It’s panto season for the Sarky Players, an amateur dramatics society based in Greenwich, South London. With the traditional Christmas play around the corner, it’s time to get ready for more larger than life performances—on and off stage.
While Craig Rosen is happy with his quiet life playing Warhammer and working in a university lab, a new colleague thinks he needs more excitement and drags Craig along to an audition for the Christmas pantomime, Aladdin.
Corporate lawyer Jason Carter accepted he’s gay a little later in life than most, but now divorced and in his late thirties, he’s ready to embrace who he really is. He can’t believe his luck when he runs into Craig at the audition and the cute younger man agrees to help him navigate his new life. There’s no doubting the attraction between Craig and Jason, but with Craig’s insecurities and Jason still finding his way, they’ll need to make sure they don’t veer off script.
Rebecca Cohen is a Brit abroad. Having swapped the Thames for the Rhine, she has left London behind and now lives with her husband and baby son in Basel, Switzerland. She can often be found with a pen in one hand and a cup of Darjeeling in the other.
THE LAB door banged open. Craig flinched and failed to maintain a grip on the bottle of buffer he was holding. He swore loudly as it hit the floor, smashed, and sent glass flying everywhere.
“Oh shit. Sorry, Craig,” said Stuart, the new postdoc who’d burst into the lab. “I’ll help you clear it up.”
Craig grabbed a roll of blue paper towels. “There’s a dustpan and brush under the sink.”
Stuart trotted off, and Craig removed his samples from the benchtop centrifuge and returned them to the fridge. The accident sorted his dilemma of whether he’d run one more gel before the weekend.
Stuart collected up the glass, and Craig mopped up the liquid. “Make sure you use the right bin or Kevin will kill you,” Craig said.
“Our research assistant. He’s on holiday this week, but you’ll meet him Monday, and trust me, you don’t want to risk Kevin’s ire by slightly disturbing his extraordinarily complicated system.”
Stuart threw away the last of the glass. “You ready? You’re still coming out, right?”
“Yeah, give me a minute to sort out my bench, and I’m good to go.”
Craig wiped down his bench and tidied away his pipettes, liking to leave everything just right to put him in the best frame of mind on Monday morning.
He’d originally hoped to use his experiment as an excuse not to go to the impromptu evening out Stuart had suggested, but now he had no reason or inclination to remain at work. Friday night in Central London was something he usually avoided, preferring to wind down from the week by playing one of the online games he followed or going somewhere a little farther out of the city center, somewhere the clientele were less likely to be of the rich-suited-knob variety.
Several other members of the lab stood chatting in the corridor as Craig and Stuart emerged. Craig zipped up his light jacket, looped his messenger bag across his chest, and awaited instructions. The lab often went out for drinks, but Trish, another of the experienced postdocs, had given up on trying to get Craig out on a regular basis. Unfortunately Stuart had been more insistent, and his gaydar was much better tuned than most.
“Where we going?”
“We thought Jerusalem,” Stuart said, herding their colleagues in the general direction of the exit.
“Which one’s that?”
“I’d think that working here you’d have known the local area better.”
Considering Craig had worked at the Medical Research Centre labs in Bloomsbury for over four years, Stuart had a point. “I studied in a different bit of London. But working for University College doesn’t make me want to rub shoulders with the undergrads during term time. Some of them don’t have an off switch.”
Stuart nudged him with his shoulder. “Well, aren’t you the gregarious one. Cheer up, Craig. It’s just a few beers. I’ve not asked for your firstborn or your Warhammer 40,000: Collector’s Edition Mini Rulebook.”
“Ha-bloody-ha. I’m perfectly happy, thank you.” Typical that Stuart was one of the cool geeks. He had picked up on Craig’s throwaway comments about Star Trek that had gone over everyone else’s head, and had already worked out Craig’s favorite places in Nerd-dom. “I just don’t know this bit of town.”
They headed down a set of steps to an underground bar called Jerusalem, which Craig supposed could’ve been a lot worse—it only vaguely reminded him of a bomb shelter. Stuart clapped him on the back. “My round.”
“No, let me. You won’t have been paid yet, and I know what it’s like to survive the gap between PhD and postdoc.”
Stuart shook his head. “No, I’m good. My partner’s not exactly short of cash, and he’s already at the bar.”
Craig looked at the bar. Stuart pointed out a blond guy, and Craig thought he was more than gorgeous, beautiful even. Stuart wasn’t exactly bad on the eye, and the two of them together would be striking. Craig blinked away the image of Stuart and his partner entwined. He really needed a boyfriend if his overactive imagination was providing him with flashes of his colleagues. “Oh, well, I’ll have a lager. Whatever’s on tap is fine.”
Trish grabbed Craig’s arm as Stuart went off to the bar. “We’ve got a table, but we’re short a seat. You’ll need to find a stool.”
She must have reapplied her perfume before leaving, because the strong waft that assaulted Craig made his eyes water. “Will do.”
Her ponytail swinging behind her, Trish dragged Katy, the newish PhD student, away with her to where the rest of the lab had bagged a table. Despite the bar being busy, Craig spotted a free stool a few tables away. A group of four had a spare seat, although they were using it as a bag stand. Craig pointed to it. “Would you mind if I took this?”
A young red-haired woman grabbed her bag and smiled. The guy sitting opposite her smirked, looked Craig up and down, and licked his lips. “Oh, for someone as adorable as you, I think we can allow it. It might cost you, though.”
“Si, stop teasing,” said the redhead with a sigh. “Sorry about him. One too many margaritas,” she said to Craig. “Please take it.”
Si winked at him, and Craig thought it best to avoid him for the rest of the evening. The guy had a cocky manner. He was attractive and knew it, with his shiny black hair and chiseled chin. The way he presented himself—designer suit and expensive haircut—made Craig think he wasn’t used to taking no for an answer. The sooner Craig legged it, the better.
Craig hurried away, but not before he heard the redhead say, “Si, can’t you behave for once? You don’t even know he’s gay.”
“Of course he is, Di. Geeky and gay. My favorite for a bit of fun—always so desperate.”
Craig tried not to let the words hurt, but it was hard to ignore the truth. He carried the stool over to the table, refusing to dwell on his pathetic love life. Even the geeks he’d dated had moved on to someone better, to guys who weren’t as socially awkward or boring as Craig, once the shine of his Warhammer status waned.
Stuart had arrived at the table with his boyfriend, who he introduced as Ryan, and Craig squeezed into the gap left between Trish and Stuart toward the end of the table.
Small talk was not one of his best skills, but he forced himself to make an effort. “So you’ve survived the first week. No plans to run screaming for the hills?”
“Can I reserve judgment until the end of the month? It’s taken most of the week to get access to the university computer systems and get my staff pass.”
“You’re doing well,” said Trish. “But you should double-check with Senate House that they’ve got your bank details right. They messed up mine, and I nearly couldn’t pay my rent that first month.”
Ryan laughed and nudged Stuart. “You’ll have to be extra nice to your landlord if that happens.”
“I told you I had a nonmonetary payment scheme worked out for emergencies, but you weren’t interested.” Stuart blew a raspberry at Ryan. “Apart from being rich, attractive, and normally a nice guy, I have no idea why I put up with you.”
Craig couldn’t help but be envious. Stuart had mentioned they hadn’t been together long, but a whirlwind romance had escalated into more. They made a lovely couple, and Craig wished he had someone waiting for him at home after a long day in the lab.
Before he knew it, they were ready for the fourth round. Stuart and Ryan were great company, so for once Craig wasn’t itching to go home. Ryan had even somehow managed to convince him to come along to an open audition at the amateur dramatics group they belonged to. Once Ryan learned Craig lived in Deptford, only a couple of stops away on the Docklands Light Railway, he wouldn’t let Craig refuse. Maybe it would be good for him to have a social life outside his computer and gaming meetups. He got to his feet at the call for the next round. “My turn.”
“You need a hand?” asked Trish.
“Nah, I’ll get a tray.”
The queue for the bar was several people deep, and Craig checked his phone while waiting to be served. He had a few game notifications and an offer from his credit card company, but nothing of any consequence. At least reading his e-mail meant he didn’t accidently make eye contact with anyone.
Once he’d been served, he realized he didn’t have room for all the drinks on the tray and would have to come back for his pint.
“I’ll keep an eye on it for you,” offered the guy standing next to him, who, Craig realized too late, was Si from the table where he’d got his stool. Si grinned.
Craig had a sudden thought that he should be wearing a red riding hood. “Er, thanks.”
“My pleasure.” Si winked at him.
Craig scurried away with the tray of drinks, intending to come back to grab his pint and return to the table again as fast as possible.
The bar had cleared a bit by the time he went to retrieve his pint. He hoped Si would have collected his own drink and pissed off back to his friends, but no such luck.
“There you are. I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back.”
Craig reached out to pick up his pint, but Si took hold of his arm. “I hope you aren’t rushing off.”
“I need to get back to my friends.”
“I’m sure they can cope for a little while without you.”
Craig tried to shrug off Si’s hand. “I need to go.”
“Oh, come on, we can have a little fun. What do you say to me letting you suck my cock?”
“What?” He aimed for outraged, but it came out more like a deranged squawk.
“You’re gagging for it. I can smell the desperation. I bet you can’t even remember the last time you got laid. Here I am, offering you a simply wonderful opportunity.”
Craig could tell Si was the wrong side of sober, and he tried to dislodge Si’s hand. “Let go of me.”
“Feisty!” Si swayed a little and grabbed Craig’s arm harder.
“Look, Dick For Brains, the guy’s not interested, so fuck off to whatever sewer you crawled out of.” A hand reached from behind Craig and pulled Si’s hand away. “Piss off and leave him alone.”
Craig turned to see a man—at best guess, in his late thirties with dark brown hair and a square jaw. He was dashing in a knight-in-shining-armor way, although dressed in a suit with his shirt collar open, rather than chain mail. Craig supposed he should be incensed another man thought he needed rescuing, but he was far too relieved to be upset.
Si scowled. “Who the fuck are you?”
“Someone with a black belt in judo who doesn’t like arseholes picking on people in bars.”
Si snorted. “Fancy a piece yourself, I bet. You can have the dorky thing. No loss.”
Craig watched Si stagger off before turning back to his savior. “Thanks.”
“Sorry. I wouldn’t normally butt in, but you looked like you needed a bit of support.”
“I’m not very good with conflict.” Craig reached out and claimed his pint. “He’d have got bored eventually, most people do, but I’m glad you helped.”
“I’m pretty sure he’ll find a willing body if he can stay standing long enough. He’s lucky he didn’t try it on with someone who’d take offense.”
“I am a bit offended. Strange men don’t usually assume I’ll suck their cock on demand.”
“I didn’t mean that. I mean some guys wouldn’t like being hit on by another man. They’d have punched him into next week.”
Craig didn’t think he’d have the balls to hit someone, but it wasn’t Si’s sex that had been the issue. “Being hit on was a problem, not him being a guy.”
“You are gay, then?”
Craig thought it an odd question to ask someone you didn’t know. He took a sip of his pint before answering. “Yes….”
“Sorry, you must think me a complete twat. I’m new to all this.”
The man chuckled and rubbed the back of his neck, an impossibly endearing action that had Craig’s imagination running away with itself. “Yeah. Let’s say I’m late to the game and still figuring out the rules.”
“I’m not sure I know the rules any better. In fact, you could say I’m pretty rubbish at most games that aren’t coded in C++.”
“That was a bit geeky. It’s computer code. Well, one of them, and of course it depends on the game and the platform.”
A wave of awkwardness swept through him as Craig realized he’d geeked out in front of a rather sexy older man. Still, the encounter would keep his right hand busy for a while, as long as he left before he could embarrass himself further. “I should get back to my friends.”
“Yeah, I’d better go myself. I needed a beer after the day I’ve had.”
“Least it’s the weekend.” Craig gave him a quirky little smile that was meant to say good-bye but probably made him look like a worried poodle. “Thanks again for your help.”