Chapter 1: The First Summer
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.”
“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 –”
“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.”
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 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.”
“…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.”
“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.”
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 – 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.)
“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?”
“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.
“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).
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.
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?”
“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 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.”
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.
“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).
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.
Lee didn’t answer immediately, bending forward and taking a pointed lick of the cream.
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.
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.
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 –
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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 –”
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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,” 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.”
Richard didn’t think he’d ever been quite so excited for summer.
The improving weather as the year went on was always lovely, of course, and it was a nice change to not have the sun disappear in the middle of the afternoon, but having a summer holiday to look forward to – not least for the second year in a row – was something else entirely.
While there had initially been talk of bringing more friends over this year, as the year wore on those conversations had become less and less enthusiastic until it was all but settled that it would just be the same six as last year, each of them moving hell and high water to get leave approved at the same time. (Graham had, in the end, told Anne-Marie that this was going to be an annual thing from now on, and that the default position should be that they were going rather than that they weren’t, and that it was important from a health and safety perspective that she accepted that. Richard hadn’t been there to see her expression, but he would have paid to be able to.)
They hadn’t spoken to Lee or any of his friends during the year, but Graham had made a quiet enquiry of his cousin, the one who’d found them the house in the first place, who had confirmed that yes, the homeowner next door would be there at the same time as they were, just like he was every summer.
Richard pretended that that thought didn’t excite him at all.
The weeks leading up to the holiday seemed to pass almost painfully, time thick and viscous, and every time Richard checked the time it seemed that only a few minutes had gone by, even though it felt like hours. It was worse, even, than it had been the summer before, because at least then they had been venturing into the unknown – this time, they knew precisely what they had to look forward to, which just made the wait all the more agonising. On the day of departure, he and Luke had been up hours before they needed to be, both so anxious to get on their way that they ended up arriving at the airport ludicrously early.
(Richard had intelligently kept to himself the thought that if only Lee were with them, he would undoubtedly have access to one of the more exclusive little airline lounges, where they could nap on moderately comfortable seats and gorge themselves on free food and drink until boarding. It might not have got the best reception, after all.)
Not even the airline’s fuck up with their seats could put a dent in his mood – neither he nor Luke had thought to check that they were sitting together until it was too late, so Luke had ended up squashed into a middle seat in the middle aisle, while Richard had at least had a window but had been penned in by a young father and his toddler child. Mercifully, after a few tears at take-off, the little boy had settled in with a movie and eventually dozed off on his dad’s lap, leaving Richard free to stretch out a little bit and close his eyes and think about summer and the Hamptons and their house and their pool and the sea and how goddamn great this break was going to be and –
– and yeah, Lee. He was thinking about Lee.
He’d tried his very best to push the man out of his mind during the year, and for the most part, he’d succeeded – making sure his fantasies focused on the experience of last summer itself, rather than the people he’d shared it with. It hadn’t been too difficult, truth be told, since his friends spent the next three months torturing everyone else at work with tales of their wonderful summer (and pictures, when they felt like being particularly cruel), an endless litany of not only reminiscing but suggesting things to do the next time around.
“I’ve been getting complaints,” Anne-Marie told Graham eventually, who relayed the conversation with no small amount of mirth, “about you lowering staff morale by bragging about the Hamptons and making everyone jealous. Put a lid on it, or you won’t be going next year.”
(Anyone more junior probably would have interpreted it as a genuine threat, but Graham said he’d just laughed and replied that maybe she just needed a holiday of her own – to which she’d smiled, supposedly, so that was that.)
They had done their best to tone it down after that, but the problem was that as July crept closer, their excitement rose proportionately, and for the last week before their departure none of them had been able to concentrate enough to get any meaningful work done.
And now – the wheels of the plane skidding on the tarmac, the toddler waking up again and starting to wail – they were here.
Graham insisted that they didn’t need the GPS (“come on, it’s only been a year, I’m sure we can get there in one piece”) and, well – he’d been half right, at least. They’d made it out of the city and to the Hamptons, following which Graham ended up in the wrong lane, forced to make a turn in the wrong direction that led them in a confused loop as they tried to find the main road again. Then he missed the turnoff, distracted by Aidan’s and Martin’s squabbling – that had turned into roughhousing – about which of them was going to get the ground floor bedroom with the double doors (Martin had won it last year, but Aidan was clearly still unhappy with that turn of events and wanted to claim it for himself this time around). Needless to say, by the time they made it to the house, everyone was more than a little relieved.
“Time for a fucking holiday.”
Everything was exactly the same as it had been last summer (save for the pool, which was actually functioning on their arrival this time) and Richard couldn’t help but be overcome with the peculiar feeling that they’d never actually left at all and the past year had never happened. They dragged their bags inside, Aidan and Martin racing towards the bedroom they were fighting over while everyone else rolled their eyes, dumped their things, and headed into the lounge to wait. The two of them reappeared, Aidan glowing triumphantly, about five minutes later – expressing some surprise that everyone was still there and hadn’t immediately headed next door.
“Come on, then, let’s go over and let them know that we’re here.”
Well, if someone else was suggesting it, Richard certainly wasn’t going to object.
The gate in the fence was the same, Lee’s house was the same, the faint hum of music from inside the house was the same…
…And the dog stretched out by the pool, whose ears pricked up and tail started to flicker at the sight of them, who jumped to his feet and lurched across the grass towards – no, not towards them, towards Richard –
Yeah, he was definitely the same, too.
“Hi, Horse,” he greeted him, his voice low and soft like it would be if he was addressing a small child, still revelling in the fact that the dog had remembered him, let alone how visibly excited he was to see him. Remembering one of the tricks that Lee had mentioned to him last summer, he held out one hand and clicked his fingers, gratified when Horse lifted his left front leg, pressing his paw against Richard’s palm in a high five before looking up at him in undisguised pleasure.
“Good boy,” Richard crooned, unable to resist squatting down and reaching behind Horse’s ears to scratch the spot that he knew was his favourite, “who’s a good boy?”
Horse responded by licking his face, the sweeping wags of his tail steadily increasing in force and speed, his whole body practically vibrating with enthusiasm.
“Kiss,” Richard prompted, turning his head to one side, and the tongue disappeared to be replaced with a wet but gentle nudge of Horse’s nose against his cheek. “Oh, you are a good boy, aren’t you?”
“I guess that’s that question answered, then,” Graham said lightly, and Richard couldn’t stop smiling.
“What question is that?” a new voice asked, and Richard didn’t have to look up to identify it as belonging to Lee. (He did, however, have to pointedly ignore the funny little lurch in his stomach that he’d felt when he heard it.)
“The question of whether your giant dog is still as infatuated with Richard as he was last summer.”
Said giant dog had abandoned any pretence of aloofness and was now on his back, mouth lolling open as he displayed his belly for rubs, and Richard – well, he was more than happy to indulge him, especially when it gave him a few seconds to tamp down the faint blush that was doing its best to crawl across his face. Lee greeted him with a warm smile as he eventually straightened up (Horse unimpressed with the loss of attention) – he liked to think it had been warmer than the one that he’d treated the others to, but he could have been imagining it – looking like he would have gone for a hug as well had Luke not been standing there, not quite scowling at him but almost daring him to be anything other than perfectly polite. The two of them hadn’t exactly discussed Lee during the year, not outside of holiday planning in general, but it was clear that Luke’s dubiousness towards him hadn’t lessened over time.
(And yet – Christ, he was just as gorgeous as he’d been the previous year, if not more so. At least that put to rest Richard’s half-hearted wondering if he’d imagined it all.)
“Richard, Luke,” Lee said eventually, “great to see you both again. How’s your year been?”
“Long,” Richard replied, “so we’re all in desperate need of a break. Yours?”
“Wild,” Lee gleamed, “you know me.”
“Thank you for glossing over the detail this time,” Richard said, but Lee just smirked at him.
“Oh, don’t worry. I have two weeks to fill you in on all the depravity, and I’m very much looking forward to it.”
Luke did not seem to appreciate the ease of their banter, and seemed to be gearing up to cut in – probably would have done so, too, had the three of them not been distracted by something.
That something was the sight of Dean and Aidan.
While it could well have been a friendly hug to begin with, it had very clearly turned into something more, given the way that Dean’s hands had wormed their way into the back pockets of Aidan’s shorts, and –
And the way that Aidan tilted Dean’s chin up with one finger and then bent his head and kissed him.
It was not a first kiss.
It was a kiss of two people who were already intimately familiar with the way that each other’s bodies worked.
“Well, would you look at that?”
Lee, meanwhile, was just smirking in triumph.
“Did I or did I not say that was going to happen?”
“Yeah, you said it would happen last summer, and you were wrong.”
“Hey, Deano!” Lee called. “When did you guys start banging?”
Dean withdrew one of his hands to give them all the finger, accompanied by a cocky grin. “Let’s just say that even if he was a blushing virgin at the beginning of last summer, he sure as shit isn’t now.”
That was unexpected.
“Nope,” Lee said with a shit-eating grin, “looks like I was right after all.”
“Unbelievable,” Adam lamented, looking quite put out by it all, “I sit right next to him for a whole year at work and he doesn’t say a thing.”
(It was a surprise, when Richard considered it, because Aidan was a notorious blabbermouth about his sexual escapades – at least, Richard had always thought he was, but he’d realised the year before that he didn’t even begin to hold a candle to Lee. Even so, the fact that he’d managed to keep his mouth shut about Dean for so long – especially when it was abundantly clear that it hadn’t been a one-time thing – was fairly astonishing.)
“Consider yourself lucky,” Martin advised, “because I suspect we’re going to be getting a lot more detail than we’d like in the future.”
“You know it,” Dean called, giving Martin a joking finger when he looked guilty at having been caught out, “because since the secret’s out, there’s no way I’m not going to be bragging about how amazing a lay he is.” Aidan looked too pleased with himself to be bothered about Dean’s lewdness in the slightest. “And now, if you don’t mind, we will be heading upstairs to get reacquainted, because we have a year’s worth of catching up to do.”
“Don’t forget to use protection,” Orlando called, earning another middle finger from both of them as they went, still wrapped around each other (Richard didn’t want to look too closely, but it appeared that Dean was already getting to work on Aidan’s fly).
“So,” Martin said slowly, “…anyone for lunch? Preferably somewhere a long way away from here so we don’t have to listen to those two?”
They’d ended up at an Italian restaurant that they hadn’t managed to get to last summer – it boasted a gorgeous outdoor seating area with a view to die for (or at least Instagram furiously, if you were Luke) and the food came highly recommended by Lee and his friends – ordering a couple of pizzas every half hour and getting steadily tiddlier on the free-flowing wine as they caught up on everything that had happened in the last year. Richard and Evie had volunteered to sober drive once it became clear just how liquid the lunch was going to be – and that it was going to end up spanning the majority of the afternoon. It took a while for Richard to realise, though, that Lee was barely drinking either: while he was becoming increasingly loud and raucous at the same rate as everyone else, his glass wasn’t getting any emptier. Not that his sobriety made him any less outlandish, of course: Richard watched him effortlessly seduce both the waitress and the bartender, who slipped him their numbers independently of each other before the group left.
“Fish in a barrel,” he said to Orlando, tucking the bartender’s number into his pocket, “and this is the first time we’ve really left the house since we arrived.”
“Maybe you could invite them both over at once.”
“Maybe I will. The more the merrier, right?” he added, with a smirk in Richard’s direction, harkening back to their first – mortifying – meeting.
Richard had a sinking feeling that he was never going to hear the end of that one.
“So you keep telling me, yes.”
Horse was just as relaxed as the rest of them, curled up near the corner of the table next to Lee. It still surprised Richard that he could fold himself up into such a compact little ball – it made him seem a lot less intimidating, too, based on the way that people kept approaching the table and asking to pat him. Lee had been dubious the first time, but Horse was surprisingly obliging, keeping his eyes closed and tolerating the attention. In fact, the only time he displayed any emotion other than bone-deep lethargy was when the waitress snuck him a handful of chicken from the kitchen (flashing Lee a flirtatious smile as she did so, and flushing when she got one in return), which he inhaled within seconds before staring dolefully up at Lee as if silently requesting more.
“Not a chance, bud,” Lee told him, and he let out a small whine of protest before settling down again, resting his head on his paws in defeat.
It was mid-afternoon by the time they finally departed, Martin and Adam both particularly unsteady on their feet, attempting to hold each other up on their way to the car with varying degrees of success. Luke, too, had let the first day of their holiday go to his head a bit, quietly leaning against Richard and not having said much since the last of the pizzas had been polished off. He’d been under a lot of stress at work, so it didn’t surprise Richard at all that he put his feet up when they got home and promptly passed out.
What did surprise him was that everyone else followed suit.
Meanwhile, he was still sober and wide awake – and if he couldn’t sleep in the middle of the night, he sure wasn’t going to be able to in the middle of the day, either – so he grabbed a book out of his suitcase, dragged one of the outdoor lounge chairs next to the pool into the sun, and prepared to settle in for the long haul.
He got three pages in before his idyllic afternoon (and probably evening, to be honest, because no one was likely to move for a while) interrupted – by a very excitable barking dog lolloping across the boundary, followed closely by his owner, who was tossing a tennis ball between his hands.
And damn if that sight didn’t make him way more pleased than it should have.
“Hey,” Lee said easily, “everyone in your house comatose too?”
“Yeah – too much sun and wine and pizza on day one, I think – so I figured I’d start my holiday off by getting cracking with one of my summer reads.”
“Thought you were the serious literature type only,” Lee said, eyeing the cover of the book, and Richard blinked.
“Not necessarily, and not when I’m on holiday.”
“Huh,” Lee mused, “wonder how I reached that conclusion, then.”
And there it was – a fragment of memory from the same time last year, Lee accosting him and demanding to know his and Luke’s history, the morning after he’d found Richard indulging in some midnight swimming in his birthday suit.
“As far as I can recall, you announced that I liked serious literature when you were telling me all about the book reading that Luke and I met at.”
“So I did,” Lee grinned, “and as far as I recall, you never actually said I was wrong, so…”
“Did you just come over to bag me for my reading preferences, or was there another reason?”
“No, as much as I enjoy tormenting you, I was actually coming to see if I could convince you to put the book down and come for a walk on the beach with me and this lunatic instead.”
Said lunatic did look extremely hyper – and took the way that Richard sat up at the request as acquiescence, lunging forward and pressing his nose to Richard’s neck in an unprompted kiss but one which was nevertheless appreciated.
“Get off, Horse,” Richard scolded, not meaning it in the slightest, giving him an obligatory head scratch as he glanced up at a mildly apologetic Lee.
“Sorry – he did his chilling for the afternoon when we were out, and now he wants to run around and be an idiot. So – what do you reckon? It’s warm enough for us to get in too, if you’re keen.”
“Let me just grab my sunglasses.”
Horse was ecstatic to be given free reign of the beach, heading straight for the surf as soon as Lee gave him the cue. He and Richard followed behind at a slightly more leisurely pace, both keeping half an eye on him as he frolicked gleefully – like it was the first time he’d been able to play in the water for years, barking at it and trying to pounce on the waves as they rolled in.
“Every time,” Lee said fondly, “every damn time – anyone would think he hasn’t been down here multiple times a day since we arrived.”
“He’s still a baby,” Richard grinned, “cut him some slack.”
“In his twenties in dog years, though.”
“Isn’t it a bit hypocritical of you to suggest that anyone should calm down during their twenties?”
Lee laughed loudly at that (loudly enough to startle a group of seagulls nearby into flight, which only made Richard join him). “Okay, you win.”
“What a momentous occasion.”
“Don’t pretend you aren’t going to note it down in your diary as soon as you get home,” he said with an exaggerated wink, and Richard elbowed him in the ribs with a shake of his head.
(It wasn’t that Lee was strictly correct, but – yeah, Richard did appreciate those moments when he got one over Lee, because Christ knew they didn’t come along often.)
“So, hey, tell me – any good work stories for me?”
Richard glanced at him, surprised by the visible interest on his face. “Seriously? You want to talk about my work?”
There was a part of him that had assumed that Lee was just being polite last summer when he’d asked about Richard’s job, and that part had grown bigger over the course of the year – and yet here they were, their first real conversation of the summer, and it was the first thing Lee had brought up.
“Well, I’m assuming that you don’t want to hear about all the things I’ve been up to, since they mostly just amount to sex and drugs and all-round depravity, but –”
“Work is good,” Richard said hastily, prompting a snicker, “work is definitely good.”
Just like last time, Lee had taken all the information in greedily – asking about Richard’s study and the places he’d worked before he’d ended up at the OSCT and the obscene number of interviews he’d had to go through to land the gig in the first place.
It made Richard wonder.
For all Lee’s social graces (at least, the ones that he presented to the rest of the world when he wasn’t tormenting Richard) he wouldn’t spend an hour pursuing a topic of conversation in which he had genuinely no interest – and that meant that he really did want to know about the finer details of Richard’s Masters thesis and working at the OSCT.
It was intriguing to say the least.
Richard knew Lee wasn’t stupid, and had an inkling that he was unfulfilled more than anything, even if he wouldn’t admit to it. It had to get tiring, sometimes – all that playing around, travelling and drinking and drugs and sex, tossing huge amounts of money around like it was nothing, while never actually working towards anything more. Was Lee going to be one of those people who woke up when they were fifty and realised that they’d wasted their whole lives without ever finding any greater meaning?
Of course, he would never even consider vocalising those thoughts – he couldn’t imagine anyone taking kindly to being told that they needed to stop pretending they had no aspirations other than to fuck anything and everything that moved, and god help him if he ruined what was, apparently, turning into a friendship with Lee. So he pushed them aside, focusing on work until he’d exhausted the subject, and then letting the conversation turn easily to summer plans and Horse and everything that Lee had missed over lunch while he was seducing the staff. (Lee laughed at that, telling him that he was just jealous of Lee’s pulling power and offering to give him lessons anytime he liked).
Horse joined them periodically, running over soaking wet and then doing his best to shake the water all over them. Eventually, they did do as Lee had suggested, heading into the shallows themselves fully clothed and tossing the ball so that Horse could fling himself into the gentle waves to retrieve it.
Richard did his best – his very, very best, although wearing his sunglasses made it far too easy to just give in, knowing that he wouldn’t be called out on it – not to admire the way that Lee’s t-shirt stuck to his skin when wet, clinging to every inch of muscle. It wasn’t like he’d seen him without a shirt on before, but there was something so goddamn sinful about how the wet cotton failed so badly at covering him up. And Richard was a red-blooded man, after all – surely there was nothing wrong with some quiet appreciation?
That was what he kept telling himself, anyway.
Even so, he couldn’t help but feel a little bit relieved by the fact that no one had woken, let alone moved, by the time they got back (wet-haired and sandy-footed, Richard’s cheeks sore from laughing so much) – it meant that he could rinse off and get changed and settle back in with his book and no one would be any the wiser.
And, in the end, that was exactly what had happened, the afternoon held close to his chest like a secret that warmed him from the inside out.
Aidan and Dean resurfaced at dinnertime, both glowing with post-sex euphoria (much to Martin’s audible disgust), which was the subject of relentless mocking throughout the meal. After less encouragement than probably should have been necessary, they divulged the whole story, since both of them had managed to last the entire year without telling anyone else that they’d slept together the summer before. It had started – and Christ, it shouldn’t have been a surprise – the night that Dean had treated them to his first proper display of his bartending abilities, although it had apparently taken a few days of sneaking through the gate in the fence and into each other’s rooms at night for heated making out sessions to build up to actual fucking. They’d kept in touch during the year – “let’s just say we made the time difference work for us,” Dean said with a wink – counting down the days, perhaps more than any of the others had been, until the next trip to the Hamptons.
“And what’s new with the rest of you?” Orlando asked. “Any more major announcements to make? Anyone?”
“Just that we’re all really fucking glad to be back.”
“I’ll drink to that, actually,” Luke said, lifting his glass as everyone else did the same, “so here’s to another spectacular summer.”
“Well, we’ll do our best to deliver.”
It was during the post-dinner clean up when everyone’s attention was focused elsewhere that Richard ducked away to grab the gift that he’d stashed on arrival and subtly deposit it somewhere he was sure it wouldn’t take long to be found, a disproportionate amount of adrenaline thrumming in his veins.
He had spent more time than he would have cared to admit perusing the stock of every pet shop he could find in London looking for a chew toy for Horse – it had to be interesting enough to hold his attention and big enough for him not to decimate it with one bite. The one that he’d settled on in the end – made of rope, with a knot at one end that was the size of Richard’s fist and a loop at the other end to play tug of war with – had been carefully wrapped in a t-shirt in the middle of his suitcase, away from prying eyes and the uncomfortable questioning that he knew would follow should Luke stumble upon it.
Because while he liked Horse, and had bonded with him last summer, he couldn’t deny that he wouldn’t be going to this much effort if the dog had belonged to anyone else.
While he’d snuck the toy into Horse’s basket when no one was looking, then, he wasn’t exactly surprised when Horse zeroed in on it, giving it a cautious sniff, before picking it up and delivering it to Lee, depositing it in his lap and then sitting back as if awaiting approval. Lee, to his credit, didn’t draw any attention to the unexplained gift – but once he’d given it back to Horse (who had promptly carried it back to his basket and settled in for a good satisfying gnaw), he caught Richard’s eye, looking from Horse and back to him in a silent question.
And when Richard nodded, Lee ducked his head, but not so fast that Richard didn’t see the giant beam that had crossed his face at the confession.
Yes, he decided, it had definitely been worth it.
Evie had an invite to a party that night (“the hosts – sisters – prefer not to speak to me directly,” Lee told them with no small measure of amusement, “since I slept with both of them a couple of summers ago and it caused a huge family blow-up. I mean, they know I’ll be there, if they invite Evie, but…”) and there was no objection from anyone, vividly remembering their first night in the Hamptons the summer before and eager to replicate the best parts of it.
This time, they managed not to get blown away by the excesses surrounding them, and even curbed their own drinking so they weren’t too destroyed by the time breakfast the next morning rolled around. Dean had extended the invitation before they went to the party, and it too was similar to last year’s first meal together, the only difference being that they ate outside and that Aidan was glued to Dean from the second they arrived.
And then – over the sound of Orlando retelling a story from yet another party at the same house from a long time ago, at which Lee had been caught christening a bathroom with the extremely spoken for best friend of the birthday girl – the doorbell rang.
“Oh, shit, it’s the witching hour.”
“I’ll explain later,” Lee said hurriedly, lurching from his chair, grabbing Richard, dragging him by the front of his shirt inside and into the kitchen – and then, to Richard’s astonishment, opening the door to the walk-in fridge and folding himself inside.
“Lee, what the –”
“I’m not here, okay?” he said insistently. “Whoever it is, I’m not here. Thanks, Richard, you’re the best.”
Still thoroughly perplexed, Richard went to the door – but was met not with a debt collector or political campaigner or door to door marketer or any of the people that Lee could conceivably be hiding in the fridge to avoid, but a man around Lee’s age who looked like he was coming down from a multiple-day bender and had the hangover from hell. Despite that, he was ludicrously good looking, sporting that all-American blonde hair and deep tan and looking like he’d walked off the pages of a surfing magazine.
“Hey, man. Is, uh… is Lee here?”
“Sorry, he’s not,” Richard said automatically, not expecting the visible disappointment that flared across the man’s face. It was almost as if – as if –
He was a conquest.
Lee had bedded this man the night before, and now he’d slunk back to see if there was anything to salvage – another fuck, a date, a relationship – in the aftermath.
The jealousy came thick and fast, any excuses Richard might have wanted to put forward on Lee’s behalf sticking in his throat, and Christ, he didn’t understand why he felt so strongly about this situation but he did.
Then again, he reminded himself, optimistically, Lee hadn’t wanted to see this guy. He’d hidden in the fridge to avoid him, for god’s sake. That wasn’t the behaviour of someone who was interested in anything more than one quick fuck, barely giving the afterglow a chance to fade before making a run for it.
“Can you – can you tell him I stopped by? That Riley stopped by?”
“Thanks,” the guy – Riley – muttered, ducking his head in embarrassment as though he’d only just realised that he was making a bit of a fool of himself.
“I’ll, uh – yeah. Thanks.”
Shaking his head in disbelief – the witching hour, indeed – Richard closed the front door, went back to the kitchen and opened the fridge, only to find Lee sitting happily on the floor, leaning back against the shelves, a beer in his hand and looking thoroughly at peace with the world.
“So, who was it?”
“Not so much a witch as a wizard,” he deadpanned, earning a cheeky grin from Lee.
“Oh, that guy. Weird. He didn’t seem the type.”
Apparently Riley wasn’t who he’d been expecting at all.
Richard didn’t know if that made the whole situation better or worse.
(Worse still – was Lee insinuating that he’d actually slept with more than one person the night before?)
“So… this is a regular thing?”
“Shit, yeah. You can set your watch by it.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised.”
“At how great my sex life is – or the fact that they come back the next day looking for more? No, neither of those things should surprise you at all.”
Lee was laughing as he stood (Richard found himself wishing for less than a single fleeting second that he would reach out a hand for assistance – overcome by a sudden urge to feel those fingers slide through his, cool from the air in the fridge), flicking the inside latch and opening the door, the warmth of the house like a particularly humid slap in the face that almost made Richard want to crawl back inside and stay in the cool for the rest of the day.
“For future reference, though, Richard,” he said seriously, “should you ever find yourself in the position where you would like to track down the man you put your cock in the night before – and, might I add, who got full marks for his spectacular dirty talk – eleven in the morning is the best time to do it. You have to time it just right: too early and they’ll still be asleep, but too late and they’ll have gone out for the day and you will have missed your opportunity.”
“Unless, of course, you turn up to find that the man is hiding in the fridge to avoid you.”
“Yeah, that happens sometimes, too.”
“Not to you, though?”
“Of course not to me,” Lee said, affronted, “what have I ever done to make you suggest that I’m the one who does the running? Please.”
“Of course,” Richard echoed faintly, “how silly of me.”
Lee just smirked back at him. “You’re learning. Good. Anyway – thanks for the help, much appreciated. Want one?” He held out a beer – it was never too early for a beer here, never mind the fact that they’d only finished eating breakfast half an hour or so earlier – and Richard accepted, still slightly disbelieving. The whole situation was completely foreign to him – then again, he should have learned to take that in his stride by now.
“And hey – thank you for Horse’s toy. Look at him – he’s barely put it down since.”
Sure enough, Horse was stretched out across the tiled floor – anything for a reprieve from the already blistering heat – the rope between his front paws as he chewed on the knotted end thoughtfully, his eyes fixed on Lee after hearing his name.
“Talking about you, not to you,” Lee told him, as though he could understand, and Richard couldn’t help but laugh at the way Horse seemed to sigh before returning to the activity at hand.
“You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if he could actually follow conversation a lot better than we give him credit for. You did well, though – I can’t believe it’s still in one piece.”
“It was the sturdiest thing they had on offer,” Richard shrugged, declining to mention the numerous shops he’d visited and shop assistants he’d ambushed to ask advice (the one who he’d bought the toy off, in the end, had been interested in Horse to say the least, crowing in amazement at the pictures from last summer on Richard’s phone and calling other staff over to look as well), “but even so, don’t be surprised if he destroys it within the week.”
(It was a lie. Richard would have been surprised. But he wasn’t exactly going to tell Lee how much he’d shelled out on the most indestructible thing he could find.)
“Oh, I’m sure he appreciates the sentiment too much to do that,” Lee grinned, “as – well – as do I.”
The interaction with Riley – or, rather, Lee’s refusal to interact with him at all – sat perplexingly heavy in Richard’s chest for the rest of the day. His perverse gratitude aside (and that was definitely a question for another day, or perhaps another year, or perhaps never), surely it wouldn’t have been that hard for Lee to just gently let the guy know that he wasn’t interested.
Maybe it was just that he would rather ignore the guy than disappoint him – and he would have been disappointed, surely, since he’d come looking in the first place. That had to be it: take the easy way out and avoid thinking about anyone else’s hurt feelings because he simply couldn’t face people who he’d let down. He was young, Richard reminded himself (and had to do so on a fairly frequent basis – there was only a small handful of years between them, but sometimes it felt like generations), and it wasn’t his fault he was immature.
(Maybe other people would use much stronger words than that, but still.)
And, sure enough, when Lee decided a couple of nights later that he was letting his friends down by not hosting a party of his own, there was no sign of Riley. Richard kept an eye out for him especially, out of morbid curiosity – at least, he did until he’d drunk too much to remember that he was meant to be doing so. Lee, meanwhile – well, Lee had made a new friend fairly early on in the evening. Richard had seen the two of them dancing, up close and filthy, Lee’s eyes half-closed with pleasure and intoxication and his hands looking obscenely large on her tiny waist, before they’d disappeared.
There had been a lot of debate about the pool house before the night had begun – specifically, who was going to be allowed to claim rights to it – which Evie had won in the end, after a rather heated stand-off with Dean. (“You already know who you’re going to be banging with at the end of the night, for god’s sake – just fuck him in your own bed like you usually do. Leave the shack to those of us who are actually going to make an effort to get some.”) She was shorter than him, though not by much, and she could put on a pretty commanding face when she wanted to – if it had been Richard in Dean’s place, it wouldn’t have taken nearly as long for him to cave.
The end result didn’t seem to bother Dean that much in the end, though, since he and Aidan ended up getting handsy in the corner, in full view of everyone – probably would have ended up doing a lot more than that, too, had a particularly pissed guy (who seemed to be a regular at these parties, although Richard was yet to learn his name) not stumbled into them and managed to tip most of his drink down Aidan’s back. Aidan’s undignified squawk was audible even over the music, and they too had sidled off only a minute later.
After that had come shots, and then more shots (although Richard did his best to pace himself this time, the memory of shots with Lee from last summer still lingering, and not in an entirely pleasant way given how appalling he’d felt the next day), and then something that vaguely resembled karaoke, and then pulling Adam out of the pool when he fell in. The last incident sobered Richard up fairly effectively and he called it a night not long after that, dragging Adam home and putting him to bed before collapsing himself. Sleep didn’t come easily, though – and damn Adam for being able to quite literally pass out as soon as Richard had tucked him in, despite the unholy noise next door – so he ended up reading for a couple of hours and eventually dozed off while still half sitting up.
He woke at five with a crick in his neck, Luke’s face pressed into his hip and the pages of his book bent from where it had fallen onto his chest, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to move – at least, not until a slightly more reasonable hour, at which time he extracted himself from Luke’s octopus-like embrace, dragged himself through the shower and then wandered next door for the usual debrief.
No one was awake but Orlando, sitting outside with a coffee and a look of unabashed relaxation on his face – not even Dean, who was obviously still in bed with Aidan in whatever capacity (not something Richard really wanted to dwell on).
“Morning,” he said, cracking one eye open a fraction to see who the newcomer was, “I’m not up to making Dean’s usual breakfast extravaganza, but you’re more than welcome to a coffee or anything else you can find to eat.”
“I’m pretty sure that anything I eat is just going to come straight back up, so coffee would be great – just give me a minute.”
He puttered around inside while the coffee machine did its thing (it had taken him more than a few attempts to master the previous summer, and Graham still refused to touch it on principle) before taking his mug back outside and settling into the lounge chair next to Orlando, who had since been joined by a very tired and glasses-less (and therefore blind) Adam.
“Not too bad a night, huh?”
“I swear you guys are spoiling us for all other parties forever.”
Orlando grinned at that, smug and lazy. “Yeah, well. It’s kind of what we do.”
Richard liked Orlando, even if he hadn’t spent as much time getting to know him the previous summer as he could have. While he had his suspicions about Lee’s level of intelligence, despite the dumb front he sometimes put on, questions about Orlando’s were much more easily answered. He was incredibly clever – finishing his undergraduate degree in two and a half years – but also had a very short attention span, which was why he’d only got halfway through law school before losing interest in studying and packing it in completely. (Martin, as the only other person present with a law degree, had taken no small amount of interest in that when it had come up, spawning much discussion and debate about the merits of the two legal systems.)
His father was a lawyer, too – although merely calling him a lawyer seemed to be quite the understatement. Orlando had said (during one of Martin’s earlier interrogations) that he’d done his JD in the US before returning home to practise, but was eventually poached back by one of the biggest – and, according to Martin, most prestigious – corporate firms in Manhattan, which had offered him a title and a salary that he couldn’t refuse. So he’d moved his family over, the firm setting him up with a luxury apartment and a suggestion that he send his young son to a particular private school where he would rub shoulders with the children of diplomats and business moguls and –
And, well, the rest was history.
Orlando confessed, though, that he had no desire to sit the Bar, even if he did get around to finishing the degree (“trust me, I know all about young lawyers’ working hours. No thank you. I’ve got much better things to do with my time than be fucked around like that by people like Dad.”) – although Evie apparently did a very good impression of the look on his father’s face when Orlando first floated the idea of finding a graduate position with a non-profit or (worse – much worse) doing criminal legal aid work, just to screw with him. The whole lack of plans was obviously something of a sore spot with his father, but it was equally clear that Orlando gave very few fucks about what he thought.
Plus, he was too busy having fun.
His tendency to go hard and fast – and apparently that approach applied to all facets of his life, not just school – until he got bored also meant that holidays with him frequently took unexpected turns.
(A long-standing favourite story was the time that he and Evie had gone to South Africa for a couple of weeks of sun and surfing (why? Just because they could) – a local had suggested, since they obviously had money to burn, that they could partake in some canned hunting. (“Haven’t you ever wanted to shoot such a powerful predator? It’s an adrenaline rush like nothing else, man – you’ll never feel as powerful as you do after killing a lion.”) Orlando had been appalled, told the guy he was a disgrace to humanity, and immediately started looking into the whole abomination of an industry… and that led to him staying in the country for another eight months, by which time he’d wound up overseeing the entire volunteer programme at a local lion sanctuary, which most definitely did not participate in canned hunting. In the end, he’d only come home because – unsurprisingly – he was bored again, having turned the whole place around and rebuilt half of it himself and left it significantly more profitable than it had been when he arrived. The owners named their next rescue after him, and sent him pictures every month, which he would produce and show off at every possible opportunity.)
Honestly, it was something of a surprise that he managed to stick to the routine of the Hamptons every year – as far as Richard was aware, it was one of the only constants in his life, in the most exhilaratingly liberating way possible.
God, there was so much about these people that Richard just couldn’t comprehend – probably would never be able to.
And despite all that – he thought, for probably the thousandth time – the three of them (plus Dean, of course, but he didn’t come from money in the same way) were just so nice. They never acted like Richard and his friends were beneath them, never made them feel awkward about money – they genuinely only wanted to share their good times around with the little group of dorky Brits (and one non-Brit – the fuss that Aidan had kicked up when he’d been labelled as such had been something to behold indeed, and had resulted in an extended lesson in the geography of the British Isles) staying next door.
And every day, Richard was reminded that it had been one of the best decisions of their lives.
The pool house door opened then and Evie stepped out, freshly showered and wearing one of the luxurious fluffy robes that they kept in the bathroom for mornings like this.
“Oh, he was all right – just sleeps like the dead and takes up the whole goddamn mattress. I’m only up now because he managed to shove me off the edge. But yeah, maybe – six and a half out of ten?”
“Shame,” Orlando commiserated, handing her his mug and watching her down half of his coffee, now a bearable temperature, “he was pretty hot – I had much higher hopes than that.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Want us to all stare at him judgmentally when he comes out, then?”
“If you’d be so kind,” Evie grinned, “just – do me a favour and don’t let Dean hear, all right? I’m sure he’ll be insufferable if he finds out the guy wasn’t really worth it.”
“Does anyone ever score a perfect ten?” Adam wondered out loud, and Evie winked at him, ruffling his hair as she went past, obviously anxious for food and more coffee. “Of course they do, sweetheart.”
She made it as far as the door before meeting Lee, who had also only just surfaced. “Morning, stud,” she teased, and Richard resisted the urge to whip his head around at the sound of that low, lazy laugh.
“You’re too kind to me, Eves.”
When he appeared in Richard’s line of sight, though, Richard’s mouth fell open – and his wasn’t the only one. He was wearing the shorts he’d had on last night and not much else (beyond a severe case of what was undoubtedly sex hair), and while that was an extremely pleasant if not unusual getup, that wasn’t what had caught everyone’s attention.
No, it was the array of purple bruises jewelling the side of his neck and a precise path south along his collarbone, over his left pec, and then further down his stomach before disappearing behind his waistband.
Richard appeared to have forgotten how to breathe.
“Jesus Christ, what happened to you?”
Lee looked down at his chest with no small measure of surprise.
“Apparently she was a biter.”
“Don’t think there’s any ‘apparently’ about it, man. You look like you went ten rounds with a vacuum cleaner.”
“It was only three,” Lee grinned, “but who’s counting?”
“And she stayed the night?” Evie asked, equally surprised, and Lee shrugged. “I was too worn out to protest, so – I guess? Plus, I needed something to drown out Dean and Aidan.”
“Oh, like you’re one to talk – remember that time that you brought that girl home who screamed so loud that we thought she was actually being attacked? And it woke us all up and we all crept downstairs with whatever weapons we could find and it turned out that you just had her bent over the couch?”
Lee grinned, wide and delighted, like it was an occasion he had genuinely forgotten. “Oh, yeah. That girl. Good times. Plus, seeing you wielding that lamp in your birthday suit was a pretty great moment.”
“It was fucking traumatising,” Evie protested, “no, not the Orlando part, I mean –”
“I don’t know,” Lee smirked, “naked Orlando can be a pretty traumatising experience, especially if you’re not expecting it.”
“Fuck off,” Orlando said fondly, shaking his head, “I don’t know why I’m even friends with you.”
“Sure you do,” Lee replied, entirely unrepentant, “I’m a fucking great friend.”
“So great a friend, in fact, that you didn’t hesitate to tell the principal that you weren’t the only one responsible for that amazing prank we pulled in senior year when you got busted.”
“Oh, god, not high school stories –”
“Yes high school stories,” Adam piped up, “come on, I want to know what kind of hell you put your teachers through – and I definitely want to hear more about this prank.”
He sounded livelier than he had all morning, and, well – Orlando and Evie were more than happy to oblige him. It was enjoyable to see Lee in the hot seat for once, squirming as his friends regaled some of his more embarrassing moments for Richard and Adam – and everyone else, once they’d dragged themselves out of bed, Dean and Aidan wearing bruises that almost rivalled Lee’s.
(Richard didn’t want to know.)
“Tell me something,” Lee said curiously, once Orlando had paused to think of the next story, “how did you guys all become friends?”
“Thought we talked about this last summer? We all started at the same time, and –”
“No, no, I know that part. That’s not what I meant. Like, is literally everyone in your team into guys, or is Graham some kind of – magnet or something? The great gay shepherd of the Home Office?”
“We should definitely get him a t-shirt with that printed on it,” Aidan muttered, and Richard inhaled half his drink trying to muffle his laughter.
“I’m not a gay shepherd,” Graham insisted. “That’s really rather narrow-minded of you, Lee.”
“Sexuality is fluid, after all,” Graham informed him piously over the rim of his mug (visibly surprising him, too, if the way that the anxious look on his face had disappeared as soon as Graham started to elaborate). “Christ, I didn’t think you of all people would need a lecture on that front. I’m pretty sure all of us have slept with women, but as far as I know Richard’s the only one who’s exclusively into men. Everyone else just prefers them.”
“Did you not just hear me say ‘everyone else’?”
“Graham just likes women more than the rest of us do,” Aidan interjected, “but don’t worry – we have definitely seen him casually checking out guys when he thinks no one’s paying attention. He –”
“There’s nothing wrong with looking,” Graham parroted, like he did every time this came up (or, perhaps more specifically, every time Aidan brought it up. He was consistently fascinated by Graham’s and Laura’s relationship: being so devoted to each other that they didn’t really care if their spouse was eyeing up another guy’s ass, because they just knew it would never go any further than that and they had absolutely no reason to worry. It was the kind of love that Richard aspired to.) “I trust Laura, she trusts me, neither of us are insecure and it’s never anything more than looking.”
“I don’t think you need to sell anyone here on the joys of looking,” Orlando smirked, “plus, I’m not sure that any of us have ever been in enough of a relationship for that to even be an issue.”
“Even so, Graham’s so obvious about it when he’s out with us, even though he’s trying to be all subtle about it – like the time that he –”
“To answer your question, though, Lee, there is definitely something to this shepherd business, even if not in a strictly gay way,” Martin butted in, raising his voice to drown Aidan out (perhaps in an attempt to placate Graham, who was looking very much like he didn’t appreciate where Aidan’s anecdote was going), “since – did you guys know I didn’t even realise I was bi until I started working at the OSCT?”
Richard and his friends did, of course – one Friday night, only about two years ago, that had involved far too much to drink, during which the conversation had inexplicably turned to everyone’s sexualities. Martin (well, rather, the beers he’d been chugging back) had decided that it would be a great time to wax lyrical about how he’d always been curious about men but had never quite known what to do about it – or, indeed, if there was anything to be done at all – until he’d joined their little group. All of his friends outside work seemed to be as straight as they came, and while Richard and his friends weren’t exactly flamboyant clichés, they didn’t bother to hide their preferences, either.
Despite being completely sober, Martin was more than happy to retell the entire tale, culminating in the night out at a karaoke bar for Graham’s birthday (which had featured Martin singing an impassioned duet with a handsome stranger and promptly disappearing into the bathroom with him, emerging with mussed hair and a horribly obvious grin). Needless to say, it had been memorable for everyone – and since then, Martin and his newly-public sexual orientation had settled in happily.
“You just – went for it? Damn, Martin. Well done.”
“Sure did,” Martin smirked, “it was great – and definitely all down to these guys being so open and welcoming. So, yes – I definitely give Graham full credit for my bi awakening. You know, since he’s the team leader and all that.”
“Hold on, hold on,” Lee interrupted, mock-anxiously. “Can we just return to the previous topic? You’ve all had sex with women? All of you? Because Little Richard making lady friends before realising he exclusively likes dick is definitely something I’d like to explore in more detail.”
Little Richard. God. Suddenly it was a year earlier, and Richard was standing naked in the sea while Lee laughed at him and made jokes about his genitals. Lee might not have meant it in quite the same way this time, but that didn’t stop the memory from making itself known.
“And,” Richard countered, mildly horrified, “it is definitely something that I don’t think merits dwelling on – or mentioning ever again.”
Christ, it wasn’t even something he dwelled on. It wasn’t like he was ashamed – hell, most of the time it felt like he’d been the biggest stereotype ever when it came to working out which way he swung. He’d never really got it when his friends at high school talked about girls, joining in only so he didn’t seem like the odd one out. (He was too preoccupied, even if he would never have consciously registered it at the time, with the guy who sat in front of him in English, a rugby player, biceps swelling under his uniform shirt. He lost his pen on a regular basis, and Richard had come to keep a spare in his bag just in case, liking the warm smiles he got every time the guy turned around to ask, though he hadn’t given any thought as to why.) He was also enough of a nerd to avoid being stigmatised in any way for being single, and – hell, he didn’t even kiss a girl until his last year of school, but none of his friends had had any problem with that at all, since they were all as socially inept as each other.
And then he packed up and went off to university, an environment that was liberal in more ways than one, and lost his virginity at a party (while moderately inebriated) to a girl in one of his classes. It had been, objectively, lacklustre, but the girl – god, and he couldn’t even recall her name, although he was fairly sure he’d known it at the time – had hung around him for a few weeks more. They’d even gone on a couple of dates, nerve-racking affairs that they were – in some ways, the sex was easier, since he didn’t have to worry about trying to make intelligent conversation – before things fizzled out around not long after coming back from their Christmas holidays.
The fact that said fizzling happened at around the time of the social science faculty’s post-holidays function was – just a coincidence, really.
He may not have been able to remember the girl’s name, but he could sure remember Charlie’s – the uber-charming and charismatic political science major, two years older than Richard and smart as hell and very well-known amongst the students and staff alike, who had approached Richard at the bar, bought him a drink, and proceeded to strike up a conversation. Still-teenage Richard, never much for small talk with strangers, had bumbled through it, and it didn’t occur until half an hour in (when Charlie still hadn’t left his side, instead pressing closer as time went on, smiling and laughing and touching Richard’s arm) that perhaps he was being flirted with.
(Years later, when he told Luke the story, Luke laughed so hard at his obliviousness that he nearly threw up.)
The very concept had sent him into a bit of a tailspin (why was he flirting with Richard? And, perhaps more pressingly, why was Richard enjoying it?) which he somehow managed to internalise – Charlie, bless him, seemed to conclude that Richard was just a bit of a wallflower rather than in the midst of an impromptu sexuality crisis, and took it upon himself to coax out smiles and laughs and even jokes that Richard hadn’t thought himself capable of making when his mind was in such turmoil. When his friends called him away – much to Richard’s inexplicable dismay – he’d turned back with a little smile to tell Richard that there was a great band playing at one of the campus bars the next weekend and maybe he’d see him there.
“Maybe you will.”
(Richard had been so impressed with himself for the coolness of his response, not to mention the fact that he hadn’t burst into flames as he delivered it. It was definitely the first time he’d managed to not make a complete tit of himself in front of someone he was attracted to… wait, what?)
He spent the next week questioning everything he thought he knew about himself, even calling up his mum one evening to download all his anxiety onto her. She’d always been socially liberal, and this time was no exception – in retrospect, he was astonished at how calm she’d been in the face of the revelation, given the small town attitudes that seemed to permeate their community, but he’d seemed to know unconsciously how she’d react before he even picked up the phone. She’d encouraged him to pursue whatever this thing was with Charlie, and in the end, that was what had made up his mind.
(It didn’t stop him from feeling like he was going to vomit with anxiety as he got ready, though.)
He arrived at the bar painfully early – before the band had even arrived, their gear set up in the corner that was reserved for live acts – but spotted some acquaintances from one of his classes who he knew well enough to chat with while he waited, one eye on the door as people trickled in. It wasn’t until a few songs into the warm up band’s set that Charlie showed up – alone, Richard’s brain noted gleefully – at which point Richard excused himself, heading to the bar and managing to get the bartender’s attention before Charlie did – or, more importantly, before Charlie spotted him. He remembered the beer that they’d been drinking the last weekend – had even had the presence of mind to write it down when he got home, just in case – and the look on Charlie’s face when the bartender slid it across with a gesture in Richard’s direction most definitely made it worth it.
He didn’t break eye contact with Richard as he lifted the bottle to his lips, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed, and Richard didn’t think he’d ever seen such an innocuous act look so goddamn irresistible.
And then – oh shit, oh shit – then he was walking towards Richard, still holding the drink, and Richard was going to have to say something witty and –
“You didn’t have to do that, you know.”
“Well, you bought me one last time, so it’s only fair.” He offered up a hesitant smile, half his brain already screaming that he’d messed up, he wasn’t supposed to buy him a drink, it hadn’t meant anything last week and it didn’t mean anything now and –
“Jesus, you’re cute,” Charlie had huffed, and Richard hadn’t quite known what to make of that until he was stepping closer and leaning up and pressing their lips together in a kiss that was somehow both tentative and definite.
To say that it blew his mind was the understatement of the century.
Charlie smelled clean and sharp, and his mouth tasted like peppermint, and his tongue definitely knew what it was doing as it licked at Richard’s lower lip and then slid slowly into Richard’s mouth to press against his own – a careful, precise thing, mapping new territory as Richard’s hands moved to his hips, eventually sliding around to the small of his back as though they had minds of their own.
And he realised, just as Charlie whimpered very, very softly into his mouth, that he had absolutely no desire whatsoever to push him away.
Far from it.
“I’ve never kissed a guy before,” he blurted awkwardly after Charlie pulled away (slowly, very slowly, letting Richard chase his mouth a couple of times on the way), licking his lips and eyeing Richard somewhat speculatively. To his credit, though, Charlie just grinned back at him. “Yeah? And how was it? Or do I not need to ask?” He pressed closer – close enough for him to feel Richard’s painful and insistent erection – mortifying, but apparently all the answer that Richard needed about his attraction to boys.
This was it. This was how he was going to die.
“Um,” he managed, “it was – yeah.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
They chatted throughout the warm up act’s performance (short as it was, since the crowd was clearly anxious for the main event), Charlie just as effervescent and charming as he had been the previous week. He waved to people who he knew, but didn’t encourage any of them to come over – in fact, he was just pressing closer and closer to Richard, drink in his free hand while the other slowly, subtly, crept around his waist, the two of them curling into each other subconsciously. Richard was mostly astonished that he was still able to string a sentence together, preoccupied by Charlie’s warmth and smile and the way he was yearning to kiss him again.
Apparently, Charlie was in much the same boat.
“Tell you what,” he whispered, two songs into the headline act’s set, “I’ve actually seen this band live a couple of times already.”
“Yeah, so, I mean – I wouldn’t be missing much if I needed to leave in a hurry.”
“And what about me?” (Christ, Richard thought to himself, how was he still managing to be so coherent when Charlie’s voice was so velvety and promising?) “Should I be concerned about losing out? I’d hate for them to make it big and have lost the chance to see them for free.”
Charlie grinned, leaning closer and closer still, until his mouth was at Richard’s ear again, and – yes. That was Charlie’s cock pressed against his hip, hot and hard, and Richard’s knees nearly buckled right then and there. “The only thing you should be concerned about is how far away your place is, because I’d really like to get you out of those clothes and find out what you taste like.”
Okay, no, scratch that – this was how he was going to die. Game over.
“I, uh,” Charlie stuttered, clearly seeing the disbelief on Richard’s face and worrying that he’d overstepped the mark, “if you’d like to, that is. I’m not gonna do anything you don’t want. But like I said… You’re cute, and you’re a good kisser, and I kind of want to get to know you a little better.”
(A good kisser? What?)
Maybe this was just how things worked when it was two boys, Richard wondered dazedly: none of the usual courting and dating, just unashamedly getting down to the physical stuff as soon as you’d established that you found each other attractive.
He was surprised to discover how much he liked that idea.
“So… what do you say?”
“…I live by myself?”
(It had been a major coup, getting his own little studio in one of the halls, when the vast majority of his friends were living in shared flats with various unlikeable flatmates – but he hadn’t realised just how much of a coup until this precise moment.)
Charlie’s eyes darkened at the implication and he smiled, slow and dirty, before downing the rest of his drink, and Richard’s stomach lurched in the best possible way.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
And, well – that was that. He hadn’t looked twice at a woman since.
“No fun,” Lee pouted, “not even if we trade stories?”
(And god, if Luke had laughed at the tale of Charlie, he shuddered to think how insufferable Lee would be.)
“Lee, everyone here has already heard far more of your sexcapades than they would ever want to – promising more isn’t exactly an incentive.”
“I’m just trying to broaden everyone’s horizons.”
“Believe me,” Graham said drily, “they’re plenty broadened already.”
“Aw, Graham. Somehow I doubt that.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the strip poker a few nights later was Lee’s idea.
He waited until after dinner to float it, his tone casual enough, but Richard had a funny feeling it was something he’d been thinking about for a while – possibly ever since Graham had, unknowingly, issued him with what he’d clearly interpreted as a challenge.
(If that was the case, however, Richard had to concede that cards – even cards plus getting naked – was much more innocent than the myriad of possible alternatives when it came to Lee.)
“You’re ridiculously lucky at poker, though,” Dean complained, “so it will just be all of us losing our clothes while you sit there laughing at us.”
Aidan leaned in to murmur something in his ear – something that wiped the smile off his face and made a slow blush bloom on his cheeks.
“Actually, uh – never mind. Strip poker. Sure. I’m in.”
“Have you ever seen anyone make him blush like that?” Evie asked Lee quietly, while Dean and Aidan were still engrossed in each other, and Lee shook his head.
“Never seen him act like this about anyone,” he agreed, “must be something about these smouldering dark-haired Brits that gets him going.”
Richard didn’t lift his head – didn’t react in any way – at the teasing lilt of Lee’s tone. Surely he had only said it to get a rise out of him. Responding would only give rise to more embarrassment. It was better to act like he hadn’t heard at all.
They’d all drunk a bit much wine during dinner, and didn’t slow down in the slightest once the cards came out, Lee producing a couple of the more extravagant bottles from the wine cellar – “we might as well be dignified about the nudity,” as he’d put it – as Orlando and Evie explained the usual rules, each round resulting in the winner choosing who had to strip.
“And the more theatrical you make it, the better,” Evie added, “so get your best dance moves ready.”
“But,” Adam said slowly, anxiously, “doesn’t that mean that you could all agree beforehand to target one person so they have to strip every round?”
Evie and Orlando grinned in unison. “Would we do that?”
The answer was yes.
They most definitely would.
Adam’s relief was tangible, though, when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be their target – almost as tangible as the slow, forbidden intrigue curling in Richard’s stomach and probably emanating from him when they established that the victim was Lee.
He took it in his stride initially, shedding his sunglasses (prompting cries of foul play, since they’d appeared on his head shortly before the games began) and shoes and watch with a smirk each time.
By the time his shirt came off, he had cottoned on.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing, you assholes,” he informed the group at large, lifting his glass in Evie’s direction, “and don’t think I won’t forget it, either.”
“Maybe you just need to work on your poker skills,” Evie offered, hiding her decidedly un-innocent smirk behind her cards and giving Orlando a sneaky low five as soon as Lee looked away.
(Richard was having a lot of trouble doing the same. Lee’s hickeys from a few nights earlier were still very much on display – the person who’d left them had to have really made an effort. It obviously hadn’t been enough to win Lee over on a more permanent basis, though – he remembered her name, at least, but had made no mention of calling her again.)
“Seriously, though, you never play this badly,” Dean commented after a while. He too was shirtless already, having let Aidan choose what he should take off when he was lucky enough to win a round and unsurprisingly picked Dean as his victim. He’d made himself comfortable sitting between Aidan’s legs and leaning back against his chest, his camera strap around his neck, having spent as much of the evening playing as he had taking photos. (Luke had tried to suggest that he was collecting blackmail material, which was met with raucous laughter: “trust me,” Dean smirked, “I have more blackmail material up my sleeve when it comes to these guys than I’d ever know what to do with. A nice little game of strip poker is nothing.”) “What have you done to make your luck run out?”
“Nothing,” Lee protested, and Evie rolled her eyes. “Come on, I’m sure you’ve done something immoral in the last day.”
“Well, there was that girl who I convinced to blow me in the bathroom at lunch when she was out with her parents and boyfriend… Does that count?”
“That would do it.”
“I didn’t tell her afterwards that her lipstick was all smudged, either.”
“Yeah, that would definitely do it.”
“She was cute, though,” Lee said, almost as an afterthought, “and way more amenable to getting it on in the handicapped stall than I’d thought she would be.”
“You’re a fucking disgrace, Lee.”
“Yeah, yeah. You just wish you were as irresistible as me.”
“One day you’re going to get syphilis,” Dean informed him with an accusing finger, “and then you’re going to –”
“What? Regret all the spectacular sex I’ve had? I don’t think so, Deano.”
“Come back to me on that once your dick has fallen off.”
“…I don’t think that’s how syphilis works, bud.”
Even Graham got in on the action a couple of rounds later, not apologetic in the slightest as he told Lee to take off his shorts. Said shorts were very nice – faded denim that did an admirable job of making his legs look even longer and leaner than they already did. Then again, copping an eyeful as he reclined in just his briefs – black and even smaller and doing nothing to hide what was between his legs… Well, it wasn’t exactly a hardship.
“Jeez, guys,” Lee smirked, “if you’d wanted to get me naked, you could have just asked. I’d take any of you to bed without question. You didn’t have to do all of this.”
“You’re gross, Lee.”
“You’re the ones forcing me to take my clothes off – glass houses, stones, you know.”
Apparently everyone decided that that was as far as they were going to take matters, though – Lee won the next round, getting Graham back in the process, and when Martin won the round after, he picked Adam as his victim (who flushed adorably and tried to pretend his glasses were an item until everyone pointed out that he was basically blind without them). That was followed by Luke losing his shirt, and then Aidan stripping down to his underwear, and then Orlando doing the same.
Richard didn’t know if the fact that Lee wasn’t going to be called on again was a relief or a disappointment.
Aidan and Dean had been getting increasingly handsy with each other as the evening had worn on – so too had Evie and Orlando, interestingly enough – so it wasn’t any great surprise when they made their excuses, all stumbling upstairs (although Evie’s slightly hysterical giggling suggested that at least one of them had tripped and face-planted en route) to continue their undressing in private.
“Any takers for another round, or am I gonna have to head out to make my own fun?” Lee asked, like he already knew the answer, but in no great hurry to get moving, still leaning back against the couch all loose-limbed and relaxed.
“Sorry, Lee – think we’re going to head on home.” Richard spoke for all of them, but it had been the right call, going by the way that Luke had stiffened (and not in the good way, either) at the question. Lee didn’t seem at all put out, though, lounging around in his underwear like it was an everyday occurrence.
“Aw, that’s okay. I think I heard Dean mention a party down the road, anyway, so I might head over and see if I can get lucky there instead.”
“Hope you’re planning to put some clothes on first,” Luke replied, somewhat pious, but Lee just shrugged maddeningly.
“Or I could just take the direct route.”
“You always take the direct route,” Martin butted in, and Lee winked at him. “If you feel like joining me, I’ll show you just how much.”
To Richard’s unending surprise, Martin and Adam decided that they would join Lee in sourcing some more entertainment for the evening. Both of them were almost fully clothed, having not been targeted by any of the better players. Adam had only lost his shoes, and had had a couple of wins himself, actually, since his poker face was so bad it was actually good (when he’d been drinking he was prone to getting giggly, so much so that no one could tell if he had a great hand or an abysmal one).
Richard didn’t hear them come home (a surprise, given that he spent most of the night wide awake) but had his answer when he headed next door for breakfast the next morning, finding them both slumped over the table, looking decidedly worse for wear.
“I don’t think I’ve ever regretted a night out as much as I regret last night.”
“Cheer up,” Dean said loudly, making them both wince and cover their ears (and yeah, he was definitely speaking louder than usual on purpose just to fuck with them – Richard had to admit that he approved), “drink your Bloody Marys and you’ll be right.”
“I hate everything.”
“And you’ve only got yourselves to blame for trying to keep up with Lee.”
“Yeah, well – lesson learned.”
The two of them ended up going home to try and sleep off their hangovers, Lee watching them go with no small measure of amusement.
“What did you do to them?” Richard asked, not quite sure he wanted to know the answer (although comforted, in some small way, by the fact that neither of them were exuding any emotion that would have suggested that they had slept with Lee. That was a concept that just didn’t bear thinking about.)
“Maybe you should come along next time and find out.”
“After seeing what they look like this morning, somehow I feel like that would be a mistake.”
“Well then,” Lee grinned, “I suppose it’s just going to have to remain a mystery.”
Martin and Adam remained somewhat infuriatingly tight-lipped about the whole thing – all that anyone could get out of them was that there had been a drinking competition and a lot of encouragement from Lee to participate as best they could. They also refused to move after their late morning naps, which led to everyone spending the day by the pool (the pair of them in the shade, wearing the darkest sunglasses they could find and slugging back water and painkillers) until Lee fired up the grill in the early evening, donning a ridiculous frilly apron that had somehow never made an appearance before, and posing exaggeratedly as everyone guffawed.
“You’re just jealous you could never pull this look off. I’m smoking.”
“Something certainly is,” Graham replied, not looking up from his book – Lee had been too busy hamming it up to notice that it was a while since he’d prodded the meat he was cooking.
“What do you – oh, shit–”
The next day was just as lazy, with no one showing any signs of moving before noon, if at all. Richard, meanwhile, had had a moderately acceptable sleep and energy to burn for once. The people who owned their house kept a few bikes in the garage, and once he’d found a pump and put some air in the tires he was ready to go for a spin.
The back roads nearby were familiar enough after a summer and a half – he stayed away from traffic that was anything more than sporadic, not fancying the idea of Luke et al having to scrape him off the asphalt – and when he did inevitably take an unfamiliar turn, just for the hell of it, he had his phone to guide him back. It was a long time since he’d been on a bike, and he spent close to two hours savouring the breeze on his face and the pleasant warmth humming through his muscles. He’d really have to do this more often.
He hopped off the bike with a stupid grin on his face (and a slightly tender tailbone), wheeling it up to the front door to see if he could coax Luke into coming out with him later before heading around the back to gloat about his escapades.
That was when he found that the house was empty.
More importantly, it was also locked.
Only mildly irritated, he went to check next door, realising on his way that his book was still sitting on the table outside. At least if Lee’s place was all shut up as well, he could come back and stretch out for some quiet reading time rather than dying of boredom or having to resort to breaking a window to get inside.
But there was no one there, either – at least, no one making any noise – or so it seemed until Richard reached the far side of the house.
There was a little alcove just around the far corner, a partially walled-in area with a tap and a hose where they could rinse off any lingering sand on their feet before heading inside (not that it stopped Richard from finding the stuff everywhere, from between the pages of his books to inside pockets of his suitcase that he swore he hadn’t opened the whole trip). It was big enough for a few shelves, too, where the gardener kept his most frequently used tools, but was built into the side of the house so neatly that it wasn’t an eyesore.
Based on the running water Richard could hear, said alcove was also occupied.
And he’d thought everyone was out.
He heard a joyous bark of recognition and then Horse came bounding around the corner, heading for Richard at full tilt. He was followed swiftly by a very wet, dirty and disgruntled Lee, whose expression immediately gave way to one of horror as Horse lunged for Richard, pawing at his shirt with another bark.
Richard was usually more than happy to be the subject of the dog’s affection – it was still incredibly gratifying to be the only other person that he would behave like this around – except on this occasion, he appeared to be just as wet as Lee was, patches of his fur iridescent with soap, and the rest caked in something brown and pungent.
That something, thanks to his enthusiasm, was also now all over Richard’s t-shirt.
“God, Richard, I’m so sorry.”
Lee definitely wouldn’t be looking so apologetic if it was just dirt.
“…Why does he smell like shit?”
“Because,” Lee said through gritted teeth, curling his fingers under Horse’s collar and tugging him away from Richard, “he’s been rolling in it.”
“He – what?”
“There are these people who live somewhere around here,” Lee managed, struggling to shepherd Horse back around the corner and towards the hose, “and who have – damn it, Horse – actual horses, believe it or not, that they bring to the Hamptons because they’re pretentious fucks like that, and sometimes they like to ride them on the beach.”
“And somebody isn’t used to having muck like that to play in, so when the opportunity presents itself…”
On further examination, Horse did look extremely pleased with himself.
“But he’s far too excited for me to actually get it off him, and I definitely don’t want him trekking it through the house, which is why we are out here, and why I’m wishing I had adopted something a little bit smaller because I cannot get him to just stay still.”
He didn’t mean it – not really. Richard knew that he wouldn’t trade Horse for anything in the world, even when he was being a complete menace.
Horse, meanwhile, responded to the empty threat by licking Lee’s face. He really was showing no interest in settling down and being groomed; he wanted to play, and he did not appreciate the fact that Lee wasn’t on board with that idea.
That, in turn, meant that giving him a proper wash was going to be nigh on impossible without reinforcements.
“Can I give you a hand, then?”
“…I just told you he’s covered in shit, and you’re offering to help?”
Richard gestured to the dirty pawprints and smudges of said shit that were already adorning the front of his t-shirt with a faintly resigned laugh.
“This is going in the wash anyway, and you sort of sound like you could use someone to hold him down.”
“Well, I’m not gonna say no,” Lee said, still visibly surprised by the offer, “here, just – yeah, stay there, and keep him still.”
Richard sank to his knees obediently, taking over Lee’s grip on Horse’s collar and bracing the other arm around the dog’s back legs, stretch though it was, to hold him in place. Horse stared at him forlornly, like he’d been betrayed by Richard’s offer to help clean him up, before turning the gaze on Lee in what was clearly a last-ditch attempt to avoid bathtime.
“Oh, don’t give me that face,” Lee laughed, reaching for the discarded soap and scratching Horse’s ear with his free hand, “you’ll thank me when you’re nice and clean. You really have done an admirable job of making a giant mess – I’m almost impressed.”
Richard’s reasons for offering to help had been genuine – he’d had no ulterior motive whatsoever (other than, perhaps, doing something to earn Lee’s gratitude and maybe a smile or two). But as he restrained Horse, it became increasingly difficult to focus on keeping him in check – something to do with the motions of Lee’s hands, rubbing the soap into Horse’s fur and digging his fingertips in to work out the worst of the dirt.
It made Richard think things – illicit things.
The sort of things that a person who was in a relationship with someone else should not be thinking at all.
Such as, for example, how those fingers would feel squeezing his ass, or curling inside him, or wrapped around his cock, or clawing at his shoulders as Richard fucked into him, slow and rhythmic, or –
Jesus Christ, Richard, pull it together.
Horse was loving the attention – two humans on whom to bestow his enthusiastic love – and he made sure they knew about it by getting them both as wet and dirty as he could. And by the time they were done, Horse was clean, but Lee and Richard appeared to be wearing everything that had come out of his fur.
(Richard was also, admittedly, a little bit harder than he would have liked.)
“On reflection,” Richard mused, “maybe I should just throw this shirt out.”
“Oh, don’t be like that,” Lee grinned, “come on, I’m sure we can get it looking as good as new. Here, let me help.”
Richard hadn’t noticed the mischievous glint in his eye until it was too late – and with a flick of his wrist, Lee had turned the hose away from Horse and onto Richard, partially covering the nozzle with a fingertip so that the water sprayed everywhere, dousing him thoroughly.
“Jackass,” he laughed, clambering to his feet as Lee did the same, giggling like a child and darting out of reach, still waving the hose precariously, soaking himself as much as he was soaking Richard, “come here, give me that, you’re gonna get it now.”
Horse, meanwhile, was delirious with joy at the fact he was finally getting his way (even if he’d had to have the shit scrubbed off him for that to happen), following the two men out of the little alcove and onto the grass, lolloping around them and barking happily as they fought for control of the hose, doing their best to re-saturate each other as thoroughly as possible. It didn’t take long before they were both breathless with laughter, and only a minute more before they were both on the ground, play-fighting with Horse and letting him clamber all over them as he bestowed the occasional playful bite.
Richard couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt so young and silly.
“Okay, truce, truce,” Lee gasped, flicking his wrist and directing the spray of water away from both of them as he stood and reached for Richard’s hand, Horse whining in dismay at the prospect of the game being over, “You win. God, I’m so sorry about your clothes. Here, strip off and I’ll wash them for you when I do mine. It’s the least I can do, really.”
Richard took him at his word – and, well, that was a mistake.
He was down to his briefs when Lee turned on him – literally, as it happened, waiting until he was focused on peeling his sodden shorts over his feet to creep up on him and blast him on the back of the neck with the hose.
The involuntary squawk that came out of Richard’s mouth was undignified to say the least.
“Oh my god, you fucking –”
Lee was also naked but for his briefs, having taken his own dirty clothes off to keep up the ruse for as long as possible, but that only meant that there was no longer anything for Richard to grab onto, his hands grasping futilely at Lee’s slippery skin as he danced out of reach triumphantly.
“I helped you with your bloody dog,” he yelled, doing his best to sound indignant and failing miserably, “and this is how you repay me?”
That, of course, just made Lee laugh more – at least until Horse jumped on him, just like he’d done to Richard the summer before. Lee fell heavily, losing his grip on the hose as he did so, squirming away as Horse barked and licked his face gleefully.
“I can’t believe – oof – you’ve taken his side,” Lee chastised Horse with no small measure of amusement, “come on, years of feeding you and walking you and never complaining when you eat things you shouldn’t, you big traitor –”
“That’s not very nice of you,” Richard teased, unable to keep the shit-eating grin off his face, taking advantage of Lee’s distraction to pick up the hose, looping it over his shoulder so Lee couldn’t grab it back without a struggle, and then fiddling with the nozzle so that it shot out a jet of water rather than the spray that they’d been using on Horse.
That was when Lee noticed what was happening.
“Oh, no – no no no no no –“
“Oh, yes,” Richard corrected cheerfully, standing over him as Horse effectively held him down, paws on his chest as he turned back to Richard, barking once and then trying to bite at the water. Richard just adjusted the angle, savouring the wet-sounding squawk he got from Lee as he blasted him right in the face.
Lee flailed, trying and failing to get away, eventually managing to cover his face with one arm while his other hand grabbed Richard’s ankle and yanked. Richard, far too pleased with himself to notice what was happening, went down and went down hard, managing to avoid Horse but still grunting from the impact as he hit the ground – and then Lee was on him, straddling his hips, wrestling the hose away to give him a taste of his own medicine, his free hand pinning both of Richard’s above his head, both of them still breathless and more than a little hysterical, except even as he squeezed his eyes shut against the spray he couldn’t help but enjoy the weight of Lee on top of him, wondering how it would feel to make him squirm in an entirely different way, and Lee was still laughing, and then –
“What the hell is going on here?”
Even Horse seemed slightly embarrassed to have been caught in the act. He was wearing the most human expression Richard had ever seen on a dog, and had Richard not been preoccupied with the accusatory look on Luke’s face (and the unabashed curiosity on the others’) he probably would have laughed. Now, though, he felt a slow flush of guilt crawl up his neck – and god, that would just make things so much worse, because Luke would think there was actually something going on when there so definitely wasn’t – and the words just wouldn’t come and –
“It’s my fault,” Lee grinned, breezy and entirely unfazed as he climbed off Richard, holding out a hand to help him to his feet as well, “Horse got kind of dirty when I took him for a walk, and Richard was just helping me hold him down so I could clean him up. He, ah – he got a little carried away during the process.”
It didn’t explain why the two of them were all but naked – which, no doubt, was the part that Luke was most concerned with, going by the way his gaze was flickering between them – but, mercifully, it was enough.
“Was it by any chance those horse people again?” Dean asked, trying and failing to contain his laughter. (To be fair, they had to look pretty stupid – soaking wet and covered in bits of grass; Lee had a huge grass stain up one leg and Richard suspected that he wasn’t faring much better.)
Lee rolled his eyes at the question. “How did you guess? No, Horse,” he added, grabbing at the dog’s collar as he tried to lunge for Dean, having heard his name and figuring that Dean wanted to join in the fun. “Yeah, and by the time I noticed what he was doing, it was way too late – and he thought the whole thing was hilarious, obviously.”
“Rather you guys than me,” Aidan snickered, “especially when he obviously wasn’t in the mood to stand still.”
“One of the many joys of dog ownership,” Lee agreed, “but it’s so much more fun when you can bring an unsuspecting neighbour down with you.”
“Hilarious,” Richard sighed, “but, um – I’m gonna head next door for a shower and some dry clothes.”
“Thanks for your help, Richard,” Lee called with a shit-eating grin, “much appreciated, really.”
“Yeah, yeah – at least I know to leave you to struggle on your own next time.”
Lee’s laughter followed him the whole way home.
High on the list of things he loved about his and Luke’s bedroom in the Hamptons – which, yes, was apparently now permanently theirs, despite the fuss that everyone else had made the previous summer when they claimed it – was the fact that it had an en suite. They were used to sharing an apartment with flatmates, after all, so the idea of having their own bathroom was a luxury that he still sometimes struggled to wrap his head around. He’d left the rest of his clothes in the laundry downstairs to deal with later, stripping off his briefs once he was under the warm spray and rinsing away the mud and crap and grass that had stuck to him during his tussling with Lee and Horse, unable to help grinning as he did so.
The grin died on his face, though, when he turned around to find that he wasn’t alone – Luke had propped himself against the doorframe casually, wearing his briefs and a look that meant exactly one thing and nothing else.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked, gaze trickling over Richard speculatively, and – well.
(It had been Luke’s idea to stash a bottle of lube in the shower, and Richard mentally conceded – as he had done every other time they’d fucked in there, both this summer and last – that it had been a very, very good one.)
“Good afternoon?” Luke asked, the words slow and lazy and muffled in Richard’s shoulder. His accent always thickened after particularly good sex, and Richard would be lying if he said he didn’t love it.
“Mm, it seems to have taken a turn for the better.”
“Glad to hear it.”
They rinsed off slowly, letting the flush fade from their faces while they dried off, unable to resist swapping a few lazy kisses as they did so. Luke’s mouth was as warm and familiar as always – and yet, now that the high had worn off, feeling his slightly smaller frame pressed to Richard’s just made Richard think of having Lee under him, half-naked and giggling and even more gorgeous than usual.
“I’ve got to admit,” Luke confessed, pulling Richard away from his thoughts, “seeing you playing with Horse before was pretty damn cute. I can’t believe how much he likes you when he seems to hate pretty much everyone else.”
“Oh, really?” Richard teased, flicking him with his towel as they left the bathroom in search of clean clothes. “Cute enough to make you think some more about getting one of our very own?”
“Hey, I’ve never said no,” Luke protested, “it’s more that it just hasn’t been the right time.”
“…Do you think it will be the right time soon, then?”
“Maybe it will be.”
The smile that he gave Richard was promising to say the least – and the idea of finally getting a puppy of his own kept him giddy with joy for the rest of the afternoon and all through the evening.
“Guess who I got a message from this morning,” Lee announced at breakfast the next day, and Dean rolled his eyes.
“God, Lee, there are so many options I wouldn’t know where to start. Whoever it is you’ve been putting the moves on in the ten minutes since you kicked out the guy from last night? Someone whose relationship you broke up? One of the hundreds of girls you’ve slept with over the last few years sending you a picture of the child you didn’t know you had?”
“Dean, I think you’ve missed your calling – forget photography, you should be a stand up comedian.”
“Yes, thank you, I do try. So – who was it?”
“Oh, that’s spectacular news.”
There wasn’t a trace of sarcasm in Dean’s voice, which caught the attention of everyone around the table who hadn’t already been listening (even Martin, who seemed to have been trying to work out how many pancakes he could fit in his mouth at once and hadn’t participated in the conversation at all for at least ten minutes).
“Just a friend of ours,” Lee said airily, trying to bite back his triumphant grin, “mentioned him last summer – he’s the one with his pilot’s licence.”
“Sure is – and he’s keen to go for a spin if any of you guys are interested.”
“Sign us the fuck up.”
“Already have – he’s expecting us at the hangar in two hours.”
“Lee,” Graham said fervently, “you’re a bloody legend.”
Terry’s plane (and of course he owned the bloody thing, never mind the exorbitant cost of doing so) was only a four-seater, so they went up in threes, everyone left behind making themselves comfortable on the grass outside the little airstrip. Lee had brought booze – of course he had – but Richard didn’t much fancy drinking before a flight, especially one in such a tiny plane, so he stuck to coke as they stretched out in the sun and waited for their turn.
Graham had pulled rank and insisted that he go first, so Terry had taken him with Martin and Adam. Luke was engrossed in conversation with Evie and Orlando – something about the merits of some awful sci-fi franchise that the three of them inexplicably loved, having discovered as much the summer before – while Lee had reverted to trying to stump Dean with weird cocktail recipes as Aidan looked on fondly.
(Richard liked the fact that Luke seemed to be getting on well with Lee’s friends – he was still so dubious of Lee himself a lot of the time, but the holidays would have been tense to say the least if he’d refused to engage with any of their other neighbours either. It wasn’t the same as the way that Evie and Orlando had almost adopted Adam as some sort of adorably innocent little brother, or the dirty joke battles that Orlando and Lee liked to have with Martin… but it was something.)
“So – what’s going on with you guys?” Richard asked quietly, nudging Aidan and nodding towards Dean, and Aidan’s face lit up like the fucking sun.
Oh, to be that young and reckless again, able to wear his heart on his sleeve so completely without repercussions.
“God, he’s gorgeous. I really like him, Richard.”
“I can see that,” he teased, because anyone with eyes could read Aidan like a book, “but, I mean…?”
“It’s nothing official, no – doesn’t really seem practical, not when he’s here and I’m at home for all but a couple of weeks of the year. Long distance really isn’t his thing, and it isn’t mine either, and I’m not gonna tell him that we should be something exclusive when that would mean condemning us both to never getting laid.”
“God forbid,” Richard grinned, and Aidan nudged him back. “Come on, Mr Stable Relationship – you can’t chastise me for not liking the idea of celibacy when you’ve got it whenever you want it. Maybe one day, though – who knows where we’ll be in a couple of years? But for now I’m just gonna enjoy the hell out of him while I can and leave it at that.”
“Aaaand I think that’s about as far as I want to take that line of conversation.”
“You were the one who started it!”
“Hang on,” Lee butted in, “did I hear that right? Richard instigating a conversation about sex? I don’t believe it.”
“Oh my god,” Richard muttered, since now they had everyone else’s attention too (including Luke, who was looking a little less than thrilled), “it was not a conversation about sex.”
“You asked about Dean – where did you think it was gonna go?”
“I, for one, would love to discuss the joys you’re getting out of my buddy Mr O’Gorman,” Lee said cheerfully. “Hey, you should ask him to do the thing where he –”
“No, okay, on second thoughts, I’m with Richard,” Dean interrupted, now looking just as embarrassed as Richard felt, “let’s park this whole topic and move on.”
“You guys are such prudes. Just trying to share my wisdom.”
“Tell me later,” Aidan smirked, and Dean looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole.
Adam was more than a little green when he, Martin and Graham made their way back over, even though the others had insisted that the flight had been a smooth one – he wasn’t much of a flier (certainly never on a plane that small) and even the trans-Atlantic trip over left him a little queasier than any of the rest of them. Evie patted the ground next to her, offering him a bottle of water as she did so, which he accepted gratefully – but not so gratefully as the conversation she and Orlando drew him into in an attempt to distract him.
“So, how much did you enjoy watching Southampton choke in their most important game of the season? I’ve gotta say it gave me a lot of pleasure.”
Despite not looking like the sporting type at all, Adam had a borderline unhealthy love of football – and Orlando, who may have spent the vast majority of his life in the US but nevertheless had English blood, had never been able to get on board with the American version. It had been something of a surprise to discover, the previous summer, that this was something the two of them could discuss for hours, trading player stats and mocking each other for their teams’ losses. Lee had even managed to dig out a football one afternoon towards the end of their holiday for an impromptu (if inelegant) game on the beach, even though he’d refused to listen to anyone’s attempts to explain the rules (no, Lee, you can’t pick up the ball and run with it, that’s not how football works, no, American football is a scourge on the name of football, it’s a bullshit sport that no one outside the US cares about, shut up and put the ball down and kick it with your foot). Adam had spent most of it bent double and wheezing with laughter – he said he’d always been too scrawny and uncoordinated to actually play himself, so while his knowledge was excellent his skill was fairly negligible – while Luke, Martin and Graham had devolved to a new level of intense competitiveness that resulted in tackling each other whenever they had the ball. That, of course, meant that the game morphed from football to rugby, which Lee still didn’t get (yes, Lee, now you can pick up the ball, but you’re only allowed to throw it sideways or backwards – no, you can’t hurl it over everyone’s heads to Evie down the other end so she can score, that’s so offside it isn’t even funny, Jesus Christ, Lee, do that again and you’re going in the sin bin – yes, that’s what it’s actually called, what of it?)
It was, at any rate, a topic that was guaranteed to take his mind off any residual nausea bubbling away in his stomach.
“Fuck off,” he laughed, leaning against Evie and taking another slug of his water, “you can’t talk – your precious Man U bombed so badly they’re lucky they haven’t been relegated.”
“Fuck off,” Orlando echoed, somehow imbuing the words with even more disbelief than Adam had, “they were third. Third. You’re just jealous your boys didn’t even rank in the top ten.”
(Needless to say, this was far from the first time they’d had the conversation.)
Richard, Luke and Dean went up in the plane next – Aidan hadn’t protested at the separation, interestingly enough, obviously anxious to take Lee up on the conversation he’d suggested earlier – Dean in the front, making himself as small as possible for fear of touching anything he shouldn’t, while Luke and Richard squeezed into the back. Terry handed over the headsets and explained how to plug them in before rattling off a standard safety spiel about smoking on board and lifejackets and how he would lift one hand if he needed them to be quiet.
Even with the headsets on, though, the noise that the plane made was staggering – a sharp reminder of just how small and fragile it was compared to what they’d flown over on and just how much they were at the mercy of one man who they’d never met before. Luke was like a kid on Christmas, though, leaning forward as far as his belt would allow to watch Terry fiddle with the various switches and dials in front of him – visibly bursting with questions but knowing that it wasn’t exactly the right time to ask. (Richard didn’t doubt that Graham had been a thousand times worse, having actually wanted to be a pilot when he was younger, only heading to university instead because of the appalling fees and equally appalling job prospects.)
The roar of the engine intensified further once they’d reached the end of the runway and Terry had been given the all clear, following an incomprehensible exchange over the radio, and then they were barrelling down the centre line, and then tilting upwards, and Richard watched the wheels leave the ground, and the shadow of the plane on the tarmac get smaller and smaller, and…
And then he looked out rather than down, and promptly forgot all about the noise.
Because flying into JFK was one thing, but this – god, this was stunning.
The view was almost sickeningly perfect, like Richard wasn’t looking out the window of a plane but at a tourist brochure: the water an almost unnatural shade of blue, the sand an equally unnatural stretch of gold, rows of picture-perfect houses. It was nothing like the concrete jungle that greeted anyone landing in New York City – not least because they were flying at such a low altitude that they could actually see the detail of the landscape beneath them – and it was goddamn mesmerising.
Terry took them north-east, veering north over Gardiners Island and then looping around Montauk at the tip of the peninsula, returning parallel to the beach before heading inland to get them back on the ground. It took maybe half an hour all up, but Richard spent the entirety of it in a state of suspended disbelief, watching the scenery below with no small amount of awe (much the same as everyone else) and – not for the first time – feeling absurdly grateful for his new friends, Lee most of all. Christ knew how much something like this would cost normally – no doubt anyone qualified enough to offer private flights in the Hamptons would normally gouge the hell out of their customers – and yet Lee had teed it up for them for free without a second thought and without standing to gain a single thing from it.
Except, perhaps, the triumph that he was clearly getting out of seeing Richard and his friends enjoy themselves so much. He was waiting on the tarmac in a neon vest, waving as they touched down, Terry guiding the plane to a halt right in front of him.
“God, Lee, didn’t anyone tell you that you’re not meant to be out here unsupervised?”
“Nope,” Lee beamed, unfazed, his attention clearly on the other occupants of the plane as they disembarked (albeit unwillingly), “so how was it?”
Both Luke and Dean had spoken at the same time, effusive as each other, and Lee laughed, slinging an arm around Richard’s shoulders as they headed back to the rest of the group – Luke was too bubbly to notice, let alone complain, he and Dean gurgling to each other excitedly.
And Richard, well – he tried not to think about how good it felt to be tucked into Lee’s casual embrace, meaningless as it surely was.
“So… You and Terry?” Martin asked faux-casually, sliding over to Lee and Richard once they’d sat back down, and Richard cringed. Lee, meanwhile, just looked down at him indulgently, like he was mentally assessing how much detail to divulge.
“What do you mean, me and Terry?”
“Have you – well. I mean, you guys looked pretty cosy.”
“Sure,” Lee shrugged, “we’ve been friends for a long time.”
“…If you’re asking whether I’ve had his cock in my mouth at any time during a flight, Martin, the answer is yes.”
Every time. Every fucking time Richard wondered whether Lee could get more inappropriate, he was reminded that – yes. Yes, he definitely could.
“But yes, we really are just friends. Why? Do you want me to put in a good word for you?”
Martin shrugged in a way that definitely meant yes, and the corner of Lee’s mouth turned up further in amusement. “I’ll see what I can do. Fair warning, though – he’s definitely on the well-endowed side, so you might want to test out your gag reflex between now and then.”
“What makes you think it needs testing out?” Martin asked, offended, and this time it was Lee’s turn to shrug. “Colour me over-observant, but I’ve gotta say – you haven’t exactly been taking advantage of all of the no strings attached sex that’s on offer here as much as I might have expected.”
It hadn’t really occurred to Richard, but Lee was right. (God, and how often did he get to say that?) Even Adam – normally fairly reserved when it came to such things – had had an impressive string of one night stands, both that summer and the one before, although after one encounter (with a guy with some surprising and unusual kinks that he was very anxious for Adam to indulge him in despite some fairly insistent protestation, the situation only deescalating when Evie came looking for him), he’d made sure to run them past whoever was most sober out of Evie, Orlando and Lee, just to check that he wasn’t jumping into bed with a lunatic.
Martin, though… Martin drank a lot, and while he had definitely engaged in a few prolonged makeout sessions in full view of everyone, he seemed to have the dubious honour of being the most likely out of all of them (other than Graham, of course) to wake up alone the next morning. Then again, Richard knew he was a bit of a romantic at heart – yet another matter that had come up during that drunken outpouring about his sexuality – so for all his bluster and inappropriate comments (not that he could hold a candle to Lee), maybe he just wasn’t that into the whole idea of sleeping with someone with whom he didn’t share a particularly strong emotional connection.
(On further reflection, it wasn’t like that was an alien concept to Richard at all – while he’d definitely gone off the idea of jumping into bed with someone before knowing them out of it a long time ago, it wasn’t as if it wasn’t something he’d ever engaged in. He couldn’t fault Martin for it in the slightest; it was just… unexpected.)
“Maybe I’ve just been holding out for something more appealing than the usual all-American Ken dolls you seem to be friends with,” Martin countered. That wasn’t a lie, either – Lee’s friends were all remarkably good looking, but Terry had a little edge of ruggedness that none of the others seemed to possess, and that was obviously what had hooked Martin.
“Well, whenever you want me to hook you up, just say the word. In fact, I’ve already got someone in mind – after you’ve had a go with Terry, at least.”
“…Have you slept with everyone here?”
Well, if there was ever a dangerous question to ask Lee, that was it.
“Not everyone,” Lee smirked, “but…”
“Come on, then – what’s your number?”
“Jesus Christ, Martin, stop encouraging him,” Richard sighed, but it was too late.
“Oh, you mean the number of people I’ve had sex with?”
“That’s the one. Come on, how many digits? Gotta be at least three, right?”
Martin was too fucking curious for his own good, and Lee – well, Lee was too fucking willing to take advantage of it.
“Suppose it depends what you count as sex, doesn’t it?”
Any sophistication the discussion might have once had shrivelled fairly swiftly after that, the two of them engaging in heated debate about what exactly constituted sex for the purpose of Lee’s list. (“So wait,” Lee asked, with that earnest look on his face that only ever meant trouble, “what if it’s a spit roasting situation? Does that count as one person or two if I only make out with the one who’s not in the middle?”) When Richard tried to squirm away, though, Lee only tightened his grip on his shoulder with a shit-eating grin.
“Aw, come on, Richard, I know you wanna be a part of this conversation.”
“I really don’t.”
He did manage to worm his way out of it, too, making sure he ended up in a different car once they left the airfield – good thing, too, because they ended up detouring for lunch, and it became apparent that the conversation had continued throughout the drive in much more graphic detail. Mercifully, it was laid to rest once they were all seated around the table (possibly because Terry had joined them, in the end, and Lee was doing his best to help things along between him and Martin) – all they had to tolerate was Lee’s unabashed flirtation with the waitress, which wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.
(Nor was the fact that he disappeared during dessert for a good half hour, returning with messier hair and a redder mouth than usual and, as Richard noticed later, a couple of strands of long blonde hair caught in the links of his watch, like… well, like he’d had his hand tangled in the length of the waitress’s ponytail as he’d fucked her against the wall in a quiet hallway out the back of the restaurant. But Richard didn’t say anything about that, and mercifully, neither did anyone else.)
By the time they got home, the morning’s excitement – significant even by Hamptons standards – seemed to have taken it out of everyone. No one had any particular desire to move or do anything energetic, at least for the first couple of hours, and there was so little conversation happening that Richard excused himself to hang around by the pool and read, accompanied by a cold glass of juice, his hat and nothing else.
The book – a mediocre spy thriller that he’d picked up at the airport on a whim while he and Luke were pacing, even though he knew full well he had a number of other books in his checked bag – held his attention for an hour or so, but after yet another predictable turn of events he gave up, setting it down and pulling his hat down low over his face while he closed his eyes.
…He closed his eyes a little bit too effectively.
He woke up when his hat fell off, the sun still daytime-bright but much lower in the sky than it had been the last time he looked. When he blinked again, Luke materialised on the lounger next to him, lying on his side like he’d been there watching him for a while, a faint little mischievous smile playing around the corners of his mouth.
“Hey,” Richard murmured, “what’s up?”
“Got an idea.”
Luke didn’t answer in words. Instead, he unfolded himself from his seat and came to join Richard on his, knees bracketing Richard’s hips as he leaned down to kiss him, slow and more than a little dirty.
“Mm,” Richard sighed, lazy arousal starting to curl in his stomach as he wondered how soon they could take this upstairs, “I like that idea.”
“Oh, that’s not it.”
Richard blinked up at him and he shifted, putting all of his weight on one arm as his other hand ventured down to press – casually but deliberately – over Richard’s crotch.
Richard’s cock, needless to say, was extremely on board with the idea. His brain, however, was having some difficulty catching up, let alone articulating his concerns.
It was a good thing, then, that Luke had already anticipated the main one.
“It’s not like anyone’s going to see us – they’ve all gone out.”
Already he was working at the fly of Richard’s shorts and Richard lifted his hips, speechless, letting him pull them off entirely. He wasn’t going to lie – it felt racy and exciting to be doing this outside (they lived in London, for god’s sake, there was nowhere outdoors where they could fuck without getting arrested), and Luke’s enthusiasm was helping things along as well, Richard most of the way to fully hard before the fabric had even hit the ground.
“I see you like where I’m going with this.”
“Oh, I do. I definitely do. I – damn, Luke.”
He admired the sight of Luke’s head between his bent legs for a few moments, his hand working Richard’s cock as his tongue lavished attention on the tip, focusing on all the spots that revved him up. When Luke took him deeper he tipped his head back in bliss, savouring the warmth of the sun and Luke’s mouth, one hand lazily caressing the back of his head – not dictating the pace, just enjoying the moment (and – not for the first time, or the last – considering that renting this house was the best damn idea they’d ever had). Luke was characteristically thorough, one hand at the base of Richard’s cock as it nudged the back of his throat, the other cradling his balls and periodically caressing them in that gentle way that he knew always got Richard going. But he didn’t seem to be in any hurry at all to make Richard come, stretching the blow job out far longer than necessary, the whole thing positively luxurious. Richard’s orgasm crept over him gradually and lazily, a slow rolling wave that left him sated and more than a little sleepy – and while he offered to reciprocate, Luke just shook his head, pressing a quick kiss to his mouth as he did up his shorts and giving him a sneaky little wink before heading inside again.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he dozed off again almost immediately afterwards, too satisfied to even contemplate moving.
It also shouldn’t have been a surprise that his two afternoon naps completely put paid to any chance he might have had of sleeping that night.
And while it certainly wasn’t his first midnight stroll of the summer, it was the first time he’d had company.
He should have expected that, too.
He hadn’t bothered wearing shoes down to the beach, meandering along and letting his feet sink into the silky sand before cutting across to the very edge of the water, the waves lapping gently over his ankles as he walked. Everything was quiet, save for the very faint bass of a house party in the distance, but even that was barely audible – which meant, of course, that Lee only had to call his name once to get his attention.
“Nice night for it,” he said by way of greeting, and Richard shrugged as they settled on the sand, out of reach of the water. “I’d rather be sleeping, but I suppose this isn’t so bad.”
“How magnanimous of you,” Lee teased, “glad to hear that the Hamptons ‘aren’t so bad.’ One summer here and it’s not exciting enough anymore.”
“Hey, you’re the one setting the bar so high – we came over last year expecting swimming and beaches and a bit of drinking, not huge parties and private flights.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry to over-deliver – I’ll make sure we only offer lukewarm beer and bad British pop music the next time we have people around.”
“Thank you,” Richard grinned, “very considerate. I appreciate it.”
“You know me – I’m nothing if not a good host.” He fiddled as he spoke, segueing without prompting into anecdotes about some of the other parties he’d hosted in the Hamptons (mercifully focusing on the nights themselves, rather than the people he’d fucked during them), but seemed unable to sit still, so much so that it was borderline unsettling.
“Hey,” Richard interrupted, eventually, once the current tale seemed to be winding down, “are you okay? You seem kind of… jittery.”
“Oh, I’m fine,” Lee grinned, “just, um…”
“Oh, god, what?”
“How to put this delicately,” he mused, “I, ah – I may have made a new friend and gone back to his place for a bit of fun, but as it turned out he had a steady little business of the illicit variety going on the side and wanted to share some of his goods with me before we got down to it.”
Lee just sighed and rolled his eyes.
“Coke sex, Richard. Lots and lots of coke sex.”
You asked, Richard reminded himself, you didn’t have to ask but you did and now you have to live with it.
“And there was no denying that it was great, or that I’ve saved his number into my phone for next time I feel like something so acrobatic, but – well, you know I’m not one to hang around afterwards. And it’s going to be a while until I come down, so I figured I’d torment you while I wait – knew you’d be out here, so…”
“Thanks,” Richard muttered, “I’m honoured.”
“Hey, you should be grateful – he made me come so hard that I’m fresh out of propositions for you, believe it or not.”
“…Is that really you trying to be delicate?”
“Well, I could have told you that he had the most admirable lack of a gag reflex I’ve ever experienced and showed me how to make my legs bend in ways I didn’t even know they could bend – so yes, Richard, that was me trying to spare you.”
“Right,” he muttered, “well, uh – I’m glad you had a good night?”
“Shit, yeah, great night. Highly recommended. Should you and Luke ever want to try it, though, just let me know, and I’ll sort you out.”
“You say that like you think you should be privy to the details of my sex life.”
“And you say that like you think you were subtle this afternoon,” Lee countered, “I mean, those lounge chairs have seen a lot of action in their time, to be fair, but I had never expected you of all people to desecrate them further.”
Richard’s mouth had suddenly gone very dry.
“What?” he croaked, and Lee just gleamed back at him.
“Yeah, don’t play dumb. You know full well what I’m talking about. I saw you giving Luke some of that Vitamin D.”
He paused then to laugh at his own – appalling – joke while Richard stared at his knees, wishing that he could be literally anywhere else in the world right now, because listening to Lee brag about his own sexual adventures was one thing but knowing the intricacies of Richard’s was very decidedly another, and not something that he was comfortable with at all.
“You… you saw?”
Well, it wasn’t as if he could deny it. Lee was far too entertained by the whole thing to be bluffing, and it was probably worth confessing just to find out how much he had witnessed.
“I didn’t hang around for the show, if that’s what you’re getting at, but I was inside when he came in beforehand, and then I saw enough to know what was going down.” He paused before letting out a little triumphant laugh. “And yeah, that pun was completely unintentional, but I’m going to roll with it anyway.”
“Jesus Christ,” Richard muttered, completely mortified and more than a little pissed off with Luke for being so goddamn reckless. Would it have killed him to actually check that no one was home before deciding that a spontaneous al fresco blow job was appropriate?
(Worse – a tiny, disbelieving voice in the back of his head wondered whether Luke had noticed that Lee was there and decided to go ahead with his plan regardless. God, it barely bore thinking about.)
“Aw, come on, Richard. I’m sure not gonna judge you. Nice little vanilla blow job when you think you’ve got the house to yourselves? Nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Going to have to disagree with you there,” Richard muttered, face aflame, grateful that it was so dark out on the beach that Lee wouldn’t be able to tell, bracing himself for the next mortifying comment.
But it never came.
“Hey, Richard, you know what I feel like doing?”
“…No? And I’m not sure I want to, if I’m honest.”
“Swimming,” Lee declared, standing up and stripping off his t-shirt, “I feel like swimming. Are you coming?”
“I – yeah. Sure. Why not?” he managed, following suit as Lee shed the rest of his clothes (mercifully leaving on his briefs) and ran into the water, yahooing as he did so. It wasn’t the filthy answer that Richard had been expecting, and its innocence caught him off-guard, followed swiftly by relief at the fact that the torturous conversation about his activities with Luke appeared to be at an end.
It became something of a routine.
Richard would spend his days – well, just as he had done before: occasionally hanging out with Lee and his friends but spending just as many days relaxing in the pool or the sea. They’d have dinner, a few drinks – sometimes of the raucous variety, sometimes not – he and Luke would sneak upstairs and get busy, and then go to sleep. He would sleep for between two and three hours and then get up again, wide awake, and head down to the beach. Sometimes Lee would be on his way back from another party or a stranger’s bed, and sometimes he would just be sitting there waiting with a bright smile and an innuendo or ten tucked up his sleeve – and every so often Horse would join them, even if he was bloody difficult to spot in the sea in the middle of the night, somehow understanding that he should keep his barking to a minimum to avoid blowing their cover.
They would swim and then talk and stargaze, flat on their backs on the sand, and sometimes the conversation would be light and meaningless and full of inappropriate jokes while other nights were reserved for deeper and more philosophical topics, history and political conflicts and space and religion and, one night in particular, reincarnation.
“I’d come back as a bird, you know,” Lee announced, after they’d been lying there in silence for more than a few comfortable minutes, Richard half-lulled into a doze by the rhythm of the waves, “a big one, though – maybe a peacock or something.”
“Strutting around and showing off your plumage all the time? Yeah, that suits you down to the ground.”
“What about you?” Lee managed, once he’d stopped laughing (Richard had joined in pretty promptly once he realised that Lee wasn’t offended by his response, which had popped out entirely unbidden).
“A sloth,” Richard decided, after some contemplation. “I kind of like the idea of hanging around and catching up on a lifetime’s worth of lost sleep.”
“Actually – yeah, that’s a pretty great choice for you. Nicely done. How long do sloths live for, anyway?”
“Fucked if I know – a couple of decades, maybe?”
“You reckon that’s long enough?”
“…Twenty years ago, you were so young that you could barely read, Lee. It’s plenty long enough.”
“…Yeah, okay, that’s fair.”
The next night, it was marriage and children.
“So – don’t think that no one noticed you and Luke sneaking off for some alone time today, and how pleased with yourselves you looked when you came back.”
Richard was unfazed – they hadn’t been doing anything to write home about, exploring on their own all morning and capping the day off with a late lunch at a quiet little Lebanese place (which was far too subdued for Lee to even know of its existence), and a beachfront walk with ice creams which had ended with them settling on a quiet patch of sand up by the dunes and whiling away a good hour or so making out like a couple of loved-up teenagers. It had been thoroughly lovely, and now that he thought about it, of course his friends would notice how pink and happy they both looked on their return, and the way that they hadn’t been able to keep their hands off each other all evening.
(Once they’d said goodnight, though, all bets were off – as were most of the clothes before they even made it as far as the bed.)
And now – well. Now Richard was out here.
“Oh, yeah. We all have our theories, too.”
“I can only guess what yours is, and I’d prefer not to be told – but trust me, it wasn’t that.”
Lee grinned. “You mean there was no sneaky secret courthouse marriage that we haven’t heard about?”
…Well, that wasn’t what he’d been expecting.
“What? No, we definitely didn’t get married. Christ.”
“Not your cup of tea?” Lee suggested, eyes dancing, while Richard rolled his. “More like not the kind of thing that either of us would do on a whim, or in secret.”
“So… It’s something you’ve talked about?” The smile had disappeared, and now Lee looked serious, pushing himself into a sitting position as Richard did the same.
“Of course we’ve talked about it – it’s been four years, Lee. You can’t be with someone that long unless you’re on the same page. Like I said, though – it’s not something we’d rush into, but I suppose it’s the end game, and has been for a while. So one day, yeah, I guess.”
“Wow,” Lee said, looking oddly impressed – like he’d never really considered the prospect of the two of them tying the knot.
(Then again, it wasn’t as if he’d ever had any reason to. Right?)
“What about you?” Richard asked, somewhat hesitant, because he was fairly sure he already knew the answer and that it would come with some inappropriate sex-related comment. Sure enough, Lee raised an eyebrow, one side of his mouth lifting in a smirk.
“I can’t really imagine condemning myself to only ever being able to stick my cock in one person for the rest of my life, to be honest. Sounds like more of a punishment than anything.”
(Yeah, well. He should have seen that one coming.)
“Although,” he added, thoughtful now, “I still can’t work out whether it’s you who sticks your cock in him or whether it’s the other way around.”
“Let’s go with ‘it’s none of your business’ and leave it there,” Richard suggested. Unsurprisingly, his words did not have the desired effect.
“Aw, come on, Richard. Put a man out of his misery.”
“I think… I think you’re the top,” Lee decided, eyes fixed on Richard as though he was waiting for his body language to change, giving some subtle indication as to whether he was right or wrong. “I think you like bending him over and giving it to him rough, making him feel it for days, getting a real kick out of him having to try not to walk funny.”
He wasn’t going to react. He definitely wasn’t going to react.
(It was true, at least in part, because he wouldn’t deny that he liked it rough from time to time but he appreciated slow and gentle and romantic just as much – and he also had a very healthy appreciation for having Luke’s cock inside him in any way he could get it.)
“Think what you want, Lee.”
“Oh, I do,” he gleamed back, “you have no idea.”
Richard swallowed down his retort, although it was a struggle – this conversation was already dangerous, and he definitely shouldn’t encourage Lee any further, not least when there was no one else around.
It was alarming how little he trusted himself when it came to this man.
“Anyway, I refuse to believe that getting married was what you thought we’d been doing today – way too tame for you.”
“Yeah, you got me,” Lee said, and that stupid smirk was back, but at least the previous tangent of conversation had been discarded, “that was Aidan, goddamn sap that he is. He and Dean suit each other.”
“They do,” Richard acknowledged, quietly filing away Aidan’s prediction for consideration later. It was sweet that that was the conclusion he’d come to, but it made him wonder – was that genuinely what people expected of him and Luke? Was that their future?
…Could he imagine spending the rest of his life with Luke?
(It had occurred to him a few days earlier, as he gazed out the plane window in awe, that this would be an unforgettable way to propose – get Terry in on the act, make him promise not to tell anyone else (because god knew that Lee would blow the whole surprise with some inappropriate joke if he caught so much as a whiff of it), casually mention to Luke that he’d offered to take them up again. He knew that Luke would be so keen that he wouldn’t question it at all, and they’d hold hands in the back seat and admire the phenomenal scenery beneath them, and Terry would set up a separate channel on the radio so they could have complete privacy, and while Luke was distracted Richard would slide the little velvet box out of his pocket and say…
…Well, okay, he hadn’t got quite that far.
But the premise was there. That was the important thing. Right?
And he did love Luke. More than anything. More than he’d ever love anyone else.
It would have been a much easier question to answer, not so long ago.
“What about kids, then? You got fantasies of filling your house with a bunch of little dark-haired Armitages? Evanses? Armitage-Evanses? Nah, I reckon he’d take your name.”
“Don’t tell me I have to give you the birds and the bees talk, Lee. You of all people have an intimate knowledge of how all that stuff works.”
“Intimate is right,” he smirked, “and yes, I am aware that no matter how hard you and Luke smash your genitals together, you’re never going to make your own baby. I meant adoption, surrogacy, whatever. Do you see kids in this perfect future of yours?”
“Wow, thank you for that charming mental image,” Richard responded, still stuck on the vivid phrasing. “Yes? Maybe? I don’t know? Not sure I’m mature enough to raise a child – children – and the thought of being completely responsible for another human being kind of terrifies me.”
“Jesus, Richard, if you aren’t mature enough I don’t know who would be.”
“…I can’t tell if that’s meant to be a compliment or not.”
“Hey, you can interpret it however you want,” Lee grinned. “What about the others, then? Graham and Laura got a host of little ones?”
“Ah – no. No, they don’t. They’re working on it, though.”
Graham, for his occasionally gruff exterior, would be a giant marshmallow of a father, and Richard could just imagine a daughter – tiny and blonde and pale, like her mother – wrapping him around her little finger without even trying. He definitely wanted kids – he had confessed as much, but even if he hadn’t, Richard would occasionally catch him eyeing particularly cute babies when they were out and about together – but he and Laura hadn’t been having a lot of luck conceiving. He’d confided in Richard one Friday night, when it was just the two of them left at the pub and he’d drunk a lot more than he probably should have: both convinced it was their own fault, despairing at their predicament (because surely if two people wanted a baby so desperately then they should be able to fall pregnant through sheer force of will?) and knowing that their future would involve either giving up on that dream or going through rounds upon rounds of fertility treatments, IVF, and anything and everything else they could afford (and even, probably, some things they couldn’t). It broke Richard’s heart a little bit, especially since there was nothing that he nor anyone else could do to help.
…Well, if he thought about it, Lee could probably pay for it all without blinking. But Graham would never ask, and Richard certainly wouldn’t do so on his behalf, and he had no business sharing the details with Lee to the extent that offering would occur to him – or sharing the details at all, really.
Unless, of course, Lee understood all by himself.
“That’s why Evie’s parents dote on her so much, you know.”
“I only found out a few years ago, but her parents had a ton of trouble getting pregnant. She’s their miracle child. And, I mean, I know you joke about me being spoiled, but she’s on another level altogether – you’d just never know it. She sure doesn’t take advantage of it as much as she could.”
It had surprised Richard to find out that Lee actually wasn’t the wealthiest of the group – he was just the one whose parents happened to own the Hamptons house. Evie’s parents’ holiday homes – yes, homes plural – were elsewhere: after some debate, the four of them narrowed their favourites down to the penthouse apartment in Paris, the luxury private chalet in Switzerland and the modern villa in the Seychelles, with its own infinity pool just in case they got sick of swimming in the sea like commoners. (“Something for every season,” as Lee put it so casually, while Richard and his friends shook their heads in disbelief.)
It was merely tradition that they spent so much of the summer at Lee’s, a trip they’d been making since they were first old enough to get there under their own steam. Lee’s parents, apparently, had few qualms about giving them free reign of the house even when they were still at high school, a concept that horrified Richard every time he considered it (it was only markedly better than letting them gallivant around overseas together when they were still years away from being able to drink legally – although Lee assured him that they had done that too on many an occasion).
Honestly, sometimes it seemed like a miracle that they were all still in one piece.
“What do you mean, she doesn’t take advantage of it?”
“Put it like this,” Lee said thoughtfully, “if I had a private jet at my disposal, you bet your ass I’d be using it to get everywhere. I certainly wouldn’t stoop as low as driving all the way out here from Manhattan.”
“Jesus Christ,” Richard breathed, “yeah, okay, I see your point.”
“What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that it’s not that unusual – but still, it must be absolute hell to go through. I hope Graham’s not letting it get to him too much, and he knows he’s got people he can talk to.”
“I’m not exactly a fountain of knowledge when it comes to this kind of stuff, though – distraction is my usual MO.”
“As someone who is also not a fountain of knowledge, though, I’d say distraction is just what he needs most of the time.”
“You reckon?” Richard said, relieved, and Lee nodded. “Trust me – when things are really shitty, having someone who can help you take your mind off it works wonders.”
“Well, fingers crossed that I’m not doing too woeful a job of it, then. But, um… please don’t say anything to Graham? It’s really none of my business, and definitely not something that I have any right to share with anyone else.”
(And now that he thought about it – hell, he hadn’t even told Luke about the conversation. What did that say?)
“God, of course I’m not going to say anything. I’m not quite that callous. Besides,” he added, “you didn’t tell me. I guessed, and you still haven’t explicitly confirmed that I was right, so…”
“Very slippery of you,” Richard said, unable to help smiling with relief, “but thank you.”
The silence they lapsed into then was as comfortable as every other one when they were alone, and Richard savoured it – savoured the atmosphere, the contentment filling the space between the two of them – just like he always did.
“I’m glad you guys came back this summer, you know.”
“Yeah.” There was something surprisingly sweet in Lee’s tone, so unlike his usual banter that it stuck in Richard’s chest.
“For what it’s worth, I’m glad we came back too.”
They could have gone anywhere. They didn’t have to come to the Hamptons. Graham had swung them all the time off, sure, but there was no reason for them to make the transatlantic flight to come back to the same house merely because they’d had a good time there the summer before. They could get this much sun and sand and surf in a whole host of places closer to home.
And they certainly hadn’t needed to come on exactly the same dates with the knowledge that the neighbouring occupants would be there on those dates as well.
And yet they made the holiday so much more interesting – in more ways than one.
“So,” Lee said, the next afternoon, in that slow drawl of his that only ever meant trouble, “we’ve been invited to a party tonight.”
“Great,” Aidan enthused, “sign us up.”
“It’s… not that kind of party.”
“It’s a little more upmarket than you’re used to – staff in waistcoats and little trays of hors d’oeuvres and absolutely no tabletop dancing or throwing up in the garden. Not at the house itself, anyway.”
“A party.” Aidan had not been deterred at all. “Yeah, I’m in.”
“And the rest of you?”
“Sure,” Graham shrugged, answering on everyone’s behalf, “why not?”
“Great,” Lee beamed, “I’ll make sure to let all the right people know.”
“They won’t mind an extra six guests at a party like this?”
“Nah,” Lee insisted with a careless wave of his hand, “as long as you’re dressed the part, they’ll barely even notice.”
“…Dressed the part?”
“Like I said – different kind of party. Black tie. So… Hope you brought your tuxes with you.”
“I – no, Lee, we did not. When packing for a beach holiday, I did not consider for a moment that I would need a tux, and I’m pretty sure everyone else was in the same boat.”
“No worries,” Lee said, completely unperturbed by the snark in Richard’s tone, “I’m sure that I can rustle up a couple of spares.”
It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that he and his friends were able to produce four at short notice for Richard, Graham, Luke and Aidan. Adam and Martin had made their excuses and it had been agreed that Richard and Graham would go and network on behalf of the Home Office. (It had become abundantly clear, once Lee had run through a rough estimation of the guest list, that they were going to be rubbing shoulders with a collection of people who were not only incredibly wealthy but also incredibly powerful, and that meant that Anne-Marie would probably kill them if they didn’t make as many new connections as possible.) Aidan was going because Dean was, and Luke – well, Richard could only assume that he wanted to keep an eye on him.
It was, mercifully, one of the cooler nights they’d experienced in the Hamptons. There had been a considerable amount of discussion (with just as much bitterness) about the reasonableness of holding a black tie event in the middle of summer, but the breeze that night meant that Richard, at least, wasn’t going to sweat through his shirt within minutes of arriving.
“C’mere,” Luke said softly, “let me do your bow tie for you.”
Tying their ties was something they’d always done for each other, always enjoying the intimacy of the moment – except Richard couldn’t remember the last time that he’d had to wear a bow tie, and neither could Luke, based on how much he was struggling with it.
“Fucking thing,” he grunted, “damn it, I almost had it –”
“Let me help,” Lee told him, appearing at Luke’s shoulder out of nowhere and reaching for the tie. Luke looked like he wanted to protest, but had decided that it was going to draw too much attention if he did so – instead stepping aside only mildly unwillingly, giving Richard an indecipherable look as he left the room.
It was Lee’s old tux that fitted Richard the best out of everything that was on offer – something Lee had told him quietly as he worked with the silky scrap of fabric, his fingers moving unconsciously, like this was something he had done so many thousand times before that he didn’t need to think twice. Richard couldn’t decide what he wanted to look at more: the deft movements of those big hands at his throat performing such a delicate task, or Lee himself – the crisp whiteness of his shirt setting off his tan beautifully, his hair groomed and slicked back like Richard had never seen it before, the whole outfit a perfect (and visibly expensive) fit. The insane house aside, it was easy to forget that Lee had belonged to this world his whole life – but he seemed to slip into these clothes and this skin so naturally that Richard couldn’t help but remember how different they actually were.
“Looks good,” Lee concluded, with a final pat of the bow tie, “the whole thing fits you really well, actually.”
“Thank you,” Richard said carefully. It sounded like a genuine enough compliment, after all – and, to his surprise, there was no snarky follow-up. Instead, Lee was preoccupied with some distant memory.
Richard wondered for a second if he should ask, or if Lee was going to share anyway, and then realised that there was only one realistic outcome.
“I remember wearing that to a fundraising dinner that my Mom dragged me to a few years back,” Lee said wistfully, sure enough. “I struck up conversation with this beautiful guy who kept buying me drinks and telling me about how he was going to go to law school and change the world.”
“Yeah, but then he told me he had a girlfriend, which was unexpected but awesome, so I ended up fucking him in the bathroom while the girlfriend sucked him off. It was great.”
Richard reminded himself for the thousandth time of the importance of changing the subject every time Lee came even vaguely close to alluding to his sexual escapades.
“Don’t worry, though,” he added, “I’ve had the tux dry-cleaned since then.”
“Jesus Christ,” Richard muttered.
“Hey, you know how I feel about a third person in the bed – or the stall, as the case may be – and you can’t knock it til you’ve tried it. I mean, I’m still holding out for a change of heart should you ever decide that it’s something you’d like to explore.”
“Just to clarify,” Richard said, “you’re inviting me to have a threesome with you and – who? Some stranger you’ve dragged in off the street?”
It was a long time since he’d slept with someone he didn’t know inside out (in fact, the last person had been Luke, who he’d fallen into bed with after just one proper date) and the thought didn’t appeal to him now, so long as he was being rational about it – but he had to admit, somewhat shamefacedly, that his distaste was tempered just a fraction by the idea of calling Lee’s bluff after being propositioned so many times: the thrill of undressing someone new, discovering their favourite places to be touched and kissed and licked, finding a rhythm that was different and exhilarating and maddeningly enticing.
Cool it, Richard, he told himself. You barely know the guy – and you definitely know what he’s like when it comes to intimacy. It doesn’t even merit thinking about.
“Well, I would suggest that Luke get in on the action, too, but I don’t rate my chances since he doesn’t seem to like me very much for some reason.”
Any attempts at squashing down his decidedly impure thoughts were abandoned at the next mental image – he’d never been part of a threesome before, but he’d also never really considered how seductive an idea it was. Luke had topped him the night before, but suddenly all he could visualise was Lee, sitting at the head of the bed, jerking himself off, his eyes glued to Richard’s as Luke fucked into him in that deep, steady rhythm that he knew would tip both of them over the edge.
Better – Luke only fucking him like that because Lee was telling him to, dictating the pace with that lazy drawl of his, telling Luke exactly how he wanted Richard prepared and watching the unabashed pleasure on Richard’s face as Luke licked him open before pushing his cock inside; Lee leaning forward to kiss Luke, Richard feeling Luke’s cock twitch inside him with every press of Lee’s tongue, Lee breaking away to smirk at Richard when he whimpered in poorly-disguised jealousy and then kissing him too, the taste of Luke heavy and heady on his tongue.
Better still – Luke and Lee switching places, Lee’s cock stretching him wide (because while there was no doubt that Luke was well-endowed, Richard was certain that Lee would be more so) while Luke knelt in front of him and sucked him off, his fingers caressing Richard’s balls, or hollowing his cheeks while he played with Richard’s nipples and bruised his neck and murmured praise to both of them for being so good and –
Oh, fucking hell.
(Where the fuck were these thoughts coming from and how did he get them to stop?)
“I can’t imagine why, though,” Lee added (Richard realising that he must have been doing a better job than he’d realised of not letting his sudden roaring arousal show on his face, because surely Lee would have mentioned it if he could tell where his thoughts had veered off to), “I don’t think I’ve done anything to offend him, and if I have, it hasn’t been intentional.”
“I think he’s just insecure,” Richard muttered, the words slipping out on their own – surprisingly coherently, given the entirely inappropriate space that his mind was still occupying – and the admission taking both of them by surprise.
God, he shouldn’t have said it. It was true, but he shouldn’t have said it.
“What does he have to be insecure about?”
Lee’s voice was gentler now, almost curious, not at all the seductive purr that Richard had been expecting. When Richard raised his gaze, it was only to find that Lee’s eyes were fixed on him, intense and searing in an entirely unexpected way that had Richard’s heart beating erratically in his chest – and it had been minutes, whole minutes, since Lee had finished with his bow tie, and he really had no reason to be standing so close to Richard anymore – so close, in fact, that he wouldn’t even need to move his feet – he could just lean in, press his mouth to Lee’s, take that bottom lip between his teeth and – and –
“Jesus Christ, Aidan, stop trying to get him out of his clothes before you’ve even fucking left,” Martin brayed from the kitchen, and Richard jerked away, out of Lee’s reach (like Lee had even wanted to reach for him, god, now he was just imagining things) with what he hoped was a passable attempt at a smile.
“Well, uh, thanks.”
Luke gravitated to his side as soon as he stepped back into the living area, straightening his bow tie in a way that almost seemed possessive, before everyone’s attention turned – as it was so wont to do – to Lee.
(Maybe that was it, Richard thought, with no small measure of desperation – maybe it was just that Lee had a commanding presence, his height and charisma filling the room, and that was why he couldn’t keep his eyes off him. Yeah, he’d try and keep telling himself that, fucking flimsy excuse that it was. Better that than thinking about the alternative, anyway.)
“So – what’s the plan?”
Lee shrugged. “Told Mom and Dad I’d put in an appearance, and I’m pretty sure these two are in the same boat,” he gestured to Evie and Orlando, who nodded, Evie looking particularly stunning in her floor-length gown, like she’d just had it lying around in anticipation of an event like this arising. “Do our duty as good children, schmooze with all the people that our parents don’t like but feel obliged to talk to anyway – and you guys might as well come along for the ride, meet some new faces, see how the other half really live. You know, just in case you’ve been getting bored.”
He didn’t look at Richard as he said it – and yet there was no way it wasn’t intended to be a reference to their first late night beach conversation of the summer – so Richard didn’t respond either, leaving that to Graham.
“Are you not part of the other half?”
“Yeah… not in the same way that these people are.”
And within half an hour of arriving, Richard had to concede that Lee had been right.
The conversation about jobs the previous summer had led to a brief discussion of what Lee’s, Evie’s and Orlando’s parents did to make them as wealthy as they were (as well as how they’d met – at one of those prestigious Manhattan schools that Richard had assumed, much like so many other aspects of their lives, only existed in television shows). It had seemed uncouth to press for details, but they had learned that Evie’s parents were property magnates – both in their own right, combining their portfolios to build an empire, their (apparently long-awaited) perfect daughter the icing on the cake. Orlando’s dad, of course, was a senior partner at his firm, name on the door and everything, terrorising his junior and senior staff alike but getting results for clients all the same. Mr Pace, meanwhile, had started off trading on Wall Street and was now a hedge fund manager, and Lee’s mum had worked at an advertising firm before an exceptionally early retirement, initially to look after Lee and then because, well, why work when she so obviously didn’t need to? It had to be liberating – to fill every day however you pleased without having to think about money or bills or the tedious minutiae that came with just about every job on the planet. Unfulfilling at times, perhaps – but that certainly wasn’t something Richard was going to suggest to Lee, knowing full well that he was doing exactly the same thing.
Even so, it seemed fairly uncontested that however much money Lee and his friends’ parents had, there were yet more people out there for whom that was just a drop in the bucket: directors of Fortune 500 companies and international conglomerates – and then there were the political figures, the senators, the honest to god celebrities, the CEOs of major non-profits…
…An alarmingly large number of whom appeared to be in attendance tonight.
(It was when Richard started recognising faces from the goddamn news that he realised just how out of his depth he was.)
And Lee – well, he was positively sparkling.
It was a side of him that Richard had never seen before. His manners were exquisite, and he greeted every single person that he spoke to (and Christ, there were so many of them, Richard was having trouble keeping up – and given how many functions he’d attended over the years, that was saying something), asking them about their jobs or children or pets and somehow nailing which of those questions was the most appropriate every time. He introduced Richard as a friend – and damn if that didn’t make Richard feel all warm inside the first time he said it, so much so that he had to hide his smile in his drink – who was staying at the house next door.
The only time the sparkle dimmed – and even then, it was almost imperceptible, and Richard wouldn’t have noticed if his eyes weren’t glued to Lee – was when the guest asked about his parents. He would offer some vague answer, not giving the topic a chance to develop before changing it to something that he was more comfortable with.
After it had happened for a third time, Richard couldn’t help himself.
“Is there something wrong?”
“You change the subject every time your parents come up, and I was wondering if there was a reason.”
Lee stared at him for a long second. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, his tone cagey – cagier than he would have liked it to be, going by the way he cleared his throat and looked away – and telling Richard that he was very much right to be suspicious.
“I’m just saying,” Richard said gently, “sometimes it helps to talk, and I’ve been told I’m a pretty good listener.”
Who knew? Maybe there was something that he needed to get off his chest.
“There’s nothing to talk about,” Lee insisted, one hand on Richard’s wrist as he marched them over to yet another acquaintance, a wide smile of recognition on his face and an introduction bubbling out of his mouth in that charismatic way of his.
Or maybe there wasn’t.
“Right, I think I’ve fulfilled my obligations now,” Lee announced, an hour and more new faces than Richard could count later, “so I’ll leave you to keep talking with the rest of the grown ups – I’m going inside to get high with the other kids.”
Dean and Aidan had disappeared a long time ago, needless to say, and Graham was trapped in a conversation with a woman who Lee had introduced Richard to earlier, making polite excuses for both of them after she’d spent more than ten minutes talking about her grandchildren (all of whom seemed like wealthy little heathens) without so much as pausing to draw breath.
(“She’s completely insane,” Lee had whispered to a slightly hysterical Richard as they scuttled away, “and she collects porcelain dolls, of all the fucking things – conversation would have ended up there sooner or later, and then we would have never been able to escape.”
“She likes to show people pictures of them, too. Just – don’t even ask.”)
So that just left Richard and Luke.
And Luke, apparently, wanted to take full advantage of that.
“Damn, it’s a long time since I’ve seen you in a tux,” he murmured to Richard, leaning in slightly so his voice wouldn’t be audible to anyone else, “I’d almost forgotten how good you look in one.”
“Oh, yeah. Actually, it kind of makes me want to take you into the bathroom and unzip your fly and suck you off while you’re still completely dressed and then go back to the party with the taste of your come still in my mouth.”
Richard choked on his drink.
“Any thoughts?” Luke asked, clearly pleased with the reaction his words had garnered, the corners of his mouth turned up in that smug little smirk of his that Richard just wanted to kiss off his face.
“Richard,” Graham interrupted with a hand on his arm, “thank Christ. I am in desperate need of another drink.”
His glass, sure enough, was empty – empty like he’d been taking polite sips for want of something to do with his hands while he was subjected to a merciless stream of consciousness from someone he did not want to talk to at all.
“I see you escaped Mrs Franklin’s clutches, then.”
“You could have warned me, you know – better yet, rescued me. I’m going to have flashbacks every time I see another fucking doll.”
“Aw, but where’s the fun in that?”
“Inconsiderate,” Graham chastised with a shake of his head, “really inconsiderate, Richard. Now come on, introduce me to some of the other people that you were talking to when Lee was parading you around. Didn’t he say something the other day about there being an ambassador or two here?”
Richard winced at the choice of words, especially when Luke was standing right there – but strangely, he didn’t seem to mind at all, his eyes too focused on Richard’s throat and the lines of the starched-white shirt against the faint tan that he managed to develop every time they came here.
(It wouldn’t last – the year before, it had disappeared in a matter of weeks – but it would remind him for the briefest of periods, once they got home and had settled back into the mundaneness of real life and the London weather, dubious at the best of times, that the summer had really happened.)
“Right,” Luke said, almost distantly, but any worries that Richard might have had disappeared as soon as Luke brushed their hands together, the touch objectively gentle but somehow also full of so much promise that it was almost a threat.
They had been together for years, after all, and Richard knew full well that Luke wearing an expression like the one he had on at that moment meant not that he was cross but that he was aroused as all hell.
“Come and find me when you’re ready to leave, then.”
He had to feign a headache, in the end, the scorching glances that Luke kept giving him fuelling the slow-burning fire in the pit of his stomach. He’d hoped to be subtle about it – these were important people, and he didn’t want to make it look like he was skiving off for sex – but Luke had other ideas, sliding an arm around his waist and leaning in for a kiss that was in no way chaste.
“Gonna let me take you home?” he murmured smugly, that arm tightening in a wordless promise, and suddenly all Richard wanted to do was get them both out of those tuxes that were becoming more constricting by the second.
“Too right I am.”
It was a relief that the party had been so close to home that they could walk – though it had been a slow walk, stopping every few minutes for the kind of kisses that left them both out of breath. When they got back, Adam and Martin were out the back, sharing a bottle of wine and talking quietly – so Richard and Luke had scarpered up the stairs silently like teenagers, shedding a trail of clothes as they went.
(Richard figured that Lee couldn’t really complain if the jacket was a bit rumpled in the morning, since he’d already made it abundantly clear that it had been in far more depraved situations in its life.)
Luke got his way – sort of – in the end, pulling Richard’s cock out of his pants and blowing him, still mostly dressed, until he had him right on the brink and with barely enough presence of mind to tell Luke that he needed to stop. They’d lost the rest of their clothes then, Richard pushing Luke down onto the bed and working him open with three fingers and his tongue and then flipping onto his back himself so that Luke could ride him, leaning forward and bracing himself on the headboard and whimpering as Richard’s fingers dug into his ass to spur him on. The pace they set was frantic and unrelenting, and Luke’s climax roaring over him triggered Richard’s, and they rode both of them out until they were gasping for breath, skin hot and slick with sweat and Richard’s mind blank with post-orgasmic euphoria.
“Well,” Luke said, once he’d cleaned both of them up and slid into the bed and nestled into Richard the way he always did after particularly enthusiastic sex, “I think you really need to wear a tux more often.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
It wasn’t until later, when Luke was snoring softly beside him while he stared at the ceiling and willed his mind to slow down, that he remembered seeing Lee as they were leaving. He’d been so preoccupied with the all-encompassing need to get home and fall into bed with Luke that he’d barely noticed the way that they’d stumbled past Lee en route – the way that Lee had looked at him, looked at both of them, with something strange in his eyes that Richard couldn’t quite describe even now, and the way that Luke had stopped to kiss Richard in the doorway and sneak a squeeze of his ass as he did so.
It was almost as if Luke had taken them that way and kissed him there on purpose.
Almost as if he had wanted Lee to see them.
Almost as if he was staking his claim over Richard and reminding Lee that he was spoken for.
And that bothered Richard a hell of a lot more than it should have.
Woweeeeeee. I have no excuses for the disgustingly long time this has taken me... but I promise I've been working on it since I posted the first chapter? And the whole fic is currently about 125k? And the next chapter is quite a bit more than half done? So I hope all of these things make up for the delay... and also that there are at least a few people out there who are still interested in this!
Kudos and comments sustain me <3
Thank you for reading!