“Where are my black shoes?”
I roll my eyes at the plaintive yell from the lounge. “Have you tried under the kitchen table, on top of the bookcase, or in the bath?”
There’s a brief pause. “Are you taking the piss?”
“No, my dearest. Those are all places that I’ve found your shoes in the past.”
“Well, that can’t be right. Why the fuck would I leave my shoes in the bath?”
“I’d rather unravel Boris Johnson’s brain patterns than try to work out why you strip off where you do.”
His laugh is loud. “My stripping off is normally due to you being nearby. It’s profoundly connected.”
“Well, profoundly connect it to the wardrobe,” I advise and smile at his laugh. It’s so merry and warm.
I wander out to the lounge and find him standing in the middle of the room. He’s dressed in an unbuttoned white shirt and red briefs and staring unfocused at the bookshelves.
“Are you doing that thing where you look for something with your eyes closed?” I ask. “If you are, may I suggest you look for your trousers.”
He looks me up and down and his eyes heat. “Never mind my nether regions. Can I just say how nice it is to see you in a suit?”
I run my finger down the lapel of my navy suit and smile at him. “You like this one?”
He nods and coming towards me he wraps his arms around my waist. “Reminds me of our early days. You know those days when I used to come into your office and you used to tell me off for an hour.” He gasps. “Maybe we could role play that one day. You can put me over your knee and spank me in your office chair.”
“I think that Felix might object. It’s his office now and he’s probably sitting on that chair.”
“Tell him you’re harking back to your dom days.”
I can’t stop my laugh and shove him gently away. “You’re a prat,” I say baldly. His laughter follows me into the kitchen where I find his shoes in the dog basket.
“Why are they in there?” he asks wonderingly.
I shake my head. “I think it’s probably when we got home from the weekend in Amsterdam and you couldn’t wait to get to the bedroom.”
He grins at me. “That’s it,” he exclaims. He nods approvingly. “That was well worth losing my shoes for.”
“Glad you approve,” I say tartly. I look him up and down. “Much as I’m enjoying your current look, I’m not quite sure that the Dean of the university is ready for it on the stage.”
He laughs. “I did consider it but I don’t think it’s what they meant by smart dress.” The doorbell rings and he jumps. “Shit, that’ll be my parents.”
“Great,” I say faintly.
He shoots me an amused look. “I know you think my mum doesn’t like you.”
“She doesn’t. Last week she said that staying in an unworkable relationship was bad for your mental health. All said while staring hard at me. She never blinked. I know because I checked.”
He shakes his head and kisses me. “That was just banter,” he says earnestly and then spoils it by breaking into laughter.
“She’s bearing a grudge for you going back to Devon when we split up,” I mutter.
“Did we split up? It was the quickest split I’ve ever had in that case. I didn’t get nearly enough time to call you names.”
“You know what I mean.”
He’s suddenly serious. “She’s just cautious. She’s learnt to be that way since I took one of my exes down to stay with them and he nicked her silver teapot, and after that, there was another ex who brought a few people back from Glastonbury to their house. All fifty of them. It’s all going to be okay. You’re going to stop acting like a combination of the butler in Upstairs Downstairs and the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang around her, and she’s going to see the real you. I promise you that she is going to love you.”
“How can you say that with such certainty?”
“Because I love you,” he says firmly. “And this is it for me. You are it for me.” He pauses. “And at some point, I’m positive that you will stop saying and doing stupid things in front of her.”
I sag. “Shit, it’s every time I’ve met her.”
“I’m quite sure it isn’t.”
“Really?” I say gloomily. “Because I can’t be alone in remembering last week when she was talking about plumbers and I made that porn joke.” He starts to laugh and I shove him. “Shut up, you twat.” The bell rings again and I kiss him quickly. “I’ll let them in. Go and get dressed. This isn’t the time for a discussion like this. We’ve got a graduation to attend.”
He grins and races off, the shirt flying up and giving me a lovely look at his red-clad arse. He’s so at home in my place and I love it. He stays over most nights. As first we tried to regulate it and only sleepover a few times a week. Gradually, that changed and I’m thrilled that he’s staying over more and more lately. Half his clothes are in my wardrobe, and I get a thrill when I see a cup he’s left out or his books on the table. I want him to move in but I won’t ask yet. This relationship means more than anything to me, and so I want to do it properly. I want us to date and not rush into stuff.
The bell distracts me from my thoughts and I race towards the door, deviating to check my appearance quickly to see that I haven’t got anything between my teeth and that my general appearance doesn’t scream cradle robber, I throw the door open.
“Michael and Gianna, it’s so nice to see you. Come in.”
Jesse’s dad smiles happily. “How lovely that we get to see the flat. Jesse’s told us so much about it.”
I wave them in. “Have a look around. Jesse is just getting ready.”
Gianna edges past giving me a look that suggests she’s considering hiding her valuables from me.
“Gianna, you look beautiful,” I say and there’s truth in my voice. She’s dressed in a green wrap dress which shows off her trim figure and olive skin. Her dark eyes flash at me.
“Thank you,” she says coolly and looks around.
“This is lovely,” Michael exclaims. “What a fantastic area and I love these old buildings.”
Gianna sniffs. “Didn’t you share this flat with your previous boyfriend too?”
“I did. And then we split up. Not because I did anything awful,” I add quickly. “I mean I think I’m quite a good partner.” I pause and laugh nervously. “Well, not quite a good partner. I am a very good partner and I’m very happy to be one of those to Jesse.”
I trail off to find his parents staring at me. His mum looks bewildered and his dad looks like he’s repressing a smile.
Jesse walks into the room and stops dead. “What did I miss?” he asks. I glare at him and he laughs. “Was he verbal diorrhearing again?”
His mum nods slowly and his dad breaks into laughter. Jesse grins and walks over to kiss me. “He’s usually very assured,” he assures them. “He can act normal if you’ll believe it. We’ll all get through this if you’ll just bear that in mind.”
I sigh. Loudly. “You’re not helping.” He snorts and I look at him. “Your tie is crooked,” I say softly and he stands obediently as I straighten it.
When I’ve done he looks up at me. “Will I pass?”
“You already have,” I say softly. “And I’ll never stop being proud of that.”
He steals a quick kiss and turns back to his parents who are staring intently at us.
“He can dress himself, you know,” I blurt out. “I don’t need to get him dressed in the morning because he’s an adult.” I nod robustly. “A very grown-up person and I was just helping him because he looked messy and not because I’m trying to be his daddy because … well, because he already has one of those,” I finish faintly.
This time his father doesn’t hesitate and just bursts into laughter. Even Gianna’s lips twitch.
Jesse shakes his head. “Would it help if I gagged you for the ceremony?”
“Maybe,” I say glumly.
The graduation is being held in a huge old hall on the university campus. We present our tickets and find our seats while Jesse beetles off to pick up his robes. I pull Gianna’s chair out for her and settle down next to her while Michael walks off to get us a coffee.
“Did the rest of the family go straight to the refectory?” I ask, slightly nervous to be one-on-one with her. Fuck knows what I’m going to say wrong this time. Extra family members are watching the service there on a big screen TV.
She nods. “Sasha was driving. She came to this university too.”
“I didn’t know that.” Sasha is the sister closest to Jesse in age. I love her. She’s funny and very bright and has spent a couple of weekends with us since Jesse and I got together.
“Were they cross that they couldn’t use the extra ticket?” I ask. “I told Jesse that I could meet you afterwards.” She looks confused. “I mean this is a family occasion. I don’t want to intrude. I want it to be the best day possible for Jess.”
“You call him Jess?”
“Oh … er, yes, sometimes,” I say, startled by the fact that’s she’s actually looking at me and not in an ‘oh God, where is the nurse to section this man’ type of way.
“The family call him that.”
“I didn’t know that,” I say in an overly bright name. “Well, I’m sure I can think of something else.”
Her lips twitch. “Would it be something polite?”
Unbidden I laugh. “Well, not always.”
She huffs. “That boy could enrage a saint. I always used to say to Michael that if Jesse had been locked in a room with Mother Theresa she’d have punched him.”
I snort. “The Dalai Lama would kneecap him. Especially if he was doing that humming.”
“Ugh, that noise. He’s always done that.” She considers and shrugs. “To be fair, sometimes the only way to be heard in our family was to be irritating.”
“Well, he’s taken that to Olympic levels.”
I think the fact that she laughs takes her by surprise. She stares at me consideringly. “Jesse tells me that you have no family?” she says abruptly.
I jump. “Oh no. My mother died having me and my father died a good few years ago.” Her eyes soften and I hesitate before saying, “I don’t mind as much now I have Jesse.”
The silence stretches. “He is a good boy,” she finally says. She cocks her head to one side. “Why would you say that your ticket should have gone to family?”
I flounder slightly. “Well, it should have.”
“But aren’t you his family?”
I stare at her. “I want to be because he’s becoming mine,” I say slowly, wondering what she’s thinking.
She shrugs. “Then the family did get a ticket. Don’t be so quick to step out of his life, Zeb. You’re becoming a very important part of it.”
“Oh.” I stare at her. “Thank you.”
She looks past me and her face breaks into the biggest smile, and I know even before I turn round, that Jesse is standing there because that is a mother’s smile. It’s warm and intensely loving and it hurts my heart a bit. The pain eases as I turn and see Jesse standing behind me and grinning wildly.
“Wow,” I say. “You look great.” The matte black fabric of his gown makes his olive skin glow, and the mortar cap shows off the angles of his handsome face. He looks taller somehow and older.
“I’ll wear it for you later,” he mutters out of the corner of his mouth. He winks somewhat salaciously. “Naked.”
“Jesse,” I say sounding so much like an outraged old lady that I can understand why he’s laughing.
We stand around talking and sipping the coffee his dad brings back, but I notice Gianna is now staring at me. I know I’m not imagining it when Jesse turns to me.
“What did you say to her?” he whispers.
“I didn’t say anything,” I say indignantly.
He looks doubtful, but the bell rings for the students to go to their places so the ceremony can start. Jesse kisses his mum and dad and lets his mum rearrange the hood of his gown with good humour. Then he turns to me. “I’ll look for you,” he says kissing me quickly.
“I’ll be here,” I say steadily, smiling at him and loving him so much I feel I could burst from it.
With a final grin, he’s gone in a whirl of black fabric and the ceremony begins.
I’ve never been to a graduation ceremony before. I never made it to university because I sometimes needed to work to prop my dad up financially. Plus, I was taken out of so many boarding schools for lack of money to pay the fees, that the idea of doing it at university didn’t appeal at all.
I’d thought it would be a lot more exciting than it is. What it turns out to be is a lot of speeches. So many speeches. Then the degrees start to be handed out. We applaud as each graduate is announced and it’s echoed from the big screen where the rest of their families are seated.
Then it’s the social workers’ turn and they seem to be a rowdy group, clapping and cheering each other. I watch as one by one they come up, and then suddenly it’s his turn.
He saunters across the stage, grinning as a huge cheer comes from the TV screen. Gianna chuckles as the camera pans to Jesse’s brothers and sisters who appear to be doing a rather uncoordinated Mexican wave.
The Dean gives Jesse his degree and shakes his hand and Jesse stands tall and serene. I smile because someone has bedazzled the tassel on his cap. Instead of a black one, there now swings a jaunty rainbow coloured one.
Then he’s walking towards us and the end of the stage. We all clap and clear loudly and he shoots us a broad grin which widens and becomes somehow intimate as he looks at me. He winks and then he’s gone. I stare after him aware of the huge smile that still lingers on my mouth.
I turn to find Gianna smiling at me. For the first time, it isn’t cautious or even slightly worried. Instead, it’s wide and warm and totally Jesse. “We should negotiate,” she whispers.
“Sorry?” I say and Michael shakes his head with a wry look on his face.
“Yes. I know you will live in London,” she says. “It is your home. But I want the holidays, especially Christmas. That can only be missed if you have a dispensation from the pope.”
“Gianna, my love, we are Church of England. It would be the Archbishop of Canterbury,” Michael says serenely.
My heart sinks. I’d hoped to spend those holidays with Jesse. But I remind myself that I’ll have him all year. He’s very close to his family and should have time with them.
“I promise,” I whisper close to her ear so we don’t disturb the ceremony. “He’ll come home for Christmas.”
She looks startled. “Yes, but what about you?”
“I’ll be fine,” I say, nodding to emphasise my point.
“You will not be fine if you don’t come home too.”
“What?” It’s louder than I intended and I’m shushed by a couple of people. “Sorry,” I mutter to them.
Gianna’s mouth twitches. “You will come home with Jesse.”
She nods. “You are family now, Zeb. There’s no lesser or bigger part of a family. It’s all an equal part of the whole. Jesse loves you very much, so we will too. You will come with him, and if you’re lonely at any time and need family, then you will come on your own just like the rest of my children.” I swallow hard and she pats my arm. “I think you’ve been on your own for a long time. Not anymore. Now, you have all of us.”
“Hope you’re ready for it,” Michael mutters. “You can’t even escape to the church. Well, not unless you take holy orders.”
I clear my throat. “Thank you so much. I’d be honoured.”
She nods regally. “Remember the deal.”
“I will,” I promise, wondering if this is the breakthrough that Jesse predicted.
And as the awards proceed, I start to think it might be. I know it for certain when the ceremony ends and we stand up and she tucks her arm in mine and allows me to walk her out. I think to other people it must look from my smile like I’ve received a degree myself, but I know I’ve got something much better.
I hug my mum tight, inhaling the scent of Nina Ricci perfume which she’s worn since my dad bought her a bottle for Christmas when I was little. It’s part of the scent of home.
“Thanks for a nice night,” I say pulling back.
She and my dad treated us to a meal at her uncle’s Italian restaurant after the ceremony. We arrived to find it closed to everyone except the family and the place decked out with balloons and congratulations banners. We ate well, toasted lavishly, and laughed a lot, and for the last hour, we’ve been drinking and talking on the small patio that’s festooned in fairy lights.
But now my family are going back to their hotel, and I’m … well, I’m off to Zeb’s house where I hope to christen the evening with a long fuck.
“What will you do now, Jess?” my mum asks and I cough.
“Oh erm … probably go back to Zeb’s and have a … drink.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t want to know,” she says probably wisely. She shoots a look at my boyfriend who is sitting listening to something my brother Luca is saying to him. His tie is at half-mast, his hair ruffled, and even as we watch he laughs loudly. I can’t help my smile at the sight of his face.
My mother nudges me. “You have it bad, sweetheart.”
I wrinkle my nose. I can’t deny it. I shoot a glance at her. “So?”
She shakes her head. “You were right.”
I pretend to faint. “Really? Can I get that in writing?”
Laughter lights her eyes and they soften as she looks at Zeb. “He’s adorable. I can see why you’re in love with him.”
“I never said I was in love with him.”
Her expression is wry. “You didn’t exactly have to, Jesse. If you took out an advert on the front page of a newspaper, it couldn’t be clearer.”
“And do you approve now?”
My tone is light but my stomach tightens. Her approval means a lot to me. It wouldn’t stop me if she didn’t like him because I’m all in with Zeb, but it would still hurt.
She kisses my cheek. “I do,” she says simply. “I like him a lot. He’s calm and funny and I think a very kind man.” She shrugs. “At first I couldn’t see it working. He’s older than you and at a very different stage in his life.”
She looks at Zeb again. “I knew right away you were all in, but he was a bit more difficult to read.” She smiles wickedly. “Especially with all that word vomit he kept doing.” We both laugh and she sobers. “But now I see how it is with you. How much you love each other. He would do anything for you and he balances you in a funny way. He doesn’t seem to hold you back from anything.” She shrugs. “Just gives you a firm footing and someone at your back while you journey along together. That’s good in a partner. It’s what your father has always done for me.” She looks over at my dad who is listening to my sister rant on about something with that funny smile of his tilting one corner of his mouth. “I think this one will last, Jesse, and if you can even be a tenth of how happy I’ve been with your dad, then I’m happy for you and him.”
I swallow hard. “Me too, mum.”
She shoots me a stern look. “But you have to be the same for him, Jesse.”
“I will,” I say solemnly.
She whistles and everyone looks up like well-trained members of her pack. I smile because I’ve heard that whistle in service stations, restaurants, and on numerous Devon beaches. “Taxi is here,” she says in a loud clear voice. “Kiss your brother and tell him how very proud of him you are.” She pauses. “And give Zeb a hug too. He must need it because he puts up with your brother.”
My siblings immediately groan in sympathy, and Zeb looks stunned and then pleased as they smother him in hugs.
I accept their own hugs and insults and give a few of my own, but I still hear my mum say to Zeb, “Christmas, then.”
“It’s a deal,” he says kissing the cheek she offers him with a look on his face like he’s won the lottery.
My dad hugs me and ruffles my hair. “Such a good boy,” he muses.
“Was not said a lot in my childhood,” I say tartly and he laughs.
“I’m a man of the cloth. I really can’t lie.” He cups my face in his. “Look after Zeb,” he says quietly. “Let him look after you.”
“That’s your advice?”
He winks. “You’re the child of your mother. Too much advice will never be taken well.”
My mother laughs and kisses me again, and within a few minutes the patio is clear and it’s just me and Zeb under the twinkling white fairy lights and the velvety London sky.
I settle down on his lap feeling his arms come up around me. He rests his chin on my shoulder and we both sit quietly for a few minutes, lost in a peace I feel so strongly with him.
Eventually, he stirs. “Home?” he enquires and I nod, shooting him a quick glance to see if he knows what he just said, but he’s oblivious. Still, the fact that he said it makes my whole chest feel warm. That flat in Neal’s Yard with the tall windows and the ever-present noise from the courtyard, the warm colours on the walls, and the big bed with the soft sheets, feels like home to me, but not as much as this quiet handsome man with the kind eyes does.
“Let’s go,” I say kissing him on the cheek and inhaling the scent of oranges and sandalwood.
Saying goodnight to my uncle and accepting a bag of goodies from him, we wander out onto the high street which comes as a bit of a shock being filled with car noise and people. Zeb looks up and down the road. “I’ll get a taxi.”
I smile and open my mouth to tell him to hurry up when I hear a shout of “Zeb.” We both turn and I groan as I take in the unwelcome sight of Patrick coming towards us.
“Where the fuck did he come from?” I say with distaste.
Zeb shoots me a swift look which combines reassurance and something very warm in it.
Patrick comes close. He looks as put together as normal dressed in jeans and a striped shirt, but his expression looks slightly fraught to me. I can see small signs of dissatisfaction in the tight line of his lips and shoulders.
“Patrick, What are you doing here?” Zeb says and his voice is completely blank.
I shoot a look at Zeb. I know the two of them had it out at the wedding, but I’ve never known the full details. Never really wanted to, to be honest. I know Patrick made a pass and Zeb rebuffed him and hasn’t seen him since. Anything else was lost in my joy at Zeb’s declaration of love and the relationship we’ve been building. Now, I wonder about it because Patrick looks almost cowed.
“Picking up a takeaway,” he says, holding up the carrier bag as if brandishing an Oscar. “You didn’t return my calls,” he adds, sparing me a quick dismissive glance and then looking intently at Zeb.
That’s new to me. I didn’t know he’d made any.
Zeb shrugs. “Did you expect me to?” Patrick stares at him. “I have nothing to say to you. I thought we’d done all the talking we needed to at the hotel. I don’t think I left anything unsaid.”
Patrick flushes. “I don’t like it that we left it at that. We meant too much to each other, Zeb, to let it go.”
I shift position and Zeb takes my hand. I sense it’s not to stay me, but just simply because he needs to touch me.
“The past tense was right,” Zeb says. “We did mean something to each other, but not enough, and now …” He shrugs. “Now, it’s nothing.”
“That can’t be true.”
Zeb looks at him kindly. “But it is. I’m with Jesse and you tried to ruin that. The relationship I have with him is far too important to me to risk it ever happening again.” He shrugs. “We finished our relationship and we should have severed the friendship at the same time.”
I feel a reluctant stirring of sympathy for Patrick but then he sneers at Zeb. “You’d let a relationship of five years go because of some bit you’re bonking? That doesn’t say a lot about you.”
“I think it says a lot about us. At the end of the day, you let our relationship go, Patrick. I just happened to end up agreeing with you.”
Patrick turns to me with an accusing face. “I suppose you’re happy now that you’ve deprived Zeb of one of his oldest friendships. Still, I expect that’s how people like you work. You isolate and conquer.”
I stare at him. “That makes me sound like one of the Normans. I’ll be building castles and sewing a tapestry next,” I say mildly.
Zeb squeezes my hand. “We have to be off,” he says quietly. “Goodbye, Patrick. Give my best to Frances.”
Patrick huffs. “She’s in the countryside with her parents,” he says sulkily. “Deciding if she wants the marriage to continue.”
Zeb blinks. “Well, I hope it works out for you.” His tone is doubtful but seeing a taxi he raises his hand to summon it. “Goodbye,” he says finally. “I hope you have a very happy life.”
“I’d say the same,” he snaps. “But as you’ve settled down with an idiot manchild, I have my doubts.”
“I’d be offended if that didn’t come from a man whose marriage lasted approximately five minutes longer than Britney Spears’s did,” I say.
Zeb is quiet in the taxi on the way back to his place. I, however, am thrumming with questions. I need to know what happened on the day of the wedding, and if he’s okay. I remember my parents’ words and my heart sinks. Shit. I have to do this. I have to put his happiness ahead of mine, even if the result could be Patrick back in our lives.
“You okay?” I ask.
He jumps. “Yes,” he says with a question in his voice.
I slide closer to him in the backseat and run my fingers down his long thigh. “Are you sad?”
He seems to consider that for a while. “A bit. I …”
“You can be his friend,” I break in loudly, my words tumbling out. “If you want to be his friend, I’m fine with that.” I pause and honesty compels me to add, “Well, not fine because he’s a total prat, but I’ll accept it if you want to still see him.” I consider my words and add hastily, “But only in a platonic sense. No cocks are allowed at all. He is not to touch your penis and you can’t do his. And that means with mouths too. No blow jobs. Also, no frotting.”
The driver coughs and the taxi swerves slightly before he rights it. Then he goes back to driving but now he’s shooting looks at us in the rearview mirror as if he suspects we’re going to throw off our clothes at any second and start wrestling in baby oil on the backseat.
Zeb bites his lip and I watch him struggle with some deep emotion. When he gives in and starts to laugh, I know what that emotion was.
“Is there something funny?” I say. “Do please share with me what has caused your humour so that I too can laugh loudly and rudely.”
It takes him a few go’s but eventually the prat gets himself under control. “I don’t …” He looks at me and starts to laugh again, and I sigh and drum my fingers on my knee. He sobers. “Sorry,” he wheezes. “That was just so funny.”
“I’m so pleased. Maybe I can get a stint in the comedy club when I get out of prison for murdering you.” The driver swerves again and Zeb chokes back a laugh.
“Sorry,” he says more calmly. “I do appreciate the fact that you’d let me be friends with him, and I’m actually in awe of the comprehensive laundry list of rules that would surround that friendship.” I narrow my eyes dangerously at him and he carries on quickly. “But you didn’t let me finish speaking. What I was going to say was that I’m sad because I think I wasted a lot of years on someone who at best could be described as a tosser.” He shrugs. “You haven’t stopped me from seeing him. I’ve stopped myself. I love the way we are together and he nearly ruined that.” He pauses. “I nearly ruined that,” he finally says. “With that blind determination to keep my word at all times.”
I squeeze his hand. “It’s done,” I say softly. “We’ve moved very far away from that day now.”
He nods and lifting my fingers he drops a kiss on them. “I know and I’ve moved very far away from him.” He smiles at me. “With you. Thank you,” he adds softly. “It means a lot that you’d have got over everything to see me happy.”
“I think you’d do the same for me.”
“So, let’s just vow not to ever abuse that. We protect each other’s soft spots against the rest of the world. We don’t ever take advantage of them.”
He smiles tenderly. “Agreed.”
The flat is quiet when we get back. Even the courtyard is quiet tonight. I throw my jacket off and stretch. “Shit, I’m tired.”
He runs a finger along my back as he walks past me towards the kitchen. “How about a bath?”
“You’re going the wrong way,” I observe.
He laughs. “Go and run it. I’ll join you in a minute. Just need to get a drink.”
I smile affectionately after him and wander into the bathroom. This has become one of my favourite rooms in the house since Zeb did it up last month. We’d discovered how much we liked sharing a bath, lying in the warm water and talking, so Zeb pulled out the old bathroom suite, and now, along with a huge shower that easily fits both of us, there is a massive bath. We can lie in there quite comfortably, and frequently do.
I set the taps running and pour some of my green tea bubble bath in. Zeb has a fondness for the smell. Then I strip off my clothes and throw them in the hamper. I’m just stepping into the bath when Zeb comes in. He’s already naked and I shoot an appreciative glance at his body and the huge cock that’s already stiffening up nicely.
Then I see that he’s carrying an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne poking out of it. He puts it on the side of the bath along with a couple of champagne flutes, and then, shooting me a mysterious smile, he vanishes again.
“Where are you going?” I shout, sliding under the water with a moan of pleasure. My back is aching after sitting in that hall for so long today.
He reappears and this time he’s carrying a small gold gift bag.
“What’s that?” I ask immediately.
He puts it on the side in easy reach and slides into the water, pulling me over to lie in his arms. He squeezes me tight for a long second and presses a kiss against my hair.
“I’m so proud of you,” he says quietly, a weight to his words that touches me.
I reach up and kiss him before subsiding back into the bubbles. “Thank you.”
He reaches one long arm up and grabs the champagne and as he opens it I hand him the glasses to fill. Once done he taps his against mine. “May the best day of your past be the worst day of your future.”
I take a sip feeling the sharp cold taste slide down my throat. I nod at the gift bag. “What’s in there?” I ask again, not even attempting to hide my eagerness.
He smiles. “Not much.”
“Had I better open it to check that statement?”
He shakes his head. “Your nose should be twenty foot long.”
“It’d match my cock then.” I laugh as he chokes on his champagne and then obey his urging to sit back against the side of the bath. “What are you doing?”
He smiles earnestly. “Just want to see your face when you open your present.”
He dries his fingers on a towel and reaches into the bag. When his hand emerges he’s holding a grey velvet box the six of a paperback book. He swallows hard and hands it to me.
“Congratulations on your degree,” he says solemnly.
I sit up straight. “Really? You shouldn’t have, babe.”
He wrinkles his nose. “I certainly should have. Open it,” he urges. I open the box and stare. “I hope you like it,” he says hurriedly. “If you don’t, I can take it back.”
I look down at the bracelet in the box. It’s made of black, tightly woven threads, which when I touch them, have a tensile strength. I look up at him and he bites his lip.
“It’s a bracelet, a travel bracelet,” he says. “You can buy different coloured beads and engraved ones to put on it to celebrate when you’ve been somewhere. There are cities to add, oceans to cross, and …”
His words break off as I throw myself into his arms. Bubbles fly everywhere as I kiss him heartily. I pull back feeling tears sting my eyes. “It’s the nicest thing anyone has ever bought me,” I say fervently and his face relaxes.
“I’m glad,” he says, smiling almost shyly. “We both want to travel so we can add a bead every time we do.”
I look down at the bracelet and notice a silver bead on it. “Is this a starter one?” I ask and prod it. The bead spins round and I gape as a word comes into view. I look up at him and he grins. “Zeb!” I gasp.
He stretches up and shows me an envelope in the gift bag. “I won’t get it out because it’ll get wet, but we’re off to Rome for a week starting Friday. We’re staying in a gorgeous hotel and we’re going to do the works. We’ll visit everywhere and …”
I kiss him then, stealing his words and putting everything I feel into the kiss. Then I pull back and add my own words. “I love you so fucking much,” I say passionately. “Thank you. I can’t wait to see Rome with you.”
He picks up the bracelet and puts it on me with a solemnity and reverence that I’ve found he brings to certain moments. It’s touching and humbling to be the focus of it, and I make my own vow to look after this man of mine.
Then he pulls me into his arms and we lie in the scented bubbles, sipping the tart champagne and planning the start of our lives together. It’s done with a great deal of laughter which I think is a very good omen.
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