One (fake) boyfriend
Practically perfect in every way
Luc O’Donnell is tangentially—and reluctantly—famous. His rock star parents split when he was young, and the father he’s never met spent the next twenty years cruising in and out of rehab. Now that his dad’s making a comeback, Luc’s back in the public eye, and one compromising photo is enough to ruin everything.
To clean up his image, Luc has to find a nice, normal relationship…and Oliver Blackwood is as nice and normal as they come. He’s a barrister, an ethical vegetarian, and he’s never inspired a moment of scandal in his life. In other words: perfect boyfriend material. Unfortunately apart from being gay, single, and really, really in need of a date for a big event, Luc and Oliver have nothing in common. So they strike a deal to be publicity-friendly (fake) boyfriends until the dust has settled. Then they can go their separate ways and pretend it never happened.
But the thing about fake-dating is that it can feel a lot like real-dating. And that’s when you get used to someone. Start falling for them. Don’t ever want to let them go.
I’VE NEVER SEEN THE POINT of fancy dress parties. You have two choices: either you make a massive effort and wind up looking like a dick, or you make no effort and wind up looking like a dick. And my problem, as always, was not knowing what kind of dick I wanted to be.
I’d pretty much committed to the no-effort strategy. Then I’d panicked at the last minute, made an ill-fated attempt to find somewhere that sold costumes, and found myself in one of those weirdly high-streety sex shops that flog red lingerie and pink dildos to people with no real interest in either.
Which is why, when I rocked up to a party already well into the too hot, too loud, too crowded stage of its life cycle, I was wearing a pair of problematically sexualised black lace bunny ears. I swear, I used to be good at this sort of thing. But I was out of practice, and looking like a cut-rate rent boy serving a very specific fetish was not the ideal way to make a triumphant return to the scene. Worse, I’d arrived so late that all the other lonely, shit people had given up and gone home already.
Somewhere in that pit of flashy lights, bleepy music, and sweat were my actual friends. I knew that because our WhatsApp Group—currently called Queer Comes The Sun—had devolved into a hundred variations on the theme of “where the fuck is Luc.” But all I could see were people I vaguely thought vaguely knew people who vaguely knew me.
Wriggling my way to the bar, I squinted at the chalkboard listing the night’s bespoke cocktails and eventually ordered a Sloe Comfortable Conversation about Pronouns Up Against the Wall, since it seemed like it would be both nice to drink and accurately descriptive of my chances of scoring that evening. Or, indeed, ever.
I should probably explain why I was sipping on a nonbinary beverage while wearing the world’s most middle-class excuse for fetish gear in a basement in Shoreditch. But, honestly, I was beginning to wonder that myself. Basically, there’s this guy called Malcom who I know because everybody knows Malcom. I’m pretty sure he’s a stockbroker or a banker or whatever, but in the evenings—by which I mean some evenings, by which I mean about one evening a week—he DJs at this transgender/ gender-fluid club night called Surf ‘n’ Turf @ The Cellar. And tonight was his T Party. His Mad Hatter’s T Party. Because that’s Malcom.
Right now, he was at the back of the room in a purple topper, a striped tailcoat, leather trousers, and not much else, laying down what I think they call sick beats. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe that’s something nobody has ever said ever. When I was going through my club-kid phase, I didn’t even bother to ask the names of my hookups, let alone make notes on the terminology.
I sighed and turned my attention back to my Comfortable Lack of a Screw. There should really be a word for the feeling you get when you do a thing you don’t particularly want to do to support somebody else but then realise they didn’t actually need you and nobody would have noticed if you’d stayed home in your pyjamas eating Nutella straight from the jar. Anyway. That. I was feeling that. And probably I should just have left, except then I’d have been the arsehole who showed up for Malcom’s T Party, made no effort with his costume, drank an eighth of a drink, and then fucked off without talking to anybody.
Pulling out my phone, I sent a forlorn “I’m here, where are you?” message to the group only to see the clock of doom pop up beside it. Who’d have thought an event that took place literally underground and surrounded by concrete would have bad mobile phone reception?
“You do realise”—warm breath brushed my cheek—“that those ears aren’t even white?”
I turned to find a stranger standing next to me. Quite a cute stranger, with that pointy, foxy look I’ve always found weirdly charming. “Yeah, but I was late. And you’re not wearing a costume at all.”
He grinned, looking even pointier and even foxier and even more charming. Then flicked his lapel aside to reveal a sticky label that read ‘Nobody.’
“I’m guessing that’s an irritatingly obscure reference.”
“‘I only wish I had such eyes,’ the king remarked in a fretful tone, ‘to be able to see Nobody!’”
“You smug git.”
That made him laugh. “Fancy dress parties bring out the worst in me.”
It wasn’t quite the longest I’d spoken to a guy without fucking the whole thing up, but it was definitely climbing the leaderboard. What was important here was not to panic and try to protect myself by transforming into an unbearable wanker or a gargantuan manslut. “I hate to imagine who they bring out the best in.”
“Yeah, that”—another grin, another flash of his teeth—“would be Malcom.”
“Everything brings out the best in Malcom. He could make people celebrate having to pay 10p for a carrier bag.”
“Please don’t give him ideas. By the way…”—he leaned a little closer—“I’m Cam. But since you almost certainly misheard me, I’ll answer to any one-syllable name with a vowel in the middle.”
“Nice to meet you, Bob.”
“You smug git.”
Even through the strobes, I caught the glitter of his eyes. And found myself wondering what colour they were away from the shadows and artificial rainbows of the dance floor. That was a bad sign. That was perilously close to liking someone. And look where that had got me.
“You’re Luc Fleming, aren’t you?” he asked.
Why, hello other shoe. I’d been wondering when you were going to drop. Eff my effing L. “Actually,” I said, like I always said, “it’s Luc O’Donnell.”
“But you are Jon Fleming’s kid?”
“What’s it to you?”
He blinked. “Well, nothing. But when I asked Angie”—Malcom’s girlfriend, currently dressed as Alice because of course she was—“who the hot, grumpy guy was, she said, ‘Oh that’s Luc. He’s Jon Fleming’s kid.’”
I didn’t like that being the thing people told each other about me. But then again, what was the alternative? That’s Luc, his career’s in the toilet? That’s Luc, he’s not had a stable relationship in five years? That’s Luc, where did it all go wrong? “Yeah. That’s me.”
Cam folded his elbows on the bar. “This is exciting. I’ve never met anyone famous before. Should I be pretending I really like your dad or really hate your dad?”
“I’ve never even met him.” A cursory Google would have told him that, so it wasn’t like he was getting a major scoop here. “So I don’t particularly care.”
“Probably for the best because I can only remember, like, one of his songs. I think it was about having a green ribbon around his hat.”
“No, that’s Steeleye Span.”
“Oh wait. Jon Fleming’s Rights of Man.”
“Yeah, but I can see how you got them confused.”
He gave me a sharp look. “They sound nothing alike, do they?”
“Well, there’s a couple of subtle differences. Steeleye’s more folk rock, whereas RoM’s more prog rock. Steeleye used a lot of violins, whereas Dad’s a flautist. Also, the lead singer of Steeleye Span is a woman.”
“Okay”—he flicked another smile at me, less abashed than I would have been in his position—“so I don’t know what I’m talking about. My dad’s a big fan though. He’s got all the records.
Keeps them in the attic with the bell bottoms he hasn’t been able to get into since 1979.”
It was beginning to sink in that, about eight million years ago, Cam had described me as hot and grumpy. Except, right now, it was clearly 80/20 in favour of grumpy. “Everyone’s dad’s a fan of my dad.”
“That must mess with your head.”
“And it must be even weirder with the TV thing.”
“Kind of.” I poked listlessly at my drink. “I get recognised more, but ‘Hey, your dad’s that guy off that stupid talent show’ is marginally better than ‘Hey, your dad’s that guy who was in the news last week for headbutting a policeman, then vomiting on a judge while off his face on heroin and Toilet Duck.’”
“At least it’s interesting. The most scandalous thing my dad’s ever done was shake a bottle of ketchup without realising the lid was off.”
I laughed in spite of myself.
“I can’t believe you’re giggling at my childhood trauma. The kitchen looked like something out of Hannibal. Mum still brings it up every time she’s annoyed, even if it’s not actually Dad she’s annoyed at.”
“Yeah, my mum brings up my dad when I piss her off as well. Except it’s less ‘This is just like the time your father got a tomatoey condiment all over the kitchen’ and more ‘This is just like the time your father said he’d come home for my birthday, but instead he stayed in LA snorting cocaine off a prostitute’s breasts.’”
Cam blinked. “Eeesh.”
Shit. Half a cocktail and a pretty smile, and I was singing like a lovable urchin on a barricade in France. This was the sort of stuff that ended up in the papers. Jon Fleming’s Other Secret Coke Shame. Or maybe Like Father, Like Son: Jon Fleming Junior’s Childhood Behaviour Compared to Father’s Drug-Fuelled Rampages. Or worst of all, Still Crazy after All These Years: Odile O’Donnell Rages at Son about ’80s Fleming Hooker Binge. This was why I should never leave the house. Or talk to humans. Especially not humans I wanted to like me.
“Listen,” I said, with zero poker face, despite knowing how badly this could go wrong, “my mum’s a really good person, and she brought me up on her own, and has gone through a lot so… like…can you please forget I said that?”
He gave me the type of look you give someone when you’re mentally shifting them from the box that says “attractive” to the box that says “weird.” “I’m not going to tell her. I don’t even know her. And, yes, I might have come over to hit on you, but we’re quite a long way from meeting the parents.”
“Sorry. Sorry. I…I’m just protective of her.”
“And you think she needs to be protected from random guys you meet in bars?”
Well, I’d ruined this. Because the answer was basically “Yes, in case you go to the tabloids, because that’s a thing that actually happens to me,” but I couldn’t tell him without putting the idea in his head. I mean, assuming it wasn’t there already, and he wasn’t playing me like a flute or a fiddle, depending which ’70s band he thought I was in. So that left option B: Allow this funny, sexy man I’d like to at least try for a one-night stand with to believe I was a paranoid creep who spent way too much time thinking about his mother.
“Um.” I swallowed, feeling about as desirable as a roadkill sandwich. “Can we go back to the bit where you’d come over to hit on me?”
There was a longer silence than I would have liked. Then Cam smiled—if slightly warily. “Sure.”
“So,” I tried. “This hitting-on-me thing you’re doing. I’ve got to say it’s pretty minimalist.”
“Well, my original plan was to, y’know, try to talk to you a bit and see how it went, and then maybe try to kiss you or something. But you kind of torpedoed that strategy. So now I don’t know what to do.”
I drooped. “I’m sorry. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just really bad at…” I tried to find a word that properly encapsulated my recent dating history “…everything.”
Perhaps I was imagining it, but I could almost see Cam deciding whether or not he could be arsed with me. To my mild surprise, he seemed to come down on the side of arsed.
“Everything?” he repeated, and tweaked the tip of my bunny ear in a fashion I chose to interpret as encouraging.
This was a good sign, right? This had to be a good sign. Or was it a terrible sign? What was wrong with him that he wasn’t running away screaming right now? Okay. No. I was in my head, and that was the worst place for anyone to be, especially me, and I needed to say something light and flirty and right the fuck now. “I might be okay at the kissing.”
“Mmm.” Cam leaned in a little further. Holy shit, he was actually going for this? “I’m not sure I trust your judgment. Perhaps I’d better check for myself.”
“Um. All right?”
So he checked for himself. And I was okay at the kissing. I mean, I thought I was okay at the kissing. God, I hope I was okay at the kissing.
“Well?” I asked a moment later, sounding relaxed, playful, and not at all desperate and insecure.
His face was close enough that I could see all the tantalising details, like the thickness of his eyelashes, the beginnings of stubble along his jaw, and the crinkles at the corners of his lips. “I’m not sure I can draw an accurate conclusion from a single data point.”
We expanded the data set. And by the time we were done, he had me pressed up against the corner of the bar, and my hands were tucked into the back pockets of his jeans in a really half-arsed attempt to pretend I wasn’t blatantly feeling him up. Which was when I remembered that he knew my name, and my dad’s name, and probably my mum’s name, and quite possibly everything that had ever been written about me, and all I had in return was that he was called “Cam” and tasted nice.
“Are you?” I said, breathlessly. And in response to his confused look, “You know, sciencey. You don’t look sciencey.”
“Oh. No.” He grinned, all foxy and delicious. “That was just an excuse to keep kissing you.”
“What do you do, then?”
“I freelance, mainly for sites that wish they were BuzzFeed.”
I knew it. I fucking knew it. He had been far too eager to overlook my many, many flaws. “You’re a journalist.”
“That’s a pretty generous term for it. I write those lists of x things about y where you won’t believe z that everybody hates but seem to read anyway.”
Twelve Things You Didn’t Know About Luc O’Donnell. Number Eight Will Shock You.
“And, sometimes, I make those quizzes where it’s like pick eight pictures of kittens, and we’ll tell you which John Hughes character you are.”
The rational version of Luc, the one from the parallel universe where my dad wasn’t a famous shithead and my ex-boyfriend hadn’t sold all my secrets to Piers Morgan, tried to tell me I was overreacting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t listening.
Cam tilted his head quizzically. “What’s wrong? Look, I know it’s not exactly a sexy job, and I don’t even have the comfort of saying ‘Someone has to do it’ because we totally don’t. But you’ve gone weird again.”
“Complicated can be interesting.” He went up on tiptoes to smooth a lock of hair behind my ear for me. “And we’ve got the kissing down. We’ve just got to work on the talking.”
I gave what I hoped wasn’t a sickly grin. “I’d rather stick with what I’m good at.”
“Tell you what. I’ll ask you a question, and if I like the answer, you get to kiss me again.”
“Um, I’m not sure—”
“Let’s start small. You know what I do. How about you?”
My heart was racing. And not in a fun way. But, as questions went, that was harmless, right? It was information at least two hundred spambots already had. “I work for a charity.”
“Wow. Noble. I’d say I’d always wanted to do something like that, but I’m far too shallow.” He turned his face up to mine, and I kissed him nervously. “Favourite ice cream flavour?”
“Mint choc chip.”
Another kiss. “Book that literally everyone else has read but you haven’t.”
“All of them.”
He drew back. “You’re not getting kissed for that. It’s a total cop-out.”
“No seriously. All of them, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Dickens ever wrote, All Quiet on the Western Front, that one about the time-traveller’s wife, Harry Potter…”
“You really do own your illiteracy, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m thinking about moving to America and running for public office.”
He laughed and kissed me, staying close this time, body pressed to mine, breath against my skin. “Okay. Weirdest place you’ve ever had sex.”
“Is that for number eight?” I asked, with a bleaty laugh that was meant to show I was incredibly cool and unconcerned.
“Number eight what?”
“You know, twelve celebrities’ kids who like to fuck in weird places. Number eight will shock you.”
“Wait.” He froze. “Do you honestly think I’m kissing you for a listicle?”
“No. I mean…no. No.”
He gazed at me for a long, horrible moment. “You do, don’t you?”
“I told you it was complicated.”
“That’s not complicated, that’s insulting.”
“I… It’s…” I’d pulled this back before. I could pull it back again. “It wasn’t meant to be. It’s not about you.”
This time, there was no ear tweaking. “How is it not about me if you genuinely have this concern about my possible behaviour?”
“I just have to be careful.” For the record, I sounded extremely dignified when I said this. And not at all pathetic.
“What the hell would I even write? I Met a Has-Been’s Kid at a Party? Celebrity’s Gay Son Is Gay Shock?”
“Well, it sounds like it’d be a step up from what you usually write.”
His mouth fell open, and I realised I might have gone the tiniest bit too far. “Wow. I was about to say I wasn’t sure which of us was the arsehole here, but thanks for clearing that up.”
“No, no,” I said quickly, “it was always me. Trust me, I know.”
“Really not sure that helps. I mean, I can’t figure out what’s worse. That you think I’d fuck a mildly famous person to get ahead. Or that you think if I was going to make such a profoundly degrading career choice, the person I’d pick to make it with was you.”
I swallowed. “All good points. Very well made.”
“Shit on a hot tin roof, I should have listened to Angie. You are a world of not worth it.”
He stalked off into the crowd, presumably to find someone less fucked up, leaving me alone with my lopsided bunny ears and a profound sense of personal failure. Although I guess I’d accomplished two things tonight: I’d successfully demonstrated my support for a man who in no way needed it, and I’d finally proved beyond all reasonable objection that nobody in their right mind would date me. I was a cagey, grumpy, paranoid mess who would find a way to ruin even the most basic human interaction.
I leaned against the bar and stared at the basement full of strangers having a far better time than me, at least two of whom were probably having a conversation right now about what a terrible human being I was. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could suck it up, act like an adult, find my actual friends, and try to make the best of the evening. Or I could run home, drink alone, and add this to the list of things I was unsuccessfully pretending had never happened.
Two seconds later, I was on the stairs.
Eight seconds later, I was out in the street.
And nineteen seconds later, I was tripping over my own feet and landing flat on my face in the gutter.
Well, wasn’t that just the ill-fitting crown on my inbred Hapsburg prince of an evening? And no way was it coming back to haunt me.