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Love and Belonging

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Ok to come over? Robbie texted as he stood in a queue at the supermarket. Dinner?

There was a pause before James answered. Robbie thought at first that he probably had to clean the paint off his hands, but as he waited longer and longer, he began to think James’s phone was out of hearing. But an answer finally came.

Would you mind if we stay at yours tonight? Mine stinks of paint.

Fine, Robbie answered. I’ll cook.

There was another long pause before James’s response, and when the text came, there was something tentative about it.

Are you sure you don’t mind? I could pick something up on my way over.

I’m already doing the shopping, Robbie typed. Think you’ll be finished by 7?

Better make it 8. If you’re sure you don’t mind.

All fine. Be here for dinner at 8.

Robbie suspected James was walking on eggshells because they’d had words the night before, not that it was anything serious. James was in the midst of one of his projects. He was always in the middle of something, fixing up the house, which was why, more often than not, they stayed over there. Robbie sometimes helped, and sometimes he just read or watched telly until James was finished for the night.

He was painting the bathroom now. Even if Robbie’d wanted to help, there wasn’t room. And working in such close quarters, twisting his long limbs into all those awkward spaces, around the fixtures . . . well, it made James cross.

Robbie had gone there straight from work. He’d been bursting with news, excited to tell James he’d completed all the paperwork for his retirement, decided on his last day. He’d hoped to celebrate with a nice dinner out. But when he’d arrived, interrupting James’s work, and tried to coax him out for the evening, James had snapped at him, and Robbie had barked right back.

He’d gone home, knowing that his news could wait. And he’d almost forgotten about the spat after settling in with a takeaway curry and a good book until James had called, tense and penitent. Robbie’d been flummoxed until he realised that James hadn’t yet learned that it’s inevitable to be cross and snap at one another and argue and even say dreadful things—all would be forgiven.

They’d settled things over the phone, Robbie’d thought, but James’s timid manner, coming through even via text, made Robbie think there was still more repair work to be done. Well, it had taken James long enough to feel secure in their professional partnership. Robbie was willing to bet it would take even longer with this.

When Robbie arrived home and set his bags down on the worktop, he noticed that it was dusty. He’d never seen such a thing—not that he was a perfect housekeeper by any means, but most kitchen surfaces were used and wiped down too often to collect dust. But it had been a couple of weeks since he’d spent any time in his own flat for anything other than a quick shower or picking up a few things. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d cooked anything, even in the microwave. Without discussing it or even noticing, they’d fallen into a pattern that kept them at James’s house most evenings.

Maybe Robbie was crowding him. He hadn’t even called first before dropping in on James last night. It wasn’t fair to expect to act like an old married couple so soon. Just because that was what Robbie was used to—and wanted, if he was honest with himself—that didn’t mean James was ready for it.

Robbie was chopping vegetables by the time James arrived, smudges of pale yellow paint on his hands and one across his left cheek. He leaned against the worktop on the other side of the kitchen and stared down at his shoes.

So Robbie hadn’t imagined it: James was still worried.

After putting down his knife, Robbie crossed the room and tilted his face up for a kiss. He could feel the muscles in James’s shoulders melt in relief, and James’s long arms wrapped around Robbie’s waist tightly.

“I’m sorry.” James’s voice came out muffled from where his face was tucked into Robbie’s neck. “I’m so sorry.”

“You can’t still be on about last night.”

“I was horrible.” James huffed out a little laugh when he said it, but Robbie knew it wasn’t completely a joke.

“Wouldn’t be us if we didn’t have a go at each other now and then.”

James lifted his head and finally met Robbie’s gaze, though his eyes showed lingering doubt.

“It’s all right, lad. For goodness sake.” Robbie pulled away to get back to the dinner. “Did you finish the painting, at least?” He glanced up in time to see James’s timid smile.

“Almost. When I bought the place I wished there was a second loo, but now I’m relieved. I’d be happy never to try to paint behind a toilet ever again.”

“Wash the paint off your face, then, and you can help me.”

James’s hand went to his cheek, but his fingertips touched the wrong one, the one without the paint.

“Get moving,” Robbie said. “If you don’t help, we’ll be lucky to eat before nine.”

The meal turned out all the better for James’s help, of course, and he seemed to relax as they ate. Robbie planned to wait until James was in a better mood before telling him about his retirement, but maybe he waited a bit too long, because James hopped up to clear the table as soon as they’d finished.

“Don’t be so bloody efficient. I’ve got something to tell you.”

James smiled and set the plates down, but at the other end of the table so they weren’t in the way. Robbie reached over to take James’s hand, and his smile grew.

“I’ve set a date,” Robbie said. “Settled all the details yesterday. The twentieth next month is officially my last day.”

James’s face froze, though it was only a moment before he seemed to recover.

“That’s marvelous,” he said. “I . . . I had no idea things were so far along.”

Robbie couldn’t have said what reaction he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t this: no kiss, no smile, no congratulations. Not even a squeeze of the hand. He tried not to let it bother him. He didn’t need a fuss. James wasn’t a person who enjoyed surprises. He’d come around once he’d had time to get used to the idea, Robbie was sure. But it left him feeling a little deflated, just the same.

After an evening of more television than conversation, they got ready to turn in. James was distracted, putting his paint-spattered clothes in the washer and taking a long shower. Then once in bed, he curled in on himself, facing away from Robbie. Clearly the lad needed some space.

*****

The next morning, Robbie woke up when the sun peeked through the blinds. He never could sleep in. Maybe retirement would cure him of the habit of early mornings. He closed his eyes and shifted closer to James, pulling the duvet over his ears.

A groan from James told Robbie that he was slowly emerging from sleep. Robbie reached back with one hand and rubbed James’s thigh.

“Mmm,” James hummed. “Early?”

“Yes, very early, love.” Robbie gave James’s leg a gentle squeeze. “Go back to sleep.”

James slid his arm across Robbie’s belly. As he pressed close, Robbie could feel James’s cock poking at him through two layers of pyjamas.

“So you are awake, then,” Robbie teased.

“Mmm,” James said again, but more quietly this time. He slipped back into sleep, and Robbie kept still to let him rest.

It was lovely to have nothing to do other than lounge in bed. Robbie savoured the warmth of James behind him. He was starting to get used to waking up with James, so much so that the very few times they hadn’t spent the night together recently, he’d had a few moments of confused anxiety before remembering what was what.

Comfortable as he was, Robbie was still a little concerned about the awkwardness between them the evening before. Was James so unsure of him that a few cross words would set them back? It had been their first argument, if that little spat was even worthy of the name. And then his reaction to Robbie’s retirement had been worrying. But nothing was like that first horrifying morning, the first time waking up in James’s bed, wondering what was going on in James’s head.

He’d still had dust and bits of plaster in his hair. They’d both been a bit sticky, and Robbie’d been feeling a little embarrassed, in the bright morning light, about how they got that way. James’s cock had been nudging Robbie’s thigh that morning too, and Robbie had stared in surprise.

Rather than becoming defensive, James had laughed. “Why so shocked? I’m a healthy adult male animal.”

“Well, you’re bloody good at hiding it.”

“I was,” James said, nuzzling his face into the crook of Robbie’s neck. “I was very good at hiding it.”

“And it’s the first time it’s happened in my presence, so—”

“Not the first time.”

Robbie had blushed. “All right, yes, I know. I was there last night, remember?”

“But it wasn’t the second time either. Nor the third.” James murmured against Robbie’s skin. “Nor the fourth.”

“What?”

“Countless times.”

Robbie snorted. James backed away for a moment, grinned at him, then buried his face in Robbie’s neck again.

“Countless times, I swear,” he whispered, his lips brushing Robbie’s ear. “In the car, you’d smile at me, or say something brilliant, and I’d imagine leaning over to kiss your neck.” He did just that. “Or in the office. You’d take off your jacket and roll up your sleeves, and I’d want so badly to touch. . . .” James’s hand rubbed down Robbie’s bare arm. “You never do realise when you’re being flirted with.”

“And you’re rubbish at flirting.”

Then James had laughed, a surprising sound, for him: open and young and happy.

James had been giddy all that day, rarely going out of arms’ reach, as if he couldn’t stop touching Robbie once he knew that it was allowed. And it had seemed to Robbie that James had dragged him to his neighbour Harry’s retirement do just to show him off, which he never would have imagined. Emma, Harry’s young wife, had been lovely though, giving James a significant look when he walked in. He’d been pulling Robbie by the hand and doing a terrible job of hiding his grin. She’d known straight away that things had changed.

“Emma’s always known,” James admitted during the walk back to the house after the party. “The day after I moved in, she appeared at my door with a sponge cake. I invited her in for tea, just to be polite, but we ended up talking for hours. She dragged me home for dinner, introduced me to Harry, and we talked some more. He asked me about being a policeman. I have no idea how long I ran on about you before Emma figured out what was going on. She reached across the table, grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Oh my God, you’re in love with him, aren’t you?’”

Robbie’s head snapped to the side to look at him. He had a small smile on his face—he didn’t seem to realise he’d said something surprising. Maybe it had slipped out. He wasn’t usually such an open book. But maybe Robbie shouldn’t have been so shocked—it couldn’t just be about sex. James wasn’t made like that, and neither was Robbie, as James was well aware.

“I’ve never had a friend like her,” James said thoughtfully. “She used to e-mail me after every squash game and every time we met for a pint, just to ask how it went.”

James had tried to find a time to have Harry and Emma over for dinner with him and Robbie. The timing hadn’t worked out yet, but Robbie was looking forward to it. He’d resisted going to the party at first, assuming they’d all be stuffy academics, but he’d had a really lovely time. Maybe that had been mostly because of James’s radiant joy, but both Emma and Harry had been kind and easy to talk to, and Robbie wanted to do everything he could to encourage the friendship. It would be good for both of them to meet new people.

A rumble in his belly goaded Robbie away from his woolgathering and out of bed. James barely stirred. After a quick shower, Robbie headed out to the kitchen. It might be nice to bring James breakfast in bed. Little gestures like that tended to make him sheepish—clearly he wasn’t used to having people do nice things for him, but that just made Robbie all the more determined to get him used to it.

The pickings were pretty slim though. Robbie’d done the shopping the night before thinking only of dinner, and he didn’t have anything in for breakfast. He was poking through the cupboards, hoping for inspiration, when James wandered in from the bedroom. Robbie smiled at his sleep-rumpled hair.

“I thought I’d let you sleep in.”

James shook his head as he got the coffee maker started. “I want to get back to work on the house.”

“I was going to make breakfast,” Robbie said. “Bring it to you in bed.”

James smiled and crossed the room to give Robbie a kiss on the cheek. “Maybe just something quick? I’m hoping to finish up in the bathroom today.”

“Scrambled eggs and toast?” Robbie offered. “I think I have eggs.”

“Sounds perfect. I’ll just jump in the shower.”

As James padded back to the bedroom, Robbie went to the fridge for the carton of eggs, but he was interrupted by a knock. Robbie sighed. He’d hoped for a quiet, cosy morning, and instead James was rushing off and now someone was at the door. He glanced at the clock. It was just past nine—who on earth would be visiting him at this hour on a Saturday?

A second knock sounded. With another sigh, Robbie went to answer only to find Lyn standing in the hall, holding Alec on one hip and weighed down by a huge holdall.

“Lyn! This is a surprise!”

“Sorry to just turn up like this,” Lyn said as she stepped inside.

Robbie reached out and pulled the bag off her shoulder. “None of that. You’re always welcome.” He wrapped his arm around her and kissed her cheek.

Alec let out a delighted squeal and reached out for Robbie, who took him into his arms, equally delighted. Usually Alec needed a little time to warm up to him after a few weeks between visits, but here he was patting at his grand-dad’s cheek and grabbing his nose like they’d never been apart.

Robbie led Lyn into the sitting room. “What brings you here, pet?”

“We came to see Lily Crane. You remember her, don’t you? With the long, long red hair?”

Robbie nodded. Lyn and Lily had been pals since they were teenagers.

“She’s had her baby. I thought we’d go early and stay all day, but I was chasing poor Alec everywhere. She’s just got the newborn, so they haven’t done any babyproofing yet, and she was looking at him like he was just a crawling bundle of germs, so we only stayed for a little while.” Lyn fell onto the cushion next to him with a sigh. “I didn’t call you ’cause I didn’t think we’d have time but—” She shrugged. “Well, here we are.”

“You don’t have to apologize for dropping in. Any time.” Robbie sat on the sofa and settled Alec on his lap. “It’s good to see you, pet.”

It was then that Robbie heard the water shut off. James had finished his shower.

Robbie froze. How on earth would he explain this to Lyn? He was planning to tell her—of course he was. But he didn’t think having a man stroll out of her father’s bathroom wrapped in a towel was the best way for her to learn about this latest development.

Robbie sneaked a quick look—the bedroom door was almost closed, so Lyn was unlikely to notice James unless he was unusually loud while dressing. Still, it might be a rude surprise for her unless Robbie started talking, and fast.

“Lyn, love—”

Alec interrupted him with another high-pitched squeak and lunged forward, almost toppling himself off Robbie’s knee. Lyn’s hands shot out to catch him, but Robbie had already had his little body safe in both hands.

“No worries. I’m an old hand.”

Lyn smiled. “I know—just a reflex. And he’s a handful.” She bent over and planted a kiss on top of Alec’s downy head. “Aren’t you, pet? A right handful.”

Alec laughed and reached out to Lyn, so Robbie handed him over.

The few moments of distraction were enough to make Robbie lose his nerve.

“Coffee?” he offered. “Or no, you’d rather have tea, wouldn’t you?”

“Love some,” Lyn said. “If it’s no trouble.”

Robbie hoped Lyn would stay on the sofa with Alec rather than following him into the kitchen. It might be easier to tell her when they weren’t face to face. He filled the kettle but still found himself tongue-tied. He looked back at her and Alec, now sitting on the floor.

Alec was trying to pull himself up on the table, and Lyn was letting him have a go, though she’d put her arm along the sharp wooden edge so that he wouldn’t hurt himself if he fell over and bumped his head.

Lyn was distracted when she spoke again, but she gave Robbie the perfect opportunity. “So what’s new, Dad?”

Robbie leaned both hands on the worktop so he could study Lyn’s reaction. “Funny you should ask. . . . I’ve been seeing someone.”

Immediately Lyn’s head rose and her face lit up. “That’s fantastic! Who is she? That nice doctor?”

Robbie kicked himself, not for the first time, for ever mentioning Laura to his daughter. She asked about that nice doctor almost every time they talked on the phone.

“No, not Laura,” Robbie answered. “It’s—”

James chose that exact moment to emerge from the bedroom. It would have been awkward no matter what, but it was made all the more so by the fact that James was wearing nothing but a pair of dark gray boxer briefs. He trotted out to the kitchen.

“Forgot to get my things last night,” James said cheerfully. “They’ll be a wrinkled mess.”

He didn’t even see Lyn, sat on the rug by the table. He bent down to pull his clothes out of the dryer.

Even Robbie’s confusion and embarrassment weren’t enough to completely stifle a stab of lust as he watched James. The lean muscles in his thighs hugged by the soft, thin fabric. All that pale, perfect skin. But the realisation of the view James was giving Lyn—his barely clad bum aiming right at her—brought Robbie back to himself.

“James!”

James didn’t straighten from his awkward crouch. His voice came muffled and echoey from inside the dryer. “Yeah?”

Robbie crossed the floor to grab James’s arm and pulled him into the kitchen. At least the cabinets and worktop shielded most of his bottom half from Lyn’s view.

“Really?” A bemused smile crept over James’s lips. “In the kitchen?” He pushed Robbie backward until he bumped into the sink, then almost purred. “Yes, please.”

His suggestive tone made Robbie’s cheeks burn, and he put out a hand to keep some distance between them, still unable to find words.

James frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“Lyn,” Robbie finally choked out. He turned his head to see her gaping at the two of them, her mouth hanging open in an expression worthy of the funny papers.

James jumped away from Robbie as if he were on fire. “Oh, God.” He stood frozen for a moment. “I’ll just—” He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the bedroom, then dashed away, his clothes in a rumpled bundle under one arm.

Robbie turned to Lyn, and she burst into tears.

Robbie’s heart sank. He’d known it would be a shock to her, but he hadn’t expected this. He walked slowly to the sofa.

Just as he sat down, Alec finally succeeded in pulling himself to his feet. He let out a triumphant shout, startling himself, and fell down hard on his bum. Undeterred, he immediately grabbed on to the table leg and climbed up onto his knees, starting all over again.

Lyn was trying to compose herself.

Robbie put a hand on her shoulder. “Come on, it’s not all that bad.”

“No,” Lyn said with a sniffle. “No, it’s not bad at all. I’m sorry. I have no idea what—I mean, I’m so happy for you. Really.”

Robbie waited while she rooted in her bag for a tissue.

“I just—” She paused to give her nose a good blow. “It was just such a surprise.”

“To you and me both,” Robbie said quietly.

Lyn smiled. “I’m relieved, actually.”

“You’re all right?”

“I’m fine. I’m sorry.” She gave his arm a squeeze.

“I was going to tell you,” Robbie said, putting his hand over hers. “But there never seemed to be a good time. And it hasn’t been that long—just a few weeks.” Robbie realised that it was actually close to three months since James had first kissed him. The time had flown.

“But you’re happy?”

A smile came to Robbie’s face before he could help himself. “I am.”

Alec had managed to get to his feet again. He grabbed at the newspaper Robbie had left on the table, threw the pages on the floor, and fell to his knees, tearing at the pages gleefully.

“No, Alec. We don’t tear the newspaper.” Lyn calmly pried the paper from his fingers and stood to put the pages on the bookshelf, above his reach. “That’s James Hathaway, isn’t it? Your sergeant?”

“Former sergeant.”

“Right, of course.”

Alec had pulled off his left shoe and was chewing on the laces.

“Ugh, that’s dirty.” As Lyn spoke, she pulled a small stuffed dog from her bag and handed it to Alec, who dropped the shoe in favour of the toy. As he gnawed happily on the dog’s ear, Lyn pulled off his other shoe and tucked the pair out of sight around the end of the sofa. With Alec entertained, at least for the next few moments, Lyn looked at Robbie with a little laugh. “Wow. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything.”

“But I do.” She grabbed Robbie’s hand and squeezed it. “I’m really and truly happy for you, Dad, really. Part of the reason I was so worried was that you sounded so discouraged, carrying on with work after James left.”

“I suppose I was, but we see plenty of each other now.”

“I can see that,” Lyn answered with a cheeky sidelong glance.

Robbie felt his face getting warm.

“He seems lovely,” Lyn added. “Although I only got a quick peek—”

Robbie interrupted her. “All right, that’s enough out of you.” He knew his face must be beet red. Lyn laughed.

Alec had taken advantage of Lyn’s distraction to crawl across the room to Robbie’s CD collection. Lyn ran to keep him from pulling everything off the shelf, when suddenly she turned, an expression of horror on her face.

“Oh!” Her tone was enough to make Alec stop and look up at her, his little eyebrows scrunched up in concern. “James must think I’m horrible!”

“No, he’ll understand. Don’t worry. I’ll go and talk to him.”

Robbie found James seated on the foot of the bed, fully dressed now. He’d even put on his trainers. His elbows were on his knees, his head in his hands.

“I’ll go,” he said when Robbie sank onto the bed next to him. “I’d be gone already if I could make myself leave the bedroom.”

“I don’t want that.” Robbie rubbed a soothing circle on James’s back. “Neither does Lyn. She wants to meet you. She was surprised, that’s all.”

“I can’t possibly go out there. I’m mortified.”

“Because she saw you in your keks?”

James gave him a pointed look.

“OK, I admit it’s a little embarrassing, but it’s like falling off a horse. If you don’t go right now. . . .”

“Yes, sir.”

“Don’t you start.”

James rose from the bed, looking like he was heading for a court martial. Just before they left the room, James turned and gave Robbie a hard kiss on the lips.

The moment they returned to the living room, Lyn fell on James with a hug and an apology. He looked at Robbie, not exactly panicked but clearly out of his element.

Lyn pulled away from the hug but kept one hand on James’s arm. “I’m thrilled, really thrilled. I’ve been so worried, and Dad’s been so strange the past few weeks, and so down since you took redundancy. I’m just so relieved.”

Robbie had the feeling Lyn would have rambled on more, but James looked over her shoulder and said, “I’m afraid Alec is after the CDs.”

Lyn rushed to Alec, who was grinning with a jewel case in each hand. He yielded them readily enough and crawled away while Lyn returned the CDs to their places. The wastebasket caught his eye, and he had pulled out a handful of crumpled tissues by the time Lyn caught up with him. Robbie picked him up while Lyn cleaned up the mess.

“You see what I mean?” Lyn asked. “Into everything!”

Alec looked up at her with a wide smile, showing all of his few teeth.

James went to the kitchen and returned with a wooden spoon, a plastic bowl, and a few plastic lids—probably from takeaway containers. He sat on the floor with his back against the sofa and began to stack the items one on top of the other on the table: the bowl first, upside down, then the lids, and finally the spoon balanced on top.

Alec made a beeline for the tower, but James pretended not to see him as he crawled around the table. When Alec reached James, he got up on his knees and rested a hand on James’s arm to get closer.

James turned to look at him, as if noticing him for the first time. “Hello there,” he said, his face serious.

Alec studied him. Perhaps it was the first time he’d encountered someone who didn’t smile the moment they clapped eyes on him. Alec turned and looked at the stack of kitchenware. Clearly he wanted to knock it over, but he wasn’t sure it was allowed. James’s deadpan expression had definitely thrown him.

Robbie glanced at Lyn. She was watching this exchange as eagerly as he was.

“Would you like to play with this?” James asked, speaking to Alec just as he did to adults. He plucked the wooden spoon off the lids and held it out to Alec, who took it and waved it in the air.

James held out one of the plastic lids. “Would you like this too?”

Alec smiled and reached out with a chubby hand. This seemed enough to make James a friend. Alec crawled closer until he was half in James’s lap.

“Do you want me to get him?” Lyn said.

James shook his head. “He’s all right.” Robbie noticed that James didn’t lift his head to look at Lyn when he spoke, however—still feeling embarrassed. Alec dropped the plastic lid in his hand, and James offered him another.

Lyn jumped to her feet. “If you’re really fine, mind if I dash to the loo?”

As she disappeared down the hall, Robbie watched Alec push on James’s knee until he was standing. James presented the last plastic lid, and Alec looked at it, puzzled. He couldn’t take it with both hands full, so he stuck the wooden spoon in his mouth, chomping down on it like a dog with a bone. Robbie saw a tiny tug at the corner of James’s mouth. He was fighting a smile, but Robbie doubted anyone else would have noticed it.

“I never pegged you as someone who likes kids,” Robbie said.

“A calculated move.”

Robbie could almost hear the dry sir that James resisted tacking on to the end of that sentence.

“Even sensible women like Lyn are predisposed to like people who pay attention to their children,” James explained. He held out the bowl, and Alec dumped the lids into it.

“And I admit,” James continued. “I’m more interested in a child called Alec Robert Lewis-Poole.”

Alec must have recognized his name. He looked up at James and laughed. James leaned close to him and said in a stage whisper, “Especially when he has his grandpa’s lovely blue eyes.”

Lyn had returned to the room in time to hear that bit, and Robbie saw her expression. It gave his heart another tug—she looked so much like her mother. James looked up at her, clearly a little embarrassed at being caught saying such a thing, but Lyn, like her mother in the social graces as well, pretended she hadn’t heard.

Robbie broke the silence with an offer of breakfast. “I was just about to make something when you knocked. I can’t promise it’ll be gourmet, but we’ll manage something.”

“That would be great, Dad. Thanks. Alec was up before five, so I ate really early.”

“I’ll help,” James offered, but Robbie put a hand on his shoulder.

“You’re all right. I’m not making anything fancy. You can stay and get to know Alec.”

James’s eyebrows shifted. It was obvious he’d picked up on the fact that Robbie was doing his best to make sure he and Lyn spent some time together, but he didn’t look unhappy at the idea.

As Robbie cracked eggs and buttered toast, he pretended not to listen to the conversation.

“How old is Alec now?”

“He just turned eleven months last Tuesday,” Lyn said. “Took his first steps a couple of weeks ago, but he’s still more efficient crawling, so he usually sticks with that.”

It didn’t take long to pull together a simple meal. Robbie even managed to scrounge up some tinned fruit.

“Does Alec like pineapple?” Robbie asked.

“I don’t think he’s ever had it,” Lyn said. “So we’ll see.”

It turned out Alec couldn’t get enough of the pineapple, and it was slippery enough that chasing it around the bowl with his chubby little fingers kept him busy for quite a while and allowed Lyn to focus her attention on her own breakfast and James.

“Dad told me you bought a new house?”

The question made James smile. Robbie loved seeing how his enthusiasm for his project animated him.

“Yes, I’ve been doing it up. It’s going to take a while, but I’m making progress. The kitchen’s done, and one bedroom, and I plan to finish the bathroom in the next few days.”

Robbie realised that, without a moment’s hesitation, James had put aside his plans to get an early start on his painting today once he knew that Lyn was visiting. He made a mental note to thank him properly later.

“I think the front room will have to be next,” James continued. “It’s ridiculous that most of the rooms I’ve worked on aren’t ones you have guests in.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Guests always end up in the kitchen,” Lyn pointed out. “And I think it’s more important to make the bedroom comfortable—the rooms you use the most, where you need to rest without thinking of everything that still needs to be done. We painted the bedroom first too.”

Glad as he was that Lyn and James were talking so comfortably, Robbie found himself a little embarrassed by the subject of James’s bedroom, considering what he’d been up to himself in that particular part of the house, so he steered the conversation back to a more general topic. “He’s doing all the work himself. You should have seen the place before he started. Graffiti on the walls, everything a mess. He’s done wonders.”

Lyn smiled at him knowingly, but Robbie already knew full well he was boasting, and it didn’t bother him one bit.

James was trying to hide a smile. “I’ve had the plumber there several times.”

“Yes, but you’ve done just about everything else.”

“You’ve helped,” James insisted

“‘Help’ being the operative word. You’re the boss.”

“Nonsense,” James said, unsmiling. “You’ll always be the boss, sir.”

Robbie was relieved when Lyn laughed—not everyone understood James’s sense of humour.

“But yeah, I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying it. I like making it feel like my own,” James continued. “And I’ve been told I think too much.” He gave Robbie another teasing glance. “So it’s been good for me to work hard. Physically, I mean.”

Alec finished his last bite of pineapple and tried to reach Lyn’s plate for more. “Here, pet,” she told him. “Try some toast.” She tore a few pieces, set them on a plate for Alec, and turned back to James. “I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes it’s a lovely feeling to get into bed at night and feel really tired.”

“Exactly,” James said.

“It sounds like taking redundancy was the right choice, then.”

With an annoyed squawk, Alec knocked the plate with his bits of toast onto the floor and strained again at Lyn’s pineapple.

James gave her a smile and bent to pick up the spilled food. “I think it was.”

Robbie pushed his chair away from the table, intending to help clean the mess, but before he had the chance, Lyn said, “Since you’re enjoying it so much, maybe you can convince Dad he ought to retire.”

The smile fell off James’s face, and his eyes darted over to Robbie and away again. Robbie felt a flash of annoyance, exaggerated by an undercurrent of fear. Why hadn’t James explained why he was so bothered by Robbie’s retirement? Was he afraid of Robbie having that much free time—was he sick of him already? And why couldn’t Lyn give the subject a rest? She brought it up every time they talked.

“Oh, I’ve stepped in it, haven’t I?” Lyn said. She tried to laugh, but Robbie could tell she was uncomfortable. “I know that look. Fine, I’ll drop it. But promise me you’ll think about it.”

Robbie watched James’s thunderous expression clear. What was going on in the lad’s head?

After breakfast they went for a long walk by the river. Robbie stayed with Alec most of the time, by turns carrying him, letting him crawl in the grass, and holding him by both hands so he could toddle along the path.

James and Lyn walked together, talking nonstop, and while Robbie was absorbed with Alec, they got far ahead. Robbie didn’t know what pleased him more: the fact that they were getting along so well or that Lyn trusted her old dad enough to not even spare him a glance, knowing that he’d look out for Alec and she could relax.

They went far enough that by the time they walked back to the car, it was time for lunch. Alec was hungry and crabby, so they found a cafe that wasn’t too crowded, and all three adults worked to keep him happy while they waited for their food to arrive. James and Lyn talked about a lot of books that Robbie had never read, but he listened happily enough. He’d so hoped they would be friends, and it seemed they were well on their way.

As they were finishing up their meal, Lyn’s phone rang. She didn’t answer, but she glanced at it. She must have noticed the time. “It’s later than I thought. I’d better get on the road. Alec can take his nap while we drive.”

Lyn had driven because her car was already set up with Alec’s seat, and she’d left her large bag at Robbie’s flat. So she drove back to pick it up and drop James and Robbie off before heading for home. It took a few minutes for her to pack up to go: gathering Alec’s toys, which had ended up scattered all over the room, then a nappy change. Robbie had forgotten how long it took to get moving when there was a little one to be tended to.

Before Lyn left, she gave hugs all around. As she pulled James close, she said, “Next time I come I want to see this house of yours.”

James didn’t even look uncomfortable as he smiled and nodded.

“And when Dad comes up for Alec’s birthday party, you must come too.”

James looked surprised and glanced at Robbie.

“Of course we’ll be there,” Robbie said, kissing Lyn’s cheek one last time and rubbing his hand over Alec’s baby-soft hair.

The place seemed quiet after the two of them left, and James and Robbie both slumped onto the couch in relief.

“I remember now why we have babies when we’re young.” Robbie regretted saying it—most of the time he didn’t bother about their age difference, but today he couldn’t help but think about the fact that James was closer to Lyn’s age than his own. But James just nodded.

“Tea?” Robbie offered.

“I think I need something a little stronger, if you don’t mind.” James went to the kitchen and returned with two bottles of beer.

Robbie laughed. “That’s even better.”

“Lyn’s lovely.”

“That she is,” Robbie said. “I’m so glad you to got to know one another a bit. And you were good with Alec.”

“I don’t know. I felt awkward. At least I know I was right now not to want children.”

“Really?” Maybe Robbie shouldn’t be surprised. After all, if having a family was important to James, he wouldn’t be with Robbie, would he?

James grimaced. “I’d make an awful father.”

“I don’t know why you’d say that,” Robbie said. “You’d be brilliant.”

James didn’t answer. He looked thoughtful for a long while before taking a long gulp from his beer. “Robbie . . .”

“Yeah?”

“Are you all right, then? You were forced into telling Lyn, maybe before you were ready.”

Robbie reached over to put a hand on James’s knee. “It’s fine. Worked out brilliantly. For me, anyway—I know you wanted to work on the house today.”

“No, this was better.”

“It was a perfect day.” Robbie took James’s hand. “Thank you.” He picked up the remote control. “You mind? Newcastle’s playing.”

James cuddled up close with a book, ignoring the telly. Robbie wasn’t paying all that much attention to it himself. He couldn’t stop thinking about Lyn’s visit.

It had gone so well—better than he could have imagined—but the time had seemed to fly by. He wished Lyn would visit more, and for longer. It would be a bit of a break for her too, if he and James kept Alec occupied. Her Ben was wonderful—always doing his fair share with Alec and housework, but with both of them working Lyn rarely got a rest. She got up early with Alec and worked nights while Ben put him to bed most of the time. Robbie wouldn’t mind getting up with him in the morning to let Lyn sleep in for a change if she stayed over.

“Your spare room,” Robbie mused. “Maybe we could put a bed in there, get one of those portable cot things for babies. Lyn and Alec might visit more.”

James was still for several long minutes before sitting up abruptly. His book fell off his lap onto the floor, and he turned to Robbie, staring.

Had Robbie overstepped? James had explained to Lyn how he liked making the house his own, and here Robbie was making plans without so much as a by your leave.

“Sorry,” Robbie said. “I was just thinking out loud. I know you plan to use it for work. I didn’t mean to assume—”

“No,” James interrupted, grabbing Robbie’s knee. “No, it’s brilliant.”

“We’ve spent so much time there. I’d thought maybe we were heading in that direction, but I know it’s awfully soon for that.”

“You mean moving in together.” James said the words slowly and carefully, as if talking to someone who didn’t speak English very well.

“Well, yeah, but I didn’t mean now, not if you—”

James pounced, jumping onto Robbie’s lap and straddling his legs. “As far as I’m concerned—” He paused to give Robbie a hard kiss. “You can move in this minute.” His hands were on either side of Robbie’s face, holding him still and gazing at him intently, his eyes a little wild. “I’ll pack your things myself.”

Robbie returned James’s embrace, cupping a hand over the back of his head.

“I thought you might move to be near Lyn,” James said with a little huffing laugh. “I was afraid. . . .”

Robbie remembered the stricken expression on James’s face when he’d broken the news about his retirement and felt stupid that he hadn’t realised it before: James wouldn’t assume anything. Or at least not anything good—he’d thought Robbie’s retirement would take him away up north, as if he’d just up and leave.

“You think I’d plan to leave Oxford without so much as discussing it with you?”

James gave a sheepish smile.

“Soft lad,” Robbie chided. “My worktop was covered with dust.”

“Excuse me?”

“In the kitchen. I noticed when I got home last night. I’m never here, am I?” Robbie cast about for a way to explain. “Do you remember the pyramid thing you were telling me about? The psychology thing?”

James quirked an eyebrow at him. “Do you mean Maslow? The hierarchy of needs?”

“That’s it,” Robbie said. “You know I love my Lyn and wee Alec, but, James, that’s how we started all this.” Robbie gave James’s hip a squeeze, which made him smile and shift a little closer. “I realised that for me, you’re the love and belonging bit. For my pyramid, I mean. So wherever you are, that’s—”

James cut him off with a kiss.

The End