Damn it, a man shouldn't always have to be afraid...
Alec Goodchilde has everything a man could want--except the freedom to be himself. Once a year, he motors down to an exclusive yacht club on the Cornish coast and takes the summer off from the trap that is his life.
When his car breaks down, leaving him stranded on the beach, he's transfixed by the sight of a surfer dancing on the waves. The man is summer made flesh. Freedom wrapped up in one lithe package, dripping wet from the sea.
Once a year, Darren Stokes takes a break from his life of grinding overwork and appalling relatives, financing his holiday by picking up the first rich man to show an interest. This year, though, he's cautious--last summer's meal ticket turned out to be more pain than pleasure.
Even though Alec is so deep in the closet he doesn't even admit he's gay, Darren finds himself falling hard--until their idyllic night together is shattered by the blinding light of reality...
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June 07, 2010
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Excerpt from Shining in the Sun by Alex Beecroft
In this defiant frame of mind, when Alec came out from the dunes to find the great sweep of Perranporth Bay before him, he was in the mood to appreciate it. He stood, gazing down, and took in a deep breath that tasted like courage. To his left, the stream meandered over perpetually damp sand in puddles bright as platinum. There, a hoard of children were skimming over the water like swallows on brightly painted skim boards, teaching themselves the astonishing balance needed for surfing.
If he followed the stream out to sea, it lost itself among tumbled rocks. Steps, green with weed to a point high over his head, descended precariously from a street of fine Edwardian hotels. Attached to the harbour wall, a great arch of stone stood out into the water. Waves echoed beneath it, tempting him to roll his trousers farther up and wade out, to pass through it. It should open, surely--like the doorways in the books he'd read as a child--into another world.
The long grass, on the other hand, suggested he should lie down and listen to the ocean. He should watch the butterflies go spiralling over his nose, and the crickets hop, bright green and self-obsessed, from tussock to tussock around him, until he was altogether soaked in sunshine and silence.
But then his stomach rumbled.
Fortunately, to his right, a large shack-like building covered with sea-weathered timber was surrounded by a crowd crammed onto picnic tables, eating burgers and chips. The smell of grease and spilled beer almost took his appetite away, but his aimless feet led him inside, regardless. Once there it seemed inevitable to buy fish and chips, and dare the house white at the bar.
The fruit machine and stained carpet drove him back outside, drink in hand. He wrestled himself onto the end of an uncomfortable bench and waited for his food to arrive.
The wine was cold enough for condensation to mist the glass and trickle over his hot fingers, and the meal when it came was not inedible. There was a distinct taste of onion rings about the batter, but the fish was surprisingly good, tender and delicate. He drank the wine quickly enough so that the chill disguised the taste, and watched the Great British public enjoy themselves on the beach.
In a line of multicoloured encampments, bright plastic windbreaks fluttered with a sound like sails in the breeze, and bathers struggled into or out of their costumes, performing the dance of seven veils with a towel. Beyond the children being buried up to their necks in sand lay a damp, tawny-coloured expanse on which the energetic were playing beach volleyball or flying kites.
Behind that, the sea, turquoise where it washed the beach, deepened rapidly to indigo blue. In the shallow foam, more of the endless variety of people were paddling and trying not to jostle. Children and their parents waded out to catch the waves, then launched themselves belly down on their bodyboards onto the shore.
Further out, the aristocracy of the beach, the surfers, rode the waves like swans. Once he had begun to watch them, he could not wrench his eyes away. The sun had lowered now from the noon and shone behind their heads, making them sharp black silhouettes limned with light.
One man had edged his way to the very front of his board and stood with his arms outstretched like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the bonnet of a Rolls Royce.
Alec only noticed that he had stopped eating when the fish fell off his fork onto his knee. Even then he brushed it away without looking down, heart in his mouth. Surely that wasn't possible? Why didn't the board tip up, hit its rider in the head and dump him into the waves? He watched with awe and fear, his spirit straining out towards the man, willing everything to go well.
But the surfer had no need of Alec's help. He had tipped his head back, laughing with joy. Something about that silhouette caught at Alec's chest with a painful thrill. The curve of the man's arms against the shining sky was numinous. His body defined perfection, from his bare feet, braced slender legs, the arch of his spine, the turn of his throat, to the streaming scarf of his long hair in shadow. Alec had sat here expecting tawdry delights, not expecting to see a god come up from the sea. His heart leapt into his throat as if he was terrified.
Some other force lowered his fork onto his plate; he forgot where his hand was, caught up in the vision. The surfer, his surfer, had now, slowly and gracefully returned to the centre of his board and skimmed over the creaming froth at the edge of the sea. He was coming to earth! Lightly stepping into the foam, he pulled his board up, tucking it beneath his arm.
Alec held his breath, sure that the inhuman grace would not survive on land, sure the swan would come down from flight and reveal its ducklike feet. But no.
The spray of the sea had taken on a golden hue in the afternoon sunshine, and still the surfer was nothing more than a silhouette, tall and lean, faintly shining as the wetsuit reflected the sun. Squinting against the glare, Alec made out a shaggy head of hair, the dark strokes of long clean limbs. God! The man even walked like a flame.
He came closer. Colour slid across the edges of his silhouette. He was walking out of the haze like an ascended being materializing out of light. Don't...don't let him be... Don't let him be what? What was Alec afraid of? That the man would turn out to be ugly? Or worse, that he would become ordinary, like a mirage disappearing into the sand at the very instant that he was about to plunge his blistered, parched mouth into the water?
A last moment before the eye could fully register the details and then his surfer took another step, walking out of legend and into the everyday light. It was the shaggy hair that caught Alec's attention first, strawberry blond as eighteen-carat gold, tangled in wind- and salt-soaked curls around an open, smiling bronzed face. Alec breathed in deep. God! Oh God. For here was summer and holidays and freedom embodied in one lithe package, still glistening a little from the sea and striding up the hill towards him like all his dreams come true.
Of course, the man was not coming to him. Of course he wasn't, he was going into the caf? to buy himself a drink or to meet his friends. Any moment now and he would walk away, without the faintest idea that he had shaken Alec's careful world apart. He would go inside and meet his equally svelte, bikini-clad girlfriend and all the sun would be gone from the summer. He must not be allowed. Once, just for once in his life, Alec had to grasp and hold the chance for happiness instead of cravenly watching it pass.
So close now, Alec could read the make on his wetsuit, see the individual grains of sand that dusted the black material, the drops of water trembling on the points of his hair. Now or never. But Alec couldn't, couldn't. Could he?
He stood up. "Stop!" His mouth dried out as the surfer's dark, dark green eyes looked into his, startled and curious. Suddenly he felt an absolute fool. He was inviting a good kicking, at least. But damn it, a man couldn't always be afraid.
"Don't go past. Please. Sit down and drink with me. If you go past... If you go past, I think I'll die."
Darren took a step back, snapped out of his post-wave high. What the...? He'd heard some chat-up lines in his time but that won points for being the most desperate. As he rocked back, leaning on his board, Krissy gave him a head toss of exasperation and led the others inside. He could hear them laughing all the way to the bar.
"Are you buying?" he asked, testing the water.
The guy had still not sat down, was leaning forward over his table, all Hugh Grant floppy hair, starched designer shirt and pleading. He gave a slight wince, as though he'd been all primed up to duck a punch, and fell over his lolling tongue to say, "Oh yes. Yes, of course. Anything."
"If you like." Not a flicker of calculation in the blue slate eyes, only a kind of awe, like someone witnessing the second coming of Christ. Darren tilted his head to one side to see if that would make the expression look more like lust. It didn't.
The air crackled about him with the intensity of that stare. What the hell? Had he caught himself another weirdo? Did he have some kind of "normal blokes need not apply" invisible sign above his head?
"I'm not sure it's the sort of place where you can get champagne though." The stranger dropped his eyes, gave one of those sweet, self-depreciating smiles all the rich boys must get taught at finishing school. What the hell was a man like him doing, anyway, having to pull rough trade off the beach when surely all he had to do was crook a finger and every strapping lad in his Eton rugby team would be on their knees in gratitude in seconds?
This is the point where you run away. Yeah?
"No, it's not. I'll have a beer." Darren didn't trouble with "thanks". They both knew the sort of thank-you acceptable in this game.
"Really? You will?"
Darren watched the blush smoulder slowly from the man's white open collar to the roots of his glossy coffee-brown hair, gobsmacked and annoyed with himself for saying yes. Annoyed with the stranger too, for giving him another chance to say no. C'mon now, get it out. "No, actually I won't..." and walk away. C'mon now, Darren, you promised yourself.
On the other hand, the guy wasn't a bad-looking trick. In fact he was gorgeous, his face all well-bred angles and perfect skin. When he looked down, as he was now, the blush turned brown eyelashes to bronze. They made soft little glinting fans over film-star cheekbones, gave him an inward, dreaming look as if he were up on a billboard, contemplating the scent of Eternity (bottled by Calvin Klein). If he was a harmless rich loony, it couldn't hurt to take his money and give him what he wanted, could it? How many mental cases like Max could there be in the world, anyway?
"Really I will, but you'll have to be quick or I'll change my mind."
"Don't go anywhere. Please. Please."
As he watched the man walk away--back straighter than a fire poker, bare feet frisking across dirty red tiles--Darren grounded his board and sank onto the bench. He pushed his fingers into the drying tangles of his hair, and as he did so, Krissy, bottled water and choc-ice in hand, slithered out from the crowd and propped a knee beside him.
"So you told him to get lost, didn't you?"
She unzipped and peeled her arms out of her wetsuit, letting the top droop like a deflated twin about her waist. Sand and water droplets gleamed on her dark skin and scattered in the neat cornrows of her hair like diamonds. She caught him hesitating and cuffed him on the side of the head. "Didn't you?"
He pulled at the Velcro at his throat, fierce summer sunshine and shame roasting him together. "It's only a beer."
"Oh for Christ's sake!"
"Krissy, I..." Darren rubbed a hand over the back of his neck to conceal his frown, scarcely conscious of hitching forward over the phantom throb of long-healed ribs. He was remembering his Nan lying broken at the bottom of the stairs, grubby hospital corridors, the old lady soldier-brave, talking away to the nurse, her skin gone blue as whey. Thinking of wheelchair lifts, replacement hips. Rehab for Kyle. Something to shut Dad up, if only for a second. "I need the money."
"Not this much." She placed her hand over his, a capable, almost motherly hand. "Not enough to risk another Max."
"Yes, this much." At the name his body tightened up, muscles locking solid. Pavlov's dogs--I hear his name, I get ready to be hurt.
"I can get you a job at the office. They're always looking for someone to do filing, make tea."
If Darren looked up, he could see the stranger at the bar, nervously counting out change. Apricot-coloured afternoon sunlight drenched the man's hair, made it look edible as treacle toffee. The white slacks had an old-fashioned charm, discreetly suggesting the curve of a nice arse without going so far as to flaunt it. Something about the posture, the poise of that carefully laundered back implied a private gym, an athletics coach or two, who made the man's body their personal work of art.
He had a nice smile. Diffident, almost frightened. His teeth were crooked and slightly stained.
Despair slammed into Darren like a wave, sucking him down, slamming him, limp and helpless, against the lightless rock and ooze of seabed. I stack shelves all year long, Krissy. This is my month, my one month of freedom. You don't understand. "I don't want a job."
"I can help you. I don't have much spare cash yet, but--"
And now she thought he had no pride either. "I don't sponge off my friends."
"It isn't like I don't owe you."
He shook his head, trying to work the perfectly clear explanation in his mind out into words. I give them value for their money. I pay my way with the assets I've got. I don't need your charity. Or your guilt. "But you don't. That was a present, right? Just forget it."
The stranger had stopped, arrested on the way back to the table by the sight of the two of them. Glasses and beer bottles shook in his fingers, chiming. He looked stabbed to the heart, and Darren knew he couldn't get up now and leave. It would be like kicking Bambi just after his mother's death.
Max hadn't trembled, hadn't looked at him like he was the driver of the chariot of the sun. Max had smiled that "I'm going to eat you up" smile and beckoned.
"Besides, it's only a drink," he said again. "I'm thirsty."
"Prat." Krissy shoved him hard in the head, leaving him with a roaring sensation in one ear, and opened her choc-ice. The top fell onto the bench beside him with a splat and lay there like the droppings of an enormous albatross. She made a sound of disgust and stalked away, throwing a glance spiked with poison at the trick, who returned her the flinch of a smile.
"Am I interrupting?" The man was like a ghost, soft voiced, all in white, such a lack of presence it was hard to remember he was there at all. Darren wondered, if you walked round him at the right angle, would he disappear altogether?
"Krissy," he said. "She's a good friend of mine. Surfing buddy." And then, because his instincts had been all wrong about Max too, "I've a bunch of friends here. We look out for each other."
"That's good." The man sat like a schoolboy, tucking himself neatly into the bench beside his upturned leather shoes and folded blazer. "All I seem to have is family, and they... But you don't want to hear about all that. I'm Alec, by the way."
"Ryan." Darren concentrated on pouring his beer.
Condensation on the glass. Beads of sweet water reflected the sky. The beer was the colour of four o'clock sunshine and tasted of hops, bracing and tannin-sharp. Even with his eyes closed he could feel Alec's gaze on his mouth, like the stroke of soft fur across his lips.
He put the glass down, opened his eyes. Alec recoiled, dropped his gaze to his shoes. He was, charmingly enough, drinking straight from the bottle, and it gave him a behind-the-bike-sheds air of schoolyard guilt, as though he'd been caught smoking by a teacher. "I don't know what to say," he confessed to the tabletop.
It was on the tip of Darren's tongue to reply, "You don't do this much, do you?" but that could be interpreted as disrespectful, and disrespect got you... He stiffened at the memory, rubbed one wrist and then the other.
"Are you all right?" Alec reached over, his cool fingers making stripes of sensation where they lay across Darren's wrist. The skin was healed, but the pattern of hot, cold, hot sent a fizz of terror through him nevertheless.
"Not really. This was a bad idea." He struggled out from the bench-and-table combo, grabbed his board. "Listen, mate, um, thanks for the drink but..."
Alec scrambled to his side, rangy as a greyhound, vibrating with regret and concern. "Maybe we could go for a walk?"
"What for?" Darren tried not to hug the fibreglass for comfort, ashamed of himself for being scared of this wet paper bag of a man but unable to stop.
"All these people make me nervous too." The smile looked genuine enough. The look of awe warmed into something human, sympathetic, as Alec gave a small jerk of the head that might have stood in for a wry laugh. "I come here for the sea. Out there, where it's clean." He pointed at the great hump-backed glistening roll of the ocean.
Out, beyond where the toddlers shrieked, a lost balloon went sailing, red as poppies, into cloudless blue sky. An amber haze above the waves looked sweet as peach juice. Oh God, he could be there. He could be out there, on his own, nothing but him and the board, sun on his back and the moon tugging him forward on the crest of a wave. Flying, flying and never falling, at one with the sea.
"Yeah. Me too." So what d'you need me for? If we'd both rather be out there? But he waited while Alec gathered up his shoes and socks, tie and blazer, something holding him in place--fellow feeling, or stupidity.
"I've never... I've never tried it. Surfboarding I mean. It must be wonderful."
Darren laughed and looked up properly for the first time. Really looked at the man opposite him. Kind eyes. Indoor skin, already pink across the nose, a kind of high-stepping, gazelle-like grace. That faint sense that he wasn't the only one terrified here. What the hell, it could hardly be worse than last year.
"You want to try? I can show you."
Alec beamed as if he'd been offered the Holy Grail. This was no finishing-school smile. Too wide for his face, it stretched the skin of his cheeks into furrows, displaying the unexpected glint of a gold filling. "Oh yes please."
"We'll have to go shopping first. You can't go in the water in that." Even as he said it, the picture of Alec in dripping-wet white linen suggested itself, that modest drapery clinging to the curves and planes of him, gone half-transparent and tugging at prick and nipples. Dark nipples or pink? It was hard to tell with that mid-brown hair--could be either.
Darren walked away from the tables, up into the sparse grass of the first dune, stood looking down at the rainbow of holiday makers, the withdrawing water, wet sand like hammered silver above it. His hair tapped his cheek, stiffened with salt, and the nuclear reactor of the sun made his skin itch with heat beneath the black armour of his wetsuit. Riding the moment, his fast-beating heart steadying, he breathed in the heat haze--this could be okay--and unzipped.
Alec's soft intake of breath faded into the hiss of the breeze, but he had on that look of religious ecstasy again. Darren made a strip show of peeling back the thick neoprene and watched to see if the expression would change. Alec's indigo eyes rounded, flicked shyly across the length of his torso, and fixed in desperation on his necklace of wooden beads. He found himself almost insulted. It deserved something more. A compliment. A touch. Hell, he'd settle for a leer. But if Alec wasn't going to react at all, what the hell was this about?