.

“No Lee?” Dean asked, setting down another stack of pancakes, nabbing the top one for himself before Evie slid half the stack onto her plate and proceeded to all but drown them in maple syrup.

“Still passed out,” Orlando mumbled around a mouthful of what appeared to be mushrooms, “breathing, though, and made it to his own bed for once. I’m sure he’ll be down later.”

But it wasn’t until all the food was gone – Graham and the others had dragged themselves across the boundary in the end, so Dean had needed to whip up the last of the bacon and eggs he’d set aside – that the infamous Lee deigned to make an appearance.

Richard was prepared for him to be good looking and charismatic – he had the pool boy wrapped around his finger, after all (and Richard liked to think that was a mutual thing rather than this Lee exploiting a position of power for obligation-free blow jobs) and it sounded like Jesse was far from the only guy he’d ever coaxed into his bed.

What he wasn’t prepared for, though, was for Lee to be the man he’d walked in on the night before.

And yet he was.

Like it or not, Richard was fairly sure he was going to have a hard time getting that mental image out of his head: this man – Lee – and the man he’d been with, pressed up against the bathroom mirror, being fucked into oblivion and loving every second of it. He just hoped that said mental image wasn’t going to stick around all bloody summer.

“Nice of you to finally join us,” Dean grinned, bumping their hips together as Lee passed him, reaching for a spare glass and pouring the rest of the tomato juice into it before downing it in one go without so much as flinching. He also seemed entirely unsurprised by the six unfamiliar faces around the table – maybe Dean inviting hungover strays for breakfast was a common occurrence? – and was more put out by the fact that between them they’d demolished everything that Dean had prepared.

“I see none of you fuckers saw fit to leave me anything to eat.”

“Quick and the dead, Lee, you know that,” Dean teased, “come on, sit down and I’ll do you some eggs on toast.”

“Dean,” Lee said fervently, doing as he was told, resting his elbows on the table and supporting his head with his hands, “I think you’re my favourite person in the whole world.”

“Rude,” Evie gasped with her hand to her chest in mock horror, “fifteen years of friendship and you cast us aside for a guy who will make you some eggs?”

“The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Evie, you know that.”

“Actually,” Orlando chipped in, “I’m pretty sure yours is through your cock, but we won’t quibble.”

Guys,” Dean said despairingly, “if we could just tone it down for a minute – Lee, these are our neighbours for the next couple of weeks. They were here last night, but Christ knows where you’d disappeared to when they arrived.”

He moved around the table to introduce them one by one. Richard was the lucky last – and he was also the only one who got more than a polite nod of greeting.

“Richard,” he repeated thoughtfully, before a flicker of mirth darted across his face. “Yes, we’ve met already.”

“Really?” Dean asked, more puzzled than anything, “when?”

“Richard was not inclined to join Carlos and I in our pursuits last night,” he elaborated, that initial hint of amusement turning into a full-blown smirk as Richard cringed.

“Who?”

“You know, Eves, that guy who brought over those huge buckets of punch? Figured I should thank him somehow.”

“He was cute – nice one.”

“Believe me, he was even cuter when he was getting nailed up against the wall.”

Adam choked on his drink.

“Didn’t you think so, Richard?” Lee added brazenly. “I mean, you sure hung around for long enough to get a good look. Come on – what would you have given him out of ten?”

Richard had never been quite so uncomfortable in his life – save for, perhaps, the night before – and wondered, for more than a moment or two, what would happen if he walked away from the table and out of the house right then.

If only he was good at thinking up witty comebacks at the drop of a hat. (It would come to him, hours later, the perfect retort, yet another missed opportunity.)

Luke, meanwhile, was positively bristling, gearing up to say something that would inevitably put a dampener on the morning, shaking off Richard’s hand on his thigh – and he probably would have spoken up, too, had Richard not caught sight of the dog.

Well – dog.

That was one way of describing it.

It was also like calling a Clydesdale a pony.

Because the bear-sized animal that had come in and was now prowling the room, looking around forlornly for some breakfast of his own, was positively enormous – easily up to Richard’s waist if he was standing, with a glossy black coat and floppy ears and large, quizzical eyes that it had turned to Richard.

Its confounding size aside, however, it was most definitely a dog.

Richard loved dogs.

They’d had one when he was growing up (after more than a year of concerted wheedling from both him and his brothers) – Daisy, a yellow lab, had been like another human member of the family, insisting on eating only when everyone else was too and sleeping at the foot of Richard’s bed, despite his brothers’ best efforts to lure her into their rooms instead. When Richard had left home, he’d done his best to find flats that came with a dog-owning flatmate – or, at the very least, were near enough to a park or somewhere similar that he could occasionally sit and dog-watch. And they generally seemed to like him, too – apparently he exuded something that told dogs that he would pat them for as long as they would permit it – which he was more than happy to exploit.

Luke was a dog person, too – Richard couldn’t imagine loving someone who wasn’t – and as soon as circumstances allowed (specifically, when he finally managed to persuade Luke that the joy he got from maintaining his pristine leather couch would be outweighed by the joy of having a puppy bounding around the apartment), they would definitely be making a trip to the pound to acquire one, if not more.

But he’d never seen one quite like this.

“Holy Christ,” Martin breathed, vocalising what everyone else was thinking, “what is that?”

The others had stopped talking to gawk as well, and no answer was immediately forthcoming. It was almost as if the ten of them were collectively holding their breath – six of them dumbstruck, the other four too entertained by their reactions to say anything (although god knew that every stranger who had ever come across this beast must have reacted in exactly the same way). The fact that none of them appeared even remotely alarmed said that the dog was known to them at the very least.

Richard pushed his chair back automatically, right into the dog’s path, who stopped in surprise – like it wasn’t used to people getting in its way (it wasn’t really surprising – most people would opt to give a dog this huge, with teeth appropriate for his size, as wide a berth as possible). It was, without a doubt, the biggest dog that Richard had ever encountered, but once Richard was able to see past its bulk, he found himself inexorably drawn towards those big, liquid brown eyes and that silky smooth coat, and unable to help the gentle crooning noise that made its way out of his mouth, as it did every time he was confronted with a new dog that he wanted to befriend.

“You probably shouldn’t do that,” Evie warned anxiously, “he doesn’t like –”

The dog pushed his nose wetly into Richard’s outstretched hand, a nuzzle that turned into a lick.

“Strangers,” Lee finished faintly.

“Seems to be warming up to Richard all right,” Graham observed drily as the dog licked Richard’s hand enthusiastically and his tail began to wag with slow, mighty sweeps, like the heavy pendulum of a grandfather clock. Richard smiled at the feeling of that rough, warm tongue scraping his fingers (in search of the bacon flavour lingering from when Richard had grabbed the last piece, he realised belatedly – and yet even once the dog must have cleaned up the last of the grease he didn’t stop lavishing attention on Richard’s hand).

“What’s his name?” he asked the room at large – a multi-million dollar property like this could definitely use a guard dog of this calibre (on top of the elaborate home security system that was no doubt already in place).

“It’s Horse.”

Richard looked up to express his amusement at the rather fitting name (he was the size of a small horse, after all, and that had to be the reason behind it), only to realise when he did so that it was Lee who had spoken.

“He’s yours?”

For some reason he hadn’t pictured Lee as a dog owner, especially the owner of a dog like this. Then again, Lee was a tall man, and Horse was a big dog – the pair of them were a perfect match in that respect – and now that he thought about it, the image of the two of them roaming Central Park came easily, Lee jogging and Horse lolloping along beside him.

Lee nodded, still transfixed by Horse’s apparent interest in Richard – he’d abandoned the hand licking in favour of bunting Richard’s arm until he reached up to scratch him behind the ears. His fur was just as soft as it looked, shiny and well groomed, and on further inspection Richard realised that despite his size, Horse was still a young dog, who had only recently grown into his body. He was slender and well proportioned and it was clear that his owner – Lee, apparently – took great care of him.

“He’s gorgeous,” Richard said. “Great Dane, right?”

“Possibly with a bit of mastiff somewhere in there,” Lee agreed, “we’re not really sure. I doubt you’ll find anything smaller than that in his bloodline, though.”

“No kidding,” Orlando laughed, “he could probably eat a couple of those handbag dogs we see around here for breakfast.”

Unaware of – or, possibly, unbothered by – the jokes being made at his expense, Horse was leaning into the head scratches like the gentle giant that Richard had decided he was, tongue lolling out of his mouth as he smiled a happy dog smile, any thoughts of breakfast discarded in favour of the unexpected attention.

“Unbelievable,” Orlando said with a shake of his head, “I’ve known that bloody dog the whole time Lee’s had him and he’s never so much as let me pat him.”

“That’s probably because you kicked up such a fuss that time he tried to sit on you.”

“Yeah, because if I hadn’t, he would have broken both my legs,” Orlando protested, to laughter around the table. But Lee didn’t join in, still wearing that oddly pensive expression, watching Horse – who supposedly wasn’t a fan of strangers – cosying up so happily to someone he’d never met before.

Richard didn’t understand it, either, but there was a tiny part of him – the quietest corner of his brain – that liked Lee looking at him like that.

“So, hey, back to the important things – Carlos. Are you going to see him again?”

And then it was over.

“What do you think?” Lee asked with a lazy grin, stretching his arms above his head and leaning back in his chair. “Sure, he was hot, and he brought drinks, but he was an average lay and they’re a dime a dozen around here – doesn’t really seem worth it to put in any effort.”

Oh, yes, well and truly over.

“Until he turns up looking for commitment,” Dean chipped in with an eye roll, but Lee just shrugged. “Somehow, given the state in which we left the bathroom, I’m not too sure he’s going to want to show his face around here for a while.”

“Oh, for god’s sake,” Orlando complained, “you were the one who defiled the bathroom? You better bloody clean it up after this, or –”

“Or what? Gonna take it up with the homeowner?”

“Who does own this place?” Adam asked curiously. “I mean, you said you come here every year – do they mind, well –”

“All our activities?” Orlando filled in. “Funnily enough, the guy whose house it is tends to be pretty on board with it all – usually the ringleader, believe it or not.”

“He doesn’t mind the dog?”

“Oh, he loves dogs.”

The four of them were smirking openly now, a private joke that Richard and his friends weren’t party to – and if there was one thing Graham hated, it was being on the outside of an inside joke.

“All right, guys,” he said, crossing his arms and looking at each of them in turn, employing the same quasi-stern expression he’d given Dean and Orlando the day before. “What’s the deal? Whoever owns this goddamn palace must have money coming out of their ass. Just tell me it wasn’t that guy that Aidan threw up on last night, because if it was, Aid, you owe him a new pair of shoes that I’m pretty sure you’re never going to be able to afford.”

Richard had missed the throwing up part of the evening, which was probably for the best. (He must have been too preoccupied with grinding inappropriately on Luke – and if those were the two options available, he’d most definitely picked the right one.)

“Who did you throw up on, Aidan?” Dean called curiously from his position in front of the stove, and Aidan flushed. “Um, I don’t really remember. Tall guy, blond… accent?”

“German?”

“Could have been, yeah.”

“Mm, thought so. You’re safe from having to replace the shoes, in that case – Max has more than he knows what to do with. I can guarantee you he won’t even notice they’re gone.”

“Thanks,” Aidan said drily (obviously remembering, as Richard was, the time that he’d managed to ruin his best pair of work shoes and had a complete meltdown over it), “that makes me feel much better.”

“Seriously, though,” Martin butted in, “fess up – tell us whose ass we need to kiss to keep coming and raiding those liquor cabinets because damn, the drinks last night were incredible.”

“It’s Lee.”

“What’s Lee?”

“It’s my house,” Lee said, simply, wearing the smuggest expression that Richard had ever seen. For a few seconds, he thought it was all part of the joke – but Lee wasn’t laughing, none of them were, so…

Jesus Christ, was the guy he’d walked in on the night before literally the guy who was wealthy enough to own a house like this?

(The guy who was staggeringly hot, but in a painfully youthful way – he had enough money to slosh around to buy this?)

Richard wanted to die of embarrassment.

“And while I’m not going to tell you to keep your mouth away from any part of my body,” he added, winking at Martin teasingly (so, Richard thought, he was quite literally like this with everyone, Richard hadn’t been singled out for unashamed propositioning), “I’m very glad you had a good time last night and I hope we can interest you in some more functions before you leave – it’s high time we got some new faces around here, and such gorgeous faces at that.”

“No way,” Martin insisted, almost amusingly adamant, “no way is this yours. You’re barely old enough to drive, let alone own property.”

“Technically, it belongs to my parents,” he elaborated, ignoring the jibe about his age completely (not that that made it any better, because if his parents had this kind of money at their disposal then Lee almost certainly did too, even if not in his own right – god, he was one of those trust fund kids that Richard had always assumed were something of a myth, seen on television but non-existent in real life), “but they tend to stay in the city over summer, so I sort of have free reign over it. And yes, before you ask, I’m the one responsible for the contents of the liquor cabinets – Mom and Dad aren’t really the wild partying type.”

“It’s really yours?” Adam said, faintly, pink around the ears, like he still couldn’t quite believe it.

“It’s really mine,” Lee assured them, “and now it’s yours, too.”

“Huh?”

“You know – mi casa es tu casa and all that jazz.” He flung his arms out to emphasise the point and nearly floored Dean in the process as he tried to give Lee his breakfast.

“Jesus, Lee, a little less enthusiasm would be nice.”

“I’m just trying to show our foreign guests a little Hamptons hospitality,” he grinned, and Dean shook his head in amusement.

“You’re all rich assholes – I’m not sure that’s a thing.”

“Well,” Lee amended, “it should be a thing. Seriously, though, make yourselves at home – liquor cabinets, hot tub, movie theatre, outdoor bar – you want it, it’s yours.”

Of course the house had a movie theatre. Of course it did. And they had thought that their pool was outlandish.

“Just don’t sit in the back row of the theatre,” Orlando added, “because trust me, you really don’t want to know what’s happened on those seats.”

“Unless you do want to know,” Lee interjected with a smirk, “in which case I’d be more than happy to give you a demonstration.”

“Jesus Christ,” Dean muttered, smacking Lee upside the head, “stop trying to get them into your bed already. Don’t mind him, guys, he wouldn’t be able to filter his disgusting thoughts if his life depended on it. He doesn’t mean anything by it.”

“Who are you calling disgusting?” Aidan asked, mock-affronted, and Lee snorted into his eggs, before Graham commandeered the conversation and redirected it to the much more acceptable subject of everyone’s plans for the day.

“So…” Martin said slowly, “I mean, if you lot come here every year, you must have some ideas for how we can occupy ourselves – other than just swimming and eating and drinking, of course.”

The four of them just shared another amused look.

“Oh, we definitely do.”

And if Richard had thought (expected? Hoped? What?) that after last night and the morning’s rather extended brunch, those plans weren’t going to include their new neighbours – well, he had been sorely mistaken.

Evie and Orlando insisted that they take their new friends to partake in the most tourist-appropriate activity they could think of, which in the end turned out to be a trip to Montauk to see the lighthouse, amongst other things. It was also accompanied by a running commentary about who owned the biggest of the properties they passed and the wildest parties they’d been to – here at the very tip of the Hamptons, apparently even more raucous than Lee’s – as well as a less than idle promise to bully one of their acquaintances who had his pilot’s licence to take them up for a spin from the tiny airport next time he was visiting.

Richard – once he’d adjusted slightly more to Lee’s continued presence and inappropriateness, managing to push away the images that had burned their way into his brain the night before – had to admit that he was enjoying himself. It was a much more energetic day than its predecessor – actually moving, never mind partaking in what could objectively be called exercise – and by the time it was over he was just about ready to drop.

The luxurious bed in their room, which he hadn’t had the chance to try out after the party, was the icing on the cake.

“God, this mattress is incredible.”

“How do you like your chances of sleeping through the night?”

“Oh, if you tire me out first, I reckon I’ll do just fine,” he grinned, reaching for the hem of Luke’s t-shirt and tugging it over his head in a smooth, practised movement.

“I like the way you think.”

But despite the thoroughly satisfying holiday sex, followed by a cool late-night shower to wash the sweat off their skin, Richard found himself wide awake and staring at the ceiling approximately three hours later.

It had plagued him since university, this paralysing insomnia that nothing would ever fix. It had begun at university – when he’d put it down to assignment deadlines and his and his friends’ tendencies to go out on weeknights rather than anything more long-term – and his ability to nod off had fluctuated wildly over the years. It had its uses, of course – he’d become pretty good at staying coherent when he was all but running on empty, and there had been more than a few occasions on which Anne-Marie had thanked him fervently for his ability to work around the clock. It could, he often reminded himself, be so much worse.

He’d tried everything he could think of to improve matters, especially since he’d graduated and established that it wasn’t a thing that was going to go away, and yet he could still recall with crystal clarity the number of times that he’d managed a full eight hours in the last few years. (He was eternally jealous of Luke, who was not only able to fall asleep within minutes but could stay that way for hours at a time – even when Richard was thrashing next to him, trying desperately to get comfortable and clear his mind enough for a few hours of reprieve.)

But it was also a very long time since he’d had the opportunity to walk along the beach in the black of night, and who knew? Maybe that would help.

…Maybe a quick dip when he was the only person in the vicinity who was awake would help, too.

It was with a giddy sense of rebellion that he decided – why not? – to go all out. There was no one around to see what he was wearing, after all, so he might as well wear nothing. He was almost embarrassed by how adventurous he felt – an adult man skinny-dipping for the first time in at least a decade – as he shed his clothes, leaving them in a pile on the sand before venturing into the water, but not embarrassed enough to counter the glee.

Plus, there was no one around.

It wasn’t as if he was going to get caught.

Right?

“You shouldn’t go swimming at night, you know,” a voice said, about ten minutes later, from behind him – alarmingly close behind him – and he spun around in fright to find Lee standing there, arms folded and t-shirt sticking to his abdomen as the waves lapped around his waist.

“I’m not swimming,” he squeaked, hoping that Lee couldn’t see his wet hair.

“Well, you sure were before.”

“I – how long have you been watching me?”

“Long enough to know that you’re not going to want to get out of the water for as long as I’m standing here,” Lee gleamed, his teeth bright in the darkness.

Oh, shit.

His hands went to his crotch automatically – like it would make a difference, like Lee could see under the inky blackness of the water – and Lee laughed out loud. “You’re cute.”

“Why do I get the feeling you don’t mean that as a compliment?” Richard said drily, taking a moment to reflect on the absurdity of this situation: standing in the water cupping his genitals protectively, with a disturbingly good-looking man only a few metres away and openly smirking at his embarrassment.

“Oh, relax. I’m not going to jump you – unless you want me to, of course.” He finished his words off with a ridiculous eyebrow wiggle that probably would have amused Richard if it was directed at anyone else. “And I’m sure not going to be scandalised by the sight of a nice cock – quite the opposite, in fact.”

You’re not going to be scandalised,” Richard muttered, ignoring the compliment (was it a compliment? Christ, how mortifying), and Lee laughed again.

“Fine, fine. Would you like me to cover my eyes so that you can get out without me spotting Little Richard?”

“I kind of would, yeah.”

Lee shook his head in mock disappointment but turned around anyway, lifting to hands to his eyes theatrically for good measure. Richard still wasn’t convinced that he wouldn’t spin around again and catch him off guard, but he had to make the most of the opportunity, heading for shallower waters and the prize of his clothes.

“I wouldn’t deduct points for shrinkage, you know,” Lee called over his shoulder, “water’s warm, but it’s not that warm. No judgment here if he’s a little on the shy side at the moment.”

“I appreciate the sentiment,” Richard managed, fumbling through his pile of clothes (and thank god Lee hadn’t run away with them) and yes, there were his briefs, and he couldn’t remember ever feeling quite as relieved in his life as he did once he had pulled them on.

“Okay, you can turn around,” he called, pulling his t-shirt on as well for good measure, watching Lee bound out of the water, still sporting that stupid grin. But he didn’t leave – of course he didn’t – instead plopping down on the sand next to Richard and making himself comfortable, apparently in the mood for a chat.

“So how come you’re up? Don’t tell me that the beds in that house aren’t comfortable. No – wait, which room are you in? I think I can vouch for two – no, three – of them,” he said, squinting at the sea thoughtfully. “Yeah, three.”

“No, nothing wrong with the bed,” Richard said, avoiding his innuendos entirely, “just jetlag and insomnia.”

“Lots of water, sunlight and gentle exercise,” Lee advised, “trust me, we obnoxious jet-setting types know a thing about it. I would have suggested that you start staying up later for a week or so before you left – get your body into the new time zone before you arrive – but I suppose it’s a bit late for that.”

“I’ll keep it in mind,” Richard muttered, unwilling to thank him for the advice, wanting him to leave, knowing that it would be extremely impolite to kill what conversation there had been stone dead now and that he had to keep it alive somehow even if all he really wanted to do was pick up his things and run away from this man who somehow set him so on edge.

“How about you?”

“Four words,” Lee said seriously – so seriously, in fact, that Richard wondered whether he was in fact going to confess to some significant medical condition that prevented him sleeping, “blow jobs and teeth.”

And then he didn’t have to wonder anymore.

“Oh my god,” he muttered, ducking his head with embarrassment.

He did not know this man well enough for this.

“Well, that was what I thought too. I mean, he’s a grown man, he should have figured out how to suck a cock without biting it off by now. Oh, and the choking noises did nothing for me, either. There’s a line between complimentary and off-putting, and he found it pretty quickly.”

Richard’s head jerked up at that. He would probably regret taking an active role in the conversation, but he couldn’t help himself.

“Jesus, what were you doing with it? Trying to measure his oesophagus?”

“Well, well,” Lee grinned, “look who does have a cheeky bone in his body after all. No, to be honest, I was just sitting back letting him do his thing – trying to, at least – but it became pretty clear he was struggling. I mean, I don’t know what he’s had in his mouth before, but he was definitely out of his depth, if you get what I’m saying. Anyway,” he continued brazenly, “I wasn’t going to get there, and I didn’t want to waste hours trying, so I made my excuses, figured I’d walk home along the beach… and here I am, wide awake and irritated and still horny as fuck.”

“I see,” Richard muttered, not quite sure where to look. Even his oldest friends didn’t talk about their sex lives in this much detail – and here was Lee, who he’d only known for a couple of days, spouting off like it was the most innocuous of topics.

“Anyway, just on the off-chance that you felt like helping a guy out…” he added lasciviously, “I mean, you’ve got a good strong jaw. I’m sure you’d be able to handle it.”

Christ above.

“I’m in a relationship,” Richard repeated, but no – it sounded as pathetic as it had done the first time.

“Yeah, I’m not sure why you keep saying that like it’s a deterrent – the more the merrier, right? Besides, it’d be for the greater good, and all that. These things help with insomnia – so I’ve heard, anyway,” he said, raising his eyebrows.

“No, they don’t. Trust me, I’ve tried everything.”

“Have you tried… tonight?”

He was grateful it was so dark out, because it meant that Lee couldn’t see him blushing. Again. Jesus, he was a grown man. This was getting ridiculous.

But his embarrassed silence spoke volumes.

“Oh,” Lee teased, “so – the boyfriend’s here, is he? Interesting. Well, my comment still stands – maybe more so, once I’ve worked out which one he is.”

“You do realise that this is the second time we’ve actually talked one to one and you’ve already propositioned me – what, five times?”

Lee just beamed.

“You’re keeping count.”

“No, I – I don’t – you –”

Goddamn Lee and his ability to get Richard so flustered. It was so incredibly disarming, and he hated the way that Lee seemed to be able to catch him off-guard with such minimal effort.

“Yes?” Lee prompted, visibly amused by his reaction.

“Oh,” Richard huffed, “you know what I mean.”

“I’m flattered, really – didn’t realise you were enjoying my witty repartee so much that you felt compelled to keep track of all of our interactions.” He offered up another lazy grin, looking way too pleased with himself, and it made Richard want to scream in frustration. “I must say, though, I’m most intrigued by the fact that you’ve counted our first meeting as ‘one on one’ when you know as well as I do that there was another party present – especially since you couldn’t keep your eyes off him.”

“To be honest, it wasn’t him I was focused on so much as the fact that you were quite happy to hold a conversation while you were fucking him.”

“Oh, sure,” Lee smirked, making sure Richard saw his exaggerated wink, “you thought he was cute and you wanted in. I wouldn’t exactly blame you – if we were judging on looks alone, anyway, since I didn’t rate him all that highly in the skill department.”

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re completely inappropriate?”

“Oh, once or twice – don’t worry, though, I never let it get to me.”

“Yes, I can tell.”

“Can’t help it,” Lee shrugged, “my gift to the world. Plus, I mean… it’s not like it doesn’t have its benefits. Some people like it, you know.”

“Oh, I can only imagine.”

“But I can’t say I’m not surprised that I don’t know who it is. The boyfriend, I mean,” he elaborated, in response to Richard’s questioning glance. “I have my suspicions, of course, but you strike me as the overly affectionate type, and I haven’t seen you behaving like that with any of them so far. Of course, you could just be pretending he’s here – hell, you could be pretending that he exists – to try and get me to fuck off and stop badgering you.”

“You have a remarkably high opinion of yourself,” Richard managed, and yet the insult just bounced off Lee without so much as a flicker of a reaction.

“So I’m right? He doesn’t exist?”

“I’m going to bed,” Richard muttered, standing up and fumbling for his clothes, not bothering to put the rest of them back on. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could tolerate this arrogant jackass, even if he did have a stupidly sexy smile (Jesus, Richard, where did that come from?) – and being around him was rapidly turning into the most stressful part of the holiday.

Needless to say, he didn’t get back to sleep – but Luke had rolled over as he slid between the sheets, unconsciously stretching out an arm so that Richard could snuggle up to him, and sighing contentedly as Richard pressed a lazy kiss or ten to his neck before closing his eyes and letting his mind go as blank as he could manage.

All in all, he thought, it wasn’t a bad way to spend those last few hours before sunrise.

The spontaneous blow job that Luke treated him to once he’d woken up was pretty great, too.

That mood lasted for most of the morning – there was no sign of anyone from next door, so Graham and Aidan made breakfast, which they ate outside. Richard felt charitable enough to offer to clean up afterwards, which the others were more than happy with, but it didn’t really surprise him when Luke decided to help – and by ‘help,’ of course, he meant linger behind Richard with his hands on Richard’s hips, gently nosing at his neck while Richard tried very hard to focus on the dishes.

“You’re not being much use, you know.”

“That may or may not be intentional.”

“You’re such a pain,” Richard chided, not meaning it in the slightest. Luke just muffled his laugh in Richard’s neck, reaching around his waist to take the plate from his hands and then turning him around so his back was to the sink.

“And this – see, now you’re being actively counterproductive. I need to finish the dishes.”

“Oh, shut it,” Luke grinned, and kissed him.

The kiss was soft and slow and matched the lazy start to the day well, and while there was a part of Richard that wanted to bat Luke away with a smile and a teasing comment, the rest of him was more than happy to just roll with it, savouring the moment and the lingering sweetness of Luke’s mouth.

“Hey, do you – huh.”

Richard broke the kiss to find Lee – Christ, of course it was Lee – leaning against the counter behind them, arms folded and an analytical expression on his face. But he wasn’t looking at Richard (who took the opportunity to smooth down his hair and tug down his shirt from where it had been riding up from Luke’s exploratory touches) – no, he was looking at Luke.

“So this is the boyfriend,” he said, “interesting.”

And Luke was staring right back, the smile he’d been wearing all morning having melted away to be replaced by an expression that was decidedly more confrontational.

“What do you mean by that?”

Richard’s stomach lurched. If Lee told the truth about how he’d found out about their relationship… Well, he had a funny feeling that Luke wouldn’t be thrilled to know that he’d been roaming the beach by himself – or that, in the end, he hadn’t been alone at all.

“Heard that Richard had a smoking hot man – was wondering if the rumours were true.”

Luke laughed, a short little sound that Richard recognised as cautious amusement, like he was still getting the measure of Lee and wasn’t sure if his words were going to be followed up by a joking insult.

“I’ll leave you to reach your own conclusions about that, then.” There was still something slightly wary in his tone, but he attempted a smile to soften it, and – thank god – Lee didn’t push the subject further.

At least, not until Luke was out of earshot.

“Trying to prove a point, are we?” Lee murmured, his lips uncomfortably close to Richard’s ear, and he pulled away with a sharp little laugh, Lee’s words from the night before still ringing in his ears.

“Hardly – how was I to know you’d barge in?”

“I take it he doesn’t know about our late night rendez-vous?”

“You make it sound so sordid. We were just talking.”

“And yet if that’s the case, why bother hiding it? Figured you’d be the type to tell him everything, especially when it involves someone trying to muscle in on his territory.”

“You obviously don’t know me as well as you think,” Richard said, hating how prim he sounded – but Lee’s smile didn’t falter, and that shouldn’t have come as a shock at all. The same went for his response – one that slipped out so promptly that Richard immediately chastised himself for walking into it.

“Yeah, so… Want to remedy that?”

“Christ almighty, you’re unbelievable. Tell me, does this harassing usually work on men?”

“Who said I limit it to men?”

“Why am I not surprised?” Richard sighed, “of course you wouldn’t care about gender. As long as there’s a pulse, it’s game on, right?”

“Hey – wow, that’s kind of harsh, Richard.”

“But true,” he retorted, guilt washing over him at the flicker of something surprising and wounded that darted across Lee’s face, replaced by relief as Lee grinned again.

“Yeah, I’ll give you that one.”

He wondered if anything ever fazed Lee, if he had ever really been hurt, had ever suffered. With money and looks like that, he thought the answer was probably no.

“I’m just surprised, I suppose,” Lee continued, “since he’s not the one I would have picked for you.”

“I’m not sure what you think makes you qualified to decide who is and isn’t my type, to be honest.”

But the jibe rolled off Lee again, a thoughtful expression coming to rest on his face.

Richard was coming to learn that that was always a very bad sign.

“Where did you meet him, anyway?”

“I –”

“No, no, don’t tell me,” Lee said, holding up a hand as if to stop Richard spilling the whole story immediately, “it was at a – a – a book reading.”

“A book reading?”

“Yeah, you know, one of those events at bookshops or whatever where an author comes along and reads an excerpt from their new book in the hopes of convincing all the poor suckers that have turned up that they should buy it. It would have to have been some real literature,” he added, clearly warming up to the mental image as it developed, “since you don’t strike me as the trashy book type – and your eyes met Luke’s across the crowded room as you were sipping on your – yeah, pinot, it would definitely be pinot noir, and it was love at first sight.”

“Uhuh.”

“And then, of course, when everyone else was getting their books signed, you were getting it on in the gardening section.”

“…I’m a little bit alarmed that that’s where your train of thought takes you, Lee.”

“I think that’s a yes,” Lee sang obnoxiously, and Richard rolled his eyes.

“You can think whatever you want to think. It’s none of your business.”

“Okay, no, I’ve changed my mind. It was Grindr. It was definitely Grindr.”

It wasn’t Grindr.

But Richard had no desire whatsoever to correct Lee – to tell him that he had actually first laid eyes on Luke across a crowded room while he was enjoying a drink. It had been a bar, not a bookstore, and the drink was beer rather than pinot, and there had been some messy making out in the hallway by the bathroom before the end of the night.

In that respect, then, Lee was unfortunately bang on the money.

The bar was close to both of their offices (at least, it had been, until Luke had left that job about six months later, having been headhunted by a new firm that was gaining quite a reputation and that lured him over with the promise of a significantly weightier pay check), and both were there with their colleagues to farewell one who was departing. Luke’s accent had rung out loudly and Richard had been quietly enamoured with it – even more so once he had matched it to the dark-haired man with the sparkling eyes and wicked smile. Graham had noticed Richard checking him out immediately, of course, and after sharing that fact with the rest of the group, they all spent the better part of the next hour trying to convince Richard to go and talk to him.

It was Luke who made the first move in the end, though, when the bartender got their drinks mixed up. (He would confess, some time later, that he’d actually paid the poor girl to do so, presenting an excuse for him to sidle into their group before Richard could start on his new beer.) He and Richard had spent most of the evening talking, only barely aware of the goodbye celebrations going on around them – but when Richard had eventually excused himself for a trip to the bathroom, Luke had followed him. The noise of the bar was silenced by the heavy door that swung closed behind them, and all Richard could hear was the pounding of his heart as Luke stepped closer, pressing him against the wall and sliding his hands under his jacket and kissing him.

It was hardly the romantic first kiss to signify the beginning of a long-term relationship, and yet Richard had no complaints whatsoever, because Luke’s mouth was warm and his skin and hair were soft and his tongue, god, his tongue left Richard lightheaded.

Luke had pressed his number on Richard as he’d left, and Richard – out of practice when it came to such matters and unable to summon the energy to play hard to get – called him the next day. But Luke hadn’t minded at all, and they’d met for dinner that night (Luke’s suggestion, astonishingly), lingering over dessert and coffee and then more coffee as the staff cleaned around them. Once they’d finally been kicked out, they’d wandered slowly back to Luke’s place where they had engaged in – well, a bit more than just making out.

Eight or nine months later, one of Luke’s flatmates had moved out.

Richard was all but living there already, but even so, it was a thrill like no other to officially pack up the last of his clothes and books and traipse across town with them, adding to their wardrobe and their bookshelves and their life together.

“Now it’s official,” he’d said teasingly, like it wasn’t the only thing he wanted, “you’re stuck with me.”

“That’s terrible,” Luke murmured, his hands sliding around Richard’s waist and under his shirt, “perhaps we should commiserate together?”

“I suppose I could live with that.”

The thing he had with Luke was good. There was no denying it. They had the same outlook on life, the same priorities, and while neither had any close family to speak of, Richard was confident that his mum would have adored Luke. And he praised himself every single goddamn day for not being fool enough to brush off the unexpected attention he’d received that night at the bar from a man who could make him feel just as warm and tingly when they were in bed together as when he was making breakfast or doing the vacuuming or laughing with Richard’s friends like he’d been part of the group all along.

Yeah, he had it great.

Lee didn’t know what he was missing out on.

Sure, there were perks to casual sex – and Lee was clearly having a lot of it. The fact that he was rich, charming and good looking (and, Richard had to admit, that was one hell of an understatement) meant that he was rarely wanting for a night – or a couple of hours – of companionship. And yeah, Richard had done his fair share of that kind of experimenting back in the day, but in the end it had become pretty emotionally unsatisfying to wake up in the morning and not know the first thing about the person next to him. He liked being settled with Luke, a committed, loving relationship – even with the minor rough patches that were part of the territory – and part of him pitied Lee for so obviously not even entertaining the concept.

Then again, he was still young – Richard definitely had several years on him, but he wasn’t about to ask how many. Maybe he was just immature – well, there was no maybe about it, really, was there – emotionally stunted and with no desire to grow up for as long as he could avoid it, being an inappropriate asshole whenever possible just for the sake of getting a reaction.

And that, Richard decided, as he shook his head at Lee and walked away, was the last time he was going to let Lee get one out of him.

That attitude lasted for four whole days, because four whole days was how long it took for the work conversation to come up.

“What do you guys all do, by the way?” Lee asked, late one afternoon, once Richard and his friends had returned from their day of activities (and of course Lee’s friends were here now as well, now, settled in like it was their house – Richard wondered if they did this every summer to whoever happened to be renting this house, so long as they were young enough) and making himself comfortable too, draping his frame over the last free couch so there was no room for anyone else to sit down.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later.

“Luke’s an engineer, but the rest of us work for the Home Office.”

It was not, apparently, the answer that Lee had been expecting.

“The Home Office? Like – government? Really?”

“Mm.”

“All of you?” he checked, only to be met with a round of nods.

“God,” he breathed, looking absolutely appalled, “and here I was, thinking that you were all relatively normal, fun people. First impressions, don’t count for much, obviously.”

“Working for the government doesn’t make someone a bad person by default, you know,” Aidan teased.

“Okay, okay, I’ll bite. What do you do for government? The Home Office is pretty big, yeah? Do you all work together?”

“We do,” Martin hedged, but for some reason all of their heads had unconsciously turned to Graham, as though it was a detail that only he should disclose.

“Graham?” Dean asked curiously. “God, what is it? Are you like – are you spies or something? MI6?”

“Come on, of course they’re not spies,” Lee laughed, “do they look like spies to you? I bet none of you have even handled a gun before.”

“There isn’t much call for guns in London, since it isn’t exactly full of trigger-happy idiots like the US,” Richard countered, unable to quite contain himself (and ignoring the fact that Lee was quite right), “but no, we’re not spies.”

“Not that we’d be able to tell you otherwise, of course,” Aidan smirked, “so you’ll just have to make up your own minds.”

“Rubber-stamping passport applications, then,” Lee decided, Richard ducking his head to roll his eyes.

“Actually, if those are the two ends of the spectrum, then we’re actually closer to the spy option.”

“No kidding?”

“Yeah, we, uh – we work in intelligence.”

If it had been possible for Lee’s and his friends’ eyebrows to crawl higher into their hairlines, they would have done so – and it felt really goddamn good to have the upper hand for once, to take these people by surprise.

“Do we get any more detail than that?”

“I mean, we definitely aren’t spies, but we all work for the Office of Security and Counter-Terrorism. Adam and Aidan are analysts, Martin and Richard work in policy, and I –”

“Graham’s the boss of all of us,” Martin chipped in, “well, one of them, anyway – never lets us forget it, either.”

“God, it’s such a drag, isn’t it,” Graham said, rolling his eyes, “and you definitely didn’t appreciate it at all when I was getting us all time off to come here.”

“I appreciated it immensely,” Aidan piped up, fluttering his eyelashes at Graham until he cuffed him over the back of the head. “Suck up.”

“That’s pretty cool, though,” Dean prompted, “but don’t you need, like, crazy security clearance to get jobs like that?”

“The interview process is… rigorous,” Graham settled on, which was probably the understatement of the century, “but once you’re in, you’re in. That’s actually how we met – we were all starting at the OSCT at the same time.”

“And you enjoy it?”

“Sure. As much of a cliché as it is, it’s one of those places where no two days are the same. There are quiet periods, which are good, and then there are giant fucking crises that we have to deal with which could actually have serious ramifications – and being able to help avert those is pretty damn special. We –”

“Can you still sleep at night, though?” Lee interrupted. “Doesn’t it bother you that you’re spying on people – especially when I bet most of the people you’re watching have never done and will never do anything wrong? Morally, how do you do it?”

“We don’t actually do the spying,” Graham explained, somewhat indulgently (and infinitely more patiently than Richard would have done because Christ, if there was one thing he hated about working in intelligence, it was other people’s stupid fucking preconceptions about the job), “nor do we choose who the Office has on their radar. Like I said, policy and analysis – the calls about who to focus on are way above all of our pay grades.”

“So you’re just blindly obedient little public servants who trust that the government is telling you to look at people who are genuine threats rather than dangerous because of their religion or the colour of their skin?”

“We –”

“Um, what about you? What do you guys do?” Adam asked hastily, like he could see the steam that was practically coming out of Richard’s ears, and Lee just shrugged, unbothered by their – okay, Richard’s - reaction to his allegations. (Maybe the others were better at keeping a lid on their emotions, or maybe they just didn’t let Lee get under their skin so goddamn easily. Richard was going to have to work on that.) “Not much.”

“You don’t work?”

“Well,” Evie said, almost apologetically, “we don’t really need to, you see.”

Jesus Christ. They really were trust fund brats.

Richard hadn’t had a lot growing up – losing a parent during his childhood hadn’t exactly been conducive to great wealth – and he knew that his friends had all been in a similar boat financially. They’d had varying degrees of assistance from their parents when it came to university, but they’d certainly never had the luxury of swanning around without a plan, with no goals to work towards, with the knowledge that they could still eat and pay rent. He was wary of people who were that well off on principle, on the assumption that they were all arrogant assholes who thought that anyone with a salaried job was beneath them. And while Lee might have been arrogant when it came to questions of his sexual prowess, the handful of days that Richard had spent in these people’s company so far had led him to the unquestionable conclusion that they were genuinely nice.

Even if they’d never had to work a day in their lives and probably never would.

His frustration at the way that Lee had reacted to their jobs intensified tenfold.

“Speak for yourselves,” Dean butted in indignantly, “not all of us come from money.”

“What do you do, then?”

“Is it not obvious?” he asked, gesturing to the camera with a grin. It had been all but attached to him since their arrival, so much so that Richard had stopped consciously noticing it. He was distantly aware of the fact that Dean took a lot of photos, but they were never staged, just the kind of candids where he slipped amongst a group of people and documented moments that would otherwise have been forgotten entirely.

“You’re a photographer?”

“Freelance, yeah. I do a lot of weddings – these guys have a lot of rich friends who need photos of their special day – engagement shoots, events, natty family portrait shit from time to time – and then when I’m not on the clock I just explore the city and –”

“Don’t get him started,” Evie groaned, “you’ll end up trapped in front of his computer for weeks while he takes you through every single photo he’s ever taken with running commentary.”

“She loves me, really,” Dean told them conspiratorially, “but, well – if anyone is interested in the photography stuff, just say the word.” He flicked the subtlest of glances towards Aidan, who was – curiously enough – offering up a tiny, intrigued smile.

Well.

“Public servants – intelligence – though, really,” Lee muttered under his breath, clearly still digesting and shaking his head slightly as he did so. (Richard had a feeling that this conversation was not yet over, and that they would be subjected to a whole lot more interrogation about how immoral their work was before the summer was done. If he could get through it without socking Lee in the jaw, it would be his greatest work-related achievement to date.) “And you’re all single? Other than these two lovebirds, I mean?”

“Graham’s married,” Aidan grinned, “but for some strange reason, his wife didn’t want to join us on this holiday.”

“Can’t imagine why not.”

“I’ve got my hands full keeping you all in line as it is,” Graham grumbled, though obviously not meaning it, “and I’m not sure she’d really enjoy spending her whole holiday babysitting a bunch of rowdy teenagers.”

“She loves us, honestly,” Martin added in a conspiratorial tone, “bakes us special birthday cakes and everything.”

It was only a few weeks after they’d all started their new jobs that they’d met Laura – but even before then, they’d felt like they already knew her, since Graham had spent more than a fortnight blathering to anyone who would listen about his upcoming wedding anniversary and how desperately he wanted to make the occasion perfect. None of the others had had anything useful to say, of course – Aidan’s ideas had been a real mixed bag, all somewhere on the spectrum between inappropriate and divorce-inducing – but Graham seemed to appreciate Richard’s questions and suggestions, eventually settling on an evening at a very exclusive and well-known wine bar and an ostentatious bunch of her favourite flowers in addition to the gifts he already had planned. He came into work glowing the next morning, and Richard hadn’t had to ask to know that it had been a resounding success in more ways than one (and more ways than should be shared in a polite workplace). Aidan, of course, did ask, and then treated everyone to the sight of him running away with his hands over his ears and wailing loudly while Graham smirked.

(And she did, just as Martin had said, make each of them cakes for their birthdays every year, a different flavour each time, all equally delicious. Needless to say, they appreciated her wholeheartedly.)

“All the more for the rest of us, then,” Lee grinned, “may the best man win.”

“Excuse me,” Evie sang out, but Lee’s grin just broadened at the interruption. “Come on, Eves. You get all the straight ones – well, all the ones who are too shy to be anything other than straight – and Orlando whenever there’s no better offer. You’ve got more cock available than you can handle as it is.”

(Well, there was one answer at least – Richard had been right to think that there was something going on between Evie and Orlando, some friends with benefits type arrangement where they reverted to each other if they couldn’t find anyone else to share their beds.)

Evie groaned at the pun, Lee’s eyes lighting up once he registered what had clearly been an unintentional joke. “No, no, I take it back. There’s no limit to the amount of cock that any of us can handle.”

“Yeah, and you do your best to prove that to everyone on a regular basis.”

“I mean, I do have the biggest hands out of all of us… Plus, I’ve gotta maintain my reputation as a sexual connoisseur somehow.”

“By bedding anyone and everyone you can so that the legend is spread far and wide?”

“Exactly – so, I mean, if any of you are willing to take it back to London with you and make sure it’s still doing the rounds over there…” Lee propositioned with a raise of one eyebrow, surveying each of them in turn with what were very definitely bedroom eyes.

Surely Richard was imagining the way that they seemed to linger on him for a fraction longer than anyone else.

“Keep it in your pants, Pace,” Evie ordered, “and stop trying to seduce literally everyone you meet.”

“Aw, Eves, don’t tell me you’re jealous?”

“Yeah, you wish.”

The teasing had lightened the mood considerably, and Lee didn’t ask any more questions about work, nor did he say anything to explicitly remind them of the fact that he could probably afford to pay all of their salaries for the rest of their lives and still have money to slosh around.

And yet –

“I don’t like him,” Luke announced that night as he slid into bed, fluffing up his pillows with one hand and turning onto his side to mirror Richard, who was already settled (and, if he was honest, really not in the mood for any controversial conversation).

“Who?”

“Lee. He’s really… He’s so fucking arrogant. Him and all his money and all of his one night stands and how fucking rude he was about your jobs. Plus, that whole thing in the kitchen the other morning about us being together? What the fuck was up with that? It’s none of his goddamn business. He just rubs me up the wrong way – not to mention the fact he’s all over you like a goddamn rash.”

(It was a long time since Richard had heard Luke swear so much in one breath. Damn, maybe he wasn’t the only one being driven insane by the cocky American. The thought was almost a relief.)

At that last part, at least, Richard laughed. “No, trust me, that’s just what he’s like. I’m pretty sure he’s just figured out that I blush at the drop of a hat and is having fun exploiting that and making me as uncomfortable as he can. I’m trying not to let it get to me, but it definitely isn’t anything to worry about.”

(It certainly wasn’t worth mentioning that Luke had only been privy to the beginning of the kitchen conversation, or where it had devolved to once he had left.)

“Still,” Luke said stubbornly, “I don’t like the way he looks at you.”

“He doesn’t look at me in any way,” Richard protested. “And anyway,” he added, rolling over until he was on top of Luke, “I’m only looking at you.”

“You better be,” Luke grinned, and just like that, the tension passed. Richard let Luke lace his fingers around the back of his neck and pull him down, his back arching up into the kiss and everything that followed.

Martin woke everyone up at the crack of dawn the next morning, insisting that they head out before it got too hot for a morning of horse riding on the beach. It was one of the things they’d discussed doing on multiple occasions, catching each other at the coffee machine at work and daydreaming wistfully while the rain hammered down outside, so it wasn’t much of a struggle to get the five of them moving. No one suggested checking if Lee and his friends wanted to come too, for which Richard was perversely grateful – the break, however short-lived, from being constantly on edge would be a relief.

Horse riding was just as much fun as they had expected it to be (Luke was the only one who had even been on a horse before, and they’d struggled to find one that was small enough for Adam, to everyone’s amusement) and they returned home pink and laughing and more than a little sore and worn out. Lunch was a lazy affair, scavenging leftovers from the fridge, and afterwards there was no suggestion by anyone that they engage in anything remotely strenuous for the rest of the day.

Richard, however, had other plans.

(And – yeah, okay, those plans had definitely come about due to how good Luke looked when he was astride a horse.)

“What do you want to do this afternoon?” Luke murmured, slow and quiet and innocuous, like he genuinely couldn’t tell what Richard was thinking.

“I was kind of thinking we could have a nap.”

“And by a nap you actually mean…?”

“Go upstairs, get you naked, and suck you off until you’re begging for me to fuck you?”

Luke swallowed audibly, his pupils dilating just like Richard had known they would, and his next words came out taut and tense.

“I, uh – yeah, I think I can work with that.”

They did nap, in the end – just after an hour or so of other activities (Richard making good on all his suggestions, and Luke more than reciprocating) – and by the time they awoke, most of the afternoon had disappeared, and the house was deserted. Everyone had migrated next door – and, as it turned out, so too had a large number of Lee’s acquaintances. It made it easy for Richard and Luke to join in without anyone – well, one person in particular – making a fuss over where they’d been. The acquaintances had brought food, too, and it was a surprisingly sedate evening by their standards – more eating than drinking and everything wound up by nine or so, leaving just the ten of them sprawled around the pool.

“You know what I feel like?” Lee asked rhetorically, stretching his arms above his head (Richard determinedly keeping his eyes away from the sliver of skin that appeared above his waistband). “A nice, long Red Velvet Shortcake.”

The proclamation was met with silence from the visitors. “Like… the food?” Adam tried eventually, bemused, and Lee shook his head. “Quite the opposite, actually.”

“There’s a drink called Red Velvet Shortcake?”

“Sure is.”

Aidan was the only one bold enough to admit to what they were all thinking.

“…I’ve never even heard of it.”

“Ah,” Lee smirked, “but Dean has, haven’t you, Deano?”

Dean just sighed obligingly – like it was far from the first time he’d been asked to explain how to make an obscure cocktail on the spot. “Red velvet vodka, cream soda, lemon juice, strawberries. Muddle strawberries, add vodka and lemon, shake and strain, finish with soda. And no, Lee, you’re never going to get the better of me like this.”

Richard gaped, and he wasn’t the only one.

“How on earth do you know that?” Adam asked, unable to keep the awe out of his voice, his ears an adorable shade of red, and Dean just grinned.

“Well, I wasn’t always a hotshot photographer – I mean,” he added, with another disarming smile as he got to his feet and headed towards the bar, those dimples off-setting anything pretentious about his words, “I was, but I didn’t get my big break immediately. So while I was waiting for it I worked every shitty job you can think of, and that included more than one stint of bartending.”

“In New Zealand?”

“In Auckland, yeah, and then in Manhattan when I first moved over. The bar I worked at was really close to Washington Square Park, so we had a ton of NYU students to deal with, especially at the beginning of the school year and after finals. Fuck, they could be appalling – and yeah, the girls were always really into drinking the sweetest shit we could make, so stuff like this always went down a treat.”

He was working as he talked, assembling a row of tall glasses on the countertop in front of him, the movements familiar and unconscious as the rest of the group drifted closer.

“On Thursdays we did two for one shots, but we also had an ongoing challenge where if someone ordered a drink and no one working knew how to make it off the top of their head, they didn’t have to pay. The ones with the weirdest names were always the most common attempts. Needless to say, you learned fast – we had a big folder out the back that was being added to constantly – but yeah, I got caught a few times. We never got in trouble with the owner, since he must have made a fortune off the whole gimmick, but the mocking from the other staff when you fucked up was unbelievable.”

“But you’ve mastered all of them now?” Aidan asked curiously, and Dean just nodded. “Come around here and I’ll show you.”

“No way you have red velvet flavoured vodka casually sitting behind the bar,” Martin said accusingly, “come on, there can’t be any other drinks that you would actually use it in, and I’m pretty sure you could think of much more worthwhile spirits to fill the shelves with.”

“Aw, Martin, you underestimate us.” Dean straightened up from where he’d been digging around at the back of one of the cabinets behind the bar, clutching a bottle with a look of triumph on his face. “We have everything.

The Red Velvet Shortcake, Richard had to admit, wasn’t so bad – if intensely sweet – and even having never tried one before he somehow sensed that Dean had made it perfectly. It was only a couple of minutes later that he was looking down at his glass in surprise, not quite sure where its contents had gone.

“Think Richard likes your work,” Lee smirked, leaning over to give him a slightly condescending pat on the back. “Come on, what else have you got for us?”

“I’m at your service, guys. Whatever you want, my trusty assistant and I can make for you.”

“Oh,” Lee said, perking up further, “how about shots?”

“Shots are a terrible idea –”

“Shots are a great idea,” Lee corrected, “yeah, let’s go with a round of Sexy Blue Eyes. Eyeses? Whatever. I’m sure you’ll like this one too, Luke – it’s definitely one of my favourites.”

“It’s also one of your favourite ways to pick girls up,” Dean sighed (and, well, now Richard thought of it, he was sure that Lee was able to get a lot of mileage out of that one), “but fine. Aidan, can you reach that vodka up on the top shelf? The raspberry stuff?”

“Raspberry vodka?” Aidan said dubiously, and Dean grinned. “Yeah, they’re sweet as all hell, since apparently that’s the theme for tonight… But somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s your thing?” There was an unexpected undercurrent to his words – and then there was the way that he snuck a very covert glance at Aidan’s ass as he reached for the bottle, almost like – like – no, surely not.

But Richard wasn’t the only one to have noticed.

“Ahh, bless,” Lee said under his breath, “Dean’s found a friend.”

“Mm, Aidan’s good like that.”

Richard had had his doubts, in the beginning, about whether they’d be able to sustain a friendship – they may have both just started at a new job, but that could only get them so far, and the age gap seemed objectively insurmountable – but Aidan was like a giant puppy, boisterous and approachable and the kind of person that you couldn’t help but warm to. It didn’t surprise him at all that Dean was in the same boat as everyone else in that respect.

Graham just looked at him indulgently. “He’s not talking about that kind of friend, Richard.”

“You think?”

“I don’t know,” Adam said, still not sold, “I’m not really seeing it.”

“Nah, trust me, Dean’s besotted,” Lee said lazily, keeping the tone of the conversation quiet enough for its subjects to not overhear it, “a thousand bucks says they end up fucking before you guys leave.”

“Want to lower the stakes a bit for us peasants?” Martin suggested, and Lee laughed – not a mean laugh, just like it was something he had never considered. Richard liked that – the fact that he didn’t seem to think himself above them because of his staggering wealth.

“Oh, fine. Twenty bucks and gloating rights. Mind you, Aidan will be doing a bit of gloating himself, once it happens.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, Dean definitely knows what he’s doing in the sack.”

“And how do you know that?” Martin asked curiously, and Lee smirked. (Jesus Christ, of course he knew, and there was only one way he could know, and why wouldn’t Martin just stop talking?)

“How do you think?”

This time, it was Luke who couldn’t keep the intrigue out of his tone. “You and Dean? Really?”

“It happened once,” Dean insisted from the other side of the bar, an embarrassed flush creeping over his cheeks as he snuck a glance at Aidan, “and stop fucking telling everyone about it, Lee.”

“He likes to pretend it was a drunken mistake,” Lee stage-whispered conspiratorially, “but he was most definitely sober – and most definitely an excellent lay. You shouldn’t be complaining, Deano, it’s not like it’s not a compliment.”

“Yeah, yeah. Shut up and drink.”

“Yes, bartender.” Lee lifted his shot – Richard hadn’t even noticed him whizzing around and making them, too preoccupied with Lee’s words (and also wondering, somewhat spitefully, if anyone ever slept with Lee and didn’t regret it) – in mock salute before draining it obediently and then winking at Luke as he did the same. “Nauseatingly sweet, just how I like them. Right, what’s next?”

The fact that Dean was so eager to play bartender was dangerous to say the least. Aidan was only encouraging him – even if he didn’t realise as much himself – with his wide-eyed interest and eagerness to learn. By the end, it was just the four of them: the others had moved inside for slightly quieter conversation, although Richard could feel Luke’s eyes burning into his back periodically, watching to make sure Lee didn’t try anything, but secure enough – given the great sex that he and Richard had been partaking in, especially when he was still radiating satisfaction after their enjoyable afternoon – to know that objectively there was nothing he needed to worry about.

But Luke couldn’t hear the conversation.

He couldn’t hear the way that Lee kept requesting more and more salaciously named drinks, smirking and winking obnoxiously all the while.

(Richard didn’t think Lee could do ‘subtle’ if his life depended on it.)

It was after he’d suffered through a Sweet Release, a Buttery Nipple and a Cockteaser (intensely grateful for the large dinner that they’d put away beforehand, because god knew he would have passed out by now otherwise) that Richard sat back with a long-suffering sigh, Lee glancing over with a smirk.

“What’s the matter, Richard? Don’t tell me you’re tapping out already.”

“No, it’s not that.”

“Then what?”

He sighed again, glad he seemed to be doing a moderately convincing job of looking like something was genuinely the matter, going by the way that Lee’s amused expression had started to melt away in favour of something slightly more concerned.

“Look, Lee, can I be honest with you? I’m really not into anything you’ve suggested so far. I’m far more partial to a Long Slow Comfortable Screw Up Against A Wall.”

He remembered someone ordering one at a bar once, when he was much younger (and even more mortified by the name than he was now) and he had no idea what was in it or even what it looked like, but it was worth pulling the name out of the deep recesses of his mind to see the pleased astonishment that crossed Lee’s face at the suggestion, followed by a bark of surprised laughter.

“Well, well. Colour me surprised. Alright, Mr O’Gorman, two Long Comfortable Screws, if you please.”

Richard had a feeling he was going to regret engaging in the game that Lee was apparently playing, and sure enough –

“You know,” he added, as Dean assembled the glasses and ingredients, “you can tell a lot about a person from the drinks they order.”

“Believe me, Lee, I am well aware of that.”

“And what this is telling me is that you really like to take things slow in bed.”

There was a part of Richard that wished that Luke was still by his side so he could tell Lee to back off. Then again, he had a feeling that if Luke was there, he would probably have smacked Lee by now.

Plus, it was almost tempting to tell Lee just how accurate his conclusion was.

Richard liked to think he was a thoughtful lover, and he tended to take his time on Luke, dragging the foreplay out for as long as he could before finally giving in to the begging and fucking him. (It wasn’t that quick and dirty wasn’t a part of his repertoire – he just preferred the prolonged pleasure, the incoherence it induced on both their parts, and how good it felt to finally succumb to orgasm when it had been looming for so long.) Luke certainly never had any complaints – quite to the contrary, in fact. They’d been together long enough to have laid their own sexual histories completely bare to each other, and Luke had insisted time and again (and in a sincere way, too) that Richard was the best he’d ever had.

But there was no way he could say any of that, not without a nuclear red blush engulfing his face and hell, probably every inch of his skin. The drink name had been bad enough, but sharing details of his sex life just to one up Lee was another thing entirely, and he was just too goddamn shy to do it.

“You don’t have to say anything,” Lee continued, sucking away at his drink through the natty little straw that Dean had stuck in it, “I mean, I know I’m right. You’re all about winding your man up real good, teasing for hours, keeping him right on the edge until he’s dying for it. I’ve got to say, I definitely approve.”

“You’re very confident.”

“You say that like you think it’s a bad thing,” he countered, “and when it comes to sex, it’s definitely not.”

“Last call,” Dean announced from behind the bar as Lee drained his glass, still eyeing Richard somewhat speculatively, like he was still mulling over his little psychoanalysis, “come on, final requests?”

Lee pondered the offer for a few long moments, Richard cringing in anticipation at what monstrosity he would come up with to round things off.

“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “as sensible as it would be to end the evening with a Screaming Orgasm or two, I think I’d quite like to see Richard experience a Blow Job.”

“Naturally,” Dean grinned, “come on, Aid, last lesson.”

The nickname slipped out easily – Dean didn’t realise he’d said it, but Aidan definitely did, going by the surprised little smile that he couldn’t quite hide. Richard chanced a look at Lee, only to find that he had noticed as well, giving the slightest of shrugs – like he knew full well that he’d been right to say they’d end up in bed together by the end of the summer.

Enraging as it was, Richard had a feeling he was right.

“Oh, and we have this rule,” Lee said casually, as Dean sat the monstrosities down in front of them, each topped with a precarious mountain of whipped cream.

“What’s that?”

Lee didn’t answer immediately, bending forward and taking a pointed lick of the cream.

“No hands.”

Well.

Watching Lee close his lips around the rim of the glass, the tendons in his neck cording visibly as he lifted it and tossed back its contents, was one of the most erotic things Richard had seen in his life.

It didn’t help that when he set the glass back down on the bar, he was left with a smudge of whipped cream on his bottom lip. Aidan and Dean were too busy making eyes at each other to notice the way that Lee kept his gaze firmly fixed on Richard, a smirk playing at the corners of his mouth as his tongue darted out to swipe away the cream, teeth digging into his lip as he sucked at anything that was left. His eyes were dark and enticing and he was definitely doing all of this on purpose – he had to know the effect he had on people – but fuck if it wasn’t working.

Good Christ, he was sexy.

Arrogant, obnoxious, a serial flirt, possibly a sex addict – but so, so goddamn sexy.

“It’s not going to drink itself, you know.”

“Yeah, I – um – right.”

They were all watching him now, goddamn it, and Lee was still smirking like he could see right inside Richard’s head, and Richard wanted to smack it off his face.

Or maybe – shit, maybe – he wanted to do something else entirely.

Ugh.

He folded his arms behind his back obediently, eyeing the glass in front of him before leaning down, wrapping his mouth around it and throwing his head back in one smooth movement, just as the others had done. He did a better job of downing it than Lee – he could tell that there was no cream left on his lips, and it was almost disappointing, because there was a part of him that wanted to lick it off in much the same way that Lee had done, just to see how he’d react.

(Just why he wanted that was a thought for another time.)

“Guess that proves that Richard’s good at Blow Jobs, then,” Lee gleamed, leaning over the bar to high five Dean, “not like he doesn’t have the lips for it, though.”

Richard was drunk.

He had to be.

Surely he never would have articulated the response that had bounced to the front of his brain if he wasn’t.

“Shame you’re never going to get the chance to find out.”

And Lee, the infuriating fucker, just winked at him.

Ugh.

He may have been steady (well, steadyish) on his feet as they headed back inside, Aidan’s arm slung around Dean’s shoulders like it belonged there – prompting yet another amused grin from Lee – but the next morning was a different story entirely.

He was never going to drink with Lee again.

He’d thrown up, for Christ’s sake – more than once, too, something that hadn’t happened in bloody years – and his legs felt strangely detached from his body for the first couple of hours after he got up. Coupled with the fact that his surroundings were still vaguely spinning, just enough to keep him hovering on the edge of nausea, he had a feeling he was going to spend quite some time mentally berating Lee – and himself, because he was the idiot who had decided to indulge Lee’s little game in the first place.

The others had all ventured further east for the day to explore one of the state parks, but Richard had opted out – roaring hangover aside, he’d had too much sun the day before and it showed, and knew it would probably be more sensible to stay in the shade rather than swelter in long sleeves in an attempt to not pink up any more. Instead he’d lounged around, made himself a smoothie (followed by another when the first didn’t come back up), finished his book, watched a movie – on his laptop, he wasn’t about to go and commandeer Lee’s little movie theatre for a one man screening, especially having been informed of some of the shenanigans that had gone down in there – but by mid-afternoon, he was going a little stir-crazy. Surely he could slather himself with sunscreen and he’d be okay, so long as he didn’t stay in the sun for longer than an hour or so? He could go for a walk on the beach, and –

Hey.

A walk on the beach.

He knew who loved walks on the beach, and who may just have been stuck at home by himself as well.

Sure enough, when he arrived next door, Horse was curled in the large basket by the double doors that led out to the pool, and there was no one else to be seen. Surely it would be okay if Richard… borrowed him. No one would be any the wiser, anyway.

“Hey, buddy,” he crooned, pleased when Horse lifted his head in acknowledgment, watching him with relaxed but nevertheless curious eyes, “what do you say we head out, hmm? Go for a nice walk?” He rocked back on his heels, wondering if there was a leash lying around (Lee didn’t seem to use one, but Richard had never taken Horse out by himself before, and at least the slightest suggestion of control would be nice), and then –

“Richard, are you trying to steal my dog?”

He turned around slowly, somehow both surprised and not surprised at all to find Lee there, stretched out flat along one half of the L-shaped couch with his legs resting on the back and feet dangling over the edge. He must have been there all along, and Richard – so unconsciously convinced that the house was deserted – simply hadn’t seen him.

“Thought you’d be out with the rest of them,” he said, hating how guilty he sounded – fuck, it wasn’t as if he’d broken in, and yet Lee’s gaze was giving nothing but curiosity away – at least, until he smiled, and it would have set Richard at ease had it not been so goddamn cocky.

“Normally I would have joined them, but I’ve been having a bit of a dry spell, so…”

“…So?” Richard blinked, unable to see the connection between Lee’s sex life (and surely that was what he was talking about) and his decision to stay home – unless –

“So I figured I should make the most of all the available surfaces while I had the house to myself, if you know what I mean.”

“You don’t seem to be doing a very successful job of it,” Richard deadpanned. He had no idea why he was even engaging Lee in this conversation, because sooner or later he was going to say something horrifying, and Richard’s face was going to go up in flames, and –

“Oh, you wouldn’t have said that if you’d come over a bit earlier – I’ll have you know we did very well.”

“Charming.”

“You asked,” Lee smirked, even though he hadn’t, “although – fair warning – you should probably steer clear of the dining table until I’ve had a chance to wipe it down.”

And there it was.

“Don’t you have staff for that?”

“Sure,” he said, easy, unrepentant, not offended in the slightest, “but they only come every other morning.”

Jesus Christ.

“So… where’s your friend now?”

“Come on, Richard, you know me better than that – sent him on his merry way about an hour ago. I’d had my fill, and he sure wasn’t up for another round – was having enough trouble walking as it was, so I figured it would be more cruel than anything. He was cute, though – great little ass on him – and he ended the drought, so I’m not complaining in the slightest.”

“I don’t think it technically counts as a drought if it’s only been a day or two, you know.”

“Enough with the underestimating,” Lee smirked, tossing his book aside, “you’ve been here a while now, you know what my appetite is like. Not as well as you should, admittedly,” he added, with an eyebrow wiggle that had only one meaning, “but still. And you still haven’t answered my question. Are you trying to steal my dog?”

Richard rolled his eyes. “Yes, Lee. I’m going to take him next door and pretend he’s lost. You know, he’s real easy to hide away.”

Lee barked out a laugh and Horse joined in, and Richard couldn’t quite help but smile too.

“But, I mean, I figured that he was here by himself and probably lonely, but he’s obviously not, so –”

“So you’re going to leave, because you’re worried that if you spend too much time alone in my presence I’ll win you over?”

“No, I –”

“Wouldn’t blame you if you were,” Lee sang, “and – yeah, there we go, there’s that blush, I’m definitely right, aren’t I?”

“How do you even convince people to sleep with you? You’re appalling.

“Doesn’t mean you don’t want me to bang you into the middle of next week.”

“I have absolutely no desire for you to bang me, into the middle of next week or otherwise. I prefer not to sleep with people who fuck and forget and treat sex like a meaningless way to get off and nothing more. I’ve grown out of that attitude – it’s called being an adult. You should try it sometime.”

Maybe his words would have been offensive to literally anyone other than Lee, and maybe he would have toned down the explicit judgment they contained if he had been speaking to someone else, but Lee didn’t look wounded in the slightest – quite to the contrary.

“Here’s the thing, though – I can tell you’re still thinking about it.”

“Only in the sense that I’m mentally congratulating myself for being able to recognise an incredibly poor life decision when I see one. Trust me, Lee, I’m not going to sleep with you, no matter how hard you try to convince me otherwise. Hand on heart. I’m sorry. Really.”

He lifted a hand and patted at his chest to emphasise his words, keeping his face solemn, though he knew that Lee would appreciate the expression for the snark that it was. What he didn’t expect was Lee’s wide-eyed panic at the gesture, or for him to jump up off the couch, just about falling over himself in the process, or –

“Horse, don’t –”

- or for Horse to leap up too, giving Richard precisely no warning before rearing back on his hind legs, standing and pressing his front paws to Richard’s chest and letting out a happy little gurgle of a bark as he did so.

Richard, needless to say, went down, and went down hard. Something about having a surprise 70-odd kilos of dog jumping on him wasn’t exactly conducive to staying upright: one moment he was watching Horse in front of him, four feet on the ground, and the next he was staring dazedly up at the ceiling, feeling vaguely like someone had smacked him in the back of the head with an axe.

“Richard – fuck, Richard, come on, talk to me, are you okay?”

“Motherfucker,” Richard groaned, squinting up at Lee’s face (wearing the most serious and concerned expression he’d ever seen on it, not even a trace of amusement), “ow.

“How many fingers am I holding up? Do you know where you are?”

“Three fingers, the Hamptons – more specifically, the floor of one of your living areas, because your dog does not have any appreciation of how heavy he is. You should really train him not to lunge on people without warning.”

Now, at least, Lee did crack a smile. “He – uh. He is trained to jump on people, but only when they give the command.”

“The command?” Richard blinked slowly, and now the smile was a smirk, and Richard watched Lee’s free hand as it moved to his chest, tapping against his sternum pointedly.

“The command.”

Richard just groaned. “Aw, shit.”

“If it makes you feel any better, you’re not the first person he’s tackled unexpectedly –”

“That does not make me feel better at all, no –”

“But I’ve never seen anyone go down quite that dramatically before.”

“Am I bleeding?”

“Not visibly,” Lee told him, “but let me make sure – do you think you can get up for me?”

Richard eyed him suspiciously, but he didn’t seem to appreciate the double entendre in his words – or, at least, wasn’t going to make a joke of it, which was something of a miracle.

“You should really get carpet in here,” he groaned, letting Lee pull him into a sitting position, “because while the tiles are aesthetically pleasing, I’ve gotta say –”

“Yeah, yeah.” Long, anxious fingers probed through his hair and over the back of his head and Richard winced as they found the point of impact. “Yep, just there, fuck.”

“It’s raised already,” Lee noted with a frown, “but not bleeding, thank god. You’re just going to have one hell of a bruise, and probably quite the headache – let me get you some ice to put on it. Come on, sit down. I promise not to proposition you this time.”

Richard hated how transparent he was clearly being, trepidation written all over his face. There was something about being alone with Lee that upset his equilibrium. He’d noticed it that first night, when he’d walked in on Lee and Carlos (who, apparently true to form, had not been mentioned again), and it had happened during every interaction since. He’d initially put it down to a combination of insomnia and jetlag, but the second had all but disappeared and yet it was still bloody happening.

“Seriously, though,” Lee continued, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable.”

“You don’t –”

“Richard, your face goes the colour of a tomato every time I even allude to sex, let alone when I outright ask you about it. Look, there you go – I said the S-word, and you’re blushing. Easy as that. It clearly does make you uncomfortable. It’s just who I am – and, besides, so far it’s proved incredibly easy to make you blush, and it’s pretty satisfying to get such a consistent response to my jokes. But I’ll stop, I promise, if you want.”

“Thanks,” he muttered, not able to bring himself to say the words – yes, Lee, it makes me uncomfortable. (At any rate, it probably wasn’t the kind of uncomfortable Lee was imagining.)

“So sit,” Lee instructed again, “and stay.”

He obeyed, albeit unwillingly, his own fingers exploring the back of his head until Lee returned with an ice pack. He didn’t want to admit how good it felt pressed against his skull, smiling at Horse as he surveyed them both from his basket, letting out a mournful whine that was possibly meant to be an apology.

“Good boy, Horse,” Richard crooned, “it’s okay.”

“No permanent brain damage, or so it seems,” Lee said, settling back onto the couch next to him, “but seriously, I’m sorry. I think he just forgets how big he is.”

“No kidding,” Richard grinned, “and the fact that you’ve trained him to jump on people probably doesn’t help, either.”

That earned a flash of a guilty smile. “Hey, he’s a quick study – it would be cruel not to exploit that as much as I can.”

“What else can he do, then?”

“Oh, all sorts. He’s still a puppy, and he loves learning new tricks – don’t you, bud?” Horse had padded back over as they spoke, clearly able to tell that he was the subject of conversation, nudging at Lee’s hand until he started to scratch behind his ears.

“I mean, he recognises his name, for starters, and there are a few other words that get him excited – the word for that expanse of sand down there included, the word for the vehicle and the thing we do in it –”

“What, drive?”

Horse’s ears pricked up and he let out a small and excited bark, his tail giving a preliminary flicker of interest, while Lee just shook his head in mock dismay. “Cruel, Richard – getting him all excited for nothing.”

“Sorry, Horse,” he apologised, but Horse just gave him a disappointed look, ears drooping again, like he knew he’d been cheated out of a fun ride in the car. “But yes, okay, point made. He understands particular words.”

“Beyond that – you know, hand shaking, rolling over and playing dead, cheek kisses, the usual. But I also taught him to play the piano – at least, ‘play’ in the loosest sense, since it’s really just him getting up on his hind legs and mashing on the keys… But that’s definitely his favourite party trick – always gets a good reaction, especially when people aren’t expecting it. You know, much like how he flattens people if they touch a hand to their chest without thinking.”

“Hilarious,” Richard grinned (admittedly still stuck on the mental image of Horse playing the piano and wondering how many people’s he’d damaged in the process), and Lee just grinned right back at him.

“So – when did you get him? How old is he?”

“Believe it or not, he’s only two. Well, two-ish.”

“…Is he going to keep growing?”

“No,” Lee laughed, “this is about as big as he’s going to get, which is a relief – he’s pretty damn heavy already, as you just found out.”

“Would it not have made sense to look for something a bit smaller? More manageable?”

A flicker of something dark crossed Lee’s face, disappearing so quickly that Richard wondered whether he had imagined it. “I – no. It wasn’t like that.”

“Oh?”

“I grew up with dogs, and I’d always wanted one – or several – of my own, but college wasn’t really the place to raise a puppy, and even once I’d dropped out I didn’t actually think I could do it. A dog requires a lot of work, you know? And if you think I’m stupid and reckless now, you wouldn’t have believed how awful I was when I was eighteen.”

He didn’t give Richard even a second to interject, to tell Lee that he didn’t think he was stupid or reckless at all, before ploughing on.

“So I tried my hand at college, and that didn’t work out, and I didn’t have a whole lot to fill my time, and was kind of down in general. But this day in particular had been unusually shitty, and I used to have this tendency to just go underground when that happened – in both senses, really. I’d leave my phone behind, head to the subway station, pick a line at random and go. New York is a big place, and it’s funny – I never realised how little of it I’d seen. I can tell you about all the luxurious streets, the best places in Manhattan to eat and drink and gamble and dance and pick up men and women and live like a king, but that’s such a tiny part of the city, you know? And I’d spent my whole life surrounded by this kind of wealth that it never really occurred to me that there were a hell of a lot of people who didn’t live like that. I digress, though,” he added, with an embarrassed little smile, “sorry for the unnecessary prelude.”

“It’s –”

“Anyway, this particular day, I’d ended up right at the end of the line, in some rundown neighbourhood I’d never been to before – went for a walk, saw the sights, thought about why I was feeling shitty, the usual – but on the way back, I stopped in a little animal shelter. You know, just for the hell of it. It wasn’t like I was actually going to adopt a pet or anything.”

“Of course,” Richard grinned, “a quick look only, nothing more.”

“It was pretty rough, like everything else, and god, all the animals just looked so defeated. I chatted to one of the staff for a few minutes – damn, he was cute,” Lee added, somewhat wistfully, before returning to the tale. “Anyway, he was telling me that a lot of the animals that came in just ended up being put down because they couldn’t rehome them. He pointed out a couple – you know, tug on the heartstrings a bit, see if it yields anything, see if he could convince me to take one or ten home, especially since I looked like I had money to spare – and that was when I saw him.”

“Horse?”

“He was right by the door,” Lee said with a little nod, “and hell, if I’d thought the others seemed depressed, that was nothing compared to him. But when he looked up at me, he stood up and started wagging his tail. The guy got all excited, said it was the liveliest he’d been since he’d come in weeks previously, that he’d scrub up so well and would be really trainable, basically put on the hard sell while I just stared.”

“And – what? You caved?”

“No,” Lee sighed, “I made my excuses and left. I couldn’t look after a dog. I could barely look after myself at that stage. But I also couldn’t stop thinking about his hopeful little face and the way that he’d laid back down again in resignation when I turned to go. It was awful. So the next weekend I went back out there – damn near got lost trying to find it, too – told them I wanted to take him home, and that was that.”

“And the name?”

“Actually, my mom came up with that, albeit unintentionally, because when she met him she told me quite seriously that he wasn’t a dog and I seemed to have adopted a horse by accident. Before that I’d just been calling him ‘the puppy’ – didn’t really fit, since he was already bigger than any other dog I’d ever seen. So Horse just sort of… stuck.”

“And it suits him,” Richard grinned. “Did you ever find out, you know, his back story?”

“Nah, not really. Someone had heard barking from the basement of some derelict building, called the shelter, they went to investigate and found him there. He was all skin and bones, riddled with fleas, gum infections, open sores, big rope burn around his neck from where they’d tied him up and left him, you name it – terrible shape all round. They figured that someone had got him as a puppy, not understanding how huge he’d grow and how much he’d cost to feed and how much exercise and attention he’d need, and that it had all just got too difficult, so they abandoned him. It makes me so fucking angry to think that there are people in the world callous enough to do that. He takes a long time to warm up to people, and I assume that’s why. But he saw something in me, somehow, that made him trust me… and, of course, you.”

“Me?” Richard echoed.

“I’ve never seen him react like that to a stranger getting close to him,” Lee mused. “I mean, he’ll let the others pet him, but usually under protest, and he sure won’t ask for it. He was so chilled out with you that first morning, though – it was unsettling.”

“Maybe I do have some redeeming features after all, then?” Richard asked drily.

“Hey, I never said you didn’t.”

“You called me a blindly obedient little public servant, amongst other things. It’s not exactly a compliment, Lee.”

“Wow, you remembered my phrasing? I’m impressed.”

“You don’t get the opportunity to become a blindly obedient little public servant – not least one who works for the Home Office – without some semblance of a good memory,” he teased, carefully ignoring the fact that he actually remembered Lee’s words because of the way that his cheeks had been all flushed from the day’s sun, his hair unkempt after being stuffed into a baseball cap all day, and his fingers twined intoxicatingly around the stem of his glass as he’d leaned back on the couch and blithely insulted Richard and all his friends’ career choices.

“Aw, Richard. I didn’t mean it. Like I said, you’re just so easy to rile up – and damn, you practically had smoke coming out your ears after I said it. If I’m honest, the work all sounds really interesting, and… well, while we’re waiting for that swelling to go down, I’d kind of like to hear more about it, all inherent prejudices about people who work in intelligence aside.”

Richard eyed him with considerable suspicion, but – strangely enough – he appeared to be genuine, a curious light in his eyes that Richard hadn’t seen before.

“Most of it is classified, you know,” he began, just to humour him, “Government work, foreign policy, all that sort of thing.”

“That’s okay,” Lee said, completely unperturbed, “just start with the basics. Terrorism, yeah?”

Counter-terrorism,” Richard corrected with a grin, “it’s a pretty critical distinction.”

Lee laughed at that, the sound so bright and clear and youthful that it made Richard smile too. And just like he’d said, he was interested – or at least gave an extremely convincing impression of being interested – absorbing all of Richard’s long-winded explanations and asking thoughtful questions where appropriate. Richard, of course, was the type to natter on about work for hours if given the chance, and so it almost wasn’t a surprise to find, when he next looked away from Lee’s face, that the ice pack was warm in his hand and the sky outside was a completely different colour to when he had started talking.

“Sorry,” he muttered, “us public servant types – get us talking about work and we’ll never stop.”

“Hey, I wouldn’t have asked if I wasn’t interested. Plus, it helped to distract you from the pain, right?”

“It did.”

But Lee’s bright eyes and curious queries had helped a lot more, and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of that fact.

And I haven’t hit on you the whole time,” Lee said, almost proudly, and Richard laughed.

“Must be something of a record for you.”

“Well, I’m still kind of wiped from my afternoon, but – I mean, if you’re keen, getting it up isn’t going to be a problem.” He wiggled his eyebrows obnoxiously again, but this time – miracles would never cease – it made Richard grin rather than blush. “Come on, the window of opportunity is closing fast.”

“Flattered as I am, I think I’ll pass.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing out on, honestly.”

Richard did know.

Rather, he could imagine.

And that, right there, was the biggest problem of all.

“Good to know that you’re absolutely incapable of keeping a promise,” Richard said instead, willing his mind back to the present and the fact that the others would be home soon and that if they – well, Luke – found him and Lee hanging out like this, sitting close together on the couch when it wasn’t strictly necessary and smiling and laughing (and Richard, for once, not looking like he wanted to throttle Lee for being inappropriate), there would most definitely be questions.

Lee, mercifully, was at least a step ahead of him, which saved him the trouble of having to articulate his worries (and be subjected to yet more teasing). By the time their friends joined them, Richard was dozing, stretched out on the couch with Horse, and Lee had taken his book outside to make himself comfortable in one of the hammocks. They weren’t interacting, and the painkillers that Lee had pressed on him were doing their job – and as it turned out, everyone was too preoccupied by the fact that Horse was voluntarily staying with Richard to ask why he’d gone over there in the first place.

“How was your hiking?” Richard asked Luke as he leaned down for a kiss, chancing a pat of Horse’s head at the same time (which Horse did not appreciate in the slightest, giving Luke a disdainful look before unfolding his limbs and climbing over Richard and off the couch).

“Yeah, it was great. Amazing views. I took tons of pictures to show you, don’t worry. You’ll definitely have to come next time – maybe just don’t drink so much the night before.”

“Maybe don’t drink that much again, period,” Richard acknowledged.

“Aw, come on, Richard,” Dean grinned from the doorway, Lee visible behind him, “don’t tell me you’re still feeling it.”

“Oh, I’m not. I’m fine.”

“Great,” Lee enthused, “so what shall we do tonight? I can see if anyone else is up for a few?”

(They had discovered, throughout their stay, that ‘anyone else’ meant ‘anyone and everyone that Lee or friends of his knew who was currently in the Hamptons’ and when Lee put word out, the house would inevitably become overrun with people in much the same way as it had been the day that Richard and his friends had arrived.)

“No,” Dean said decisively, “you’re just looking to get laid, and I really don’t feel like a huge clean up job like the other night.” (Dean had been right when he’d said that they’d host an even more memorable party before they left – and the responsibility of returning the house to a liveable state had fallen on him, as it always appeared to.) “I vote for a quiet evening, just us, nothing raucous. Come on, we haven’t even had a bonfire yet.”

“A bonfire?”

“A bonfire,” Lee confirmed, “you’ll see.”

They all spent the evening collecting driftwood as the sky darkened slowly – it turned into a game, as it always did, and Horse was most definitely in his element – and heaping it into a ridiculous pile, before making a smaller pile that they could feed throughout the night and promptly setting it on fire. Richard had to admit that it did feel like the setting of every beach scene in every trashy American movie he’d ever seen, but he also had to admit that he loved it.

They’d dragged loungers down from Lee’s place and settled them around the fire (not too close, especially once Evie told the story of how they’d once managed to set one of the more cushioned ones on fire with a spilled bottle of spirits and a poorly-controlled flaming marshmallow on a stick), and Orlando had assembled the ingredients for s’mores, because apparently it wasn’t a real bonfire without them.

Luke and Richard shared a lounger, Richard curled between Luke’s spread legs, sharing sips of a bottle of beer (“hair of the dog,” Lee had praised him, “nicely done, Richard,”) and leaving the spirits to the others. Dean even produced a guitar – just when they thought the evening couldn’t get any more clichéd – and had a surprisingly extensive repertoire of beach-appropriate songs that he pulled out, Graham and Richard sharing smirks at the way that Aidan’s gaze was very firmly fixed on the deft fingers plucking at the strings.

It felt like summer.

And it had been, unmistakably, one of the best – if not the best – of his life.

Possibly Richard’s favourite part of all, though, was when Graham leaned over, halfway through the evening, to share the most spectacular idea that Richard had ever heard.

“We should make this an annual thing. Let some of the others know, so there’s a pool of ten or so of us, and whoever can afford it can come over – you know, make sure there are always enough people keen for it to be worth it. What do you reckon?”

Richard thought of two weeks on the beach every year – waking up to the roar of the ocean, staying in the kind of house he could never afford to buy himself, lazing around and eating and letting himself relax like he never could at home.

But at the same time – despite Luke, and despite everything – he thought of Lee’s sun-pinkened cheeks, wide smile, obnoxious laugh, the planes of his shoulders and chest and abdomen, and the way he was almost certain that his mouth would taste like summer.

(He wondered, his stomach twisting with equal measures of guilt and excitement, whether he would ever get the chance to find out.)

“I reckon it sounds like a plan.”