Rai stepped back into the tiny entrance hall to let me in, then ambushed me with a hug as the door swung shut behind me.
“Oh, hi. Good to see you too.” I hoped the chocolate HobNobs I was carrying weren’t getting crushed to bits between our bodies. It was either that or they’d be melted into one giant cylindrical biscuit. I did my best to concentrate on those biscuits, because Rai’s tight embrace and faint aroma of herbal shower gel were stirring up an entirely inappropriate physical response.
“Come on in,” Rai said as he pulled back, taking hold of one of my hands. “We’ve been looking forward to this all day.”
It was only a step through to the living room, and there Evan was, sprawled on the sofa and seeming to take up far more space than one man should. He had on a pair of camouflage combat trousers—huge bare feet sticking out of the bottom—and a faded Massive Attack T-shirt with the arms and neck cut off. I remembered Denise’s comment about his lack of style, but hey, it suited him.
Evan gave me a lazy smile and got to his feet. “Ey up, Josh. Hey, you brought snacks.” His hazel eyes lit up as he spotted the biscuits and big bag of Kettle Chips. “There’s a man after my own heart. You should be taking notes, pet.”
I watched Rai flip Evan the bird with a sunny smile. “I do the brainy stuff, you do the brawny stuff—that’s the deal, lover. You want me to go shopping and make dinner, you have to learn how to do your own accounts.” Rai turned to me and winked. “I will take these through to the kitchen and get us some drinks, though. What do you fancy, Josh. Tea? Coffee? Beer?”
“Beer sounds good,” I said, my voice only quavering ever so slightly as Rai took my meagre offerings, his fingers brushing mine. “Thanks”
As Rai disappeared through to the kitchen, Evan pulled me into a bear hug. Christ, I really wasn’t used to all this touchy-feely stuff. It’d been way too long since another man had wrapped his arms around me and squeezed me in close to his rock-hard, musky-smelling body.
Uh-oh. I felt like the life was being crushed out of my lungs, and my dick was starting to chub up. How sick was that? And embarrassing too, because there was no way Evan wouldn’t be able to feel it, all squished up close like he was.
“Can’t breathe!” I panted, and Evan loosened his hold.
“Sorry, mate. I get a bit carried away sometimes. Don’t know my own strength.” He cast a rueful glance down at his bulging arms, then gestured at the sofa. “Make yourself comfy.”
The sofa ballooned with excess stuffing and was covered in a hideous seventies-style orange geometrical print. It faced the windows, next to a leather recliner that looked like it must have been an expensive investment back in the eighties, and a tatty beanbag tossed like an afterthought into the corner. As I didn’t much fancy the beanbag or taking what must be the best seat, I gingerly sat at one end of the sofa and took a proper look around.
The retro theme seemed to extend to all the decor, what with the giant Swiss cheese plant climbing up by the windows, the wooden bead curtain covering the bedroom doorway, and the kitsch prints up on the walls. There was even that bizarre one of the woman with green skin that you sometimes see abandoned in charity shops. Someone must have had a thing for owls because they were everywhere, in the form of pictures, mantelpiece ornaments and even an appliqué cushion on the sofa. The evening sun was still warming up the hills across the valley, but the room was lit with the warm glow from a couple of lamps with the bases made out of wine bottles, and a red-and-amber lava lamp.
“I like what you’ve done with the place,” I said, which was probably an exaggeration, but it felt kind of homey.
“Huh? Oh, this stuff. Yeah, Rai likes picking things up at car-boot sales. He reckons they’re the antiques of the future, but he’s deluded. Who’s going to want to pay good money for macramé plant holders? Only sentimental fools like him.” Evan flopped down on the other end of the sofa and gestured to the hanging pots of spider plants in the two sash windows.
“I heard that, Evan Truman.” Rai waltzed back into the room with three open bottles of Peroni clutched between his fingers. “Don’t you go bad-mouthing my spider plants, or you’ll find they start multiplying.”
“They already are,” Evan grumbled, but I could hear the affection in his voice. “They’re as bad as the owls. They’ve taken over the bedroom. Can’t get dressed without knocking into one of the things. It’s like summat out of the Day of the bloody Triffids in there. You better watch it, Josh, or he’ll unload some baby spider plants on you, and before you know it, you’ll have hundreds of the bloody things.”
“Don’t listen to him.” Rai grinned, displaying a row of ever-so-slightly crooked teeth that just made him look even more adorable. “They’re an excellent return on investment. They’re the gift that keeps on giving, unlike this big lummox.” Rai stood between us and kicked Evan in the shin. “Shift your fat arse over, Mister. You always take up all the room.”
Evan smiled and stretched his legs and arms out even farther, so Rai gave up and plonked himself down on Evan’s lap.
“Ow,” Evan complained. “You’re getting heavy for a little fella. I won’t be able to lift you up anymore if you keep putting on weight.”
Rai pouted and looked down at his skinny body, temptingly showcased in a skinny-fit brown-and-orange swirly shirt and chinos. “Maybe you’re the one who needs to get more exercise, old man.”
I longed for that kind of gentle teasing. The kind that comes from someone who knows all your quirks and faults and loves you anyway. I took a long swig of my beer to wash the yearning away. It didn’t work.
“How was the conference?” I asked, figuring that would be a dull enough topic to numb the loneliness welling up inside me.
Evan snorted. “Same as ever. A bunch of know-it-all lefty liberals trying to set the world to rights.”
That earned him a swift elbow in the ribs from Rai. “Watch it, or I’ll out you as a closet Guardian reader.” Rai turned to me, his eyes sparkling with intelligence. “It was fascinating. We were debating likely barriers to the worldwide implementation of the Tobin tax, and how best to put pressure on tax havens to ensure fair wealth distribution throughout the world.”
“Wow.” I really didn’t know what else to say. “I didn’t know that’s what you were studying.”
“Economics isn’t all about grabbing money from the poor to line the rich guys’ pockets,” Rai announced grandly. “Some of us are trying to change the world for the bet— Stop it!” That was to Evan, who was apparently trying to tickle Rai’s ribs. “Right. I’m going to go sit on Josh’s lap if that’s the way you’re going to behave.”
Rai leapt up and gave me a cheeky smile. I promptly flushed, choked on the last of my beer and ended up trying to cough my lungs up.