June is Pride Month, so we'll be featuring only #LGBTQ books this month for our #samplesundays, as well as offering them at a discount.
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Today we're previewing MM Contemporary novel The Truth about Riley from Henrietta Clarke.
Please enjoy this sample chapter from the book . . .
THE PAPER WAS burning a hole in his pocket, and wasn’t that just the worst possible metaphor Riley Aylworth could have come up with? He glanced instinctively at the empty space on the wall where his favorite mirror used to hang and grimaced. Hideous. That was the thought that had flashed through the cute barista’s eyes as his voice had faltered and their flirting had ground to a complete stop when Riley dared to ask him out for a drink. What the hell had he been thinking? After a year of non-stop rejections, it should have sunk in that he was fine as a friend but when it came to sex, Godzilla would be preferable. Phantom of the Opera, that was the new fucking story of his life. At least he hadn’t killed anyone yet. Maybe he should think about getting one of those porcelain masks and just wander around pretending he was cosplaying?
“Yeah, ’cause that’ll make people stop calling you ‘freak,’” Riley muttered under his breath. The sour tang of the coffee lingered, fuelling his foul mood. The drink had tasted like humiliation after the barista’s rejection, but he’d paid for it, so he was damned if he was going to waste it. He hadn’t lingered at the table like usual, but that hadn’t prevented him from taking a quick look round before he left, a habit ingrained in him by twenty-seven years of watching his mother do it. That was when he’d noticed the folded page on the floor, the glossy paper and bright colors suggesting it had been ripped from a magazine. Since Riley had several such pages tucked into his writing notebook—magazine articles were a frequent source of inspiration—he’d stooped to pick it up, thinking he’d dropped it.
One glance made it obvious that it was not in fact his. It was a page of small ads, one of which was circled in red. Riley had flushed the same color when he’d realized what it was advertising and stuffed the paper into his pocket without realizing he was doing it.
Now, in the safety of his own home, he pulled it out and studied it again. Phone sex. It wasn’t something he’d usually consider—at least, not paying for it, and not with a stranger—but he’d been getting increasingly dejected and desperately horny over the last year. Hell, it had taken six months to get up the courage to go out in public more often than when he absolutely needed to, and another six months after that to build up to flirting again. He’d been something of a player before the fire, which just made the constant rejections he experienced now worse. On the really bad days, it was hard not to wonder if the scarring was some kind of punishment for his former casual attitude about sex. But that was just silly. God didn’t work like that, and really, wasn’t it selfish to curse the effect of this pure dumb luck on his sex life when there were children starving in Africa, and women in the Middle East dying in their pursuit of a basic education?
Two years though. That was how long it had been since he’d been touched by a hand other than his own. Phone sex wouldn’t solve that, but at least it would get someone else involved, and damn did he miss having a connection to another person while he was getting off. “Big Yellow Taxi” was the new theme tune to his life, and he had a newfound hatred of the cold hard truth of Annie Lennox’s “Keep Young and Beautiful.”
“Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved,” he hummed mockingly, glancing at the naked patch of wall again. He should really get a picture to hang there or something. Because that wouldn’t remind him at all of how much he hated his own face . . .
The first call was more inconvenient than annoying. Cameron was just getting ready to head out of the office at ten past six—he’d be home early for once, and wasn’t it just too bad there’d be nobody there to benefit?—when his cell phone began to trill, alerting him to a new call from an unidentified number.
“Cameron Kirkwood.” Tucking the phone against his shoulder, he continued to sort through the files on his desk, picking out the ones he wanted to take home.
“Well hello there, big boy. Your voice is delicious.”
What the hell?
“I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong number.”
“Oh baby, are you sure? I’ve never misdialed in my life, and you definitely have the voice for the job.”
“I’m sorry, what job?” Put on the spot, only one phone-based job that needed a good voice came to mind, and the thought was not a good one.
“Phone sex, of course.” The caller sounded surprised, and Cam blanched.
“You definitely have the wrong number. I most certainly do not run a phone-sex service.”
And naturally, that was the moment he turned around and saw his boss standing in the doorway to his office, one eyebrow raised severely.
“You should consider it,” the caller advised him.
“Goodbye,” Cam responded, hanging up and dropping his phone on the desk. “Mr. Townsend, I—”
“Phone sex, Cameron? Don’t we pay you enough?” Isaac Townsend raised the other eyebrow, and Cam shook his head vehemently, cursing the terrible luck that seemed to be stalking him this month.
“Wrong number,” he responded earnestly, and Isaac laughed.
“Jesus, relax, Cam, you’re far too uptight for phone sex. Have you got a copy of the pitch for James Anderson? I’d like to give it a last glance through before the team presents it tomorrow.”
“I have a copy right here,” Cameron informed him, unlocking his filing cabinet to fish out the spare. Everything in there was duplicated in case of emergency, and he wondered sometimes whether he should keep the copies elsewhere in case the emergency happened to be a fire or something similar that would result in the destruction of the impeccably arranged cabinet. Right now, he should have been grateful that Isaac still had faith in his integrity after that unfortunate phone call, but the stab of hurt at the “uptight” comment killed the relief.
Isaac was barely six steps out of the room when Cam’s phone rang again, also an unrecognized number.
“Hi. Um, I’m kind of new to this—what services do you offer, exactly?”
“Whatever sort of advertising you require,” Cameron responded, settling back into his chair and relaxing. For a moment, he’d been so afraid . . . “We can design magazine and billboard ads, plan television campaigns, or draft radio ad scripts.”
“Oh! Role playing, I guess.” The voice was soft and unsure, and Cam frowned. “Um, advertising isn’t really something I get off on. Can you do, uh, emergency services instead? I kind of have a bit of a thing for men in uniform. You know, like, firemen?”
“This is an advertising agency. If you want the emergency services, I suggest you dial 911, though I’d advise you to have a genuine emergency first. Prank calling the police is a serious matter.”
“A-an advertising agency? I’m sorry, I guess I entered the wrong number.”
Shaking his head, Cam hung up. When his phone rang yet again within a minute, he could feel the end of his tether rapidly approaching. His patience had never been great at the best of times, and today he just wanted to get home and put his feet up, maybe order in some takeout and watch a movie.
Wow. He hadn’t realized he could get so sick of the sound of his own name.
Silence. Well, apart from an odd noise that may have been a nervous gulp.
“Hello? Can I help you?”
“I-is this the guy I just spoke to?” The same soft voice as last time, and Cam cursed under his breath, a suspicion niggling in the back of his mind.
“Yes. Why are you calling this number, precisely?”
“Because it’s the one in the ad?” The voice sounded unsure.
“N-never mind. I guess they misprinted. Sorry to bother you.”
The dial tone sounded before Cameron could press the guy further, and he cursed again. Well, if his suspicion was correct, there’d be another call sooner or later, and he could grill that caller instead. For now, he’d put the matter out of his mind, gather up his stuff, and head home.
In the end, it took Riley two days to pluck up the courage to call the number in the ad. There was a delicate balance between hunger for interactive sex and shame at the thought of paying for it. He was still debating with himself when he stripped naked and crawled into the middle of the bed sometime after eleven p.m., phone in hand, the bedroom door firmly closed to keep his beloved but inquisitive Samoyed, Bella, from interrupting. Once he’d entered the number slowly and carefully, checking every digit three times, Riley lay back, closed his eyes, and pressed the device to his ear.
The answering voice was one part professional, one part exasperated, and one part sarcastic, and Riley frowned. Call him paranoid, but this did not seem like a good start. Weren’t phone sex operators supposed to ease you into the conversation and make you feel comfortable? Riley felt like a teenager caught masturbating by his mother.
“Um, hello. I’m calling in response to your ad . . .”
In response to your ad? What was he thinking, speaking so formally? There was something in the voice that compelled it, perhaps. It was a nice voice, but it didn’t sound at all like he’d imagined a phone sex voice to sound.
“I work for an advertising agency—I deal with hundreds of ads every week. Did you have a specific one in mind?” Yeah, definitely sarcasm now, and Riley had a horrible feeling he might have dialed the wrong number. But he’d checked so carefully . . .
“The . . . phone sex one?” he questioned, voice small. Maybe the guy only moonlighted as a phone sex operator?
Maybe not. The sigh that drifted back down the line in response was the most aggravated Riley had ever heard.
“Look, buster, that ad is not for a phone sex service; it’s my vindictive asshole of an ex-boyfriend’s death warrant. If you want to get your rocks off, you desperate, horny freak, go find yourself a fucking rentboy, but don’t call this number again.”
The dial tone cut across any apology Riley might have made, and he stared at the phone in disbelief. How rude! So maybe that was a fairly sucky situation, but was it really so hard just to say “sorry, wrong number”? Without stopping to think it through, he hit redial, sitting bolt upright and dragging the comforter over himself.
“Look, I told you—” the voice answered, sounding as pissed as Riley felt, and Riley let him have it.
“No, you look, you judgmental bastard! Where the hell do you get off yelling at people and calling them freaks for one tiny, innocent mistake? It’s not my fault you have issues with your ex—”
“Innocent? Yeah, I like that, when you’re calling a phone sex line—”
“Shut up! Shut the fuck up! You know nothing about me! You have no fucking idea why I’m calling a phone sex line; if you’re not one, the least you can do is politely tell me I have the wrong number.”
“You think I haven’t been doing that? How about I advertise your cell phone number as a sex line? Call me back when you’ve fielded thirty-nine disturbing phone calls from horny assholes insisting they have the right number and begging for all sorts of fucked up shit and tell me you’d be polite to lucky number forty!”
“Believe me, if I had forty people queuing up to have sex with me, I’d be sending ‘lucky number forty’ a fucking bouquet!” Riley shot back honestly with a stab of pain.
“Well good for you, slut! They don’t want—”
“Don’t call me a slut, you fucking, uptight prick! You know nothing about me!”
“So enlighten me, why don’t you? Tell me what’s so magical and special about phone sex that you think you need to be treated like royalty!”
“Fuck royalty; I’d settle for human!” Riley was vaguely aware that his voice was shaking. “Look, Cameron or whatever your name is, whatever issues you have with your ex, you’ve got it easy, believe me. Just change your number, write him an apology or get a restraining order, and just chill the fuck out, okay?”
Cameron should have resented being told to chill the fuck out by the man who had phoned him back to yell at him, but the truth was he felt better now than he had since that first phone call forty-eight hours or so earlier. Arguing with a complete stranger had given him an outlet to vent about the situation, and he felt some of the tension seeping out of him.
“What’s your name?” he asked impulsively, calming his tones, and he could almost feel the surprise radiating off the stranger as he replied.
“Your name,” Cam prompted. “If you’re going to try and slap me in the face with reality, or whatever it is you think you’re doing, I’d at least like to know who I’m talking to.”
A pause, and then the stranger’s voice sounded again, much more pleasant now the anger was fading out of it.
“Riley. My name is Riley.”
“Hi, Riley. I’m Cameron.”
“I gathered.” Riley’s voice crackled with dry amusement. “So, you want to vent some more about this bastard ex of yours? It sounds like you need an outlet.”
Cameron laughed. “I guess I do, though I didn’t realize until right this minute.”
“So? You gonna tell me the story, or do I need to turn it into Twenty Questions?”
“His name’s Chris,” Cam found himself saying. “We were together for four years, and it was good, most of the time. He didn’t like the hours I work though; that’s what we fought about, mostly. He wasn’t clingy, exactly, but it was like . . . By the end, he was desperate to settle down in a house in the suburbs, maybe start talking about two-point-four kids and a partner who’s around most of the time; farmer’s markets and craft fairs on the weekend . . .”
“And that’s not you?”
Cam ran a hand through his hair, thinking about that one. “Well, I don’t think I’d hate it—the farmer’s markets and shit, I mean. But the suburbs and two-point-four kids? I’m not trying to say that my job is more important than Chris’s was, but the idea of living farther than an hour away from the office . . .” He shuddered. “I’m not ready to live like that yet.”
“So it was a difference of opinion? Like, wanting different things, growing apart as a consequence, eventual break-up inevitable kind of thing?”
“With hindsight . . . yes, that’s exactly what it was. It was comfortable, it was safe . . . it wasn’t fireworks, but it was working, and I was content for things to stay the same. I should have realized that Chris wanted more and let him go a long time ago. Maybe he should have let me go a long time ago, but I think he kept hoping if he stuck around long enough, he could change me, make me want the same things. Hindsight’s a bitch.”
“Okay, so let me get this straight . . . you know now that it was doomed to failure because you wanted different things? And back then . . . what happened?”
“With the break-up?”
“Yeah. It just seems to me that if you want to live in the city and work twelve-hour days, and he wants to live in the suburbs with a nuclear family, a split is what’s best for both of you, what makes the best sense. So, in theory, that kind of break-up should be fairly amicable, right? So I’m curious about the whole vengeful bastard thing. Either he was a closet psychopath, in which case good riddance, or you must have done something really shitty. How on Earth did you get from ‘comfortable’ to having a break-up so explosive that he advertised you as a sex line?”
“I may have deserved it,” Cam confessed, flushing at the memory. “It was pretty much a case of disastrous timing. We had a systems failure at work and lost pretty much everything we had for a pitch the next morning—the intern we had at the time was supposed to have backed it up, but someone gave him another order right when he was going to do it, and he got distracted by that. I haven’t delegated that task since. There was a caricature pinned up in the break room for weeks of me with smoke coming out of my ears.”
“You know, I met you literally a quarter hour ago and I have no clue what you look like, but I can already picture that, Mr. Workaholic. But you’re deflecting. So you had a work disaster; I get how that’s a key event for you. But what did you do to Chris?”
Cam groaned, equal parts impressed and annoyed to be called out on his avoidance tactics. Then again, they weren’t something he usually used—he was a man who preferred the direct approach.
“That’s the timing thing I was referring to,” he told Riley. “See, the day the systems crashed . . . that was our fourth anniversary. I left Chris sleeping in the morning, and I got to work to find myself faced mid-afternoon with Crashmageddon with the pitch looming in less than twenty-four hours and no company computer systems to work with. The team ended up at someone from Graphics’ house, using her personal computer to recreate everything. It took us all night to put it all back together, and then we had the pitch at nine.
“I didn’t even remember what the date was until I turned my phone back on after the pitch to a series of increasingly livid messages from Chris—and naturally, I was horrified. So I thought I could take him to dinner that night as a belated celebration, and I could start making up for things by picking up lunch on the way home—obviously, we were all taking the rest of the day off. Now, I was running on coffee and fumes at the time. I stopped by Chris’s favorite bakery for sandwiches and muffins, and they had this new flavor they were trying out called ‘Toffee Delight.’ Chris loves toffee, so I just picked a few up without reading the small print or thinking to ask about the ingredients.”
Cameron stopped and gulped, the look on Chris’s face as he collapsed flashing through his mind again. It had been, beyond any doubt, the worst moment of his life.
“Oh God, I can see where this is going . . .” Riley sounded equal parts apprehensive and sympathetic, the latter of which just made Cam feel worse.
“Yeah,” he responded, voice choked. “Apparently the delight was that toffee goes brilliantly with nuts . . . to which Chris is really—and I mean really—allergic. Cue epi pen, ambulance, and a stay in the hospital. I don’t think I need to elaborate on what happened next.”
“Sorry? You stay out all night on our anniversary, without even letting me know, and then you come home and try to poison me, and all you can say is sorry? Well I’m sorry, Cam, but I’ve fucking had it with you! I am sick and tired—literally sick and tired!—of coming second to your work. I am fucking sick of having a closer relationship with your cell phone than you. Hell, it’s like a fucking ménage a trois, except it feels like I never get to see you because you’re too busy making love to your phone. I bet you’ve even named the damned thing. You should start a phone sex service, because you’re a complete fucking failure at face-to-face relationships. Now get the hell home and start packing my stuff, because I sure as fuck won’t be spending another night under your roof.”
“What? Please, Chris, calm down. I’m more than sorry; I’m distraught. What do you want me to say? I’m stupid, irresponsible, the worst boyfriend ever? Done. Just please think about this. We live together, for God’s sake—where are you going to go?”
“The worst boyfriend ever? Too damn right! I’m glad you realize that, but you’re seriously asking me to stay? After this? How little self-respect do you think I have?”
“Four years, Chris. I love you! Does that mean nothing?”
“You love me? You have a funny way of showing it, Cameron. What I’m looking for in life is a home, a family, a boyfriend who’s around when I need him . . . but at the end of the day, I’ll settle for one who doesn’t put me in the hospital. Now, do I have to ask again? I’m serious, Cameron. Get the hell away from me and pack my shit so I can leave, or you’ll really regret trying to add insult to injury.”
“And I’m serious too, Chris—I love you, and I’m worried about you. Where are you going to go?”
“I’ll find somewhere. Becca’s, or Colin’s, maybe even Mom’s. Yeah, Mom’s would be a good idea. No chance of running into you in Alaska. Now please leave.”
“I stayed and tried to fight for us,” Cameron said, his voice dreamy and far away before he sighed. “I mean, I know with hindsight it wasn’t the greatest relationship, but I honestly loved him, y’know? I thought walking away would’ve been the biggest mistake of my life. Forty freaking phone-sex calls later, I guess I was wrong.”
“You could say that. Or you could say that Chris’s done you a favor,” Riley suggested, and Cam’s answering frown was practically audible.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, this break-up’s pretty recent, right?” Riley hazarded. “That’s how you’re making it sound, anyway. And how long does it take to get a phone-sex ad out in a major gay men’s magazine? Like, one, two months? Maybe three, tops. And I’m not a psychology graduate, but I honestly don’t think turning your ex’s cell into a phone sex line is the kind of thing you do way after the break up, when you’ve had time to calm down. It seems like an immediately-after, heat-of-the-moment kind of thing.”
“Yeah, that makes sense . . .” Cameron agreed. “And you’re right; it was about two and a half months ago. Our anniversary was May second.”
“There you go then. And I believe you when you say you loved him; four years doesn’t happen without love or a lot of money involved—and because I’m a hopeless romantic, I’d prefer to think love. So yeah—love doesn’t disappear in two and a half months after a four-year relationship, but I bet you love Chris a lot less now than you did forty phone calls ago. Gotta make it easier to get over him, right?”
There was a pause, as if Cameron was turning the suggestion over in his mind, and then a reluctant chuckle drifted down the line.
“That actually makes sense, and you’re right. Two months ago I wanted to scream and cry because of the break-up; I still feel like doing those things, but for an entirely different reason now. Fuck it if I’m writing him a thank-you note though.”
Riley laughed. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Just let go of the pain and you’ll be fine. I guess you’re planning to change your number?”
“However did you guess?”
“It might have had something to do with your obvious aversion to phone sex.”
“Oh, I’m not averse to phone sex—just not with strangers. It’s a relationship thing.”
Riley wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that, given how this conversation had started, but before he could find a neutral answer, Cameron spoke again, sounding almost nervous.
“Hey, I was wondering . . . when I change my number, can I keep yours and maybe call you again? I’ve actually enjoyed talking to you.”
Warmth spread slowly through Riley, and he couldn’t help but smile. “I’ve enjoyed it too,” he responded honestly. “So yeah, that would be okay. I’d like that.”
He could hear Cameron’s answering smile when he replied.
Pride Month 2016 special price:
The Truth about Riley is available in e-book and print from all major sellers. Details for The Truth about Riley, including sellers' links, are at:
Bottom Drawer Publications
Also available at:
The Truth about Riley is available in e-book and print from all major sellers. Details for The Truth about Riley, including sellers' links, are at:
Bottom Drawer Publications
Also available at: