“Right we are, mate,” said the removal man, flashing a grin at Lee. “Sign this one, and we’ll get started. Shouldn’t take more two hours, the amount you’ve got.”
“That quick?” Lee asked, dashing his signature across the bottom of the page. “You’re… well, a regular knight in shining armour.”
“How’s that?” the man said, looking startled.
Lee looked away. He had a talent for making a faux pas in every conversation. Rich had always liked to repeat them to their friends, laughing as he slung his arm around Lee’s shoulders. Now, awkwardly, he pointed the pen at the company logo at the top of the page, a blue ink knight jousting across the page. “Your name. Lancer-Lott. Like in King Arthur, you know. Well, obviously you know who Lancelot was, and obviously he wasn’t in King Arthur, because that sort of thing was frowned on back in the day, wasn’t it?” Oh dear God, he needed to stop talking.
“Oh, I don’t know. All those lusty squires must have been up to something.” The clipboard and pen were deftly removed from Lee’s hand as he gaped. “I’m Lancer.”
“Jamie Lancer,” the guy said, offering his hand. “I think you spoke to Lott on the phone — Shaun.”
“It was Shaun, yes,” Lee stuttered and belatedly shook hands. “Lancer and Lott?”
“See why we went with the theme?” Jamie asked, waving his gang of helpers in the front door. “Shaun’s not here, I’m afraid. His wife had twins yesterday, so he’s off for a couple of weeks. Anything fragile we should know about?”
“No,” Lee said. He’d sent Rich’s stuff to his sister when it became apparent that he wasn’t coming back, and all that was left was his own cheap, battered belongings. He hadn’t realised how little of the stuff he lived with belonged to him alone rather than being Rich’s choice and taste. “I don’t have anything special.”
“I’m sure you do,” Jamie said, looking at Lee quizzically. He had stunning eyes, blue and clear with laugh lines around the edges.
And, of course, once Lee had noticed his eyes, he couldn’t help but look at Jamie’s mouth, his lips pink and a little chapped, fuller than Lee would expect on such a pointed face, and his sunshine-bright hair. He wasn’t a big man, more compact than Lee’s own tall gawky sprawl, but he looked strong, his shoulders solid and his arms tightly muscled.
Realising he was staring, Lee said belatedly, “Can I help?”
“Nah, sit back. You’re paying us for the heavy lifting. If you want to keep the tea coming, though….”
“I can do that,” Lee mumbled and retreated to put the kettle on. Only this morning, he’d been thinking that Rich had put him off men for good, and here he was, ogling the removal guy.
Such a charming slut, Rich used to breathe in his ear.
Lee took a deep breath and put Rich out of mind. His mum had phoned last night to remind him to buy tea for the movers (“Nice and strong and sweet, dear, like builders. No, silly, I meant the tea.”) and he’d bought two packets of biscuits to be safe.
Jamie’s team barely touched them, though, and he just sat back on the kitchen counter and watched them clear room after room, packing everything he owned into the hollow box that was their lorry.
After a while, just to make himself feel less useless, he picked up a bit of paper and began to sketch. He started by doodling little knights and castles, and then began to play with the Lancer-Lott logo. It was a plain little silhouette, lacking character, so he began to round it out, turning the knight and his horse into chubby little cartoon figures, giving the knight just enough of Jamie’s features to be recognisable.
“That’s awesome,” Jamie said by his elbow, making him jump and drop his pencil. “Shame Shaun’s not here — you could have made him the horse.”
“I’m just messing about,” Lee mumbled, retrieving his pencil.
“No, it’s awesome. You ought to be an artist.”
“I am. Well, graphic designer. I do a few logos as part of that.”
“You must be good at your job.”
Lee was about to deny it, but there was something a little infectious about Jamie’s grin, so he bit back the automatic reply and said instead, “Yeah. I’m not bad.”
“No joke. We’re pretty much done. Are these the last bits?”
“Yeah,” Lee said, surprised. “You were quick. Let me empty the kettle, then I just need to check the windows and turn everything off.”
“I’ll take this down,” Jamie said, wedging the open packet of hobnobs into the corner of the box. “Let’s have that kettle.”
Lee was left alone in the empty kitchen. Quietly, he walked through the house that no longer looked like home, checking every switch and window. He’d been happy here once and desperately miserable too, but the connection to this place was almost faded. It had grown weaker with every picture he took down and every box he packed, and now the house felt like someone else’s again. He hoped the new tenants would be happy here; that they would make it their own.
When he got down into the hallway again, someone was standing in the open front door, silhouetted by the light. He assumed it was Jamie and said quickly, “One more minute.”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” an unexpected and unwelcome voice demanded.
“Rich?” Lee breathed in shock.
“You’re moving out of our house?” Rich asked, as if it was a crime.
Lee took the last few steps down the stairs and moved so he could see Rich’s face. He felt cold suddenly, despite the spill of sunlight through the front door. He’d been ready to move on. He said, feeling defensive, “We only ever rented the place.”
Rich’s voice dropped to a low smooth reproach. “This is our home, Lee.” He stepped forward, hands outstretched. It was the kind of dramatic gesture that would have caught Lee off balance before, when everything Rich did was compelling.
Now, to his surprise, he thought it looked stupid, and stepped into the kitchen to switch off the gas. “You left quite a while ago, Rich. Six months now, isn’t it?”
Rich spoke from close behind him, his breath on Lee’s neck. “You knew I was always coming back.”
Lee side-stepped him and locked the back door. The garden looked good, the patio scrubbed down and every weed plucked out, and a little bit anonymous, with all the planters and hanging baskets gone. That had been his, whatever Rich had done with the house, and he was taking every flower he’d planted.
“You doubted me?” Rich continued, sounding hurt. “How could you? You know I’ll always come back to you.”
Lee didn’t want to get drawn into this, but he couldn’t stop himself from inquiring, “And how does Marco feel about that?”
“Or was it Marcus? The one who was going to help you rediscover your inner self?”
“Jean-Marc chose to stay in Venice,” Rich said, waving his hand airily. “He’s the past, love. The future’s about you and me. Now let’s get that silly lorry unpacked and everything back where it belongs.”
“I’m moving, Rich. It’s all paid for.”
“Details, details. Just give the agents a ring and let them know you’ve changed your mind.”
“No,” Lee said, but it must have been too quiet, because Rich just kept going.
“It’s only money. Hopefully they won’t put the rent up because of your little mistake, but we can afford it, if you don’t mind tightening your belt a little….”
“You haven’t paid any rent on the place for six months. I’m going into debt just getting out of here.”
“You never were much good with money, were you, darling?” Rich said affectionately.
It was so ludicrous that Lee began to laugh weakly, leaning against the counter for support.
“There,” Rich said, stepping into the middle of the kitchen and throwing his arms out. “That’s better, isn’t it? Come and give me a kiss, love, and then we’ll sort everything out.”
“No,” Lee gurgled and managed to take a breath. “Natalie has all your stuff. I’m leaving. If you want the house back, talk to Stannards, but they’ve got new tenants coming in and I doubt they’ll give you the time of day.”
“Really, Lee, I don’t know what possessed you….”
“We got evicted,” Lee said flatly. He didn’t think he’d even interrupted Rich before. He’d always been a little awed by his confidence and success. “I don’t make enough to rent somewhere this size on my own.”
“Evicted?” Rich echoed and his face hardened, in the way that had always made Lee sick with dread. “Can’t I trust you to do anything right?”
“He’s leaving you, mate, which seems like proof of good decision-making to me.”
Lee turned to face Jamie in relief. He was standing in the kitchen doorway, arms crossed and his bright face stern. As Rich stepped forward to confront him, he held his hand up. “So, is that your fancy car blocking the drive? ‘Cause, sorry and all that, but we’re on a schedule, and the lads will be reversing out in three minutes. Little low-slung thing like that won’t do much harm to my lorry if we go straight over the top of it, but I can’t promise the same in the other direction.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Rich yelped.
Jamie made a show of checking his watch. “Reckon you’ve got, oh, two and a half minutes before you find out. I’d get a move on if I were you, mate.”
As the sound of Rich’s footsteps faded, Lee pulled himself together enough to say, “I… erm… thank you. You didn’t have to…”
“Don’t mention it. You finished in here?”
“Seriously, I know I said you were a knight in shining armour, but you didn’t have to fight my dragons. You must think I’m pretty stupid.”
“It was nothing. Come on. I reckon we’ve only got a few minutes before he finds a new parking spot, and I wasn’t joking about that schedule.”
Lee took a last glance round, and then picked up his keys and wallet. “I’m done. How long do you think it’ll take your guys to drive to the new place?”
“They’ll stop for lunch the way, so it’ll be about one when they get there.”
“That’s cool. Gives me time to get the bus into town to pick up the keys.”
Lee focussed on pulling the front door shut and locking it carefully, not wanting to meet Jamie’s eyes. “I had to sell it.”
“Want a lift?”
Lee hunched his shoulders. “I wasn’t asking….”
“I’m offering.” A warm hand landed on his shoulder, turning him round. “Saves you getting caught on the walk to the bus stop.”
“To be honest, I took an instant hate to your ex.”
“I wish I had,” Lee muttered, and Jamie laughed.
“Been there, done that.” He waved to the lorry, shouting, “Good to go, lads.” Then he turned back to Lee. “Come on. Hop in. Give him the finger as we drive past.”
That might be rather satisfying, Lee thought, imagining Rich’s indignation. He was smiling over it as he climbed into Jamie’s little car.
Jamie slid in beside him as the lorry drew out. “And we’re off. Stannards in Tilling, was it?”
Lee nodded. “Here and the new place.”
“Good company,” Jamie commented. “I do a lot of their properties.”
“They gave me your name,” Lee said and then spotted Rich storming along the pavement. “Oh, damn.”
“He’s too late,” Jamie commented and peeled out into road with a blare of his horn that made Rich jump. “So long, sucker.”
Lee craned his neck to try to see Rich’s reaction and only then realised that he hadn’t taken a last look at the house. He should have felt sad, but instead he was filled with a light rush which was part relief and part excitement.
“Good riddance,” he said firmly.
“What’s your new place like, then?” Jamie asked as they sped into town.
“Smaller. I’ve only really seen it once. Stannards were pretty decent about the whole mess. They could have blacklisted me, but they got me into the first affordable place they had.”
“Good people. How’d you get tangled up with that prat, anyway?”
Lee looked out the window at the high banks of the motorway, where puny saplings were bending away from the thundering traffic. “He was my supervisor in my first job out of uni. He’s very good at his job, and I really looked up to him.”
“And he took advantage.”
“It wasn’t like that,” Lee protested automatically. Then he thought about it and shrugged, “Well, maybe. He looked out for me, though. I had to leave, when everyone found out, and he got me the interview for my current job and let me move in and everything.”
“He should have been the one job-hunting,” Jamie said. He sounded angry, which Lee thought was excessive. It hadn’t really been Rich’s fault they got caught.
“It was good for ages. Then he went off on this work trip to Venice and met this guy…” Lee swallowed. “He sent me a postcard to say he wasn’t coming back.”
“I suppose,” Lee admitted. Seeing Rich again had been strangely humiliating, not because he cared what Rich thought, but because it felt like he was looking at him for the first time and couldn’t see how he’d ever fallen in love with someone so absurd. “You must think I’m a fool.”
“Nah,” Jamie said. “I’ve got my own catalogue of disasters. Everyone has.”
“Yeah?” Lee asked. Jamie seemed so confident and self-possessed. He couldn’t imagine anyone taking advantage of him.
“Well, there was Charlie,” Jamie started. “I went off to my sister’s for the weekend and got back to find he’d not only been high all weekend, but left his drugs out where my cat could get into them.”
“Jesus,” Lee breathed. “Did your cat make it?”
“Yeah, Pika’s still going, though she walks into walls a lot more than she used to. Luckily, I knew a good vet.”
“Oh, yeah, I was getting lucky – right up until I found out that he hadn’t really left his wife. Or his mistress.”
“And before that there was Ali, who honestly didn’t seem like a potential stalker when we met, and-”
“I get the picture,” Lee interrupted, caught between horror and a horrible desire to laugh.
Jamie did laugh, seemingly unscathed by all those disasters. “Shaun keeps a running list on his kitchen wall. He and Carrie use it as a dartboard.”
“You’re good friends.”
“Yeah, we met on our first day at school. I insisted we share our sandwiches, which is how we found out I’m allergic to tuna. I threw up on his new shoes, and he still sat with me in the nurse’s office until my mum came. We’ve been mates every since.”
Lee gave in and threw his head back to laugh.
Jamie joined in, and then, when Lee was done, reached over to squeeze his shoulder easily. “You should laugh more. It sounds good.”
“Sorry,” Lee said. “I shouldn’t have….”
“Don’t apologise. Even I have to laugh.”
Lee wasn’t quite ready to laugh about Rich, but suddenly he could imagine that he’d get there one day.
By the time they got into the centre of Tilling, all the bitterness of Rich’s visit had faded in response to Jamie’s cheerful chatter. Lee knew all about his life now: his mum and dad who still lived locally; how he and Shaun had gone into business with nothing more than a van and an ad in the local paper and now had a whole fleet of lorries; about his older siblings and hoard of nieces and nephews. He’d even been coaxed into a few stories of his own, about growing up in a tourist village in Devon and moving up here for uni.
Jamie parked outside Tescos, in one of the side-streets behind the old market square. As Lee got out, he leaned over to call, “Hey, have you got any allergies?”
Lee shook his head, surprised. “I’m veggie, though, except when it inconveniences the cook.”
Jamie rolled his eyes. “More wisdom from your ex? Make sure Stannards don’t pass on your new address to him.”
Lee nodded and headed off. He’d always liked the centre of Tilling, with its muddle of half-timbered houses and Victorian shops with panelled windows. Rich had called it twee, but Lee thought it was just eccentric enough to escape the charge.
It wasn’t until he ducked into Stannards that he realised he was whistling.
Five minutes later, with a new set of keys in his pocket, and virtually no money left in his account, he headed back to the car.
Jamie was waiting, leaning on the bonnet of the car and gazing at the sky. Lee took a moment to stop and just look at him. The sun was in his hair, making it shine like gold, and he looked like he didn’t have a care in the world. He was gorgeous and gay and liked rescuing people and was just completely out of Lee’s league.
He looked up as Lee approached, smiling brightly. “Hey! Did you spot the hot air balloon?” He pointed up above the peaked roofs.
Lee looked up, leaning beside him, their shoulders just touching. The balloon was a bright splash of colour against the blue sky. He calculated the height and distance without thinking about it much and said, “We’ll follow it out of town, with this wind.”
“Cool. I’ve always wanted to go up in one of those. One of those things you always mean to do and never quite get round to, y’know.”
“It’s pretty amazing,” Lee told him.
“You’ve been up?”
Lee cleared his throat, feeling slightly abashed. “I, well, I can fly one. Seaside town, yeah, so we did anything that tourists might pay for. I spent a couple of summers working for a ballooning company.”
“We have to get our hands on a balloon, man. In the meantime, the lads have parked up for lunch, so we’ve got about an hour to get to your new place. I’ve got sandwiches – fancy stopping up the top?”
There was no way Lee was going to say no to that and twenty minutes later they were at a picnic table up on the side of Marbury Down, the local beauty spot, looking down on the valley and trying to identify local landmarks from above. There was a breeze up here, enough to make Lee’s curly hair blow into his eyes and make him glad of his jacket, but the sun was still warm. It wasn’t quite autumn yet.
“When are you back at work?” Jamie asked, stretching his legs out with a contented sigh.
“Monday,” Lee said. “I’ve got the weekend to get sorted.”
“You an unpacker or one of those who lives out of boxes for months?”
“I like to know where everything is,” Lee admitted. “I’m not naturally organised and I’d never find anything if I left it in the boxes. You?”
“Oh, I’m neurotic. Everything in its place and a place for everything. Got its uses, though. I don’t usually come out on jobs any more — that’s Shaun’s end. I run the office and do all the paperwork and the figures. It’s been nice to actually put my back into something for once.”
“You don’t look like you spend your life behind a desk.”
“Oh, I keep active. Get out on my bike at the weekends.”
“Yeah?” Lee asked, delighted. “Done any of the Wealden Way? That’s been my project this summer.”
Jamie’s smile broke out again, and they talked cycling until Jamie looked at his watch and said, “Lorry’s on the move.”
On the drive down into the village of Marbury, Jamie asked, “So, how much would it cost to get you to run that sketch up into a proper logo?”
“After all you’ve done, I’ll do it for free.”
“No way, man. It’s your job.”
Lee wanted to insist, but Jamie sounded fierce on the subject, so he just said, “Fine, but you’re getting a discount.”
“Deal,” Jamie said quickly. “Right, where do we go from here?”
The new flat was a little ground floor maisonette, with one bedroom, a draughty sitting room and a kitchen just big enough to turn around in. Everything about it was battered and worn, from the peeling paint on the window frames to the weedy patio outside the sitting room window.
The windows were huge, though, letting in a blaze of sunlight, and the garden was hemmed in by brambles heavy with blackberries. It felt lived in and homely, and Lee’s spirits lifted with every box that came through the front door.
All too soon, the men were asking him to check the lorry and he was signing the final paperwork. As the lorry trundled off, Jamie came in with him to collect the money, zipping the envelope of cash carefully into an inner pocket.
“So,” he said, looking awkward for the first time all day. “We’re done, then.”
Lee nodded, feeling his good mood fade a little. He’d been enjoying Jamie’s company and he wasn’t quite ready to be left alone in a new place.
“I’ve been thinking,” Jamie said, “now you’re not a customer any more, there’s something I want to ask.”
“You want my contact details for the logo?” Lee asked, turning around to grab a scrap of paper. “Sorry, I can’t believe I forgot.”
Jamie’s hand caught his chin, turning his face back round with a gentle pressure. Lee’s breath caught in his throat, thrilling to the touch, and he could feel the blush rising in his cheeks.
“I’ve got your contact details back at the office,” Jamie said, without dropping his hand. He seemed very close suddenly, his blue eyes looking straight into Lee’s. “Actually, I wanted to ask if I could buy you a drink?”
“Me?” Lee blurted out stupidly. “Why?”
Jamie’s shoulders sagged. “I know I’m just a bloke with a van-”
“No!” Lee said quickly. “That wasn’t what I meant. I get that you like rescuing people, but I don’t deserve-”
“The guys I rescue aren’t usually gorgeous and talented and sweet,” Jamie said, and pressed his fingers to Lee’s lips when he tried to argue. “They don’t tend to fly balloons, either, or share my favourite hobby.”
“Oh,” Lee breathed, against the rough pads of Jamie’s fingers, and let himself believe it. Nervously, he pulled Jamie’s hand away and leaned forward. His lips pressed against Jamie’s gently and then Jamie’s mouth softened under his, returning the kiss sweetly as his hand still cupped Lee’s cheek.
It was all very chaste, and there should have been no reason for Lee’s heart to leap or for his pulse to thunder in his throat or his breath to come fast. Nonetheless, when Jamie finally pulled away, Lee was trembling.
“Wow,” Jamie breathed, sliding his hand back to play with the rough ends of Lee’s hair. “Just – wow.”
“Wow,” Lee agreed and pulled him in again. This time, Jamie pressed close, so that Lee could wrap himself around that neat compact body of his, and he opened his lips to Lee’s kiss, his tongue twining out. This time, it was far less innocent, and Lee twisted his hands into Jamie’s t-shirt, locking him close, and lost himself in the kiss.
When they next drew apart, they were both breathless, and Lee felt his mouth arch up in an unstoppable smile.
“That’s a yes to the drink, then?” Jamie murmured, his eyes bright.
Lee couldn’t stop smiling. “That would be good. Really good.”
“I really need to get this money to the bank,” Jamie said, though he didn’t pull back.
Lee didn’t want to let him go, but he forced himself to step away before he came across as too needy. “You should do that.”
“Give you time to unpack a few basics and decide what you want to drink to tonight.”
“Oh, I know that already,” Lee said confidently. “Here’s to moving on.”
© Amy Durreson 2012