THE packed room was getting hotter by the second, and the strong scent in the air was unpleasantly persistent, rather like the smell of drains after heavy rainfall, though more palatable, thank God. I guessed someone had been over-enthusiastic with the “Spring Breeze” air freshener. It was obviously cheaper than providing fresh flowers—and probably avoided any problem with the guests’ allergies—but the artificial tang was cloying rather than refreshing.
I bit back a sigh. My shirt collar was too tight, but I didn’t dare loosen my tie, let alone the top button. My lace-up brogues hurt too. I hadn’t worn them since my cousin’s wedding the previous summer, and they were still on the “new shoes” warpath even then. Dammit, if I’d ignored Effie’s sisterly nagging tonight and worn my comfortable boots as usual, I wouldn’t be walking across the room like Quasimodo every time I took a toilet break.
And if I’d ignored her plea for moral support, I wouldn’t be here at all, would I?
I coughed, my throat dry. Too many people in too small a space, and I’d finished the water they provided. Was this an appropriate time to ask for more? I glanced quickly at the tabletop. The glass of lukewarm white wine to my left was still half-full, and the small notepad on my right was painfully bare of notes. A Hallmark-type teddy bear at the corner of the top sheet clutched an oversized pencil, the illustration simpering “Join in!”
I mentally shook my head. I’m not exactly your demographic, you know. The heat in the room made my goatee itch, even though I kept it clipped short. I also had an overwhelming desire to look at my watch, but knew that would be really rude. To say nothing of the fact I’d looked only three minutes ago. And meanwhile there was a young woman sitting right opposite me, chatting animatedly about her dog. Puppy, actually. And its rather graphic medical problems.
The whistle blew, and I drew in a deep breath.
With a by-now familiar clatter, half the guests pushed their chairs away from the tables and stood, including me. The noise was painful on the ears. I tried not to wince openly, but dreaded to think what damage was being done to the parquet floor by all this activity. I glanced around the function room, currently full of many small tables, double the chairs, and a clutch of excitable, rather nervous guests.
We were situated in what was, by some local residents, affectionately called the Inn. A fairly prestigious hotel in the middle of town, it was one of Totnes’ local landmarks and had hosted plenty of events over the years. In fact, it was one of the only venues with public rooms large enough for the job. Totnes was a small West Country town, as even the tourist information blurb said. That was its charm, though also its limitation. We had a riverside location, a castle (also small), and as the writer Thomas Westcote had said in the 1600s, “pleasant soil, fruitful country, and healthful air.” What more could we ask for?
The Inn had kept many of its original seventeenth-century features, though the hotel guests had demanded more modern facilities over the years. There was a large fireplace at the far end of the room, not lit tonight, thick russet-colored carpet, and goblet-shaped lights mounted on the walls. I knew they were powered by totally modern fittings, but the illusion was attractive. This evening, as the hours had passed, the staff had pulled shut the heavy curtains that covered the large picture windows, letting the thick velvet fabric sweep the floor with its braided hem. Many of the guests had smiled and sighed at the sight, entering into the spirit of the Olde Worlde charm.
The shuffle of footsteps on the floor brought me back to attention. I walked a couple of yards to my left toward a new, but very similar table. I didn’t really notice anyone else, my vision a little blurred with tiredness by now, my smile, I suspected, rather fixed. Clutching the notepad in my hand, I realized I’d left my wine behind. Never mind, it hadn’t been the best part of the evening. I was no wine snob, but I knew what I liked, and it unfortunately wasn’t in that glass.
In the background there was a slight hiccup in the sound system that announced the change between tracks in the piped music. “Rambling Rose” gave way to “Greensleeves,” with what sounded ominously like a Country and Western twang.
I gritted my teeth further. Hell of a way to spend a Friday night.
Another whistle blew and the chair noises resumed, this time a chorus of scrapes as they were shuffled back in under the tables, tucked underneath the posteriors of a whole new bunch of inhabitants. I sat down gingerly. The seat was still warm from the previous guest. A movement opposite prompted me to look up in welcome. Good manners never cost much, I knew, but the irritating itch to count down the minutes until I could leave was slowly consuming me.
“Hi,” a young man said, settling down in the chair. Startled, I stared into bright blue eyes; found myself facing a broad forehead, straight nose, pale skin, very fine blond hair. Lips that twisted into a broad smile, creasing the skin at the corners of his eyes. Uneven dimples on his cheeks, the right one much deeper than the left.
Dimples. Wow. And my rather weary hunk-o-meter had noticed them. Double wow.
The newcomer shifted with a gentle huff through his nose, breaking my trance. The chair was small and probably uncomfortable for someone as tall as he looked. “Sorry,” he said, though the welcome smile didn’t look very apologetic. “But this seat isn’t taken?”
I looked to either side. The nearby tables were full already. The girl on the immediate right was the one I’d just been sitting with. Her cheeks were very flushed, and she was still chattering away quickly and loudly about her pet, barely taking a breath. The plump man now opposite her was wearing an expression best described as a deer in headlights. At the table on my left, a dark-haired man was lounging in his chair, his arm over the back of it, his sleeves rolled up and the fingers of his other hand drumming impatiently on the tabletop. I recalled him from the estate agent’s on the west side of town. His throat convulsed in a heavy swallow; his mouth opened then closed again, nothing coming out. The girl opposite him—I recognized one of the cashiers from the tourist information shop—was blonde and wide-eyed, and stared at him with something akin to naked desperation. Silently. In fact, they looked like neither of them could think of a single word to say.
I felt some sympathy, and not because I’d been sitting opposite that girl as well, much earlier in the evening. No, it was more the case that it had been a long night, and time wasn’t on anyone’s side tonight.
“Sorry,” the young man opposite me said again. He looked puzzled.
“Me too. I mean, no, it’s not taken. Um. Not sure why.” I winced. Just how pathetic—and rude—did that sound? I was still having trouble with my throat, and I wasn’t sure it was all the fault of the air freshener. “Does this mean someone’s dropped out?”
My companion raised his eyebrows. “Well guessed. Yes, we’ve lost a couple of the girls within the last few minutes. One is apparently crying in the toilet, and another one stormed out when number seventeen asked her if her breasts were real. And one of the men won’t move on from table ten, saying he’s made his mind up which lady he wants, and to continue this quote pathetic farce unquote is a waste of everybody’s time. So counting up, and with only this last round to go, we are one guest short in net total.”
“Well at least I know it’s not something I did,” I said, then felt myself blush. “Oh God. I mean….”
“You mean, at least the seat’s empty for logistical reasons, not because they saw you coming?” the man finished for me, rather bluntly. He had a slight, lilting accent, with some of the words spoken more carefully than I would have done. It was very attractive. Maybe Eastern European? He was still smiling, and for a brief second, his gaze seemed to flicker up and down my body, though so quickly I couldn’t have sworn to it afterward. “That’s not likely, is it?”
“Um. Whatever.” I tried to will down the heat of my blush, knowing how bad it’d look squeezing over the edge of my shirt collar. Dark skin and scarlet flush—not a good look. To say nothing of my swarthy chin and a haircut that hadn’t been updated for a couple of months now. I glanced over in my own quick up-and-down recce, hoping the other man didn’t catch on to it. He was slender but muscled, and he looked fit—that is, in an athletic sense, not the sexy sense. Though, to be honest, he appealed in that context too. God, I really am tired tonight. I needed to keep myself in better check.
“Such a mismatch can happen.” The man shrugged, a carelessly elegant movement. “Of course we can’t please everyone all of the time. But perhaps it’s a good thing the event is now coming to a close. It’s been an unusual evening for many reasons.” Lovely voice. Low and with a trickle of amusement running underneath.
“What about you?” I coughed and tugged surreptitiously at my collar. His dark gray suit—unlike my rather old-fashioned fabric and style—looked both expensive and smart. The tie was perfectly placed too. “Were you…?”
“No.” When he lifted a hand and ran it roughly through his silky hair, I had a weird urge to reach up and follow its path. I felt very slightly disoriented. Had there been something else in that wine tonight?
“I’m not one of the guests,” the man continued. “And before you ask….”
Which, rather startlingly, I had been considering.
“…I’m not part of the dating agency, either. I’m on the hotel staff. I’m supervising the Date Night this evening.”
I smiled sympathetically. “I imagine it’s been a challenge.”
He snorted. At the uninhibited noise, the girl with the desperate gaze started. One quick glance over to our table, then her eyes swiveled back to her own companion. Time passing, I thought.
“A challenge, yes. Tonight has had its share of those.” The man looked at the sturdy silver watch on his wrist and grimaced. He didn’t seem to think it was rude to wish the rest of the evening away. That was refreshing. “Half an hour before we wrap up. That will cover the final three-minute swap around, a quick cappuccino for everyone while the notepads are collected, and then we’ll see them safely off home.”
“You’re new here?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Hey.” I leaned back. His tone had sounded suddenly defensive. “I just meant I hadn’t seen you here before.”
Open mouth, insert foot, that was me. Too late to bite back the words. It was, at the very least and never intended to be, a tired old pick-up line. But before I could stutter out an explanation or apology, the man laughed. The sound was delightful, a burst of genuine amusement in a room that was more characterized by brittle emotion tonight.
“I’m sorry.” He laughed again. “I keep saying that, don’t I? But I was worried you had some complaint.”
“No, it’s not that. But you’re…?”
“I’m Alexsy Kaczmarek.” When he stuck out his hand, I shook it. A firm, confident handshake. “Call me Alexsy.”
He pronounced his first name with a sharp inflection on the X and a gentle finish on the Y. My mouth started to shape it for myself, liking the sound, before I realized how stupid I’d look. “Elliot. I’m Elliot Crown.”
“Hello Elliot, good to meet you. Yes, I’m new, but I’m only here for the evening. I’ve been borrowed from the London Head Office because I’ve helped on these kinds of events at other locations. We got a call that the duty manager here would be short of staff tonight, and wanted some support. I was free and able to travel.” He glanced around and lowered his voice, even though I was sure no one was remotely interested in any conversation but their own. “Actually, to be honest with you, I’m only an assistant manager. But they didn’t seem to have anyone else available who had this kind of experience. That’s enough to qualify me for tonight, right?”
I glanced quickly again at the long legs stretched out to the side of his chair, the suit jacket sitting perfectly on the broad shoulders, the easy, confident smile. “Right,” I replied. “I’m sure you’re what they need.” Even if I suspected the placement was less of an early promotion than a poisoned chalice. According to Effie, these monthly events either ran as smooth as silk, or… they didn’t. I smiled back at Alexsy and wished nothing but the silken route for him.
God. The evening had obviously been a very long one. What was I doing, ogling some poor bloke, wanting to touch his hair, wishing him an easy time? For that matter, what was I doing here at all? Damn Effie and her quest for a new man. Damn her flaky friend Joey for dropping out of the group at the last minute. Damn her apparent distress at having to call off the whole visit unless there were enough male members to make up the numbers.
Yes, and damn my own gullibility. But I’d been free this evening, with no defense against her insistence.
“Elliot, it won’t matter you’re gay,” she’d said. “Everyone’s there for fun. A lot of them just want new friends, just want a giggle, to have the chance to be seen with a fit young man. Nothing has to come of it. And what else are you going to do tonight?”
Obviously I needed to get myself a more interesting life. And a new boyfriend, so I didn’t try to attach to every friendly stranger. Like this poor man. After all, Alexsy was probably, irrefutably straight. Or already attached. Or—
“You’re local? It’s a small town, I know. This place is very different from London.” Alexsy looked at his watch again. Perhaps it was time for the last whistle. As he moved, the lights caught pale gold glints in his hair. Suddenly I wasn’t sure whether I did or didn’t want the evening to wrap up quickly.
“It has everything we need,” I replied, rather sharply, and Alexsy’s eyes widened. Well yes, obviously I was local.
“Sorry.” He held up a hand, his tone sincerely apologetic this time. “I didn’t mean to offend. I just meant that this hotel is part of the chain, but it has its own unique character. You probably think I don’t appreciate that.” He smiled more ruefully this time. “The faceless corporation, eh?”
“It’s fine,” I said. Alexsy was far from faceless, even if I knew what he meant. “I know the owner sold out a couple of years back, but it was on the understanding that he still runs it largely his own way.”
“It’s a beautiful building. Developed around an old coaching inn, they told me. And I fully understand that the owner would wish it presented in an appropriate way.”
I glanced at the heavy drapes and bit back a sigh. It was all a bit kitsch for me, but Alexsy was right—from the locals’ affection for the place to the tourists from overseas, it was what guests expected to see. “He’s lived here all his life, knows the people, what kind of facilities and entertainment we like around here.” Now I was sounding like some country yokel.
“Like this evening.” Alexsy glanced around. The volume of voices had risen, an early warning that the three minutes was nearly up. “Is it the first time you’ve had this kind of Date Night?”
“No, they were started as a monthly thing, just after Christmas. Just for fun, I believe.”
Alexsy looked impressed. “And these are all visitors?”
“Um. No.” I’d lived in this small town all my life as well. I didn’t need to look over the rest of the room to know I’d see more than a few familiar faces. “Not exactly.”
Alexsy peered at me, still smiling, curiosity in his expression. “Well, it’s nearly time to move on. But thank you for making my job easier.”
“I could see you would be left without a companion on your last turn.”
I knew he was trying to catch my eye, but I’d suddenly decided to find something totally fascinating in the wood grain on the table top.
“You might have been angry or upset.” Alexsy’s voice was gentle. “I wanted to come and explain. Or….”
As I looked back up, Alexsy shrugged again. There was something very fascinating in his bright eyes.
“I doubt that’s in your job description as well.” I knew my voice sounded sharp again. It often did when I was nervous or disturbed.
Alexsy laughed, but more softly this time. “This isn’t part of my duty, and I assure you it’s no hardship. Yes, I needed to explain, but I also wanted—”
The whistle sounded. It was set on a timer switch, I knew. Effie had told me all about it. She’d been coming to Date Night for the last six months. There was a communal exhale of breath in the room, and all the chairs started to scrape the floor again.
As I stood up, Alexsy reached over and grasped my arm. “I wanted to say hello to you, Elliot. On a personal level.”
I stared. Was it that obvious? Was I that obvious? I didn’t know what to say.
Alexsy frowned. His cheeks went slightly pink, a very attractive contrast to his pale skin. “Okay. I’ve misjudged, and so I’ll apologize again. There can be mismatches in all situations.”
“No.” The breath caught in my throat. “No, you didn’t misjudge. I mean, yes, I’m….” I’m what? I’m out and proud? Alexsy’s gaydar was obviously working better than mine, an out-of-date version that probably smelled of mothballs to anyone more hip. And why was I fooling myself? I’d found Alexsy attractive from the start. I didn’t know why I was pretending to be coy now, when the interest was returned.
Alexsy stood as well, letting go of my arm. He took a couple of steps away and gestured to one of the waitresses on duty to start serving coffee. A table had been set up at the far end of the room, and now they were trolleying in the urns of hot water for coffee and tea. Guests pushed past us, men and women together, some smiling, some flushed, some subdued. I nodded to a couple more people I knew. By the time Alexsy turned back to face me, I made sure I was smiling.
His smile looked a little more restrained. “I must go and supervise the rest of the evening. There’ll be some new couples tonight, but a few disappointments, too, maybe?”
Was he fishing for information? “I expect you’re wondering what I’m doing here. At a singles Date Night. At a heterosexual singles Date Night.”
There was a brief, pregnant pause. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the room.
Alexsy cleared his throat and glanced around, presumably checking up on the staff bustling around, the guests chatting and drinking. “It’s personal to you, Elliot. I’m not going to ask if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s not that I’m still in the closet or anything.” Bloody stupid phrase. It had taken me some long years to admit what I wanted and then to live without apology. Only to find that most of the people I knew didn’t mind what kind of person I dated so long as I didn’t scare the horses. It was that kind of small town. But I didn’t go about broadcasting it, either. “I’m here with my sister Effie.”
“She’s single?” Alexsy’s gaze was flickering back over to the open door and the foyer beyond. I was sure he needed to be back on duty, helping with coats and cabs and general customer service. I shouldn’t keep him here any longer, and definitely not just to chat about my rather embarrassing attendance here tonight.
“She just came out of a long relationship. All a bit messy. She’s not really over it.” Hell, I was gabbling. I knew it but couldn’t seem to help myself. “One of her colleagues was coming with her tonight. He’s called Joey, but he cried off at the last minute, and Effie asked me to step in. Just to make up the male numbers in the group. You’ve seen how awkward it gets when the guests are unevenly balanced.” Still not much of a real explanation. I felt myself grow hotter by the second. “It doesn’t really matter about the dating aspect, you see, not for some of us. A lot of these people already know me. Already know each other as well. These evenings are a social occasion as well as potentially romantic. No one minds that I’m not in the market.” God. “I mean, not their market.” Double God.
I caught Alexsy’s eye. Was he smiling again? “You’d better go,” I said. While the going’s good. “Don’t want you getting into trouble, neglecting your guests. I’m on my way home anyway, soon as I find Effie.” I gave what I hoped came over as a rueful smile. “Sorry you caught me out.”
“What do you mean?” Alexsy’s frown was almost as attractive as his smile, in a different, more serious way, of course. I wished I could start the evening again. Well, yes, to start the last year again would be even better….
“For being here under false pretenses, you know? For not really being here for a date. Just one of the crowd. Just… well.” I laughed, but it sounded too loud, even over the background buzz of voices and the clatter of cups. “Just forget it. It’s all too weird to understand, I know. Blame it on small-town idiosyncrasy.” I turned away from the sharp glint in Alexsy’s eyes. Where the hell was Effie? She usually liked the coffee and gossip at the end of the evening.
“Elliot?” Alexsy took my arm again and turned me back to face him. “I don’t want to forget it.” Someone was calling over by the door. One of the waitresses had a problem with the pile of notebooks. He glanced down at the one I was still clutching. “Do you have any names written there?”
“Any names. People you would like to meet again, as per the rules of this evening. Any of the guests that you particularly liked.”
I flushed really heavily. “No. I told you I’m not….” I glanced down at the blank sheet. “No, I don’t.”
“So have coffee with me,” Alexsy said. He took the pad out of my hand and our fingers brushed. “A drink, whatever. When everyone else has gone. Just that. Will you?”
“It’s all a bit….” I still couldn’t see Effie anywhere. People were calling goodbye, leaving for the night. Some of them went arm in arm, others shrugged into their coats and left the room on their own, far more hurriedly. I caught sight of one of the male guests over by the exit into the foyer and I frowned. “This is stupid. I mean, I’m—”
“Elliot.” Alexsy’s voice was sharper. “Have coffee with me, and then you can tell me all about it. Believe me, I’d like that. I’m off duty as soon as this event is finished, but I’m staying over at the hotel because it’s too late to drive back to London tonight. And I’m not ready for the evening to end. Let me finish what I have to do here, but don’t go yet.”
I looked at him, startled at the urgency in his tone.
“Please,” Alexsy said.
Please, he said. I stared at him for what seemed to me like a very long moment. A girl giggled in the background. A male voice laughed in reply. “Yes. Okay. But my sister….”
Alexsy looked around the room. “You can’t find her?” His gaze also settled on the guest at the door, who was standing with his arms crossed, feet planted at each side of the doorway as if guarding it, his face scowling. Alexsy gave a sigh. “Number ten.”
“That’s number ten. I said there’d been challenges tonight, didn’t I? He was one of them. He wouldn’t join in the usual arrangement, but stayed at the same table all night. We had to work around him.”
I drew in a deep breath. “Alexsy, I don’t think I have time for coffee tonight.”
His blue eyes settled on me again, very intense. Searching. I wasn’t used to such personal attention, was I? I couldn’t say whether it was nice or… not. Not yet, anyway. “You said there was a girl in the toilet. I’m rather afraid that’ll be my sister Effie.”
“What? I must go and—”
“No, it’s okay.” I knew my rueful smile was genuine this time. “I’ll go and see to her, make sure she’s okay.”
Alexsy looked totally bemused. “I also said this was an unusual evening, didn’t I? These events aren’t expected to be….”
“I know,” I said, seeing Alexsy search for a suitable and yet polite description of this small town’s Date Night and its melodramatic complications. “And it’s both worse and better than that.”
Alexsy raised his eyebrows.
Something about the bright interest in his eyes made me smile rather than roll my eyes, and there was a surprise. “Number ten? That’s Drew, Effie’s infamous ex.”