There are lots of things that brighten Joel’s life. His three-year-old daughter, Evie, is one. His close relationship with her mother, his best friend from university, is another. Joel’s boyfriend, Dan, adds spice to his child-free nights, and Joel is pretty happy with how things are.
Then one cold and rainy night, everything changes. Joel’s life is turned upside down when he becomes a full-time dad to Evie, and his previously carefree relationship with Dan cracks under the strain.
Meeting Liam, who acts as if getting hurt isn’t a foregone conclusion, shakes Joel to the core. Their attraction is mutual, and Liam makes no secret of how serious he is about Joel. But Joel is wary. He tells himself he’s keeping Liam at a distance for Evie’s sake, when really he’s protecting his own heart. Taking a chance on this new relationship with Liam may seem a small step—a little thing—but is it one Joel can take after losing so much already?
OEL’S PHONE buzzed in his jacket pocket, and without breaking his stride, he pulled it out to read. He was in a hurry because the bloody staff meeting had run over as usual.
He grinned at the words on the screen.
There’s a guy in the shop whose arse reminds me of yours. Feeling horny now. I miss u.
Dan was always horny, but Joel definitely wasn’t complaining about that. He enjoyed the random texts Dan sent during the day, although it wasn’t always a good idea to read them when he was at work. He never knew whether they would be dirty or not, so it was better to be cautious, and anyway, he wasn’t supposed to use his phone while teaching, of course.
Joel paused while he typed back. Me too. Looking fwd to tomorrow. I’ll call u later x
He picked up his pace, scuffing through the fallen leaves on the pavement, the browns and dull oranges brightened by an occasional flash of red. Maybe he should have taken the car today, but Joel enjoyed the walk to work on the days he had Evie. He liked the exercise and the time to be alone with his thoughts after dropping her off in the morning, and the time to unwind and get out of teacher mode after leaving his job at Bishopston Grammar in the afternoon.
He made it to her nursery just five minutes after he was supposed to pick her up.
“Daddy!” Evie beamed and launched herself at his knees. He crouched down to hug and kiss her. She clung to him, and the familiar sweet scent of his daughter filled his nostrils—baby shampoo, laundry detergent, and the warm reassurance that was pure Evie beneath the layers.
“I’m so sorry….” He straightened up, holding Evie’s hand as he started to make his apologies to Yasmin, Evie’s key worker. “Meeting ran over again.”
“No worries,” Yasmin assured him with a grin, her dark eyes kind in her smooth brown face. “I can always put up with five more minutes of this one, can’t I, Evie?” Yasmin smiled down at the little girl. “She’s no trouble. Now, look after your daddy on the way home, Evie, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Evie beamed, her mother’s blue eyes a striking contrast against her dark lashes, and she waved a mitten-clad hand. “Bye-bye.”
Joel tugged Evie’s woolly hat down over her dark curls. The color was all him. Joel’s hair was a dark brown that matched his eyes. Claire was fair, but the curls were from her side. Joel’s hair had been poker straight when he’d let it grow as a teen. But now he wore it cropped close to his head, a silky dark cap that he tended to run his palms over absently in times of concentration.
“Come on, then, Trouble.” Yasmin held the heavy door for them as Joel made his way through, holding Evie’s hand in one of his and her bag in the other. On his back, he carried his rucksack. It wasn’t too full today because he’d had some free periods, so he’d managed to get most of his marking done at school. “Let’s get moving. Bye, Yasmin. Thank you.”
“Thank you for having me,” Evie called back over her shoulder. Joel and Yasmin looked at each other and grinned.
“My pleasure, Sweetie,” Yasmin replied.
When Claire had Evie, Joel usually cycled to work, unless he had too many books to carry or vile weather forced him to take the car. But on Evie days, Joel enjoyed the opportunity to chat with his daughter after the usual frantic rush of getting them both ready and out of the door. The walk between his flat and her nursery was only a short one, easy for Evie’s three-year-old legs to manage. Once he’d dropped Evie off, he could pick up his pace for the longer walk to his school. If he went quickly, it took less than half an hour.
Joel liked the feel of Evie’s small hand in his larger one as they walked side by side. He was enchanted by the way she stopped and took notice of things he would have passed by without a second thought—a spider’s web starred with dew stretched out in someone’s hedge, for instance, or the slow and unremarkable progress of a snail inching up a garden wall. Joel always made sure they left in plenty of time so they could go at Evie-pace.
Predictably, Evie only made it halfway home today before deciding she was too tired to walk. Joel gave in quickly, knowing from experience that if he refused to carry her, she’d probably sit down on the pavement and whine until he did.
“Up you come.” He heaved her up onto his shoulders as she crowed with delight and wrapped her arms around his head. “Evie, I do need to be able to see where I’m going.” She moved her hands, covering his ears with the tickly wool of her mittens. “Better, but now I won’t be able to hear you.”
Evie giggled and moved her hands to rest on the top of his head. She never tired of this familiar game. “Better now?” Her treble voice was full of mischief.
“Perfect,” Joel replied, and he started walking.
He walked quickly now, looking forward to getting home and changing into jeans and a scruffy old T-shirt, happy to shrug off his work persona of Mr. Mason and be Joel again, and daddy to Evie.
He’d recently started his second year as a qualified history teacher, but he wondered if he’d ever get used to being addressed as Mr. Mason. It made him feel old, as though his skin didn’t fit. At twenty-three he knew he was an adult. But sometimes when he stood at the front of his classroom and looked at his students’ faces, barely younger than his own, he felt like an impostor. It never failed to amaze him that the kids took him seriously—well, most of the time at least—because inside, Joel didn’t feel ready for his life and all the responsibility it entailed.
He felt the same about Evie. She was the center of his universe, and he couldn’t imagine life without her. Joel had never for a minute wished her away, no matter how hard it had been becoming a father during his second year at university. It had been harder for Claire, of course, bearing the brunt of Evie’s care in the early months due to breastfeeding. But Joel had done what he could; he’d wanted to be involved, to share this baby they’d created by mistake. Evie had ultimately been a happy and glorious accident, but one that had turned their world upside down while they struggled to deal with the reality of her and how she would fit into their young lives.
“Mummy’s coming for tea today,” Joel informed Evie.
“Then I go to Mummy’s house,” Evie said. “I get to see George. Sometimes he sleeps on my bed.”
George was a large black-and-white cat that had turned up on Claire’s doorstep a few months before. She had tried to find out where he’d come from by putting notices up on lampposts and at her corner shop, but nobody had ever claimed him. After a couple of weeks, George had successfully wormed his way so deep into Claire’s and Evie’s affections that it was a relief when no one came forward. He was now a permanent fixture in Evie’s home with her mum, and Evie adored him.
“Yes,” Joel confirmed. “You’ll stay with Mummy tonight and tomorrow. Then back with me for the weekend.”
“Weekend with Daddy.” Evie sounded happy.
Joel knew that at three years of age, Evie didn’t understand the days of the week quite yet or have much concept of time, despite being a bright little thing for her age. But she parroted what he said, so he nodded. “That’s right.”
Wednesday was hand-over day. Evie spent Monday and Tuesday nights with Joel and then went to Claire for Wednesday and Thursday. They alternated weekends, but both of them were flexible when they needed to be. Occasionally Evie had a weekend with her grandparents (on Claire’s side), who lived an hour or so up the motorway in Gloucester.
Their shared parenting arrangement usually worked out pretty well. It helped that things between Joel and Claire were so amicable?maybe because they’d never been in a relationship to start with, so nobody had ever been hurt by a bitter split. They sometimes had their moments of animosity, of course. Their situation hadn’t been plain sailing, but they usually managed to sort things out with minimal conflict.
Finally home, Joel lifted Evie down from his shoulders and gave her back her schoolbag to hold while he fumbled in his jacket pocket for his keys.
“Here we go.” He held the door open for Evie and flipped the light switch in the hallway.
Joel had the ground-floor flat in a large Victorian terraced house that had been split into four flats, one on each floor. He shared the hall and stairwell with his neighbors, and as usual, it was a bit of a mess. The post had been tossed carelessly onto a small table, and two bicycles jostled for position against the banisters. The air smelled a little damp and musty, with overtones of other peoples’ dinners and a hint of cigarette smoke from the students on the third floor. Joel wrinkled his nose as he paused to sort through the pile of envelopes, searching for his name.
“Mind the bikes, Evie,” he cautioned. One of the bicycles looked a little precarious, but Evie navigated a safe passage.
“Hurry, Daddy,” Evie grumbled as she waited by the door at the end of the hallway. “Hurry!”
Finally inside their flat, Joel helped Evie get her shoes off and stashed them in the basket by the front door. Evie pulled off her mittens while Joel kicked off his own shoes and hung up his jacket. “Can you manage that, Eves?” he asked as she furrowed her little brow in concentration, pursing her lips as she struggled with the toggles on her duffle coat. She seemed to be coping with them today. Fiercely independent, Evie was likely to push his hands away if he interfered.
“I did it!” she said with great satisfaction. “Evie did it.”
“You did. Good job, Munchkin.”
Evie followed Joel through to the kitchen. He sorted her out with some apple slices and a cup of milk, then left her busy with crayons and scrap paper at the kitchen table while he went to get changed. When he came back, she was still there, drawing elaborate squiggles with great concentration. “This is me and George,” she informed Joel. “George on my lap, see? That’s his tail.”
Joel admired the pink squiggle that bore little relation to George’s actual tail. “That’s good. You could give him some whiskers too, maybe?” He turned away and started to get things out of the kitchen cupboards. “Macaroni cheese tonight I think, Evie,” he said as he put the kettle on to boil and rooted around in the bottom of the fridge for vegetables. “And there’s some broccoli we can have with it.”
“Hate brockly.” Evie wrinkled her nose.
“Well you can try a little bit; you might change your mind.”
Joel settled into the routine of cooking the familiar dish. When the macaroni cheese was in the oven on a low heat, and the broccoli chopped and waiting to steam, Joel remembered he’d left his phone in his jacket.
He went to fetch it so he could check his texts. There was one from Claire sent about ten minutes before, saying she’d be there by six thirty. He glanced at the kitchen clock and decided to put the broccoli on now. The timing would be about right, and it was already getting late for Evie. She’d had some tea at nursery, but he and Claire liked to eat with her when they were together. Their little family might be unconventional, but Evie loved having both her parents in the same room for a while, so they always made the effort for her.
Joel got the water in the steamer simmering, and set the oven timer so he wouldn’t accidentally turn the broccoli into mush. Then he sat down at the table with Evie to admire her pictures.
“Tell me about this one, Eves.” He pointed to one of four splodges that looked like Evie’s version of people. Huge faces with no bodies and little sticks for arms and legs. “Who’s this, then?”
“That’s me.” She pointed to the littlest blob and then indicated each of the others in turn with a determined press of her finger. “And that’s Mummy, that’s you, and that’s Dan.”
Joel blinked, trying to cover his surprise at Dan being included in Evie’s drawing. He supposed his boyfriend had been spending more time around Evie recently. He smiled as he looked at the picture. He’d been seeing Dan for a few months and it was still fairly casual, but Joel had hopes it was going somewhere. He liked the idea of something more permanent between them eventually, even though he’d never had a serious relationship before. But Dan was only nineteen and understandably not in any rush to get too involved with a guy who had a child, albeit a part-time one.
“I like Dan,” Evie announced. “He brings me chocolate.”
Joel laughed. His boyfriend clearly knew the way to Evie’s heart. “I like him too,” he replied, stretching out one of Evie’s chestnut-colored corkscrew curls before letting it ping back into place.
The oven timer went at almost exactly the same time as the doorbell. Joel jumped up and turned off the broccoli before going to buzz Claire through the main door of the flats, and then he let her in through his own front door.
“Hi,” she greeted him with a kiss on the cheek. “Where’s my girl?”
“In the kitchen.” He gestured, taking Claire’s coat.
Claire headed toward the bright light pouring in from the kitchen. “Hi, darling.” Joel stood in the dim hallway for a moment and listened to Claire greeting Evie, and Evie’s delighted chatter. He smiled to himself and hung up her coat before joining them.
THE MACARONI cheese was good.
Evie had a small portion, because she informed Joel and Claire that she’d already had “sossisshes and mash” at nursery. Macaroni cheese was one of her favorites, though, and she tucked into it happily after poking suspiciously at her broccoli.
“So how’s work?” Claire asked Joel.
He paused between mouthfuls to answer her. “Not bad, busy as usual. Inspectors looming on the horizon as always, but at least I feel like I know what I’m doing this year, with one year of teaching under my belt.”
“You don’t look quite as exhausted as you did this time last year.” Claire studied him.
“Yeah, well, last year I was like death warmed up by now.” He mock grimaced at the recollection of how stressed he’d been by the end of his first couple of months of teaching. “I think I slept twelve hours a day during half term, apart from the nights I had this one.” He glanced at Evie, whose bright eyes met his, knowing she was being talked about, but not quite following the pace and complexity of the adult conversation. “What about you, anyway?” He turned back to Claire. “How’s uni?”
Claire was still studying for her degree in politics and law. She’d taken two years out while Evie was small, but she was back full time now. Joel knew her course was intensive and demanding, especially now she was in her final year.
“Same old, same old,” she said, sighing. “Lectures, tutorials, endless assignments. But I’m keeping my head above water, doing okay. It’ll all be worth it in the end, I’m sure.”
Joel knew Claire was being modest. She’d be doing more than okay, if he knew Claire. She was a perfectionist by nature, and her grades were always good. She’d always been hardworking, but since having Evie, she was even more driven. The responsibility of having a child to support had made both of them grow up fast.
When they’d met at Bristol University, Claire had been one of his best friends right from the start. They had both been part of a big group he’d met in the university halls of residence. They had all hung out together in various combinations, but he and Claire had always had a special bond—they were hardworking and took their studies seriously, but they had fun together too. On their nights out, they kicked back and drank too much and did stupid things like all students do, and somehow Joel always seemed to land up back in Claire’s room, or she in his. They’d stagger back from some bar and share a joint together before crashing out, fully clothed and completely chaste, on the tiny bed that was barely big enough for one person, let alone two.
Everyone had assumed they were shagging, but they weren’t—until they did. It didn’t happen many times, but one tequila-fuelled night the clothes came off, and Joel lost his virginity while Claire showed him what to do. After that night, it happened a few more times, but it was finally Claire who put a stop to it.
“I know your heart’s not really in it,” she’d told him one night in his room after they’d been fooling around, snogging and groping but not going any further. She hadn’t been angry, or even upset, but her words were brutally honest. “I can just tell it’s not right.”
Somehow her words had reached into a tight uncomfortable place inside Joel and unlocked something. Claire had hugged him when he’d pressed his face into her shoulder and confessed he thought it wasn’t girls he was interested in. She hadn’t even sounded surprised. She’d held him tight and convinced him the world wasn’t going to end because he was gay. Then she’d told him to get out there and find himself a bloke to test the theory out on. Joel had laughed then, wiping tears from his eyes. He had known their friendship was safe.
Six weeks later, Claire found out her missing period wasn’t due to stress. That time, it was Joel who’d held Claire while she cried and raged about “stupid bloody condoms that don’t fucking work,” and he had convinced her that having a baby wasn’t going to be the end of the world either, if a baby was what she wanted.
Joel looked up from his plate as Claire’s voice dragged him back to the present.
“Evie, are you going to try some of that broccoli or just play with it?” Claire asked.
Evie was holding it by the stalk and inspecting it like a scientist investigating a new species. “It’s a little tree,” she stated. “A brockly tree.”
“Yes,” Joel chipped in. “And they’re yummy and good for you, so you need to have a little bit. You’ve eaten it lots of times before.”
Evie glanced between the faces of her parents and obviously decided it wasn’t worth arguing about. They were both pretty firm with her when it came to trying a bite of foods that weren’t on her safe list. She nibbled, her face thoughtful. “It’s okay,” she said doubtfully. “But only the leaves.”
“You can leave the stalk, Evie,” Claire said and then added to Joel, “She never eats those. Well, she doesn’t for me anyway.”
“Nope.” He laughed. “Leaves only here too. The trunk of the broccoli tree is always rejected.”
“Daddy eats it.” Evie put her chewed stalk on Joel’s plate, her mouth still full. “Evie finished now.”
“Finish what’s in your mouth,” Claire said. “Then you can have a yogurt if you’re still hungry, assuming Daddy’s got some?”
After they’d finished eating, Claire washed up, and Joel went to pack Evie’s bag to take over to her mum’s for the next couple of days. Evie helped and hindered, getting in his way and trying to pack huge and impractical cuddly toys.
“You can play with your toys that you keep at Mummy’s, Eves,” Joel reminded her. “But get me Babbit so we don’t forget him.” Babbit was Evie’s much loved rabbit toy. She’d had him since she was a baby, and he was the toy she’d become most attached to. He was old and grubby and had lost one of his eyes, but Evie wouldn’t sleep without him.
Once Evie was all packed and ready to go, Joel saw them out to Claire’s battered old Fiesta.
“I can’t believe this is still running,” he teased her. “It’s practically held together by string.”
“Oh, shut up,” said Claire. “Just because your car is better than mine. It’s fine for getting around in, and I can’t afford anything better.”
Joel put Evie’s bag in the boot and gave her a big hug and a kiss. “You’re prickly,” Evie giggled, pressing her chubby little hand onto his lightly stubbled jaw.
“That’s because I overslept this morning, didn’t I? No time to shave.”
Evie kissed his cheek, and he strapped her into her car seat, then straightened up and gave Claire a hug. “Bye, Claire. See you on Friday, Evie. Have fun with Mummy.”
Joel watched as Claire’s little car pulled away and turned out of the end of his road. Then he shivered, the autumn chill cutting through his thin T-shirt and raising goose bumps on his skin. He turned away and went back into the warmth of his flat, then closed the doors behind him.
Joel made himself a coffee and stretched out on the sofa with his phone in his hand. Dan should have finished his shift by now, and they needed to make arrangements for tomorrow. They’d agreed to do something in the evening but hadn’t decided what or where. Knowing Dan, it would involve alcohol—not ideal for Joel on a school night—but hopefully it would end with sex. It usually did.
Joel pulled up Dan’s number and waited while it rang, then smiled as Dan picked up.
“Alright, mate.” Dan’s chirpy Mancunian tone was loud in Joel’s ear.
“Hey, it’s me,” Joel said unnecessarily.
They exchanged brief small talk about their days. Dan and Joel chatted on the phone most days if they didn’t see each other, so they were familiar with the day-to-day details of each other’s lives. Joel usually only saw Dan two or three times a week, especially during term time. He was busy with work and Evie, and Dan worked full time in a coffee shop. They tended to get together on the evenings and weekends that Joel didn’t have Evie with him, but sometimes Dan would hang out with him and Evie on a Saturday or Sunday. Evie liked him—not just because of the chocolate, although it helped—and Dan was good with her. He made her giggle by tickling her and throwing her up in the air and catching her, a sure-fire way into any three-year-old’s heart.
“So, what are we doing tomorrow?” Joel finally asked when the conversation slowed down. “I miss you. It feels like ages since Sunday already.”
“Yeah,” Dan agreed. “How about the White Hart?” It was a gay-friendly pub that was closer to Joel’s place than to Dan’s, which probably meant Dan would stay over. That suited Joel, partly because it made it easier for him to get to work the next day, and partly because Dan lived in a shared house in Easton that was a total dive. His housemates were utter slobs. Joel wasn’t the tidiest person in the world, but he liked to maintain a certain basic level of hygiene. Frankly he was scared to even drink a cup of tea made in Dan’s kitchen.
“Sounds good to me,” he replied. They agreed on a time, and then Dan made his excuses. He was going out, as usual. With no responsibilities and a reasonable wage from his job, he rarely had a night in. Sometimes Joel envied Dan’s hedonistic lifestyle, but at other times he was secretly glad to have the excuse to go to bed at ten, jerk off to some porn on his laptop, and go to sleep.
Once the call was over, Joel planned his lessons for the next day. It wasn’t too arduous—mainly a matter of making sure he knew the material. The lesson planning already felt perfunctory and mostly pointless. He was following the history department’s schemes of work, so he couldn’t go too far wrong, but the paperwork was all part and parcel of the job, a necessary evil.
He got it done as quickly as he could and then lifted some weights and did a few sit-ups and press-ups in front of the TV. Making time for exercise was hard, but Joel did what he could. He was naturally lean anyway, but he liked to try and keep a little muscle definition. He knew Dan liked muscles. Joel was never going to achieve the bulk of the guys Dan drooled over when they watched porn together, but the slight anxiety that he wasn’t good enough for his boyfriend made him make the effort. He supposed it was a good thing on balance. If he didn’t have someone to keep himself looking good for, he’d probably turn into a couch potato.
Joel showered, then went to bed with his laptop and pulled up his current favorite porn video. It was a little cheesy at the start—set up like a date night—but the sex was hot and surprisingly tender. The guys on the screen seemed to have a real connection, and being a romantic at heart, Joel liked that.
He took his time, although he could have come within a few minutes if he’d let himself. It had been a couple of days, and he was feeling horny after talking to Dan earlier and in anticipation of seeing him tomorrow. But he stroked himself slowly, and timing his orgasm with that of the first man in the video, he finally allowed himself to spill over his fist as the man on the screen groaned and shot all over his chest. Joel watched as the man’s partner licked it off and then kissed him deeply. Joel’s cock was still throbbing and sensitive as the second guy jerked off and came on the first guy’s lips and cheeks. Then they kissed again, flushed and smiling and filthy.
Joel cleaned himself up, then switched his laptop and his light off and lay in the darkness, wondering where Dan was and what he was doing. They’d never discussed exclusivity, and he knew Dan sometimes picked up other guys when he was out on his own. As far as Dan was concerned, Joel was free to do the same, but when would Joel ever find the time, never mind the energy? He tried to push the negative thoughts aside, but his bed felt big and lonely tonight. He curled up on his side, and tugged a pillow down to curl around it as he drifted off to sleep.