“Wake up, Wetherby!”
Ludo jerked awake to find himself being glared at by his English teacher, Mr Wheeler. Several of Ludo’s classmates were sniggering.
“Did you actually watch any of it?” Wheels demanded.
“Yes, sir.” Ludo’s throat felt wrong, thick somehow, not sore exactly, just not quite right.
“Come on, boys. The coach is waiting.” Wheels stalked off.
His classmates peeled away and Ludo pushed to his feet.
“Are you okay?” Ward was staring at him. “You don’t look very well.”
Ludo shrugged and walked with him towards the exit. “Did anything interesting happen? Props fall down, someone forget their lines, did anyone fart?”
“No, but Hamlet, Laertes, the king and queen all died.”
Ludo managed a chuckle at that. “They didn’t change the ending then, as well as having everyone in modern clothes?”
“No. I need the loo. It’s a long way back to school. You coming?” Ward headed for the stairs.
“What about Wheels?”
“They’re not going to go without us, are they?”
Ludo wished they would. “Isn’t there a bathroom on this floor?”
Ward shrugged. “There’ll be a queue.
Ludo followed him, his heart thumping.
There was no one in the bathroom that Ward led him to. Ward kicked open every stall door, then turned and smiled. More than just Ludo’s heart was thumping now. His whole body was vibrating.
Ward opened the door of the furthest stall and Ludo saw his Adam’s apple move up and down. He’s nervous too. Forget not feeling well, forget Wheels throwing a tantrum when he counted heads on the bus, Ludo wasn’t going to miss this chance. He walked forwards and Ward locked the door behind him.
For a moment, they did little more than stare at each other and breathe each other’s air.
“Ward,” Ludo whispered.
“Call me James.”
The smile on James’ face almost took Ludo out at the knees. The kiss did. If James hadn’t wedged him against the wall, Ludo would have collapsed. One quick, gentle brush of James’ lips over his and Ludo’s world shifted on its axis. It reminded him of the time he’d done parachute practice for Officer Training Corps and had to jump off a 250-foot freefall tower. As he fell, following his stomach down, it was as if his life flashed in front of his eyes. It was the most exciting, exhilarating and petrifying thing he’d ever done. Until now.
He couldn’t believe James was kissing him, that he was kissing James back. Ludo had always thought it was dangerous to be attracted to beauty because it overwhelmed your senses, made you careless. Even more dangerous to be attracted to someone he couldn’t have. But when James threaded his fingers in Ludo’s hair and held tight as he kissed him, this didn’t feel like the most dangerous thing he’d ever done, but the bravest.
When James used the tip of his tongue to trace the shape of Ludo’s mouth, there was a risk of spontaneous combustion. His cock was pressing against his zip and he could feel James was in the same state of arousal. James explored his mouth in slow, tentative movements and inspired by James, Ludo kissed him back. He trailed his tongue over James’ teeth, his upper palate, the inside of his cheeks until their tongues were rolling and tangling together and they were kissing as if it were the last thing they’d ever do.
Wheels’ voice dragged them apart. The best moment of Ludo’s life had turned into the worst. James put his fingers to Ludo’s lips and indicated for Ludo to climb onto the toilet. As he did, James flushed it.
“It’s me, sir. Ward.” James opened the door and slipped out. The door closed behind him.
Ludo was desperate to lock it, but didn’t dare. He heard the sound of water running in the basin.
“Have you seen Wetherby?”
“Why did you come upstairs to the bathroom?”
“My stomach is upset and there was a queue…”
“Right. Hurry up. Down to the bus.”
Ludo heard James talking to Wheels about Hamlet as they left. He waited as long as he dared, then followed them out.
When he emerged outside the theatre, Wheels stood by the steps of the bus with his arms crossed.
“Where have you been?” Wheels demanded.
Ludo reached his side, and threw up all over his English teacher’s suede shoes.
A day later, Ludo was in the infirmary with mono—glandular fever, and feeling really ill. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t swallow. All he could do was sip through a straw. His throat looked scary. His brother Thibault came to see him and dropped into the chair next to his bed.
“They told Pa and Ma,” his brother said. “Ma’s not coming, of course. Pa’s in France on some business thing. He sent his best wishes.”
Ludo didn’t really want to see either of them.
“Anything you need? Books or something?”
“No, thanks.” Ludo’s croaky voice was barely a whisper.
He had a pile of books on the table, workbooks—because God forbid he missed anything—and the novel he was reading, but he felt too tired and sick to do anything.
Thibault leaned forward and grinned. “So who’ve you been kissing? That girl who was all over you at the dance last week?”
Oh God. “What?”
“Its other name is the kissing disease.”
Since Ludo had come down with it before he and James had kissed, and that was the first kiss ever in his life, with tongues anyway, kissing was not how he’d caught it. His eyes closed as Thibault was still talking and Ludo floated away in a dream.
He woke when someone shook his arm and opened his eyes to see James by his bed, in his pajamas.
“How are you?” James whispered.
“You supposed to be in here?” Ludo choked out.
James held his glass so Ludo could take a sip through the straw.
“No, but I’m in my camo PJs. No one spotted me.”
Ludo managed a chuckle. James’ pajamas were blue and grey. “If we were in the sea maybe.”
“I can always say I wanted my dad.”
James’s father was a housemaster at the school.
“I brought you some chocolate for when you’re feeling better.” James slipped the bar into the bedside cabinet. “I’m probably going to come down with it too. You can bring me chocolate.”
“I didn’t get it from kissing,” Ludo blurted. “That was… You…”
“My first time too,” James whispered and gave him a shy smile. “And I am going to get it from kissing. Four to six weeks from now. I want to kiss you again, but not while you’re ill.”
“We have to be careful.”
“More than careful.” James wrapped his hand around Ludo’s fingers, brought them to his lips and kissed them. Ludo’s heart jumped.
“How did you know I…?” Ludo asked.
“I didn’t. I just thought you were worth the risk.”
“And if I hadn’t been into…?”
“I hoped you’d keep quiet about what I’d done and I’d have wanked off thinking about what might have been. Now, I’m going to be thinking about what will be.”
James had allowed his parents to help him carry all his stuff from the car to his room in Downing College. Now he wanted them to go.
“We’re so proud of you,” his father said. “I have to admit, I never thought you’d make it to Cambridge.”
Thanks a lot, Dad. But to be honest, neither had James. And if Ludo hadn’t been accepted by the university, James wouldn’t have taken up his place there but gone to their second choice. James had chosen to study Natural Sciences and Ludo had picked History.
“You were bright at school, but suddenly you seemed to shine,” his father said.
That would be the incentive of staying close to Ludo who was brilliant at most things. Though once A-levels were chosen, Ludo was no help at all.
Eventually, his parents left. James picked up a book on plants and set off for Emmanuel College which was just down the road. He hoped to see Ludo waiting for him but the seat where they’d chosen to meet was empty so James was the one who waited. At least it wasn’t raining.
He jumped when someone put their hands over his eyes and a moment later, Ludo was by his side.
“Oh God, I want to kiss you,” Ludo whispered. “What’s your room like?”
“Next year, we’ll have a place together. With a double bed.”
They did. And those three years at Cambridge were the best of James’ life. They still had to be careful. No PDAs. But James could cope with all that knowing Ludo was his.
Until he wasn’t.
“Will you be my best man?” Ludo whispered.
Fuck off. Fuuuuuck off! “No,” James said. He wished he could tell Ludo to ask his brother, but it was Thibault dying that had wrecked everything. Stupid car crash. Stupid brother.
“Sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
No, you fucking shouldn’t have asked.
“James, I have no choice.”
James couldn’t bring himself to speak. Ludo had a choice. He’d just made the wrong one. You should have chosen me. James understood the pressure Ludo was under. He was the heir to Asquith now his brother had died. He was expected to produce an heir and James wasn’t able to help with that. Even worse, Ludo’s father had been diagnosed with colon cancer and it was advanced. The wedding was set for a week after the end of their final term.
“She’s about as keen on it as I am,” Ludo continued. “But her mother and grandmother are pushing her.”
“You’re a catch.”
“Oh God. And you caught me. I’m yours. I’ll always be yours.”
And how was that going to work? Was Ludo expecting him to meet up for dirty weekends in London for the rest of their lives?
“I don’t even know how I’m going to…touch her.”
“I think you’ll have to do more than touch her to get her pregnant.”
“You’re not being fair to her,” James whispered.
“What am I supposed to do?”
Ask me to wait. Tell me there’s hope.
“I can’t tell her the truth.”
And that was what broke him. “I think you should go now.” Before I fucking howl.
“I’m sorry,” Ludo said.
James touched Ludo’s wet cheek. “I know you are.”
It should have been the end.
James should have moved on.
He declined the invitation to go to the wedding. The society photographs he saw didn’t show Ludo or his bride looking desperately happy.
The photo of them holding their son, Piers, a year later was different, and James gave up hope. Not an easy thing to do.
He had a job he enjoyed working at Kew Gardens. His interest in botany had started at Cambridge and continued. There’d been a chance to go abroad but he’d turned it down because he was a fool. All he had to do was go out, find someone who’d love him, someone he could love, and forget about Ludo, but he couldn’t.
A few weeks later, James read of Ludo’s father’s death in the papers. He’d be Marquess now. Two days after the funeral, James was on his way home from Kew, when he looked up to see Ludo walking towards him.
“Hello,” Ludo said.
James nodded. “Sorry about your father.”
“I don’t like the words it was a blessing but it was. You wouldn’t have recognised him at the end. I barely did.” Ludo looked around. “Can we have a coffee? I want to talk to you.”
“You can come back to mine.”
James’ heart was beating hard. Maybe he should just have gone into a café and listened to whatever it was Ludo wanted to tell him. But he couldn’t risk falling apart when Ludo walked away. Again.
But when they were inside his place, Ludo gave a shuddering sigh. “I don’t want coffee. I want you.”
“Sit down,” Ludo said.
James had one couch and they sat at either end.
“I’ve told her about you.”
James knew his jaw had dropped. He couldn’t have been more shocked.
“I told her I was coming here today and what I was going to ask you, in case that makes a difference to your response. She’s not happy but then she’s never happy with me. Having said that, we manage. She has Piers and she loves him.”
“Does she want more children?”
“Not at the moment.”
But that didn’t mean never.
“No, it doesn’t mean never. I can see what you’re thinking. But there are ways to achieve kids other than the obvious one and as time passes, those options will become more available. I made a deal with her. She can take lovers, discreetly, but I want you and I’ll be discreet too.”
James’ heart was sinking.
“I want to offer you a job managing the grounds at Asquith. You’d be in sole charge, advising on horticultural best practice, plant collections, design, research, appointing and managing staff and volunteers. There’s a small house you can live in. A place we’d live in. At least I’d be there some of the time. I want to be with you, James. You’re the love of my life and to be away from you this last year has been so painful. I’m not sure I can bear it any longer.”
James swallowed hard.
Ludo took a shaky breath. “I know it’s not perfect. Not what we’d choose, but almost three quarters of the population think homosexuality is wrong. We have to be careful. Things will change, but slowly. You don’t have to give me an answer now. Think about it. I know I’m asking a lot. It would still be a secret.”
“Yes, you’ll think about it?”
“Yes to the job. Yes to the house. Yes to you.”
James moved into Ludo’s arms and kissed him. It was as if they’d never been apart.
“I love you,” Ludo whispered.
“I love you too.” I always have and I always will.
(For this to make sense and not be a spoiler, you need to have read The Santa Problem! A year has passed since the end of that tale…)
Alfie sat on the floor at the side of Wolf’s bed listening to Kendall read a story about a lonely Christmas tree. Kendall always did fantastic voices for the characters and Alfie could almost feel he was in the story. Wolf definitely could. He often ran into their room when he woke to tell them about his dream—usually some scrambled-up version of the story one of them had read the previous night.
“And the little tree sighed with happiness when the squirrel and his family settled in his branches.” Kendall gave an impression of a tree shaking and sighing. “The End.”
“Another?” Wolf asked.
“You’re pushing your luck. You’ve had three.” Kendall ruffled the eight-and a half-year old’s hair.
Wolf liked them to read books that really were more suitable for a younger kid, and it made Alfie and Kendall sad that the boy had missed out on those years of childhood. They were doing their best to make up for it.
“Merry Christmas.” Alfie kissed Wolf on the cheek. “Have you had a lovely day?”
“The best day ever.”
Kendall and Alfie laughed. Wolf gave the same answer every time. Kendall brushed a kiss on Wolf’s forehead and he and Alfie left the room.
When they were downstairs in the main room, Kendall dropped onto the couch. “Is it too early for us to go to bed?”
“It’s never too early but I have a surprise for you.”
Alfie planted his knees either side of Kendall’s hips and kissed him. Kendall swept his hands around Alfie’s waist and pulled him in tight. Alfie hadn’t planned on the kiss being a long one but he was as incapable as Kendall of ending it. When they finally broke apart, Alfie had to take a moment to pull himself together.
“That was a nice surprise,” Kendall said.
Alfie mock-glared. “Don’t I always give you lovely kisses? And surprises?”
“Go and take a look outside. Through the window will do.” Alfie moved off his lap.
“Holy shit,” Kendall gasped.
Three reindeer were looking at them through the glass. “Is that a grown-up Mouse with Tuppi and Ana? With antlers?”
“Uh huh. He’s as strong as them now.”
“Why did we take Wolf to bed? He’d love to see them.”
“He will if you agree.”
Kendall turned to look at him. “Agree to what?”
“To the three of us going to spend the day in Greenland.”
Kendall chewed his lip.
“I’m not hearing no.” Alfie cocked his head.
“He won’t be able to keep quiet about it.”
“You think anyone will believe him? I can probably make him think it’s a dream.”
Alfie changed tack. “Do you want to go? See your father? See my family? Let everyone meet Wolf?”
“Yes. Okay. Let’s do it. No looping the loop, though.”
Alfie smiled. “I’ll go and get Wolf ready while you find our coats and boots. I won’t let either of you feel cold, but the coats and boots will help.”
No point wasting time in dressing Wolf in a conventional way, Alfie just magicked him into his clothes. Wolf barely stirred.
By the time he got downstairs, carrying Wolf, Kendall was outside fussing the reindeer. They’d brought a sleigh and Alfie set Wolf in the middle of the seat.
“Prop him upright while I go and get the gifts,” Alfie said.
When Alfie came out with a sack of presents that Kendall hadn’t seen before, he wondered how long Alfie had been planning this.
“Ever since I asked you what you’d give your father for Christmas if you were going to see him,” Alfie said.
“I know you told me you can’t read my mind but that is very freaky. I take it you’ve bought the things I said?”
“Every single thing and wrapped them too.”
Alfie climbed into the sleigh and picked up the reins. “Want to wake him?”
Kendall gently shook Wolf awake. The boy blinked and then gasped.
“We’re off on our Big Christmas Adventure!” Alfie said. “On Tuppi! On Ana! On Mouse!”
The reindeer began to run. Kendall took Wolf’s hand in his and squeezed his fingers as they began to rise into the sky.
“Wow,” Wolf whispered. “This doesn’t feel like a dream. Where are we going?”
“To see our family,” Alfie said.
Kendall was as surprised as Wolf to spot the three snow figures flying at their side. Two snowmen and a snow dog.
“They look like the ones we made in the garden yesterday,” Wolf said.
“They do.” They are. “Are you warm enough?” Kendall asked.
“Yes. Oh look, I can see the town, all the lights. Even my school. We’re really high.”
“Remember the reindeer?” Alfie asked.
“Of course I do,” Wolf said. “Mouse has grown up.”
Mouse turned his head and honked.
“Nice antlers, Mouse,” Kendall called.
“Can people see us?” Wolf asked.
“No, Alfie. It’s special magic.”
“Maybe we—oh my g-gosh.” Kendall shot Alfie a glare as the sleigh went up at a steep angle. “Don’t be frightened, Wolf,” Kendall said quickly. “You won’t fall out.”
But my stomach might. Kendall gulped as they did a loop the loop while Wolf and Alfie yelled with delight at his side. Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!
“Again, again,” Wolf shouted as they pulled level.
“Oh for f—Pete’s sake.” Kendall groaned.
They did one more loop before the sleigh shot forward so fast not even stars could be seen in the sky.
“That was amazing,” Wolf said.
Kendall was trying to keep down the contents of his stomach.
“Go to sleep for a while,” Alfie said and while Kendall didn’t think that included him, he found his eyes closing.
Alfie’s heart was singing. Two years ago, he couldn’t have imagined that everything would have turned out so perfectly. He knew he was lucky. Exceptions were rarely made about travelling between worlds. It helped that Kendall was half-faerie, even if he seemed to have lost any faerie ability. Alfie wasn’t sure it had all gone, but Kendall said he was happy as he was as long as Alfie was at his side.
Over time, Alfie’s power would fade and he was fine with that too. As long as he had Kendall. Maybe one day, a long while from now when Wolf had a family of his own, he and Kendall would come back to live in Narsuk. They’d live longer there.
Kendall loved his job. Carlow Barr was fascinating, like a miniature Kew Gardens. And Northumberland… Alfie thought it was one of the most beautiful places he had ever seen. They could walk to the sea from their house. The beach was rarely crowded. The three of them had learnt to ride. Well, Alfie already knew how but he’d pretended he didn’t. He was pretty sure he’d fooled Kendall. They all had wetsuits and they’d learned to surf. That had been something new for Alfie.
Alfie was studying archaeology. One year in and part-time, so that he could take Wolf to school and collect him, and he loved it. The most difficult thing was not using magic to find artefacts when he went looking on his own.
Fine! Sometimes I do.
Life was just about perfect.
What am I saying? It is perfect.
Kendall and Wolf woke as the sleigh landed. Alfie had dozed off too. The reindeer knew the way. Both Kendall’s father and Alfie’s family were there to meet them. Alfie had a lump in his throat as Kendall walked into his father’s arms. Then Alfie was embraced by Papi and Mami, and almost disappeared under the deluge of his brothers and sisters and their families.
He was worried about Wolf but he could hear him laughing. When he emerged from the hugs, he found Wolf already dancing with his cousins and the snowmen and dog that had travelled with them.
Wolf was wide-eyed with wonder as he was introduced to his grandma and grandpas and uncles and aunts, then Alfie’s nephews and nieces took him off to play. Alfie opened his mouth to tell his brothers that they needed to make sure their kids didn’t forget Wolf needed to be looked after but Sami, his oldest brother nodded. “He’ll be fine.”
They went to see the reindeer herds with the Northern Lights turning the sky electric overhead. Gifts were offered, stories told and there was just one more thing that Alfie wanted to do. They’d spent the night at Mami and Papi’s and while Wolf was being looked after, and it was still dark, Alfie took Kendall out on a snowmobile to the top of Mount Engar.
“Wow, that is quite a view,” Kendall said.
“Yep.” But Alfie was looking at Kendall.
When Kendall turned, Alfie was on his knees in front of him holding a ball of snow in his bare hands. Kendall went to his knees too and looked into Alfie’s eyes.
“Put your hands around mine,” Alfie told him.
Kendall pulled his gloves off and wrapped his hands around Alfie’s.
“I love you so much,” Alfie said. “When I found that letter, I wanted to make everything right in your world. I didn’t realise that I needed you just as much in mine. I’ll never stop loving you. Nothing matters but that. You and Wolf make me so happy.”
Alfie could feel the snow melting now and his magic surged. It was just after ten in the morning and the sun was about to break over the horizon.
“Will you marry me?” Alfie whispered.
“I was going to ask you.” Kendall chuckled.
“Pick your moment. This is mine.”
“Yes, I’d love to marry you.”
Alfie brought his hands apart and opened them up. There was a bright silver ring on his palm that glowed with the colours of the Northern Lights. Alfie slid it onto Kendall’s finger and sighed. “Can’t change your mind now.”
“Why would I want to?”
“I found this ring but added a little magic.”
“On Bamburgh beach.”
Kendall chewed his lip. “I’m not sure… Someone might be looking for it.”
“I think they’ve probably given up.”
“It’s over a thousand years old. Viking treasure.”
Kendall laughed. “Oh wow, so my ring was free.”
“Yes, you’ll have to pay for mine.”
“I already have.” Kendall put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a small black box. “There is no better moment than this. Alfie Green, love of my life, will you do me the very great honour of marrying me?”
“Depends what the ring’s like.” Alfie grinned.
Kendall chuckled and opened the box. “It’s not as amazing as yours, but it’s inlaid with specks of meteorite. Something almost as rare and precious as you.” He slid it onto Alfie’s finger.
They kissed then and kept kissing until the sun was up and the world was full of light.
Two days later
Wolf bounded downstairs into the kitchen where Alfie and Kendall were making breakfast. They’d arrived back last night and put Wolf straight into bed. Alfie thought Wolf would believe it was a dream, Kendall was less sure.
“I had the most amazing dream,” Wolf said.
Alfie pinched Kendall’s backside where Wolf couldn’t see.
“Did you?” Alfie said. “I always look forward to hearing about your dreams.”
“We went to Greenland where Santa lives though I didn’t see Santa but I saw lots of other people. We played games and built snowmen that came to life and went to see the reindeer and there were coloured lights in the sky and…”
Alfie shot Kendall a look. Was there anything Wolf hadn’t remembered?
“It was so real,” Wolf said. “I had a grandma and two grandpas and cousins and uncles and aunts and I love the reindeer and…I want it to be real.”
Alfie stared at Kendall who sighed and nodded. Alfie scooped Wolf into his arms and carried him over to the couch. Kendall went to sit beside them.
“Guess what?” Alfie said.
As a member of the Saudi Royal family, and not a minor one at that, Prince Ahsan bin Nagi had been given almost everything he wanted from the day he was born. The proverbial silver spoon, constructed from the finest silver, by the finest craftsman, and the damn thing was still stuck in his throat.
He’d been sent to the best schools, dressed in designer clothes, been given horses, birds of prey, fast cars—even a cheetah for a short time until he’d managed to persuade his father the animal was not what he wanted. All Ahsan had to do was say—I like—and whatever he liked had appeared. He was used to a life of privilege and luxury.
His father made his money from oil and had several homes not just in Saudi, but all over the world. Probably had women all over the world too, but he was still married to Ahsan’s mother. His father owned a superyacht, a fleet of cars, Arabian stallions, polo ponies, expensive birds of prey… He bought whatever took his fancy. He was a man who could have whatever he wanted that money could buy. Even if he couldn’t buy it, he still expected to get what he wanted.
And generally, he did. His father was a healthy guy, but if he’d had some medical issue, or any of the immediate family had developed a health problem, he’d probably still have expected money to solve it.
Ahsan knew he was lucky. He was told that often enough by his brothers and his mother, but he wasn’t lucky. He pretended to be carefree but he was trapped and unhappy, and there was nothing he could do about it. His father’s money could not solve this. Ahsan couldn’t even think the word gay without his heart getting in a twist. It physically hurt sometimes and he’d had to plead indigestion to explain his pallor and discomfort. Not joining in any condemnation of homosexuality was impossible, though the words were ashes on his tongue. Say the wrong thing and he’d end up dead. That wasn’t an exaggeration.
While there was no specific law banning it, same-sex relationships were illegal and punished by fines, whipping, torture, life imprisonment or death. Recently, there’d been a crackdown in Riyadh on items being sold for kids, pencils and paper and bags that were rainbow coloured, because they were said to contradict the Islamic faith and public morals as well as promote homosexuality. It made Ahsan want to roll his eyes.
But he didn’t. He towed the line and he hated himself for his hypocrisy and cowardice. All his energy went into hiding how unhappy he was. He kept a smile on his face. He did what he was asked, as far as he could. But his brothers had little to do with him because he wasn’t outgoing like them. It was safer to be quiet and studious. Safer not to go anywhere when he might find himself staring at a guy in the wrong way.
His elder brother, Saad, kept trying to find him women to marry. Ahsan knew his time was running out. He could only keep saying no for so long. Even worse, Ahsan had the horrible suspicion that Saad had guessed the truth and his brother was playing with him.
Ahsan’s choices were bleak. Only three.
He could conform.
But if he married and found himself unable to have sex with his wife, it would lead to ridicule, endless questions then disaster.
He could run.
He had money of his own. He was good at making money and he’d accumulated his wealth in diamonds because it was easier to carry and it stopped Saad knowing exactly how much he had. But where could he go that his family wouldn’t find him? Their reach was long and never-ending. It was so fucking aggravating that they couldn’t just let him go because all he wanted to do was to live quietly, with a guy, if he ever found one who could love him, and not bother anyone. Just be himself. But his family, his father and Saad specifically, would hunt him down to either kill him or maybe imprison him in one of the more remote of his father’s homes in Saudi.
The final option was to kill himself.
Something he’d considered. Even then, he was worried about the impact on his family, which was crazy. But their shame if it was known he’d taken his own life was an unfair burden on his mother and sisters. Suicide was prohibited under Islamic law though that seemed to be ignored by suicide bombers. Even passive suicide was forbidden, such as neglecting a treatable wound, making no effort to save himself from drowning or burning to death, or not running from a T-Rex but allowing it to kill him… Ahsan had hoped to make himself smile, but he couldn’t.
Trying to find ways to die that didn’t look as though he’d done it on purpose had been something he often thought about. Car crash. Falling off his horse. Trouble with those was that he might end up paralysed and not dead. Getting lost in the desert with a dead phone was a possibility, but not a quick way to go.
Anyway, he wanted to live.
Then one day, while he was interviewing several candidates for a role in his household, he came face to face with Rafiq, and Ahsan’s world turned upside down. He showed nothing because Saad was at his side. His brother didn’t even trust him enough to choose his own staff.
They interviewed four men. Ahsan was afraid of asking a question that would make Rafiq look like a bad choice, so he said very little. Fortunately, Rafiq stood out as the best guy. He could handle horses and birds of prey. He had advanced driving skills and had been to school in the UK. But his father had gambled away the family money and Rafiq needed a job.
When the last guy had left, Saad turned to him. “Which one would you pick?”
Ahsan chewed his lip. He somehow felt it was dangerous to say Rafiq because Saad was sly enough to veto his choice.
“Number one is out. He’s too young,” Ahsan said.
“Two was okay.” That was Rafiq. “Three would drive me insane with that clicking.”
Saad laughed. “You’re right.”
“Four was okay too,” Ahsan said.
Now there was a fifty-fifty chance.
“Four had more experience,” Saad said.
Ahsan nodded. “I wonder about his age though. Twenty years older than me. I want someone I can control.”
Saad scoffed. “You can order any one around.”
“I know, but I don’t want someone who resents me. I guess he’d be okay.”
“Two looked more fun.”
Ahsan couldn’t believe Saad had said that. He sensed a trap. “Whoever you think is best, brother.” And if Saad picked number four, Ahsan would find a way to get rid of him while Rafiq still needed a job.
“I feel sorry for two,” Saad said. “He had everything and lost it. Go for two.”
Ahsan nodded. Do not look happy.
Later, he wondered why he’d even wanted to choose a guy he was attracted to. Wasn’t that asking for trouble? A thought that led him to wonder if Saad had chosen Rafiq to tempt him. Now he was going to have to be super-vigilant.
Ahsan and Rafiq hit it off immediately. Though Rafiq was a servant, he became Ahsan’s friend and when others weren’t around to see, they had fun together. Although they never touched, Ahsan began to wonder. A look exchanged. A smile shared. A glance where one of them would swallow hard. Hints. Clues. Possibilities.
Death to them both if they were discovered, but they did nothing but enjoy each other’s company. Quad biking in the desert. A trip to the Edge of the World where they stood on top of the 1,000-foot escarpment at Jebal Fihrayn to look at the uninterrupted view of the horizon in all directions. I could fall but I don’t want to.
Then one trip when everything changed. Ahsan had planned for it to change. He was running out of time. Women of marriageable age were being talked about more frequently. He had to be brave.
They camped overnight about an hour from Riyadh. It was an organised trip. Ahsan wasn’t a fool. He knew Saad would check. But it was a chance to stargaze under the guidance of an expert and Ahsan had always been interested in the stars. Ahsan knew he and Rafiq would have to share a tent and as everyone was oohing and aahing at the spectacular night sky, and the amazing Milky Way, Ahsan’s mind was on what he planned to do, say, try. This time, unlike every other time, he wouldn’t lose his nerve. He was almost sure Rafiq was like him.
Almost but not entirely sure.
Their tent was far enough away that they wouldn’t be overheard if they whispered. Rafiq brought him water to wash, looked after him in the way that Ahsan paid him to, but not in the way he wanted. When they lay on their sleeping bags, with the tent zipped up, Ahsan rolled over to face him. Dark but not too dark to see Rafiq’s beautiful face, his neatly trimmed beard, his dark eyes and thick eyelashes…
How much did Ahsan risk by reaching out? If Rafiq reared away, Ahsan could claim it was an accident. If he didn’t, Ahsan still had to be sure he wasn’t taking advantage.
So do it!
His heart pounded so hard he thought Rafiq must be able to hear it.
“I had a good time tonight,” Rafiq said quietly. “The stars were amazing.”
“I want…” Ahsan whispered.
“For me to get you something? Don’t make it anything difficult like Ma’amoul. I know how much you love them.”
Ahsan chuckled. He did have a thing for the crumbly pastries filled with dates, walnuts, and pistachios, but they were a holiday food.
“I have dates in my backpack,” Rafiq said.
Ahsan slid his hand to Rafiq’s and laid it over the top. Neither of them moved. Ahsan remembered he needed to breathe and his next inhalation was ragged. He waited. He wasn’t sure he could do more. Then the most wonderful thing happened. Rafiq turned his hand and clasped Ahsan’s.
Even then, Ahsan wasn’t sure.
“Is there something that scared you?” Rafiq whispered. “Scorpion? Snake? Me?” He kept that last word very low.
Ahsan edged a little closer. “I’m feeling brave.” He wasn’t. “Tell me if I would be wiser not to be brave.”
Rafiq moved closer. Their hands were still together, their faces a foot apart.
“You know that’s true.” Rafiq gulped. “This is dangerous.”
“Tell to me to stop and I will.”
Ahsan bit his lip so hard he thought he might have made it bleed.
“I want this too,” Rafiq’s voice was barely audible. “But we have to be so careful.”
“At the house, assume we’re watched and listened to. I even wondered if my brother thought you were…gay, and employed you to catch me out. No wrong looks. No touching. Nothing can give us away.”
“We haven’t done anything.”
Ahsan lifted their joined hands. “This—is everything. I want…” He moved closer and put his mouth to Rafiq’s ear. “I want us to leave Saudi. Will you come with me?”
“I will go anywhere with you.”
Ahsan’s heart was hurting now but in a perfect way. He cupped Rafiq’s cheek, and kissed him. The first time he’d kissed anyone like this, with intent, passion, his heart. The first time anyone had kissed him…
They were silent and so careful. Ahsan kept his words in his heart and showed how he felt by his actions, exploring Rafiq’s face with his mouth, mapping his features, kissing his eyelids, his cheeks, his nose, his ears, his neck. He wanted to do more, let his hands move to Rafiq’s body but he didn’t. They kissed for what seemed like hours. Kissed until the sun came up. Kissed until Ahsan’s heart threatened to explode with longing. Kissed until reality broke them apart.
They both knew what they wanted and knew what they couldn’t have.
But now they both knew. Now they had hope. The future was theirs.
Jonty was waiting not very patiently for Devan to wake up. If he didn’t wake in a minute, Jonty was going to have to help him. Yesterday had been almost the best day of Jonty’s life. Maybe the best. It was so hard to choose. What about the day he’d met Devan? The day he and Devan had…? Well, yesterday had been one of the best for certain. Because…drum roll…flashing lights…Devan had proposed. Jonty’s heart thumped hard. He could still hardly believe it. Admittedly, the T-rex had almost come between them, but at least that made it a night to remember. Though he’d better not say that to Devan because the proposal made it a night to remember without the T-rex.
But the T-rex had been part of what happened and the costume was so much fun. Jonty wanted to get his money’s worth out of it which was why he was wearing it now, waiting for Devan to wake up. He nudged Devan’s nose with the inflated head. Nothing. Damn. It wasn’t easy to do anything with arms this short, but he managed to pull the cover off the bed. Then drooled.
Devan was curled up naked, his mouth slightly open, looking so sexy that Jonty almost regretted the costume. Almost. He tried a growl. Did T-rexes growl? He had no idea but he felt like they’d growl. No response from Devan.
Jonty was fed up of waiting. So he crawled onto the bottom of the bed and nudged Devan’s cock with his nose. Devan still didn’t move. For one horrible moment, Jonty wondered if he’d died of pure happiness but no, he was still breathing, his chest going up and down. Jonty reached out, as best he could with tiny arms and smacked Devan across the face. Maybe a little harder than he’d—
Devan shrieked really loudly and lurched upright. “What the fuck?”
“Surprise!” Jonty said.
The bedroom door sprang open and Cato burst in. “Are you—? Oh. That was why you screamed like a little girl?”
“He’s being ravaged by a T-rex. He’s in a state of shock,” Jonty said, voice muffled.
“Ravaged or ravished?” Vigge said behind Cato.
Devan yanked the cover back over his body. Not without some difficulty because Jonty was leaning on it.
“Get out,” Devan said. “I need wordths with my fianthcé.”
“You should have thought more carefully about proposing to a T-rex,” Cato said. “This could come back to hurt you.”
“Out!” Devan ordered.
Cato and Vigge left, laughing.
Oops. Devan was using that tone of voice that meant Jonty was in trouble.
“Yes, Best Fiancé in the Entire Multiverse?”
“I only got chance to wear this for a short while.” But now the costume was starting to get uncomfortably hot.
“But a very important thort while.”
“A bit like the fangths that were thuppothed to be jutht for one night and are thtill in my mouth?”
“I like you with a lisp.”
Devan just stared at him.
“But you’re better without one.” Hurry, think of a distraction, you idiot.
“Thank you.” Devan was still staring.
“I don’t think I’d like to be a T-rex,” Jonty said. “How do you think they wiped their bums?”
Devan snorted. “Do our dogths wipe their backthides?”
“That’s true but we don’t know the habits of the dinosaurs. We don’t know what noises they made or even what colour they were. So they might have wiped their backsides.”
“Not even by rubbing them on something small and furry?”
At least Devan was smiling now.
“Tell you what,” Devan said. “You like being a T-rethx. I think you ought to thtay as one until I get the fangth taken out.”
“But…we were going to lunch with Cato and Vigge.”
“We thtill are.”
“But how am I going to eat?”
“I’ll allow you to do that.”
“We won’t be able to celebrate our engagement.” Jonty tried to do an enticing move on the bed and Devan laughed. Bastard!
“We did latht night. We can tonight. You bought an extra battery, didn’t you? Make thure ith charged.”
Jonty was pretty sure Devan had chosen the most awkward itinerary for the day once he’d discovered there was no dentist appointment to be had until Monday. The four of them went for a walk at Seahouses with Charlotte and Winnie, and Devan made him have both dog leads.
“I’m taking lots of pictures, Jonty,” Cato told him. “So is everyone else.”
Jonty huffed. He wasn’t going to admit to it, but he quite liked being the centre of attention.
But the bike ride was not so straight forward. He and Devan had bikes and they’d borrowed two from Tay’s parents for the weekend so the four of them could ride part of the ‘Coast and Castles’ route. Jonty pleaded to be allowed to take the costume off but Devan wouldn’t let him. So once he’d managed to find his balance on the bike, he waved at everyone that passed. There was a lot of horn tooting.
When they stopped for lunch, finally, Jonty was allowed to at least take his head out of the costume.
“Had fun?” Cato asked.
“Marvellous fun.” Jonty beamed, but he was hot and sweaty and thirsty. He ruffled his hair which was plastered to his head.
“You certainly had your picture taken a lot,” Vigge said.
“No one will know the identity of the mysterious T-rex seen out and about in Northumberland today, whereas all your faces, as the tormentors of that poor T-rex will be out in the world for everyone to see. Very likely all over social media.”
Devan laughed. Cato and Vigge didn’t. Particularly Vigge.
“Maybe they’ll think you’re arresting me, Vigge.” Jonty widened his eyes.
Vigge paled. “Maybe that’s enough now.”
“Did you bring his clothes?” Cato asked.
Devan shook his head.
“That was deliberate,” Jonty said. “I’m being punished because he can’t get his fangs out. I can cycle back naked.”
“And get arrested?” Vigge said.
“Oh dear. So shall we go back once we’ve eaten?” Jonty asked.
Everyone looked at Devan and he finally nodded.
“Then can I take the costume off?”
“Not until I think you’ve been punithed enough.”
“What if I promise to do that thing with my tongue that—”
“Okay,” Devan said quickly.
Cato put his hands over his ears. “Lalalalalalala. I really don’t want to know what my brother likes you to do with your tongue.”
Jonty grinned. “Lick—”
Three hands clapped over his mouth. As if that was going to stop him. Jonty waited until everything was calm and said, “I’m very flexible. I can lick—”
“One more word and I’ll marry the T-rexth instead of you.”
Was that possible? No, that couldn’t happen. But he’d pushed Devan far enough.