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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.

“Thanks.”

“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.”

“Welcome.”

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.

“Hello?”

“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.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

Ben sighed and looked at the clock again. It was nearly nine. Shane and Daniel were probably still in the awkward how’s-it-been phase of getting reacquainted, but it felt like he’d been alone for hours. He’d exaggerated the amount of paperwork he had to do, and was sure Shane knew it. Now he was flicking through the channels on the hotel TV, unable to find anything even slightly interesting, and wishing he’d made other plans for the evening.

He couldn’t sit here for hours with nothing to do. Before he could talk himself out of it, he got up and shoved his feet into his shoes, checking his pockets for his wallet and phone when he headed out into the hall. He nodded at the receptionist and stepped outside onto the sidewalk.

How far was it to Alfie’s house? He was considering walking when a taxi pulled up and let someone off at the curb.

It was a sign. Without hesitation, Ben got in and recited the address.

If Alfie wasn’t home when he got there, he’d figure out what to do then.

He waited on the front stoop for several long minutes before Alfie answered his knock. The older man seemed surprised to see him and looked around for Shane. “Hello there, lad. My son’s not with you?”

“No. He went out with an old friend we bumped into.”

“And didn’t invite you? Pity he didn’t learn any manners, although who am I to criticize, leaving you standing here instead of inviting you in? Come in, come in.” The fumes from Alfie’s breath made Ben’s head spin, so he was grateful when the man turned away to lead him into the kitchen. “Shane leave you to eat on your own too?”

Ben shook his head even though the answer was yes. He’d assured Shane he would get something to eat, but he wasn’t hungry.

“People have been dropping in all day to pay their respects. Thought that was what the funeral was for. Not that I’m complaining. Some of them brought a bottle.”

If that was a hint, Ben wasn’t picking it up and offering to leave only to return with something alcoholic. As a bar owner, he’d learned how to assess a drunk, and Alfie seemed lit up but steady enough. Ben suspected the guy was so pickled in booze that he never made it all the way to sober.

He wondered if respect for Donna would make Alfie lay off the drink the night before her funeral, but it didn’t seem likely.

“Sit.”

Ben took a seat at the small kitchen table, surreptitiously brushing a few toast crumbs off the surface so he could lean his forearms on it.

“What can I get you?” Alfie waved at an assortment of bottles on the counter by the sink. “Name your poison.”

“A cup of tea would be nice.” How often had he heard Shane say those words when he was tired or in the grip of the headaches he got when a storm was imminent?

“Tea?” Alfie snorted. “It’s not breakfast time!”

Or teatime either.

“I don’t drink often.”

“You driving?”

Accustomed to Shane’s abbreviated way of speaking, Ben shook his head. “I took a taxi.”

“Then you can drink with me.”

It didn’t seem worthwhile arguing and he wanted Alfie in an expansive, friendly mood, so Ben scanned the bottles, noticing familiar labels and laughing privately at himself for being surprised.

“A small whiskey, then.”

“Now you’re talking.” There was a basic single malt there, Glenfiddich, and a blend with the name of a supermarket on it. Alfie reached first for the blend, then wrapped his hand around the single malt.

Now that was surprising. Ben would’ve expected Alfie to fob him off with the cheaper bottle.

The measure he received was easily a triple, but he didn’t comment, clinking his glass against Alfie’s in a toast. “To your wife.”

It didn’t seem right to call her Donna when they’d never met.

“To my Donna.” Alfie swallowed most of the contents of his glass. “Beautiful girl she was. Used to have hair she could sit on. Cut it short when I was inside. She came to visit me, and I didn’t recognize her. Said young Shane kept grabbing at it with his mucky paws, and it made life easier.” He sighed gustily. “I’d have belted her for it, but not much I could do in a room full of cops. Got in a fight with my cell mate instead and ended up in solitary for three days. Women.” He raised eyebrows so bushy Patrick would’ve fainted while reaching for his wax strips. “Not that you’d know, being a poofter. No offense.”

“None taken.” It was hard to get offended under the circumstances, which were so complicated that if you’d told him a week ago he’d be drinking and being called names by his almost-father-in-law, he would have laughed and said not in a million years. Ben drank some of his whiskey.

“So you’ve never? Been with a woman,” Alfie clarified.

“Never,” Ben agreed. “I never even gave it any thought. There’s never been any attraction there. I assume it’s the same for you, except the other way around.”

“Aye, I suppose that’s true.” Alfie’s agreement was grudgingly given, judging by the doubt behind his words. “When Shane told us, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was that shocked.”

Ben found that hard to believe. “You weren’t suspicious before then?”

Pouring himself another drink, Alfie seemed to consider the question. “Well, I suppose there might have been an inkling of a suspicion, now you mention it. He never did talk about girls the way some boys did, but I thought he was a late bloomer and that he’d get around to it when he was ready. You finish that now, so you can have another.” Alfie pointed at Ben’s glass.

He took the smallest sip possible, trying to be subtle. “And Donna? Did she know, do you think?”

“She said she didn’t, but to be honest, I always thought she was covering for him. Being his, what do you boys call it, beard?”

Ben choked on his whiskey, and Alfie whacked him on the back in a manner that was probably supposed to be helpful. “Thanks! Thanks, I’m okay. Um, no, that’s not what a beard is. She was being a good mother, I think.”

Alfie poured more liquor into Ben’s glass and topped off his drink at the same time, a bit sloppily. “Babied him, she did. Wanted him to wear a helmet when he rode his bike! I told her the other boys would laugh at him, and they did. Though he put things right again with his fists. Came home with a black eye and a bloody lip, but he was the one who came out on top.”

“He’s someone you want fighting with you, not against you,” Ben agreed. “He’s got a reputation for being a bad man to cross. I’ve seen him break up a fight in the Peg by walking out from behind the bar with this look in his eyes that says he’s about to do damage to your face and he’s looking forward to it.”

And on nights like that, the sex when they got home was incendiary, as if the violence Shane couldn’t unleash fully found another outlet. Tying him down wasn’t an option; it was more a case of holding on and hoping he survived the ride.

“Yeah?” The look on Alfie’s flushed face was undeniably pride. “That’s my boy. He might be a… Well, we know what he is, but at least he’s a man in some ways.”

“He’s a man in every way.” There was only so much he’d let pass.

“It’s not natural. Not right. But if it’s the way God made him…”

“I didn’t know you were a religious man.”

Alfie widened his eyes. “I was baptized. That counts. And if I haven’t seen the inside of a church since the day I got wed, well, God knows I’m a busy man, same as him.”

“Busy doing what?” With anyone else, Ben would’ve phrased his question with less bluntness, but Alfie didn’t pull any punches, so why should he? “Shane said you’d never held down a job for more than a few weeks.”

“Aye, well.” For a moment, Ben thought Alfie was going to come up with a litany of excuses, so what Alfie said next surprised him. “There was a time that was true. But I’ve been working at the same job for a few years now. Suppose it took me longer than most to sort myself out in that regard.”

“Sometimes it takes a while to find out where your talents lie,” Ben said, aiming for tact in part because he felt guilty for thinking poorly of the man.

Alfie snorted. “Not sure I’d call it a talent. Anyone could do it.”

“Tell me what you do.”

“Keep the grounds at the local academy.” When Ben looked confused, Alfie added, “High school. Gives me the summers off. Autumn term starts in two weeks, so normally I’d be on top of things by now, getting the property ready, doing some painting, things like that. But when the school heard about Donna, they said they’d get someone else to fill in for me, not to worry until I was ready to come back.” Alfie sighed and drank some more whiskey. “Might have been better if I’d gone to work instead. Hanging around the house, waiting for the funeral… It’s not making things any easier. Too much time to think and drink.”

“Go out with friends,” Ben suggested. “Or maybe there’s something Donna would have liked that you could do, some project?”

“She kept saying she wanted to redecorate our bedroom. Never gave me a break, that one. If I had a quid for every time she brought up that saying about the cobbler’s children going barefoot, I’d be a rich man. Here, have some more.” Alfie tipped another measure of whiskey into Ben’s glass. “Slept on the sofa last night. It’s too depressing to stay in the bed without her.”

Shane snored sometimes and was a terrible cover hog, but he and Ben rarely slept apart. If either of them was sick with a cough, the spare room provided an escape, but other than that, they shared a bed. Once, on a hot summer night with the power out and the air sticky with heat, Ben had left Shane to slide between the blessedly cool sheets in the spare room. He’d paid for those few hours of sleep the next day. Shane hadn’t taken his desertion well, though Ben had been flattered, not irritated by Shane’s grumpiness.

He could well understand Alfie’s reluctance.

“Would it help if we, I don’t know, got you a new bed?” It sagged in the middle, he recalled. “Or at least new bedding? You can’t sleep on the couch forever. It’s not good for your back.”

“Yeah, you gays are into decorating and all that froufrou stuff, aren’t you?” Alfie pursed his lips in consideration, looking so much like Shane that Ben had to blink to dispel the illusion. “No need for a new bed. That one’s only fifteen years old. New sheets and such, though…” He turned his glass in his hand. “Pillow smells of her hair spray. Took one whiff, and I—” He cleared his throat. “Time for a top-up.”

“No, I’m good.”

“Always heard you lot couldn’t hold your drink.” Alfie eyed him more in pity than scorn. “Wonder why that is?”

“Will you stop generalizing and stereotyping? Gay men aren’t all the same any more than straight ones!” Ben swallowed back his annoyance. Chipping away at Alfie’s prejudices was as tedious as reducing a mountain to a pebble using a blunt knife. “If you were ever in the Peg on a Saturday night, you’d change your mind.”

Alfie sniffed. “Yeah, but they’re probably necking back fruity cocktails and alcopops. They’re not real drinks. I could’ve had those in my bottle as a baby and come to no harm.”

“If that’s what you think, you’re wrong.” It was a statement that could be taken badly, but it was too late to retract it. “Some people like a margarita, but we sell more beer than anything else. We have fourteen beers on tap, including Newcastle Brown and Hobgoblin, and you’d be impressed if you saw the way gay women knock back shots.”

“If you say so.” Alfie seemed unconvinced.

“Ask Shane if you don’t believe me.” Ben wasn’t offended, and he didn’t think Alfie would take Shane’s description of the Peg any more seriously than his. Also, he was starting to realize he was drunk.

It was rare for him to have more than a drink or two. He didn’t worry he’d become an alcoholic, though that would have been an understandable fear, considering his father’s issues with addiction. He didn’t care for the way alcohol made him reckless and blind to consequences. He preferred to be in control, and that was easier sober.

“It’s not that I don’t believe you, lad.” Alfie seemed apologetic now. “It’s hard to imagine. Maybe you can show me how to use Donna’s computer while you’re here. Then you could send me some photos of your place once you’ve gone back. Be nice to see what it looks like.”

“It’s a proper pub,” Ben assured him. He’d heard Shane use that phrase dozens of times, so he was sure it would come across in a way that would mean something to Alfie. “You could come see it sometime, if you wanted.” That was the liquor talking; he didn’t think he or Shane would enjoy having Alfie visit.

“Don’t have a passport, and with my record, they’d probably refuse me entry.” Alfie sounded philosophical, as if being rejected was part of his life.

“Wait.” Ben took out his phone, fingers clumsy. God, how many shots did all his careful sips add up to? “There should be some photos on here from Shane’s birthday.”

Too late, he remembered what had happened the following day, not to mention the many birthdays ignored by Alfie, but Alfie was already leaning forward, face sharp with interest.

He went through half a dozen photos, expanding some to show Alfie the beers on tap, flicking hastily past any with Patrick being more creatively flirtatious than usual with Vin, then lingered on one of him with Shane, arms around each other, mouths meeting in a kiss.

It didn’t matter if the sight repulsed Alfie; he needed to see it, that moment of happiness, with Shane oblivious to what was about to happen.

“It looks the same as any one of a number of pubs around here.” This was clearly a compliment. “I’d let you pull me a pint if I walked in.”

“On the house. All night.”

Alfie grinned. “I’d soon drink your profits, lad.” His smile faded. “So where is he, then? You said with friends. Bexie, is it?”

“No,” Ben said flatly. “An ex. Daniel. The one he went to the States with.”

He’d kept his reaction to the meeting with Daniel tamped down firmly. Jealousy and possessiveness corroded relationships, and he trusted Shane completely.

Daniel, on the other hand, he didn’t trust at all. The guy had stared at Shane as if he’d had his happily ever after handed to him on a plate, and that was not the way it was.

Shane was taken. His. And yeah, that sounded possessive, but it wasn’t. Simple truth, yes.

“A statement of fact,” he said aloud and blinked at his empty glass before pushing it forward wordlessly to be refilled.

“Enough talking,” Alfie decreed. “Tell me, Ben, do you play cards where you’re from?”

Chapter Eleven

The pub where Shane met Daniel was a bar they wouldn’t have frequented as younger men, not that it had existed then anyway. He had a vague memory it might have been a shop, maybe one that sold secondhand books, which would explain why he’d never been inside the building. Now it was a classy pub with a distinctly more upscale vibe than the Peg. Even more comfortable in his skin than he’d been two decades before, Shane felt out of place.

“Nice, isn’t it?” Daniel asked when Shane joined him. He’d been sitting on a stool at the bar but stood and gestured at a table. “Bit easier to have a conversation here than some places, I thought. Two more, please?” This last was directed at the bartender. At least it was a pint Daniel had in his hand and not an overpriced, pretentious cocktail.

Shane wished he’d worn one of his newer shirts, then hated himself for having let the thought cross his mind. Daniel had always been one to fuss over appearances, but his opinion wasn’t a deciding factor in what Shane wore. “Yeah. It’s great.”

They settled at a table, the wood stained a rich, dark walnut. The chairs were leather and comfortably padded, and a waitress delivered their pints as soon as they were seated, carrying them on a small tray. Shane felt as if he’d closed his eyes and opened them in a different reality.

“My friends and I come here all the time.” Daniel nodded at the waitress and slid one of the pints over to Shane.

“Yeah?” Shane gazed at a nearby table where a man in an expensive suit was quizzing a waiter about the wine list, throwing in references to a vineyard apparently close to his villa in Tuscany. The waiter wasn’t impressed, but the young bit of stuff with him hung on every word. Probably hoping she’d get an invite, but Shane bet the bloke’s wife would have something to say if he did. The man screamed married and frustrated.

Daniel pushed his hand through his fair hair, lifting it off his forehead before letting it flop back into place so it shadowed his eyes, a pure gray, unusual enough that they’d been the second thing Shane had noticed when they first met. The first had been his arse, delectable then, still worth another look now. “You don’t like it? You’re not still hanging around in dives, are you?”

He wasn’t interested in impressing Daniel. There was a natural temptation to brag and enhance reality, but when it came down to it, he was happy with his life and proud of the Peg, so why embellish?

“Dives, no, but if I’m going to be honest, this wouldn’t have been my first pick. I co-own a gay bar with Benedict and it’s never going to win awards for style, but it’s got a reputation for good food and drink, and a friendly atmosphere. That’s what I look for.”

Daniel smiled, a hint of satisfaction showing. “You’re still my Shane.”

Wariness flared. That statement was wrong on so many levels. “I beg your pardon?”

Leaning closer, Daniel said, “I saw you today, and you’d changed. He’s polished you up—and that’s good, don’t get me wrong. You look great. But I wanted to see how deep the changes went, and you showed me. You haven’t lost your honesty, and you haven’t become too, well, American.”

“Meaning what?” Shane didn’t appreciate games, and though he’d had his moments of moaning about the way things were done in the States, he’d lived there long enough to feel a certain amount of loyalty. And acquire a group of friends he wouldn’t see criticized by anyone.

“You know what I mean; don’t pretend you don’t. Most of those people at university with me, they were impossible to be around. All that mattered to them was money and status. I don’t think half of them were even there for an education. You remember.”

Shane hadn’t thought about it for years, but now, with Daniel reminding him, he did. They’d lived in a small rented apartment, all they could afford even with Daniel’s family’s financial support. Most of their neighbors had been other young people, some of them couples with children, none of them doing much more than scraping by month to month. But invitations to Daniel’s classmates’ parties had shown them the existence of another world, one they never would have seen if their British accents hadn’t made them a subject of curiosity. A world in which they stood out like sore thumbs, everything from their backgrounds to their clothes to their manners awkward and out of place. “Yeah. But we were never like that, were we? I mean, you were more in danger of turning American than I was.”

“But you were the one who stayed. I could never be sure.” Daniel was looking at him with affection. “Now I am.”

“Glad not to disappoint.” It wasn’t that simple. Shane had complicated feelings about how this meeting was playing out, and he wasn’t a man who enjoyed sorting out complicated feelings. Benedict would find it a challenge. He, on the other hand, would prefer to ignore it. “So tell me what you’ve been up to all these years.”

“Missing you, for one. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve done my fair share of dating, even come close to settling down a couple of times. But the other blokes were always more interested in me than I was in them, I suppose, and it seemed so final. An end to things. You obviously don’t feel the same way.”

“Benedict being an end to things?” Shane relaxed and leaned back in his chair, drank some beer. “That’s a laugh. You’d know why if you knew him.”

“You could have brought him with you,” Daniel pointed out. “Then I could have got to know him.”

“He’s a busy man,” Shane said. “Had things he wanted to work on, and there’s no point in trying to talk him into something he doesn’t want to do.”

Daniel’s smile turned knowing. “Or did you want it to be the two of us, and he picked up on that and bowed out? I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m glad we’re alone.”

Time to make his position clear. “Why? So we can get drunk on memories and end up with our pants down doing something we’d regret in the morning?”

Daniel jerked as if he’d been struck, but he rallied, his expression smoothing out to bland amusement. “Pants? You’ve gone native. And I wouldn’t regret it. How could I? In bed we were perfect for each other. I’ve never met anyone who got me off the way you did.”

The sex had been good, but not spectacular in retrospect. Shane suspected being young and perpetually horny had made him easy to please. He’d gone for quantity, not quality, and Daniel had matched his appetite without satisfying him on more than a superficial level. “Thanks. So what line of work are you in?”

Arching his eyebrows in a way that made him look a pretentious plonker in Shane’s opinion, Daniel asked, “Do you want to know, or do you think changing the subject will make me forget what you looked like when I went down on you?”

“Jesus, keep your voice down.” Daniel hadn’t spoken loudly, but with the piped background music discreet, not earsplitting, it wouldn’t be hard for people nearby to overhear him. “Yes, I want to know. That’s why I’m here. To catch up. And yeah, we can discuss why you buggered off, but bottom line, it hurt losing you, but it turned out for the best.”

Daniel seemed unconvinced. “I never should have left you there. Should have stayed until I talked you into coming home where you belong.”

That was close enough to some of the fleeting thoughts running through Shane’s head that it caught him off guard. “This might be where I came from, but it’s not home. Not anymore.”

Except it felt like it. Even with Alfie in the mix and the loss of his mum shadowing every day, part of him reveled in returning to his roots. Everything tasted the way it should, the air invigorated him, and memories called to him, sweetly nostalgic and making him wonder if England held his future as well as his past. Conscious of a sense of disloyalty to Benedict and the Peg, he forced himself to repeat his last words with more conviction.

“No?” Daniel took a few swallows from his pint glass and smiled in a way that might have been apologetic. “Maybe I was wrong, then. Wouldn’t be the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Tell me about where you live.”

Choosing his words with care, Shane described his home with Benedict, and how he’d come to manage, then share ownership of the Square Peg, before going on to describe their friends. It helped him shrug off the sense of being torn between two places to remind himself of how much he loved the Peg and what he and Benedict had accomplished there. “And Helen, she’s from London. You’d like her.”

“Sounds as if I’d like all of them. Except that Patrick, maybe.”

“He causes some trouble, but it’s hard not to take to him,” Shane admitted. “Took me a while to come around to seeing him the way everyone else does. He’s still young. Not as if we always made the best choices when we were that age.” Damn it, he’d meant to stay in the present, not veer off into historical territory again.

“Like that time we had sex in that unlocked car behind the shopping mall?” Daniel rubbed his lower lip, an unconscious habit Shane recognized.

“Tried to have sex, you mean.” They’d been interrupted by the owner of the car coming back midfuck, and she’d been even less pleased than them. “God, remember the look on her face?”

He’d laughed at the time, but shame darkened the memory now. Couldn’t have been nice for her—scary, even—and they were lucky it was before cell phones were universal. She’d had no way to report them before they scarpered off, tugging their clothing into something approaching respectability.

“Silly cow,” Daniel said offhandedly. “More action than she’d seen in months, probably.” He traced a pattern on the table. “Bet you never get up to anything like that these days. Your guy looks like the kind who schedules when he’s going to have sex and only ever in a bed with the curtains drawn and the lights off.”

“Does he now.” Shane refused to get drawn into a discussion of his sex life. Though it made him long for Benedict, which probably wasn’t Daniel’s intention. “You up for another here, or shall we piss off and find somewhere more lively?”

“You want lively?” Daniel gave him a speculative look. “How lively can you take?”

Shane shrugged. “If it’s not full of underage drinkers likely to throw up on me, I’m game for anything.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Daniel said. “Come on, then. Finish that and let’s go.”

Twenty minutes later they were making their way through a crowd at a completely different bar. Most of the people there were men, many of them in various states of undress. None of them were naked, but some of them were shirtless or wearing only a leather vest on top, and Shane had seen at least three or four wearing kilts made of the traditional wool or a more modern khaki.

“They’re called Utilikilts.” Daniel spoke into Shane’s ear. “And yes, they’re worn commando.”

“Not much point in wearing them otherwise.” He was aware Daniel was watching him, studying his reaction to what was clearly meant to be a shockingly kinky club, but was on the vanilla side from what he’d read. It wasn’t a real BDSM club—not that he’d been to one, but he and Benedict had tossed the idea around and looked at some websites. “Not bad.”

There were some women who had taken over a couple of tables near the wall. One of them was wearing a tight, lacy white dress with a sash proclaiming her as the bride—obviously a hen night. She had a glittering tiara tucked into her hair, and her friends were giggling and pointing to a drag queen who was flirting with some young men on the dance floor.

“Come here often, do you?” Shane asked Daniel. He suspected the answer was no or possibly once or twice. He could tell when someone was kinky these days, as if his experiences had clued him in to certain signals, subtle or blatant. Daniel didn’t register on any point of the scale, and Shane couldn’t recall him suggesting bondage or spanking even in fun back in the day. True, he hadn’t either, but even so.

“Once on a stag night. A cousin of mine thought it’d be different. It was a theme evening for, uh, the extreme leather crowd. Everyone had to wear a collar or hold the leash to someone else’s to get in. They had them at the door if you weren’t prepared, like the posh restaurants that keep ties behind the front desk for anyone who turns up without one.”

Shane bit the inside of his cheek to keep his face straight. “Oh, the kinky crowd. Got you. So what did you go for? Collar or leash?”

Daniel laughed uneasily. “Well, we paired up and flipped a coin, so it’s not as if it means anything, but I was in a collar.”

“Bet you looked stunning.” Shane nodded at the bar, enjoying the relaxed but charged atmosphere. Get rid of the tourists there to gawp, and it was his kind of place. “My shout. What’ll it be?”

“Surprise me,” Daniel said. It was probably meant to be a sign of how laid-back he was, when in reality Shane could tell the man had developed issues on top of his issues since they’d known each other. Daniel had always cared about what people thought of him, craving their approval and at the same time quick to judge, but awareness of his flaws had softened those traits. That awareness had faded. Now when Daniel scoffed at someone’s choice of shirt while smoothing his own unthinkingly, nothing showed but the insecurity. Hard to imagine he was the same young man Shane had been head over heels for once upon a time.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Shane told him but ordered them a couple of beers instead of anything exotic. It was warm in the club and, with so many people milling around, a third of them dancing, likely to get warmer. He glanced to where Daniel was waiting, still in the place he’d left him, while the bartender set down their drinks.

Daniel looked uncomfortable, out of place. He was trying to seem relaxed and fit in, but he was failing on every front. He gave Shane a pitifully grateful glance when Shane returned and handed over his beer. “I thought you were going to deliver something horrific. Some Californian drink with bright food dyes and an umbrella.”

“You might deserve it for trying to shock me by bringing me here, but no. Not my style.” He looked around, surveying the men nearest them. “So you’re not dating?”

“Not at the moment. Which isn’t to say I wouldn’t if I met someone interesting.”

“Someone like that bloke over there?” Shane suggested, gesturing with his chin at a man who was at least ten years their junior and standing with a different group of women. “Doesn’t seem to be his sort of place.”

“And that’s why I’d be attracted to him?”

“Well, you can’t tell me you’re planning on making this your regular.”

“No way.”

With a shrug, Shane said, “So you’ve got being vanilla in common.”

Daniel eyed the man with some interest, then looked away, shaking his head. “He’s probably straight.”

“If he was with one woman, yeah, but a crowd of them?”

“That’s a big assumption to make.”

Shane grinned at him, happier now they were somewhere he could relax and the pressure of a far too intimate conversation had lifted. “Nope. This cute twink in skintight red trousers went by, and he slipped in a pile of drool.”

Shane had stared too, but only because the young lad reminded him of Patrick—until he’d seen the track marks on the kid’s arms.

“You cheated.” Daniel elbowed him in the ribs, and for a moment, Shane was transported back twenty years to a time when his world held the certainty that he loved Daniel and precious little else.

That love had faded fast, but it’d burned hot while it lasted. From the security of his happiness, he wished Daniel could find a Benedict of his own, but some people never did, drifting from one short-lived, shallow relationship to the next.

“Bit strong to call it cheating. Powers of observation, maybe. Studying human nature.”

“Right, because that’s your specialty.” Daniel rolled his eyes, then seemed to reconsider. “Is it?”

Shane shook his head. “I haven’t changed that much. Learned a bit, I suppose, and my line of work makes it an asset to be able to sum up people. When they’ve had too much to drink, for example.” He indicated a woman leaning against the wall with her eyes closed. There was a bloke with her, some years older, his stomach straining at his shirt, a thick gold necklace glinting in the light. “Hope she’s been cut off.”

“But that’s not to the benefit of the business,” Daniel said. “Isn’t the idea to sell as many drinks as possible?”

“On one level, sure. Not to the point where you’ve got people puking all over the place, or driving home drunk, though.” Shane looked back at the couple near the wall. The man had a hand on the woman’s hip, propping her up, and was saying something into her ear. The little voice in Shane’s head told him to act. “Or getting sexually assaulted. Here, hold this.” He gave his beer to Daniel and strode across the room, dodging people who were skirting the edge of the dance floor.

The drunk woman’s long blonde hair was tangled, and she smelled of puke. The man was touching her in a way that was too familiar, too proprietary. When Shane joined them, he overheard a slurred, “Come on, love. My car’s outside.”

Shane made no attempt to be quiet or subtle. “This your girlfriend?”

The man looked alarmed, then tried to cover it up. “Er, yeah. Had a bit too much to drink is all. Not to worry. I’ll take her home.”

“Yeah? What’s her address, then?”

The smile he got verged on a smirk, followed by a rattled-off address that sounded, to Shane’s ears, distinctly iffy. How many people knew someone else’s postal code by heart these days? If he had to guess, the man had used his address and maybe changed the numbers or turned road to avenue, thinking he was being clever.

“Thanks. I’ll check that, shall I?”

The woman was in no state to protest when he snapped open the handbag she had slung across her body, small but crammed with the necessities everyone carried and assorted junk mixed in with it. She had three lipsticks. Why three? Even if she put a different color on each lip, she only needed two.

Anger sharpening his voice, the man snapped, “What the fuck are you doing? You can’t go through her purse! Even if you’re a cop, you need a warrant for that.”

Did he seriously think that would get Shane to back off, stammering apologies? Jesus, what a wimp. Speaking to the woman, whose bleary eyes showed a spark of awareness at least, he said, “Not stealing anything. Don’t worry, love.” He found a worn black purse, the leather soft with handling, and took it out. The man lunged, grabbing his arm, a reaction that told Shane everything he needed to know even before he checked her ID and saw the man had lied.

He dropped the wallet back and snapped the bag closed, then turned his head. “Take your hands off me before I decide to do something about it.”

They were attracting a crowd, though no one seemed willing to step in or take a side. A place like this should have bouncers to make sure things didn’t get rowdy, so where the fuck were they?

“Oh my God, Becca, there you are!” A woman who didn’t look old enough to be at a bar, her dark hair cropped short, rushed over. She shouldered her way between the blonde and the man who’d been all over her, obviously realizing the threat the man posed, judging by the filthy look she shot him. “I popped out for a ciggy, and when I came back inside, I couldn’t find you anywhere! Are you okay?”

Becca leaned on her friend and murmured something unintelligible.

“She’s had way too much to drink.” Shane was aware of Daniel hovering nearby but didn’t spare him a glance. “She needs to go home, and someone to keep an eye on her for the next few hours.”

A man wearing a shirt that identified him as an employee of the club joined them—too little, too late, in Shane’s opinion. “I’m Jack. I work here. Is she okay?”

“She’s wasted,” Shane said bluntly. “Should have been cut off a couple of drinks ago.”

“She was.” Jack radiated calm concern. “One of her friends had a flask. Security kicked him out a while back. I thought they all left together. She must have been in the loo.”

Becca’s dark-haired friend looked worried and guilty. “I’m going to take her home. There’s a cab outside.”

Shane wasn’t prepared to let the creep off lightly, even though he’d released Shane’s arm when Becca’s friend appeared. “Jack, is it? This one here had plans to give her a lift home too, but I don’t think she’d have arrived safely. More like screw her in his car, then dump her by the side of the road.”

“You!” Becca’s friend rounded on the man, who backed away, hands raised. “She told you she wasn’t interested how many bloody times?”

“Yeah, well, she didn’t say it when she let me buy her a drink!”

“You bought a drink; you didn’t buy her. Not that you’d know, the way you were pawing at her tits. You’re disgusting. You’re slime.”

Shane liked Becca’s friend.

Jack intervened, cutting through the raised voices and tension in a way that spoke of experience. “You, whatever your name is, take your friend home, and next time she comes here, she watches what she drinks or she’s barred.”

“It’s Mandi, and yeah, sure. Come on, Becca.” With a fleeting, grateful smile to Shane and a final, hate-filled glare at the creep, she led Becca away. They made it to the door before Becca threw up, splattering the floor and someone’s boots.

Jack rolled his eyes. “Great, fucking great.” He wore an earpiece, and he tapped it. “Shawn? Clean up at the door. Now.” Turning to Shane, he added, “Thanks for your help. And you.” He pointed at the man who’d been the main cause of the drama. “Out. You’re barred. Don’t make the mistake of thinking we’ll forget in a few weeks either. Find some other club to use as a hunting ground.”

“Or better yet, get a girlfriend the usual way,” Shane added.

The man beat a hasty retreat toward the entrance, and Daniel edged closer. “Whoa. That was interesting.”

“Not the word I’d choose.” Shane preferred a lack of drama. Daniel offered him his beer back, and he took it. “Thanks.”

Jack, who’d been watching the entrance to be sure their culprit had gone, said to Shane, “Any chance you’re looking for a job as a bouncer? We’ve got an opening coming up soon.”

Shane shook his head, pleased by the offer but amused by the idea of going from owning a bar to working in someone else’s. Not a chance. “Sorry.”

“Well, let me know if you change your mind.” Jack disappeared into the crowd.

It occurred to Shane that Jack had assumed he was from around here. The thought warmed him. He was tired of relatives telling him he sounded American, and he’d consciously adjusted the way he spoke, recapturing the accent he’d never entirely lost. He didn’t want to be seen as a stranger here. This was where he’d grown up. Maybe he didn’t belong here now, but that didn’t mean he was a tourist, a here-today, gone-tomorrow visitor.

“That was cool,” someone said to Shane’s left. He turned and saw the bloke he’d pointed out to Daniel earlier. “Oh, hi. I’m Jonathan. Do you do that often?”

“Shane. This is my friend Daniel. Not often, but sometimes.”

Jonathan gave him a teasing look with more heat behind it than Shane felt comfortable with. Jesus, what with Daniel coming on hot and heavy and now this, he was wishing he’d rubbed garlic on instead of deodorant. “Superhero in training, but you forgot your mask?”

“I don’t see myself in a Lycra costume. I own a bar over in the States. It doesn’t get many troublemakers in, but from time to time there’s someone who turns mean when they’ve had a few.”

“And you deal with them?” Jonathan all but cooed.

“Yeah. Me or my boyfriend. Who isn’t here, but he’s expecting a call from me, so why don’t you chat to Daniel while I find somewhere quiet?”

Without waiting to see if his cursory matchmaking paid off, and not particularly bothered if it did or didn’t, he pushed through the throng of people in search of a side door. Walking past Becca’s good-bye gift didn’t appeal.

An exit sign to a patio area caught his eye. That would do. The door was wedged open to let in some air, though the effects of the breeze dissipated a few feet into the humid room. Shane worked his way through another tightly packed group, the smell of leather and sweat off-putting on one level, arousing on another. Yeah, he’d be heading home soon.

He rolled his shoulders to loosen tight muscles. It was as well it hadn’t come to a fight with that bloke. Adrenaline would’ve overridden the stiffness from his beating to a certain extent, but he wasn’t at full strength. Benedict would insist on massaging him when he saw Shane’s discomfort, making it a sensual experience, drawing groans from Shane with his strong fingers, reawakening the sweet throb in every welt.

Pushing the right buttons on his temporary cell to dial Benedict’s phone, the number all but forgotten because at home he only had to go into his favorites category, Shane moved away from the few people who were standing around talking so he’d be able to hear. Benedict’s cell rang six times at the other end before Benedict answered. “Hello?”

“Hi, it’s me. I wanted to check in.”

“Shane!” Benedict sounded delighted, which was flattering but strange. “It’s Shane. I didn’t know it was you because I forgot to put your temporary number into my memory.”

“Right. What’s going on? Did you get some supper?”

“Um, no, not yet. I’m at your dad’s house. Your parents’ house, sorry. I didn’t mean it to sound like that.”

Shane was more concerned about how scattered Benedict sounded. “It’s fine. Is my dad all right?” Had his father rung Benedict? Why would his father have rung Benedict instead of him?

“Yeah, he’s fine. He was teaching me some card games. He’s right here. Do you want to talk to him? I could put him on.”

Shane realized what was wrong. “Are you drunk?”

“Maybe a little. Your dad kept pouring me drinks, and I lost track. It was an accident.”

“Tripping over your feet is an accident. Bringing a glass to your lips and swallowing repeatedly isn’t.”

“I didn’t mean it, so it had to be an accident. I asked him for a nice cup of tea. Does that help?” The slur in his voice wasn’t enough to make him unintelligible, but Shane hated hearing it.

Reasoning with a drunk led to nowhere in a short space of time, so Shane gave up the attempt, though he planned to have words with his dad. Strong words. “Don’t have anything else to drink that isn’t water. Get a pint down you now and tell him to make you a cheese sandwich. I saw some cheddar in the fridge. I’ll be there to pick you up in half an hour or so.”

“Yes, Shane.” Benedict being meek was adorable and scary at the same time, as if the sun had decided to rise in the north for a change.

“And put the cards away!”

“When we’ve finished the hand. I’m winning. At least, I think I am. Alfie! What happens when the jokers are wild? Because I have two of them.”

“Are you playing for money or matchsticks? Benedict, do not, I repeat, do not let him—”

He was talking to a dead phone. Fuming, he swung around and headed back inside. Daniel could take his trip down memory lane with someone else. If he didn’t get a move on, Alfie would wind up owning the Peg, their house, and the lint in their pockets.

Chapter Twelve

“I don’t understand why you went over there in the first place,” Shane said again, revving the engine unnecessarily while he waited for a light to change.

“I didn’t have anything else to do. It’s not like I know anyone here.” Ben didn’t mean it in an accusatory you left me all alone way, and he could tell Shane hadn’t taken it that way either. “I was checking in on him. I didn’t plan to get drunk and play cards.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t get it into your head to try to walk back to the hotel.” Shane turned a corner sharply, leaving Ben clinging to the car’s door handle.

“Okay, one, I’m drunk, not stupid. Two, it wouldn’t have killed me to walk back even if I had been stupid.” Which would mean it wasn’t a stupid idea anyway, but he was drunk and that made the conversation a challenge. And he didn’t like that Shane was annoyed with him. He was a responsible adult, and he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d had a few drinks too many, sure, but he hadn’t started a fistfight and been arrested. Playing cards with Alfie wasn’t a crime.

Shane glanced over at him. “You’re also lucky he didn’t take you for every penny you had.”

“We were playing for pennies that he supplied,” Ben said. “He was nice. I know he’s not perfect, and he wasn’t a good dad when you were growing up, but maybe you should cut him some slack.”

“Don’t need you telling me how to handle him.” Shane pulled the car into the parking lot behind their hotel and shut it off. “I’d be happy if I didn’t have to see him at all until the funeral.”

A faint memory swum up from Ben’s subconscious. “Um.”

“Um, what? What have you done now?”

“Nothing. Well. I might have promised him we’d watch a match with him tomorrow.”

They got out of the car, the cool night air making Ben’s head spin. He hung on to Shane’s arm during the walk to the hotel entrance.

“On telly, you mean? I don’t think they show them live. We see more of the Premiership back home than they do over here.”

“No, at the ground. Goodison Park, right?” Ben watched the matches with Shane sometimes, but he found soccer confusing and on the dull side. Every time he paid the cable bill, he wished they could cancel the sports channels and save a bundle of money, but it was Shane’s one indulgence.

“How in God’s name did he get tickets?”

The stairs loomed up. So many of them. Ben counted under his breath while he walked up them, then realized Shane was still waiting for an answer. “He’s got a season ticket, and he said he knew a guy who owed him a favor and he made some calls to get us tickets. We won’t be sitting with him, but we’re driving him there, then dropping him off at a pub.”

“I bet.” Shane made an exasperated sound. “Going to watch football days after my mum dies, and you still think he’s a stand-up bloke, do you?”

Driven to defend Alfie but aware Shane wasn’t in a receptive mood, Ben said, “The season ticket was his birthday gift from her. She saved up for it. He said missing the game wouldn’t be what she wanted because it’d be a waste, and she hated waste.”

To his surprise, that seemed to resonate with Shane, who nodded, some of the irritation fading from his expression. He opened the door to their room, flicking on the light. “Yeah, she did. Thought recycling bins were the best idea ever when they came out. Huh. Last time I went to see a game, I was fourteen. We beat Leeds United, three–nil. Finished the season fifteenth.”

Ben wasn’t surprised Shane knew that. When it came to soccer, Shane was a walking encyclopedia of trivia. Ben needed to use the bathroom, but the bed was too inviting to pass up. He lay back on it, not even bothering to remove his shoes. The ceiling was painted with shadows cast by the furniture. One resembled a sleeping cat. He liked cats. Always had. They should get a kitten when they got back. A fluffy little, furry little kitten.

“So you want to go? You could wear your shirt, maybe. Did you pack it?”

“Yeah, I did.” Shane sighed. “Fine, we’ll go. Do you need some more water before you pass out?”

“I’m not that drunk,” Ben said, indignant, then remembered something. “You never told me how it went with Daniel.”

“You didn’t seem all that interested.” Shane was being difficult, but it was hard to blame him. He’d locked the door and taken off his shoes, and now he came over to remove Ben’s. “No, let me do it.”

“Okay, but you have to tell me what it was like. That place you went, you’d never been there before?”

Shane tossed Ben’s shoes over near his. “No, it’s new. New’s a good word for it. Snobbish would be another. All glossy dark wood and lots of glass, pretentious staff—you know the sort. For ten minutes or so Daniel had me going, thinking he’d changed that much. Wondering if maybe I never knew him at all.” He smiled sheepishly. “It was a trick. He wanted to see how I’d react. Thought maybe I’d changed, become Americanized or something.”

“Wait, what?” Ben wasn’t following the conversation. Probably because he’d drunk half a bottle of whiskey. No. It hadn’t been half a bottle. Maybe five ounces, though, which was twice as much as he normally drank even at a party. “He took you to a super fancy bar to see if you’d be all Oh, it’s brilliant! or What the fuck is this shite?” He was aware that his attempt to imitate a British accent, or Shane’s English accent in particular, was probably subpar, but it made Shane grin.

“Never do that again,” Shane said. “But yeah, pretty much. I wonder what he’d have walked away thinking if I’d gone along with it and not complained.”

“What did he walk away thinking instead?”

“Well, let’s see. After that we went to a different club, which now that I think of it was his attempt to trick me in an opposite-way day.” The opposite-way-day comment was something Patrick and Vin bandied about, and Ben had never expected to hear it from Shane. “Then I stopped some arsehole from taking a completely wasted girl home with him to violate her in ways I don’t even want to imagine, and after that I introduced Daniel to an attractive young man who seemed to have set his sights on me, and abandoned them so they could get acquainted while I went to rescue my devastatingly hot boyfriend from my rogue of a dad.”

Ben was spellbound by Shane’s words, listening to him intently as if he were being told the most amazing fairy tale of his life while simultaneously aware that it was designed to turn him on as much as possible. “Is that what happened?”

“More or less.”

“Did you kiss him?”

“Dad and I don’t even hug.”

“Not your dad. Daniel. Or the young man. Or the girl. Anyone.”

Shane leaned over him, filling Ben’s vision. “The last person I kissed on the mouth, on the cheek, anywhere, is the same person I’m going to kiss next.”

Ben parted his lips, eager for the touch, melting into the hug that followed. Desire welled up, met the barrier of too much alcohol in his system, and subsided.

“I trust you.” His words were muffled against Shane’s shoulder, but he knew Shane heard them.

“Likewise. Now let’s get ready for bed. Up you come. That’s it, clothes off.”

Ben stumbled through undressing and gave his teeth a cursory brush.

He crawled into bed, and Shane, stripped down to briefs and a T-shirt, drew the duvet up over him.

“Get some sleep. You’ll need to recover for the match. It’ll be loud, and you’ll be shouting.”

“I will?”

“When everyone around you is? Yeah, you will. They’ll sing songs too. I’ll teach you some of them.”

“You’re not coming to bed?”

“Too early. I’ll be quiet. Play poker on the laptop or something in the corner over there.”

“Okay.” Ben snuggled down, the pillow pleasantly cool against his cheek. “Sing me one of the songs now.”

“What, as a lullaby?” Shane laughed quietly. “You’re a sloppy drunk, Benedict. And they’re meant to be yelled at the top of your lungs. Okay, how’s this?”

Ben had never heard Shane sing, and this was more of a soft chant, but it followed him down into sleep.

We’re the kings of Goodison

We play in Royal Blue

On the ball the Toffeemen

Will play it sweet for you

We play it on the carpet

We play it in the air

Whichever way we play it

We play it fair and square

Everton, Everton

We’re forever Everton

One for all

All for one

Everton’s the team that plays beautiful football

* * * * *

When Ben woke up, he was facing the clock, and it was after midnight. His mouth was dry, and his temples were throbbing. What was happening? With great effort he turned over and saw Shane sitting in the padded chair in the corner, a book propped open in front of him, brow furrowed in concentration.

“Feeling under the weather, are you?” Ben managed a pitiful groan in response. “Thought as much. There’s a glass of water for you there.”

“Thanks,” Ben croaked. With an effort, he got his hand around the glass and sat up enough to drink from it. A little bit of water spilled onto the sheet, but he didn’t care. “Are you coming to bed?”

“If you want me to. I was trying to get through some of this, but it’s slow going.” Shane set the book aside—one of Donna’s library books—and pulled off his T-shirt. “Finish that, and I’ll get you a refill before I come to bed.”

Ben swallowed some more water and handed the glass over so Shane could take it into the bathroom. There was the sound of the faucet running; then Shane padded barefoot back into sight and put the refilled glass within reach.

“Paracetamol or something?” Shane scratched his belly in a way that Ben would have found appealing if he weren’t half-dead with alcohol poisoning.

“I’d probably throw it up.”

Shane stopped. “Think you’re going to be sick?”

“Maybe not. But anything more than water’s a no. Come to bed.” He wanted peace and quiet, the light off, and Shane’s shoulder to use as a pillow. He got all three a few minutes later.

His second time of waking was less fraught. His mouth tasted foul, he’d drooled on the pillow, and his head and stomach provided potent reminders of why he didn’t drink to excess often, but when he sat up cautiously, he thought he’d live.

“Shower. Hot. I’ll fetch coffee while you’re in there,” Shane told him, already heading for the door.

“Wait. Did I— I don’t remember, but—”

Shane gave him a tolerant grin. “Don’t worry. You didn’t embarrass yourself, and you’ll be fine after something to eat. Won’t be long.” He blew Ben a kiss accompanied by a wink, then disappeared.

The shower helped. Brushing his teeth hard did too. Ben dressed in jeans and a red golf shirt, brushed his damp hair, and swallowed a painkiller. Recovery was imminent, if not on the premises.

Shane returned before Ben had time to wonder what was keeping him, laden with coffee and something in a bag that smelled ambrosial.

“Bacon butties,” Shane explained. “Yes, I know you’re the crunchy-granola type, but grease is good for a hangover.”

English bacon was more like ham than American bacon, but Ben had come to accept that, and right now, with his body trying to recover from the night before, it was the best idea in the world. “You are brilliant,” he said through a mouthful of sandwich, borrowing the word and making no attempt at the accent. “This is so good.”

“I have more than a bit of experience dealing with hangovers.” Shane was eating his butty more slowly, taking his time instead of shoveling it in the way Ben was. “Watched my dad trying to stave one off a hundred times at least.”

Swallowing, Ben grimaced. He hadn’t thought about it that way. “Shit. Please tell me I’m not your dad all over again.”

“Not even close,” Shane reassured him. “The idea didn’t even cross my mind. You think my friends and I weren’t doing the same when we were old enough? Hell, even before we were old enough.”

“Oh, great, so now I’m like an eighteen-year-old?” Ben was mostly joking, because he could tell Shane genuinely wasn’t upset.

“Nah, couldn’t pass for eighteen. Too much gray for that.” Shane grinned.

“Take that back, or I’ll…I’ll throw my sandwich at you.”

Shane shook his head. “Empty threat. You wouldn’t throw a perfectly good sandwich.”

“You’re right.” Ben took another bite.

“So what time did we arrange to pick the old man up?”

“He said the game starts at five.” That made sense. At home, that would be the twelve-o’clock game that Shane often ended up recording because he had to be at the Peg. He watched all the Premiership matches he could, not only the Everton ones, always with an eye to whether or not the results helped or hindered his team. Watching him pull a sour face when he needed Everton’s arch rivals, Liverpool, to win amused Ben, though he kept it hidden.

If Everton was playing and he was unable to watch because of work, Shane had threatened to bar anyone for a week who spoiled him for the result. He’d enforced that ban once. Then word had gotten around he wasn’t joking.

“Better make it three. He’ll want to have a pint or two before the match.”

“They’re playing—”

Shane snorted. “I know who they’re playing, Benedict. And who they’re playing next week, and the one after that. Bournemouth got promoted last season, so they’ve got a lot to prove, but we’re favorites. Now get your shirt off.”

Ben swallowed the last of his sandwich. “Can we take a rain check on sex? At least until I digest the bacon?”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Wasn’t planning on jumping your bones. Think about it, Benedict. You can go to an Everton match wearing red if you want to, but I won’t enjoy the match because I’ll be apologizing for you to everyone who thinks you’re a bloody Liverpool supporter and wants to give you some stick because of it. And Bournemouth’s away strip is white, so avoid that too.”

“Right.” What Ben had heard was pretty much, no red, no white, but he told himself that was enough. He didn’t need to understand more. If he’d been planning to immerse himself in the culture and move here, that would have been one thing, but he was a visitor, and if being told what to do by Shane—while unusual—was what it took to fit in, he was okay with that.

After he’d changed his shirt, Ben decided some fresh air would do him good, so they left the car and walked around the city in a direction they hadn’t yet gone. They were passing a huge old stone church when the service let out, and crowds of people in their Sunday finery spilled out onto the sidewalk, the women chatting and those who wore them adjusting their hats.

“Not my mum’s,” Shane said when Ben asked. “That’s a Catholic church. We were C of E—Church of England—if we were anything.”

They’d talked on the phone to the minister who’d be performing Donna’s funeral service, but Ben hadn’t met him yet nor seen the church where Donna had been a member. “You don’t miss it?”

Shane snorted, but quietly out of respect. “Going to church? Not a chance. You?”

Ben hadn’t been to church in a decade, and the last time was to attend a wedding. “I never went when I was growing up, so I guess I never got comfortable with the idea. My mom was an atheist.”

“You never mention her.”

“She’s been gone so long. It was a lifetime ago.” Ben didn’t think about her often, if he was being completely honest with himself. Too sad. They stepped out onto the street to get around the worst of the crowd, and he looked over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t going to get flattened by a car.

“Cancer, right?” Shane’s sympathy showed in the quick squeeze he gave Ben’s hand. “Takes so many people.”

“Lung cancer, and she never smoked.” The bitterness he felt over that injustice had never faded. “Craig smoked around her—and me—all the time, and with him not around to support us, she worked in these crappy cafés as a waitress back when people could smoke indoors, so she breathed it in, hour after hour…”

“I can see why you’d blame your dad for that.”

“Yeah. As far as I’m concerned, he was partially responsible for her death. Oh, not intentionally, no, but sometimes the hurt you do without realizing it is the worst kind.”

“You’re going philosophical on me now. Bit early in the morning for that.” Shane glanced around him. “Too far to walk, so why don’t we go back for the car and drive to the ferry terminal so you can take a trip across the Mersey by ferry before you drive under it later on.”

“Under it? Oh, the Mersey Tunnel, you mean? There aren’t any bridges?” Before a vacation, Ben usually researched his destination thoroughly, planning out sights to see and reading up on the history and geography. The speed with which they’d left for England, and the stress they were under, had left him with no time to prepare. He knew bits and pieces about the area from Shane and general knowledge, but that was all.

“No. So do you fancy it? Shouldn’t get seasick, and the breeze will blow the cobwebs away.”

“Sure.” It would be silly to refuse. When they got home, people were going to ask what kinds of tourist things they’d done, even knowing the reason for their trip, and what was he going to say? Oh, Shane offered to show me tons of things, but I said no? “That sounds good.”

They hadn’t gone far from the church, and when they got closer, the scene had changed. It wasn’t the end of church services after all. It had been the end of a wedding ceremony, and now the bride and groom were coming out onto the steps, a pair of photographers snapping picture after picture while their friends and families tossed confetti over their heads. Ben and Shane hung back, not wanting to get in the way. It gave Ben time to think, which was what he didn’t want or need. Now that his mom had crawled her way back into his memory, he felt horrible. Guilty for not wanting to think about her, angry that she’d died, irrational for blaming his dad when there was no way to know the cause of that first tiny cancer cell in her lungs, guilty again that all this was coming up now when he was supposed to be Shane’s rock. He was the man who made lists, the man who figured out the practical side of things even when it meant setting aside his emotions.

He was the man in control, and discovering that that control was so tenuously held was disturbing.

“They look happy,” Shane observed, gesturing at the couple.

Ben focused on them. The bride was glowing, her hair shot through with pale golden highlights, and the groom’s smile was wide enough that anyone would agree this might be the happiest day of his life. “They’re supposed to be, aren’t they? Otherwise what would be the point?”

“True, but who do you know with a happy marriage?”

Not many, but Ben had a romantic streak. “We’ve had plenty of people in the Peg for bachelor parties, and they’re all still together.”

“Chris and James aren’t.”

Ben sucked in a shocked breath. Those two had been together for three years before tying the knot. “Since when?”

“Since Chris caught James in bed with someone they’d dated in the past. Don’t know his name, but Patrick said he’s a total sleaze, and he never has a bad word to say about anyone for sleeping around, so the guy must be bad news.”

“God, that sucks.” Ben shook off his momentary sadness. “Well, we’re solid, and that’s the most important thing.”

“Solid as it gets,” Shane agreed. “Now tell me the names of the Beatles, or I’ll make you swim the Mersey.”

It sounded like a reasonable threat at the time, but half an hour later, leaning on the railing of the ferry and looking across the water, Ben thought he might not mind a quick dip in the river on a hot afternoon. He waved the glossy flyer at Shane. “It says it’s now considered one of the cleanest rivers in the UK.”

Shane rolled his eyes. “Not sure that’s the greatest selling point. Trust me, there are better places to swim.”

Was that a nod to Shane and his friends skinny-dipping? He made a mental note to ask later, when they weren’t surrounded by families with young children who were dripping ice cream onto the deck. “It says there are salmon.”

“If you keep quoting that thing at me, I’m going to throw it into the river,” Shane grumbled.

“Which would make things worse,” Ben pointed out. “There must be laws against littering.”

“Over here they fine you if you drop a cigarette stub.”

“Seriously?”

Shane nodded. “’Course, they have to see you doing it, but yeah. Didn’t you see the poster on the bus shelter by the hotel? Chewing gum, stubs, dog shit…all get you a seventy-five-quid fine.”

Ben loathed litter. He couldn’t understand anyone who threw fast-food wrappers out of moving cars or tossed an empty can on the sidewalk, but that seemed a draconian measure. He wondered how well it worked, but decided not to get into a discussion about personal freedom versus civic responsibility. This was Shane’s country, and he might not appreciate criticism of it from an outside source, no matter how much he moaned about the government.

Besides, it was a beautiful day, white clouds scudding briskly across a deep blue sky, the air cooled by the river. Not a peaceful day—the speakers on the ferry were blasting out the famous “Ferry ’Cross the Mersey” song, recorded, the leaflet told him, by Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1965.

The buildings along the river were a mixture of old and new, the centuries merging. Ben understood why immigrants to the States had called this the old country. Oh, sure, they probably meant old as in former, but it felt as if the roots here went deep into time. He stared down into the water, mesmerized by the white curve of spray, picturing ships under sail making their way along this river to the docks, laden with goods.

“Doze off, did you?” Shane threw his arm around Ben’s shoulders, linking them together for a brief moment. “Bit soon for lunch, but we can get off and grab a coffee before we head back. There’s a museum or two on the Liverpool side.”

Ben was addicted to museums, though Shane grew bored easily and imposed strict time limits if Ben showed an inclination to linger too long at a display. “I’d like that.”

“We’d best go pick him up and get to the match,” Shane said gloomily, but he smoothed his hand over his Everton shirt, a faint smile lighting up his eyes.

They had a quick coffee and a brief visit to the World Museum. Ben made the decision to focus on one exhibit, a Mexican study of the Mayan civilization, rather than trying to see everything when there was no way that could happen.

Shane rubbed his stomach after they left the exhibit. “Feels like a hundred years since breakfast.”

“There’s a café, and it’s not too early for lunch now.” Ben had the map of the museum’s layout in his pocket, but he didn’t need to check it to remember where the café was located, and it only took a few minutes to find it. “It’s weird how salad doesn’t always mean salad here.”

“It doesn’t in the States either,” Shane countered. “Chicken salad, egg salad…”

“Yeah, but if I don’t eat a green vegetable soon, I’ll end up with a vitamin deficiency. Oh, hey, side salad probably means actual salad.” Ben ordered a jacket potato, and Shane asked for a panini.

“But with the chips,” he added. “As long as they’re not frozen ones.”

“Real salad won’t kill you, you know.”

Shane grinned. “No, but why pass up the chance to have proper chips? I’ll go back to eating like a health-conscious American when we’re back at the Peg. Helen’s been indoctrinated and won’t give me fries more than once a week, ‘for my own good.’”

It was true; Helen mothered all of them whenever she could get away with it, which was strange, considering she didn’t have children and insisted she never wanted any. Or maybe that was why.

“Does the Peg feel far away? Not in actual miles, but, well, emotionally, I suppose?”

Shane gave the question some consideration before replying. “Yeah. But I haven’t wrapped my head around being here, either. I wake up, and there’s this jolt of panic when I don’t see our bedroom. Then I remember where we are and why we’re here, and that’s the day off to a crappy start.”

“I’m sorry.” Too full of sympathy to have room to be articulate, Ben reached under the table to take Shane’s hand.

He held it, ran his thumb across the back of Shane’s knuckles, then fitted his fingers between Shane’s. What began as comfort turned erotic without warning when Shane drew his hand away, then used his other hand to clasp Ben’s fingers around his wrist. It happened between them at times, a look, a touch, igniting a firestorm. They’d abandoned two steaks half-cooked on the barbecue once, stumbling inside the house, undressing on the way to the bedroom, then giving up and rubbing off on each other halfway up the stairs. The bruises and rug burn had been worth it, and the dog next door had appreciated the ruined steaks.

Nowhere to go to take care of his aching need now, but he salved it with a look promising Shane wordlessly that whatever Shane wanted, he would deliver later.

“Now eat your lunch.” He heard the desire in his voice. “You don’t want to be late to the game. Match! Match.” Shane’s superior grin at his error made him smile too.

“You’d better be careful when we’re there,” Shane told him. “You don’t want to say anything stupid and have someone threaten to punch your face in.”

“Okay, first of all, it would be obvious to anyone listening to me that I’m not British, so they’re going to cut me some slack if I say something stupid. And secondly, we both know you won’t let anyone punch my face in.”

Shane gave him an affectionate look. “True on both counts.”

“Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I won’t try to think before I speak. Maybe we’ll get lucky and our seats will be next to some other people who barely have a clue.”

“Not likely, but you keep thinking that if it makes you feel better.” Shane was eating his lunch with relish now, so Ben applied his attention to his baked potato and salad. Their evening meal would be the British equivalent of baseball-game hot dogs and popcorn, so he should focus on actual vegetables while he had them.

By the time they picked up Alfie a few hours later, the sky had clouded over, but Shane assured him it was a good thing on the way to the front door. “Don’t want the sun shining in our goalie’s eyes. That’s Tim Howard, the one with the beard and the bald head.”

“Oh, I remember him.”

Alfie opened the door after Shane’s third knock, dressed, like Shane, in an Everton shirt and a pair of jeans. It accentuated the resemblance between father and son, but Ben tried not to even think that in case it showed on his face.

“About time you got here,” Alfie said severely.

“About time you opened the bloody door,” Shane replied.

“I’m not lining up for a pint inside. Don’t like that Chang lager much. We’ll go to the Goodison Bar. No chance of rubbing shoulders with the away fans then.” Alfie clapped his hands. “Come on, then. Chop-chop.”

“Don’t tell me what to do when I’m the one driving!”

It would be a long drive. Ben consoled himself with the reflection that they weren’t sitting anywhere near Alfie at the match, at least. Predictably, Shane and Alfie argued in the front seat the whole way. Ben sat in back, in part because it seemed respectful to relinquish the front to his elder but mostly because the thought of adding loud disagreement to the anxiety of being on the wrong side of the road with other cars coming straight at him was more than he could handle. They argued over whether the Goodison was the best place for prematch drinks—Shane insisted that the Thomas Frost pub was better despite the fact that some away fans were likely to be there; Alfie won that argument—then about where to park, with Shane pushing for a place called Anfield and Alfie contending that Stanley Park was preferable. Shane came out on top there, but it wasn’t until he glanced back at Ben and winked at him that Ben realized he’d thrown the previous argument in favor of winning this one.

“It’s only eight quid to park,” Alfie said helpfully.

“Don’t see you offering to pay it.” Shane turned off the car, and they got out.

Alfie didn’t wait for either of them but walked away, leaving them to follow. “Where are we going again?” Ben asked Shane. “I mean, what’s it called?”

“The Goodison Bar. Chips’ll be a bit soggy, and chances are we’ll come out smelling like a fry-up whether we eat anything or not, but it’s a good place to have a few drinks before a match. Lots of locals, no one to fight with.”

Ben watched Alfie walking ahead of them. “I’d think your dad might like some ‘aways’ to start an argument with.”

“Not before the match,” Shane explained. “After, maybe, and it depends on who won.”

“Please tell me it’s not traditional or obligatory.”

“Don’t worry. A fight breaks out, and I’ll be that dust cloud heading for the horizon. I’ve got nothing against Bournemouth.”

The idea of Shane running from a fight was ludicrous, and so was the thought of him starting one. Jumping in to defend his dad, though, was predictable, family loyalty overriding his animosity. Ben considered faking a medical emergency requiring an instant departure after the ref blew the final whistle.

Like a hard-on that wouldn’t quit. That would get Shane moving, not because he believed it but because he’d take it as a hint that Ben wanted sex. Ben couldn’t recall Shane ever turning him down.

“And what put that look on your face?” Shane asked. “It hadn’t better be someone you spotted in the crowd and took a fancy to.”

“I could explain, but why don’t you take my word for it that I’m a lover, not a fighter, and if you get us back to the hotel after the match, I’ll prove it.”

Shane’s face, impassive in repose, broke into a grin so suggestive Ben stumbled over a raised paving stone. At least it gave him a reason for his blush.

Chapter Thirteen

The match was nearing its end, and Everton was up 2–0. Shane couldn’t have asked for a better game to be there for, considering it was his first in decades. He’d shouted himself hoarse over every shot on goal or miraculous save and jumped out of his seat so many times he knew he was going to feel it in his thighs the next day.

“Who’s that guy again?” Benedict asked. “The one tying his laces.”

No point telling Benedict his name. “He’s a winger.” Shane wasn’t annoyed about explaining everything, even though he’d missed a few crucial tackles and answered the same questions more than once. He appreciated Benedict’s obvious effort to make the most of the event, and knew being here, surrounded by the raucous crowd and without the television camera’s ability to zoom in on the most important parts of the action, made it much harder to figure out what was going on.

Everton took a free kick from a few yards outside the area, the ball striking the crossbar before rebounding back to a Bournemouth defender, who cleared it for a corner. Everyone shouted and leaped up again, cheering and groaning, which sounded roughly the same by this time. Shane was jostled and glanced back to see who’d kneed him in the back. Alcohol wasn’t allowed in the stands, and anyone caught with some would be tossed out immediately. But that didn’t stop some people from having a drink or two before the match or at halftime, and Shane was confident the man behind them had indulged.

“Enthusiastic!” Benedict said, rubbing his back. Benedict must have been bumped by the man’s other knee at the same time.

Shane directed a glare at the man, moderating it to something less confrontational, because experience had taught him even when their team was winning, the fans could be unpredictable. Benedict had made it clear fighting was off the menu, which was fine with Shane. He was there for the football. No one jostled his boyfriend without apologizing under normal circumstances, but they were in the lead, and it was easy to get overly worked up in the heat of the moment.

He let it go, determined to bring his forbearance to Benedict’s attention later, though not within earshot of his dad, who’d take it as evidence that gays had no balls, as he’d once put it at his most charming. An approving Benedict was likely to dish out a reward or two, and though Shane wasn’t recovered enough for anything too intense, he wasn’t made of china. Plus, he recognized the signs. Benedict had been giving him come-hither looks all day, and Shane guessed the postmatch celebrations would take place not in a pub but their bedroom.

He couldn’t fucking wait. Couldn’t get enough of Benedict.

His mum dying had left him gutted but aware of how short a span of time he might have left. Suppose what had happened to her was hereditary? The thought drove him to grab greedily at life, and Benedict was his life. He’d ease back into a comfortable sense of being immortal in a few months, unable to picture not existing, sure that for him the universe would make an exception, but for now, he was reacting like anyone brought face-to-face with the certainty of death and running scared to a source of reassurance and temporary oblivion.

It occurred to him that Alfie’s drinking, heavy even for him, might be a similar reaction.

The players on the field were conferring about who was to take the corner. Benedict leaned over. “You should have brought someone who’d know what was happening. Is explaining everything to me ruining it?”

“Not at all,” Shane said. He didn’t ask who else he might have brought with him. No need to start Benedict wondering about other men when, for Shane, they didn’t exist. “I like sharing this with you.”

“I was thinking about Daniel,” Benedict said, because as always his brain worked faster than Shane’s. Sometimes he even seemed capable of reading Shane’s mind. “Is he a fan?”

“Of course. But I wouldn’t have wanted to bring him. Much rather be with you.” Shane patted Benedict’s knee, and the jerk behind them made an offhand comment about gays obviously intended to be overheard.

Benedict widened his eyes and shifted his thigh away from Shane’s. Ridiculous on multiple levels, the first of which was that the seats were so tightly packed it was impossible to keep from touching those seated beside you even if you didn’t want to.

“Ignore him,” Shane advised, pitching his voice for more than Benedict’s ears. “He’s probably pissed. Doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

“Are you talking to me?” the drunk demanded and poked Shane in the shoulder. “Are you starting or what?”

Are you starting? How many years since he heard that challenge? From the playground to the pubs and clubs around here, it meant a fight was imminent, and Shane, blood fizzing with exhilaration from the match and a simmering arousal, was in no mood to back down now the issue had been forced on him.

Ignoring Benedict saying his name with a warning note attached, he said, “If you don’t keep your trap shut, I am. And I’m sober, twenty years younger, and don’t have a beer gut the size of a pillow, so bring it on, you fucking scrote, and see how many teeth you have left when I’m through with you.”

He spat out the words, making them cold and vicious, wanting to force the guy to back down before a fist was thrown. There was a moment when the situation hung in the balance; then a howl of fury rose from the crowd. Shane and the man turned their heads as one to see an Everton player down, blood pouring from a gash on his head.

“Did you see that?” the other man bellowed. “Foul! Red card! Red fucking card!”

“Shocking,” Shane agreed, watching the replay on the big screen. “Talk about high foot. That guy thinks he’s in a ballet, not a football match.”

“Probably a poof like you.” The man sucked in a lungful of air to yell an insult, either at Shane or the opposition player, and Shane sighed, drew back his fist, and prepared to drive it right into that wobbly gut.

Benedict grabbed hold of his elbow. “You said to ignore him. And that anyone who’s caught fighting gets thrown out.”

“I’d be happy to ignore him if he weren’t being such an arsehole.” Shane rolled his shoulders, releasing some of the tension building up. “Yeah, you’re right. Okay.”

The match lost some of its excitement after that, with Everton eating up the few minutes left on the clock by using their last substitute, then taking the ball into the corner as often as possible. Good tactics, but boring to watch. Still, a win was a win.

They’d made plans to meet back up with his dad at the car park, so they were free to leave the stadium with the crowd, shuffling their feet along so they didn’t bump into anyone. “That was great,” Benedict said into his ear. “Thank you!”

“Yeah? You liked it?” Shane was pretty sure Benedict had enjoyed himself, but it was still nice to hear.

Benedict gave him an amused look. “No, I hated every minute. Wow, this is busy.”

Someone crashed into Shane from behind with more force than the crowd would explain, and he turned to see the same man he’d been arguing with before. “Great, this arsehole again.”

“You lot would know arseholes, wouldn’t you,” said the arsehole in question. He had trouble focusing his eyes and was staggering along with some of his friends. “One of you, at least. Take it this one’s what’s called the bottom, eh?” He gestured so vaguely that he could have been referring to either of them. “They shouldn’t let your kind out in public. Not with kiddies about.”

“Forget what I said before.” Benedict sounded angry now. “He deserves to get hit. More than once.”

“Too much of a pansy to start,” the man told his friends, and that was when Shane punched him.

God, it felt good, slamming his fist into the man’s stomach. It wasn’t as soft as it looked, but he’d hit men with a hell of a lot more muscle. The man doubled over, then flailed a punch in Shane’s direction. Shane hadn’t expected so quick a reaction, even such a poorly directed one, and didn’t dodge back in time to miss the blow completely—it glanced off his temple before he could get out of the way.

“No, Kev, stop! If you get arrested again, I’ll fucking end you myself,” one of the man’s friends snarled while two of them dragged him away into the crowd, out of reach.

Which was when Alfie made an appearance. How much he’d seen and heard over the din of the crowd was open to debate, but he must’ve seen Shane throw the punch and get hit in return. He tapped Kev on the shoulder, and when the man lurched around, hand clutching his belly, Alfie calmly head-butted him, then aimed a kick when Kev hit the ground.

“Shit.” Shane grabbed Benedict’s arm. “Come on, before he murders him.”

It got hectic after that. The crowd surged forward. Friends, bystanders, and two women holding a banner waded in, and for a few glorious moments Shane lost himself in the joy of a fight, adrenaline lending him strength.

A hand grabbed him, tugging him out of the melee. Benedict pulled him to a narrow alley running between two buildings, and Shane followed, dazed from taking a fist to the jaw, his new shirt ripped at the neck. Bugger. He could replace it easily enough, but it wouldn’t be the same.

“Time to go,” Benedict yelled into his ear. “Where’s your dad?”

“Right here, son.”

Despite the heat, Alfie had worn an Everton scarf around his neck, tattered with washing. It was wound around the bottom half of his face now, obscuring his features. Cunning old sod. Had to admire his forethought, though. Alfie eased the scarf down, smiled at them both, and urged them along the alleyway in the direction of the car park. “Act natural but get going.”

By the time they’d walked a few of the narrow residential streets and got back to Stanley Park, Shane’s thudding heart had slowed to something closer to normal. Benedict had stuck close without needing to be told to; it occurred to Shane that his partner had probably never been in a real fistfight. Not what accountants got up to, and although Benedict’s financial skills weren’t necessarily one of the first strengths Shane would list about him, that had been his life until a couple of years ago.

He glanced over at Benedict. “All right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” Benedict grinned in reassurance, but Shane could see he was still a bit off balance.

“What was that in aid of, anyway?” Alfie asked when they reached the car.

“You didn’t know?” Benedict asked.

“How would I? Turned up, and it was already in progress.” Alfie seemed pleased with himself. “Figured whatever it was, the idiot deserved it.”

“Might not agree once we tell you,” Shane said. “Tosser couldn’t keep his mouth shut about his feelings on gays.”

Alfie didn’t reply at once. When he did, he sounded thoughtful. “Snogging, were you?”

“No, we weren’t,” Benedict answered before Shane could speak. “Not that it would’ve made a difference. I guess maybe he overheard enough to realize we were a couple, and didn’t like it.”

“The world’s full of small-minded people and bigots, scared of anything different,” Alfie said sententiously, taking Shane’s breath away with the irony. “Rise above it, lads. You’re better than that.”

“Yeah, we are, but you— All the things you’ve said—” Shane was spluttering, but he couldn’t help it.

“Maybe he’s in denial and lashing out from a point of inner turmoil,” Alfie continued, a grin breaking through. Benedict snorted with laughter, getting the joke. “Pity him, don’t hate him.”

“I’ll thump you right in your inner turmoil if you don’t shut it,” Shane snapped. “Both of you.”

“Sorry.” Benedict didn’t stop snickering, though. “So Alfie, was the head butt shorthand for Mind your own business, maybe?”

Alfie shook his head, his grin fading. Mouth set, eyes hard, he said, “No, lad. It was short for Get your fucking hands off my son and his mate. No one lays hands on my boy.”

Except you, Shane wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat when Alfie pushed between him and Benedict and threw an arm around their shoulders, linking the three of them. Maybe Alfie meant it. Wouldn’t that be a turnup for the books? Shane didn’t put his arm around Alfie, but he didn’t shrug him off either, part of him welcoming Alfie’s evident approval. Moments like this had been rare once he’d become a teenager.

“Ayup! We won! Now where shall we go to celebrate?”

“Away from here,” Shane said, to be on the safe side and because he wanted Benedict relaxed and enjoying himself, not tense worrying that the cops might turn up and arrest them for the fight. Benedict worried far too much in general, and there were times he needed protecting from himself. “Let’s go back through the tunnel to the local.” Assuming he still knew his dad’s favorite local pub, of course, but he felt that was a safe bet.

Turned out he was right, and it was close enough to their hotel Benedict didn’t have to fret too much what they’d do if driving afterward wasn’t an option. They could walk back if they needed to.

“Did he mention the time he and some of his mates broke into the yard at the back of the ironmongers?” Alfie asked Benedict. He was well into his second pint and apparently in a mood to reminisce.

“Hardware store,” Shane translated, seeing a question hovering.

“Yeah, of course. He’s told me all the stories.” Benedict was convincing even though Shane was sure he’d never told him that story, because the truth of it made him come off as a bit of a ponce.

“Got into trouble as a lad, he did.”

“Do you even remember the point of that story?” Shane asked his dad.

Alfie shrugged. “Must have been to nick something.”

“No. It wasn’t. The shop owner had shut the gate at the end of the day without realizing a stray cat had wandered in.” The poor thing, a half-grown kitten, had been crying piteously for an hour before Shane and his friends had got up the courage to scale the high fence and rescue it.

“So what happened to it?” Benedict asked, giving Shane an approving pat under the table. It might’ve been aimed at his knee, but it landed higher, making Shane gulp down a few mouthfuls of beer. Finish this round, and they could go. If Alfie wanted to carry on boozing, he could. He had plenty of friends in the pub and had already turned down an invitation to join a darts game.

“Scratched the hell out of me and scarpered.”

“There’s gratitude for you.” Alfie sighed gustily. “Cats. Never liked them. Now ferrets, or maybe a whippet… Whose shout is it? Mine, I think. What’ll you have?”

“I like cats.” Benedict tapped the table as if to emphasize the importance of that fact. “We should get one, Shane, or even two so they can keep each other company.”

Now where had that come from? Shane rubbed the back of his neck. “Uh, we could, yeah.”

“From the humane society. Not pedigree ones. Rescue them, the same way you rescued that kitten.”

Alfie eyed Benedict. “Maybe make his next one a soft drink.”

Again that pat, this time more urgent. “I’m not drunk.” Benedict slurred the words a little too heavily to be convincing. He’d sounded fine a minute before, but Shane got the message. Clever Benedict.

Backing up the story, he frowned. “Two pints on top of everything you swilled last night? Gone to your head, I bet. Let’s call it a day, go back to the hotel, and you can sleep it off.”

“We’ve barely started!” Alfie protested. “The night’s young. Don’t tell me you’re going to leave me on my own.”

“I won’t, because this place is full of your friends, and you’ll have a better time drinking with them than telling stories of my misspent youth to my boyfriend. You got him drunk last night; no way am I allowing a repeat performance.”

“Fancy language,” Alfie said. “I suppose that’s what life in the States gets you.”

“Gets us a hell of a lot more than that.” Shane stood and made a come-on gesture at Benedict with his fingers. “We’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

In the car, Benedict’s hand on Shane’s thigh was a distraction, not that he was inclined to complain. They drove the short distance to the hotel and barely made it into their room before they were kissing, tugging at each other’s clothes. “I can’t believe you started a fight,” Benedict said between urgent kisses. He sounded in awe.

“Did it for you,” Shane told him.

“God.” Benedict was breathing heavily, and he’d got a hand up under Shane’s shirt at the small of his back. “Sometimes I can’t believe you’re mine.”

“Well, I am. All yours.” When had the sharp edge of lust been tempered by love? He knew there’d been a time when they first met that he hadn’t loved Benedict, only wanted him, but it seemed difficult to believe now. His dad would’ve said he’d turned soft, but he would be wrong. Loving this man made Shane stronger. Benedict pushed him, encouraged him in every way. And when it came to sex, he’d go to his limits and beyond to please Benedict.

“Show me.” Benedict drew Shane’s football shirt up, exposing his chest, then bent to bite at a nipple, catching at it with his teeth. “Make me believe it.”

Lost without a direct order, cock hard and head spinning, Shane asked, “How?”

“Fuck me.”

Jesus. He’d never done that with Benedict. Never considered it. Strange. He’d tried it in the past with other men and enjoyed it, but when it came to Benedict, the rush he got from being taken, Benedict’s thick cock splitting him, filling him, was all he wanted.

“You sure?”

“Yeah.” Benedict ran his hand over the outline of Shane’s cock, voice thick with arousal. “You fought for me today. Such a fucking turn-on. And you got off on it too. I saw it in your eyes, and I want to be on the receiving end. It’s part of you, that violence, and I want it. Want all of you.”

Shane groaned at Benedict’s touch and his words. He hadn’t missed being the top in their relationship, not once, but in this moment he couldn’t think of anything he wanted more than to sink his prick into the heat of Benedict’s arse and feel it like that for the first time. “Yeah. But I think we’re going to need to shed some of these clothes. That okay with you?”

“Anything’s okay. If you wanted to pull down my jeans and bend me over the table and fuck me, I’d say yes.” Benedict unfastened the front of Shane’s jeans, biting Shane’s earlobe hard enough to make him squirm.

“I want you to stop distracting me.” Shane put a stop to Benedict’s roving hands so he could pull off his shirt. “Got a goal in mind here.” The shirt on the floor, he leaned in and kissed Benedict’s bare collarbone. “Now the jeans.” He was considering Benedict’s suggestion of fucking him over the desk, but he wanted him properly naked first.

Benedict shimmied out of his jeans and kicked them aside along with the rest of his clothes. “You too.”

It was the work of fifteen seconds for Shane to shed his clothes and pull Benedict in close, the sensation of bare skin on bare skin when they kissed enough to make him half forget what they’d planned to do. When he remembered, he pushed Benedict to arm’s length. “You’re sure?”

“You want me to sign a contract?” Benedict grinned. “I will. Yes. I’m sure. Should I get the lube?”

“It’s in the bathroom.” Shane pursed his lips. “How are we doing this, love? Because I can fuck you, and it’s still you calling the shots, same as always. You could tie me down and ride me, if you fancy it.”

The muscles in Benedict’s face tensed as if he was picturing it, eyes unfocused. “God, yes, at some point, for sure.” His eyes cleared. “You’d be incredible like that. Begging me to sink down another inch. And I wouldn’t let you move. I’d punish you if you did.”

Shane drew in a breath that did nothing to ease the tightness in his chest, desire pulsing through him. “Yeah? What would you do to me?”

“Clamps on your nipples, the kind I can tighten. And a thin belt in my hand, doubled over. Or just my hands. I’d slap your face every time you moved. Only on one side, until your cheek burned.”

Shane caught one of Benedict’s hands and brought it to his lips to kiss, sliding his tongue between two fingers, then drawing a finger into his mouth to suck. He worshipped these hands. “Maybe I wouldn’t move. Ever think of that?”

Benedict smiled. “Oh, you’d move. But that’s for another day. Fuck me however you want to, but don’t hold back.”

“I don’t want to hurt you by being too rough.”

Benedict took Shane’s face between his hands, concern eroding the arousal of a few moments ago. “If this changes too much, if it’s making you uneasy, tell me. It’s okay to say no to me. It’s always okay.”

“I know.” Shane felt unreasonably irritated by Benedict’s concern. He wouldn’t enjoy all the rough and kinky stuff if Benedict was genuinely indifferent to his pleasure or suffering. “Fine. On the bed. Face in the pillow, arse up. Find out what I’d be like if I’d gone months without any and you wandered by all tempting and available.”

A minute later, Shane was presented with what a tempting and available Benedict looked like—the curve of his spine, the rounded shape of his upturned arse, the flex of muscles in his upper arms.

“Have you even the slightest idea of the view I’ve got?” Shane asked, his voice hoarse.

Benedict’s response was muffled. “Please say it’s good, because this might not have been the best idea.”

“What?” Shane dropped the lube he’d retrieved from the bathroom at the foot of the bed and climbed on, hauling Benedict back up onto his knees. “Right. We’re not doing this.”

“No, I want to do it.” Benedict kissed him and grabbed hold of his cock, stroking it. “I do. I felt, I don’t know, on display.”

“Yeah? I like being on display,” Shane told him.

“Well, it’s new to me, so maybe I need, I don’t know, some encouragement. To feel I’m not alone in this.”

“You’re mad,” Shane said with a rush of affection and pressed his lips to Benedict’s quickly. “I’m right here. You’re never alone, you silly sod.”

“I love when you call me names.”

Shane eased him back on the bed and reached for the lube, determined to prove to him that he wasn’t alone. A bit of slick and one fingertip teasing at Benedict’s hole for a few minutes while they kissed, and he felt confident he’d done what he’d set out to do; Benedict was gasping into his mouth, hips lifting, cock hard and wet at the tip.

“You’ve done this before?” He knew the answer was yes, but he wanted to remind Benedict of how to make it easy. Once he was sure Benedict was comfortable taking him, he’d give Benedict what he’d asked for, but not until. He got off on pain; Benedict didn’t.

“It’s been a while, but yes.”

Without turning down the heat by giving prosaic instructions, and instead trusting to Benedict’s common sense, Shane eased inside Benedict one slow inch at a time, hooking Benedict’s legs over his shoulders and experimenting until he found the perfect angle.

Benedict fell silent, mouth tight with what Shane hoped was concentration, not discomfort.

He rarely talked when they made love, but with Benedict staring up at him, his wide chest rising and falling quickly, cock stiff, begging for a touch, the words poured out.

“Gorgeous, you are. That’s it, yeah. Jesus, so tight. Could come right now, the way you’ve been teasing me all day. But you want it hard, and yeah, could say you’ve been asking for it, pet.”

Partly playing a role, partly serious, he channeled the exhilaration he’d felt driving his fist into flesh. Fucking wasn’t much different, looked at one way.

Snapping his hips, he delivered a series of short, direct thrusts, not messing around now he was fully seated, with plenty of lube making everything nice and slippery. He didn’t mind a dry fuck now and then, but he wanted Benedict left with a pleasant throb, nothing more. His thrusts startled a cry out of Benedict, low and hoarse, but nowhere near as desperate as Shane was looking for.

The angle was good, he was sure of it, so maybe teasing was the way to go. Shane eased back until only the head of his cock was inside Benedict, then pressed forward slowly, so slowly, until Benedict’s eyes closed and he tightened his grip on the edge of the pillow.

“Like that, do you?” Shane asked. This was what he wanted, visible proof that Benedict loved being fucked, even if it was sweet torture to move in slow motion. “Tell me.”

Benedict’s teeth were clenched, and he had to make an obvious effort to unclench them so he could talk. “Yeah.” He gasped when Shane eased back again. “I love it. Driving me crazy. Forgot what this was— God, please.”

Shane made another careful, slow thrust, going deep. “Please what? Hard to know what you want if you don’t say.”

“Do what you were…doing before.” For a man usually in control of their sexual encounters, Benedict was surprisingly indirect.

“What’s that?”

“Faster.” Benedict opened his eyes and focused on Shane’s face.

“Wasn’t sure you liked that.”

“I did. Do. God.” Without warning, Benedict let go of the pillow and grabbed on to Shane’s wrist, digging his fingers in until bones ground against one another. “Shane. Stop with this teasing and fuck me.”

Sometimes, it took an hour or more for Benedict to break him open and leave him unable to fight back in any meaningful way, his surrender absolute. Today, all it took was that crushing grip and direct order.

He’d known this would happen going in. Benedict might fool himself that he was taking Shane’s role, but in reality, nothing had changed, and truth be told, it was a relief.

He clenched his hand into a fist and tapped it against Benedict’s chin, lightly enough that his knuckles barely grazed the skin. “Shut it, you. You’ll get what you’re begging for when I decide. Better behave, or I’ll pull out and jerk off on you. Leave that tight little hole of yours empty.”

The indignation in Benedict’s eyes would’ve made a cat laugh, but behind it was a fair amount of curiosity, as if he were tasting something exotic and wasn’t sure if he liked it.

Shane hoisted Benedict’s legs higher, settling himself, his thigh muscles taut. “You want my cock? Take it. Move your arse and take it.”

With a stifled sound Shane didn’t pay much attention to because he was glorying in the deep flush spreading over Benedict’s face, Benedict obeyed. Awkward angle for him and Shane didn’t help much, if at all, but Benedict managed to work Shane’s cock in to the hilt and hit his sweet spot, judging by his bitten lip.

“I don’t think you’re trying.” Shane’s balls were drawn up high enough they ached, the relentless squeeze of Benedict’s arse making him aware of every inch of his cock. He ran a fingertip across the head of Benedict’s erection, capturing the slick fluid there. After sucking his finger clean, he said, “Let me show you what I want.”

With the salt-bitter tang coating his tongue, and Benedict’s helpless moans spurring him on, he slammed into resisting flesh, forcing a space for his cock. Benedict might want this, but his arse was in two minds despite Shane’s initial slow entry.

Gripping on to Benedict’s waist, Shane found a balance between what worked for him and what was obviously working for Benedict, and walked that line with a determination that felt familiar even though he’d never fucked Benedict like this before.

“Gonna come,” Benedict gasped.

“Yeah?” Shane moved a little faster. “Good.”

“No, I mean it.”

“Good.”

“Oh my God, Shane.” Benedict was trembling, and though his eyes had been closed, he opened them now, his gaze focused on Shane’s face. “Gonna—”

“I know. Do it.” He ground his cock into Benedict as deep as it would go, trying to provide steady pressure against Benedict’s prostate, and was reaching for Benedict’s cock when Benedict froze and came, his body tightening around Shane’s cock so ruthlessly that Shane clenched his teeth.

He wasn’t ready for this to be over, not yet, but he wasn’t sure he had an option. Not with Benedict so hot and slick around his cock, not with the delicious little whimpers Benedict was making as he shuddered and shot his release out onto his chest and stomach. Not when this felt so fucking good.

“You too.” Benedict came up on his elbows, a note of command strengthening the exhausted whisper. “Want to feel you come in me.”

And that was all it took. Shane shot, the jerk and jolt of his climax contained and powerful, leaving behind his mark, if only a temporary one. Every muscle locked, a strangled cry tearing free of his throat. He rode out his orgasm, aware of Benedict watching him until he had to close his eyes and escape that intent, greedy stare. Benedict always said he wanted all of Shane, and he wasn’t exaggerating. Shane tried to share the moment, but some goals were beyond his reach. He waited until he was reasonably sure he remembered how to breathe and talk and blink, basic functions temporarily off-line, then eased out with infinite care.

With the physical connection broken, Benedict moved, lithe and strong, rolling them over and pinning Shane to the bed, a dark joy showing in his eyes. Without a word, he took Shane’s mouth in a kiss, deep and avid, as if this were foreplay, not the afterglow.

“You’re mine,” Benedict murmured, rubbing his thumb over Shane’s lower lip.

“Is that what I am?” It was an easy question to ask, because he was fully confident they knew the answer.

Benedict nodded. “That’s what you are.”

“I’m glad.” Shane felt deeply content, as if some missing piece of their lives had fallen into place, completing the bigger picture. “You can have me anytime. Have me forever.”

“Good. Anything less wouldn’t be enough.” Benedict kissed him again, taking his time, as if they were new lovers learning each other’s mouths. Then he sighed and smiled. “I’d love to curl up and go to sleep, but I have to take a shower or bad things will happen.”

Too polite to point out what those things were, not that Shane needed him to. He knew well enough what it was like to wake up in the morning if he hadn’t cleaned up after sex. “I’m not stopping you.” He was on the bottom, after all.

“True.” With a groan, Benedict levered himself off Shane and the bed, then stood slowly, as if every part of his body was protesting. “Christ. Tell me it doesn’t feel like this every time.”

“Not every time.” Saying that it rarely did would have been a lie, but that was part of what Shane loved about it—the twinges that reminded him what they’d done earlier in the day, or even the night before. He rolled onto his side and watched Benedict walk gingerly into the bathroom. “We never have to do that again, you know.”

“I know.” Benedict disappeared through the doorway but, a moment later, stuck his head back around the doorjamb. “I might want to, though.”

“All you have to do is say.” Shane couldn’t imagine it happening often.

Benedict smiled at him, lovingly enough to make Shane wish the space between them would disappear and allow him a kiss. “And all you have to do is ask.”

Chapter Fourteen

The next few days passed in a blur of social engagements Ben could barely keep track of. He met more of Shane’s relatives—they had tea with two different sets of aunts and uncles—and they met Bexie for a drink that was carefully not mentioned to Alfie in case he wanted to come along. “I’ve got to have a bit of a break from him, or I’ll lose my mind,” Shane said, and Ben, trying to be protective of Shane’s feelings, went along with it even though part of him felt bad for Alfie.

They finished up some paperwork for Donna’s funeral, then rewarded themselves with the fanciest Indian meal Ben, who didn’t consider himself the world’s most adventurous eater, had ever had. One of the dishes was so hot the back of his throat was on fire from the first bite, but the rest of it was amazing, rich with spices and cream. They drank imported Indian beer and followed it up with a yogurt drink called, Ben thought, a lassie.

“Like a girl?” he asked, and Shane looked confused. “You know, the girl version of lad?”

Shane laughed. “No, not like that. This is the sweet version. It’s got mangoes in it. The proper lassi’s savory.”

Ben liked the sweet version—it was similar to a smoothie—and had a hard time imagining a nonsweet variety. “Please tell me it doesn’t have meat or something weird in it.”

“No meat,” Shane said reassuringly. “Less sweet and more salty.”

“I’ll pass. But do you think we could get another order of those little doughnut things?”

“Don’t see why not. Not for me, though. Too full.” He tore a chunk off his naan and dunked it in the sauce of one of the incendiary dishes when he said it, so Ben took it with a grain of salt, appropriate since that was the name of the restaurant.

The server, smiling and attentive, no more than twenty, delivered more of the gulab jamun and offered to box up anything they didn’t finish, talking with a strong Liverpudlian accent. Shane shook his head. “Thanks, but we’re in a hotel room and nowhere to keep it cool.”

“So you’re visiting? How do you like our city?” The young man was slender and confident, friendly without being intrusive.

“Visiting? I was born here, mate.” Ben was surprised by the edge to Shane’s voice, but Shane smiled apologetically at the server as if aware he’d overreacted. “I live in the States now. First time back in twenty years.” Shane glanced around the small, intimate space. The heavy wallpaper made it seem even smaller, and the faint tinkling music with a mournful vocalist added to the atmosphere as far as Ben was concerned. “This place hasn’t changed. Still does the best chicken dhansak I’ve ever tasted.”

“Good! I’ll tell my father. Maybe he was the one who served you last time.” With a nod, he collected some of the empty dishes and carried them away.

“Do you think you would ever have come back to visit while your mom was here?” Ben asked.

Shane brushed a few stray grains of rice off the white tablecloth into his hand, avoiding Ben’s gaze. His mood had swung from relaxed to brooding a few times during the meal, with Ben reluctant to push him for a reason because he suspected he already knew it. He’d never seen Shane gripped by nostalgia to this extent, and it troubled him. If it was homesickness, didn’t Shane consider the States and the Peg home now? “Dunno. Maybe. I wish I had. Then I could’ve seen Mum again, but she never asked me to come back. I told myself if I did, she’d be made to choose sides when me and him got fighting, and it wasn’t fair on her.”

“I’m sure you would have figured something out. It sounds as if your mom understood why things were so complicated between the two of you.”

“She did. But she put up with enough from him without adding me to the mix.”

Ben hesitated before saying what he did next. “Maybe things had changed for them in the time you were gone.”

“Nice to think so, but I doubt it.” Shane was still avoiding his gaze.

“Other things did.” Ben knew the news of Alfie’s steady job had surprised Shane. It should’ve made him happy, but Ben sensed Shane preferred to keep his view of Alfie the same. Admitting his dad wasn’t the villain, unredeemable and in the wrong, would require admitting Shane had made a mistake.

“Some never do.” Shane lifted his eyes and looked at Ben. “I’d have come back if she asked, though.”

Ben could tell there was a question there as clearly as if it had been spoken out loud. “I would have come with you.”

Some of the tension on Shane’s face eased. “Yeah. I know. She would have liked you. Probably would have insisted we go to church with her on a Sunday, introduced us round to dozens of her friends.”

“With no family of my own, I would’ve enjoyed being part of yours.”

Shane snorted. “If you’ve got any sense, you’d run for the hills instead of knocking on the door.”

“Hey!” Ben couldn’t let that pass, his voice sharper than was probably wise. “Your family’s great. They’ve been nothing but welcoming—yes, even your dad. So be grateful you’ve still got him. I don’t have mine.”

“Yeah, and you bloody hated his guts, so don’t expect any sympathy from me.” Shane pulled out his wallet and threw some money on the table. “Settle up with the waiter. I’m going outside before we argue.”

“Shane, don’t—”

Mouth set in stubborn lines, Shane rose. “I’ll see you outside.”

Left alone, Ben sighed. He didn’t expect Alfie and Shane to weep on each other’s shoulders, forgiving and forgetting every wrong, but it would’ve been nice if Shane acknowledged Alfie’s mellowing. Sure, the guy was shady, prejudices ingrained so deeply they’d probably never be eradicated fully, even if Alfie wanted them to be, which was debatable. But faced with his son’s partner, he’d been surprisingly at ease, and there was none of the animosity Ben had braced himself to endure.

Shane was the one with blinkers on, not his father.

Ben paid for their meal, leaving a tip that was too generous out of a combination of habit and guilt, and went out onto the sidewalk. Shane had walked a short way and was looking in the window of a shop that was closed.

Ben went over to join him. “I’m sorry,” he offered. No matter what he thought about Alfie, he was sorry for upsetting Shane, especially under the circumstances.

“It’s okay.”

The shop seemed to sell mostly T-shirts. The display in the window was a collection with cartoon characters on them, none of which Ben recognized. “Patrick would love these.”

“He might have that one already.” Shane gestured at a blue shirt with a yellow dog and a boy wearing a white hat.

“Yeah, now that you mention it.” It looked familiar. They gazed at the shirts for another minute. “I am sorry.”

“I know. I meant it when I said it’s okay.” Shane didn’t sound angry. Tired, maybe. “I can’t—” He drew in a deep, shuddering breath, then turned to face Ben squarely. Speaking slowly at first, he said, “I wish he’d died, not her. Then I think how upset she’d be if she heard me say that. Then I see him, and he— He’s my dad. He’s my fucking dad, and I wished him dead and I hate myself more than I despise him and I… I’m not fit to be around. I’m sorry. You should walk away before I say something else that lets you see what a nasty piece of work I am.”

By the end of his speech, the words rushed out like blood from a gaping wound, Shane’s face drawn taut, eyes wide as if he saw something horrible.

Not even looking around to see who was watching, not caring, Ben enclosed Shane’s rigid body in a tight hug. “You’re sad. You’re hurting. You’re entitled to feel confused and bitter. It’s part of the process. None of it makes you a bad person. If your dad was in danger, you’d be the first one saving him. He’s family. He’s blood. And you feel guilty about liking him, more than anything, from what I can see. You think you should hate him, but Shane, how can you? He’s a sad old man, with nothing much left in his life but getting drunk and doing a dead-end job. He’s got you, but you’ll be gone soon, and think how lonely he’ll be.”

He paused for breath, shaking with the force of his emotions. So much of what Shane was going through, he’d felt when Craig died. A failure as a father, yes, but his legacy of the Peg had brought Ben to Shane, and he’d never acknowledged that debt, not fully.

“I know, okay? That’s all I mean. I know how this feels.”

Shane nodded against his neck, apparently fine with staying right where they were.

“I think…” Ben sighed. “I think it’s a fucked-up situation, and that’s not our fault. But maybe we can figure out a way to live with it without it fucking us up. Maybe we have to try, because if we don’t, then being fucked up is a choice, and that part of it is our fault.”

“Stretching the idea a bit thin, aren’t you?” Shane mumbled.

Ben laughed. “Probably. See if you can give me some credit for making an effort, at least.” Ben knew he owed Shane more, though, so he soldiered on. “As mad as I am because Craig left us when I was a kid, he gave me something that’s more valuable than the Peg. He might not have meant to, but he gave me you.”

Shane tightened his arms. “Yeah. Thought that more than a few times, myself.”

They pulled away from each other, though not in time to escape the notice of some young teenage boys passing by on the street. “Poofs,” one of them said, and the others laughed.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Shane turned toward them, and Ben tensed, worried they were in for another round of Shane having a fistfight with homophobic Englishmen. “Yeah, we’re poofs. You got a problem with that?”

The boys exchanged glances, and several of them shook their heads before they took off down the street as fast as their legs could carry them.

“Kids!” The scorn in Shane’s voice lacked force. “Come on.”

“Where? Back to the hotel?”

“It’s still early.” Shane looked around as if getting his bearings. “That club Daniel took me to—the kinky one, not the posh one—is twenty minutes’ walk away. Want to drop by there? It brings us closer to the hotel. Won’t be much going on, seeing as it’s Wednesday, but it could be fun.”

“Walking off the meal sounds good, but I’m not up to drinking.” Ben rubbed his stomach. “I need to work out. All I do is eat over here.”

“You’re with me, not my dad. Drink club soda if you like.”

They walked in a silence Ben felt was companionable, but Shane seemed subdued. Ben thought back over the day, then sighed inwardly. They’d gotten around to replacing the bedding in Donna and Alfie’s bedroom. Shane had insisted on stripping the bed himself, emerging with an armful of linen and a closed-off expression even Alfie had the sense not to comment on.

Ben had offered to wash the bedding before sending it to a charity shop, but Alfie had shaken his head. “I don’t want anyone else using it, and it’s too old to feel guilty over throwing it out.

So the bedding was added to the trash in what Alfie called a wheelie bin, and Shane and Ben, working together this time, had remade the bed.

Shane had been briskly efficient, plumping up the pillows and smoothing down the duvet, but when they’d left the room, he’d said, “Funny to think of her getting up that day, not knowing she’d never get between those sheets again. Never sleep again, never dream.

Ben couldn’t remember his reply, but clearly it hadn’t dispelled Shane’s melancholy mood. He wished he could think of something to say now, something that would lift Shane’s spirits. He knew, though, that Shane wasn’t often the type to be soothed by words.

Action, on the other hand…

He was still mulling it over when they got to the club. Patrick and Vin would approve, he thought, even though he was sure they were more vanilla than their appearances might lead a stranger to believe. He suspected a bit of playful wrist restraint was as kinky as they got. They’d love it here. This establishment was about showing off, flirting with strangers so you’d go home with your partner aroused and eager.

“Look there,” Shane said in his ear while they waited to get served. “Bloke with the black shirt.” That didn’t help Ben identify the man, but Shane was too polite to point. “Woman’s hair’s green.”

That made it easy. “What about them?” Ben asked.

“He’s wearing a collar.”

The man had his shirt buttoned up most of the way—unlike some of the patrons, who weren’t wearing shirts at all—but yes, he had a collar on beneath that shirt. It was made of something dark, maybe black or dark brown leather, and it was subtle enough that some people wouldn’t even notice it was there.

Ben couldn’t recall discussing the whole collar thing with Shane. He knew Shane would never choose to wear one publicly or privately, and that was fine with him; he didn’t need visible proof of Shane’s loyalty. It was hard not to wonder, though, how far it would be possible to push Shane in public. Not in public public, out on the street or in the grocery store, but in a place like this, where no one around them would bat an eyelash? God, it was impossible not to wonder.

“What’ll it be, boys?” The bartender was a tall woman with her long dark hair twisted up on top of her head and a bright smile.

Before Shane answered, Ben, moved by an impulse he didn’t stop to examine, slid his hand from between Shane’s shoulder blades to squeeze the back of his neck. The jolt running through Shane transmitted itself to Ben, electrifying, arousing. He felt Shane’s shock and his struggle to accept in public what he would’ve welcomed in private.

Then Shane melted into Ben’s touch, standing still and quiet.

The bartender lowered her eyes as if unwilling to intrude on a private moment, then glanced at Ben. The smile had been friendly enough before, but now it was welcoming. “What can I get you to drink, sir?”

God, this was a rush. Being acknowledged as Shane’s Dom, even if he didn’t apply that label or any other to himself. Being able to touch Shane openly and know they were safe, pushing Shane in a way he’d only dreamed of before. They were private about their kinks, but if Ben was honest, they indulged them in some public places from time to time, the risk of discovery adding a thrill. This was new, a combination of public and safe. “Diet ginger ale with lots of ice, please.”

“And for him?” She didn’t even look at Shane. What effect would that have? Annoy Shane or turn him on?

He tightened his grip a barely perceptible amount. “He’ll have the same, but no ice.”

Shane wasn’t a fan of ginger ale. This was Ben imposing his will and restricting Shane’s. Would it help more than his inadequate words of sympathy? He didn’t know. But this was as much for him as Shane. In this bar, surrounded by couples who were like them, Ben wanted to make it clear they belonged. It mattered to him that they weren’t seen as tourists. Not that there were many of those here tonight; he guessed the tourists came mostly on weekends. Shane had said it wasn’t a real BDSM club, but tonight it felt like one.

After paying for their drinks, Ben directed Shane toward an empty table that had only one chair. A group of young men at the next table had taken the other, five of them chatting animatedly. None of them were paying the slightest attention to the people around them.

“You can stand,” he told Shane when they reached the table. He let go of the back of Shane’s neck and lowered himself into the chair.

Shane blinked down at him, that same shock and struggle he’d gone through at the bar a minute before at war on his face. Then he nodded and took half a step back, closer to the wall. Keeping his eyes on Ben’s, he lifted his glass of ginger ale to his mouth and took a sip.

Good.

Because he wasn’t sure what to do next, Ben drank some ginger ale and looked around the room, checking things out. It was crowded, and most people seemed to be caught up in their own parties and interactions rather than the space in general. This wasn’t a club where people came to watch or be seen. It was a safe place for people to be themselves without feeling isolated.

He couldn’t have asked for a better environment in which to examine Shane’s kink a little more closely. The biggest issue was that he hadn’t expected to find it, and as a result he wasn’t prepared to explore it the way he might have liked to. Still, he was a flexible man. He could roll with the punches. Tonight might not be perfect, but he certainly wasn’t going to waste this opportunity.

“What do you think?” he asked Shane, gesturing toward the middle of the room, where couples and singles alike were on the dance floor.

“Are you asking me to dance?” Shane raised an eyebrow.

Ben shook his head. “No, I meant in general.”

“Better atmosphere than last time.” Shane spoke slowly, thinking his answer through. Ben appreciated the implication that a question from him deserved the best answer Shane could give, though he acknowledged he might be reading too much into Shane’s measured delivery. “Might be one or two here who’re vanilla as it gets, but no more than that. It feels…safe. The same way the Peg does.”

It did. Maybe three-quarters of the couples seemed to be straight, so there were enough same-sex partners to be reassuring. Ben knew the BDSM scene wasn’t free of jerks or those ready to judge. What group ever was? But he doubted they’d meet anyone prejudiced in here.

“Yes, it does.” At the next table, a young male sub knelt at the feet of a man his age, a leash attached to his collar, the other end on a hook set into the underside of the table. While Ben watched, the Dom caressed his sub’s face, smiling down at him with affection. Ben had read stories, seen porn, but the sight affected him on a different level, a punch to the gut, a shift in his view of the world. The two of them weren’t in leather or half-naked; the sub was dressed in black jeans and a tight white T-shirt, and his Dom wore chinos and a casual shirt. They’d walk out of here, collar and leash hidden, and no one on the street would suspect their secret, unless they were perceptive or clued in enough to sense their dynamic.

Did people see that same dynamic at play between Shane and him? Probably their closest friends at work, though he’d never ask. It wasn’t something he was ashamed of, but it was definitely not up for discussion with Vin and Patrick, for instance. He shuddered at the thought.

Ben indicated the couple with a small tilt of his head. “If I asked you to kneel like that, would you?”

“No fucking way.” The answer was quick this time, Shane’s expression wary, panicked as if he was unsure of Ben’s reaction, throat muscles working when he swallowed hard.

Leaping in without checking for rocks, needing Shane at his feet as desperately as he’d ever wanted anything in his life, Ben said evenly, “Then it’s good it’s an order, not a request. Leave your drink on the table and kneel, please, close enough that I can touch you. Cross your wrists behind your back.”

Shane hesitated for so long Ben thought he might refuse, or maybe even walk out without another word. Then, slowly, he reached out and set his glass on the table. Another pause. Ben’s heart was in his throat, his palms sweaty while he waited.

“Hope you know what you’re doing,” Shane muttered, quietly enough so no one else would hear him, and went to his knees.

Ben’s heart decided the appropriate response to this was to resume beating, but at twice its normal rate. He settled his hand at the back of Shane’s neck again. Like before, he could feel the moment when Shane’s tension left him, that beautiful moment of acceptance and trust. He said it out loud this time. “Good.”

“Am I?”

It was unfair to chastise Shane for talking when he hadn’t been instructed not to, and Ben wasn’t averse to the reminder he had company in this experiment. He wasn’t keen on repeating his praise, though. “How does it feel?”

“Okay. Bit odd.” Shane turned his head and looked at him. “What’s it like for you?”

“It feels…right. Which sounds odd, I guess.” Ben realized he’d strayed near the line of not being dominant enough, probably, but maybe that was all right under the circumstances. “I’ve contemplated doing this in public. Well, not in public, but somewhere similar to this, where no one would give us a second look.”

“Not sure I could do it if we were somewhere they would,” Shane admitted.

“God, no.” He flinched inwardly when he pictured them like this at the Peg, surrounded by people staring. “I’d never ask you to do it if it wasn’t safe.”

“Or tell me, I hope.” Shane’s tone was dry. “Thought we weren’t into whips and collars and me calling you Lord and Master and such. Going to make me sleep on the floor tonight?”

The idea of that was absurd. He wanted Shane beside him, warm and solid, his even breathing lulling Ben to sleep. But though they’d started out on their own trail, unmarked and winding, sometimes, like tonight, it crossed a main road and they met people walking their way. And that wasn’t a bad thing.

He said the first words that came to him. “We’re on vacation. And no.”

“Hmm.” Shane pursed his lips. “Vacation. What happens in Birkenhead stays in Birkenhead.” He shrugged. “Fair enough.”

“And now you can stop talking until I ask you a question.” If he let this conversation continue, Shane would talk himself out of his initial acceptance and turn restive, or rebellious. And the way he dealt with that usually wouldn’t go over well, not even here. It was a bar, when all was said and done, not a private club with vetted members. Pulling Shane onto his knee for a kiss, fine; turning him over it for a spanking, not so much.

He’d never spanked Shane like that, over his knee. He was sure he could make it hurt plenty, with his hand, a hairbrush, or a paddle, but the idea didn’t appeal. When he punished Shane, he preferred Shane standing, bent over, or tied down. Over his knee felt too much like discipline administered by a parent to a child.

Shane settled back on his heels—Ben wondered for a moment how uncomfortable it was, kneeling on a hard floor—and waited. His wrists were crossed obediently behind him, and he wasn’t turning his head to look around, even though Ben was sure his eyes were open and he was taking it all in.

At the edge of the dance floor in front of them, a woman had her partner blindfolded. The song wasn’t suitable for slow dancing, but that was what they were doing, a slow dance to a fairly upbeat song. The woman’s hands were all over her boyfriend. She wasn’t being inappropriate; it wasn’t different from anything Ben had seen dozens of times before, except that the guy had a white silk scarf tied over his eyes.

Ben knew Shane was watching. “Would you like that?”

“Being blindfolded? Here?” They knew Ben didn’t mean here here, but a place similar to this one. Shane seemed to give it some thought. “Maybe.”

Ben tightened his grip on the back of Shane’s neck. “That’s not an answer.”

“Sorry.” Shane sounded genuinely apologetic. “Yeah. Yes. I’d probably like it.”

On the dance floor, the woman had taken her boyfriend’s face between her hands. He held her waist, and even though Ben couldn’t see her mouth to know it was moving, he was sure she was speaking to him. He looked away. Even imaginary eavesdropping made Ben uncomfortable, as if he was invading their privacy.

A wave of impatience swept through him. He didn’t want to be here, friendly though it was, unable to do more than touch Shane like a lover. He wanted…wanted… A frustrated groan broke from him, his hand tightening to a fist.

“What’s wrong, love?” Shane broke position, broke the nonspeaking rule, and touched Ben’s knee.

Ben knew, according to the rules, he should dream up a punishment for that, but how the hell could he when he’d sprung this scene on Shane?

“Can we go? Please? It’s nice here, but I’m not sure it’s where we belong.”

“You asking or telling?”

He supposed he deserved that.

“I’m asking.”

Shane rose smoothly, gracefully to his feet, rolled his shoulders, and picked up his glass of ginger ale. “Nasty stuff,” he remarked and drained it in a few gulps before heading for the door.

Outside on the sidewalk, Ben felt a sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t they done this already? Although earlier he’d known Shane was angry with him, and now he was uncertain. Uncertain wasn’t an improvement.

“If I say I’m sorry, will I sound like a broken record?”

Shane snorted and shook his head, two actions where one would have been enough to put Ben’s mind at ease. “Not a bit. And you don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

Glancing over his shoulder toward the door, Ben said, “I was pushing pretty hard in there.”

“Yeah, well. I like to be pushed, don’t I?” Shane grinned at him, self-deprecating, but it didn’t make Ben feel any better. “Come on. If we’re going to dwell on the darkest parts of our psyches, let’s at least do it while we’re walking.”

“Back to the hotel?” Ben was all turned around.

“Doesn’t have to be. It’s early yet. We can take a walk.”

That sounded good. Better than having a particular destination in mind, though Ben didn’t know why. He didn’t want to talk.

The city smelled different. Maybe it was the nearby river and the ocean, but after ten minutes of walking in silence, Ben found himself inhaling deeply in an attempt to fix the scent in his memory.

“Got a cold? Allergies? I’ve got a clean tissue somewhere if you need it.”

Trust Shane to bring him down to earth. “I’m fine.”

“You freaked out back there.”

The residential street was deserted, apart from an old man walking a dog big enough to make Ben glad it was on the opposite side of the street. He still lowered his voice. “I felt…restricted. Being in public, with you on display, looking incredible, and I couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to. It frustrated me.”

“You’ve got a filthy, devious imagination, Benedict. It’s one of your best qualities. Maybe when we get back to the room, you can share— Hang on. What road did we pass?” Without waiting for an answer, Shane broke into a jog, leaving Ben to follow him.

Shane rounded a corner, then came to a halt beside a double gate, padlocked now, leading into a large parking lot with a sprawling building dimly visible in the distance.

“This was my school. Must’ve walked here on autopilot.”

There was a notice attached to the chain-link fence surrounding the property. It was dark now, the nearest streetlight too far away to be useful. Ben took out his phone and used its light to read the notice. “It’s closed.”

“For the summer?”

“For good. They relocated the school to another building, and this one is going to be turned into a community center.”

“Odd, to think of it being something other than a place full of schoolkids.” Shane gazed through the gate toward the building.

“It still will be, if it’s a community center,” Ben pointed out. “They’ll be, I don’t know, playing games and doing art projects or whatever.”

Shane was quiet, thoughtful.

“What?” Ben asked.

Shane turned toward him, wearing the grin of a man remembering the days he’d been a wayward teen. “How would you feel about taking a risk?”

Chapter Fifteen

The warm summer night woke the reckless teenager the years had buried. Shane remembered nights like this, prowling the streets with his mates, a wild freedom intoxicating him more than the swig from a beer can or bottle of cider. He’d run along the tops of walls, swung from tree branches in the park, his body strong, obeying every order to jump and stretch with a careless ease. They’d been noisy and arrogant, proper pains in the arse, but God, he’d give a year of his life to be that boy again for a single night.

Or maybe not. Losing a year with Benedict was too high a price.

So he’d do what every adult learned and compromise.

Benedict raised his eyebrows, a gleam of interest showing. “It depends on the risk.”

“Round the back. We climbed over a wall level with the bike shed over by the playing field. If the shed’s still there, we can get into the grounds.”

That got him a puzzled look. “And do what? The school’s closed.”

Shane grinned, rocking back and forward, eager to move, to run. “What do you think? Or put it this way—whatever you want. I’m all yours.”

Kneeling all prim and proper hadn’t lasted long or done much for him, but Benedict grabbing his neck and getting bossy had done plenty. He was willing to bet Benedict shared his need to finish what they’d started in the bar, and the hotel room was a fair walk from here.

Why wait when he knew the perfect place to scratch their itch? Nostalgia and lust made for a heady combination. He’d had his first kiss from a boy in that bike shed, the air sharp with frost, his face numb. And the kiss had melted him, left him weak with desire at a time when he didn’t have the faintest fucking idea what to do with that emotion beyond the jerking off that had become as much a part of his daily routine as brushing his teeth.

He only brushed twice a day, though.

For a moment he thought Benedict—cautious by nature except for the moments when he was gloriously anything but—would refuse, and he prepared himself for the word no. He was delighted and invigorated when Benedict nodded. “Okay. Show me.”

They walked round along the perimeter of the yard, quiet, neither of them saying anything. Shane was aware of the sounds of insects in the overgrown grass on the other side of the wall. The property had been neglected long enough that it looked abandoned, plans for its future notwithstanding.

“Here,” he said softly, indicating when they’d reached the spot he remembered. “Give me a boost up, and I’ll make sure the top of the shed’s not rotted through.”

Benedict linked his hands together, creating a footrest for Shane’s shoe, and boosted him up onto the wall. There’d been a time Shane hadn’t needed the help, but he was older now, little as he enjoyed admitting it.

The roof of the shed seemed solid. “Come on, then.” He offered Benedict a hand, and Benedict swung himself up easily. They jumped down into the tall grass—“Probably full of ticks,” Benedict muttered—and made their way through the empty lot toward the school. With the moon overhead, Shane could pretend he’d stepped back in time, could see the ghostly images of girls with pigtails playing hopscotch and boys trying to smoke a stolen cigarette without being caught.

“It’ll be locked,” he said when they reached the front door, but to his surprise, it pushed open when he touched it, swinging inward with a squeal of rusty hinges. “Wonder how long it’s been shut up?”

“We can find out later, I guess.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

The entryway was dark. Shane reached for Benedict’s hand. “Careful. Floor might not be in the best shape.”

In the quiet, the shadows threatened to make Shane’s skin crawl. Benedict must have felt it as well; his voice was little more than a whisper when he spoke. “What was it like?”

“Full of kids. You’d think we all looked the same.”

“You had to wear uniforms?” Benedict guessed.

Shane nodded, even though he didn’t think Benedict would see. “Yeah. And there were rules about the length of our hair. Mine would have been all right, I think, but yours… You’d have needed a cut, and your mum would have been forever telling you to smooth it down.” He’d had a friend with hair like Benedict’s, wild curls that refused to be tamed.

Benedict was silent. Remembering his mum, maybe. Finally, he said, “I can barely imagine you as a schoolboy.”

“Sure you can. Shorter, on the scrawny side, perpetual skinned knees and bruises.” Shane squeezed Benedict’s hand. “None on my arse, though, so come to think of it, you might not have recognized me.”

“I guess I can imagine you mouthing off to the teachers.”

“More than once,” Shane agreed. “It was years before I learned there were times keeping your mouth shut’s more likely to get you what you want.”

They were quiet again, listening to the sounds that all seemed to be coming from outside the building rather than inside.

“What’s the best thing that ever happened here?”

It was more like a question that would have come from a list of how to start a conversation with someone you were trying to get to know than something Benedict would normally say, but Shane did his best to go along with it. “I assume you mean to me.” It’d be a completely different story if they’d been talking about one of the school’s golden boys, the ones who were top of the class and surrounded by crowds of friends. “Came out to myself, I suppose.”

“How old were you?”

“Young. Eleven, maybe twelve. Most of my friends—not that there were a lot of them—had already had girlfriends at that point. I heard so many stories about French-kissing and copping a feel I thought I’d be sick, but eventually I realized it was because it was the boys I wanted to kiss, not because I was too immature to have feelings for girls.”

“Until then you thought you were a late bloomer?”

Shane nodded. As he stood there, with his hand in Benedict’s, the past felt more like a dream than reality. “Even tried to talk about it to my mum once, in a roundabout way.”

“What did she say?”

“I forget. Probably something about how everyone develops at different times, that sort of thing. Whatever it was, it made me feel better.” For a little while, at least. “But the day I realized getting an erection looking at football magazines was more than a coincidence…”

Benedict’s hand tightened on his. “Were you scared?”

“About getting an erection?” Shane smirked to himself. “No, I know that’s not what you meant. I was scared, yeah. But excited too. Relieved, to know there was an explanation for what I’d been going through.” He’d never heard about when Benedict had come out. “What about yourself?”

“I can’t remember a time I didn’t know. I tried to kiss my best friend when I was eight. There wasn’t anything sexual about it, but I knew I loved him and that people showed love by kissing. His mom walked in on us, and somehow she managed to plaster a smile on her face and ask us if we wanted ice cream. I’m still grateful to her when I think about it. It could have been so much worse.”

“Hell, I’d still be grateful for the offer of ice cream to this day,” Shane said, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Yes, you would. Except I’m pretty sure in this case it was mint chocolate chip.”

It made Shane smile to be reminded how well Benedict knew him. “Mint and dairy ought to be natural enemies.”

Benedict tugged at his hand. “Do you want to walk around? Explore a little?”

“Only if we don’t think we’ll fall through the floorboards,” Shane said, not used to being the cautious one in situations like this.

As it turned out, the warning crack of rotting wood giving way drove them outside after only a few steps. Shane had wanted to kiss Benedict in there, create one last memory, but it stank of damp and piss so maybe that wasn’t as romantic as it sounded.

They retreated to the fresher air, the grass, unmowed, thick enough to lap around their ankles, a green sea in the daylight, now a stretch of shadows.

“Wanted to kiss you in there, and the place is falling down,” Shane grumbled.

“It’s not like they would have put a memorial plaque on the door.”

Shane laughed quietly, aware sound traveled and there were houses nearby, probably with nosy neighbors only too willing to call the police and report trespassers. “Guess not. Anyway, doesn’t matter. Kiss me out here instead.”

“Maybe.” Benedict sounded breathless, voice taut. There was a tree beside the shed, a huge oak, trunk scarred with carved initials. He walked to lean against it, Shane matching him step for step. “Or you could kiss me.”

“Same thing.”

“Depends where you kiss me.”

An advantage of being a couple with a few years together on the calendar was developing a personal shorthand. Shane translated that as a request for a blowjob with no difficulty at all.

It put him back on his knees, but in a more purposeful way. Oh, he got the symbolism of kneeling in submission, but pins and needles weren’t fun. Getting his mouth filled was a better incentive.

He sank down slowly, standing close enough to Benedict that he could caress and kiss on the way, his mouth brushing fabric and watering for the taste of warm, musky cock.

Sometimes Benedict would tell him to undo the front of his trousers with nothing but his mouth, and while there were times Shane enjoyed a challenge, tonight he was glad for Benedict undoing them himself with hands shaking with impatience. The button of his jeans slipped free, the zipper slid down, and Benedict tugged his prick out to where Shane could get his lips around it.

He didn’t hesitate; he took Benedict in deep, letting the thickness of Benedict’s cock stretch his mouth wide until he had to hold his breath. Shane had loved sucking cock from the moment he’d felt good enough at it to be comfortable, but it’d taken Benedict to get him addicted to it. He loved Benedict all the more that Benedict had understood instinctively that having his hair pulled would make it even better. Shane hadn’t known that about himself until Benedict had proved it to him.

He’d had to grow his hair out at Benedict’s request first, of course, to find out, but when he had…it was brilliant.

“God, you’re good at that,” Benedict said softly, carding fingers through Shane’s hair instead of directing him with rough tugs. “Don’t make me come. I want to fuck you.”

Shane shivered with arousal and pulled back to lick at the head of Benedict’s cock, flicking his tongue over a spot he knew was sensitive while holding the base steady with one hand. “Gonna fuck me here in the yard where I was a schoolboy?” he asked. He glanced up, and Benedict was looking down at him, face obscured in the dark.

“That’s the plan.”

Sucking Benedict down deep again, Shane found a slow rhythm he hoped would take Benedict to the point of wanting to fuck him sooner rather than later. He was erect, and he ached with the need to feel Benedict inside him, splitting him open, hand wrapped around him stroking him to release.

Sometimes Benedict wouldn’t let him come, leaving him naked on their bed, hands tied to remove temptation, watching Shane squirm and sweat until he took mercy. If he told Shane not to come tonight, Shane would love him for the cruelty even as he railed against it, but he didn’t think his obedience would be put to the test. Benedict would want to hear him groan and feel him shudder with pleasure, he was sure of it.

“Enough.” Benedict hauled Shane off him, fingers gripping a hank of hair tightly enough Shane felt some strands pull free of his scalp, tiny bursts of pain that made him harden even more. He closed his mouth and let Benedict wipe his cock across it, leaving his lips and a cheek wet. “That’s all you’re getting until you’re on your hands and knees, ass up.”

Too risky to undress from the waist down. Shane stood, hobbled himself with his jeans and the skimpy black underpants he’d worn, and got into position. Was this going to be a dry fuck, or had Benedict brought along some lube?

To a restaurant? Not bloody likely. He concentrated on relaxing to make it easier on both of them, never considering the option of refusing. Lube helped, but it wouldn’t kill him to get fucked without it.

Benedict got behind him, palming Shane’s ass roughly enough that each touch qualified as a light slap. Frustrated, aroused, Shane whined like a dog, the sound so pitiful he blushed hearing it. Then desire rose, leaving no room for shame or doubt.

Benedict pushed a spit-wet thumb into Shane’s arse, working it in an inch. “No lube.”

“Didn’t think there was.”

“Doubt you would’ve had any back then either.”

The rasp of flesh on flesh made answering a struggle. “Wouldn’t have known I needed it.”

“So if you got caught here by a, uh, prefect, skipping a class, and he decided to teach you a lesson you wouldn’t forget, you’d have to open up for him and pray he was gentle?”

Shane gasped when Benedict pressed his other thumb in too. “Yeah. But knowing me, I’d have given him a mouthful. Cheeky little bugger, I was then. So he’d probably be pissed off and ready to ream me out.”

“It’s no more than you deserve,” Benedict agreed.

Despite himself, Shane tensed, waiting for the blunt thrust of a thick prick, engorged to the point where it felt as inflexible as any dildo. He got the soft, wet lap of Benedict’s tongue instead, pushed into the space between Benedict’s thumbs, delivering some moisture, though the rimming was more to relax than lubricate.

If Benedict wanted to be gentle, or what passed for gentle with them, Shane wouldn’t argue. Not right away, in any case. He relaxed. Each lick and press of Benedict’s tongue might be the last, and it felt good enough he didn’t want to waste it wondering what was going to come next. It was still a surprise when it went on longer than he’d expected. Benedict thrust his tongue deep—it was nothing like being fucked by a cock, too soft. Christ, Shane’s arms were trembling. Maybe he could come from this? Was that even possible?

He wouldn’t find out tonight. Benedict pulled away and got ready, his solid thighs up against Shane from behind while he eased his cock into Shane’s arse. “Easy,” Benedict said. It sounded as if he was talking to himself more than to Shane.

“Easy’s no fun,” Shane told him. “Don’t want easy.” He braced himself against the tree, the bark rough against his palm.

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Because I’d hate that so much.” Shane knew what he meant, though, and appreciated the sentiment.

“Stop talking and let me concentrate.” Benedict thrust deeper, slowly, working himself into Shane’s body. “God, I don’t think I’m gonna last long.”

“No?” They didn’t often experiment when it came to lube, and Shane hadn’t noticed skipping it turned Benedict on more than usual. “You like this?”

“Don’t want to hurt you,” Benedict said again.

Shane arched his back, asking for more. “It’s fine, love. It’s always good with you. Do whatever you want. I’m all yours, remember?”

“Not helping,” Benedict ground out.

Shane smiled, unseen. Some of Benedict’s buttons were so easy to press. ’Course, it went both ways. “Don’t think there’s a rule that says you have to last for longer than a few minutes. If there is, I won’t report you.”

“I’ll be lucky to make it to sixty seconds. You have no idea how different this feels. Tighter. Like you’re fighting me, and that makes me want to—”

Break him. Yeah. “Do it.”

He rested his forehead on the grass, giving Benedict the outward show of submission that was always accompanied by an inward yielding. Anything else would be a lie, and he never lied to Benedict.

“You’re so—” Benedict punctuated the sentence with a grunt, driving in forcefully, control snapped finally, Shane hoped.

Shane didn’t want to make any noise—cops wouldn’t be lenient with two men caught having sex in a locked school yard—but it was impossible not to groan softly when Benedict opened him up with his cock. It wasn’t a totally dry fuck; there was some moisture, but not much. He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth through the next few thrusts, waiting for the worst of the discomfort to ease.

Being aware of how into it Benedict was made that simpler. There were so many little clues: Benedict’s soft grunts, how fast he was moving, the way he clutched Shane’s hip. “Here,” he gasped. “Up. Like this.”

Shane was pulled up onto his knees, Benedict wrapping an arm around his chest in support, finding Shane’s cock with his free hand. Benedict’s arousal must mean he was leaking a bit, because things were smoother, less dry. Every thrust threatened to lift Shane off the ground, and he literally couldn’t move, not with Benedict’s arm around him, Benedict’s cock inside him, and his jeans around his calves. He wasn’t much more than a sex doll, unable to do anything but be manhandled and fucked as Benedict pleased.

Not that anyone would bother with a hand around the jutting prick of a sex doll, and Benedict seemed focused on getting Shane off as well as fucking him. Shane stayed quiet, but it wasn’t easy. The mental component was as much a factor as Benedict’s cock rubbing against his prostate and Benedict stroking his prick. “You want me to wait, you’d better say,” he rasped.

“Don’t want you to wait. Want you to come. Want to feel you come and know it’s because of me.”

“Always you.” There was a word or two missing, but Benedict was good at filling in the gaps. Shane stopped talking and gave Benedict what he wanted—his climax, as commanded. There was the familiar sense of falling over a cliff, no way back, spunk going every-fucking-where, splattering skin and grass, and the torturous pleasure when Benedict stroked him roughly, stripping the last few drops from tender flesh.

The bite on his shoulder hurt, his body so sensitized by his orgasm that he could’ve sworn Benedict had some shark in him. Pinned and pierced, he concentrated on making it good for Benedict, the heavy warmth of the August night wrapped around him.

Benedict thrust, held still, and groaned, the sound muffled against Shane’s shoulder. The final thrusts were progressively easier, Benedict’s cum easing the way. Too little, too late. Shane knew he’d be sore for a day or two. Worth it, though.

Benedict withdrew, careful where he’d been rough, petting Shane and murmuring praise before guiding him to lie in the thick, cool grass. He spooned Shane, then reached down between their bodies and pushed two fingers deep into Shane’s hole. “Mine.”

Shane had come less than a minute before. He was spent. But that possessive touch of brutality on the heels of being fussed over broke him. With an inarticulate cry, he fucked himself on those two fingers, clutching the grass.

He wasn’t hard; there was no way he could come again. But he felt he might, that he could chase a second release from the unyielding thick fingers inside him. If Benedict’s knuckles rubbed over his prostate, a constant pressure that made his balls drawn up tight, it might be possible. God, it hurt. He still wasn’t getting hard, which meant it wasn’t going to happen, at least not for an hour or two—he knew his body. Could he come without getting hard?

“What if I told you we were going to do this until you come again?” Benedict murmured.

“It’ll be morning, and we’ll be caught by some locals,” Shane gasped. Christ, what was this? He couldn’t stop moving, a desperate, frantic shifting of his hips. “They’ll ring the police.”

“It won’t take that long.” Benedict pulled his fingers halfway out, and Shane whined, reckless with need.

“Don’t stop.”

“I’m making it easier for you.” He added a third finger to the first two and pushed in, unerringly aiming for Shane’s prostate and putting delicious, maddening pressure on it. “Keep moving.”

It wasn’t an order Shane needed. He couldn’t have stopped moving, not with everything so slick from Benedict’s cum. “God, Benedict. Please.”

“You can come like this,” Benedict said. “My fingers up inside you, stretching you. Fucking you. When it hits you, you’re going to want to scream, but you won’t. If you do, I won’t touch you again for a month.” The thought was so terrifying that Shane hesitated, his hips stilling for a moment even though he was trembling with the need to come. “When you come, you’ll be quiet. You can bite down on something if you need to—your own arm?—but don’t make a sound.”

“Why are you— What’s this for?” How desperate did he sound, pleading for mercy when it was the last thing he wanted?

“Not punishment. Not a reward. I’m teaching you a lesson, remember? Want me to test you, see how much you’ve learned?”

The thrusting fingers went deep, but he drove them deeper still with the frantic, hungry buck of his hips. He smelled damp earth and bruised grass, and overlying those other scents, as natural and primal, their sweat and cum. He took refuge in flippancy. “Think I skipped a class, sir.”

“Fail it, and you won’t like what I do to you.” There was nothing gentle about that whisper. Never was when Benedict was in this mood, set on giving Shane what he needed. And Shane supposed he’d asked for this. He’d been all over the place today, snappish, depressed, touchy. He needed a reminder of what he had even as he mourned what he’d lost. “But it’s an easy question. What do you deserve, Shane?”

And he knew the answer Benedict wanted, but could he give it without breaking his cardinal rule and lying? A vicious twist of Benedict’s fingers brought him sugarcoated pain, a sizzle of arousal flashing through him. This turned on and close to coming, he could let desire dictate his reply and fool himself it was the truth.

“I’m waiting.”

Fuck. He was so turned on he was afraid to come, afraid he might fly into too many pieces to ever be put back together again. No way he could hold off, though. A minute or two, maybe. No longer.

“Can’t,” he said, hoping Benedict would let him off the hook, knowing there wasn’t a chance in hell.

“You can. You will. Tell me what you deserve.” He rotated his wrist again, the thick column of his fingers threatening to drag a howl from Shane, and Shane did something he swore he’d never do: gasped out his safe word.

Benedict froze immediately. The only sounds were the hum of the insects in the tall grass and their out-of-sync, harsh breathing. “Do you—”

No.” Shane didn’t know what Benedict had been about to suggest—stopping, removing his hand—but he knew it wasn’t something he wanted or needed. “Wait. I can’t think with…”

He didn’t want to say something because he’d been told to, only to realize later it had been a lie. Being coerced into saying it wouldn’t make it any truer. And he understood why Benedict was asking, and it wasn’t for Benedict’s sake. It was for his, for his emotional health and peace of mind.

How on earth had he found someone to get him to contemplate this stuff without hating himself for it? Life was a mystery.

“Ask me again.”

Benedict was a smart man and responded quickly. “What do you deserve, Shane?”

“For you to…to love me. You. I deserve you. Shit, Benedict, I believe it, I do. I love you. I love—” His voice cracked on a sob, but he’d said enough.

“Yes.”

If what happened next counted as a climax, he didn’t know. It didn’t matter. He rocked back once, twice, his body out of his control while he celebrated his victory and the sure and certain knowledge he’d pleased Benedict. Something tangled around him snapped and unraveled, leaving him free to soar. He closed his eyes and let the sensation take him, panting harshly, lax and spent in Benedict’s arms.

“You’re perfect,” Benedict murmured. “So perfect, Shane.”

He wasn’t. But he’d work on believing he could get better.

Chapter Sixteen

Ben emerged from the bathroom with a towel around his waist. “It’s all yours.” Shane was still an unmoving lump under the duvet. If he’d shifted position at all in the time Ben had been in the shower, there wasn’t any indication of it. “Shane.”

Shane grunted. He looked more like an amoeba than a person.

Ben checked the clock. They had at least forty-five minutes before they needed to get some breakfast, and that could be stretched if they were willing to grab a muffin and run, but they didn’t have all the time in the world. “We don’t want to be late.”

“Don’t want to go at all,” Shane said clearly. The only part of him Ben could see was his hair sticking up near the pillow.

“Well, no.” Of course he didn’t. No one wanted to go to their parent’s funeral. Maybe it was better to focus on the practical. “There’s plenty of hot water. Do you want me to get it running for you?”

“No.” Shane didn’t move.

Unsure how to handle this—this version of an avoidant Shane was not one he was familiar with—Ben sat on the edge of the mattress and patted what he hoped was Shane’s shoulder. “Talk to me.”

Shane sighed heavily. “What’s there to say? I don’t want to go. You go on, if you’re so keen on making an appearance.”

“We traveled four thousand miles to go to your mom’s funeral. It’s a long way to go, then bail on a ten-minute car ride.”

“I don’t give a fuck.”

“Yes, you do.” Ben stood and ripped the duvet back, exposing Shane. “Up. Now.”

Shane glared up at him and lashed out with his foot, not aiming for Ben, but making his feelings known. “Fuck off, Benedict. I said no.”

Okay, sometimes the direct approach worked, and sometimes it didn’t. He sat again, not touching Shane but near him.

“Last night you got your suit ready and fussed over a crease in your shirt. You spent ten minutes polishing your shoes and bitched about your black tie not matching your black suit—which it does. You gave the florist hell when she said she couldn’t get your mom’s favorite flowers, and made her promise to find some freesias somewhere. What changed?”

Hunching a shoulder, Shane said sullenly, “Nothing. I’m not going, that’s all. Don’t need an audience when they put the coffin in the fucking fire and turn her to ashes and— Shit. Shit.” He drove his fist into the bed. “I can’t do this, Benedict. I can’t.”

Ah. This would be the point where one of their younger friends, maybe Vin, would say, Shit just got real. Until now, Shane had been playing a part—dutiful son, doing what was expected of him, making arrangements, ordering flowers. All of a sudden, the reality of what was behind the situation had struck him, and he was, understandably, overwhelmed.

Ben reached out to touch Shane’s hand, but Shane smacked him away. “Don’t pat me or patronize me, Benedict. I’m not a fucking dog.”

“They’re not known for swearing,” Ben agreed. He sat there for a moment, thinking. “Okay, you know what? You’re right. You don’t have to go. The funeral will happen whether you’re there or not, and you’ve been gone so long most people won’t even miss you. It’s fine.”

Shane moved his arm away from his eyes in order to fix Ben with a suspicious gaze.

“No, I’m serious. I’m not trying to use reverse psychology or whatever. People will understand. Sometimes funerals are too much.” Cautiously, Ben lay down next to Shane and draped an arm over him. “It’s okay. We don’t have to go.”

“What’ll we do, then? Stay here?”

“Whatever you want to do. Take a walk, have lunch somewhere, go see a movie…”

Shane hitched himself up onto his elbows and looked down at Ben, disbelief written all over his face. “For God’s sake, man. This is my mother’s funeral we’re talking about. Of course we’re going.”

Careful not to smile, or show any relief, Ben nodded. “Whatever you say.”

Instead of jumping out of bed, Shane shifted close, reaching out tentatively. Ben drew him in for a hug at once, providing the physical connection that got through to Shane better than words ever did.

They lay in silence, the seconds ticking by, but slowly, as if the universe was willing to wait and give Shane time to adjust to what was happening today. Their breathing synchronized, the tension melting from Shane’s body, leaving entirely when Ben kissed his forehead.

Shane pulled back and gave Ben an apologetic smile, then scratched his ribs before stretching his arms over his head. He’d slept naked, as usual, and Ben glanced away, a prickle of shame quenching his instinctive reaction to the sight.

“Sorry for the meltdown. Probably won’t be the last. And I told you, watch my dad. Maggie’s over there now making sure he doesn’t drink before it, but at the wake there’ll be no stopping him.”

They’d arranged for caterers over Alfie’s objections that a few bowls of crisps and some sausage rolls would do. Maggie had protested that she could handle making an assortment of sandwiches, but Shane had stood firm.

People will expect food and a cup of tea waiting when they arrive. You know they will. That means someone missing the funeral to get it ready, and I’m not having it. You should be there, Maggie. And yes, I’ll pay for it, Dad, so shut it and stop arguing.

Ben didn’t think anything short of knocking Alfie unconscious would stop him from getting drunk. “I’ll do what I can.”

Shane sighed again, tugging Ben closer. Ben went willingly, offering the comfort of his body. “Thanks for being here.”

“I wish there were more I could do. I wish—” Well, he wished things were different, but saying it out loud was a waste of breath. He and Shane were both too practical to wish for the impossible. His hand was resting on Shane’s bare hip, and Shane reached for it.

“You know what I wish?” he asked. “Wish we’d got around to that tattoo. It’d be nice to have your name on me. It’d be like you were with me all the time.”

“I’ll be with you all day today,” Ben promised him. “Every minute. You turn around, I’ll be there.”

Shane smiled faintly. “We aren’t attached at the hip, Benedict. There’ll be stuff I have to deal with. You can’t be with me every minute.”

A thought occurred to Ben. He turned away, reaching for the pen that was sitting on the bedside table. “Here, lie back.” He pushed at Shane’s hip until Shane rolled away onto his back, then wrote a careful B-E-N on Shane’s skin over the smooth rise of his pelvic bone. “There. It’ll wash off in a few days, probably, but…how’s that?”

Shane shook his head. “You aren’t the sort to do things by halves, Benedict. I want all of it. All of you.” His gaze met Ben’s steadily, warmly.

So Ben leaned in again and finished the job, using the name no one but Shane called him. “There. Benedict. Is that what you wanted?”

“Yeah.” Shane drew him in for a kiss. “That’s what I wanted.”

* * * * *

The day was difficult. Ben had braced himself for it, but the reality was worse. Shane sat beside him at the service, dry-eyed, his face blank of expression, head tilted as if he were listening to the minister, when Ben doubted Shane heard a word.

Next to Shane was Alfie, an unused handkerchief clenched in a meaty fist, tears pouring down his face. The church was filled with a heavy, grieving silence broken by sobs and the measured, rote words of a man who knew little of Donna beyond her name.

Shane behaved impeccably. The black suit and tie lent him a formal air, and he’d greeted the mourners at the church door, shaking hands and murmuring names, with the minister at his elbow and Ben waiting in the background, helplessly watching.

Service over, hymns sung—the words of “Abide with Me” barely audible by the second verse because those singing had broken down in tears—Shane stood and led the way out of the church, his arm around Alfie’s shoulders, his gaze fixed on the exit.

Ben knew what would come next—the short drive to the crematorium, the quick, businesslike disposal of the coffin, with only Shane, Alfie, and himself in attendance, then the wake. He dreaded it, not for his sake, but Shane’s. If they could go back to the hotel or drive somewhere private enough for Shane to break down without an audience… But they couldn’t.

He’d thought the crematorium would be easier than the funeral. He was wrong. Without other people to absorb some of Alfie’s obvious pain, all of it fell on him and Shane. He had no idea how Shane held it together; his partner was there physically, but mentally he’d left the building. Perfect posture, one hand on Alfie’s shoulder while his father wept into his sleeve, Shane might as well have been a statue. There was nothing there. He was a blank, and that scared Ben more than any show of emotion would have.

He wished he could remember if he’d been like this after his mom died. The situations had been different in a dozen ways—he’d been there with his mother through her final months and days; they’d had time to say good-bye—and he and Shane were different people, but when it came to his memory of his mother’s funeral, everything was a blur, like trying to see through a thick fog.

The young man who worked at the crematorium was soft-spoken and professional and had explained earlier that families didn’t usually wait for the procedure to be complete because it was a process that took several hours. They’d decided to forgo a service at the crematorium, so it was a matter of witnessing the committal of the coffin to the cremator, and that was over quickly.

“You’re welcome to stay as long as you need to,” the man said, ushering them into a small waiting area. “But otherwise the remains will be available for you to pick up end of the day tomorrow or any day thereafter for thirty days.” He handed Ben some paperwork and left quietly.

Alfie began a fresh round of sobbing. “She was the only woman I ever loved.”

Ben cringed, waiting for Shane to say he ought to have been faithful to her, then, instead of going to bed with any woman who crossed his path, but Shane stood in silence, a comforting hand on his father’s shoulder.

Ben waited until they’d gone back out to the car to say, “Look, let me drive.” He was aware it was a terrible idea, but he wasn’t sure they had any other options.

Shane blinked and looked at him. “No. I’m okay. Get him into the backseat and talk to me. It’s not far.”

That much was true, at least. Ben managed to guide Alfie into the backseat—he had to put the man’s seat belt on for him—and got into the passenger seat.

Shane pulled away smoothly, driving with the same precision that had shaped every action and word since arriving at the church. The man who’d brushed his fingers over Ben’s name written on his skin, face soft with love, had vanished.

Lost for words, Ben cleared his throat. “There were a lot of people there. Did you know many of them?”

“Maybe half. The relatives and neighbors. The rest were friends she’d made since I left, I suppose.”

“The flowers were beautiful.”

“Yeah. She’d have liked them.”

Shane had insisted on arrangements in vases, not stiff wreaths. Colorful, scented flowers, each bloom perfect, misted with water so every petal glowed. Happy flowers.

“What’s going to happen to my Donna now?” Alfie asked. “Where will they take her?”

“We’ve gone through this, Dad.”

Hearing the strain in Shane’s voice, Ben stepped in. “The memorial garden, remember? They’re going to plant a tree, and her ashes will be buried under it.”

“A tree?” Alfie blew his nose wetly. “Yeah, that sounds nice. She loved gardens. Thank you, son.” He reached forward and patted Shane’s shoulder. “You’re a good lad. She was always proud of you. Always.”

Shane clenched his teeth and kept his eyes on the road while Ben prayed silently that Alfie would stop there. To his surprise, it worked. Alfie settled again, and when Ben glanced into the backseat a minute later to check on him, he was gazing out the window, reddened eyes and nose a testament to the love he’d felt for his wife.

Shane managed to get them home without incident, and Ben ushered both of them inside, where Maggie already had the caterers cowed and the kitchen well in hand. “Now I’m going to make up plates for you, and I don’t want to hear anything about how you aren’t hungry or how you couldn’t possibly eat. I don’t care if you’re hungry, and you have to eat something, so be good and do as you’re told.”

Ben was taken aback by her directness, but Shane and Alfie seemed to accept it as a matter of course. Within minutes they were all sitting outside on the patio with plates of food and drinks nearby, in chairs saved for them. Ben was treated like one of the family. It was such a miserable situation it seemed rude to be warmed by everyone’s kindness, but he was.

“She was right proud of your business in the States,” a man old enough to be Shane’s grandfather was saying. “Talked about it often, she did.”

Shane nodded and picked up a fork, then set it down again without eating anything.

“And she didn’t care about…you know.” Another older gentleman gestured at Ben. “Said everyone was entitled to love.”

Ben couldn’t help but wonder how Alfie had reacted to comments like that, but maybe they’d been saved for times when he wasn’t around.

“Shane!” A sharp female voice, accented in a way that set it apart from those around it, had Shane turning his head. Ben followed Shane’s gaze. An elderly lady with glasses and steel-gray hair stood in the doorway, a walking stick in her hand. “Too busy guzzling to give your Aunt Gladys the time of day?”

Ben’s memory was retentive when it came to inconsequential data, and Shane had given him a rundown of the family tree. A string of facts surfaced. Gladys—Edinburgh, great-aunt, married Donna’s Uncle Joe in the war and spirited him off to Scotland. And she was a holy terror, according to Shane.

Shane rose, abandoning his food with evident relief, and walked over to her. “Hi, Aunt Gladys. Thanks for coming down. I know it’s a long journey.”

She sniffed. “I saw your mother the day she was born. I wouldn’t miss her funeral.”

Delivering an awkward peck to her cheek, Shane said, “Sorry about Uncle Joe.”

“He died four years ago. That’s an awful long time to feel sorry for a man you didn’t speak to for twenty years or more.”

Ben smiled to himself, hearing the flat, unnatural calm of Shane’s voice become a flustered stammer when he apologized for apologizing.

Hesitant to intrude, and unwilling to became a target for Gladys’s acid barbs, Ben stayed where he was, picking at his food. He kept an eye on Shane, though, and when Shane stiffened and took a step back, he drifted over, pretending to examine a rosebush nearby.

“It’s your duty, plain and simple,” he heard Gladys say. “You canna have children of your own to look after you when you’re old, I daresay, but that doesn’t excuse you from looking after your father as a good son should. He’s a useless excuse for a man, but even so. You’re home now, and that’s where you should stay.”

“Maybe you’re right.” It was Shane’s professional tone, the one he used when there was no excuse for being anything but polite, which meant it was one Ben wasn’t all that familiar with. He’d already heard more of it in the past few days than he’d liked, and right now it was impossible to know if Shane meant it or if he was pacifying an elderly relative.

“I’ve been told you’re a successful businessman in the States.” Gladys sounded like someone accustomed to getting what she wanted. “Surely it would be easy enough to move that here.”

“It’s not that sort of business.”

“Business is business. I don’t want to hear excuses, young man.”

“I’m thirty-six years old,” Shane said mildly.

Gladys snorted. “Youth is relative, and you’re trying to change the subject and managing to be rude to your elder in the same breath. I’m far too bright to fall for any of your shenanigans, so don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes. There’s a bar for sale not half a mile from this house. The taxi took me past it on the way from the station. He said it was a shortcut, but I told him I knew the area well and not to try any tricks. If that one doesn’t suit you, there must be others.”

“I know about that one. Saw it listed it in the paper a few days ago and thought it might be worth a look.” The way Shane said it, confident, interested, made Ben’s heart sink.

“And what did the estate agent think?” Gladys asked. “I assume you called him and didn’t sit twiddling your thumbs?”

He’s going to say he has no clue because he hasn’t talked to him. Hasn’t even considered talking to him.

“Thinks it would be easy enough. Place has been on the market nearly a year,” Shane admitted, and Ben’s heart fell somewhere down into the pit of his stomach as he remembered the FOR SALE notice on the window of the place they’d had lunch that day. The Queen’s Arms.

How could Shane have taken even the preliminary step of calling the estate agent without discussing it with him first? And when had he had time? They’d been together around the clock for the most part since landing. Ben thought back. Okay, a few days. What had they done? Head buzzing with questions, it took a moment or two for him to calm down enough to remember them splitting up on a busy day, Shane going to finalize the details with the caterers while Ben stayed in the hotel room answering e-mails from home about a mix-up in a delivery.

It explained Shane’s moodiness and lengthy, withdrawn silences, at least.

“Well, there you are. Of course, you’ll need to keep your father away, or he’ll drink up your profits.”

“Hang on.” Shane shook his head like an animal beset by flies. “It’s not settled. How can it be? It was a phone call. I’ve seen the place, but I’m not sure it’s a suitable area for the kind of bar I run.”

“Shane—” Ben said it without volume, but Shane whipped his head around as if he’d shouted. “You’re staying here?” That emerged loud enough to be heard, but as more of an accusation than a question.

Guilt darkened Shane’s eyes, but he shrugged, not meeting Ben’s gaze. “Haven’t decided. Haven’t decided anything. Where’s the whiskey? I need a drink.”

“Like father, like son,” Gladys muttered and went back into the house, the emphatic tap of her walking stick echoing in Ben’s ears.

Ben waited. Waited for Shane to look at him, to say he was joking, to apologize or explain or…something. Anything. But Shane, shoulders hunched, kept his gaze firmly on the ground. His hands were tucked into his pockets. Ben did his best to think of what to say, but what was there? Accusations, questions, anger, devastation.

The end of his world.

Not knowing what else to do, Ben moved blindly into the house and went to the kitchen, where he pasted on a smile and asked Maggie what he could do to help. Apparently he was a better actor that he thought, because she didn’t seem to notice anything wrong and set him to work collecting abandoned half-empty glasses from around the house and washing them. Grief made people forgetful. It was easier than he would have thought to travel through the house without making eye contact with Shane. It didn’t even feel like he was there. He was moving between worlds like a ghost; it wouldn’t have surprised him if he’d bumped into Donna or if she’d also been gathering glasses marked with fingerprints and lipstick.

At one point, Shane stepped into his path. “Benedict.”

“No.” Whatever it was Shane wanted to tell him, he couldn’t bear to hear it surrounded by strangers. “Later.”

Shane smelled of whiskey and smoke, overlaying the familiar scent of his skin and clothing. He was a stranger in that moment, his accent, the tilt of his head when he considered Ben’s snapped words.

“Later it is.”

“Do you need— No, I guess you don’t. I’m going back to the hotel. I’ll see you…”

“Later.”

The repetition of the word sounded mocking, though Ben knew how drunks latched on to a phrase and parroted it endlessly. Shane wasn’t that drunk, though. Ben shoved past him and made for the door, blinded by tears he refused to let fall.

Outside, the heat of the August day had cooled. Clouds overhead, swept across the sky by a rising wind, promised rain. It was supposed to rain all the time in England, wasn’t it? Why would anyone want to live where it poured down constantly, and the streets were narrow as the eye of a needle, everyone crammed into a tiny island—

He cut off his bitter thoughts and walked to the end of the street. There’d be a taxi along soon, or he could just walk the whole way.

He had nothing better to do.

Chapter Seventeen

Shane crept into the hotel room a few minutes past midnight, hours after Benedict had left him to deal with family and his mother’s friends. Not that it was possible to blame him under the circumstances. He hadn’t dreamed his Aunt Gladys would give away the game before he had a chance to share the plans racing through his head with Benedict. Christ, the look on Benedict’s face when he’d overheard…

He’d hoped Benedict would still be up so they could talk, but it was late and it had been a horrendously long day. The lights were off except for the one in the bathroom, and Benedict was sprawled across the bed on top of the duvet in nothing but his boxer briefs.

He contemplated sleeping in the chair, but Benedict sighed and rolled over to make room for him. “Couldn’t sleep,” Benedict said quietly. “I wasn’t sure you were coming back.”

“Of course I was coming back. Would have been here earlier if my dad hadn’t been trying to convince half the family to stay for one more drink.”

“Did you drive?”

It wasn’t accusatory, but it put Shane on the defensive anyway. “Yeah. I’m sober.”

Benedict squirmed into a sitting position, tugging the duvet up to cover himself. “You must be tired.”

“Shattered,” Shane agreed. “Didn’t like the way we left things, though.”

“Neither did I.” Benedict ran his fingers through his hair, probably trying to neaten it, when there wasn’t a thing wrong with it the way it was. He hadn’t looked at Shane properly since he’d come in, but now he did. “Are you staying?”

No surprise he’d been thinking that, so Shane was quick to reassure him. “Without you? Not a chance.”

Benedict swallowed heavily. “Are you sure?”

He wasn’t sure of anything. He’d seen that the pub was for sale, and in an idle moment, telling himself it’d be interesting to compare prices here with property in the States, he’d taken the step of calling the estate agent. He’d meant to share his findings with Benedict, but the time had never been right.

When had it occurred to him to take his curiosity further and contemplate moving? Hard to say. But being here even for a few days had strengthened his ties to the place to such an extent that flying away seemed like a betrayal of who he was.

This was where his mum had lived and died and where his dad was. Alfie needed someone to look after him, and who else was there? But staying without Benedict was unthinkable. A punishment for doing what he was sure was the right thing.

“’Course I am. But coming back here’s got me thinking. Maybe it’s time I gave the place a second chance.”

“Along with your old boyfriend?” Ben held up his hand. “No, don’t answer that. It was a cheap shot, and I didn’t mean it.”

Aghast, hurt, Shane said vehemently, “I wouldn’t go out with Daniel again. We’ve moved on. It wouldn’t work. You and me, we work. But that’s true if we’re here, the States, or Timbuktu.”

Surely Benedict could see that?

“Yes, but…”

“We’re here until Wednesday. Wouldn’t hurt to take a closer look at the Queen’s Arms, now, would it? Bit of an old-fashioned name, but it would appeal to the clientele we’d want to attract.” Shane smiled encouragingly, needing Benedict to smile back and agree. “At least it’s not one of those fucking chains, every pub the same. It’s freehold. Sells a decent pint, from what people were telling me today. The owner and his wife are retiring to Spain, so they want to sell it. Prices around here are low compared to the rest of the country, and—”

“Shane. Enough.” The heavy droop of Benedict’s mouth spoke of bone-deep fatigue. “You said talk, and this is too one-sided to qualify as a conversation. Leave it until the morning, okay? I’m tired, and today… Today’s been rough for both of us.”

“Yeah. Okay.” Shane wanted to know the answer, but he was afraid of what Benedict might say. “I thought maybe I’d sleep—” And it turned out he was too much a coward to even finish the sentence, so he gestured at the chair in illustration.

Benedict shook his head, and it wasn’t reassuring. “Don’t be stupid. Come to bed. I won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.”

He knew that and shed all his clothes before getting under the duvet. Didn’t reach out for Benedict, though, no matter how desperately he wanted to.

“Do you want to…?” Benedict asked, sounding hesitant, and Shane slid toward him across four inches that a moment before had felt like a hundred miles.

They wrapped their arms around each other and slept.

* * * * *

The Queen’s Arms would be easy enough to convert to suit them, and the asking price was quite a bit less than Shane had thought. “It’s because it’s been on the market nearly a year,” the estate agent said, as if doing them a favor sharing information they could’ve looked up online in two minutes’ time. “The owners are keen to sell at this point. I don’t think any reasonable offer would be refused.”

Reasonable was in the eye of the beholder, Shane knew. What was important was that the Peg was worth considerably more, and he was confident it would be easy to sell. They’d had a few casual inquiries over the past year or so but always said they weren’t interested in moving on. And they hadn’t been. Now, though…

For a moment he flinched inwardly, picturing the Peg with other owners, people who’d change the place, wipe away any trace of Shane and Benedict’s time there, but he told himself he was being childish. The Peg was bricks and mortar. People mattered, not places. Family mattered. And his dad was the only blood relative he had left. It was bitterly ironic it’d taken the loss of the parent he loved to make him appreciate the one he’d hated for years, but he was determined that when Alfie died, there would be sorrow, but no guilt weighing him down.

He couldn’t go through another week like this. Grieving was one thing, but the suffocating guilt was unbearable.

“And the clientele?” Benedict asked.

They’d have to come in the evening and check it out themselves, of course. The place was closed this early in the day.

“You mean because you want to make it a gay bar?” The estate agent smiled. “I’ve been told by people I trust that it won’t be a problem. The place has a reputation for being gay-friendly, plenty of gay customers on a regular basis. I don’t think it would be much of a challenge, especially for two practiced businessmen like yourselves.”

“It’s not always about having enough experience,” Benedict said. “I’ll check out the office space, if that’s okay?”

Shane watched him walk away, a shiver passing through him for no reason. Blame it on a goose walking over his grave, as his granny said.

“Your partner doesn’t seem keen on the place.”

“It’d mean a big upheaval in his life. Not surprising he’s got doubts.”

A song Shane didn’t recognize kicked in, and the estate agent took out his phone. “Another client. I’ll take it outside. Why don’t you wander around by yourself?”

Left alone, Shane inhaled deeply, drawing in the scent of beer and the lemon polish someone had used on the bar. He pictured the place full of customers and noise. Him behind the bar with Benedict, Patrick flirting with— No. No Patrick. No Vin. None of the staff who’d become a group of friends, close as family. No David next door in his restaurant, no one from the nearby shops popping in at lunchtime for a pint and a sandwich.

None of that was good, but he’d started with the most important factor—Benedict beside him.

“It’s more cramped than I’d like in the office, but the cellars are a good size and they don’t smell damp.” Benedict walked over to the bar, then ran his hand over the polished surface. “I wonder how old this is.”

“The pub opened its doors in 1890. Could be the original one.”

“Wow. That’s so old.”

Shane smiled. It was an effort, as if his muscles had forgotten how to move that way. For all Benedict’s purposeful questions, his lack of enthusiasm was obvious. “Nah. The oldest pub in Liverpool is Ye Hole in Ye Wall. That’s built on a Quaker burial site. Dates back to 1726, if I’m not mistaken.”

“It’s a whole different world.” Benedict was trying, that much was also clear. It made it hard to be angry with him. “Do you think he was right about the clientele?” He gestured toward the window, through which the estate agent could be seen.

“I do, but not because he was the one who said it.” Shane had done some checking around, including a quick call asking Daniel what he thought—though he wouldn’t mention that to Benedict unless he had to—and he was confident they’d be okay. It might take a year to get the appearance of the pub up to snuff, but that was a challenge he’d enjoy. They’d sort out a casual partnership with that kink club, maybe, one to benefit both parties. “I grew up here, remember?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” Benedict said. “But you’ve been gone for a long time too.”

That could easily have been the start of an argument, and Shane was doing his best to avoid those, so he nodded and shifted the subject. “That space they’ve been using for storage could become a small kitchen if we decided to go that route.”

“True.” They’d agreed that they wouldn’t jump into renovations right off the bat, so Benedict’s noncommittal attitude was reasonable enough. “Some of the current staff would probably be willing to stay on.”

The estate agent rejoined them. “They’d be grateful not to have to search for new jobs.”

“Unlike our staff at the Peg, who’d be fired by whoever we sold the place to,” Benedict remarked, a nasty edge to the words.

“We’d make keeping them on a condition of the sale,” Shane said impatiently.

“Sure, that’d work. Because we both know it’s impossible to find a reason to let someone go. Oh, wait. It isn’t. They’d bring in new people. Their people. Start with a clean slate. No way would they let someone Vin’s age be in charge the way we do. And Patrick takes some getting used to.”

The estate agent stepped back. “Um, I can see you’ve got plenty to mull over. Suppose we lock up here and you get in touch if you want to submit an offer.”

“Yeah.” Shane stared at Benedict, who avoided his gaze, mouth pinched tight. “I’ll do that.”

Once out on the street in a light drizzle that soaked through their jackets remarkably fast, Shane said bluntly, “You don’t want to do this.”

Benedict snorted. “That’s news to you? Jesus, Shane, we came here to bury your mom, not turn our lives upside down! And it doesn’t affect only us. You can’t make a decision like this when you’re emotionally unstable and we’re due to fly back in a few days. It’s insane. You don’t even have a bank account over here. How would you get a mortgage?”

“Wouldn’t need one. What we’d get for the Peg would be enough to buy this place and do it up.”

“Yeah? Think you could swing it on half what you get for the Peg?”

Shock and betrayal kept him silent for a moment. “Are you changing your mind about coming with me?”

“I don’t know.” There was that weariness again, as if Benedict was running out of strength to argue. “Splitting up would kill me, but I don’t want to leave home.”

“Well, this is my—”

“You’ve lived in the States longer than you lived here and you’ve loved it, so don’t act as if you’ve been in exile or something.” The wind took the rain and blew it directly at them. Benedict hunched his shoulders. “Is it what your aunt said about your dad? I know he’s sad now, but he’s not so old he needs someone to take care of him, and even if he did, I’m not sure you’re the best person for the job. You don’t get along, and you never will.”

“You don’t know that.” Shane stopped when Benedict turned to look at him. He’d been touched by Alfie wading into the fight at the match, reminded of how Alfie had had his back as a kid when a teacher or child had picked on him. Maybe Alfie had wanted the release of some mindless violence, nothing more, but it had felt like they were a team. He’d liked that feeling. “Things change.”

“Yeah. Tell me something I don’t know.” For a minute they stood there in the rain, facing each other.

“I hate this.” Shane blurted the words out, not making any attempt to hold them back. “I thought we were a team. I don’t want to lose that.” The thought of losing Benedict made him feel sick, but what the hell else was he meant to do, swan off back to the States and leave his dad here? That was what he’d done to his mum—chosen a boyfriend over his family—and it’d left her alone in life, her only child on the other side of the ocean.

“I don’t either.” The rain came down harder, but they stood there doing their best to ignore it. “I’m trying, okay? Can you cut me some slack here?”

Relief flooded him. If Benedict was willing to stick it out until they could move and get settled, he could do anything. Shane reached out and grabbed the front of Benedict’s shirt, tugging him in for a rough hug. “Yeah, I can cut you some slack,” he said into Benedict’s wet curls. “I know you’re trying. We’ll sort it, won’t we? Did it with the Peg, and look how that turned out.”

“Right. We can do it here too. You’re right. Of course you are.”

But Benedict sounded as if he was trying to convince himself, and Shane had to pretend not to see the look in his eyes when he pulled back.

“Come on, let’s get out of this rain before we catch our death.”

Back at the hotel, showered, changed, and drinking the coffee they’d picked up on the way, Shane’s spirits lifted. Benedict had been surprised, that was all, and no wonder. He wasn’t a man who liked change, and Shane admitted this was a huge one. But Alfie was the only family he had left now, and Benedict had none, so why not move over here? If they were together, their location didn’t matter, and it made sense to get settled before the time came that Alfie did need looking after. The way he drank, cirrhosis of the liver wasn’t far off.

He’d miss the crew at the Peg, but they could visit. Flights were cheap these days, and it wasn’t a million miles away. A short drive to Manchester, seven hours on the plane, another hour’s drive to the Peg… With the five-hour time difference helping out, they could eat breakfast here and supper in the Empty Box.

And he’d be lying if he said he didn’t like the idea of returning home with money to take over a thriving pub and make a success of it. Everyone who’d sneered when Shane had come out as gay, saying he was a pervert with a criminal for a dad… Well, he remembered their names, and he’d love to throw their words back in their faces, along with a pint of slops if they weren’t careful.

Coming back had woken a dormant homesickness. Every word spoken over here was a siren call, the familiar accent making him realize how his had changed subtly, traitorously. He’d been absorbed by a foreign country, and he wanted to get back to his roots.

That was natural, not selfish. Benedict would see that, given time to adjust.

He swallowed the last of his coffee and tossed the paper cup in the wastepaper bin. “Fancy a night in, love? We could get a takeaway delivered to the front desk and watch a movie.”

“I guess so. Is that my phone?” Benedict jumped off the bed and hurried to the bathroom, where his damp jacket hung over the shower rail. “Patrick? Hi. What’s—” He paused in the doorway, an expression of worry creeping slowly over his face. “Okay, stop. No, I’m serious. Take a deep breath.” Striding across the room, he found the pad of notepaper the hotel had provided and scribbled something on it, then thrust it into Shane’s hand.

Vin, hospital.

Shane’s stomach lurched, shock holding him silent as he pictured the worst. If he could’ve snapped his fingers and taken them home, he would’ve done it. Being thousands of miles away, unable to help in a crisis left him feeling helpless.

And if he left England and Alfie, how many times would he feel that way in the years to come, as Alfie got older and even less able to take care of himself? Torn between concern for Vincent and his growing certainty he was needed here, he strained to hear Patrick’s voice.

“Okay. And what did the doctor say? What about— Okay, good. No, tell him not to worry. Patrick.” Benedict rarely sounded so sharp when he spoke with Patrick, whom he seemed to have a soft spot for, so Shane knew Patrick must be losing it. “He’ll be okay.” Benedict was quiet, listening, running a hand through his hair. He sank down on the edge of the bed. “I know. We’ll get on the first flight back. I’ll text Helen the details. No. Tell him…tell him we love him and we’ll be home as soon as we can. Right.” He hung up and rubbed his mouth before turning to Shane. “They don’t know what it is. Patrick says he’s been sick for days, insisting it was a touch of food poisoning, but this afternoon he doubled over and they had to take him to the emergency room.”

“Christ.” Shane reached for Benedict’s hand, clutching it hard. Not as bad as he’d feared, but he couldn’t bear the thought of Vincent—young, healthy, smiling Vincent—lying in a hospital bed.

“At first they thought it might be kidney stones—isn’t he too young for those?—but they did some tests and it’s not. So now they’re thinking it’s his appendix, but they’re still not sure. They’re going to do exploratory surgery in a couple of hours.” Benedict squeezed Shane’s fingers. “I should call Helen. Patrick’s on the verge of hysteria, and I couldn’t tell if it’s because he’s Patrick or because Vin’s…” He swallowed and shook his head. “We’d better pack.”

Shane was struggling to make sense of what was happening. “We have a meeting with the bank people Monday morning. And I’m meant to take my dad to that doctor’s appointment on Tuesday morning. He’s been putting off his yearly for a decade, and God knows he won’t go unless someone drives him and walks him to the front door.” He willed Benedict to understand. He couldn’t risk Alfie’s health, not after what had happened to his mum.

“I know. We’ll have to reschedule, or maybe we can have the meeting over the phone or something.” Benedict looked at him and realized. “Oh.”

“I’ll come home on Wednesday like we’d planned,” Shane told him. “You know how dramatic Patrick is. This probably isn’t as dire as he made it sound.”

“Okay.” Benedict stood, moving as if on autopilot. “Sure, that’s fine.”

“Vincent’s got his family. Lots of family,” Shane persisted. “He doesn’t need us. What could we do besides visit him?”

“Patrick needs us. You should have heard him. He was melted down, terrified. And he turned to us because he doesn’t have anyone else. Vin’s family likes him, but they’ll close ranks for this. And from a practical point of view, we—someone needs to be there to cover Vin’s shifts, and Patrick’s too.”

“The temp agency will send someone around.”

“That’s a needless expense. I’m going back, Shane. Now let me make some calls. If you won’t go with me, could you at least start packing my things?”

As ever in a crisis, Benedict was calm, controlled, and in charge of the situation. He refused to accept anything that didn’t suit him. He spoke with the airline representative patiently, with the attitude that in the end he’d get what he wanted, and of course he did.

And of course, it wasn’t quite good enough.

“I couldn’t get a flight until morning.” Benedict tossed his cell phone onto the bed, his unbreakable patience in shards, by the sound of it. “Oh, there were flights tonight, but they wouldn’t get me home until the same time as the one that leaves tomorrow morning. I don’t want to risk missing a connection.”

Shane had seen Benedict angry plenty of times, but this was different. “I suppose I needn’t have packed your clothes, then.”

“It’s fine. Now I won’t have to do it in the morning.” Benedict was focused on his journey, not Shane, and it hurt more than Shane would have guessed. “I’ll eat something if you want to order in. God, I have to text Helen.” He picked up his phone again.

Shane felt the barriers between them rising, thick and solid. Benedict was making plans that didn’t include him, physically present, mentally absent. And soon he’d be gone. Shane felt as if he were hurtling toward an inevitable collision in a car with no brakes or steering. He couldn’t avoid Benedict’s departure, and resolving the impasse he’d created with his plan to move would be even more difficult once they were apart.

His chance to convince Benedict to make a go of it in England had come and gone, and he’d failed. Benedict was still talking as if the move would happen, but how much of that was sincere? Out of sight, out of mind. Get him behind the bar at the Peg, and he’d change his tune in a heartbeat.

By the time the meal Shane ordered had arrived, Benedict had finished his calls and texts and was lying on the bed with an arm over his eyes. Not asleep. Shane didn’t say anything when the front desk rang up to say the delivery man was there, and when he came back, Benedict sat up and accepted the food without comment.

“So are we going to go from now until I drop you off at the airport without speaking?”

Benedict took a small mouthful of sweet-and-sour chicken, then set the plastic container aside in favor of a sip from a can of lime-flavored sparkling water. “You don’t need to take me. It means getting up at five. I’ll book a taxi.”

That was too much for Shane to take. “Stop punishing me for staying to finish what I started. If you think you need to rush back, fine, go, but it doesn’t take two of us to hold Patrick’s hand, and I told you I’ll be on the flight we booked.”

“Will you?” Benedict smiled, a bitter smile Shane hated seeing on his face. Where was the love, the warmth he was used to? “Oh, right. You have to come back to help arrange the sale of the Peg. And I guess I have to sell my house too. Arrange visas, work permits, whatever this country requires, and all at a moment’s notice. Except it’s not that easy, so you’ll probably stay here and handle things at this end while I deal with things at home. You trust me to do that, I assume? I mean, you didn’t trust me enough to discuss this plan of yours, but—”

Shane sank onto the bed and took Benedict’s hand. “You’re crap at sarcasm, so don’t bother trying. Yeah, maybe I’ll end up having to delay the flight a few more days, but I’m not staying here without you. Benedict, if you’re not with me in this, I’ll fail. Remember the Peg when you first saw it? What a dump it was with me in charge? Think about it now. We rebuilt it.”

“Twice.” Thank Christ, some of the frost had thawed. Benedict’s reminiscent smile was faint but genuine.

“Twice. Yeah. And we can do that here. Third time lucky. We, love. We. Not me.” Shane squeezed Benedict’s hand, unwilling to release it. “I need you. I love you. Please. You like me begging, but I won’t go to my knees for this. Man-to-man, I’m asking you to do this with me.”

Benedict frowned, concern darkening his eyes. “When you’re on your knees, you’re not any less a man. We’re equals, always.”

Shane gave a dismissive grunt. “You can get me to believe plenty, but you’re the better man and I know it. Doesn’t matter. Think it over on the flight. Crunch the numbers when you get back. Don’t tell me yes or no yet.”

“It’s already yes. You know that.” Regardless of his words, Benedict was clearly unhappy. “It’s too much to take in, and I don’t have a switch in my brain to make the adjustment automatic. I wish I did.”

“That’s the thing,” Shane told him. “I don’t want you to decide now, then force yourself to make the adjustment. I want you to think on it.”

“But what if I do and the answer’s no? What then?” Benedict’s eyes searched his for a solution to a problem that might not have one.

“Then we stay with the Peg.” Until he’d got the phone call about his mum, it had been the only plan he’d had, and he’d been content with it. Now the thought made him feel a gray, twisted combination of guilt and shame, and something of that must have shown on his face, because Benedict shook his head.

“And have you miserable because you think you owe it to your dad and your mom’s memory to be here taking care of him? No.” Benedict sighed. “This sucks. The situation, I mean.”

Shane tugged until Benedict leaned in, head against his shoulder. He kissed Benedict’s crazy hair. “Life’s hard to predict, but we’ll sort it out in the end. It won’t be so bad, living here, will it?”

“No. Of course not.” But his tone was unconvincing, and Shane couldn’t help but wonder how they were going to get through this.

Sometimes problems had no solutions.

* * * * *

“Text me when you land,” Shane said next morning at the airport, though Benedict had assured him at least twice that he would.

“Yes.” They were standing off to one side, out of the way of all the travelers intent on getting through security as quickly as possible, Benedict looking tired and worried. “And you won’t forget to tell your dad I said good-bye? I feel awful leaving without seeing him. No, you know what, I’ll call him later. I mean, you can still tell him—”

“Love. It’ll be all right.” Shane kissed him, not caring there were dozens of people to see. “Rest on the plane. And let me know the latest on Vincent when you can.”

He wasn’t worried about Vincent. Wasn’t contemplating the worst-case scenarios. Appendix, probably. Easy. Yeah. Inoperable cancers and mystery diseases, definitely not. He wasn’t superstitious or into woo-woo stuff like positive thinking, but he had a feeling the universe listened to gloomy predictions and took deep delight in making them come true.

So Vincent would be back behind the bar in no time. Sorted.

Funny how picturing Vincent standing there, the long fall of his black hair tidy in a ponytail, his tattoos on display, Patrick never far away, comforted him when, if all went the way he hoped, with the Peg sold, that image would become a memory. He should picture Vincent and Patrick somewhere else. Not in their apartment over the Peg, because they’d have to leave that, even if they kept their jobs. The new owner would most likely move in.

They’re young, he told himself. They’ll cope. Too young to settle in one place, with one job. This will be good for them. And Shelly’s always going to land on her feet, hard worker like her. Maybe David can get her a job in his place.

“Shane?” Benedict shook his arm lightly. “You drifted off. Get a coffee before you drive back. You can’t have gotten more than a couple hours’ sleep.”

“I’m fine.” God, he hated lingering good-byes, but walking away from Benedict before he absolutely had to was impossible.

Benedict spared him that. He kissed Shane once more, lightly but possessively, leaving Shane with his lips parted, wanting more, then nodded and turned away, hurrying, as if it was the only way he could bear to leave.

Shane swallowed hard, blinking, his chest constricted. Just like that. Gone.

He stood alone in the crowd until he came to his senses and retraced his steps to the car.

Chapter Eighteen

Ben shut off his car—God, it felt strange to be behind the wheel of a car again—and climbed out, grateful for the chance to stretch his legs. After hours on the plane, he was stiff and sore and glad to be home. He checked to make sure the car was locked, then followed the hospital’s parking-garage signs to the elevator.

It was unsettling to walk into the same hospital Shane had been in after the fire at the Peg, even though Shane hadn’t been badly hurt, and there’d been a text from Helen waiting for him when he’d gotten off the plane saying Vin was expected to make a full recovery. Hospitals in general were unsettling, he supposed.

He paused in the doorway to Vin’s room, taking in the sight of his young friends: Vin in the hospital bed, covers tucked up around him, eyes closed, Patrick curled up on a chair placed as close to the bed as physically possible, fingers interlaced with Vin’s. Patrick looked up, and the gentle smile that spread over his face when he saw Ben standing there warmed Ben’s heart.

“You’re here,” he said softly.

“I’m sorry it took so long.” Ben headed toward him. “No, no, don’t get up. Stay there.” He enfolded Patrick in a careful, awkward half hug, and Patrick grabbed on to the back of his shirt, hand tightened into a fist, breath hitching unevenly. “Shh. I know. He’s okay.”

“He will be.” Patrick wiped at his eyes when Ben patted his shoulder. “You must be exhausted.”

“I’m fine,” Ben lied. “You don’t look like you’ve been sleeping much.”

Patrick’s hair, usually spiked with product, was limp and flattened on one side. “I crashed last night after he got out of surgery. I think I was out for ten hours or something. The nurse slid me over next to the wall and left me there. You wouldn’t believe the crick I had in my neck when I woke up.”

“Maybe you should go home for a few hours,” Ben suggested. Their whole conversation was still being carried on in whispers. “I can stay here with him.”

“You’re crazy.” Patrick’s eyes looked small and strange washed clean of his typical dramatic eyeliner. “No way.”

“Can I get you something? Food? Drink?”

“I’m good, thanks. My blood’s been replaced by caffeine and sugar as it is.” Patrick tilted his head like a bird studying a worm. “You look awful. Did you come here straight from the airport? Where’s Shane?”

“Yeah.” Returning to an empty house hadn’t appealed, even if his concern for Vin hadn’t overridden his need for a shower and a nap. Ignoring Patrick’s last question, he said, “I’m okay. I’ve been up since four. That’s, uh, eleven last night, our time.”

“I can’t do math right now, but you need some sleep.”

“If I was back in England, it still wouldn’t be my bedtime, so I don’t.” Ben leaned against the wall since there wasn’t another chair. “It was his appendix?”

Patrick nodded. “It flared up and ruptured, but they got in there and got everything cleaned out. He’ll have a scar. Totally badass.”

The quaver in his voice made Ben want to hug him again, but he settled for a reassuring smile. The room was warm, the clinical smell catching the back of his throat. Leaving so soon would be rude, but he longed for fresh air. Flying upset his system, as if his mind couldn’t adjust to the rapid relocation of his body.

And his thoughts were with Shane—another reason he didn’t feel wholly present.

“Is Shane at the Peg? It’s fine there, honest. Everyone’s pitching in, rallying around. You know the drill.” Patrick gave him an anxious look. “Vin was amazing when you were gone. Totally took charge. He wouldn’t let me get away with anything. Not that I tried!”

“I know you didn’t,” Ben reassured him. “Shane had to, um, stay a few more days to help his dad wrap up some stuff. He’ll be back Wednesday as planned.” He was prepared for Patrick to see through him to the truth, that Shane wasn’t coming back, at least not for good, but fortunately Patrick’s sometimes-keen intuition seemed to be on the fritz.

Vin stirred and opened his eyes. “You didn’t have to come home early.” His voice was rough.

Ben looked at Patrick, whose face had lit up with pleasure when Vin woke. “And you think I’m the one who’s crazy?”

“I told him not to call you.” Vin licked chapped lips and gestured at the tray table, where a small pitcher of ice was melting into water. “Can I have some?”

“Sure. And I told you that he and Shane would want to know. Which they did, and it’s not like I asked him to come home.” Patrick fed Vin some ice from a spoon.

“Shane would have come too, but he had to help his dad with a few things before he could leave.”

Vin crunched ice and swallowed. “I heard. Anyway, I’m okay. Or I will be once they let me out of here. Helen’s at the Peg. Everything’s fine. I talked to her first thing this morning.”

“So did I, and I’m not worried about the Peg at all, so stop trying to reassure me, and focus on resting and getting better. I don’t want you back at work a day before you’re ready. I mean it.” It wasn’t hard to glare at Vin for emphasis. “That’s what Rich and Colin and the temp agency are for. Helen’s on top of things, and Dave’s right next door if she needs advice and can’t reach me. And anyway, I’m back now.” He felt off balance, not ready to step back into real life, but he didn’t have a choice.

Emergencies only worked as excuses for a short time, and the one that’d taken him out of the country was over now. Donna had been buried and mourned, and life for those who knew and loved her was going on, as it always did. With no Shane around in need of his support, Ben could use jet lag for a day, maybe two. Then he was out of reasons not to be his usual efficient self.

“Yes, boss.” Vin’s smile was dopey and sweet, whatever painkillers he was on clearly blurring the edges of his world. Ben envied him.

“I’ll leave you two alone for now, but I’ll be back, and if there’s anything, anything at all—”

Patrick rose and flung himself into Ben’s arms, hugging him with lavish affection. His slim body was trembling, as if with his face hidden against Ben’s shoulder, he could relax his guard for a moment. But when he pulled free, he was smiling brightly.

“I’d adore a raspberry-peppermint Frappucino with dark-chocolate shavings and extra whipped cream if you wanted to bring me one.”

“Is that even real?”

Patrick dimpled. “It will be when I convince the barista to invent it for me, but she keeps saying she’s too busy.”

“I could get you something else,” Ben offered.

After blowing him a kiss, Patrick shook his head. “I’m teasing. Shoo. Take care of yourself tonight. We’re fine here.” He turned back to Vin, who’d fallen asleep again, and sighed, lips drooping tremulously. “I miss him being huggable. He’s hurting in so many places.”

Ben longed to hug Shane, but even if he’d been there, things between them would be strained and awkward. They’d been thrown into a situation in which compromise wasn’t an option; if either of them came out the winner, the other would inevitably be the loser. In that moment, watching Patrick gaze lovingly at Vin, Ben told himself that since he and Shane had only one living parent between them, there was no way he was going to be the reason Shane was separated from his father.

As much as he loved his home and the Square Peg and, most importantly, his friends, Shane’s happiness had to come first. He’d never forgive himself if he had to watch Shane go through the loss of a parent a second time, distraught with guilt over their lack of relationship and sorrow over the time together they’d lost, knowing he could have done something to prevent it but had chosen his wants over his partner’s.

“Text me if you need anything,” he said to Patrick. “I mean it. If I find out you didn’t, I’ll, um, fire you.”

“Your threats terrify me to my core. Go on, get out of here.”

Ben didn’t get farther than the sidewalk before pulling out his phone and calling Shane. It rang five times before Shane answered, already talking. “Bloody thing, never should have gone with the— Benedict? Are you there?”

“I’m here. Are you swearing at the poor prepaid cell phone again?” God, hearing Shane’s voice made him feel better. There was a bench nearby, and he sat, so exhausted that standing seemed too difficult. “Talk to me for a minute?”

“What’s wrong?” In the background, he heard people laughing, and music. Familiar. “Is it our Vincent?”

“He’s fine. Patrick’s a wreck, of course, but they’re okay. Where are you?”

“Thought I should come for a drink at the Queen’s Arms. Check the place out while it’s in full swing.”

No wonder the sounds were so recognizable. “How is it?”

“Busy.” It got quieter; Shane must have stepped outside. “It’ll be okay.”

“I know. It’s going to be fine. I’ll call first thing in the morning and see if that Realtor we used when we bought the Empty Box is available to, you know, make some initial suggestions about how to handle things on this end. I think he only does commercial real estate, not residential, but I’m sure he can hook us up with someone who can help us sell the house. We’ll figure it out.”

“You’re not just saying that?”

Yes. “No.” Okay, it wasn’t entirely a lie, but coherence had left the building. “You want this, and we’re a team. If the Queen’s Arms falls through because we can’t sell the Peg fast enough, it’s not the only pub in the area. One way or another, we’ll do this.”

“It’s this place or nothing. If it falls through, it wasn’t meant to be.”

“No,” Ben said again. “The universe doesn’t work that way. Forget it for now. Go back inside. Is it still raining?”

“Stopped an hour ago.”

“It’s hot here, but humid. See,” Ben joked, forcing himself to chuckle, “I’m talking about the weather like a proper Brit.”

“I love you. Miss you already.”

The longing in the words made Ben’s heart ache. “Me too. We’ll see each other soon. Okay, this is costing a fortune.”

“Use the landline next time,” Shane advised. “I’m moving in with Dad for the next few days. Makes it easier and it saves us the cost of the room, so you can reach me there.”

Ben wanted to ask if it was worth it, but the “few days” silenced him. Shane had clearly decided to push his return past the planned date. It made sense with so much to do over there, but it was hard not to feel desperately alone, adrift in confusion.

He ended the call and found his car, driving home on automatic pilot. The Peg, the inevitable questions, and his news could wait. He’d reached his limit.

After shuffling into the house, he abandoned his suitcase inside the front door, kicked off his shoes, and shed the rest of his clothes in the bathroom, leaving them on the floor. He did the bare minimum required, including brushing his teeth, then crawled into bed without remembering to hit the light switch.

I’ll notice that when I wake up in the middle of the night, he thought, and in the moment between that thought and the next, he fell asleep.

Ben didn’t wake during the night and in fact slept a solid fourteen hours before opening to his eyes to discover, to his astonishment, that it was ten in the morning. At first he couldn’t remember getting home; then he couldn’t recall where his clothes and phone were. He took a long, hot shower that made him feel human again, then texted Shane.

Just got up, off to the Peg soon. How are you?

The response didn’t come until he was rummaging through the cabinets looking for something he could eat for breakfast. The bread had gone moldy, and the milk was bad. He held his breath and poured it down the sink with the faucet running, watching the white liquid thin out, then disappear.

Meeting with the bank people went well. Will call later to fill you in.

Okay, then. That was probably good. He needed to be able to focus on what had been happening at the bar they owned before he worried about one they hadn’t yet purchased.

OK. Tell Alfie I say hi.

In the end, he stopped at a coffee shop and bought himself a huge, strong coffee—two shots of espresso helped with that—a dozen doughnuts and a box of pastries to take with him to the Peg. It never hurt to return bearing gifts, and he knew the Peg’s employees well. Sugar was always welcome.

The bar was closed still, but when he slipped through the back door and made his way to the break room, he found Patrick and Helen with a man he didn’t recognize but knew must be the guy from the temp agency.

“Ben!” Patrick was still washed-out, eyes shadowed with fatigue, but he babbled as if he’d gotten an endless supply of energy. “Vin’s on the mend, and his mom kicked me out. She gave me a hug first, but she said I was making Vin nervous. He coughed, and I thought maybe his stitches had burst, so I hit this button that’s only for emergencies, and it turned out it wasn’t and—”

“Hi, Helen.” Ben reached over Patrick’s head and handed her the pastries. “I didn’t have time to buy gifts in England, so this is a peace offering.” He smiled at the stranger the temp agency had sent, searching his memory for a name. “You must be Christian. Thanks for helping out.”

“It’s been a blast.” Christian was tall, his dark skin flawless and his white T-shirt showcasing muscular arms and a broad chest. Definitely an asset behind the bar. Ben found himself sucking in his stomach before he realized the futility of competing with a man ten years younger and immeasurably fitter. “If you’re back, does that mean I’m surplus to requirements?”

“No, not at all. My partner’s stayed in England a little longer, and with Vin out, we’re still shorthanded. It’d be great if you could stick around.”

Christian nodded. “Then I’ll go and wash glasses. We’re running low.”

“Take a Danish first.” Helen offered him his choice from the box. “Reduce the temptation.”

“You won’t eat one of those anyway,” Christian said. “You’re too spoiled by the lovely Montana’s baking.” He plucked a cheese Danish from the collection with two fingers and went off, and Patrick, who had pulled himself together, took a pastry too.

Rewarding Patrick for his restraint, Ben gave him the attention he was craving. “Now, what were you saying?”

“I don’t know,” Patrick admitted. “I think I’m in a coma. Is it possible to be in a walking coma?” He was subdued now and looked down at his pastry with a bemused frown, as if it were an object he couldn’t identify.

“Apparently yes.” Helen set the box down and took hold of his elbow. “I’m going to walk your coma upstairs, and you’re going to get some sleep. Right, boss?”

“Right,” Ben said.

“But I wasn’t here yesterday,” Patrick protested. “Or most of the day before that. I have to work today.”

“Sleep now. Come back downstairs and work when you wake up.” Ben decided that even though he wasn’t hungry, he should eat something, so he selected a doughnut and took a bite while Helen led Patrick, still insisting he could manage his shift, toward the staircase at the back of the Peg.

Guilt flickered through him. With Patrick resting, his announcement would have to be delayed. It wouldn’t be fair to tell some of the staff before others, with the possible exception of Vin, who, as deputy manager, should be told first. Since he wasn’t well enough for that, it would have to wait.

Ben took a second large bite from his doughnut. Jam trickled down his chin, sticky, dripping onto his shirt.

It was going to be that kind of day, then.

He finished the doughnut, each bite lodging somewhere on the way from his throat to his stomach, and washed it down with coffee. Once in his office, the door closed, as it rarely was, he made the first of many calls, setting events in motion, exploring the legalities of moving to the UK and buying property there.

When people knocked at the door, he called for them to come in, pasting on a smile and using the excuse of catching up on paperwork to explain why he wasn’t helping out behind the bar.

He was a traitor. Everyone was so pleased to see him back, full of sympathy for Shane and questions about the trip. A collection had been made at the bar to send flowers to Donna’s funeral but had grown so large, with regulars adding their contributions, that it’d been decided to make a donation to charity in Donna’s name instead.

“But we didn’t know which one, so we thought we’d ask Shane,” Patrick told him. He’d slept for four hours and eaten a bowl of vegetarian chili with three pieces of garlic bread. He looked significantly better and was chewing gum frantically to get rid of the garlic breath before his planned visit to Vin that evening.

“I’ll ask him,” Ben promised, swamped by yet another wave of guilt.

“It’s so weird having no Shane.” Patrick sketched out what was presumably a Shane-sized shape in the air. “Even when you’re working different shifts, he’s always there, if you know what I mean, and now he’s not. You must be missing him so much.”

“You have no idea.” They were the most honest words he’d said all day, and they pushed him to the edge of being overwhelmed with emotion. “Now go on, get out of here and let me work.” Once alone, he texted Shane, a quick Miss you that got a You too in return. It wasn’t enough.

He’d turned his attention back to paying the bills that had come in during his absence, when there was another knock at the door.

“Patrick, if that’s you again, I swear—”

The door opened to reveal Dave’s familiar face. “Hey. Wanted to say welcome back. I guess everyone’s been interrupting you.” Dave gestured over his shoulder. “I can go. We can talk later.”

“No, it’s fine! Come in.” Ben and Shane had barely discussed what they’d do with the Empty Box, which technically they owned. They’d only been involved in the business from the sidelines, leaving the managing and running of the restaurant to Dave, and there was no reason that couldn’t continue even if they relocated to England. They could swing the purchase of the bar in England on the money from the Peg.

Dave walked in, leaving the door open behind him. “How was it? Montana said Helen told her Shane isn’t coming home until Wednesday?”

“Yeah. We had some stuff arranged that he needed to see through, but with Vin in the hospital, it didn’t feel right for me to stay.” Ben tried to think of how he was going to tell Dave about the relocation. His stomach twisted; the coffee was too strong, and a sugary doughnut on top of it had been a mistake. “Do you have a minute?” This wasn’t a conversation he wanted to have, but putting it off wasn’t going to make it any easier, and he knew he could trust Dave not to tell any of the others their plans before he had a chance to get it all figured out.

“Sure.” Dave heard what Ben hadn’t said and shut the door with a gentle push of his foot. “What’s up?”

“I think you’d better sit down.”

I think I’m not sure I like the sound of that.” Dave dropped onto the other chair, after moving the stack of papers resting on it to the desk.

“I’m going to trust that if I tell you something in confidence, you won’t share it with anyone.” Ben amended it to, “Anyone but Jeremy.”

Dave nodded. “You know you can trust me.”

“Yeah. I do.” God, he was going to miss this friendship, and he hadn’t known Dave as long as Shane had. How could Shane be so casual about saying good-bye to these people? “Shane feels like he needs to move back to England to take care of his dad.”

“His dad’s sick?”

The alarm on Dave’s face had Ben rushing out a reassurance. “No, no. Well, he drinks too much. Way too much. But he’s okay. Just lost without Shane’s mom, I guess. And after twenty years away, Shane’s seeing how much has changed. Coming out left him isolated and at odds with the world, but it’s not like that now.” He remembered the little girl asking if they were going to get married. “Shane still resents his dad, but when you see them together, they’re father and son. It’s uncanny. And if they’re going to reconcile, it’s got to be with Shane on the spot.”

“I get that, I do, but does this mean you’re splitting up?” Dave rubbed his hands over his face. “God, Ben. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be. I’d be going over there too.”

He’d said it. Made it real.

“I don’t know what to say.” Dave leaned forward, hands clasped, shoulders hunched. “The Peg?”

“We’d need to sell. Shane found a pub for sale near his dad’s house, and with the money from this place, we could afford to buy it outright, or close enough.”

“Jesus, you’ve only been gone two weeks! Less. Aren’t you rushing things? Making decisions when you’re emotionally—” Dave inhaled sharply. “Sorry. None of my business. Except it is. What about the Box?”

“Nothing would change. Shane and I are silent partners as it is. We’d be a little more silent, and I guess the financial side of things would be more complicated on our end, when it comes to taxes and stuff.” He’d have to do some research. “We’d still be available anytime you need to talk, if you want someone to bounce ideas off of or whatever.”

Dave nodded, clearly trying to take it all in.

“I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m not happy either.”

“Then why go?” Dave asked. “Much as I hate the idea of you not being here, I’m sure I’ll adjust, but you’re seriously considering uprooting your entire life, moving to a foreign country, so Shane can watch his dad drink himself to death?”

Put that way, it was unthinkable, but, “I don’t know what else to do. Staying here without him… It’s not an option. I can’t even imagine that. He doesn’t feel like he has a choice either. He’s wrecked that he didn’t have a real relationship with his mom for so many years before she died, and he can’t deal with the thought of the same thing happening with his dad. And he might think his mom would have wanted him to take care of his dad.”

“So he’s going to sell this place and buy a different one in England to alleviate his misplaced guilt?” Dave asked.

Ben sighed. “Something like that, yeah.”

“Someone should make him see a therapist,” Dave said bluntly. “And you know who I mean when I say ‘someone.’”

“He’s not blind to what’s happening.” Ben tried to think how to put it into words. “He knows why he wants to do it, and he knows it’s not completely reasonable, so I don’t know what good a therapist would do.”

“You know what I went through with my ex.” The deep sadness in Dave’s eyes hurt to see. It prompted an overdue revelation, one Ben’s dismay at Shane’s plans had prevented him from seeing until now. That wasn’t like him. He saw all the angles, analyzed a situation until it made sense, usually. Dave’s reaction had jolted him free of a paralyzing numbness, reminding him that though his primary duty was to take care of Shane, it wasn’t his only one. When Dave continued, his words matched Ben’s thoughts exactly. “I enabled Travis by giving in to his whims, and it made him worse. Shane’s in shock, grieving, and he’s overcompensating in a big way. He needs you to support him through this until he’s in a place to make a decision that’s not based on guilt. I get that you don’t want to lose him, but moving there when you don’t want to could cause exactly what you’re trying to prevent.”

“You think I’ll resent him for the move?”

“Don’t you already?”

It would be disloyal to admit it, but his expression must’ve given away his answer, because Dave sighed. “Thought so. Listen, this is a huge step. There’s no way you can sell up here and deal with the legalities of emigrating in a matter of weeks. Unless you won the lottery over there, you can’t afford to buy this pub he’s interested in until the Peg’s sold. He must see that he can’t put in an offer this soon.” Dave sucked in a breath and rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. “This is making my head ache. Seriously. For God’s sake, Ben, put your foot down. You’re the only one Shane obeys, so use that influence and make him come home and wait three months. I bet you by then, he’ll have changed his mind, and if he hasn’t, at least you’ll know he’s thought it through.”

Maybe Dave was right. “I’ll think it over” was the best Ben could promise. “And while I’m thinking, I won’t say anything to Vin and the others. There’s no point in upsetting them over something that might not happen.”

“I won’t say anything either. I already promised you that.” Dave stood, then went over to the door. “Don’t say you’ll think about it, then go ahead and do what Shane wants because you feel like you don’t have a choice, okay? Because you do.”

“Okay.”

Hand on the doorknob, Dave added, “His dad isn’t the only family Shane has left, and Shane isn’t all you’ve got either. We’re here for you. Let us be.” He left without giving Ben time to answer, not that he was sure what to say.

By the time he went to see Vin at the hospital that night, it was nearing the end of visiting hours, and Patrick had left on a quest for ice cream. “I could have brought you some if you’d texted me,” Ben told him. “Like you were supposed to.”

Vin shook his head. “There’s someone here every minute of the day, and I’ll be honest—it’s exhausting.” He was still pale, but he looked better than he had the day before.

“I get that. I don’t have to stay. I promised Shane I’d come check on you myself with my own eyes so I could report back on how you are, but now I’ve seen you, and I can say I’ve done my duty.” Ben half turned back toward the door to make it clear he was serious.

“No, it’s fine. Sit down, at least. How’s Shane?”

“He’s okay.” Ben shrugged. “You know. It was traumatic losing his mom, and he doesn’t feel right leaving his dad there. He’s struggling to deal with it.” That seemed honest without straying too deep into the unpleasant truth of the situation.

“Family,” Vin said, as if that explained everything, and for him, it probably did.

Ben envied him. Vin was part of a large family, loving and demonstrative about that love. In any crisis, he had people to turn to for support. Ben had Shane, and Shane had Ben.

Though Dave’s words echoed in his head, forcing him to reject that as inaccurate. The people he worked with had stepped up time and time again, and he’d done the same for them. They’d rebuilt the Peg together, literally and figuratively, creating a focal point for the area, a safe place to socialize and a financial success.

Turning his back on his friends would be difficult. For a wild moment, he wondered if they could swing the finances and keep the Peg plus the Queen’s Arms, and their interest in the Empty Box, but the accountant in him shook his head. Not possible. Maybe in a decade, they’d be in that position, but not now.

The silence became awkward. He cleared his throat. “When do they think you can go home?”

Vin pulled a face. “A few days, but they say because it ruptured, it’ll be three or four months before I’m back to normal. No heavy lifting, nothing strenuous. Being young and healthy helps. Helen says the temp guy’s been great, though, and Rich and Colin came right back in like they never left.” He seemed anxious for Ben’s approval.

“Everything’s fine. Don’t worry. You just do everything they tell you so you can get better.” Ben mentally rearranged duties, making a list of what activities Vin could do safely. Then he wondered why he was bothering. Vin wouldn’t have a job soon. Whether it was a month from now or three months wouldn’t make much difference in the long run.

“Mom wants me to go back home for the first few weeks,” Vin confided. “I think maybe I should, because if I don’t, she’ll worry and be on the doorstep every day with food, but I don’t know how to break it to Patrick.”

“Break what to me?” Patrick asked brightly. “Also, ta-da! The quest for ice cream has been successful.” He brandished a wrapped ice cream bar that Ben suspected might have come from a vending machine.

“I love you.” Vin took the bar, then unwrapped it. “To be fair, the hospital food is better than I’d imagined, but for some reason my body is crying out for ice cream.” He gave Ben a meaningful look Ben took as a request to help him change the subject.

“Do you want your chair back? I stole it. Sorry,” Ben said to Patrick.

“No, it’s okay. It’s probably uncomfortable now that it’s permanently imprinted with the shape of my butt. I’m the one who should be apologizing to you.” Patrick patted Ben’s shoulder and gestured at Vin. “He’s lucky I haven’t given in to the temptation to crawl into bed with him yet.”

Vin’s mother would worry if she heard that, Ben was sure, but that was a conversation he should steer away from. “Hey, what do you think of that temp guy? Christian?” Too late, he realized the Peg was another topic better avoided.

“Fits in well. Louis likes him, and I got the feeling it’s mutual. I definitely detected a hint of flirtage going on.” Patrick’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Wait, why? Were you thinking of hiring him for real? Is someone quitting? Joss? I got him to talk to me a little bit last week. I still don’t get how he’s so shy with all of us but so great with the customers.”

That was too many questions not to answer any of them. “No, Joss isn’t quitting. At least not as far as I know, and I wasn’t planning to hire Christian for real. I was just asking. If this is how you get when you’re sleep deprived, you should make sure to always get enough sleep.”

“Sleep is time wasted.” Patrick gestured at the bed. “Now snuggling with my boo, on the other hand…”

“I told you never to call me that,” Vin said around a mouthful of ice cream. “And what I’m worried about telling you is that Mom wants me to go home for a week or so after I’m discharged.”

“That’s an awful idea!” Patrick seemed on the verge of tears. “I can take care of you! It’s what a boyfriend does. In sickness and in health. I want to prove I’m the nurturing, caring type. How can she be so mean?”

Ben debated his options. Stay and calm Patrick down to spare Vin what was shaping up to be an exhausting argument, or edge toward the door and let them work it out alone.

Cravenly taking that first step, followed by another, he made his choice.

Chapter Nineteen

“And we’ll get back to you with the results of your blood tests,” the technician told Alfie as she stuck a plaster-and-cotton-wool swab over the needle hole in his arm with efficient speed. She had fine blonde hair held back with a hair tie and kept smiling at Shane encouragingly, as if she understood what it was like to have a father who couldn’t be trusted to turn up at his doctor’s appointments without a chaperone. Or maybe she was flirting with him. Not as if he’d be able to tell.

“Thanks, love,” Alfie said. “Don’t know why I’ve been putting this off so long.”

“I can think of a dozen reasons.” Shane opened the door for his dad, and they went out through the waiting room and into the sunshine. “Won’t be seeing this for much longer.”

“What, the nice weather? Nothing wrong with rain. The grass wouldn’t be half so green without it.” Alfie sounded like he was reading from a self-help book about having a positive attitude. Shane found it infuriating. “Oh, I forgot to say your Benedict rang me last night.”

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, since Benedict had said he’d call Alfie to apologize for leaving so abruptly. “Did he, then? What did he have to say for himself?”

“A whole lot more than you’ve been saying.” Alfie paused, and Shane mentally kicked himself for not having come clean sooner. “You’re not seriously thinking of moving home, are you? Not after all this time?”

“We’ve been looking into it, yeah. Trying to sort out if it’s even possible.”

“I’m under the impression property’s a good deal more expensive here than it is in America, but I suppose you lads have been successful, what with being able to pick up and fly here. Last-minute flights must cost a bundle.” Alfie was eyeing him shrewdly as if trying to calculate his net worth. “You might lose thousands of pounds, relocating.”

Shane wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or sad that to his dad, “thousands of pounds” was a large sum of money. “That’s not our main concern.”

“Then what is? Because like it or not, that’s your home now. Has been for twenty years, and it’s suited you well enough, from what I can see.”

“Things change.”

“You got your eye on someone else? That Daniel, maybe?”

“No! Jesus, why does everybody think— I’d be here with Benedict.”

“Yeah.” Alfie leaned on the roof of the car. “He doesn’t want to do it, but I suppose a bright lad like you worked that out already.”

“I sprang it on him, but last we talked, he was on board. Now get in the bloody car or catch a bus.”

Once they were driving, Alfie struck again, a persistent mosquito. “Why buy a pub when you’ve got one? Why move when you don’t need to?”

“Jesus wept.” Shane took advantage of a red light to glare at his dad. “I thought you’d be glad I was coming home. You’ll have the run of the pub, beer on tap…”

“Wouldn’t be seen dead in the Queen’s Arms even before you filled it with a bunch of fairies. I was barred from there, and I don’t go where I’m not wanted.”

“Well, you’d be unbarred, and don’t worry. No one would be after your fat arse. You could drink in peace.”

“I’m loyal to my local, thanks all the same. And you’re not too old to feel the back of my hand, sonny, so tell me the real reason you’re upping sticks and moving.”

“With Mum gone—”

“Oh no.” Alfie shook his head and slapped the dashboard for emphasis. “I see where this is going. Do you think I’m helpless now my Donna’s gone? Bugger that. Who do you think I am? A senior citizen? I’m a grown man in my prime, holding down a job, the house is paid for, we’ve got money in the bank—”

And some under the sink, Shane thought.

“I’m healthy, got all my marbles, and the last thing I need is you and your boyfriend messing up my life, hovering over me, coming round for Sunday dinner. It’s been nice seeing you, I won’t deny it. It never sat well with me that you left, though it was probably for the best. But the person who would’ve wanted you back is dead, and you can’t change that now.” Alfie took off his seat belt. “Stop the car. I’m going to the bookies over there. There’s a horse running in the 3.15 called Lovely Donna, and I want to put a bet on.”

Remembering a time his mum had been driving and his dad had tried to get out of the moving car, Shane quickly pulled over and applied the brakes. “Fine! But I can’t wait for you here; I’m double-parked.”

“Don’t wait for me at all.” Alfie climbed out more slowly than Shane would have liked, considering the driver behind him was leaning on the horn. “I’ll meet you back at the local for lunch. If my horse wins, I’ll buy.” He shut the door before Shane could protest.

“Let me make my own way home. There’s not a chance I’ll be run over by a car, crossing the road,” Shane muttered under his breath in a mockery of his dad’s voice when he pulled away. “I won’t be late at all meeting you for lunch, and if I am on time, it’ll only be because I’m desperate for a pint. And don’t make the mistake of believing I’ll pay for anything whether my horse wins or not.”

The car behind him—a different one—blared its horn, and he pulled over again, aware of his erratic driving, his hands shaking. This was what his life would be if he moved home. Trying to take care of a man who didn’t want to be cared for no matter how much Alfie might need it, trying to persuade the man he loved that they hadn’t had a choice in the matter. It was a horrible situation and destined to make him angry and miserable.

But the other option, to return to America and his previous life, as much as he loved it… How could he do that? Knowing how it felt to lose his mum after years apart, without having had even a moment to say good-bye? Angry and miserable didn’t begin to cover the depth of his emotions about the situation, and he couldn’t live with self-hatred.

The one person he could talk this over with was thousands of miles away and busy trying to pack up their old life, putting on a brave face. He couldn’t phone Benedict and ask for help sorting this out. It wasn’t an option. He had to piece it together himself and act as if everything would be okay.

He drove to the house and let himself in. After brewing a pot of tea, he settled on the sofa, staring at the blank TV and thinking. Alfie was right that he didn’t need looking after, but that time wasn’t far off. Better to make the move now, surely?

It occurred to him that even if he’d lived around the corner, he wouldn’t have been able to say good-bye to his mum. It’d happened in a moment, unforeseeable, unpredictable. And Alfie could live until he was ninety, cantankerous old git.

His hatred for his dad had dissolved. Slowly, yeah, but there was little left of the animosity he’d nurtured for decades. Meeting his dad as an adult in a stable relationship with a thriving business, proving Alfie wrong when he’d forecast Shane being a failure, had helped. He’d seen Alfie clearly for the first time. A failure himself, but a man content with life, dealing with loss in the only way he knew how and drowning his sorrows.

But Alfie would bounce back, Shane was sure of it.

He still didn’t like him much. Too alike, maybe. When they’d argued, his mum had shaken her head and muttered something about two bulls in one field. He could see that now. Face-to-face with his dad for the first time in years, he saw where he’d got his stubbornness, his contempt for authority, and yeah, his violent streak. Admitting that would’ve killed him a decade ago, but he could deny the facts only so long without looking stupid. Hell, he even resembled Alfie, minus the gray hair and beer gut. And wasn’t that reason to watch what he ate and drank.

He sipped his tea, then set his mug aside after rinsing it under the tap. Time to leave and meet his dad for lunch.

He doesn’t want to do it.

“’Course he does,” he said aloud. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Daft as a brush, you are. Benedict’s with me on this.”

He ran his fingers over a misshapen pottery bowl in the window, a Mother’s Day gift he’d made when he was six. It would probably have been thrown out, but Alfie had broken it accidentally and tried to cover it up by hiding the pieces in the bin. His mum had fished them out and glued them together, promising Shane she’d keep it forever.

His gut twisted, sweat beading his forehead, and he grimaced, bending over the sink and drinking directly from the tap. Better. Water dripped from his face, striking the sink.

Not water. Tears. God, he was shaking.

Shane looked up into the window, seeing his reflection, faint and pale like a ghost. He wasn’t a fanciful man, but he could imagine his mother standing behind him, peering past his shoulder. Somehow, pretending that she might be there, that he wasn’t alone, was reassuring, even though he knew it was nothing more than an illusion.

He took a deep breath and rubbed his sleeve across his eyes.

He could make this move work.

Throughout the course of the day, Shane talked himself into believing it again and again. Benedict was a strong man, a man who’d come into the Square Peg unconvinced running a bar was something he wanted or was capable of doing, and look where he’d taken them. It would be the same in England. They’d find new employees to call their friends, and everything would be fine.

He spent the afternoon at his dad’s local pub, buying rounds of drinks and chatting with his father’s friends. Alfie was keen on making sure everyone knew Shane was moving back to run a pub, despite his earlier insistence that he’d never set foot in it himself, and Shane saw no reason not to tell anyone who’d listen that they should come in when he and his partner opened their doors. When there was a buzzing in his pocket he recognized as a text coming in, he fumbled the cell phone out and found that there was a text from Benedict. Miss you was all it said, but it was enough.

You too, he texted back and returned to his role as the friendly businessman focused on convincing a bunch of near strangers they were champing at the bit to spend their money at the bar he hadn’t even bought yet. It seemed to be working. More surprisingly, everyone understood that it would be primarily a gay bar, and no one seemed to care, though there were plenty of ribald comments.

By the time he’d driven a well-intoxicated Alfie home hours later and collapsed on the bed in his former bedroom, he was too exhausted to do much but stare at the ceiling. This time it was the tinny ding of the cell phone that alerted him to Benedict’s text.

Are you still awake?

Yeah.

The phone rang a moment later. “I didn’t wake you?” Benedict asked. “I know it’s late there.”

“No, I’m up. I was thinking I’d better brush my teeth before I got too lazy to do it.”

“If you’re tired, we can talk tomorrow.”

“Don’t be an idiot. Christ, it’s good to hear your voice.”

“Yeah, it’s good to hear yours. Vin says hi, by the way. I’m on my way home from the hospital. He looks so much better, but he and Patrick were on the verge of some high drama, so I thought I’d better get out of there and let them have some privacy.”

Shane rolled onto his side so gravity could hold the cell phone in place against his ear. “I hope our Patrick wasn’t flirting with some handsome male nurse.”

“No. He’s been an angel. But Vin’s mom wants him to go home for a few days when he gets released, so she can take care of him.”

“Let me guess—Patrick’s not keen on the idea.”

“Understatement of the century,” Benedict said.

“So how did they take the news?”

The pause lengthened until he wondered if they’d been cut off. Then Benedict said, “I’ve told Dave, no one else. He’s our business partner, and he deserved to know first, but with Vin still recovering, it didn’t seem like the right time.”

It wasn’t Benedict’s style to dillydally. “They’ve got to know.”

“There’s no rush.”

“But you’ve got the ball rolling?” Shane persisted. “Put the Peg on the market?”

“Strangely, no, the FOR SALE sign isn’t up yet. For God’s sake, Shane, I just got back! I’m tired, I’m coping with new staff, two weeks’ worth of paperwork, and hospital visits, and I’m doing it solo. So, no, apart from making a few calls and doing some research on emigrating, I haven’t made a lot of progress.”

The beer he’d drunk made him less than tactful, though he kept his voice down, mindful of his dad in the bedroom next door, already snoring. “You’re dragging your feet because you’ve changed your mind, is that it?”

He heard Benedict’s sigh but couldn’t interpret it without seeing his expression. “Shane, if this is what you want, I’m willing to do it, but I won’t lie. I’m worried you’re rushing into this, and so is Dave.”

Anger rose when he pictured their conversation. “You’re talking behind my back now? To Dave, to my dad? Have the guts to say it to my face!”

“Difficult when you’re over there and I’m here.”

“Don’t be pedantic, Benedict.” It was a word he’d learned from one of his mother’s library books, and he felt smug being able to use it.

Benedict didn’t seem impressed. “I was talking to people about our situation, not you and not behind your back. I should be grateful I haven’t said anything to Vin and the others yet, or you’d have another reason to shout at me.”

“I’m not shouting.” Shane lowered his voice. “What did Dave say when you told him?”

“You won’t like it.”

Shane sighed. “Tell me anyway.”

“He said I should make you see a therapist.”

Well, no one could say Benedict didn’t know him. “I hope you told him where he could shove that idea.”

“I didn’t, because he’s our friend and he’s worried about you. He thinks we’re jumping into this without giving it enough thought and that we should take some time before making such a big decision.” Benedict took a deep breath. “I think he’s right.”

A chilly feeling of panic grabbed him. “Changed your tune since you left.”

“No, I’ve come to my senses, and you need to do the same. I’m not saying what you want to do is wrong, but it’s too soon after your mom’s death to rush into a major change. Let yourself grieve and recover.”

“And by the time I’ve dried my eyes, we’ll have lost the Queen’s Arms.”

“It’s a fine place, but it’s not the only pub for sale in England.”

“It’s perfect! Close to my dad, a good location—”

“It’s okay. Nowhere near as nice as the Peg, though, and as for being close to your dad… He’s managed without you for years. Stay another week if you want to, but come home, Shane.” Benedict’s voice lacked the note of command that made Shane’s cock stand to attention. It was soft, persuasive, pleading. “You belong here with me. With everyone at the Peg. You and Alfie have reconciled. Let that be enough for now. We can visit him again. Maybe make it over there once or twice a year, even, but let’s table the move, huh? What do you think?”

Part of Shane yearned to say yes, but the guilt he felt over not having seen his mum for so many years before she died was stronger. “I can’t.”

Benedict was quiet.

“You still there?” Shane asked.

“Yes.”

“What now, then? We’re finished?” Say no, he thought desperately.

“I never said that,” Benedict told him, but it wasn’t as big a relief as Shane had hoped. “I wish I could pick up and move without a second thought, but it’s more complicated than that. I need some time to process. To figure things out.”

“To figure out how to get out of what you said you’d do without coming across inflexible, you mean.” Shane’s voice sounded cold and hard to his ears. “Wouldn’t want anyone to think you were boring.” After saying it, he felt terrible. Benedict was sensitive about not being the most adventurous bloke on the planet.

Silence again, and Shane was too much a coward to disrupt it with the apology he knew Benedict deserved. After half a minute or so, Benedict said, “I’ve got to go. I’ll talk to you later,” and hung up before Shane could say anything in response.

Shit. He got up, pacing his old bedroom, restless and upset. He knew he was asking a lot, but Benedict had promised— He snorted. Yeah, well, he knew what promises were worth.

He brushed his teeth, spitting into the sink and noticing the dried streaks on the surface. His mum would’ve cleaned those off. Give it a month, and the place would be a tip. Maybe he could get a cleaning service to come in once a week for an hour or two, keep on top of things a bit. Nag Alfie into making an effort.

In the meantime, the cupboard under the sink held cleaning supplies, and it wasn’t as if he was ready to drop off to sleep after screwing things up with Benedict.

Fifteen minutes took care of the bathroom. The floor needed mopping, but that was taking his impulse too far at close on midnight. Reeking of lemon and bleach, he went back to his room and settled down in bed with his book. Reading it made him feel closer to his mum, but not tonight. The words ran into one another, sense-free, confusing. He set the book aside. Might as well return it and let someone else have the pleasure of struggling through it.

Shane tossed and turned all night, unable to sleep or think his way out of the predicament he’d found himself in. He fell asleep near dawn and woke sometime later, groggy and uncoordinated, to the sounds of pots and pans banging in the kitchen.

He felt drugged with bone-deep exhaustion when he made his way downstairs. Alfie was at the gas cooker with two cast-iron fry pans, bacon and sausage sizzling in one. He was breaking half a dozen eggs into the other. “Nothing like a fry-up after a night at the pub,” he said cheerfully. “Christ, what the bloody hell did you get up to last night?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Shane croaked.

“Well, have yourself a nice cup of tea.” Alfie pointed at the teapot on the table, steam wafting gently from it, an empty cup waiting.

The hot tea helped, but even so, Shane couldn’t summon up enough energy to do more than watch while his dad prepared breakfast. Alfie dropped a full plate including toast in front of him. “Didn’t know you could cook,” Shane said, grudgingly impressed.

“I’ve learned plenty since you went off to live in another country.” Alfie sat and picked up his fork. “So don’t make the mistake of thinking I’m going to starve to death when you go back to your Benedict.”

The possible responses to this were impossible to choose between. Instead of trying, Shane stabbed a sausage with his fork and took a bite.

Alfie, chewing, watched him with narrowed eyes. “Learned how to tell when something’s wrong too. What is it?”

“Nothing.”

“Don’t give me that.”

“Fine. It’s Benedict. Doesn’t want to move here. Thinks we should wait, not rush in. And David, the one who runs the restaurant next door to our place, reckons I need therapy.” Shane took a gulp of tea. “Daft, or what?”

“Glad to see the lad’s come to his senses and put his foot down. Should’ve done it from the start, in my opinion.”

Indignant, Shane gaped at him. Seriously? Was he the only one capable of sticking to a decision around here? “Yesterday you were lording it over your mates about your son the publican. What changed?”

“You’d still be one.” Alfie dabbed a piece of bacon into a pool of ketchup. “Only over there, not here.”

“Thousands of miles away. That’s where you want me? Out of sight, out of mind?” Odd how much that idea hurt.

Alfie shrugged. “It’s worked the past twenty years. We haven’t killed each other. And frankly, if you moved back, I could see it happening.”

“Talk sense.”

Alfie wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, then leaned over the table, his expression serious for once. “We’re family. And I’m proud of you. I am. Wish you weren’t the way you were, I won’t lie, but that’s your business, not mine. You’ve made a life for yourself over there. It’s where you belong. Come and visit your old dad now and then. Ring me up once or twice. But don’t spoil everything you’ve built out of some bloody daft idea I need you here, because I don’t.” He eyed his depleted plate, sighed, and stole a sausage off Shane. “You didn’t want this, did you?”

“No. Go ahead.” The truth was, he didn’t want any of it. He didn’t know what he wanted, or what he deserved. He was sure he didn’t deserve Benedict, who’d been willing to do anything for him, even move to a foreign country, and whom he’d treated so badly. Shane slid his plate closer to Alfie.

“Flying home today, aren’t you?”

That was the one topic he’d avoided in the middle of the night, and he didn’t particularly want to think about it now. “Yeah.”

“Well, you’d better start packing. Might want to choose a few things of your mum’s to take back with you. Nothing valuable, mind.” Alfie gave him a severe look, and Shane nodded because agreeing seemed easiest, even if he hated the thought of his father selling off his mum’s things for pocket money.

“Anything I’d want would be for sentimental reasons.”

Alfie snorted. “Just like Donna. Half the knickknacks she collected were worthless. Like those figurines. I kept telling her the modern ones weren’t collectable, but she kept buying them. Might as well pack those up in your suitcase and take them home.” He was so dismissive, as if anything Donna cared about was automatically unworthy of respect, that Shane felt anger flare up from his gut.

“She liked you well enough, so I suppose that’s another example of her poor taste.” He shoved back his chair. “And you smashed up most of the figurines, remember?”

“Dust catchers.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake. Keep the lot, or bin them. I don’t care. They’re things. They don’t matter. She did, and she’s gone. At least she won’t have to live with you letting her down day in and day out.” Shane headed for the door. His flight was an afternoon one, but he couldn’t stand another moment in this house with his dad. His suitcase was already mostly packed after he’d moved out of the hotel. Toss in some laundry and his toothbrush, and he was good to go. He’d return the library books and drive to the airport. Maybe he could catch an earlier flight.

Alfie was waiting by the front door when he came downstairs, suitcase handle cutting into his palm. “So you’re off, then.”

“Looks that way.”

Alfie stuck out his hand. “Travel safe, son.”

When he’d left this house twenty years before, he’d shoved Alfie out of the way, the two of them turning the air blue with Donna weeping and begging him to stay. For her sake, he swallowed his anger and nodded, shaking his dad’s hand. “Yeah. Look, if you need me, I can be back here in a day.”

“I know. And if things don’t work out over there, come back. Maybe we can buy a pub together.”

That idea was outrageous enough to make Shane smile reluctantly. Suitcase in the car, he opened the driver’s door, then glanced back. Alfie stood in the doorway, a diminished figure for all his bulk, his hair gray in the sunlight. Shane walked back to him, speeding up as if he were about to jump into icy water and needed to hurry before he changed his mind. He hugged Alfie and told him, “Mum saved up some cash. It’s under the kitchen sink in an old can of cleaning powder. Benedict and I found it when we were straightening up. She must have been saving it for a rainy day, so for God’s sake, do something with it she would have liked. And take care of yourself, you sad bastard.”

“Is that any way to talk to your father?” Alfie patted Shane’s shoulder. “Go on, then. Bugger off back to the States.”

He fully intended to. He dropped by the estate agent’s and broke the news that the deal was off, sympathetic to the man’s poorly concealed disappointment, then made a call to the bank.

Thirty minutes to dismantle a dream, but that was all it’d been, when all was said and done.

It wasn’t until he got to the airport that he realized it was dread making his heart heavy and his feet feel encased in cement. As much as he longed for Benedict and their home, he’d made some terrible mistakes, and he couldn’t bear the thought of walking through the door of the Peg to anything but open arms.

Swallowing past the lump in his throat, he walked to the counter and set down his case. “Hi,” he said to the airline representative in her dark blue airline suit. “I want to go somewhere peaceful, and I’ve no idea where that might be. Can you help me sort it out?”

Chapter Twenty

It was midafternoon on Wednesday when Ben got Shane’s text.

Not coming home tonight. Need some time to think. I’m sorry.

At first he didn’t know how to respond, even though he’d suspected Shane would end up staying in England longer than originally agreed upon. When he couldn’t think what to type, he called Shane’s cell instead, but it went immediately to the temporary voice mail they’d set up in case of emergency.

He rang Alfie instead. The man answered after the third ring. He sounded well. “You’ve missed him, lad. He left for the airport a little over an hour ago.”

“But I got a text from him saying he isn’t coming home.”

“That’s news to me. Could be he’s playing a joke on you?” Alfie seemed unconvinced by the suggestion, but Ben decided it was best to go along with it as a possibility, at least, rather than worry the man.

“Maybe. Do you want me to have him call you?”

“What for? He’s a grown man. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“He’s lost his mom and wanted us to sell our business and home to move four thousand miles. That’s not fine, Alfie. Shane shouldn’t be alone when he’s like this. He needs…” Ben hesitated. No. He wasn’t going to even hint at the kind of relationship they had, or what worked to calm Shane down. “He needs to be where he belongs. Here, with me and his friends.”

“I did everything I could to make him see that.” Alfie chuckled. “Made a right pig’s ear of it at times, but I got through to him in the end. He’s abandoned the idea of moving here, I’m sure of it. The estate agent called not ten minutes ago, wanting to persuade him to change his mind. Didn’t take kindly to being told our Shane was at the airport.”

Relief flooded him. Thank God he wouldn’t need to tell everyone their jobs were at risk and leave the Peg for an uncertain future in a foreign country. “Well, that’s something, but in that case, why isn’t he coming back?”

“Did he say he was buggering off for good?”

“No,” Ben admitted. “Just that he needed time to think.”

“Then I’d take your victories where you find them and give the boy some space to get his head on straight. He’ll turn up in a day or two, you’ll see.”

But Shane didn’t. By the end of the week, Ben had gotten to the point of checking his cell obsessively and only leaving the house to go to the Peg in case he missed Shane’s return. Checking their joint account showed a single withdrawal of cash on the day Shane had texted—five thousand dollars, in fact, and nothing after that.

He sent dozens of texts, all of which showed as delivered but went unanswered, though on Sunday there was one solitary reply from Shane that said only, I’m okay.

It was a relief to hear that much, and when he looked up from the phone, it must have shown on his face, because Helen, who’d come back into the office a moment before to look for something, was so worried she abandoned her search and came over to him. “Are you all right?”

The echo of Shane’s word choice made Ben laugh. “Yeah. I’m— God, I should have said something before, but I was, I don’t know, ashamed, I guess. I got a text from Shane, the first one in days.”

She was puzzled, which she had every right to be. “What do you mean? Why hasn’t he been in touch?”

“I don’t know. I mean, we had a fight, and he said he needed some time to think.” The secrets spilled out of him, all the details, and that was as much of a relief as hearing from Shane earlier. He admitted to everything, and by the time he was done, Joss and Louis were in the doorway too, listening, eyes wide. “I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner, but I kept thinking everything would go back to normal and you wouldn’t need to know. I didn’t want to worry anyone.”

“And you don’t know where he is? Like, at all?” Patrick, who must have arrived in the middle and been hiding in the hallway, pushed his way past Joss and Louis. “Since when?”

“Since Wednesday.”

“Oh, honey.” Patrick came over and hugged him, and Ben was so grateful for the affection he accepted it without reservation. “It’ll be okay. He’ll come back. You know he’s crazy about you.”

“You didn’t see him over there. He wanted to stay so badly, and I stopped him.”

“Well, of course you did!” Patrick widened eyes that today were the deep, rich blue of a summer sky. “He’s never going to lose the accent, but he belongs here, not there. And selling the Peg? Is he nuts?”

His instinct was to protect Shane from criticism. “He wanted to be closer to his dad. That’s understandable.”

Patrick wrinkled his forehead. “I guess, but we’re family too. And his dad’s probably fine without him. The needs of us, me especially, outweigh the needs of Shane’s dad.”

“Tactless, self-centered, and misquoting Spock. Three strikes and you’re out.” Louis walked over and took Patrick by the arm, towing him away, much to Ben’s secret relief. Patrick in small doses was enchanting, but without Vin to calm him, he’d been achieving epic levels of giddiness.

At the door, Louis paused. “But he’s right about the boss loving you. Have faith.”

“In what?” Ben asked bleakly.

“Love!” Patrick said.

“Shane,” Louis corrected. “He’s earned it, yes?”

Two weeks ago Ben would have said yes, absolutely, without question. Today, he wasn’t so sure, but he nodded when Helen shepherded Joss out too, leaving him in peace.

Monday and Tuesday passed in much the same way the previous days had, slowly and with constant checking of his cell phone in case Shane was texting or trying to call him. He wasn’t sleeping well and he’d had to tighten his belt a notch, but he kept telling himself something would change and then he’d deal. Shane would call to say he was coming home, or to say that he was never coming home. Either way, Ben would figure out how to move on from there. Dave had done it and had found Jeremy and a whole new life. He was living proof that it was possible.

Of course, Dave had never known what it was like to have Shane as his partner, and when it came right down to it, Ben couldn’t even begin to imagine how the rest of his life would look without Shane. All he was doing now was going through the motions, sleepwalking, and part of him was unkind enough to hope that Shane, wherever he was, was doing the same.

He tried to have faith, but as the hours crawled by, it became increasingly difficult.

Wednesday morning he got up with the idea of a cat that would sleep at the foot of his bed. That or a roommate, because living alone was something he’d apparently outgrown. He took a shower, had a cup of coffee, and drove to the Peg, unlocking the door with fingers that felt numb with loss. It was as if Shane had died, following in his mother’s footsteps, leaving Ben to grieve.

Except the thought of Shane dead made his throat ache, the way it would if he’d screamed it raw.

The first thing he did in the office was search for the nearest humane society. There was a page of photographs of cats up for adoption, and he scrolled through, admiring some, smiling at others, but never feeling the bone-deep certainty he’d found the perfect match until the bottom of the page.

The male cat was only a few months past being a kitten, skinny and long-legged, one ear at a rakish angle. He was ginger-striped, not a patch of white on him, the color of his fur ranging from honey to an amber that matched his eyes. He looked fierce and a little sad, as if his experience of the world so far had been unhappy. Ben read the short bio and understood why. Scrappy, as the shelter had named him, had been found in a sack at the side of the freeway with three other kittens, his siblings dead from dehydration. He’d been in the shelter ever since, not responding well to children petting him, his combative attitude putting off prospective owners.

Ben wanted to hit something. No, someone. The person who’d taken that way to dispose of living creatures. “Could’ve taken them to the shelter and dumped them there, at least,” he muttered. “Shitty excuses for human beings.”

Drawing in a deep breath to clear his head, he called the shelter and arranged to come over at lunchtime to see Scrappy—not that he intended to keep that name—and do the paperwork. The shelter was a few blocks from a large pet-supplies store, so he could get the basics there first.

A young man with a red vest helped him figure out what to buy at the pet store, and he loaded all of it into the trunk of his car. He was moving on autopilot, but with a goal other than getting through one minute to the next.

It wasn’t much, but it was something.

The woman at the shelter was happy enough to direct him to a small room with glass walls and, a minute later, deliver Scrappy to the room. “I’ll come back to check on you, but if you need anything before then, make sure he doesn’t get out. Something tells me he won’t be an easy one to catch.”

Even when she’d gone, Scrappy was wide-pupiled, the fur on his tail standing out. He stared at Ben, who stayed still, not wanting to freak the poor cat out any more. Scrappy pressed himself to the wall and slunk along it toward the chair in the corner opposite the one Ben was sitting in, then squashed himself between the chair leg and the glass as if thinking he could hide there.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Ben said gently. “I won’t grab you or anything. Take your time.”

Scrappy seemed inclined to take all the time in the world. Ben spent the next five minutes waiting patiently for the cat to do something, anything, and Scrappy spent those same five minutes trying to pretend he was invisible. Feeling as if he’d replaced waiting for Shane with waiting for Scrappy, Ben picked up one of the cat toys, a fishing-pole-looking thing with some feathers at the end of the string, and waved it around.

That got the cat’s attention. Only his head moved, but he turned it to watch the feathers fluttering through the air.

Ben made an encouraging hum, twitching his wrist to make the toy jump, seemingly by itself, then lowering it so the toy swung invitingly close. The cat raised a paw and gave the feathers an uncertain pat, a rusty, plaintive meow sounding.

“That’s it,” Ben said softly. “Play with it. Have fun. It won’t hurt you, and neither will I.”

Instinct took over, and the cat lost his stiff wariness, stalking the bunch of feathers with an intent stare and a lashing tail. Ben dragged the feathers along the floor, then raised them when the cat was about to pounce, luring him nearer. When the cat abruptly lost interest—or pretended to—and sat, leg in the air, grooming his belly, Ben moved from the chair to the floor. The cat scrabbled away, eyes wide again, but when Ben extended his hand, he came forward to sniff it before retreating rapidly.

Patient, projecting stillness, Ben kept his hand outstretched and was rewarded by another sniff, this time followed by a tentative lick. Ben didn’t make the mistake of trying to stroke the cat. Not yet. Another five minutes of talking, and the cat had relaxed enough to permit a brief touch on the top of his head. After that, Ben dared a tickle under the chin, hitting the ideal spot by accident, rewarded by an astonishingly loud purr.

He was in love. Infatuated. Even when the cat lashed out, claws extended, to punish him for standing to leave, attacking his ankles with determination and vigor, his adoration didn’t waver.

The woman who’d set him up with Scrappy was putting a large, fluffy white cat into another room with an older couple. “I was coming to see how you were doing. Were there any other cats you’d like to spend time with?”

“No, I’m good.”

“Okay, well—”

“I want Scrappy. It won’t be confusing for him if I change his name, will it?”

“Kelly!” The woman turned to call to another volunteer who was cleaning a cage. “This nice man wants to adopt Scrappy!”

“Yay!”

Everyone he interacted with after that treated him like a long-lost friend. “It’s always this way when it’s an animal that’s been here for a while.” The man helping him with the adoption paperwork flipped through a binder. “He’s so cute half a dozen people were interested in him, but he was passed over because other cats were friendlier.”

“He had a rough start in life. It makes sense he needs time to warm up to people.” Ben hated the thought of leaving the young cat alone at the house that night while he was working. He had tomorrow off, so he made arrangements to pick Scrappy up when the shelter opened. “You won’t let anyone else adopt him before then?”

“He’s yours,” the man assured him.

“And he’s old enough to be neutered?”

“Absolutely, and it’s a condition of adoption. It will reduce his aggression and stop him from scent-marking. Plus cut down on more unwanted kittens being born if he gets out and meets a female cat in heat.” It sounded like a speech he’d given many times before.

Ben nodded. “There’s a vet not far from me I’ve heard good things about. I’ll take him there for a checkup and the neutering.”

The man glanced at Ben’s address. “Oh, you must mean the Hennessy Surgery. The owner volunteers here ten hours a week. Sue’s great.”

Pleased that everything was falling into place, Ben slipped some bills into the donation jar on the counter, then drove back to the Peg. His mood had improved, optimism replacing his depression. When the cat was settled, he’d send Shane a photo. He wasn’t under any illusions it would bring Shane running, but it might intrigue him.

The Peg was busy, the lunchtime crowd thinning but enough people in the bar to make Ben smile with satisfaction. Enticing smells from the kitchen, empty plates being carried back from the bar… Everything was as it should be.

With one notable exception.

He spent an hour dealing with minor tasks that had slipped through the cracks while he’d been gone, then went out front and joined Diane and Patrick at the bar.

“Vin’s coming home tomorrow,” Patrick said cheerfully. “Home home, I mean. Here, instead of at his parents’ house. He says his mom was great the first few days when he was so sore and doing an imitation of a ninety-eight-pound weakling—did you know he lost twelve pounds while he was sick?—but now her hovering is making him nuts.”

“That’s great. Um, that he’s coming home, not about the being made nuts.”

Diane lifted an eyebrow. “I don’t know. I hear some of you are fond of nuts.” She was making cosmos for a table of teachers who were enjoying their last day of summer vacation. It made Ben think of Alfie and the fact that he’d probably gone back to work now, though it was hours later in the day in England.

He wondered what time it was where Shane was.

Patrick and Diane were still joking around when Ben dragged his attention back to the present. “Did you hear that, Ben? Diane thinks we should ban nuts!”

“That’s not what I said, so there’s no way Ben heard it. You should get your ears examined. Who knows what might be in there.” Diane slid the tray of cosmos closer to Patrick. “There you go. Better deliver these before those teachers come over here wanting to know what happened to them.”

“It’s been, like, four minutes,” Patrick countered, but he picked up the tray and sauntered away.

“So where did you get off to at lunch that put a smile on your face?”

Ben opened his mouth to tell her all about his cat but paused. His back was to the main door, but something—a change in the volume level of the conversations, a breeze from the street—made him turn, heart hammering faster, as if he knew what he’d see.

Shane. Tanned, scruffy, a backpack on one shoulder, and in cargo pants and a pale gray T-shirt advertising Hobgoblin beer. Shane staring at him with naked emotion, love smoldering in his eyes, as unself-conscious as if the bar were empty and no one could see him but Ben.

Step by step, Shane came closer, ignoring the greetings from the regulars and forcing Patrick to yelp and skip to the side to avoid being walked through.

Unable to swallow past the lump in his throat, Ben stood there. If he’d been holding something, he could have fiddled with it or set it down or…anything. But his hands were empty, and all he could do was watch while Shane walked toward him. He tried to think of something to say and discovered he’d moved around to the other side of the bar without having made a conscious decision to do so.

Shane came right up to him but stopped before he was close enough to touch. He tilted his head to one side in a way that was achingly familiar. “I’m thinking you might have mixed feelings about seeing me right now,” he said, and his voice was achingly familiar too.

Part of Ben suspected he must be dreaming. It wouldn’t have been the only recent dream he’d had in which Shane made an appearance, though in some of them it had been to say that he was returning to England forever and that their relationship was over. He knew Shane was waiting for a response, for reassurance. He wanted to speak but couldn’t have forced anything past his vocal cords even if he’d known what to say. Which he still didn’t.

“I’m sorry. For all of it. For trying to talk you into moving as if I knew what I was asking, when all I was doing was staggering around in the dark. For not being willing to listen when you tried to tell me.” Shane swallowed, and it made Ben feel better to know he wasn’t the only one to find this difficult. “And for what I said. It’s not true. It’s never been true. You’re the least boring person I’ve ever met, and if you’ll be good enough to forgive me, I’ll make sure I remind you of it every day for the rest of our lives.”

Ben realized he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled, then reached behind himself to find the edge of the bar. Apparently if he wasn’t going to hold his breath, he needed to hold something else instead.

Shane frowned as if he’d expected more of a reaction than Ben had given him. “Benedict?” He quirked his eyebrow, then tapped his chin. “If you want to punch me, go ahead.”

“Office,” Ben said through a constricted throat. “Now.”

He was not doing this with an audience.

A way cleared for them, though he wasn’t aware of whom he passed on the seemingly endless walk to their office. Shane was on his heels, smelling of travel in an indefinable way, his natural scent overlaid with a score of others, dusty roads and air-conditioned planes or buses, maybe.

Inside the office, the door closed, the shock he felt evaporated, replaced by a scorching anger and knee-weakening relief. He spun around, grabbed Shane, who was in the process of easing his backpack to the floor, and slammed him against the door.

“Don’t you ever— You left me, and I didn’t know— Don’t you ever do that again.”

Did Shane expect a kiss? From his parted lips and rising flush, probably, but Ben wasn’t feeling romantic right then. He slid his hands up to grip Shane’s head, noting that Shane’s hair was sticky with what smelled like salt water and sunscreen.

“I’m sorry.” Shane whispered it, closing his eyes, as if looking at Ben was painful. “Too ashamed to walk in. Had to get my head straight first.”

“This is your home,” Ben said forcefully. “You belong here.”

Shane shook his head, meeting Ben’s gaze now. Pale gray eyes, clouded with deep affection. “It’s a place. I belong with you.”

Ben kissed him then, tasting Shane’s mouth with a moan of pleasure. This. Yes. They strained together, fighting for closeness, the sob of Shane’s breath when Ben ended the kiss begging for more.

“No.” Ben took a deliberate half step back, keeping Shane where he was, pinned to the wall. God, he was so relieved and so angry, and he needed to understand. Right then, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to kiss Shane or hit him. He stepped back until he bumped into the desk, only able to think when he was no longer touching Shane. “No. Stay there.”

Shane waited, watching him.

“I won’t touch you again until we’ve figured this out.”

“Figured what out? If you can forgive me or not?” Shane’s expression was carefully neutral, as if he was trying not to let Ben see how worried he was.

A thought occurred to Ben. “That depends on what I need to forgive you for.” What if Shane had been with someone else? Would he ever be able to get the image of that out of his head?

Shane seemed to understand what he was thinking. “Nothing you don’t already know. There’s never been anyone but you since the moment I met you.” He was staying up against the wall where Ben had left him, obeying.

“I need you to tell me everything you did after the last time we talked.”

“After you hung up on me, you mean?” Shane grimaced. “Not that I didn’t deserve it. I went to the airport on Wednesday— Christ, it was a week ago, wasn’t it? Didn’t realize until I’d turned in the rental car that I couldn’t get on the plane. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I knew that much. I couldn’t think.” He stretched, pushing his shoulders back as if they were stiff and sore.

“You’ve been traveling,” Ben said with sympathy, gesturing at the nearest chair. “Sit if you need to.”

Shane gave him a calculating look. “I’d rather do this.” He sank onto his knees.

Ben’s heart skipped a beat, but he tried not to let it show on his face. “You don’t have to.”

Shifting position with a wince, Shane replied, “This is where I belong too. Except maybe not right now. Help me up?”

Puzzled, Ben hauled Shane to his feet. “What’s wrong?”

“I tried surfing in Florida. Girl I met at the airport said the Keys was the perfect place to sit and think, and there was a flight to Miami about then, so it seemed like a sign. I got drunk, slept on the beach, watched a few sunsets, and surfed. Waves are hard when they smack into you. Or maybe that was the board. But my leg’s sore for a different reason.” He reached for the button on his pants, flipped it open, then drew down his zipper. Pushing back the fabric, he exposed his hip and upper thigh.

A gauze square covered skin. Ben sucked in a breath, worried at the thought of what lay beneath the bandage. “Did you cut yourself on a rock?”

“Nope. Got inked up at this place in Key West last night.”

“A tattoo?” Sympathy was lost in pique. “I thought that was something we’d do together.”

“Still can,” Shane said.

“Vin always says it’s addictive, but I’m not sure I like the idea of you covered in tattoos.”

“No, this’ll be the last,” Shane assured him. He peeled back the gauze to expose three letters—BEN, the capital letters a close approximation to Ben’s handwriting. “It’s where you wrote on me the day of Mum’s funeral, remember?”

“Of course I do.” Touched, Ben examined the black lettering without giving in to the temptation to run his fingers over the ink. “Did it hurt?”

“Yeah. And there wasn’t much point without you there getting off on it, but I wanted to come home with you part of me.” Shane took Ben’s hand and placed it on his skin. “It’s not finished; needs five more letters. Going to hold my hand when I get them done?”

Once he understood it wasn’t enough for Ben to touch Shane’s thigh, this time he was the one going to his knees so he could press his lips to the place beside the new tattoo, the spot where the rest of his name would go.

Shane shivered and touched his hair gently. “That an answer?”

“Yes.” Ben looked up at him. “Yes to anything you want.”

“It’s possible you might regret saying that,” Shane told him. He urged Ben to stand, turning him so he was leaning back against the desk. He pulled up his pants while Ben got settled, frowning when Shane fumbled for something in one of the many pockets on the pair of cargo pants he was wearing.

Ben wasn’t any less confused when he saw the small box Shane had brought out…until Shane opened it, revealing a ring made of two different-colored metals, the matte black and bright silver intertwined.

“Benedict, I’m shite at grand gestures, and not much better at romantic speeches.” He dropped to his knees for the second time in five minutes. “I’m good at this, though. And if there’s any chance you meant it when you said the answer’s yes to anything I want…I’d love nothing more than to marry you.”

God. From famine to feast. No Shane in his life, to a lifetime together. And it would be forever; Ben was sure of that. But the future wasn’t his main concern, not with Shane gazing up at him, shoulders tense, visibly holding his breath while he waited for an answer.

“Don’t ask me on your knees,” he said. “I love seeing you like that, but for this…face-to-face, so I can kiss you when I say yes.”

“Spoiled the suspense there, didn’t you?” Shane rose and took Ben’s hand, sliding the ring into place with a sigh. “Not that I’m complaining. The tension was killing me.”

“You knew I’d say yes. You know me better than I do.”

“Compensation for being clueless when it comes to myself.” Shane rested his forehead against Ben’s. “We good? Because I can grovel, apologize, anything you want, if we’re not.”

Knowing Shane meant his offer soothed the raw hurt of the week apart. “We’re good.” Ben cupped Shane’s face. “Florida? At this time of year?”

“Wasn’t bad. Hot, yeah, but a cold beer and a swim took care of it.” Shane grinned. “A lady named Lil bought me a pitcher on condition I come back with you one day so she can serve you the best fish taco in the world.”

“You’re tan.” Pushing Shane’s hair back revealed how tan; beneath his hair, his scalp was the paler white Ben remembered.

“That’s not the best place to admire it,” Shane told him, and Ben flung both arms around him and held on tight until Shane had to comfort him. “Hush, love. It’s all right.”

“I thought you were never coming home.”

“I’ll always come home to you.”

They stood there, arms wrapped around each other, until there was a tentative knock at the door and the hesitant sound of Patrick’s voice. “Um, Ben? Is everything okay?”

“He doesn’t sound himself,” Shane observed.

Ben kissed him, a quick, hard kiss. “What do you want to bet the others nominated him to check on us?”

“Not interested in taking that bet.” Shane went over when Patrick knocked on the door again, pulling it open and leaving Patrick with his hand midair. “Everything’s fine.”

Patrick bit his lip. “It got quiet. We were worried.”

“Nothing to be worried about.” Shane glanced back at Ben as if looking for permission, and Ben nodded. “Unless you all aren’t keen on the idea of Benedict and me getting married.”

Expecting a wild shriek from Patrick, never one to restrain himself, Ben got a whispered, “Married?” barely audible, followed by a second, this one louder.

Then Patrick flung his arms in the air, shimmying his hips in a victory dance, and yelled, “Yes! Finally!” before dashing off.

“That takes care of telling the rest of the world,” Shane said. “They probably heard him in Australia.”

“Probably,” Ben agreed, grinning. “We’d better get out there and buy a drink for everyone or something. Is that what people do when they get engaged?”

“Buggered if I know, but why not? So anything I need to know about here? How’s Vincent?”

“Doing well.”

“And the Peg?”

“Everything’s fine.” Taking a small revenge, Ben added casually, “I made a new friend while you were surfing. Liked him enough to ask him to move in. Want to help me get the spare room ready? I don’t think anyone will mind if we take off after having that drink.”

Shane eyed him suspiciously for long enough that it was clear he needed time to work it out. “It’s that cat you wanted, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. He’s cute. You’ll adore him.” He’d wait to mention that the cat was painfully shy until later, when that sweet little face had had a chance to warm Shane’s heart. “But we’re supposed to set him up in one room for the first couple of days, so he doesn’t get overwhelmed and end up hiding somewhere we can’t find him.”

“Sounds like a cat,” Shane agreed.

Their casual celebration in the bar was interrupted by the return of another missing face, this one Vin’s. “You told me you weren’t coming home until tomorrow!” Patrick did shriek this time and ran toward Vin, a human tornado determined to sweep him off his feet.

Diane, who was closest, stopped him by snagging the collar of his T-shirt. “Whoa, cowboy.”

“I wasn’t going to hug him too hard!” Patrick freed himself and moved more slowly over to Vin to press a chaste kiss on his lips. “Welcome home. And why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to surprise you.” Vin turned to Shane. “When did you get back?”

“Just now.”

“And that’s not the only surprise of the evening! Guess who’s engaaaayyged?” Patrick’s singsong voice made Shane wince, but truth be told, Ben found it charming—in this instance, at least.

Vin’s gaze darted immediately to Shane’s hands, then to Ben’s. Spotting the ring, he gasped. “No way! For real?”

“Very real,” Ben assured him. “Not sure when we’ll do it, but soon, I guess.”

“No reason to wait.” Shane eyed Vin, whose smile seemed a little fixed, his breathing choppy. “Get upstairs and lie down before you fall over. Patrick, go with him.”

“Yes, boss!”

“And we’re going too,” Ben said. “Shane needs a shower—”

“And someone to scrub his back!” a voice called, prompting a ripple of friendly laughter.

Ben raised his hand in acknowledgment, comfortable with the teasing in a way he wouldn’t have been a few years before. “Let’s go,” he said under his breath. “There’s more I want to do to you than that.”

“Do anything you like,” Shane said. “I’m all yours.”

“By the time I’m finished with you, there won’t be any doubt of that.”

Shane caught his lip between his teeth, then smiled. “There isn’t, but don’t let that stop you. Ever.”

“Oh, don’t worry.” Ben gave Shane an answering smile. “I won’t.”

* * * * *

Juggling the bag of hopefully still-hot takeout food and the temporary cat carrier the shelter had sent the newly named Toffee home in, Ben unlocked the front door and got everything inside. The can of free cat food balanced precariously on top of the carrier slipped off and hit the floor, landing on its side and rolling until it bumped into the wall.

“We’re home,” he called unnecessarily. He kicked the door shut behind him and decided it was easier to carry his burden through to the spare room than try to put any of it down. Shane, who’d still been in bed when he left, appeared, bare-chested and fastening his jeans over a distinct lack of underwear, in time to step back out of his way.

“Let me take some of that.”

“No need. I’m almost there.” Ben paused, though, and let Shane take the two iced coffees from his hands. “Thanks.”

“You didn’t have to bring all of it in at once,” Shane pointed out.

Carefully, Ben crouched until the bottom of the cardboard carrier touched the floor. “I hate to make two trips if I don’t have to.”

“Could have made one and sent me out for the other. No, never mind. What’s done is done. I’ll let him out, shall I?” Shane reached to undo the carrier, and Ben yelped and leaped to shut the bedroom door.

“Careful! He’s shy, and you should be wearing a shirt if you don’t want to get scratched, and did I mention he’s shy?” Ben had nightmare images of Shane covered in bloody scratches from the cat’s claws.

“If he’s named Toffee, like the cat of any good Everton fan should be, then he’s family. Who’s shy around family?”

Given the cat’s coloring and the nickname for Shane’s favorite soccer team, his new name had been easy to choose. Ben had suggested it, wanting Shane to feel a connection to the cat since he’d had no say in choosing their new pet.

Shane reached into the carrier, hauled Toffee out, and hoisted him into the air, both hands around Toffee’s stomach, the cat’s back legs dangling. Toffee wailed, batting the air with his front paws and squirming. “Weighs next to nothing.”

“Shane, he’ll scratch you. Be careful—”

“’Course he won’t.” Shane and Toffee stared at each other for a long moment. Then Shane brought Toffee closer and nuzzled his face against the cat’s. To Ben’s amazement, Toffee began to purr, then nestled against Shane’s chest and shoulder, kneading with his paws. It had to hurt, but Shane didn’t flinch.

No wonder. His back still bore the marks of Ben’s belt from the wee hours of the morning, and he’d stayed silent and unmoving during that too, only murmuring a sleepy, “Thanks, love. Needed that,” at the end.

Ben had ignored Shane’s yawn and gone on to fuck him into blissful oblivion, well aware he was marking his territory but happy to indulge his primal side for once.

“I can’t believe he’s not freaking out,” Ben said, unable to contain his amazement. “He’s been there at the shelter for ages because he was so uncooperative with everyone.”

“Didn’t mention that when you were talking him up.” Shane scratched Toffee under the chin, and the little cat lifted his face in ecstasy, his purring loud enough that it made Ben smile.

“Well, I didn’t want you to decide you didn’t want him before you even met him. I thought it made more sense to be, you know, vague. I certainly didn’t think he’d end up liking you more than me.”

Shane shook his head. “He hasn’t made his mind up about you yet, is all. Give him a bit of time, and he’ll come around.”

“I hope so. Adopting a cat that hates me wasn’t part of the plan.”

“There, see, he’s done now. Down he goes to explore.” Shane set Toffee on the floor, and the cat went promptly over to the fast-food bag and stuck his head in it. “Hey now, cat. That’s our lunch, not yours.”

“Technically, I think it’s our breakfast, since we never had any.”

“Too busy sleeping.” Shane took the bag away from Toffee, who’d snagged a fry. The cat ran off with it, growling. “Up half the night doing things you’re much too young to hear about.”

“Things we can also do in the day.” Ben drank in the sight of Shane, sleepy-eyed and well fucked, jeans riding low. One tug of a zipper and they’d slide down, revealing…

Shane quirked his eyebrow, a faint smile showing. “Not until I’ve eaten something. Stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.”

“What happened to ‘Do anything you like; I’m all yours’?” He wasn’t serious, and from the twinkle in Shane’s eyes, Shane got that.

Shane put the bag on the bed, then took out a fry. “Happy to combine eating and sex.” He licked the fry, popped it into his mouth, then gave an ecstatic moan, sensual enough to make Ben take one step forward, then another, even though the arousal was clearly faked.

Gathering Shane into a hug, he said softly, “I know how to make you do that for real.”

“That you do,” Shane agreed, his arms around Ben. He drew back enough to look Ben in the eyes. “When it comes to you, I’m easy.”

“Nothing about you is easy.”

“But you still love me.”

For the first time Ben could remember, Shane said it without the shadow of a question in the words, a flat statement grounded in certainty.

And that was how it should be said.

“Always.”

~ * ~ The End ~ * ~