Two triple-shot espressos down and Kennedy Grey massaged his fingers into his temples. Dull throbbing had begun to resemble a migraine. Not because of the coffee—his lifeblood most days—but because the previous candidate had tried his patience to the limit. ‘Is the food safe to eat? Isn’t Singapore in China? Aren’t gays banned in China? And will there be any fringe benefits?’ Questions about food safety he could accept, especially if a candidate had allergies. He could even appreciate them not being familiar with the geography of the travel destination. For that very reason, he had brought along a one-page map of Asia highlighting Singapore. But asking if there would be any fringe benefits had tipped him over the edge. The advert had been straightforward enough on the subject of remuneration.
Not for the first time that afternoon, Kennedy considered throwing in the towel and abandoning the whole precious idea. Maybe this was the year he made a change. After all, the signs of madness were everywhere, what with a game show host being chosen as the official Republican candidate to run for the US presidency and the people of Britain filing for divorce from Europe.
As a penniless young man straight out of university, he would have trampled heads for a heaven-sent dream of a job like this. On the laptop, he scrolled down to the UK Gay Society billboard and reread the contents of the advert.
Gay Holiday Companion Required
Based in or around London. Must have full ten-year passport with at least seven months remaining and be freely available to travel overseas for the whole month of September 2016. Candidate should ideally be between 21 and 25, non-smoking, social drinker, drug free, and must be able to pull off the role of dutiful boyfriend in front of male sponsor’s close-knit circle of friends. Acting experience a distinct advantage. Any ethnicity considered.
Successful candidate will receive an all-expenses-paid holiday to Southeast Asia, starting with round-trip flights from London Heathrow to Singapore’s Changi Airport, a three-night stay in Singapore, followed by a 14-night gay cruise to Hong Kong. After a two-night stay in Hong Kong, the holiday will culminate in a flight to Bali, Indonesia and eight nights staying at the sponsor’s private luxury villa.
Candidate will receive a guaranteed five thousand pounds in cash for services rendered, and a discretionary bonus, should the candidate’s performance exceed expectations.
If you are interested, please respond to email@example.com with a recent photo (headshots only, thank you) and CV, to arrange a mutually agreeable time for an interview.
So what if the advert bordered on politically incorrect? Marketing staff at UKGS had assured him that he had breached no advertising codes or legal regulations. Besides, the ‘exceed expectations’ line had only been tacked on this year, a suggestion from his best friend, Steph—a safe enough addendum, since for the past three years no one ever had.
Moreover, the advertised list of requirements told only half a story. He peered up and scanned the coffee shop. Even a couple of the young men sitting at various tables could have made the grade. In his head, Kennedy had an unspoken list of other requirements, undocumentable, such as the companion being a toned, blond twink, pretty as a royal wedding, but with a relatively low IQ. They should be no more than five feet six, and definitely shorter than his five-ten. Most importantly, they needed to be totally and utterly compliant to Kennedy’s whims and wishes. And finally, once they had been paid off and returned to dear old mother England, he never wanted to see or hear from them again.
Since his split with Patrick, his partner of nine years, he’d made a point of continuing to join his friends’’ annual sojourn to different parts of the globe—his one break each year from the office and the boardroom—but now with a beautiful young acquaintance. Yes, perhaps bringing along a twink companion smacked of vanity, or desperation even, especially for someone in his early forties whose dark hair had begun to display grey streaks at the temples. But the simple truth was that while Kennedy found meeting and conversing with people for business purposes effortless, he found socialising awkward, especially on his own, and had always relied on Patrick to be the catalyst when meeting friends, old and new. Hence, for the past four years, he had paid for a companion to join him.
Palm Springs gay festivals, Hawaiian island hopping, gay tour of Barcelona and Sitges, cruising around the Greek islands with a week in Mykonos.
Pure culture? Maybe not. But a welcome respite from a punishing work life.
Ollie, his first post-Patrick choice, had turned out to be perfect. Previously an intern at Kennedy’s corporate security company, the blond Adonis had flirted shamelessly with Kennedy and all other male staff, whether straight or gay. And even though Kennedy had been flattered and tempted, he had never succumbed. After the placement had ended, however, he’d made a point of keeping in touch. Once Patrick had decided to walk, Ollie had been his natural choice as lab rat companion. Perfect, as things had turned out, because Ollie had recently lost his job, so Kennedy had sweetened the deal by offering a sum of money to accompany him. Which was how the arrangement had first begun.
That first year the holiday had gone so well, Kennedy had not only stayed in touch but had invited Ollie along for a second helping. A huge mistake, as things transpired, because Ollie had incorrectly translated the gesture to mean that not only were they equals, but that they were going steady. And Kennedy no longer did ‘steady’ with anyone.
If his friends suspected anything, they said nothing. Only Steph knew the truth. And he made a point of telling any candidate the arrangement would be strictly nonsexual, unless they wanted more—which was how the idea of the playing card had come into being. But more than anything, he wanted a companion, not an escort. If the rationalisation might have meant anything to any of them, he would have cited Forster’s novel A Room With A View and the chaperone arrangement between the two main female characters. But after he’d mentioned the reference to Ollie, and had then been lectured about that ‘old James Bond movie they keep showing on Netflix’, he’d stopped bothering to explain altogether.
For the first time since Patrick had walked out, he had been in two minds whether to ditch the charade, to simply bite the bullet and turn up alone. Only five friends had signed up for this year’s sojourn—after last year’s debacle—and one of those was Leonard Day. Kennedy not only had feelings for him but respected his business acumen. Maybe this year he would finally make his feelings known. If only Leonard didn’t come with baggage of his own.
But Kennedy accompanying a plaything had become something of a tradition, a joke among his friends, and he wouldn’t want to let them down.
“S’cuse me. You Kennedy Grey?”
Kennedy peered up from his thoughts to find an extremely blond, extremely buff young man standing over him. Steroid buff, Steph would have labelled him.
“I am, yes. And who might you be?”
“Who might I what?”
“Who… What is your name?”
Kennedy glanced down at his notes. Francis Slade, twenty-five years old, three o’clock appointment. Ten minutes ahead of schedule. One point in his favour. Kennedy swore by punctuality.
“Ah yes, Francis. Please sit down. So do you prefer Francis, Frank or Frankie?”
“Great. You’ve read the advert?”
“Good. So let me go into a bit more detail, give you a few minutes to relax. Then I’ll ask you a few questions and finally let you ask any questions you may have. I’ve got other candidates to see, but I’ll let you know whether you’ve been successful or not by Friday. How does that sound?”
Taking the response as his cue, Kennedy went into further detail about the holiday, explaining that in Singapore they would be staying in Kennedy’s parents’ house. However, the person would be introduced as a friend and would have their own bedroom. Whenever he delved into specifics—especially the rawer aspects—he always studied the candidate’s face carefully to see if any of the information caused a reaction. Francis’ flat face appeared incapable of showing any kind of emotion. ’
Whenever Kennedy got onto the subject of the cruise and his friends, he found himself becoming defensive. Yes, they could be a bitchy bunch, and a couple of companions had found them bordering on rude, but they were his long-time friends.
Bali, at the end of the holiday, was not only the cherry on the cake, but the icing, marzipan and ornate decoration. If the companion managed to survive until then, they would be able to enjoy the delights of that magical Indonesian island. By then Kennedy would usually be ready to get back to work, so would spend most of the last week either on his laptop, mobile phone, or writing up proposals.
“So far, so good?”
“Yep,” said Francis, yawning and stretching his hands above his head. When his tee pulled tight, Kennedy spotted the outline of nipple rings beneath the material. Tick. Another point in the boy’s favour.
“How tall are you?”
“Nice,” said Kennedy, reaching next to his laptop for the supplementary document. “So here’s a list of other requirements. You’ll need to take a medical examination before you travel.”
“A precaution. To make sure you’re in good shape, physically.”
“I’m negative, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“That’s not…” Kennedy huffed out a sigh. “Look, the year before last, my travel companion came down with acute appendicitis three days into the trip. And due to severe rupturing—which was touch and go for a while—he had to spend six days in a private hospital in Florida after which, quite naturally, he wanted to fly straight home to be with his family. If he had taken a medical examination before the trip, it’s likely the appendicitis would have been diagnosed early, avoiding his suffering and my equally ruptured bank account.”
“Ain’t got an appendix. Got it removed when I was eleven.”
“That’s not the point—” Kennedy ran a hand through his hair. “I need to make sure the person accompanying me is fit and healthy in all respects. And that condition is non-negotiable. So if it’s a problem for you, then you need to let me know right away.”
Francis stared down at the paper for so long that for a moment Kennedy thought he’d changed his mind.
“For the medical?”
“Great. Any other questions for me?”
“How old are you?”
Francis grinned then. At least, that was ‘what it appeared to be to Kennedy. Either that or the lad had wind.
“You like ‘em young, then?”
Kennedy had to stop himself from answering that more than anything, he liked them compliant. And most younger guys tended to be less free-willed, more willing to please, mainly because they needed the money.
“Is that a problem?”
“Nope. I’m into Daddies.”
Oh, heck, thought Kennedy, Steph is going to have a field day if Francis becomes this year’s chosen one.
“So I’ve got your number. I’ll be in touch Friday.”
When Francis stood, whether purposely or not, he yawned again and stretched his arms above his head so that the bottom of his tee rode up slightly to reveal a ripped stomach and a dark-blond trail of curly hair running down and disappearing beneath the waistband.
Kennedy almost handed him the job right there and then.