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In Defiance

Chapter 1
September 2008

Sometimes, when night crept across the floor and Luce sat tucked under his arm while they watched TV, Simon wondered if he could do exactly this for the rest of his life. It felt good to have her nestled close, slowly growing sleepy as she ran out of commentary to direct at the television programme he barely noticed. Simon sighed, pulling her more snugly against him – any closer and she’d meld with him; that would be fine with him. It seemed possible. Smiling, he looked at the top of her head. Her light-brown hair lay neatly, the tips brushing her shoulders; some of it tickled his neck where her head rested under his chin. Simon’s own hair was more of a chocolatey colour, but after working on the family farm all summer, it looked like tatty wool with tarnished copper wires threaded through it. Always a mess, according to Luce; like he’d just had a good shag. It ran in the family, who generally took the view best expressed by his brother Matt – bless him – that hair product was for poncy southerners and pretty backs.

A ghost of Luce’s breath tickled his chest; reflexively, Simon stroked her arm, her skin like velvet against his fingertips. He closed his eyes and exhaled, a pleasant buzz seeping into him. Up and down, he brushed her arm lightly; the sensation spread, pure contentment stretching its fingers through him. It felt good, running his hands across her skin, her clothes; he shivered, thinking this was as good as it would ever get, if there was no grey area when it came to attraction, and that being gay was as absolute as black or white. It couldn't be absolute, though, if he had managed to shag her - and he had, more than once. Perhaps it was so close as to make no difference: he could look at her and see why other men wanted her, but he couldn't feel it, not in the way he'd felt it with other blokes he’d shagged. It would have been easy, if she'd been male; she was and always had been as close to perfect for him as he could imagine anyone being, apart from that one thing, her being a lass, and even that was so close to right that it almost hurt to think about it. Sex could be easy enough, but only if they were both willing to accept feeling that something was missing - that physical intimacy was a sort of awkward anti-climax, that it would only ever be good enough without being good - and he didn't think that he was. He didn't think that she would be, either. Simon liked sex. Luce liked sex. She deserved better, too. ‘Close’ wouldn't be good enough for either of them.

That night not even a week ago would remain a fuzzy, distant experience; only half-remembered, but remembered well enough to solidify his own quiet certainty of who and what he was, and lay to rest the niggling, lingering thought that maybe it was only that he hadn't met the right lass yet, as his auntie Rita seemed to believe. He knew deep down that it had nothing to do with meeting the right lass. Although he was grateful for that certainty, and it had quieted a small voice of doubt, another nagging discomfort had arisen: he shouldn’t have done it. No matter how much he’d had to drink, he should never have taken advantage of Luce like that. The last thing he wanted was to lose her.

Simon tightened his grip very slightly and held Luce against him as though she might disappear if he let go. Eventually, as he knew, she would disappear; she would go off to Hampshire and be the wife of a high-flying barrister who Simon couldn't quite persuade himself to believe she loved. She spent her holidays at the Holroyd farm, even in summer - apart from the last two weeks of this year’s: the boyfriend had finally proposed. That new ring sat heavy on her hand and somehow made Luce seem like a completely different person; it made Simon uneasy. He wasn’t James, and never would be, but that didn’t stop him occasionally wishing he could be, if only for long enough to feel wanted by her and want her back just as much. Taking care of her was one thing and fulfilled him in some ways; the rest was just confusing. He knew that it would be too ask for, to be able to see Luce through somebody else’s eyes and feel something like desire so strong it hurt. Simon felt bits of that, and her impending loss would erode bits of him from inside out. He just didn’t know how to say that to her. For better or worse, she looked happy, even if her engagement seemed nothing like the marriages he'd seen, the ones that had shaped what he wanted for himself. He remembered when he was a young lad, watching his mum and dad together, wanting just what they'd had before she had died, what his eldest brother Dan had with Maria; the stability and normality of a family of his own. Simon envied their contentment and rightness together.

Luce could’ve been Simon’s Maria. At least, he often thought she could’ve been if he were straight. It was such a fine line, the border between sexual attraction and love. Desire – the same desire that Matt knew for Luce, like iron had replaced the marrow in his bones and she was the only lodestone in the world, strong and sure - wasn’t one Simon knew, but he loved her more than anybody else in his life.

Closing his eyes, Simon tried to imagine Luce and James together. James was sophisticated, urbane, and reserved; Luce was a mad ball of energy most of the time, bringing life and noise wherever she went. They seemed too different, to Simon - and if James found out about what Simon had done, Luce wouldn’t stay engaged for long. Even though she’d happily participated, Simon couldn’t help wondering if she’d blame him if things went badly with James.

So he could still lose her, even if she didn't leave to get married.

Simon frowned at the floor, thinking. It could be brilliant, him and Luce, if things were different. If he were different - or if he weren't different, different from the other men in his family because he wanted to shag blokes. Only Luce had ever made him wish seriously that he were ‘normal’, not that he was sure that she would actually want him even if he were straight. Luce leaned toward ‘pretty’ men, and Simon wasn’t ‘pretty’. Of course, she took the piss a lot; they both did, but that didn’t mean she would ditch James for him. Loving a mate and being in love with him were two different things. He knew; he’d never been in love, and was starting to think he might never be. In fairness, he had to admit that he would never have expected the village - with its population of about five hundred souls including dogs and horses, and closest larger town over an hour away - to offer a wide assortment of suitable partners, but he felt justified in being disappointed that the only one had proved to be a complete tosser; after contracting gonorrhoea from him, Simon had decided that he’d rather wear both hands out than put himself anywhere near the prick again. He wasn't heartbroken: it had never been more than convenience for either of them, but he had been angry. Angry and then suddenly, horribly afraid: it could have been so much worse. Even thinking about getting it made his skin feel covered in maggots.

Simon squeezed his eyes shut and took deep breaths, trying to right the wrong turns his mind had decided to take. He only had one more trip left to the GP for confirmation that he was all clear. He exhaled. If he’d given anything to Luce, he’d never forgive himself. Fuck. She had known what had happened with Mick. Too bloody careless, Luce. He hoped that even if he got sick, she wouldn’t. She can't. He sighed.

Until he knew for certain, nothing would feel right. Simon chewed his bottom lip. Negative was what he wanted – needed – to hear. A few days remained before he’d know anything, though, but with life at the school starting up again, he at least had things to keep his mind busy. A new teacher would be joining the staff; he and Luce had promised the headmistress they would meet the new teacher and help him get settled. He was their sort of age, she had told them; Luce had unkindly remarked after the headmistress had gone on her way that his arrival would finally bring the teaching staff's average age down to fifty and patently ignored Simon’s look of disapproval.

Luce had been asleep for a while by the time Simon realised it was nearing midnight. He turned off the TV and slid one arm under her knees and the other behind her back; she made no protest, for once, when he lifted her and carried her through to the bedroom. Like always, she reached for his pillow and curled up once in bed. It didn’t take long for her hand to start searching the empty space beside her, though, even in her sleep. Simon smiled slightly, aware that she wasn’t reaching for him but the cuddle she could get.

Before the darkness clouded everything, he paused and looked at her for a moment, realising he wanted to be the pillow and sheet she balled up under her arm, for someone to want him so much that they would seek him out even in sleep.

Simon sighed and went to turn off the lights.

When he finally joined her in bed, he had no time to settle before she gravitated until her body fitted against him like they were made for one another. It was nice, but no matter how he turned, twisted or arched, he couldn’t get comfortable enough. It felt strange, but a familiar sort of strange; one he had been increasingly aware of for months. The awkwardness wasn’t in the position: it was that Luce did fit so perfectly with him and yet he couldn’t want her. Not that she wanted him as more than a mate, but still... he reckoned it was part of a cosmic joke. Only side-by-side could they fit so perfectly together but not actually be together like a pair of roads that ran parallel but never connected.

After an hour of listening to Luce grumble every time he moved, and feeling her shift to close any gap he'd created, Simon was still awake, contemplating their weird perfect-imperfection. He looked at the clock and the fuzzy numbers, hoping if he stared at them long enough, everything would make sense, or at least he’d fall asleep.

Sleep came first.

Sweat gathered and ran down Simon’s forehead as he waited with Luce and Jo for the new teacher to arrive. He pulled his collar up and wiped the moisture from his face. It didn’t help much; the t-shirt was already building up enough to wring out into a cup. Luce started practising her French with Jo – Josiane, the resident French teacher, from Paris – to pass the time. They seemed completely unbothered by the heat. Naturally.

Luce had already started hinting about lunch before the taxi arrived, generously extolling the virtues of Simon’s Yorkshire pudding sandwiches with proper gravy and home-made chips. She stopped mid-sentence and exchanged a significant look with Jo: she had bet a bottle of Bombay Sapphire that the new bloke would share Simon's inclinations and be as immune to Jo's considerable charms as Simon himself, and stakes that high were taken seriously. Simon had been unable to discover any reason beyond “I've got a sort of feeling" for her unshakable conviction; Jo had tossed her head majestically and accepted the bet without hesitation: the odds were, after all, massively in her favour.

What they had not thought to bet on was the likelihood of the new bloke being heart-stoppingly good-looking. He was. He stepped out of the car and stretched, presenting his profile to the onlookers, and Simon felt as if someone had smacked him across the back of the head with a breeze block.

Before either Jo or Luce could speak, he blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

“Not gay.” At least Simon didn’t think so. The man beginning to oversee the taxi driver unloading his belongings didn’t look like… anything. Good, yes, even from that distance; he was tall and willowy with a fine arse and broad, straight shoulders. In what looked like a tribute to Cary Grant, he wore his hair swept to the side along a parting so precise that it was almost surgical. Not a strand seemed out of place. Just him, really, Simon thought. He wore corduroy trousers and a jumper, despite the raging heat. If his colouring were anything to go by, the man didn’t spend a lot of time out of doors. The bloke’s complexion was fair, almost delicate, under the midday sunlight. Simon leaned forward and rested his forearms on the gate. No, this bloke isn’t delicate; he’s elegant. That didn’t make him gay, any more than a style of dress and grooming did. Having been hired by Mrs Dalgliesh to work in a girls' school didn’t either - married, perhaps.

He looked at Luce and Jo. “He’s not gay.”

They shared a look of doubt that Simon didn’t feel.

Not that it mattered. A new face didn’t mean new prospects, as Jo – vixen that she was – seemed to think. In Simon’s experience, men like this one wanted partners like them: educated, posh and wealthy. The only single person at the school who might fit that description was Jo.

Simon sighed at where his thoughts headed. Luce had been bang on, as usual. He did want Mr Right. Someone who liked shagging, who’d let Simon touch him, someone he wanted to touch, and could freely, would be nice. Someone to take care of, who respected him. Someone kind and who his father – and Granddad – wouldn’t dislike would be brilliant. Someone Matt could stand to look at beside his brother as a lover and respect would be perfect.

Sometimes he thought it’d be easier if he could be like Luce was before James: perfectly happy with a random anonymous shag in a dark room in the back of a club when the urge took her, making a grand game of flirting across a crowded dance floor, and letting her body speak for her, simply because she could. Every eye on her – she loved it, and had her pick of the lot. It was the same way she’d pulled James; the wanker just hadn’t ever let go.

“He’s not straight,” Luce said, steering his thoughts back to the bloke on the driveway.

An easy feat, that. Simon glanced at the man again. “He’s more interested in books than sex. They always look like that, the really clever ones. Can’t ever tell what they are. Pity – he’s a good-looking bloke.”

Two hums of agreement followed.

“I wish I had his cheekbones,” Jo said, her French accent thicker than when she’d left for the summer.

“I wish I had his hair,” Luce said.

Simon shook his head, his attention still on the waiting car and man. Not that he was an expert on female beauty, but he knew that Luce and Jo fell into the attractive category. Jo, he thought, would never have been his type, even if he were interested in lasses: she looked like Dita Von Teese - more a 30s pin-up girl than a teacher.

Their new colleague frowned at the departing taxi, then his bags, and the two large trunks that had been hefted from the vehicle's boot. A little help never hurt. Simon grinned and opened the gate.

“Where are you...?”

Luce’s voice faded under the crunch of gravel as Simon crossed the driveway to the newcomer.

“Same thing I did for you and Jo,” he called over his shoulder.

It was too hot. Simon couldn’t believe the bloke wasn’t sweating; he had been just from standing still. For once, rain would’ve been welcome to take the edge off the swelter. He rubbed his face, and the light sheen of sweat covering it.

The man had lifted a rucksack onto one shoulder and had begun to try to gather up some of the smaller bags. Simon cocked his head and smiled.

He stopped when the other man dropped his rucksack.

“Hi. I’m Simon – Simon Holroyd. Games master. Need some help?”

The man glanced round. “Oh. Yes, thank you; that would be marvellous.” Southern cut-glass diction, and a crisp, resonant voice, Simon noted. “Lawford; classics,” he said, turning to face Simon and extending his hand.

Simon accepted it, and held for a moment longer than necessary. Lawford’s skin was smooth and cool despite his heavy clothing and the heat. “Sorry. Nice to meet you.” Up close, Lawford looked even better. His eyes, pale blue and bright, caught Simon’s attention. He smiled, watching Lawford’s lips move, but not hearing what he said. He reckoned he could find out later. “What room?”

Lawford fished through his trouser pockets. Eventually, he withdrew his key and squinted at the tag.

“Seven, I think.”

“Just across from me, then. It’s this way. Luce! Could you get the door?”

Simon hoisted one trunk; then adjusted his grip on it and reached for the other.

“Oh, those are rather heavy...”

“It’s not far,” Simon said reassuringly and shifted his load.

Luce passed by and gave him a look, but he ignored it.

“This way.” Simon started for the door.

Luce stuck her tongue out as Simon squeezed through the doorway; he knocked an elbow on the frame. “Bugger.” Bloody old houses! Luce snickered, the sound following them all the way to the first floor.

to be continued...