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There must have been a reason why Robert arrived at the age of twenty-one still a virgin; some half-formed idea that your first time was meant to mean something and then it had gone on longer than he ever intended.

Of course, the press had loved it; hanging onto the railings outside the TV set where the teen drama that made him famous was filmed. Cameras flashing with one single purpose; to catch a shot of the purity ring that he wore on the fourth finger of his left hand.

He slowed from a run to a walk and reached for the ring where it still hung on a chain around his neck, leaned against the sea wall that looked out over the bay.

There were seagulls. He watched them soar over waves whipped up by the east coast winds. They looked happy enough – happy and carefree.

There was a frantic whispering behind him. Automatically he pulled his hood up and hunched his shoulders, waiting until the sound of footsteps receded. A glimpse of ankle socks and black school shoes on the newly tarmacked promenade, followed by a shrill voice screaming, ‘It is him; I told you!’

Alone again he clasped his hands together. His palms were sweaty, and not from the run; it was a big day ahead.

‘It’s too much pressure. If anything, it encourages more focus on the physical side of things; not less,’ his mum, Sarah, had said once upon a time. She hadn’t known he was listening outside the door. She’d held up a tabloid which had his picture on the corner of the front page, caught in the garden messing about with a hose pipe, the water gushing over him. He could see the headline still: How long can teen heart-thRob keep himself cool as temperatures rise around him?

He was fifteen at the time.

‘He should be able to live like a normal kid!’

But what was normal? How was he supposed to know even?

His dad thought the ring protected him. And his agent had loved it, pointing out the positives of a wholesome public image.

And then anyway everything had changed. His Mum had died. He’d painted on a smile for the cameras while the blackest times played out behind the scenes. Then there were the fights, and well, he’d been suspended from the show age seventeen, and he’d never gone back.

For a while there’d been Katie, and even though he wasn’t sure why anymore, they’d both agreed to wait until the wedding, and he’d thought he’d been redeemed. Even got a role with the Shakespeare Youth Company, a chance to relaunch his career.

But the paparazzi had got a picture of him leaving a hotel with the older woman in the fur coat, and she’d lied, and said they’d gone the whole way. Andy was waiting to take Katie away, the distance with his Dad became a chasm. He stopped showing up for rehearsals.

And now, a couple of years on, here he was.

He followed the smooth inner circle of the ring with his finger tip, elbows still resting on the wall. The tide was in. Maybe today was the day, he thought: How easy it would be to just unfasten the chain and let it fall into the cold grey waves, and after, to just turn around and walk away.

 

 

 

‘Where did you say you were staying?’

‘Filey.’

’At this time of year? And you’re staying in a youth hostel, did you say? Is there even one in Filey?’

‘A hotel.’

‘Well, who’s paying for that, love?’

‘It’s a job, like you’ve been banging on about? A photoshoot; all expenses paid.’

‘I don’t know. Maybe Paddy should join you.’

‘Mum, I’m seventeen, not seven. I’m fine. A couple of days and I’ll be back.’

Ever since she’d seen the dating App on his phone, she’d been on his case, doing his head in. So, what if he wasn’t old enough; he’d downloaded it more out of curiosity than anything. And anyway, he’d only used it once or twice and then deactivated, not because she was right, but because he’d got tired of turning down weirdos and pervy older blokes.

He walked into the dining-room, cutlery and linen laid out for breakfast service, sat down at an empty table. He flinched at the rare sighting of morning sunshine streaming in through the windows from outside, where seagulls divebombed hapless walkers hoping for scraps.

‘…a flawless family hotel with a reputation for fine cuisine…’ Adam had read out loud on his phone as they waited to say goodbye at the coach station the afternoon before. He’d sucked his teeth. ‘Does that mean they have like really small portions?’

Aaron frowned over the breakfast menu, then asked for toast.

 

The photographer, Marc, had already sent scouts over a week before on a location search; the remote outdoors he wanted, sand dunes and haram grass, most of all privacy. And yes, he did know this was Costa del Yorkshire, but the natural light and the ambience were perfect for what he had in mind.

Aaron had caught up with him yesterday when he arrived, but he hadn’t met the model yet.

He was examining his plate with something approaching alarm, when the blond came in through the garden door; freckles, long hair, long limbs in a blue tracksuit.

He turned back to his breakfast, prodded cautiously with his fork at something on his plate that looked suspiciously like black pudding.

‘Need to put a name to perfection? Allow me to introduce myself.’

His eyebrows shot up; the blond was attempting to chat up the waitress.

He turned his chin discreetly so he could listen in.

From the corner of his eyes he could see that he’d raised both arms, curling his wrists to show off his biceps which as far as Aaron could tell were nonexistent.

‘See those guns? Those are for the ladies,’ the blond said, leaning way back in his chair. And then he puckered his lips and planted a kiss on his sleeve. ‘So, if you’re a lady, you could be in luck.’

Aaron either coughed or choked.

When the blond looked round, he banged a fist against his chest, indicating his plate.

Good for the waitress that she seemed quite savvy. She spoke with an Eastern European accent, gesturing with her pen.

‘So, what’s under the table, then?’

‘Oh, that’s for a special occasion. But play your cards right, and your name might just get added to the guest list.’

‘Let me know the date of the occasion, and I’ll pack my magnifying glass,’ she answered.

Aaron snorted again, this time he didn’t try to disguise it.

Their eyes locked, the blond with steely accusation as Aaron turned down the corners of his mouth.  

What a dick!

Arrogant - but not just that, the whole conversation had been a complete car crash.

But it was none of his business, he had more important things to think about. He inhaled a mouthful of tea, decided on one more piece of toast, and then checked his phone to see if Marc had sent a message about when they were due to start.

 

 

 

Back in his room, Aaron put on some black eye liner, picked up his key card and put it in his pocket, then pulled up the handle on his makeup case and wheeled it into the hall.

What he really wanted to do was work in the film industry; a chance to use his skills in silicone prosthetics.  

‘First, I’ll take a cast, and then make a replica, and then paint it,’ he’d explained to Adam that time he’d asked him to be a guinea pig.

‘A cast of what?’ Adam had asked nervously.

‘Well not that, obviously! Your arm will do, you numpty! It’s a project, right, for my portfolio? And even if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t….’

He’d kind of blushed. It was a long couple of years ago now since there’d been that confusing time which had eventually led to him coming out. The time he’d tried to kiss Adam, which still made him cringe inside when he thought about it.

‘It’s alright, you wally. I still love you, okay,’ Adam had said. ‘I think deep down I always knew, even if you were in denial about it. And now you’ll be able to find a nice bloke, yeah?’

Which was easy enough to say; he’d waited while all the kids at school moved on from one crush to the next, and then started to date. Until he felt like he was the only one still wondering what it was all about.

Then when he’d gone to college, all at once a load of blokes started to hit on him, and he’d agreed to see the ones he liked, and started exploring and enjoying the physical side of things.

But he still hadn’t had an actual relationship.

‘Honestly bro! You’re so picky! No one’s perfect, you just need to give someone a chance, yeah?’ Adam had said.

But what if there was someone perfect? It was just a feeling; but what if somewhere there was someone meant just for him? Wasn’t that worth holding out for?

 

 

He took the elevator up a couple of floors.

It had been his tutor’s gig, but then he’d got ill at the last minute and asked Aaron to go in his place. 'Male model, glamour,' he’d said, then added hastily, 'not boudoir or anything like that,' while Aaron felt his throat flush threatening to spread up to his face. ‘And it’ll be good to have something else to put in your portfolio with that…’ he’d hesitated as if he was searching for the right word; ‘…prosthetic. So, make the most of it.’

‘Bro! Is he gonna be ripped?’ Inevitably Adam had teased him about it. ‘What if it’s love at first sight?’

He’d ignored him, of course, but he couldn’t deny the slight fluttering in his stomach right now. He knocked on Marc’s door, waited until it was opened, then stepped inside.

A big double bed dominated the small room. There were prints scattered over it of local bays and coastal paths supplied by the scouts, and Marc’s laptop open with the fan blowing hard. Above the headboard there was a glowering seascape of a fishing boat in trouble over turbulent waters.  

There was an old-fashioned dressing table with a folding mirror opposite the bed, and on the upholstered stool in front of it, sitting the wrong way round with his elbows balanced behind him, was the blond from breakfast.

Aaron turned back to Marc.

Even before he’d got the question out, he knew the answer; but it was too late, and anyway, by then he’d decided to enjoy it.

‘Where’s your model, then?’ he asked, looking searchingly about the room.

He saw the blond half close his eyes.

 

 

 

‘You know that meme…the one that goes …oh hello it’s you… it’s going to be you…’ he said later, on the phone to Adam.

‘Yeah?’

‘Well, basically, it was that... only this was…goodbye, it’s not you…it’s not going to be you…’

‘Oh man! I suppose you could just come back.’

‘Nah, I’d better see it through.’

The thing was there was something he hadn’t told Adam, something he felt he shouldn’t tell because it wasn’t about him, and it wasn’t really his place. And a model and a makeup artist, well, before anything else there had to be trust.

 

 

 

Trust? – His very first job and he’d blown it.

Of course, Marc had introduced them and Aaron found out who the blond was; Robert Sugden - he remembered something about a teen on a daytime TV show when he was in primary school.

‘Are you sure he’s qualified? How old is he? Looks like a twelve-year old.’ Robert asked.

‘Basically, your fan base, then.’

‘Why, are you planning on joining? Succumb to the inevitable?’

Their eyes locked again, just like at breakfast, until Robert looked down at Aaron’s makeup case.

‘What products are you using? Dior? Guerlain? M.A.C?’

‘Erm, Wet n Wild, and just Boots own brand, really. But they're alright.’

He thought back to the weekend, trying to slip disposable lip wands in his pocket while Adam turned on the charm with the girl at the chemists.

It was Marc who broke the impasse.

‘We’ve got an hour until the transport's here. Just get it done. And remember Aaron, raw and natural, alright?’

And then he’d gone, leaving them to it.

 

 

Aaron sighed.

So the model wasn’t what he’d hoped for. The best most generous description he could come up with for this one was your boy next door type - and he wasn’t feeling particularly generous.

But he needed to put that behind him now. He needed to stop thinking of Robert as a person, and focus on him as an art project; nothing more, just something to put in his portfolio.

He checked the lighting around the mirror and unzipped the makeup case. Robert sat forward, eyeing his reflection, a finger smoothing down an eyebrow.

He chose a nude primer for the blond’s eyes to start with.

‘Swivel.’

‘You what?’

‘Just move round to face me,’ he snapped.

He squeezed out some of the primer onto his finger tip, took a breath and started at last, dabbing the make up on under his eye.

Finally, they were both quiet.

He gently worked the primer into the corner of his eye, then blended down just onto the cheek bone, while the blond looked up at the ceiling with green eyes that changed every so often like turns of a kaleidoscope.

Now he was actually this close, the thing that struck him was how good he smelt. He must have showered, sat there now in faded jeans and a grey t-shirt, smelling like a field of flowers, or like strawberries and melon, like those cups of chopped fresh fruit that you got with a plastic spoon from the chiller in the coffee shop at college when you had a hangover.

‘Close your eyes a mo.’

He put some primer on his eyelids, picked up a brush and started to work it softly into his deep sockets.

The other thing was his skin. However reluctant he was to admit it, it was impressive. Fine, and poreless, just few hormone pimples on the T-line, he guessed his age around twenty. And then the glorious 3D effect that only freckles can bring, so you feel you’re looking into a sea of gold.

He sat back. He wouldn’t use primer on that, just some sheer foundation with uv protection and bronzer. Nude lips, he swallowed, shimmer on his eyes and eyeliner gel. He looked back at his jawline again.

He would need to blend down his throat.

He grimaced; he should have already thought of this. Rookie error. He cleared his throat.

‘Can you take your T-shirt off?’

‘And careful!’ he warned as the blond reached back pulling it up over his shoulder and off over his head.

It wasn’t a hot day, maybe it was where they were sitting with the sun coming in through the window pane, but the temperature in the room seemed to suddenly soar. And that fruit cup smell, now there was something sharp about it, making his mouth water when it was still hours to lunch.

He noticed he was wearing a chain that hung low down over the smoothest of smooth skin over his pecs. The chain seemed the safest thing to look at. There was a ring on it. And then he saw the writing: True Love Waits.

He blinked. He’d never seen one before, but he knew instantly what it was.

It was so unexpected.

And in an instant all the things about Robert that had jarred seemed to make more sense; the awkward chat up lines for a start.

His mind flashed back to breakfast; so when the blond had said, 'That’s for a special occasion,’  he wasn’t joking: - he’d actually meant it!

Robert had raised his hand to cover the ring, his eyes watching Aaron’s face.

He thought about saying something - something along the lines of... Look, I don’t judge, alright? Whatever people choose to do, or not to do, as long as it feels right for you and doesn’t hurt anyone else. But somehow he couldn’t quite say the words aloud.

‘You’ll need to take it off.’ He gestured vaguely in the direction of the chain. ‘Maybe keep it in your pocket?’ he added gently.

He watched his long fingers move to the catch of the chain, then open it.

Of course he was still a dick. It wasn’t as if the ring made him a better person, or a worse person.

But it did make him a more complicated person.

And then Robert had turned again towards him, holding the ring out.

‘Will you take it for me? I won’t be able to wear it on the shoot, and I need someone to trust with it,’ he said. ‘Can I trust you with it?’

Aaron swallowed.

‘Course you can, course!’

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

Day 1 of the photoshoot. This was it. It was actually happening; Aaron’s first job. The first time he was going to get paid for, well, mostly hanging around he expected.

The lobby of the hotel was surprisingly noisy when he stepped out; a coach had just arrived with new guests who were waiting in line to check in. He saw the waitress from breakfast in a black and white uniform shimmy towards the seats by the window carrying a tray with cups of coffee.

He looked around, relieved to spot the rest of his crew near the entrance; the stylist with garment bags over her arm, an assistant carrying tripods, another with a backpack and suitcases. The photographer Marc was talking on the phone, an expensive looking digital camera slung on straps over his shoulder.

The stylist raised a hand to signal to the driver of a minivan parked up outside just beyond the hotel entrance steps.

Aaron started walking towards the group, when above the holiday frivolity, he heard the elevator ping.

A voice rang out above the general holidaymaker hum.

‘Oh look! It’s that... you know… that famous one… from that TV show.’ 

There was a momentary lull, then a second voice squealed, ‘Yes! Over there! It is! It’s him! It’s that... Richard Sugden!’

People pressed forward. Aaron found himself being propelled in the direction of the lift.

In front of him, framed by the open gold cage door of the elevator, Robert stood, looking all the world like he’d stepped out of one of those prints of Italian renaissance paintings that Aaron had seen hanging in the art department at college. Like a newly hatched golden god.

Aaron ran a critical eye over his handiwork. Had he gone overboard with the shimmer? Did the lips look glossy enough but still natural?

A voice over his shoulder with an Eastern European accent interrupted his thoughts.

‘Wowzer, he’s cute! In fact, he’s perfect!’

It was the waitress.

‘Perfect make-up you mean.’

‘No,’ she insisted, ‘…perfect man specimen - don’t you think?’

He looked again at Robert and blinked. Okay, so maybe in a certain light, some people - people who didn’t get out a lot, might think he was easy on the eyes.

He thought back to earlier in the bedroom when he’d stripped his T-shirt off; and yes, he admitted, if someone had happened to see the cluster of freckles just next to his left nipple, he swallowed; they might think that was a talking point (- no pun intended.)

The lobby suddenly felt hot and airless, and he felt a wave of impatience, and wished they could just get on with the day now.

‘So, who is he? Do you know him?’ The waitress was still drooling from over his shoulder. ‘You know he tried to chat me up this morning at breakfast?’

‘His name’s Robert Sugden,’ he answered. ‘He’s not all that.’

He could hear Robert’s name now being carried to and fro around the lobby like a crowd surfer. In his pocket, his fingers found the purity ring on the chain that just a short while ago Robert had handed over to his safekeeping.

‘He used to be in a TV show that ran for a few years; pretty lame,’ he heard himself say. And then he didn’t know why he did it; he pulled the ring out and held it at waist level on his palm as he and the waitress bent foreheads to get a closer look. ‘This is his. It’s one of those purity rings. He’s still a virgin,’ he said.

And then he died inside at what he’d just done. But it was too late.

 

‘Help get me out of here, will you?’

He hadn’t had time to wallow in guilt; Robert had somehow made it across the lobby and arrived right next to them. Aaron buried the chain and ring hastily back in his pocket, and, seeing his eyes plead, he steered him by the elbow past the crowd who were pressing forwards around them with phones held high, then continued out to the minivan.

Robert scooted onto the back seat. Aaron couldn’t meet his eyes. He gestured at the makeup case and mumbled something about needing space, then slid into a seat nearer the front, not looking back, but feeling Robert’s eyes penetrate his neck from behind.

He was still reeling at what he’d done. He rested his head against the windowpane.

He thought about Adam, who would be home right now doubtless still in bed. Sometimes he stayed over, and he wished he was there instead of here doing this stupid job. He remembered the time when he fixed false eyelashes on him while he slept but he could still sense Robert watching him.

The van gave a little lurch as the driver turned on the engine and Aaron huffed with relief.

His thoughts were interrupted by a tap on the window. The waitress was waving at him, eyes wide, she expanded her screen and held up her phone. Aaron squinted at the number on it. She stretched her eyebrows, gesturing over his head.

‘Give it to him, please? To him? Yes?’ He half heard; half lip-read.

He rolled his eyes but took out his phone and got the number.

She raised her thumbs, and he saw her smile receding into the distance as they finally took off.

 

The Bay at Filey curved like a beckoning finger, caressing the sea that moved close and then ducked away in an endless cycle of kiss and chase.

The van followed the road parallel to the sweeping sandy beach, towards the fingertip formed of a long narrow peninsula of grey rocks, where they stopped in a car park.

This was the spot Marc had chosen for the first shoot.

They left the van and made their way along a wavy concrete path past rock pools of trapped sea water. The sea sparkled and with the late winter sun providing backlighting, Aaron could already see how the photographer would use the setting to compliment his model. He still felt confused and cross with himself for the betrayal, but more so with Robert for asking him to take the ring in the first place when he didn’t even know him. He was conscious of the ring and the chain heavy in his pocket … ‘my precious…’  he thought wryly, imagining telling Adam all about it.

Marc asked Robert to sit on some stacked rocks with the sea behind him, and then knelt on one knee and looked through his camera.

Robert posed, looking inscrutable as he gazed off into the distance.

He was good; creating angles with subtle repositioning of his body, he raised a hand to tug at the roll neck of his sweater, then tucked his chin in, stroking it under the material seductively.

Aaron looked away.

 

There was a break. Aaron helped hand out bottles of water, then caught up on his phone. In the periphery of his vision, he could see the stylist using the open door of the van as a screen while Robert changed outfits from the sweater and trousers he’d been wearing into a floral shirt and pale blue nylon beach shorts.

He couldn’t help but notice Robert shivering, his hands rubbing against his pale thighs as the offshore winds stung his skin. He rolled his eyes and turned his shoulders, frowning over a list of top ten ever Popular Prosthetics in some cinema industry blog.

He heard the rustle of material approach. Robert was next to him, a trench coat over his model’s clothes, raising a paper cup of steaming coffee to his mouth as he spoke.

 ‘What are you playing? Candy crush?’

‘No.’

‘I once got to level a thousand and something when I was filming, you know.’

‘Good for you.’

‘There was a lot of hanging around, time sat in the caravan between takes, learning lines. Not like this, this’ll be over quicker, right?’  

‘Mmm.’

‘What’s that then, a dating app? Not that you’d need to. Nice looking lad like you, expect you get your pick of drop-dead gorgeous girls working in this job.’

Aaron pulled in his chin.

‘Erm…No.

‘You should hang around in my orbit then, tell you what, you could be my wing-man, though I need to warn you, there’ll only be slim pickings left for you.’

Robert flapped his hands in the pockets of his trench coat.

Aaron lowered his phone and turned to inspect Robert’s face. He wanted to point out that he’d already heard his car crash of an attempt to chat up girls that morning with the waitress, but then, he reflected it hadn’t seemed to matter as she’d somehow liked him anyway. What was it she’d said? That he was perfect? He needed to give him the waitress's number, but he’d make him wait. Robert cracked a boyish grin looking back at him. Aaron shook his head.

‘Good job I’m gay then,’ he answered.

He saw Robert’s eyelids flicker like the lights on the Blackpool ghost train that time he’d gone with Adam last summer.

‘Gay? Really?’

‘Really. So, you can keep all the girls - not that you know what to do with them, ey?’

Aaron patted his arm through the fabric of the trench coat, then walked away.

 

Shortly after, Marc called everyone back to work. Robert had sunglasses as a prop to hold as he sat on the rocks. Marc told him to undo the buttons of his shirt and made encouraging comments as Robert posed, drawing on his acting skills, moving with precision for the camera.

‘That’s awesome. Can you look off that way? Now with the sunglasses? Just play… Oh yeah…Love that!’

Aaron was reluctantly mesmerized. He noticed day trippers had started to stop and watch. He followed their eyes, watching Robert’s exposed body in the cold. Someone raised a phone to take a picture.

‘Oi! Do you mind?’ he bristled, putting a hand out to block them.

 

‘Didn’t we do a spray tan? Did we decide not to?’ Marc took more pictures as he spoke – shlack -shlack. ‘…Maybe we should though, Aaron - tonight? Can you get that done? Just a light tan to suit that copper shimmer you’ve got going on. Thanks, love.’

Aaron chewed his lower lip. He didn’t have that kind of equipment. The easiest thing would be to phone around and get him booked into a beauty salon somewhere that stayed open late.

‘Okay, let’s take another break.’ Marc announced. ‘Drink water everyone. Stay hydrated.’

Aaron felt relieved as they all started to pick their way back along the path towards the van. He sensed rather than saw Robert draw level with him and dropped to one knee to fake fasten a shoelace. For a moment Robert rocked on his feet and then he walked on.

Aaron watched him walk around alone while the others in the work group stood together chatting. He had some phone calls to make, didn’t he?

He called up a few salons in town in walking distance of the hotel. It started to spit with rain; Aaron looked up, he wondered what Marc the photographer would decide to do. Next thing the stylist was herding them all back onto the mini-bus and there was an announcement that that was the wrap for the day, and an early start tomorrow. Just before he got on the bus Aaron caught up with Robert, briefly touching his elbow to get his attention.

‘This is yours.’ He slipped the ring into his hand, blushing glad to be rid of it, so maybe not so precious after all. ‘And also, this is for you.’ He’d scrawled the waitress’s number on the back of a sandwich wrapper. He explained whose number it was. ‘She wants to meet up with you,’ he said turning down the corners of his mouth.

‘Why?’ Robert frowned, looking bemused.

‘You know! Like hook up…a date?’ Aaron shook his head despairing; could Robert really be this big a loser?

‘And you need to go for a fake tan, Marc said. So, give me your number, mate, and I’ll be in touch about it.’

Sitting back on the bus, he rolled out his shoulders, relieved that the half-day was finally over.

He looked out of the window and watched the hills and fields pass as the bus made its way back towards the hotel. He could feel his mouth start to turn up into a smile, bit down hard against his lip; he’d only gone and got the personal phone number of the actual verified child star and heart throb Robert Sugden, hadn’t he? Not like he cared, but still, he would tell his cousin Belle about it when he got back; she’d be made up, and all her mates.

 

 

‘My room’s better than this one; the bed’s bigger, and it’s got a sea view.’ Robert leaned with his hands on the sill looking out from the window, where it had stopped raining a while ago. He turned back to Aaron, fixing him with glittering eyes. ‘Always happens to me. I always get the best. Perks of being the star, you see.’

Aaron inclined his head.

‘If you say so. Shall we get on with this, then?’

He hoped he didn’t sound nervous. The problem was it was half day closing in Filey, and he hadn’t been able to get an appointment for a spray tan anywhere, so Marc had told him to buy a kit on express delivery and said he’d put it down as expenses. It had arrived an hour ago, complete with pop up tent, spray machine and gun and accelerated spray tanning lotion, and a packet of twenty-five paper thongs – now twenty-three – because yes, Aaron had … well anyway….

‘Oh and, ta very much for the number,’ Robert went on. ‘I did call her; and since you’re dying to know, I can tell you that I am meeting up with her later this evening; a walk round the bay, maybe a drink, who knows.’

‘Good for you,’ Aaron replied. He was mostly concerned about how this was going to go. The pop-up tent was open in the bathroom, and the machine was plugged in. Somehow, he needed Robert naked and ready to be sprayed.

He pointed to the bathroom and coughed.

‘Could you, erm…take your kit off, and put on those?’ he mumbled, gesturing at the paper pants.

But instead, Robert reached in the gym bag he’d come in with and pulled out a bottle of spirits.

‘I will,’ he answered, ‘but how about we have some of this first?’

Aaron blinked. He wondered if this was because Robert wanted Dutch courage for his date later, or was it that he wanted Dutch courage for the spray tan? Or was he just another young star whose life had unfolded under the glare of media and public scrutiny, who’d turned to substances to help him cope. They’d talked about the risks in college as a part of his course work.

On the other hand, he’d quite like a drink himself in the current circumstances. It couldn’t hurt.

‘Alright,’ he nodded.

Robert produced a stack of paper cups. He’d really thought of everything. He unscrewed the lid and poured them each a glass while Aaron watched, then handed one over to him.

‘Cheers, then,’ Robert said, holding out his cup.

Maybe for the first time that day, Aaron looked into his eyes, and Robert looked directly back, holding each other’s gaze.

‘Cheers,’ Aaron touched his cup against Robert’s, and smiled shyly back.

 

 

The thing was, he wasn’t so bad when you talked to him – still had an ego the size of a planet mind, but also, he had this way of smiling right at you, with his eyes creasing at the corners, like he saw you – the actual you, in a way Aaron wasn’t used to.

‘You’re doing great, building a career like this.’ Robert gestured at Aaron’s make up case in the corner of the room. ‘So, you still live at home with your family I expect? And they support you, do they?’

‘Well, with my Mum, yes. My dad, let’s just say he wasn’t the best, and he’s out of the picture for good now.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. But your Mum, she’s there for you. That’s really important.’

Aaron nodded, then blinked. ‘Erm, do you fancy a game?’ He’d already connected his Nintendo switch console to the hotel wi-fi, and before long they were both side by side cross legged on the bed, a little flushed from the free-flowing drink. Robert unzipped his blue track suit top and took it off, and Aaron looked sideways at his loose cotton T-shirt over his wide chest, then remembered they were supposed to be doing the spray tan.

‘That’s alright,’ Robert grinned stumbling out of his trousers, and laughing.

‘Careful,’ Aaron put out a hand to steady him, feeling Robert grip his forearm. He handed him the paper pants and Robert squinted at them and said they were rather ridiculous and both started giggling. Robert didn’t care at all about stripping off in front of Aaron who lowered his gaze, trying not to notice this beautiful naked youth in his bedroom. Then Robert wrecked a couple of pairs of paper thongs ripping them as he tried to get them on then finally succeeded and went into the pop-up tent. And Aaron proceeded to spray him.

 

‘Do you think she’ll want me to kiss her?’

Aaron stroked an eyebrow. Robert lay glowing and bronze, propped up on an elbow on Aaron’s bed, just a bath towel wrapped round his waist while they waited for the tan to settle.

‘How would I know? Maybe, ‘ he answered, distractedly. Mostly he was worried that Marc would say he’d gone too many tones deep, but since he wasn’t experienced, Marc would just have to lump it.

‘What if she realizes I don’t know what I’m doing?’

The morning came flooding back to Aaron. How could he tell Robert that she already knew about the purity ring; that he’d betrayed him!

‘Well, you must have kissed.’

‘No not, you know, not with an open mouth.’

‘What never?’

‘No, we agreed it might lead to other stuff. I just want to be normal now. Will you help me?’

‘What?’

‘Will you show me. How it is. I just. I don’t want to look an idiot.’

‘You already failed at that mate. How can I help anyway? Just search, I’m sure you’ll find loads of stuff.’

‘Well, that’s the problem; there’s so much, it’s confusing.’

They were side by side on their elbows on the bed, Robert bare-chested. Aaron could still feel the heat from the alcohol in his stomach. The whole day had been bizarre anyway, so what difference would this make?

All at once Robert leant forward to his face, a peck against his cheek.

It was really nice.

‘What did you do that for?’

‘I just wanted to. You don’t mind, do you?’

Aaron could see a vague hint of salt on his lips, and then there was that melon scent, like that morning when he was applying his make-up. He could see sparkles from the fake tan on the open pores of Robert’s cheeks, dancing over the freckles.

Robert’s eyes shifted down Aaron’s face, too.

‘Practice with me,’ he said.

‘I don’t need to practice, mate,’ Aaron muttered.

‘You know what I mean. Show me, Aaron, show me how to do it well.’

Aaron held his breath. There was a voice saying this wasn’t right, and then another one, asking why not? It’s just to practice, it’s not real, it doesn’t mean anything, and later he’ll be kissing the girl from the restaurant anyway, and… wasn’t he even curious?

‘Just keep still,’ he breathed.

Robert nodded. He had a deadly serious expression on his face.

And Aaron did it. He moved closer. And kissed him on the mouth.

He could smell his skin, so bloody sweet and delicious; all peaches and cream with freckles like sprinkles of caramel sugar.

Their lips brushed softly together. He noticed the rise and fall of Robert’s chest, reached a hand up to his shoulder squeezing him reassuringly with his fingertips. Next, he moved his mouth slowly increasing the pressure as they got used to the sensation of lips being in contact. Then he gradually parted his, the motion forcing Robert’s mouth to open too, and pushed the tip of his tongue forward into the gap, where he found Robert’s tongue and they touched, tenderly seeking out the sensation of caressing each other intimately.

Aaron stopped for a moment just to draw a breath and heard a hitch of longing in Robert’s throat. It’s okay, he wanted to say, I’m just learning to breathe with you like this.

Their tongues met again.

And then Robert took his hand and threaded his fingers, and it was so unexpected, Aaron leaned back and shook his head.

Robert’s eyes were still closed, and for a moment Aaron swept his gaze over him, lying in just a towel on his bed. Then Robert opened his eyes and smiled.

‘So, what do you think?’ Robert asked. ‘Will she like it?’ He was already diving off the bed looking for his clothes. ‘I’m going to be late!’ he added.

‘She’ll like it. You’ll be fine,’ Aaron said, looking down.

‘See you in the morning, then. I’ll tell you all about it.’

‘Wow, can’t wait, mate.’ Aaron answered, but Robert had already gone.