Rain ran down the window pane. The trees on the sweeping driveway were bowed under the weight of the wind. The knock at the door came again. Jake Morgan pressed his hand to the glass and craned his head down. He had already buzzed the main gates open. He knew who his visitor was. A tall man stood sheltering under the porch, shoulders hunched against the cold, smart in a black wool jacket, hands thrust in the pockets. He was young and dark-haired but Jake couldn’t see his face. He stepped back from the window and sighed, closing his eyes. Was he going to ignore the stranger? What was the point in advertising for staff if he didn’t open the door when they came for interview?
It wasn’t easy making even this little concession to the outside world though after so long. He dug his nails into his palms, fists clenched. He could do this. He could.
He turned, exited the room and took the stairs with measured steps. Pausing at the front door, he smoothed his hair back and tugged his sweater over his narrow hips. He could see the stranger’s silhouette through the frosted glass. It gave him palpitations.
He slid the bolts back at the top and bottom. He turned the key in the lock once, then locked it again. Turned it again, locked it again. Shit, not the counting, not now. What would the guy think? Once more he opened and locked the door before he mustered all his courage and self-control and stopped at three. Trying to slow his breathing, he unlocked the door a final time and swung it open.
The wind nearly buffeted him back. The stranger lifted his face eagerly in relief. Their eyes locked and that troublesome heart of Jake’s, battered and broken and way beyond salvation gave a curious little leap as he gazed upon the man’s face. His stomach lurched too. Warmth spread down towards his groin. He stepped back, blushing, confused as to what had just happened.
The man took it as an invite. He stepped inside and pushed the door shut, his gaze never leaving Jake’s. His eyes were a curious pale gold, fringed with lush lashes, mesmerising and intense. He dripped water onto the marble floor of the hallway as they stood weighing each other up in silence, eyes locked.
The stranger cleared his throat. He was a man of around thirty-five, the same height as Jake – six two – with a lean, worked-out body. He was lightly tanned, closely-shaved and fine-featured. Everything in proportion – nose, chin, mouth. Everything perfectly symmetrical, the classification for a beautiful person. He was beautiful all right, there was no doubt about that. Jake felt like a wilting wallflower just looking upon him.
“I’m here for the interview,” the man said. He held out his hand. “Darius Harrison.”
Jake looked at it. All the touch he’d known in ten years had been handshakes. To men who’d done work on his house or his garden or delivered items of furniture. He was reluctant even to commit to that. And now this man, offering his hand with its short, neat nails and long, slim fingers, seemed like he was offering something way more intimate than Jake could handle. The touch of his skin. Jake could barely breathe. He couldn’t do it and yet, he wanted it. He wanted it so much.
Hesitantly, he extended his hand, barely covering the short distance between them. Darius Harrison grasped it. His skin was cold and wet with rain and despite this, it heated Jake’s blood to inferno proportions. He snatched his hand back and turned away, muttering, “You’re cold. Come through.”
He led Darius down the hall to the living room. A log fire blazed, the curtains firmly shut against the gloomy afternoon, lamps lit. He gestured to the stranger to take a seat near the fire under the circle of the brightest lamp – all the better to admire his beautiful face – and sat on the couch opposite him.
Darius unfastened his coat. He sat down and crossed one leg over the other and Jake glanced at his shoes. He would deny he had OCD to anyone who asked but he couldn’t explain away the little rituals he had. Shoes were important to him. They could make or break this interview. Darius Harrison wore shiny black leather brogues. They glistened with water and looked brand new. They were sturdy and well fitted. He teamed them with black socks, his smart black pants exactly the right length.
Jake sat back, satisfied. Nice shoes, beautiful face and an impressive body. There was no way he could let this man work for him. None at all. His shoulders slumped in resignation and he searched for a polite way to dismiss the candidate with haste. What had he been thinking of, inviting complete strangers into his home after so long? More to the point, why was the only applicant an attractive man instead of a homely, non-threatening woman who would mother him and make him apple pie?
He sighed and realised it had come out loud. Darius lifted a quizzical eyebrow. Jake coughed, straightened up in his chair. “Thank you for coming out on such a lousy day,” he said.
Darius inclined his head. He kept those golden eyes fixed on Jake and Jake’s bones started to melt, his body overcome with languor. He crossed one ankle over the opposite knee, hiding his groin for fear he would soon get an erection.
“You know what the job entails?” he asked.
“Not really,” Darius replied. “Your advert was a little vague.”
“General...” Jake hesitated, appalled that he had been about to say dogsbody. It was hardly what he thought someone working for him would be. He merely wanted someone to take the monotony of cleaning and cooking from him and leave him with more time to... stew. “Handyman,” he finished. “Cooking, cleaning, odd jobs.”
“How are you at plumbing and electrics?”
“Not bad. My dad taught me a lot.”
This wasn’t what Jake wanted to hear. He had hoped Darius would say he couldn’t cook or that he didn’t know how to do anything as basic as changing a plug. He had expected it to be easy enough to dismiss him. Darius didn’t look like a domestic god, but if you believed him, then he was. Curse him.
“It would be five days a week,” he said. “Nine till five or eight till four. Something like that. Possibly more flexible if I want to eat late. Maybe evenings and weekends.” He hoped the weekends would be a deal breaker. Someone as blessed as Darius had to be out most Saturday nights chasing skirt.
“Sure,” Darius said. He looked relaxed but those unsettling eyes were still searching Jake’s as though looking for the mysteries of his soul. The only mystery he would find would be a shattered man, unable to connect anymore with society.
“Do you have a driver’s license?”
“I might ask you to pick up groceries. On occasion you might drive me. Those occasions will be rare. I don’t...” Jake stopped. He had no need to explain himself to this man and Darius had no right to know and yet, Jake felt like he should say something. He bit his lip, ran a hand through his hair in a nervous gesture. “Are you from these parts?”
“Then you might have heard people talk about me in town.” Jake bowed his head, cheeks heating, feeling shame. People called him Mr. Havisham, a corruption of the character in Great Expectations. The woman who had been stood up on her wedding day and had left her house untouched since, haunting it still wearing her dress, endlessly broken. Jake had changed out of his wedding suit after a week but it still hung in his closet ten years later.
“None of my business,” Darius said. “I despise gossip.”
Jake lifted his gaze. Darius’s expression was carefully neutral as though he knew Jake would deplore any pity or sympathy. Jake wondered if Darius found him spineless or pitiful.
“Is the position live-in?” Darius asked.
Jake was startled. He had never considered such a thing. His palms were instantly wet, his heart pounding at the thought. “I don’t think so,” he said.
“All right,” Darius said easily.
The interview was slipping away from him. It seemed impossible to turn this man down. “I’ll need to give you a test,” he said.
Darius didn’t say anything.
“You’ll need to cook my dinner tonight.”
Darius smiled. “Sure.”
Jake was finicky. Darius wouldn’t pass the test.
“Now or shall I come back?” Darius asked.
Jake hesitated. It was unfair to send Darius back out in the rain and ask him to come back later, he knew that. But it was only two pm. Well, an early dinner wouldn’t kill him. He ate barely a bird’s portion of food a day anyway, so what did it matter? Darius would have to have the competence of a world-class chef to raise even the slightest bit of enthusiasm on Jake’s part. “You might as well start now.” He rose to his feet. “Follow me.”
Jake led Darius down the hall to the kitchen. A huge room, all gleaming marble and chrome, it saw very little action. It was far from pristine though; Jake wasn’t a big fan of housework. He looked at the grubby floor and stained sink through Darius’s eyes and was embarrassed.
Darius said nothing. He loitered by the door.
“The fridge and cupboards are full,” Jake said. “Take your pick.”
Darius moved forward. “Two courses or three?”
Jake looked at him in surprise. “Just a main course is fine. I don’t eat a lot.”
“You haven’t tasted my cooking yet.” Darius smiled for the first time. It grooved dimples around his mouth and showed neat, pearly teeth.
Jake’s stomach clenched. He tried to dodge around Darius in the doorway. A whiff of intoxicating cologne assailed his nose as he passed. Darius moved aside. He approached the granite island in the centre of the kitchen. “Is an hour all right?”
“Fine,” Jake said, already fleeing. “I’ll be just...” he gestured back to the living room and disappeared.
The sound of clattering pots and pans reached Jake’s ears even with the TV on. A sharp blade struck a wooden chopping board. Cupboards opened and closed and the cutlery drawer rattled. An enticing smell drifted down the hall and Jake’s stomach sat up and took notice, to his surprise. If Darius made something passable, Jake would have to hire him, he knew that. He was an honest man. He couldn’t lie and pretend he didn’t like the food if he did. He couldn’t pretend Darius wasn’t qualified for the job unless he wanted to give the man an additional test – fix the leaky tap upstairs or the hinge on the wardrobe door. He leaned back in his chair with eyes closed and took some slow, deep breaths. The last attractive man who had cooked for him had been Marc of course, in this house, in that kitchen. Marc had done everything with style. Cooking, handiwork, gardening, fucking. He did it all with aplomb. Especially the latter. Jake had been the most satisfied man on planet earth. And yet, clearly Jake had not been enough for Marc. He didn’t know what failing in him had caused Marc to look elsewhere. Had he been needy and clingy? Had he been too aloof? Was he bad in bed? Selfish, under-endowed, unimaginative?
When you had ten years to analyse every aspect of your own character, it soon sent you down the road to ruin. Now when Jake looked in the mirror, he saw an ugly man with a twisted, bitter face. Miss Havisham had been a cross between a waxwork and a skeleton, sickly looking and prematurely aged due to lack of sunlight. Jake imagined he saw the same.
He battled with himself as he listened to the sounds from the kitchen. Darius was here to work for him. What did it matter what he thought of Jake or whether he found him physically repulsive? Because Jake still had the slightest trace left of that proud gay man he had once been. He wanted someone as attractive as Darius to admire him. He didn’t want his pity or his distaste. He didn’t want Darius to go out to town and tell others what he had seen at the big, lonely house with the electric gates made for keeping people out. It bothered Jake what others thought about him, when so far down the road, it shouldn’t have. Dwelling on it turned his self-loathing into a vicious cycle. He sighed, hands clenching the arms of his chair. He shouldn’t have done this. Had his advert for a helper been an unconscious plea for some company, any company? When Marc had left him on his wedding day, Jake had decided he would never need anyone again. He would never become so reliant that the loss of another person devastated him. He would never again leave himself wide open to such hurt.
He stood, intent on going to the kitchen and asking Darius to leave his home immediately. At that moment, Darius appeared at the door.
“It’s ready,” he said.
Jake reluctantly followed Darius into the kitchen. One place was set at the large pine table complete with wine glass and napkin. “Sit down,” Darius said and turned to the oven, busying himself with a mitt.
Jake did as he was told. He glanced at Darius’s backside as he bent to remove a hot plate. His pants stretched nicely over two firm, round buttocks like a peach. For a moment, Jake imagined what lay between those buttocks and felt his cock swell with blood instantly. He cursed inwardly and pulled his chair closer to the table.
Darius plated up grilled salmon, new potatoes and spinach, oblivious to Jake’s gaze. He drizzled a fragrant sauce over the fish and put it down before Jake with a flourish.
“Thank you.” Jake looked at it a moment.
Darius opened the fridge door. “Wine?”
“Yes, please.” There was a half-empty bottle in the door. If there was one thing Jake always had plenty of, it was alcohol. In the weeks following Marc’s departure he had drank himself unconscious nearly every night. It had only not turned into a permanent habit by sheer force of will. He couldn’t say what force that was. Certainly not self-preservation because he had wished himself dead more than once.
Darius filled his glass. Jake picked up his cutlery. He sliced some salmon and put it in his mouth. Perfectly cooked, the sauce spicy and garlicky. He tried the spinach. Wilted just so and seasoned to perfection. The potatoes were buttery and delicious. While Darius filled the dishwasher, Jake devoured a home-cooked meal for the first time in ten years.
When he sat back and looked at his empty plate, he was shocked at himself. His stomach was satisfyingly full and the wine had gone to his head. He was ready for a lie down. But the oven was still on and another fragrance filled the air as Darius opened the door.
“Apple and plum cobbler?” he asked with a glance at the empty plate and a little smile.
“I said I didn’t want...”
“You need feeding up. You’re too thin.”
Jake bristled. A cross between a waxwork and a skeleton. Darius turned away. He started stirring custard in a pan. He dished out the steaming cobbler and topped it nearly to the rim of the dish with thick, delicious custard. Jake nearly fell upon it like a starving man. Never had he tasted anything so good in his life. He had always had a sweet tooth, at least when Marc cooked for him but rarely indulged it now. He had forgotten the joy of desserts.
“Coffee?” Darius asked and Jake nodded, mouth full. Darius worked the complicated machine without asking. He produced a lovely cup in Jake’s best china mug and added cream.
Jake finished the cobbler. He took a sip of coffee and sat back in his chair, rubbing his full belly. Darius smiled at him. A satisfied, confident smile and instead of irritating Jake, it infected him. He smiled back, tentatively, because it stretched his face in unknown ways. Darius smiled wider at that, as though Jake’s smile pleased him and Jake unaccountably blushed and dropped his gaze.
Jake pushed his chair away from the table and turned away. “Really. Finish up here and show yourself out. Be back at eight tomorrow.” He hurried up the stairs before Darius could say anything further and shut himself in his bedroom. He knew he had a long evening of self-recrimination and insomnia ahead of him.
Darius was still smiling when he dried his hands on a towel and turned out the kitchen light. For a moment he stood at the foot of the stairs and listened. Nothing. The downstairs rooms were in darkness, the master of the house still ensconced upstairs. Darius turned away and headed for the front door. He made sure it was firmly closed behind him and stepped out into the rain with the collar of his jacket turned up.
He had read Great Expectations at school. He had half-expected Jake Morgan to look like Miss Havisham, for him to be mooning around a crumbling mansion wearing one shoe and a tatty morning suit. Instead the guy was in his late thirties, casually dressed in black sweater and jeans. Unlike Miss Havisham, he was very handsome. His black hair, alabaster skin and sapphire eyes were deeply appealing.
Darius opened his car door. He settled into his seat and fastened his belt before starting the engine. He turned the heat up high, waited for the windows to demist. He hadn’t been lying when he’d said the gossip was none of his business but he was intrigued nonetheless. How did a man that physically blessed do something as tragic as turning himself into a recluse hiding away in the wilds of Connecticut? Did he work to support this magnificent house? Still, one man’s loss was another’s gain. Jake would probably be an easy-going employer who Darius would never see. He wouldn’t want to make conversation or play games of Scrabble. And the remuneration was great. As far as Darius could see it was a perfect job. Of course he would have liked accommodation thrown in too because he was behind on his rent and hated his apartment but soon he’d be able to afford to settle his debts and move somewhere better. As long as he kept appealing to the guy’s belly with delicious food.
Darius started the engine. The look of gratitude in Jake’s eyes as he’d sat back after the meal had been almost sad. Darius felt sorry for him. He liked the way he’d made Jake smile. It had tugged a little at his heart-strings. He cruised down the drive and out of the gates. As soon as he’d gone, he saw the gates slowly closing in his rear view mirror. Was Jake watching him on camera? Had he seen Darius sitting in his car ruminating over the interview?
Darius glanced down at the bulge in his pants as he accelerated down the road. He gave a rueful smile because it had been a while.