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The rain had just started to lash down by the time Daniel Hastings, barrister, slipped into the café-restaurant and was enveloped by its coffee imbued warmth. He loved Guillaume’s, he loved the cool Frenchness of it, the understatement, the illusion that in here he could sit by the window at his usual morning table, and feel perfectly safe. Daniel – Danny to everyone except judges, and the Colon – had a problem with feeling safe.
In fact, he was a quivering, nervous wreck. The table was a welcome anchor, and Danny sat down on the plush leather seat that he pulled from it. He fished his case papers out of his briefcase, and started to put them on the table, pondering as he did so. Danny did a fleet reckoning. He looked up, to confirm he was on schedule. He needed to keep to it; it gave him a sense of order, control over his nerves, and as long as he was near a clock, he could keep a check on everything in the known universe.
To confirm the accuracy of the large, big faced clock on the wall, Danny pulled back the sleeve of his suit, revealing his own watch face healthily synchronised. He made another reckoning. A daily reckoning, that never deviated, not even by a minute. He had an hour. An hour to sip on the fantastic coffee, try and relax; and whether he succeeded or not, he would certainly try. An hour to look over the case papers, and valiantly attempt to gather his thoughts.
Danny glanced up again. His eyes quickly swept the room that was on two levels, separated by an elevation of five stairs. He recognised the morning regulars. Sitting drinking coffee, eating breakfast, reading paperwork, tapping away on their devices. Nodding slightly in satisfaction that everything was in perfect order, Danny began to arrange his papers so that he could cross reference them. More order. To keep his mind descending into a tailspin of panic. Katharine, friend and colleague, had helped him with that, the cross referencing stuff and just about everything else, when he had returned to work after being so ill.
He straightened the papers. Again. He flexed his long fingers, as if they were afflicted by arthritis rather than tension. Momentarily, he wished it was arthritis alone. He was 27 years old, and too young to be as tense and uptight as he was. He flexed his fingers again, and rearranged his papers. Again. Once he was satisfied the papers were in order, so his pale blue eyes could sift the typescript on them with minimum fuss, he allowed himself to be relieved of his heavy overcoat. Danny slipped it from his shoulders and turned, to drape it over the chair. He knew one of the waiters, Bruno most likely, would come and, with minimum fuss, retrieve it and hang it on the large, brass antique coat stand adjacent to Danny’s table.
After a couple of minutes, Danny stopped staring at the papers in front of him – his mind had started to drift from their content to those new paint colours he had seen in Mastiglio’s art supplies shop, 200 yards from Guillaume’s – realising that his coffee hadn’t arrived. And his coat was still draped, wet from the rain now slashing across the window to his right, over the chair. Strange.
Danny loved Guillaume’s for the coffee, the food, the ambiance; and the orderly manner of the service. The waiters were French but should have been German, if their sense of organisation had anything to do with it. That was Guillaume’s expertise – serving up fantastic coffee, superb food, and immediate, discreet service. Danny occasionally exchanged pleasantries with the restaurant’s 30ish owner, and he could see that the guy knew his stuff when it came to running a place as good as this. He didn’t know Guillaume’s background, of course, but the little bit he was aware of, was impressive. Bruno, the currently missing in action waiter, would fill Danny in with titbits now and then. Just desultory conversation, nothing more. Danny couldn’t bear forming full sentences until at least 9am.
Guillaume hailed from Paris, and had opened this place because he was a real Anglophile and wanted to educate the English about food. The way Bruno had delivered this momentous and selfless action on Guillaume’s part, without a shred of irony seeing as they were in the epicentre of a city now renowned for good eating, had amused Danny. That, and Bruno’s deadly seriousness about everything. Which was fine with Danny. Bruno didn’t engage in witty repartee, thank ye Gods, as that would have had Danny heading straight for the door. What Bruno did do, and do well, was anticipate Danny’s order as soon as he walked through the door, on a weekday morning at 8am sharp, hang his coat on the coat stand, serve up a café latte, large. And then leave Danny alone. To work, to ponder, to mainly stare out of the window onto the busy streets beyond the immaculate window. No one bothered him. Danny could sit here, and pretend he was working. What he was really doing, and doing with little purpose or success, was trying to figure out a way to get the hell out of all of this.
He didn’t mean Guillaume’s.
Agitation started to make Danny fidget in his chair. He glanced at the clock on the wall. 8.06am. He had been here a full six minutes, with no coffee and his coat drying in creases on his chair. He shuffled his papers, knowing he should be reading them. Danny’s teeth bit gently into his lower lip, working at the flesh until it swelled slightly. He heard the chink of cups, the low, subtle murmur of conversation. It seemed everyone else in the entire world had their order. He raised his eyes from the papers, and discreetly looked for a waiter. No sign of Bruno. The bustling efficiency of the short, bulky figure was definitely missing this morning. He saw the other waiter, Fabrice, but he worked the tables on the lower level, with Jean-Paul. They were both moving between the tables with smooth ease. Immaculate, in white shirts, black waistcoats and black aprons so starched that you could slash your wrists on them and bleed steadily for a month. Danny wondered if he should try and catch Fabrice’s eye. Or gather up his papers, and head for his Chambers.
That thought didn’t appeal. Danny swallowed hard. A film of sweat settled on his upper lip. His dark navy suit, in which he was immaculate, contained his lean, willowy frame like a cotton lined straitjacket. The sense of order he always felt here was rapidly dissipating. Danny glanced up again, trying to appear casual, unhurried, hoping he didn’t look as frantic as he was starting to feel. The slightest thing set him off these days. His heart started kabooming against his ribs. His eyes fixed on Fabrice again, as if the waiter would sense the desperate gaze, and come to Danny’s rescue.
It was Guillaume who rescued him. The Frenchman emerged from the kitchen, a quiescent kitchen this morning. Amidst his encroaching anxiety, Danny quickly observed that Mathieu, this place’s certified lunatic head chef magnifique, was not in yet, to commence his reign of terror. Guillaume glanced over to table six and saw Danny sitting there, without coffee, with wet coat.
Danny fixed bayoneted glances with Guillaume, who for a brief moment looked boiling furious. Danny knew the look of incandescence wasn’t for him. It was for Bruno, oddly dilatory. Oddly absent. Guillaume quickly assessed the situation. Only Danny occupied the second level, the other regulars usually came in and took their tables near his around 8.15am onwards. Danny, the lone coffee drinker – rather, non coffee drinker – sat amidst his papers, trying to appear nonchalant at the lack of service and attention he was on the (non) receiving end of.
He momentarily pitied Bruno. The look in Guillaume’s eyes was priceless, that was for sure. Then, it disappeared, as Guillaume gestured for Fabrice to speak to him. Danny looked at his papers again. He felt his cheeks start to tingle, the slow, subtle sting of embarrassment prickling at the clear skin. He didn’t want to get Bruno into trouble, and on the end of a lashing from his boss. Danny knew how that bad that could feel.
He could hear the edge of their low, muted conversation. Rapid French was exchanged, then Danny heard the swish of the heavy wooden door adjacent to the kitchen, marked Staff Only. Guillaume had disappeared behind it, leaving a stony faced Fabrice in his wake. Danny looked up, and his eyes watched that door, expecting Bruno to emerge, shamefaced into bringing him the errant café latte, large, for gratis. A few seconds ticked by. Danny shifted his eyes from the door that contained all promise of getting a coffee before 9am, to the clock on the wall. 8.10am. To Danny, it seemed like several ice ages had elapsed since he had sat down and thought that for one hour at least, he could sit, and dream. Fuck the paperwork, he thought, fuck it. Just give me my fucking coffee, for Christ’s sake!
The coffee. Delicious, smooth. A bridge to thought and dreaming. Guillaume’s was the place for Danny to dream, gazing from the window. He needed that precious hour. It was the hook, the line, to connect him to the dream. The simple dream. But not an easy dream. If it was an easy dream, Danny wouldn’t be a barrister. He’d be an artist. A painter. He’d be calm, and at peace. The coffee would be a bonus. Not a lifeline. Not a bridge for dreams. Milk and coffee beans were not that magical. But for Danny they were a breathing space for him. Before 9am, before the cavernous jaws of Chambers consumed him.
He drew in a sharp intake of breath, as he saw the door start to open. Or rather, be thrust open, as the swish was altogether more noticeable. It was propelled forward with some force, like a hand had thumped at it in anger, to clear the way for the dilatory waiter to emerge into the naked light of…well, waitering.
Swiftly, Danny lowered his eyes again, pretending to be engrossed by his papers. The typescript seemed to move on the white sheets and Danny blinked, realising his eyes were watering slightly from the effort of staring at something he really didn’t give a toss about. He could hear more rapid French being exchanged, only this time, louder, loud enough for heads at the other tables to turn. This was not unusual, for arguments to be heard – or seen – in Guillaume’s. That was part of the allure of the place. And invariably because of Mathieu, the malleus maleficarum of waiters; emerging with polar bear menace in his whites, from the lair of his kitchen, to berate the waiters, or Guillaume himself, very publicly and very loudly. The Anglo Saxon flying liberally, in a heavy French accent.
Only this wasn’t Mathieu storming angrily in French. And it wasn’t Bruno, either. Bruno was too professional, too good at his job, to be in this situation in the first place. Briefly, Danny wondered if Bruno had finally had enough of Mathieu’s tyranny, and had organised an escape committee. Membership of one. Fleeing, on a motorbike across barbed wire barricades, black, starched apron flying behind him like a badge of honour.
Danny kept his eyes fixed on the papers. The typescript was blurring now. He blinked again, rapidly, as he listened to the quick fire discussion in French taking place – discussion, in the loosest sense of the term – between Guillaume and a waiter. Yes, definitely a waiter, as Danny allowed his eyes to briefly shift sideways, to see a tall, slim man clad in the immaculate uniform that Guillaume insisted upon, for morning as well as lunch and evening service. Waiter or not, he was giving to Guillaume as good as he was getting. Jesus, thought Danny, will one of you just bring me my bloody latte? He looked again. For a minute, he thought he saw a similarity in the way the two men were locking horns, in their mannerisms and their build. Then, abruptly, the waiter picked up a notepad and pen from the polished marble surface of the bar, and began making his way towards the short flight of stairs. Shit, thought Danny, he’s coming over, then checked himself. Yes, he’s a bloody waiter, of course he is.
The papers on the table suddenly assumed fascinating proportions for Danny. He pretended he was immersed in his reading, and that he had completely, totally, utterly forgotten that he’d been sitting here for 10 minutes without his usual coffee. And that he didn’t give a toss. Who needed Guillaume’s superb coffee when he could having far much fun trying to scrape his tongue from the roof of his mouth caused by terminal thirst.
He heard the waiter – his waiter, now – making a big deal of ascending the three wooden stairs, or it seemed it was a big deal to Danny from the clicking sound of the guy’s shoes. Staccato steps that denoted anger, Danny was convinced. He reached for the pen he had abandoned earlier, that lay next to the earthenware bowl of condiments. That pen became the closest thing a stylo can be to friendship in those moments, as the waiter of the year came to Danny’s table, still mumbling French, but under his breath now. Danny picked up the pen, and began scribbling nonsensical annotations in the margins of one of the papers, convinced it would make him look very business like and unconcerned. It was a pity he couldn’t do anything about his face, which was starting to sting with bells on now, from his anxiety levels reaching defcon two.
Okay, thought Danny. Get a grip, barrister. I’m not presenting before Justice Hargreaves, I’m not explaining for the n-th time to the Colon why I couldn’t get the client to retract his earlier statements and thus screw up the entire case. No, I am just asserting my right to a bloody cup of coffee before I have to face those two banes of my life. I am just going to order my coffee from this lousy waiter, making sure I give him my best annoyed look, the one I give to clients when I know they are bullshitting me.
The scratching sound caused him to glance sideways, seeing a pair of elegant hands clutching the notepad and scribbling in vain with a pen that had evidently given up its inky ghost. The pen holding hand jabbed at the pad hard, then scribbled dryly again. There was no smooth movement to accompany the efforts to draw ink from a dry well. Danny swallowed. Felt his resolve at being one cool and disgruntled customer, go to pieces.
He knew waiters like this one. Doubtless he was a Parisian. Thus, Danny would be made to feel like it was all his fault that he had been kept waiting for one of life’s more simpler pleasures. Still giving sly looks to the rather nice looking hands, that thought coming unbeckoned amidst his anxiety like a weed in a flower bed, Danny noted the crispness of the black apron, the black waistcoat that contained with ease and elegance a very flat stomach. The waiter’s aftershave drifted to Danny’s nostrils. Making them wrinkle, slightly. Very subtle, tangy, it reminded Danny of cool, temperate forests. Altogether, the guy was pretty understated, considering his grand entrance and impromptu staff meeting with Guillaume.
The pen was juddered off the notepad in a gesture of intense annoyance, accompanied by a sound of frustration. Hissing, behind teeth.
“Sir?” came the voice. Heavily accented, the ‘r’ curling languorously. And ever so slightly imperiously. Yup, thought Danny, definitely from Paris.
Danny froze, his own pen sticking like glue to his fingers. After all that, he still doesn’t know what I want, he thought. Surely after that lengthy discussion with Guillaume, the words ‘café latte – large’ might have figured, however briefly. Suddenly feeling genuinely annoyed now, and thus emboldened, Danny looked up to address the emperor masquerading as a waiter.
Danny swallowed again. And froze again.
The ensuing chill of paralysis did not complement the rush of red hot blood to his face. He could feel his blush start from his neck, surge upwards like a tsunami of shyness, to erupt into his cheeks. If that wasn’t enough, he felt his chin and long nose also leap on the bandwagon. He stared. Went on staring. The waiter stood there, his head slightly tilted to one side, doing finally what he was supposed to be doing; when his brother had asked him to do the morning shift, to cover for Bruno who rather selfishly had succumbed to flu. Wait. You know, on customers.
Stephane Clermont looked at Danny. Who was looking back at him with a stare that Stephane thought held a combination of disbelief, disdain, awe and a hint of arrogance. Ah, thinks he can have a go at the waiter, for waiting all of ten seconds for his order? Stephane cleared his throat, raised his brows, and waited again.
Danny remembered why he was here. Café latte…oh, for Christ’s sake, just order the fucking thing!
“Finally,” he muttered, then was about to utter the hallowed words. But Stephane interrupted his flow. If flow it was. One word, but it was a start.
“Excuse me?” Stephane queried, raising his brows again, to emphasise his indignation that a customer might dare to express an opinion.
Danny looked away, shuffled his papers awkwardly. Cheeky sod, he thought. Right, that does it. He’s pissing me off, now.
“I want a café latte, large – please. Can you bring it before 9 o’ clock, if that’s okay.”
Danny felt a brief resurgence. Triumph, despite his face burning like a 10 year old malt. He liked that little sparky barb. Perfect. Make the order, and get my feelings across. What, in just one sentence? Yes, Danny thought, back of the net, methinks.
With that, he sought the refuge of his papers again. His face kept on burning, to remind him he could still crash and very much burn. Stephane, however, wasn’t playing. He remained where he was, causing Danny’s face to reach incendiary shades.
“Was there any need for that?” Stephane asked him. Danny dragged his eyes from the papers. Shit. He was supposed to slink away, and only come back suitably chastened – preferably, with my coffee. Then go away again. Danny remembered the coat. Another chance to take back the high ground, here.
“Would you mind putting my coat on the stand please? It’s drying on the back of my chair.”
Danny was aware that last statement hadn’t contained the depth, power and sheer menacing proportions of his earlier one. He listened to his own thoughts pulse back at him. He knew he should plead guilty to pomposity, but left that to the waiter.
Without a word, hugely to Danny’s relief, Stephane moved behind him and scooped up Danny’s heavy overcoat. But Danny had to quickly lean forward, due to half of his buttocks sitting on it. That didn’t seem much of an obstacle to the waiter of the century. Stephane wrenched the coat up, and Danny found himself briefly having to stand up to avoid a tug of war being established between the waiter, the coat, and his own buttocks.
Feeling ridiculous, Danny flopped back down again. He quickly took the opportunity to look at Stephane as the waiter stalked over to the coat stand with Danny’s vanquished coat. Jesus, thought Danny, as Stephane, without warning, looked over his shoulder at Danny before he hung the coat on one of the wooden hangers. Busted, Danny lowered his head again to stare at his papers. He heard the clink of hanger on brass peg, then in his peripheral vision the black apron appeared again.
“Anything with the café latte…large?” came the cultured French voice again.
Danny wondered how such innocuous words could sound so accusatory. He shrugged, and shook his head, hopefully, he thought, in a suitably dismissive manner that would render the waiter a quivering wreck. Some hope.
To Danny’s relief, he heard the click of shoes descending the stairs, to pass his highly complex order onto Fabrice. He looked up from his papers, now relatively safe from the waiter’s nefarious clutches. Danny had to turn his head to watch the perambulations of the waiter, who stood watching Fabrice make Danny’s coffee. Evidently, training had not involved actually operating the coffee machinery, thought Danny; come to think of it, no involving of good service or manners, either.
Danny continued taking sneaky glances. The plume of steam, and the accompanying whooshing sound, heralding the great news that soon Danny would be at one with his coffee, seemed to inflame the atmosphere. He watched how Stephane was saying something to Fabrice, who was pouring the smooth mixture into a large, spherical shaped porcelain cup. Fabrice glanced up, looking over at Danny, then at Stephane. They exchanged a few words, and Danny knew they were discussing the awkward customer at table six. Then, to his inexplicable fury, he saw Stephane laughing, as Fabrice placed the steaming cup onto a tray.
Seeing Stephane pick up the tray and the treasured contents, Danny quickly turned back to his papers, picking up the pen again. He assumed a look of concentration so deep, the dalai lama himself would have been fooled. Not so the panchen lama, it seemed. Stephane hovered, looking at the papers covering the table. Danny sighed, looking up at him. He swallowed. Again. He blushed, again. He felt so hot he thought he might spontaneously combust, and before the coffee was drunk, too.
Stephane lifted the steaming coffee from the tray, his eyes shifting to Danny, then to the papers. Danny realised that this time, the waiter had a point.
“Oh, sorry,” Danny mumbled, feeling a pulse beating rapidly at his throat. He picked up the nearest papers, a space revealed for the cup to make contact. Stephane placed it there, and Danny saw how the waiter’s fingers were as lean as his entire frame. Stop it, thought Danny, just stop it, don’t look at him again, the coffee’s here – halle-bloody-lujah – and cue exit of waiter.
“Thank you,” Danny said softly, his impeccable manners kicking in, like they always did.
“You’re welcome,” came the urbane reply.
At that, Danny raised his eyes to look at Stephane. God, the guy’s incredible, came the traitorous thought. It was as if an artesian well had taken on the role of his brain, for rising up and up with the plume of steam from Danny’s cup were a host of the little sods, thoughts, thoughts, throwing Danny into even deeper anxiety. How great the guy looked, when he had been standing arguing with Guillaume. How fabulous his bottom looked, tight, pert, snugly fit in black pants that had a very faint stripe down them. Not forgetting how stunningly handsome he was, so much so, came one thought hot on the heels of the next, like a litany of lusting.
So what, Danny, thought, okay the guy looks great. Understatement, Danny, understatement. Danny couldn’t help himself, and watched Stephane walk back down the stairs. The pert bottom moved with the lithe grace that only buttocks hard as rock can achieve . He noted the slight swagger in the way Stephane walked, an easy and assured arrogance about him. Why the hell can’t I be like that, he thought, instead of shit scared of everything?
He sipped the coffee. Worth the wait. It tasted so good, perhaps even better, today. Danny dragged his eyes from his papers once more. Other customers had filtered in, sitting down at tables near his. Stephane moved between the tables, Danny listening to the sultry French accent and barely focussing on the words in front of him. It was the words swirling around him he was interested in. As Stephane kept sweeping past him, the scent of his aftershave was absorbed by Danny’s nostrils. Lovely. That cool forest again. Lying down upon a bed of ferns and grasses, the morning dew dampening skin. Achingly slow kisses, tongues exploring…
Danny shuffled in his chair, adjusting his position slightly. On no account, he thought, get a hard on in Guillaume’s. A wank fest in the shower or bed, no problemo, even knocking out a quick one in Chambers’ lavatories, but not here, Jesus. Besides, thought Danny, the guy looks like the love child of Zeus and Diana, so wank on, wank off, wank on, wank off. He’s probably shagging every night, like a kid in a sweet shop. And I bet he’s stupid, too, if his waitering skills are anything to go by, Danny’s thoughts doing a thorough character assessment as Stephane breezed past him. The better looking they are, the more dense they are too, in Danny’s experience, at least.
“Can I get you anything else?”
Broken from his reverie, Danny jumped. Shit, he’s back. Danny felt the flood of heat in his face again as he coughed nervously.
“No, I’m fine thanks,” he replied, and Stephane stood where he was, looking at him. Danny felt any residual moisture in his mouth disappear. It felt like the Gobi in there.
He looked up from his papers, knowing the guy could see how crimson he was. Danny saw something in the beautiful, smoky grey eyes as the waiter seemed to be scrutinising him. Something indefinable, maybe a hint of humour, or teasing. Crimson turned to a fetching hue of vermilion. One of Danny’s favourite shades when painting, along with ochre and deep oranges, colours of the soul. Where the hell did that come from, he thought, as he realised he and the waiter were staring at each other.
To Danny’s horror, he saw the fabulous grey eyes move to his neck. He was convinced the guy was looking at the pulse flickering there, the carotid thundering against white, taut skin as if to say, ‘hey, baby, here I am! Yes, I am absolutely terrified of you. By the way, please kiss me!’. Danny sat there, and watched the smoky eyes move over his neck, then slowly back to his eyes. It only took a nanosecond for the guy to do it, but Danny thought it incredibly erotic, sensuous…and possessive.
Danny felt his left cheek start to flicker, in the way it did when he was at his most desperately nervous. It usually set up its annoying rhythm when the Colon was on the warpath, or Danny was on his way to court and facing a particularly tough judge. But it was doing it now, in front of this guy, judge, jury and some kind of sexy executioner. What a way to go.
The moment passed, Stephane inclined his head slightly to denote he was satisfied that Danny really didn’t want anything else, nothing the restaurant could offer anyway. Danny gulped, and stared down at his papers once more. He tried to re-hydrate his mouth, slurped his coffee greedily. The wall clock’s pointer said 8.47am. Had all that time elapsed since the coffee had finally arrived. Yeh, Danny, thought, it’s true; time does fly, and all that.
He realised the time had passed, all thirty minutes, without once thinking about Court Number Three he was due at this morning, or even the snake of a client who couldn’t walk in a horizontal line without succumbing to leg cramps. Danny’s heart started to thump, as remembrance flooded back and dragged him into the present again. He inhaled the aroma of temperate forests, as Stephane swished past him now and then. The place was getting louder, the early morning customers starting to filter out and to their offices, replaced by customers with more time on their hands.
Heart still scudding. Danny frantically started to read the papers in front of him. Sweat sprang onto his brow, his bladder started jostling about like a washing machine on pre-wash. Katharine would be waiting for him shortly. They were going to peruse this stuff together prior to Danny attending Court Three to mentally joust with Justice Hargreaves, and Bob Winter, the client with the horizontal alignment issue. Just take it in, Hastings, Danny raged at himself, I mean, Katharine could in ten minutes flat.
But nothing was going in. Danny’s pale eyes moved unseeingly over the typescript. It was like the text was bouncing off Danny’s brain. I have just spent nearly an hour here, he thought desperately, pissing about, when I should have been preparing.
That’s when it started.
Oh God, not here, was one of Danny’s last relatively coherent thoughts for a while, as the familiar rise of panic in his throat started to make everything go fuzzy. He knew how they worked, but they usually came on when he was alone, or with Katharine to help him. Vomiting in the loo, gasping for air, clutching at his tie to loosen it, as the panic attack tore through him, all of this could be endured, without an audience. But not here, Danny begged again. It’s not that bad, he reasoned. Okay, just breathe. Breeeeaaathe. Deep breaths. In. Out. In. Out. Breeeaaaathe. Shit, it was getting worse. The clink of cups started to become deafening, and the pain in Danny’s chest expanded into a full blown panic attack Krakatoa style. Right here. Bang in the middle of Guillaume’s, the clock racing to 9am, and the tables filling up nicely. An audience for Danny’s denouement. Lovely. Let the floor entertainment commence…
The next thing he knew, as a hand reached for his tie, loosening it, Danny had another hand pressing into the small of his back, and raising him up from his seat. The sound of gasping and choking filled Danny’s ears. His own breath, being forced through panic contracted lungs. He was guided down the stairs, then the whoosh of a door, the draught on Danny’s face, and into cool air. His face tingled, the drop in temperature clashing with the heat in his firing on all cylinders blood vessels. Very fine rain brushed his cheekbones. Somewhere in the back of Danny’s mind, he registered relief the pouring rain had stopped. He was pushed down, gently, by his shoulders onto a seat that felt remarkably like an upturned drinks crate.
“Breathe…slow, breathe…breathe…slow, that’s it; that’s it, you’re doing great, breathe. Slow. Breathe…”
Danny felt hands resting over his own. The panic, the sense of impending doom, the shortness of breath, wracked his body. It was one of the worst he’d had in a while, like he felt he was about to expire at any moment. The hands covered his still, and he was vaguely aware that fingertips were gently stroking the prominent veins there.
“Good. That’s it. Breathe…slow, slow…it’s okay, everything’s okay…here, hold onto me.”
Danny closed his eyes, leaned his head against the dank wall. He felt his hands being enveloped, into warmth, fingers stroking his palms now, the lightest touch, but offering a world of comfort. Strong, too. Like an anchor against his panic.
“Breathe, slow, nice and slow, just take your time…it’s all good…promise.”
Danny focussed on the voice, and the aroma of cool, temperate forests again. The French accent was soothing, sensuous, taking the edge off his anxiety. Slowly, gradually, Danny felt his breathing start to slow down. The voice guided him, and he followed it slavishly. He allowed his fingers to interlink with the fingers that had been stroking his palms. Danny opened his eyes, looked into beautiful grey ones, gazing up at him.
“You’re doing great…that’s it…nice and slow breathing, no rush…breathe, now, breathe, breathe…”
He gazed back at the smoky grey eyes. As his breathing began to calm under the subtle hypnosis, his chest relaxed to just a dull ache, his sweating skin leaving him shivery. Danny looked down to see how his fingers were still entwined. Except for the guy’s thumb, which stroked the inside of Danny’s wrist in a circling motion, almost absently. Danny looked up again, still concentrating on slowing his breathing, to see the guy crouched in front of him, the crisp, black apron fanning over his knees.
They stared at each other, as Danny’s breathing continued to slow down to non cardiac arrest rhythm. His mouth was bone dry, and he coughed, trying to clear his throat. The soft, stroking motion of his rescuer’s thumb was incredibly soothing. And incredibly pleasurable. Just slightly, the tempo of Danny’s breathing altered further, as his senses retuned, focussing on the sensations flickering over his wrist. Danny closed his eyes again, needing to gather himself together. Looking into those grey eyes was distracting him. He was supposed to be calming down, not heating up. That kind of dangerous oscillation meant Danny junior could start misbehaving at any moment, and Danny senior just concentrated on breathing.
He heard the rustle of clothing, as the guy stood up. The loss of his touch, the absence of the sensation on the nerve endings over his wrist, left Danny feeling bereft. He heard the door open, then swish shut. Danny opened his eyes again, and looked around him. He glanced down, to the side of the upturned crate he was sitting on, to see cigarette butts abandoned, half smoked, sodden from the earlier downpour. The rain was like a fine mist now, making Danny’s naturally wavy hair start to curl. Oh God, he thought, reality returning. He was about to look at his wristwatch, when the door opened again.
The guy crouched down in front of him once more, a concerned look on his handsome face. Danny sat there, and just drank him in. Along with the water he had been offered. Over the rim of the glass, Danny looked at him. Even the guy’s beard was perfect. On him, anyway. Not too whiskery, it hugged his face, making him look rugged without appearing rough or unkempt. God, no. The guy was immaculate. His hair was dark brown, a little ruffled, his eyes, well, the eyes! His nose was very Gallic, it dominated his face splendidly. Danny would have guessed he was a Frenchman, he just looked so very French. So very sexy. Even more so, when the swagger was in abeyance. But I could live with the swagger, thought Danny, and drained the cup, his mouth swishing the cool liquid over his teeth and tongue.
For a few moments, Danny held the gaze of the grey eyes, peering for as long as he dared over his glass. Realising the guy wasn’t going to look away first, Danny obliged instead.
“Feel better?” came the soothing French voice.
Danny, staring at the wet sheened ground, noticed how the tips of their shoes touched. Danny nodded.
“Yes…” he started, his voice developing a croak that suggested either the quickest onset of laryngitis in medical history. Or nervousness, which was one of Danny’s more regular symptoms. His medical records of late denoted ‘an overly anxious disposition, aggravated by stressful situations. Avoid’. When Danny, being a barrister after all, asked to read his own medical records, he had been unable to resist a bit of cross examination of his doctor. Avoid what? The stress, or the anxious disposition? Both, would be recommended, had come the laconic reply. Shall I just rewind till I get back to my childhood, then, Danny had ventured.
“Do you want some more water?”
Danny shook his head, and handed the glass back to him. He was a waiter, after all.
Reality flooded back yet again. Danny stood up, patting frantically at his body, as if his briefcase might have been secreted in the small pockets of his dark navy suit. The guy stood up with him, his eyes watching Danny’s quick hand movements.
“You’re not a mason, are you?” he asked, his eyes becoming even smokier with mischief settling in them.
Danny stopped as abruptly as he’d started. “What?” and looked in puzzlement at him. Then, he realised what he was doing. “Sorry…my briefcase, my papers!”
“Don’t worry, the briefcase is in Guillaume’s office. Sorry about the papers, though,” slight pause for effect, as Danny followed his heavily accented words, “I think we mixed them up, when I put them in your case…blame Guillaume, he’s in charge of them.” Another pause, as he fixed Danny with an even more amused look “seeing as I’m in charge of you…”
Danny stared at him, blushed again, then flopped back onto the crate, shaking his head. “I’m sorry.”
“What for? Being unwell?”
At that, Danny felt his nostrils contract as the guy crouched in front of him again, the soft vapour of the cool temperate forests causing Danny’s olfactory senses to sit up and beg.
“Making a total arse of myself.” Danny clarified his apology.
Laughing softly, shaking his head, the guy extended his hand. Danny took it, shook it.
Danny felt the firm grip, as his hand went up and down, their eyes locking again.
Danny allowed himself to relent – a bit – under the teasing smile. His pale skin, the bane of his life, lit up like a beacon on a hilltop.
So, Stephane. No longer the waiter. He was Stephane, with eyes one could submerge into, and Danny was floundering to stay above water. It started to rain again, and Danny kept blinking against the fine mist settling on his eye lashes.
Stephane stayed where he was, crouched in front of Danny, looking up into a face that was throwing him into perplexed confusion. He saw Danny’s face change from the softening of amazing, sharp cheekbones, to the pixifying effect of instant alertness.
He leapt up again. “Shit, I’ve got to go…sorry, sorry!” Danny cried out, and Stephane leapt up with him, to prevent Danny colliding into his midriff. He watched Danny turn this way and that, and then pause, a mad professor look to him, slender arms outstretched. Crazy guy, thought Stephane, looks like a scientist or something.
“You need to calm down, Danny, or you’ll make yourself ill again,” Stephane advised, and Danny wrenched at the door handle, pulling it with a furious tug.
“I’ve got to go…I’m late already…Jesus!” and he disappeared inside, leaving Stephane standing outside, shrugging in amazement.
“Mad scientist, got to be,” Stephane assessed and followed Danny inside. He walked along the short passageway, and turned left into Guillaume’s office. Where he found his brother and Danny, making an exchange of mutual apologies. Guillaume glanced at Stephane, who was standing in the doorway, watching Danny’s increasingly erratic behaviour. Guillaume shook his head, a slight, imperceptible movement, to head his younger bro off at the pass, for a silly comment would not be helpful at the moment. Besides, this young guy was in a real state.
Danny clutched at the retrieved briefcase, put it onto Guillaume’s desk, and unclipped the solid, brass catch. He rummaged for a few seconds, seeming to have forgotten Guillaume and Stephane were watching him. Guillaume glanced again at Stephane.
“Stephane,” he muttered, jerking his head to the door behind his brother, which led to that place where Stephane was supposed to be now, and what Guillaume was paying him for.
Stephane ignored him, and made a point of shaking his head, watching Danny fishing in the briefcase.
“It’s not here,” Danny muttered, beginning to wrench the papers from the briefcase, and start to array them on Guillaume’s desk. Stephane came into the office, and hovered behind Danny.
“Danny,” Stephane said quietly, and reached out, putting a tentative hand on Danny’s shoulder. He felt Danny’s body tense, the tremors of anxiety transferring to Stephane’s palm. Ignoring him, Danny continued virtually throwing papers onto Guillaume’s desk. Guillaume walked to the door, leaning against Stephane, murmuring in his ear.
“I’ll cover for you, seeing as you’ve done fuck all else this morning…just calm him down, if you can!”
Guillaume took a final look as Danny had seemed to forget he was standing in Guillaume’s office, making the place more of a tip than it already was. Giving his brother an exasperated look, he disappeared behind the door into his restaurant, the momentary aroma of food and coffee, the hum of voices, reminding him he wasn’t in some soap opera. There really was a crazy guy in his office, throwing papers all over the place.
Stephane stared at the strewn papers, picked one of them up. Instantly, Danny reacted.
“Don’t touch them! They’re already out of sequence, thanks very much!” and Danny grabbed the paper from Stephane’s fingers. The tearing sound caused Danny to erupt. “For God’s sake, I just need to get out of here!” and with that he scooped up the papers on Guillaume’s desk and crammed them back in the briefcase. It seemed his impromptu retrieve and file efforts were at an end.
Stephane stepped back, holding his hands up in mock supplication. “Okay, no one’s keeping you prisoner, Daniel.”
Danny clipped the clasp on the briefcase. “I said it was Danny,” he snapped, and for the second time Stephane was forced to move quickly out of the way of typhoon Dan.
Danny stalked out of Guillaume’s office, and was momentarily nonplussed, losing his bearings. Stephane followed him, seeing Danny’s confusion, and jerked his head towards the back door.
“Unless you’d prefer to walk through the restaurant?” he offered.
Danny stood for a moment, weighing up the options. Endure the walk of humiliation through the restaurant with every set of eyes on him, or slink out unseen at the back. No contest.
Nodding, Danny followed Stephane who opened the back door for him. Danny looked at him but only made brief eye contact; awkward, ragingly embarrassed, his anxiety state now at defcon four, looking at that handsome face was now completely too much.
“Turn right, the back lane takes you onto Glanville Street. Can you find your way to your laboratory?” Stephane chuckled, unable to resist. Seeing the puzzled, almost haunted look on Danny’s face, made him regret the comment instantly. He suddenly noted the dark circles under Danny’s eyes, the jutting cheekbones giving him a lost orphan kind of appearance. And Stephane surprised himself at the feelings rising up in his chest, as he looked at Danny. The oddest thing, realised Stephane. Like he wanted to protect the guy, or something. Or just give him a hug.
Realising that might not be the right tactic to calm Danny at this particular moment, Stephane kept his mouth shut as Danny swept past him without another word. Stephane followed him outside, and lit a cigarette, watching the retreating figure, clutching his briefcase as if it were the elixir of life itself. He kept on watching Danny, dragging on his cigarette as he did, until Danny turned onto Glanville Street, and out of Stephane’s watchful sight.
Annelise was still trying to get used to the rapid French rat-a-tatting with machine gun efficiency between the brothers. Her French was improving since Guillaume had come into her life, but listening to her partner and his brother reminded her she really was still taking linguistic baby steps. They were yammering away at the table, as she cleared away the last of the plates. Rather, a transference operation of moving the plates to the marble topped benches, awaiting the dish-washing faery to descend and wave its wand.
“Sorry, babe, English at home, I know.”
Guillaume leaned over, kissed her on the cheek. Stephane sat back in his chair, picking up his cigarette packet, shooting a look at his potential sister in law. Annelise saw the look. He was hard to make out, this baby brother of Guillaume’s, she was thinking not for the first time. She liked Stephane. But it was odd looking at them together. Guillaume was the foil for the second coming, as he described it to Annelise. Annelise found her man to be just about perfect to look at, and secretly thought Stephane’s looks a bit of a curse. Stephane had more or less admitted that to her, in one of their wine drinking one to ones, since he had arrived in London seven weeks ago, dishevelled and disillusioned. He was distractingly handsome, that was the thing. He seemed to Annelise some exotic island stranded in the middle of the ocean; everyone knew it was there and really great to visit now and then, but no one stayed.
“They either want to screw me senseless before the first date’s finished, or assume my brains are in my balls and patronise me,” was Stephane’s succinct assessment of his failure to find the loving relationship Annelise suspected he was seriously wanting.
Guillaume found that difficult to believe. He was hard on Stephane, Annelise thought. She knew Guillaume adored Stephane, and felt a degree of protectiveness for his wayward, glamour puss of a brother; but Annelise had distance, and perspective. She could see what Guillaume was too close to see. That Stephane envied what Guillaume had. Annelise didn’t mind the occasional green tinged looks Stephane shot her. She knew he probably wasn’t even aware of them.
“Don’t smoke in here, Stef,” Guillaume glugged down the remaining contents of his wine glass, tipped his chair back, to grasp the other wine bottle on the bench behind him. Stephane sighed, giving his brother a sour look.
“I wasn’t about to; I’ll smoke on the veranda, Maman!” and Stephane got up, already lighting his ciggie and making his way to the French windows. Annelise glanced at him as he did so. Faded jeans, a black t-shirt, the combination devastating in its effortless simplicity.
“Yeh, and that looks great too,” observed Guillaume, shaking his head at Annelise, as he replenished their glasses, “it lowers the tone, you know, you standing there puffing away.”
The aroma of cigarette smoke coiled back into the kitchen defiantly, along with warm, humid air. London was oppressive at the best of times for Stephane, he was a real Parisian boy, and he had never adapted as well as Guillaume to the English culture. Okay, it got sweltering in Paris, too, but Stephane would put up with Jean-Claude for a month or so, and ensconce himself in the annex adjacent to château Clermont throughout August.
“What tone? We’re not at château Clermont now, you know!” came the sardonic voice, pausing for another drag, “you should be grateful everyone can see me, I could stand here with your logo on my t-shirt…that’d get them piling into the best café-restaurant this side of the Channel!”, that last, deliberately mimicking the catch line on Guillaume’s website.
Annelise laughed at Guillaume’s expression, and mouthed a ‘let it go’ to him as he was about to make his riposte. Guillaume grimaced, and took another large swig of wine, swooshing it around in his mouth. They sat quietly for a while, Annelise enjoying the air whispering from the open windows, compensating for Stephane’s evil habit. She looked over to Guillaume, who leaned forward in his chair, and winked at her, before jerking his head in the direction of his out of sight brother.
“Did Stef tell you he’s turning into Mother Teresa?” and Guillaume suppressed a laugh, with another fortifying swig. If tension could be cut with a knife, like the saying insists, there was need for a nice flash of the old stainless. It seemed to drift in with the cigarette smoke, and Annelise could hear Stephane dragging harshly on his cigarette before volunteering a ‘very witty, Guillaume; now, go and have a lie down.”
Intrigued, Annelise got up, sauntered to the window, leaned against one of the doors. Stephane turned, smiled at her. He had a beautiful smile. She thought that when he smiled, he lost all of that bravado and bluster about him. He seemed more vulnerable, gentler, when he smiled. She had been surprised the first time she had met him, to learn he was gay. Guillaume told her he had known long before Stephane, though she doubted that. Big brother liked the idea that no one knew Stephane better than he did, and that included Stephane.
When she met him for the first time, in Paris, Stephane struck her as being one of the straightest guys she’d ever come across, considering the female attention he received and his ensuing appreciation; she had checked with Guillaume that he was actually out, and he assured her Stephane had been since his early 20s. Then, Annelise had encountered Antoine. You didn’t meet France’s answer to Liberace on hardcore steroids, you definitely encountered. Stephane’s turbulent affair with the beautiful model – Brazilian mother, French father – had confirmed for the intuitive Annelise that Stephane was hooked on the drama rather than the guy, and liked to be the big, strong partner. And, boy, did dramas abound.
At a family dinner at the château (she still couldn’t get used to that), she had sat with her mouth nearly on the table at the ensuing scenes, of Antoine raging at Stephane for some unknown slight; Stephane raging back, then raging at his father, then at Guillaume, only Elisabeth managing to calm everyone down, after considerable efforts on the matriarch’s part.
Or the time Antoine had shredded Stephane’s research papers the night before he was due to submit them, after a particularly bitter public row; with Stephane having to be physically held back by Guillaume and their friend, Michel, from murdering Antoine.
Then there had been the making up after the rows. No matter the screaming matches, they were inevitably followed by intense lovemaking that was so raucous, no amount of ear plugs could obliterate for Annelise and Guillaume in their own room next to Stephane’s at the château the evidence that love really could find a way. You’d think 400 year old walls would suppress that kind of bloody carry on, Annelise’s mother had commented drily, in response to her daughter’s recounting.
“Come on then!” Annelise encouraged now, swatting Stephane lightly on his arm.
Stephane winked at her, before flicking the cigarette butt over the veranda, laughing soundlessly. He only did it to annoy Guillaume, or the idea of annoying Guillaume, anyway. Shaking her head in mock admonition, Guillaume’s voice drifted from the kitchen.
“He rescued one of our customers this morning, didn’t you Stef? I nearly had a tear in my eye, I was so moved.”
“Oh? Was he good looking?” Annelise asked instantly, raising her finely plucked brows like sensory antenna.
Stephane leaned on the veranda railings, pretending to be engrossed by looking across the street and onto the panorama of north London on a sultry, July evening. It was past ten o’ clock but it was still light, the sky just starting its traverse from wakefulness to ochre sunset. She often found him here, even a couple of times during the night, when she got up for a glass of water, or to pee. There he was, leaning over the railings, gazing up at the sky. Annelise knew he was having problems sleeping, he had been since he’d arrived.
“How do you know it was a ‘he’?” Stephane asked, coming off the veranda and pulling a face as he stepped back into the kitchen.
She laughed, following him, pushing gently at his back.
“I didn’t, just call it my sixth sense,” she explained.
“Look, I’m the one with the crystal balls.”
They came and sat back down, Stephane crossing his eyes childishly, as Guillaume waited for him to fill Annelise in on the morning’s ER escapade.
Both brothers pretended to glower at each other.
“Well?” Annelise cried out, exasperated, kicking them both in turn under the table.
“It was nothing,” Stephane said, slightly dismissively, and rubbed at his nose. For a moment, she had the feeling he was being oddly defensive.
Guillaume, meanwhile, slid down his chair, pressing a hand to each cheek. “My God, Annelise, write that down, will you? Date, time, century…Stephane Clermont has an attack of modesty.”
Guillaume and Annelise enjoyed that one. “Now you both think you’re funny; such sad self delusion is catching!” Stephane muttered, and drank his wine in two gulps. He’d already run the gauntlet of the other waiters taking the piss throughout the day. That, Stephane could deal with.
Other, less straightforward thoughts were more problematic. As Annelise tried to coax vast swathes of detail from him, Stephane glanced at the long, black overcoat hanging from one of the pegs on the kitchen door. He’d brought Danny’s coat back home with him when he saw it hanging on the coat stand later that morning, an abandoned look to it.
Glancing out of the large main window of Guillaume’s, Stephane had seen the rain coming down hard again, and wondered if the mad scientist had got a soaking on his way to the lab. Then, he had remembered the look on Danny’s face again, and retrieved the coat, bringing it back home. Wondering why he had. Instead of taking it to Guillaume’s office, for doubtless collection later. The guy would come back, for sure, he was a regular. According to Fabrice, he would sit huddled over table six, drinking his café latte, all pale faced and chewing on his nails instead of working on the papers he invariably had sprawled everywhere.
“What does he do?” Stephane had asked, and Fabrice had thought for a few moments, then shrugged.
“Don’t know. Looks a bit like a lawyer or something?”
“A lawyer!” Stephane had said, incredulous “you’re kidding, right!”
Annelise nudged him back to the present. “What happened?”
“He rescued one of our regulars from having a public panic attack,” Guillaume answered for him, “took the guy outside to give him breathing exercises…hey, write that down as well, Annelise; Stephane takes guy into an alleyway and doesn’t give him a blow job!”
Stephane slammed his wine glass onto the table. “For fuck’s sake, leave it, will you!”
Guillaume stopped laughing abruptly, surprised at his brother’s reaction. Stephane’s ability to take Guillaume’s teasing about his sex life was legendary. Something in Stephane’s face made Guillaume indeed leave it, and, pulling a wry face at Annelise, he got up and started loading the dishwasher. The faery’s wand had been waved.
“Come on,” Annelise said, and Stephane got up, followed her into the living room, giving his brother a dark look before he did.
Stephane slumped in the armchair, aware Annelise was staring at him.
“What’s up, doc?” she asked, and Stephane slowly relaxed, smiling, seeing her expression.
“Do you think you’re the first person to ever say that to me?”
“No, but I still enjoyed it.”
Stephane held Annelise’s gaze for a few moments, then relented. “He’s always taking the piss.”
“He doesn’t mean it.”
“I know…it’s just, you know, sometimes…”
“Well…for a start, I’m not a complete cock rat.”
“I know that, babe.”
Stephane noted the endearment. And the belief in him.
He really liked Annelise. He thought she was the best thing to happen to his pain of a brother for a long time. Guillaume had been his equivalent for a while, in the heterosexual stakes. They’d compared sexual experiences, both brothers chronically frank with each other about the ins and the outs. Stephane had seen the change in his brother with Annelise right from outset. All that angst and frantic sleeping around had stopped the moment Guillaume had met her. He had told Stephane he was hopelessly in love, and Stephane had dampened down his own feelings of wistful jealousy as he had hugged him to wish him well. Annelise made it easy to keep the jealousy at bay. If anything, Stephane was wishing he could find the male counterpart of the lovely natured, lovely looking girl sitting in front of him.
“What are you thinking?”
“How great you are,” Stephane said, quite seriously.
They stared at each other, then laughed.
“What happened this morning? And is that coat in the kitchen his? I thought I didn’t recognise it, too sensible for you.”
“Yes, it’s his; looks like some 60 year old’s, doesn’t it?”
They looked at each, paused, then laughed again.
In the kitchen, the soft whirr of the dishwasher struck up its reassuring cadence, and Guillaume padded off to his study to do some paperwork. Discreet, thoughtful, despite the piss taking; he knew his kid brother liked to talk to Annelise and gave them time and space to do so.
“Just this guy…he took a panic attack, and I helped him get through it…that’s it…”
Annelise watched him, as Stephane rubbed at his beard, pondering.
“He might need his coat back, Stef.”
With that, Stephane got up and disappeared for a few moments. He came back in with the coat. Annelise could see it was very good quality. And that it really would look good on a 60 year old man. Somehow, she knew this guy was nowhere near that, and the whole idea intrigued her. That, and Stephane’s defensiveness.
“Let me have a look,” and Stephane passed the coat into her outstretched hands. It was heavy, soft, and she could smell the faint aroma of aftershave, an astringent smell that reminded her of antiseptic.
“Control freak,” she delivered her judgement.
“Hmm,” Stephane raised his brows in remembrance, “you’re so right.”
“Really?” Annelise asked, pleased with herself; ”it’s the aftershave, very…’safe’.“
Stephane blew out his cheeks, thinking about typhoon Danny. In fact, he had been thinking about him for most of the day. The train of his thoughts were increasingly alarming him. The mad scientist was not – repeat not – Stephane emphasised to himself, as he had been doing mantra-like all day – his type. No. Definitely not. Without a shadow of a doubt. Not his type. No, siree. Too skinny, for a start. Too pale. Well, too weird, actually. Looking up at me this morning, thought Stephane, in a huff because he hadn’t got his cwoffee, and wow, I could have skied down those amazing cheekbones – correction, those weird cheekbones. And there I was, thought Stephane with even more alarm bells sounding, looking right back at him, Einstein’s long lost nephew, and had felt my cock stirring.
“He’s a regular, so I’ll just take the coat back with me tomorrow.”
“Hmm, it’s a bit of him, here, right now, isn’t it?” Annelise suggested, pointedly, staring at Stephane, who, to her amazement, coloured slightly. She started to rummage through the pockets.
“What are you doing?” Stephane asked her, leaning forward, trying to retrieve the coat in vain.
“You mean you haven’t gone through his pockets?”
Annelise made a snorting sound. “Men!”
Stephane watched her, her fingers plunging in the deep pockets seeking clues to the life story of the coat’s owner. The bounty gave forth a linen handkerchief. She held it aloft, waving it in the air as if by doing so, she’d believe what she was seeing. At one of the corners of the material, the initials DH.
“God, he isn’t actually 60, is he? Who has real handkerchiefs these days? So Dickensian!”
Stephane took the linen handkerchief into his hands, and was relieved it hadn’t been used. There were no tell tale stains of nose blowing – or any kind of blowing – thankfully. Danny! He didn’t register a moment’s surprise, to learn that Danny used linen handkerchiefs. Listen to yourself, he thought, like I’ve known him half my life. The white face of the mad scientist flooded into Stephane’s senses again, and he glanced quickly at Annelise. She was too busy peering at the linen handkerchief.
“What’s the initials stand for? Did you get his name?”
“Danny,” advised Stephane, and the name sounded slightly sugary on his tongue. That didn’t strike a chord at all. Stephane saw him as an Edward, or even more accurately, a Tarquin. Yes, definitely a Tarquin who works in a laboratory completely on his own, with only test tubes for conversation.
“That’s a nice name,” Annelise said, her eyes moving over Stephane’s face.
“U-huh,” Stephane affirmed, seeing her knowing look.
With Stephane not giving anything away, Annelise resumed her rummaging. She paused, fiddled a bit in the lining of the pocket, and plucked out a business card. Stephane watched as she waved it at him triumphantly.
“And what do we have here?” She read it, Stephane watching her eyes skim over the small, laminated card. Wordlessly, she passed it to Stephane.
‘Daniel P Hastings, Barrister at Law, Morton Chambers, Lampeter Row, NW19. E: firstname.lastname@example.org t: 020 379888443798.’
Stephane stared at the card, disbelieving what he was seeing. You’ve got to be kidding, came the thought.
“Danny, the lawyer, then…” Annelise murmured, and lay the overcoat gently over the arm of the sofa. She watched Stephane, still staring at the card, holding it tentatively.
Barrister? An image suddenly swam before Stephane’s eyes of Danny in his long black court gown, wig perched on his fair, wavy hair. That’s another thing, thought Stephane; there was a distinct suggestion of redhead in that hair, and I like my guys nice and dark, thanks. There I go again, he went on, and he’s not my type. Geeks do nothing for me, oddly enough.
The renewed stirring in his cock set off more alarms. The thought of Danny – the idea of Danny in a court gown – seemed to be making Stephane and cock have a divergence of opinion.
“I can’t believe the guy I saw this morning is a barrister…he was all over the place; flapping about, panicking, throwing papers all over Guillaume’s desk…you know, he reminded me of a mad scientist, very eccentric, weird. “
“You never answered my question,” Annelise remarked, noting how Stephane was keen to retrieve the overcoat and lay it across his knees.
Guillaume was on the phone, evidently. To France. His rapid French filtered into Stephane’s awareness, distracting him, and he called something back in French to Guillaume.
“C’est Delphine!” his brother confirmed, and Stephane nodded, satisfied. As long as it wasn’t Papa, checking up on him, like he was still a kid.
“Hmm?” Stephane laughed, seeing her frustration. “He was weird looking, okay?”
That didn’t head Annelise off at the pass. “Weird good? Or just plain weird?”
“Is there a weird good?”
“Well, yes, he might be quirky, or his looks might be unconventional; that doesn’t mean you weren’t attracted to him…and you were, weren’t you, you love machine, you!” Stephane gave Annelise one of his smouldering looks. “Don’t try that on with me, I’m as good as married to your brother; and anyway, I’m not your type, babe.”
“Neither’s he, promise…”
“Really? Is that why you nicked his coat?”
“I didn’t ‘nick’ his coat, as you say, and you know I hate those English slang words.” Stephane decided to be sniffy – he had been brought up in a château, after all.
“You’re half English, and you talk slang yourself, doc.”
Annelise knew that would infuriate him. His dark grey eyes showed briefly a flare of temper.
“I’m French, and don’t forget it!”
“I wonder if Danny would like that short fuse of yours,” Annelise mused, and glanced at Stephane’s crotch for effect. Guillaume had told her his brother had been not only in front of the queue on the day the penises were being distributed, but that Stephane had been the queue.
She got up, and swept past him, ruffling his hair.
He nodded, still looking at the card.
“You’re not off the hook yet, by the way,” Annelise shouted from the kitchen, “I want to know everything about your lovely Danny; star sign, inside leg measurement, dietary habits – that, definitely, when you invite him over for dinner.”
“He’s not my Danny!” Stephane insisted.
The overcoat felt heavy over his knees, and he lifted it to rest over the back of the armchair. The aftershave – astringent indeed – caught his nostrils, making them wrinkle. He wondered if Danny’s court gown would have the same aroma clinging to it. Or his skin, very pale, smooth skin, Stephane had noted; his neck, with the pulse beating furiously as Danny had reached melt down, was lean and white too. Stephane liked his lovers nice and toned, preferably lightly suntanned. Not white and bloodless, he thought, like Nosferatu’s cousin, of Morton Chambers.
Stephane mark II was at it again. Look, I call the shots, Stephane grimacing, shifted in the chair, as his already tight cotton shorts started to become uncomfortable. Stephane mark II was one of the names Guillaume had kindly given to his brother’s rampant cock. Amongst others, though He Who Must be Obeyed, was Stephane’s favourite. Whatever epithet for the straining against his pants now, Stephane had an erection situation going on that required immediate negotiation. For the second time today, down to that weird guy who masqueraded as a barrister, Stephane had been required to attend to the beast in the cellar of his pants. He’d managed a quick one mid morning in the lavatories at Guillaume’s, between the late breakfasts and brunches. As customers had blissfully crunched at their honeyed toast, the new handsome waiter had been producing his own nectar to a rapid conclusion.
He usually wasn’t that bad. Much.
“Stef?” Annelise called out, the delicious aroma of coffee drawing Guillaume from his study instead.
He poked his head around the door, winking at his kid brother.“Okay, Stef?” he asked, wanting to make up for earlier.
“Yeh, I’m coming,” Stephane assured.
Whilst Annelise and Guillaume sat and drank their coffee, Stephane was as good as his word. His coffee sat on the table, cooling from neglect, as upstairs in the temple of masturbation, occasionally passing for Stephane’s bedroom, Stephane and He Who Must be Obeyed reached a pleasing outcome to their negotiations over the lawyer of the year.