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The Final Round

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Chapter One

“For Christ’s sake, Benedict, you’re being ridiculous.” Shane heard the irritation in his voice, but he was entitled. It was his fucking birthday—not that he expected anyone to make a fuss over him—and being stuck in the bloody office all night catering to his partner’s whims wasn’t part of his plan for the night.

“What’s ridiculous is the way these papers keep piling up.” Benedict had been running his hands through his dark hair, and it looked wilder than usual. “Dave went through and organized all of this earlier in the year. Remember how it looked? Remember how everything was filed and it was possible to find, oh, for example, proof we’d paid the bills when we needed to?”

“Are we seriously going into that again?” Fine, it had taken a few hours to find the receipt, but he’d found it, hadn’t he?

“No, we’re not. Because you’re going to sort through all of this, and after that, it won’t be a problem anymore.”

Shane snorted. “That’s an interesting theory you’ve got there.”

“We agreed to this weeks ago. Don’t blame me because you kept putting it off until the situation became critical.”

“A few things fell over,” Shane protested. “That’s hardly what I’d call a critical situation.” To be fair, Patrick had slipped and fallen, but that could be blamed as much on the platform shoes he’d been wearing as on the small pile of papers.

“Then maybe we define the word differently. Not that Patrick’s likely to hit us with a lawsuit, but—”

“Bloody better not.” Shane gave an indignant huff at the thought of it. “Because if he did, I’d do some hitting of my own, I can tell you.”

“Absolutely not.” Benedict wasn’t taking his threat seriously, but that flat order sent a pleasant shiver through him. It had to compete with a flash of rebellion, but there was only ever going to be one winner in that fight. “Hands off the employees.”

“Yeah? Got somewhere else you’d like them?” Distracting Benedict with sex was a doddle at home, but in the bar they co-owned, not so much. It’d been a couple of years since Benedict left a promising career as an accountant to take over the gay bar left to him by his father, but his work ethic was as strong as ever.

“Yes. Dealing with the paperwork.”

“Shove it in a box for now. I’ll file it away tomorrow.”

Benedict checked his watch. “Nine minutes since I asked you to make a start on it. Nine minutes you’ve wasted on arguing. You could’ve filed away the supply invoices by now.”

Shane leaned against the huge table they used as a desk and braced himself with his hands, legs spread wide. Sod subtle. He’d go for blatantly obvious. “Lock the door and file your cock in my mouth.”

Benedict arched his dark eyebrows, the only visible reaction to Shane’s offer. Of course, he might be getting hard, but a chair blocked Shane’s view. Pity. Watching Benedict’s cock stiffen was one of Shane’s favorite ways to spend thirty seconds or so. Knowing he’d caused that helpless reaction blew his mind. “Now you’re embarrassing yourself.”

“Worth a go.” Shane was unrepentant. He’d bet young Vincent’s wages for a month that Benedict’s light gray trousers were on the snug side. “And since you’ll be taking your hand to my arse later no matter what I do, might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb.”

He was still annoyed the day hadn’t begun with his birthday spanking, followed, naturally, by a nice slow fuck. Benedict had made him breakfast before hustling him through the door and off to the bar, claiming they had a busy day ahead. Scrambled eggs and bacon were a poor substitute for the measured beat of Benedict’s hand counting out Shane’s thirty-six years on the planet and turning his arse crimson and tingling in the process. Thirty-six. Jesus wept, how had that happened?

Benedict came closer. Closer. Placed one hand on the desk beside Shane’s thigh and leaned in until his lips brushed Shane’s ear. “I might consider giving you the spanking you’ve been begging for all day. When. You’ve sorted through. These fucking papers.”

Shane sighed. “You’re a cruel man, treating me this way on my birthday.”

“I am,” Benedict agreed, straightening but leaving his hand where it was. “Very cruel. And you’re staying here until the job’s done, even if that means spending the rest of your birthday here. So you’d better get to work.”

“I might manage it if you’d give me a bit of incentive,” Shane suggested. “A kiss, for example?” It wouldn’t satisfy him, but there’d been times in the past when one kiss had led to more despite Benedict’s intentions. Maybe this would be another.

Benedict appeared to consider the request, meeting Shane’s eyes while he brought his other hand up to thread his fingers through Shane’s hair. Hair he’d insisted Shane grow longer than the close-cropped style Shane had favored before they’d met. “One,” he decided. “And after that, no more discussion.”

“Works for me.” It didn’t, on so many levels, but he’d learned when he could push and when he couldn’t. The games they played, darker and more intense than when they began, but tempered by a love Shane had grown to trust, lacked official rules, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any.

One of which was that at the bar, they stayed professional, but it was his fucking birthday, and if that didn’t buy him some leeway along with his promised kiss, then what did?

“Say it.” Benedict was close enough his words were tangible as well as audible, a whisper-breath against Shane’s waiting lips. “Tell me you’ll do as you’re told after this.”

Now who was breaking the rules? Shane might roll over and beg in bed, but here at the Square Peg, they didn’t give each other orders. The staff, yeah, though the people working for them knew what they were doing. Even Patrick. Hooking up with Vincent hadn’t dimmed Patrick’s sparkle, but it’d directed his energies in a more productive way. Shane had never thought he’d say it, but Patrick was a valued employee these days.

They’d invent calorie-free beer that didn’t taste like piss next.

“I’ll be good.” He paused deliberately, watched Benedict frown, then added a sweetly provocative, “Sir,” dripping with insincerity.

Cheating, but he wanted a proper kiss that left his mouth knowing it’d been used, and if that meant winding Benedict up, so be it. He’d pay for it, but he’d never been one to dodge a debt.

Benedict pulled Shane’s hair with enough force to make his eyes water. The sight of Benedict’s hard smile made something inside Shane twist with pleasure. “You’ll be good for me whether you want to be or not.” He brought his lips down, bruising Shane’s mouth against his teeth and taking Shane’s breath away.

This was what Shane loved best—the Benedict who refused to tolerate bad behavior, who saw what he wanted and took it, who understood that Shane yearned to be the object of that attention regardless of what was behind it. Benedict traced the edge of Shane’s teeth with his tongue and forced his mouth to yield. He tasted of orange juice—must have been drinking it earlier—tangy and sweet. When he pulled away, Shane whined and tried to follow, only to be stopped by Benedict’s hand on his chin, thumb rough on his lower lip.

“That’s all now,” Benedict murmured, putting words together the way Shane would have. In that moment, he sounded English. “Get back to work.”

Shane might have protested, but if he was being completely honest, he was still starry-eyed in the aftermath of the kiss. By the time any coherent words occurred to him, Benedict had left the office, shutting the door firmly in his wake.

“Get back to work,” Shane said under his breath, then licked his lips and did just that.

Two hours later, he’d made brilliant progress despite his lack of interest in the job. It wasn’t that he couldn’t understand Benedict’s desire to have things neat and orderly, but he didn’t mind spending his time searching for something misplaced. Made more sense than spending it putting things away carefully when it was possible he’d never need them again. He’d gotten the many piles of papers sorted and filed and reduced to one neat stack when Benedict opened the door and stuck his head into the room.

“Come out here for a minute, would you?”

“I’m nearly done,” Shane told him.

“Great, but leave it for now. I need to show you something.”

That sounded ominous. More concerning was the fact the lights were out in the hallway. “Did we blow a fuse?”

“I will if you don’t get your ass out here.”

The amusement softening the words made sense only if someone was within earshot. Benedict didn’t talk to him like that unless he planned to back it up with action, and when he did, arousal was what Shane heard loud and clear, not a chuckle.

The bar would be closed soon. Tuesday nights were quiet, a breathing space before the buildup to the weekend. Next door in the Empty Box, David, the Peg’s former chef, would be prepping for tomorrow, the restaurant dark. No point in staying open late when most people finished eating well before ten.

Shane didn’t get that. After a night out drinking as a teenager, he and his mates had headed for the nearest Indian restaurant for a curry, staying there well past midnight surrounded by plates of food they’d barely touched, appetites satisfied after a few bites. Waste of good food, looking back at it, but they’d tipped with the generosity of the well and truly pissed.

He went out into the dim hallway, following Benedict, too familiar with the layout for the lack of light to slow him down.

Before Benedict joined him at the Peg, a dark bar might’ve been due to an unpaid electricity bill, but Shane was confident that wasn’t the case. He mislaid bills, but only after Benedict had paid them. And Benedict was working to get most of the bills sent and paid online. Some of their suppliers preferred paper—so did Shane—but Benedict was saving a tree or two.

Besides, the lights were still working in the office. Maybe a bulb in need of changing.

Benedict stepped into the gloom of the bar, but before Shane could follow him, the lights came on all at once, and there was shouting. It took a moment for Shane to make sense of the words.

“Happy birthday!”

Everyone was standing there, smiling and looking pleased with themselves, including David and half the staff of the Empty Box. Even Vincent, who had the night off, and David’s boyfriend, Jeremy. Benedict, holding a noisemaker Patrick had hastily thrust into his hand, stepped in and kissed him, a public kiss, which was fine with Shane under the circumstances.

“Here, boss.” Shelly indicated a chair at the head of the table. Tables, actually, several of them pulled together.

“I take it the balloons were Patrick’s idea?” Shane was still stunned. His heart rate hadn’t returned to normal after the shock of the blazing lights and everyone shouting at him.

“I helped,” Vincent said, loyal to his boyfriend as always. There were a few dozen balloons tied to chairs and a collection of paper streamers that looked to have been hung by someone with an eye for flair.

Patrick wore a party hat in a lurid turquoise shade. “I was in charge of decorating! How’d you guess?” He was beaming and, to Shane’s horror, coming toward him with another party hat, obviously intent on putting it on Shane’s head whether he wanted it or not.

“No!” Shane pointed at him as if that would halt him in his tracks. “No hat. They give me a headache.”

Patrick pouted, then brightened. “That’s okay. Ben can wear it!”

“Sure.” Benedict was watching Shane, but he let Patrick put the hat on him before gesturing at the chair. “Sit down. Patrick made you a drink.”

“Then I threw it away and got you a pint of Hobgoblin.” Shelly grinned.

“Knew there was a reason I liked you,” Shane told her, sitting and doing his best to ignore the balloon string brushing against the back of his head. “Cheers, everyone, and thanks. Appreciate the effort.”

He did. They’d planned this and gone to some trouble. More than anyone had since he’d moved from England to the US. When he was a kid and birthdays mattered, his mum had always baked him a cake unless she was working, in which case she’d bought one from the corner shop, a squishy bright yellow sponge cake oozing jam and a white, sickly-sweet imitation cream. He’d loved biting into the huge slice his mum had cut for him as a reward for blowing out the candles. That bite symbolized another year older, on his way to being independent.

The birthdays when his dad was around weren’t worth remembering. Better buried, in fact. Out of prison, Alfie went between maudlin and vicious, depending on how much he’d drunk and how well he’d done at the bookies. On Shane’s tenth birthday, his cake—a homemade one, chocolate sponge with peppermint buttercream—had ended up decorating the living room wall.

Good times.

“Did you think I was indulging my sadistic side making you do all that office work?” Benedict murmured into his ear an hour later.

“Nah. You left me to it. What’s the fun of making me suffer if you’re not there to watch? Should’ve guessed you had something like this up your sleeve.”

“You should have.” Benedict traced a random pattern on Shane’s thigh, the pressure of his finger maddeningly light. “It’s your birthday. I wouldn’t let it pass without doing something.”

“It’s a nice party.” Shane glanced around the bar, pride filling him when he took in the classy decor, casual enough to be welcoming but several cuts above the dump it’d been before Benedict walked in demanding changes. “Where does Patrick get his energy from? He’s been on his feet all night and dancing for the past hour.”

Dancing was one word for the wild gyrations and shimmies anyway. Vincent seemed to appreciate them, dancing alongside his boyfriend, oblivious to the fact they were the only ones on their feet. The music changed to something slow and romantic, and Vincent swept Patrick into an embrace, stilling his movements until they stood locked together, swaying slowly. Vincent’s long dark hair, caught back in a ponytail, contrasted with Patrick’s short spikes, currently a dazzling platinum, but the men matched in a way that went beyond appearances.

David and Jeremy joined them, smiling at each other shyly but clearly enjoying the chance to hold and be held.

“We could do that,” Benedict offered. “Do you want to? One dance before we wrap this up and head home?”

Shane looked at him, trying to sort out what he might be thinking. Did Benedict want to dance? Shane wasn’t the most romantic of partners, that was certainly true, but he didn’t generally get the feeling it was something Benedict missed.

Montana nudged him gently. She was David’s pastry chef and had baked Shane’s birthday cake, refraining from the bright colors and decorations Patrick had probably suggested and keeping it simple, a rich vanilla icing on almond cake. “Go on. How often do you get the chance?”

Benedict was already drawing him to his feet, so Shane went along with it. Montana was right, and they might as well. With Benedict’s arms around him and the music playing, any hint of self-consciousness faded into the background. When the song ended, he was surprised and even a bit disappointed.

“Good birthday?” Benedict asked when they came to a stop.

“It’s not over yet.” Shane lifted his eyebrows meaningfully.

“That’s right.” Patrick, close enough to overhear, clapped his hands. “Presents!”

Shane had hoped for a quick trip home and a few hours alone with his boyfriend, but he managed not to groan and returned to his chair while the others brought out a pile of neatly wrapped gifts.

The first was from David and Jeremy, a handsome shirt in a shade of silver he wouldn’t have chosen himself but that he had to admit would probably look good on him. Patrick and Vincent’s gift was a set of ice-cream-sundae bowls accompanied by some jarred fudge sauce and long-handled spoons.

“We know how you feel about ice cream,” Patrick said.

Shane’s love of ice cream had been a carefully kept secret until Benedict had turned up on his doorstep. He had fewer secrets these days, a fact that alternately warmed and worried him.

He went through the rest of his gifts, all thoughtful, none extravagant enough to make him feel awkward. Benedict’s he saved for last, trusting it wasn’t a present best opened in private.

It turned out to be an Everton home shirt, sent over from the football club itself, wrapped in a clear plastic bag stamped with the club’s emblem. He ran his fingers over the high-tech, silky blue material, remembering the hours he’d spent scuffing a ball around, pretending he was wearing a shirt like this and playing for the team.

Stupid of him. He’d never shown any talent for the game beyond a few glorious moments on the field behind his house when every swerve had taken him past a defender and his final shot had left the keeper in the dust. Jumpers for goalposts, as the saying went, and that was all they’d had, not even lines marked on the grass, but they’d played for hours until the endless summer afternoons had given way to dusk and it got too dark to see the ball.

“It should fit.” Benedict nudged him. “Turn it over.”

He did and saw his last name emblazoned on the back, with the number seventeen beneath the Brant.

“I wasn’t sure what the numbers meant, but your birthday’s the seventeenth, so I went with that.”

Realizing he hadn’t said a word since opening his gift, Shane turned, drawing Benedict in for a fierce, hard kiss. “You couldn’t have done better. Thanks.” He covered the gruffness in his voice with a cough and reached for his glass.

“Going to model it, boss?” Patrick fanned the air. “Shirtless Shane. Can I handle the hotness?”

“No chance,” Shane assured him after finishing off his pint, then nodded at Vincent. “Unless this one throws you out of the flat we’re not meant to realize you’re sharing.” In which case he assumed Patrick would end up in their spare room until he and Vincent had hashed things out.

Patrick and Vincent exchanged guilty looks; Ben’s expression was stern. “Patrick’s mail’s been coming here for weeks. You seriously thought we wouldn’t notice?”

“We weren’t sure it would be okay,” Vincent said.

“Better to beg forgiveness than ask permission?” It was a quote Shane remembered from somewhere, though he couldn’t have said where. There were worse policies, he supposed. “Oh, for God’s sake, stop looking so worried. We’ll work something out.”

“We’re sorry.” Patrick caught hold of the sleeve of Vincent’s shirt and twisted it between his fingers. “I mean, it’s a long story, and I’m sure you don’t want to hear it tonight—”

“You’re right about that,” Shane said firmly. “Now Benedict here’s going to take me home, and the rest of you are going to make sure everything’s tidied up so none of us has to deal with it tomorrow, yeah?”

“I was hoping you’d try the shirt on,” Benedict said, for Shane’s ears only. They pushed back their chairs and stood.

“I’ll try it on for you,” Shane clarified. “Not for this lot.”

Benedict grinned. “Promises, promises. Here, give me some of that.” He gestured at the gifts Shane was gathering up.

“No, here’s a bag.” Montana passed over a paper one with sturdy twine handles. “It came from the party store.”

“Thanks for all your help,” Benedict said.

Shane looked up from tucking the things into the bag. “And the cake. Best cake I’ve had in years.” Maybe decades.

She waved away the thanks, a flush pinking her cheeks. “I’ll pack up whatever’s left and leave it in the fridge for tomorrow. It’ll taste good for another few days.”

“It won’t last that long,” Shane assured her. He pointed at Patrick. “Hands off it. I know you and your sweet tooth.”

Patrick pouted. “One teensy-weensy slice?”

Did that winsome act get results from Vincent? It didn’t have the slightest effect on Shane, but he found himself agreeing that yes, Patrick could cut a sliver of cake.

Too much beer, had to be.

He eyed Benedict’s arse on the way to the door. The walk home would clear his head, but drunk or sober, he appreciated the view. Anticipation sizzled through him, his breath quickening. The party had been fun, no denying it. What Benedict had planned would be even better. With luck, he’d wake up tomorrow sore and raw, body aching, skin peppered with dark bruises and bite marks where they wouldn’t show.

He walked by Benedict’s side in companionable silence, swinging the bag and wondering how long Benedict would make him beg before delivering.

It was his birthday, so longer than usual, most likely. He gave an oblivious Benedict a fond look. Sadistic bugger.

Chapter Two

“You’d better hang up that shirt before it gets wrinkled.” Ben flipped the dead bolt behind them.

“It’s a waste having it dry-cleaned before anyone’s even worn it,” Shane agreed. When they’d first moved in together and he’d discovered Ben’s addiction to dry cleaning, there’d been eye rolls and snide comments, but nowadays he accepted it as a quirk Ben refused to lose. Shane headed into the bedroom, whistling tunelessly. Ben put his keys down where they belonged and realized he was still wearing the paper party hat Patrick had put on him hours before.

“God, this hat! Why didn’t you say something?” he called back to Shane.

“Forgot you had it on?” Shane sounded amused. “Maybe I liked the look of it.”

“If true, that’s highly disturbing.” Ben took his wallet out of his back pocket and set it on the table beside the paper hat.

“It’s cute. I think since it’s my birthday, I’d technically be within my rights to— Huh.”

That told Ben the extra gift he’d left wrapped and placed on Shane’s pillow had been noticed, so he went to the bedroom door and leaned against the frame. Shane was sitting down, holding the small package.

“Should have known you’d have some other trick up your sleeve.” He looked up at Ben. “You took off the hat.”

“I did.” Ben stood a little straighter and gestured. “Open it.”

“Yes, Sir.” This time it wasn’t sarcastic or a challenge, more a gentle, distracted murmur before he turned his attention back to unwrapping his gift, and hearing it sent a flash of satisfaction through Ben.

When Shane saw what was inside the package, he drew in a shuddering breath, then turned to gaze at Ben. “I was wondering if you’d changed your mind.”

“Have you?”

“No.” Shane shook his head to emphasize the word. “I trust you. Tied up or not, I trust you.”

As a kid, Ben had been given a cheap plastic toy set of handcuffs, sheriff’s badge, and pistol along with a cowboy hat. The cuffs hadn’t held any particular significance at the time. He hadn’t gotten a thrill at locking them around his wrists or those of the friend he’d arrested for cattle rustling or whatever it’d been. It’d taken Shane to bring out his dominant instincts.

The cuffs Shane held were designed for sex play, but calling them toys wasn’t accurate. Uncompromising metal, heavy, efficient, they’d hold Shane’s hands in place, rendering him helpless to move once Ben had passed the chain linking them around the headboard of their bed.

They’d played with restraints dozens of times but never crossed the line between the casual—Ben’s hands wrapped around Shane’s wrists, a hastily grabbed tie from Ben’s collection—and the serious. Handcuffs were serious. It had been a journey to get to this place, and Ben would freely admit he wasn’t there yet.

He’d done ridiculous amounts of research online and posted on some BDSM forums under a screen name he prayed would never be traced back to him. Even with everything he’d learned, he struggled with accepting that the rough, controlling sex he craved wasn’t a sign of some moral failing on his part, and he worried he’d screw up and not realize until it was too late.

But there was no denying he wanted this, and no one could say he wasn’t being cautious. He’d insisted on a safe word Shane had assured him was completely unnecessary. That discussion had resulted in an argument lasting for hours, and although in the end they’d come to a semiagreement—Shane had chosen a safe word but insisted he’d only use it in an extreme emergency, which Ben thought was insufficient—it hadn’t cleared away Ben’s doubt.

“I know you trust me.” For now, what mattered to Ben was that Shane had an amazing birthday, the best he’d ever had. “If this is what you want, take off your clothes.”

Shane undressed in silence, his gaze never leaving Ben’s face, the connection between them running strong and hot. Ben wasn’t scared of anything he planned to do, only of failing to meet Shane’s expectations. The visible proof of Shane’s arousal when the last of his clothing landed on the floor told Ben how eager Shane was, but an erection was easy to inspire.

He’d drunk less than Shane, and Shane, knowing how his birthday would end, had paced himself, but they were a few steps from sober. Ben’s research had stressed safe play meant no alcohol, but with the analytical part of his brain that never quite stopped working, Ben assessed the risks and decided they were negligible. He didn’t even own a whip or cane, two implements requiring a steady hand and clear vision, and the cuffs came with two keys, both of which were close by. He’d checked before they’d left for work. One on the night table, one under a pillow.

Naked, Shane stood by the bed, waiting, the unhurried rise and fall of his chest more reassuring than words. This type of sex wasn’t new to them, but it was rarely planned, more a flash of lust seeking an outlet, met always with an answering heat no matter what the time or place. Even vanilla sex with Shane was a revelation after years of mediocre lovemaking Ben had assumed was as good as it got. Before Shane, he’d never paused during breakfast, abandoning juice and toast in favor of a blowjob, Shane’s mouth hot from drinking coffee, his eyes closed as if sleep had reclaimed him. Never watched a movie with his cock embedded in the tight clench of a lube-slick ass, Shane on all fours, facing a TV, blindfolded, gagged, his harsh moans of pleasure drowning out the dialogue.

They didn’t always deepen the intensity, too tired from hours spent at the bar, fatigue or mismatched shifts acting as a chastity belt. They ran the bar, but sometimes it felt as if it ran them, demanding their presence and every scrap of their energy.

They needed more nights like this, with both of them off the following morning, giving Shane time to recover physically and giving them both the chance to come down from the high of exploring their needs.

Ben studied Shane, the solid line of his shoulders and upper arms, and considered whether to cuff his hands in front of or behind him. There were benefits to both options, and all the fantasizing Ben had done over the past week while he anticipated this night hadn’t resulted in an answer to the question. He would let Shane decide.

Stepping closer, Ben picked up the handcuffs from where Shane had set them on the bed while he’d been undressing. They were cool against his palm, sparking an idea. He reached out and ran his fingers down Shane’s chest to one nipple, lightly enough to tease. Shane’s cock twitched, and he closed his eyes for an instant.

“Gonna lock me up?” His voice was low with arousal.

“Eventually.” Ben dragged the cuffs along Shane’s skin in a parallel path to the one his hand had taken, scraping Shane’s other nipple with the metal links of the chain. He watched Shane’s nipple tighten and his nostrils flare. “I wonder how hard I’d have to press to leave marks.” Cheaper cuffs might have rougher edges, but Ben wasn’t interested in making Shane bleed, and delving deeper into the matter didn’t appeal to him.

“Don’t mind if you want to find out,” Shane muttered.

Ben rewarded him with a kiss and a quick grope to one ass cheek. “No. Stand still.” He slid the cuffs lower along Shane’s belly, then lower, down one thigh and up underneath Shane’s balls.

Shane sucked in a breath at the touch of cool metal but held his position. “Going to lock that up? Won’t be much fun for you.”

“It would if I held the key.”

The thought of controlling Shane to that extent left him light-headed, as if the air in the room had turned thin. He’d seen cock cages of all descriptions during his browsing and been put off by their clinical appearance, but the concept thrilled him. Shane frustrated, spitting out threats and curses, crying out to be tamed and brought to heel, was an intoxicating thought.

He opened a cuff and fitted it around the base of Shane’s balls and erection, a loose, impromptu cock ring. The chain he wound around the rigid flesh, tight enough to bite in, drawing a low, harsh sound from Shane.

“Nice.” Ben wrapped Shane’s fingers around the loose cuff. “Hold that.”

He stepped back to admire the view. The metal shone against pale skin slowly reddening, Shane’s balls riding high, supported by the curve of the cuff.

Ben dropped to his knees and ran his tongue over the exposed skin between the links, tracing a spiral. When he reached the crown—a dusky red, glistening, a fresh bead of fluid gathering, ready to fall—he used his teeth instead.

“God, take it easy.”

“I would if I thought you meant it.” Ben glanced up. Shane’s face was slack with arousal, lips parted, eyes half-closed. “We both know you don’t, so stop telling me what to do and tighten that chain. I want to see how hard you can get.”

Shane hesitated until Ben’s words sank in. Then he twisted the chain wrapped around his cock, clamping the flesh tightly enough that it went from red to purple, the veins easily visible.

“There.” Ben was transfixed by the sight. “Beautiful.”

For once, Shane didn’t protest the use of the word, or in fact say anything, though he shivered when Ben ran gentle fingers up the inside of his thigh, then groaned when Ben wrapped his hand around Shane’s and squeezed. Another drop of fluid beaded at the tip of Shane’s erection.

“Stroke yourself.”

It was awkward because there wasn’t much to stroke with both their hands around the base, but Shane managed. God, he looked good. Watching the head of Shane’s cock disappear and reappear from behind his calloused fingers, Ben was as hard as Shane.

Arousal choked him. “I wish I could fuck you like this.”

“What’s stopping you?”

It was a genuine question, not one of Shane’s snappy, snarky rejoinders. Ben suspected he used them as cover, but tonight Shane was open to him, mellowed by happiness, vulnerable in a way that spoke to Ben’s darker side. It was strange, viewed objectively. He loved Shane with an intensity that scared him sometimes. Would never want anything or anyone to hurt him. And yet the question in Shane’s eyes demanded a cruel answer, and Ben had it in him to give. Pain, humiliation, a sweet degradation, all with that unwavering love as a foundation.

To an outsider, it would seem deeply fucked up. But it worked for them, and whose business was it but theirs?

“There’s too much else I want to do, but God, I’m tempted.”

“Do it,” Shane urged without an ounce of demand behind the words. “I’ll get you hard again. Lick you clean on my knees. And you don’t need to be hard to spank me. I want that. Your hand on my arse. Won’t be a birthday without it.”

The rush of lust made Ben’s knees weak. “Give me those.” He fumbled the cuffs away from Shane’s cock, too eager to be gentle. “Turn around.” It was easy to make the decision to fasten Shane’s hands behind his back with Ben’s level of arousal so high, but harder than he would have thought because his own hands were trembling. “Down.” This last order was accompanied by his palm between Shane’s shoulder blades, urging his partner to bend at the waist over the edge of the bed.

“Yeah,” Shane encouraged him. With his chest against the mattress, he had to turn his face to one side. “Come on, Benedict.”

“Shut up.” Ben didn’t need encouragement or the distraction of Shane talking, and he knew from experience that Shane would enjoy this more if they were focused on the act. Where was the fucking lube?

It was in the bedside table drawer where it always was. They had bottles stashed all over the house, which didn’t save them from occasionally needing to use whatever was closest, including olive oil (which had left the kitchen floor slippery for days) and the conditioner Ben used to keep his curly hair under some semblance of control (less than ideal but better than nothing). Ben shed his clothes with haste, cursing a recalcitrant button on his shirt that seemed determined not to slip free. Once naked, he squeezed a generous amount of lube across his fingers.

Moments later—though it felt longer—he pushed his cock into Shane. The angle or maybe the position Shane was in because of how his shoulders were rotated made Shane’s ass noticeably tighter than usual. Even in his desperate need, Ben didn’t want to be too rough. Then Shane groaned loudly, shuddering underneath him.

Ben’s self-control snapped. He raked his fingernails down Shane’s back, raising marks without breaking the skin, then gripped the chain linking the cuffs. “You don’t get to come. Not yet.”

“Won’t.” It seemed difficult for Shane to say, as if even this soon his body screamed for release. Jerking out the words, he added, “Fuck me. Hard. Want to feel you. Hurt me. Make it good.”

With a series of thrusts, short and fast, and Shane’s cooperation, Ben drove deeper. He knew how to take Shane to the edge and hold him there, but he couldn’t exercise the control he demanded from Shane. Each stroke sent a wave of pleasure through him, his balls tightening, his climax already knocking at the door.

He’d been picturing this all day, walking around in a private sensual haze. The reality was less perfect, and that made it perfect. The raw scent of their sweat, musky, ripe; the flexing of Shane’s ass, muscles clamping painfully around his cock; the discomfort pushing the inevitable climax away… They weren’t part of his fantasies, but he welcomed them.

His heart thudding in his ears, Ben pulled back until only the tip of his dick was inside Shane, pulled back on the cuffs until Shane’s shoulders were taut. He saw the sheen on Shane’s skin, heard the rasp of air when Shane breathed. “Don’t say anything,” he ordered. “Don’t think. Just feel.” He eased his hips forward, stretching Shane slowly, watching his shiny-wet cock disappear into Shane’s hot ass while he applied steady pressure on the cuffs.

Shane’s thumbs were white with tension; his lower back arched. Ben didn’t want him to talk, but he wanted to hear him groan and whimper, and he knew how to tease those sounds out of him. In that moment, hearing them mattered more than prolonging the fuck. He drew back and thrust forward again, faster and more roughly. Shane gasped. It wasn’t enough. Again. More. Hard enough that Shane slid forward onto the bed, the bend where thighs met pelvis the only thing that prevented him from moving farther. He grunted, and that still wasn’t enough. Ben thrust more forcefully, faster, concentrating on Shane’s reaction instead of his pleasure, because if he thought for more than a fleeting instant how good this felt, he’d explode.

His next thrust made Shane cry out. There might have been a word in it, and the word might have been Ben’s name. Shane always called him Benedict, never the short form, emphasizing that with Shane, he was a different man. This man, the one who knew how to bring Shane to the edge, then push him over, taking control.

He grabbed a handful of Shane’s hair and tugged, needing to see at least part of Shane’s face. He got a glimpse of a flushed cheek, a bitten lip, Shane’s eyes closed as if to block out everything but the feel of Ben’s cock in his ass, his world narrowed to a single, overwhelming craving.

Ben could ask Shane afterward how much of that was accurate, but he probably wouldn’t remember to.

Another thrust. Another. Shane cried out at each of them, rolling his shoulders. Ben released Shane’s hair and the cuffs and gripped his hips instead, stilling the wild bucking, forcing a pause in the fuck. It was the last time he’d be able to stop. His climax was too close for him to play these games. Even as he stood, panting, legs braced, he wondered if he’d mistimed. But he needed to shake Shane loose of all inhibitions, force him to express emotions in a way Shane would never do willingly.

He pulled out, staring down at his cock, rock hard, glistening. It killed him not to be buried in the heated clench of Shane’s ass, but easy didn’t do it for either of them. He ran his thumb over Shane’s hole, loose from the hard fuck. “Slut. Open for me. Begging. Fucking beautiful. You have no idea.” He shoved his thumbs inside, forcing the muscle to yield, widening the hole, then fitted his cock between them and pushed in slowly. Torture for both of them, this slow entry, but God, it felt good too. Shane sobbed, broken in that moment, his completely.

This was what he loved: Shane shattered into pieces for him to gather and put back together, to shape through pleasure accompanied by pain, to control. To love.

“No idea,” he said again, and this time he meant how much I love you even if he was too wound up to manage those words.

Ben couldn’t hold back anymore. He stopped trying and let himself go, allowed himself to shove deeply into Shane without restraint. He lifted Shane’s hips some more, manhandling him into a position where Shane’s erection was no longer pressed against the mattress. Shane made a desperate sound at the loss of contact, and Ben could tell how close he was, how much he wanted to come.

“If you can come without me touching you…” He ground himself deeper, not pulling out. “Do it.”

Shane didn’t speak—good boy—but shook his head, whimpered.

“You can. You can come from this. Me fucking you.”

Sometimes, when they were connected physically, entwined emotionally, he thought he could tell Shane to fly and have his order obeyed. This one was easy. Shane had to be so close a breeze would trigger the hot, powerful spurts Ben loved to watch shoot out to coat Shane’s stomach or chest.

What if that cock was in him? Shane’s native aggression and strength channeled in a different direction? Ben shivered, pushing the stray thought aside. He’d been fucked before, but never by Shane. He wasn’t even sure it was something Shane wanted to do.

And it wasn’t going to happen tonight.

He hammered into Shane, rough and brutal, the slide of flesh on flesh a rasp. More lube needed, but if he stopped now for more, Shane would be furious and they’d both be frustrated.

Ben came, and the world stood still, waited for him to emerge from a climax that left every muscle locked, a primal grunt torn from him with every involuntary jerk of his trapped, clamped cock. When it was over—before he’d even drawn that first oxygen-starved lungful of air—he shifted, adjusted the angle so when he thrust in, he would hit Shane’s sweet spot. He was considering whether he needed to reach around and draw Shane’s orgasm out with a hand wrapped tightly around his prick, wondering how many thrusts he had left in him before his erection failed him.

Shane stopped moving to meet him, trembling. Then Ben felt the familiar, rhythmic clench of Shane’s ass around his cock when Shane came.

Stroking Shane’s hip, Ben waited. When Shane finished, he withdrew and helped Shane to his feet, turned him around, and kissed him. Shane bit at his lower lip and growled, “Get these bloody things unlocked before my shoulder dislocates.”

“Maybe I’ll have you sleep with them on.” Shane knew he wasn’t serious, judging by his sly look. Ben retrieved the key. “Here. Easy.”

Shane grunted when he was able to bring his arms back to their usual position. “Christ.”

“Next time we’ll try it with your wrists in front,” Ben assured him.

“Right, because that was such an awful experience.” Shane grinned, already recovering his composure, and leaned in to claim another kiss. “Let’s never do it again.”

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben checked Shane’s wrists. Chafed and reddened, but the skin was unbroken. “I wasn’t too rough?”

“Don’t think you could be. It isn’t in you.”

Ben massaged Shane’s upper arms. “You’d tell me if I was. If it got to be too much.” They weren’t questions, but he didn’t speak with confidence. Not now that they’d come. Different rules.

“’Course I would.”

Too quick an agreement to trust, but Ben didn’t push for more. He eased Shane down to the bed, took care of the mundane issues of cleanup for both of them, then curled beside him. The night wasn’t over, but he took pleasure from Shane’s closeness, the hand slipped into his, the weight of Shane’s head against his shoulder, and the kisses they exchanged, slow, deep, intimate.

“I love you.”

Shane cupped Ben’s face, his calloused hand comfortingly familiar. “Love you too, like you didn’t know.”

“We’re lucky.”

“Yeah.” Shane bit the flesh above Ben’s nipple, as gentle as a mama cat picking up a kitten. “Too tired to go again?”

“I should be asking you that. You’re the one a year older.”

“Don’t think birthdays work that way. I’m a day older than yesterday, not a year.” But Shane yawned as if he’d talked himself into falling asleep. Then he grinned, rolled to his stomach, and raised his ass invitingly. “Go on, then. Spank me to sleep.”

The last thing a solid spanking—and Ben was itching to provide one—would do was induce sleep, but Ben didn’t bother to point that out. They knew it already.

Besides, it was Shane’s birthday. Ben would give him whatever he wanted.

Chapter Three

“How’s it look?” Shane asked when Benedict came into the bathroom. Standing with his back to the mirror and craning his neck around didn’t give him a clear picture of the bruising on his arse.

“Mm. Nice.” Benedict smoothed one cheek admiringly, then squeezed it.

Shane yelped. “Hey!”

“Sorry. Hard to resist.” Apologizing with a gentle pat, Benedict glanced in the mirror and did his best to neaten his wild curls by running fingers through them. “I could get my phone and take a picture?”

“And have it end up on the Internet?” Shane snorted. “No, thanks.”

“I’d erase it after you saw it,” Benedict protested. “It’s not like I’d leave it for Patrick to find. Can you imagine?”

“I’d rather not.” Shane squeezed some toothpaste onto his brush. His arse ached, and not only because of the bruises. Thinking about how he’d gotten them would have made him hard if he hadn’t had three mind-blowing orgasms in the past twelve hours.

Jesus, it was a blessing that birthdays, like Christmas, came but once a year. Another night like that and he’d be a wreck, incapable of crawling out of bed.

Not that he’d mind. He flexed muscles he wasn’t always aware of and winced at the vicious throb radiating from his fucked-raw hole without regretting what had caused it. In fact he grinned at his reflection, noting the bite mark on his shoulder with satisfaction. He’d earned that by keeping his mouth stubbornly closed when Benedict had told him to beg, even though the words Benedict wanted to hear had crowded his mouth, desperate to be spoken. He’d pushed for the punishment, and Benedict, well aware of what was going on, had given it to him, indulgent because of the date. Any other night, and Shane would’ve been playing with fire. With Benedict in a certain mood, it didn’t pay to cross some lines. Benedict was more than capable of punishing Shane for real by leaving him with a hard, aching dick and no prospect of relief.

They couldn’t sustain this day in, day out. Too draining on every level. But God, the times they let go were good. Shane relished them, turning the memories over at work, drifting into the dark, secret places in his head and finding not emptiness, but Benedict there, smiling back at him.

“I came in to tell you we’re out of milk, bread, and eggs.” Benedict sent Shane a rueful look. “It was my turn to get groceries, and I forgot. Sorry. We can go out for breakfast, or I’ll walk over to the corner store if you don’t mind waiting.”

Shane shrugged, turning to face Benedict and setting his toothbrush down. “Sooner stay here to eat. Cereal’s fine.”

“No, you need more than that after last night.” Benedict kissed him on the bite mark, claiming it in a way that made Shane shiver with lust. “Start a pot of coffee in fifteen minutes. I’ll hurry.”

He left, and Shane finished up in the bathroom and dressed in a T-shirt and loose, soft track pants. His Everton shirt was in the wash. He’d worn it briefly the night before, his cock sticking out under the hem while he blew Benedict, those fucking cuffs on his wrists again. Benedict had made life difficult, swaying his hips, so his cock was a moving target, the slick head painting Shane’s lips and cheeks. Capturing it, sucking it greedily, he’d been in heaven, but the shirt had ended up smeared with spunk from both of them.

He had coffee brewing when the phone rang. If that was Vincent with a problem requiring one or both of them to come in, he’d make it clear a morning off was sacrosanct.

The voice on the other end of the line was familiar and disorienting at the same time. “I’m looking for Shane Brant, please. This is his father, Alfred.”

“Dad? It’s me.” Jesus, he hadn’t spoken to his father in what had to be at least two years, maybe closer to three, and even then it had been a freak encounter. He’d called at Christmas, and Alfie had answered. For a moment he wondered if his dad was ringing to wish him happy birthday on the wrong day, drunk and confused. Then he realized there was no way his dad would even remember the date. “What’s wrong? Is it Mum?”

“Yeah. She’s—” Muffled sounds and some words Shane couldn’t understand were followed by a different voice.

“Shane? It’s your Auntie Maggie.” She was married to his dad’s brother Geoffrey. “Your dad’s a bit upset, love. I’m sorry to have to be the one to deliver bad news.”

“Is it my mum? Is she ill?” Shane was thinking cancer, probably because it was what had taken both of Benedict’s parents, but it could be all sorts of things. A car accident?

“She’s gone, love. I’m so sorry.” Maggie did sound genuinely sorry, and worried, though Shane knew she and his mum hadn’t been particularly close. “Your dad came back from lunch at the pub and found her. We’re not sure what it was, not yet. The doctors will tell us when they’ve done their tests. Whatever it was, it was quick, and they don’t think she felt any pain.”

That was what medical professionals always said. It was to make people feel better. Well, Shane didn’t feel better. He wasn’t sure what he felt beyond stunned and incredulous, as if none of this were real.

“Shane? Are you there?”

“Yeah. I’m here.”

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you over the phone.”

Stupid thing to say. How else would she tell him, get on a plane and fly across the Atlantic? “Is my dad okay?”

Maggie made a sympathetic sound. “He’s in shock, poor soul, but we’re here with him.”

His head was empty of thought, reaction, anything, a vast blankness. Mums didn’t die. Not like this. She was only, what, fifty-five? Fifty-seven? That was nothing. A few years older than David. Prime of life. He pictured her, small and wiry like him, long blonde hair pulled into a ponytail she’d cut off when he was in his teens, provoking a raised fist from his dad when he’d seen her. Anxious blue eyes and small golden hoops in her ears she never took out, even when he’d bought her some pearl studs at Christmas one year.

It came upon him in a rush that he’d never see those earrings again, never feel the pat of her hand against his face in a greeting. Never. Ever. The words banged against each other in the echoing void and splintered his numbness. He didn’t cry, couldn’t cry. His dad had taught him tears were for women and ponces. Even if he’d been unashamedly the latter, he’d rejected them as a sign of weakness. Benedict brought them out of him, but they weren’t the same. Tears of pain and arousal were signs of surrender, yeah, but not weakness.

He wanted to cry for his mum, offer his tears up as penance for every phone call he hadn’t made, every impatient retort or reproach, every missed meal and grudging chore of his childhood, but he couldn’t.

Yet when he spoke, he didn’t recognize his voice. It was strangled, husky, a whisper forced past a grief-swollen throat. “I’ll come over. First flight I can get. I’ll be there soon.”

“He’s coming over,” he heard Maggie report, followed by an enraged bellow from his dad.

“Tell him not to bother! Waste of time and money.”

“Don’t be silly, Alfie. Of course he’s coming. His mum. It’s only natural.”

Holding on to his temper, irritation easing the constriction in his chest because this was normal—him and his dad arguing, this was how things always were—Shane spoke loudly enough to attract Maggie’s attention. “Tell the daft old bugger to put a sock in it. I’m coming. And no need to make up the spare-room bed. I said I’d never spend another night under his roof, and I meant it. See you soon.”

“Oh, but—”

He hung up on her distressed protest.

The quiet of the house was interrupted by the gurgle when the last of the water sputtered its way through the coffee machine, then the six steady beeps that told him the coffee was done. It was a lie; if he pulled the pot out now, at least an ounce of coffee would spill out onto the hot plate and burn there. Shane had cursed it a dozen times but refused Benedict’s suggestion they buy a replacement. He didn’t replace a working appliance because it annoyed him. Lots of things in life were annoying.

“I’m back,” Benedict said from the front hall. Shane hadn’t heard the door open. “I got some of that apple sausage we tried before.” There were dual muffled thumps when he kicked off his shoes. “Do you want scrambled eggs? Or fried?” He came into the kitchen with a paper bag under one arm and a half gallon of milk in the other hand. “Or—” He caught sight of Shane’s face and stopped moving, stopped everything. “What?”

“What do you mean, what?” Shane needed to put off sharing his loss a bit longer.

“I mean, what’s wrong?” Benedict set the groceries down, steadying the milk when it came close to toppling over.

“I’ve got to go to England,” Shane said. “I haven’t booked the flight yet, but I can’t imagine I’ll be gone less than a week. Maybe closer to two. I’m sure between you and Helen and the others, you’ll manage fine without me, and I’ll be reachable by phone if anything comes up.” He was talking too much, which would tell Benedict something was wrong, but he couldn’t stop himself. “You all managed fine when I came down with the flu in the spring, and I was out for four days, what with the fever and the coughing and—”

“Shane. Stop.” Coming closer, Benedict wrapped his hand around Shane’s wrist. Benedict’s fingers were cool from holding the milk container, and the sensation more than his words made Shane pause. “What happened?”

“Nothing. I’m fine.” The absurdity of his answer struck home, and he laughed, cutting it off before it became uncontrollable. “Sorry. No. Total fucking opposite. Not sure why I said that. Not fine. Furthest from fine it gets.”

“Tell me.” Benedict guided him to a chair at the kitchen table, drawing up a second one to sit so close to Shane their knees touched. “What happened in England?”

Shane stared at him, allowing the bleakness he felt to show on his face. God alone knew what he looked like, but Benedict flinched.

“Someone died?”

Shane nodded. He could do that. A nod meant nothing, a jerk of muscles, a gesture.

Benedict swallowed, the bob of his Adam’s apple fascinating Shane. He followed it, noting the scrape Benedict’s razor had left on his neck and the shadow cast by the collar of Benedict’s shirt.

“Your mom?” Benedict asked it carefully, as if saying it could cause it, as if it wasn’t already too late to be cautious and safe.

“Yeah. Me mum.” He corrected himself. She’d always said it mattered how he spoke. Told him people would judge him on it more than his appearance. Load of bollocks, but he muttered, “My mum, I mean. Don’t know what happened yet. Sudden, obviously. So I’ve got to go. Dad will throw a fucking fit about his faggot son showing up, but like I give a toss. She needs someone at the funeral who was there for her, not a seedy con man in and out of nick more times than I’ve had a hot dinner. She… I…”

He ran out of words. Someone who’d been there for her? Well, that wasn’t him, was it? He’d buggered off to the States and left her with an arsehole of a husband and a pitiful life and never gone back. It took her dying to get him on a plane.

“Okay.” Benedict had taken Shane’s hand at some point in the past minute or so, lacing their fingers together, holding on. “Okay. So we’ll get Vin to take over while we’re gone. Shelly will help, and you know Montana will play double duty at the Peg if it means getting to spend more time with Helen. I’ll check with the temp agency that sent those guys over when Patrick and Vin took that long weekend, make sure they can help us with coverage for some shifts so no one has to work too much overtime. It’ll be fine. Even if it’s two weeks or more, they’ll handle things, and as you say, we’ll only be a phone call away.”

Shane had let Benedict’s voice soothe him, focused more on the contact of their fingers than the meaning of the words being spoken, but he blinked and snapped to attention. “Wait. What?”

“So we can go to the funeral,” Benedict said patiently.

“We,” Shane repeated. “You’re coming with me?” It hadn’t occurred to him for an instant that Benedict might come to England ever, let alone on virtually no notice and for something as dreary as a funeral.

“If you think I’d be of any help at all? Yes, of course.” Benedict squeezed his hand. “Look at me.”

Shane lifted his eyes to meet Benedict’s reluctantly, afraid of how he’d react to what he saw.

“If me being there will make things worse with your father, or your relatives, or the people you grew up with, if it will be embarrassing, or take your attention away from where it should be, then tell me, and I’ll stay here. I’ll take care of the Peg and talk to you on the phone every night, and I’ll be waiting when you get off the plane to bring you home. But if you want me, all you have to do is say.” He was so earnest Shane didn’t doubt for a second he meant every word.

He couldn’t make his lips shape a yes or a please. Instead he nodded again and watched relief flood Benedict’s face.

“Thank you,” Benedict said.

“What for?” God, his throat hurt. His face ached from holding it passive, still, when he wanted to contort it in a scream.

“For including me.” Benedict rubbed the side of his nose. “You and me, we’re partners in every sense. I love you. But this is family, and I’m not… I wasn’t sure…”

“I’ve got aunts, uncles, cousins, you name it. Plus my bloody dad. If we’re partners, they’re your family too.” Shane smiled with an effort. “One look at some of them and you’ll be on the next flight home.”

“Flights. We need to book them.” Benedict stood. “But first you need to eat.”

Shane shuddered, a wave of nausea washing through him like dirty water. He put his hand on his stomach. “Couldn’t.”

“A cup of tea instead of coffee?”

“A nice cup of tea,” Shane corrected him wryly. “That’s what we call it at times like this. And no, I’m okay.”

“Then go lie down for a little while.” Benedict sounded gentle and firm all at once. “You’ve had a shock and not much sleep. Rest for an hour at least, and I’ll take care of everything. There’s a travel agency my old company used. I’ll get them to figure out flights and a car.”

Too much effort to argue—and didn’t that tell him how beaten down he was? “And a hotel. Nothing fancy, but I’m not staying at my dad’s.”

Benedict drew him up and into a hug as warm and strong as sunlight. Shane held on. Clung, even, grateful for the chance to hide his face and let it show his emotions.

It wasn’t sinking in that his mum was dead. It was striking him over and over again, each moment of realization as piercing as the first, followed by a swift rejection and a space of time when he forgot. It was too monstrous a truth to accept. Not her death, but the knowledge, sure and certain, that he’d never see her again. Ever.

Never. Ever. He kept coming back to those words, that concept, and he couldn’t fucking deal.

“Write the address for me, then go lie down.” Benedict pulled back, kissed him, and looked into his eyes. “I’ll take care of this.”

Easier to obey than to argue, so Shane did as he’d been told, then went to the bedroom, curling up on top of the duvet rather than going to the effort of drawing it out of the way. He stared at the wall and tried not to think of anything. They’d kept in touch by e-mail more than phone since he’d followed his first serious boyfriend, Daniel, to America, more on her insistence than his. She’d enjoyed technology, had always been sharing the link to some website or other that meant nothing to him, most of which he’d never clicked on.

He listened to the sounds the house made, trying to pick out what might be Benedict at the computer, on the phone making calls. No, wait, he was meant to be resting, not straining to hear whatever Benedict was up to. Resolutely, he closed his eyes and tried again to think of nothing, but it was harder than he’d have guessed. This must be why meditating was something people had to go to classes to learn.

“Fuck this,” he muttered and got up.

Benedict was at the dining room table on the laptop they shared, the phone at his elbow. “You’re supposed to be resting.”

“Tell my brain that. It wasn’t cooperating.” Shane pulled a chair over beside Benedict’s and sat, chin on Benedict’s shoulder. He wasn’t looking at the screen; he wanted to be close. Now he could shut his eyes. He exhaled heavily and rested a hand on Benedict’s thigh.

“We’ve got a flight tonight,” Benedict said. “There’ll be a rental car waiting for us at the airport. How do you feel about Airbnb?”

“I’d have to know what it was first.”

“It’s a new bed-and-breakfast network, all online. Helen suggested it. Not many options in Birkenhead, though.” It sounded as if Benedict was frowning, though Shane couldn’t see his face to confirm that. “I think a hotel would be easier. This one looks all right. What do you think?”

Shane thought he didn’t want to make any decisions, but he glanced at the screen and saw the image of a hotel he recognized. “Yeah, it’s all right. They’ve got a bar.”

“Checking out the competition?” Benedict gave a chuckle false enough that Shane wasn’t surprised by the apologetic look following it. “Sorry. I’m remembering how it was when my mom died, and I can’t tell you how sorry I am. Literally. Everything I think of is clichéd or pointless.”

“That’s what people say at times like this.” How many times as a kid had he sat in a parlor, painfully neat, a room kept for best, and heard the murmured platitudes over the clink of bone china cups and saucers? Too many. He’d been bored and sullen, put on his best behavior, saddened by the death of whatever relative or neighbor, yes, but in a distant way because they’d been impossibly old or a name on a Christmas card, no more than that.

He’s in a better place. At least her suffering’s over. It was a merciful release. He wouldn’t have wanted to live like that. She’s at peace now. You’ve got the memories, love.

Phrases worn by use until the meaning had rubbed away, leaving nothing but the stark reality of loss.

“I told Vin.” Benedict cleared his throat. “He wanted to rush over, but I told him not to. Was that okay? I can call him back.”

“Christ, yes. I can’t face sympathy and sobbing. We’ll have enough to deal with when we get over there. Why the smile? If you think coping with my dad’s going to be fun and games—”

Benedict was smiling, the sweet curve of his lips drawing Shane’s gaze. “You said we.”

“Yeah.” It warmed Shane to know he wasn’t alone in this, even if the thought of everything they’d have to juggle was overwhelming. He didn’t know how he’d keep from forgetting things.

“I made a list,” Benedict said as if he’d read Shane’s mind. “Things to do before we go, what to pack. We’ll have time to do a load of washing. Thank God we both have valid passports—can you imagine what a circus it would be trying to get those renewed last-minute?” He patted Shane’s hand and gestured at the pad of paper he’d been writing on. “Look at it if you want, but don’t feel you have to. I can handle this.”

Clearly, he could, if he’d managed to find Shane’s passport. He didn’t think he’d seen his passport in a few years, but there it was on the table beside Benedict’s.

“I found a couple of suitcases and a carry-on. I don’t have a converter so we can use the laptop in England, but I assume we can get one at the airport. I checked, and my phone will work overseas, but yours isn’t going to.” That made sense; Shane’s phone was older and lacked the more modern bells and whistles. “Helen says we can get a prepaid mobile when we arrive for you to use; otherwise, we’d have to upgrade yours this afternoon, which Dave offered to do if you decide you want to go that route. That’s the only way you’d have your own number. My guess was you’d be fine with the prepaid phone even if the number was different, but if I was wrong, say the word and I’ll ask Dave to get on that.”

It shouldn’t have surprised Shane that Benedict was on top of everything, but he couldn’t help but give the man an admiring look. “No, you were right. A prepaid phone’s fine. Or if you don’t mind, we can give people your number for while we’re there. Not like I’ll have long, meaningful conversations with anyone but you.”

“True. Dave and Vin found friends who’ve offered to cover shifts. You know them—Rich and Colin. They’ve worked for us at busy times in the past, so they won’t need training. And everyone’s willing to pitch in, so put the bar out of your head. It’s in safe hands.”

“Like after the fire.” The way everyone had rallied around after the bar suffered an arson attack had stunned Shane in a good way.

“Well, yeah. This is personal to you, so it matters to them. They know we won’t have time to say good-bye before the flight, so don’t worry.”

Shane grimaced. “I don’t want to talk about Mum, but we should call in. There’s a busy week ahead, and young Vincent’s never run the place without us there to fall back on.”

“He’s fine. They all are. Now if you’re sure you’re up to it, start packing. Does your suit need to be dry-cleaned? My black one should be fine.”

He owned one suit, black because it worked for most formal events. Benedict had more, ranging from winter wool to lightweight summer ones, black, navy, dark gray, and light gray, but physical work at the bar had bulked him out, and the last time he’d worn a suit to a meeting with their bank manager, his jacket had strained across the shoulders. He’d gone out and bought another, much to Shane’s amusement.

“No, it’s still in the bag from the last time.”

He rubbed at eyes gritty with fatigue. The petty details of an emergency trip were nothing compared to the legal requirements waiting on the other side of the Atlantic. Alfie wouldn’t get his lazy arse in gear, assuming he was sober enough to focus on the paperwork, and the rest of the family would leave it for Shane to take care of. He was Donna’s son, after all.

Trouble was, he didn’t have a fucking clue what to do. The funeral, yeah, he could make some calls and handle that, but there would be a mountain of forms to fill out, credit cards to cancel, people to be notified…

And in all of that, Donna, his mum, Alfie’s wife, however she was thought of, would be lost.

He wouldn’t let it happen. She deserved better.

Chapter Four

Shane’s head, resting on Ben’s shoulder, was jostled when the plane hit a pocket of turbulence, but his even breathing seemed unaffected. He’d tried several times that day to sleep without success, so when he’d yawned widely after takeoff, Ben had suggested he close his eyes for a few minutes. He’d been asleep through the flight, not rousing even when the mediocre meal was served.

At least a third of the people around them were asleep, but Ben couldn’t doze off. He was physically tired; his mind, on the other hand, was alert, full of thoughts and worries. Shane had never had anything good to say about his father, and here they were, descending upon him a day after he’d lost his wife, to take over planning of the funeral. Assuming Shane was correct and Alfie was incapable of dealing with the situation well, of course.

“Can I get you anything?” the flight attendant asked, pausing at their row. He’d been sympathetic since Ben had explained in hushed tones why they were going to England.

Ben shook his head. “We’re okay.”

“In fifteen minutes we’ll serve breakfast, and it won’t be long after that.” The man moved on, and the young woman sitting on Ben’s other side tucked a bookmark into the book she’d been reading for most of the flight.

“I’m sorry about your boyfriend’s mom.” She’d obviously overheard the earlier conversation, but this was the first time she’d spoken to Ben directly.

Around them, people stirred, roused by the smell of coffee drifting out of the small kitchen at the front of the plane and the sunlight finding its way past the shuttered windows. They were flying through the dawn. Across the aisle, a man uncovered his window, and Ben saw clouds tinted pink, a vast ocean of them, hiding whatever lay beneath. Actual ocean, he supposed.


“I don’t know what I’d do if I lost my parents.” She widened her eyes, vague horror filling them as she contemplated the prospect. Her eyeliner had smudged, giving her a dissolute appearance at odds with her book, a battered copy of The Hobbit.

“I’ve lost both mine.”

Why had he shared that? She was a stranger, with no possible right to the information or interest in it. Maybe that was why.

She didn’t tell him she was sorry or murmur how awful. Instead, she closed her eyes and recited, “Thou know’st ’tis common; all that lives must die, / Passing through nature to eternity.” Eyes open again, she added, “That’s from Hamlet. I played Ophelia in college. She didn’t say that, though. Gertrude did.”

It had been so long since Ben had read any of Shakespeare’s plays that he honestly couldn’t remember if Hamlet was one of them. He had a vague idea the plot centered around madness and murder. “I’ll take your word for it.”

She dimpled. “I’m one of those weird people who goes around quoting stuff. It drives my coworkers crazy. I don’t know how they put up with me.”

“I’m sure you’re a hard worker.” Ben wanted to contribute to the conversation, though he had no idea how.

“I don’t think that’s the first thing any of them would come up with if you asked them to name my better qualities.”

“Let me guess,” Shane grumbled, shifting slightly but not lifting his head from Ben’s shoulder. “You deliver presentations.”

“Because I’m a talker? Not only that, but yeah. Good guess.” She looked back along the aisle behind them. “I’m going to make a trip to the bathroom before it’s too late. Excuse me.”

Ben was glad when she’d gone. He felt free to kiss Shane’s head and hold his hand without an audience, though he had no reason to think she wouldn’t have been fine with it. “Did we wake you?”

Shane grunted. “Was in and out. Felt like dreaming.” He sighed and straightened, stretching as best he could in the small space. “Wish it was.”

“Me too.” Ben knew Shane wouldn’t want to discuss his loss, and definitely not here, so he changed the subject. “They’ll bring breakfast soon.”

“I’ll need eight cups of coffee if I’m going to get through the day.” Shane yawned.

“You can have as much as you need,” Ben promised, though privately he hoped they’d be able to manage without too much. Jet lag combined with the stress of the past twenty-four hours would be hard enough without a ton of caffeine thrown into the mix. He’d have to be subtle. With Shane, there was a fine line between him appreciating being taken care of and viewing it as Ben mothering him.

That wasn’t something Ben wanted on the radar this week.

After landing at Manchester—with Shane hissing under his breath when he passed a mural depicting famous Manchester United football players—and going through customs, the jet lag hit. Around him, people moved purposefully, most presumably on UK time. For Ben, it was six in the morning after hours without sleep, but to them it was eleven, time for a break with lunch approaching. He stumbled, literally out of step with his surroundings, grateful for Shane’s steadying hand.

Shane took over, shepherding him to the car-rental booth and glancing around with more alertness than Ben was capable of. “Hasn’t changed much. Been a few years, though. Suppose they’ve dolled it up a bit.”

“You’ve traveled more than me. I’ve never been anywhere in Europe. Canada’s as far as I’ve gone, and I’m not sure that even counts.”

A couple went by, arguing in what might as well have been a foreign language to Ben’s sleep-clogged ears. Shane grinned. “It’s good to hear proper English again.” His smile faded, the momentary flash of humor lost. “They hadn’t better mess us around with this car. Don’t let them sell you the fancy insurance. Costs an arm and a leg. Stick with the basics.”

“I’m sure they won’t.”

It took longer than he’d expected, but with luggage in what he supposed he should call the boot, Shane behind the wheel on the wrong side of the car, refusing to bother with the navigation device, they left the airport, heading for Shane’s home since the hotel room wouldn’t be available until three.

England looked green and small. It was hot, a cloudy haze softening the blue sky, but the streets were wet, as if it’d rained recently, concrete steaming in the sunshine.

“Sure you’re up to this?” Shane spun the wheel, taking them into a roundabout with a sublime indifference to the oncoming traffic. “It’s an hour’s drive from here. I could drop you at the hotel before going to my dad’s, and you could wait there.”

“God, no.” It sounded more dramatic than Ben had meant it, though he did feel out of place and off-kilter. “I’d rather stay with you. Unless that’s your way of saying you can’t deal with introducing your dad to your boyfriend, in which case—”

Shane interrupted him. “It’s not. He’s not an easy man under the best of circumstances.”

“Which these aren’t.” Ben sighed. “I promise I’ll embrace the mantra ‘cheerful and oblivious.’ I won’t take anything he says personally. Worry about him and whatever we need to organize. Don’t worry about me.”

Shane gave him a smirk. “Not likely to manage that anytime soon. Or ever.”

They weren’t a couple who made others uncomfortable with public displays of affection, and they didn’t spend much time expressing their feelings for each other in Hallmark ways. Being told that Shane was concerned was a declaration of undying love in Ben’s eyes. “I’m serious. I’ll be fine.”

“I know you will.”

There didn’t seem to be much to say after that, and Ben didn’t want to distract Shane from the road. It had to seem weird to be sitting on the other side of the car to drive after all his years in America, and Shane had plenty on his mind. They pulled off the M56 and onto the M53, then took increasingly empty roads into a quiet neighborhood. Shane slowed the car.

Glancing around the street, taking in the occasional hedged lot and streetlights subtly different in shape, Ben asked, “This is where you grew up?”

“In all its glory.”

The houses were close together, and once Ben looked more carefully, he realized most of them were duplexes. Some of them had small driveways, but few had any type of yard, not out front, at least. Maybe there were lawns in the back. The area reminded Ben more than he would have guessed of the places where he himself had grown up—large apartment buildings, old houses where multiple families and sometimes multiple generations lived.

“That semi over there is ours.” Shane clicked his tongue reprovingly. “Needs a coat of paint on the front door.”

Semi? Oh…semidetached. Ben studied the house. It looked old without being dilapidated. Solid. Red bricks weathered by the years to a soft shade and a small strip of ground in front of it, narrow enough to be covered in three strides, a low wall separating the house from the sidewalk in front and the house beside it.

To the left, a double driveway between Shane’s home and the next house gave a decent amount of space. Even so, cars lined the street, reducing the road’s width until Ben wondered how two cars could pass without crashing. He felt cramped, a giant in a dollhouse.

“People park on the street?”

“When these houses were built, you were lucky if you had one car, let alone one for the wife and another for your kids when they were old enough. Too many cars and nowhere to put them.” Shane glanced up and down the street, frowning. “Shouldn’t be this busy. Not at this time of day. Probably most of these are people visiting my dad.”

Too tired to be horrified at the prospect of walking into a houseful of strangers with appraising eyes, Ben nodded.

Out of the car, he stretched, then yawned, hearing his jaw crack.

“You’re dead on your feet.” Shane locked the car, then tucked the keys into the pocket of his jeans. “We’ll get some sleep soon, I promise.”

“It’s better to stay awake. Adjust to the local time.”

Shane snorted. “In theory, yeah, but once you walk in, someone’s going to put a drink in your hand, and it won’t be tea. Not now Mum’s gone. She had a rule. No drinking before six, unless it was Christmas. My dad would’ve poured beer on his cornflakes if he could. After a few cans, you’ll crash. Count on it.”

“I don’t have to drink beer, do I?” He couldn’t face alcohol. The inside of his mouth was parched, though he’d drunk plenty of water on the plane. He longed for something tart and preferably carbonated, iced until it numbed his teeth and throat.

“No, there’ll be whiskey too. Wouldn’t be a party without inviting Johnnie Walker.” Shane sounded different, his accent more pronounced to Ben’s ears, his features settling into harsher lines as if he was bracing himself for a fight. “Come on. I can see the curtains twitching at number nineteen.”

Ben didn’t get to find out if Shane would open the door or knock. They were still two steps away when it was opened by a woman in a plain, dark dress with an apron tied around her waist. “Well, look who it is. Our Shane. You’re the spitting image of your father at this age.” She pursed her lips before adding, “I don’t suppose you remember me.”

“Auntie Maggie,” Shane said promptly, and Ben saw the woman’s face soften with approval.

“You came all this way, and I keep you standing on the doorstep, such as it is. Come in, lad. And who’s this?” Maggie looked expectantly at Ben.

“Ben. Uh, Benedict Lozier. It’s nice to meet you.” Ben held out his hand to shake Maggie’s and found himself inside the house without being sure how he’d gotten there. What mattered was that he’d remembered the rules he’d carefully set for himself: Don’t introduce yourself in relation to Shane. Stick with your name and say it’s nice to meet you, and if more is called for, ask about them. How do they know the Brants, do they live nearby…? Damn, he’d meant to check with Shane concerning what topics of conversation might be considered rude in England. He’d have to look it up online when he had a free minute.

“I’m so sorry about your mum, love. It’s a terrible tragedy, that’s what it is, a tragedy,” Maggie was saying to Shane, clutching his shirtsleeve. “They’re meant to let Alfie know later today why it happened.”

Shane swallowed and nodded. “Is he here?”

“Alfie? Of course. He’s in the garden with some of his friends.” Maggie’s expression made it clear even to Ben what she thought of the “friends.” “Geoffrey? Geoff, come take your nephew back to see his dad.”

“I know where the garden is,” Shane protested, but Geoff was already coming to greet them. So far no one had asked who on earth Ben was or why he was there.

They went through the house, with Shane pausing every few minutes to shake hands or be hugged, depending on the gender of the person in his way. The rooms seemed to be crowded, but it was more that they were small and filled with furniture. Ben, automatically counting, saw five people in addition to Maggie and Geoff. The door to the yard was off the kitchen, a room scrubbed clean but, in common with the rest of the house, in need of renovating. A woman stood at the sink, back to them, briskly dealing with a stack of dirty dishes. No dishwasher? And the fridge was tiny. More the size of a beer fridge at home. Ben caught himself, ashamed of his judgmental thoughts, though they were rooted in sympathy for Donna, not snobbishness.

The yard was a fair size, mostly given over to a slab of concrete. Steps led down to a shaggy rectangle of grass bordered by beds filled with shrubs rather than flowers.

On the patio, four men sat on white plastic chairs around a rough pine table laden with cans of beer and a half-empty bowl of chips. They shared beer guts, and red faces, though whether that was from the sun or the alcohol, Ben couldn’t say.

No one spoke. It was one of the most awkward moments Ben had experienced. Four men, and which of them was Alfie? The one scratching his belly? The one taking a long drink from a can before crumpling it in a casual way and tossing it into a cardboard box at his feet? The one with his back turned?

Or the one heaving himself to his feet, swaying as if caught in a strong wind, and pointing at the house. Good-looking once, with enough of Shane in his features to make Ben look away in revulsion. Gone to seed was a kind description. Balding, overweight, chin rough with stubble, Alfie didn’t inspire admiration. “Out. You said you wouldn’t darken my door again, and I said if you did, I’d make you regret it.”

There was a murmur from the other three, a muted rumble. Approval or protest? Ben wasn’t sure. His instincts were to step closer to Shane, protect him, but he’d seen Shane in plenty of bar fights and giving him space was more useful. Not that he expected a fight under these circumstances.

“Think my exact words were that if it was raining piss, I’d stay outside and get wet if you were in the house, but it was a fair few years ago, and we were both drunk, so I won’t argue.”

With the two of them facing off, Ben didn’t doubt who would win if they came to blows. They were the same height, but Shane was hard-bodied, fit. Alfie looked old, as if life had wiped the walls with him, leaving him exhausted. Ben watched the man’s face as sadness won out over anger. “All right, then,” Alfie said. “Stay, if you’ve set your mind to it. I’ve not got the energy to argue with you.”

For a moment, no one moved. Then one of Alfie’s friends stood and patted the man’s shoulder, and Alfie turned back to join them. Shane didn’t seem sure how to react. Ben didn’t know if he’d expected a physical altercation, a shouting match, or what, but apparently grudging acceptance hadn’t been on the list.

“You two boys come have something to eat,” Maggie said from the doorway, and Ben followed Shane inside. “Now, I haven’t had a chance to clean out your old room, Shane—”

“We’re booked into a hotel, thanks.” Shane pushed a chair away from the small kitchen table with his foot and nodded at Ben, then pulled a second chair out and sat. “We’ll check in later.”

“You mean you came straight from the airport?” Maggie made a tsking sound.

In his head, Ben distinctly heard Patrick saying, Oh, honey, no. We don’t do anything “straight,” and he felt a powerful wave of homesickness. Fortunately it passed. Maybe he could blame it on jet lag.

“Yeah,” Shane said. “Amazing how it all came back to me.”

Maggie bustled around, layering sliced meat and cheese onto bread, spreading mustard. “Geoff? Would you come get these boys something to drink?”

Geoff, a younger, trimmer version of his brother Alfie, appeared again.

“Something soft?” Ben asked quickly. “Or water’s fine.”

“You don’t drink?” The disapproval in Geoff’s voice would’ve been funny any other time. Clearly sobriety wasn’t a virtue but a terrible failing in his view.

“We own a pub.” Shane shrugged. “Dream come true for him out there, but we sell it; we don’t sup it.” He winked. “Well, not much.”

Geoff guffawed. “Nice one, our Shane.” His gaze turned back to Ben. “Pub owners? Shouldn’t you be back there taking care of it?”

If only. “We’ve got a great team working for us. They can handle it.”

“Even so, it’s a long way to come for a funeral. Expensive too, if you’re buying two tickets.”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Shane sounded exasperated by Geoff’s persistence, but not angry. “He’s my partner, Uncle Geoff. Business partner, yeah, but we live together. We’re a couple. Or did you think moving four thousand miles away cured me of being gay?”

“We wondered if you’d maybe met someone nice.” Maggie didn’t turn, but Ben saw her fingers tighten on the knife she held, as if to still a tremor. “Seems you did.”

“Yeah.” Shane flung his arm around Ben’s shoulders and tugged him in, planting a kiss on his cheek. It stung. “I did.” He raised his voice, directing his words at the people in the sitting room off the narrow hall, who were, Ben realized, listening to the conversation, judging by the silence. In a house this compact, privacy would be difficult to attain. “And if anyone’s still a decade behind the times and has an issue with that, you can stuff it where I put my dick. And if you need me to draw you a map, that’s—”

“Shane!” Maggie slammed the knife down and turned. Color rose in her cheeks. “Your mother’s house is no place for language like that. No one but your dad and his friends mind you being gay. It was true when you left, and it’s the same now. But if you walk in with an attitude, you’ll make more enemies than friends.”

No one spoke for so long that it went past awkward and into embarrassing. “Right,” Shane muttered. “Sorry.”

“Good,” Maggie said. “Ben, you’re American, then, aren’t you?”

Ben was grateful for the change of subject and was sure everyone else was too. They were talking among themselves again, at least. “Is it that obvious?” he joked.

“Is this your first time in England?” Maggie brought two plates over to the table and set one in front of him and the other in front of Shane.

“First time in Europe. I haven’t traveled much.”

“It was nice of you to make the journey now.” She rested a hand on Shane’s shoulder for a moment, a silent acknowledgment of forgiveness, and although Shane didn’t say anything, Ben noted the tension in his jaw relaxed. “I’m sorry it’s under these circumstances. You seem a nice young man. I’m sure Donna would have enjoyed getting to know you.”

“We’re here to help. There must be things we can do. Planning?” He took a bite of sandwich to be polite and was surprised to find it delicious. To be fair, the breakfast they’d been served on the plane had been underwhelming.

Maggie lowered her voice. “As you can imagine, the shock of finding her here with no warning—she hadn’t even been ill!—has hit Alfie rather hard. I think he’d be glad to have some of the decision-making taken off his hands.”

“Yeah, that’s why we’re here.” Shane didn’t sound enthusiastic, but he squared his shoulders as if accepting a burden. “I suppose they won’t release the body until they’ve done all their tests, but we can arrange the funeral. It’s Thursday today.” He hesitated, his forehead creasing in a frown. “It is, right?”

“All day,” Maggie said with an unexpected smile. “You two need to get some rest.”

“So we can arrange it for next Friday. Should be plenty of time to let them do what they need to.”

It seemed a long way off, but Ben supposed funeral homes, like any other business, had only so many slots available. He noticed the tiny wince Shane gave when he mentioned the autopsy—without saying the word or calling his mother by her name. Ben didn’t blame him. It was one thing to watch a crime show on TV and see actors lying still under a harsh light, another to deal with the reality of it. Distancing himself was Shane’s way of coping. How long that tactic would work, he didn’t know.

“She wanted a cremation, I know that much.” Maggie brushed some crumbs off the counter and tossed them into the sink. “And she was adamant about not wasting money on all the frills. Said she’d been pressured into a fancy coffin when your gran passed on, God rest her soul, and she didn’t want that nonsense for her.”

“She’ll get a good send-off.” Shane spoke flatly. “Nothing she wouldn’t like, but we’re doing it properly.”

Maggie tilted her head, listening. “Is that the door? Geoff, answer it, there’s a love.”

The man Geoff ushered into the house a moment later was introduced as the liaison officer from the coroner’s office. He was younger than Ben would have expected. Maybe the younger guys got the worst jobs, like having to deliver news to grieving families. Shane and Ben followed him outside to where Alfie was still sitting.

“Normally we call with the preliminary results of the autopsy,” the man said. “But, well, my mother knows Maggie from church, and she suggested—”

“It was thoughtful of you to come in person, Dennis,” Maggie said.

“Give us the news, boy,” Alfie said. His friends, who had stood when Dennis and the others came outside, were shuffling back into the house to give the family some privacy. “Whatever it is.”

Dennis managed to project an air of calm, but his glance at Shane made Ben wonder if they’d known each other growing up. “The preliminary cause of Mrs. Brant’s death is a subarachnoid hemorrhage. It would have been quick. Chances are she didn’t know anything at all. One moment she probably felt fine, and the next she was gone.”

“She wasn’t gone; she was on the bloody kitchen floor.” Alfie set down his presumably empty can and reached across the table to pick up the half-full one his friend had left. “Subarachnoid? What’s that?”

“What matters is she didn’t feel any pain.” Maggie spoke quickly, as if to forestall anything else Alfie had to say.

“What matters is she’s dead.” Alfie drained the second can and put it down beside the first. “What was it? A blood clot?”

“More of a weakened wall in an artery that supplies blood to the brain. Sometimes the artery bursts.”

Shane sat in one of the vacated chairs, heavily enough that it scraped along the concrete. “She didn’t feel it?”

“I’m certain. It was too sudden.” Dennis let a moment go by, gaze lowered respectfully, then added, “The coroner’s authorized the death.”

Alfie snorted, moving restlessly in his chair. “Didn’t know you needed permission to die, but with this government, it doesn’t surprise me. Going to get fined, is she? Should’ve filled out a form requesting an appointment to kick the bucket?”

“I didn’t mean—” Dennis folded his lips together. “Mrs. Brant’s doctor has signed a certificate for you to give to the registrar. I have that here. The coroner will send along a form to confirm there’s no inquest needed.”

“Give it to me.” Shane led Dennis to the side of the house, out of earshot of Ben, who stayed where he was, watching Shane without making it obvious.

Shane accepted a slip of paper and folded it before shoving it into his back pocket. Ben made a mental note to retrieve it. He’d anticipated a stack of paperwork and brought along a file folder to keep it in one place. After a short conversation, Dennis left as if he was glad to go, walking around the side of the house and disappearing.

“Wanker,” Alfie said succinctly and opened another can.

Chapter Five

Shane went upstairs to his old room after everyone but Maggie and Geoff had left. His dad was snoring in an armchair in the sitting room, Geoff on the sofa watching a cricket match with the sound turned down. Maggie, bless her, was cleaning up, not that much needed doing. His mum kept the place spotless, always had.

Benedict was outside, texting Vincent. That was an exchange that could go on awhile, so Shane moved through the house silently, ignored for the moment.

His room was at the back, overlooking the garden. When he’d left, he’d been long past the age where sticking posters up or painting the walls black held any appeal. Donna and he had redecorated in a neutral shade and swapped the single bed for a double.

Useful if we have guests,” she’d said, smoothing the duvet, patterned with crisp blue-and-white stripes.

Shane wished they’d redecorated years before when it might have been some use to him. Sex on a single bed had been an exercise in frustration. Not that he got any when Alfie was around. Even taking a straight friend up to his room was frowned on. Alfie wouldn’t stir himself to walk upstairs, but he’d bellow up at them, making sure Shane knew every creak of the bed was audible.

He’d gone through three door locks in the time between when he’d come out—a confrontation ending with a black eye for Shane—and when he’d left for America, ready to follow Daniel wherever true love led. He remembered the afternoon he’d unscrewed the second one, broken in another of Alfie’s fits of rage the night before. Alfie had been convinced Shane was hiding someone behind the locked door. The fact he’d been wrong had been met with a bleary-eyed stare and a shuffle off to bed, no apology or offer to replace the lock he’d destroyed.

Shane had carefully screwed the third lock into place while the hot afternoon sun turned his bedroom into an oven, and promised himself that when—there was no if—this one was wrecked, he’d leave.

Life wasn’t simple. He’d thought so when he was younger, but he’d been wrong.

Cautious footsteps on the stairs warned him he wouldn’t be alone much longer. He knew it was Benedict, though he’d never heard the sound of Benedict’s feet on these stairs. The creak of the one third from the top was familiar even after a decade away. Shane stayed where he was, looking out into the garden where he’d smoked illicit cigarettes as a teenager who never could have dreamed up a man like Benedict in a hundred years.

Benedict came up behind him. “Everything’s fine at home.”

At that moment, Shane didn’t think of the States as “home.” “Good.” The grass was too tall; likely Alfie hadn’t mowed it in weeks, though to be fair, with a dry summer coming to a close, it wasn’t necessary to cut it often.

“Where’s the garden?” Benedict asked, looking out over his shoulder.

Shane glanced at him, puzzled. “What are you talking about? The garden’s right there.”

“That’s grass. Where are the vegetables?”

Oh, right. Shane had forgotten that to Americans, a “garden” was a place to grow food or flowers. “There aren’t any. It’s just what we call it.”

Benedict chuckled ruefully. “I’ll make mistakes like that all the time, I bet. Be patient with me.”

“Don’t worry.” He opened the window, letting warm air flow in, along with a fly that buzzed around his head until he flapped at it hard enough for it to get the message.

“No screens?”

“On the windows? No.”

Benedict didn’t seem put off by Shane’s brief answers. “I noticed you call your aunt Maggie.”

“So? It’s her name.”

“You don’t call me Ben.”

Jesus. Shane turned to face him. “You’re worse than the sodding fly. Maggie, Alfie for my dad, whatever—that’s their names. I grew up using them. I try saying Auntie Margaret, and she’ll look at me like I’m daft. But people I meet now, I call them by their proper names. They’re different.”

“That makes no sense at all, but okay.” Benedict looked around the room, no judgment in his expression, but a vague curiosity. “This was yours?”

“Yeah. You can’t tell, though.” He went over to the chest of drawers and pulled out the top drawer, automatically tugging harder when it reached the point where it always stuck. “When I left, this was full. Stuff I’d saved over the years. Stones from every beach I’d gone to, beer mats, concert-ticket stubs… Now look at it. Spare pillowcases and a towel.”

“You’ve been gone awhile.”

It was reasonable, but right then, reasonable was the last thing he wanted. He rounded on Benedict. “Yeah. Years. And when do I come back? When it’s too fucking late to see her. Why didn’t I make the effort before this?”

“I don’t know. Why didn’t you?” Benedict was the embodiment of patience. It made Shane want to hit things. Walls. Faces.

“If I knew, would I be asking you?” He kept his voice down, aware of the others downstairs and his need not to make a spectacle of himself. “She was a good woman. Worked hard all her life, unlike that useless lazy arsehole downstairs, and what did it get her? A son who never came home to visit, and an early death.”

“None of that was your fault. What were you supposed to do, live here forever?” Benedict was close enough to touch, but he didn’t reach out for Shane.

“Why do you always think anything I do is okay? It’s not, you know. I fuck things up all the time. Like this, case in point.” These days his hair was long enough to run his hands through, so he did, not that it helped clear his head. “I should have been here. Who else did she have?”

“Your aunt and uncle, all her friends, your dad,” Benedict listed.

Shane snorted. “Right, because he’s a shining example of manhood. Spent every penny she earned on liquor and gambling, shouted at her when he was drunk—which was most of the time—and couldn’t be bothered to listen to a word she said. Wasn’t even here when she died. She was alone.” The realization of that hadn’t struck him properly until he spoke the words. He pressed his knuckles against his mouth hard, horrified.

“Hey.” Benedict gathered him in close despite the awkwardness. “Stop. Stop, now.”

He didn’t point out this wasn’t the time or the place to break down, but Shane felt they understood each other. He closed his eyes and allowed the familiar smells of Benedict’s shampoo and their laundry detergent to overwhelm the dusty, strange ones in the room. Benedict rubbed the back of his neck, and for once he felt no urge to fight being soothed.

“Do you want to leave?” Benedict asked. “Go to the hotel and sleep?”

“Leave? Yeah. Have to. We need to get the death registered, start the ball rolling on the funeral…”

“My laptop’s in the car, and the hotel will have Wi-Fi. We can search online and find out what needs to be done and where we go to do it. It’s getting late now, anyway.”

“Yeah, the registrar’s office will probably close at four or five.”

A hotel room, clean, anonymous, empty of everyone but him and Benedict. A short drive and he could slip between cool sheets and hold on to the man who’d redefined his life until sleep took them away from each other. Though even in his dreams, Shane knew whom he belonged with.

Belonged to.

Shane pulled away and squared his shoulders. “We’ll say ta-ra and let Maggie know where we are.” Benedict looked puzzled, and he backtracked through what he’d said, then sighed. “Ta-ra. Means good-bye.”

“Tah-rah,” Benedict repeated carefully, probably adding it to a mental list titled weird things my boyfriend says upon returning to his homeland. “Okay.”

Downstairs, Maggie was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. “Oh, there you both are. Can I get you a drink?”

“We’re going to the hotel to get some sleep,” Benedict told her.

“You don’t have to do that.” She lowered her voice. “Geoff and I can take Alfie back to ours for a few nights. Then you two could stay here.”

Shane shook his head. Whether his father knew or not, there was no way he was spending a single night under this roof. “Let him stay in his bed. We’re already booked into the hotel, and we need some time to get on Benedict’s computer and sort out whatever comes next.”

“Oh, that’s right, I forgot. Dennis came back with those there.” Maggie lifted her chin to indicate a small stack of papers sitting on the table. “I’m sure he meant them for Alfie, but I think you boys will be able to make more sense of them than he will right now.”

Benedict picked them up and flipped through them. “Yeah, these will help. Thank you.” He and Maggie exchanged contact info as if Shane weren’t standing right there, but Shane was unable to summon up the energy to protest or even care all that much. He’d slept on the plane. He ought to be reasonably functional. Instead, like walking through water or a fog, he was slow, hesitant.

“Okay, we’ll talk to you tomorrow,” Benedict said. “Please don’t hesitate to call if you need anything.” He looked startled when Maggie drew him in for a hug, but went along with it.

“Make sure you two get some sleep,” she said sternly and shooed them out the front door. It wasn’t until Shane was sitting behind the wheel that he realized he didn’t know where the hotel was. Christ, how embarrassing. He’d walked past it hundreds of times, but it had been so long he couldn’t remember where anything was anymore.

Benedict rescued him yet again. The man deserved a medal. “I printed out directions before we left home.” There was that word again. “If we go to the end of the block and take the third exit from the roundabout, we’ll be headed in the right direction.”

Shane pictured the road and nodded, part of his brain yielding up information long since relegated to storage. “Got it.” He pulled off, then braked sharply when a ginger cat ran across the road. “Jesus.” The cat sat on the pavement, washing a paw as nonchalantly as if it hadn’t narrowly escaped death. “Tell me that wasn’t my fault.”

“It wasn’t.” Benedict frowned at the cat, not that the animal cared, and patted Shane’s knee. “You weren’t going fast. You’d barely pulled out.”

“Bad cat.” Shane took off again, thankful they’d been able to rent an automatic. He’d left home—England, no, this was home, deep down—shortly after passing his driving test, but he’d forgotten how to handle a gear stick. Patrick would’ve had a field day with that confession, making up half a dozen puns, each filthier than the last.

They drove in silence for a while, a silence Shane welcomed because he couldn’t string two words together, but wanted to end because, left to himself, his thoughts turned ugly. He’d tried to blame his dad for his mother’s death, and he couldn’t. Not that he needed another reason to hate the man, but the way it’d happened was senseless and cruel, yet impersonal.

He needed a target, or he’d aim at himself.

“It’s so different.” Benedict swiveled in his seat to catch sight of a church with a cemetery attached, the weathered gravestones leaning every which way. “It feels old, even the new parts. And it’s so green and closed off. All those hedges around people’s front yards.”

“Took me a while to get used to your suburbs, with everything open to view,” Shane countered.

“You’ve lived in the States longer than you lived here, more or less. Aren’t they your suburbs too?”

“They were until I came back here.” Shane waited for a light to change, drumming his fingers restlessly against the wheel. “Ignore me. My head’s spinning.” He spotted the hotel up ahead, a renovated Victorian building. “I had a Saturday job here as a kid, washing dishes. Wonder if they’ll remember me?”

The answer to that was no. Apparently the place had changed hands twice in the intervening years. The current owners were sisters, one much younger than the other. They didn’t blink at the realization that Benedict and he were a couple.

Times had changed. Shane thought of England as a place where gays were seemingly rare and unwelcome. The discovery that Birkenhead might have moved on, that being gay might be unworthy of comment, shocked him. It kept him silent through the process of checking in. Maybe he’d taken a half step to one side and ended up in a different dimension by mistake. The fact he thought that at all proved how spaced-out he was.

He stood back while Benedict unlocked the door to the room, then allowed Benedict to usher him inside. It was a nice room, the decor modern rather than leaving him transported back in time in addition to being in an alternate universe. Enough of this silliness. He had to regain his balance. He’d be useless to himself or anyone else in this condition.

He had to give it all over to Benedict. Benedict would know what to do.

“Go get in the shower,” Benedict said. He could obviously read Shane’s mind. “You won’t sleep well until you’ve rinsed the travel dust off your skin. No, don’t think. Go.”

Shane was weak with gratitude for the direction. He went into the bathroom and sorted out the shower. He didn’t even care that the water was so hot it hurt when he got underneath the stream. He needed something to take this day away from him, and if it had to be scalding water that made his skin tingle and the mirrors steam, he’d accept it.

“You okay?” Benedict asked a hundred years later, when his arms were braced against the shower insert that probably covered up old tile. The material, whatever it was, had absorbed the heat of the water and felt like part of him.

Shane couldn’t even manage a grunt. All he could do was stand there and wait for whatever came next.

He heard muffled sounds of clothing landing on carpet, and a few minutes later, Benedict joined him in the shower. Slick skin over hard muscle. Big hands that knew how to shape him. That was what Shane needed, to be put back together. Usually he needed this to start with Benedict taking him apart, but it was only late afternoon and he was already in pieces. The bit where Benedict knit him back together was all that was left.

“You’ll sleep after this.” Benedict made it a promise and an order all at once.

“After what?”

Benedict bit Shane’s shoulder, teeth finding the curve where his neck ended. Never where it showed. Benedict didn’t think it was suitable for either of them to walk around with visible love bites. Except he called them hickeys.

Sort of thing teenagers did, but Shane loved the hot pain, the throb when his skin softened, blood rising to the surface. Benedict never broke the skin with his teeth, but he came close at times. This wasn’t one of them. The sucking was gentle, the warmth spreading through Shane, a blanket drawn up to cover him.

“After this.”

A hand on his cock, waking it to hardness, Benedict’s body flush against Shane’s back. He stared down, the visual captivating. Benedict’s hands were strong, his nails kept neatly trimmed, unlike Shane’s, which were usually chewed short.

Benedict slid his cock between Shane’s thighs, high enough to touch his balls. They settled into a rhythm, Benedict rocking back and forth, the residual soap and water coating Shane’s skin making it easy, his hand working Shane’s erection.

“Don’t move. Don’t touch yourself.”

Benedict had one hand free. He raised it, pinching Shane’s nipple and bringing it to a peak. It was a rough pinch, a tiny starburst of pain, and Shane focused on it, enjoyed it. This was easy. It was nothing, no effort of any kind. He leaned back against Benedict, the familiar body supporting his weight, Benedict caressing him, waking his pleasure and driving the rest of the day away.

Teeth at the back of his shoulder again, in a slightly different spot from last time. Shane exhaled and waited, hoping for more, and Benedict, who always seemed to understand what he needed, provided it in the form of a third bite, sharp edges catching a thin fold of skin with enough force that Shane gasped. Hand between Shane’s legs, Benedict worked his prick slowly. The hot water and the sensation of arousal kept things mellow.

It had been a long day. Erasing it wasn’t going to be the work of a minute or two.

“Stop thinking,” Benedict told him. His voice was low, barely audible over the sound of the falling water in the small space.

“Not easy,” Shane admitted.

“I know, but you’ll do it. I’ll help if you need it.” Another bite, the hardest yet and so unexpected that Shane yelped when he felt muscle bruise. “Is this the help you need?” Benedict squeezed Shane’s cock near the base. It got Shane’s attention. “Answer me.”

“Yes.” It didn’t do to ignore Benedict’s orders, not when it came to something Shane wanted and needed.

“Good.” Benedict’s voice was a purr in his ear. “I can give you what you need. Let me.”

After that, he didn’t move unless it was by Benedict’s direction, rough hands turning him so the water pounded on the back of his head and shoulders, which stung where Benedict’s teeth had done their damage. Maybe the skin was broken. Benedict on his knees, mouth stretched wide around Shane’s cock. Their positions didn’t matter, never did; Benedict was as in charge as he’d have been if Shane were the one kneeling. The fact that he’d positioned Shane so one foot was on the edge of the tub—wouldn’t have been possible without the grab bar Shane was hanging on to for dear life—was less distracting than the three slick fingers he had inside Shane’s arse.

Three stung. Four would hurt. A fist? One day. Yeah. He could see himself at the point where he craved the sensation more than he feared it. Benedict dug his teeth into tender, wincing flesh, sensing, clever bugger that he was, that Shane’s thoughts had drifted. Shane grunted, acknowledging the pain and Benedict’s displeasure. Benedict wanted him relaxed enough to sleep, mind empty of regret and the complex mix of emotions his dad aroused in him.

Wasn’t easy. Alfie’s face, his indifference, his bloody rudeness to Benedict, ignoring him as if he were nothing when he was the most important person in Shane’s life— He slammed his fist against the wall, anger boiling up.

Benedict punished him for it—or did he encourage it?—stabbing his fingers deep, fucking Shane’s hole with a brutal economy of movement. Shane hissed out a breath and took hold of the grab rail again, letting the raw burn in his arse sear away his fury.

His dad didn’t get to spoil this.

And when he relaxed, he got what was more definitely a reward, Benedict finding the sweet spot and applying the perfect pressure, a clear signal Shane was allowed to come.

When he did, it was an out-of-body experience. With the jet lag making him light-headed, the sensations were more intense than usual—and Benedict sucking him generally blew him apart. His skin lit up, every inch tingling, and the sweet suction of Benedict’s mouth went from heavenly to torturous, but in a good way.

He shot, an endless stream, captured inside Benedict’s mouth, his climax forceful enough that a trickle of creamy fluid ran down Benedict’s chin before the beating water washed it away. Benedict’s dark hair was plastered to his head, the shape of his skull visible, elegant, and Shane, dreamy now, every muscle lax, let go of the bar and caressed Benedict’s cheek.

Benedict pulled back, licking the sensitive crown of Shane’s cock. “Careful.” He eased his fingers from Shane’s arse. “Pretty sure falling in the shower isn’t on tonight’s menu.”

Shane couldn’t imagine much beyond lying down on the bed, even soaked with water, and closing his eyes. “I’m all right. Tired.”

“I know. Let’s get you to bed.” Benedict stood and shut off the water, ignoring his erection. He reached for a towel. “Here. No, don’t move. It’s easier if you aren’t trying to help.” Efficiently, as he did so many things, he rubbed the majority of the water from Shane’s skin and hair, then gave him a gentle shove toward the door. “Get into bed.”

Too exhausted to argue, Shane shuffled over to the bed—Benedict had already pulled down the covers—and collapsed, first facedown, then, once he realized the fluffy hotel pillows were threatening to smother him, on his side. It wasn’t long before Benedict shut off the light and joined him.

“It’s early,” Shane observed. The sun hadn’t even set yet.

“I know. But we’re tired. If we can get a good sleep tonight, that’ll take care of the jet lag.” Benedict settled with his lips brushing the back of Shane’s neck, his body tucked up close. Shane could feel Benedict’s erection against his arse cheek.

“Want to fuck me?” he murmured, already sleepy but completely willing. “You’ll drop off quicker if you’re relaxed.”

“You need to sleep.” Benedict kissed the edge of his ear in what Shane at first thought was gratitude for the offer, but a moment later, he felt Benedict’s teeth scraping at his earlobe.

“I’ll sleep better if you’re not lying here for an hour waiting for this to go down.” Shane reached over his hip and found Benedict’s prick, hard and eager. “C’mon. You got lube?” They’d used hair conditioner in the shower, and while it had worked for finger-fucking, he wasn’t keen on counting on it to slick the way for Benedict’s solid cock.

“I can get some. Are you sure?”

“Yeah, you know me, always suggesting sex when I don’t want it.” Shane shifted toward Benedict and kissed him. “Get it.”

He tuned out every noise from the street, the rush of cars, the raised voices of teenagers already drunk by the sounds of it and on their way to get drunker still. Alcohol was readily available over here, or at least it had been. He’d started at age fourteen, drinking lukewarm Strongbow cider in the park at dusk, a tree at his back, a mate beside him, waiting for his turn to swig from the bottle. Innocent compared with what went on nowadays.

Blocked them and concentrated on tracking Benedict’s movements. The search through a suitcase, the rasp of a zipper, the snap of a cap. Then the creak and dip of the bed and a cool, wet finger sliding into him.

“Don’t need that after the going-over you gave me.” His body hadn’t tightened the way it sometimes did after coming. It was as if it knew the sex wasn’t over. No way was he leaving Benedict hard and aching. “Get your cock inside me. If I fall asleep, don’t need to stop.”

“Yes, because fucking a comatose you is so much fun.”

“Could be if you knew I was awake.” That made no sense, but his tongue was thick as felt and his brain fuzzy. “No, I mean if you thought I was out of it. Yeah. Under a spell, so I didn’t know what you were doing. I bet the prince did more than kiss Sleeping Beauty. Dirty git probably copped a feel before he puckered up. You’d do more than that. You could have your wicked way with me. Spread my legs and see what I’d got. Touch me, tease me, use me, anything but kiss me, because then I’d wake up.” His fantasy unspooled through his head, a shining twist of fire, gifting him with a surge of energy. “Now. Please. God, please.”

“I know you’re not drunk, so I have to assume this is the jet lag kicking in.” Benedict wasn’t talking himself out of it, though; Shane could hear it in his voice, could feel it in the tremble of his hands when he spread Shane’s thighs. “Sleeping Beauty, hmm?” He trailed fingers down Shane’s chest. Shane shut his eyes. He wasn’t beautiful, but sleeping? That much he could provide. “I could do anything I wanted to you before I woke you up. Make you come, even.”

That was unlikely, considering Shane had come not five minutes ago, but he was pretending to be asleep, so he didn’t reply. Instead, he relaxed, letting Benedict touch him however he wanted, which seemed to include fondling his sleeping prick and balls.

“Gonna open you up,” Benedict muttered, getting excited now by the quickening of his breath. “Slide my cock into you and fuck you.”

Shane desperately wanted to say yeah and please, but he kept up the facade of being in a deep sleep, unable to respond. He couldn’t help a gasp when Benedict rubbed a slick finger along the edge of his hole, which was still sensitive as hell from before. A sleeping man wouldn’t lift his hips in a wordless plea either, but he was only human.

Benedict didn’t kiss his mouth—that would ruin the illusion—but he did press hot, eager kisses to Shane’s throat and chest while he lowered himself into position and slowly pushed his way into Shane’s body. In some ways it wasn’t different to what they’d done in the shower, where Benedict had told Shane not to move, but in others it was a world away. Shane was in a different world, separate, and no reaction was required of him. That made it easy.

It didn’t seem easy for Benedict, if his tormented gasps and careful thrusts were any indication. Shane could tell even with his eyes closed that Benedict was focused on keeping himself together, and while he respected him for being able to maintain that control, it wasn’t always necessary. Shame there was no way to communicate that.

So he cheated. It was sex, not cards. A flex of his arse here, an encouraging grunt there, disguised as a breath… Benedict snapped, and the prince’s dreams came true—in this case, a good, solid hammering. Shane stayed rag-doll limp, which took an effort with his cock perking up again, but with a passionate growl, Benedict kissed him, a hard press of his mouth against Shane’s, his tongue thrusting deep.

Oh yeah. That worked. Shane didn’t bother fluttering his eyelashes and yawning prettily. He wrapped his arms and legs around Benedict so they moved as one, and did everything he could to make Benedict’s last few strokes perfect.

He decided he’d succeeded when Benedict all but snarled his name, all dark and threatening, sending a shiver through him, wholly pleasurable. If they weren’t both knackered, that tone of voice would’ve had him preparing for a long night. As it was, his cock responded with a brief pulse, the spurt of fluid a coda to his earlier climax. Still felt good.

“Jesus, that was…” Benedict shook his head and kissed Shane’s cheek, slumping against him, his weight comforting, at least for a short while. “Thank you.”


He let Benedict clean him up, passive as if he were still under the spell, lassitude a bondage of its own.

“Sleep well.”

He normally couldn’t remember falling asleep, but this time the darkness rushed at him, a wave that drew him under and never receded. He let it take him, falling, falling…

Chapter Six

Ben woke to the smell of coffee. Without opening his eyes, he said, “Please tell me some of that’s for me.”

“Be risking my life if it wasn’t.”

He sat up, his movements sluggish and uncoordinated. “We’re in England.”

“That we are.” Shane sounded amused. “I’ve been up for hours. Checked out the gym downstairs—you’d be horrified by the state of it, so we’ll find other ways to keep you fit while you’re here—and had a look around. Neighborhood’s changed.”

“You should have woken me up.” Ben felt guilty for having left Shane with no one to talk to.

“Oh, believe me, I tried. I think I could have set a bomb off next to the bed and you wouldn’t have noticed. Thought if I brought back some coffee, that might do the trick, and apparently it did.” Shane had put two paper cups and a small white bakery sack on the desk. He brought one of the cups over to the bed with him but held it out of Ben’s reach. “Ah, no. Fairly sure I deserve paying for bringing you breakfast.”

Ben didn’t need to be bribed into kissing his gorgeous boyfriend good morning. “Thank you. Next time, kick me out of bed onto the floor.”

Shane shook his head and handed over the coffee. “You needed the sleep. And it’s still early.”

Glancing at the clock on the bedside table showed that it was only eight thirty. “Oh. Huh.”

“’Course, we went to bed before anyone under the age of five last night, so we probably still got our beauty sleep.”

Ben yawned. “We don’t need it. We’re two hot hunks.”

Shane’s gray eyes narrowed the way they did when he was holding back a laugh. “Keep telling yourself that, but don’t have Vincent or Patrick in sight when you do, or you’ll never convince yourself.”

“Not difficult at the moment since they’re on the other side of the Atlantic.” Ben took a sip of coffee, adjusting to the taste after a second sip. Stronger than he liked, but smooth. “You think they’re hot?”

“Those two?” Shane snorted, retrieving his coffee and the bag. He perched on the side of the bed, set his coffee on the night table, and dropped the bag on the bed. Tearing it open to form a plate of sorts, he revealed two fruit Danish and two muffins, smaller than American ones but smelling divine. Raspberry lemon by the look of them, berries showing and shreds of zest in the glaze. “Not my type, either of them, even if they weren’t barely past jailbait, but yeah, in their own way. Don’t you?”

Ben pictured them without feeling the slightest stirring of desire. Exasperation in the case of the effervescent Patrick, yes, though he’d settled down under Vin’s guiding hand. “I’ve never thought of them that way. They work for us. They’re friends.”

“Forget it.” Shane nodded at Ben’s laptop, open and running on the desk. “I did some browsing. We need an appointment at the registrar’s, so I’ll set that up once they’re open. And I’ll call the funeral director we used when my gran passed away. Snodgrass and Sons. Unless they’ve gone out of business.”

Ben settled himself more comfortably against the pillows and picked up a muffin, mouth watering. Outside their door, a family walked by, a high-pitched child’s voice demanding apple juice for breakfast drowned by a man asking his wife if she’d remembered the room key. “You’ve never talked about your family much. Were you close to your grandparents?”

“On my dad’s side, no. They’d gone before I was born. My mum’s parents, yeah. I saw them, but not often. They didn’t like it when my mum took up with my dad. Can’t blame them. They were middle class, not posh, but not hurting. Nice house, money in the bank, holidays abroad. So when their daughter fell for a bit of rough, they hit the roof.”

“A bit of rough.” Ben knew what the words meant because it wasn’t the first time Shane had used the phrase, so he wasn’t sure why he repeated them. Maybe because it was such a British term. “Is that what they thought your dad was?”

Shane nodded, swallowing the bite of Danish he’d taken. “They weren’t wrong. He lived down to every one of their expectations. The only reason he didn’t get my mum in a family way a dozen times over was because something went wrong when I was born and she couldn’t have any more after me. Not sure how my gran felt, come to think of it. I’m sure she would have loved a few more grandbabies, but I doubt she would have been keen on supporting them.”

“Was she nice? To you, I mean.”

“Nice enough. She was proud of me when I was young, going off to my first day of school, things like that. Less so when I became a teenager. I wasn’t always the easiest to get along with. My granddad would slip me a quid when she wasn’t looking, though.” Shane drank some of his coffee, grimacing as if it was stronger than he’d expected. “He died when I was sixteen, I think. She didn’t go until a few years later, so I was old enough to help my mum with the funeral arrangements. Not as if my father was any use on that front. We were lucky he managed to show up relatively clean and sober on the day. I doubt we’ll be that lucky this time around.”

Ben didn’t think Shane would have been this resigned to the situation if they’d had this conversation last night. “We could get someone to keep an eye on him, maybe?”

“People have been keeping eyes on him his whole life, love. Believe me when I tell you it’s never made a bit of difference. He does what he likes. Drinking, gambling away a month’s wages, cheating on his wife. I’d be embarrassed to share all the stories.”

“You never have to be embarrassed to tell me anything. You know what my dad was like.” The strong coffee was doing a good job waking Ben up. “Your mom never kicked him out? Or threatened to?”

“Not until he started in on me for being gay. Every nasty insult someone like us can get hurled at them, and he used them to hurt me, along with his fists. Except I didn’t give a fuck about the names. I knew what I was, and I never saw it as being my fault. How could I? It’s the way I was born. Now, he had a choice about getting so sozzled at Christmas he never made it past the Queen’s speech before passing out, or getting caught selling stolen goods more times than I remember, but try telling him that.”

“I don’t get why she’d stay with him.”

“Love.” Shane’s lips twisted in a sour smile. “She loved him. Forgave him. Always saw the possibility of him changing. Well, he might, but she won’t see it, will she? He left it too late.”

“But she stood up for you when you came out?” Ben was curious about Donna. Alfie, not so much. He was a known quantity. She wasn’t. “She didn’t mind?”

Shane caught a blob of lemon filling on his thumb and angled his hand to lick it clean. The sight of Shane’s tongue lapping away did interesting things to Ben, but he covered his reaction, taking a large bite of muffin. Inappropriate didn’t begin to cover getting an erection in the middle of a conversation like this.

“She wasn’t keen, to tell you the truth.” A reflective expression passed over Shane’s face. “Cried. I didn’t like that. But when Alfie slammed me against the wall, a carving knife in his hand, and threatened to cut off my balls since I wouldn’t be needing them, she lost it. She was ironing one of his shirts, and she threw the iron at him. Plug came out of the wall, and the lino on the kitchen floor got a nice dent in it. Then she screamed her head off at him. Never heard her raise her voice or swear before, but she made up for it that day.”

“Wow.” Ben blinked. “That must’ve been one hell of a scene.”

“She threw him out. Pushed him through the front door, still yelling what she’d do if he ever laid a finger on me. All the neighbors came out to gawk, and he cowered like a kicked dog and went off to the pub. Came back two days later, and it was business as usual. He thumped me now and then, but it never went too far.” Shane rubbed his knuckle under his nose, a grim satisfaction brightening his eyes. “Put the fear of God into him, bless her.”

“Fear of her, you mean.” Ben admired Donna for finding her courage for that one moment, at least.

A familiar sound that nonetheless seemed out of place got his attention. “Hey, do you hear something?”

His cell phone, but where was it? The last time he’d had it was yesterday, in his pants pocket. Naked, he got out of bed and found his clothes discarded on the floor of the bathroom.


“Is this Benedict? This is Shane’s Auntie Maggie. I’m sorry to be ringing so early. Did I wake you?”

“No, we were up. Um, awake.” Talking to an older woman made everything he said feel like a double entendre. “Is everything okay?”

“I hate to bother you, but I didn’t want you to drive over to the house and be alarmed when you see the condition it’s in.” Maggie hesitated.

“Let me put Shane on,” Ben told her. He held the phone out to Shane. “It’s your aunt.”

“Maggie?” Shane made an impatient gesture that might have meant anything, and took the phone. “What’s— Right.” He was quiet for a long time, listening and drinking the rest of his coffee without more grimacing before crushing the paper cup in his fist and tossing it into the trash can. “Okay. Thanks for taking care of it. Talk to you later.” He pushed the button to end the call and sighed. “Well, to no one’s surprise, Alfie’s thrown a wobbly.”

That sounded alarming, but Shane seemed resigned instead of upset, so Ben responded in kind. “What’s up?”

“Maggie and Geoff had to take him off to their house last night. He got pissed and spent half an hour smashing up my mum’s stuff before they could get him to calm down enough to put him in the car. Maggie was afraid to leave him alone, apparently, though to be honest, she’d have had a better evening if she had. He was sick all over the backseat of her car. I’d say it serves her right, but she was trying to help.” Shane unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and sighed again. “Now we’ve got to add cleaning up his mess to the day’s chores. Well, I have. He’s not your dad; I suppose you could go off and do something touristy.”

Anyone else saying it would have been hinting for support or reassurance, but Ben knew Shane didn’t mean it that way. “Don’t be stupid.”

“It won’t be fun.”

“Listen.” Ben took Shane’s face between his hands, not allowing Shane to avoid meeting his gaze. Shane’s skin was warm against his palms, rough with stubble. He wanted to kiss the unhappiness he saw away, but sympathy didn’t work with Shane in certain moods. He interpreted it as pity and bristled up. “I’m here to help. Not see the Tower of London or visit the Queen. To help you get through a sad, messy, emotional time as best I can. Your dad’s clearly determined to make life difficult. Maybe he’s grieving in his way, but I don’t care about him. Only you. So let that be the last time you push me away, because I’m not budging. Got that?”

He saw the bob of Shane’s throat when Shane swallowed hard. Forcing back words, Ben guessed. “Sorry.”

“You will be if you do it again.” He kissed Shane, sealing the deal. Shane opened his mouth to take Ben’s tongue with a pliant acceptance Ben reveled in because it was so rare. “Now let’s get those errands run, and we’ll head back to the house afterward.”

Shane nodded, tracing his lips with his tongue as if to capture the feel of the kiss. “Yeah, it can wait until after lunch. Assuming we’re done by then.”

The paperwork turned out to be surprisingly easy. Everyone they dealt with that morning was helpful, smiling, and properly regretful at Shane’s loss. When they discovered he’d been out of the country for years and didn’t know the current procedures, he was showered with leaflets and advice.

They emerged from the funeral home close to noon, a simple service and cremation arranged for the following Friday and a significant dent put on Shane’s credit card balance.

“Will your dad reimburse you or contribute something?” Ben asked, unsure how to phrase his question with delicacy. Shane couldn’t afford to shoulder all the expenses, but if they needed to draw on the Peg’s assets, they would.

Shane took the keys out of his pocket and unlocked the car doors. “Not likely. I’m not bothered.”

Ben didn’t want him worrying, but Shane was prickly about money and Ben had learned to pick his battles when it came to the subject. He’d already stepped over the line, and this wasn’t the time. “Do you want to grab some lunch somewhere?”

“Sure. There’s a good pub a few blocks from the house. At least, there was. Might as well find out if it’s still there.”

To Ben’s relief and Shane’s obvious pleasure, the Queen’s Arms was open for business, and the wooden sign out front had been recently replaced, though there was also a small, discreet notice that the pub was for sale.

Once inside, Shane’s approval was clear. “Not as nice as the Peg, but it’s good to see the place hasn’t fallen into disrepair. Always liked this place. It’s where I had my first legal drink. Couldn’t tell the barman that, though. I’d been coming in here for months. Wonder why it’s for sale? Seems busy enough in here, and it’s a good location with the shopping center nearby.” They ordered at the bar from someone too young to recognize Shane—the dark-haired boy looked too young to be working at a pub at all, from Ben’s perspective, but maybe the laws were different in England—and went to sit at a table near the wall, Shane facing out so he could get a good look around.

“Is it different from how you remember it?” Ben asked, sipping at the soft drink he’d ordered despite Shane’s frown. He didn’t care if he co-owned a bar; it was too early in the day for him.

“Floor’s been replaced, I think.” Shane leaned back against the wall. “Plus the last time I was here, three-quarters of the place would have been smoking. Law banning it didn’t go through until, hmm, 2007. I’m willing to bet there was an uproar when it passed. Not sorry to have missed that.”

“It must’ve been hard to breathe by last orders.”

“Yeah. Air was so thick with smoke you could cut it with a knife. I smoked myself, but not for long. Mum caught me doing it in my room.”

“Did she yell at you?”

Shane grinned. “Wouldn’t have listened if she did. Not at that age. No, she shook her head and said I was going to end up like my dad, doing two packs a day and wheezing on the stairs. That hit home. Last thing I wanted was to copy him. I didn’t stop, but I cut back. Then I met someone who hated the smell of it on my breath, and if I had to choose between snogging him or sucking on a cigarette, well, my hormones knew which one to pick. Once I gave it up and realized how much more money I had in my pocket, I never started again.”

“Good. Because I wouldn’t enjoy kissing you if you smoked either.”

“Wouldn’t stop, though, would you?”

Any answer Ben had to that was lost in the bustle surrounding the arrival of their food. He’d wanted to try fish and chips, but Shane had refused to let him. “Not from here. It’ll be frozen muck. I’ll take you to a proper chippie later on. And a Balti house for a decent curry one night. You’ll like those. Have a ploughman’s or a pie.,,/”

They’d both gone for the ploughman’s in the end, huge chunks of granary bread, soft on the inside with a crust, nutty and flavorful, a generous helping of tangy pickle, a sliced tomato, and three sorts of cheese. Ben liked the Double Gloucester and Wensleydale but found the Stilton too strong.

It proved to be a satisfactory meal, simple enough to sit well in his stomach, but filling. Ben finished off his drink and leaned back in his chair, listening to the accents around him and noting the small differences in clothing and appearance of the customers, too subtle to list, but evident to his eyes.

England. He was in England. The unreality of it hit him, and he exhaled, smiling. True, they were here for a sad reason, but with everything hanging over them, they were still away from work together in a foreign country, and he couldn’t feel guilty about taking some pleasure in that.

Shane interrupted his thoughts. “You should have had a pint. You would have relaxed at the beginning of lunch instead of waiting until now.”

“I’m relaxed.” Ben knew the protest was wasted effort, because in reality he’d been tense for the past few days. He thought he’d hidden it better. “But yeah, maybe I should have.”

“It’s not too late.”

Ben shrugged. “I’m good.” He let his knee bump Shane’s under the table, trusting it would go unnoticed by anyone nearby, not that he got the impression anyone would care. “I’d suggest you have another, but I think we’d be risking our lives putting me behind the wheel and trusting me to keep on the right side of the road.”

“Trusting you to keep on the left, Benedict. It’s the left here in England.” Shane was smiling, but some of good humor had gone out of his expression.

“What?” Ben asked gently.

“Nothing.” Shane must have been able to tell Ben didn’t believe him. “Not so keen on you coming back to see what the place is like. I can imagine it well enough—I’ve seen it a hundred times, even if it’s been a while—and it won’t be pretty.”

“You’ll have to get over it. Here to help, remember?”

Shane nodded. “And I want your help, trust me. Doesn’t make it any easier to have you see what I come from. He’s an arsehole even when he’s sober.”

“He couldn’t have been that bad, or your mom wouldn’t have fallen in love with him in the first place,” Ben pointed out.

“People marry convicted serial killers.”

“That’s not love. That’s…” Ben shook his head. “I’m not sure what it is, but it’s not love.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not as if falling in love is something you have any control over. She fell for him, and that was it. Didn’t matter how much he let her down or disappointed her; she kept coming back for more.”

“There must have been some happy moments.” Ben needed to be right, or he couldn’t contemplate Donna’s life without despair filling him at its bleakness.

Shane rolled his shoulders as if the conversation made him uncomfortable. “She liked going to bingo with her mates, and she told me she’d joined a book club at the local library. She was worried, though. Bloody government’s closing libraries down right, left, and fucking center.”

“I meant with your father.”

“Huh.” Shane swept a few crumbs off the table into his hand, then brushed them off over his plate. “If he won, or a deal came off, and he was in a good mood, he’d come home all smiles with a box of chocolates for her and a bottle of something. They’d get drunk, and she’d get giggly. Dad would slip me a fiver to go to the pictures so he could get his end away without me in the house. Not that I ever went. I’d hang around the park and hide the money because I was always saving up for something—bike, skateboard, guitar. It changed with the weather.”

“Sometimes kids don’t see the full picture—”

“Look, he was and is a total fucking waste of space.” Shane stood, his closed-off expression signaling an end to the talk. “When you see what he’s done to the house, you’ll agree with me.” He pursed his lips. “Wonder if she left it to him outright or with conditions?”

“It was her house?”

Shane didn’t answer until they were outside on the sidewalk, though Ben noticed he paused and looked at the FOR SALE notice in the window for longer than seemed reasonable. The real-estate agent’s name and number were at the bottom of the sign, along with a website. “Legally it was her house. Her parents only loaned them the money on the condition that his name wasn’t on the deed, and as far as I know, she never changed that. And I don’t know if she made a will. If she didn’t, I’m sure everything goes to him.” A light rain misted the air, but not enough to make them run for the car, which they’d left in a small parking lot nearby.

“It’s so complicated.” Ben was doing his best not to let the current situation remind him of the time after his mother died. “But we’ll figure it out. That’s why there are all those specialized kinds of law. Probate and estate and all that.” If it was even the same in England.

“I don’t care. He can have the house and every penny she ever saved. I’m not interested in fighting him for it, you can be sure of that.”

They got into the car, and Shane pulled out of the lot. The narrow roads and the way cars drove into the wrong lane to get past other vehicles parked on the street made Ben want to scream. He’d managed to refrain from that so far—okay, mostly; there might have been a moment when a startled yelp had escaped him—but there was no way he could keep from clutching at the door handle and the dashboard.

“You’re perfectly safe,” Shane told him. “This is normal.”

“I’m one hundred percent sure nothing about this is normal.”

A tiny dark blue sedan veered into their lane, and Shane stepped on the brake to give it room to come toward them before it slid back into place where it belonged.

“Normal for me. Like riding a bike.” Shane shot him a sideways glance. “So I’ll stay the driver this trip, then.”

“Do you mind? I will if you get tired, but…” Ben disliked feeling so, well, useless, but crashing the rental car was the opposite of useful, and he had a horrible feeling that would be the result of him getting behind the wheel.

“Sooner get there in one piece. Besides, we can walk to most places. Do us good.”

They arrived at the house soon after. It was Ben’s second visit, and he’d been too tired to take much in the day before, but it held an air of familiarity, not strangeness. Maybe because he knew it was empty of relatives. He could think of it as Shane’s house, and that meant he belonged there in a way.

Braced for chaos, he was relieved to find the narrow hall looked much as he remembered. The air smelled of smoke and stale beer, the latter cause for a pang of homesickness. He’d call the Square Peg later. Make sure everything was running smoothly.

“In here,” Shane called, having pushed past Ben and into what Ben thought of as the family room. “God, all her Royal Doulton figurines. Bastard. Fucking bastard.”

The thick, raw pain in Shane’s voice and a thud that had to be a fist slamming into a wall had Ben moving quickly to his side. He stepped on something hard and heard a crunch. Glancing down, he saw a small statue of a woman in a green wide-skirted dress. He hadn’t broken it; that had happened earlier. The head lay beyond his foot. The carpet was strewn with a dozen or more pieces, all smashed beyond repair.

“She collected them. All different. They’ve got names.” Shane crouched to gather up some of the bright shards, then let them fall again as if the futility of his gesture overwhelmed him. His face was taut with anger, eyes glittering. Not with tears, but fury. “I found one once at a jumble sale, chipped, but even so. ‘Top of the Hill,’ it was called. Made her day. She turned it so the chip showed. Said all antiques showed signs of being loved. That’s the one you stepped on.”

“I’m sorry—”

“Wasn’t your fault. But I know whose it was. God, when I see him again, he’ll pay for this. I’ll smash his stupid face in, for starters. He’ll sup his beer through a straw when I’m done.”

Ben knew no response would help matters; an angry Shane was an irrational Shane. Best to shift the topic to something practical. “Let’s put all the pieces on the table here. Maybe we can glue some of them back together.”

“Not a chance. They’re ruined. Look at them.”

“No, look. Here’s one.” It had rolled partway underneath the couch, and although it was broken in half, it seemed more salvageable than most of the others. It was a figure of a woman in a dress with long, full skirts. She was holding what was probably supposed to be a bunch of balloons, though to Ben they looked more like giant gumballs.

“Let me.” Shane took it gently from his hands and examined it. “Yeah, this one we could glue back together.”

“There might be more. Go find some glue, and I’ll see.”

Shane disappeared for a few minutes, but Ben didn’t have any good news when he came back.

“Sorry.” He gestured at the small pieces he’d collected and put on the table. “I guess that’s it.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Defeat dulled Shane’s eyes. “The only glue I could find is dried out. And it’s probably not the right kind anyway.”

“I’m sure we can find someone who knows what is. Is there a vacuum cleaner somewhere? I picked up as much as I could, but there are dozens of tiny bits.”

Between them, they vacuumed up the remaining few shards. By the time Ben had found a replacement vacuum-cleaner bag and thrown away the full one, Shane had gone upstairs and returned with a large garbage bag.

“Some of her clothes,” Shane said before Ben could ask. “He’d tossed them all over the upstairs hall. Thought they could go to one of the charity shops.”

“You know, he wouldn’t have reacted like this if he didn’t care.”

“Funny way of showing it.”

“You saw this devastation and punched the wall. He lost his wife and lashed out.”

Shane dropped the bags and advanced on Ben, who held his ground. Shane was intimidating, as anyone who’d tried to cause trouble at the Peg would attest to, but not to him. “I’m nothing like him! Nothing.

If there were a photo around of Alfie as a teenager and one of Shane, Ben was sure the physical resemblance would be strong, but he knew Shane didn’t mean that. He wasn’t sure he agreed. Shane had the seeds of Alfie’s excesses in him but had refused to let them flower. It didn’t mean the odd shoot didn’t appear now and then.

“You’re a better man in every way.” Now that was the truth. “But I think for all his faults, he’s—”

“Don’t.” Shane held up his hand, palm out, a warning. “Not another fucking word, Benedict. I know him. I lived with him. And when I could, I buggered off with Daniel. When he wanted to come back here after getting his degree, I broke up with him. Couldn’t face living within a hundred miles of my dad. That says it all.”

There were times when pushing Shane was the right thing to do, but Ben knew this wasn’t one of them. “Okay. Then why are we here? If—”

“Why are we here? My mother’s dead, and my dad’s too much a horror show to even begin to give her a proper funeral, that’s why!” Shane was obviously furious, maybe angrier at Ben than he’d ever been, and Ben hastened to try to clear up the misunderstanding, trying not to take it personally.

“No, no, hang on. That’s not what I meant. I meant, why are we here at his house, cleaning up his mess? We could—I could pay a cleaning service to take care of this. We could go back to the hotel and relax, or, I don’t know, hike up a mountain.” Were there mountains in England? “Or you could show me around town, all the places you liked when you were growing up. If being here in this house is making you crazy, we don’t have to be. That’s all I’m saying.”

Shane didn’t look any less angry, but he made a visible effort to sound calm. “It’s not his house. It’s hers. She’d have hated to think people might come around and see it in this state, even strangers from a cleaning service.” His right hand clenched into a fist. “Not much I can do for her now, but I can do this.”

Ben nodded. He wanted to pull Shane in and kiss him roughly until some of the wildness had left him, but Shane’s current focus on his parents made the idea unsettling. “Right. Maybe less talking and more cleaning, then. Any idea when he’s coming back?”

“Maggie said they’d drive him home when he woke up, but if the past is any indication, he’ll be too hungover for a car ride for at least a few hours. And a right miserable bastard after that. Maybe we’ll get lucky, and Geoff and Maggie will put him out on the doorstep, leave him to make his way home.”

“They seem too nice for that.” Ben wore a short-sleeved cotton shirt, no sleeves to roll up literally, but metaphorically he put himself in that mind-set. “Let’s go through the house, room by room, and do whatever needs to be done. It won’t take too long. He made a mess, yes, but under it, the place is spotless.”

“Come back in six months, and it’ll be condemned. Unless he picks up a scrubber in a pub and moves her in.” Before Ben could ask why a live-in cleaner would be a bad thing, Shane added, “A scrubber’s a trashy bit of stuff. A tart. He likes them with everything on show and plenty to grab hold of. Can’t think why he married Mum unless it was for her prospects. She was decent, through and through. A lady.”

“I wish I’d known her,” Ben said sincerely.

As he’d predicted, the job, once tackled methodically, wasn’t too time-consuming. The house contained three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs, the family room, kitchen, tiny powder room, and a small room doing duty as a home office downstairs. Alfie had left the bathroom in a state, toilet in need of flushing, wet towels in a heap, but he’d confined his destruction to the master bedroom and the family room. They left the bedroom for last.

“I’ll put the towels and the rest of the laundry in the washer,” Shane said. “We can hang them up when it’s finished. Sun’s come out. You make a start in the bedroom.”

It seemed wrong to be inside Donna’s bedroom, every drawer open and the contents strewn about. Even what she’d stored in her bedside table. It wouldn’t be personal; she would’ve hidden something she wanted to keep secret if she had any sense, but it felt like an invasion of her privacy for a stranger like him to touch anything. Ben hesitated on the threshold, his hand on the antiquated vacuum cleaner.

Leaving the vacuum where it was, he crossed over to the window and looked out. Not much of a view—there wasn’t much space in between this house and the next, though at least the glass let in some natural light. He turned and decided that Shane needed his help, so letting his squeamishness at going through his boyfriend’s mother’s belongings get the better of him wasn’t an option. Maybe if he started with the least personal things first, the task would seem less overwhelming.

There were books—books weren’t personal—on the floor, one of them open and facedown. Ben picked it up and closed it, noting from the sticker on the spine that it was a library book. The other four were too. It had been a long time since Ben had taken anything out from the library, maybe since college. He went for thrillers, when he had time to spare, but his e-reader was more convenient since their closest library was a twenty-minute drive. The printout tucked inside told him the books weren’t due until next week. Ben was sure the librarian would be sympathetic under the circumstances, but he made a mental note to return them on time.

The duvet was askew, so he smoothed it into place before putting the pile of books on the end of the bed. There was some jewelry in a tangle next to the bedside table. He picked it up and put it into the open drawer, though he wasn’t sure that was where it had come from, then surveyed the room again. Shane had tidied away most of the clothes from the closet earlier, but a sweater and some undergarments were scattered around on the floor.

No way was he picking up panties and…were those slips? What was a slip, anyway? Maybe they were Spanx, not that he knew what those were either. Whatever they were, they had belonged to the woman who, in another world, might have ended up being his mother-in-law. The sweater, though… Ben bent down and tugged at it, but it was half under the bed and caught on something. He had to kneel to try to free it, and he was still on his knees when Shane appeared in the bedroom doorway holding a can of cleaning powder.

“Found this under the sink with the laundry detergent.” It was clear from Shane’s tone the discovery was significant.

“Isn’t that where you’re supposed to keep it?”

Shane prised off the metal lid, easily enough that Ben realized it’d been only loosely pushed into place. “Most people keep it in the bank.”

Ben blinked in surprise, rising to his feet. The cylinder was crammed, not with a white powder but cash. Banknotes, filling it tightly enough that it would’ve been difficult to add to. “That’s a surprise.”

“Perfect place to keep it. No way my dad would ever touch it. Cleaning’s a woman’s job in his eyes. I saw this at the back, and something clicked. It was always there, but I never saw her use it. So I did some investigating.”

“How much is there? And where’s it from?” Ben wasn’t ready to discover Donna had a secret past as a drug dealer or a gambling habit, but he admitted to a spark of curiosity.

Shane grinned, mischief dispelling the cloud in his eyes. “Bingo. Has to be. And she mentioned once or twice that she’d gone on a girls’ night out to a casino in Liverpool, so who knows what she got up to there?”

The bed was clear, and they emptied the can and counted up the notes. One thousand, two hundred and forty pounds. Not a fortune, but Ben imagined Donna’s satisfaction contemplating her nest egg.

“I guess it belongs to your dad now.” Ben didn’t believe Alfie was entitled to it morally, but legally, yes.

“Finders-keepers is what he taught me when I found a wallet in the street. Got the bloke’s name and address in it, and he only lived a few streets away, but Dad pocketed the cash and tossed the wallet in next door’s dustbin.” Shane rolled his eyes. “Cut my finger on broken glass fishing it out in the pitch-black dark, but I couldn’t sleep. I shoved it through the man’s letter box on the way to school the next day and legged it in case he saw me.”

“Did he?”

“No. Still got the scar, though.” Shane held up his hand and pointed to a faint white line on one finger.

“So you’re okay with keeping it? I don’t think he’d be too happy if he knew.” That was an extreme understatement.

“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have to know. It’s clear she didn’t want him to have it, or she wouldn’t have been hiding it all this time. Wish I knew what she was saving it up for.” Shane folded the notes into a wad and stuffed them back into the can.

Ben handed him the lid. “Maybe one of her friends would know?”

“Maybe.” Shane didn’t sound convinced. “What’s this?” he asked, touching the pile of books.

“They’re from the library. I assume they were your mom’s and not your dad’s.”

“Safe bet. He only reads the sports page in the paper.” Shane examined the titles with curiosity. “Hmm. Wouldn’t have thought any of these would be up her street.”

“I haven’t looked at them.”

“When I lived here, she always had a book on the go, but they were romances. A happy ending for everyone and scorching kisses on every page.”

Ben raised his eyebrows. “And you’d know this how?”

To his delight, Shane shifted his feet and glanced away. “That’s what they’re all like.”

“So romances are your secret vice?”

“No, they bloody well aren’t!” Shane faced him squarely now. “I was sick in bed with a cold, and she left one in my room. I fancied the bloke on the cover, so I read a bit.” Regaining his composure, he smirked. “What can I say? He had a big…sword.”

Ben laughed. “I bet he did. These aren’t romances, though.”

“No.” Shane tossed one onto the bed. Ben squinted at the title. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee. “That must be one of her book-club ones.”

Now that Ben looked at them, they all seemed like weighty books for a woman who’d claimed to prefer light romances. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies caught his eye. “Isn’t that some historical thing? About Anne Boleyn?”

“I wouldn’t know.”

More interested now, they worked their way through the pile. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Jim Crace’s Harvest, I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb, and something with the unlikely title The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. “How many book clubs was she in?” Ben asked incredulously.

“Only the one, as far as I know.” Shane traced the cover of one book. “Have they all won awards?”

“Most of them.”

“I can’t picture her reading any of these. You’re right; they can’t all have been for the book club. Maybe she was taking them out for show? No, she wouldn’t have done that.” Shane seemed bewildered. “God, I don’t know. Maybe I didn’t know her at all.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Ben said quickly. “Of course you did.”

Shane was silent a moment, and Ben played back his assurance and heard the lurking doubt behind the words.

“As my mum, yeah,” Shane said. “I knew how to get around her and what pissed her off. Knew I could count on her to nurse me when I was sick and spot when I was swinging the lead. Knew she liked bingo and soft-centered chocolates and wouldn’t touch liver and onions with a barge pole. But I left home too soon to find out what she was like as a person. I never connected with her as an adult, as equals, in a way, if that’s even possible with your parents.” His nostrils flared, and he took a quick, unsteady breath. “Too late now.”

The truth of that was undeniable, but Ben was unwilling to accept it if it left Shane hurting. The dynamic between them was unusual in most people’s eyes but, at its core, was a deep well of love and caring. He might bruise Shane’s skin, redden it with his hand, or bring a flush of humiliation and delight to Shane’s face, but he did it knowing Shane got off on it wholeheartedly. Craved it. This was different, and he hated seeing Shane crushed by grief and loss.

“You only ever see a facet of someone, never the whole picture. You were the only one in the world to know her as a mother. That counts. And as for what she was like, well, talk to people. Her friends. Your family. Build up a picture.” He stretched out his hand and picked up one of the books. “Read what she read. It’s not due back for a week, and if you don’t finish it, we can buy a copy. Or a different one, if this one doesn’t seem appealing.”

Shane took the book from him, weighing it in his hand. “Not much of a reader.”

“I know,” Ben said wryly. “Every time I try to finish a chapter in bed, you suggest we have sex because it’s that or lie there with nothing to do.”

“Haven’t heard you complain until now.” Shane sounded cocky, but it was an act, Ben could tell.

“You haven’t even heard me complaining now,” Ben assured him. “I wouldn’t trade you, trust me. I’d take sex with you every night over finishing a book, even if it meant years of unfinished stories.”

“We don’t have sex every night.” Shane restacked the books into a neat pile. “Hard to believe she was reading all this instead of Love’s Last Lament.

“I’m sure we can find you a copy of that if you’d prefer.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “No, thanks. Although now I think of it, the bloke on the cover was rather hot.”

“You are a terrible, terrible man. And I’m starting to think that you’re stalling. Back to work, now. You promised me a traditionally British dinner—tea, I mean tea!—and I expect to be finished here in time to get it.”

“My dad will be back by then.” Shane stood, clearly resigned to that fact.

“We’ll deal with it when it happens,” Ben promised him, and they got back to work.

Chapter Seven

Typical of the man, Alfie showed up too late to help. The house was clean, and they’d made a trip to the nearest charity shop with his mum’s clothing and other oddments. Shane had put personal items like jewelry and photo albums with his baby pictures into a couple of cardboard boxes. He didn’t know what to do with them, but he was prepared to pay the excess to take them home if Alfie didn’t want them. The money he’d left hidden. He knew where it was if he needed it. Plans for it turned in his head. A donation, maybe, if someone knew what causes she supported. Or a tree planted in her name. Something lasting, unlike the woman herself.

The phone had rung a few times, and he’d fielded surprised questions followed by outpourings of sympathy when he’d established his credentials. Some of the callers he knew, but his mum had built up a group of friends, most of whom were strangers to him. From the book club, possibly. He passed on the funeral information and wondered if he should put a notice in the local paper. It wasn’t likely Alfie had bothered.

When he mentioned it to Benedict, the man pulled out a notebook and added an entry to the to-do list he’d compiled. Organized, that was what he was. Thank God one of them knew what was going on. Shane was impersonating a duck—gliding smoothly on the surface, paddling furiously underneath it where no one could see.

He heard himself talking and marveled at how normal he sounded. Inside, he was chilled with sorrow, his thoughts sluggish, disconnected.

The thud of a car door closing alerted him to his dad’s arrival. He peered through the front window. By himself. Maggie and Geoff must’ve been sick of the sight of him not to come in for a cuppa before the drive home.

“Thought you’d be off with some of your old mates by now,” Alfie said grudgingly, putting down the keys he hadn’t needed and going straight to the fridge for a beer.

“With this place a pigsty? Mum would have tossed you out for making a mess, and you know it.” Shane knew he should leave well enough alone, but he couldn’t. Criticizing Alfie would start a fight, but he’d deal with that.

Alfie grunted and popped the top on the can. “Don’t talk about your mother that way.”

“Like she had a say in what went on in this house, you mean? We both know it was hers more than yours.” Shut up, shut up, he told himself uselessly. He was aware of Benedict lurking in the doorway, hesitant to intervene. “You never showed her any respect. If you had any sense of decency, you’d walk out that door and never come back.”

“Decency? You’re one to talk.” Alfie looked disgusted with him, and Shane barely managed to keep himself from striding over and punching him dead in the face.

“Shane,” Benedict said, his voice a command Shane couldn’t disobey. “Not tonight.”

“Easy to see who wears the trousers in your relationship.” Alfie raked Benedict with a scathing look. “Or is he the sort who wears dresses?”

The idea of Benedict cross-dressing was startling enough to make Shane snort with laughter, not the outrage his dad had probably hoped for. His anger died away, a fire made with paper, not wood. This was his dad. In a way, it was oddly comforting to discover Alfie hadn’t changed. A tide of political correctness had swept the nation and left him high and dry, secure in his prejudices and bigotry. More to be pitied than anything.

“We get drag queens in the bar from time to time, but that’s about it. My Benedict’s more of a suit man. Are you going to let me introduce you to him properly, or shall we leave him thinking Brits have no manners?”

Alfie pursed his lips, then took a step forward and stuck out his hand. “Alfie.”

With matching terseness, Benedict said his name and shook hands. Shane made a note to tell Benedict to wash well with hot water and soap.

With the air of a man making every effort to set a guest at ease, Alfie asked, “So you run a bar for queers?”

Benedict answered before Shane could form an adequate response. “Everyone’s welcome, but it’s gay-friendly, yes. My father died and left it to us jointly. That’s how we met.” Benedict gave a polite chuckle. “We clashed at first, but one thing led to another and we—”

“Yeah, I get the picture.” Alfie drank deeply, then belched. He banged his chest with his fist. “Well, excuse me. Better out than in, though.”

“I’m sorry about your wife. I wish I could have met her.”

Alfie studied Benedict long enough that it made Shane uncomfortable, as if he was trying to decide if Benedict was being genuine or taking the piss. “Thanks. Knowing her, I bet she would have liked the look of you.”

It wasn’t much as compliments went, and Alfie had made a thousand worse bets in his lifetime, but Shane didn’t comment. “She would have loved him.” He smiled at Benedict, and Benedict smiled back. “Best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Wasn’t sure we’d ever see you back here after the fuss you made when you left.” Alfie finished his beer, crumpled the can in his fist, then tossed it into the sink. “Interest you boys in a drink?”

Conversations with Alfie were always like this—multiple threads, hard to follow. Benedict’s response surprised Shane. “Sure. Thank you.”

“Shane, grab some cans, and we’ll have them in the garden.” Alfie headed in that direction without waiting to see if Shane agreed, as if Shane were there to do his bidding.

Any rebellion he had in mind was quelled by a look from Benedict that said behave as clearly as if spoken aloud.

Fine. That was two of them treating him like a naughty puppy. After getting the cans from the fridge and grabbing a packet of roast-chicken-flavor chips—no, crisps; he was home now—he made his way out to the garden, hands full and mind busy.

Benedict ordering him around in the bedroom, he enjoyed. Got him going, in fact. Strange, really. If anyone else bossed him around, they’d provoke nothing but resentment and the urge to do the exact opposite. His dad was a prime example of that. Hard not to link the two guys when he emerged into the late-afternoon sunlight and saw them sitting side by side, both men with innate authority and a self-confidence Shane knew he lacked. He put on a good show, and like his dad, he never backed down from a fight, but he lived with the fear of not being good enough.

He’d never measured up to what Alfie wanted in a son, that was for sure. He could hold his liquor, play cards and win more often than not, take and throw a punch…but he preferred a man in his bed, and with that, he’d lost any chance of being a source of pride to his dad.

And he’d wanted that. He despised Alfie now, he did, but growing up, he’d loved him with the uncritical eyes of a child, seeing a strong man who barged into the school when Shane was in trouble for fighting, and gave the headmaster hell. A man’s man, always greeted with smiles and offers of a drink when he walked into a pub or workingmen’s club. His spells in prison, a younger Shane had seen as unjust, the system punishing someone trying to do the best he could.

It’d taken years for that picture to smear, the clean, certain lines smudged until all that remained was a mess. Becoming aware he was gay had hastened the process. Gays were effeminate, pathetic, spreaders of disease, a source of jokes as crude as they were cruel, valid targets for a fist. His dad had taught him that. And it was wrong. If Alfie was wrong about that, then maybe… And the cracks had deepened.

He didn’t give a fuck if Alfie approved of him. But he needed to be perfect for Benedict. And he got hard as rock on his knees, face tingling from a slap, with Benedict telling him he was a cock-hungry slut.

Jesus, a therapist would have a field day with him.

The chairs on the patio were new; he hadn’t noticed them before. Well, of course they were. Twenty years, he reminded himself.

“Benedict.” Shane handed his partner a beer and opened his before sliding the third can across to Alfie. He hoped if he repeated Benedict’s name enough times, his dad might remember it.

They were quiet for a few minutes, drinking beer. It wasn’t a particularly peaceful neighborhood—some of Alfie’s mates lived nearby, and most of them were rowdy drunks and inconsiderate neighbors—but at that moment there were no sounds of mothers shouting for their children to stop playing in the street or car doors slamming shut.

“Funeral’s next Friday,” Shane said.

“Yeah? All right. That’ll give Donna’s cousin a chance to get here, I suppose.”

Shane nodded. “Does he still live in, where was it, Blackburn?” He was ashamed he couldn’t remember the man’s name, though to be fair, he hadn’t spoken to him in more than two decades.

“No.” Alfie drained his can and set it down on the table with some force. “Moved to Glasgow some years back with his wife. Went along with what she wanted. Your mother always thought there was something admirable about that, but she would, wouldn’t she?”

“What, admire someone for putting their relationship first? Yeah, I’d imagine that’s a foreign concept for you.” The disdain Shane felt was evident in his voice.

“It’s always something.” Alfie directed this toward Benedict. “Ever since he was a teenager, nothing I’ve done has pleased him. I thought maybe he’d outgrow it, but no, here he is again. I’m a terrible father, a terrible provider. A terrible husband.” Distress crossed his face, and for a moment Shane felt sorry for him.

Then he remembered it was an accurate description, and whose fault was that?

“We all have our faults.” Benedict in diplomatic mode was smooth as silk. Shane had seen him talk more than one belligerent drunk into a less violent state of mind. “It’s what we do to change and improve that counts.”

“Yeah.” Alfie nodded. “Me, I haven’t been in the nick for years.”

“How many years?” Shane was genuinely curious. The last time Alfie had gone away courtesy of Her Majesty’s government, he’d been fifteen. Having no dad around for his birthday had been the best present imaginable, because he’d been able to invite a boy he had a crush on, openly gay and forbidden to cross the threshold. Shane hadn’t come out at that point, no surprise.

“You’d have been fourteen, fifteen.” Alfie opened the bag of crisps and plunged his hand inside. Shane cursed himself for not bringing a bowl. Spraying crumbs, Alfie said, “Forgot we had these. Or did you go shopping? Cupboard’s a bit bare. Can’t offer you much, but I would if I could.”

It wasn’t hard to spot the hint. “No, Dad, we didn’t, seeing as how we don’t live here, but if you need a lift to the supermarket, we’ll take you.”

Alfie had lost his driving licence years ago after he’d driven drunk one too many times, compounding his error by punching the cop who’d arrested him, a former schoolmate he’d hated.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Alfie said. “Be a good lad and get your father another beer, won’t you?”

Shane knew from experience there was no acceptable response to this. If he refused, Alfie would grunt and mutter under his breath and get the beer himself. If Shane agreed, he’d feel guilty for contributing to the man’s alcoholism even though he knew it wasn’t that simple. He couldn’t win, and there was no point in trying. Maybe changing the subject was a good idea. “Look, can you make a list of people we’ll need to invite to the funeral?”

“You don’t ‘invite’ people to a funeral,” Alfie said condescendingly. “They come.”

“Well, they won’t if they don’t know it’s happening. We’ll put an announcement in the paper, but people who live far away won’t see that.”

“Did Mrs. Brant have an address book?” Benedict asked. “That might help.”

“There’s one around somewhere.” Alfie gazed around as if it might be floating in midair or propped against a nearby hedge. He seemed to realize Benedict was looking at him expectantly and added, “I could look for it, I suppose.”

“That would be great. I’m sure many people cared about her, and it would be a shame for any of them to miss the chance to be there.” Benedict sounded calm and sympathetic. “Why don’t you look for it now, and we can start working on that list?”

Surprisingly, Alfie got up and shuffled off into the house.

“I don’t know how you did that, but you deserve a gold medal,” Shane said.

“Experience. We had awkward clients when I was an accountant, and you know what some of the Peg’s customers are like.” Benedict shrugged self-consciously, though Shane could tell the compliment pleased him. “It’s a case of knowing where to use sugar and where to use…”

“Salt? Vinegar?”

“I don’t know. Either. No, forget it.” Benedict studied the can. “How strong is this stuff?”

“Not very, but we’re still getting over the journey.” Shane smacked his lips. “Talking about salt and vinegar makes me want chips.”

Benedict raised a hand to point at the bag on the table but caught himself. “No, not getting me this time. Fish and chips for supper? Sounds good. With, uh, mushy peas?”

Shane pulled a face. “Hate them, but Dad loves them, and I suppose you should try them for yourself. We could walk there and back. It’s not far enough that they’ll get cold.”

Alfie appeared, a small book in his hand. “Did I hear you say you were going down to the chippie? I’ll have—”

“Unless Satan’s handing out scarves and woolly hats, a large cod and chips, mushy peas, and a pineapple fritter.” Shane nodded when Alfie gave him a thumbs-up. “Some things never change.”

“A pineapple what?” Benedict asked.

“Ring of pineapple coated in batter and deep-fried.” Shane grinned when Benedict wrinkled his nose. “It’s not that bad, but I won’t be adding it to the menu at the Peg.”

“We should call them.” Benedict glanced at his watch. “Five hours behind us, let’s see…”

“Not today.” Shane could be firm when needed as well. “Don’t want them thinking we don’t trust them.”

“Right,” Benedict said. “Is that the address book?”

“It is. Bit old and dusty, so I can’t say for sure she kept up with it, but it’s the best we’ve got.” Alfie handed the book to Benedict, understanding that he was the brains of the operation. “Well, if you’re going, I’ll have another beer and a think in case there’s anyone that might not be in there.” He gestured at the address book.

“Great. We won’t be long.” Benedict hesitated. “You don’t want me to leave it here?”

Alfie shook his head. “Don’t need it. I’ll have some names for you when you get back.”

“He’ll have another three beers inside him and no idea what he was meant to be working on,” Shane muttered for Benedict’s ears only when they headed back through the house to the front door.

“It’s fine. We’ll figure it out.”

“It’s not fine,” Shane said. “Nothing about this is fine.”

There didn’t seem to be any reply to that, or at least none Benedict could think of. They were halfway up the road when a little girl with her blonde hair in pigtails let the dog she was walking wander out onto the pavement, blocking their path.

“Hi,” she said brightly. “Who are you?”

Benedict, who was comfortable speaking to complete strangers both professionally and casually, seemed clueless when it came to an eight-year-old. “Um…”

“I’m Shane. He’s Benedict. Who are you?”

“I’m Rachel. This is Max.” Max sat, still directly in their way, and proceeded to scratch his ear with a hind foot. “I don’t know you.”

“Made clear by the fact you had to ask our names,” Shane pointed out. “We’re visiting. My dad lives up the street.”

“Oh, you’re Alfie’s gay son from the States.” She put her hand to her mouth and widened her eyes. “Sorry. Mr. Brant’s gay son, I mean.”

Amused, Shane nodded. “That’s right. I am. So you’ve heard of me, then?”

“Everyone’s talking about you and your mum,” she said matter-of-factly. Fiddling with Max’s collar and not meeting his eyes, she added, “Your mum was nice. To everyone, not only me.”

When she looked up, he saw the tears in her eyes. They were the first he’d seen shed for his mum. He supposed everyone else had cried on hearing the news, then dried their eyes with a platitude or two.

“She was always nice to me too. I’ll miss her.” More than he could say.

After swiping her eyes dry, she gave Benedict a speculative glance. “Are you American? You don’t look it.”

Still clearly out of his element, Benedict said, “Yes. How do Americans look?”

Rachel tilted her head to one side, thoughtful. “I think maybe their clothes don’t fit well. They’re all big—um, too loose, you know—and they have to wear belts to keep their trousers up. Oh, and baseball caps!”

“I’m not the baseball-cap type,” Benedict admitted. “But some people wear them.”

“Are you married? There’s gay marriage in America now, like there is here.”

Shane exchanged glances with Benedict. “No, not married,” Shane said.

“Boyfriends, then. That’s what Mum said, but I wasn’t sure if she knew I was listening, so I thought it might have been because she thinks I don’t know about things.” That was probably meant to be something Shane could make sense of, but he was lost. “Are you going to get married?”

“Not a clue.” Shane was enchanted by her. “Do you like weddings?”

“No. Boring. Max, stop.” The dog was scratching at its chin. It probably had fleas. “He’s going to scratch himself raw. Then Mum will have a fit, and Dad will say we never should have got him in the first place.”

“Maybe he needs a bath. Or a flea collar,” Benedict suggested.

“I could hose him down in the back garden, but I’m not allowed to use the hose without a grown-up around.”

Another speculative look at them, measuring their fitness as dog washers, Shane had no doubt, had him edging past her. “Great idea.”

“I bet you have a pool. All Americans have pools. If we did, I could use that.”

The garden at their house was small and in dire need of attention. Shane estimated they could fit in an inflatable paddling pool, but that was about it.

“We don’t have one, and neither does anyone we know.” Benedict forestalled her inevitable question by adding, “They’re expensive, they take up space, and our weather’s the same as here. We’d only get to use it for a few months in the summer.”

“Do you surf? And see movie stars? And eat ice cream for breakfast?”

“No to all three. Got to go, love. We’re on our way to the chippie.” Shane took hold of Benedict’s hand and tugged. She was a sweetheart, but her family tree clearly included the Ancient Mariner.

“Bye!” Rachel called after them wistfully. Half a minute later when Shane glanced back, though, she and Max had disappeared.

“She was talkative.”

“You think?” Shane found himself smiling. “Not a big fan of kids?” He wasn’t sure how he hadn’t known that, but they didn’t often interact with anyone under the age of twenty-one in their line of work. Patrick, for all his bouts of immaturity, didn’t count.

“I don’t know any. I’m always afraid I’m going to say something I shouldn’t.”

“Like what?”

Benedict shrugged. With his dark curls tousled, walking along the road where Shane had grown up, he looked so gorgeous Shane could barely take his eyes off him. “I don’t know. Santa Claus isn’t real, maybe. Or that I’ll swear in front of them and their parents will freak out, and I’m never sure what counts as swearing when you’re talking to kids. Does damn count?”

“You’re talking to a man who got his mouth washed out with soap for saying fuck when he was six,” Shane said. “You’re probably safe with damn.” He spent another long moment gazing at Benedict, then stumbled over a bit of broken pavement.

“Careful.” Benedict steadied him with a hand on his arm. “Okay?”

Shane wanted to snatch a kiss, but ingrained habits were hard to break. The once and only time he’d kissed a boy in public, he’d ended up with his back to a wall and one of Alfie’s mates telling him he was a bloody disgrace, his face shoved so close to Shane’s every word brought with it a spray of spittle and a gust of beery breath.

But times had changed. Little Rachel was proof of that. He turned, cupped Benedict’s face, and kissed him, as light and sweet a kiss as he could make it. “Love you.”

They didn’t say it often. Didn’t say it enough. But Benedict smiled, tilted his head to press his cheek more firmly against Shane’s palm, and said it back.

The chip shop was empty when they got there, the air thick with the smell of oil.

“In the old days, they wrapped the chips in newspaper,” he told Benedict after giving the order to a teenage girl who looked hot and bored. “Then health and safety got their knickers in a twist over the ink rubbing off on the food, so they switched to paper with fake newspapers printed on it. Go figure.”

“And now we use white paper, because no one but old geezers like you remember the newspaper.” The man appearing behind the counter, burly and bald, grinned at Shane. “How’s it going, our Shane? Heard you were back in town.” His grin faded, and Shane mentally mouthed the next words with him. “Sorry about your mum.”

“Thanks.” Shane frowned, trying to place the man. The grin did it. “God, it’s never Bexie?”

“In the flesh.” Bexie stuck out a hand and shook first Shane’s, then Benedict’s hand. “Who’s this, then?”

“My partner, Benedict.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Benedict sounded more American over here, Shane realized, his accent giving him an exotic, glamorous appeal.

“Benedict and Bexie. Sounds like a TV show. I’ll get my people to talk to your people.” Bexie grinned again. He’d always been happy with life, as Shane remembered, despite losing his brother and father in the Hillsborough disaster of 1989 when he was ten. The scars were still raw around here. Shane was an Everton supporter, but it didn’t matter when it came to Hillsborough. Grief had united both teams. “Me and this skinny tosser were mates at school. Remember the time—”

“No.” Shane mock glared at him. “It never happened, whatever embarrassing story you were planning to drag up.”

“I’ll tell you another time,” Bexie said to Benedict. “When this one’s had a few drinks and it doesn’t seem like such a terrible idea. Are you home for good, then?”

“What?” The question startled Shane.

“To take care of your dad, I mean. I assumed— No, never mind, don’t listen to me. I’m always saying something stupid. Plenty of stories about that too, Benedict, and I’m not too proud to share them, even if I come out of it sounding thickheaded.” Bexie lowered his voice in respect. “Have you scheduled the funeral? My mum won’t want to miss it.”

“Next Friday. It’ll be in the paper. How is your mum?” Shane’s memory of the woman was vague, but it was polite to ask.

“She’s fine. Busy all the time, what with her church groups and things.”

A thought occurred to Shane. “Does she go to a book group at the library, by any chance?”

“No, thank God. If she did, I’d have to listen to her go on about that too. I already hear enough gossip; she’s full of tales, and I never know who half the people are. This one’s daughter’s boyfriend’s auntie, that sort of thing. Impossible to keep track.” The shop door opened, and a crowd came in, younger people talking loudly and jostling one another. “That’s my cue to get back to work. I’ll be here tonight and tomorrow, but I have a few nights off early next week. Let me know if you want to get a drink or three.” Bexie clapped Shane on the back and disappeared behind the counter again when the teenage girl slid two large bags of food across to them.

Shane accepted the bags, passing one to Benedict. “Be a love and give us a couple in a cone for on the way back? My friend here’s never tasted a proper chip in his life. It’d be a kindness.”

Expression blank enough that he wondered if she was even aware of her surroundings, she shoveled a dozen fries into a small paper cone and shook salt and vinegar over them liberally. “That’s a quid.”

“On the house!” Bexie called.

With a shrug, she handed the cone to Shane. “Your lucky day.”

“Yeah.” Shane couldn’t see any of the Peg servers lasting long with an attitude like hers, but she wasn’t his problem. “I’d better buy a lottery ticket quick.”

Out on the street again, breathing fresh air, he swapped the cone for the other bag. “Go on,” he urged. “Try one. Don’t burn your mouth, but they’re best hot. Better fried in lard, but it’s been years since they did that.”

Benedict took one out and studied it. “It’s limp.”

“Soft on the inside. Perfect.” The smell of the salt and vinegar made his mouth water enough that he swallowed hard. A bee buzzed around his head, and he waved it off, watching it fly into a planter near a bus stop to investigate a red flower he couldn’t name. Begonia? Maybe. It needed watering, whatever it was.

“Yeah, okay,” Benedict said a moment later, around a mouthful of hot chip. “S’good.”

“Told you so.” It was hard to explain how they were different to the chips—fries—in America. He’d gone through a few months of trying to describe them to David after they’d added more food to the menu at the Peg, but even with Helen’s help and a staff willing to eat basket after basket of rejected chips, they’d never managed to get it right, and after a while, Shane had admitted defeat.

Maybe he could get Bexie to show him how it was done before they went back.

“I wonder how they’re different.” Benedict had eaten at least four chips already, slowing his steps. “I didn’t get it, when you were trying to figure out how to replicate the process. I mean, it doesn’t make sense. They’re still potatoes cooked in oil, right?”

“You’d think so. There must be magic involved. Elves.”

Benedict chuckled. “Your friend should give us some lessons before we go home. Then we could make them at the Peg. With a little determination, we can convert the whole country. Spread the wonder of English chips from coast to coast.”

Even though Shane had thought much the same thing moments before, hearing Benedict say it was disconcerting. “Don’t think we’ll get them to agree to vinegar instead of tomato ketchup. Or as well as, in a pinch.”

“Maybe not, but it would be their loss. They’re better this way.” Benedict paused by a lamppost and peered into the cone. “Only one left. I think this one’s got your name on it.” He held it to Shane’s mouth before Shane could protest—even if it would have been a token protest—and Shane opened up cooperatively.

Jesus, they were still as good as he remembered. Better, maybe. If it weren’t undignified, he’d have licked the inside of the cone to get the tiny crisp bits at the bottom.

’Course, he did have a whole packet of them waiting, along with a piece of halibut encased in golden batter. Benedict had opted for the cod like Alfie, and when he’d seen the mushy peas in all their green gloppiness, he had—wisely, in Shane’s opinion—decided against them. He had this daft idea Alfie would let him taste some of his, which wasn’t going to happen, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it.

Not allowing Benedict a taste wasn’t down to Alfie’s homophobia. He didn’t share his food with anyone. Ever. Shane had received more than a few raps on the knuckle, stealing a stray chip from Alfie’s plate.

“Is this making you homesick? Seeing your old house, meeting old friends?”

Shane considered his answer probably more carefully than it deserved. “I always felt this was home. I settled down in the States, but as a visitor. Now I’m back, I can see I don’t belong here either. It’s changed, and I don’t fit in. So I don’t fit in anywhere.” He attempted a smile. “The original square peg, that’s me.”

They walked another ten or twelve steps before Benedict said quietly, “You fit with me.”

“I know, love,” Shane assured him. “I know I do.” But he had no clue what to say after that, and apparently neither did Benedict, because they went all the rest of the way back to the house without speaking. They went inside and to the kitchen, where Shane handed Benedict some forks, then out to the patio, where Alfie was working on what was at least his fourth beer.

“Did you forget where the place was?” Alfie complained.

“Got to chatting with Bexie,” Shane said. “He’d have talked Benedict’s ear off if I’d let him; you should consider yourself lucky.” The words were an echo in his head, throwing him off balance. He felt like he’d either had four beers himself or wished he had. “Benedict’s hoping you’ll let him try your mushy peas.”

Alfie waved a hand at the bag, unexpectedly magnanimous. “Aye, go ahead, lad. Wouldn’t be right to send you back to the States not having tasted the local specialties.”

Shocked, Shane managed, “Not sure anyone could call mushy peas a specialty,” while he unpacked food and doled it out.

Benedict loved the peas. Shane contemplated ending their relationship there and then. After they’d eaten, straight from the paper to save on the washing up—a practicality Shane didn’t mind but Benedict seemed to find strange—Shane wandered down to the bottom of the garden. It was dusk now, the sky arched overhead deepening to a smoky purple. He pulled up a weed or two from the border, then studied the wall separating their garden from the house behind it. He’d loosened one of the bricks and hidden a toy car behind it when he was young, but the brick had stuck out so far it wasn’t much of a hiding place.

He turned back. Benedict and Alfie were chatting, laughing about something.

Laughing. With his mum barely cold. The sorrow surged up, possessing him, making him want to lash out and spread the hurt around. Striding up the garden, he rejoined them, kicking his chair out of the way to make room to sit.

“What’s bitten your arse?” Alfie inquired. He cast a sly, not unfriendly look Benedict’s way. “Couldn’t have been him for once. He’s been sitting here telling me what it’s like having beer on tap.”

That passed as a joke in Alfie’s world, but Shane didn’t pause to wonder at his dad teasing a gay man about sex without adding an obscenity. Vicious, biting, he snapped, “Mum’s dead, that’s what’s fucking up. A woman in her prime, perfectly healthy, and a drunken slob like you, arteries clogged, overweight, is still with us.”

Impossible to miss the hurt in Alfie’s eyes or the disapproval in Benedict’s, but Shane pressed his lips together firmly, refusing to apologize.

“I miss her, lad,” Alfie said heavily, as if the words weighed on him. “I always will. And if I could’ve gone in her place, well, I would have done it. I would.”

“Yeah, right. Like you’d ever put her above you or show her any consideration. Whenever she was sick, you still expected tea on the table at five and her waiting on you hand and foot. You’re a selfish bastard, always have been, always will be.”

Alfie ignored him, though Benedict kicked Shane’s ankle hard. Addressing his words to no one in particular, gaze unfocused, Alfie said, “It was a shock. She’d been complaining about headaches, but when I told her to see the doctor, she said it was her time of life and took an aspirin. If I’d known—”

“For fuck’s sake, don’t pretend you’d have done anything different. You’ve never done an honest week’s work in your life, and if Mum hadn’t been such a saint, she’d have shown you the door a decade ago. Preferably accompanied by a swift kick to your backside. So don’t say ‘if you’d known.’ It wouldn’t have changed a thing.” In that moment, believing every word he’d said fiercely, Shane couldn’t bear the reality of his loss. His mum was dead, and his abusive, alcoholic father—whose liver was probably hanging on by the biological version of a thread—was sitting here in her garden, on patio furniture she’d paid for, alive and well.

It wasn’t fair.

“Don’t give me any of your lip,” Alfie said. “Ungrateful git. And in my own house. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Shane found himself standing up again, looking down at the man he’d loved as a child and despised as an adult. “Someone who’s not staying here to listen to you for another second, that’s who I am. Benedict, are you coming?” Hands shaking and without waiting for Benedict’s response, he turned and headed into the house.

Chapter Eight

The drive back to their hotel was undertaken in silence for the most part. Ben was tired, full, and mildly irritated with Shane. It wasn’t a good combination. Shane drove too fast, yanking at the wheel and cutting corners in a way that had two drivers expressing their opinions with a blast of the horn.

Apart from swearing at them under his breath, Shane paid no attention. When he ran a red light, Ben said quietly, “Slow down or pull over. Your choice.”

“Stop backseat driving. I know what I’m doing.”

“Killing us both?”

“Bollocks.” He eased off on the gas, though, responding to the note of command Ben had used or a flash of common sense. “There. Now we’ll get overtaken by that old biddy walking her dog. Happy?”

“Thank you.” Courtesy pissed Shane off in this mood, so Ben cursed himself for giving in to the urge to fight when they were in motion. Once back in their room, it’d be a different story.

With a smothered sigh of relief, he recognized the street their hotel was on. Nearly there.

Shane drove past.

Startled, Ben blurted out, “What are you doing?”

“Going for a drink. We can ditch the car and walk back or get a taxi.”

Fighting to keep his voice calm but authoritative, Ben said, “I don’t want a drink. I want to go back to our room where we can talk. Turn around, Shane.”

Shane turned his head, at least, fixing Ben with a cold stare that left him shaken. He’d never seen Shane so hostile, not even at their first, tempestuous meeting. “Or what, Benedict?”

He waited until Shane had turned his eyes back to the road in front of them to answer. He honestly wasn’t sure what was going on here, and in a moving car with a furious Shane behind the wheel wasn’t the time or place to figure it out. This required a careful voice, an impossible balance between gentle and firm. “Listen, if you want a drink, we’ll have one. But let’s have it somewhere we don’t have to deal with the car afterward. There’s a bar attached to the hotel.” It had sounded more like a cocktail bar than what Shane would consider a proper pub, but hopefully it would do.

There was a long pause before Shane replied. “Fine. But only because you’re right and it’ll be easier.” He turned the car sharply into the other lane—Ben’s heart leaped into his throat—then backed up and reversed direction, headed toward the hotel again.

When the car was parked and they’d gotten out, Shane retrieved Donna’s library books from the backseat where he’d put them and tucked them under his arm, then started to walk away without a word to Ben.

Ben caught Shane’s hand, stopping him in his determined stride toward the building. “Wait, okay?”

Shane whirled, pulling his hand from Ben’s grip. “You don’t want to fuck with me this evening, Benedict.”

“I don’t,” Ben assured him. “I’m on your side; that’s why I’m here. Whatever you need. I’m not the enemy.”

“Happy enough to fraternize with them, though, aren’t you?” Shane was close enough that he didn’t have to raise his voice to make it clear how/ angry he was. “You don’t like how I treated him, but that’s only because you don’t know. You may think you do, but you don’t, and you can’t be on my side if you don’t know.”

“Then tell me. Help me understand.” Ben held his breath, waiting for Shane’s response. It was gradual, a slight shift when some of the anger left him, his shirt fabric relaxing when the taut muscles underneath it did. Not as much as Ben wanted, but it was something.

“Yeah,” Shane muttered. “All right. But I won’t get through it without that drink, so come on.”

The bar in the hotel barely deserved the name. It was a small room with a few tables, everything dark wood and lush carpeting. Ben felt claustrophobic in there. The Peg was comfortable, but the people provided the color and life. This place was empty, the barman summoned by a small bell on the highly polished counter.

Without exchanging any pleasantries with the man—a portly, balding guy in his late fifties—Shane snapped, “Whiskey. Double. Two of them.”

“Make that one whiskey and a club soda.” Ben had an idea of where tonight was heading, and alcohol wasn’t a good idea.

Shane rounded on him. “If you don’t drink with me, you don’t get to do anything else either.”

He meant talk, Ben presumed, but from the embarrassed cough the barman gave, it was clear he put a different interpretation on it. It would’ve been easy to let Shane win this round and give his drink a token sip, but fatal. Their relationship wasn’t based on control and submission outside sex, not really, but Ben had wondered for a while if Shane wanted more from him, an extension of their roles into the rest of their life, if only in small ways. The current situation, emotional, fraught, wasn’t the ideal place to start, but did he have any choice?

Ignoring Shane, Ben addressed the barman. “Sell us a bottle to take to our room, please.”

“Can’t do that.”

Ben took out his wallet and extracted some of the pound notes he’d bought at the airport. He wished they’d stopped by the duty-free store, but it hadn’t seemed appropriate. He did a quick calculation in his head. “That bottle behind the bar is half-empty. Maybe twenty shots left. I own a bar—”

“Part own,” Shane muttered. “And you’d bloody well better have some of it.”

Still blocking Shane out, Ben went on, “So I know the wholesale cost and the markup. I can also see the bottle’s dusty. Twenty pounds is less than you’d make selling the rest of it, but it’s still turning you a profit.”

The barman chewed his lip, but an elderly couple tottered in, taking a table in the corner. They wouldn’t mix well with a belligerent Shane, and he had to know that. He shrugged and accepted the note, passing over the bottle with a wink.

Ben didn’t look at Shane but flicked his fingers in a gesture to get his ass off the bar stool and moving toward the door.

He wished he felt even a tenth as confident as he appeared.

The staircase was narrow enough that one of them had to go first to allow space in case anyone else was coming down at the same time. Ben stood back and let Shane go first, giving himself a moment during which Shane couldn’t look at him to collect his thoughts and emotions. It would be one thing if he could pin Shane down and see inside his head; then he might know how to handle the situation. But Shane wasn’t the type of man to respond openly to questions, and he didn’t share his feelings without prompting, so this wouldn’t be easy. Even if Ben figured out what Shane was thinking, that didn’t mean he could help him deal with it.

“Hand it over,” Shane said when they were in their room with the door shut.

“There are glasses in the bathroom.” Shane unscrewed the cap and took a swig directly from the bottle. “Or not.”

Ben turned the dead bolt on the door to ensure their privacy. Normally, he would have taken off his shoes and gotten comfortable, but tonight he felt the need to maintain control, and that would be easier if he wasn’t barefoot. Instead he went to the window, looked out, then drew the shade. This was private, something no one knew about, and Ben intended to keep it that way.

Shane shoved the pillows on the bed up toward the headboard and sat back against them, knees bent, feet bare. He obviously had no need to be in control of the situation. Or maybe, Ben thought, Shane already understood that he was the one in control. Shane took another swig from the bottle, then held it out toward Ben.

“I’m good.”

Shane shook his head. “Said you’d have some.”

“Fine.” Whiskey wasn’t Ben’s drink, but he’d had one now and then to be companionable. The bottle was only clean where Shane’s fingers had wiped away the dust. Ben lifted the rim to his mouth and took a conservative swallow. “Happy now?”

The look Shane gave him was dark, a challenge. “No. Think there’s something you can do to change that?”

“Maybe if I knew what the hell was wrong.” His choice of words was a mistake—he knew it from the moment they left his lips—but it was too late to take them back.

“Need to draw you a fucking picture? My mum’s dead. Never got to say good-bye or tell her—”

Ben set the bottle down behind him, out of sight. “You told her you loved her every time you e-mailed or sent a card. She knew. And saying good-bye is a horrible thing to do, in my opinion. It’s final. This way, the last time you heard from her, it was happy, not sad. Remember that.”

“Can’t.” Shane whispered the word as if he was ashamed of it. “Didn’t keep the e-mail, and I don’t remember what it said.” He rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands. “It’s gone, like her.”

“Yes, and that’s horrible and sad. For you, for all those people who keep telling us how much they’ll miss her. She’s left a hole in the world, a scar. It’ll heal over, but it’ll leave a mark. That’s how it is when a good person dies. But your dad’s hurting too. He’s known her for what, forty years? That means something, and you’re acting as if he doesn’t have a right to grieve.”

“He doesn’t!” Eyes glittering, the set of his mouth obdurate, Shane shook his head. “Not after the way he treated her.”

“Which is how? Facts, not wishful thinking filtered through your resentment. He left her alone for the times he was in prison, yes. Probably acted like a throwback male, expecting her to be the little woman at his beck and call—but she had options, Shane, and she chose to stay with him. You need to respect that choice, or you’re as bad as he ever was.”

He’d gone too far. Shane launched himself off the bed and slammed into Ben, driving him against the wall with a thud. “You ever compare me to him, and I’ll make you bleed.” He didn’t punch Ben but shoved at him again. “I will. I’ll do it.”

Ben’s indecision and doubt fled in that moment, replaced by a bone-deep certainty that Shane was begging for help in the only way he knew how. Genuinely angry, yes, but lost too.

“You’re drinking like he does.” This was the time to lay it all on the line. If he did it right, Shane would hear him, and they would get past this road bump that had turned into a brick wall he couldn’t see over. “Is this what he did to you? Pushed you up against walls?” Surprisingly, Ben wasn’t threatened. He was calm and in control, though he was the one being restrained.

Shane’s response was an immediate retreat, hands at his sides but his expression stricken enough that he might as well have been pressing them to his mouth. He didn’t say anything, so Ben stepped forward, taking Shane’s upper arms in his grasp.

“Whatever you’re thinking, stop. It’s okay. I understand. There’s no part of me that doesn’t love you, so stop.”

“I can’t be him,” Shane whispered.

Ben walked Shane backward to the bed until he had no choice but to sit down, then knelt in front of him. The thin, practical hotel carpet didn’t provide much cushion for his knees, but he could not have cared less. “Listen to me. No, don’t talk. Listen. Can you do that?”

Shane nodded, his throat working, as if swallowing past the lump in it was impossible.

“You aren’t your dad. You’re not. But there are parts of you that are like him—and there are parts of me that are like Craig. Accept that. It’s okay. Whatever you need, even if it’s to punch me until I have a bloody nose and black eyes and loose teeth, I won’t stop loving you.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say.” Shane grimaced. “Don’t.”

“You’re not your dad, and I’m not your mother.” They were harsh words, but Ben knew Shane needed to hear them. “Stop. Tell me what you need.”

“You. Always you. Only you.”

Hard to hide how touched he was by that desperate, pleading confession. “That’s good, and it’s how I feel too, but I want more. What do you need from me, right here, tonight? It’s yours if I have it to give, but the price is you talking to me, telling me. I don’t want to guess, stumble my way along a path I’m not sure is going the right way. Light it up for me, Shane. Tell me.”

The silence between them was thick with expectancy. Ben was conscious of the beat of his heart, blood pounding in his ears. Every muscle was tense, as if he were braced for a starting pistol to trigger a race. Arousal hovered, his body primed but not yet ready. He craved Shane’s mouth against his, but he held back, waiting.

“Make me.” There was no defiance now. “Make me tell you. Make me beg. Hurt me, Benedict. I’m— I can’t feel it the way I should. It’s there and it comes in flashes, but I’m shit-scared, and I block it. I run away, the same way I did all those years ago. Break me down until I’ve no strength left to run.” Shane exhaled, raising his hand to touch Ben’s cheek with the tips of his fingers. “If it’s too much for you, I’ll understand. Won’t like it, but I won’t hold it against you.”

The raw acceptance was too much for Ben; knowing what giving this to Shane would mean, regardless of the personal cost, was enough to tip the balance in its favor. He kissed Shane hard enough to hurt, the contact such a tiny fraction of what he wanted that he ached for more. But he forced himself to stand up, step back, and harden his voice. “Take off your clothes and go into the bathroom. And if you ask any questions, I swear to God I’ll walk out that door and find somewhere else to sleep tonight. I am completely serious. Don’t risk finding out if I mean it.”

A terrible uncertainty flickered behind Shane’s eyes. For a moment Ben doubted he was doing the right thing, but then Shane lowered his gaze, stood, and unbuttoned his shirt, and Ben could breathe again.

Everything would be okay if he could do this.

He could do this.

A swig from the bottle of whiskey wouldn’t make him drunk. Ben took another swallow while Shane finished getting undressed and walked into the bathroom. When Ben looked up, Shane was framed on the other side of the doorway, his pale skin glowing. The bathroom light wasn’t on—Ben hadn’t told him to turn it on, to be fair—but the ceiling light above the bed was, and it shone faintly onto the tile floor and Shane’s naked form.

Without letting himself overthink his actions, Ben unfastened the belt he was wearing and slid it free from his belt loops. The edges of the leather dug into his palm and fingers when he clutched it.

Around them, the hotel was quiet. Too early for people to be back in their rooms. They were out, maybe at a restaurant—people ate out much later here—or a club, or shopping. They could be swimming the Mersey for all he cared if they stayed away. The walls were thick, their room a corner one. They could make noise—some, at least—without being heard.

He had nothing to punish Shane with but the belt and his hand. It was enough. All he needed were the words and the attitude. They’d never gone in for sex toys, though they’d acquired a few here and there. What worked for them flowed from a moment of mutual need and lust, unplanned, no preparations made.

This was different. He wasn’t hard, though that would change before long, he supposed. Shane naked and kneeling affected him as strongly now as the first time.

He walked into the small bathroom and reached past Shane to start the shower, testing the water until it was lukewarm.

“Get under it, facing away from me. Hold on to the bar and spread your legs, ass out. I want you steady on your feet.”

Shane nodded, his gaze going to the belt in Ben’s hand, leaving it with clear reluctance. His cock had thickened, not to full hardness but enough to give it a defined shape. Ben knew how it would feel in his mouth, swelling rapidly under the lash of his tongue.

He closed the door and locked it. No need for that, but it felt right. This was private, theirs. Before Shane could finish getting into position, Ben slashed the belt across the backs of Shane’s thighs, hard enough to bring a red flush on the already water-dampened skin. “I told you to spread your legs. That’s for being slow.”

It was unfair, even cruel, but that didn’t matter here. This enclosed space, the patter of water providing background noise, had its own rules. He’d been cruel to Shane in so many places, ruthless, brutal, both of them loving it. Add this to the list.

This was what Shane wanted, Ben was sure of it. Still, before it went any further, he needed to remind Shane of something. “If at any point it’s enough… You remember the safe word? Answer yes or no.”

“Yes,” Shane said in a low voice, but it was audible over the sound of the water. Ben noted that he’d answered carefully, the whole word instead of his preferred yeah.

Good. That meant the chances he’d get what he needed out of this were higher.

“I want you completely quiet, do you hear me? Not a sound out of you unless it’s the safe word. There could be people on the other side of this wall for all you know, and I don’t want them to suspect a thing.” He dragged the leather down along Shane’s spine, and there it was, his arousal at the sight of Shane’s bare skin and the thought of what they were about to do.

Shane nodded, a sharp jerk of his head, and Ben rewarded him with another slash of the belt, this one across the curve of his ass. Shane’s only response was a twitch and the brief tightening of his fingers against the tile wall; if he made a sound, the falling water covered it up. Someday, Ben thought, they’d do this somewhere quiet enough that he’d be able to hear the faintest noise Shane made and punish him for it.

He was still dressed, but he didn’t care. If what he wore got wet, well, he’d be naked soon enough. Any other night, when they were doing this for pleasure, he would’ve gotten Shane hard and aching, on the verge of climax, then undressed slowly, Shane ordered to work his cock but forbidden to come.

Too…tidy for tonight. They needed the edge and the rawness.

He didn’t have much room to swing his arm, but the water coursing over Shane’s back and ass would make each stroke smart more than usual. It increased the sound made too, the flat smack bouncing off the walls. He got off on that sound more than he’d care to admit, especially when a pained grunt from Shane followed it.

When Shane’s ass and thighs were patched with red, Ben stepped forward, not into the bath but as close as he could get. He grabbed Shane’s hair and tugged back until he could whisper into Shane’s ear and see his face.

“You think you can run from me? Do you?” He draped the belt around Shane’s shoulders, then put his hands on either side of Shane’s head, shaping them to his skull, squeezing. “Hide in here?”

Shane shook his head, but it lacked conviction.

“You’re mine. You don’t get to hide. I own you, Shane. Mine. Every scream, every smile, every bruise. And I won’t settle for the parts of you you’re willing to share. Got that?”

Shane didn’t reply, hunching his shoulders in a withdrawal more insulting than outright defiance.

Ben closed his eyes for a moment, steadying himself. Then he grabbed the buckle end of the belt and captured the prong between his thumb and finger. Wrapping his arm around Shane and pulling him to his chest, he reached around, the belt dangling.

“Scream, and I’ll make you gag yourself with your fist.”

The prong was sharp enough to score Shane’s skin with the lightest of pressure, and Ben was bearing down. Taller than Shane, he could stare over Shane’s shoulder and see the marks it left. Long streaks of red slashes, the pain opening Shane, not the metal itself. He dug the tip into a nipple, traced the curve of a pectoral, then returned to torment the nipple.

It wasn’t enough; he could tell that by the tension in Shane’s body where it touched his. Ben’s clothes were wet, his shoes were wet, but the important thing was that Shane needed more, and Ben was going to have to give it. “Don’t forget that safe word.” That was all the warning he gave before digging the metal prong of the belt in with more pressure so tiny droplets of blood welled up.

Shane hissed and shuddered against him, pressing back and no doubt feeling the erection behind Ben’s slacks. He whispered something—not supposed to talk—and Ben considered ignoring it for a fleeting instant before acknowledging that he couldn’t. If Shane was testing him, it was his way of asking for more, and Ben could provide more.

Even when he thought he couldn’t, he always could.

“Turn around,” he ordered. It would be easier to focus without Shane’s body rubbing up against his, and easier to see what he was doing. He threaded his fingers through Shane’s hair and tugged, bringing Shane’s chin up until their eyes met. Shane’s were clouded with emotion: lust, pain, desperation.

Ben traced the belt prong around Shane’s left nipple, parting the skin. It had to hurt like hell. A glance down at Shane’s cock showed that it was fully erect, dark red and swollen, slick with arousal and water from the shower. He alternated his gaze between the prong he was drawing down Shane’s chest to his belly, making sure the pressure was what he wanted it to be, and Shane’s cock, watching its reaction to the pain.

“I’m not sure if you love this or hate it,” Ben said, as much to himself as to Shane. He pressed his fingers against Shane’s lips, pinching them closed. “Not a question. And it doesn’t matter. You’ll take everything I give because I tell you to. And you think you’re selfish, that you don’t give anything back, but you’re so fucking wrong. You want me to tell you you’re weak, a disgrace, and I never will. You’re strong and beautiful and mine, always mine, and I love you, but you’re fighting me and I hate that. You never surrender all the way, and that ends tonight. Gonna break you open.”

Shane’s eyes were wild, nostrils flared when he inhaled. Ben twisted Shane’s lower lip, then released it only to bite it a moment later, catching it between his teeth, hand in Shane’s hair to hold him still.

He licked the hot, tender flesh before forcing his tongue deep, gagging Shane with it. Shane struggled, but not to get away, his cock as stiff as it got.

Ben stepped back, adjusting his grip on the belt so six inches protruded from his fist. He flicked it against Shane’s chest and belly, contemptuous smacks, nowhere near Shane’s pain threshold but, from the anguished twist of Shane’s face, still hard to bear. “Every inch of you is mine to punish, and you deserve it. Nod for me, Shane. Let me know you accept that, because it’s true.”

Shane shook his head in denial, every breath harsh, his jaw clamped so the tendons in his neck stood out, thick cords.

“You proved it.” Ben laid the next slap of leather against Shane’s erection, braced for the guttural howl he got. It sank into him, warming him. His clothes became an intolerable burden, and he decided it was time to strip.

One more blow to Shane’s cock, deepening in color, starkly red against his pale skin, then Ben jerked his chin at the curtain rail. “Hold that. Don’t pull on it.”

Shane obeyed, flexing his arm muscles to show off his body in a way that told Ben he was moving too slowly, allowing Shane time to recover and rebuild his defenses. One step forward, two steps back. This would be the last break, then. He fastened the water-stiff belt tightly around Shane’s waist, letting the end dangle to brush the head of Shane’s cock.

Stripping and tossing his clothes to the side made him realize how wet the floor had gotten. He turned off the shower, now on its way to being cold, and spread all but one of the available towels on the floor to soak up the spray.

“Made a mess.” Shane widened his eyes in mock contrition, the sullen attitude he’d exhibited earlier returning at full strength. “Oops? Did I talk? Sorry, love. Gives you an excuse to punish me, though, so maybe you should say, Thank you, Shane.” Eyes stormy, hands clenched tightly around the rod, he snapped, “Go on, say it.”

Ben wouldn’t. If he did, Shane would lose respect for him, not necessarily as a man or a partner, but in this dynamic they had going between them, this BDSM thing. They’d never called it that, not out loud. They didn’t need to, like Ben didn’t need a newbie’s website to tell him that obeying Shane in this moment would ruin everything. They’d built this refuge, the two of them together, and there was no way Ben was going to let Shane take it apart with one request.

He wasn’t sure they’d survive without it. The thought shook him to his core and firmed up his resolve at the same time.

“If you can’t do as you’re told, I’ll have to do something about that,” he said calmly, reaching for a washcloth folded in a stack on the edge of the sink. He twisted it into a knot and moved it toward Shane’s mouth. “Open up.”

Shane sucked in breath, disbelief, then anger showing in his eyes. Ben was ready to stuff the washcloth into Shane’s mouth if he opened it to protest. He waited while Shane ground his teeth together audibly, then sighed and let his mouth fall open. Obeying. Standing there while Ben tucked the gag into place.

“If there are problems—if you can’t breathe, or you need to safe word—you do whatever you need to get this out. Hit me if you have to. Understand? That’s not an order; it’s everything.”

Shane nodded readily enough. It made sense. Lack of air wasn’t a barrier to push past, but a hard limit set by biology. It occurred to Ben that breath play would be an effective way to reach Shane, but he didn’t know enough about it to feel safe. And nothing Shane said or did would tempt him into endangering Shane.

“You earned that by talking and mouthing off. You’re lucky I didn’t rub soap on it.”

If Shane rolled his eyes… But he lowered them instead, projecting a small amount of contrition, though Ben didn’t trust it entirely.

“Out of here now.” Shane released the bar and stepped out of the bath. Ben handed him the only dry towel. “Kneel on this by the side of the bed.”

He watched Shane walk away, the dark strip of leather around his trim waist intriguing because it made Shane’s ass look rounder, fuller. Not feminine—nothing about Shane could be that—but the difference caught at Ben, sending a throb of arousal through him that wasn’t connected directly to the scene.

After picking up a medium towel, wet but not dripping, he laid it out on the available counter space and rolled it into a makeshift whip. He’d done this before without using it on Shane, after seeing the instructions online. Fold the corner down, roll from there, then twist… He tested it against his hand and winced. Okay, not too much force needed, and he’d have to be careful where it landed.

He went into the bedroom with the twisted towel in his grasp. The brush of it against his leg was disconcerting, like the tail of a friendly but unexpected cat passing by. Shane was kneeling beside the bed as instructed, hands at his sides as if, without instruction, he didn’t know where to put them.

Everything was falling into place.

“Lean forward with your arms flat on the mattress.” Ben wondered if Shane had sarcastic thoughts on being asked to imitate a superhero, but dismissed the idea. Under other circumstances, Shane might have thought that. Right now, Shane was wondering what Ben was planning, focused on his body and what would be done to it.

Ben was going to hurt him, and it would be fucking perfect.

“Can you breathe?” he asked, and Shane nodded. “Good. I wouldn’t have had to gag you if you’d stayed quiet, but either way, the rule still applies. And I want you still. No moving. I’m going to dish it out, and you’re going to take it.”

He didn’t wait, didn’t give Shane any further warning, but snapped the twisted towel forward so it caught Shane along the back of his upper thigh, closer to his knee than his ass. If he misjudged, he didn’t want to err close to Shane’s balls. He wanted to hurt him, wanted to see Shane bleed, but any damage had to be limited to scrapes and bruising. Anything more serious—things that might require a trip to the doctor’s office or the emergency room—was to be avoided at all cost.

Shane didn’t react beyond the slightest flinch, a flinch that was more surprise than pain. Ben hit the same spot again, putting more force into it. Better. Shane made a choked sound through the gag and grabbed on to a handful of the duvet.

Ben wondered if that should count as breaking the rule against moving and decided it was a minor enough infraction that he could ignore it for now. Aiming more for the space between Shane’s lower back and his ass this time, he ended up hitting Shane harder than he’d intended, if Shane’s reaction was any indication. The skin where the towel had made contact went to dark red immediately. Ben stepped closer and bent to touch it, pressing his palm against what would be a beautiful bruise later, letting the heat of it warm his skin. He realized he felt eager, anticipating what was ahead of them.

He’d tripped the switch from the place where he felt guilty about wanting to put marks on Shane and gone into the space where it was what he wanted to do.

This was going to be fun.

Chapter Nine

One aspect of Benedict that Shane loved was his unpredictability. The man had gone from buttoned-up accountant, single because his arsehole of a boyfriend thought he was boring—which still boggled Shane’s mind—to co-owner of a gay bar, with sadistic tendencies he was only too happy to indulge.

The towel trick was a prime example. The belt was cool and snug around Shane’s waist, ruined by water, and they hadn’t packed with kinky sex in mind. He’d expected Benedict to use his hand or dig out another belt, but no, he’d decided to show off his resourceful side.

And it fucking hurt being on the receiving end. The towel was heavy, dealing out a shock on impact, followed by a dull, radiating throb. He didn’t dare push Benedict by speaking, but he couldn’t quiet the voice in his head, not yet, and it yammered gleefully that he’d be good for nothing the next day, sore and limping.

Then Benedict went to town on him, whipping the towel against his shoulders, arse, and thighs with focused ferocity. Shane couldn’t hear himself think over the screaming the gag refused to let escape. Each sound tore free from deep inside him only to meet that thick, muffling wad and be turned back on itself to bounce around his skull until his head was stuffed full, heavy with noise and agony.

Benedict touched him with his hand as often as he brought down that hellish fucking towel, stroking burning skin, tracing the nascent bruises. Shane’s awareness of self slipped away under those fervent caresses. He existed only to be bruised, to display his pain on his skin and with his tears when he broke.

He wasn’t there yet. That would come when everything went quiet. Part of him was glad they weren’t at that point. He could endure this flogging, but not the hot slide of tears down his face.

Soon his back was on fire, but it still wasn’t enough. He groaned in frustration; the sound was muffled by the gag. He couldn’t think of how to get more from Benedict other than to break position and rip the gag from his mouth and shout, push Benedict around, goad him into anger, and he didn’t want to do those things.

When Benedict stopped hitting him with the towel and let it drop to the floor, Shane came close to weeping with despair.

“Enough,” Benedict said, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t anywhere near enough. How could it be over? “Get up on the bed. On your back.”

That sounded painful—Shane knew getting up off the floor would be uncomfortable—and so he found it reassuring. Obeying was easy even if the movement itself was hard. His thigh muscles screamed in protest when he got himself upright and crawled onto the duvet. His back and arse hurt enough that he wondered if he’d leave bloodstains on the duvet cover, but surely not. Benedict had rarely drawn blood, and a wet towel, no matter how sharply applied, wasn’t likely to break the skin.

Benedict gently pried Shane’s lips apart and eased the washcloth from his dry mouth. His lips felt chapped, and the roof of his mouth stung, not that he cared. His shoulders, back, arse, and thighs felt as if they’d been rubbed raw with sandpaper.

Benedict disappeared, returning with a bottle of orange juice from the minifridge. It was priced at the cost of a gallon of the stuff in the supermarket, but Shane couldn’t bring himself to care. Icy, tangy, sweet, the liquid soothed his parched mouth and steadied the tremors running through him.

He drank slowly, swallowing with an effort, unable to keep the reproach he felt from showing in his eyes. The scene was over, so he could talk, and when Benedict stopped playing nanny, Shane would let Benedict know he’d screwed up good and proper.

Guilt twisted around his resentment. Wasn’t fair to blame Benedict. He’d tried and he’d come close, but the peace Shane wasn’t sure he deserved eluded him and the blank euphoria he craved hovered tantalizingly out of reach.

He hurt; that was all. It wasn’t enough.

“Listen,” he began when the empty bottle was taken away from his mouth. “Thanks for the—”

The slap was light, but it stunned him to silence. Benedict never hit him outside a scene. Ever. That admonishing tap across his cheek told him it wasn’t over and he’d better button his lip or face the consequences.

Well, now. Curiosity and anticipation spiked with dread replaced his disappointment. The sullen throb of his abused body became a drumroll announcing the star attraction.

“Shut it,” Benedict muttered. He was tense; Shane could hear it in his voice. That was interesting too. “Your mouth. If I have to tell you again… Well. I won’t tell you again.”

Shane waited, concentrating on the feel of his bruised arse against the bed and the way his body was, without moving, straining toward whatever Benedict had planned next even though he had no idea what it was. He couldn’t think of anything they’d brought with them that would be more intense than the towel, and he and Benedict had been together since they’d arrived. It wasn’t as if Benedict had sneaked off and bought something from a sex shop. He could have nicked a kitchen knife from the house, but—

The mattress shifted beside him, and he felt soft fabric laid over his face. “Lift your head.” Shane obeyed so the makeshift blindfold could be tied in place. “There. Won’t have to tell you to keep your eyes closed, will I?”

Next, Benedict wrapped smooth, narrow fabric around Shane’s wrists—ties, by the feel—and bound them to the headboard. Probably the first time the bed had seen this sort of action, though Shane admitted he could be wrong. Because someone looked innocent didn’t mean they were. Benedict was proof of that.

He tugged experimentally at the restraints, distracted when Benedict brushed a kiss over the tender skin below his navel. His cock responded to the tease with a heavy throb. He’d been hard for so long he’d softened again when he thought the scene was over. A line of kisses, the lick of a warm tongue at his hip. He waited for the burst of pain that was sure to follow, not knowing what it would be or when it would come. These gentle touches were a trick, a way to get him to relax so the flare of pain would come as a shock.

He tensed, heart rate speeding.

“Relax.” Benedict smoothed his hand over Shane’s thigh. “I’ve got you.”

Yeah, but what are you going to do to me?

More kisses, without even the hint of a bite. He moved, restless, confused, and there it was, the flare of pain from bruised flesh. He sighed, relishing it even as he winced.

“No. Stay still. Absolutely still.”

Or? Where was the threat, the carrot dangled enticingly, all but encouraging him to misbehave?

The tease of a fingertip at the head of his cock made him jump. That transgression was punished with a warm hand at his balls, squeezing them with infinite care, as if Benedict thought they were made of glass and would shatter in his hand.

And Benedict knew they weren’t. He’d done nasty things to them over the years. Lovely, wicked, nasty things. Shane’s skin heated at the memory of weights dragging them down, the grinding agony intensified when Benedict made him walk to the bed and back a dozen times before taking Shane’s cock deep, tormenting it with his tongue, Shane rock hard but unable to come.

Now Benedict’s mouth was at the base of his prick, warm and wet in an openmouthed, slow kiss, and as it moved up toward the head, Shane felt a slick finger slide into his arse, too carefully to cause pain. Shane’s chest was tight, and he couldn’t inhale properly. Christ, it was good. So good.

Too good. He didn’t deserve to feel this good. He wanted Benedict to hurt him, fuck, carve him up with a razor blade if that was what it took. He wasn’t a horrible person, but he did horrible things, thought horrible thoughts, and he wanted Benedict to gouge that out of him. If it meant beating him within an inch of his life, he’d willingly accept it.

“No.” Benedict pulled away from his cock but left that finger in his arse. There was so much lube everything was wet. “That’s not what you need.”

Shane didn’t think he’d spoken out loud, and if he had, Benedict would punish him, and rightfully so. But how else would Benedict know what he was thinking?

“All I want you to do right now is lie here and take whatever I give you. And don’t come until I say you can.” With Benedict’s fingertip rubbing relentlessly across Shane’s prostate, that wasn’t going to be as simple as he made it sound. Benedict bent and whispered his next words, lips moving against Shane’s sore, tight nipple. “You aren’t the one who decides how this goes. I do. And you take it.” He licked Shane’s nipple, and Shane’s body arched in response. “No. Stay still.”

Apparently the punishment for that disobedience was Benedict’s mouth attached to his nipple, tongue flicking across it so gently that Shane trembled with the effort of keeping still. Benedict’s finger in his arse was moving the way it did when Benedict wanted to get him off fast and hard. The lightest touch to Shane’s cock would make him come; even thinking about Benedict touching his cock made it a threat.

God, this was worse than being hurt.

Did Benedict know that? ’Course he bloody well did. A reluctant admiration for Benedict’s twisted brand of sadism flashed through his head, there and gone too fast to register, elbowed out by panic. Jesus, Shane had never come without permission during a scene. Ever. They’d discussed it, and Benedict had assured him that he didn’t expect miracles.

We do this for different reasons—yes, I know you don’t like discussing it—but one of the main ones is that we get off on it. If you’re enjoying yourself so much you come before I tell you, because you can’t help it, it’s not the end of the world.

Perversely, that easy acceptance of potential failure had made Shane determined never to fuck up—when it came to shooting his load, at least.

Tonight might break his perfect record. Oh God, that was Benedict’s plan, he knew it. Humbling him by taking away his control of his cock, forcing it to yield without saying the words that gave it permission to come.

No. He wouldn’t. He fucking wouldn’t play along. Setting his jaw, he resorted to the age-old method of quelling a stiffie, picturing roadkill, Alfie in a Speedo on Blackpool beach—a memory he’d suppressed for years—anything to get his rigid cock to subside.

It was useless; of course it was. The harder he tried to think of something, anything but his erection and how badly he needed release, the less he could manage it. Benedict’s lips around the tip of his cock were sweet torture, the finger up his arse so perfect he couldn’t bear it. Each gentle stroke, each soft swipe of tongue took him closer and closer to the edge, and no amount of determination seemed capable of holding him back.

Shane wished he could see, even if he knew the sight of Benedict’s curly hair, head lowered, would put an end to the struggle whether he meant it to or not. Maybe that was why he wished it. Then this would be over, and he could be angry at Benedict for putting him in a game it was impossible to win, and Benedict could be angry at him for being such a bloody failure, such a fucking disappointment.

It took him much longer than it should have to realize he was crying. The fabric that made up his blindfold had absorbed the first few hot tears, keeping him from feeling them. Now that he’d noticed, he felt all the other signs of the fact that Benedict had broken him with kindness as surely as all the times he’d broken him with pain: uneven breathing, thickness at the back of his throat, burning sinuses.

The relief was overwhelming, so he made no attempt to hold back. Benedict’s mouth moved away from his cock and came down on his lips. Shane let himself be kissed, grateful for it.

“You can come now,” Benedict said gently. “If you want to.”

To his surprise, Shane discovered he didn’t care whether he came or not. And after all that fuss too. He was crying uncontrollably now, though still doing his best not to make any noise.

“Hang on. Let me get these.” Benedict untied Shane’s wrists with alarming speed and pulled him into an embrace Shane felt he’d been waiting all his life for. He didn’t bother to try to remove the blindfold, and neither did Benedict. It was nice to have it there absorbing the worst of the evidence, Shane supposed, but what he was focused on was Benedict’s voice saying all sorts of lovely, reassuring things Shane never would have tolerated at any other time. “It’s okay. You’re so good. You did everything I asked you to do. I love you so much.”

“Don’t deserve it.”

“Don’t make me take it from the top and start over. I’m exhausted.”

Shane managed to laugh, though it came out as a croak. “Fine, I deserve it. Deserve you.”

“Don’t forget that.” Benedict tapped Shane’s arse without force. “Ever.”

“You didn’t come.”

Benedict yawned, the sound contagious, Shane following suit a moment later. “Feels like I did. I’m good. Tomorrow. I’ll take care of your back. Then we’ll sleep.”

“Need to piss first.”

Benedict eased the blindfold off, rubbing his thumb across wet skin with a soft exhalation of pleasure and approval that warmed Shane to the core. “Can you make it to the bathroom by yourself?”

Shane hesitated. The automatic reply on his lips was yes. It was also the truth. He could. The bathroom was a few steps away, and he hadn’t stiffened up yet. But Benedict liked being needed, and putting even a yard or two of distance between them didn’t appeal.

“Could do with a hand, if that’s okay.”

Benedict was out of bed before he’d finished, ready to support him, making Shane sit to piss, then putting toothpaste on his brush before hunting out painkillers and cooling gel.

Babying him, but it felt good.

This once, anyway.

* * * * *

Shane woke in the middle of the night, sore but not unhappy, drank two glasses of water, and went back to bed. When he woke the second time, it was to early-morning sunshine streaming in through the window and Benedict speaking into the phone, his voice considerately low.

“I know. Of course we do.” Benedict sighed. “Fine. He’s fine. Yes, I’m fine too. It’s complicated. And you can tell Patrick that it’s none of his business, and we’ll wait to share anything Shane decides he’s willing to share once we’ve gotten back. I know. Thanks, Vin. I’ve said it before, but I appreciate you holding down the fort for us.” He turned toward the bed and saw that Shane was awake. “I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Okay, bye.”

“How’s the Peg?” Shane asked, then yawned hugely.

“Fine. Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake you. I got up and took a shower, and when I came out, you were still dead to the world, so I thought I could get away with a quick call. I knew Vin and Patrick would still be up—it’s late there, but you know what their sleep schedule’s like.”

“I’d wonder if they ever sleep, except it’s Patrick’s excuse whenever he’s late.” Propping himself up on his elbows, Shane eyed Benedict, who was sharply dressed in a button-down shirt with the top two buttons still undone appealingly. “Pity you’re all showered and dressed.”

“Is it? Why?” Benedict didn’t seem to be paying attention at first. Then he stopped looking at his phone and looked up at Shane instead.

“Because it’s the arse crack of dawn, so there’s nowhere open for breakfast and I’m feeling peckish.”

Slight exaggeration. There were probably a few cafés open for business within walking distance, even this early, but they wouldn’t be serving Benedict on toast, now, would they?

Shane rolled over to his stomach, kicking off the covers, then glanced back over his shoulder, every welt, every bruise on display. He heard the swift intake of breath that told him he’d got an appreciative audience, and smiled, slow and dirty, throwing in a wiggle of his backside before spreading his legs.

If Benedict needed more hints than that, there was no hope for him.

“That’s not usually where you put your food.” Benedict came to the side of the bed, trousers unzipped, hand inside, easing out his cock before it grew too hard to bend. “Suck me first.”

He slid his fingers into Shane’s hair and guided his head to where he wanted it.

Shane kept his lips closed for the pleasure of having that hand tighten and tug in warning, and the stab of Benedict’s cock against his mouth, demanding entrance.

Best start to the day in a long time.

* * * * *

The euphoria of that early-morning fuck kept him smiling through the list of errands Benedict insisted on clearing.

We can sightsee later. I want to. England’s charming and I’d like to see more of it, but I won’t enjoy it with all this hanging over us.” He’d grimaced. “Sorry. That came out wrong. I know this isn’t a vacation, and these aren’t chores. They’re part of making sure your mom’s passing goes smoothly, in a way that honors her.

It’s all right. I know.” Shane had kissed him to remove the worried frown, not caring that a building crew were at the next table of the café they’d chosen for breakfast. If the men had a problem with it, he’d shove their hard hats so far up their arses they’d need planning permission to remove them. “You didn’t know her, and there’s no reason we can’t enjoy bits of the trip. She wouldn’t have wanted anyone moping, and she was proud of her city. She’d want me to show it to you, and I will. Liverpool too.

And now they’d reached the end of the list with the afternoon ahead of them and the sun shining down as if it never did anything else on an August day in England, which Shane knew for a fact wasn’t the case. Two weeks at Torquay when he was eleven and the sun hadn’t shown its bloody face once until the last day when they were packing up. Still, the bright sunshine did a lot to soothe the irritation Shane had felt when he’d learned from the probate solicitor that his mum’s will had left the house and all the money in her bank account to Alfie.

I’m sorry if it isn’t the news you were hoping for,” the solicitor had said, but Shane had shrugged.

It was hers to do as she liked with. I guess she didn’t mind the thought of him pissing it away on booze and bad bets.

“Hungry?” Ben asked now. He was attentive today, glaring at a passerby who’d jostled Shane and caused a stifled gasp of pain, and insisting on frequent breaks to sit and rest. “There’s a park over there. We could buy sandwiches and have a picnic on a bench. Are you allowed to do that in England?”

“Probably got a law forbidding it in case the birds choke on a crumb that isn’t EU-specified size, but let’s live dangerously. Boots do nice sandwiches. There’s one around the corner, if I remember right. Or we can find a Marks and Sparks.”

“Marks and what?” Benedict glanced at him, amused and puzzled.

“Marks and Spencer,” Shane clarified. “The other’s slang, but you’re more likely to hear people calling it that than the proper name. Around here, anyway. Big fancy supermarket.”

“You decide. I’m fine with whatever’s closest.” Now Shane took a good look at him, Benedict was a bit strained around the eyes.

“Let’s try Boots. Then we can find a nice park bench and a bit of peace and quiet.”

It was where he remembered, though a good deal shinier, as if it had been renovated not too long ago. It didn’t take long to collect their sandwiches—egg mayo and cress for Benedict, who claimed to be in an adventurous mood, though Shane knew with certainty the man had a whole different world of adventure hidden under his neatly put-together exterior, and chicken and sweet corn for Shane, who’d forgotten the sandwich’s existence during his years in the States.

The bench was surrounded by neat flower beds with blooms in grouped masses of color, too formal for Shane’s taste, though the overall effect was cheerful. He sat beside Benedict, close enough that their bare forearms brushed from time to time, munching in silence, soaking up the heat of the sun, and letting his mind roam.

So many memories. Of his mum, yes, but life in general. His first time back in seventeen, eighteen years and so much had changed—speed cameras everywhere and irritating posters telling people to report everything from tossing a cigarette end on the floor to benefit fraud, not to mention CCTV making sure every move he made was caught on camera, but still…it was home.

He hadn’t realized how homesickness had become a constant in his life, pushed to the back of his mind but never leaving him. At heart, he was English, always had been, always would be.

A man’s voice saying his name jolted him from his reverie—no, became part of it, familiar, associated with happiness and a sweet ache of love, so when he glanced up, it was with a smile forming.

“Shane? Shane Brant?” the man repeated.

“Holy fucking Christ. Daniel?” He’d have known his ex-boyfriend’s face anywhere, even with the years lining his face and more than a bit of gray in his fair hair, styled in a way that would’ve suited a younger man better. He was taller than Shane by a few inches. His once-rangy build had bulked out, but it looked to be muscle, not fat. “What the fuck are you doing here?”

“In the park? Taking a walk. I try to get out at lunchtime, so— And that’s not what you meant. You knew I came back after I finished my degree.” Daniel seemed grateful when Shane stood and shook his hand. Then they clapped each other on the back the way men did, not a real hug, but affectionate all the same. “I don’t need to ask why you’re here. I’m sorry about your mum.”

“Thanks. Bit of a shock, but, well, you know what my dad’s like. Not an option to leave him to handle things on his own.”

“No, I know what you mean. My parents are here still. They moved into a retirement home a few years back, and— Sorry, who’s this?”

Shane cursed himself for forgetting Benedict. “My partner, Benedict. Benedict, this is Daniel. He’s the bloke I followed across the Atlantic, so if you want to blame someone for the spread of English sensibilities all over your fair city, this is your man.”

Having abandoned his half-eaten sandwich, Benedict shook Daniel’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same here.” For all that he looked older, Daniel sounded the same as ever, and Shane discovered the intervening years had softened any lingering feelings of bad blood. “Good of you to come.”

“Wouldn’t have missed it,” Benedict said. “God, that makes it sound like a party. Sorry.”

“We know what you meant,” Daniel assured him. “Wow, Shane, it’s so good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too.” He was surprised it was true.

Daniel glanced around him helplessly. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t carry on my walk as if this didn’t happen. Are you here for long? Can we get together for a drink or something one night? Talk? The way we left things… It’s always bothered me.”

Shane had felt it too, that itch of a job half-completed. It would be good to have that chat. Good to catch up on a life he might have been a part of if events had turned out differently.

He turned to Benedict. “Is that okay with you, love?”

He wasn’t asking for permission. They didn’t play that way. His question was a genuine request for information, because if Benedict didn’t want him going off with an ex for a pint or two, then Daniel could keep walking and that was that.

Benedict studied him, a tiny frown appearing that said he was thinking hard. The pause was a short one, though. “Of course it is.”

“You’re welcome to join us.” Daniel shot Benedict a smile. “Though I promise we’ll only be talking.”

The pause was perceptibly longer this time, but Benedict smiled back. “I can’t think why you’d want me around, so I’ll pass, but thank you for the offer.”

“So when do you want to do this?” Shane asked.

“Tonight?” Daniel made his eagerness clear. “I don’t think I could wait much longer than that. Unless you’ve made plans?”

“No,” Benedict answered before Shane could open his mouth. “We were going to have a quiet night in. This works perfectly. A few hours on my own will give me the chance to catch up on some paperwork.”

There was something off in the way Benedict and Daniel were talking, as if another conversation was going on beneath the words, but Shane pushed his misgivings aside. He wasn’t going on a date with Daniel, after all. This was a nod to a shared past, nothing more, whereas Benedict was his present and future.

With the sense of closing a door behind him, not opening it, Shane exchanged contact details with Daniel and arranged to meet him in a pub near the hotel at eight.