Chapter One

 

THERE WERE few places in the world where Stan could blend in. He’d been around the world more than once in his twenty-two years, and yet this little corner of North London seemed to be the spot for him. It felt right.

He’d taken the Northern line to Camden Town on the recommendation of a friend and spent hours wandering around the hundreds of stalls at the market there, buying a new leather jacket and a tartan scarf from a real Scottish person and some rings. He’d eaten in a vegan café that tempted him in with the most delicious smells. Then he’d gotten lost, taken a wrong turn, and ended up in a little pub tucked away out of sight of the main road.

It had just started to spit with rain, so he ducked inside.

This was his kind of pub—dim lighting, low tables, and parquet floor that must have cost a fortune. A huge statue of the Virgin Mary was behind the bar, but someone had painted an inverted pentagram on her cheek and created a tiny, perfectly fitting Mötley Crüe T-shirt for her to wear. The statue was adorned with multicoloured Christmas lights, even though it was April. Over the bar, a hammered, blackened copper sign proclaimed the place to be Buck Shot. There wasn’t a sign over the door like most bars. Just a badass one inside.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked as Stan nimbly slid onto one of the barstools. He was tall and lanky, his hair a thick mop that fell across his forehead, the sides shaved close.

“Um….” Stan looked over the specials, which were written in chalk on a blackboard behind the bar. “Do you have a blond beer?”

“We have a few.”

“Your choice, then,” Stan said.

“Sure thing.”

When the guy turned away to pull a bottle from the fridge under the bar, Stan looked a little too hard at his backside. It was clad in very, very tight black jeans; his long, lean legs poured down into a pair of black Doc Martens. Wow.

“Three eighty.”

“Sorry?”

“Three eighty,” the bartender said with a smile.

“Oh.” Stan fumbled for his wallet out of his own jeans, which were tight but nothing in comparison to this guy’s. He wasn’t used to the British currency yet and handed over a ten.

The pub was fairly quiet, although there seemed to be a steady stream of people walking in and out to smoke. The smell of cigarettes followed them back inside, mingling with the earthy smell of beer and the tang of sweat.

The cute bartender handed him the change, offered a quick smile, then turned to serve the next person. Stan sipped his beer and decided this might be his favourite place in the whole world. No one was even looking at him.

On impulse, he shrugged out of his battered leather jacket and pulled off the infinity scarf from around his neck. The action caused his hair to spill out down the back of his neck, the blond strands feathering out over his shoulders and down almost to his waist.

That made the cute bartender look. Stan didn’t mind at all.

He finished the first pint, feeling warm and full and happy, then pulled his sketchpad out of his satchel so he could work a little while he had the next one. There was nowhere he needed to be anytime soon. Not until Monday morning, in fact.

“Another?”

Stan looked up to meet Cute Bartender’s warm brown eyes. He nodded mutely for a moment, then found his voice and said, “Please.”

While the bartender poured the beer from bottle to glass, Stan debated whether or not to try to make conversation with him. It wasn’t normally his thing, and coming on too strong, or even at all, could be dangerous.

For the most part, men didn’t like being come on to by a man who looked more like a girl. A hot girl. A really hot, slightly confusing girl. Stan knew what he looked like—he owned it.

This time he had a handful of change ready. He’d been collecting it periodically through the day, and it was weighing down his pockets.

“Can you help?” he said, fluttering his eyelashes just a tiny bit. “I don’t quite know what all the coins do yet.”

The cute bartender laughed and leaned in over the dark wood bar. “Sure. These are pound coins. I need three of them….” His fingertips brushed over Stan’s palm as he sorted through the loose change, separating tens and twenties and fifty-pence pieces. He was wearing black nail polish, chipped around the edges. “Fifty, seventy, eighty. There you go.”

“Thanks,” Stan said with a half-smile.

“You’re welcome, mate.” He turned and deposited the money in the till, then turned back. “I take it you’re new to these parts.”

Stan nodded, secretly thrilled. “I just got here on Thursday, actually.”

“Oh wow. From where?”

“Um, Russia originally,” Stan said. He lifted the pint to his lips and took a small sip. It was good beer. The Brits definitely knew how to do microbrewing. “I’ve been living in Italy for the past year, though. And America before that.”

“Probably why I couldn’t quite place that accent. I’m Ben, by the way.”

“Stan.” He slipped his hand into the one Ben offered to him, finding it warm and dry, and squeezed slightly as he shook it. “Nice to meet you.”

“Same.”

As more people started to file into the pub, Ben’s attention was stolen by those he was being paid to serve. Not that Stan minded all that much. He stayed perched on his stool to the side of the bar, sketching out ideas and designs while surreptitiously—he hoped—watching Ben work. By the time he finished his second pint, there was no use; he had no excuse to stay any longer, and he couldn’t risk another drink or he’d be well and truly drunk.

He debated for long moments while swirling the last of his beer in the bottom of the glass, then impulsively tore a sheet of paper out of the pad and scrawled his name and phone number on it in looping script. After folding it twice he wrote “Ben” on the top and tucked the note under his almost-empty glass.

Without looking up or over the bar, Stan shrugged into his scarf and jacket and tucked his sketchbook carefully back into his satchel. With gentle fingers, he pulled his long hair free again, left it loose down his back, and combed it away from his face.

Before leaving, he glanced over at Ben, unable to stop himself, then lifted a hand in a wave. Ben nodded and smiled, and Stan strode out in his high-heeled boots.

 

 

“MATE,” TONE breathed, Bristol audible in every long vowel as Ben unfolded the note, smiled, and tucked it into his back pocket. “Did she leave her number for you?”

Ben pressed his lips together and shook his head. “No.”

Tone gave him a confused look.

“He left his number.”

“You mean…. What the…?”

“It was a dude, Tone.”

A pause. “You sure?”

“Yeah,” Ben said with a laugh, unable to hold it in any longer. “He had an Adam’s apple. And his name is Stan.”

“I’m so confused,” Tone grumbled, reaching for the mixer gun, then squeezed the button for soda. If the pub was empty, he’d direct it into his open mouth, but the boss was around, so it went into a glass. “I’m not gay, but I’d do her—him, all night long. That has to be the hottest guy in the whole fuckin’ world.”

Ben smiled to himself and moved to serve the next batch of people who had arrived at the bar. Secretly, he agreed with Tone, not that he would admit it just yet.

Being Saturday afternoon, the pub would get busy soon and stay that way for most of the night. He’d started at lunchtime and would be done by nine, giving him plenty of time to get over to band practice at Geordie’s. They didn’t often rehearse on a Saturday night—most of the people in the band preferred to go out and get rat-arsed instead. But Jez had some weed and was apparently in a sharing mood, so they’d all agreed to make an exception.

It would be nice to have a night off.

As expected, the crowds soon swelled in, and Ben worked steadily through the evening, his mind elsewhere.

Stan. Jesus, that man could start wars. Like a modern-day Helen of Troy. It seemed like everything had come together when his DNA was being formed—the angels were singing and created a perfect balance of cheekbones, angled jaw, sparkling grey eyes, and long, long blond hair. Like a fucking mermaid.

Ben had got stick from the other guys when he first started dating Alistair last year, even though it turned out to be a brief fling with the Frenchman that hadn’t lasted much past the end of the summer. His mates didn’t take the piss just because Ben was bi—they took the piss about everything. It was more to do with the fact Alistair was a poncey git who saw Ben as a bit of rough.

Well, Alistair had had his fling and slummed it with the real kids in London, then flounced off back to gay Paris as soon as the rain came in October. Well, fuck him. He was nowhere near as pretty as Stan.

When the end of his shift rolled around, Ben handed over to Mel with the obligatory high-five tap out and dragged Tone away from a bunch of girls who looked amused but slightly scared. Tone did that a lot. He meant well, but if the broad Bristolian accent wasn’t enough, the shaggy beard and mass of curly hair gave him something of a Stig of the Dump look that tended to terrify the ladies.

“What?” Tone grumbled as they gathered up backpacks and guitar cases from the cellar. “I was in there, mate, I swear.”

“Of course you were,” Ben said soothingly. “Gotta get to Geordie’s, though, before all the weed is gone.”

Tone perked up at that idea and followed Ben to the Tube station with one of Ben’s guitars slung over his shoulder.

The band had started out as a ragtag group of people who just got together to jam and do covers a few times a month. Ben had met them through Tone after he got the job at the pub and had mentioned that he played guitar. Not that well. His lack of skills didn’t matter. Apparently, it was more a chance for the group to get together and smoke or get drunk.

In the year and a half since they started playing together, things had become more organised, and they had taken the big first step to actually playing in public. That meant needing a set, though, and not just a bunch of covers. Writing their own music was a big step up. It had caused weeks of rows.

There was still a dent in the side of Ben’s head where Tone had thrown a drumstick at him, called him a “fucking Kiwi bastard,” and stormed out of their rehearsal space. They had been best friends ever since.

Nowadays there were only a few places in London where the band could get together to practise—Buck Shot had a music venue attached by a big set of double doors at the back, which opened up when a band was on. During the day, or when it wasn’t being used, the doors stayed closed, and Mel, the manager, let them use the stage. The acoustics were weird when the room wasn’t full of people, but it was better than nothing. Plus, over half the band worked in the pub anyway, so it was easy to gather them in one place.

If the venue space was being used or if they wanted to do stuff that was only semi legal, they hung out at Geordie’s mum’s place, which was in Notting Hill and had a soundproofed basement. Ben had always thought Geordie—not his real name; he was just from Newcastle—lived the sort of life most people could only dream of.

Geordie’s mum had won the lottery. Over sixty million on a normal Saturday night. It was crazy. The family had blown a load on a holiday to Magaluf, then set up in London so his mum could go and watch musicals to her heart’s content. She had two kids at Sylvia Young Theatre School and threw her remaining millions at producers, with the hopes of funding a big hit.

For all of their nouveau-riche lifestyle, Geordie’s mum was sound and didn’t care that her only son was slumming around as a wannabe rock star. And she let the band rehearse in the basement. So Ben did his duty, flirted with her whenever he visited—mostly to annoy Geordie—and kept in her good graces.

“Alright, Sherrie?” Ben said when she opened the door. He leaned in and gave her a kiss on the cheek and a quick pat on the bum. He was one of the few people who could get away with it.

“You are naughty, Ben,” she said with a laugh, then shooed them down to the basement, where the others were already gathered.

“Ben’s got a girlfriend,” Tone announced as soon as they both got over the threshold and shut the door behind them. “Well, sort of.”

“Fuck’s sake, Tone,” Ben muttered. “I don’t have a fucking girlfriend.”

Geordie looked over, exhaled messily, and raised an eyebrow. “Coming back from the dark side, are you?”

“Nah.” Ben held his hand out for the spliff and nodded in thanks when Geordie passed it over. “Men are so much less hassle than women.”

“They don’t bleed either,” Tone mused. “Unless you do ’em really hard, anyway.”

The group groaned in almost perfect harmony, and Summer threw a guitar pick at Tone’s head. It missed by a mile.

“You’re disgusting,” she said.

“Tone” wasn’t short for Tony or Antony, as most people assumed. His given name was Daniel, and he’d earned the nickname for his uncanny ability to lower the tone of a conversation, even when people assumed it was already at rock-bottom. They had a thing for nicknames in this band. Which was ironic, really, since they’d never really agreed on a name for the band itself. Having the Greek God of War as their moniker seemed apt.

Summer produced a bottle of rum from her bag, waved it invitingly, and said something about ice and mixers. Four heads turned towards Geordie, who stalled for a moment, then hauled himself to his feet, grumbling about being a fuckin’ hostess.

“Love you, Geordie,” Summer called after him.

“So, have we got any gigs lined up?” Ben asked.

Summer took responsibility for organising the gigs Ares played, mostly because she was the only one who the clubs would deal with. Ben did it sometimes, when he had time, but between working two part-time jobs and rehearsing, he didn’t have much in the way of spare time.

At nineteen, Summer was the youngest in the band by a few years and had been introduced to the others via her on-again, off-again relationship with Geordie. Her singing voice was incredible, and she could strum along on a guitar, so they kept her around despite the drama. She wasn’t bad to look at either—her dark hair was shaved on one side, and the rest of it fell in thick waves down her back. Slim and tanned, with her nose and tongue pierced, as well as stretchers in her ears, Summer did not live up to her sunshiny name. She was a source of constant disappointment to her mother, who lived in Stoke Newington and drove a Prius.

“Next month,” she said. “Got us a slot in the venue on the seventeenth and—actually, I should wait for Geordie to tell you.”

“Fuck Geordie,” Tone said. “Tell us.”

“She hasn’t fucked Geordie in ages,” Geordie said, taking the steps down to the basement two at a time. He had a bag of ice under one arm and a fizzed-up bottle of Coke in the other. He clutched a stack of plastic cups between his fingers.

Summer rolled her eyes. “I got us a slot supporting Racket City. Not first support, second. But it’s at the Electric Ballroom, and it should be a really good gig. They’re gonna put our names on the posters and everything.”

“Fuckin’ ace,” Geordie said and leaned over to kiss her cheek. “Well done, gorgeous.”

He started to pass the rum around for a celebratory drink, but mixing booze and weed gave Ben a headache, so he passed and rolled a cigarette instead.

“Sounds good,” Ben said, then licked the paper to seal the rollie. “How long have we got?”

“Forty-five minutes. We need to pad out the set.”

Their current set was about twenty-five minutes, tops, and that included the cover of “Teenage Kicks” they did to kick off every gig. They used the song to raise the energy and the atmosphere, and it was appreciated almost everywhere.

“Fuck,” Ben muttered and took another drag on his cigarette. “Better get fuckin’ started, then.”

 

 

THE MAGAZINE had arranged Stan’s flat in Bow, in a gated complex that had once, many years ago, housed a match factory. The red-bricked building in the East End of London had been split up into smaller flats, and Stan had been offered a neat, spacious one-bedroom home that was his for a year.

He’d only just moved, so some of his possessions were still in boxes, and all of those boxes were stacked in the living room. Stan kicked off his shoes, dumped his bags, and stared at the boxes for a long moment before turning on his heels and walking through to the kitchen. The green tea he preferred would help combat any lingering tipsiness from the two pints he’d just consumed.

The kettle whistled merrily on the stove when the water boiled, and he carefully deposited it into a chipped white china cup and tied the teabag around the handle. While it steeped, Stan twisted his long hair back onto itself and secured the knot with a pencil lying on the countertop. Although the weather was far from warm out, the Underground in London was close and humid, and the sweat on the back of his neck made his hair sticky.

Using the kettle as a mirror, he checked his make-up. Still perfect. Thank goodness. At least his eyeliner was supposed to be a little smudged. That was the look he’d gone for that morning—slightly tousled, rough and lost.

With a sigh, he took his tea back through to the living room and stared at the boxes some more. It was no use. He had every intention of working through his current contract, which was for a year, and possibly staying in London longer if things worked out. Of all the places he’d travelled to in the past few years, London was by far his favourite. With the way things were in Russia these days, he didn’t feel safe going home anymore, even when his mama begged.

This was his life, now.

The tight jeans and loose, cut-up T-shirt he’d been wearing all day were not the right sort of clothes to do unpacking jobs in. Stan set down his tea on the coffee table—one of the few pieces of furniture he’d acquired so far—and went into his bedroom to change. Stuff wasn’t any more organised in there. The only things he’d unpacked so far were his boxes of make-up and hair products, and a suitcase of clothes that was now spilling possessions onto the floor.

He knew, for sure, a pair of loose pyjama pants were hidden in this suitcase somewhere. He rifled through denim and leather and silk and soft, soft cotton, until he located the baggy red pants with the reindeer pattern. He wore them year-round. They were his most comfortable lounging-about pants.

The T-shirt was fine, and with his hair tied back, Stan could start the long, laborious task of creating his new home.

 

 

BY LATE the following morning, it was nearly done. All his clothes had been hung in the wardrobe, the things that needed to be ironed separated out and tossed over the back of a chair. He’d get to that… sooner or later. The only thing left to do was unpack the kitchen, and he had brought very little in the way of cooking utensils with him, so that wouldn’t take long.

Stan yawned, feeling his muscles stretch and move with him, then padded back through to his bedroom to change. Food was the next thing on his agenda.

The box of Twinings tea was the only nutrition he had in the house, and the last thing he’d eaten was at Camden the previous lunchtime. From his exploring, he’d discovered plenty of fresh produce available on market stalls for much lower prices than he’d been warned he’d find in the capital. Yet so many people here seemed to shop in the supermarkets. It was the same in America. He couldn’t get his head around the idea.

Not wanting to make a fuss to go out for simple groceries, not when he wasn’t planning to run into anyone, anyway, Stan brushed his hair and gathered it into a loose ponytail at the nape of his neck. With an oversized powder brush, he swept MAC NC5 loose powder over his whole face, then filled in his eyebrows with an angled brush and mid-brown shadow. He’d recently acquired some Benefit bronzer, which was deliciously soft and blended perfectly, so he added a little of that to his cheekbones.

A quick lick of mascara finished the low-key—for him, at least—look. Stan changed into jeans and a black T-shirt, stamped his feet into heavy boots, and tucked his wallet, phone, and keys into his pockets.

Done.

It took a few minutes to get his bearings, and he doubled back more than once after taking a wrong turn. But it didn’t take long to get to the long street—Brick Lane—lined with all its Indian restaurants and suspicious-looking cafés.

Stan found a grocer that looked good. A wide range of produce was displayed in wooden crates outside the front door, and an older portly gentleman with an apron and a beard sat on a stool behind the counter, an open newspaper spread in front of him.

“Mornin’,” he said, barely looking up.

“Good morning.”

There wasn’t a basket, so Stan loaded vegetables up in his arms, things he recognised and a few he didn’t. Mushrooms, peppers, courgettes, tomatoes. Some fruit too, rustic red apples, and limes to go in water.

It fell to the counter in a tumble of thuds, and the grocer looked up at him properly for the first time. His eyes widened comically.

“I’ll… uh… I’ll just ring this little lot up for you,” he said, and Stan smiled again, suppressing his laughter.

“Thank you,” he murmured demurely.

He couldn’t be sure—either he was undercharged or this really was the place to come for good-value vegetables. Not that he minded, much. The old man got a good look, and Stan got a decent dinner.

With the blue-and-white-striped bag hanging from his fingertips, Stan moved on up the road.

 

 

WHEN HE arrived back at the flat, his wrists were hurting from carrying so much stuff. It was hard not to buy in bulk, not when all of the little shops seemed to cater to a multinational community, and rice was sold in bags that probably weighed more than he did.

He felt all warm and fuzzy seeing things here that he hadn’t seen in years—not Russian food, but treats and sweets from Eastern Europe that his grandfather had brought back with him when returning from one of his many business trips.

Stan had tried to find some kind of logic or order in the kitchen but couldn’t, and just deposited all his purchases in whatever cupboard they fit in. The morning had exhausted him, and he was still jet-lagged from travelling.

The flat had come partially furnished, which was a blessing, and Stan curled up on the sofa with his hands pillowing his cheek, content to look out over the courtyard through the open door and Juliet balcony. Buying a television was on his list of things to do, although not a priority. He had never been one for watching TV, and moving about so much over the past few years meant it had been almost impossible to keep up with the shows he liked.

With the summer warmth streaming in through the window, he was content to snuggle down on his surprisingly comfortable sofa and drift off to sleep.

 

 

THE RINGING phone startled Stan out of his foggy nap.

Pronto?” he answered out of habit.

“Hello? Is that Stan?”

“Yes. Allo. Sorry. This is Stan.”

The instinct to answer the phone in Italian had obviously not left him just yet. Stan felt the blush rise to his cheeks, and he held his fingers there, cursing his exceptionally pale skin, even though the caller obviously wouldn’t judge his complexion.

“Hi. Uh… this is Ben. From the pub.”

“Ben?”

“Yeah. You left me your number?”

“Oh gosh. I’m so sorry. I forgot…. I was just sleeping.”

“I guessed.” Ben’s voice had taken on a soft, teasing tone.

“I didn’t think you would call.”

Stan stretched out across the couch, letting his knees click and hips clunk back into place. Each individual toe could crack of its own accord—something of a hidden talent and incredibly satisfying to do.

“I’ve just finished my shift. I wasn’t sure if you were still around Camden.”

“No. I’m sorry. I live in the east of London.” Speaking English, especially when his brain hadn’t quite woken up yet, was proving difficult. Stan could hear his own accent, thicker due to fatigue. Ben must have been too polite to mention it.

“That’s a shame. Maybe you could let me know when you’ll be over here again? Or I’m working next week. If you want to stop by the pub again, I mean.”

“Yes. I’d like that. And then, maybe when you finish your shift again….”

“Yeah. We could….” A pause. “Go out, somewhere?” he finished lamely.

Stan smiled to himself. He hadn’t even been sure Ben was interested, and now he was flustering over his words.

“That sounds good. I’ll send you a message in the week. I have to work long hours, I expect. I start my new job on Monday.”

“Good luck,” Ben said. The sentiment sounded genuine. “Maybe we could go out on Friday to celebrate your first week. I’m on ’til six on Friday.”

“That sounds good,” Stan said and smiled to himself as he scratched his belly. “I’ll look forward to it.”

“Me too. Catch you later, Stan.”

“Goodbye.”

Stan pressed the End button and hugged his phone to his chest. He had a date. And he’d been in London less than a week.