Dumping his filled-to-the-brim sports bag onto the real-wood floor in his entrance foyer, Jay kicked the front door shut and threw his set of keys into the bowl on the dark oak storage unit. He rubbed his hands together, blowing on them in the hope to reinvigorate some life back into his fingers. They’d practically numbed when standing on the side-lines in minus temperatures. Frozen to his core, despite the layers of branded sportswear, Jay had never been this cold when he’d been a player. Turned out, he had more to learn than the fundamentals of coaching a team of sixteen-year-old lads. Primary lesson was how to stay warm during a ninety-minute match when the pitch had more icicles than blades of grass.
Jay paused on hearing the subtle guitar playing filtering in from the main front room, along with rhythmic tapping on a tambourine. His smile deepened when his husband’s gravelly, husky tones sailed over the freshly composed music and their five-year-old daughter’s shrieks of glee along with it. So Jay hovered over to the open lounge, peering into the front room, not announcing his arrival. He wanted to watch for a while. Because there, sat on the fluffy rug in front of the roaring faux fireplace, was his entire world.
Acoustic guitar resting on his lap, Seb strummed away to what Jay assumed was his latest composed melody while Beatrice bounced on her knees in front of him, slapping the tambourine so hard that her dark bunches secured by red bows fluffed around her shoulders. Seb and his band, the Drops, had been on a hiatus for five years. He might have tinkered with writing new music occasionally when locked away in his home studio, but he hadn’t released a new track since Beatrice had thrown their lives upside down with the extra care she needed by being a preemie baby. Seb had been her primary caregiver, enabling Jay to play out his final seasons as West Ham’s main striker.
Music was so important Seb, Jay was glad he’d found a way to share his love with their daughter. And that he’d toned down his hardened indie-rock for heartfelt acoustic compositions. Seb had been singing to her non-stop since her early arrival into the world, his voice was her home. As it was his. So as he leaned against the door frame, watching them both in the middle of the mainly cream-and-white, except for the range of retro scatter cushions and vases of green foliage that Jay’s mum insisted she take care of, lounge, his heart warmed.
His hands were still freezing though.
Beatrice suddenly clocked him, and she jumped up, running over to rap her arms around his legs. “Dad-Jay!” she beamed and squished her cheek into his thigh.
She was dressed in a burgundy velvet dress with a huge black bow tied around the back that Jay ran his fingers over, paired with white woollen tights and shiny black buckled shoes. The entire outfit had been a gift courtesy of Jay’s in-laws. Will and Sylvia liked to kit out their only grandchild in the expensive gear they collected from the Harrods range. The fact that Seb had dressed the kid in it this morning probably meant that they’d either had those visitors already or would be expecting them. Especially as Seb was looking far more well-to-do than he normally did. As in, his dark hair was brushed to the side rather than left in a dishevelled stylistic mess, and his skinny jeans bore no rips and had been paired with a respectable navy slim-fitting button-down shirt.
They both looked adorable.
Jay hauled Bea arm into his arms, kissed her nose, then placed her back down on the ground. Seb draped his arm over his guitar long enough to witness that exchange, a grin tugging his lips, then continued with his strumming, adding a few hums so as to not forget the tune he’d been writing whilst in full care of his daughter.
Bea pulled on Jay’s fingers. “Listen to Daddy!” she said, beaming and yanking Jay into the room.
Jay toppled forward, meeting Seb’s innocent gaze, and he perched on the end of their curved sofa. Bea settled into his lap and he wrapped his arms around her tummy, interlacing his fingers over the soft velvet of her dress to keep her from falling off with her animated wriggling. His fingers were still bone cold, but as Bea placed hers on top of his, the blood rushed to her touch and warmed him from the inside.
“Go on then,” Jay said, raising his chin to Seb. “Play it.”
Seb slapped his palm over the strings, drowning the echoing ting. “How was first day at school?” he asked.
Jay laughed. Although Seb wasn’t half wrong. His first day being coach to the West Ham under sixteen’s squad had certainly felt like him turning up at a new school. At thirty-five, he’d hit the peak of his playing career some time back and was happy to lay low. Landing the offer of coaching had been his meal ticket to stay in the game. He’d been excited about it, yes, but there had also been apprehension. How would twenty lads, mostly all residing from the east end of London, take him—the first out gay player in the prem—being their coach? Jay might have a decorated career in the English Premier League, but it hadn’t all been plain sailing. Not everyone valued his input into an exceptionally hetero-masochistic game.
“Any…unnecessary unrest?” Seb raised his eyebrows with almost a mocking, hmmm, on the end.
Jay snorted. Seb would never, ever let him forget the two words that had almost prevented their legal union.
“No,” Jay said. “Was all good.” He rocked Beatrice on his lap as she giggled with glee at being wobbled from side to side. “Mostly a nice bunch of lads. Few boisterous ones needing a firm hand.”
“Yeah? Think you’ll whip them into shape, do you?”
Jay arched an eyebrow. “Better not say that to the press, the Mail’ll have a field day.”
Seb chuckled, brushing the guitar strings with his plectrum as he glanced down at his finger placements on the fingerboard. Probably involuntarily, but most definitely with eagerness.
“Play it,” Jay said and squeezed Beatrice closer to him to rest his cold nose on her squishy warm cherub cheek.
“Dad-Jay!” Beatrice startled. “You’re cold!”
Jay chuckled, then dipped his fingers into the collar of her dress, pressing his frozen tips to her warm skin. She shrieked and leapt off from his lap to launch into Seb’s. “Daddy!” she squealed. “Tell him!”
“Do not torture my princess!” Sen warned with a menacing finger and dropped his guitar beside him to hug Beatrice to his chest.
Jay slipped off the sofa, mischievous grin rising. Then, landing on his knees beside the two of them, he edged closer. Clearly knowing what was to come, Seb scrambled away with Bea clutching onto his neck like a baby monkey, but one daughter and an acoustic guitar meant he didn’t get very far and Jay lunged for them both, sliding his hands around Beatrice and up into Seb’s shirt.
“Fu—Jes—boll—” Seb cut off each curse as he tried to grip Jay’s wrists to yank his hands out.
“Ahhh.” Jay rolled them both forward onto the rug and, delighted in the warmth settling into his hands from hugging his husband and daughter, he grinned. “So good.”
Seb gritted his teeth, riding out the pain. Bea buried her face into Seb’s neck and Jay eventually clambered off them both to perch on his knees with a satisfied smirk. “Cheers.” He waggled his fingers, the feeling now back in his tips. “Needed that.”
Bea slipped off from Seb as he hauled himself back up to sit, side eying Jay. “I’ll get you for that later.”
Jay arched an eyebrow. “Bring it the eff on.”
That sultry look from his husband meant he was most certainly going to bring it, probably when Bea was in bed, and Jay should probably watch out. He smiled, then nodded to the guitar as he pulled Beatrice back into his lap. He kissed her cheek that time, careful not to prickle her delicate skin.
“Go on, then,” he said. “Let’s hear it.”
Seb’s grin was infectious, and he clambered for the guitar, checking his strings and when he started up, the sweet melody filled Jay’s heart with accustomed warmth. He adored Seb’s playing. He loved his singing. He fell deeper and anchored himself to that man each and every time he composed. It was rawness and real, beautiful and enchanting. And it always brought Jay back to that time, all those years ago, when he’d watched the man perform on a stage filled with many and had become his biggest, longest, and most loyal of fans. Seb always sung with such heartfelt emotion. This was no different. Especially as he guessed the ‘she’ he was referring to in his lyrics was Beatrice.
Seb trailed off, his fingers brushing the strings and he glanced up to Jay as he kinda just left it hanging. “Not complete,” he said. “Needs a better finish.” He flattened his palm across the sound hole. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” Jay said, then kissed Bea’s cheek. “Like you.” She giggled, then Jay leaned forward, gripping onto his daughter so she didn’t slide off to kiss his husband. “And you.”
Seb grinned. “Think I’m ready to go back.”
“Yeah? You sure?”
Seb placed his guitar next to him. “I think so.” He stroked a hand through Bea’s bunches. “She’s now full time at pre-school. She’ll be starting reception in a few months’ time. It’s about time I got a job that isn’t clearing up after her.”
Jay snorted. “You don’t do that, babe. I come home to chaos most days.”
“Chaos means we’ve been knee deep in learning through play. I am using the Montessori method of child rearing.”
Jay snorted. Not that he denied it. Seb had every how to guide on raising toddler geniuses. He’d settled on the one that meant less maths. “Whatever you want, babe,” he said. “My schedule ain’t so demanding anymore. So I can step in for school runs. You deserve to be back on that stage. I know you miss it.”
“I have.” Seb ruffled a hand through his hair, probably as a way to say he was ready to style that and shake off his main Daddy-day-care role to become the front man of the Drops again. “I’ve loved every second of being with her.”
“I know you have. That ain’t in denial. But you need music. You need the band. That’s what makes you you.”
Seb shuffled toward him, kissing Jay on the lips and planting one to Bea’s head. “What do you say, princess? You want Dad-Jay to look after you more? Let Daddy rock the world again?”
Beatrice scrunched up her button nose, lips pursed, glancing from Seb to Jay. She then erupted into a grin and threw her arms around Jay’s neck.
“Think that’s a yes,” Seb said, rubbing her back and looking just a slight miffed.
“She still loves you the best,” Jay whispered into his ear.
“There’s no competition here, Champ.”
“There’s always competition with you.”
Seb chuckled and Bea jumped off Jay’s lap, swishing her skirt. “Do you like my dress, Dad-Jay?”
“I love it, pumpkin.” Jay tugged her fingers, then off she ran to go hunt in her box of overflowing toys, so Jay asked Seb, “Are they due round or been round?”
Seb slapped him on the arm then jumped up to retrieve an envelope from the coffee table. He handed it to Jay. “Invitation.”
“To?” Jay thumbed the elegant matte.
“My mother and father’s wedding.”
Jay widened his eyes. “You’re joking.”
“I fucking wish.” At least he’d whispered the curse word. “Who does that? Gets divorced, then fifteen years later get remarried?”
“Two people who should have stayed together but outside forced made it impossible.”
“My mother and father made it impossible. Neither are particularly easy to live with.”
“Know where you get it from then.” Jay chuckled, throwing the envelope on the table.
Seb stuck out his tongue. Jay blew him a kiss.
“Listen, I wanted to ask you something.” Jay turned serious, knowing this next part might take more persuading that their attendance at his parents’ second wedding. Seb had had a hard enough time coming to terms with their reunion and his mother’s more frequent visits to London.
“Is it, ‘do you want a takeaway for dinner’?”
“No. We had Thai last night. And you said you’d plan something for tonight.”
“I did plan something. Pizza. From Le Express.”
“Bastard. Aren’t coaches allowed to pile on the pounds?”
“I’m still a player.”
“Who hasn’t got their studs muddy since November. You’re keeping that bench seat exceptionally warm.”
After a brief check that Bea was preoccupied with her Leapfrog, Jay stuck his middle finger up at his husband.
Seb chuckled, kneeling to tuck his acoustic guitar back in its case. “What is it then?”
“The club put a call out for the under 5s team.”
Seb snapped shut his case. “Baby, I know this semi-retirement thing is hitting you hard, but thirty-five and under-five are quite different. They’ll notice.”
“For Bea.” Jay angled his head to his daughter pressing buttons on her pad.
“She’s a girl.”
“Girls play football.”
Seb opened his mouth, probably to dispute it, before thinking better of it and closed it again. “She’s too precious!” he squawked instead.
“It’s mostly ball skills at that age. Learning the game. Not full-on tackles.”
“Good, because I do not want other girls kicking my princess.”
Jay bit his lip. “It’s mixed teams that age too.”
“What?” Seb’s voice hit new levels. “Girls and boys? Together?”
“Yeah. Although, I’d guess they’ll be more boys than girls. They’ll put her in with them ‘cause there ain’t enough girls for a full team.”
Seb stood, gripping the handles of his guitar case. “You’re not selling this.”
“It’s exercise. It’s fun. She loves playing football in the garden.”
“No, you love playing football with her in the garden. She ends up crying because you don’t let her win.”
“I’m teaching her how to accept losses. It’s an important part of the game.”
Seb gave him a dubious look. “Our daughter should not learn to accept failure.”
“Sorry, Mr. Saunders, sir, I hadn’t realised you were still here.”
Seb stuck his middle finger up. He then glanced over Jay’s head to Beatrice at the back of the lounge, now laying on her tummy as she played a game on her tablet. “Really?” he asked, brow furrowed. “You want her to join a football team?”
“Not any football team. My football team. If she doesn’t like it, she doesn’t have to play. But let’s take her and see.”
“Are you doing this to try and prove nature versus nurture?”
Jay stood, stepping in closer to Seb to kiss him. “No. I’m doing this because I watch her singing and playing music with you every day. I want that bond. I want her to experience what her Dad-Jay fell in love with at her age.”
“Kicking a fucking football.”
“Kicking a fucking football into the back of a net, over the heads of fucked-off keeper.”
“That better than sex?” Seb studied his face.
Jay didn’t answer for a while, until Seb widened his eyes in severe encouragement. So he rushed out, “Not sex with you.”
“Fine.” Seb closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. “When?”
“Tomorra. Nine a.m.”
“Jesus effing Christ.
* * * *
Seb was pretty damn sure he had never, ever been this cold.
It was January, for fuck’s sake. And he was here, standing on the edge of an of an icy-cold football pitch and was, once again, inappropriately dressed. When would he ever learn? He’d been married to a footballer for five years, his live-in partner for eight prior to that. Yet still he hadn’t acquired the suitable attire to be out in the cold for ninety-plus minutes in plummeting English climate.
He blew out a breath from chattering lips, condensation forming twisted shapes, and tucked his hands under the armpits of his denim jacket. He gazed over to his tiny, precious daughter standing in the middle of the pitch listening to the team coach. Despite her being wrapped up head to toe in base layers with a replica West Ham kit – the name Rutters and 9 on the back – her little legs trembled. Seb was hard pressed not to run over and throw his jacket around her, gather her up and walk out of there. He wouldn’t though. Not only would Jay murder him dead if he did, Seb didn’t want to be that parent.
So he jiggled on the spot, toes numbing within his All-stars, eyes fixed on the team of ten kids forming a circle in the middle of the pitch. Jay was also out there, doing his duty as the star attraction by shaking hands with the coach then fist bumping each of the kids. He then tapped a hand down on Bea’s shoulder, whispering something in her ear before heading back to Seb with a wink. Seb gritted his chattering teeth. Beatrice, her long hair pulled back into a pony tail already falling from its band, wasn’t just one of the girls in the team try-outs. She was the only girl.
“Do you want my coat?” Jay asked as he jogged off the pitch to stand beside Seb.
“Yes.” And there was the reason why he hadn’t bought his own Football-Dad get up. Because he had a Jay. He smiled as Jay unzipped his padded wind-breaker jacket and wrapped it around Seb’s shoulders. “Thank you.” He loved it. The extra warmth. The scent of his husband. The feeling of being wrapped up like a gift. “Feel like a fucking cheerleader boyfriend.”
“Husband,” Jay replied and kissed him, then stood shoulder to shoulder with him at the side lines to watch the Academy try-outs that had just started by a piercing whistle blow.
Seb darted his gaze to Jay, realising that he was wearing another coat. He’d come with two. He smiled. Then jolted at the blast of a whistle. The kids were off. All ten of them chasing after a football like they were a murmuration of starlings, swooping and kicking and flailing after a ball that had zero target.
“Love watching football at this age,” a man hovering up beside Jay said. “No control. No spacing out. Just chase that ball down and kick it.” He held out his hand to Jay. “Adam.” He nodded out the the pitch. “My one’s Cooper, the blond.”
Jay chuckled and shook the man’s hand. “Jay.” He pointed out to pitch. “Ours is the girl. Bea.”
The man did a duck, then a double take, taking in both Jay and Seb beside him. Seb offered a smile he hoped was genuine but between his chattering teeth and blue lips he was sure he didn’t pull it off. Still, this was Jay’s moment. Not his.
“Blimey. Jay Ruttman.” Adam pumped Jay’s hand harder. “Guess she’s already won her spot then.”
“Only if she inherited my ball skills, and not his.” Jay angled his head toward Seb.
“You have never once complained about my ball skills,” Seb muttered under his breath.
Jay shouldered him. Seb chuckled and watched his daughter drift away from the swarm of boys to hover by the goal line. She motioned to the group, raising her hands as if commanding them. One of the boys got his foot to the ball and with a fierce kick, whacked it her way. The ball found her pristine new studs that Jay had no doubt spent a fortune on, and she managed to stop it with her tip then launched her leg bag and blast. The ball zoomed past the stunned kid in goal to the slam against the back of the net.
Jay’s sudden launch into the air and boisterous cheer nearly caused Seb to jump out of his skin.
“Fucking hell,” Seb said, heart hammering as he splayed a hand on his chest.
“Think she’s in,” Adam remarked.
Beatrice ran the full length of the half-sized make-shift pitch, punching her fists in the air and launched herself into Jay’s arms. He swung her around, kissed her cheek then plonked her back onto the grass. He tapped her behind. “Go on, sweetheart. Slam another one in.”
And off she went, pink cheeks and wide grin as she high fived a couple of the boys in the bibs on her team. Some of the others scowled at her, arms folded. One cried. His dad obviously wasn’t happy about that and gesticulated for him to get a grip and not be outdone by a girl.
Seb heaved a deep breath. “She’s a fucking footballer.”
“Yeah, she is.” Jay’s grin couldn’t have been wider and his blue eyes sparkled with potential. “She found space, she called for the ball, she scored. She’s a fucking Ruttman.”
Seb, after a moment of reflecting on his husband’s career playing top flight football, his coming out and how he’d grown into himself, developing harder, thicker, sturdier skin than any other player in the premier league and how he was a role mode, an icon, the most wonderfully strong, persistent and resilient man Seb had ever known, he smiled.
“Yeah. She is,” he said and rubbed his hands together. “Bring it the fuck on.”
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