For Sarah, with love
“You aren’t paying attention.” Ben Richards has no compunction about digging his business partner in the ribs. None. Indeed, he hopes it hurts. Jack Lincoln is distracted and preoccupied, and this is a critically important contract.
“It’s the government, for God’s sake.” Canary Wilson pushes her papers into her trendy Cambridge satchel, scowling. Name like that, she’d bloody better be creative, Jack had said when they hired her and so far she’d lived up to it. “I mean, who else in this god-forsaken business pays on time? Only the government can afford to. We can’t lose this contract.”
They wouldn’t lose it. Jack may have been abstracted at this follow-up briefing to their successful pitch for a PR contract for a big public information campaign, but the civil servants discussing the finer points of the brief with them probably didn’t even notice. Even abstracted, Jack is brilliant. Damn him.
Still, Jack needs to get his shit together. Lincoln-Hollister-Richards is a newish player on the public relations block, but they are good. Very good. Up and bloody well coming, featured in PR Weekly in virtually every edition, fashionable. Ben intends they stay that way.
But Jack just stares at him, expression vacant, eyes half-slitted against the late evening light coming through the government department’s rather grimy windows. He sighs, putting his papers together in a sort of lacklustre way that puts Ben’s teeth on edge.
Ben fights back a frisson of anxiety. There had better not be anything seriously wrong here. “Jack?”
“Are you all right?”
“Oh.” Jack looks down at his papers in his hand and tosses them into his own satchel—Mulberry; expensive; much better than Cambridge, and Ben still regrets not buying one for himself—and nods.
Ben can’t pursue it, right then. The chief civil servant they’re working with pokes her head around the door, asking if they’re ready to be escorted out. All of them, even Jack, perk up and project relentless, sunny energy. Bright, breezy and so bloody competent they pee honey and shit rainbows.
Out in the street, the long stretch of Whitehall before them, Ben sees Canary into a cab to get back to her Hammersmith flat and hails another to take him and Jack back to the office in oh-so-trendy Bermondsey, where Lincoln-Hollister-Richards inhabit a converted warehouse on the river. Very trendy, very expensive. Jack and his shit really, really can’t afford to fall apart.
All the good feeling Ben has about winning this contract in the first place—all down to him and Jack since the third in their partnership, Adam Hollister, is tied up on another job—starts to melt away, replaced by something close to apprehension. “Something wrong, Jack?”
Jack focuses on him and shakes his head, smiling.
“Well, okay.” Ben is unconvinced. He glances at his watch. His girlfriend will be on stage at the National by now, and he has loads of time before he needs to be at the stage door to collect her. Not much fun, dating an actress. Between matinees and evening performances, they don’t see anywhere near enough of each other. Still, she’s worth it. “Let’s dump this stuff at the office and go and eat. I don’t have to pick up Jancy until about ten thirty. So how about we go to Jose’s? I’d kill for some of their prawn fritters. Adam said he’d be calling in later and we can catch up before the weekend.”
Jack purses his lips. Looks thoughtful.
Sighing, Ben capitulates entirely. “I’ll buy.”
“Spill it,” Ben orders. “Just tell me what the fuck is the matter with you.”
Jack has fallen in with Ben’s plan for dinner, gone with him to Jose’s, queued up behind him as Ben negotiated for the table, and is now sitting in a corner of the bar, half-hidden behind a potted palm, to while away the wait time (really, thirty minutes in Jose’s on a Friday night is not bad and Jack can just stop with the bloody sighing). Jack is staring vacantly down at his cocktail. His whole demeanour invites—indeed, begs—inquiry.1
There is only so much flesh and blood can take. And although Ben’s flesh and blood cringes at the thought of getting involved in whatever is bothering Jack, he can’t bear to watch without knowing what it is he’s watching. Curiosity is his besetting sin, and he knows it.
There’s a glint of something like satisfaction and mischief in Jack’s eyes, the look of a man who’s been waiting for a cue and at last it’s come; at last, it’s performance time. He sighs deeply, smiles as beatifically as a saint, throws out his arms out dramatically, and declaims. There is no other way to describe it.
“My heart is on fire,” he says, “and it’s out of control.”
Ben’s own heart somersaults in panic. “Whaa—?”
“Like a blazing inferno,” Jack adds, with evident pride in the incendiary imagery. His eyes are wicked, the bastard. He’s enjoying this. He bows his head, an actor seeking applause, lays a hand over the hot organ in question and sighs again. Deeply. Romantically.
Oh fuck, the bastard’s in “love” again—Ben mentally adds some savage air quotes, because he suspects Jack only loves, unrequited, one person in this world and everything else is compensation. Ben and Jack have been friends since Uni, and Ben’s coming to think that Jack is the cross he bears as the price of ever taking his degree in the first place. He’s spent the last ten years watching Jack lurch from lover to lover, never constant to any of the poor saps, and in between he’s been Jack’s confidante about what went wrong this time and why can’t Adam see what’s under his nose when Jack would offer him hand and heart in a instant?
So, maybe Jack isn’t in love with anyone other than Adam, but he wants into someone’s tight pants, anyway, and that means toiling and moiling and trouble on Ben’s part and … oh, the bastard. This is so what Ben doesn’t need right now.
The little smile tugging at the corners of Jack’s mouth does absolutely nothing to reassure Ben. Absolutely nothing at all. Ben’s heart gives one more somersault before hammering uncomfortably against his ribs, as an acute sense of self preservation causes the adrenalin to kick in.
He goes into denial. It’s the only way to deal. “Indigestion? You need some antacid? I can get some from the bar, maybe…”
Jack just looks at him, wounded, a man whose finest tragic performance has been greeted with inappropriate laughter.
“Not indigestion, then? A coronary? Please say it’s a coronary.” Ben’s nerves start to twitch. “Oh hell,” he says. “Not that! Please tell me it’s not that!”
Oh god. Jack on another Adam-related frenzy of offering, getting rejected, going on a bender with whoever’s willing to bump uglies with him, remorse, offering to Adam again, getting rejected, going on a bender…
Ben would really like to drown himself right then, and his margarita glass just isn’t big enough. He swigs it down with nowhere near the respect the top-shelf tequila deserves. “Oh come on! Not again. You keep doing this to me. I can’t be doing with it, Jack! I just can’t.”
“Oh God,” sighs Jack, while Ben’s twitches increase in frequency.
“What the hell’s the matter with you?” Ben looks around the restaurant for help. Every damn trendy lovvie and PR guru in the capital is here, of course, but not a paramedic in sight. They probably didn’t have so much as an elastoplast behind the bar, much less a cure for Jack. There never bloody is any bloody help when you bloody need it.
Jack frowns slightly, but those wicked eyes are shining. “I don’t know if I’m coming or going,” he admits.
“You’ve got something on your mind.” It’s all Ben can think of to say, and there’s more resignation in it than unalloyed joy. “Or someone.”
“My mind’s out to lunch,” Jack says sadly.
You don’t say. No really, Jack has to always point out the bloody obvious?
“As you showed at the meeting with the Department,” says Ben, acidly.
“Lost all concentration,” Jack murmurs. He hunches his shoulders and sounds apologetic. As well he damn well should. The blue eyes looking into Ben’s morph from shiny to dreamy, but lose not one iota of the secret satisfaction. Jack, whatever the outward stance, is enjoying himself. He focuses on something over Ben’s shoulder.
“And it’s all because of him,” Jack says, pointing.
Ben won’t turn around to see who’s just come in. If only it isn’t his worst nightmare come true… Safer not to look. Really. Much safer.
Jack just shakes his head and sighs again. If not for the frank enjoyment in those deceitful blue eyes, he’s the picture of lovelorn passion.
Ben feels like sighing himself. It’s beginning to annoy him, Jack sitting there punctuating every sentence with enough gusty breathing to keep a fair-sized kite airborne. He’s grateful Jack hadn’t eaten anything particularly odorous for lunch, and says so, as nastily as he knew how.
But Jack doesn’t react to the insult. He’s still staring over Ben’s shoulder, his mouth open. Ben wonders if Jack isn’t kidding about the mind being out at lunch. Honest, the idjit looks like he’ll start drooling any second. But then comes that little smile again.
Ben has to look away before he throws up. He twists in his chair, checking over the glittering Jose crowd to reassure himself that Jack’s just kidding. And what do you know? The first person to catch his eye is Adam, his sister with him. Adam’s steering her through the crowds towards the bar and evidently hasn’t noticed them in the crush. Given how predatory Livvie Hollister gets around Jack, how hot and fervid her eyes get as she stares at him, Ben is okay with not being noticed. Really okay.
Ben turns back to Jack, the nervous twitch so bad his right eyelid winks uncomfortably. He can’t stop it.
“With the wink of an eye,” Jack says, dreamily.
“Stop it! Stop it right now!” Ben is sharper than he intended to be, but that hits home. “Is that another bloody quotation or something?”
“Well stop it. I can’t help it. It always does that when you get me nervous.”
Jack says nothing, looking hurt. His mouth turns down at the corners and his bottom lip pushes out, like an eight year old. You could set dinner for six on that lip.
“Never mind,” Ben says. “Just never mind.” He hesitates, then takes a deep breath. Trapped in a little drama of Jack’s making, he isn’t likely to get off stage until he’s played out his part. As he knows from bitter experience. “I know you’re trying to freak me out, but what the hell! Let’s play along here. Adam again? You’re going for another burst of being in love with Adam?”
“Oh,” sighs Jack.
Ben wonders whether putting the brain-dead out of their misery can be claimed as a valid defence at the trial. “Here we go again. It has to be a couple of months since you tried this one on me. You’ve been telling me you’re in love with Adam since Uni, and what have you ever done about it? What do you feel, Jack? Really?” He waits while Jack thinks about it, the twitch in his right eyelid flickering so bad that he can feel the headache starting. What’s the betting Jack will be honest for once? Ha! Who was he kidding? “Nothing, eh? Well, that’s good, Jack. Nothing’s good. Nothing’s very good.”
Jack still looks thoughtful, frowning, lips pursed up.
“I mean, feeling nothing inside’s better than, say, indigestion. Or a coronary. It’s better than that, isn’t it? Than madness, or sickness, or anything like that.” Ben tries not to sigh. There are enough people around here sighing. “Or being all mixed up inside and chaotic, or pretending you love someone…”
Jack’s eyes light up. “There’s chaos inside.” He nods his thanks to Ben for the inspiration.
Ben groans aloud. He can’t help it. A decade of being Jack’s friend would have a saint groaning and looking around for a cricket bat to brain the idjit with. “Jack, honest, you sound demented tonight. Why chaos? Am I supposed to notice a difference when it comes to you?”
Jack smiles. Brilliantly. Knock your socks off, Jack-Lincoln-special brilliance. He gestures to the bar where Adam must now be hidden in the crowd. “He just has to smile, and I’m melting.”
“No, he bloody doesn’t and no, you bloody aren’t. You are not melting. Stop it. You are not feeling anything, do you hear me?”
Jack nods solemnly.
“You do this to me all the time, just to wind me up. Why? Why does it give you such a kick to lust after Adam when he has far too much sense to get entangled with you? Fuck, if I’m in for another few weeks of you mooning over Adam, I’ll go and throw myself under the number 22 bus. It’ll be less painful. You know you don’t mean it.”
Jack looks as though he wants to oblige. Really he does. But he shrugs and nods again. Solemnly.
He means it. Ben puts his head in his hands and groans aloud.
He groans because Adam Hollister is no man’s fool. Jack trots around the sexual block with anyone willing to tango with him, because, he says, he can’t get the one man in London he loves. But the one man in London who won’t put up with Jack’s trotting, is Adam. It’s a sort of gay Catch 22. Catch 69, maybe. Who the hell knows?
Ben’s sure Adam loves Jack. He’s also sure Adam doesn’t trust him. So whenever Jack shows signs of yearning, Adam backs off fast. Ben’s job appears to be to bring Jack back to normal, so Jack’s shenanigans don’t upset their business applecart. Some days, Ben thinks he was born with ‘sucker’ tattooed on his forehead.
Or some portion of his anatomy.
Thinking back to previous outbreaks, Ben remembers how he’s dealt with the infection before. “Hot sex worked, last time. There was wots-is-name… Timmy something or other. The graphic designer who works for TeamDesigns. Mind you, I still think he was more about industrial espionage than wanting to get his hands on what you keep in your pants. The way they waltzed off with that contract was highly suspicious. But he’d do in a pinch. Because what you need is to get your end away, and put this nonsense out of your head.” He sees the expression on Jack’s face and cuts in fast, before Jack can say it. “And not with Adam! Not with him!”
Jack subsides, looking faintly disappointed.
“Right,” Ben says. “Not Timmy Wotisname. What about Livvie? I know you two had a little fling…” His voice trails off at the way Jack’s eyes widen in something close to horror. He twists in his chair again looking for Adam to glower at, and then ducks to avoid Livvie’s roving eye. Christ. Hope she didn’t see them. Jack’s no fool, not going back there. The woman would eat him for breakfast and spit out the bones. Delicately, of course. “Something else, then? Listen, I’ve some really good whacky ’baccy. The best. I’ve never seen such good quality. I was saving it, but what the hell! I’ll doctor up a spliff for you and you’ll forget all this crap, and leave me alone, okay?”
Jack’s silent for a long moment, frowning, looking like thinking hurts, then gives Ben a satisfied smile. “There’s no drug I’ve tried,” he says, “could give such a high, as the height that I reach when he’s near.”
“No! That’s just too much, Jack! It’s not fair. Not poetry! You cut that out, right fucking now!” He gives up on trying to hold the sigh back. Jack’s a complete bastard who never, ever tires of winding him up. “Honestly, you’re sounding worse than demented. Stop it.”
This time the smile is apologetic. Jack makes a visible effort to gather his wits together and puts out a hand to touch Ben’s arm.
“Well, okay,” Ben says, mollified slightly.
Frowning, Jack looks intently at the hand on Ben’s sleeve. He holds out both hands, spreading his fingers and looking at them critically. “My nails are a mess,” he complains.
Ben’s eye stills its frantic fluttering, relief flooding over him. The narcissist is back. If Jack’s noticing things like unkempt fingernails, is back to concentrating on himself to his usual extent, then the joke has to be over. For now.
“Your hair could do with brushing, too,” he says. “And you’ve just dripped half your margarita down the front of your jacket.”
But grooming advice seems to send Jack into an immediate relapse. “And I couldn’t care less.”
Ben goes back to head holding and eye twitching. “Why are you doing this to me? What is wrong with you?”
Jack chuffs out the sort of trilling, devil may care laugh that, if Ben can record it on his iPhone, means no jury in the Old Bailey would convict. Not even a jury made up of average men on the street who think all creative types are like Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen on crack and therefore worthy of prison. Dartmoor, by preference. For life.
Smiling, Jack says, “I’m calling it love.”
“Dee-ment-ted,” Ben says, drawing it out for emphasis. “Why?”
Jack looks at him as if he’s mad, and maybe he is. God knows, ten years of Jack and insanity is a real possibility. One of the two of them is heading for the funny farm, at all events. “Cause there’s no other word?”
Jack looks towards the bar, where Adam is. “And it’s all because of him.”
“So you said.” Ben is provoked too far. “Love! What do you know about it? All you know about is sex, and what you know about love is neither here nor there!”
“Well I’m neither here,” Jack says—accurately, Ben thinks, if by that he means in possession of normal mental faculties. Jack looks towards the bar again. “And I’m neither there.”
“Listen, you lunatic. Love isn’t about sex. It isn’t about how many notches you can get on your bed post. It’s not about you trying to drive me potty. It’s about feelings!” Ben thinks of lost loves, of Jack who never seen him as anything but a stalwart friend and confidant and really Ben’s fine with that, of Jancy’s slow smile when she wakes every morning and how her eyes crinkle up against the sunlight. “It’s about emotions. Real emotions, like fireworks on a summer evening exploding in a dusk as purple as the bloom on a grape. Explosive and wonderful and amazing and…”
Straightening up in his chair, Jack beams with so much approval that Ben feels the tears prick in the back of his eyelids, aghast at what he’s done, fanning the flames like that.
Jack’s nodding like the bloody Churchill dog. He’ll nod his head right off. If Ben’s lucky. “It’s like I’ve exploded emotions everywhere!”
“Shit,” Ben says, burying his head in his hands. “Oh shit.” He jumps when a hand falls on his shoulder.
“Hi guys!” Adam says, cheerfully oblivious. “Didn’t see you when we came in.” He frowns at Ben. “Is something wrong? Your eye looks funny.”
“I’m fine,” Ben chokes out, putting such blazing dislike into the glare he gives Adam that the poor man recoils. Ben grinds his teeth. Damn! That hurts. “Fine!”
“Right,” Adam says, evidently taken aback by Ben’s ferocity. “I’m not staying.”
“Good!” Ben snaps.
“I just promised Livvy one drink while she waits for some new bloke she’s seeing, and then I’m off home. It’s been a long week.” Adam glances at Jack, and smiles. “So give me about an hour, Jack.”
Jack looks up and nods, all dreaminess and forlorn lovelorn-iness gone. The lust pouring off him is at industrial-strength and Ben has to look away, too embarrassed to witness it.
“Don’t be late,” Adam says, and the possessive, anticipatory note in his voice has Ben’s left eye twitching to join the right. “See you later. Are you sure you’re okay, Ben? You don’t look too good.”
“I’m fine,” Ben says, faint and drooping.
What. The. Fuck?
“Okay. Don’t be late, Jack.”
Ben watches him go to the accompaniment of more seriously gusty sigh from Jack. He’s dazed. Ten years—a third of his bloody life!—of Jack’s fantasies, and he’d long ago stopped believing in it, except as something Jack does to annoy him. But he can’t deny that look, the tone of Adam’s voice. Or the smug grin Jack gives him. Jack’s bursting with it.
No wonder the bugger was abstracted at the meeting.
No. Bloody. Wonder.
Jack and Adam. At long last.
Ben thinks of Jancy, and how she makes him feel like he has the sun trapped in his chest. Well, maybe this was what Jack needed. Kill or cure, maybe. Or love and marriage.
Ben gives in. “Love, huh?”
Jack smiles the smile of a man who’s achieved everything he’s been dreaming of for years. “And it’s all because of him.”
Copyright 2015, Anna Butler
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And It’s All Because Of Him
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And It’s All Because Of Him
My heart is on fire
And it’s out of control
Like a blazing inferno
Oh God, I don’t know
If I’m coming or going
My mind’s out to lunch
Lost all concentration
And it’s all because of him.
With the wink of an eye
And there’s chaos inside
He just has to smile
And I’m melting
There’s no drug I’ve tried
Could give such a high
As the height that I reach when he’s near
My nails are a mess
And I couldn’t care less
I’m calling it love
‘cause there’s no other word
And it’s all because of him.
Well I’m neither here
And I’m neither there
It’s like I’ve exploded emotions
And it’s all because of him.
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The next two stories in the series are: