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Love Happens Anyway

Copyright © 2017 RJ Scott

Cover design by RJ Scott

Smashwords Edition

Edited by Sue Laybourn

Cover Art by RJ Scott




Dedication

To Becky Condit who said the reason she loved romance was even when there were obstacles in a relationship, whatever the heroes faced, love happens anyway.

* * *

And always for my family


All Rights Reserved

This literary work may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, including electronic or photographic reproduction, in whole or in part, without express written permission. This book cannot be copied in any format, sold, or otherwise transferred from your computer to another through upload to a file-sharing peer-to-peer program, for free or for a fee. Such action is illegal and in violation of Copyright Law.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

All trademarks are the property of their respective owners.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Derek

Chapter 2 - Luke

Chapter 3 - Derek

Chapter 4 - Luke

Chapter 5 - Derek

Chapter 6 - Luke

Chapter 7 - Derek

Chapter 8 - Luke

Chapter 9 - Derek

Chapter 10 - Luke

Chapter 11 - Derek

Chapter 12 - Luke

Chapter 13 - Luke

Chapter 14 - Derek

Chapter 15 - Luke

Epilogue







Chapter 1 - Derek

Theres an urgent call for you on line one, sir.

Please. How many times do I have to ask you to call me Derek?

Why did everyone in this place keep calling me sir? And what was urgent about my mom or dad calling me? Because it wouldnt be a client. Client calls went to team leaders, or people who actually knew what they were doing. All I got were calls from my parents, both wanting to comment on various parts of my life. Why they didnt leave that for when I was at home I dont know, although part of me thought they enjoyed embarrassing me at work. Why my PA called them urgent I have no idea, but I knew it would be one of them.

Why arent you married?

When will you take the agency over altogether? Youve got the office now, and all you have to do is implement the ideas I gave you.

I have this nice boy I want you to meet.

You know youre good enough Derek; you just have to learn the process. Trust the process.

Edith has a sonhes a doctor you know

Well pick this up after lunch.I ushered my ad execs out of the door, closing it after them and leaning there for a moment. Just a few seconds, because I couldnt leave my mom hanging, but enough time to get my head around the fact that I needed to corral my lies and make sure I got my story right. I pulled my notebook from the top drawer and opened it at the right page.

“Mom,” I said as soon as I connected the call.

Derek, darling, how is work?She was using her breezy I have something to tell you that you wont like’ voice.

I looked at my empty office, at the sterile desk, and the garish pink snowman in the white blizzard resting on an easel and shook my head. Work is good,I lied. Work was never good, it was just work. The ideas I had about what I wanted to do, how it had been when I had interned here had flown out the window.

I used to be one of the guys. I used to go out for beers with some of the younger ones. Not anymore. As soon as I had taken over this office, the camaraderie had just fallen away.

Loneliness in a company that employed over two hundred people was a very real thing.

“I’m so pleased youre enjoying it. I know your dad is so pleased, hes even dusted off his golf clubs. Its so lovely to have him at home.

The noose tightens.

Great,I said, because mom had paused for me to acknowledge her excitement at her husband of forty years retiring.

Now, the reason for the call is that, did you ask Marcus for dinner on Sunday as I asked you to?

My stomach sank. Why couldnt she ask me how I was feeling, at least more than just the generic, how is work? Why did she launch straight into the topic of my boyfriend and the fact she hadn't met him yet? Mom wasnt gently meddling in my love life, as much as acting like a drill sergeant wanting names and numbers and potential life match status, all listed for her to assess.

I did but Im not sure his shifts will allow him to,I said, pushing the appropriate amount of regret into my tone. Too much and it sounded phony, too little and it was as if I didn’t care.

But you did ask him, sweetheart?

Yes,I lied.

I could imagine my moms face. Shed be biting her tongue, desperate to say something about how she and Dad had never met Marcus and how did I know what kind of man he was? Also, wouldnt it be better if I married Leo, the son of her friend who was a doctor or Johnny, because even though he was in a rock band he was still quite rich and from a good family.

That was all Mom wanted for me. Theres no angst in my coming out story. Id told my parents when I was eighteen, when the pressure inside had become too much. I expected to be disinherited, or some other wildly dramatic response, but all they did was change their plans.

They didnt care I was gay; Mom switched her matchmaking to finding me the perfect guy and that was it, the fun hadnt stopped since. Twenty-nine, running the family company, and not married yet? That horrified my mom.

Anyway, they didnt need to know what kind of man Marcus was.

Because I knew exactly.

I knew Marcus was six-two, just a little taller than me. I knew he had blue eyes, and dark hair with red tones in certain light. He had a brother, but they didnt see each other much, being that his brother was in the Navy. His parents were retired in Florida, but theyd had Marcus and his brother Adam late in life. Marcus was twenty-nine, same as me with only a few months separating our birthdays, and he was a firefighter. Oh, and he was a good, kind man who was thoughtful all the time and treated me like a prince.

Thats such a shame. Anyway, how are Marcus’ kittens?” Mom asked. I pulled myself back to what she was saying. It was never good to not pay full attention to anything Mom said, otherwise youd end up agreeing to all kinds of things shed throw at you when your defenses are down. I loved her dearly but she was sneaky like that.

Which is how I got myself into this mess with Marcus in the first place.

Theyre fine.

Did he find good homes for them?

Absolutely, the last of them went to a widowed grandmother in his apartment block.

Socks? The dark one?

I glanced at my notes. No, you remember Socks went to his uncle; Spider went to the old lady.

Oh yes, of course, although why someone would name a kitten Spider I dont know.

There were spiders in the house where Marcus found the kittens.

I still dont understand how there could be spiders in a burned-out house.

Shit. “Spiders are hardy.

You said the house was razed to the ground, dear.

Now I was losing the will to live. Well, maybe the spider was outside. Mom, I need to go, Moira is at the door and she needs me to sign off on the new AbbaLister raisins account.

Of course dear, just, please tell Marcus he is welcome at any time. We so want to meet him and thought itd be better at the house.

I will, I know hes keen to meet you.

Oh good,she said, and I knew Id fucked up and somehow given her an opening. Id never mentioned once that Marcus wanted to meet them, because that would just give them the impetus to take matters into their own hands. My worst fears were confirmed. Oh, Ive had the most wonderful idea.

Oh God, what?

Your dad and I are coming into the city on Monday; book us dinner on any night, or lunch, breakfast, anything. I want to meet this young man of yours and if it has to be in a restaurant then so be it.

“I’m not sure—”

Derek, he cant be busy every night next week, and every lunchtime, goodness me, well even take a quick coffee if that is all he can manage.

Shit. Shit. And double shit.

“I’ll see what I can organize.I kept my tone regretful, to at least give the impression I would try to organize them meeting Marcus, but that it would be unlikely.

We finished the call, and I replaced the handset in the cradle, fighting the urge to throw it against the wall, sit and cry at my desk, or maybe, less drastically, move to Montana and become a cowboy.

So many lies.

There was no Moira standing at my door. It was still closed and Id lied to my mom.

There were no kittens, I made those up, and the spider story. The word spider came about because when Id been talking to my mom about Marcus and the kittens, a tiny spider had crawled over my notes.

I closed the notebook in which I had the names of five kittens with their various characteristics listed.

Mom wanted to meet Marcus, any night, any lunch, anytime.

Which sucked big hairy balls.

Because that was another thing I had made up.

There was no Marcus either.



Chapter 2 - Luke

The call came in exactly sixty-seven minutes after Id left the bank. I knew that, because at eleven a.m. the bank had turned me down for the loan I needed. My last hope had vanished just like that and I was hiding in my car with my cell phone on my lap.

I shouldve phoned my sister, to tell Sara how fucked we were, but right now I couldnt do it. Then it rang and I recognized Alans number immediately. He was my real last hope, a wheeler and dealer who said hed help if all else failed.

Alan didnt mince his words. He was speaking under his breath and his voice echoed as if he was in a cupboard. Luke? I have a potential appointment for you.

I dont do that anymore.

I’d done what hed wanted on two occasions, both innocent, and I wasnt going there again. If I couldnt have my first choice of work then I was putting everything into creating something with my sister.

Get over here now, this is perfect, I have a solution to your problem. I know you said you wouldnt do it again, but really, you have to get here. Right. Now.

What?

Money, so much money, for you,he said.

“Jeez, Alan.”

Do you want the bar or not?

Put like that I didnt have much choice. Anyway, hed already hung up. He hadnt even given me a chance to answer, I guess he assumed that Id do what Id been told.

He was right. Id had a miserable meeting at the bank and Alan was a person who had a lot of ideas as to where a man could get money. All legal but most of them speculative. He was the guy with the big ideas and the inability to see them through; that was, until this latest venture which, to my recollection, was entering its third year and had been successful enough for him to be riding around in a top-of-the-line Audi.

An aboveboard companion agency. Or at least that is what he told me, with the proviso that whatever his clients did with their companions away from his office, he didnt want to know.

I’d been one of his guys twice. Once, where I posed as a boyfriend for this young woman whod needed to be taken seriously at a chemistry conference. Apparently, in her male-dominated world she needed validation. Sex was not on the agenda, and Id made that clear when wed met to discuss how things worked.

I wasnt doing that, getting paid for sex. Nope.

Then thered been the guy whod just needed to take me to a bachelor party, as his boyfriend, because he would be the last in his group who wasnt coupled up.

There was no sex involved there either, although the kissing on the dance floor had been nice. I mean, he was there, I was there, the music was loud, and wed kissed.

He’d wanted to see me again. Id declined.

The money from both of those had meant nothing to me, I was just doing Alan a favor as he set up his business.

But now, three years later, I needed money.

He’d asked me to visit his new office so many times, and Id been putting it off for months, because, as my sister said, Alan couldve sold anything to anyone. In college hed always managed to drag me into these god-awful get rich quick schemes and I was too much of a pushover to say no to half of what he suggested. I mean, I could say no when he asked me something by text or email, but face to face? Nope.

Hence the two dates I’d helped him out with.

But this time I was desperate, and that was a whole different proposition. I wanted to dismiss him out of hand, but if I didnt get the rest of the money I needed, then I stood to lose what wed invested so far in Halligans. The bar was half way between a station house and a cop precinct, the ideal place for a community to meet and drink and my family was so damn close to making it something good again.

At that moment I could have done with one of Alans dates but I doubted anyone would want to pay twenty-thousand dollars.

Although, I guess anything helped.

One of Alans schemes was my last hope really; otherwise it was back to the drawing board and me looking for a job. Which meant my mom and sister running the bar on their own.

And who was going to hire me anyway; someone with a bum leg and night terrors?

I made it to Alans place in a little over five minutes, climbing the stairs carefully, and I could hear the raised voices when I was no more than halfway up.

You must have someone that matches enough to do this; I need them today.

One person, maybe, but I also have the numbers for some alternative suppliers—“

Youre my last hope, I tried all the legitimate avenues. Hell, do you actually think I want to visit a freaking sex agency? That is how desperate I am.

I winced at that, the speaker sounded a long way past judgmental and onto pissed. Alan wasnt good with confrontation unless he could talk his way out of it.

This is not a sex agency,Alan explained. And he was right. It didnt deal with the traditional hire of part-time partners for escort and sex work. Alan had decided to set up an agency that provided partners when they were needed for a particular occasion. We had all said it wouldnt work, after all, people wanted the sex as well, right? But hed done okay, and given he was into his third year in these offices, it was the longest hed ever stuck to anything.

After a shaky start, hed focused on supplying people with temporary partners for events, and not just in New York, hell, not just in the US, but all over the world.

Of course, putting the word ‘gay’ in front of anything made some people think it was all about sex, probably what this other guy was talking about.

I read your website,the other voice proclaimed, loudly. Two hundred a night, youre telling me that doesnt include sex. Because I dont want sex, so you can drop the price.

What happens between you and any consenting adult is not our business Mr. Henderson,Alan explained. But no, the concept is one of companionship and a friendly face at a busy event.

I waited outside the office, unsure whether I should stay where I was or go in. I moved to the right of the frosted glass door and got a glimpse inside through the flat glass around the edge, hoping to catch Alans eye. I could see him at his desk, looking for all the world as if he wanted to be anywhere else but there. The man with the desperate need for something that Alan didnt have had his back to me, but I could see he had sandy-brown hair, and he wasnt overly tall, maybe five-ten or something. He wore a long overcoat, but I couldnt see the bottom of it, nor his shoes.

You can tell a lot about a man from his shoes. I liked well-tooled cowboy boots on my men, but we dont always get what we want.

“Mr. Henderson, I’m sorry we cant help you at the moment.

At this, Mr. Henderson slumped in the nearest corner chair as if his strings had been cut and, as the chair faced this way, I got my first real look at him. Classically good-looking—that was my first assessment. Cut cheekbones and full lips, and well dressed. He had the casual air of money, but the posture of a defeated man and something about him made me want to go into the room and hug him.

What the fuck?

There was some quiet talking, Henderson shaking his head and looking defeated, and Alan came and sat on the edge of the desk in front of him. Alan checked his watch and then stared up and right at me.

Alan kept talking, but the voices were lower now, and lip reading was not a skill I had. Henderson said something, then scrambled to stand, turning on his heel to face the door. Shit, theyd clearly been talking about me.

Alan gestured for me to come in, and I couldnt argue, my parents had brought me up with manners. Henderson stared at me, as if I was water in a desert.

He lifted his hand and then pointed at me. “Him. He’s perfect.”

“I’m sorry?I asked, talking more to Alan than the guy pointing at me.

Alan cleared his throat. Mr. Henderson is looking for a six-two, brown-eyed man who could pass for a firefighter, and is willing to go up to thirty-thousand dollars for five dates spread out over four weeks, and I suggested you.

I opened my mouth to explain why I was there, and that it wasnt for an escort job, and maybe what I did for a living, but Alan shook his head in my peripheral vision, so I stopped.

Also, wait, did he mention thirty thousand dollars? For what?

And you’re perfect,Mr. Henderson said. “I’d need you to commit to four dates though. Can you commit to those functions? Of course, after that time I would break up with you, maybe after the last date, but before Christmas. There would be a mix of company and family events, and you would need a much better suit. Do you have one?He looked me up and down, a frown on his face.

I tried to follow the flow of information and realized that this wasnt starting well, because Id worn my best suit for the bank. Well, actually my only suit, to be fair. I didnt have the money to spend on fancy duds, not even with the compensation that had just landed in my account. All I needed was twenty-thousand more, but not even my best suit had swayed the bank rep, or the computer hed typed everything into.

Whats wrong with my suit?I asked Mr. Henderson, attempting to get the conversation back on level ground.

He wrinkled his nose, but I dont think he was being nasty, just judging me by some unknown standard that I had no hope of achieving. What is it? Off the rack from Kohl’s?”

No, its from Burlington Coat Factory.As though that was any better, but hey, it was my best suit.

Mr. Henderson curled his lip a little, but I was used to people thinking shit about me for various reasons, so fuck his gorgeous face, and the horse he rode in on.

Alan cleared his throat. Again, Mr. Henderson is looking to hire someone for an extended period of time, and is willing to pay thirty-thousand.” Alan shot me a pointed look.

There it was again, that magic thirty-thousand payout. My confusion cleared and was replaced with a sick sort of hope.

Really?I asked, becausewhat?

Oh my God,Henderson snapped, You call him one of your professionals?

Alan cleared his throat, I know you decided you were coming off the books.He was daring me to disagree. I said nothing, still in a semi-shocked state at the concept of earning thirty-thousand in a couple of weeks. Henderson was talking up to Christmas? I could do that, as long as I got money up front to cover the work that needed doing on the bar right now. But Id like you to consider this one last contract.

Mr. Henderson still stared at me, although his gaze had moved south, not quite to my groin but to the stain on my shirt, which had happened as a result of me colliding with a pedestrian by my car before the bank meeting. One cappuccino later and I stank of coffee. Im not sure the stain helped in the bank, although the computer couldnt see stains. Unless the officer had ticked the box that said I wore a cheap suit with a stained shirt and ticking that box made a difference.

Mr. Henderson had lovely eyes—that was all I could think of—framed with dark lashes, they were a clear pale blue, like chips of ice. And yep, that icy cerulean gaze wandered lower. But, when his focus returned to my face he appeared embarrassed. As if hed allowed himself to look and was ashamed of doing so. This was one closeted dude, or at least someone with some real hang-ups. No wonder someone even as handsome as him was searching for a fake partner.

You are gay, right?The potential client asked.

Was I supposed to answer that question? Yes.The answer was clearly what he needed to hear.

“I’ll take him,Henderson said, in a kind of awkward not-really-aware-of-what-he-was-saying sort of way.

Why did it sound as if he was bartering me for a camel?

And hell, he didnt stop talking after that, about contracts, and timing, and confidentiality, and then he leaned forward with utter determination. “I’m not willing to negotiate on the thirty-thousand and I would let you know I have full access to a legal department who will, at the drop of the hat, sue the daylights out of anyone who revealed what is happening here.

That wont be an issue.Alan looked meaningfully at me again.

I wont say anything,I said, thats part of the contract.

My thirty-thousand buys your discretion, understand?

Why was he talking to me as if I was a child? Discretion was part of this job. I may not have been an expert at this, but that was one rule I knew very well.

I could see the pleasure in Alans expression. I dont remember him saying he charged that much when wed last met up with the rest of the college guys. Something about two-hundred for an event, and that was pretty much it. What would Mr. Henderson expect for thirty K?

I held out my hand. “Luke Davers.”

He smoothed his hands on his pants, and then shook mine firmly. Derek Henderson, Henderson McCormack Advertising.Weird that he felt he had to add his company name to the introduction, as if it was part of his identity, and one he needed to reaffirm every so often.

Thats a long name.I laughed, attempting to lighten the tone.

Gone was the hard-nosed businessman whod threatened to sue anyone who didnt act with the utmost discretion under this agreement. He was flustered, No, that isn’t my…oh.” He realized I was teasing and released his grip on my hand. So, details, contracts, and so on.

I havent agreed to do it yet.

Oh,Derek repeated. He did that quite a lot, as if he couldnt believe for one minute anyone would have an issue with anything he was saying. He was probably used to getting his own way at Boggit and Stumpy or wherever it was he worked.

Have a seat Mr. Henderson,” Alan interjected. “Luke, if you wouldnt mind taking a seat also.

I wanted to take a seat all right, preferably back in my small apartment where I shared the space with my mom, and the bar below that was my home. It didnt matter that there was money to be made here, enough to pay off the rest of the contractors fees and buy the remainder of the stock.

I didnt walk though, something in me sparked with a determination to see this through. So I sat down, next to the gorgeous preppy guy and looked from Alan to the desk and back again.

This wasnt what I had in mind—” I began.

Alan held up a hand. Mr. Henderson, would you like to explain a little more about what you need from the AlGetz Agency?AlGetz was a throwback to college where Alans slogan was ripped off from Lethal Weapon, where he would say, you want, Al gets.

Derek made a deliberate show of looking at his watch, which was all bling and huge. I was fascinated by the face of it dwarfing his fine-boned wrist, oh and how he smelled, which was just subtle and sexy and—

Luke? Is that okay?

Derek and Alan were watching me, all the while Id been staring at the flash of Dereks wrist. I really needed to get out more if the inches of a mans wrist were enough for me to have thoughts that wandered away from the meeting and onto kissing the skin.

Sorry?I sure as hell wasnt going to say yes to anything I hadn't heard.

Mr. Henderson was suggesting you and he go for a coffee to discuss this and hes willing to pay for your time.

Derek reached for his wallet, pulled up a couple of twenties and held them out. Ten minutes,he said, just to smooth over any issues you have.

I wasnt going to take forty dollars off the man to sit and have a coffee with him, and I stood, brushing my cheap suit pants. He didnt need to pay me to talk to me, for God’s sake.

Coffees on me,I wasnt going to argue about this, “let’s go.”

Behind me, Derek cleared his throat. “Oh.”



Chapter 3 - Derek

I’d never seen someone like Luke. Someone as tall, as gorgeous, as broad, and sexy as Luke.

Well I had. In my head.

He was Marcus come to life.

It was as if someone had reached into my fantasies and pulled Marcus out fully formed. He walked with a limp—that much I noticed as I followed him down the stairs and we ended out on the street. He had to take the steps one at a time, but I didnt ask what was wrong, thankful for the extra moments to gather my thoughts. I hadnt created a man with a limp, but I could work it into the story somehow. I was an ad man—I created words for a living.

I’d tried every legitimate agency for this crap I was trying to pull, and AlGetz was the last on the list. The agency had been recommended by the last guys, as a new player in town, even if they hadnt been sure it wasnt just a front for buying sex.

God, what if it had been just that, and Id been caught in their offices? That didnt bear thinking about.

Son and heir to Henderson fortune found in sex office.

Or whatever the place was called. Seemed, though, that I was wrong, or at least I hoped I was. Id have done anything to have Luke pretend to be Marcus for a few occasions, because he was so perfect.

Its down here.Luke gestured down the alley by the office building. It didnt look as the best kind of place to walk, but hey, Luke was a big guy but he limped. I was a runner and I could outrun an injured man. Easy.

Talking of which, I needed to add the limp to my list of things to talk about. Wed need a backstory for the limp. Maybe a heroic one where he was rescuing a baby, fighting his way through flames and getting the baby out only to dramatically drop to his knees on the lawn, metal or glass in his thigh.

“Hello?” Something waved in front of my face and I realized it was his hand. You want to go for this coffee or what?I followed him down the alley which opened into a courtyard ringed with kooky shops. I counted a holistic store, a coffee shop and some kind of craft place with wood shavings on the ground under this weird-looking table. This was eclectic, I guessed, the kind of place my cousin Lilly would go to in her days off from art school. I didnt hold out much hope for the coffee store here; they probably made vegan smoothies, or coffee with recycled twigs.

I was surprised when it turned out that The Coffee Bean smelled of freshly ground coffee. My taste buds tingled and I perused the menu.

Coffee, black,Luke ordered and then the barista turned to me. I was still stuck that Luke just wanted black coffee? That was so…puritanical.

“Hmmm,” I looked at the last few entries on the list. Do you roast your own beans?

Of course.The barista seemed bored, as if hed heard it all before and was sick of people wanting an answer to that question, but I wasnt finished yet. He was, no doubt, used to people who didn’t know their coffee.

I know coffee.

Is the roast light, medium or dark?

Medium, seven days.

And the roasting profile?

Each coffee is roasted to suit its optimum flavor profile.He eyed me suspiciously; probably thought I was playing him for a fool, but I took my coffee very seriously.

Do you use Straus Barista Milk?

We do.

I half turned to Luke, wondering if hed like an explanation. Its a cream-top milk that has been lightly homogenized to create the perfect amount of stability.” I’d memorized that from a Huffpost article.

Oh,Luke said, as if he were interested, but I turned back to the barista who was excited to be talking coffee with an aficionado.

Where are the beans from?I continued. Because I prefer Tanzanian beans and blends.

Really?!he perked up a little. Then youll love this, its not Tanzanian but its close.

And the soil?

Shade grown, fair trade, chocolate undertones.

Sounds wonderful. Ill have that.

One coffee coming up.

That was the moment we connected in our own little coffee club of one, and I relaxed that Id met a barista that didnt burn the ever loving hell out of the milk, and then spend an hour on a fancy design that did nothing to mask the shit coffee underneath.

“I’ll bring it over,the barista said, and he beamed at me. I followed Luke to a low table surrounded by sofas and took one at right angles to him, all the better for being able to talk to him without being overheard.

You sure like your coffee, dont you?” Luke observed.

I checked his expression for any evidence that he thought this was a bad thing. Some people like wine, I like coffee. Actually, thats something you need to add to the list of things to know about me.

You think?he huffed a laugh, but not an unkind one. You made the coffee creation sound like a military operation.

Should I have felt insulted? Was insulted the right word? Slightly annoyed maybe? Hed laughed at me, and he hadn't earned the right to do that. I could feel myself bristling with irritation, and had to focus on what I needed to get myself back from the edge. A method Id learned at a very young age.

Instead, I moved the conversation back to the actual matter in hand.

What do you normally need to know to do this job?

He looked right at me, as if he had no idea what I was talking about, and then he sighed. Youd better tell me everything, up to and including the level of coffee roasting.

Not everything, not every little detail, because he didnt need to know it all, but I knew where to start.

For reasons,I began, and then stopped when our friendly barista lovingly placed a beautiful coffee in front of me. I thanked him and he beamed at me.

Come again,The barista said, soft and seductive, or was that the scent of the coffee that pinged my senses? Whatever, the barista left after my first sip and I was alone with Luke. So I began again.

For reasons that I dont need to go into, I need someone, you, to accompany me on a few events.I counted them off on my fingers. Dinner with my parents. Two Christmas events at my company, and one event that will necessitate an overnight stay in a huge cabin. You will be required to mingle and make nice and tell everyone how wonderful I am. Incidentally, at these events you will hint that while we are together, that you sometimes think youre not the man for me.

Why?

I dont expect to go into explanations.I remained patient. Just sow the seeds of our breakup—that is all you need to do.

Wait, youre hiring me, to then break up with me, I get that, but why not just break up with me now, when no one has met me?Luke sounded and looked confused, sipping his coffee and wincing. I knew he should have got milk in his.

Its complicated.That was the only explanation I was giving. The next event is a family dinner, which is the minefield as it will likely be just you, me and my parents. Again, Id like you to mention how you dont feel good enough for me at times.

Wait, why couldnt it be the other way, why would they think that I dont feel good enough? Surely any boyfriend of yours would have to be confident; I dont think youd find someone who doubted themselves to be a very sexy thing.

What? He really thinks for one minute that I am a strong enough person to only attract the confident types?

Little did he know. Most of my previous relationships had been with men needy for my support, financial or otherwise.

You have a point,I lied, because I wasnt that man he was describing at all. Well work on that. Im sure youve come across this issue before.

He was startled, but covered it up, Of course.

I didnt know him well enough to call him out on lying, but he wouldnt quite meet my eyes and I thought maybe he was exaggerating.

So, that brings me to the overnight stay. This is a two-day, one-night event with college friends of mine. We have the same event every year, and you will be expected to share a room with me, but not a bed. The contract doesnt indicate sexual relations.

Luke nodded and gulped a mouthful of coffee. I took that time to gaze at his eyes, a curious mix of green and brown that I guess a lesser person wouldve described as hazel. Me, I described them as like the forest with sunlight dappling the leaves. After all, Im an ad man; I have a whole supply of alternate descriptions for what others view as mundane.

I get it, shared bed, no sex.He gave me a look that indicated he had something to add. What if I cant control myself?

What? Hang on; what kind of agency is this?

“I’m not paying for sex,I pointed out, firmly, and Luke bit his lip, probably to stop himself teasing me anymore.

I was joking you know. So, what part am I playing,Luke prompted and I realized I had lost myself in those forest eyes of his. Rookie mistake.

You will be Marcus, and your cover is that you are a firefighter, and that you rescue kittens.

His eyes widened and then he frowned and I couldnt see a reason for the frown.

Kittens,he said.

Absolutely. Five of them. Buttons, Socks, Miffy, Petal and Spider.

Someone called a cat Spider?

He looked so confused that I wanted to reach over and pat him on the leg. I didnt though, I just tutted and expanded my explanation, hopefully at a level he would understand.

Yes, you did. You called it Spider after you rescued it, Im not sure why I came up with that, I always get confused about that being as the entire building burned up and there wouldnt have been a spider left.

He paled, and I knew I should have worded that all a hell of a lot better. So I forged ahead before it became too much,

Look, Ill give you notes, or that is what I assume you work from?

Notes,he repeated, and then nodded. I took that as a yes.

I mentioned some other things about you to my parents. You work hard, you dont get a lot of time off because of your charity work. Also I noticed your limp.

I pointed at his leg.

His eyes narrowed. What about my limp?

Just that you have one. Maybe you got hurt on the job? Is that okay?

He pressed his lips together and nodded. He did a lot of nodding, as if he couldnt bring himself to talk. That didnt bode well for meeting my parents. But I could work with that. I didnt have a choice, I needed a fake boyfriend and I needed him now. There was nothing out there in the way of boyfriends-for-hire this late in the game. Also, Luke was seriously hot and ticked every box that Id created for Marcus. Maybe the fact he didnt talk much would work for me, and my parents would believe the break-up more this way. I wasnt ready to perpetuate the lie for more than that time. I was going to find a real boyfriend next year and then I wouldnt have to sacrifice myself on the altar of a company merger.

I pulled out the notebook from my pocket, the one with all the notations about cats and family and charity work. Id taken copies for myself, but the only thing I ever got confused about was the cats names. Everything else, from Lukes hazel eyes, to his dark hair, to his barely-there stubble, was exactly as I had mentioned.

Unfortunately, I told everyone your eyes were brown, but I could just pass that off as me being not very observant.

“Okay.”

I guess asking you to wear contacts is maybe taking it a step too far.

Uhm, yes, no Im not wearing contacts.

Agreed.I dismissed the idea out of hand. Then I passed him the notebook. This is everything you need to know, I think we should meet in, say, a couple of hours and get you a suit. It will have to be off-the-rack, and I would have liked you to have a tailored suit, but a better retailer than the type youre used to will do for now.

A couple of hours?

Our first commitment is Tuesday evening, dinner with my parents.

Tuesday? As in tomorrow? With your parents.

I was confused. This man was an expert right? He was the one who would fit into my life to make things easier for me, and in return I would pay him a lot of money.

Is that a problem?

I saw his swallow, and he ran a hand through his wavy dark hair. What about the money?he asked, and I could see he felt awkward.

The owner at AlGetz suggested fifty-percent up front and a further fifty on completion.

Which will be Christmas Eve.

A couple of days before, actually. After the company Christmas event you will be free to spend Christmas with your family.

That had been the deal breaker for anyone else who was remotely available; seems like you had to book in the summer for a fake boyfriend who would pretend that close to Christmas day. Oh, and not need them to pretend for more than one night.

Thats good,he said. He didnt mention plans of his own, but obviously he had Christmas set.

Luke held out his hand and I gripped it to shake. It seemed as if we had a deal, but I would back it up with a contract, one I drew up myself of course; no point in getting the Henderson McCormack legal team involved. Im not sure theyd fully recovered from the messy severing of my grandfathers relationship with his PA back in eighty-three.

I felt pretty good when I left the coffee shop, having exchanged bank information. I stopped at the woodworking place, drawn in by a beautiful owl in the window and was chatting about the possibility of the artist creating a hawk for my mom for Christmas when I saw that Luke had come out of The Coffee Bean. For a second he stopped and looked at the sky, then he gave this full body sigh and limped through the square and back the way wed come.

There was a story there, about the limp, and for a second Id wanted to ask him all about it, but doing that would have been a step too far. It didnt matter how he got the limp, all that mattered was that it worked for a backstory.

I ordered the hawk design, haggled a little on the price, and got promised a pre-Christmas delivery. Id always loved Christmas when I was younger, and even though I was grown-up and past stockings on the fireplace, I still liked to buy my family gifts. For all of my familys money and the fact there was only the three of us, we spent a lot of time finding that special gift for each other.

I guess I needed to buy a present for Marcus—Luke, as well. As a thank you, or something.

You bought him, you dont need to shower him with gifts; hes not your boyfriend.

I didnt know whether to laugh or cry.



Chapter 4 - Luke

What did I just do?I asked Alan as I slumped into the same chair Derek had used.

Made yourself an easy thirty.Alan closed the notebook hed been writing in. Less my cut of course, so yeah, an easy twenty at least.

I only did the other two as a favor to you, and that was three years ago, what the fuck am I doing?

You told me you needed the money, I found a way to get it to you.Alan was so matter-of-fact, and despite being my best friend he was still a major pain in my ass.

He wants to meet me to get a suit,I complained. I dont need a suit, I dont want a suit. I dont want to do this.I looked at Alans calendar and the big ‘2’ with DEC written underneath it. Derek wanted to break up with his pretend boyfriend on the twenty-seventh, so that was twenty-five days. Thirty-thousand dollars. What else could I do to get that kind of money that quickly?

Why do I feel so dirty?

Alan slid the contract over the desk to me. Usual stuff in there, client confidentiality, my percentage.

Alan, youre not listening.

My friend sat back in his chair and regarded me steadily. You dont want to do this?

No. Of course I dont, I cant go around pretending to be a boyfriend to a guy who was so desperate he needed to make up a pretend boyfriend in the first place.Am I making any sense?

“Luke—”

Jesus, what kind of man does that? Makes up a boyfriend? What possible reason could he have? He could be a fucking serial killer. Is he? Have you done a background check?

Alan looked at me, and then shook his head. I dont ask questions, but its probably a very simple mix-up that he needs to fix. And no, I havent done a background check yet, but I will, it just wont be back before dinner tomorrow.

He told you about the dinner. With his parents?

That was what made him so desperate.

“God.” I scrubbed at my eyes, already feeling the sting of remorse at even thinking of making this decision. Part of me wished that Derek had persuaded me, using a combination of some tragic story, along with his own compassion to convince me. But he hadn't, hed ordered that coffee and spoken as if this was a business transaction.

It is a transaction, idiot.

“I’m not sure this is the way.

Alan sighed heavily. I tried to help you, this is easy money, and if you dont want this…”

What?

Think about Sara and your mom.

I am, jeez, imagine what she would say to all of this. Shed be furious, and laugh me out of the freaking house.

Then don’t tell her.”

Losing Dad sixteen years ago had brought the people hed left behind much closer. My mom, Sara and me. We told each other everything, but maybe my sister and mom didnt have to know where the money came from until after the fact. I could sit them down after Christmas and explain that the money to save and relaunch our family bar was not from a bank; that we didnt have to pay it back.

What is it that you do want, Luke? You wanted to improve the bar, work with your family, have another purpose in your life, and this is one thing that can help you. But youre sitting there and saying you dont want to act a part, for a few weeks, to get the money. So obviously the bar with your family, isnt a real priority—”

“God, Alan—”

So old friend, what is it that you want out of life, exactly?

Right now?

Now. At this moment.

I want to be in the service still. I dont want to have hurt myself in a building collapse. I want the bar that was my fathers legacy and that Id invested all my money in to be a success. I want to use the money Id earned with pain to make a good life for myself, my mom and my sister.

None of those words actually made it out into the room.

Alan nudged at the contract. Right now, you need money, and this is a good way to get that.

I imagined what my mom wouldve said if she had been there in that room with me, what Dad would have said if he was still alive, and what Sara would say when she found out how Id managed to get the money we needed. None of the disappointment that I imagined from them made me feel any better.

With a curse I picked up a pen and signed. To all intents and purposes I was Marcus, the boyfriend Derek had made up, for fuck knows what reason, and I was a pretend firefighter.

I dont want him to know.I tapped at the contract. About Mom, Sara, the bar, or what happened. And nothing about Dad. Right? None of it. Confidentiality goes both ways.

Understood.

My cell vibrated with an address across town and a time to meet Derek that gave me two hours to get there. I stood unsteadily on my bad leg, gripping the desk.

Are you okay?Alan asked, his smile dipping and concern on his face. Hed seen it all, the aftermath of the accident, the fear, the self-hate, but today I was determined all he would see was my dogged determination.


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