Pluck and Play (#5)

Everyone knows Curtis Wilson around the Soho business scene: a hard-working, budding young entrepreneur, who can get you supplies of whatever you need, and always with a joke and a laugh. Only Curtis knows that’s a purely public persona. Secretly, he’s still licking his wounds after being beaten up by his ex-lover, and he’s not about to let his guard down again.

Handsome Riley Richmond was born to be a cowboy, on his father’s side at least. But after his parents’ deaths, he finds himself stranded this side of the Atlantic, an anachronism in the bustling capital, and without financial capital. His consolation is his music, albeit he’s not a very successful busker and he loses his only decent piano gig after standing up for Curtis against a homophobic bully.

After that, they keep meeting, partly by accident, partly by Riley’s design. He’s smitten, and doesn’t mind letting Curtis know. Their music brings them together – Riley’s guitar playing and Curtis’ sharp, sexy poetry are a powerful combination. But Curtis still has some unfinished business with his ex-lover that he’s struggling to handle on his own. Riley intends to be the man Curtis calls on for help, whether he likes it or not. He’ll do whatever it takes to show Curtis that people can still be trusted to be honest and caring – even if it means walking them both into danger.

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EXCERPT
© Clare London

In With A Kick now, the jangle of the door opening called Lee back to his serving duties and Curtis was able to relax again with his mug safely back on the solid ground – and gleaming surface – of the table top. But he wasn’t going to be able to, was he? Relax, that is. There were calls and deliveries to be made today, same as always, but he didn’t have the usual stamina for the job.

His fingers played with the phone in his pocket, without taking it out. He hadn’t needed to answer the night-time calls to know who they were from, but he just didn’t want to listen. Life had been getting back on track for him. He had steady work, a nice little network of local clients, plenty of friends and a place to live. Although he worked as many hours as he could, he still had time to have fun. And now…fuck it, he wasn’t going to let anything spoil that. His dad had always told him not to whine, not to make a fuss. Curtis got a back-handed slap if he did. But that wasn’t the same as realising what he deserved in life – and what he didn’t – and making sure that came to him. Was it?

But he couldn’t seem to shake off the roiling feeling in his gut.

“Hi,” said a voice from the other side of his table.

Startled, Curtis looked up. Riley, the cowboy from yesterday’s Prawn Incident, as Curtis now thought of it, was looking down on him and smiling. He had the same strong features, the same sparkling eyes, the same comfortable-looking overcoat – even the same bloody hat. Perhaps he slept in it. Curtis bit back a yawn, wishing he just slept.

“Hi,” he said back. The all-purpose greeting would have to do. Though he didn’t think the sudden increased activity in his heartbeat had anything to do with polite niceties.

“You working today?” Riley asked.

“Yeah, but I’m just…” What? What was he just doing? Drinking tea very slowly, struggling to keep his eyes open, and trying to ignore a sick feeling in the bottom of his gut? “Just taking a break,” he finished, lamely. “What about you, Riley Richmond? Made your fortune yesterday and taking early retirement?”

Riley raised his eyebrows. Curtis could hardly see them under the brim of the hat, but it made Riley look kind of mysterious. “Gonna take more than a few days’ playing, I think. Received some constructive customer feedback, y’know? I’m rethinking my playlist.”

“Smart move.” Curtis grinned and gestured for Riley to join him.

“Thanks.” Riley seemed to have been waiting for the invitation. Curtis found that rather pleasantly old-fashioned. Riley slipped off his coat, draped it onto the back of the chair and sat down.

“Are you on your way to the hotel?” Curtis eyed Riley’s clothes. Not as smart as yesterday, just a casual denim shirt and jeans. The jeans hugged his hips and the dusty hem brushed the floor. The toes of his cowboy boots peeked out from underneath.

“Nope. I don’t work there any more.”

Curtis stared for a long moment before he spoke, but he knew at once what had happened. “You got fired?”

Riley shrugged. He didn’t look really bothered. “Guess they don’t like their staff beating up on each other. And obviously they’ve invested more in the fat pig than me.”

“But that’s crap!” Curtis felt both horrified and guilty.

“Maybe, but I’m okay with it. There’s always something new on the horizon, right?” Riley didn’t wait for an answer, swivelling around on his chair to look back at the counter, but Lee was already hurrying over to take his order. Riley asked for a tea like Curtis had, then turned back. Lee glanced at the back and breadth of Riley’s shoulders with something like awe, and winked at Curtis over Riley’s head before swinging back to work.

Curtis still felt shitty. If Riley hadn’t stuck up for him – even though Curtis never asked him to – he’d still have a job. Instead, he had to go busking. Then again, judging from Riley’s clothes, maybe he had enough money for it not to matter. Jesus, Curtis had lived hand to mouth for so long now he couldn’t imagine what it’d be like any other way. Lee bustled back with Riley’s tea, a big smirk on his face. He studiously ignored Curtis’ glare as he left the table, but cast a backward glance at Riley. There was a dazed expression on his face and a lingering, almost longing look at Riley.

“So what d’you do for a job, Curtis Wilson?” Riley took off his hat and laid it carefully on the table beside him, then ladled several spoonfuls of sugar into his tea and stirred it with enthusiasm. “Are you a music critic?”

“Enough of the sarcasm.” Curtis rolled his eyes. “I deliver stuff.”

“Like UPS?”

“Hell, no. I have my own business, and a van.” Curtis knew he let his pride seep into his words, and he didn’t care. He was proud of what he’d built up. “I deal with the small, individual jobs that big companies turn their corporate noses up at. I deliver to all the businesses around here.”

“All of ‘em?” Riley lifted an eyebrow. His voice sounded amused, though Curtis didn’t feel it was at Curtis’ expense. It just sounded like his default tone.

“Okay, you got me.” Curtis grinned. “Not all of ‘em. Most, though.”

Riley’s gaze remained on him. “I wish I did,” he said softly.

“What?”

“Wish I had got you,” Riley said, unperturbed.

Curtis didn’t know what to say, a very unfamiliar status for him. The cowboy was coming onto him, wasn’t he? There was no shyness there. Yeah, Curtis had been chatted up plenty of times, and also propositioned far more crudely. He understood all of that. But there was a gentleness in Riley’s tone that seemed to promise more than a pint and a quick fuck. It was probably just the accent. Yeah, that must be it.

Curtis liked working in London partly because there was a wide variety of people and tastes, and gay guys were plentiful. Not that he wanted to get off with them all, but he didn’t feel he stuck out like a sore thumb. It made the occasional but vicious homophobia he came across all the more shocking, but he’d learnt to roll with those punches. Now he had a different kind of punch to cope with.

“You kinda speak your mind too, don’t you?” he said.

Riley chuckled. It was a warm and very delicious sound. Curtis felt as if it physically vibrated through him. “Yeah, I do. Life’s too short to dick around.”

Curtis laughed too. “I like your language, mate.”

“So what would you say instead?”

Curtis shrugged. “Arse around. Fuck about. Mess about, if I was in company.”

Riley reached over the table and took his hand. “Yeah. Messing about works for me too.”

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