WHEN he saw Winthorp’s broad back retreating around the corner of the street, Dale knew it had worked. He’d come back. Everything seemed just as it had in the moment he’d left: the stillness of that January evening, the church bells ringing somewhere in the distance, and the trail of heavy, decisive footprints left by Winthorp in the freshly fallen snow. Despite himself, Dale shuddered with the emotion of the moment. He knew what he had to do. Losing the man once had broken his heart. He couldn’t begin to imagine how it would feel to lose him for a second time.
Wrapping his scarf around the lower half of his face to shield him from the freezing night air, Dale set off in Winthorp’s direction, calling his name as he ran, the words were muffled but, he prayed, still audible. He only hoped that he wouldn’t be too late.
VISITING Fellow of American Literature. No matter how many times he repeated the title to himself, Dale Hoberman didn’t think he’d ever get used to it. To be invited to teach at Oxford University, conducting lectures and tutorials in those hallowed surroundings, mixing with the finest academic minds in England, was a dream beyond his wildest imaginings. Not only that, but to receive such an honor before he’d even reached the age of thirty…. Normally, these positions were reserved for those professors who’d put many years of research into their field. His application must have impressed someone enough to put him ahead of more established candidates. But even now, as he stood at the lodge gate of Corpus Christi College, waiting for the porter to show him to his accommodation, he couldn’t help thinking that, instead, someone would arrive to tell him this had all been a misunderstanding, and the fellowship had been given to someone else.
“Can I help you, sir?” The graveled voice at his ear startled him. Dale half turned to see a dapper man somewhere in his late fifties with a thick mustache bristling on his top lip, wearing a neat navy blazer with the college’s crest sewn on the breast pocket. The formality of his dress contrasted with blue eyes, deeply lined with crow’s feet, which smiled in friendly inquiry as he waited for Dale to respond.
“Er, yeah. I’m Dale Hoberman. I’m moving my stuff in today.”
“Ah, yes. The American.” The porter stepped to one side. “Come through into the lodge and we’ll sort you out. I’m Standish, the head porter, by the way. If you have any problems, they come through me.”
“Sure.” Dale picked up his suitcase and backpack and followed the porter inside. Distilling all the clothing and possessions he’d need for an eight-week term had been next to impossible, and he’d had most of his books sent on ahead. The thought gave him pause. “There should be a trunk waiting for me.”
There was no immediate answer, and for one awful moment, he thought Standish might not know what he meant, and that his books had been lost in transit. But the man had his back to him, hunting for a key on a long wooden rack, and when he turned back to Dale, he said, “Yes, it arrived a couple of days ago. I’ll get it sent up to you when you’ve settled in. Just need you to sign for the key, and then we can take you up. As you might expect, you’re in the Fellows’ Building.”
So much information to process, Dale thought, but everything here clearly revolved around routine. Ignoring the computer that stood on his desk, Standish brought out a leather-bound ledger and fountain pen. While he flipped to the correct page in the ledger, Dale studied a series of photographs hanging on the wall. Mostly, they showed the college’s graduates for a particular year, the lineups dating back to the beginning of the previous century and beyond, faded to sepia and almost forgotten. All men, he noticed, but that came as no surprise. After all, women hadn’t been admitted as members of the university until 1920. What would it be like to study and live in an all-male environment? It seemed such an alien concept. Even though his sexual leanings had always been toward other men, he couldn’t imagine not having women as friends and colleagues.
One photograph in particular caught his eye. Unlike the others, it featured only one man, arms crossed, wearing a striped sporting jersey, staring at the unseen photographer with dark, soulful eyes. Something in the man’s expression called to him. High cheekbones, short, tousled hair, the merest hint of a dimple in the point of his chin. If Dale had seen him striding across the quad at this moment, muddy boots clattering on the old flagstones, he’d have felt an instant attraction.
Almost unaware of his action, he reached out a hand toward the tarnished gold frame.
“You okay there, Mr. Hoberman?” the porter asked.
“I was just wondering who the guy in the photograph is.”
“Ah, that’s Martin Winthorp. Quite a remarkable man. He taught physics here at Corpus back in the late 1890s, and was one of the stalwarts of the varsity rowing club. But we remember him chiefly for being the first man at Oxford to be knocked down and killed by a motor car.”
“What a morbid claim to fame,” Dale replied, half to himself.
Standish chuckled as he handed Dale the fountain pen, showing him where to sign for the key. “Well, by pure coincidence, you’ll be staying in what was his room. We’ve had no reports that he walks the corridors of the college by night, but….”
“Don’t worry about me,” Dale said, returning the pen. “I’m not a superstitious man.”
“Very good, sir. Now, let me take that case for you.”
Shouldering his backpack, Dale followed Standish to his room. They walked through the quadrangle, giving Dale the opportunity to admire the college’s famous pelican sundial. From time to time, Standish threw out his free arm, pointing in the direction of the college hall, where formal meals were served, the chapel, and the Junior Common Room. Even though this was one of Oxford’s smallest colleges, Dale was sure he’d spend the next few days getting hopelessly lost on his way to the library or seminar room.
His accommodation, when he reached it, was comfortable enough, though he suspected the old stone walls would be cold in the depths of winter. The small sitting room possessed a fireplace, but it didn’t look as though it had been functional for quite some time. Looking round the room, he took in a desk, chair, and new-looking sofa. The adjoining bedroom boasted, if that was the correct word, a stark white washbasin screwed to the wall and a narrow bed clearly designed for a single sleeper.
“The bathroom’s down the hall,” Standish pointed out. “I’m afraid the age of the building defeats en suite arrangements. But on the other hand, you do have Wi-Fi access.” He smiled wryly, letting the contradiction sink in. “Now, I’ll let you settle in, and I’ll get your trunk brought up in due course. There’s a formal dinner in the hall at seven tonight. Attendance isn’t compulsory, but as the new member of staff, it might be wise to show your face.”
With that, Standish left Dale to unpack. The task didn’t take long, his small selection of jackets and trousers arranged on hangers in the wardrobe alongside the black gown he’d be required to wear at dinner tonight.
The sitting room had a view out on to the college quadrangle, quiet even with the returning intake of students. Looking down onto the old walkway, he felt the weight of history pressing down on him. It was a far cry from the free and easy atmosphere of his campus back in Seattle; there, music would have been blaring out from open windows, and people would be tacking up notices about gigs and plays and off-campus events. But he’d come here to sample a different way of life, a different attitude to learning. Maybe even meet a cute English guy….
He could explore his new surroundings further, but the strain of traveling had started to catch up with him. Kicking off his shoes, he curled up on the bed.
Despite his tiredness, sleep proved elusive. Dale’s mind flashed back to the face in the photograph downstairs. Martin Winthorp, lost to the world in his prime. Talented, a sporting hero—and so damn handsome. You’ve always had a thing about tragic heroes, Dale chided himself, remembering the guys he’d dated who’d seemed mysterious and intriguing on the surface, tormented by a dark past, but had turned out to be so far up themselves there was no prospect of them ever returning. Still, he couldn’t stop thinking about Martin, imagining him lying in this same room—maybe even on the same bed, if the lumps in the mattress were any reliable guide—and wondering just what kind of man he’d been.
His cock stiffened, pressing against the fly of his underwear, responding to memories of old lovers and the fascination of an attractive stranger, albeit one Dale could never get to know better. How long had it been since he’d taken himself in hand? Maybe the release would help him sleep, if nothing else. Fumbling with his pants, he pulled his rapidly lengthening dick out, wrapping his fingers around its thick shaft. Already, a bead of juice glistened at its tip, and he used his thumb to smear it over the head. Shuttling his fist up and down his length in the steady, familiar pattern that never failed to have him coming in minutes, Dale surrendered to the most seductive of fantasies. He pictured Martin Winthorp, naked and gripping his own cock as he wanked. A sepia snapshot of his life, just like the one hanging in the porters’ lodge downstairs, and one that had the desired effect. With a groan, Dale felt his seed spill out over his fingers, just as, in his fantasy, Martin shuddered and came.
He barely had the energy to mop himself clean with a tissue. Only the rapping of the assistant porter on his door, announcing the arrival of his precious trunk, prevented him from sleeping through dinner.