The Ugliest Sweater
©Copyright Gillian St. Kevern 2015
All rights reserved
“Absolutely not.” Aston stood in the kitchen doorway, wearing Abercrombie and Fitch and an expression of disgust.
Dan looked over his shoulder and swallowed. “Morning,” he started.
“Don’t ‘morning’ me.” Aston’s eyes flashed.
Dan had spent the week psyching himself up for this, but he still took a step back. When riled, Aston could be very sarcastic.
“Have you lost your goddamn mind?”
“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?” Dan looked down at himself. “It’s only a sweater.”
Aston snorted. “That is ‘only a sweater’ the same way the Titanic was a bit of a wreck.”
Dan forced a laugh. “You can’t compare a sweater to an actual tragedy.”
“That sweater is an actual tragedy. Honestly, Dan. Have you gone blind?”
Dan smoothed his hand over the sweater. It was three different shades of red, five of green, and two of brown. The knitter had been unable to choose between subtly seasonal Shetland techniques or boldly pledging their allegiance to all things Santa, so had combined both. It was a seasonal train wreck in garment form. Even his dad, widely acknowledged as having absolutely no taste in anything, blanched at the sweater. “I quite like it.”
Aston shut his eyes and shuddered. His white T-shirt was far too lightweight for London weather, but it showed off his tan (thirty pounds for ten minutes at a salon off Earls Court). “How could you do this to me?”
“I’m not asking you to wear it!”
“No.” Aston folded his arms. “I am not dating a man who is willing to be seen looking like something a reindeer puked up.”
Dan steeled himself. “It’s me and the sweater, or not at all.”
* * * * *
“And that’s how I ended up moving back to my parents’ a few weeks before Christmas.” Dan put his change down on the counter. “The sad thing is they were expecting me. I show up on the doorstep, my car full of boxes, and all Dad says is, ‘a bit early this year, isn’t it, son?’“ Dan shrugged. “I have been dumped three Christmases in a row.”
The cashier was staring at his sweater, fascinated.
Dan cleared his throat.
Her gaze jerked up, a guilty flush spreading across her face. “I’m sorry, I zoned out. Could you repeat your order?”
Dan sighed. “Gingerbread latte with soy milk. Grande size. Have here.”
“Coming right up.” Her fingers rattled across the cash register with confidence. “Pick up from the counter.”
Dan had moved towards the counter before he realised she’d forgotten to ask his name. He looked back, but the middle-aged woman who had taken his place was giving him a look of approbation. Dan leaned against the wall near the counter, tugging at the sweater’s collar. As a fitness instructor at a large gym, he was used to being stared at—just not like this. The two suited businessmen had paused their intent argument, while the cool guy in the blazer had pushed up his sunglasses to get a better look. The group of teenagers probably thought they were being discreet, but the sheer amount of nudging and glances sent his way made their scrutiny clear.
Dan scratched his chin. Should have got the coffee to go.
“Gingerbread sweater! I mean—” The server froze, looking down at the cup she held. “Really ugly latte!”
Someone laughed, trying to disguise it as a cough. Then, everyone was coughing. Dan grabbed his tray, making his way to the back of the Starbucks as quickly as possible. Goddamnit, he hated Starbucks! Too expensive, loaded with calories, and the coffee wasn’t even that good! He was setting his training programme back an entire week just stepping in the door. If it wasn’t for the seasonal menu… Cursed gingerbread lattes!
Dan looked up.
The guy with the sunglasses stood in front of his table. His tray trembled in his hands. “I couldn’t help but notice you are wearing clothes.”
“Yeah.” Dan nodded. “So are you.”
Really nice clothes, actually. Blazer, silk T-shirt, skinny jeans, and boots. It looked casual, but the outfit would have set Dan back a few weeks’ salary—and made him look ridiculous. This guy pulled it off in a malnourished rock star way.
What he wasn’t pulling off? Speaking. The guy took a deep breath and stalled, mouth working but nothing coming out.
“Are you all right?” Dan started to worry. The sweater tended to have an effect on people, but this was the first time it had caused hyperventilation. “Here, sit down.” He took the tray out of the guy’s hands and nudged the other chair towards him.
The guy folded into it in a way that suggested he was a pro at falling out of clubs, cabs, maybe even beds. “Sorry,” he said. “I swear I’m usually more collected than this.”
“You’d have to be.” Dan cringed inwardly. He was no good at making small talk with strangers. He took a sip of his latte, wondering what on earth he was supposed to do.
The guy laughed. “Yeah. Sorry. It’s just.” He paused, licking his lips. “Your sweater.”
Dan braced. “What about it?”
“It’s hideous.” His tone was almost reverent, and he stretched out a hand to stroke Dan’s sleeve. “It really is.”
Dan’s laugh was startled. The words were so at odds with the tone in which they were delivered. “Yeah, I guess it is.”
The guy ran his fingers over Dan’s arm. The touch sent warmth shooting through him. “I’ve seen some pretty terrible sweaters, but this is truly in a class of its own. Where—” He licked his lips again as if suddenly unsure. “Where did you find it?”
People only ever asked that question with a faint sneer. Dan felt his chest expand with a cautious stirring of hope. “You really want to know?”
Rock star must have realised he was still feeling Dan up because he let go and picked up his drink, an eggnog latte in a to-go cup. The name on the paper sleeve said Jake. “Let me guess. Present from your nan? Or maybe you lost a bet.” He shrugged as if he already knew the answer.
“No, actually.” Dan had an elaborate story prepared for these moments involving a raffle and a dying Aunt, but somehow he found himself telling the truth. “Me and my then boyfriend were about to move into an apartment together, so we went to a car boot sale to pick up some of the stuff we were missing on the cheap. I saw the sweater immediately. I mean, it stands out.” Dan tried to laugh, but the way Jake stared at him with undisguised interest took the wind out of his sails, and he felt like he’d been tackled. “Simon saw me looking at it and said ‘No way.’ The guy who had it said he’d been trying to flog it for years and never even had anyone try it on. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, even when we were picking out cutlery. I mean, it was ugly. So ugly it was kind of beautiful. And when we were going back to the car at the end of the day and the sweater was still there, it flashed through my head that I might be the one person in the world who could love it, so I had to get it.” He took a nervous sip of his latte, awaiting Jake’s reaction. It was one thing to be a loser wearing a horrible sweater, quite another to out himself as a loser wearing a horrible sweater by choice.
Jake watched him with an expression Dan could not define. His eyes shone, and his face was flushed. “You mean that? And you’re not colour-blind or anything?”
Dan shook his head. “Not as far as I know.”
“We broke up three weeks later. He said he couldn’t look at me the same way after the sweater.”
“It takes a lot of confidence to wear a sweater like that.” Jake ran his tongue deliberately across his bottom lip.
Nervous habit or invitation? Dan caught a brief glimpse of a metal stud before Jake’s words registered, and then he jerked his gaze up to Jake’s eyes. “Eh?”
Jake grinned, a smirk playing around the edges of his mouth. “I like a man who’s secure in himself. It’s hot.”
“Thanks.” Dan told himself the heat in his cheeks was just warmth. For all its design faults, the sweater was toasty, and Starbucks was not stingy with their heating. He toyed with his latte. Would asking for Jake’s number come off as desperate? Then again, no one had ever liked the sweater… “Um.”
“Can I blow you?”
Dan’s brain short-circuited. He stared, sure he couldn’t have heard what he thought he’d heard.
“That probably came out wrong,” Jake continued. “What I meant to say is that I would really like to suck you off.”