Love Around the Corner

 

“Gorgeously romantic and utterly charming, Love Around the Corner is the perfect way to while away a couple of hours on a winter afternoon” — All About Romance

 Real life enemies.

Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans.

Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— incident last Christmas.

Online lovers.

Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature. Still reeling from a bad breakup, Leo’s struggling to make friends in New Milton and seeks comfort instead in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.

But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…

Two lonely men, destined for each other—if only they knew it.

Available 29th November 2018

Pre-order now for just 99c/99p: mybook.to/LoveAroundTheCorner

Chapter One

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”

Very true, Alfie thought, as he stared up at the underside of Mrs. Kohli’s ancient Nissan. Poor old thing should have been put out of her misery years ago. The car, that was, not Mrs. Kohli. Alfie adjusted the position of the wrench and tried again, wincing as the metal dug into his hand. The damned nut still refused to budge.

The narration continued, a clear melodious voice in his ear. “Mr. Knightley could not impute to Emma a more relenting heart than she possessed, or a heart more disposed to accept of his. He had, in fact, been wholly unsuspicious of his own influence…

He smiled as the happy ending unfurled. Good old Knightley. He was, maybe, Alfie’s second favorite Austen hero. But LLB was a big fan, he said Knightley was the sort of guy who’d worship you in bed and always remember to take out the trash in the morning. Alfie preferred Wentworth, though. All that resentful passion bottled up for eight long years at sea? Bring it on.

Someone kicked his foot.

He glanced down the length of his body, stretched out under the car, to where a pair of familiar sneaker-clad feet stood next to his own. Dani kicked him again. “Hey, boss,” she said, breaking into Emma and Knightley’s happy reunion. “Mail call.”

Sighing, he paused the book and rolled out from under the rusting Nissan, sitting up to squint at his assistant. Well, ‘assistant’ was being generous. Danita Da Silva was a good kid; she came in every day after school to work for a couple hours in exchange for his help fixing up the junker her folks had bought her for her sixteenth birthday. If she was lucky, she’d get it on the road by the time she was eighteen. One of Dani’s jobs was to sort the mail, a task she usually managed without his input. “What you got that can’t wait?” he said, setting down the wrench and tugging out his earbuds.

Dani grinned, holding out a thick cream envelope. “An invitation to the ball, Cinderella.”

Curious, Alfie wiped his greasy fingers on his overalls and stood up. Sure enough, his name was printed in elegant handwriting on the front of the envelope: Mr. Alfie Carter.

His heart sank when he realized what it was. “It’s from Sean and Tejana Callaghan,” he guessed, tearing open the envelope and reading the invitation inside. “Yup. They’re having another Christmas party. On Christmas Eve, this year.”

Dani’s eyes shone. “Oooh, are Finn and Josh going to be there?”

“Well, it’s not going to say on the invite,” Alfie said. “But I guess they might visit his brother for the holidays.”

Finn Callaghan—actor—was New Milton’s only claim to fame. Beloved of teenage girls, and a few boys since he’d come out as bi last year, he spent most of his time in LA with his cute new boyfriend. But Finn’s brother lived in New Milton, and he and his wife were very genial, generous neighbors who loved hosting community events like this.

“But you’re going, right?” Dani said. “So you could get Finn to sign my High Stakes shirt!”

“Nah, sorry.” He dumped the invitation on the counter. “You-Know-Who will be there, and I don’t wanna risk another run-in.”

Dani rolled her eyes like only a sixteen year old can when dealing with her dimwitted elders. “Really? You’re still not over that? It was, like, a year ago.”

“And Novak’s still—like—an asshole. What’s your point?”

“My point,” she began, but Alfie didn’t listen to the rest because a text alert pinged, bringing with it a hot buzz of anticipation. Slipping his phone out of his pocket, he swiped the screen open.

LLB: Boooooored

He grinned and replied: This day is lasting forever

“Hey!” Dani elbowed him. “Nobody ever tell you it’s rude to check your phone when someone’s talking to you?”

He looked up, blinking. “Sorry, what?”

“I said— Oh never mind.” She lifted a sardonic eyebrow. “You’ve gone all ‘heart eyes’. It must be Secret Boyfriend.”

“He’s not secret,” Alfie said, smiling. He couldn’t help smiling when it came to LLB. “And he’s not my boyfriend.”

At least, not yet.

He and LLB had been messaging for months and their friendship was as real as fuck. Alfie would fight anyone who said otherwise. What he felt for LLB was important, as important as anything he’d ever felt for anyone. More so, really, because they were soulmates. That’s what LLB called it: two halves of the same soul.

LLB was crazy romantic. Alfie had never known another guy like him.

His phone pinged again.

LLB: You got time to chat?

Alfie threw a despairing look at Mrs. Kohli’s Nissan and rubbed the sore patch on his palm. “I need a coffee,” he decided, pocketing his phone. “You want anything from Dee’s?”

“Oooh, a hot chocolate.” Dani fluttered smoky eyelashes at him. “Extra whipped cream?”

He laughed and reached for his coat. “I’ll even get you marshmallows, since it’s Christmas.”

Leaving Dani finishing up sorting the mail, he stepped out into the cold winter morning. The temperature had been steadily dropping for a couple days and there was snow forecast for the weekend—in time for Christmas, if they were lucky.

He smiled at the thought and dug out his phone, entertaining dreamy notions of being snowed in with LLB, and tapped out a quick message. Taking a break.  What you up to?

A reply pinged right back.

LLB: Wishing it was 7pm already.

Alfie grinned like the Cheshire Cat, stomach swooping giddily. He and LLB had first met back in January, on the JASNA-NY Facebook Group, and, as two of only a handful of guys in the Jane Austen Society of North America (New York), they’d started chatting. Twelve months later, they messaged all the time and it was awesome. They talked books and movies, but also about stuff Alfie had never shared with anyone: dreams for the future, regrets, hopes and fears. He and LLB got each other on every level—they just hadn’t met on the physical one. Yet.

But all that was about to change. Because, what Dani didn’t know—what nobody knew—was that he and LLB were going to meet.

Tonight.

Anticipation sat in the corner of his heart like a glowing coal, warming him from the inside out. Anticipation and a dash of tension. LLB was smart, funny, highly educated—and he didn’t know that Alfie was a mechanic who hadn’t even graduated high school. Maybe Alfie should have told him, but they’d never really exchanged personal information. LLB said it was better they didn’t judge each other on external crap, and Alfie agreed. After all, who’d want to talk books with an under-educated car mechanic like him?

So their meeting would be a revelation. And the start of something, Alfie hoped. The start of something serious—a real-life, long-term relationship. Love, if he was going to be bold. Because Alfie was in love with LLB, had been for months, and tonight he was going to tell him face-to-face.

The prospect made him fluttery with anticipation and he slowed down as he replied to the message, stepping to one side of the sidewalk so he wasn’t in anyone’s way.

Counting down the hours—he added a heart emoji and a smiley face for good measure.

It was only when he looked up from his phone that he realized he was standing outside Bayside Books, Leo Novak’s store. A place he usually avoided.

Not a single Christmas bauble or thread of tinsel adorned its window, in contrast to the rest of Main Street. New Milton wasn’t a particularly affluent place, but everyone did their best for the community. Everyone except Novak, it seemed. The town’s resident Ebenezer Scrooge.

In his hand, Alfie’s phone buzzed.

LLB: Excited/nervous about tonight. You?

He grinned like a fool, all thoughts of Novak swept aside as he crossed the road and headed up the street to Dee’s Coffee Shop. As the only coffee shop in town, Dee’s did good business. It helped that she served fantastic coffee and awesome baked goods.  Alfie paused outside, hesitating before going in. It looked crowded, the windows steamed up, and he wanted to reply to LLB without Dee nosing into his business. So he leaned up against the wall, and typed Definitely excited. Can’t wait to meet you at last.

Then, whistling happily, he slipped his phone into his back pocket and pushed open the door. Unfortunately, the first person he saw was Scrooge himself: Leo Novak stood at the counter, hips cocked at an annoyingly provocative angle, his shock of dark hair unmissable. But it was what he was saying to Dee that grabbed Alfie’s attention.

“I mean, come on. Have you seen the sign outside his shop?” There was laughter in his voice, a disdainful smirk. “Alfie’s Auto’s? With that horrible misuse of an apostrophe?”

Dee’s eyebrows rose as she caught Alfie’s eye. “Leo—”

“No, Dee,” he said. “I’m sorry but I require at a least basic level of literacy, even in a hookup.”

Alfie stared, his good mood evaporating beneath sharp humiliation. Not that he let it show, he wouldn’t give the asshole the satisfaction. He just watched with grim amusement as Novak stilled, finally getting the message, and turned with agonizing reluctance to face Alfie.

Merry fucking Christmas.

***

Leo’s phone buzzed in his coat pocket and he pulled it out while he waited for his vanilla latte, Bing Crosby crooning White Christmas in the background and the air warm and heavy, redolent with the aroma of coffee and spice.

Camaro89: This day is lasting forever.

He grinned. Two weeks before Christmas, and Leo felt good. Better than good, he felt excited about the future in a way he hadn’t in a long time. And it was all because of this man.

Still grinning, he typed back: You got time to chat?

“So you do actually smile then?” Dee’s amused voice cut across Bing’s crooning and Leo’s sappy thoughts. “I was beginning to think ‘moody’ was the only setting on your dial.”

Leo rolled his eyes. He hadn’t made many friends in New Milton since he moved here. Okay, scratch that: he hadn’t made any friends, but Dee tried her best. She ran New Milton’s only coffee shop and was a mainstay of the town with her spikey burgundy hair, pink framed glasses, and nose for gossip. He liked her, despite himself.

“I was just texting my boyfriend,” he said primly, setting his phone on the counter.

“Uh-huh.” Dee looked at him over the frames of her glasses. “This would be your online ‘boyfriend’.”

The quotation marks were so heavy they practically hit the floor. It was an old argument. “You know, he is an actual human being. We communicate online, but he doesn’t live ‘online’. He’s a man, just like me.”

“So he says.” Dee snapped the lid onto Leo’s reusable coffee cup. “You ever heard of catfishing?”

“Oh please!” His phone buzzed and he snatched it up before Dee could see the message, ignoring her pointed look.

Camaro89: Taking a break.  What you up to?

He smiled. Wishing it was 7pm already

Camaro89: Counting down the hours

The message came complete with a smiley face and a pink heart.

In his chest, Leo’s actual heart performed a somersault worthy of a cheerleader at the Super Bowl. Such a dork, but for once he didn’t care. He was in love, he was allowed to be a dork. Turning back to Dee, he said, “You think I don’t know him after twelve months of intimate conversation? I know him better than I’ve ever known anyone.” He put a hand to his chest, pressed it over his heart. “I know his soul.”

Dee leaned on the counter, skeptical eyebrows raised. “But you don’t know his name,” she said. “Or what he looks like, or what he does for a living.” Leo shifted, made an attempt to reach for his cup but Dee held it back. “That doesn’t strike you as strange?”

It really didn’t. They’d talked about exchanging photos and personal information early on in their friendship, but both had enjoyed the freedom of anonymity—their relationship was a pure meeting of minds, of ideas, and conversation. Unlike Leo’s most recent relationship disaster, born of his bad habit of falling for beautiful awful guys, his relationship with Camaro89 felt fresh. Pure, even. It wasn’t about any of the exterior stuff, it was only about them—two men who’d fallen in love over literature.

It was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to him. And they were about to take it to a new level. Feeling a twitchy smile on his lips, he said, “If it makes you any happier, I’m going to meet him soon. Tonight, actually.”

“Tonight?” From the narrowing of Dee’s eyes, he suspected that didn’t make her feel any happier. “I hope you’re meeting somewhere public.”

“Why? In case he’s an axe murderer?”

“You shouldn’t joke about that stuff, Leo. Are you? Meeting somewhere public?”

He took his coffee from her resistant hands. “Top of the Empire State building. At midnight. I’ll have a red carnation between my teeth.”

“You’re a funny guy,” Dee said. “They’ll put it on your gravestone when this guy turns out to be some kind of—”

“We’re meeting at The Half King.” He wrapped his hands around his cup, relishing its warmth. “It’s a pub in Manhattan. We’re going to have a drink there and walk the High Line afterward. Maybe get dinner if it goes well.” His stomach clenched at the thought, bringing a nervy laugh to his lips. “I’m sure it will.”

Dee’s expression relaxed. “Hmm.”

“He’s… We’re very good friends, Dee. I feel like it’s…” Well, he wasn’t going to say ‘destiny’ out loud, but he couldn’t help feeling some cosmic force had brought them together in cyberspace, and now they were going to make that connection out in the real world. “I feel like it’s meant to be.”

“I can see it means a lot to you,” Dee said cautiously. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”

Leo gave a nervy laugh. “I hope he’s not disappointed.”

“No danger of that. You’re cute as a button and—” A pause. “And if he’s got any sense, he’ll see beneath that prickly shell of yours.”

She wasn’t wrong. Leo could be prickly. But when you grew up too smart, too sensitive, and too gay for the tastes of most people, you learned to defend yourself. “Is it wrong,” he said, lowering his voice for the confession, “that I hope he’s hot?” He grimaced at his own hypocrisy. “I mean, obviously this is about a meeting of minds, but…”

“But you’d like it to be about a meeting of other things too?”

Flushing, he took a sip of his coffee. “Yeah.”

He hated the thought of meeting Camaro89 and feeling disappointed, but far worse was the idea of seeing disappointment in Camaro89’s face. What if there was just no spark?

Nervously, he toyed with his phone. God, maybe they should have exchanged photos already. Or maybe meeting itself was a mistake. One way or another, tonight would change everything.

Spiked by anxiety, he found himself typing: Excited/nervous about tonight. You?

The thing was, if they didn’t meet, their relationship couldn’t evolve. It would remain static—an intense, cerebral connection. But Leo wanted more than that, he always had. He wanted companionship and love, he wanted cozy evenings on the sofa and passionate nights in each other’s arms. He wanted a partner in life, a friend. A lover.

“You know,” Dee said, “if you’re after a boyfriend you could do worse than looking locally.”

He peered at her over his coffee. “In New Milton’s vibrant gay scene, you mean?”

Her turn to smile. “Alfie Carter’s handsome and—”

“Carter? God no. He hates me.”

“Alfie doesn’t hate anybody,” Dee protested. “He—”

“He thinks I’m—and I quote—‘an arrogant, prissy little prick’ who he wouldn’t fu— sleep with if I was—quote—‘the last gay man on earth.’”

Oh yes, Alfie Carter had been an absolute sweetheart at that excruciating Christmas party last year. Hitting on Leo with all the subtlety of a truck, and then getting resentful and pissy when Leo hadn’t been interested.

And he hadn’t been interested, despite Carter’s smoldering good looks—or maybe because of them. Truth was, Carter was exactly Leo’s type, and he reminded him way too much of his unlamented ex, Grayson Sands. Well, Leo was done with all that. He wanted more, and he’d found it in Camaro89. He and Carter were polar opposites. Like matter and antimatter, they were so different they probably couldn’t exist in the same room at the same time.

As if to prove the point a new message flashed up on his phone.

Camaro89: Definitely excited. Can’t wait to meet you at last.

His heart warmed just looking at the words, his misgivings evaporating. It would be fine. It would be wonderful, it would be everything he hoped for. Because it would be Camaro89.

“If you got to know Alfie,” Dee persisted, oblivious to Leo’s inner dialogue, “you might find he surprises you. Why don’t you come along to tomorrow’s meeting about the Christmas market? I could introduce you. You’ve got a lot in common, and Alfie—”

“No.” Absolutely the last thing he needed was Dee trying to set him up. Besides, he had a boyfriend—almost. Dee opened her mouth as the coffee shop door opened with a jingle of bells, but Leo cut her off before she could speak. “I mean, come on. Have you seen the sign outside his shop? Alfie’s Auto’s? With that horrible misuse of an apostrophe?”

Her eyebrows rose. “Leo—”

“No, Dee. I’m sorry but I require at a least basic level of literacy, even in a hookup.”

An odd, strained silence followed his words. The kind of silence that never meant anything good. Leo’s skin prickled along his neck, the side of his face glowing with the intense awareness of a pair of eyes on him. Jaw clenched against the inevitable, he turned his head to see Alfie Carter watching him from inside the door.

Shit.

Carter’s brows were drawn low over his dark eyes, smoldering with anger now rather than interest. And maybe something worse, something suggested by a flush visible beneath the stubble on his jaw, something like embarrassment. Leo winced and for a moment they just stood staring at one another. In the background, Bing had moved on to Silent Night as if to make a point.

Then Carter looked away, breaking the spell as he cast his eyes over the half-empty coffee shop.  “Don’t worry,” he growled, “the feeling’s mutual. I require at least a basic level of civility, even in a hookup.”

That stung. Leo was civil. He was very civil! It wasn’t his fault that Carter had been standing there listening like some kind of vengeful Heathcliff at the window. “Eavesdroppers never hear any good of themselves,” he said, aware he may have sounded rather prim. Aware, too, that he could have just said sorry. That he should have, probably. And that maybe he would have, if Carter hadn’t been so damned provoking.

“I wasn’t eavesdropping,” Carter said, coming to stand at the counter next to him, dominating the space without trying. Damn, but the man had presence—tall, broad, and carrying with him the cold tang of a winter’s morning. A total lumberjack fantasy with that square, scruffy jaw, dark hair peeking out from under his watch cap, and long powerful limbs. Carter’s eyes slid to Leo’s and away again. “You should be careful, running your mouth about folks like that,” he drawled. “People are gonna start thinking you’re an asshole.”

“Well…Takes one to know one.” Leo grabbed his cup and headed for the door, wincing as his own words caught up with him.

Takes one to know one?  Christ, a quip worthy of Oscar Wilde himself. Pulling open the door, he stepped out onto the sidewalk, the blast of frigid air a relief against his burning face.

He told himself he didn’t care what Alfie Carter thought about him. Or what anyone thought about him, for that matter. He had Camaro89, his soulmate. He slipped his free hand into his pocket, curled his fingers around his phone and held on, feeling his pounding heartbeat start to slow.

Yes, it was okay. Nothing mattered apart from tonight.

When he pushed open the door to his silent shop, breathing in the comforting scent of used books and wood polish, he took a moment to type out a quick message: There are too many assholes in the world. I’m so glad I met you.

The reply came a moment later.

Camaro89: I was just thinking the exact same thing. 🙂

Chapter Two

Icy wind howled along the platform at Huntington Station as Alfie waited for the train, his gloved hands tucked into his pockets and that hot coal of anticipation glowing in his heart.

Tonight was the night. He was going to meet LLB, for real. Find out his name, what he looked like—maybe more. Hell, he was ready for more. A hug, maybe. Even a kiss. He didn’t want to get ahead of himself, but… Well, he’d slipped a condom into his wallet before he left home. Just in case.

Would it be weird to talk to each other face-to-face? Or would it feel as natural as the rest of their relationship? Would they be gazing into each other’s eyes by the end of the evening, holding hands, making plans?

God, he hoped so. Pulling his phone out of his pocket, he pulled off one glove with his teeth and pinged LLB a message: On my way. SEE you soon. x

There was no immediate reply, so he stuck his phone back in his pocket and his hand back into his glove. Damn cold tonight, a sharp nor’easter blowing down the coast and bringing snow on its heels. Dee was running a Christmas market on Friday, and a dusting of the white stuff would be the perfect touch.

A car pulled into the parking lot behind the station. A door slammed. Alfie turned, squinting into the darkness as a figure trotted up the steps to the platform. It was difficult to make him out at first, with his hat pulled low against the biting wind, but then the guy stepped into the lamplight and Alfie groaned.

Leo Novak. Of course it was. Hadn’t they seen enough of each other today?

Novak recognized him with a jolt that echoed Alfie’s own feelings, standing stock still with eyes wide behind his glasses. In another man, Alfie might have found the deer-in-headlights expression appealing. In this case, he just found it irritating. With a curt nod, he turned and paced along the platform to keep warm. In his peripheral vision he sensed Novak pacing in the opposite direction until, like a couple of bookends, they stood at either end of the dark and empty platform.

Suited Alfie just fine. The last thing he needed tonight was Leo Novak’s opinion on the correct use of apostrophes. Or anything else. The guy was a snob and had been nothing but aloof since he’d opened his bookstore just before Christmas last year.

He’d moved in with a truck full of stock that he’d hauled into the store one box at a time and Alfie, being neighborly, had offered a hand. But Novak had declined. “I’m fine,” he’d said with a superior smile. “I can manage.”

Alfie should have taken the hint. Maybe he would have, if Novak hadn’t been so damn cute.

He cast a surreptitious glance along the platform to where the guy was futzing with his phone. On the short side of average, Novak was slender with something of the hipster look about him—all skinny jeans and flannel shirts, an untamed crop of thick dark hair, and heavy glasses he was forever pushing up his nose. He wasn’t classically handsome, but his face was expressive, thoughts constantly flitting across his mobile features. His wide mouth was sensual, his pale eyes clever but reserved, and he had a precise, fastidious way of moving that only accentuated the odd mixture of touchy and vulnerable.

Alfie had fallen for him on the spot, and had nursed a pretty hard crush for a couple weeks. Right up until the Callaghan’s Christmas party, in fact. Even though it was a year ago now, Alfie still felt a hot flush of humiliation when he remembered Novak’s brush off: “No offence, Carter, but I prefer the more cerebral type.”

What pissed him off most was that Novak hadn’t even given him a chance, he’d just assumed that Alfie was some dumb mechanic. And maybe Alfie didn’t have much of an education, but he wasn’t stupid. He deserved as much respect as the next guy.

He’d told Novak exactly that, and had taken angry satisfaction in watching him blush. But then Novak had left the party and Alfie had ended up feeling guilty; he hadn’t meant to drive the guy away. He wasn’t usually confrontational, and if Novak had just apologized, Alfie would have let it drop. But he hadn’t, and the bad feeling had lingered between them all year.

His phone buzzed in his coat, pulling him out of his thoughts, and he smiled at the message.

LLB: Safe journey xx

When he slipped his phone back into his pocket, he slid it down next to his copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Since it was the book they’d first bonded over, LLB had suggested they each carry a copy tonight as a way of identifying each other. Alfie’s was brand new, since he preferred audiobooks to the printed word. LLB’s, he imagined, would be well-loved and dog-eared. He had more books than shelf space, he’d confessed once to Alfie, and Alfie had only half-jokingly suggested he come over and put up some new shelves for him.

Stupid, but the idea of caring for someone like that made his heart turn over. It was what he wanted—to make a home for the person he loved. He suspected he’d been looking for it ever since he’d lost his dad, and the idea that he might be able to have it with LLB made him giddy with anticipation.

Usually he was careful not to put the cart before the horse, but when it came to LLB he couldn’t help indulging in a few of his favorite domestic daydreams—cooking Sunday brunch together, folding laundry, going grocery shopping. And he was lost in the fantasy when the train pulled into the station, the noise of its squealing breaks jarring him back to the real world.

Stepping aboard, Alfie met a wall of noise. A whole carriage full of chattering high school students. Spying a couple of empty seats halfway down the carriage, he began to pick his way along the aisle, stepping over backpacks and fugitive soda cans rolling around on the floor, watching where he put his big feet. He wasn’t looking where he was going which was why, when he reached the empty seats, he almost collided with Novak approaching from the opposite end of the carriage.

Awesome.

They each stared at the other for a long beat. Then the train lurched forward, Novak lost his balance, and Alfie grabbed his arm to steady him. An odd little moment passed between them, the impression of Novak’s firm forearm beneath the sleeve of his coat stronger than Alfie could explain, and the complicated look flashing across his expressive face difficult to read. Alfie’s hand lingered as he said, “Go ahead and take the window seat if you like, I prefer the aisle.”

And then the moment was broken, Novak pulled his arm away and muttered, “Thanks.” It sounded like the word had cost him something.

Alfie couldn’t help but smile as he peeled off his coat and shoved it into the rack overhead. “You’re welcome,” he said, not skimping on the sarcasm.

Doing his best to ignore Novak, he sat down and tried to get comfy. He was a big guy, train seats were always too small, and he was conscious of taking up more than his fair share of space—doubly so tonight, with Novak next to him.

Novak, meanwhile, was wriggling himself out of his woolen pea coat while balancing a messenger bag on his lap. Alfie leaned away to give him more room, but not far enough to miss the subtle scent of a rather nice woodsy aftershave. Or the fact that Novak was dressed up—some kind of tweedy jacket over his skinny jeans, a soft-looking sweater, and…

Alfie smirked. “Dude, is that a bowtie?”

Novak twitched, one hand going to his throat. “Do you think it’s too much? I wasn’t sure.”

“Uh…” Thrown by the honest question, Alfie didn’t know what to say.  “Depends where you’re going, I guess.”

Fidgeting some more, fussing with folding his coat, Novak said, “A date, as it happens.”

“Really?” He couldn’t imagine Novak on a date, or the type of person who’d want to date a guy so damn prickly. Still, maybe he was great in the sack. He ran his eyes over Novak’s slender body and thought, yeah, a bossy bottom probably. Not really Alfie’s thing. Well, not often. He looked away, made uncomfortable by his turn of thoughts and the unwelcome frisson of heat beneath his skin. Hell, he didn’t even like the guy—he certainly wasn’t hot for him.

He was wired, that was all, high on anticipation of his upcoming liaison.

“No need to sound so surprised,” Novak said, tugging at his tie as if it might be strangling him.

“Just wondering what kind of guy you’d date, is all,” Alfie said. “Do you check their grammar first? Make them sit a test on the first date?”

Novak flushed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Ah. On the second date, then.”

One corner of Novak’s mouth twitched up. “Not that I’d expect you to understand, but I happen to enjoy the company of erudite men.” He glanced at Alfie. “That means—”

“I know what it means, thanks.” Arrogant prick.

Novak opened his mouth as if to say more, but perhaps he saw something in Alfie’s expression that warned him off because he shut up and turned to look out the dark window instead.

Irritated, Alfie decided to disappear into the last few chapters of Emma, so pulled out his phone and earbuds and settled down, eyes closed. For about five minutes, he listened in peace. And then Novak started fidgeting again, his shoulder bumping Alfie’s arm, his knee pressing against Alfie’s thigh. Alfie opened one eye and watched Novak bend over, trying to get something out of his bag while struggling to keep his coat off the floor.

“Need a hand?” Alfie asked, dry as sand.

Novak flashed him a hot look. “No thanks, I’m fine.” He sat up, a water bottle in hand, and turned back to the window. Alfie closed his eyes and returned to Emma, trying to ignore the press of Novak’s shoulder against his bicep and the subtle tang of his aftershave. What was that scent? Cedar?

Breathing deep, he managed to slip back into the story, smiling as Emma’s machinations unspooled—until Novak jabbed him in the ribs with one bony elbow. Alfie startled upright. “Christ’s sake!” He yanked his earbuds out. “Can’t you sit still for five seconds?”

Novak stared in wide-eyed affront. “Well, not with Paul Bunyan taking up half my seat, no!”

Paul Bunyan? Alfie hid a smile. “The seats are small,” he protested. “What do you want me to do? Cut off an arm?”

“It couldn’t hurt.” Novak reached down to his bag again, shoving his coat to one side and half over Alfie’s lap.

“For the love of—Okay.” Alfie stood up, grabbed Novak’s coat, rolled it up and shoved it in the overhead rack with his own. “There. Out of the way.”

“Hey!” Novak half rose, as if he thought Alfie was going to throw the damned thing out the window.

Alfie sat back down. “It’s fine. I’ll get it down for you when we arrive.”

Still half standing, Novak glared at him. “If that’s meant to be a comment on my height—”

“I didn’t say anything about your height.”

“You implied it.”

Alfie lifted an eyebrow. “No, you inferred it.”

“I—” Novak blinked, clearly startled, and Alfie felt an absurd thrill of victory. “I don’t need you to get it down for me.”

“Fine. Then quit whining and sit down.”

He sat, lips pressed into a disgruntled pout. “My phone is in the pocket.”

“You don’t need your phone. The reception’s crappy on the train.” Alfie stuck an ear bud back in and offered the other to Novak. “Here. Wanna share?”

His look of horror was hilarious. “I doubt we have the same musical taste,” he managed to choke out.

Alfie considered correcting him, opened his mouth to say Actually, I’m listening to a book and then changed his mind. He didn’t need to prove anything to this snob. “Suit yourself,” he said, and plugged himself back in.

He stayed like that until the train reached the city and he got too excited to concentrate, not even on Austen. Novak seemed wound equally tight, his legs crossed as he gazed out the window, fingers laced tight around his water bottle. A million miles away. Alfie wondered what he was thinking, then remembered he didn’t care.

He glanced at his phone: 6.15pm. Right on time.

The train slowed as they reached Penn Station and the volume of chatter from the kids around them rose in equal proportion. Alfie got to his feet, pulled his coat down from the rack, and after a hesitation retrieved Novak’s too. He handed it over and Novak snatched it with a glare.

Okay, maybe Alfie had earned that. He had been kind of a dick about the coat.

They had to wait a few moments before they could leave, while the kids got their collective shit together and made their way off the train. It left time for Alfie to say a conciliatory, “Have a good evening.”

Novak returned a tight nod. “You too,” he said, but his attention was fixed on the doors as if he were desperate to escape. Alfie shared the feeling. An hour on the train with Leo Novak was an hour too long.

But he played the gentleman, standing back to let Novak out, and followed him off the train, watching as Novak hauled the strap of his messenger bag over his head and walked with neat, quick steps along the platform and into the station. The crush of the city soon swallowed him, and then Alfie was alone and free to concentrate on the night ahead.

He pulled away from the stream of people, stopping next to a coffee stand to check the map on his phone.  It was a fifteen minute walk from the station to The Half King, which was fine: he needed to move after sitting cramped in his seat for an hour and to shake off his nervous tension.  He’d still get there in plenty of time—he wanted to be the first to arrive.

“Okay Alfie,” he said, pocketing his phone. “This is it: the moment of truth.”

Shoulders back, he headed out into the crowds and towards the rest of his life.

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