HE COULDN’T do this. Peter’s breath came in quick, shallow bursts as he stood in a bedroom set of the television studio and watched the bustle as, at one side of the set, a cameraman and boom operator set up their equipment for the next scene and, at another, the director for the first episode talked to a couple of actors. Around them, cast and crew milled about, working and chatting. He remained apart from it all with a clenched sensation in his chest and around his lungs that made it difficult to breathe.
“Are you okay?”
The voice made Peter jump and he told himself to get a grip. He fixed a smile on his face as he looked round and took in Shane’s familiar narrow face, glasses and quirked eyebrow. “I’m fine,” he lied. “It’s just been a while since I was on one of these sets.”
“You’ve been acting for nearly two decades and you’re probably better at it than anyone else here.” Shane made a gesture that encompassed all the actors in the room. “Stop panicking about nothing.”
“Nothing? Have you seen the other actors? It’s like an attack of the Beautiful People. I have a scene this afternoon with a bloke called Alex, the one who’s playing my onscreen son’s boyfriend, and I’ll never be able to look at him and remember my lines at the same time because he’s so distractingly handsome.”
There was a sound of laughter behind them and, with a sense of doom, Peter turned round to find the actor he’d been talking about nearby, certainly close enough to have overheard him. Alex was standing grinning at him, eyes dancing with mischief, but his expression was playful rather than mocking, as if he were inviting Peter to share the humour with him. Looking at him was like seeing one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was almost impossible to believe that a living person could look that perfect. Alex walked unhurriedly up to Peter and patted him on the chest, the warm touch making Peter’s entire body tingle. “You’re not bad yourself,” he said and sauntered away.
“Well, that wasn’t at all embarrassing,” Shane said, laughter in his voice.
Peter groaned and, unable to stop himself, glanced again at Alex just as the younger actor looked in his direction. Peter hastily turned away. “If you have a knife handy then just kill me now.”
“Yes, of course. I always carry a knife these days. It’s in my superhero costume – shall I go and get it?”
“Wasn’t your sarcasm the reason your last girlfriend broke up with you?”
“Ouch! Touché,” Shane said, unruffled. “Actually that was only one of about a hundred reasons.”
“At least she didn’t cheat on you for two years behind your back,” Peter said, then wished he hadn’t.
Shane’s green eyes were sympathetic as he avoided the painful subject and said mildly, “We only dated for four months so that would’ve been difficult. How are your kids doing?”
“They still don’t like Frank.”
“Obviously!” Shane said. “I doubt his own mother likes Frank.”
Peter smiled at this, reassured that the man would never take his place with them. The smile faded as he thought about what the children had suffered during the divorce and now they were stuck living with a man they couldn’t stand, one who made no effort to even get to know them. “I don’t know how to help them with all of this. Emma in particular gets so angry.”
“Of course she’s angry. Helen couldn’t have treated you more cruelly if she tried. Emma’s old enough to have understood what you went through and want to protect you.” He sounded bitter. Shane used to think of Helen as a friend too and her actions had made him more cynical than ever about relationships.
“I don’t need protection.”
“Maybe not now but last year…” Shane tailed off and Peter shuddered internally as he remembered the wreck he had been after that night. He had returned home, looking forward to seeing his family, with no idea what was awaiting him, only to be told about the affair and have his entire life taken away from him. Shane continued speaking, shaking Peter from the memory. “You should start dating again. You’re almost the perfect age for a mid-life crisis, so you could go after the blond. Alex. Wouldn’t Helen be shocked if she thought she’d turned you gay?”
The unintentional blow made Peter wince again as his eyes automatically sought out Alex. The other actor was in his twenties and more attractive than Peter had ever been, with a charisma and friendliness that drew people to him. Alex would never be interested in him even if Peter wanted something to happen and Peter didn’t even know him. There was also the little fact that not a soul knew Peter was bisexual. It was crazy. Alex glanced back at him and the shock as their eyes met was like electricity.
“I suppose I should go and do some work,” Shane said with reluctance, oblivious to the exchange of looks and turmoil of Peter’s feelings. “The Beautiful People must have their script or how will they know who they’re supposed to be sleeping with next?”
“I’ll see you at lunchtime,” Peter said, smiling despite everything because the comment wasn’t far from the truth: the show was full of glamour and sex, saved from being indistinguishable from fifty other series by Shane’s witty scripts. It wasn’t like the gritty, down-to-earth roles he used to get and he wouldn’t normally have auditioned for it since his was just a minor role as the angry, confused dad to a gay son, but he needed the money. Between the divorce, child support and the mortgage payments for a house big enough for his three children to stay in, he was already in debt. He hadn’t cared last year – about anything – but he needed to start getting control of his life. It was an added bonus that he had Shane here for moral support.
Shane headed to his office and Peter found himself scanning the room for a certain blond. Idiot, he berated himself and left to find a quieter place to go over his lines.
* * *
At 2.30p.m. Peter was wearing one of his character’s expensive dark suits as he waited to begin filming his first scene on the show. Jean, the director, a woman of about thirty wearing a batman T-shirt and jeans, was talking to a tattooed camera operator and Peter was getting increasingly nervous. It didn’t help to remind himself that he’d been acting since he was a teenager, not when he’d been taken aside last year by the director of a West End play and told to pull himself together or be replaced. It had been one of the most humiliating moments of his life, even if it did rank below everything Helen had put him through, including making him beg to see his own children.
“Hey,” a voice said in greeting and he looked round, breath catching. “Do you remember your lines?”
He mentally cringed at the teasing words. “Sorry about that…”
“Don’t be.” Alex touched his arm and smiled, no hint of discomfort or anything but friendliness in his expression. He wore the designer-casual clothes of his character which, with his golden hair, blue eyes and sun-kissed skin, made him look like a young prince. “I was flattered. Want to do another read-through?”
Anything that changed the subject was fine with him. “Good idea.”
The scene was only short, although it was meant to be full of emotion, highlighting the tensions between their characters. They got almost to the end before the director was ready to begin filming and approached them.
“Are you clear about your feelings in this scene?” she checked in her Liverpudlian accent and, before they could answer, she went over the responses needed. “Peter, you basically think Alex has turned your son gay and hate him for messing up his life. Alex, you love Findlay’s character and hate Peter for trying to destroy your relationship. Okay?”
They both confirmed this and the AD shouted for quiet, checked with the cameraman and sound engineer and told them to roll. The director then called, “Action!”, and the Second AD snapped the clapperboard shut. The camera and boom followed Alex as he marched into the office and yelled at Peter about controlling his son’s life. Following his instincts about how to give the scene more intensity, Peter slammed his hand down on his desk as he shouted his response. Alex’s eyes widened in genuine shock, the argument suddenly filled with real emotion.
Peter advanced on the younger man. After the divorce he had hundreds of negative feelings he could channel into the row, enjoying the chance to let some of them out as he backed Alex almost against the wall, accusing him of messing with his son’s head. They were glaring at each other, Alex’s eyes full of anger and fear, as Peter heard, “Cut!”
He stepped backwards, the tension leaving his body, and Alex’s natural good humour reappeared as he laughed, saying, “You scared the life out of me when you punched the table.”
“No, it was great,” Alex insisted. “It made the argument feel real.”
“I liked the emotion you brought to the scene too. We made a good team.”
They were smiling at each other as the director came forward saying, “Good work, boys. The two of you have great chemistry. Have you worked together before?”
“No, I’ve never been to England until now,” Alex said to her. “I’ve only filmed in LA before this.” Even without the accent, it was clear that he was one of the Americans hired for the show: no one in England could get a tan like that.
“Keep up that energy for the close-ups, okay?”
They repeated the scene for the two close-ups, then the wide shot and then it was over. Peter was still feeling buoyed up on adrenaline as he and Alex headed in different directions, Alex to rehearse his next scene and Peter, his one scene of the day over, to hang in the background and watch what was filmed next. He hadn’t screwed up, he thought, filled with relief. It had gone well. He glanced backwards and, as if they’d been thinking the same thing, he and Alex grinned jubilantly at each other.
IT WAS his second day filming “Intrigue” and Alex was already beginning to feel at home. Between the excitement of coming to live in a new country and that of his first big acting role, he was permanently buzzed. He was sharing a house with two other actors from the show, so they had already bonded over English beer and take-out pizza, which was a good start. The others seemed nice, although Findlay, the guy playing his lover, was a bit full of himself. Attractive though, which was a good thing, as their first scene on the show yesterday had been a sex scene.
As he looked down at his script he noticed a bruise on his arm and his breath caught. It was nothing, he told himself, ignoring the fluttering of panic in his stomach, but why couldn’t he remember how he had got the mark?
He heard voices and, happy to be distracted from the old fear, he glanced up, catching sight of Peter Linham talking with one of the writers, the same man he’d been speaking to when Alex had overheard him. Remembering the comments, Alex smiled. There was something about Peter that kept drawing his attention and it wasn’t just that Peter was the one actor he had seen in other roles, making Alex a bit in awe of him. Peter was part old-fashioned English gentleman, always polite and courteous, mixed with an awkwardness that clashed with dark-haired good looks. He was perfect to be one of the villains of the show with that aristocratic accent and those intense smoky eyes, all dressed up in an expensive suit that made him look far more dangerous than the rumpled jeans and sweater Alex had seen him arrive in at 8.30am.
Alex had another scripted shouting match with him lined up for today, so he walked over to the two men and smiled at Peter, who looked at him warmly as he introduced his friend, Shane.
“We’ve known each other forever,” Shane commented, “so, if you want all the embarrassing stories about him, you know where to come.”
“No, no, you can’t tell those,” Peter responded in the same bantering tone. “The stuff I know about you is far worse. Remember the fountain? The humiliating details of your sex life?”
“Oh, yeah, well, I talk far too much when I’m drunk.” Shane added to Alex, “I don’t know a thing. Ask me nothing.”
Another crew member called Shane over, so he left them alone and Peter’s body language immediately became more guarded and uncertain, as he put his hands in his pockets, then took them out again. The thought that this sophisticated looking man might actually be nervous around Alex of all people gave him a thrill. He took a step closer and widened his smile and Peter’s gaze fell to his mouth then back to his eyes, with a definite look of interest.
“Do you want to rehearse our scene together,” he asked, “or do you have other things to do at the moment?”
“No, that sounds good. I’m all…” Yours hung in the air between them. Peter looked away first. “Shall we go outside? It might be a bit quieter.”
They wended their way through the actors and crew to the doors that led out onto a small grass area, the parking lot ahead of them. It was quieter but also bitterly cold. The studio was permanently cool but this was ridiculous: he was going to start shivering if he stayed out here for long. “Isn’t April supposed to be spring time in England?”
Peter looked blankly at him. “Yes.”
“Then why is it so freezing?”
Peter laughed. “Oh, dear. This is actually mild. If you’re still in England over the winter you’re going to need a very different set of clothes. In fact you should go looking for a warmer coat as soon as possible.”
“Damn.” He inched closer to Peter who, obligingly, put an arm round his shoulders, body warm and smelling of soap rather than cologne. Alex opened his script and they both peered down at it then, sadly, Peter moved to stand opposite him so they could play out the scene, Alex immediately missing his touch.
* * *
“We’re only on the second day of filming. We can’t be behind schedule already,” Peter exclaimed, frustrated as, at 5.30p.m., the camera crew began setting up to shoot another of his scenes, this one in his character’s living room, aka a section of studio D.
“Welcome to the glamorous world of acting,” Shane said, putting on his woollen coat, then he added insult to injury by commenting, “I’m off home. Good luck.”
Alex joined him as Shane left, the two men exchanging goodbyes as they passed each other, then Alex came to stand beside Peter. “Are you all right? You look annoyed.”
Even the sight of the younger actor couldn’t improve his mood tonight, not given who Peter would be letting down because of the delay. “It just doesn’t bode well if we’re already staying late on set.”
Alex shrugged his indifference. “It’s part of the job.”
“Some of us have better things to do.” Peter realised he’d snapped when Alex looked at him with an almost nervous expression. “Sorry,” he said quickly, embarrassed at the uncharacteristic outburst. “It’s just bad timing. This is one of my two nights per week for seeing my kids and I don’t want to let them down.”
“You have children?”
Peter realised Alex didn’t know about that part of his life. It was funny how quickly it felt as if he’d known him for years. “Three. Emma is the oldest; she’s thirteen. Charlie is eleven and Rick is eight.”
“Have you got a photo?”
Peter got out his mobile and brought up a series of pictures of them, smiling as he looked over Alex’s shoulder at the images. Emma was standing outside a theatre in the first picture, a twelfth birthday treat. The shot had been taken four months before Helen kicked him out of the house and Emma looked happier than he’d seen her since the divorce; he thought she’d been hurt the most by it of all the children. Charlie and Rick were side-by-side in the next picture, a football on the grass between them. Trying to keep up with their endless energy kept Peter fit.
“Wait.” Alex studied his face with an intensity that made him forget to breathe and then looked back at one of the photos. “They’ve inherited your dimples. That’s so cute.”
Peter laughed, bad mood melting away.
“These are my two nieces,” Alex said, getting out his own phone to show Peter a picture of a couple, the man holding a baby while a toddler clasped the woman’s hand, a beach behind them and the sky a cloudless blue overhead. The man looked enough like Alex to clearly be his brother, tanned and attractive, and the girls shared his blond hair and blue eyes. “They’re all in LA so I really miss them.”
Peter nodded, reminded of all the time alone in his house without his children around him. “That can be tough.”
“When did you get divorced?”
“The beginning of last year. My wife met someone else.”
“That must have been horrible.”
“It still is sometimes. We have joint residence – custody – of the children but it’s been a nightmare for them and somehow I always feel as if I’m saying goodbye to them.” At first he’d been almost overwhelmed with grief every time he watched them leave, but he’d pushed down the feeling, knowing they needed him to show them how to handle the change in all their lives.
“My parents divorced when I was a kid. You get used to the different rhythm of life after a while – seeing one parent and then the other – and it’s not so bad.”
“I hope you’re right.” Nothing was worse than seeing his children unhappy and being unable to do anything to make it better. “Sorry, I’m being maudlin.”
“No, you’re not. At least, I don’t think so, since I’ve no clue what maudlin actually means.”
Peter laughed, once more shaken out of his gloom by the other actor.
Alex smiled at him as he said, “You can tell me anything you like. I like hearing about your life.”
And Peter wanted to tell him everything, share every detail, but things were complicated enough and the intensity of his attraction to Alex terrified him. He had been married to Helen for seventeen years; it had never even occurred to him not to trust her, and she had betrayed him, lying for not just weeks or months, but for two years. How could he believe in anyone else after that?