London, February 2005.
“Come on, big guy. We’ve only just got here. You need to loosen up.”
“I’m tryin’.” Jay Ruttman cursed his poor choice of jeans and a long-sleeved button-down black shirt. Not exactly the most appropriate outfit for the occasion, but he refused to take the top off, no matter how bad the sweat patches became.
“I admit the last place was a bit…cramped.” Tom winced. “But I’ve heard great things about this one.” He slipped a hand up Jay’s back, digging his fingertips in for a tough massage.
Wriggling on the uncomfortable stool, Jay wiped the beads of sweat forming on his top lip and tried to hide his grimace at Tom’s painful kneading of his shoulders. “A drink might help.”
The deep thump booming out from the DJ’s decks vibrated through Jay’s chest to the point his temple pulsated. Ringing sang in his ears, followed by the screech of a whistle or elongated buzz. It was hot. Humid. Stuffy. Just generally uncomfortable to be wearing any clothes, which he assumed was the point.
“Sure. Then why don’t you come dance?” Tom angled his head.
The throng of bodies all squashed onto the dance floor swayed steadily in time with the heady beat and their sweaty, musky odour hung in the air of the oppressive central London basement nightclub. Many of the horde had stripped free of their shirts, leaving a sea of peach flesh glimmering in the strobe lighting, with the occasional darker-skinned male dotted in between. The machine pelted out a deep fizz, bathing the crowd in white foam. They all seemed to appreciate it and bounced up and down with heightened enthusiasm.
Jay shook his head and his floppy blond hair styled into a brushup with copious amounts of hairspray threatened to lose its vigour in the humidity. It took all his efforts not to ruffle it out. “I don’t dance.”
“Not even with me?” Tom wriggled his hips.
Jay didn’t reply.
Slipping his hands from Jay’s shoulders, Tom sighed. Then he ripped off his T-shirt and threw it at Jay. “Your loss.”
Catching the top made the potent scent of sweet aftershave tickle Jay’s nostrils. Tom strutted through the mass of male bodies, his slim hips swaying in synch with the music. The grooves of muscles on his slender back flexed with every movement and he grinned, finding the oddity amongst the many. Ann, in the sparkly black bra she had stripped down to, tucked her vest top into the straps and flicked her long dark hair over her shoulder. After planting a kiss to her cheek, Tom waved his arms in the air, shaking his head in time with the thumping bass line. Not a strand on his lightened brown hair moved out of place, even with his animated dancing, until Ann wiped off a clump of foam from her arm and slapped the stuff onto Tom’s head. He retaliated by grabbing a load off the nearest male body, holding it in outstretched palms and blowing it into Ann’s face. She laughed, and the wink and lecherous gaze at Tom from the shirtless bloke next to him didn’t go unnoticed. By either of them.
Jay spun on his stool to face the bar and slapped a hand down on the counter. “Corona, please, mate.” He had to raise his voice over the sudden screech of music, not that he would call it music. It was simply noise. Loud, ear-splattering noise.
Jay hung his head, shaking the thoughts from his mind, and threw a fiver on the counter once his bottle had been plonked in front of him.
“First time, huh?” The bartender’s dark fringe draped into deep brown eyes and he swept it back, revealing dramatic red streaks running through it.
Jay pushed down the lime tucked into the spout and the slice trailed down the inside of the neck to sink into the bubbling liquid. Licking the tip of his finger, the bittersweet taste fizzed on his tongue. “That obvious?”
“Yes.” The man winked, his diamante earring twinkling. “But I’m trained to notice these things. I work here most nights and I’m sure I would have remembered you.”
Jay swallowed a swig of his beer, clearing the blockage and moistening his lips. He attempted a smile, one that he thought might brighten his blue eyes. They hadn’t sparkled in a while so it was worth a go to see if he was able to get a reaction, but more in an attempt to lift his hazy mood.
The bartender tilted his neck. “A word of warning then.” He nodded toward the entrance way. “They’ll be a queue out the door here soon.”
“Yeah? There a happy hour or special offer or somethin’?”
The bartender flipped a towel over his shoulder. “No, sweetheart. They’ll all get a whiff of fresh meat soon enough, and one that’s as good to eat as you are means you’ll be beating them off with a stick.” He cocked his head. “Or not. I mean, whatever you’re into, you’ll find it easy enough in here.”
Jay’s cheeks burned scarlet through his well-trimmed golden stubble and his claustrophobia unexpectedly tripled. Laughing, the barman leaned across the counter and pinched Jay’s cheek. “You are adorable.”
Perhaps that wasn’t the reaction he’d been after. Or was it? Jay didn’t know anymore. Not that he ever really had. All he could do was stare into the man’s dark eyes and lose himself, if only for a short time. The barman drifted his hand to cup Jay’s chin and Jay noted the three black stars tattooed on the underside of the man’s arm. Sucking in a breath, Jay inhaled a different smell. Something familiar. Something distinctive.
Startled, Jay swivelled around at the American accent and slipped away from the barman’s outstretched hand. Tom wiped his brow, brushing his hair back into the quiff he’d taken to the dance floor with. It stuck up higher with the sweat, foam and product now running through it.
“I’m done here.” Jay’s voice croaked, and he downed the dregs from the bottle in one swoop.
“Why? What happened?”
The potent aroma of foam chemicals on Tom’s bare skin scorched Jay’s throat, and the beads of sweat mixed with bubbles glistening on Tom’s slender hairless chest sparkled against the strobe lighting.
Licking his lips, Jay slammed the bottle on the counter and stood. “This ain’t my scene.”
Tom sighed. “Okay, how about we go somewhere less full-on?”
“Nah. I’m done.” Jay nodded to the exit. “Let’s just go home.”
Jay waved over at Ann, attempting to get her attention. Unfortunately, she was a little preoccupied, having been picked up by two men and thrown into the raining foam shower while she cackled with utter glee.
Ann’s more cut out for gay bars than I am.
* * * *
Dumping a wad of dollars into the open palm of the yellow-cab driver, Seb checked his watch and tumbled out into New York’s Greenwich Village. He was late. All of twenty minutes, but that wouldn’t matter. Not that he cared all that much, but would rather the confrontation didn’t happen in front of the first bunch of potential clients he was supposed to be charming.
He sank his chin into his oversized scarf wrapped double around his neck and adjusted the black gloves beneath his full-length trench coat. It was freezing. Icicles still hung from the wheel arches of the parked cars, and fine snowflakes dusted their windscreens. Catching his reflection in one of the darkened windows of the closed bars along the block, Seb sighed. It was almost his father looking back at him. At least that might soften the blow of being late. Even his hair had been swept back, no spikes, no hint of any colour other than pure dark brown. He might as well be heading to a funeral. Which, perhaps, he was. The funeral of Seb, front man of the Drops, and the rebirth of Sebastian Saunders, son and heir of the Saunders & Son property empire.
All the bars, cafes and boutiques along the strip were decked out ready for Valentine’s Day. Red hearts were stuck to the windows, along with advertisements for special menus and exclusive Valentine nights where one could serenade a new love until the early hours of Sunday morning, when they’d be discarded like the trash in the Dumpsters out back. Head down, Seb pounded the pavement in his uncomfortable brogues.
“You’re late.” Stephen had gone for a far more colourful approach in his besuited attire. Deep blue, almost shiny, with a long navy woollen coat to match the lighter blue silken scarf draped around his growing-out beard. His eyes were still dark though. Like his soul.
Sebastian quickened his step to approach outside the eatery and sniffed through the biting cold. “They here, yet?”
Seb shielded his eyes and peered in through the window. It wasn’t their usual wine-and-dine haunt. Stephen handed over a file and Seb carelessly flicked through.
“Anything in there I need to know?”
“You should have read up on this already.”
“Humour me.” Seb shoved the file back.
“The Kochetskys. Father and son collaboration. The son is a graduate architect. The father owns the land.”
“Why don’t they just do it themselves, then? Why do they need us?”
“My guess, the father is getting on and he probably doesn’t fully trust his son to take the helm just yet.”
“We need this land. Your father wants this land. So, you work the son. I’ll work the father.”
“Like old times.” Seb held up a hand. “No, wait, my mistake. You’re used to doing both.”
Thankfully without retaliating, Stephen yanked open the door to the cafe and ushered Seb in with an indulgent smile. The place had a cool, funky vibe, and on closer inspection it seemed a bit…British. The plasma screens dotted around were all set to sports channels, English sports channels, and the artwork on the walls displayed English landmarks. The specials board even boasted tea and crumpets. Seb chuckled, making his way through the bustling restaurant toward the reserved table in the corner.
The elderly, scruffier gent stood first. No suit, just cheap baggy denim jeans and a plaid shirt. He was followed by the smarter son, mid-twenties, slender, light-brown hair without a hint of highlight. Rather plain. Basic. At least he had gone in for the traditional suit, slightly drab tan in colour though.
“Sebastian, Stephen, a pleasure to meet you, do take a seat.” The father extended a welcoming hand.
“Thank you, Eli. May I call you Eli?” Seb smiled, all teeth, all sparkling eyes as he shook hands. Yeah, I read that damn file.
“Of course. This is my son, Xavier.”
Seb extended his dashing welcome to the son, then sat and tugged off his gloves. He removed the mounds of winter gear to hang on the back of the chair, revealing his own efforts of a suit underneath. He hadn’t bothered with a tie, and the top few buttons weren’t fastened, showing just a hint of his treble clef tattoo poking out across the left side of his chest. Seb settled in his chair and noted the wandering eyes of the architect opposite. Right, that’ll be why I’ve been given the son to work on. Wonderful.
“I hope you didn’t mind us choosing the venue.” Eli waved a hand, beckoning the waiter. “Xavier chose it. He’s a regular here and thought it would help make you feel at home. He loves all this British stuff.”
Seb managed to prevent himself from rolling his eyes, or even simply walking out. Will Saunders had well and truly found a reason to use his son for the most benefit whilst in New York. Seb began to wonder if it had all been leading to this very moment in the first place. This father-and-son collaboration owning one of the most sought-after properties in the whole city, a fantastic development opportunity for the highest bidder, and the son was gay. Stephen, hitched and sprogged up, couldn’t work his closeted charm out in the open. So send in the expert.
“What can I get for ya?”
Seb twisted in his seat, the accent of the approaching shadow hitting him like a sledgehammer to the back of the head.
“Afternoon tea all round.” Eli smiled. “That okay for everyone?”
“Coffee.” Seb needed it.
“How d’ya take it?”
Seb did his best not to move, nor to react. That cacophonous tone of the waiter’s accent grazed through him to the point it made him uncomfortable.
“Black, three sugars.”
The man stomped away and Seb didn’t feel the slightest piece of remorse at being so rude. This was New York. The waiter ought to be used to it. Still, if the guy was from London, and with that accent Seb guessed the east side, then there isn’t much difference in consumer etiquette.
“So.” Stephen shuffled in the seat and whacked the huge Lever Arch file on the table. “I have all our plans and costs in here. Would you care to take a look?”
Seb left them to it. It wasn’t his job to run through the property plans. It was his job to secure the clients in the first place, deal with the contracts and get things signed as quickly and cheaply as possible.
“How are you liking New York?” Xavier leaned closer, his subtle cologne as insignificant as the man himself.
Seb’s coffee, the teas and a display of miniature cakes arrived, and Seb tucked straight into his. He shrugged. “It’s cold.”
Xavier chuckled. “It can get like that. Wait until summer, then you’ll be dreaming of the snow.”
“You’re an architect, then?”
“Yup. Just starting out. I graduated last summer and really want to get my hands on this development opportunity. I have so many ideas.”
“Uh-huh. I see. It’s just, we’ve already consulted our own architects. So if we take on this land ownership, it’s not guaranteed you’ll remain as part of the team.” He liked to mess with them a little first. Can’t go in all charming to start with. That just makes them think you’d be a pushover.
“But I’m sure you’ll like what I have to offer.” Xavier smiled, his shiny teeth sparkling. “Dad says as you guys are starting out over here, it’s a great synergy. We have the local contacts, city planners, the mayor; you have the money and expertise.”
“So, what you are saying is that we buy this poxy bit of land you own on the Upper West Side, take on your plans to modernise the decrepit building into whatever you want, and we bear all the costs of marketing?” Seb sipped from his coffee. “I fail to see the mutual benefits.” That’s quite possibly pushing it. He eyed Stephen, whose frown ruffled parts of his jet-black hair out of place. Seb shrugged.
“You get your first build out here,” Xavier answered.
“My father owns the Baynton.” Seb slapped his cup down. “Where I live.”
“Yes, but he didn’t plan that one, did he? He just bought an already failing apartment block, did it up a bit and re-marketed it to a different rental occupier. Have you sold the penthouse suite yet?”
“We are choosing the right ownership.”
“Of course.” Xavier helped himself to one of the mini cakes from the display and set it down next to his mug and saucer. “Fine, so what do you suggest?”
“Me?” Seb waved a flippant hand. “We buy the land from you and we do it our way.”
“Then I’ll tell my dad not to sell to you.”
“I see.” Seb caught Stephen’s glare out of the corner of his eye. “Okay, tell me about yourself, Xavier. Why should I keep you on the project? Which university did you attend?”
With a curt nod, Stephen went back to regaling Eli with all the plans and the build that Saunders & Son had executed over the pond in London. Seb focused his attention on the one he knew he could wrap around his finger. Obviously why I’m here.
“Really? I attend there.” Seb didn’t. He’d enrolled, never attended. He hadn’t told his father that yet. “Delightful campus.”
“Will you be attending the Valentine Ball?”
“Doubtful.” More than doubtful.
“Not looking for romance in the city, then, Sebastian?” Xavier’s wistful tones grazed Seb’s gums. “Or even sex?”
Seb held Xavier’s gaze. “Aren’t we all looking for sex in the city, Xavier?”
Xavier smiled. “You should check out Christopher Street. The Light House always does a good night.”
“I’m not into cheesy-pop gay bars.” He took a gulp of coffee, allowing the bitter taste to drown out the bitter atmosphere.
“Oh, no, this one isn’t. Much more to your liking, I feel. Live bands. You like your music, right, Sebastian?”
This guy’s done his homework particularly thoroughly.
“Perhaps I’ll see you in there one night? I can talk you through my ideas for the building my father has owned for years. He never listens to me. Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
“Will he sell it? To me?”
“If you promise to hear me out.”
“I need the deal today, Xavier. I have fourteen other locations to scout for this project.” Another lie rolling off his tongue. “But you sign on the dotted line and maybe, just maybe, I’ll convince my father that you should be on the project too. Mutual benefits, right?”
Xavier smiled. Seb leaned back in the chair, giving the man some breathing space and listened to Stephen spouting the finances to Eli.
Xavier bit his bottom lip, stirring his tea. “So, any plans for Valentine’s Day?”
Seb ran his fingers through his hair. “I’m looking for new plans.” Evidently.
Once all the tea had been consumed, Eli adjourned the meeting and Seb leaned over the table to shake Xavier’s hand. “The Light House?”
“Yes.” Xavier brushed his lips to Seb’s ear. “You’ll find what you’re looking for in there.”
“Will I now?” Seb slipped his hand free, buttoned up his coat and followed Stephen out of the cafe and into the brisk cold air.
“Well done,” Stephen called, clicking something into his phone.
Seb spun to face him. “Did you want me to blow him?”
“‘Cause next time, do it yourself. You might like it. I seem to recall you trying it out once or twice. Could use the practise.”
“He’ll want to be the architect.”
“I know, but you’ll convince him to be a junior one.”
Seb laughed. “And how will I do that?”
Stephen shrugged. “How did you convince your father to be put in charge of his multimillion-pound business in New York?”
“By blowing you. And how did you convince him to be the one to come with me? ‘Cause I’m beginning to wonder if the reason my father never remarried is because he got your fucking awful scrape jobs too.”
“I’m off. Have a wonderful Valentine weekend with your wife.”
“And where will you be?”
Seb stuck his middle finger up and marched off. Crossing along into the next block, he pulled out his phone and flipped it open. Nothing. Sighing, he rammed his thumb onto the Call button.
After a few seconds of ringing, Martin answered with his usual, “Wei.”
“You given it to him yet?”
“Hello to you too.”
“Hi.” Seb sighed. “Sorry, but it was meant to be a Christmas present. Not a fucking Valentine’s Day one.”
“He’s gone all District Line.”
“If that’s your attempt at some slang, I’m going to fly across this pond and dropkick you.”
Martin chuckled. “Underground then. Not seen him. Will have another check.”
“Thank you.” Seb hung up, shoved his cold hands into his pockets and decided a brisk walk through the park would clear his head and avoid all the vomit-inducing Valentine’s commercial nonsense.
Easy to get lost in a massive city. Not so easy to be found.