Prologue

 

 

September 16, 2014

Ten years.

 

COLIN HESS hadn’t laid eyes on the man for over a decade, yet he recognized Alejandro Ramos immediately. He smoothed out the business section of the newspaper, his gaze drawn to the man in the middle of the group photograph. He could have picked Ramos out from a hundred men wearing masks, let alone a small group of businessmen. Colin scanned the short caption, hungry to know why his ex-lover was in the newspaper. The two lines told him that the businessmen were in London, seeking a merger with a British-based company.

Colin stared at Ramos, soaking up every detail. A slight smile curved Ramos’s lips as he stared into the camera. Colin knew that smile, knew that Ramos was acutely uncomfortable and trying to hide it. He traced Ramos’s full mouth with the tip of his index finger.

It had been ten long years since Colin last laid eyes on Ramos, his last sight the tear tracks down Ramos’s beautiful cheeks and his mouth pressed tight as he tried to hold himself together in the middle of the airport. Colin had walked away for the last time, never expecting to see Ramos again. Tears pricked Colin’s eyes as he looked at his ex-lover. They’d parted badly—hurt and acrimony on both sides and a realization that, despite the fact they still loved each other, their relationship was over.

Colin’s breath caught in his throat as he looked at his ex-partner. “You’re still gorgeous.”

Ramos was as beautiful as the day they met, both aged nineteen and undergraduates in London. With his dark olive skin and fine cheekbones, Ramos was a complete contrast to Colin’s red hair and freckled skin. He had aged well, the photo showing little signs of the wrinkles and gray hair Colin battled daily.

“Who’s still gorgeous?”

As his boyfriend came into the room, Colin flushed, feeling guilty at being caught ogling his ex, and had to suppress the urge to hide the photo. “You are, of course, babe.”

Antonio raised an eyebrow. “That’s nice. Now who did you really mean?”

Colin handed over the newspaper.

Antonio scanned it, and a frown settled between his brows. “Ramos.”

“Yeah.”

Colin didn’t try to prevaricate. Antonio had been with Colin for a couple of years. He knew exactly who Ramos was and what he had been to Colin.

“Did you know he was going to be in the paper?”

“I haven’t heard from him in over ten years.”

Antonio threw the paper onto the table. “So he’s in England. Do you plan to see him?”

Colin pressed his lips together. “I’ve just seen the damn paper, Tonio. I’m not planning to see him, and I haven’t hidden anything from you.”

“You’ve probably been meeting him, haven’t you? All those nights you’ve been working late….”

Antonio was working himself up into a rage, his dark eyes snapping as he presumably imagined all the trysts Colin had not been having.

“Don’t be so bloody melodramatic. He’s just arrived.” Colin didn’t have time for this bullshit. “I’m not the one who’s been screwing around. You know how late I leave the school every night.”

“You could have slipped out early for once.”

“I could have, but I didn’t.” Colin didn’t have time to scratch his arse, let alone hook up with his ex. “Why the hell are you getting jealous, Tonio? It’s been over ten years. Can’t you let it rest already?”

“I could say the same for you,” Antonio said bitterly and left the room.

Colin huffed in annoyance, but his gaze went back to the picture of Ramos, and reluctantly he admitted that Tonio had a point.

“I never got over you,” he murmured quietly, not sure whether Antonio was still in earshot. Even after a decade, the love he felt for the man burned brightly in his heart.

Antonio walked back into the lounge holding his keys and wallet. “I’m going to the deli,” he announced, his expression darkening when he realized Colin was still looking at the paper.

“I’ll come with you.”

“Don’t bother. You can moon over your lost love while I’m out.” With an audible snap of his teeth, Antonio turned on his heel and left again.

Colin knew he should go after him, make it right between them. He also knew that his lack of interest was a damning indictment of their relationship. He sighed and curled up with the newspaper.

“Why did you have to come, Andro?” Colin used his private pet name for Ramos. “I’ve tried so hard to forget you. Why did you have to come back now?”

His mobile phone buzzed on the coffee table, and he answered without checking the caller ID.

“Yeah?”

“He’s here. Ramos is here,” Lil, his younger sister, said.

“I know.”

“How? Did he call you too?”

“Uh, no. I saw his picture in the paper. Wait, you mean you’ve spoken to him?”

“Well, yes. He called fifteen minutes ago asking where you were. He didn’t know if you were in the country or not.”

The breath caught in Colin’s throat. “He asked about me?”

“Duh, doofus, he’s not going to be interested in me, is he? Of course he asked about you.”

“What did you tell him?”

“I told him you were off shagging Chelsea football team. What did you think I told him?”

“Did you give him my number?”

“I told him I needed to talk to you first. I didn’t know how you’d feel about talking to Ramos again after he destroyed your life.”

“It wasn’t as bad as that,” Colin scoffed.

“Colin, you didn’t get out of bed for three months after you came home. I had to hose you down and force you to eat. My kids were scared of the yeti in our spare room.”

“Was I really that bad?” He didn’t really need to ask the question.

“Worse!” Lil’s voice softened. “I was scared my big brother was going to die of a broken heart.”

“I’m sorry I scared you, li’l sis.”

“You did scare me, and I don’t want to see you like that again.”

“I’m all right. It’s not like it was before. I’m over him now.”

“Uh-huh.”

Damn his sister. She could put so much feeling into two syllables.

“I am,” Colin protested. “I’m with Tonio now.”

“Where is Tonio?”

“He’s at the deli.”

“He only goes there when he’s upset and wants to pig out on the pastrami.”

“How do you know that?” It was scary how much she knew about him.

“Colin, get your head out of your arse. If Tonio caught you mooning over Ramos, he’s working up to a full-on meltdown.”

Now Colin was totally creeped out. “Do you have cameras in this house?”

“Oh God, you can be so bloody oblivious. Go after him and make it better.”

“What should I do about Ramos?”

“Don’t contact him. Don’t stir up all those old memories again. It took you years to be able to face the world, and look, you have Tonio now, don’t you? He isn’t perfect, but after Ramos… he made you live again.”

Colin stared at the picture. “You’re right. I know you’re right. It would be stupid of me to even think of talking to Ramos after he got married to that woman.”

“He’s dead to you. You know I’m right. So what should I do when he calls again?”

“Give him my number.”

 

 

One

 

 

January 23, 1998

 

“YOU’VE GOT to come, Col,” his flatmate insisted.

Colin looked up from his plate of chicken pasta. “No, I think I’ll stay here. I’ve got to get up early to do some research. I need an early night.”

Tim smacked him over the head. “It’s Friday night, dude. You can research another time. This is the party of the year.”

“Every party is the party. You go if you want. I’ve been working all week plus doing the shifts at the library. I’m exhausted. I really need to get to bed before midnight.”

“You’re going to regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t go to the party.”

“I really doubt that somehow.” Colin continued with his dinner, determined not to let Tim nag him into going to a party he didn’t want to attend, and that would disrupt his plans for the weekend.

Tim scowled at him. “You’re no fun.”

Colin shrugged. “I went to all the others.”

“You haven’t been to one of Ramos’s parties. They’re the shit.”

“Will there be music?”

“Yeah.”

“Booze?”

“Of course.”

“Girls?”

“Lots of girls.”

“With their tits hanging out of their tops?”

“I hope so.” Tim sounded almost breathless in anticipation.

“I’m not interested.”

Colin had gone to the last five parties, only discovering at the last one that Tim wanted Colin there so he could be responsible for getting Tim home. His flatmate was notorious for ending his nights in the cells of police stations all over London, but apparently, he’d been warned that the university was running out of patience with his antics. As Colin had no interest in girls or dragging a trashed Tim across London again, he was quite happy to stay on the sofa and watch Friday-night TV.

“Co-l-in.” Tim dragged out his name over three annoying syllables.

“Ti-mo-thy.” He could probably have found another syllable if he’d tried harder.

“You’ve got to come.”

“Er, no, I don’t.”

“There’s this girl.”

“I don’t like girls.”

“Not for you, dickwad. For me. She’s gorgeous.”

“Good for you. Enjoy yourself.”

“She’s got a friend.”

“Male?” Colin might be open to persuasion if there was a chance of some action. His dry spell was taking on Sahara-like proportions.

“Female.”

“No thanks,” Colin said flatly.

“We just need you to keep her occupied for a while.”

“How long’s a while?”

“Okay, for the evening.”

“No.”

Tim came over and bounced on the sofa next to him. Colin sighed, knowing Tim was about to ramp up his annoying behavior. He didn’t disappoint.

“You’ve got to come. I promised her I’d find someone to look after this bird.”

“Then find a straight friend.”

“They’re all busy. It is Friday night.”

Colin scowled at him. “What you’re saying is I’m the only loser who’d be free.”

Tim nodded, then stopped as Colin’s scowl deepened. “Come on, mate, do this for me. You owe me.”

“Owe you?” Colin stared at him incredulously. “What the fuck do I owe you?”

Tim had the grace to look embarrassed. “Perhaps owe isn’t the right word.”

“Too right it isn’t.”

“But you have to admit, you wouldn’t have the social life or meet the guys if it wasn’t for me.”

“I haven’t met any guys for months,” Colin said, “because I never go anywhere gays hang out. Instead I have to watch you try and get off with every girl you meet and then drag your sorry arse home when you don’t score.”

“There must be some homos at the parties.”

“Sure, the ones so far in the closet they’re looking for Narnia.”

“You know who they are, though.”

“Course I do. They roll up their trouser leg and have a funny handshake.”

Tim shook his head. “I don’t think they’re poofters. I think you mean Masons.”

Colin rolled his eyes. Honestly, he was surprised Tim even got the reference. “Do I have a choice about this damn party?”

“No.” Tim looked at the clock. “We gotta go. Rita’s expecting us.”

“I’ll go, but nothing’s happening with this friend. I’m gay, not bi.”

Tim waved his hand. “Yeah yeah, whatever. Get changed, man. You look like a book dude.”

“A librarian?”

“Yeah, one of them.”

Colin marveled on a regular basis how Tim had managed to get four A levels. He got to his feet. “That’s because I am a librarian, Tim. Remember? It’s what pays the rent.”

“You don’t have to look like one when we go out. It’s embarrassing. Wear the blue shirt and the ripped jeans.”

“The straight guy is not telling the gay guy what to wear.”

“He is if he’s got better taste than the queer guy.”

Colin flipped him off, but sadly he had to admit Tim was right. He was a gay man without any style at all, preferring to live in ratty jeans and faded baggy T-shirts. He had two tight shirts and a pair of designer jeans only because Tim had insisted he wouldn’t be seen dead with Colin otherwise.

“You’ve got five minutes.” Tim sat down in Colin’s place and picked up his plate.

“That’s my dinner,” Colin said.

“You can have a kebab later,” Tim said around a mouthful of pasta.

“I don’t like kebabs.”

“You need more herbs in this.”

Tim was a better cook than Colin too. Bastard.

 

 

COLIN LOOKED dubiously at the house. “It looks like a squat.”

The venue for the party was a three-story crumbling monstrosity hidden behind a huge overgrown hedge. Compared to the rest of the street, this house looked unloved and definitely out of place.

“So? It’s not the first time we’ve been to a squat.”

Tim dragged Colin to the front door. It was open, and without hesitation Tim went in, swallowed up by the crowds in the hallway. Inside was a pleasant surprise compared to the unprepossessing exterior.

For a split second, Colin was tempted to bail on his friend, but as he hesitated on the doorstep, Tim emerged, grabbed his hand, and dragged him into the maw of the house. Tim didn’t stop until they reached the huge lounge heaving with people. Then he let go of Colin’s hand. “Where is she?”

“Who?”

“Rita, of course.”

Rita was Tim’s current girlfriend. Colin hadn’t met her. He never bothered unless they lasted longer than a week, which was rare for Tim.

“What does she look like?”

“Short, blonde, and stacked.”

No change there, then. Tim had a type.

Colin looked around. “What about that girl over there?”

“Where? Oh yeah, that’s my girl.”

“She’s kissing someone else.”

“What?”

Tim ploughed through the crowd toward Rita with Colin following reluctantly. By the time they arrived, Rita had stopped kissing the other guy and launched herself into Tim’s arms with an ear-piercing “Timmy!”

Tim responded by shoving his tongue down her throat. Colin supposed it was more hygienic than pissing on her leg to claim possession. Still it was gross to watch and went on for a long time. Rather than watch them play tonsil hockey, Colin took the opportunity to survey the room. The usual suspects from his year were there, a couple waving at him as he caught their eye. He was mainly known as the person to call when Tim got out of hand. Colin decided to grab a beer before he settled into a long evening entertaining Rita’s friend. The beer was in large kegs along one wall.

As Colin reached for a plastic tumbler, someone went for the same one and their fingers collided.

“Sorry,” he muttered and pulled back.

“No worries.”

The rolling accent caught Colin’s attention, and he looked up to see the man of his dreams smiling at him. But before he could say anything, Tim appeared, dragging Rita behind him.

“Hey, dickwad. You haven’t met Rita. Beer, great.” Tim reached between Colin and the other man to take the tumbler and filled it up.

Rita caught Colin’s eye and smiled. “Hey, you must be Callum. Great to meet you. Come and meet Kyla.”

“It’s Colin,” he corrected.

She shrugged, obviously uninterested.

Colin smiled apologetically at the guy—who, Christ, pushed every one of his buttons—and let himself be dragged away without a beer, wishing he could touch the other man’s hand again because that brief touch had set all his nerves afire.

Once Kyla established that Colin wasn’t going to be interested in her no matter how much she thrust her cleavage in his face, she huffed and went off to find a guy who knew where to stick his dick. Her words, not Colin’s, who already knew perfectly well where he’d like to stick it. Tim was all over Rita, and that left Colin bored witless and wishing he’d stuck to his guns and stayed on the sofa. His stomach growled every so often to remind him that Tim hadn’t allowed him to finish his dinner. He eventually found a tumbler, filled it with cheap beer, and retreated to a corner so he could drool over Mr. Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous in peace.

Whoever the guy was, he was popular. He’d got a seat on the sofa, and a crowd of people had gathered around him. Colin wished he could be one of those people. He stared down into his half-empty glass. He needed enough alcohol to survive the evening but remain sober enough to get Tim home.

Heading over to the dustbins, the unexpected shove between Colin’s shoulder blades lurched him forward, right into the people by the sofa. They scattered, and he ended up in the lap of Mr. Tall, Dark, and Gorgeous. Normally he wouldn’t mind sitting in the lap of any gorgeous man, but he did prefer it to be consensual, and this man looked anything but happy. Then Colin realized his glass was now empty, the contents emptied down the man’s T-shirt.

The guy looked down at his soaked shirt, and his lips twitched. “I like to drink beer and have my men plastered against my chest. Not the other way round.”

His voice was soft and drawled over the syllables like melted chocolate. Colin just stared at him until the man raised an eyebrow.

Colin was still sitting in the man’s lap. “Oh fuck, I’m so sorry.” He scrambled off. “I’ll get you another beer, but I can’t do much about the shirt.”

“I still have my beer.” The man raised his plastic tumbler, which had been on the small table next to the chair. “As for the shirt, that’s easily dealt with. I live here.” He stood and held out his hand.

Bemused, Colin put his hand in the stranger’s and followed him up to his bedroom. They weren’t alone, though, as a couple was making out enthusiastically on the bed.

Ramos wrinkled his nose. “Eww, enough, Toby, find somewhere else to fuck. Like your own room.”

Toby looked up, his face covered in lipstick. “It’s already occupied. Anyway, it’s not like you’re going to get any, Ramos.” He looked at Ramos’s T-shirt. “Or maybe you already have.”

“That’s none of your business,” Ramos said, still hanging on to Colin’s fingers. “My bed, no girl cooties. It’s a rule. Sorry, Becs.”

Becs pushed her hair back from her forehead. “No worries, darlin’.” She sat up with her top pressed to her ample cleavage. “Turn your backs, guys, and I’ll get dressed.”

Ramos turned Colin around. “She’s not really that bothered if you see her tits, but I don’t want you to be scarred for life.”

“Hey! Dick!” Becs didn’t put a lot of heat behind her response.

“You have awesome tits, babe,” Toby said.

“Thanks, hun.”

Colin heard what could only be sloppy kissing.

“You’d better not be starting again,” Ramos warned.

“Spoilsport,” Toby grumbled. “Come on, I’ll kick them outta my bedroom.”

Colin turned as Becs and Toby left the bedroom, Becs blowing them a kiss as she left.

“Thank God for that.” Ramos stripped off his T-shirt and wiped his chest with it. “I thought they were never going to leave.

Colin didn’t say anything, transfixed by the sight of Ramos’s chest—ripped, a small patch of chest hair leading down to a tantalizing trail, and just gorgeous.

His lack of attention hadn’t gone unnoticed by Ramos, who preened and posed, flexing his muscles until Colin laughed.

“You like what you see?” Ramos asked, striking a coquettish pose.

“Not bad.”

“Not bad? Not bad?” Ramos snorted. “The British art of deprecation.”

“You know you’re gorgeous. You don’t need me to say it.”

“I am. But so are you, Mr. Shy and Retiring. What is your name?”

“Colin Hess.”

“Alejandro Ramos. Everyone calls me Ramos because they can’t pronounce my name.”

“Ramos? This is your party.”

Ramos bowed. “Yeah. This is my place, my party. I need a new T-shirt. I should have done my washing yesterday.” He rummaged through a drawer piled high with socks, boxers, and receipts. “Ah!” He pulled out a faded green T-shirt and put it on.

Colin squinted at the graphic, but he didn’t recognize it. “I’m always running out of clothes.”

“I wouldn’t mind seeing you naked.” Ramos leered at him.

“Likewise,” Colin said. “You don’t have to get dressed on my account.”

Ramos grinned at him. “And there was me thinking you were a shy man.”

“You’ve only known me for five minutes.”

“I’ve been watching you since you walked through the door.”

“You have?” From his breathy voice, Colin was channeling his inner fourteen-year-old girl. He hadn’t noticed Ramos’s attention on him.

“Yeah.”

“Because I’m the only gay in the room?”

“One, that’s not true. There are at least two twinks, one bear, a closet, and three dykes. And two, you’re stunning.”

Colin stared at him. “You need to get your eyes tested. I’m ginger and freckly. And where were these guys? My gaydar didn’t ping at all.”

“They’re in the kitchen.” Ramos shook his head impatiently. “You have no idea just how gorgeous you are, do you?”

“I should have gone in there, and I’m not hot.”

Ramos took a step into Colin’s space. “Could we stop talking about the other guys? I’m not interested in them. Just you.”

Colin had the option to step back or stay where he was. He stayed still, his hands coming to rest on Ramos’s hard chest. Ramos placed his hands over Colin’s.

“You must work out,” Colin said and then flushed as he realized how stupid it sounded.

“Sometimes. Have to work off the beer, otherwise I end up with a beer gut like Toby.”

Colin grinned, the smile fading at the intensity in Ramos’s eyes. “Whatever you want to do, do it.”

A frown settled between Ramos’s thick brows. “So if I want to slit your throat, you wouldn’t stop me?”

“I’m not sure I could with you standing so close to me,” Colin confessed.

Ramos slid his fingers through Colin’s thick red hair and tugged it back, tilting Colin’s head. “No throat slitting,” he promised. “I just want to kiss you.”

“Whatever you want.” Colin reached up, anxious for the first touch of Ramos’s lips.

As Ramos promised, he didn’t disappoint, holding Colin close with one hand on his arse and one in his hair. Colin’s hands were still trapped between them, fluttering against Ramos’s chest as Colin pressed into his embrace. Ramos’s tongue explored his mouth, sweeping over his teeth, dueling with his tongue, and then pulling back to explore his lips. Ramos was hard and demanding in his kiss, and Colin tried to give him everything he wanted.

Colin was hard, and he felt an answering bulge pressed against his. Ramos had perhaps an inch on him in height, and their bodies lined up perfectly.

Ramos groaned as Colin rubbed their erections together. “You’re a tease, querido.”

“No teasing.” Colin rubbed harder.

“I’m going to have to change my jeans if you carry on doing that.”

“Me too,” Colin said with regret, “and I don’t have the option of changing.”

“You can borrow mine. We’re the same height.”

“I want….” Colin trailed off, not used to being so forward. He wasn’t afraid of putting out but not usually within five minutes of meeting a guy.

“Tell me.”

“Let me suck you off.”

Ramos’s eyes darkened, and he moved his hands to the button of his jeans.

“Let me.” Colin moved Ramos’s hands to Colin’s hips and concentrated on undoing the jeans.

Tim’s abrasive voice interrupted him. “Oy, homos, break it up.”

Colin glared at him. “What the hell do you want, Tim?”

“Rita’s feeling sick. I’m gonna take her home.”

“Yeah? Bye then,” Ramos said. He wrapped his hand over Colin’s again so that Colin couldn’t take his hands off his fly, making it very obvious what they’d been doing. When Tim didn’t move from the doorway, he said, “Is there anything else?”

“Yeah. I need Col to come with me.”

“Why? Can’t you manage your girlfriend by yourself?”

“Col’s my minder, you see. He’s my designated buddy to get me home safely.”

Colin sighed and looked at Ramos. For a minute he got lost in Ramos’s gaze until Tim coughed—loudly and offensively. “I’ve got to go.”

Ramos frowned. “He can’t get home by himself?”

“He’ll get home tomorrow, via the nearest police station.”

“So?”

“Are you coming or not?” Tim asked impatiently.

Colin focused on Ramos. “Then he’ll get chucked out of uni, and I’ll have to find a new flatmate. He’s harmless, really.”

Ramos kissed him, hard enough to make Colin’s dick twitch. “What about tomorrow?”

“He’s researching tomorrow,” Tim said.

“I’m free tomorrow evening,” Colin said hopefully.

“Where are you doing your research?”

“I’m going to the Tate Gallery.”

“I could join you if you don’t mind a companion.”

“I need to work,” Colin said, hoping he didn’t sound as dubious as he felt. Of course he wanted Ramos to join him, but he really did have to work.

“I can visit the exhibits while you work.”

“Well—”

“Look, make your bloody mind up, Col,” Tim said impatiently. “I need to get Rita home before she pukes over everyone.”

Colin ignored Tim. “See you tomorrow at two. In front of the Turner.”

Ramos pulled Colin into his embrace to kiss him, a promise of what he could expect. “Tomorrow at two o’clock.”

For a brief moment, Colin was tempted to tell Tim to leave without him, but sense overcame lust and he took a step back.

“Let’s go,” he said to Tim.

“It would be more convincing if you looked at me when you said it,” Tim said. “You can let go of your new fuck buddy now.”

“Go,” Ramos growled, “or I won’t be so willing to let you out of my sight.”

Colin pulled away with a jerky tug and looked at Tim. “I’m ready.”

“Finally. Jesus, we’ve got better things to do than wait for you.” Tim didn’t wait for Colin’s response but disappeared into the party, presumably to collect Rita.

“Do you want me to throw him out?” Ramos asked.

Colin gave a half laugh, half huff. “I wish you could, but I’d never hear the end of it. Enjoy your party. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Colin! For fuck’s sake!”

“Bye, Ramos.”

Colin kissed Ramos and left without looking back, pushing his way through the crowd to the front door. He felt guilty when he saw the way Rita was slumped against Tim, although the guilt was mitigated when he had to hold her hair back as she puked into someone’s front garden. Tim puked in sympathy, and Colin had to swallow very hard not to join them.

Tim left Colin on the doorstep while he manhandled Rita into her flat. Colin sat on the doorstep and looked up at the stars. It wasn’t the end to the evening he could have had, but there was time for that. He smiled as he thought of Ramos.

“Wow,” he whispered into the stillness of the night.