Sid mistakes it for politeness at first.
Not that Sid knows what politeness looks like on Sullivan, not exactly. The new Inspector is never polite to him - in fact, he's usually downright hostile - so perhaps it isn't politeness at all, perhaps it's just awkwardness.
Whatever it is, Sid has noticed that Sullivan behaves differently around women.
Sid watches him. He watches the uncomfortable shift of Sullivan's body whenever Lady F brushes past him, the way he tips his hat, gaze averted, every time a woman talks to him, as though prolonged eye contact might be considered improper.
Sid can't understand it himself; that primness, that propriety. It irritates him.
Inspector Sullivan's arrival is the talk of the village, and with looks like that, Sullivan could have his pick. God knows, half the female population of Kembleford have been speculating about Sullivan's marital status. If Sid were in his position, he'd capitalise on that new-found attention, but instead Sullivan wastes it, shying away as if he's taken a vow of celibacy. Which is all well and good for the likes of Father Brown and Bishop Talbot, but Sullivan isn't a member of the clergy. From what Sid has heard, Sullivan isn't even religious.
It doesn't appear to be abstinence either. On the few occasions where Sullivan has joined the rest of them at functions, Sid has seen him drink and smoke. And if he doesn't subscribe to the belief that sex outside of marriage is wrong, then really, what's stopping him?
Some men lack confidence, Sid supposes. Though if Sullivan is one of them, he certainly doesn't let it impact on any other aspect of his life.
At work, Sullivan is every bit the arrogant Inspector. He's stubborn and rude and bloody-minded, and he seems to take an almost sadistic pleasure in chasing Sid and the Father away from his crime scenes, insisting that he knows best. If anything, Sid would describe him as arrogant. Self-assured.
So in the absence of a better explanation, Sid chalks up Sullivan's odd behaviour to a some sort of misguided attempt at etiquette.
It isn't long before something happens to blow that theory out of the water.
One hot afternoon in May, as Sid is working on the Rolls in front of the presbytery while he waits for Lady F to finish discussing plans for the summer fete. He is topping up the oil for the water pump, sweating in the heat of the midday sun, when he hears the low rumble of an engine approach. He looks up just in time to see the Wolseley draw up, grinding to a halt alongside him.
"All right, where is he?" Sullivan calls, climbing out and adjusting his cuffs. Poised and pristine, even in this weather.
Sid straightens himself up from where he has been hunched over the bonnet. "Good afternoon to you too, Inspector."
"Don't start. Just tell me where he is."
"Where who is?"
"You know who."
"Well, as you're here, I could probably hazard a guess, yeah."
"Is he inside?"
"I dunno." Sid grins. It's too easy, winding Sullivan up. "I'm not his keeper."
Sullivan scowls. "No, I didn't think you'd know, somehow."
"Then why did you ask?"
"Because Father Brown has been meddling in one of my cases again."
"Oh," says Sid. "I s'pose you'd better go and look for him yourself then, hadn't you?"
"Yes, thank you, Mr. Carter. Helpful as ever."
Sid laughs, cleaning his hands off on a piece of old cloth, before swiping his forearm across his brow. Even with his uniform jacket strewn across the front seat, his sleeves rolled up, and the top three buttons of his shirt unfastened, the heat is getting to him. How Sullivan always manages to look so unaffected and well put-together is a mystery. It's like the man has evolved beyond the need to sweat.
Sid slings the rag into the footwell and closes the driver's side door. When he looks up again, Sullivan is still standing there, eyes on him, frowning at his unbuttoned shirt, as though Sid should somehow be immune to the heat too. Under Sullivan's scrutiny, Sid feels his pulse quicken and his skin grow impossibly hotter.
"What?" he asks, annoyed.
Sullivan doesn't answer, only jumps slightly, looking up at Sid's face again.
"We can't all hide away in our nice, cool offices," Sid continues. "Some of us actually have to work for a living."
Sid is expecting a sarcastic remark about some of the less honest means by which he earns his money, but Sullivan doesn't rise to the bait. There is a momentary flash of something unidentifiable in Sullivan's eyes before he looks away completely, swallowing hard.
"Just tidy yourself up, for pity's sake, Carter," he spits, turning towards the presbytery. "You look a mess."
For a moment, Sid is so taken aback at Sullivan's outburst that he doesn't register the twitch of Sullivan's jaw, the way his voice quavers. He watches Sullivan walk away, unexpectedly stung by his words.
This wasn't their usual banter - teasing, with a bit of an edge. This was cruel. It takes Sid a few seconds to realise that Sullivan was lashing out. Not angry, but panicked. Defensive. As though he had been caught in the act, except the only thing Sid had caught him doing was-
Well, that certainly puts a different spin on things.
The intensity of Sullivan's gaze, the way his eyes had roved over Sid's exposed chest... What if Sullivan wasn't looking at him with disapproval at all?
Sid's stomach flips.
That would explain Sullivan's alarm. It would also go a long way to explaining why Sid has never seen him looking at women...
Sid starts down the path after him. He doesn't know what he plans to say, whether he wants to say anything at all, but by the time he reaches the garden, it's too late. Mrs. M has already opened the door, and Sullivan steps inside, disappearing from view.
Title from Domino by Bing Crosby (just a touch of your hand and I burst into fire)
After that, Sullivan stops looking.
It isn't just that he's careful not to stare, or that he's careful not to let Sid catch him staring; Sullivan doesn't look at Sid at all.
Every time Sid walks into the station, Sullivan hurries into his office and closes the door. On the odd occasion that Sid tags along to a crime scene, hanging back to finish off his cigarette while Father Brown talks his way under the cordon, Sullivan skulks off to a quiet corner and busies himself scrutinising the pages of his notebook.
The funny thing is, if it wasn't for Sullivan's even more suspicious behaviour, Sid might have started to doubt his version of what happened at the presbytery.
After all, it does seem unlikely, doesn't it? Sullivan fancying him...
Putting aside Sullivan's apparent irritation every time he sees Sid, and their constant bickering, Sid finds it hard to reconcile Sullivan's choice of career with the idea that he might have a preference for men. How can someone who swore to uphold the law, who takes such pleasure in enforcing petty rules, still believe in what he's doing when his own desires are illegal?
It should be laughable, the hypocrisy of it. It should make Sid's blood boil.
But when he thinks about Sullivan, so afraid of being found out that he has taken to avoiding Sid completely, all Sid feels is a dull ache of sympathy in his chest.
He knows what that's like; that fear, that self-denial.
It took Sid a long time to understand his own feelings, let alone accept them.
He had always fancied women, and when he was younger he'd assumed that precluded him from fancying men too. You were one thing or the other, as far as Sid had known. He'd heard about the kind of men who wanted other men, through schoolyard insults, and later through the scandalised whispers of the villagers. It wasn't something Sid wanted to be. It wasn't something anyone wanted to be.
So if he'd started to notice the way Eddie Gerard's arms looked in a tee-shirt when they'd gone fishing down at the riverside together, if he'd privately enjoyed the weight of his friends on him as they'd tussled in the grass, those long, hot summers towards the end of the war, well then he'd kept his mouth shut.
And because girls were just as nice to look at, Sid had managed to avoid confronting his feelings for longer than most.
Maybe Sullivan doesn't have that option.
If Sid is right about him, and Sullivan isn't interested in women at all, then how would Sullivan go about meeting someone? When would he get the opportunity?
There are places Sid knows of, where men can go to get what they need. The old railway tunnel near the woods, the public conveniences on the outskirts of Standing. Sid has never visited either of those spots - too risky - and he can't imagine Sullivan would dare consider it, because however hard it is for Sid, it must be ten times harder for Sullivan.
The police check those places. There are local bobbies who stop in on their beats, and it isn't unheard of for an undercover policeman to be deployed, pretending to be a homosexual in order to trick other men into trying it on. If Sullivan were ever caught at that sort of place, his life would be as good as over.
The ache in Sid's chest sharpens into a painful stab at that.
It must be lonely, being in Sullivan's position. What does he have to get by on? The odd affair with someone discreet? Less than that?
It makes Sid reconsider Sullivan's aversion to being touched. Perhaps it's neither etiquette nor revulsion, perhaps Sullivan has just grown so accustomed to being alone that he isn't used to anyone touching him at all.
That's the thought that stays with Sid over the following days, each time he replays that moment at the presbytery in his head, remembering the words they'd exchanged and the look in Sullivan's eye...
He thinks of how desperate Sullivan must be just to get a good look at a man, to drink in the sight of him, without fear of repercussions. How badly Sullivan must need someone to touch him.
Sid could oblige.
He's considered it before. Of course he has; Sullivan is a handsome bloke and Sid is only human. When the two of them had first been introduced, Sid had given Sullivan a quick once-over and he'd be lying if he said he hadn't wondered what it would feel like to get his hands on the man.
But he'd quickly dismissed any real hopes of anything happening between them. Sullivan had seemed to take an instant dislike to him, and Sid had no reason beyond wishful thinking to suspect that Sullivan might be interested in men anyway.
How was he supposed to tell?
Maybe in hindsight there might have been more to their bickering; an undercurrent of something urgent, something dangerous simmering just beneath the surface, but Sid couldn't have known that at the time. He often feels a frisson of excitement when he's provoking someone; that doesn't mean to say it goes both ways.
Now though... Knowing that it might be a possibility, Sid can't seem to stop thinking about it.
Stray thoughts cross his mind at the most inopportune moments. A lapse of concentration while he's ferrying Lady F around that results in him nearly mounting the grass verge at the side of the road. His mind wandering when he's in the presbytery kitchen, pouring tea, causing him to miss the cup and scald his fingers (and worse, ruin one of Mrs. M's hand-crocheted doilies).
He does his best to stave them off, to keep his mind occupied with lists of chores, or images of pin-up girls from his favourite magazines, but there is only so much he can take.
Alone in the caravan at night, Sid gives in and allows himself to imagine it: how it would feel to touch Sullivan, to kiss him, to press him up against the wall of his office and mess up that ridiculous, immaculate suit of his. Sid can picture the way Sullivan's eyebrows would draw together, almost pained, as Sid dragged his fingers down his body. He can hear the breathless, needy sounds Sullivan would make.
Where it felt wrong before, it doesn't now. Sullivan wants him, or at least Sid suspects he does. Sid wouldn't be making unwanted advances. No, Sullivan would ask for it - beg for it - and Sid can't stop the tide of arousal that washes over him at the prospect of being the one to give Sullivan exactly what he needs.
It's only after the third morning in a row of waking up flushed and guilty that Sid decides something must be done about it.
It's going to be a test, that's all. An experiment, to get confirmation that he hasn't misinterpreted Sullivan's looks.
He'd bet good money that he isn't imagining things, but still, he can't confront Sullivan directly. What if he's got it all wrong?
It has happened before. Situations where Sid has misread the signals, made a move, and nearly been punched for his efforts. Luckily, those times have been few and far between, and he has managed to play it off as a joke, relying on his reputation to protect him. After all, with so many women and even the occasional angry husband to testify to what a womaniser he is, who'd believe he liked men?
Sullivan doesn't have that luxury. His behaviour would be all too easy to pick apart if there was even the slightest hint that he had those kind of tendencies. Sid needs to tread carefully. He needs to ensure he gets Sullivan alone.
So he waits, bides his time until the right opportunity presents itself.
That moment comes over breakfast one morning, a week or so later, when they are gathered around the kitchen table in the presbytery.
"Mrs. McCarthy," Father Brown begins, taking a bite of his buttered toast and smiling sweetly at her. "Are your errands taking you anywhere in the vicinity of the police station today?"
"Well, perhaps later on this afternoon when I'll be calling into Mrs. Gale's. Her son has the chickenpox, so I'm taking them some stew, and I suppose their house isn't very far from the station."
"Then would you be so kind as to drop these into the Inspector on the way?" he asks, gesturing to a brown folder to the right of his plate.
"What are they?"
"Some documents that I think Inspector Sullivan will find very useful in the Roe case."
"I'll go," Sid pipes up. They both turn to look at him, so he adds: "What? I've got to get some food in later. Bakery's near the station."
Mrs. M frowns doubtfully, but all the Father says is, "Thank you, Sid," as he hands the file over.
"Just don't go looking at any of the contents," Mrs. M tells him.
"Would I ever?"
"Yes, you most certainly would! That's why I'm telling you not to."
"All right, all right," says Sid, holding up his hands in mock surrender. "You have my word."
"Well, I'm not sure that means very much," Mrs. M continues, but Sid is glad she's leapt to the wrong conclusion. Up to no good is a better and safer assumption than desperate to get a moment alone with Inspector Sullivan.
"Right, better get going," Sid says, pushing back his chair and swiping an extra piece of toast for the road.
He's out of the door before he has to field any further questions from either of them, heading off in the direction of the station, and if he happens to stop into the outhouse to comb his hair and adjust his shirt along the way, then nobody else needs to know about it.
The reception area is quiet when Sid arrives, with only Sergeant Goodfellow manning the front desk, filling out paperwork, and some subdued singing coming from the direction of the cells. Goodfellow looks up, setting down his pen, when he hears Sid approach.
"'Mornin', Mr. Carter."
"All right?" Sid props himself up against the counter on his elbows. "Sullivan in?"
"He's in his office."
"Can I take him this?" Sid asks, waving the folder. "The Father sent me, told me to make sure Sullivan gets it in person. Something about the Roe case?"
Goodfellow purses his lips. "Follow me," he says, getting up and leading Sid over to the door.
Goodfellow knocks twice in quick succession, then opens it before Sullivan gets the chance to respond, peering around the frame, and announcing: "Sid Carter's here to see you, sir."
Deciding to adopt Goodfellow's tactics, Sid pushes his way inside before Sullivan can protest, and Goodfellow closes the door behind them.
Sullivan sits up ramrod straight in his leather chair. "Carter."
"Unlike you to walk into a police station voluntarily."
Sid huffs out a laugh. Apparently Sullivan's go-to response when he's panicked is to insult him, and Sid must admit that he gets a funny sort of kick out of it.
"The Father wanted me to give you this," he says, taking a few steps towards Sullivan.
"What is it?"
"I dunno, something to do with the Roe case."
When he draws level with Sullivan's desk, Sid leans against the edge of it, half sitting, half standing, and watches Sullivan's eyes flit down to where his thighs are pressed to the wood, spreading slightly with the pressure. He still can't be one hundred percent sure whether it's disapproval or interest, but Sullivan visibly swallows before forcing his gaze back towards the file.
"Well, hand it over then," Sullivan snaps, holding out an expectant hand.
As Sid passes Sullivan the folder, he stretches out his fingers, stroking the back of Sullivan's hand. Not an accidental brush, but an unmistakable caress, and Sullivan shivers, before snatching his arm away like he's been burned.
"Right, thank you, Mr. Carter. Will that be all?" Sullivan's voice is tense and clipped.
Sid licks his lips, watching the tension in the set of Sullivan's jaw, the vein throbbing in his temple. He won't look up now, won't meet Sid's eyes. He is staring resolutely at a piece of paper in front of him.
"Yep," says Sid.
"Then I trust you can see yourself out? I'm very busy." Sullivan still sounds shaken, and as much as Sid enjoys teasing him, he has no wish to be cruel.
"Since you asked so nicely..."
Sid pushes up off the desk. It could be a trick of the light, but Sid thinks he can see a thin sheen of sweat forming on Sullivan's upper lip as he turns to leave. He closes the door to Sullivan's office behind him, feeling breathless, giddy.
And if he wasn't sure before, he is now.
The next time Sid sees Sullivan, it's the day of the fete.
Sid has been killing time perusing the stalls out on the village green, sampling some of the food and having a couple of goes at the coconut shy, while he waits for Lady F to finish helping with the raffle.
According to the sign pitched outside, the cake competition is being held in the marquee this year, so Sid ducks in to try his luck snatching a few slices of Mrs. M's lemon drizzle cake. He's had his eye on it ever since he saw it cooling on top of the stove in the presbytery kitchen, but Mrs. M had been guarding it too closely then.
Inside the tent, a series of stands line the linen walls, and there is a long table set up at the back, which has been draped in a gingham cloth and covered with elaborately decorated cakes. Little name cards have been placed in front of each one, and Sid assumes this must be the competition. He is about to go over and find out, when his focus is diverted.
Beside the table stands Sullivan. He wearing his light grey suit - the one he only wears for formal occasions - and looking distinctly uncomfortable as he talks to Mrs. Hunter from the WI.
Sid works his way towards them, pausing to buy a Belgian bun from one of the other stalls on the way, in order to avoid looking suspicious. The bustling crowd in the marquee grants him relative anonymity, but he still stops a safe distance away.
He needs to talk to Sullivan, but not today, not anywhere so public.
So Sid listens instead. He is just close enough to be within earshot of Sullivan's conversation with Mrs. Hunter, and from what Sid is able to make out, Sullivan has been sent by his superiors to be the face of the Kembleford constabulary, but somewhere along the line, one of the old dears has managed to rope him into being on the panel of judges, and Sullivan does not look pleased about it.
Sid takes a bite of his bun and does his best to hold back a laugh.
A few other old ladies are waiting nearby, and as soon as Mrs. Hunter wanders off, they pounce, surrounding Sullivan, pointing to their entries and asking for his assessments. There are a couple of younger women too - women more Sullivan's age - who approach him on the pretense of discussing their cakes, but Sid can see from the way they look at him that it isn't his opinion they're interested in.
If Sullivan can see it, then he doesn't react. He just nods dutifully and casts an eye over the cakes again, hands clasped tightly behind his back, bobbing on his heels, and carrying enough tension in his shoulders to rival that of a coiled spring.
One woman in particular seems to have taken a shine to him: a brunette in a green dress, who keeps beaming at him as she talks about her Victoria Sponge. Sid watches her too, takes in her full red lips and her neat ringlets.
She's pretty. Sid certainly wouldn't turn her down, but Sullivan does. Or rather, he gives her a grimace that might pass for a smile to the untrained eye, then pretends to reexamine every single one of the cakes in such detail that it looks as though he's planning to pick the winner based on visual appeal alone.
It'd be funny if it wasn't so pitiful.
It'd be funny if Sid didn't feel an odd pang of envy every time she smiles at him.
He has no cause to be jealous; Sullivan clearly isn't interested, and Sid could sweet talk a pretty woman into bed any day of the week. But still, something squirms in the pit of his stomach at the sight of them together.
Sid goes to take another bite of his Belgian bun, but finds he is no longer hungry.
He should leave before he's seen, so he turns, heads back out of the marquee and into the glaring light of the afternoon sun. He drops the last piece of bun onto the scorched grass, and makes his way back to the car.
In the driver's seat, Sid sits with the door open, watching the waves of heat rise off the bonnet for a while before closing his eyes. The distortion is making his head swim.
Sullivan can't be interested in that woman. He wasn't fighting the urge to look at her; there was no urge there at all. When you're attracted to someone, it is involuntary. You can't stop your eyes being drawn to the curve of a nice pair of legs or the fit of someone's clothing.
Sullivan looks at Sid that way.
The only discomfort Sullivan feels around him seems to stem from thinking that he isn't allowed to look. If Sullivan knew that it was safe, that Sid wanted him to look, would he indulge? Would he stare openly?
Sid thinks about letting Sullivan watch him undress. He could push Sullivan back into a chair and stand over him while he took in the sight of him, committing every last detail to memory. He thinks about Sullivan's hands hot on his hips, pulling him closer, and the desperate sounds he would make.
Sid is still thinking about it some indeterminate time later, when Lady Felicia collapses into the backseat of the Rolls, adjusting the straps of her shoes as she settles, and startling him.
"I thought it was never going to end," she says. "That's the last time I let Mrs. M talk me into announcing the raffle numbers. They had almost as many prizes as they had tickets."
Sid sits up, pulling on his gloves and donning his hat. "That bad?"
He turns the key in the ignition, holding in the starter. "Ready to get out of here?"
Outside, the last of the parishioners are filtering out of the tent and onto the green, and stall holders are beginning to pack away their tables. Sullivan stands, facing away from the car, shaking hands with a woman Sid assumes must be one of the winners of the cake competition.
Sid steals one final glance back at him in the rear-view mirror, before pulling off.
"You know, the Inspector's a funny one," Lady F begins, following Sid's gaze.
"You're telling me," says Sid.
"I'm serious. You should have seen him earlier."
Something prickles uncomfortably at the topic of watching Sullivan, and Sid shifts in his seat. "Got better things to do than spend my time staring at Inspector Sullivan, thank you very much."
"Well, perhaps you have, but that poor girl from the conveyancer's office in town hadn't. She spent half the afternoon hovering around him and he wouldn't even give her the time of day. Did you see her?"
"Brunette in the green dress?"
"Yes, that snazzy number with the full circle skirt."
"Mm, she was in the marquee with him."
Lady Felicia frowns. "You know, I used to feel quite insulted that he never showed any interest in me, but now I'm starting to wonder..."
Sid feels his heart thud harder in his chest.
"Wonder what?" he asks, trying to keep his voice level.
"Are you honestly telling me you haven't noticed anything... odd about Inspector Sullivan?"
He has. Of course he has, but all he says is, "Plenty of things. Want me to reel off a list?"
"Sidney," she admonishes. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
"Oh, come, you must have noticed?"
"Noticed what exactly?"
Lady F slumps back into her seat, frustrated. "Sometimes I can't tell whether you really don't know what I'm talking about, or whether you're deliberately being obtuse."
"Like I said," says Sid, "you'll have to be more specific."
"Fine, but you mustn't breathe a word of it."
"You know me," he says.
And she does. She knows better than anyone that Sid can keep a secret. He'd like to think he is her confidante. They often share the latest gossip - in the car, or over tea in the drawing room while Monty is away - and it never goes any further. There is an unspoken agreement between them, and Sid has always kept to it.
All the same, he can feel her eyes boring into the back of his head as she asks, "Have you ever noticed the way the Inspector looks at women?"
Sid keeps his focus firmly on the road. A heat creeps up him, spreading across his chest, up his neck, and after a moment's hesitation, he says, "The way he doesn't look at them, you mean?"
"So you have noticed!"
Sid shrugs. "Hard not to."
"I'd say he was just ill at ease, but that girl, the conveyancer's secretary. She kept trying to talk to him, and he practically leapt behind the white elephant stall to get away from her."
"Mm," says Sid.
"If it were just me, I might think I was losing my allure, but that pretty little thing... Come on, Sid, you're a red-blooded man. If that girl had spent the afternoon chasing after you, would you have turned her down?"
"No," Sid says honestly. "I wouldn't."
"My point exactly. So what do you suppose it says about a man who would?"
"Well, on whether he's married, for one thing."
"Which we already know the Inspector isn't."
"Or whether he's seeing someone..."
"I have it on good authority that Inspector Sullivan is unattached."
"Oh yeah?" Sid asks, trying and failing to keep the curiosity out of his voice. "Whose authority is that, then?"
Sid peers over his shoulder. "And when did he tell you that?"
"Never you mind. Just answer my question. What would you assume if a man has proven on more than one occasion that he has no interest in women?"
"I think you already know the answer to that."
"Of course I do, but I'm asking for an objective opinion."
Sid doesn't realise he's going to say it, not until the words are already out of his mouth, and then it's too late. "In that case, I don't think mine's the one you want."
A pause and then Lady Felicia looks up, meeting his eyes in the rear-view mirror.
"And what," she inquires steadily, "is that supposed to mean?"
Sid feels his palms prick with sweat inside his leather gloves. "That I'm not impartial."
"Why? Has he said something to you?"
"But you've seen something?"
"Do we have to get into this?"
"You can't just mention something like that and expect me to drop the subject, Sidney. Out with it."
Sid shuffles around uncomfortably. "I've just seen him looking, that's all."
"At other men?"
"In a manner of speaking..."
Lady Felicia goes quiet, and Sid risks a quick glance back, just in time to see the moment the penny drops.
"Oh!" she says. "Oh, I say! Looking at you?"
"Well, there's no need to sound so surprised..." Sid mutters, affronted.
"I'm not! Or rather I am, but only because the Inspector seems to spend half his time trying to arrest you."
"Yeah, well, believe me, I thought I was imagining things too. Kept telling myself I was reading too much into it, but I've caught him at it a few times now."
He sighs. "All right, so: the other day, at the presbytery... Sullivan comes round to ask a few questions, right? You lot were all inside, planning the fete, and I was out the front, working on the motor. He stops and asks me if I know where the Father is. Only while we're talking, he's looking me up and down, really looking at me, you know? I thought he didn't approve of be being out of uniform, 'cause I'd taken my jacket off in the heat, but when I caught him looking, he got defensive. Bit my head off and scarpered. And then-"
"Then after that, at the station... I had to drop off some case notes for the Father, and when I passed Sullivan the folder, my hand brushed against his and he shivered."
Lady Felicia raises her eyebrows. "Did he say anything?"
"Nope. Just pulled away from me like I'd stuck a red hot poker on him, and told me to get out."
"And you haven't spoken to him since?"
Sid shrugs ruefully. "He's been avoiding me."
"Well, that would certainly explain a few things."
Lady Felicia falls silent then, looking out of the window.
"Senseless, isn't it?" she muses at length. "The way heart wants what it can't have. Like the universe is playing a rotten joke."
"How d'you mean?"
"Well, all those hopeful women chasing after Inspector Sullivan, not knowing his inclinations. Meanwhile, the Inspector's after you, even if he's barking up the wrong tree."
This time it's Sid's turn to fall quiet. His stomach is churning and he can feel damp patches forming on the fabric of his undershirt, where the sweat is starting to soak through.
"Sid?" she begins tentatively, after the silence has stretched on for too long.
"The Inspector is barking up the wrong tree, isn't he?" When Sid doesn't answer, she reaches forward into the front to place a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "You know you can tell me anything."
Sid sniffs. "Yeah, all right. Maybe he's not barking up the wrong tree, exactly..."
"I see." She frowns. "More... a tree that bows in more than one direction?"
"Er, that's one way of putting it."
"You surprised now?"
And Sid can tell that she is, just slightly, but when she answers, "Only that we share the same taste in men," he loves her all the more for it.
It was never fear that prevented him from telling Lady F. Not fear of consequences, anyway. Just that she might view him differently.
He should have known better. He has seen the books she reads, the way her eyes linger for a second too long on a woman when she is admiring her dress. Perhaps eventually Lady Felicia will see fit to confide in him, too, but this seems like enough of a revelation for one day.
"It's not that surprising. That we both fancy him, I mean," says Sid, hoping to inject some levity into the conversation. "He's a handsome bloke..."
"Oh yes, very handsome. You can excuse all sorts of failings in a man who looks like that."
"That your way of saying he's got a shit personality?"
But the tension is broken and they are both starting to giggle. It's a relief. Sid doesn't think he could stand there being an atmosphere between the two of them.
"For goodness' sake," Lady F says, gathering herself. "What are you going to do?"
"What can I do?"
"Well, you can drop a few hints that his feelings might be reciprocated, for a start."
"Easier said than done when he won't let me anywhere near him."
"Sidney Carter, you are not admitting defeat that easily. It'd be a waste of a perfectly good-looking man, as much as anything else. You just need to get him while he's alone."
"And how," Sid asks, "am I supposed to do that?"
Lady Felicia looks pensive for a minute, before her eyes light up. "I've got it! The charity auction next month. I could invite him along!"
"Place'll be crawling with people," Sid points out reasonably. "No way I'll ever get him alone there."
"Leave it to me," says Lady F, with an alarming sense of resolve. "I'm sure I can come up with something."
Thank you to my friend who knows about vintage women's style.
"Why am I hiding out here again?"
Lady F gives Sid a gentle push back through the doors, and tells him, "So the Inspector doesn't see you."
"He's not even here yet."
"That's the point!"
She disappears back inside and Sid sighs, looking around the small, enclosed courtyard for a place to sit while he waits for Lady F's scheme to unfold. The paving is half green with algae, and there is a crumbling shed in the corner, which Sid seems to remember houses all the bunting and decorations for the fairs, but no seating. He settles for an upturned slice of tree trunk beside the log pile instead and lights up a cigarette.
The village hall is an old building, with one reception room, one main room at the back, and a couple of storage cupboards full of musty props. The main room has a stage at the far end and Mrs. M and Lady F have spent the better part of the afternoon arranging chairs in orderly rows facing it, in preparation for the auction.
The courtyard is off to the side of the stage, and Sid peers around the open French doors, checking for any sign of Sullivan.
He isn't sure exactly what Lady F's plan entails, and when he'd asked, she had only grinned and told him to trust her. Which he does, up to a point.
Still, there is a fluttering, unsettled feeling in his stomach that might have been somewhat alleviated, had he been let in on a few of the details.
In the distance, Sid thinks he hears the click of a latch.
He stubs out his cigarette and tilts his head slightly, angling it so that his ear is closer to the French doors. It's a still evening, but Sid isn't sure how well the sound will carry from inside, not until he hears the squeak of shoes crossing the worn wooden floor.
He peers in again. From his vantage point, he has a reasonable view of the stage and the first three rows of seats.
Sullivan is wandering between them, looking nonplussed. The room is empty apart from him, and seemingly at a loss for what else to do, he makes his way over to the corner where the donations for the auction have been left.
Masked by the wall, Sid watches him scrutinise the paintings and memorabilia. Sullivan is always elegant, but even more so now. On his own, unaware that he is being watched, the set of his shoulders is more relaxed. He leans up on his toes, examining the details of one of the oil paintings with the same interest he shows in clues at a crime scene, and Sid's eyes are drawn to the perfectly tapered neckline of his hair.
Sid licks his lips.
He has the sudden impulse to touch Sullivan again. Not to test him, not to tease him, but because he wants to. He wants to feel Sullivan's skin, feel the weight of him against his own body.
Whatever this started out as, Sid seems to be in it up to his neck now...
His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of a second set of footsteps approaching, and he glances across just in time to see Lady F sweeping over to greet Sullivan.
"Inspector!" she cries. "You made it."
Sullivan's head snaps up like a rabbit's at the sound of a cocked shotgun.
"Lady Felicia," he says. "Good evening."
"I wasn't sure you'd come."
"Well, I'm... here."
"So you are. And looking very sharp, I might add."
He looks around at the empty hall in confusion for a moment, before asking, "Am I early?"
"Yes, the auction doesn't start until eight, and the guests aren't supposed to start arriving until seven-thirty."
"It said seven o'clock," says Sullivan, eyebrows knitting together in a frown, "on my invitation."
"Did it? Oh, well, I must have written the wrong time in, then. How silly of me." She smiles, looking him up and down. "That suit, is it new?"
Sullivan nods stiffly.
"Did you buy it specially for the occasion?"
"Specially...? No, I-"
"Well, it's very nice," she cuts him off, taking the lapel between her thumb and forefinger and rubbing at the fabric. "The colour complements your eyes."
"I- thank you."
"You're welcome. You'll be beating them off with a stick by the end of the night."
He backs up a little way, but for every step Sullivan takes back, Lady Felicia meets him with a step forward.
"Oh, yes. I've quite lost count of the number of young ladies I've had asking after you. I suspect half of them only turned up in the hopes that you'd be here."
"I see," Sullivan says gravely.
"Seems you're quite the eligible bachelor."
"I'm hardly that-"
"Oh come now, don't be modest. Handsome young man, with good prospects? Not too many of those in Kembleford. In fact it's a mystery why no one has snapped you up already. Still, that adds to the appeal, I suppose. There's something very alluring about mysterious men, don't you find, Inspector?"
Sullivan doesn't seem to have noticed that he's been backing away until his leg collides with one of the fold-out wooden chairs behind him, sending it toppling to the floor with a crash. Sid covers his mouth with his fist to hold back a burst of laughter.
"Anyway," says Lady Felicia, as Sullivan turns to right the chair, setting it back in line alongside the others, "I really ought to go and wait in the vestibule. Wouldn't do for our guests not to be greeted by the auctioneer when they arrive. Enjoy the rest of your evening, Inspector."
"And you," he says stupidly.
In a very shrewd move, Sid hears Lady F close the door behind her, so that Sullivan won't be able to escape by any other route.
As soon as she's gone, Sullivan takes a few steadying breaths, then, when he's regained enough of his composure, he fumbles around in his pocket until he finds something - his cigarette case - and makes his way towards the French doors.
Sid gets to his feet, hurries to press himself flat against the outside wall, just as Sullivan steps out into the courtyard.
Considering Sullivan's chosen profession, he really ought to work on his observational skills, because he doesn't spot Sid. He is too preoccupied with fishing about in his pocket again, but he can't seem to find his matchbook. He pats his suit jacket down, once, twice, swears under his breath, and looks as though he's about to resign himself to having to go back inside and search for it it, when Sid finally speaks up.
"Need a light?"
It startles Sullivan and he wheels around.
"What're you doing out here?"
Sid gestures to his chauffeur's uniform.
"What do you think?" he says. "Making myself scarce until Lady F needs a lift home. Your turn."
"What're you doing out here?"
"Oh. I was just getting some air."
"Is that what you call it?" Sid scoffs. "Looked more like running away from where I was standing."
Sullivan narrows his eyes.
"You saw," he says, somewhere between a question and an accusation.
"Could hardly miss it. Thought you were gonna set your neck on that chair."
Sullivan's presses his lips together, embarrassed, but he doesn't respond. Instead he crosses the courtyard to join Sid, and says, "Tell me... You've worked for Lady Felicia for a long time, haven't you?"
"Yep," says Sid. He wonders whether Sullivan has sussed them out, realised that Lady F set him up deliberately. Sullivan isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but Sid can't rely on that.
A distraction, then. Sid reaches into his trouser pocket to retrieve his lighter, flipping it open, and holding it out for Sullivan in silent invitation. Sullivan seems to debate whether or not this is a good idea before he leans in, covering the flame with his hand. He is so close that Sid can smell him. The faint scent of spicy cologne and hair tonic mingling with fresh tobacco.
"Thank you," Sullivan says, straightening up, and backing off just a little way.
"So... Lady Felicia..."
"Is she always so... forward?"
Sid laughs, half relieved and half amused. He takes out another cigarette of his own and lights it up.
"Only when it's someone good-looking," he says.
A flicker of something crosses Sullivan's face at that. "I see."
"You could do a lot worse," says Sid. "Than Lady F, I mean."
"I'm sure I could, but Lady Felicia is a married woman."
"Is that what's stopping you?"
"Of course," Sid echos, with just a trace of mockery in his tone.
"Some of us have scruples, Carter," says Sullivan.
"Scruples are overrated. You miss out on too much fun."
Sullivan falls silent, looking away, and breathing smoke out into the crisp evening air.
Maybe Sid should forget about what has happened over the last few weeks. If he has misjudged Sullivan, if Sullivan's only objection to sleeping with women genuinely is that he's a man of principle, then Sid could have it wrong after all. The stakes are higher than usual. Sullivan could arrest him, send him to prison for having these sort of tendencies, and there would be no way back from a scandal like that. He should leave Sullivan well alone; that would be the sensible thing to do.
But Sid has never been very sensible.
"All right," he says, shifting his weight so he is standing closer to Sullivan. "Serious question."
"Why aren't you married?"
Sullivan takes a long drag on his cigarette.
"I was always too focused on my career," he answers carefully.
"Is that right?"
"Yes. Between joining the police, and the outbreak of the war, I never had much time for anything else. Which rather begs the question, why aren't you married, Carter?"
That's unexpected. Sid had assumed Sullivan would panic and change the subject. He hadn't banked on Sullivan goading him back. The thrill of the challenge, of Sullivan playing along with this game, makes Sid's heart thump faster in his chest.
"Well, you know me, Inspector," he says, exhaling slowly. "Not really the settling down type."
"No. I suppose you're not."
"Confirmed bachelor," says Sid, just to see Sullivan's reaction. "Isn't that what they call it?"
He isn't disappointed. Sullivan's eyes widen for a split-second before he catches himself.
"I wouldn't know," he says.
"No? But that must be what you are, too, mustn't it? As you're still not married."
"I already told you-"
"That you were too busy, yeah, yeah, you said. Thing is... You're not busy now, are you? You've been here a few months. That's plenty of time to take a girl out, if you wanted to. And it's not like you're short of offers. I saw that woman at the fete. You've got women throwing themselves at you."
Sullivan bristles. "Have you been spying on me, Carter?"
"I'm right though, aren't I? You're a handsome man. You could have your pick. Yet I've never seen you look twice at a girl. In fact, I've never even seen you look once."
"I'm not sure what you're trying to insinuate-"
"Yes, you are," Sid cuts in before he can stop the reckless impulse to test his theory to destruction. "I've seen 'em looking, but you're not interested. You jump a foot in the air if a woman so much as looks at you, let alone touches you."
"And at first I thought you were just being polite, that you really did have scruples, but the other day, at the presbytery, at the station... I wasn't imagining that, was I?"
Sullivan meets his gaze, a combination of fear and resignation in his eyes.
"Please," Sullivan begins. "If it ever got out-"
But his voice falters and he can't seem to bring himself to finish the sentence.
"It's not going to get out," Sid says quickly. "Takes one to know one, Sullivan, and I'd never grass on one of my own."
"You heard me."
"Are you saying-"
"What do you think I've been saying?" Sid tosses his cigarette to the ground, crushing it under his heel, and leaning dangerously into Sullivan's space. "What do you think I've been doing, trying to get you alone so we can talk? You know, for a detective you're seriously bleedin' slow on the uptake."
"But all the women-"
"Mm, I've slept with a lot of women," Sid admits. "I've slept with a few men, too. If I didn't want you looking, don't you think you'd know about it by now? "
Experimentally, Sid reaches across, taking Sullivan's lapel between his thumb and fingers and rubbing, mimicking the way Lady F had touched him earlier.
Sullivan's own cigarette falls from his fingers. "Carter-"
"You don't back away when I do it..."
Sullivan releases a shaky breath, says, "No."
Sid slides his hand across to Sullivan's breast pocket, smoothing some non-existent creases out of the fabric.
Sullivan goes still but doesn't shove Sid away, so Sid decides to really push his luck. He slips his hand inside Sullivan's suit jacket, pressing it to the thin cotton of his shirt, stroking him with his thumb.
Sullivan inhales sharply and closes his eyes. His heart is racing under Sid's palm, his skin hot despite the chill of the evening, and when Sid really starts to fondle his chest, Sullivan gasps.
"We can't do this here. We'll be caught." But even as Sullivan protests, he is leaning into Sid's touch.
Sid withdraws his hand.
"All right," he says, biting his lip. "Later?"
An almost imperceptible nod.
"Auction finishes at nine. I should be home by ten. Meet me at the caravan?"
"Yes," Sullivan confirms, in a small, unsteady voice.
And with that, Sid heads back inside, leaving Sullivan alone in the courtyard looking dazed.
The grass is tall and wet with dew, soaking the bottoms of Sid's trouser legs as he makes his way back through the fields in the dark. It's late now, a little after ten, and whatever bravado he'd had earlier in the evening has faded with tiredness and too much time to think.
He isn't convinced Sullivan will be waiting for him at the caravan when he gets there. He can't see any signs of a car in the distance and none of his lanterns have been lit outside.
He'll understand if Sullivan has lost his nerve. It's a risky business in a close-knit community like Kembleford, and of the two of them, Sullivan has the most to lose. Sid won't hold it against him. If he's honest, he's not sure he wouldn't bottle it himself, in Sullivan's position.
All the same, when he nears the caravan only to find the whole site deserted, he can't help the way his heart sinks.
He walks up the path to the door, flanked by the chairs and buckets and odd bits of machinery he has accumulated, and gets his key out by the weak glow of his lighter. As he unlocks it, he hears the rustle of grass behind him, and quickly turns around.
His heart skips a beat and a surge of excitement fills his chest when he sees Sullivan walking up the path behind him.
"You took your time," Sid says.
In the darkness, he can just make out Sullivan's indignant scowl. "I walked."
"So did I. Montague Estate's further than the village hall, and I had to drop Lady F off first. Was starting to think you'd changed your mind."
"No... I was waiting down near the woods for you to come back," Sullivan admits. "It's sheltered there. Wouldn't do either of us any good if someone were to see me loitering outside your caravan at this time of night."
The excitement in Sid's chest turns to that dull ache again.
"We'd have to tell 'em you had a search warrant," says Sid. "If anyone started asking questions."
"Do you think they'd believe it?"
Sullivan shrugs. He can't really argue the case against a search of Sid's property being a plausible cover story, not after the amount of times he's had Sid in the cells for petty theft.
"C'mon," Sid says, opening the door. "You'd better come in."
Sullivan steps up into the caravan. Sid brushes past him to light the oil lamp above the pantry, then pulls the door closed, locking it behind them.
"Have a seat."
There are a limited number of places to sit, so perhaps it's just that Sullivan chooses the piece of furniture in closest proximity to the door, but he ends up sitting on Sid's bed. Perched awkwardly on the edge, as though he has never tried sitting anywhere before in his life.
"Want a drink?" Sid asks, taking pity.
Sullivan nods and Sid gets out half a bottle of single malt he's been keeping in the cupboard since Christmas. He pours a couple of fingers into an empty glass off the sideboard and passes it to Sullivan. After frowning at the smudged fingerprints around the rim for a second, Sullivan knocks back its contents in one gulp before setting it down on the counter with a clunk.
He sucks in a breath though his teeth at the burn, and says, "Thank you."
Sid refills the glass, passing it to Sullivan again, then moves to draw the curtains at the opposite end of the caravan. It's the biggest window, and Sullivan's right; there is always the remote possibility that someone might happen upon them and see something they shouldn't.
Sullivan watches him tuck the curtains into the corners of the window, lips pressed thin with worry, before downing his whiskey once again.
"Should I be insulted?" Sid asks.
Sid walks back towards him. He leans across to close the curtains over the two tiny windows above the bed.
"Insulted," he repeats. "That you need to drink like that before you'll sleep with me."
Sullivan winces. "It's not that."
"What is it, then?"
"Dutch courage... Something to steady my nerves."
"Oh yeah? What've you got to be nervous about?"
Sullivan looks away, examining the pattern on the faded eiderdown. "I don't usually do this."
Any gentle taunt Sid was considering dies on his tongue.
"That's all right," he says softly. He pours another measure of whisky into Sullivan's glass, but drinks it himself this time. "Just take it easy 'cause I'm not taking advantage if you're too far gone to turn me down."
"I'm not. I don't want to. Turn you down, that is."
"Good. That's good. 'Cause I've been thinking about this for ages..."
It doesn't take much to close the distance between them. A single step and Sid is standing over Sullivan. He undoes the first few buttons of his uniform jacket, then leans forward to run his hands through Sullivan's hair, and Sullivan takes a shuddering breath, releasing it slowly as Sid strokes his way down his neck.
"Relax," Sid tells him. His hands settle on Sullivan's shoulders, giving them a gentle squeeze. It's hard to get a good grip through the pads of his suit, so Sid pushes at his jacket. "Here, take this off."
There isn't much room to maneuver. Sid helps him out of it, throwing it aside. Sullivan's braces cut into his shoulders and Sid traces the edges of the elastic for a second, before slipping his hands under the loops, and sliding them down over his arms until they're hanging loosely about his sides.
When he takes hold of Sullivan's shoulders and squeezes again, Sullivan stifles a moan.
"You like that?" Sid asks.
"Go on, shift over."
Sid kicks off his boots, climbing onto the bed, and settling on his knees behind Sullivan. He starts to rub Sullivan's shoulders in earnest then, working his thumbs in circles over the nape of Sullivan's neck.
"God, you're tense," he whispers.
"Yeah, you've got knots in your muscles."
Sid massages further down Sullivan's back, over his shoulder blades.
"You must be sore all the time..."
Sullivan groans, head lolling forward involuntarily.
"I'd never noticed," he says, and Sid thinks that might be the saddest thing he's heard all year.
"Am I hurting you?"
Sid stills his hands. "Want me to stop?"
"No, what you're doing... It's... nice."
Sullivan's voice is deeper than usual, hoarser. As though he has just woken up from a deep sleep.
"Is it helping?"
Sid carries on kneading the tender muscles until he feels the tension finally start to lift.
"How long's it been," Sid asks, voice low, "since you let a man touch you?"
There is a moment of silence before Sullivan answers, "A long time. Back when I was in the army..."
"And no one since?"
"No. Nothing like this."
That should be enough to warn Sid off - the lengths Sullivan has gone to in order to protect himself. Eight long years or more of self-imposed loneliness. A good man would do the decent thing and send Sullivan away, tell him it's not worth jeopardising his life, his social standing for this, but instead Sid finds himself winding his arms around Sullivan's chest, pulling him back, so that Sullivan is flush against him.
Perhaps Sid isn't a good man at all because he starts to harden then. The friction combined with the idea of being the first man to touch Sullivan in so long is making him ache. He needs this. But it isn't all selfish; Sullivan needs it too. Forget about career, forget about standing; a life spent running from your most basic needs is no life at all. It's barely even an existence.
"All right," says Sid, reaching to fumble with Sullivan's tie. "Let's get you out of these..."
He unhooks Sullivan's tiepin, tugs the fat end of the tie back up through the knot. It is easier at this angle, almost like taking off your own, and Sullivan tilts his head back against Sid's shoulder, exposing the vulnerable line of his throat. Once the tie is out of the way, Sid runs the tips of his fingers across Sullivan's Adam's apple - lightly, ever so lightly - teasing him, before he starts on his shirt.
Sullivan shivers as Sid's fingers make quick work of the buttons. He unfastens Sullivan's trousers next, pushing them lower on his hips, slipping a hand inside. Sullivan is hard too, straining against his shorts, and when Sid cups him in his palm, Sullivan thrusts up with a hiss.
"How long's it been since you let a man do this to you, hmm?" Sid can feel the low rumble of his own voice against Sullivan's back, thick with arousal.
"How long since you've had a bloke give you what you need?"
"I think we're well past Carter now, don't you?" Sid says, gripping him through the layer of cotton and squeezing for emphasis.
"That's better. C'mere."
He plants kisses on the side of Sullivan's neck, his cheek, encouraging Sullivan to turn towards him. When Sullivan does, Sid grabs his jaw in his hands and pulls him in for a proper kiss.
It's urgent, rough. All clashing teeth and bruised lips, and Sullivan moans into his mouth.
Sid is the one to break it. He draws back, sucking in a breath at the sight of Sullivan with his shirt open. Of course Sullivan is a handsome man, but it's more than that. For the first time, sitting there in his vest, he is laid bare, without all of his usual layers to hide behind.
"Look at you," Sid says, tracing a line of muscle down Sullivan's stomach through the fabric.
"You've been doing your fifteen minutes a day."
Sid lowers himself backwards onto the bed, dragging Sullivan down on top of him. He wants Sullivan to cover him completely, but Sullivan is propping himself up on his forearms, trying not to rest his full weight on Sid.
"Am I too heavy?" he murmurs.
"No, no. I like it."
With a nudge, Sid eases one of his thighs between Sullivan's. He runs his hands down the length of Sullivan's back, grabbing Sullivan's arse to pull him harder against him.
"Please," Sullivan chokes out, thrusting helplessly.
This time it's Sid's turn to groan. "I mean it, I like you here, like this."
They begin to move together, finding a slow, steady rhythm.
Sullivan buries his face in Sid's neck, as though looking at Sid beneath him is too much to bear. He is breathing heavily through his nose, hot against Sid's skin, and Sid isn't sure how much more he'll be able to take either.
The familiar scratch of stubble, the weight of a man pressing him into the mattress where Sullivan's arms are no longer able to fully support him - he'd forgotten how much he needed it. He can't begin to imagine how badly Sullivan must need it. It occurs to him vaguely that neither of them are going to last very long, that they should properly undress, but that doesn't seem to matter, not anymore.
"Gonna fuck you," Sid pants against Sullivan's ear, suddenly overwhelmed. "Next time. I want- oh God, I wanna be inside you."
"Want to take you. Give you everything you need. D'you want that? Want me to fuck you?"
Sullivan makes a desperate little noise, grinding down into the hollow of Sid's hip.
Both of their movements are frenzied now. The only sounds inside the caravan the creaking of the bed springs and their harsh, staccato breaths.
"I can't, I'm going to-" Sullivan gasps, but that's all he manages to get out before his breath hitches and his body tenses.
Sid closes his eyes. He clings to Sullivan, holding him in place as he follows him over the edge, crying out wordlessly.
"You all right?" Sid begins, watching the flame lick at the underside of the kettle.
Sullivan nods, pushing himself upright on shaky arms.
He's been subdued for the last few minutes, trembling slightly in a way that Sid suspects has nothing to do with the cold, and Sid thinks it's probably a good idea to keep him talking.
"Yeah, me too." Sid takes two flannels off the small stack of clean linen in the bottom cupboard. "Dunno what you did to me, but I feel like my legs are gonna give way."
"Don't be. I wasn't complaining."
The kettle starts to whistle and Sid wraps a tea towel around the handle, lifting it off the little camping stove he's got set up on the counter, and pouring some of the water into a bowl. He mixes some cold in with the hot, testing the temperature with one knuckle before dipping the first flannel into the bowl and wringing it out.
"Here you go," he says, holding it out for Sullivan.
Sullivan blanches, but takes it from him anyway. "Would you mind...?"
"Eh? Oh. No. 'Course not."
It seems vaguely ridiculous to Sid that Sullivan has chosen this moment to go shy on him. It's a bit late for modesty, although Sid must admit that there's never anything terribly glamorous about the clean-up operation after.
So he makes a point of crossing to the other half of the caravan to wash himself off, undressing quickly, and rummaging through the drawer. He grabs a couple of pairs of fresh boxers, changing into one of them, then laying the other out on the table.
"You'll have to wear some of mine for tonight. Throw yours in the wash bag in the corner," he calls over his shoulder to Sullivan.
"Thank you," comes the muttered reply.
When he turns back, Sullivan is sitting on the edge of the bed in just his vest and borrowed shorts, looking unsure of what to do with himself. His suit is folded neatly on the bed beside him and Sid wanders over, picking it up and putting it on the settee before he moves Sullivan's shoes closer to the door.
"Leaving them here so we don't trip over them in the morning."
Sullivan nods, a brief, jerky movement of his head.
"Right, I could do with a cup of tea. D'you want one?"
Sid walks back over to the work surface, tossing both flannels into the bowl to soak, and rinsing off his hands. When he bends to retrieve two tin mugs from under the counter, he groans.
"I'm not usually like this."
"An old man. One night with you and I'm ready for the knacker's yard... I don't normally last two minutes, either, for the record. You can ask around - I've got a reputation to maintain."
Sullivan's jaw is clenched, not in anger, but as though he is trying to prevent his teeth from chattering. "I'm not sure I want to hear."
"I'm just saying, it's you getting me worked up. Might've been able to go the distance if I hadn't been imagining all the things I wanted to do to you for the past few weeks."
"Is that what you've been doing?"
"Among other things," Sid says with a smirk. But Sullivan is still uncomfortable - reticent - and Sid is no closer to working out how to put him at his ease.
"So when did you know then, eh?" he forges on, picking up the kettle again. "That you fancied me?"
"Not long after we met."
"Yeah?" Sid asks, hoping the swell of pride he feels at Sullivan's confession doesn't spill over into his voice. "You mean you've been thinking about me all this time too, and you never said anything?"
"What was I supposed to say?"
"How about: 'get over here and give us a kiss'?"
"I'm not sure that would've gone down too well with my superiors. Or anyone else for that matter."
"Probably not." For all his flippancy, Sid can see he isn't making any progress, and he decides to change tack. "Have you always known you liked men?"
"Since I was a teenager," Sullivan says, voice so low, Sid has to strain to hear him.
"As long as that?"
"There was a boy in my year in school, and in hindsight, I suppose I was quite taken with him."
Sid takes two teabags out of the canister, drops them into the cups and fills them with what's left in the kettle. "Only in hindsight?"
"I mistook my feelings towards him for admiration initially. He was very athletic, very popular. I wanted to be like him, in an odd sort of way."
Sid cocks his head, pursing his lips. "Makes sense."
"Then I started to think about him differently."
"Did he think of you like that?"
"I don't know. I never told him. I kept hoping it'd pass. It sounds stupid now, but I thought perhaps I'd develop an interest in girls the way all the other boys had, that I was just a late bloomer, but..." Sullivan trails off.
"But you never did," Sid finishes for him.
Sid scoops the teabags out, pressing them against the side of the cups.
"Can't help what you like," he says.
Sullivan lets out a hollow laugh, eyes downcast. "My father might disagree."
"Does he know?"
"About me?" Sullivan swallows, suppressing a little shiver. "God, no. He's probably still holding out hope that I'll marry."
"Take it he wouldn't be best pleased if he did find out?" Sid says, feeling his stomach twist with regret at the way he'd teased Sullivan about being a bachelor earlier.
"He'd probably report me to the authorities himself."
The unsettled feeling in Sid's stomach turns to nausea. He thinks he understands it now; Sullivan's quiet, sober mood. His reticence. He must be so steeped in shame - years of it, a lifetime of it - that he is disgusted with himself and what he's done. Perhaps he even regrets it, but that thought is too distressing to dwell on, so Sid doesn't.
Instead he adds a couple of spoonfuls of sugar to the tea, stirring it in, and taking a swig of his own.
"You and your dad still on speaking terms?" he asks quietly.
"I speak to him when I have to."
"And how often's that?"
Sullivan shrugs. "He rings sometimes."
"Does he live round here?"
"No. Back in London."
"So you don't see very much of him?"
"Why do you think I took this transfer?"
Sid passes Sullivan his mug. It is too late to take back what's been done now. The best he can do is provide comfort, however cold it is, so he sits down beside Sullivan on the bed - so close their thighs are pressed together - and places a reassuring hand in the small of his back.
"That the only reason you came here? To get away from him?"
"Well, it certainly wasn't for the scenery."
"Oh, I dunno. I've caught you enjoying the views a few times."
Sullivan looks across at him, confused, and Sid nods down towards his own bare chest. When Sullivan's confusion turns to exasperated distaste, Sid feels a wave of relief wash over him.
"What?" Sid says, wrapping his arm around Sullivan the rest of the way and giving his hip a gentle squeeze. "Don't pretend you haven't been looking."
"I can hardly pretend now, can I?"
"Well, I'd have a hard time believing you if you did."
"I could still claim it was an error in judgment."
But Sullivan is fighting the beginnings of a smile, playing along, and it's going to be okay. Everything is going to be okay.
Sid nudges him with his elbow. "Go on, drink up."
Sullivan takes a sip and frowns. "This is black."
"Yeah," says Sid. "Milk won't keep in this weather. It's all right in the window box outside in winter, but it goes off too fast in this heat."
"Haven't you got a fridge?"
"Nope. No electricity out here, how would I have a fridge?"
Another couple of cautious sips, and Sullivan curls his lip. "There's sugar in it."
"That's right. Thought you could do with some."
"I don't take sugar."
"You do tonight. Got to keep your strength up."
Sullivan chokes down another couple of mouthfuls before giving up. "Next time," he says, "we're meeting at my house."
"Oh yeah? And what makes you so sure I'd be interested in a next time?"
"Well- of course I didn't mean- you don't have to-"
Sid cuts him off with a kiss to the side of his mouth, taking the tea from his hand and setting the cup down on the sideboard alongside his own.
"I'm joking. 'Course I'm interested."
"You were the sort of boy who pulled little girls' pigtails when you liked them, weren't you?"
"Funnily enough, I was," Sid grins. "Put a grasshopper down the back of Johnny Bowman's tee-shirt once 'cause I fancied him and I didn't know what to do about it."
"If you ever put an insect of any kind anywhere near me, I'll lock you in the cells overnight."
"Mm, but what'll you do to me while I'm in there? That's the question..."
"You are incorrigible."
"Yep." Sid leans in to steal another kiss. By the time he pulls back, Sullivan has stopped shaking completely. "You feeling a bit better now?"
Sullivan nods, sheepish. "Not quite sure what came over me-"
"'S'all right," Sid says. "You don't have to explain. Takes a lot out of you, all this."
"I suppose it does."
"They reckon one quick fumble uses up more energy than doing half an hour of sit-ups."
"Who on earth told you that?"
"One of the blokes down The Red Lion."
"Oh, and I'm sure he's a reliable source."
Sid sniffs. "Yeah, well, maybe not. But either way, I know which I'd prefer to be doing..."
"Hm," says Sullivan, apparently unable to argue with that logic.
"Right." Sid slaps his knees, getting to his feet. "Think it's time you and me got some shut eye, or you're gonna be fit for nothing in the morning."
"Are you sure it's a good idea for me to stay?"
"Think it'd be rude to kick you out at this point."
"Don't you have to work tomorrow?"
"Lady F'll let me off if I tell her I've got a hangover," Sid lies, because now really isn't the time to send Sullivan into a second wave of panic over just how much Lady F knows about the situation. "C'mon, get in, lie down."
Sullivan does as he's told, swinging his legs up and pulling the eiderdown over himself with no further protests, and Sid wonders whether his impulse to follow orders is simply a remnant from his army days, or something all together more interesting.
The flame in the oil lamp is burning low, and Sid cups the curve of the glass with his fingers, blowing it out in a single breath.
"All right, shift over," he says, feeling for the edge of the mattress in the dark and crawling into bed beside Sullivan.
When he reaches for him, Sullivan makes a soft, surprised sound. "You can't possibly want-"
"I don't," says Sid, giving him a final peck on the cheek before flopping over onto his back, and tucking one arm up under the pillow beneath his head. "Or maybe I do, but it'll have to wait 'til morning. I'm not bleedin' Superman."
"I wasn't aware that was one of Superman's powers," Sullivan says dryly.
"Oh, it definitely is. Why d'you think Lois Lane sticks around for boring old Clark Kent from the newspaper office if he isn't going three times a night? She doesn't know he's Superman."
Sullivan swats at Sid's shoulder, starting to laugh despite himself. "I don't think they ever put that into print."
"Censors," Sid says, deadpan, as he pulls Sullivan against his side. "They cut out all the good bits when they bring it over here."
"Do they indeed?"
"If it's so well-known, how come I've never heard about it?"
"Obviously you don't buy the annuals."
"You're an idiot."
Sullivan's laughter slowly subsides and he tucks his head under Sid's chin. They lie together in the stillness of the night, breathing slowly, Sullivan's fingers tracing idle patterns through Sid's chest hair, until Sid feels himself starting to drift off.
"Thank you," Sullivan says, suddenly serious, and Sid opens his eyes again.
"For being so kind. You needn't have been."
"I mean it. Most men wouldn't have shown such patience. I didn't expect you to-"
"Don't." Sid holds him tighter, squeezing his arm. "You're all right..."
"Mmm," Sullivan hums, possibly in agreement, or possibly because he's beginning to nod off himself.
"Get some rest," Sid whispers, kissing his hair.
Sullivan smells good - comforting - like botanical hair tonic, mixed with the underlying scent of fresh sweat. Sid inhales deeply, stroking Sullivan's shoulder with his thumb. Within seconds, he succumbs to his exhaustion, and falls asleep.
The rustling of bed clothes wakes Sid.
He pushes himself up on his elbows, looking around, trying to get his bearings, only to find Sullivan sitting on the edge of the bed beside him, fastening his shirt. It must be early; the room is still largely in darkness, with just the first light of dawn beginning to creep in through the unlined curtains.
Sullivan turns towards him.
"Good morning," he says, sounding far more chipper than anyone has the right to at this ungodly hour.
"Oh, bleedin' hell," Sid croaks. "What time is it?"
Sid groans, sinking back down to bury his face in the pillow. "What're you doing up so early?"
"I need to get home before half the village is awake to catch me."
Sid rolls his head to the side, frowning. "Woah, woah, hold your horses. You can't go yet."
"I have to."
"No, no, c'mon." Sullivan finishes buttoning his shirt and makes to stand, but Sid catches hold of his wrist. "Come back to bed for a bit."
"I can't. It'll be light soon."
"Just for a couple of hours. You can leave later. Nobody's gonna know when you got here."
"I'm wearing last night's suit."
"Then you can borrow something of mine."
"Somehow I don't think that would look any less suspicious, do you?"
"Fair point," Sid sighs, and Sullivan pulls away.
He's right, of course. They do need to be careful. In half an hour or so, Kembleford will stir into life. The baker will fire up the ovens for the first round of bread, and the newsagent will take in his delivery of papers. Far better that Sullivan leaves now, while the streets are still relatively empty.
Sid watches him groping around on the cabinet for his tiepin in the dim light. As his eyes adjust and Sullivan comes more sharply into focus, Sid can just make out the dark stubble lining his jaw. His hair is wildly dishevelled, and Sid gets an odd sort of thrill out of knowing that he's the one who caused it.
"You might want to use my comb before you go," he says.
Sullivan's hands move reflexively to his head, feeling for the patches of hair that are sticking up and trying in vain to flatten them down with his fingers.
"How bad is it?"
"Wonderful. We might as well broadcast it to the entire village..."
For all that the possibility of being exposed fills Sid with dread, he can't help the rush of arousal he gets at the fantasy of it. The fantasy of staking his claim publicly, and leaving Sullivan looking so thoroughly ruined that even strangers would know what Sid had done to him.
"There's probably some dregs left in the kettle," Sid tells him, adjusting himself under the covers. "Wet it down with that. Should be some Brylcreem on the table, too."
"Water will do."
Sullivan splashes what little is left onto his hair, combing it back into place, while Sid settles on his back, taking in the sight of him.
When Sullivan has finished, he turns to Sid.
"Well?" he asks.
"Will I pass muster?"
"Mmm," Sid says, eyeing him appraisingly. "Very nice."
"You know what I mean," says Sullivan. "Not too unkempt?"
"Well, you don't look like you spent last night grinding me into the mattress, if that's what you're getting at."
"Must you be so vulgar?"
"Thought that was what you liked about me."
"That is certainly not what I like about you."
"Ah, then you do like something about me."
"Maybe," Sullivan concedes.
"All right, c'mere," Sid reaches up to yank Sullivan down for one last kiss, careful to keep his hands to Sullivan's face, away from his hair. He pulls back, pressing his forehead to Sullivan's. "Just as long as you like me enough to come back for more."
"I might be persuaded..."
"You'd better be." Sid brushes Sullivan's cheeks with his thumbs. "Go on then, get out of it, before I'm tempted to drag you back into bed and keep you here."
Sullivan straightens up, turning towards the door.
"Until next time," he says with a brief nod over his shoulder, before heading out into the fresh morning air.
The door clicks shut behind him and Sid rolls over, closing his eyes to shut out the cold sensation that settles in his chest and stomach.
Contrary to popular belief, Sid is not an expert on relationships.
The majority of his experiences have been casual encounters, with the occasional, brief love affair. Chatting up someone down the pub, having a few drinks, and falling into bed together is about the extent of his romancing skills, and what happened with Sullivan last night doesn't feel anything like his usual one-night stands.
There are probably rules about how long you are supposed to wait before asking someone out a second time, Sid thinks, as he leans back against the headrest of the Rolls.
Bunty would know. She used to read the advice columns in magazines aloud to him when they were younger, about how to play it cool with men and keep them keen. But Sid hadn't been paying much attention back then, and Bunty isn't here now. He has her number in his address book, but he can't think of a way to naturally work that sort of question into a conversation over the phone...
Perhaps Sid could just invite Sullivan back to the caravan again. That doesn't seem like such a ridiculous idea, does it? They could meet once a week, make it a regular thing.
Sid frowns against the glare of the afternoon sun through the windscreen, and pulls his cap down over his eyes.
He wouldn't mind seeing Sullivan every week. It wouldn't have to be anything serious; nothing set in stone. Although, if Sullivan wanted it to be serious, then maybe Sid wouldn't mind that either...
Loud rapping at the glass startles Sid, and he looks up to see Lady F beaming in at him.
"Am I disturbing your beauty sleep?" she asks through the half-open window.
"Just resting my eyes."
He sets his hat straight on his head as she opens the back door and slides in.
"Late night?" she says, with a conspiratorial smile and a quirk of her eyebrow.
"You didn't have to come in today, you know. Not if you didn't feel up to it."
"Ah, but then who'd drive you to... the parish council meeting? Is that where we're going?"
"Mind like a steel trap," Sid says, tapping his temple.
He starts the car and pulls off down the drive. After sitting in companionable silence for the first minute or so of their journey, Lady F leans forward in her seat.
"So?" she prompts.
"Aren't you going to tell me how it went?"
"A gentleman," says Sid, "doesn't kiss and tell."
"Which is why I'm asking you."
"Oh, don't pretend to be offended. I've seen sailors on shore leave behave in a more gentlemanly fashion than you."
"Come on, don't keep me in suspense. I want details."
Sid opens his mouth, then closes it again, suddenly unsure of himself. It isn't as though he's never shared the details of his exploits with Lady F before. They've often exchanged stories about their flings and one-night stands, which in hindsight probably isn't terribly gentlemanly, but it was always in the strictest confidence. Still, somehow it would feel like a betrayal to discuss Sullivan in those terms behind his back.
Oblivious, Lady F continues: "All that running after criminals must keep him in fine fettle. I'll bet he was absolute dynamite in be-"
"I don't think he'd like it," Sid cuts her off, panic rising in him.
"Being talked about. I don't think Sullivan would like it."
"Oh," she says. "I see..."
She doesn't sound offended, just thrown off-balance. Nonetheless Sid feels the need to explain himself further.
"I'm not trying to be a killjoy. He just seems so... private."
"In that case, we'll say no more on the matter."
But Sid can still feel Lady F's eyes on him, and when he looks into the rear-view mirror, she searches his face so intently that Sid finds himself turning away again. It isn't a look Sid has ever seen directed at him before, and he isn't sure what to make of it until something softens in her tone and she says, "Oh, Sid."
"You like him, don't you?"
"Well, I'm not in the habit of sleeping with people I hate."
"You know what I mean."
Sid swallows, throat dry. "Yeah. I do."
"When are you seeing him again?"
"I dunno. We didn't make any set plans."
"But you are going to see him again?"
"Yeah. Just got to wait and see how he wants to play it, I s'pose."
"And what about you?" asks Lady F. "How do you want to play it?"
"I don't know," he says honestly.
"Do you want my advice?"
"Got a feeling I'm about to get it anyway..."
"Don't leave it up to him to make the first move."
"Because the man is absolutely hopeless." Lady Felicia tilts her head, brow furrowing. "You only have to talk to him for five minutes to establish that."
"But true. He isn't the sort to confess anything outright, and I don't want you getting hurt."
"Why would I get hurt?" Sid scoffs, but his derision sounds false even to his own ears.
It must sound false to Lady F, too, because she doesn't bother to dignify him with a response.
All she says is, "Just trust me - you'll need to give him a gentle nudge."
She's right, of course.
Sid only manages to last six days before he relents and takes Lady Felicia's advice.
Patience has never been one of his virtues - not if Mrs. M is to be believed - and with no word from Sullivan for almost a week, he is frustrated beyond words.
If Sid had hoped that one night with Sullivan might help ease the tension, then he was sorely mistaken, because moderation is another virtue Sid lacks. He doesn't operate in half-measures - if he enjoys something, he will indulge in it to excess, which is the reason why he wakes up most Monday mornings with a hangover, why he always has second helpings when he goes round for dinner at the presbytery, and why, having had a taste of Sullivan, he is being driven slowly out of his mind with wanting more.
The only question is how he is going to broach the subject, and he has gone over it and over it in his head for the past couple of days.
Turning up unsolicited twice in the space of a week at the station would look suspicious, and Sid can't risk ringing Sullivan there for the same reason. He doesn't have Sullivan's private number, but he knows where the police cottage is, so Sid ultimately settles on the idea of a note.
He spends the better half of the morning trying to compose one, to come up with a way of wording it that wouldn't be too incriminating if anyone else were to read it. And after dropping Lady F at Mass, Sid drives over to the presbytery and sneaks into the study.
On a pilfered sheet of Mrs. M's fancy writing paper, he scrawls:
'Tomorrow. Same time, same place. Bring a flask if you want milk in your tea.'
He wafts the letter in the air. As soon as the ink looks dry, he folds it and shoves it inside a matching envelope. The writing set is a sickly peach colour, scented with something vaguely floral; so feminine that Sid thinks it would be very unlikely anyone would ever link it to him.
He licks the gummed edge, pressing it down, and pushes the sealed envelope into the inside pocket of his chauffeur's jacket, then he hurries back to the car to ensure he's back in time to pick Lady F up from church.
Once he's parked the Rolls for the night, he sets out on foot into the village. The sun is hanging low in the sky, dusk fast approaching, and by the time he rounds the corner onto the little cobbled lane, it is almost dark.
The lane is deserted apart from him. A cautious glance around shows there is no one at any of the windows in the surrounding houses. The last thing Sid needs now is twitching curtains and nosy neighbours, but he can't see any signs of life at all.
He walks up to the front door of the little police cottage and presses the letterbox open with his fingers before sliding the envelope through, in order to keep the noise to a minimum. It hits the mat with a dull thwack, and Sid turns and leaves as quickly as he can without breaking into a run.