EXCERPT – Romancing the Ugly Duckling

Two men stumbled through his doorway, personification of the cold and the wet. Their clothes steamed and glistened in the light of Greg’s hallway, and their faces were grey, their features grimacing against the weather. Puddles of water started gathering on the mat almost immediately.

“Thank fuck you were in!” one blustered. He was swaddled in a full-length waterproof coat and trousers, with heavy Wellington boots and a scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face. Despite the disguise, Greg recognised Dougie, and not just because of the cursing. Dougie always knew how to dress appropriately for the weather.

The other man hadn’t moved an inch since they staggered into the hallway. He stood at least seven inches shorter than Greg’s six foot three, dripping into a growing puddle of water around his feet, and he was shivering. It was obvious that he most certainly wasn’t dressed for the downpour. He had no waterproof clothing, no headwear for protection, just a lightweight jacket that had probably been very stylish before it got drenched. Now it looked as elegant as a used dishcloth. At least he was wearing a sweater, in concession to the chillier evening, but his jeans were oddly ripped at the knees and completely sodden. Greg could see the skin beneath the rips turning red with the cold. And his footwear…. Greg swallowed heavily, not sure whether to laugh or cry. His visitor wore a pair of suede boots with a stacked heel and a neon logo on the side. Greg couldn’t tell what they’d looked like originally—or read the logo—because they were now stained the colour of sheep shit.

“What the hell, Dougie? Who’s the sprat?”

Water was running down the sodden creature’s face and into its white-lipped mouth. The gargled noise that came from its throat may have been a greeting, or an attempt to avoid drowning.

Dougie snorted. “It’s your London guest, man. Had ye forgotten he was coming?”

Oh my fucking God. Had that gone ahead? Greg hadn’t given the project a thought after his last testy postcard to Geoff. He was sure he’d made it clear that hell would freeze over before he had any bloody interest in their daft schemes, and there was no point in them sending any tomfool design team over to talk to him.

Hadn’t he?

Dougie shook his head angrily, spraying the hall afresh with raindrops. “Have you let your fucking phone run flat again? Poor wee thing couldn’t get through t’ you, and there’s nae answer at his posh London agency. Lucky I was out at the ferry collecting supplies for the shop. Found him standing around, nae more than a drowned rat.”

Greg stared at the newcomer, aghast. “But I told them not to bother. I wasn’t going back to London, I wasn’t taking part in any bloody stupid TV programme, and I definitely didn’t want an even more bloody stupid stylist coming here!”

The young man spluttered again. His face had gained some colour now he was indoors. Or—Greg winced belatedly—perhaps that was fury at the insults.

“Looks like he didn’t get the memo,” Dougie muttered.

“What’s his name?”

Dougie rolled his eyes. “Christ, man, we haven’t had time t’ share birth histories! Poor bastard said he was coming t’ meet you, so I brought him right here.” He peered at the visitor as if he’d unearthed the Loch Ness monster and found it less than impressive.

Greg felt much the same. Uncertainly, he asked again, “What’s your name?”

“Peregrine Goodwood,” the man said. “From the Latham Agency.” His voice was surprisingly clear, and he looked older than Greg had first thought, when he’d been nothing but a streak of damp clothing. But he was still a skinny little thing, with no fat reserves on his body. He looked slight enough to be blown away in the gales around here. Apart from that, Greg couldn’t tell what he properly looked like because his face was scrunched up from cold and distress, and his hair could’ve been anywhere between blond and black. The relentless Highlands rain painted everything the same muddy hue.

“Peregrine? What kinda joke is that?” Dougie whooped with laughter. He shucked back his hood and shook the excess water off his hair like Rory did when he’d been swimming in the loch. He wasn’t remotely concerned about waterlogging Greg’s furnishings, though Greg didn’t have much time for the Ideal Home Show himself.

“Call me Perry,” the man said defensively. Like Dougie, he gave himself a shake, shifting his hair off his forehead. “Look, are we just going to stand here taking the piss out of my name? Or can I dry off somewhere? Otherwise I’m likely to develop hypothermia.”

Greg was taken aback at the kid’s assertiveness and, to be honest, a little impressed. He thought this slim, effete little thing would’ve talked and walked like all the airheaded media types he saw last time he was in the English capital. Instead, Perry looked ready to give as much lip back to Dougie as he got.

“Come to the fire, for God’s sake. Dougie, bring in his case and fetch some towels from the airing cupboard.”

Dougie raised his eyebrows but dragged a once-smart, now sopping wet suitcase into the hall, then marched off toward the kitchen in his boots, trailing water as he went.

When the young man seemed too cold and distressed to move briskly enough on his own, Greg prodded him forward into the living room. Rory had vanished from his basket, probably resettling somewhere else in the cottage to continue his restful sleep. Greg had plenty of sympathy with that, having had his own peaceful evening so rudely interrupted. He guided Perry to stand on a spot on the rug in front of the fire.

“They told me it’d be like this,” Perry said resentfully.


“Scotland. They said it always rained.”

Greg felt his hackles rise. “It was perfectly bonny last week. Looks like you brought the bloody rain with you. This blew up in only the last few hours.”

Dougie marched into the room in his jeans and sweater, having presumably abandoned his waterproofs and boots in the kitchen, and with an armful of towels. Greg picked up the first one, a thick, pale-coloured quality bath sheet. His mother had never been to visit him here, but had considered her duty discharged with a gift set of linens. Greg had never bothered using them for himself.

Dougie whipped the towel out of his hands and started rubbing at the young man’s hair. But Perry snatched it from Dougie in turn.

“I can manage on my own, thank you very much.” Clutching the towel in one hand, he peeled off his jacket with the other, then held it out at arm’s length.

Greg frowned. “What d’you want us to do with that?”

“Do you have a hanger for it? It’ll need to dry out in its shape. A padded one would be best.”

Dougie stared at him and laughed.

Greg cleared his throat. This guy was the limit. “I don’t have any padded anything, apart from a quilt. I may be able to find a wooden hanger.” He’d inherited a wardrobe from Mary McMullen’s granny when he took on the croft, and there had been a few fittings left in there. He kept his own clothes in a drawer, although he did fold things neatly. He wasn’t a complete savage.

Perry handed over the jacket with a much less confident air, then glanced down at his other damp clothing. His shirt clung snugly to his chest.

To his surprise, Greg found he was looking too. Perry was slender, but he had a nicely shaped torso, and enough muscle tone for his build. Something glinted under the material, on his left nipple.


Greg’s mouth went dry. He glanced across at Dougie, to find his friend grinning at him.

“Is there somewhere I can dry off?” Perry asked, his voice tight.

“Yes. I mean, yes, there’s a small utility area off the kitchen.” Greg used it sometimes to wash up and change after he’d been out on the peat bog. He also hung up his washing there to dry when the weather was too bad to air it in the garden. “Here, I’ll show you.” He turned awkwardly, bumping into the sofa and tumbling the remaining pile of towels onto the floor.

“I’ll find it, thanks.” Perry didn’t actually sound very grateful at all. He turned and shuffled out of the room and down the hall to the kitchen. His boots squelched with every step, and a trail of water dripped behind him from the hem of his jeans.

When he was out of sight, Dougie chuckled. “If we’re talking about rainbow tartan, he’s your perfect candidate. How come ye never grew up a fairy like that?”

Greg scowled. Anyone could tell Perry was gay, but he wasn’t sure he liked Dougie laughing at the kid like that. “We’re not all the same, man.”

Dougie held his hands up in supplication. “Didn’t mean t’ offend. We’re all different, I know, rainbow or not. We okay?”

“Yes, we’re okay.” Greg smiled ruefully. “I’m just not in a very good mood. This whole thing caught me unprepared.”

“Hello?” Perry called from in the kitchen.

Greg moved nearer the door. “Everything all right?”

“I… my shirt’s ruined. Do you have anything I could wear while it dries out?”

Greg chased away the unbidden and worrying vision of Perry bare chested. “There are clean clothes in the laundry basket behind the door. Probably a sweatshirt and some tracksuit bottoms.”

“Thanks.” Perry’s voice wobbled. For God’s sake, he wasn’t crying, was he? “I didn’t want to come here tonight, you know. But every step has taken so long, the whole day was gone before I knew it. And the ferry journey… I wasn’t remotely prepared for that.” He sounded like he gulped air in quickly at the memory.

Dougie grinned and winked at Greg, waving his hand up and down to approximate the choppy seas that afternoon.

“Then they never sent me any information about where I’m staying, so I thought I’d go into town and check the hotels.”

“Does he mean in Lochmaddy?” Dougie muttered. “Wouldn’t have taken him very long.”

“But I couldn’t find a taxi rank anywhere, either.”

“Dunderheed thinks he’s back in the city,” Dougie growled, his Scottish accent broadening.

Greg shushed him with a gesture of his own. “There’s a bus,” he answered Perry. “Though not frequent. And it’s best to book a taxi in advance.”

“I thought….” Perry’s voice broke a little more. “I expected that had been done already.”

Greg bit his lip. Sounded like the poor sod had just been dumped here.

“Do you have the number of a local B&B?” Perry asked. “I’ll make do with that until….” His sigh was audible even through the kitchen walls. He sounded like he’d run out of viable options.

“Ach,” Dougie butted in. “It’s a trek back into Lochmaddy, even if I had the time t’ take you. Out here, the only place is Fergus and Mary’s, where they rent out rooms t’ bird watchers in season. But you can’t go there.”

“What do you mean?”

“Their youngest is having her bairn early, so they’ve shut up for weeks.”

“But I need somewhere to stay!”

“Babies take precedence, man,” Dougie said gleefully.

Perry fell silent again.

Greg shifted restlessly. Bit difficult to chat through two doors. Then Dougie nudged him fiercely in the ribs.

“You going t’ put some breeks on?”

“What?” Greg looked down and realised he was dressed in nothing but an undervest, a pair of woolly socks and his boxers. The pair with purple thistles on that Dougie had bought him for a joke birthday present.

“Oh, shit!”

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