Phillip used to laugh a lot, back when his friends called him Pip. However the good deed that left him hospitalised not only marred his body, it stripped him of his good humour too. Ever since, he has pushed his friends away and shut out the world.
Donating his vintage clothing to a charity shop should have been the final act in a year-long campaign to sever the links with the man Pip used to be, but the stranger on his doorstep awakens feelings in Pip that he hasn’t experienced since the incident that left him angry at the world and reliant on the cold metal of the hideous hospital-issue crutch.
Colby forces his way into Pip’s life, picking at the scab of his past. Colby isn’t interested in Pip’s money or his expensive address. He has only one goal: to make Pip smile again.
With every moment in Pip’s presence, Colby chips away at the walls Pip has built around himself. Pip knows it’s impossible to fight his attraction with Colby’s sunny disposition casting light into the darkness in his soul.
“Who’s Pip?” Colby asked before he could censor himself.
The side table under the window held nothing but a smattering of books and magazines, and a vase—chunky and colourful, Whitefriars Glass if Colby’s assessment was correct—devoid of flowers. Phillip indicated that Colby should place the box there and frowned. No doubt pondering whether he should answer the question or tell Colby to mind his own business.
“I am. My friends called me Pip.”
Called? Colby daren’t ask about the use of the past tense. Instead he rolled the nickname around in his head for a moment, wishing he could try out the simple syllable on his tongue.
“So…” Colby traced a finger over the edge of the box, snatching it away when Phillip—Pip—glared at him. “The box is down now. Are you going to show me?”
“Show you?” With the permanent frown Phillip wore, it was hard to tell, but Colby thought he sounded confused.
“That your unwanted collection is suitable for my shop,” Colby reminded him, as offhand as he could muster.
It gave Colby little satisfaction to watch Phillip wince and bristle as the dual barbed comment hit home. An impressive feat that made Phillip’s slender frame appear as if he were vibrating.
“Oh, I’ll show you.”
Carefully, Phillip eased the lid from the box and removed the top album. Colby read the date over his shoulder. According to the label, the album covered the first nine months of last year. Apparently it had last been updated in September, just seven months ago.
Resting all his weight on the crutch and all but cradling the album to his chest, Phillip flicked through several pages before turning it to show Colby the image he had chosen to illustrate his point.
For a moment Colby took his time to appreciate the quality of the album; the thick vellum pages, photographs held in place with corner mounts rather than glue, and a thin page of translucent tissue-like paper to protect the image. Everything about Phillip and these clothes screamed loved and cared for, and yet again, Colby wondered why anyone who had invested that much care and attention would want to get rid of them.
A younger-looking Phillip—although from the dates Colby knew this could be no more than fifteen months ago—smiled out of the photo at him. His blond hair was neatly trimmed in a short back and sides, more reminiscent of the style of yesteryear than the recent bastardization of the cut by footballers and celebrities alike. His blue eyes shone with laughter, happiness directed at the photographer rather than for the camera, and Colby knew he had now met the man who friends called Pip. Pencilled in beneath the photo, perfect penmanship recorded the occasion. Pip. Emily’s wedding. February. Just over a year ago, then.
Belatedly Colby remembered he was supposed to be looking at the clothes. Pip had combined what appeared to be a vintage, single-breasted tux with a cream and pale green silk brocade waistcoat.
“Waistcoat and tux combo,” he said with a shrug. “Impressive, but everyone dresses up for weddings.”
“That combo is a late 1930s Hart Schaffner Marx two-piece tuxedo with shawl lapels and a vintage Chinese silk brocade waistcoat from the fifties. It took me weeks of trawling to find that piece.”
And yet you are giving it away. What happened to you?
“Still, it’s a wedding photo.” Colby snorted, fabricating the disdain for effect. He had to admit Pip looked bloody amazing, although he couldn’t decide how much of that had to do with the clothes. That smile would brighten up even the crap he was hiding away in now. “Even I can look good at a wedding.”
Colby grabbed his phone from his back pocket and started to flick through his photo album.
“You look great as you are,” Pip said with more sincerity than Colby would have expected. “Very presentable. Stylish.”
Surprised, Colby glanced up from the search of his photo gallery to find Pip—because he couldn’t be anything else now that Colby had seen the man smile, if only second-hand—studying him.
“What? You’ve got that whole ‘lumberjack in the city’ look going on. I couldn’t pull it off, but you…” Pip paused and raked his gaze over Colby’s body. “You look very manly.”
Colby ignored the disappointment he felt knowing that Pip’s interest was in the wrapping and not the contents.
“Thanks.” He returned his attention to the phone, finding the photo he was looking for almost immediately. Then he held his phone out to Pip, the screen on display. “Look.”
“Oh. Very smart.”
Pip didn’t sound impressed. In fact, he sounded downright disappointed.
“Sorry, do I not meet your exacting standards? I thought I looked okay. Handsome, even.”
“You do. Very James Bond.”
“Yeah, if Bond was a builder from Billericay.”
“Don’t put yourself down.”
Colby shot his companion a disbelieving look that was meant to convey the old adage about pots and kettles, but apparently the message got mixed up in the silent communication.
“You do look handsome. I thought, from what you said earlier….” Pip shrugged and forced a smile. Compared to the blinding grin he’d displayed in the wedding photo, it might as well have been a grimace. “She’s a lucky lady.”
“I don’t see why. I got the looks and the brains.” Colby glanced at the screen and couldn’t stop his own smile from peeking through. “Nah, she’s beautiful. I still say I got the brains, though.”
“You make a lovely couple.”
“You should see her husband. Six foot four. Muscles everywhere. In fact you could say he’s full of them.” Colby grinned, pleased with the word play.
“Why are you talking about yourself in the third person?” Pip frowned. “Don’t. It’s weird. I wouldn’t have said you were quite six four, though.”
“What? I’m six two. I was talking about my brother-in-law. He’s Australian. You know? Like the song?” Before he could bemoan Pip’s lack of eighties pop knowledge, realization crashed into Colby. “You thought we were married? Ewww, no. That’s my sister. I gave her away.”
“Isn’t that a father’s job?”
“Normally.” Needing something to do, Colby locked his phone and slipped it back into his pocket. “Ours forfeited the right to that job when he walked out on us as kids.”
“Sorry.” Contrition softened Pip’s voice, and Colby had no trouble believing that this stranger wasn’t just paying lip service.
“I got over it a long time ago. And I wasn’t kidding earlier. Out and proud.” Colby smiled. “But my point still stands. People dress up for weddings. And they rarely wear tweed, knitted waistcoats, or slacks.”
“Don’t know why. Tweed can be combined in so many ways. No reason why it can’t be smart enough for a wedding.”
“Careful, your enthusiasm is showing.”
Dumbstruck, Pip spluttered, and Colby took advantage of the distraction to steal the photo album.
“Let me see.” Colby hummed as he turned to the next page and found a couple of informal shots of Pip, the combination of a variety of layered tweeds and a Fair Isle knitted waistcoat working on his slim frame despite—or because of—the differing patterns, textures, and colours.
The next page showed the same outfit in a staged setting, a group of four photographs: the tweed combined with a belted herringbone wool coat in one, front and back shots of the original outfit, and one shot with Pip’s head cropped out of the photo.
“What’s with the headless horseman shots?” He turned the book to show Pip what he was referring to but kept it out of the smaller man’s reach.
“Give that back.”
Colby flicked to the next page, barely acknowledging Pip’s protest.
Pip and Davy.
“Davy” was dark where Pip was fair. His olive-toned skin, beautifully contrasted against Pip’s healthy glow, hinted at least one Mediterranean parent. One of Davy’s arms was slung casually over Pip’s shoulder, and the pair leant into each other with an ease that proclaimed more than a passing friendship. So where’s Davy now?
The camera loved Davy, and it was obvious that the feeling was mutual, but it was Pip’s smile and the gentle mischief in his expression that drew Colby’s attention away from the more classically handsome man.
A nudge against his bicep warned Colby of Pip’s presence at his side. He could have sworn he heard Pip mutter “Davy, of course” under his breath. Instinctively, Colby shifted the book out of reach.
“Close your mouth,” Pip snapped. “You’re catching flies.”
“I was just admiring—”
“Davy. He was a photographer.” Pip caught his breath. “Is… Davy is a photographer. He was my…”
Pip trailed off as if the words had simply dried up on his tongue. Thankfully, because Colby suddenly had no desire to know what Davy and Pip had been to each other. Not when the passing of that relationship had apparently left Pip a shell of his former self. Colby could fill in the gaps, even though he’d never had a relationship that intense. World. Life. Reason to get up in the morning. Colby had to say something to stop the maelstrom of unfathomable jealousy from twisting around in his head.
“He looks more like a model.”
“That would make his day, hearing that.” Pip sounded fond, as if he’d forgotten the circumstances he found himself in, just for a moment. “He took that shot. He’d been playing around with the timer on the camera.”
Pip snorted, an exhale of air from his nose that might have been amusement but for the muttered “good-looking” barely loud enough for Colby to hear. “Strictly amateur. Photographer is not a suitable job for a diplomat’s son. Not when he has a First from Cambridge.”
“Is that where you met? At university?” Why was he torturing himself with these questions? Because it would tell him more about Pip, obviously. About just how far he was out of Colby’s league. Cambridge. Not some grubby inner city polytechnic that tried to pass itself off as a paragon of higher learning.
Unfortunately that was a question too far for Pip’s newfound tolerance.
“None of your bloody business.” The anger flared bright, and Pip reached for the album. “I asked you to give that back.”
“Just one more.” Colby was more than aware that he was pushing his luck, but a desire to ensure that Pip remembered him, even if for the wrong reasons, urged him on.
At about six inches shorter than Colby, Pip could be tucked quite easily under Colby’s arm. Colby would be able to tug Pip against his larger bulk and surround him. And as Colby stared at the smiling man in the photos, Colby found himself itching to do just that. But the reality of the bitter, angry man standing in front of him reasserted itself.
“Give that back, you… you bully.”
Bully? That would be the last word any of his friends or former clients would ever use to describe Colby. It struck him as so out of place that he laughed.
He flipped a couple of pages, hoping to land on a more summer-focused photograph, and the laughter died on his lips.
“Oh my,” Colby whispered on an exhale as all his breath seemed to be squeezed from his chest.
Their name may imply a grand dame in pink chiffon and lace, but Lillian is more at home in jeans, Converse, and the sort of T-shirts that often need explaining to the populous at large but will get a fist bump at Comic-Con. Lillian is a self-confessed geek who likes nothing more than settling down with a comic or a good book, except maybe writing.
Given a notepad, pen, her Kindle, and an infinite supply of chocolate Hob Nobs and they can lose themself for weeks. Romance was never their reading matter of choice, so it came as a great surprise to all concerned, including themself, to discover a romance was exactly what they’d written, and not the rollicking spy adventure or cosy murder mystery they always assumed they’d write. Luckily there’s always room for romance no matter what plot bunny chooses to bite them, so never say never to either of those stories appearing.
Lillian lives in an imposing castle on a windswept desolate moor or in an elaborate shack on the edge of a beach somewhere, depending on their mood. And while they’d love for the heroes of their stories to either be chained up in the dungeon or wandering the shack serving drinks in nothing but skimpy barista aprons more often than not they are doing something far less erotic like running charity shops and shovelling elephant shit.
Drawn to the ocean, although not in a Reginald Perrin sort of way, Lillian would love to own a camper van and to live by the sea.
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