Please welcome Brian Lancaster with
The Missing Ingredient
a Dreamspun Desires title
Sometimes it takes losing everything to realise what you had all along.
Up-and-coming London chef Marcus is poised on the edge of success, but apart from the occasional casual encounter, the only men who seem to stick around are investors. His best friend Lorraine Bradford—Raine—and her family used to keep him grounded, but a horrible accident took her life and left Marcus’s godchildren without a mother.
But if the death throws Marcus’s life into turmoil, it’s far worse for her husband, Tom—especially since she died in a car with a strange man. Tom is consumed by grief, and he shuns the help of friends. Until almost a year later, that is, when Marcus stumbles upon Tom out with his daughters and sees how far Tom has fallen. So he steps in and, bit by bit, helps them to rebuild their world until their lives return to a semblance of normality.
Then the unexpected happens: Tom confesses he has romantic feelings for Marcus, and nothing can ever be the same.
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Ten minutes later Marcus heard Tom’s soft footfalls on the stairs.
“You want a beer?” said Marcus, twisting around and yanking open the fridge door as Tom hit the bottom step. “Got a couple of cold ones in here.”
“Actually, another reason I came back is because—” said Tom, hesitating momentarily before going on. “Because I wanted a chat with you.”
“Oh, shit,” Marcus hissed, two bottles of Asahi in one hand, and quietly closed the fridge door shut, his face falling. “What have I done now?”
Tom appeared genuinely mystified.
“Sorry?” he said, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Whenever you want to chat with me, it usually means you’re either going to tell me to fuck off or back off.”
“No, I—” said Tom, his eyebrows scrunched up in confusion, before he deflated with a sigh and gently shook his head. “Is that what you think? Hell, have I really been that much of a dick? After everything you’ve done for us, for me?”
“You’re not a dick, Tom. But you can be bloody stubborn at times. Beer?”
Tom ambled over and took the proffered beer bottle, twisted the lid, and took a long draft. Afterward, visibly relaxing, he perched on the barstool. Marcus went and joined him, leaving a sizable distance between them.
“What I meant was, I don’t get to hang out with you anymore. And I know that’s what I asked for, but in all honesty, I miss it, I miss our little chats.”
“Yes, well, whose fault is that?”
Marcus relaxed too, then leaned forward to clink the neck of his bottle with Tom’s. “Well, if it’s any consolation, Tom, I miss our grown-up time together too.”
And it suddenly dawned on Marcus how much he really had missed just chatting to Tom. If only he could master his infatuation. Maybe now would be a good time to win some points in the friends stakes, tell Tom about Damian Stone, tell him what they had found out. But while the thoughts swirled around in his head, Tom had started talking.
“I really do like that shirt on you, Marcus. Is it cotton?”
“Egyptian cotton,” said Marcus absently.
“Looks comfortable. Mind if I...?” Tom held a hand out as if waiting for permission to touch the material.
“Sure. Knock yourself out.”
Tom reached across the distance and pinched the material beneath Marcus’s collar between his thumb and forefinger.
“This Indian tailor round the back of Edgware Road makes them for me. Has done for a couple of years. If you want, I can—”
When Marcus raised his eyes to meet Tom’s, all thoughts left him, the dark heat in that gaze blistering. A sudden memory came back, of Tom sitting on the garden rug, staring angrily at him. Except it had not been anger at all but lust. Instinctively he inhaled a deep breath as Tom fisted the shirt and pulled Marcus out of his chair toward him. Even as Tom brought their mouths together, Marcus hesitated, fully expecting him to recoil, to reevaluate in disgust what he had initiated. But the moment never came. Closemouthed lips pressed onto Marcus’s own—firm, urgent, yet still a little unsure. And then, a second later, the essence of Tom Bradford hit Marcus hard, spicy aftershave mixed with Tom’s natural body scent and heat, so masculine, intoxicating and addictive. Instinctively Marcus’s arms found their way around Tom’s neck and he stepped into the man’s body, molding himself into the embrace. When he pushed his tongue between Tom’s lips, forcing them to part, Marcus took control of the kiss, touching, stroking, exploring, snaking his own tongue around Tom’s. In response, Tom shuddered and released a deep moan, before lifting Marcus off the floor and walking him backward until he had him pinned up against the fridge door. Breathless, Marcus pulled his mouth away.
“Well. That’s one mystery solved,” whispered Tom as he lowered Marcus back to earth, his lips tickling Marcus’s ear.
“What do you mean?”
“I wondered if my attraction to you was all in my head” came Tom’s husky voice before he thrust his substantial rock-hard groin into Marcus’s own arousal.
Author note: This scene was deleted due to the darker nature of the subject matter – the funeral – which the publisher thought unnecessary, and also the removal of Lorraine’s sister, Christine, from the story.
Awash with almost invisible rain puddles, the glossy black and white mosaic tiling of St Joseph’s Church atrium was an accident waiting to happen. Without thinking, Marcus added to the hazard by shaking out his black umbrella inside. One step down and his brand new leather soled shoe slipped from under him. In the nick of time, his free hand thumped down and braced itself on the edge of a solid oak cabinet preventing him from tumbling. More out of embarrassment than anything, he cast a nervous glance and added a grin for the benefit of the stout attendant as he righted himself.
“Service has started,” said the unsmiling woman. Dressed in a black ensemble of voluminous faux-silk blouse, woolen tights and over-tight nylon skirt she looked like an assassin.
As if he needed the reminder. Rushing made him otherwise careless, but punctuality nagged him, his own more than anything. Which explained why he wore brand new black wing tips purchased from the branch of Bellucci’s in the departure lounge of JFK airport. Taking a few steadying breaths, he stood still a moment shaking out the collar of his charcoal suit jacket and wiggling blood back into his toes crammed into too tight shoes. Gradually he became aware of the unique quietude, the thick stillness of air unique to churches. In the breast pocket, his work phone vibrated against his ribcage, nagging him to respond. With the five hour time difference between New York and London, Tina would just be waking up. While he had still been in a daze, she had managed to get him on the first flight home, even helping him to pack his bags and shoving him into a taxi. As far as the meetings were concerned, he would have to trust her to handle them, which he did without hesitation.
From beyond the vestibule doors, an amplified voice, deep and male and vaguely recognizable, echoed mournfully. With a quick apologetic smile to the attendant he collected a copy of the Order of Service and entered the church. Once inside, and without a sound, he slid into the empty back pew and melted into the congregation.
Settled against the hardwood seating, he pressed a white folded handkerchief over his nose and mouth, as though to dab the sweat on his upper lip. Weddings, christenings and funerals. Three fundamental life events brought Marcus to these medieval places—each one reluctantly—with their timeless and ubiquitous mélange of lilies, beeswax and musty hymn books. An involuntary shiver rattled through him. Breaking the stillness, a sudden squall rattled the stained glass windows along the west side of the structure causing a handful of heads to turn. But nothing could distract the speaker. There at the front of the church, standing on a raised bema to one side of a polished oak coffin containing his wife, Tom Bradford read from a single sheet of paper that trembled in his hand. Unlike the unshakeable man Marcus had come to know, his words came out stilted and awkward, unemotional—robotic almost. Poor Tom hated making speeches at the best of times. And this was definitely the worst. A sea of blacks hats and bare heads bobbed with barely restrained grief.
The other side of the coffin, on a carefully arranged easel, stood the portrait sized photograph of Raine, beautiful and candid, the one taken by a professional photographer friend of Marcus. Except for Tom, nobody in the church knew the whole story behind the picture, that the photographer had only been called to take pictures of the girls, but had taken the photograph as Raine stood by and watched smiling as her older daughter fixed the younger’s hair clip. Beatific, Marcus had called the shot, which usually caused Raine to roll her eyes. But on this occasion, Tom had agreed and went ahead and got the photograph enlarged and framed.
Tom. Since Moira’s call, Marcus had tried calling him repeatedly, from the airport, even from the plane. Postponing appointments and supported by Tina, he had caught the red eye back to London. Unsure of grieving protocols, he had left voice messages, texts and emails asking Tom to let him know if there was anything he could do. He put down the silence from the man he counted among one of his friends as him being traumatized by grief. Perhaps he needed the focused support of immediate family right now. What did Marcus know? With both grandparents in remarkable health and his parents appearing to be following the same trend, he had never lost anyone close. Until now. So being Lorraine’s best male friend since childhood, he would have liked to have paid his respects, maybe even have been given the chance to read a eulogy. Not that it really mattered. But it would have been nice to have been asked, would have been cathartic.
On the dais, Tom stopped speaking and descended stiffly to the front bench where his two young daughters sat to the right of Tom’s mother. Marcus bristled slightly to see Lorraine’s only sibling, Christine, sitting on the woman’s left, as if she had ever been anything to the family. Tom lowered himself into the empty space at the end of the row between the girls and next to his father, John, who sat in his wheelchair in the aisle. When John placed a steadying hand across his son’s shoulders, tears stung Marcus’ eyes. And the poor girls. Too young to understand the implications of their mother’s death, at seven Katie would fare much worse. More like her father, she took things to heart. Like him, her sensitivity and seriousness could often be mistaken for sullenness.
At the front of the church, the vicar brought the congregation to their feet to sing a hymn, a popular one and Lorraine’s favorite based on Psalm 23: The Lord Is My Shepherd.
With everyone standing, Marcus could not help but scan the aisles. A lot of Tom’s work colleagues and football chums had turned out, some he knew with their wives and girlfriends, some on their own. As he mouthed the hymn without issuing a sound, Marcus found himself checking out a few of the single men. Blond haired Mickey, Tom’s foreman, there with his mum. Built like a superhero but with the face of a cherub, something about him had always attracted Marcus. But Raine had warned him off, said Mickey preferred the ladies but was waiting for little miss right. And then there was ginger-haired Jamie, certified gay, who he’d met all those years ago, a reformed smoker now, with his tightly cropped ginger hair, pale complexion with both arms tattooed, sadly a traffic warden by day rather than the military persona he presented to the world. At that moment Tom turned, caught his eye and frowned as though hearing his thoughts. Marcus instantly reined himself in. What the hell was he doing eyeballing talent at his best friend’s funeral?
At the end of the service, while Albonini’s adagio in G minor echoed around the walls of the church, Tom and three of his colleagues shouldered the coffin slowly down the center aisle. Marcus kept his head bowed in respect as they passed him by, out into the day. Oddly enough, Lorraine’s sister, Christine, caught his eye first. She seemed surprised, perhaps a little fearful at seeing him. But why? She definitely wanted to say something, but instead pointed a finger to the door, mouthed the word ‘outside’.
In the grey day, under a web of umbrellas, over a hundred people milled around the array of flowers that had been sent, while the men loaded the coffin into the back of the hearse. Marcus sought out his own arrangement organized by Tina and with the simple words, 'Raine, best friend forever'. But one huge arrangement stood above all the others and no doubt tugged hard at everyone hearts the way it did Marcus', entitled simply: Mummy. As soon as he had seen enough, he tried to find Christine but she appeared to have moved off already. People had started the long stroll to the cemetery now—a new part of the church grounds that stood half a mile away. Only close relatives took cars. As Marcus turned the corner following the rest of the mourners, he saw Tom and the girls, and felt a moment of relief when the man held up a gloved hand and beckoned him over. Within earshot, Marcus heard Tom giving instructions to his eldest.
“Take your sister and go sit in the back of the car with gran and grandpa.”
“But Daddy. You told Charlotte she could pick flowers from under the tree."
"Another time, Katie. Be a good girl and do as daddy says."
Marcus approached as Tom watched carefully while Katie dutifully led her sister away in silence. Marcus would have liked to have said hello to the girls. Maybe later back at the house.
When they were almost at the car, Tom turned briefly to Marcus but neither met nor acknowledged his sympathetic gaze, before rechecking the progress of his daughters. Stoic and impassive, and typical of the man, only the taut skin of his face gave away any emotion. Marcus winced inwardly, unable to imagine the depths of hurt churning beneath the mask.
"Tom, I— God, I can't begin to tell you how sorry I am. If there’s anything I can do to help. Anything—“
Still observing his daughters as they headed off, Tom cut him short.
"You need to give us some time.”
"Give us some time to get our lives back in order, to heal.”
“You asked me if there’s anything you can do. And I’m telling you. Can you do that for us, Marcus?”
“Yes,” said Marcus, feeling suddenly empty and powerless. “Yes, of course.”
When Tom swung around without another word and marched off towards the waiting limousine, Marcus steadied himself for a second with the palm of one hand clutching the top of a cold tombstone.
A coldness reflected in what filled his insides, on the day he’d not only lost his best friend, but her whole family.
About the author:
BRIAN LANCASTER is an author of gay romantic fiction in multiple genres, including contemporary, paranormal, fantasy, crime, mystery, and anything else his muse provides. Born in the sleepy South of England, the setting of many of his stories, he moved to Southeast Asia in 1998, where he shares a home with his longtime partner and two of the laziest cats on the planet.
Brian Lancaster once believed that writing gay romantic fiction would be easy and cathartic. He also believed in Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant. At least he still has fantasies about those two.
Born in the rural South of England in a town with its own clock tower and cricket pitch, he moved to Hong Kong in 1998. Life went from calm and curious to fast and furious. On the upside, the people he has since met provide inspiration for a whole new cast of characters in his stories. He also has his long-term, long-suffering partner and two cats to keep him grounded.
After winning two short story competitions in 2006 and being published in a compendium, he decided to dive into writing full- length novels. Diving proved to be easy; the challenge has been in treading water and trying to remain afloat. Cynical enough to be classed a curable romantic, he is not seeking an antidote. When not working or writing, he enjoys acting in community theater productions, composing music, hosting pub quizzes, and any socializing that involves Chardonnay. And for the record, he would like to remind all those self-righteous white wine drinkers that White Burgundy, Chablis, and Champagne are still essentially Chardonnays.
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