Lewis didn't like films with subtitles. It was bad enough on telly, but trying to keep one eye on a line of text and the other on the picture in a theatre always gave him a headache. Add to that the fact that the film was dead boring, and you had a recipe for a rotten night. Not even the popcorn could cheer him up.
Of course, there were no secrets from Laura. “You hated that, didn't you?” she said, glancing at him with a rueful expression as they left the theatre.
“I didn't hate it, exactly,” Lewis said carefully. “But to be honest, it's not really my cuppa.”
“Mmmm,” Laura replied. “I'm sorry, it wasn't as good as I'd been expecting either. There's another tomorrow night that's received rave reviews, though. We might try that one.”
Robbie took a moment to silently curse all parties involved in the Oxford International Film Festival. He tried to think of a way to say I'd rather poke out my eye with a sharp stick in a diplomatic fashion, but none came immediately to mind. “Oh, erm, Saturday? I was planning to head up and see Lyn and the bairn in the morning–”
“You are not, Robbie Lewis. You told me on Tuesday that you were off to see them next weekend.”
“I said this weekend, didn't I?” Lewis said, frowning in an attempt to feign senility. “Oh, well, I'll check the calendar on me fridge when I get home.”
Laura sighed. “Relax. I'll find someone else who wants to come.” She took him by the arm and shook him gently. “Listen, you don't have to bloody go along with everything I suggest, you know.”
“I know that,” Lewis said.
“Well, the next time, you can suggest the evening's entertainment.”
“Sounds fair.” Lewis smiled down at her. Laura smiled back at him, then turned her attention down the street. Lewis watched her expression change to one of surprise.
“What is it?” Robbie asked, following the direction of her gaze.
It was James, standing on the corner near the theatre. “Look at that – he must have been seeing the same film, eh?” Too bad they hadn't known he was coming, Lewis thought; they might have been able to sit together.
And then Robbie realised Hathaway wasn't alone. In fact, he was standing with another man, who looked to be about fifty, perhaps more. As Lewis watched, the man leaned in to say something in James' ear. James smiled, then turned his head towards the other man. Their faces were very close, and James was still smiling –
“Robbie,” Laura said. Lewis started, shaken out of his daze. “I'm not sure if –”
“Yeah, we should – erm,” Robbie said, turning away from the theatre, away from James and the mystery bloke. He didn't look back.
“You didn't know, did you?”
Laura's question should have come as a bit of a non sequitur, considering they'd met up for lunch at the White Horse the next day. Nevertheless, he knew immediately what she was talking about, because he'd thought about little else since he'd dropped her home the night before.
“About James liking men? I suppose I always suspected he was – flexible, though we never talked about it.” Well, only that one time, and even then their conversation had consisted of lad's mags and chocolate bars. Not exactly a heart to heart. Nevertheless, he wasn't lying to Laura; some part of him had always known.
So why had he lain awake half the night thinking about James' flirtatious – flirtatious! – smile being directed at that stranger last night?
Laura's response was a look that mixed affection with exasperation. “Robbie, I –” She shook her head, cutting herself off. “Never mind.”
“Out with it,” Lewis said, mock-gruffly, though his heart was racing in his chest.
Laura's mouth tightened before she spoke. “Did you notice something about the man James was with?”
Robbie shrugged. “He seemed posh, well-dressed.”
“I noticed he had a decade or two on James. Didn't know he liked them older.”
Laura cocked her head. “You didn't?”
“Well, I mean, any of the women I've known to have caught his eye have been near his own age.” Robbie wondered if you could have different “types” for men and women. He supposed it was possible.
Laura blew out a breath. “It's always astonished me how a detective as intelligent as you are could be so bloody thick about his personal life.”
“My personal life? When did this become about me?” Laura's only response was a glare, and slowly Robbie's brain swung round to face the implication. “No,” he said immediately. “For heaven's sake, just because he's seeing an older bloke doesn't mean –”
“Not just because of that, believe me,” Laura said. “Oh, Robbie, are you honestly telling me you didn't know that he was arse over tit for you?”
Lewis thought he might be having a stroke. What were the symptoms of stroke again? A brain that refused to function was definitely one of the warning signs. “That's mad,” he managed to croak out.
“It's not. Why do you think he and I have had a rather snappish relationship over the last year? He realised that I'd figured it out, and resented it.”
“Are you saying you and he – talked about it?” Lewis spluttered.
“Obliquely,” Laura said. “You know James. I didn't intend to embarrass him, but I suppose I did.” She waved a hand. “Water under the bridge. At any rate, he's clearly moved on.”
Clearly he hadn't moved terribly far, if he was setting his cap for oldsters like that one last night, Lewis thought. “I still say you're daft. He wouldn't keep something like that from me. I mean, surely he would have told me by now if he – felt that way.” Love, Robbie's brain supplied helpfully. She's saying Hathaway was in love with you. You can't even say it.
Laura sighed. “Would he? You're heterosexual, Robbie. He knows there isn't any hope of your returning his feelings.”
“You've an answer for everything, have you?” Lewis muttered, taking a sip of his pint.
Laura drew herself up. “I know this is coming as a bit of a shock, but there's no reason to be a git about it.”
“Sorry,” Lewis said, meaning it. “Any road, if it was true, it's in the past. I mean, he's seeing someone, isn't he? That's good – good for him. I want him to be happy.”
Laura eyed him for a long moment, then took a sip of her wine. Robbie raised his glass again, then set it down abruptly when he realised his hand was shaking. Laura pretended not to notice, but Lewis knew she'd seen it.
Bugger, Lewis thought. Why did things always have to be so bloody complicated?
By the time Robbie arrived at work Monday morning, he'd spent nearly his entire weekend thinking about Hathaway. Specifically, he'd been thinking about Hathaway and his friend, about the happy look on his face when the man had leaned in close, like he was going to –
All right, so he'd thought about James snogging that bloke. He'd thought about it repeatedly. And early this morning, he might have woken from a particularly vivid dream in which James had been about to do quite a bit more than snog him.
Lewis didn't know much about psychology, but he was fairly certain it wasn't conducive to a good working relationship to be dreaming about your Sergeant shagging his boyfriend.
All of this led to Robbie feeling particularly grumpy, and he slouched in to work five minutes late. By contrast, James was already sitting in their office, looking annoyingly chipper. “Good morning, sir,” he said, smiling.
Robbie made a noise that was halfway between a grunt and a word. He was quite pleased with himself. Most of his brain was preoccupied with trying to determine if James' smile was wider than usual, and what that might mean.
James' eyebrows twitched, his smile fading. “I've finished the preliminary report on the Hutchinson case,” he said. “If you have time to look it over, I can send it up to Innocent today.”
“Lab results?” Lewis managed. There, that was actually English; the morning was looking up.
“The Singh blood work? Not yet,” James said. “If it's not here by noon, I'm planning to ring them. Unless you want me to light a fire under them right away?”
Lewis shook his head. “Noon's good.”
“Are you all right, sir? You seem a bit – under the weather.”
Lewis shook his head. “M'fine. How was your weekend?”
“Not bad. Caught a bit of the International Film Festival.”
Always the detective, Lewis couldn't resist that opening. “Laura dragged me to that Friday night. Wasn't much of a film.”
“I'm inclined to agree with you.”
Lewis raised his eyebrows. “Oh, were you there? You might have come with us if we'd known.”
James' expression shuttered. “I wouldn't have wanted to intrude.”
“G'wan, man. Laura and I – we're friends, that's all.” He paused. “I suppose I shouldn't assume you went alone, though. Maybe we would have been intruding.”
James' cheeks pinkened slightly. “You saw me,” he said, frowning. “You saw me with Jeremy.”
Lewis opened his mouth, then closed it again, caught wrong-footed.
James went on. “I wondered if you had – I saw the two of you heading off, but I couldn't be sure.” He looked at Lewis accusingly. “You might have said hello.”
Robbie considered denying it, but realised he'd already given away the game with his gormless, gape-mouthed reaction. He would've been a crap criminal. “I didn't want to interrupt. You hadn't mentioned him before.”
“We haven't been seeing one another very long,” James said, lifting his chin. “It's not that I'm ashamed of him.”
And there it was: confirmation. It wasn't a surprise, considering how cosy they'd appeared the other night, but it still made Lewis' stomach flip unpleasantly. “Of course you're not,” Lewis croaked. “So, how did you meet him?”
James blinked at him for a moment before replying. “We were both attending a guest lecture on Aquinas. He's a professor of philosophy at All Souls College.”
“Sounds like you'd have a lot in common,” Lewis said. “Well, maybe we could get together one of these days – the four of us, I mean. Laura's been wanting to try that new Thai place on the high street.”
James cocked his head, a small smile playing at the corner of his mouth. “You want to double date? How very forward-thinking of you, sir.”
“All right, forget I asked,” Lewis grumbled. He turned back to his computer, logging in with fingers suddenly turned thick and clumsy.
They worked in silence for a couple of minutes before Lewis heard James' quiet, “I'm sorry.” Lewis raised his head as James continued. “It's only that – you don't have to prove to me that you're supportive of same-sex relationships. I already know that you are.”
“It's not that,” Lewis protested. James regarded him calmly. “All right, I suppose it's that – a bit.” James snorted. “But I'm – I'm glad for you, James. And if he's going to be part of your life, then I'd like to get to know him.” He shifted in his seat. “Unless you think your old guv'nor'll be too thick to carry on a conversation with a philosophy professor.”
“Never,” James insisted. “All right, I'll speak with him and let you know when we're free.”
Robbie nodded. He knew he should be feeling relief at having navigated the mine field of that conversation, but all he could feel was a strange sense of unease, even after they slipped awkwardly back into work talk. One thing was certain, though: Laura had been dead wrong. Clearly James hadn't found a substitute for Robbie in an Oxford academic, of all things.
That should have reassured him. It didn't.
The next day, Hathaway confirmed that he and Jeremy would be available next Friday, and Lewis made the reservation with the restaurant after checking with Laura. Throughout the work week, Lewis tried not to think about it, but it had obviously wormed its way into his subconscious, because he couldn't stop dreaming about James.
Some of them involved James smiling and laughing, cuddling up with Jeremy on the couch of an evening, or rowing a punt with him on a bright summer's day. Those should have made him happy for James, but they only made him anxious for some reason. Then there were dreams where cuddling or laughing turned to kissing.
And then, on Thursday night, Lewis dreamed of Hathaway – though this time, he was alone, sprawled across his bed, and naked. In that odd way that one's brain worked in dreams, Robbie was both immersed in the dream and aware it wasn't real: he'd never seen Hathaway so much as shirtless, and so part of him wondered how close his imagination was to reality. In the same moment, James arched his back and reached for his cock. Robbie had been trying not to look, but it was a little difficult to ignore when it was clearly the centre of the – erm – action. It was of decent size – Robbie supposed, anyway, not having made a great many comparisons in that area – and its dark, flushed head contrasted sharply with James' pale fingers.
With great effort, Lewis shifted his gaze up to James' face, and was transfixed by what he found there. James was staring right at him, a look of such joy as he'd never seen on the lad's face. His neck muscles were taut and straining, his cheeks were flushed – Christ, he was beautiful.
And then James threw his head back and groaned, “Robbie,” and Lewis awoke panting and sweating as though he'd run a mile.
It took a full ten minutes for Lewis to decide he didn't like Jeremy Whittard.
It took him the same amount of time for him to realise there was absolutely no basis for his dislike. Whittard wasn't posh – he was a miner's son from Yorkshire – and he taught legal ethics, which was a topic Lewis actually knew something about. He'd taught law students, led seminars for coppers from Inverness to Portsmouth, and was a huge fan of Motown music. He was a good bit older than James – just gone fifty this year – but he was in good nick. He was gregarious yet didn't monopolise the conversation, charismatic without being overbearing, and clearly thought the world of James. On first impression, he was an all-around good bloke.
By contrast, Robbie knew full well he was making a crap first impression. He hardly spoke, picked at his food even though he loved Thai curry, and when Jeremy put an arm around James' shoulders, he was surprised that his glare didn't burn the man to ash. He was fully aware that he must be coming across like a homophobic prick, but there was nothing he could do about it. He knew it was irrational, but he couldn't stand the thought of James with Professor Perfect. He couldn't stand the thought of them snogging or cuddling; he couldn't stand the thought of him making James happy; he couldn't stand the thought that Jeremy knew what James actually looked like when he was –
Bloody hell, Lewis thought, nearly choking on his mouthful of rice.
“Robbie, God,” Laura said, whacking him helpfully on the back. Lewis coughed into his napkin, thankful for an excuse for the sudden redness in his cheeks. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, sorry. Just not much of an appetite, I suppose.” He glanced up at Jeremy in time to see him withdraw his arm from around James' shoulders. When he looked James' way, the lad was staring at him in a way that tore his heart. There was disappointment there, and hurt, and confusion, as though he couldn't believe Robbie could be doing this to him.
At that, Robbie gave himself a stern boot up the arse. Whatever was going on in his head, there was never any excuse for putting that look on James' face. Turning to Jeremy, he said, “I think it would be valuable for some of our young constables to hear what you have to say about the ethics of modern policing. Do you think you might be able to fit us into your schedule?”
Jeremy smiled. “I'm sure I could. I could have my assistant ring you on Monday if you like.”
“Sounds good. Now, I do have a serious concern, though,” he said, and watched Jeremy's smile fade until he added, “about your opinion that Gladys Knight's version of 'I Heard it Through the Grapevine' is better than Marvin Gaye's...”
Jeremy laughed, shaking his head. “Oh, you do not want to go there, mate,” he said, and the small, tentative smile James aimed at Robbie carried him the rest of the way through dinner.
An hour later, the ordeal was over, and Robbie and Laura had bid James and Jeremy good night and were walking towards Robbie's car.
“Robbie...” Laura began, then trailed off.
“Mmm?” Lewis said, distracted by his own brooding thoughts. Finally given free rein once more, they were bouncing about in his head like table tennis balls.
“Were you and James ever...”
It took a full five paces for Robbie to realise that Laura was speaking, and when he did, he stopped short. “Were we ever what?”
Laura looked him in the eye. “Romantically involved.” She held up a hand. “Feel free to tell me to sod off if you don't want to answer.”
Robbie stared at her. “No,” he said. “No, never.”
“It's only that for the first half of the evening, you – well, you were playing the role of jealous ex quite convincingly.”
Robbie gaped at her. He seemed to be doing that quite a bit lately. It was annoying.
“It started out as 'overprotective dad' in my head, and then it suddenly seemed to be more than that.” She cocked her eyebrow at him. “Is it more than that?”
A dozen possible answers flitted through Robbie's head, but he finally settled on the truth. “I don't know.” He started walking again, but Laura's hand on his arm stopped him in his tracks.
“Do you want to be romantically involved with him?” she asked softly.
Lewis cast an eye at a couple of passersby, then murmured, “A week ago, I would have said no.”
Laura frowned at him. “This is new, then.”
“I can't bloody stop thinking about it,” Lewis huffed. “Ever since you told me – how he felt. And now – well. I think I might be going a bit bonkers, to be honest. Only someone who was bonkers would discover he fancies blokes at fifty-eight, yeah?”
“Perhaps you're selective,” Laura said. “You have very discerning taste, and it's taken you a while to find someone who suits you.”
Lewis snorted. “We don't suit at all. He's a boffin, and I'm just a plod who's had a lot of practise. He's young enough to be my son, and I'm old enough to need a bloody orthopaedic mattress. It doesn't make any sense.”
Laura smiled. “In my experience, the relationships that don't make sense are the best ones of all.” She blew out a breath. “Well, it's a lovely night; I think I'll walk. See you on Monday?”
Lewis felt a wave of regret; that hadn't been how he'd intended to tell her, if he'd intended to tell her at all. “Laura, I'm – I didn't mean to –” His shoulders slumped. “I'm sorry.”
Laura shook her head. “Robbie, for some time now, I've been thinking that if something were going to happen between us, it would have happened by now. More than anything else, your friendship means the world to me, and it always will.” Rising on her toes, she kissed him on the cheek. “You're not going bonkers. Sometimes lightning strikes, and there's not a damned thing we can do about it.”
“Yeah,” Robbie said heavily. “I just wish it wouldn't strike so bloody hard.”
Laura laughed. “Good night.”
“Good night, pet.”
Robbie didn't remember much of the drive home, but thankfully he did remember where he kept his good whisky. He was on his second tumbler, sitting in the dark wondering what the sodding hell he was supposed to do now that he was apparently arse over tit for James, while James was now arse over tit for someone else, when a sharp knock sounded on the door.
Opening it, he found James on the other side, looking wild-eyed and disheveled. His tie was gone and two of his shirt buttons – one in the middle, and one near the bottom – were undone.
“Jeremy has ended our relationship,” he said without preamble, as he pushed past Lewis into the flat. “Just thought you might like to know.”
Lewis' first reaction should have been joy, but instead it was I'll kill that bastard. “You want me to go punch him on the nose?”
James barked a humourless laugh. “Hardly. He told me that you and I obviously had some 'unfinished business' between us, and that he'd rather not be caught in the middle.”
Lewis thought that stroke might be coming back. “And what did you say to that?”
“I told him that he was being ridiculous, that you were simply a straight man who hadn't had very much exposure to seeing two men together –”
“Thanks a bloody lot,” Lewis muttered.
“– and that whatever he thought he was seeing, it wasn't there.” James ran a hand through his hair, but only succeeded in making it look even more like a bird's nest. “He said that there was nothing simple about the way you look at me.”
James took two steps forward, closing the distance between them. Looming over him, he said, “You told me that I needed a partner. I found one. Why isn't he good enough for you? Is it because he's a man?”
“No, that's not it at all,” Robbie croaked.
“Then what is it?” James demanded, nearly shouting.
“He's not me!” Robbie snapped. “All right? I wanted it to be me.”
James' eyes widened in shock. “You –” he whispered. “But you're –”
Robbie shook his head, defeated. “I'm sorry, lad. I know you're with Jeremy, and I won't stand in your way. Let me go talk to him, and I'll get it –”
James cupped Robbie's face in his trembling hands.
“–sorted,” Robbie finished weakly.
“Say it again,” James rasped, “please.”
“I wanted it to be me,” Robbie breathed, “I wanted –”
James' mouth crushed against his, cutting him off, and Robbie discovered that reality was far better than any dream.
“You have freckles,” Robbie murmured, kissing James' chest.
James' hand carded through his hair. “You sound surprised.”
“Mmmm,” Lewis said, lips brushing James' nipple. James gasped and arched his lovely neck.
“Like that, do you?” Lewis said, darting out his tongue for a taste. This part was familiar; nipples were the same on men or women, it would seem. Some people's were more sensitive than others, and it seemed that Hathaway fell into the 'more' category.
“I like everything you've done so far,” James rumbled.
Robbie grinned and ran his fingertips along James' ribs, skated them across his taut stomach. James wasn't as skinny as he'd imagined, which was fine: he liked seeing a bit of flesh on the lad. “Glad to hear it,” he murmured.
James' hips twitched. “I could do with less of the teasing.”
“Look who's a bossy boots,” Robbie observed, propping himself up on an elbow. “It's a good thing for you I'm partial to bossy young lads with freckles.”
James looked up at him then, and the sheer joy on his face stopped Robbie's breath for a moment. He raised a hand to touch Lewis' cheek. Robbie turned his head into the touch, kissing James' palm, while his own hand slid down James' chest to his belly, then lower still.
“Robbie,” James groaned, body bowing helplessly, beautifully. Robbie watched him fall apart, unable to look away, and decided that maybe, just maybe, he and James Hathaway suited one another perfectly.