Rising from London’s busy River Thames, the maritime metropolitan symphony combined with the constant rumble of Friday evening traffic from surrounding roads reverberated around the rooftop garden. Add to that the rapid gunfire of rotor blades from a helicopter passing overhead, and, as impossible as it may have seemed, Spencer Wyrrell overheard every perfectly enunciated word.
Bundled up on a two-seater stone bench tucked away in the corner of Muriel Moresby’s penthouse roof garden, he had been alone when he’d first ventured out through the glass door some fifteen minutes before. Nobody else had been courageous enough to brave the bitterly cold weather, not even diehard smokers. Thankfully, floor-to-ceiling vertical blinds in slate grey covered the windows, closing off the toasty penthouse interior from the small garden of concrete statues and evergreen flora.
Freezing his arse off in the brutal late October air, Spencer’s original sparkling masterplan had quickly begun to lose its gleam. Placed next to him, an ice bucket stacked with unmelted ice cubes, an open bottle of vintage Dom Perignon and two crystal flutes awaited the arrival of his partner in crime, colleague Bev. After two hours of helping things run smoothly in the socially distanced exhibition, she had volunteered him to smuggle out the bottle while she finished off schmoozing friends of their boss, the snooty investment banking couple with the matching Versace face masks. Initially they had approached him about three of the paintings for sale, and after he had matched them up with the artist to secure the deal, Bev had taken over. Having managed to avoid any of the other waiting guests, he thought he’d won the better part of the bargain. He was certainly grateful to be away from earnest discussions about abstract artwork that, frankly, he had no idea about or interest in.
And when the patio door had slid open—after the lenses of his glasses had finally de-misted—the person stepping through had been not Bev but someone entirely unexpected. A someone who had peered around furtively to make sure he was alone before removing his mask and pulling out his smartphone.
And there Spencer sat, slowly turning into a human ice popsicle. All he wanted now was to be somewhere else, preferably warmer—the Caribbean might be nice—instead of sitting hugging himself, scrunched up and cowering behind a tall concrete jardinière, wishing the earth would swallow him whole. Or perhaps a sudden time corridor would open up and he could be transported back thirty minutes to before he’d made the imprudent decision to step outside. And definitely before he’d inadvertently overheard the telephone conversation of the smoking-hot celebrity, Marshall J. Highlander.
“Am I speaking in foreign tongues?” came the stern but sexy voice again, a deep baritone and eminently listenable. “As I’ve told you already. No comment. Which of those two words are you having difficulty with?”
Unable to help himself, Spencer lowered his mask and breathed heat onto the frozen fingers of one hand before dragging down branches of the juniper bush and peering at the man’s back. Standing poised and confident, with his trademark deep brown hair styled with wisps of grey drawn back from the temple, he appeared iconic, heroic almost. In real life, his height became evident. He was significantly taller than Spencer’s five-seven. Dressed in beige woollen slacks and an expensive silk jacket of dark chocolate covering a caramel-coloured roll-neck sweater, he epitomised the type of model adorning the cover of any number of men’s fashion magazines. As Spencer watched, mesmerised, Highlander reached his free hand behind himself, fisted the back of his trouser belt, and in doing so, lifted the bottom of his jacket to showcase his magnificent arse. Unlike many big names Spencer had met—and there had been a steady stream in and out of their magazine office—Highlander looked even more stunning in the flesh. He made an effort to take care of himself, and had cultured a calm, capable, wholly masculine persona, no doubt the result of spending many hours in front of a television camera. But unlike some of those egotistical here today, gone tomorrow personalities, Highlander’s magnetism reputedly ran more than skin deep. And right now his trademark honeyed voice, which had in equal parts charmed and challenged tyrants the world over, carried a stinging warning.
“And if you print a single one, you and your newspaper will go down in flames on a Hindenburg scale, slapped with more injunctions than even your blood-sucking owner can wriggle out of. That much I promise you.”
In the silence that followed, Spencer hoped Highlander had finished and would return inside. After a few moments, he peeped through the greenery and saw the man staring out over the Thames, raising the phone to his ear once again.
“Darcy. Hi. I’m good. Well, actually, no, I’m not. Look, I just had that little shit of a hack Wentworth from the Tribute on the phone. They have photos of Joe and me in the south of France from five years ago. Explicit, he says. Threatening to go to print Sunday. They’re obviously desperate for news right now. Yes, I’m fully aware of that. No, of course I didn’t, and before you ask, there is no way Joe would have… No, Darce. Joe would never do that to me. He’s not like that. Because I do. Okay, okay, I’ll call him. But in the meantime, what do you suggest I—? Would you? I was hoping you’d say that. You’re a sweetheart. I knew I could count on you. Sorry, say that again. Oh, at some art exhibit and benefit for Mongolian orphans. Muriel Moresby’s place. We’re being herded around two-by-two like Noah’s bloody ark. Crowd’s as dull as a duchess, but I know the charity organisers personally. Probably sneak out soon. No, it’s okay, I’ll get a black cab. You don’t need to do that. Okay then, if you’re sure. A chat and a drink would be wonderful. It’s on the Embankment overlooking the river. I’ll text the full address. See you in an hour. Bye, Darce. And thanks again.”
Spencer let the branch go, hoping Highlander had finished. But he felt intrigued at what he’d overheard. Highlander was gay? And was that common knowledge? It sounded like the poor guy had a lot on his plate right now. If only he would go inside and deal with matters. Instead, he appeared to be making another call. Spencer folded his arms across his chest to try to retain some warmth. He hadn’t wanted to come to the party in the first place. Muriel, aka Her Royal Highness, had only invited her key office staff to beef up numbers and work the room. Even the word ‘invited’ was a stretch. Refusal or prior engagement excuses would not have been tolerated.
“Joey. Yes. No, it’s not about that. Look, I need to ask. Did you sell photographs of us to the Tribute? From our holiday in St Cezaire in France? No, I’m not accusing you, I’m asking. Did you—? There’s no need to shout! I’m just trying to figure out how they managed to get hold of—”
As Spencer watched, Highlander expelled a deep, steamy sigh and his head fell forward, his chin hitting his chest. After a few moments of silence, his voice became soft, the anguished sound tugging at Spencer’s heart.
“Why? Why would you do that, Joe? Christ, what did I do to you? Did I really hurt you that—? Joe? Joey? Shit!”
Once again, a lull came from the railing. Had the call ended? When Spencer peered over, he saw the man’s shoulders shaking and heard gentle sobs squeezing through the hand closed over Highlander’s face. Once again, Spencer prayed hard for intervention. Maybe a member of the crew of the USS Enterprise’s transporter room would randomly lock onto his coordinates and beam him somewhere—anywhere—else. Or maybe if Bev would simply stumble out onto the balcony at that moment to provide the perfect comedy movie moment, Highlander would no longer consider himself alone and would leave. When everything fell silent, Spencer relaxed against the bench. Until he heard a soft scraping sound and an uncomfortable feeling nagged at him, prompting him to take another peek.
Highlander had climbed onto the concrete ledge housing the waist-high railing, stepped across, and now stood facing out to the river—and his doom. An odd sensation overcame Spencer then. A sudden rush of calm and an overwhelming emotion he had never experienced before had him jumping up from the bench. In doing so, he dislodged a glass champagne flute from the ice bucket, which shattered on the balcony floor, causing Highlander to spin around, grabbing the railing for support.
“Please don’t,” called Spencer gently and calmly, puzzled at the strength of his voice and suddenly aware that he had ripped off his mask entirely and stood in full view of the man.
One of Highlander’s feet slipped slightly, probably due to the residual frost. Fortunately, both hands maintained their firm grasp on the railing.
“You’re such an inspiration, Mr Highlander. If you’re about to do what I think you’re doing, it would be wrong in so many ways. Please. People look up to you. I do. And what is it you said on your show? ‘No problems are insurmountable in this world. Dialogue always helps even if only to highlight and appreciate our differences.’ You said those exact words to the Dalai Lama.”
“I say a lot of things—”
“And people listen. I say a lot of things and people don’t take the blindest bit of notice. Even my cat ignores me.”
Despite the potential gravity of the situation, Highlander’s shoulders shook slightly and Spencer heard a gentle chuckle.
“Tell you what, Mr Highlander—”
“Tell you what, Marshall, come and share a glass of champagne with me. Talk to me. And if you still feel like doing what I think you’re about to do, I’ll go back inside and pretend I never saw you. Of course, I’ll also never sleep through the night again, but I’m prepared to take that gamble. How does that sound?”
Highlander had gone completely still, staring out across the Thames. Spencer experienced a tremor run down his spine even though he found he had suddenly become immune to the cold.
“I must admit I never anticipated having an audience.”
“You won’t as long as you get down and join me now.”
“And you’re not going to cuff me, are you?”
“If I had handcuffs,” said Spencer, his mouth working independently of his brain, “and I promise you I don’t, I’d be using them to secure you to the bedposts of the metal bedframe in my bedroom, once I’d hauled you back to my flat, to cover your naked body in orange marmalade and whipped cream before having my wicked way with you.”
This time Highlander turned sharply to take in Spencer, a look of disbelief on his face, before letting out loud, steamy laughter into the night. He had a nice laugh, Spencer realised, not something the public got to hear often on his high-minded programme.
“Do you talk to everyone this way?”
“Just drop-dead gorgeous celebrities,” said Spencer, before placing fingers over his mouth, realising his terrible choice of adjectives given the situation.
After a few more moments of silence and after a deep heartfelt sigh, Highlander turned and began to climb back over the balcony. When Spencer moved forward to assist, Highlander held a hand palm up, warning Spencer away. Cooperating reluctantly, Spencer backed up a step.
As soon as Highlander stood on firm ground, Spencer rushed forward and threw his arms around him, held him tightly in a hug and buried his face in his chest. Without warning, sobs began to rise from inside Spencer, his body trembling, and in an odd turn of events, Highlander became the one comforting him.
“Hey, hey,” came the warm voice, a hand rubbing his back. “If it’s any consolation, I wouldn’t have done anything. But sometimes I find an inner calm reminding myself of my impermanence. Consider it a momentary lapse in sanity.”
Spencer barely listened, his head buried in the shoulder of Highlander’s jacket, smelling the beautiful combination of spicy aftershave and skin.
“Who are you?” asked Highlander, gently pulling Spencer away from him and holding him at arm’s length while Spencer swiped quickly at his eyes.
“People call me Squirrel.”
“Why? Let me guess. Something to do with you being nuts?”
“Wow, that’s original,” said Spencer, straight-faced. Fortunately, he’d begun to calm down and enjoy Highlander’s—Marshall’s—fond scrutiny. Except now he also began to feel a little self-conscious at his teary display. “Not heard that like a zillion times before.”
“Now I think somewhere in your earlier appeal you promised me a glass of bubbly?”
“Okay, but can we please step away from the railing? Maybe sit down? But mind the broken glass on the floor. I dropped a champagne flute.”
Spencer moved across to the bench hidden behind the large bush. Spencer waited for Marshall to join him. Without being asked, he poured champagne and handed the glass over.
“Did you want something to eat? I could pop in and grab a tray of finger food.”
“I’ll pass, thanks. Champagne is enough. And the food didn’t look terribly appetising.”
“I know, right? Even my mother could do better, and she’s the world’s worst cook.”
“That’s a tad unkind.”
“It’s true, though. I remember coming home from summer camp once and my dad catching me at the door and saying ‘we had a lovely leg of lamb while you were away. Until your mother cooked it.’”
Marshall laughed again, and Spencer felt himself calming a little more.
“How long have you been out here?” asked Marshall, taking a good gulp then handing the champagne back to Spencer.
“About forty frozen minutes. A little before you appeared.”
Spencer took a sip before topping up and raising the glass to Marshall. As he handed the glass over, he pondered the rules on sharing drinks given the pandemic but then shrugged them away. If the man sitting with him had just survived a crisis of self, he could survive a shared glass of bubbly.
“Did you catch any of my conversations?” came the famous voice.
“I did,” said Spencer, feeling his face burning but keeping his eyes on the man. “Not much. I mean, don’t worry. I wouldn’t dare breathe a word.”
“Shit,” said Highlander, turning away and sighing out a cloud of steamy breath.
“No, really, Mr High—Marshall.”
Marshall’s attention returned, his eyes looking deep into Spencer’s. After a few moments, his gaze softened and he relaxed.
“No, you wouldn’t, would you? You’re one of those kind souls that people in my profession rarely get to meet. So what do you do, Squirrel? Shit, I can’t call you Squirrel. It doesn’t feel right. What’s your real name?”
“Spencer. Spencer Kenneth Wyrrell. S. K. Wyrrell. Hence, Squirrel. School was brutal. I’m not sure my parents even realised when they named me.”
Once again his words made Marshall chuckle, and he felt sure, or at least hoped, his dark moment had finally passed.
“What do you do for a living, Spencer?”
“I’m a junior copy and online editor. For Muriel Moresby’s magazine outfit, the Blackmore Magazine Group.”
“I know, right? I’m also the office gopher. But it’s full-time work and pays the rent. And I’m still employed despite what’s happening in the world. So I have to thank my lucky stars. Not exactly highbrow, like you, but it’s a stepping stone. Even if at twenty-nine I’m still on the first step.”
“At college I studied journalism. Once I’ve got enough editing experience under my belt, I’d really like to try out for one of the online dailies. Even though the competition’s vicious.”
“Not professionally. But I hope to, one day. In university I edited the student magazine and wrote articles. I even had a couple published by a local newspaper. And I did pretty well, too. Every person in this world, no matter how inconsequential they feel they are, should dream big. Isn’t that right?”
“Are you quoting me again?” asked Marshall, tilting his head to grin at Spencer.
“What can I say? You’re very quotable.”
And very shaggable, thought Spencer but kept that to himself. As he went to top up Marshall’s glass again, a mobile began to ring faintly. Marshall reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out his phone. He let out a soft sigh after a glance at the display and handed the champagne flute back to Spencer.
“Looks like my ride’s here,” he said, standing.
Spencer put the bottle back in the bucket and stood as well. “I hope everything works out okay for you, Marshall. And promise me you’re going to use the lift to get to the ground floor.”
Marshall appeared confused for a moment but then stared at his shoes and chuckled while shaking his head.
“You’re a funny man,” he said before looking up. “And, yes, I promise to use the elevator. Sorry I worried you earlier. Goodbye then, Spencer. It was an unexpected pleasure meeting you tonight.”
Marshall held out his hand, and Spencer fit his own inside. Marshall’s strong, warm grip closed around Squirrel’s ice-cold fingers. The simple gesture of bare skin on bare skin had his heart beating faster, his cheeks heating, and even the beast in his underpants stirring. Marshall held his gaze for a moment before leaning forward and kissing a shocked Spencer firmly on the lips. When he released his grip and stood back smiling, Spencer simply stood there, his eyes wide and mouth hanging open. An amused Marshall winked once before putting on his black surgical mask and disappearing into the penthouse apartment through the patio door.
Spencer stood staring at the dark glass, wondering what had just happened. His senses returning, he knelt to the ground and had begun clearing up the broken glass when the door slid open again. A figure stepped out carrying a flute of champagne and a large plate of canapés.
Finally. Bev, his colleague.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry, Squirrel, honey,” she said, flustered then freezing when she saw him on his hands and knees, picking up shards of glass.
“Oh poop. You started without me. Did I miss anything?”