Ash stared at his reflection in the full-length mirror. The jeans were tight, enough to attract attention to what was on offer but not enough to get him thrown out before he got further than the reception desk.
The pale blue shirt moulded itself to his body, allowing a tantalising hint of what lay beneath. It had been a toss-up between that, or the navy. Yes, he’d made the right choice as the paler shirt brought out the blue of his eyes and made his light brown hair look a shade or two brighter. He ran his fingers through his hair and it flopped forward over his brow. Earlier he’d sworn, when he’d been getting ready, because he’d realised he’d run out of gel but now he was glad, the softer look making him feel less hard, less of the whore he had no option but to be for the night. He tapped at the inside pocket of his jacket. It was a ritual, assuring himself he had all the supplies he needed for what lay ahead. Yes, they were there, just as he knew they were. He pulled in a deep breath, before exhaling long and slow and took a final look at himself in the mirror. He looked good, not obvious, just good.
With his heart rate picking up, Ash readied himself to give the receptionist his biggest, most disarming smile. He needn’t have worried, because luck was on his side. A couple of foreign tourists were spreading out a large map of central London, both of them speaking fast and loud at the same time, and claiming all the receptionist’s attention. Ash slipped, unseen, into the hotel’s bar.
Ash’s eyes swept the room. It was smart, sleek and modern. Quirky artwork covered the walls, drawing his attention for a moment, and light jazz combined with the buzz of conversation from the customers. It was early, not much past 7.00pm, but the bar was busy with an eclectic mix of customers. Hipsters mixed with corporate suited business types. A group of young women who didn’t look much older than Ash’s twenty-three years laughed as they drank cocktails, and flirted with the barman.
It wasn’t the kind of place he was used to having to resort to when he needed to make some extra cash, and fast. This wasn’t The Swift or The Crown. It wasn’t Glitz or Mandate. It wasn’t any of those places he could be sure of a quick pick-up, where all it took was a whispered exchange of words before slipping out to a car, or a back street, or the toilets. In those places everybody knew what the deal was; he could do the business and be gone, with money in his pocket and shame in his soul. Here, in the smart bar, he felt exposed.
Panic rose up in him. Ash wanted to turn and run, to get out before everybody in the bar turned around and saw him for what he was, and despised him for it. All he could hear was the fast and heavy thud of his heart, and the whoosh of blood in his veins. His stomach churned. Oh God, don’t be sick, not here, not on the floor in front of everybody. . . He sucked in a deep breath. He needed to calm down, to take it easy. He was here to do what he’d done so many times before; he could do it, he could. It was no different to The Swift, The Crown. . . His heartbeat calmed, and the whoosh of blood faded. Ash unclenched his hands, balled into tight, stiff fists; his palms were slick with sweat and he wiped them on his thighs.
Ash slipped onto one of the stools lining the long bar. The one barman on duty was busy tending to the cocktail-drinking women, and Ash took another look around. He should have recced the place first, not just taken the recommendation on trust that this was not just a place to score, but to score big, but the temptation to make some extra money had been too much to resist. The bar looked too smart, too classy, too straight. Had the guy who’d told him about it got it wrong? Had he misunderstood? No. There had been nothing to misunderstand about the bar at The New Ireland . . . loaded businessmen. . . willing to pay well. . . got to be discreet. . .
The guy’s words had burrowed their way into his brain. Three times a month, four if he absolutely had to. Almost once a week. That was how many times he had to pull on his tightest jeans and T-shirt, and a fake smile, and walk into the pubs and clubs where he was assured of finding a punter. Willing to pay well, that’s what he’d been told. If he could make enough here, or somewhere like it, then perhaps three or four times a month could turn into twice or even just once a month. . . But was he discreet enough? Ash felt like he had the words rent boy branded on his brow, and a list of his services and prices pinned on his back. Would there be a whisper in his ear, asking him not to a room, but to leave the premises? Would a hand placed on his arm or on his back lead him not to the lift but to the street instead? Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea. Ash swung around as he prepared to flee.
“Good evening, Sir. What can I get you?”
The barman’s heavily-accented greeting broke in on Ash’s tumbling thoughts, freezing him for a second.
“Erm. . .”
“If you would like a little more time, I can come back in a moment or two.”
The barman’s smile was wide and friendly, and Ash’s panic subsided.
“No, that’s fine. Scotch and Coke, please.”
Ash resettled himself and attempted to look confident and at ease. He felt anything but. A small bowl of fancy, salted nuts appeared, along with the drink.
“Would you like me to add your bar bill to your room, Sir?”
Oh shit. “I’m not a guest. I’m meeting a friend here.”
“So you have a booking for dinner in the restaurant? Perhaps I can check to see if your friend has already been seated?”
Ash summoned up what was left of his rapidly dwindling confidence. He sat a little taller and forced himself to look the barman in the eye.
“No, we’re not eating here. We’re just meeting.”
Ash’s heart hammered so hard he thought his ribs might break. Did the barman believe him, or was he about to receive a whispered suggestion that he might like to consider meeting his friend elsewhere?
“Of course, Sir. Enjoy your drink.”
With his smile still in place, the barman turned away to serve another customer.
Ash’s hand shook as he took a sip; it was as eye-wateringly strong as the price. He needed to get lucky just to pay for his drink, let alone anything else. The alcohol, on an empty stomach, hit his system. He reached for the nuts and wolfed them down. When he was getting ready to do the business, he needed to be clear-headed.
The drink began to take the edge off Ash’s nerves. He drank slowly, doing his best to make it last as he surreptitiously scoped-out the customers. He narrowed his eyes. Maybe the recommendation had been correct. Men outnumbered women, even more so as the cocktail drinking group gathered their belongings, waved goodbye to the barman, and headed off to continue the evening elsewhere. Not all the men sat in small groups, some were alone. Would they guess what he was, and what he was there for? Did he look obvious? Was that a good thing or a bad?
A couple of seats along, a middle-aged man scrolled through his phone, before slipping it into his jacket pocket. The man scanned the bar. He met Ash’s eye, but he turned away quickly as if afraid to be caught looking. His glance slipped back to Ash, and he fiddled with his tie, the wedding ring he wore catching the bar’s soft lights.
The man was large and heavy, and completely bald. Ash willed himself to smile and keep eye contact, even though panic was rising within him and his stomach was churning. His hand tightened around the glass he held. This man isn’t Bull. He’s a punter. He’s not Bull, he’s not Bull, he’s not Bull. The man’s lips lifted in a small, nervous smile which reached his round, button eyes. The panic inside Ash ebbed. This man was nothing like Bull. Ash’s grip loosened, and his stomach quietened.
Ash’s smile broadened. It was the man’s first time, Ash just knew it. Married, and alone for the evening. Easy. Thank God, for once this was going to be easy. With any luck, he’d be back home and watching the TV with Louis and tucking into a takeaway before too long. There was only one bar stool between them, making them close enough for a bit of meaningless conversation before one or the other walked out and the other followed. Ash would give him something that’d have the guy’s heart thumping and his cock twitching as he lay in the marital bed, staring up at the ceiling as he relived everything that was missing from his life.
With a further tug on his tie, the guy opened his mouth to speak and Ash’s smile widened with silent encouragement to get him to commit to making the first move.
“Anthony? I thought it was you. No Sheena with you? Then you must join us, we’re about to go in for dinner. . .”
Shit. The woman all but dragged the guy from the stall, across the bar, through a doorway and out of sight. Ash sighed and slumped. The TV and takeaway option wasn’t looking like the dead cert it had been.
Ash continued to take small, slow sips of his drink. The prices were too high for him to buy another but there was only so long he could eke it out. He glanced around, catching eyes but no interest.
The crowd had thinned as customers left, or were escorted to their tables in the hotel’s restaurant. Ash’s stomach rumbled. What he wouldn’t give for a slap-up meal. As long as somebody else paid for it. Even working two part-time jobs, his food budget rarely extended beyond beans on toast, and it would continue to do so unless he was able to turn a trick. He looked around him again, and his heart sank. Nothing was going to happen here. Maybe the lad he’d spoken to about the hotel had just got lucky. Or maybe he did look like a tart, too obvious for anybody to want to be seen approaching him. Ash threw back the last of his drink, and his shoulders sagged as he conceded defeat. He’d head off to The Swift. It wasn’t smart and classy like the hotel and he’d probably have to find a couple of punters to make the money he needed. The thought tightened his stomach.
“Evening, Patrice. Gin and tonic, please.”
Ash glanced at the man who settled himself down next to him, but he was looking away and making small talk as the barman mixed the drink. Ash hesitated. The guy had sat next to him deliberately, avoiding the half dozen empty stools running along the long length of the bar, as well as the couple of small tables that remained free. Ash settled back. Perhaps he’d give the bar another chance.
“How was your trip, Mr. O’Brian?” the barman asked as he placed the drink on the bar.
“Good. Hard work, but good.”
“Will you be dining in the restaurant this evening?”
“No, I’ll order room service when I’m ready.”
“Very well, Sir. A brief word, if I may?”
Ash followed the exchange, his thoughts whirring. The guy had a room, and he’d deliberately sat next to him. A room, a bed. No back alley stinking of piss.
Patrice lowered his voice as he spoke. In French.
The man, Mr. O’Brian, interrupted the quick-fire delivery once or twice, but otherwise remained silent. Ash tried to get the gist of what was being said, but it was too advanced and too fast for what remained of his schoolboy French.
“Thank you,” the man said, switching back to English. “Ah, here’s David. Enjoy the rest of your evening, Patrice.”
“Good night, Sir.” The barman smiled, then nodded briefly to Ash as he disappeared through a door, his place now taken by the newcomer.
Ash licked his lips. It was to steady his nerves, but if it gave them a wet sheen, then all the better. He plastered a smile on his face as he swivelled his body towards the man.
“I’m always impressed when somebody can speak a foreign language. I never got beyond bonjour and deux bières, por favor.” Ash laughed, and prayed his deliberate language mix up was enough to get a response out of the guy. Sure, it wasn’t the best opening line but it was better than, So you’ve got a room here? How does a hundred for a fuck sound? A hundred? Maybe he should up the price, the place was expensive so anybody who could afford a room had to have money. He’d even throw in a free blow job. With the need to make up the shortfall in what he owed Bull, he was prepared to include a side just so long as the main dish was paid for in full.
The man turned, letting Ash see him properly for the first time. Ash blinked hard. Large hazel eyes looked out from a pale face topped with rich auburn hair, more red than brown. Scruff shadowed his jawline, bringing attention to the creaminess of his skin. Christ, the guy was fucking gorgeous. So what was somebody who looked like him doing picking up younger men in bars? Because that was what Mr. O’Brian was doing. Right? Sudden doubt burst in Ash’s chest. He’d been sure, so sure, but now. . .
The man looked sombre, almost melancholy, but the smile that lifted his lips was warm and genuine, and lightened his face.
“I lived in Paris for a couple of years, and the French are notorious for not giving foreigners any slack when it comes to the language. It was either learn fast, or get the next flight home. So, you didn’t understand any of it?”
Ash shook his head. “Not a word.”
Ash noted the pause, just for a heartbeat, before the guy nodded to Ash’s empty glass. Game on.
“Can I get you another?”
“Thanks. Scotch and Coke.” Oh, yes.
The guy called to the new barman, and asked for the same again for the pair of them.
“Cheers.” Ash lifted his drink and held it out to chink glasses. The guy hesitated a moment, before he lifted his first drink and tapped it against Ash’s. Anticipation spiked in Ash’s chest. The man had ordered himself another drink when he’d hardly touched the first.
Ash watched as eyes the colour of rich caramel flecked with green focused on his mouth. In response, he drew the rim of the glass across his lower lip as he kept his eyes trained on him. As if aware of the scrutiny, the guy looked up. A faint blush coloured his cheeks.
Oh yeah, he’s interested all right. But why would somebody who looked like him be looking for a pick up in a hotel bar? Ah, married, has to be. There was probably a wife and a couple of kids back in the suburbs. A quick glance showed no wedding ring, but that didn’t mean a thing.
“I’m—Freddie.” Shit, that was close.
Ash’s real name had been about to fall from his tongue. That had never happened before. The thought was a sudden chill; he’d have to be more careful in future. What he was doing, whether it was here in the bar of a funky hotel or down on his knees in a back street, was stuffed into a box called Debt and shoved out of sight of his day to day life. His day to day life? Who was he kidding? His whole life revolved around making the monthly payments.
Connor? An Irish name. If you’re going to make up a name, it’s a pretty good one. It had to be fake, who would give their real name in a situation like this? So we’re both playing the same game, Connor. Pretending to be somebody we’re not for the night. I’ll call you Connor, I’ll call you anything you want. Even Daddy. But I really, really hope you don’t want me to call you that. . .
“So, Freddie, what brings you here this evening?”
Large, soulful eyes rimmed with thick lashes focused on Ash. Beautiful. The word came out of nowhere and echoed in Ash’s head as he met Connor’s gaze, robbing him for a moment of any clear and coherent thought. A burst of laughter, from behind, jolted him from his daze and dragged him back into the present.
Ash looked down at the bar. Connor turned his glass round and around. Ash glanced up, and the flush he’d seen earlier again stained Connor’s face.
Connor grabbed his glass up and took a long draught from it.
Come on, Connor. In a smart hotel bar, sitting alone and accepting a drink from a perfect stranger, why do you think I’m here?
Connor may have been an awkward punter, and Ash an unwilling hooker, but they both knew why they were staring at each other over their drinks. How was he supposed to answer the question? If I don’t want my teeth broken and shoved down my throat, I have a debt I have to repay. If you want me to keep them so I can bite down on that lovely, creamy skin of yours, a hundred will do very nicely.
“Thought I’d call in for a drink, maybe meet somebody interesting to talk to, or. . .” The line was cheesy and Ash cringed inside, but it got the message across. His words could be taken up like a baton and he and Connor could race to the finishing line that was an expensive room upstairs, or they could be treated at face value, saving them both embarrassment and allowing them to go their own ways.
They were on a knife edge. Ash kept his gaze fixed on Connor. The man teetered on the brink of a decision. Forget the wife, forget the kids, forget the house in the suburbs. For one night, just for one night. Whether Connor wished Ash good night and turned and walked away, or passed him his room number, the power to push him one way or the other lay in his, Ash’s, hands. If they were to come to an arrangement he needed to take the lead. With a show of confidence, Ash swung around on his bar stool so he was facing Connor square on. He knocked his leg against Connor’s and kept it there. A thrill rippled through him when Connor didn’t move away.
“You’re an interesting person, but I think we could be more interesting together.” Should he be running his tongue across his lips, leaving a wet and glistening trail, or brushing his hand across his crotch or, better still, Connor’s? He’d been forced to play the role of part-time tart for the last couple of years, but still the tricks of the trade that should by now be ingrained eluded him at the crucial moment. He should be trying to seduce Connor, or whatever his real name was, throwing out all the signals that for a price he could be his for the night. He should have been doing all of those things. Instead, he stared into Connor’s eyes and Connor stared into his.
Connor looked away and picked up his drink. The warmth of his leg pressed against Ash’s disappeared. Ash’s stomach, held tight in anticipation, fell and crashed like an out of control lift. His shoulders sagged. The man had lost his nerve, the lure of a younger guy in a hotel room was a step too far.
Go back to suburbia and wonder what you’ve missed out on as you tuck the kids up in bed. . . Ash slipped off the bar stool. The Swift it was, then. There was no longer any point in staying.
“This is not something I do. Ever. I just want you to know that.”
The words rooted Ash to the spot. They had been said quietly, as if Connor had been speaking to himself. Ash glanced around him. The barman was busy mixing cocktails and chatting to a couple sitting at the end of the bar. Everybody else nearby was too intent on whoever they were with, or scrolling through their smartphones. Nobody would guess at the arrangement being tentatively agreed to.
Connor lifted his head and stared at Ash. His lips curved upwards in a lazy smile. Eyes the colour of autumn glittered with amusement, as all traces of clumsy awkwardness vanished.
“But I kind of guess you don’t, either.”
It was Ash’s turn to burn. His inept efforts to play the role of confident rent boy had been exposed. He felt stupid, his attempts at seduction laughable. But a part of him was relieved Connor had seen through the façade, that he’d not believed him to be a hard-bitten, bar-combing tart. Connor had seen him for the sham he was, exposing the real Ashton Hemsby when all Ash wanted was to keep that boy hidden, because Ash wasn’t Freddie, and he had no place here.
“If you don’t have to be anywhere else, we could spend the evening together.” Connor quirked his head to the side.
Ash cleared his throat. In a handful of words, they were back on known ground. He was for sale, and Connor was offering to buy. It had been stumbling and cringe worthy, but they’d got there in the end. How much for a fuck? was posing as let’s get to know each other better. Connor could dress up what was going to happen any way he liked, as long as he paid the agreed price he could call it what he wanted. The price, and what was on offer. Maybe it was best to leave that conversation for the bedroom.
“Fourth floor, number 410 at the end of the corridor.” Connor pulled a keycard from his pocket and handed it over. Ash looked around but nobody was taking any notice of them.
“You go up, I’ll follow.”
Ash turned the keycard over in his hand. “Before. . . We need to agree—”
“Fine. Good. Just so there’s no misunderstanding.”
“Okay.” Bloody hell. This was feeling as difficult as earlier. “I’ll, erm—”
“Room 410. Okay, fine.”
Ash walked from the bar and crossed the lobby to the lifts. If the hotel staff challenged him, he’d turn tail, walk out and take his chances in The Swift. Ash pressed the button and waited for a hand to fall to his shoulder and an enquiry as to his business in the hotel. Neither came. The lift doors opened, swish and smooth. He stepped in and began his ascent to the fourth floor.