Friday, 15 August 2014

Alter Ego (Knowles Brook 1) - Out Today

The first book in my Knowles Brook series is out. I'm so excited and hope you will enjoy the book as much as I did writing it.


Jay James is the confident, outgoing, flirtatious, lead guitarist of a 70s tribute band. But appearances can be deceiving. Jay James isn’t real. ‘Jay’ was born out of necessity and a way for James Hall to deal with life at home after coming out. James is shy and awkward, and can’t escape the shadow of his strained relationship with his mother. As ‘Jay’, James feels indestructible, like nothing can touch him, and he can have any man he wants. But is that really enough?

When ‘Jay’ meets Danny, he views him as just another potential conquest. Danny, however, has other ideas. The barman has no intention of being just another one night stand and leaves James surprised when he rebuffs his advances.

Danny Ashton is stuck, or at least that’s how he feels sometimes. Five years ago, he dropped out of university to look after his sick mother. He was never prepared for the hand he was dealt—a house to run, bills to pay, and a teenage brother to support. Wanting more than part time bar work, Danny applies for a job at the family run hotel in the village. When he’s called for an interview, he isn’t expecting to see James there but the chance encounter gives him the unexpected opportunity to get to know the real James.

Together, Danny and James realise ignoring their problems will solve nothing, and if they are to stand any chance of happiness and living as the men they want to be, then they need to move forward. Can the two men face their demons? Or will they end up pushing one another away?

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Chapter 1

James Hall strummed the air as a moody David Essex track hit its chorus. The lyrics paused for a powerful chord, and James curled his fingers in the air, playing his invisible guitar.

He heard a short outburst outside the bathroom and lowered his volume. Whatever they were doing out there, it didn’t seem to involve him. He was glad for the few moments of peace before slapping on a smile and going out on the stage.

The Drum and Monkey pub wasn’t huge, and it was a tight squeeze to get all five members of the band and their equipment up on stage. The last time they played they had gone down well with the punters, and so here they were again. Being asked back had instilled James and his bandmates with a sense of pride and confidence. He didn’t know about everyone else, but James had needed that.

He turned the volume back up and focused on his reflection in the mirror above the washbasin. With great care, he tucked the last few strands of his own dark blond hair beneath the net of the platinum blond wig he wore. He flicked the straight, layered locks out of his eyes, and brushed the wig with his fingers as he fixed the style. He then checked over his makeup. His eyes were framed in purple, and he wore pale pink lipstick. James leaned forward, tilting his face as he wiped at the corners of his mouth and checked his teeth. He’d do. He was lead guitarist in a seventies glam cover band, not some elaborate drag act. He liked subtle, just enough of a difference to make him feel like someone else.

There was a bang on the door and a muffled call. James sighed and pulled out his earphones, turning off the music and pocketing his phone in his hoodie.

“What are you doing in there? Writing your will?”

James unlocked the door and looked down, meeting the eyes of the band’s drummer, Olivia. The drummer looked up at him with fierce blue eyes and James sidestepped her. She was barely over five foot, and with the height came a rather fiery attitude. Not that James would admit it, but she kind of scared him. He gestured with a flourish, “All yours.”

The rest of the band was getting their makeup, wigs, and costumes ready. Some were more extravagant than others. James preferred low-key, tight dark jeans and a large-collared, white shirt, the top button open with a skinny tie loosely knotted around his neck. He glided across the dressing room to where their lead vocalist, Steve, was getting dressed and took a seat.

There was a knock on the dressing room door, and one of the bar staff stuck his head around the door. “Set for five to?” he asked.

James leaned back in his seat, and the barman met James’s gaze ever so briefly, though the question wasn’t directed at him.

“Yep.” Steve Hunter gave a short nod, then focused on lacing his silver platform boots. A black skull was embellished on the side of the high footwear.

“See you out front.” This time the barman’s words were directed at James, and James couldn’t help but smile as their eyes met again. The barman tapped his fingers on the back of the door one after another in a slow wave of digits. “Should be a good one.” He returned James’s smile, then slipped out of the room.

Clare Hunter, Steve’s sister, leaned in close and rested her chin on James’s shoulder. “That’s your night sorted.”

James shrugged her away and brushed the loose hairs that had fallen on his shoulder from her heavy-fringed pink wig. He’d been in a bad mood since getting off work. He was a groundskeeper, working for his parents at the hotel they owned in the village of Knowles Brook. He’d spent the day hefting around pots and clearing the overgrown borders. He was tired and cranky, though he knew that wasn’t the only reason he was in such a funk. He was antsy and couldn’t wait to get on stage and just let go. He glanced at the closed door in the mirror. Maybe Clare was right. Maybe the barman could indeed sort his night and his mood.

“What’s up with you?” Steve asked and dropped down in the chair beside him. He wore his all-too-frequent “tell father” expression, despite being only a handful of years older than James himself.

“Nothin’.” James‘s tone was harsher than he intended.

“Your mum again?” When James didn’t answer, Steve continued, “I thought the great Jay James didn’t give a shit?”

The emphasis on James’s stage name caused James to frown. Was Steve taking the piss again? He’d thought creating a guitar-playing alter ego and giving him his own name would have been fun and cool. It kind of was. Jay got away with a lot more stuff than James ever would. But despite that, the thrill was short-lived—instead, he had gotten the piss ripped out of him and still did.

“Leave it, yeah.” He scratched the back of his own hair beneath the shoulder-length, spiky blond wig and focused on his reflection in the mirror. Anger bubbled in his stomach, though not at his friend, so he was relieved when Steve seemed to take the hint and didn’t press further. Things with his mother had hit some imaginary wall that neither of them could get past. Hell he’d tried, even his father had. He still lived at home, worked with his parents every day, and yet nothing ever changed between him and his mother. They were kind of stuck, he guessed, both ignoring the problem in the hope it would go away. He knew the wall between them wasn’t going to be scaled with the half-hearted conversations they had in the last twelve months.

James lowered his eyes as he noted Clare studying him. “You want something?”

“Do you need a hand?” She ignored his mood, as per usual. She twisted a tube of lipstick over in her hands. “I did Steve’s makeup.” She glanced past James to where Steve was adjusting his dark wig. “Looks all right, doesn’t he?”

James gave Steve a sideways look. He hadn’t really paid much attention before. Steve’s eyelids were painted in various shades of red and orange blended together in a thick block of colour to his eyebrows. Red had been brushed outwards from the corners of his eyes and finished off with several glittered stripes across his cheeks.

“Not bad,” James agreed unenthusiastically. Clare waited and wore a crooked smile. She clearly expected more. “It’s good.” He altered his tone and suddenly felt as positive as he was trying to sound. Clare was a good friend and there was something about her presence that always calmed him down. The tension in his gut faded. “It’s really good.”

“I found some images on Pinterest. There’s some cool makeup ideas, some a bit full-on, but still cool. You know like Bowie with that massive lightning bolt.”

James smiled. He wasn’t sure under the lights and closed spaces of the pubs and social clubs a full face of makeup was the best idea. In his head he had visions of looking like some melting monster, makeup dribbling and pooling around his neck. “Sounds like a lot of effort.”

Clare screwed up her mouth and shrugged. “It would look great, though.”

The band had formed ten months ago, and they had a simple mission statement: play well, have fun, don’t take things too seriously. With that in mind, wigs, platforms, and makeup had become a regular Saturday night occurrence. As the band got more gigs, the business of dressing up had become more than just for fun. James had been raised on the music from the seventies, musicians like Sweet, T. Rex, and Bowie. When his classmates at school had been talking about the latest songs from Craig David to Westlife via the solo singles of the Spice Girls, James had been lost in the performances of the glam-rock era, his own fantasy world of outrageous hair, flamboyant fashion, makeup, and guitars. He’d been friendly with Clare since school, so when she said her brother was looking for a lead guitarist for a band he was putting together with the non-pressure intention of “seeing where it took them”, James jumped at the chance to lose himself in the music of the decade all over again.

James looked in the mirror and at the deep purple and black around his eyes. Purple was his colour. It always had been, despite his mother’s protests when he painted his bedroom in a deep, dark purple. The other members of the band had adopted their own colour schemes and themes when it came to wigs, outfits, and makeup. Steve was all about reds and golds, set off with a long, dark Cher-like wig. Clare had a thing for pink and silver, Olivia had adopted blue, and their bassist, Miles, a tall man standing at six foot six, though he kept it subtle with a little mascara and dark lipstick, he wore a mirrored top hat that Noddy Holder would be proud of.

His mild disinterest had done nothing to dissuade Clare, who remained sitting beside him as if she knew he was going to change his mind and let her do his makeup. Damn her and her slapped puppy face. Guilt for snapping at her earlier nipped at his insides. His makeup was always much more subtle than his bandmates, but if he was going to put his trust in anyone, it would be Clare.

“Do you want to do it?” he finally asked Clare and held up the makeup.

She smiled and took the palette of colours, dragging her chair closer as James turned to face her. He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, loosely folded his arms, and shut his eyes. With his eyes closed, his other senses took over. The dull sound of music from the main room of the pub echoed through the wall—“Down, Down” he recognised. They usually threw in a Quo number, “Paper Plane” was on the set list for the second half of the act.

He took a deep breath and moistened his lips. Clare’s perfume, sweet and sickly, filled his nostrils, mixed in with the scent of stale beer, sweaty bodies, and things he couldn’t even guess at. Who knew the smell of tobacco had masked so much in bars before the smoking ban?

He relaxed as she drew the makeup brush across his cheekbone and angled down toward his mouth. They didn’t speak. James let a sense of calm wash over him. Clare switched sides, focusing on his other cheek, and James opened his eyes. He smiled as he noted the concentration on her face, her tongue teasing the corner of her mouth as she applied the purple makeup.

“There,” she finally said, putting down the makeup.

He took her hands in his, then turned to look in the mirror. “Thanks.” He squeezed her hands and gently hugged them to him. “Friends, yeah?” He had a nasty habit of snapping at people when he was in a bad mood.

With a snort, Clare pulled her hands free. She had never been big on the touchy-feely stuff but was always there to bitch and moan to like any good friend. “Friends,” she agreed.

Turning away, James massaged just above his eyebrow, rubbing at the dull pain of a headache that he’d been unable to shift all day.

“So, the guy,” Clare pressed about the barman. “Is he definitely gay? And are you going to sleep with him…” She trailed off and glanced over her shoulder at the sound of a closing door. Their drummer exited the toilets and busied herself on the other side of the room.

“What?” James was confused by the question. Who he slept with really wasn’t any of her business.

“I think she kind of has a thing for him.” Clare kept her voice low as she talked about their bandmate. “It’s like her local or something.”

“He’s gay,” James said. There had been some flirting the last time the band had played here. “I’m pretty sure she knows he’s gay.”

Clare chewed at her lip. “Maybe. But I think she has a crush.”

Olivia was nineteen, still quick to fall in love with anyone showing her attention and flashing a smile. Hell, she had gone all doe-eyed over James until he’d broken the news she was definitely not his type.

“I don’t want you upsetting her.”

James folded his arms. “Me?” How was it his problem?

“We’ve got something good and I don’t want you cocking that up.”

“Right.” He looked at her pointedly but couldn’t help it. He cracked up, laughing as he uttered, “Cocking up.”

Clare smirked. “Yeah, yeah.” She leaned on the back of his chair. “But you know when things are going so well you’re just waiting for something to go wrong?”

James pressed his mouth in a line and nodded. He knew. He’d had moments in his life when he thought everything was perfect and nothing could touch him. How wrong had he been?

“Ignore me. If you want to shag him then you go for it.” Clare smiled. “Still love me?”

“I suppose so.” James laughed and pulled her into a brief hug.

She looked at him thoughtfully as if she wanted to say something else. He’d been snappy with her earlier while they had been setting up the band’s gear so she knew he’d had an off day. She also knew his mother was the likely cause.

“Just…” She sighed and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter.” She got to her feet and leaned down to kiss him on the cheek. “Have fun.” She squeezed his shoulder. “But not too much fun.” She knew how stupid he could be sometimes, especially when he had a pint in his hand. She’d seen him at his lowest when everything conspired against him at once, the death of one of his friends, splitting from his ex, and he and his mother reaching an impasse, still unable to accept who he was. Things had gotten bad, and sometimes, no matter what Clare said or he told himself, he still got down and acted out. He glanced in the mirror at himself, and tonight he knew exactly who he was going to act out with.

* * * * *

James placed his pint on the front of the stage and picked up his guitar. He looped his arm through the strap of his custom black and purple Gibson and quickly checked things over. He stood at Steve’s right, and adjusted his microphone as he eyed the set list at his feet. Blinking against the bright lights aimed at the stage, he looked around the darkened room. Light shone through the doorway to the room on the other side of the bar and people were talking in their groups, huddled around tables with drinks in their hands.

“Good evening,” Steve said into his microphone. The room quietened and Steve continued, “We are Alter Ego.”

James moved his fingers against the strings of his guitar, silently going through the opening number as Steve wrapped up his introduction. It was the same every time, a bit about the band and the music they played. Steve would introduce each band member in full a few songs before the close of the second half of the act.

“This is T. Rex.” Steve nodded around the group and the drummer counted them in.

James struck his guitar strings with his pick, playing the melody of the intro along with Clare, Steve clapping in time before coming in with the first lyrics to “20th Century Boy”.

James let the music wash over him. This was why he played the role of Jay James. It was when James wanted nothing more than to let go and lose himself in the beat. But as himself, he struggled to do that. The ever-present belief that he was letting his mother down, that he was nothing more than a disappointment stung heavily at his heart and muddled his head. The only way to deal with it was to split himself in two. He’d started to live two lives. One—Jay James, gay, extravagant, not afraid of who he was or what people thought of him. He drank copious amounts of alcohol and flirted hard with every guy in every bar. The other—James Hall, quiet, reserved, groundskeeper of the hotel and restaurant his family ran. James Hall, who’d had one boyfriend since finding himself at university and coming out to his parents. James Hall, who wanted nothing more than for his mother to be both happy for him and proud of him.

The chorus kicked in and James joined in, singing with Steve and Clare. He closed his eyes as he sang. The notes stirred up a powerful sensation in his gut and he belted out the lyrics alongside the others. This was what he needed. The rush he felt on stage was better than any other form of therapy. He could let go of all the bad stuff and just go for it. He felt free.

* * * * *

“Seriously?” Clare asked and slammed shut the boot of Steve’s Megane Scenic. She rubbed the back of her neck. It was nearly one in the morning and they’d just finished packing up their gear. “The only place you should be heading is bed.” Clare had her long brown hair tied loosely back from her face. The scruffy ponytail was high on her head, and her hair stuck out in all directions. Gone were the wig and the makeup along with the leggings and silver dress. Instead, she was dressed in baggy jogging bottoms and a thick jumper and scarf.

James grinned and hooked his arm around the barman’s shoulder. “Maybe later,” he said and pressed his face to the other man’s. “Randy the barman wants to go to a club.”

“Richie. Richard,” the barman corrected him.

“Richie,” James said and smiled. He looked back at Clare. “Richie wants to go dancing.”

“You’re drunk,” Clare said.

James nodded. Yes he was and he felt great.

“Let him go,” Steve said from behind her and rested a hand on her shoulder. “He can take care of himself. We’ll drop your stuff round in the morning.”

“Thank you,” James said. He rested his chin on Richie’s shoulder. He patted the pockets of his black skinny jeans. He had his wallet with his keys and his phone, Steve had his guitar, and Richie smelled delicious. He wasn’t subtle as he breathed in the man’s scent and then pulled away.

Clare took him by the hand and guided him to the side of the car. “You sure you’re okay with him?” She eyed the barman and then met James’s eyes. She looked worried. “I’m not driving all the way back over here to save your butt if he’s a psycho.”

James knew that wasn’t entirely true. If he needed her, even if he was a thirty minute drive away, she’d be there.

“He’s harmless.” James pulled her close and kissed her forehead. “Besides, I’m not that drunk. I’m just…happy.” He massaged her shoulder as way to reassure her. “You like me when I’m happy.”

Clare reached up and squeezed his hand. “Depends on the happy.”

He was, however, too drunk to get all deep and meaningful. “Hey, call a cab, yeah?” he said to Richie.

Sighing, Clare pushed his hand away. “Be safe, yeah?” she said with a creased brow. “And get yourself a pint of water or two.”

James pulled her into a quick hug and then stepped back, reaching out as he sought the back pocket of Richie’s jeans. Content, he slipped his hand inside the warm material and gently squeezed the barman’s bum. Sleepily, James waved at Clare as she got into Steve’s car. He ran his hand back through his short dark blond hair and scratched at where his hair met his collar. “I’m Jay James,” he said out loud, despite the lack of wig and makeup. He’d kept the eyeliner and what was left of his lipstick, but had wiped aware most of the blusher and eye shadow.

Freeing his hand from Richie’s back pocket, James pulled his slim-fit white shirt free from his jeans, unfastened two extra buttons so he could enjoy the chilled air against the skin of his chest, and loosened the already loose knot of his skinny black tie. Alcohol gave him the illusion of warmth, and he relished the cool air as it circled his neck and chest. He took the few short steps and sat down on the pub car park wall. Yawning, he toed the concrete pavement and kicked a pebble into the road.

“Ten minutes,” Richie said. He joined James on the wall. He turned to face James and rested his hand on James’s thigh. “Did you really think I was called Randy?” There was a sparkle in his eyes as he asked and suddenly he was incredibly close and invading James’s space.

James shrugged. He had no idea what he’d been thinking. Randy just sounded fun. “It begins with an R.”

“Yeah, it does.”

James closed his eyes as Richie leaned in. He took a deep breath and swallowed hard. Richie ran his hand over James’s leg and with his other, cupped James’s face, guiding him forward and into a kiss. The kiss started slow, as if Richie was testing him, but then came tongues and crazy desperation. The kiss went straight to James’s crotch, and he shifted uncomfortably from the new pressure at the front of his jeans. He groaned as Richie pawed his erection, and he brought his hands up between them, pushing at Richie’s chest.

Richie took the hint and backed off, resting his hands on James’s shoulders. “Everything okay?” he asked.

The kiss left James’s mouth warm and swollen. He licked at his lips, tasting stale alcohol. “Mmm,” James managed.

“You still want that cab?”

James considered the pull of more alcohol versus the warm arousal in his stomach. “I think…” He wasn’t sure what he wanted. Now or later, chances were he was going home with Richie. Actually, no, he knew he would inevitably end up in Richie’s bed. Too much drink and an argument at home often had him running into the arms of the first man he could.

Take that, Mum.

“Club,” he finally decided. “I wanna dance.” He linked his wrists behind Richie’s head. “I want to dance with you.” There was nothing like a good bass line to accompany the feel of hot hands all over his body.

“Okay.” Richie leaned in for another kiss.

James closed his eyes and enjoyed the moment, though he quickly realised the spark he’d felt between them earlier was fading. Richie seemed nice enough, wasn’t lacking in the looks department, but…

Not special. Not the one.

What made someone the one anyway? When was it time to forget the fairytale notion of soul mates and true love and all that jazz? He thought he’d found that once before, but he’d been wrong. There had been nice guys since, ones that were sweet and affectionate and would have done anything for him. But something was always missing, and he couldn’t lie to them and make out they had something that was made to last beyond a night or a date or two.

James sighed and rested his head on Richie’s shoulder. Richie wrapped his hand around James’s, and James looked at their entwined digits curiously. He thought back to the evening and their interactions. Had he done anything to make Richie think this was more than just a little fun? Had Richie given any indication he thought differently? James sat up and pulled his hand from beneath Richie’s, reaching for his phone and a distraction. Unlocking his phone, he snorted a laugh as he noted a series of text messages from Clare. He narrowed his eyes and focused, reading through each one. Most told him not to be a dick, to be careful, and she’d see him when Steve dropped off his gear.

“Everything all right?” Richie asked.

Nodding, James slipped his phone back in his jeans. “Just a friend.” He met Richie’s eyes and then shyly looked away. Seemed his choices were simple. Awkward conversation punctuated with bouts of even more awkward silence or maybe a more interesting distraction—kissing. With a smile, he leaned forward and wrapped his hand around the back of Richie’s neck, pulling him into a sloppy kiss. He wanted music and people and dancing, crowded spaces and sticky floors. He wanted to be Jay James for a little longer. They parted briefly, both catching their breaths.

Where the hell was that taxi?

Chapter 2

James was still drunk at nine in the morning, and what he lacked in stealth-like prowess, he made up for with enthusiasm. He dropped his keys, his phone, and the contents of the change pocket of his wallet on his way to the door. The path up to the house was crafted from loose pebbles and James struggled to find the scattered coins. With a muttered expletive, he gave up and, after a short fight with the lock, finally got inside.

With a groan, he pushed the door shut and leaned back against the sturdy wood. He stared beyond the kitchen to the hallway leading out the back and toward the sitting room. His ears were ringing, and he swore the kitchen had taken on an interesting slant. No one appeared to be around, and considering the time, he expected his parents would be in the main hotel building, ensuring breakfast was being served on time and to his mother’s exceptional standards.

James toed off his shoes and kicked them across the floor behind the door. He rubbed at his stiff neck, and then, pressing a hand to his stomach, he slowly leaned over and lined them up neatly with the other shoes. Half in a daze, James filled a pint glass with some water and headed upstairs. He dropped his shoulders and sighed in relief as he stepped into his bedroom. Yawning, he sat down on the edge of his bed. Sipping the tepid water, he leaned over his headboard and tugged the dark curtains shut. He rested the glass on his bedside and turned on the lamp. Back on his feet, he undressed, kicking his legs free of his jeans and throwing his shirt onto the chair that sat beside his wardrobe. He stared at himself in the mirrored door and frowned as he rubbed at the bags under his eyes. At least he felt as crap as he looked. Turning his head, he sighed and pressed his hand to the large bruise on his neck.

“Great,” he scoffed as he spotted a second mark on his collarbone. Had he gone home with a sixteen-year-old? Shaking his head, he rearranged the waistband of his hipster boxers and crawled across the covers of his bed. Fighting with the duvet, he made his way beneath the cool bedding and hugged his pillow. Reaching out, he turned off his bedside lamp, then closed his eyes. He had gotten a few hours’ sleep at Richie’s before the sun came up and he’d made for the door. He’d had fun last night, but as always in the cold light of day, the fantasy of being some rock star had faded and it was time to get back to reality.

“Are you awake?”

James opened his eyes as his bedroom door opened. Lifting his head, he stared through the dim light at his mother. “Erm, yeah, I guess. What’s up?”

The mattress dipped as she sat down beside him. She pulled back the duvet, and the expression she wore at the sight of him exuded disappointment. “When did you get in?”

To lie or not to lie. “Not long. I stayed with a friend.”


“No,” James said slowly.

His mother nodded knowingly and screwed up her mouth disapprovingly. “Are you okay to drive?”

James hesitated and his mother sighed. “I’ll be okay in a bit,” he said quickly. “Some water, a couple of paracetamol, and a bacon sandwich and I’ll be good to go.”

“I’ll get your father to drive you,” she said, leaving no room for him to argue. Though in all honesty, he knew it would take more than bacon to get him back below the legal limit. She got to her feet. “Be downstairs in half an hour.” And with that, she left.

James rolled onto his back. He eyed the sweeping lines of the stippled ceiling as guilt settled in his stomach. At nine last night he still remembered his duties for today, however, several pints of lager later, he had clean forgot he was supposed to be heading to the garden centre before lunch. Blowing out a breath, he sat up and rubbed at his face. Ah, there it was. The hangover had landed. It was only a two on a scale of ten, but drunkenness had still made way for a brewing headache and a queasy sting at the back of his throat. With a muted whine, he pushed the covers back and negotiated his light-headedness and the sheet tangled around his feet to stand up. God, now he felt sick. A tactical chunder might be on the cards to make him feel better, and yet, he really, really didn’t want to be sick. Throwing up had to be one of the worst feelings ever. All that heaving and straining. Groaning, he shuffled to the bathroom. He had thirty minutes to make himself look presentable—he shut the door—starting now.

* * * * *

With a yawn, James opened the fridge and stared inside. He tapped his fingers against his chest as he tried to figure out what would help settle his stomach. Toast was a safe option. He grabbed the tub of butter, then fixed himself a couple of slices.

“Morning, son,” his dad said, entering the kitchen via the back of the house. With a shudder, he rubbed his hands together. “Chilly out there.” He wiped his boots on the doormat. “Fun night?”

“Mmm,” James managed, taking the slices from the toaster. He got a knife and spread a thin layer of butter on each. Turning around, he leaned against the edge of the worktop and held the plate in his hand. He took a bite and waited as his dad filled the kettle.

“So, what was his name?” his dad asked and smirked. “Will this one get an invite to come round for tea?”

James ran his tongue over his teeth and shrugged. “I don’t think so.”

“Shame,” his dad said and dropped a teabag in a mug.

James raised his shoulder, hoping the collar of his polo shirt covered the love bite.

“She’s already told me.” He gave James a sideways glance as he poured the boiled kettle.

“Of course she has.” James dropped his shoulder and took another bite of his breakfast. He chewed as he waited to see if his dad would say more. Swallowing, he crossed his ankles and leaned back. “She say anything else?”

His dad gave the mug more attention than it probably deserved as he chased the teabag with his spoon. At sixty-four, Edward Hall had perfected the art of avoidance. “Nothing you need to worry about.” He smiled before fishing the teabag out of the mug with his spoon and disposing of it in the bin. Getting milk from the fridge, he finished making his drink and sat down at the small round wooden table. He hugged the mug in his hands and met his son’s doubtful gaze. “Seriously,” he added. “Come sit down.”

James bit on his toast, slowly breaking a chunk off as he studied his father’s face. Was this a ‘talk’? Hesitantly, James joined his dad at the table. “Whatever it is, I swear I didn’t do it,” he said as he sat down.

His dad smiled and gently ran his thumbs around the lip of his mug. “Anybody would think you had a guilty conscience.”

James rolled his eyes and wiped his hands on his scruffy work jeans. “What then?” He pushed his plate away. He couldn’t face the second slice.

“I just wanted you to know that if you ever wanted to invite someone back here, it’s okay.” Edward cleared his throat and then met his son’s eyes. “If you have somebody special. It would be nice to meet them.”

“Dad,” James started. “I don’t—”

“You don’t have to explain. I just wanted you to know that if or when you do, he would be welcome here.”

James stared at the tabletop. “What about Mum?” There was no way he could see her agreeing to this.

“This isn’t about her. It’s about you. This is your home, and I want you to be happy.” Edward leaned forward. “Are you happy?”

“Dad…” He looked at his father and gave a slow nod. “Yeah. Of course. I’m happy.” He raised his voice at the end of his words, convincing even himself.

“So,” his dad asked, “is there someone special?”

James shook his head. “Not at the minute. No.”

“Oh. Okay.” Was his dad actually disappointed?

“But when there is, I’ll make sure I invite him round. You can make your chilli.”

“What if he’s vegetarian?”

James laughed. He loved his dad. He had to have one of the best dads in the world. “Quorn?” James suggested.

“Hmm.” Edward sipped his tea. “I didn’t think this through.”

James felt brighter, lighter almost as he watched the curl of his father’s lips beneath his neatly trimmed moustache. The creep of white whiskers amongst Edward’s dark facial hair aged him, but James couldn’t imagine his father clean-shaven anymore. He was like some cuddly faced teddy bear and James wouldn’t want him any other way.

“I’m sorry, son. I just don’t think I could approve. Each to their own and all that, but…” He shook his head. “I wouldn’t know what to say. I mean, bacon, that’s all I’d think every time I looked at him. Bacon, bacon, bacon.” He stopped and grinned. “Too far?”

James nodded. “Maybe. But you don’t need to worry. I’m not sure I could love a man who didn’t appreciate a good bacon sandwich.”

“Are you two still here?” James’s mother said from behind them.

“It’s Sunday, Susanne. There’s no rush.”

“This place won’t run itself,” she pointed out. “I need you back here before the Sunday lunchers turn up.”

Edward looked up at the ceiling and mouthed his disbelief. “That’s why we employ staff, dear.” He took another drink of his tea.

“You knew you had to work this morning.” Her words were directed at James. “I can’t believe you stayed out all night. It’s irresponsible.”

James didn’t dare look over his shoulder. He could already feel her icy blue gaze on the back of his head. This was all his fault, obviously. For being a shitty son and an even shittier groundskeeper. “I know what I want,” he said in a low voice. “We won’t be long.” He glanced at his father, who as usual was taking the morning and James’s mother in his stride. They had been married for thirty-eight years, and James was sure there was nothing they didn’t know about each other. They worked as a team—as friends and as man and wife—through the good and the bad and the tantrums.

“Keep an eye on your dad, please.” His mother’s words softened, and James closed his eyes as she rested her hands on his shoulders. The warmth of her hands through his clothes soothed away the earlier tension of the morning. “We don’t need any more gnomes.” There was a smile in her voice as she squeezed his shoulders.

James opened his eyes as she stepped away. The loss of her touch left an aching space in his chest. He looked up in time to see her look away before leaving the kitchen.

“Let’s go,” his dad said.

James nodded and slid his chair back across the tiled floor. “I’ll grab my coat and see you outside.”

James’s father briefly met his eyes, conveying the warning for James to let his mother go. They’d ended on a neutral note and none of them wanted to fuel further arguments.

“I’m just getting my coat,” he assured his dad.

“Okay. I’ll see you out front.”

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