Tainted Life Exclusive Preview
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Pete slammed the mobile onto the sofa, cursing. What was wrong with that woman? They had agreed to keep this civil, for the boy's sake if nothing else. Why would she pull this shit, trying to keep him from seeing Noah? She knew Pete couldn't bear the thought of being separated from their son. He glanced at his watch. It was past nine already, too late to call his solicitor.
He leaned forward and rested his head in his hands. Carding his fingers through his hair with too much force, he winced as the sweaty tangles caught painfully. Pete looked at the bare walls, at the boxes stacked everywhere. The removal van had left less than an hour ago. The heavy lifting and the exhausting fight with Carla had left him restless and depressed. Sleep would be hard to come by, even though his body protested when he stood up from the sofa and stretched. He had to get out of there. Heading for the shower and stripping off as he went, Pete contemplated where to go. He barely knew Stratford other than Westfield Shopping Centre, where he’d once taken Carla Christmas shopping. And he didn’t fancy trudging through the unfamiliar neighbourhood to try and find a pub that didn’t suck. No, he’d be better off heading into town.
It was just after ten when Pete emerged from Tottenham Court Road tube station. He made his way into Soho, side-stepping the throngs of tourists, dodging loved-up couples and gaggles of women out on hen dos. After turning a few corners into the narrower, less frequented streets, Pete ducked through an archway and down a narrow flight of stairs. A rainbow flag hung next to a sign advertising hen night specials and the Champions League schedule for the weekend.
When Pete still went out on the town most weekends, Turner’s Tavern had been one of those true Soho hybrids, where people of all description came to have a quiet pint and a conversation that wasn’t totally drowned out by an assault from the sound system. Now though, Pete had a sneaking suspicion that they were advertising on TripAdvisor and in Time Out, like any establishment with a vested interest in surviving the Crossrail rent hike plaguing the area. As he pushed through the door, the familiarity of the low, dimly lit space warred with the disorientation of rediscovering an old haunt that had had a facelift.
Most of the small tables were occupied, but there was no scrum around the bar. Pete made his way over and sat on one of the high stools. It took the bartender—a youth looking barely old enough to order a drink, and much too young for the full beard that covered his lower face—several minutes to get round to him. When he did at last, Pete ordered half a pint of Guinness.
He sat for a few minutes, taking occasional sips from his glass, and observed the room behind him, courtesy of the mirror above the bar. Slowly, with the bitterness of the Guinness settling into his belly, his anger began to evaporate. The thought of not being able to see his son still stung, but Pete hoped that Smith, the solicitor he was plundering half his savings to afford, would have some ideas about that. Carla couldn’t withhold access without any basis.
Pete’s belly, awoken by the beer, grumbled. He’d barely stopped to eat all day, and the half a pint was already starting to make him feel woozy. He flagged the bartender down again and ordered the sharing platter, the most substantial thing on the modest bar food menu.
The platter arrived, a big round thing with little bowls of crisps, olives, cheese cubes and tiny pickles. Pete popped an olive into his mouth, took another swig of Guinness and sighed, slumping on his stool.
"Sounds like that olive just saved your life," someone said to his left. Pete looked around. A young man was leaning casually against the bar a few feet away. He scrutinised Pete with electric blue eyes, his sensuous mouth drawn up in a half grin. Dark hair hung in tousled strands over his high forehead. He glanced at the huge plate of snacks.
Pete was pretty sure he was being mocked, but there was no malice in the eyes that had found his again. He nudged the plate towards the stranger, who leaned closer and took a cheese cube with long, elegant fingers. His lips closed almost seductively around the cheese. He chewed with evident enjoyment, then chose a tiny gherkin.
“Not seen you here before,” he said, a dark eyebrow gently raised. He leaned back, stretching until his black silk shirt gave a generous—and likely not accidental—glimpse of his smooth chest. His skin was a warm tawny colour, and Pete wondered if there wasn’t some Traveller blood in him. He quirked his own eyebrow in amused response.
“That goes for a lot of people in a Central London bar.” “Touché,” the guy said, grinning unabashedly.
Pete grinned back. He’d not come out to make a friend tonight, but what did he have to lose? It wasn’t as if he had someone at home who would give a fuck what he did with his Friday night. And this pretty boy might be just the distraction he needed.
“Consider me the welcome committee.” The stranger stood straight and ambled closer with a slight swagger, extending a hand. “I’m Liam.”
Pete shook the hand, assessing him more closely, a habit he’d honed on the job. Five-seven was his guess. Slim build, with narrow hips but wide shoulders. Liam didn’t look like he hit the gym, but held himself with the easy grace of someone comfortable in his skin. The black silk shirt appeared tailored, but it was shiny on the collar, as if it saw regular use. Tight jeans hugged his narrow waist. The dark hair could’ve done with a trim. A slight stubble covered Liam’s jaw, and high cheekbones gave his face an intriguing aspect. His handshake was surprisingly firm.
Pete held his gaze. “I’m Pete. Nice to meet you.”
A triumphant smirk stole onto Liam’s lips. Pete didn’t mind that Liam had noticed him looking. He liked what he saw, and frankly, a break from the ladies would be welcome, if that’s what the evening would lead to.
Liam let go of Pete’s hand, and for a moment Pete mourned the loss of his strong, warm touch. Liam motioned at the bar stool next to Pete. “May I?”
Pete nodded. He’d come out to take his mind off the mess with Carla, and next to drowning his misery in the juice, talking to a beautiful stranger was high on his list of things that could take the sting out of reality.
Liam settled onto the stool with fluid grace and made himself at home. He took another olive from Pete’s snack platter and took it between his pursed lips. He raised an eyebrow towards Pete and nodded in the direction of the bartender. Pete hesitated.
"Come on," Liam wheedled. “Let me pay you back for eating half your dinner.”
“How’d you know that was dinner?” Pete asked and took another olive himself.
“I watched you brood before I came over,” Liam admitted easily. “You looked like you were carrying the world on your shoulders. There’s no space to plan a sensible meal in a brain that preoccupied.”
Pete relented, impressed with the perceptiveness. Not just a pretty face, then. And he felt touched, too. "All right." He pushed his empty glass towards the bartender, who had responded to Liam’s summons much more rapidly than to Pete’s attempts earlier. "Another half."
Liam ordered two, paid with a crumpled twenty-pound note, then turned back to Pete.
"So, what’s a hunk like you doing out by his lonesome on a Friday night?”
Pete snorted. If it hadn’t been obvious so far, now there was no mistaking it. Liam was coming on to him, hard. But he didn’t answer right away. Laying his private life bare wasn’t Pete’s style. He had a lot of colleagues he’d worked with for years who barely knew more than his name and department-issued mobile number. And the last time he’d trusted someone with all the details of his marital issues that person had...but no, he wouldn’t think about that, not now.
“Who says I’m not waiting for someone?” he finally retorted. Until now, Liam had seemed unruffled by his counter-question approach, but now his eyes narrowed and he leaned back a fraction. His gaze slid from Pete, and there was something like hurt in his expression.
“All right, keep your hair on,” he murmured.
Pete felt bad. His question had come out much more aggressively than he’d intended. He rubbed his face. The beer was still sloshing around his almost empty insides. Maybe he wasn’t fit to be around other people right now, after all. “I’m sorry,” he said at last. “Bit of a bad day.”
He half expected Liam to find an excuse and get up and leave, but instead, the insanely blue eyes found Pete’s, and he put a hand on Pete’s fist that was resting on the bar. “I can see that,” he said in a low voice. “Relationship trouble?”
“Something like that.” Pete was surprised to hear himself concede even that much.
“Sorry to hear it.” Liam sounded as if he meant it. He shifted on the bar stool until he could lean his shoulder against Pete’s. The warmth of his body through the silk was an immediate comfort. Pete relaxed into the sensation. He suddenly felt very tired.
Maybe Liam sensed just how close the surge of sadness was lurking under the surface. He gripped Pete’s hand and held it for a moment. Pete fought to get himself back under control. When he felt the misery diminish, he looked up and met Liam’s eyes, and even managed a strained sort of smile. He gave Liam’s fingers a squeeze, then rested his hand in his lap.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked, grasping at anything to get away from the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over them.
Liam’s expression was hard to read. He sipped from his glass, licking the foam off his lips before answering. “I’m a photographer,” he said finally. “London street scenes, mostly. Portraits sometimes.”
“Does that pay the bills?” The question came out of Pete’s mouth before he could stop it. Pete bit his lip. He wasn’t usually a snob, though he was making a good go of it. Something was messing him around tonight.
Liam seemed not to mind. He shrugged. “Not really. I do...other stuff for that.” Was there a fleeting shadow of something furtive in his eyes? He went on to explain, “I live with my brother. He owns a house, so there isn’t much in terms of bills.” He took another swig of beer.
Pete appraised him. Something was off, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Liam had given just enough detail to shut up a casual enquirer without saying much at all. Before he could brood on it, however, Liam asked, “What about you?”
For a moment Pete considered telling a lie. People tended to clam up when he told them how he earned his money. He didn't want this conversation to end just yet, and he didn’t want Liam to be on his guard after he’d heard Pete’s answer. But somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to tell anything but the truth. "I'm a detective inspector with the Met. Serious and Organised Crime Command."
There was a pause, just as Pete had known there would be. Liam’s expression was again hard to read. “I’m actually not surprised,” he said at last. “Fits.” Then he grinned, though the lines around his mouth were too tight for the grin to be entirely genuine. “I’ve always wanted to bend over for a cop.”
Pete raised an eyebrow. He was intrigued now, and no mistake. Liam’s aggressive come-on might have been a front for something else, but Pete had to admit that his jeans were getting mighty tight at the thought of bedding this gorgeous guy. “Is that so?” Liam leaned suggestively against the bar, his low-buttoned shirt showing even more skin than before. “Is so.”
“All right,” Pete agreed. “But let’s have one for the road.”
He ordered a whiskey sour and, after a nod from Liam, made that two. They didn’t speak as they sipped their drinks, but Liam moved closer, until his thigh rested against Pete’s. A flush travelled through Pete at the heady combination of Liam’s nearness and the heat in his belly from the whiskey pooling in his groin. After a few minutes, he threw back the rest of his drink and slid from the stool. “Ready?”
Liam grinned and drained his own glass. Then he took one last olive and hopped off his stool. He brushed close enough as he passed for Pete to feel his arousal through the layers of fabric.
“Been ready all night,” he breathed, and led the way to the exit.
TO BE CONTINUED...
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