JEFF TORE a blade of grass from the ground and wound it slowly round his finger. He’d always fancied wearing a simple gold ring, but he knew his father would never allow it. Jewelry was for women and poofs, and as far as his father was concerned, Jeff was neither of those.
Looking up at the cloudless sky, Jeff couldn’t recall a more idyllic day, and when he lowered his gaze to the parkland before him, the day became even more perfect. Jeff surveyed the willowy frame of a young man stretched out on the grass. Wearing only a pair of white shorts, the stranger’s body was lean and athletic, his pale skin starting to color in the sun.
Jeff imagined massaging sun lotion into his chest, trailing his fingers around the darkness of his nipples. He had a bottle in his bag, and he’d hate for the stranger to burn his fair skin. What would the young man say if Jeff knelt next to him and drizzled the lotion in a sensual swirl on his torso? Would he lurch from the grass, shouting and cursing and threatening to stick the bottle somewhere painful? Or would he slowly open his eyes, his raspberry-red lips easing into a smile? Would he relax into the lush grass, allowing Jeff to caress his sun-warmed skin with the tips of his—
“Jeff! Where the hell are those glasses? I told you to wash them, not go and buy new ones.”
Jeff chuckled. His job washing glasses at the Eagle wasn’t the most exciting of occupations, but it did give him plenty of time to daydream. He clattered the glasses into the plastic crate and hauled it off the sturdy table.
“Coming, Bri!” Jeff called through to the bar in an attempt to dampen his boss’s short fuse. Brian wasn’t a bad bloke, but he could get rather hot under the collar when things were hectic in the pub.
“About flamin’ time.” Pulling a pint of froth-topped beer, Brian glanced at Jeff as he appeared. “I thought you’d got lost.”
“Sorry, Bri. You know I like to get them spotless.”
Brian rolled his eyes and turned to the next impatient customer. “Yes, mate. What can I get you?”
Jeff dumped the crate of glasses behind the bar, then grabbed a tray and slipped through the gap in the wooden counter. The pub was heaving tonight. Each seat at every table was taken, and people crowded onto the tiny dance floor with its sticky, beer-stained boards. Jeff wondered what had dragged so many locals out on a Wednesday night, then remembered a band was booked for that evening. Hansley was a small rural town, with not much in the way of a social scene, so people made the most of any entertainment that came along.
On the cluttered notice board by the door, with its fliers for bingo nights and jumble sales, a handmade poster announced that this evening’s act was “Danny Speed and the Mopeds.” Jeff tutted as he rattled empty glasses onto the tray. How did these so-called musicians come up with such daft names? He certainly hadn’t heard of this lot, but you never knew what you were going to get when Brian booked a band. Some were remarkably talented, while others made such a screeching racket Brian had been known to cut the power to put an end to the torture.
Jeff’s tray was filling with glasses and overflowing ashtrays when he heard his name called from across the room. He turned around to see Brian beckon him to the bar.
“Jeff! Take over a minute, would you?”
A shiver ran down Jeff’s spine as he crossed the room. He hated it when Brian asked him to cover at the bar. He was happy collecting and washing glasses, but Jeff was no great shakes as a barman. He usually ended up breaking the glasses or filling them with more head than beer, and he never managed to give anyone the right change. He put down the tray and waited for Brian to squeeze through the gap in the counter.
“Hold the fort while I introduce the band.” Brian gave him a familiar warning look. “And try not to break anything.”
Jeff smiled as confidently as he could. “No worries, Bri.”
Taking his position behind the beer taps, Jeff tried to recollect Brian’s expert advice. Hold the glass at an angle and pull back the tap, then slowly straighten the glass as it fills. While Brian gave his introductory spiel, Jeff picked up a glass in readiness for his first customer. Then he almost dropped it when a throbbing guitar cord tore through the air.
On the makeshift stage, a tatty green curtain had just been raised for Danny Speed and the Mopeds. There was a lad on bass and another on drums, while in the middle stood a young man with a flash red guitar, from which the heart-stopping sound had evidently emanated. The guitarist’s head was bowed, his features obscured by a silky quiff of dark brown hair. The room was silent, entranced by his dramatic pose. Then he lifted his eyes, to reveal a roguish grin on his handsome face.
“Good evening, Hansley. I’m Danny Speed.” His smooth Scottish brogue was accompanied by an appreciative murmur from the girls in the room. “And these are the Mopeds.”
It usually took a couple of songs for a band to warm up the countryside crowd, but as Danny theatrically swept his hand round toward his colleagues, the young farmers and shopgirls burst into applause. Danny counted in his bandmates, and they launched into a highly creditable cover of a lively song Jeff had heard on the radio. The crowd nodded and clapped and then started to dance, swept along by the tune’s infectious rhythm. Jeff was as rapt as the rest of the room and jumped when a pound note wafted in front of his nose.
“Jeff, you dozy git. Any chance of getting a drink?”
Jeff was relieved to see Pat Turner, whom he’d known since they were at primary school.
“Sorry, Pat. A pint, is it?”
“That’s right.” Pat smirked. “And I’ll have a bit of beer in it this time.”
“Sod off, Pat. I do my best.”
“I know you do.” Pat tapped his finger against the bar in time with the music. “But it’s a good job you’re not planning a career as a publican. You’d get bugger-all customers.”
“Just you watch, Patrick Turner.” Jeff tilted the glass slowly, and it filled with deep amber liquid, the strong local ale edging up to the rim of the glass. The white froth at the top was exactly the right depth, and not a drop had trickled over the side. It was his first perfect pint of beer. Jeff was proudly presenting his masterpiece to Pat when Brian’s broad backside shoved past him. Jeff lurched forward and so did the beer, half of it sloshing onto the counter.
“Bollocks!” Jeff muttered, then flinched as Brian clipped him round the ear.
“Language, Jeffrey. There’s ladies present.”
Pat tried his best not to laugh, and Jeff sighed. “Have that one on me, mate.”
As Pat took the beer and headed into the crowd, Jeff was glad to see Brian resume his position behind the bar. The empties were building up again, so Jeff made his way back to the other side of the counter. He observed the activity across the room as he cleared bottles and glasses from the tables. The band was well into its stride and had started to play an unfamiliar song, which Jeff assumed was one of their own. It was really quite catchy, and Jeff hummed to the tune while people tried their best to dance in the cramped space in front of the stage.
Jeff squeezed through the crowd to the tables near the band and was jostled by several women doing an overenthusiastic twist. He loaded up his tray and discreetly surveyed the men on stage. The bass player and drummer weren’t bad-looking, but they were nothing to write home about. Danny, the singer, however, was another matter entirely. He’d looked pretty cute from the back of the room, but close up he was utterly gorgeous. He wore jeans and a black leather jacket that tightly hugged his slender waist, while a white T-shirt beneath clung enticingly to his chest. Jeff was dreamily picturing him unencumbered by clothing when he heard his name yelled again.
“Jeff! We’re running out of glasses. Get a move on.”
Piling a few more glasses onto the tray, Jeff returned to the bar. It would have been nice to make the most of the first bit of talent he’d heard or seen in ages, but if he wanted to keep his job and his meager wages, he had to do as he was told. Slipping behind the counter, Jeff stole a last glimpse at the stunning singer. Then he stepped through to the kitchen and dumped the glasses into the sink.
THE MUSIC coming from the bar had Jeff tapping his foot in time with the beat while he washed and dried the glasses, making his shift pass more quickly than normal. Now the punters had all disappeared to their homes, or wherever else they chose to go, and Jeff made one final trip among the tables. He yawned as he picked up some half-empty glasses and a foul-smelling ashtray. It was after eleven, and the late hour was catching up with him.
Brian looked as tired as Jeff felt as he locked the front door.
“I’m done in, Jeff. Let yourself out, will you?”
Brian had known Jeff since he was a lad, and he trusted him to finish the washing up and let himself out the back door on his own.
“Good night, Bri.”
Brian went upstairs to his flat above the pub, and Jeff collected the last of the glasses. He was about to go through to the kitchen when he started at a noise from the far side of the room. Jeff turned to find the source of the sound and nearly jumped out of his skin when a figure appeared from the gents’ toilet door.
“Sorry, pal. I didn’t mean to give you a fright.”
Jeff’s heartbeat slowed from frantic to merely alarmed. “What are you still doing here? I thought your lot went ages ago.”
“The others went to find a chippy. I said I’d meet them outside when I was changed.” Danny Speed buttoned up his cream-colored shirt. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“That’s okay.” Jeff hoped he wasn’t blushing as he usually did when alone with a good-looking bloke. “I’m finishing up, anyway.”
He put down the tray, figuring he should make some sort of conversation. His mind was a total blank, and Danny fortunately broke the silence.
“Is it okay if I wait in here till those two get back? Sounds like it’s pissing it down out there.”
Jeff hadn’t noticed the clatter of rain against the window. Brian probably wouldn’t approve of allowing a stranger in the pub after hours, but he couldn’t turf Danny out in this weather. He attempted an easygoing smile. “Stay as long as you like.”
“Cheers.” Danny wandered across the dance floor, pulling on his leather jacket. “So I guess you live around here, then—sorry, I don’t know your name.”
Jeff was sure he was blushing now, and he tried not to sound as shaky as he felt. “It’s Jeff. Jeff McInnery.”
“McInnery, eh?” Danny settled his denim-clad backside on the edge of the stage, his voice laid-back and encouraging. “That’s a good Scottish name.”
“I’ve no idea where it comes from. My folks have lived in Hansley for years.” Jeff started to feel more relaxed and leaned back against the counter. “So is Danny Speed your real name?”
Danny smiled. “It is indeed.”
“You were lucky there. It’s a great name for a singer.”
“I don’t know about that. You haven’t heard my middle name.” Danny reached into his jacket and took out a pack of cigarettes. “Do you mind if I…?”
“Not at all.” Jeff had only smoked once, when he was thirteen, and he’d coughed so much he threw up, but if Danny wanted to partake, he wasn’t going to make a fuss. “Do you need a light?”
“You’re all right.” The words mumbled their way around the cigarette between Danny’s lips. He retrieved a small box from his pocket and casually struck a match. Jeff’s stomach fluttered as the yellow flame illuminated Danny’s perfect pale skin and striking green eyes. His cheeks sucked in slightly as he took his first draw, and a look of contented release flowed across his face. Danny eased the cigarette from his lips and held out the pack to Jeff.
“Do you want one?”
“No thanks.” Not for the first time, Jeff almost wished he’d acquired the habit. He always felt like the odd one out when his friends started lighting up. As a stream of smoke floated from Danny’s lips, Jeff sought a new topic of conversation.
“It was a good set tonight.” He attempted to sound vaguely knowledgeable. “Did you write the new songs yourself?”
“Uh-huh.” Danny took another drag on his cigarette. “We’re thinking of making a record when we get back home. Not that anyone’d buy it.”
“I would.” Jeff knew his reply was a little too eager. “I mean, I buy a lot of records.”
“Yeah? Who’s your favorite band?”
Jeff assumed a thoughtful expression, not wanting to admit that his record collection consisted of more Elgar than Elvis. “I like the Starstruck Dreams. Their lyrics are cool.”
Danny looked suitably impressed, and Jeff thanked heaven he’d found an old music magazine on the bus last week. Danny nodded at the secondhand jukebox that stood in the corner of the room.
“Have you got any of their songs on there?”
“Maybe.” In truth, Jeff hadn’t the faintest idea. He occasionally emptied the jukebox of coins, but he only knew the most popular tunes, the ones that were played to death by the younger punters. “But I think Brian might have changed the records.”
Danny stood next to the old-fashioned machine with its wooden panels and yellowing glass. He peered through the screen at the list of songs. “There you go. ‘Fanfare for the Ages’ is one of theirs, isn’t it?”
Jeff knew the title, but he wasn’t sure he’d ever heard the song. “That’s right. It’s one of my favorites.”
Danny wriggled his fingers into the tight pocket of his jeans and brought out a silver coin. Jeff understood too late what Danny was about to do. A thunderous drumroll blared out of the speakers.
“Bloody hell!” Jeff pushed Danny out of the way and stretched his arm to the back of the jukebox. He hastily searched for the volume control, then took a relieved breath as the music reduced to a less earsplitting level. Danny was understandably startled by his sudden flurry of action.
“What’s going on? Is there someone upstairs?”
“Brian, the landlord. He’ll be livid if we wake him up.” Jeff recalled the time he’d dropped a crate of empties after his boss had gone to bed one night. Brian had stumbled downstairs like a bad-tempered bear in stripy pajamas, and Jeff didn’t fancy a repeat of his colorful reprimand.
“I’m sorry. You can switch it off if you like.”
Danny leaned toward the jukebox, and Jeff caught the scent of his leather jacket and the Brylcreem that smoothed his brown hair. Jeff felt a stirring in his gray drainpipe trousers and prayed to God Danny hadn’t noticed anything amiss.
“It’ll be fine as long as it’s not too loud. Brian’s on the top floor, so he won’t hear it now.”
“Nice one.” Danny tapped his foot appreciatively to the music. It wasn’t a bad song, and Jeff was glad he’d plucked the band’s name from his limited musical knowledge. Danny blew a luxuriant cloud of smoke into the air. “Do you work here every night?”
“Just Wednesdays and Fridays. And I won’t be doing that for much longer.”
Danny’s hips swayed lightly to the beat. “Have you had a better offer?”
“You could say that.” Jeff shrugged modestly. “I’m off to university in Carford.”
“Congratulations, man. That’s a terrific achievement.” Although they’d only met a few minutes before, Danny seemed genuinely pleased for him. “Wish I’d tried harder at school.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. You’re in a band. That’s far more exciting than studying.”
“I might be in a band, but when I’m back home, I have to work for a living.” There was a hint of embarrassment in Danny’s voice. “I work in my dad’s corner shop six days a week, and there’s nothing less exciting than that.”
Jeff couldn’t imagine Danny in an overall, serving people bread and bottles of milk. He knew he’d be Danny’s most regular customer if they lived in the same town.
“Working in a shop’s a good trade. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Danny visibly bristled at his comment, and Jeff wished he’d thought before he opened his mouth.
“I’m not ashamed. I just said it wasn’t exciting.” A few tense seconds passed, and then Danny’s frown lightened into a smile. “So what’ll you be studying?”
Jeff prepared for the usual perplexed reaction when he gave his answer. “Philosophy, would you believe? God knows what I’ll do with my degree when I’ve finished.”
“You’ll fathom the secrets of the universe, Jeff.” Danny sounded utterly serious as he stubbed out his cigarette in an ashtray. Then he broke into a grin. “Now come and have a dance.”
“What?” Jeff was sure Danny must be taking the piss.
“You heard me.” Danny stepped onto the dance floor and was soon moving to the music. His hips were twisting, his knees bending, and his backside gyrating in an unbearably provocative way. “Or do philosophers not lower themselves to such things?”
Jeff couldn’t believe this was happening, or that he was about to make such a fool of himself. He couldn’t stop giggling as he tried in vain to mimic Danny’s fluid movements.
“That’s it, man. Just go with the rhythm.” Danny was laughing now, too, and Jeff actually began to enjoy himself. He bounced along to the cheery tune, and every time he caught Danny’s eye, they both beamed like a couple of daft kids. Jeff was building up a bit of a sweat by the time the song faded to its conclusion. He swept his fingers through his damp hair, then realized the jukebox had flipped to the next record. It was a soppy tune that was forever crooning from the machine. He looked over at Danny, who was taking off his leather jacket.
“I’ll put something else on, shall I?”
“It’s okay.” Danny dropped his jacket onto a chair. “Don’t tell anyone, but I quite like this one. The chicks dig it, anyway.” He winked mischievously. “Know what I mean?”
“I… I suppose so.” The exuberant pleasure Jeff had been feeling turned to a familiar sense of dread.
Danny gave a disturbingly knowing look. “Have you never had a girlfriend, Jeff?”
Jeff shook his head, hoping Danny would assume his abstinence was due to failure rather than choice. His pulse quickened as Danny walked toward him.
“We’ll have to do something about that, won’t we?”
“It’s not a problem.” Jeff stuttered the words, and his racing heart nearly stopped when Danny seized his clammy hand.
“You need to learn how to slow dance, man.”
Jeff’s knees trembled so much he could barely stand as Danny slid his other hand round Jeff’s waist.
Danny’s voice was affably self-assured. “Now the young lady will expect you to take the lead, Jeff.”
“Oh yes?” They were the only words Jeff could extract from his brain.
“You hold her in your arms like this.” Danny pulled Jeff to him, his lean torso pressing against Jeff’s shirt. “You see?”
Jeff nodded. The proximity of Danny’s body now made speech impossible.
“Then you move your feet in time with the music. Just little steps like this.” Danny’s thighs brushed against Jeff’s trousers as they shuffled around the wooden floor. Jeff was sure Danny must be able to feel the quivering in his muscles, the quickening of his breath, and the growing hardness in his underwear.
“And if you’re very lucky, she’ll nuzzle your neck, and her hair will tickle against your cheek.”
Jeff held his breath as Danny’s faintly stubbled chin rested against his shoulder. He was certain he must be dreaming, but he’d never had a dream as vivid as this. Danny’s biceps were hot against Jeff’s shirtsleeves, and his fingers tightly curled round Jeff’s hand. His tobacco-scented breath was warm against Jeff’s ear as he spoke.
“That’s it, Jeff. You’ve got the hang of it. You’ll have those posh university girls eating out of your hand.”
Girls, posh or otherwise, were the furthest thing from Jeff’s mind when Danny pulled away slightly and smiled. Jeff had never seen a smile like it, or at least not outside of a cinema screen. Danny’s teeth were beautifully even and white, his lips the pink of a freshly picked plum, his eyes green and twinkling in the low light. Then the music stopped, and Jeff expected Danny to step away with a jokey comment about his dancing, but Danny stayed where he was, his face only inches away. Danny’s smile faded uncertainly, but he didn’t move away.
Their chests were touching, and Jeff felt the wild beat of Danny’s heart, the rhythm of his shallow breaths. He knew what he had to do, what Danny wanted him to do, and he shakily drew nearer. Their lips were so close, they might as well have been kissing, and still Danny didn’t back off. So Jeff covered that final tiny distance and placed his lips on Danny’s mouth.
If his lips hadn’t been otherwise engaged, Jeff would have yelped with joy. For the first time in his life, he was kissing another man, and as Danny’s tongue flicked into his mouth, Jeff was delighted to find that man was kissing him back. Jeff was about to slip his fingers round Danny’s waist, to make the most of the wonderful experience, when he found himself being shoved across the room. Danny’s fist slammed violently against Jeff’s chest, and the eyes that had been smiling moments before were now glowing with fury.
“What the fuck are you doing?”
Jeff lost his footing and stumbled against a chair. “I’m sorry. I thought you… I thought you wanted me to—”
“You thought I was a poof? Jesus Christ, man. I was showing you how to get a girl, you stupid bastard. Why would you think I was… I was….”
Danny was so angry he seemed to have run out of words. He grabbed his jacket and blustered toward the door, pausing to give Jeff one last withering look.
“Stay the fuck away from me, you sad little perv.”
The door slammed behind Danny, and for one brief instant, Jeff hoped he wouldn’t get too wet in the rain that was still pouring down outside. Then Jeff sank onto a chair, his whole body shaking with fear and humiliation. How could he have been so bloody stupid? Danny had been playing about, not flirting with him. And why would Danny flirt with him anyway? Danny was a gorgeous, talented man, while Jeff was little more than a pathetic school kid. And far more importantly, Danny liked girls.
Jeff put his head in his hands. What the hell was going to happen to him? Would Danny tell his mates what he’d done? Would they follow him home and beat him up? Or would Danny take a far more vicious revenge and spread the news around Hansley? Jeff thanked heaven he was leaving for Carford in a couple of weeks’ time. He only hoped he’d survive until then.