On the list of eff-words that have followed me around like a bad smell, it's up there in the top three.
A word I let define me for too long, and a word I vividly remember learning at eight years old one summer Sunday afternoon.
Mum had given me a choice between two ice-lollies after a day running about the park with the neighbourhood kids while Dad had stayed home to make a roast.
Fruit Pastille lolly or a Feast.
`Our secret,' she'd said with a wink, holding them out.
The choice had been as easy as pie. Hadn't even heard of the first one, so naturally I'd jumped at the promise of a nutty chocolate coating over chocolate ice-cream before that thick, chunky slab of cocoa-goodness in the middle.
But when Mum had opened hers, and I'd seen its vibrant rainbow layers glistening in the sun, my mind had changed before she'd finished unwrapping.
`Here you go, you fickle little monster,' she'd said chuckling, taking the Feast and swapping.
In that moment, I'd understood what the new word had meant. How, if I wasn't happy with what I had, I didn't have to accept it.
Don't have to settle for second best.
Over the following eleven years, those two syllables cropped up or echoed in my mind more times than I had hot dinners. Usually followed by something far more offensive.
From the guys I'd met at school, out or online. Men snubbed for something more exciting: bigger muscles, larger arms, thicker wallets. Boys dropped like a sack of shit for younger, prettier, sluttier models.
People discarded like empty condom wrappers on a sauna floor.
Others had had a taste of my consistent inconsistencies. Colleagues or customers who'd assumed we were somehow friends. Saddos believing the fact we waited tables together, or drank at the same bar, meant we were chums or pals or whatever empty term of endearment they'd hurled my way.
Which is why my sudden change of heart didn't come as a surprise: a small, subconscious part of me had probably been expecting it all along. Even if, until that moment, the gravel of Laurie's expansive driveway under wheel, and his vast manor house blocking out the horizon and shifting my perspective, I thought I'd changed.
But, as I opened the passenger door and swung my legs out, the warm summer breeze caressing my skin and whispering inescapable truths, I knew better. Quietly scoffed at myself for only just realising.
For believing the bollocks I'd let myself believe. That Daddy Dick had been the one. The one man strong and secure enough to put me in my place for good.
To take me far away from all this mediocre nonsense. To make me belong.
But Richard isn't where it ends. He's played his part.
Just another rung on the ladder.
A ladder I'd never stopped believing in. An escape route that, one day, would take me onwards and upwards to somewhere better.
That day's today.
I smiled at myself. Couldn't shake the grin pulling at my lips as my smart black trainers sunk into the crunching stones below.
I began to realise: all those times I'd unceremoniously jumped ship, I hadn't been fickle or capricious or shallow like the countless mouths below accusing eyes had said.
At fourteen, when Mum had left and Dad had spiralled into depression, I'd learnt, quick, that if I didn't look out for number one, no one would.
Since then, nothing had changed. Only deteriorated. I had no family, no real friends. No fixed accommodation, no job.
All I had to my name were the clothes on my back, bought by someone else, the rapidly dwindling government grants in my bank account and almost one year of a degree that didn't even count toward my final grade.
Not to mention a fake boyfriend I'd been too much of a pussy to break up with, a gold-digging second fake boyfriend to placate the first, and a so-called dom daddy who had shattered the illusion into a million, pathetic pieces.
Standing in place and stretching, I scanned the grand building in front of me. Took in its ancient, weathered stone smoothed by countless years of wind and rain. Breathed in its undeniable history.
This is where I deserve to be.
But then, out of nowhere, anxiety.
As if it had been hiding in my shadow this whole time, it was suddenly front and centre, dark and slinking like an upright oil spill, drenching and choking.
I only have one shot at this. What if I fuck it up?
What if I do something that makes them all hate me?
I need to play this smart. Need to keep cool. Need to fucking relax.
Thud went Richard's car door as he closed it, jolting me out of my panic. Keeping my stare on a patch of ivied wall between two large sash windows, my heart pounding in my chest, I calmed myself.
Forced a smile.
I've got this.
Richard smiled back.
Everything had been leading up to a moment like this. A chance to change my life not just for the better but for the best.
But fuck me it wasn't going to be as simple as asking my mother for a different treat. I couldn't simply tell Richard I was over him and wanted an upgrade.
Need to think fast.
I looked at my date, smart and handsome in his midnight blue jeans, white shirt and dark, navy blue blazer with forest green brogues. Looked at his thick arms and head of salt and pepper hair. His wide chest. Powerful legs.
Richard had been a feast, there was no question. But Laurie was a rainbow of possibilities I couldn't pass up.
I knew I would miss Richard. How he fucked me, his nice apartment and his inclination to buy me whatever the hell I wanted.
But, seeing his Aston Martin at the end of a row of cars in Laurie's large, fountained circle drive bordered by pruned hedgerows and vast lawns, orchards and what looked like a private lake, I wasn't going to miss him that much.
It was going to be tricky, of course, but I had plenty of tricks up my sleeve. Knew how to read a room and between the lines.
Charm and seduction were my middle names. And, seeing as the occasion of the night was to let Richard, Laurie and five of their mates take it in turns to ruin me, it wouldn't be hard to make Laurie feel extra special.
Keep eye contact with him just a little longer than the others. Take whatever he was going to give with a touch more vigour.
Beg for his load first.
Anything to let nature take its course.
"You're just the kind of lad he goes crazy for."
My anxiety melted away. Replaced by something painfully familiar that hadn't failed me yet.
The unrelenting voice in my head screaming at me to do better. Telling me to move and keep moving no matter what or who stood in the way.
I know what to do.
`You look very handsome,' Richard said, offering his arm as we walked along a wide path lined by bushes and flowers in orange, yellow and red, into an internal courtyard bordered by three storeys of stone. `I should get you to pick out an outfit for me next time I take you shopping.'
Our arms linked, I hung off him slightly and looked down at my outfit. At the £400 trainers, £300 fitted jeans and £125 t-shirt I knew would probably last less than ten minutes inside.
`Thanks, you too,' I said. `But you've got great style. You don't need me.'
`You wearing the other present?'
Slapping my arse, he squeezed a handful. Framed by my new black leather jockstrap, my cheeks felt every finger.
`So, what do you think?' he said, slowing as we reached a wide, arched doorway made from old yet pristinely maintained oak set inside the same ancient stonework all around.
Two small grotesques either side of the door element-worn. A black metal door knocker in the shape of a hand holding a sphere.
`Now I know what you mean about next level minted,' I said.
Richard nodded and looked at me. Deep in the eyes. Said, `Well, you don't seem to have the look just yet.'
`The one I've seen in a few of the lads I've brought here over the years. Like their eyes glaze over and I'm already forgotten.'
`That fast?' I said, my patience dwindling.
Chuckling, he said, `Ok, not that fast, but, really, do you blame them?'
Laughing my most innocent laugh, I kissed him on the cheek and said, `No.'
Play shoving me he grabbed me and yanked me back. Then my view shifted up as he dipped me and kissed me deep but tongue-less.
Lifting me to standing he grabbed my arse again and said, `Enough of that, I brought you here to blow your mind, not bore you with self-doubt.'
You can say that again.
`You ready?' he said, a devilish flicker in his deep brown eyes as he no doubt reminisced about the last time I'd joined him and his mates for a sesh.
Taking a deep but silent breath, I said, `Born ready.'
Shaking his head and rolling his eyes with a smile, Richard took the eerie door knocker, lifted it and brought it down with two loud booms. Then, reaching out, he took my hand. Squeezed it and said:
`Sorry about earlier.'
`In the car. It's just, I like you, Oscar. You're fun to be around and you make me forget about the divorce and work and, well, all the crap in my life. I don't want that to stop.'
`Don't worry,' I said, easily ignoring the twinge of guilt in my stomach as his fingers intertwined with mine, `I'll be good.'
`It's not you I'm worried about.'
Guilt flared again and punched me. But I shook it off. Couldn't let it show.
`Don't,' I said. `Obviously I'll need to show Laurie a little extra attention for hosting us, but I'm your boy. You know that, right?'
`I do,' he said smiling wide and genuine. `I do.'
`Thank you, Oscar,' he said.
Turning, I went to say he was welcome. But as our gazes met, guilt returned with such vengeance my mouth filled with saliva and nausea rolled fast, hard and heavy.
Then, before I knew it, the cold, hard truth began to rise like bile. Could feel the words forming in my throat. Couldn't control them.
But, as I was about to word vomit all over him and myself, the doorway swung open revealing a lengthy, chandelier-lit hallway carpeted deep red.
In the centre of the doorway was a man about six-one or two; no older than twenty-five. He was wearing black shoes, tapered black trousers that showed off his strong legs and a white shirt so fitted you couldn't miss every curve and line of his bulging muscles.
His head was shaved leaving very short but thick brown stubble and over the top half of his face was a black leather mask framing piercing green eyes.
He was, for the lack of a better word, stunning.
`Hello Jakub,' Richard said, nodding at the muscle boy.
`Mr. Evans,' Jakub said, his accent Eastern European, possibly Polish, with the smallest nod and nothing else. `You and your guest are the last to arrive. Mr. Constantine and the rest of the party are waiting in the lounge.'
Then, lifting an arm thicker than my neck, he pointed down the long, red way and said, `Please.'
`Thank you, Jakub,' Richard said. `I'll take it from here. This is Oscar, by the way.'
Jakub said nothing and looked me up and down. But not in a hot checking me out way. More like he was figuring me out. Then without a word he nodded. I nodded back.
`Wow,' I whispered to Richard as we passed the toy-boy butler.
`What?' he whispered back as we made our way down the hallway under a second chandelier toward a large entrance hall.
`Why bother inviting me with him on the payroll?'
`Firstly,' Richard said, now inside an entrance hall leading off in four different downstairs directions and upstairs via a large central staircase, `Prostitution is illegal in this country.'
Stopping dead under a third chandelier that made the first two look like Christmas tree lights, I raised my eyebrows and gave Richard a look he understood immediately.
Richard laughed and said, `Jakub is straight.'
Nodding, I said, `That makes a lot of sense.'
`Laurie has a thing about hiring straight guys for these parties. Gets them to wear masks and serve drinks. Pays them extra to hold trays of lube and Viagra when the fun starts.'
`You bet. You'll be surprised what these poor lads will do for money. Most of them never come back, and I don't blame them. Takes a very strong man to, well, you know more than anyone.'
`That I do.'
`Jakub's the only full-timer.'
`Maybe Jakub isn't as straight as you think?' I said, my arm linked with Richard's again as he walked us down a ground floor corridor leading to the west side of the building.
Through another door and into a long, straight gallery adorned with oil paintings in fabulous frames and long thick curtains either side of sash windows. At the end of the gallery, was a double set of closed doors and two more muscled boys in matching masks and uniforms.
`Straight or gay it doesn't matter. As long as he's paying them to do something they don't want to do, Laurie's happy,' Richard said.
Placing a hand on his shoulder, I stopped Richard in his tracks. Whispered, `This Laurie guy. He's a bit of a cunt, isn't he?'
`Yeah,' Richard said nodding. `He is a bit.'
My kind of man.
To be continued ...
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