Read Love starved Online

Authors: Kate Fierro

Love starved

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© Kate Fierro, 2015

All Rights Reserved

ISBN 13: 978-1-941530-32-0 (print)

ISBN 13: 978-1-941530-30-6 (ebook)

Published byInterlude Press

http://interludepress.com

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and places are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to real persons, either living or dead, isentirely coincidental.

All trademarks and registered trademarks are the property of theirrespective owners.

Book designby Lex Huffman

Cover Designby Buckeyegrrl Designs

Cover Illustrationby Valerie Schroedl

For those who gave me the impulse to start writing and the courage to never stop.

Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 1

The last of the managerstrickled out of the conference room, in a hurry to start the weekend, and Micah Geller switched off the projector, gathered his papers and leaned back in his chair to stretch his tense muscles. He drank some water to relieve the scratchiness in his throat, strained after the full-day seminar. This was the last group of the week. He could finally leave the gray, windowless room that felt oppressive in spite of its size, and he wouldn’t have to come back tomorrow. Of course, he had the next workshop scheduled in a week, so he’d be in another corporate building, another colorless conference room or lecture hall soon enough.

But for now, he was free.

Outside, the cloudy morning had morphed into a beautiful evening; the spring greenery looked all the more vivid after the neutral interiors and monochrome suits Micah had seen all day. He took off his jacket and put it on the back seat of his Mazda, and then stood there a moment, in the middle of the half-empty parking lot, relishing the warm wind on his face. May had always been his favorite month. Too bad it was almost over and he’d had no time to enjoy it.

Well, he could do something to rectify that tonight. Instead of heading to the office, he would get take-out from his favorite Mexican place and eat dinner on his balcony, soaking up the last rays of sun while catching up on the tasks that had accumulated over the week of teaching. He had at least two conference invitations in his inbox and a June work schedule from his employees to check and approve; his publisher had been nagging him all week to finish the last round of editing before the book based on his seminars hit the printer. That should keep him busy tonight.

Micah got in the car and rolled down the windows, and then he put on hisRecharge!playlist and pulled out of the parking lot. Along with the wind in his hair and the rhythm vibrating through the speakers came an uncharacteristic flash of rebellion, a decision made before he really thought about it. He would play truant tonight. In the morning, he would get back to being the best, most dedicated network security consultant and trainer in the city. But right now, he’d enjoy a rare free night out, breathing actual air that hadn’t been forced through air conditioning and having drinks instead of dinner. He wasn’t hungry anyway.

He knew just the place to go.

An hour later, Micah’s seconddrink buzzed pleasantly through his veins. He’d left his car in the garage and taken a cab to get here. He’d eaten some tapas, just enough for the alcohol not to hit him like a sledgehammer, and now the world seemed like a very agreeable place indeed. Rays of the setting sun were slanting golden across the floor of the little rooftop bar, the air was fresh with a gentle breeze and the whole of Minneapolis lay spread before him, all silver and green. Micah couldn’t tear his eyes away from the view. Even after nine years here, sometimes the city still took his breath away.

“So are you getting happy drunk, sad drunk or just drunk drunk?” asked a high-pitched, slightly nasal voice behind him. “This better be good. I’m giving up my Aerobox class for you.”

Micah turned with a smile. “Daphne. So you did come, after all.”

The petite girl climbing onto the bar stool beside him looked completely out of place in this fancy bar with its overpriced drinks. In black leggings and a hot pink tank top, her shock of blond hair gathered into a tight ponytail low on her head, Daphne stood out among the tired businessmen and women in power suits stopping for a drink after work. Her whole face lighting up, she beamed at Micah.

“Of course I came. When was the last time you wanted to hang out without me bothering you for weeks to find time? It’s got to be an emergency. That’s way more interesting than any torture my fitness instructor was going to come up with. So, what’s up?”

Micah kissed his best friend’s cheek.

“I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no emergency. I just thought I’d take a night off.”

Daphne gasped. “A-ha! That proves it. Who are you and what have you done with my friend?”

“Ha ha. Very funny. I just got tired of being indoors.”

“Youthriveon being indoors.”

“True, most of the time. But lately, it feels like I’m only outside when I go to and from the car at work, and June is going to be even crazier with the book coming out. I needed a few hours. And it’s May.”

“Ah,” Daphne said, nodding. “May. The month of love. Are your hormones going hoppity-hop?”

Micah rolled his eyes. “No, but I’d like to enjoy at least a little bit of the sun before I blink and it gets cold and snowy again. So tonight, I’m a free man.” He stretched luxuriously. “A free man who needs a drink with his best friend. What can I get you?”

“An orgasm.”

“You know, as happy as I am to see you, I’m not ready to show it through sexual favors.”

Daphne sighed. “Still not even a tiny bit bi?”

“Nope.”

She shrugged. “Pity. But I meant the drink. An orgasm, please.” She smiled at the bartender, who nodded and reached for the black bottle of Irish cream. Daphne turned back to Micah. “Just one though, I have a business meeting at ten. Can’t show up inebriated, can I?”

“You have a business meeting at ten p.m. on a Friday?”

Daphne waved her hand dismissively.

“Yeah. A couple of CEOs set for a July wedding coming to discuss the final details. She’s one of those super-commuters, flying in from New York as we speak, so that’s the only reasonable time to meet.” She leaned in to add quietly, “They won’t last, if you ask me, but that’s hardly a reason not to give them the wedding of their dreams, is it?”

“More of a reason, if anything,” Micah agreed.

“See? I love that you understand. Wedding pictures and memories are forever, even if marriage rarely is.” She nodded sagely, and then clapped her hands like an excited little girl. “I wish you would hurry up and find the right guy. I haven’t done a same-sex wedding yet.”

They had both started their own companies even before they graduated from college five years ago. Whereas Micah had merged his unique computer talents and the knowledge taken from his business major into a profession, guarding companies from malicious Internet users and teaching them how to protect their data, Daphne had fulfilled a lifelong dream and become a fantasy wedding planner. She loved her job and was obsessed with pairing up and marrying off all of her friends.

Micah patted her hand. “Sorry, that’s not gonna happen.”

“Aw. You still haven’t met your Prince Charming then?”

“You asked me that the last time we met, you know, and every time before that.”

“So? Anything could have happened since. Though with your schedule, I’d be surprised, unless you literally bumped into someone during one of your work thingies.”

“Nope. Still happily single and not planning to change it, thank you very much,” Micah said with a note of finality.

Daphne regarded him, her expression somewhere between appraising and sad as she sipped her drink. Finally she put the glass down.

“You know, one day you’re gonna meet a cute guy who finds a way to break all those walls you’ve built around you. And when he does, you will see what it really feels like to be loved. You’ll start singing differently in no time, then. I’ll be waiting.”

Micah frowned at her. “Yeah, no thanks. Been there, done that. I’ll pass.”

“Oh come on, Brian doesn’t count.”

Micah shook his head, which only seemed to encourage her.

“No, really, tell me you disagree,” she demanded.

“Can we change the topic?”

That was enough for Daphne to assume victory.

“See? You totally don’t know what you’re missing. If you’d just let me try to set you up with someone…” She batted her long eyelashes. “You know I have mad matchmaking skills.”

“No, Daph. I’m serious. Let it go.” Micah slid off the stool. If he went to the restroom, her overactive brain would probably skip to a different topic by the time he returned. “I’ll be right back.”

She rolled her eyes and let out an exaggerated sigh. “Fine,fine,” she called out to his back. “No blind dates, I promise.”

When Micah returned, Daphne wasstarting on her second drink. She shrugged at his amused expression.

“Whatever. I’ll call Danny to drive me there. Let’s be honest, I’d need much more than this to affect my professionalism. Besides, it will probably make the meeting easier, too—last time they spent the hour arguing about every little detail.Wedding stress. Woohoo.” She took another sip, then turned to face Micah fully again. “Okay, so tell me, did you have even one non-working weekend this month?”

“Not really, no. I didn’t have the time. Why?”

“Because you move as if every single muscle in your body is strained. When did you last exercise, or go swimming or even have a damn walk?”

“I… actually don’t remember,” Micah admitted. “I used the stairs at work last week when the elevator didn’t work. Does that count?”

Daphne shook her head. “What’s the point of living in a decadent building with a fantastic gym and a swimming pool if you never use it? It’s downstairs, for heaven’s sake, how hard is it to find an hour every few days?” She frowned and poked his side. “Seriously, even your ass looks tense.”

Micah’s eyebrows shot up. “Why were you looking at my ass?”

“It’s still a nice ass. I better look now because you’re clearly determined to flatten it into oblivion.”

Micah couldn’t help it; he snorted so loudly a few heads turned with reproachful frowns.

The thing was, Daphne used to have a crush on him in college, when they first rented a tiny apartment together in freshman year. And being, well, Daphne, she never even thought to hide it from him.

“You know, I’ve never understood the appeal of the dark hair plus deep blue eyes combination before,” she’d said one morning, a few months into their new living arrangement. Micah had just walked into the room, half-awake, wearing nothing but briefs after his shower.

He’d hummed something in reply, not really listening. Daphne often got talky in the mornings. Most of the time, she was perfectly content talkingathim, as long as he acknowledged her points at the right moments.

“But I think it’s grown on me,” she added, watching Micah move to the kitchen, on the quest for coffee. “It may be that clueless angel face. It goes really well with the virgin vibes,” she mused, and Micah frowned, not quite following. It was early. There was no coffee in him yet. “Although I think it has more to do with that scrumptious ass of yours. I usually like my men to be at least six feet, but with that body, I’d be willing to make an exception. Yum.”

She laughed at his widening eyes and followed him to the kitchen to take over the coffee-making. He stood there, gaping at her.

“Are you… hitting on me?” he asked carefully after he’d considered and discarded several other options.

She cocked her head, a flirty little smile on her lips. “Yes. Are you interested?”

“Daph, you know I’m gay,” he said, panicking a little. “I mean, it’s flattering, and thank you, but—”

She waved away his bumbling explanations with a bright smile. “It’s fine. I had to ask just in case, didn’t I? Don’t worry, it won’t get weird. A little crush never hurt anyone.”

It really didn’t get weird—thankfully, because Micah loved living with Daphne—even though he felt her eyes on him sometimes. It always made him blush, but he didn’t really mind; it was quite flattering after all. And harmless.

Soon there were other guys in her life, and then in junior year she met Danny, a six-foot-three art dealer, built like a bull, with skin almost as dark as his eyes. It was love at first sight. Micah hadn’t caught her looking at his ass since. Until now. For some reason, he found it hilarious.

“Daphne, you’re married,” he managed to choke out when his laughter subsided.

“Married, not blind,” she remarked. “Besides, it’s not like Danny never ogled your ass.”

That made him sputter. “What?”

“What, what,” she parroted. “Don’t change the subject, I’m still in the middle of judging you for the neglect you inflict upon your poor body. Which, for the record, is the only thing I’m ever gonna judge you on, I swear. I just can’t look at you limping around like that.”

“I’m not limping!” Micah said, indignant.

“It’s subtle, but it’s there. In my informed opinion, you need a good massage. I should hook you up with my new chiropractor—he’s totally straight, but his hands are pure magic.” She nodded firmly and sipped her drink, and then added, “A night of great sex might do the trick, too. When was the last time you hadthat?”

There she was again, inappropriate as ever. Micah forced his face into a decisive expression. “Daphne, really—”

“No, seriously, you’d be surprised how good sex can be for tense muscles,” she said, way too loud. Alcohol always messed with her volume dial. Several people glanced at them with different degrees of interest or amusement.

Wincing, Micah covered Daphne’s mouth with his palm. “Shh, we’re in public! And can we stop talking about sex?” he murmured.

She tried to speak through the obstacle, failed to produce anything clear and licked his hand.

That did the trick. “Ew!” Micah jerked his hand away.

“Let’s hope you washed your hands after peeing. Oh well, alcohol kills the germs anyway.” Daphne took a generous swallow of her drink. “So, should I hook you up with someone? I can think of several hot guys who may be interested in something casual, if you really don’t care for dating.”

“Oh my God, Daphne, shut up,” Micah whined, hiding his rapidly heating face in his palms—one of which was wet now.

“Why? Sex is an important factor in human wellbeing and nothing to be embarrassed about. We all have it, right?”

Micah didn’t even have to raise his head—he was absolutely certain she was looking around at the people listening in, waiting for their input. Daphne had always been infuriatingly open in public, even without alcohol in the mix.

She nudged his shoulder. “And if you don’t, no wonder you’re so high-strung.”


Page 2

“Okay, first of all, I am not high-strung. And second of all, why does it matter?” Micah spat out, annoyed, and straightened. He was twenty-seven and hardly a prude, dammit. Why was he still letting this dirty-minded pixie affect him like that? “Why are you so worried about my sex life anyway?”

“Because sex isawesome.”

“Sex is overrated,” he grumbled and gestured to the bartender for another drink.

That made Daphne gasp. “Okay, that’s it, I’m getting you a guy. You need to get laid. Urgently.”

Micah sighed, resigned to his fate. He’d lived with Daphne for three years; that was enough to know that once she got hung up on something, there was no distracting her until she was finished. If he let her get her crazy out, she would be back to normal soon, and he could pretend this conversation never happened.

Daphne was nearly bouncing. “Let me think, let me think. Ooh, I know!” She reached for her gym bag and started rifling through her big purple wallet. The thing had a dozen partitions and hidden pockets, but finally she let out a victory cry—“Ha, I knew I had it on me”—and pushed something into Micah’s hand.

It was a simple business card, its thick white paper pleasantly textured against Micah’s fingertips. It had a respectable, professional feel, except the only information on the card, embossed in glossy black letters, was a first name—Angel—and an email address. When he picked it up, the changing angle of light made the paper momentarily shimmer red.

Micah arched an eyebrow. “Something tells me this is not your chiropractor.”

“This, my dear, is a guy,” Daphne said, looking as proud as if she’d solved the problem of world hunger. “A smoking hot guy who will do everything you can dream of. He’s not cheap, but he’s worth every penny. You can thank me later.” She grinned. “Oh, and mention who gave you the card when you email him, or he won’t reply. He only works through referrals.”

“He—what?” If Micah’s eyes were as wide as they felt, he probably looked like an anime character. “Did you just give me a card of a male prostitute?” he hissed.

“Oh come on, don’t get your panties in a twist.” Daphne rolled her eyes as if his reaction was unreasonable. “He’s an escort. Or a fantasy date provider, as he calls himself.”

“Of the kind of dates that end with kinky sex,” Micah clarified.

“Kinky or not, adult dates usually do, you know.”

“How do you even know him?”

“We used his services,” she said.

“You, as in, your company? For bachelorette parties or something?”

“No, we as in Danny and me. Angel was his anniversary gift.”

That made Micah’s jaw drop even further. “Danny? You mean—”

“Have I ever said my husband was completely straight?” She winked. “The point is, we were both immensely satisfied with Angel’s services and I wholeheartedly recommend him as a way to fulfill your needs if you don’t have time for a relationship. He’s safe, he’s gorgeous and his skills in bed are amazing.”

“I’m not going to pay for sex!” Micah whispered, scandalized.

“Then pay for the romance,” Daphne said. “Choose the mood, play out your fantasy, whatever it may be. He’ll deliver. You won’t regret it.”

“No, Daphne,” he said firmly. “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m fine. I’m not interested.”

“Whatever.” She shrugged, clearly finished with the topic at last. “Keep the card. I have him in my contacts anyway. You may yet use it when you stop thinking like a prude and realize what you’re missing.”

“I don’t think so.” Micah pushed the card toward her over the shiny surface of the bar.

She pushed it back with an exasperated expression. “Keep it, okay? Now, enough about your sex life, or lack thereof. You’re making me depressed. Let me tell you about the hilarious wedding scenario I get to play with next.”

Chapter 2

By the time he gothome, Micah had forgotten all about the card in his pocket. The empty silence of his apartment bothered him after the welcome respite of the bar. He wished Daphne could have stayed longer—after that weird conversation about sex, they’d fallen into their usual rhythm, chatting about work and college friends and new places to eat in the city, and suddenly Micah wished they could stay like that all night, talking, the way they’d done sometimes in their apartment years ago. They hadn’t had nearly enough time for each other this past year, each of them so preoccupied with work that they often went weeks without contact, and it was only when they met after such a break that Micah realized how much he’d missed her.

But they weren’t college kids anymore; they were adults with careers and responsibilities, so they’d said goodnight before ten, promised to meet again next week if possible and gone their separate ways. Micah hadn’t even drunk enough to be tipsy.

That was easy enough to fix, at least. He could continue such a promising evening at home—he had a bottle of good whiskey in one of the kitchen cabinets, and there should be some ice left in the freezer, too. His Kindle was probably having abandonment issues by now; a few hours with fine liquor and something new to read sounded like a perfect night. He would relax, get pleasantly buzzed and go to bed early. Tomorrow he would get right down to work, rejuvenated and energized.

The plan was good. The reality, however, left much to be desired. Looking through new book releases and trying to pick something to read left Micah restless; he skimmed a few samples, but nothing held his interest. He wanted something that would grab his attention and hold it, a world he could lose himself in, but his patience ran out before he could find anything that fit the bill.

Maybe tonight wasn’t a reading night after all. Maybe he needed some mindless entertainment to let his brain decompress. A second glass of whiskey in hand, Micah curled up in his favorite armchair and reached for the remote. He had months of TV shows to catch up on. This was as good a time to start as any.

But even as he zoned out with old episodes ofSupernatural, watching the Winchester brothers try to save the world again, one monster at a time, a rogue part of his mind kept spinning, edgy and uncomfortable. Some of Daphne’s words stayed with him, nibbling at his brain.

“Brian doesn’t count,” she’d said. Oh how Micah wished he didn’t. But you don’t simply dismiss the person you gave over two years of your life.

Micah washed down the bitter taste in his mouth with more whiskey and forced himself to focus on the show. No use wasting one more minute on Brian. And he did honestly like being single. He loved the independence, loved being the master of his time and his body. He didn’t need anyone.

Why then, if that was the case, did he find himself staring through the screen again, another episode halfway over and he didn’t remember a word of it?

Ugh, he was tired. Tired and suddenly very drunk. The ground swayed under his feet when he switched off the TV and got up from the couch. He glanced at the piano standing quietly in the corner, untouched for weeks, but his coordination was shot by now, and he didn’t feel like more frustration tonight. He should go to bed. It was still early, but he was getting maudlin. Better to sleep it off.

Taking out his contact lenses was a struggle and Micah gave up on the rest of his bedtime routine. He staggered to his bedroom with the half-empty bottle of whiskey in hand, in case he needed some help falling asleep.

A piece of paper fell out of his pants pocket and fluttered to the floor as he stumbled out of his clothes. Micah picked it up, squinting in confusion before he recognized the card Daphne had pushed on him. “Fantasy date,” indeed. As if anyone, let alone a stranger who got paid for sex, could give him the fantasy he’d abandoned years ago. With a hollow laugh that hurt his throat, Micah put the card away on his nightstand, took one last long swallow of liquor and crawled under the covers.

But no matter how comfortably he settled in the duvet cocoon, sleep wouldn’t come. His thoughts were slow and heavy, their sharp edges smoothed by the alcohol, but there was no escaping them in the darkness. Micah lay in his bed wide awake, staring at the ceiling for what felt like hours and remembering.

He thought of the way he’d met Brian, a junior assistant at the company where Micah had interned during his sophomore year. Brian was sweet and charming and a little brokenhearted after a recent break-up, and he asked Micah out for coffee three times before even attempting to kiss him. The fourth time was an official date, dinner and a movie, and Brian asked him if he’d consider going steady. After that, Micah was gone. He gave himself over completely, body, heart and soul.

Now, alone in his bed, he shook his head over his twenty-year-old self’s desperation that had kept him coming back to Brian’s downtown apartment, where they usually ended up watching sports TV that Micah didn’t really like or having sex he didn’t particularly enjoy. He remembered their brief Rhode Island vacation during their second summer together, a week when they’d barely left the luxurious hotel bed even though the ocean had been calling to Micah from beyond the closed windows, and for the hundredth time he wondered what on earth he’d been thinking, believing they were forever.

He didn’t miss it. Even right after the break-up, he’d been surprised how little he missed Brian. He’d missed being part of a couple, feeling wanted. He’d hated the looks he was getting from people who’d witnessed or heard about the whole unnecessarily public scene Brian had made while dumping him, but he never minded being single.

Gingerly, as though he might disturb some delicate balance, Micah recalled his dreams from long ago—hopelessly romantic fantasies of a closeted teenager who’d naïvely believed that college in the big city would fix everything. That it would mean freedom and happiness and true love.

Well, he’d been right about the freedom, at least. Most of the time, he was pretty happy with his busy, independent life. His company was growing more successful every year, giving him interesting professional prospects and more money than he ever thought he would make. What else could a man want?

And yet.

The hollow feeling in his chest growing heavier—that is exactly why I shouldn’t get drunk, he remembered—Micah reached out blindly for the tablet he kept in the nightstand drawer. Quickly, before he could talk himself out of it, he grabbed the escort’s card and tapped out a short message.

Hi, I got your card from my friend Daphne and I wanted to ask—do you work with fantasies that are not strictly sexual?

The moment he hitSend, he already regretted giving in to the stupid moment of weakness. But it was too late.

Well, he could always ignore any possible replies.

Just then, the tablet pinged in his hand and he looked down to see a message pop up:[email protected] wants to be able to chat with you. Okay?

Micah’s first reaction was panic. He scrambled to sit up in the bed, staring at the littleYesandNoboxes as if they could bite his finger if he touched them. What the hell was he doing? Was he honestly considering hiring a prostitute just because he was drunk and lonely? He was much too young for a mid-life crisis that might explain such desperate impulses.

But he was also much too young to believe everything exciting he could hope for in his personal life had already happened. A man his age should be looking forward to romance and intimacy, to building relationships, if not a family—not looking back at naïve high school dreams that had never come true as the best romantic experience he’d ever had.

What if he could make them come true, though, if only for one night?

Reaching for the whiskey bottle with an unsteady hand, Micah remembered his last birthday in March. He’d spent the evening with friends and colleagues, laughing and drinking in one of the swanky downtown bars, only to come home at two a.m. and cry himself to sleep because he so badly wanted to not be alone, to experience what he’d used to believe in so totally: true love.

He’d been deeply embarrassed about his meltdown the next morning. But now, with the alcohol flowing through his veins and reducing his rationality to a tinny background noise, he felt it again: the pull to risk it, to let go, to try.

What could it hurt?

Whiskey warm in his stomach, Micah touched the dangerous littleYesbox.

me:hi

Angel:Hello :) It’s nice to meet you, Micah. I thought it would be easier to discuss your question like this rather than exchange emails. I hope you don’t mind.

me:no, of course

sorry, that was a stupid question

Angel:It’s not stupid. I work with all kinds of fantasies. What did you have in mind?

me:um

do you ever pretend you’re someone else?

Angel:All the time. Who would you like me to be?

me:my boyfriend

is it weird?

Angel:Not at all. Do you need a stand-in for some sort of event?

me:no

it’s not my friends I’d like you to convince

Angel:Okay. Who is it then?

me:me

Micah paused, heat rising in his face as he waited for Angel to reply. The timestamp said that it barely took two minutes, but it felt much longer. Finally, the answer came.

Angel:That’s a first. Tell me more?

Micah took a deep breath, shook his head and picked up the tablet again.

me:you know what, this is a terrible idea

let’s forget I wrote to you at all

Angel:No, wait. This is different, it doesn’t mean I’m not willing do it. I like a challenge. I just need to know more to determine if I’ll be able to give you what you need.

me:it’s stupid

Angel:It’s not stupid. It’s your fantasy, something important to you. I want to help you fulfill it if I can. Tell me more about what you want.

Micah hesitated before replying.

me:okay

I want a perfect date

one night of feeling like I’m loved

wanted

cared for

like I’m the center of someone’s universe

just for once

there, I’ve said it

told you it’s stupid

Angel:And I told you it’s not. So you’ve never felt that way?

me:I don’t know

I’ve had dates and been with people

I was in a long term relationship even

but it was nothing like what I thought it’d be like

Angel:What did you think it would be like?

me:romantic. slow. beautiful

real. deep.

I don’t know

it was supposed to be special, and instead it felt like a fake

I guess real life is not a fantasy, right?

Micah bit his lip and took another sip of whiskey.

but I want to feel the magic I dreamed about

just once

even if it’s not real

I wanna know how it feels

Angel:I get it.

me:you do?

Angel:Of course. You want the magic without the risk of disappointment or a broken heart. That’s not too different from the reason most people come to me.

me:so does it mean you could do this?

Angel:I would like to try. But I have to be honest—this sounds harder than my usual requests. I mostly work with desires, not feelings. And no matter how good I am, I can’t control your ability to believe the fantasy. We would have to build it together to make it work. Can you accept that?

me:yes

when can we meet?

Maybe he should be embarrassed about how eager he sounded, but right now, Micah was too excited to care about that. The prospect of having what he’d always longed to experience had the allure of a long-awaited trip to Disneyland to a kid: This was the stuff of dreams and magic, something Micah had watched from the sidelines but never got to touch himself. Love, the ultimate happiness as depicted in a thousand movies, in books, in every other song on the radio. He’d soaked it up like a sponge growing up, letting it shape him even when he’d already known that in his case, love would never be as it was portrayed in the mass media; he was waiting for Prince Charming rather than looking for a beautiful princess. Even then, love was the goal, the life-changing gift.

He’d seen it all around him, too—in his older sister Claudia’s first relationship that he witnessed and quietly envied every day through most of his high school years. In his own parents, who even now, after thirty years of marriage, still looked at each other like love-struck teenagers. How was he not supposed to hope for it with everything he had? Not to build up his dreams and expectations until the mere thought of having a boyfriend one day had filled him with happy tingles?

How was real life supposed to measure up to this ideal? His parents were lucky. His sister, too—she was still with her high school sweetheart, happy as ever, engaged and casually planning life five years from now, ten, twenty, as if still loving each other was so obvious. And Micah? He’d endured a few awkward dates in college and then thrown himself into the first relationship he’d been offered, giving the guy everything he had, letting him into his heart without stopping to think, without reservations, diving in blindly.


Page 3

He’d loved Brian with the blind, naïve passion of first love, of a lonely kid who’d had so much to give and no one to give it to for so long. He’d loved him stubbornly and patiently for over two years, despite disappointments and doubts that he kept pushing to the back of his mind. Love is worth fighting for, he’d told himself. Love is patient. Love forgives and overcomes.

Right. Talk about crashing down to earth.

Micah’s tablet pinged with an incoming reply.

Angel:Not so fast, tiger :) Let’s talk a bit about what you would like this to be like. Night out or night in?

me:hmmm I definitely want a date

going out somewhere

Angel:Done. Would you like to discuss all the details first so that it feels like another date with a loving, long-time boyfriend?

me:hm, idk

frankly, I can’t see it working like that

too many details to navigate

how about we don’t bother with a scenario?

no past history to think about, just here and now

I suspend disbelief, you do your magic

Angel:Sure, we can do that. So what would I need to know to take you to dinner? Do you have any allergies? Food you hate? Things you never eat? Are you a vegetarian?

Micah paused with his mouth parted, the innocent question striking a once-painful chord. He was allergic to shellfish and by extension never ate seafood in general. For their one-year anniversary, Brian had taken him to the best sushi restaurant in the city and was terribly put out when Micah told him that no, he couldn’t just get over it and eat something without shellfish in it, no matter how hard it had been to get a table.

And it wasn’t as though they’d never talked about it before. Brian had even seen the EpiPen Micah carried. He’d claimed he hadn’t thought it would be a problem. They’d gone to a little Chinese place instead, but the mood had been ruined.

Already an escort was proving to be more thoughtful than his boyfriend had ever been. Then again, that was his job.

With a sigh, Micah picked up the tablet again.

me:severe shellfish allergy, no seafood, not a big fan of Asian cuisine, but I do eat meat

Angel:Noted. Is there anything in particular you want or don’t want to do, or would you prefer to be surprised?

me:surprise me

all I want is for it to be really romantic

He remembered something Daphne said tonight and smiled as he typed:

like my friend once said, memories are forever

so that’s what I want, a perfect memory of one night when I felt

hmm

Angel:Loved and cherished?

me:yes

I can’t believe I’m talking about it to anyone

I’m going to judge myself so hard in the morning

Angel:Well, if it helps, I’m not. No judgment here, Micah. I promise. That’s my number two rule.

me:what’s your #1 rule?

Angel:Safety. On that note, is there anything I have to know to avoid doing anything that might hurt you, or get you out of the mood? Any forbidden topics? Turn-offs? Sensitivities?

me:hm, I don’t think so, I’m good

Angel:Anything you can’t stand in men?

me:mustaches!

and beer breath

Angel:I’ll make sure not to have either then :)

me:and usually you do? yikes! maybe I should reconsider

Angel::)

How intimate do you want the night to be?

That gave Micah a start. He frowned, absentmindedly sipping out of the bottle again.

me:what do you mean?

Angel:To put it bluntly: sex or no sex?

me:oh! um… no. maybe? I don’t know!

it feels weird to think about it like this

Angel:That’s okay. We’ll see as the evening progresses. I’ll be prepared for it to go either way. Don’t hesitate to tell me what you want, whether during the night itself or before. I’m really open to most requests, and it’syourfantasy, you are paying to have it perfectly tailored for you.

me:um, speaking of paying… what are your prices, what’s the system here?

I’ve never done this before

Angel:I don’t charge by the hour. You pay for the experience, and you pay in advance. For that price, you have me for the duration of the fantasy scenario, but no longer than four hours. You can double that time if you think you will need it, but I never stay over once it’s done. In other words, I don’tsleepwith my clients.

me:and the price is… ?

Angel:Normally, I would say $1,500 for a job like this, including expenses. But since I can’t guarantee your satisfaction with the degree of certainty I usually have, how about you pay me $1,250? If you’re happy with my service, the additional $250 will be a bonus afterward.

me:isn’t it risky for you though? how do you know I will pay you the bonus?

Angel:I don’t. But I like to believe that people are essentially decent, so I choose to trust you to pay me exactly for what I deliver.

me:you’re very trusting for an escort

oops. is that a bad word? I’m sorry

Angel:No, that’s okay :) And yes, I am. Some would call me naïve, I’m sure, but I’m fine with that.

Okay, do you need some time to think before you decide? Do you want pictures to know what you’re buying?

Micah took a deep breath. This was his last chance to turn back. Except he really didn’t want to.

me:no no I’m interested

Daphne called you gorgeous, I trust her judgment

when can we do this?

Angel:She did? That’s nice to hear.

Well, I have tomorrow and Sunday reserved, and my next weekend is fully booked too, so unless you don’t mind meeting on a weeknight, we would have to schedule our date for the second weekend of June.

me:oh that’s not a problem, I have a relatively flexible schedule until Friday

I don’t mind the middle of the week

in fact, I’d love to meet as soon as possible

or I might chicken out

so how about Monday?

Angel:Monday works great. Is 8 okay?

me:perfect

how do I pay you? paypal?

Angel:Yes. I use this email address.

So Monday, 8 p.m. it is. I’ll need you to give me your home address so that I can pick you up like a good date would :) Unless you want to meet somewhere else?

And having your phone number would be useful, just in case.

me:home is fine

let me send you the money first, and then I will put the info in an email

and I’ll see you on Monday

Angel:Thank you, it was a pleasure chatting with you. Goodnight, Micah. See you on Monday.

me:goodnight!

Micah took another deep swallow from the bottle after he’d closed the chat window, feeling giddy and lightheaded. He was going on a date. This Monday. He was going on a date and it would be perfect, exactly what he’d always dreamed about. He’d have to remember to send Daphne flowers tomorrow.

But for now, he had some practicalities to take care of.

Grinning widely, with his heart galloping happily against his ribs, Micah opened a new tab.

Chapter 3

The alarm he’d forgotten todeactivate pierced Micah’s head like a dentist’s drill at six in the morning. Cursing, he flailed around, trying to find his phone and silence it without opening his eyes or moving his pounding head. But the first thing his hand encountered wasn’t the phone—it was the tablet on the covers by his side. Micah’s eyes snapped open; a wave of nausea rising in his throat was due to more than the hangover.

He really, really wanted last night’s conversation to turn out to be a dream. But as he spotted the card lying innocently next to the tablet, one corner shimmering red where the early morning sunshine hit it, the last of that hope evaporated.

So hedidchat with that escort last night.

With the alarm finally off, Micah closed his eyes again, his brain churning. Going back to sleep was a lost cause now that his mind helpfully submitted bits and pieces of the conversation, making Micah cringe. God. What had he been thinking?

Determination to assess the damage and fix it immediately won over the hangover. Micah sat up in bed and picked up the tablet.

The plan was to scroll through the whole chat—details were a little fuzzy in his memory—but when the screen lit up, it was to an email from Angel, thanking him for the payment and confirming that he would pick Micah up on Monday evening, at his apartment. Attached was Angel’s phone number.

Micah sat frozen, staring at his own message quoted underneath. So much for his data safety expertise; it had only taken some liquor and a moment of weakness for him to throw all caution to the wind and give his home address and private phone number to this man—this complete stranger who could be anyone, could use it for anything, give it to some seedy people for God knew what reason. He was a sex worker, for goodness sake! Daphne vouched for him, but Daphne was known for trusting anyone with a nice smile.

Worse still, he had paid the man already. Phone numbers could be changed if necessary, and his building had security, but he had just transferred the amount of money that was almost as much as his monthly rent to a complete stranger, on a whim. And for what? For one “date” that would surely turn out to be an absolute disaster, since the man knew nothing about him but a few random facts. If Micah really had a masochistic need to try the awkwardness of dating again, it would have been so much cheaper, if not less painful, to go to a random gay club and look around. Except now, in the light of day, when he was sober and rational, he didn’t have the tiniest desire to do that. Why put himself through that again?

But he had paid already, and there wasn’t much he could do about it now. He could hardly write to Angel—what kind of a name was that, anyway?—and ask him to send the money back because Micah had changed his mind. The mere thought made him cringe with embarrassment. What would the guy think, that he was some nervous teenager? Besides, Micah doubted this kind of service came with a refund policy. But what else could he do? Even the thought of going through with the fake date gave him the creeps.

There was no good solution. Or at least he wouldn’t find one while nursing a massive headache and growing nausea. He had time till Monday; he would figure something out later. For now, he needed a shower, coffee and some painkillers.

Micah had all kinds ofplans for this weekend—plans that included grocery shopping and cooking and a long overdue Skype session with his parents, as well as spending at least a few hours on the wide balcony of his twentieth-floor apartment, enjoying the sun and the spectacular view of Lake Calhoun while he finished the book edits. He had to keep an eye on a few trackers he had installed on a client’s company laptop, too, in case any suspicious activity occurred, but he could do it easily from his home office. All in all, it should be a nice, productive weekend at home with a bit of indulgence in life’s little pleasures. But so far, it wasn’t working. Micah was a nervous, disgruntled mess.

Walking through his favorite grocery store on Saturday afternoon, he couldn’t help but feel distaste rise in his throat. Here he was, spending more than a family of four’s monthly food budget on—let’s say it—a prostitute, something he neither needed nor even really wanted. People were starving, and that guy was charging more than a thousand bucks for a few hours of company. Micah had no idea what the usual rates for this kind of service were, but it seemed outrageous. Except his drunken self clearly hadn’t thought so, accepting the price without a blink of an eye. That was so stupid. Sure, he could afford it, technically—the company was doing great and his book had sold for much more than he’d expected—but there were so many better things to spend the money on.

In an attempt to atone for his foolishness, Micah dropped a fifty into a disabled homeless man’s hat on his way home, but it didn’t really make him feel any better.

All day, he’d been leaning toward calling off the date. If Angel told him he wouldn’t return the payment, so be it; he would rather lose the money than suffer through the stilted attempts at romance the guy would undoubtedly offer. But as he drove home from the store with the trunk of his car filled with groceries, Micah couldn’t help but think about his parents. What would they say if they knew how easily he justified wasting more than a thousand dollars, just like that? Even disregardingwhathe was wasting it on, they would probably be appalled.

His parents had never been wealthy. They hadn’t been poor, but they’d worked hard every day of their lives so that Micah and Claudia never lacked for the necessities. Micah remembered Christmases when they all limited themselves to one little gift each because business at his father’s store had been slow, and discussions about the priority of their college funds over everyday pleasures. The kids had been taught early about managing a budget, saving for things they wanted and finding cheaper or free alternatives for many expenses. The family’s only luxury when they were growing up had been a beautiful old cabin on Lake Superior that Micah’s mom had inherited from her parents and where they spent every summer.

Wastefulness was not something Mr. and Mrs. Geller would approve of.

Micah didn’t approve of it himself, either. He never wanted to turn into one of those people who just threw away money because they didn’t care, and now he thought that was where he was headed. And it wasn’t even so much about buying the… service. If he’d bought a TV on a whim and then decided it was a mistake, he wouldn’t throw it away, would he? He would try to return it and, if that was not an option, he would rather give it away than put it in the trash. Neither seemed like a valid possibility when it came to what he’d just paid for, but maybe he needed to treat this like a lesson, suffer through the consequences of his foolishness.

Once in the garage, Micah turned off the car and sat there for a moment, staring through the windshield at the gray wall.Fine.He would do it. He’d meet the guy, go to dinner with him and do whatever else was on the menu, if it was bearable. And then he would return home, probably get drunk in an attempt to wipe the memory of the evening clean and never ever think about it again.

He had two days to steel himself for it. That had to suffice.

Damn Daphne and her ideas.

Thoughts about his Monday “date”didn’t leave Micah’s mind as he moved through the rest of his weekend, distracting him with incessant questions and fears.

What if he’s completely not my type?—he wondered as he was tackling his long-neglected laundry. Angel couldn’t be unattractive, not if Daphne vouched for his good looks, but Micah knew what image porn stars usually aspired to. Not that Angel was a porn star, per se. Micah didn’t think so, at least.

Wait—what if Angelwasa porn star and someone recognized him while they were out?

Worse—Micah thought morosely as he cooked eggplant Bolognese for dinner on Sunday—what if we have nothing to talk about?Angel might be shallow and boring, trying to buy Micah’s approval with clichés and generic pleasantries. He was usually paid to be a lover, not a conversationalist, after all—he’d said so himself. Being stuck at a restaurant table with awkward silence ringing in his ears was something Micah never wanted to endure again.

Worst—Angel probably had some expectations about how this evening was supposed to go. Sure, he’d asked Micah if he wanted to get intimate during their “date,” but sex was Angel’s job, wasn’t it? He would likely want to get them there one way or another, to the territory that must be easy and familiar for him, his everyday bread and butter. Micah had no intention to even touch him, but sayingnoclearly and unapologetically had always been his problem. He hated thinking he might offend people or hurt their feelings, so he would probably freeze if Angel attempted to initiate anything, trying to wait it out and hoping that the guy would be perceptive enough to notice and back off.

Yes, all in all, that sounded like aperfectdate scenario.

When Micah went to bed on Sunday, the date loomed more like a dreaded dentists’ appointment than a fantasy. It took a long while of tossing and turning before he managed to fall asleep. In his dream, a ridiculously muscled naked guy with a dark spray tan on his completely hairless body chased Micah around a huge seafood restaurant, wiggling his hips suggestively and calling out things like “Let’s swap some spit,” and “Come sit in my lap, darling; I’ll make it real good for you.” Micah woke up sweaty and breathless. He had no idea a dream featuring a big, hard penis could be this terrifying.

Honestly, this was stupid, he decided ten minutes later as he stood in the shower, steady streams of hot water massaging the tension out of his muscles. It shouldn’t be such a big deal. So he didn’t have much experience with dating, and this whole fantasy date extravaganza was a big mistake. But if he was in, he could at least try to enjoy what he’d paid for instead of assuming it was going to be terrible. If it was, fine. He could survive it. He’d survived a lot of crappy experiences and lived to tell the tale. And it could still turn out to be nice. At the very least, he could try to get some fun out of it.

New determination straightening his back, Micah went to dig through his closet in search of something suitable to wear in the evening. It was supposed to be a warm day, so with no idea where they would be going, he settled for fitted black pants and a cornflower blue button up that matched the color of his eyes. He supposed he could text Angel to ask about the dress code for the establishment, but he didn’t really want to, afraid that contacting the escort might shatter his newfound confidence. He could always add a tie at the last minute, if necessary. With the outfit pressed and hung on the closet door, Micah drove to work, whistling.

After he stopped freaking out, the day turned out to be a lot more productive than he’d anticipated. Micah managed to wrap up the editing he’d failed to finish over the weekend, met with a prospective client from a large insurance company and initiated the second round of simulated social engineering attacks for the bank where he’d lectured a few weeks ago to check whether the employees were using the techniques and rules they’d been taught.

He left the office at six sharp, feeling more excited than nervous, and even remembered to give the escort’s name to the security staff in his apartment building so that he would be let in when he arrived. Showered and dressed with time to spare, Micah looked through his chat with Angel one more time. Maybe he was reading too much into it, but the man seemed thoughtful at least. That was promising.

Here’s hoping. His doorbell rang just on time and he stepped to the door to meet his fantasy boyfriend.


Page 4

Chapter 4

The first thing Micah sawwere the flowers: a big bouquet of deep purple irises, interspersed with pink tulips. Then there were dimples and bright amber eyes alight with a smile. Micah stared until the man took a step closer and kissed him on the cheek, surrounding him with a warm, spicy scent.

“Hi, I’m Angel,” he said in a pleasantly low voice and handed Micah the bouquet. “And these are for you.”

“Hi,” Micah replied. It came out breathless. “They’re lovely, thank you. Come on in, I’ll put them in water.”

Angel smiled warmly. “Lovely flowers for a beautiful man. That seems fitting.”

Micah couldn’t help but respond with a smile, feeling himself blush.

“I’ll just—” He gestured toward the kitchen. Angel came in and closed the door behind himself.

“Of course. I’ll wait.”

Digging through the cupboards for the vase he knew he had somewhere, Micah took deep calming breaths to compose himself. Yes, the man was stunning—tall and blond and with a beautiful smile that reached all the way to his eyes—but that was no reason to react like an awestruck teenager. It was the bouquet that undid him, though.

All his life, ever since he’d started thinking about dating other boys, flowers had been a part of that mental picture—the giving, the getting, choosing the perfect combination, reading the meaning of a bouquet someone chose for him. Even simply enjoying their beauty and the gesture.

Brian didn’t care about flowers—he’d looked almost offended when Micah had brought him a little bunch of daisies once—so he assumed no other man did, either. Even after Brian had learned that was not the case with Micah, he never used that knowledge. “The fun of dating other guys is not having to worry about things like flowers, compliments, all that,” he’d claimed. The one time he had brought flowers—sad, half-wilted red roses in a too-tight cellophane wrapping—it was only because he had something to apologize for.

So now, this perfect, vibrantly colorful bouquet in Micah’s hands was like a callback to the first date he’d imagined but never had, the one he’d dreamed of.

“Hey,” Angel said, standing in the doorway, and Micah almost dropped the vase. “I would like to establish one simple rule for tonight, before we leave.”

Micah put the vase in the sink and turned on the water. “Okay?” he said cautiously.

“Tonight is for you. I said that already, but I want it to really sink in. This is supposed to be all you ever wanted, and I need you to be honest and open about what that is. I am here to fulfillyourfantasy, every little bit of it, and I want you to be selfish, to be greedy, to take what you need.”

“Oh,” Micah said, pausing with the vase in his hands. He frowned and set it on the table, put the flowers in. “What about you, though?”

“I’m not important here. To put it bluntly, I’m a tool for your satisfaction. I have a few scenarios prepared, but if anything I propose or do doesn’t suit you one hundred percent, I need you to tell me. That’s all I ask, other than that your job is just to enjoy yourself.”

“Okay.” Some of the nerves made a comeback, worming their way through Micah’s stomach. Expectations, even as simple as this, always felt like pressure. “I can promise to try.”

“Thank you.” Angel smiled brightly. “So, Italian trattoria or a fancy French restaurant?”

“Definitely Italian,” Micah answered immediately. This one was easy. “Am I dressed okay?”

“Absolutely. You look fantastic.” The earnestness in Angel’s voice made warmth spread through Micah’s body. Either he truly thought Micah looked fantastic, or he was a really good actor. The fact that Micah couldn’t tell which filled him with a thrill of happy anticipation.

“Thank you.” He smiled over the bouquet he just finished arranging. “I think we’re good to go then.”

A red Mini Cooper convertible was waiting in the parking lot, its roof down. Angel opened the passenger door for Micah, waiting until he settled and fastened his seat belt before closing it and moving to his side of the car.

“I hope you don’t mind a bit of wind?” he asked before he started the engine.

“On a beautiful evening like this? Definitely not.”

Soon, they were pulling out of the parking lot and into the evening traffic, and before long, the busy streets gave way to a picturesque road along the lake. The wind in their hair was nothing more than a gentle caress, but it was nice to breathe the warm air, suffused with the heady scent of lilac bushes that blossomed in gorgeous spreads of white and purple. The sun was slowly sinking over the lake. Micah took the opportunity to discreetly watch Angel’s profile.

His fears about porn star looks seemed laughable now. Angel was certainly handsome, but in a natural, surfer-boy kind of way. His smile was sweet and boyish on his lightly sun-kissed face, and his body, as much as Micah could see in the lightweight linen suit, bore no evidence of obsessive bodybuilding. Even his hands were beautiful, with long fingers and neatly manicured nails. A braided leather bracelet with some kind of silver charm circled his right wrist.

Angel turned to look at him in time to catch him staring.

“See, no mustache,” he teased with a mischievous smile. “No beer breath either, I promise. Do I pass the inspection?” He winked, and Micah felt heat rising in his cheeks.

“Um, yes. You’re a very attractive man,” he stuttered, cringing internally at his own awkwardness. Jeez, he was so bad at this.

“Well, thank you.” Angel beamed. “I’m glad you approve. Do you have a type when it comes to men?”

“Not really, no. My last boyfriend was a tall, skinny brunet, but I don’t really… I don’t have a type. Well, unless you count Johnny Depp.”

“Johnny Depp is everyone’s type. It doesn’t count.” Angel laughed. “So are you a musician? I noticed the piano in your apartment.”

“Oh, no. The piano was already there when I rented the place. The owner offered to have it removed, but I decided since it was there, I might as well remember what little my mom taught me to play when I was a kid. Turns out it’s much more fun when no one makes you do it, you know? I’ve been getting better and it’s really relaxing, but I mostly don’t have time to practice much. Do you play?”

Angel shook his head. “I tried, when I was a teen, but I never really took to it and gave it up after a few months.” He parked at the curb and turned off the engine. “Okay, here we are.”

The trattoria was located betweena hardware store and a hairdresser’s in a narrow, quiet street that Micah had never seen; he didn’t know this part of the city very well. Its small windows were filled with a tasteful display of various types of uncooked pasta and dusty bottles of wine, and there was a simple wooden sign above the door. The hand-painted letters spelling the name—Trattoria Mamma Mia—were faded with age. It looked like a cheap, out-of-the-way place that catered to a handful of regulars.

Angel noticed Micah falter as they approached the door.

“I know it doesn’t look like much, but I honestly believe this is the best Italian restaurant in the Cities,” he said. “Come on, trust me.”

Micah hesitated. He promised he would be honest, and right now, a fancy French restaurant suddenly sounded much better than whatever was beyond that door. Angel put a hand on his shoulder, making Micah startle a little.

“If you don’t like it, I promise we can leave and go to the other place, but give me a chance to show it to you first.” He looked so earnest and confident that Micah nodded.

“Okay. Lead the way.”

Inside, they were immediately wrapped in warm air filled with mouthwatering smells and quiet chatter. The space was small; the dozen tables were all occupied, with linen tablecloths and slim vases of daffodils on each. Combined with the dimmed light, the atmosphere was cozy and welcoming. The nervous tension in Micah’s muscles started to ease.

A waiter approached them, young and Italian-looking, and Angel smiled at him. He was smiling a lot, Micah reflected.

“Hello. We have reservations for eight thirty. I asked for a table outside.”

“Of course. Follow me, please.”

They were led through a side doorway Micah hadn’t noticed before, and he gasped quietly as he stepped out and looked around. It was a tiny square courtyard, like many he’d seen before, and yet so very different. All around the perimeter, lush ivy climbed, covering the iron trellis with its bright green leaves and crawling along the wires spread ten feet above. The result was a private alcove with a green, rustling ceiling that let in the gentle gusts of breeze and enough of the setting sun to bathe the whole space in a warm glow. Quiet instrumental music was seeping from hidden speakers. Candles graced the four small tables, along with red roses in little glass vases. The tables themselves were generously spaced, each just big enough for two.

Only one table was occupied, in the far corner, where an elderly couple drank red wine, holding hands over the table. The waiter led Micah and Angel to the table farthest away from them.

They spent a few minutes studying the menus and discussing the choice of wine, and it was easy, the familiar ritual of so many business dinners calming Micah’s nerves. When the waiter appeared to take their order, Angel disarmed Micah completely, asking the man to please make sure there was not a trace of shellfish anywhere near Micah’s food.

But then the wine was served and the waiter was gone. The reality of the situation slowly seeped back into Micah’s consciousness, making him tense again.

“Tell me about yourself,” Angel said; his easy smile was reassuring.

“What do you want to know?”

“Anything you feel like telling me. I’d like to get to know you better.”

Micah fumbled for something to say, straightening the utensils to occupy his restless hands. “Um, I grew up in Marshall, about three hours west of the Cities. I came here for college nine years ago, and I’ve never wanted to leave. I majored in business and started my own company in my junior year. I’m an information security consultant and trainer. I like to cook and play the piano and I’m great at jigsaw puzzles, but I never have time to do them anymore.”

“Wait, you majored in business, but you work in information security? Isn’t that an IT thing?” Angel asked, seeming intrigued.

“Well, I kind of spent a lot of time around computers back in high school—learning to code in several languages, writing programs, getting involved in online communities.” Like the hacker community, but he wasn’t going to share that part with a man he’d barely met. “I started out of curiosity and to have something to fill the time—you know how high school can be.”

“I do.”

“But it turned out I was really good at it. I just felt it, the natural flow of it, the way some people feel music, or poetry, and put it on paper.” Micah smiled at his memories, the safety of that computer screen with miles of code on it, the elation of learning something new, getting a program to run, breaking the defenses of another system.

“So why didn’t you go on to study IT?” Angel asked.

Micah shrugged. “I had it all planned back then. Being the nerd in high school was fine, but I didn’t want to sit alone hunched over the keyboard my whole life. I figured studying business was good—I would be among people, learn interesting things, have some social life and go on to work for some stable company somewhere. I would earn decent money at some middle-level job and still have time for family and stuff.” He looked away, blushing. It seemed so silly now, having his whole life planned ahead like that at eighteen.

“So what changed?”

“It didn’t really work out like that,” Micah said, playing with his wine glass. “Turns out I’m not corporate material, as I learned during my first internship. I honestly thought it would kill me, the monotony of being glued to my desk, in my tiny cubicle, doing the same repetitive things every day, just because someone else told me to do them. By the end of the first month I was ready to scream every time I saw that building.”

“Ah.” Angel took a sip of wine. “I understand the sentiment. It must have been hard to realize that when you had your goals set out like that. Didn’t you think of changing your major? It must have still been early enough.”

Micah nodded. “I did. But I actually liked business, really. I found it fascinating. It was being the office drone that I couldn’t stand, so I decided I had to find a different path—or make it, if needed. Then I heard something that stayed with me: that the most successful companies are born when genuine passion meets business skills. I realized that I had the passion—I never really managed to give up the inner nerd—and I was studying to have the skills. So I decided to try. The beginnings were slow and clumsy, but we’ve been steadily growing ever since.”

Their waiter returned, carrying beautifully garnished, steaming plates, and followed by a short, portly man in a sauce-spattered white apron.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” the man said with a barely noticeable accent. “My name is Antonio. I’m the chef and owner of this trattoria. My nephew here told me about your special requirements, so I wanted to personally assure you that everything you are served is perfectly safe to eat. I made sure of it myself; there was not a trace of shellfish anywhere near your food. I hope you enjoy your meal.”

Micah’s eyebrows shot up. “Thank you, that’s very kind of you.”

Antonio grinned. “We generally try to avoid killing our customers.” He winked and left with a cheerful “Buon appétito.”

Micah turned to Angel. “Okay, I get why you love this place. But I’m still withholding my verdict until I try the food.”

Angel beamed and motioned to his plate, watching as Micah took the first bite before starting on his own. The food was delicious.

The conversation stalled as they satisfied the first hunger, but then Angel asked, “So what is it that you do, in layman’s terms?”

Micah swallowed one of his gnocchi. “Well, I started as a one-man business, offering penetrative tests and network vulnerability assessments to small companies. Basically, I simulated attacks on their networks to look for weak points so that they could fix them before anyone got in and did any harm. Sometimes, I also helped track ways in which information was leaking from companies. That was fine for the first year or two, but I soon realized that what does the most damage, even in well-secured networks, is the human factor. Social engineering remains the part that is hardest to control—people are naïve, often believe lies if they are told in an authoritative manner. They reveal sensitive information because of thoughtlessness or ignorance and make all kinds of mistakes that threaten a company’s security. So I decided to offer help with that, too.”


Page 5

He looked at Angel to see if his eyes were glazing over the way most people’s did when he started talking about his job, but no, he was listening attentively.

“I’m guessing you succeeded?” Angel asked with a smile.

“Well, four years ago I began to develop a series of workshops for different levels of the corporate hierarchy, teaching people how to avoid the social engineering traps while also testing their vigilance in practice before and after the seminars. That was when my company really took off. I’ve been adapting the program to different types of businesses ever since, and recently I’ve been asked to turn my teaching materials into a book. It’s coming out next month. So yes, I think I succeeded.” He smiled proudly. “I have several people working with me now on a more or less steady basis, and I’m thinking about expanding to other cities.”

Angel seemed genuinely impressed. “Wow. Congratulations! So what is the most basic mistake people make?”

Micah told him. And then he told him more when Angel asked, and it was so different from talking to either his friends and family or his coworkers. Here was a stranger who seemed fascinated with all the nuances and processes, who asked intelligent, thoughtful questions and didn’t look bored in the slightest when Micah let his enthusiasm take over and rattled on and on about the next books he wanted to write, the thrill of following leaked information to the source like a detective and the subtle details of social engineering simulations. It was refreshing and invigorating, and only when his plate was empty did Micah realize how long he’d been talking, not letting Angel get a word in edgewise.

“Oh.” He skidded to a stop and reached for his wine glass that had been mysteriously refilled. “I’m sorry; you should have stopped me. I get really garrulous when I start on this topic.”

Angel put his chin on his hand. “I like it. You have a lot of passion; that’s amazing. Passionate people are the most interesting kind. So, how did it start? Did you stumble upon a really good teacher in your high school computer class or did you teach yourself?”

Micah was saved from answering immediately by the return of their waiter. He nodded distractedly at the suggestion of ordering a cheese board and another carafe of the house wine, but his mind was busy processing the feelings Angel’s words awoke in him. So there were people who could see his obsession—hispassion—as a good thing? Something interesting, even? The realization struck him off-balance, sudden and unexpected as it was.

Of course, he knew people who gladly talked shop with him for hours on end, but they were all fellow nerds, who shared his interests. Others, including his family and Daphne, either accepted the amount of time and thought Micah spent on work as something that came with the territory, or got instantly bored or annoyed when he veered into the topic. Unfortunately, Brian had been among the latter. He’d hated that Micah had another world apart from him, one that Brian didn’t understand and couldn’t be a part of. They’d always fought about Micah not having time for him when he got sucked into another project.

“Micah?” Angel’s concerned voice brought him back to reality. “We don’t have to talk about it if you’d rather not. I was just curious.”

“No, it’s all right,” Micah assured him. “I just remembered something.”

He took the last swig of his wine, feeling the fuzzy warmth spread through him. Was it his second glass or his third? He wasn’t sure, with Angel keeping it full for him. No wonder even memories of Brian didn’t sting. They couldn’t touch him now. He was out on a date with a good-looking, interesting man, enjoying a wonderful meal in a beautiful place, feeling good and relaxed, open.

It was the openness—and the wine, probably—that made it so easy to start the story Micah never really told anyone. Not fully at least.

“I wasn’t out in high school,” he said, and Angel’s face took on an attentive expression. “I wanted to be, don’t get me wrong. I knew who I was when I started my freshman year and I planned to be open about it. I was pretty sure my parents would be okay with that and I wanted my friends, old and new, to know.”

The waiter came with the cheese board and more wine, and Micah waited until he was gone and Angel finished refilling his glass before he continued.

“But then something happened.” He picked up the glass to have something to occupy his hands. “Have you heard about the Marshall gay bashing? You probably haven’t. It was thirteen years ago and it wasn’t one of the most discussed.”

Angel shook his head, his face stricken. “Oh God, please tell me you didn’t—”

“No,” Micah hurried to assure him. “I didn’t even know them. But they were barely older than me and living in my town, and suddenly the thought of coming out as gay in a place where people didthatto a couple of kids because they held hands in a park…”

He shook his head, the memory of his reaction still vivid, overwhelming. He’d had to stay home from school the day he’d heard about it, feeling sick and unreal, terror clawing at his insides. All he’d been able to think for days was:It could be me in a year or two. It could be me and my first boyfriend.

“I couldn’t,” he said quietly and looked down at the table, blinking away the stinging in his eyes before it could turn into embarrassing tears. “I was too scared to come out after that.”

Suddenly, a warm hand was on his, and Micah started but didn’t pull away. When he looked up, Angel’s eyes were full of compassion.

“That’s understandable,” Angel said, simply. “You were protecting yourself, staying safe. It was a smart thing to do.”

Micah shrugged. “Smart” wasn’t a word that came to mind when he was thinking about it. Angel squeezed his hand.

“No, seriously. Why would you risk it in an environment that clearly wasn’t safe? I wasn’t out in high school either. My hometown was not a particularly accepting place, so I only told my best friends and my parents that I was bi. I wouldn’t deny it if someone asked, but I didn’t volunteer the information to the whole world. There’s nothing wrong in staying safe.”

“No one ever asked if I was gay,” Micah admitted, feeling strangely reassured. “Though I kind of made sure no one would suspect. I joined the computer club to make myself invisible. I figured if I was seen as a nerd, no one would bother to come close enough to figure out I was gay, too,” he said, the wine loosening his tongue. “It was supposed to be a hiding place, but instead, it became a haven. That was where it all started for me, first attempts at coding and then everything clicked. The spell was cast. I’ve never wanted to stop.”

He looked at their joined hands, feeling slightly awkward now that he had his bearings again, and Angel let go instantly. Strangely enough, the second he did, Micah wished he hadn’t. It had been wonderfully comforting.

He busied himself with the cheese board and the assortment of honeys, nuts and dried fruit brought along with it.

“So when did you come out in the end?” Angel asked after a moment of silence. “If I may ask.”

“College. Well, I didn’t actually come out, not officially. I just never hid it when I moved here. I told my family right after my high school graduation.”

“How did they take it?” Angel asked, focused on dripping honey over his Parmigiano.

“They were great. A bit surprised, but they accepted it right away. Only my sister was pissed that I hadn’t told her earlier. We’re as good as twins. She is less than a year older than me,” he explained with a smile, seeing Angel’s confused expression. “We usually share everything.”

“But not that. Why?”

“She has a big mouth. I mean, not like she’s a gossip, she just blurts things out, accidentally. She’s totally unable to lie or keep secrets. Like, pathologically honest. She got us in trouble loads of times because of that.” Micah laughed at an old memory. “There was that one time when we were kids—”

A childhood story poured out of him easily, fueled by alcohol and the sight of Angel’s curious face. Then, at Angel’s prompting, another, and another, a string of them—glimpses of happy, carefree times at the family’s cabin at the lake, of two kids running barefoot through the rain, making mischief all around and stealing fruit from the neighbors’ trees. Angel listened and laughed and cooed, asking questions and shaking his head in wonder, and by the time Micah stopped to catch his breath, the second carafe of wine was almost empty, the sky above dark. A scattering of white fairy lights, hidden in the ivy, gave the little courtyard yet another touch of magic. Micah felt warm and fuzzy, a little bit in love with this night. The wine, sipped slowly with the accompaniment of food, didn’t get him drunk, just made him happy.

“Oops. I monopolized the conversation,” he said, grinning. “Do you have siblings?”

“I do, but they’re much older than I am. We don’t have much of a connection, never had.” Angel paused, clearly unwilling to say anything more. “Would you like some dessert? Coffee?”

“Oh, no. I couldn’t possibly eat anything else and I’m wide awake, thanks. We should probably get going.”

Angel nodded and got up. “I’ll be right back.”

He went inside, and Micah leaned back in his chair, looking around at the flickering candles and chatting people who had been seated at the other tables. It was peaceful, intimate. He felt alive, happily contained in the moment, without thinking about the past or worrying about the future.

He was curious what else Angel might have planned for the evening, but he didn’t think too hard about it. He would know soon enough. Waiting, he drained the rest of his wine and munched on the almonds that remained from their cheese feast, first dipping them in the little bowl of honey.

“Ready to go?” Angel asked when he came back a few minutes later, and then he laughed. “Wait, you have—just let me.”

He stepped closer and before Micah could understand what was going on, he swiped his thumb across Micah’s lower lip—a quick, warm press, there and gone. Micah caught a whiff of soap before Angel retreated, and then his eyes bugged out when he saw Angel lick his thumb clean.

“What are you doing?”

“You had a smudge of honey there,” Angel said. Micah didn’t point out he was perfectly capable of licking it off himself. He was too busy reeling from the effect this sudden touch and lingering proximity had on him. Angel smiled innocently. “I already took care of the bill. We can go whenever you’re ready.”

Chapter 5

“So I thought we couldeither go dancing now, or take a walk, unless you have other suggestions,” Angel said as soon as they left the trattoria.

“A walk,” Micah replied instantly. “I’m not a huge fan of clubs. And it’s nice out.”

“Okay, Theodore Wirth Park then. Shall we?” Angel stepped toward the car and Micah frowned.

“Should you be driving, after all that wine?” He hadn’t thought about it earlier, but now he realized how much wine they had drunk. He was not getting into a car with someone under the influence. “Maybe we should take a cab.”

Angel’s smile was sweetly amused. “You didn’t notice, did you?” he asked. When Micah cocked an eyebrow at him, confused, Angel grinned. “I only had half a glass; I’ve been sipping it all night. I’m okay to drive, I promise; I wouldn’t try to get behind the wheel otherwise.”

“But—I didnotdrink both of those carafes by myself,” Micah said, indignant. Then he frowned. “Did I?”

“They were small carafes.” Angel winked and opened the passenger’s door for him.

The drive was just as pleasurable at night as it had been earlier—possibly more so, given how light and carefree Micah felt. The wind had settled and the evening air smelled green. When they parked the car by the park entrance and got out, Angel extended his hand, and to his own surprise, Micah took it.

It all felt a little surreal to Micah: the leisurely stroll through the well-lit park paths, Angel’s hand steady in his, the feeling that the world was as it should be: at peace. They kept talking, and for once Micah didn’t censor himself, didn’t try to establish the right thing to say or discover what his interlocutor wanted to see in him. He just was, acting and talking and reacting in the most natural way. That was a luxury he rarely allowed himself.

Sounds of music came through the trees as they walked, louder the closer they got to the source, and soon they reached a little concert area in the middle of the park. On the wooden stage, a band of three guys and a girl performed. They looked young, hardly out of their teens; about three dozen people had gathered, enjoying the performance. Some were even dancing in front of the stage.

Angel tugged at Micah’s hand and leaned closer.

“Do you want to stay and listen for a while?” he asked, his breath tickling Micah’s ear.

“Sure,” Micah replied. He loved live music—not just professional concerts, but street entertainers, too.

This band sounded fresh; there was passion and energy in their performance. Micah found himself tapping his foot to the rhythm. It felt thrilling to be here with someone else, someone who held his hand and swayed to the music, clearly enjoying himself, too, instead of looking bored and whining to move on.

After several songs Micah was about to suggest continuing their walk because he was getting a little chilly, when the male singer smiled at the audience.

“Thank you. And now something for those of you who still believe in fairy tales.”

The opening guitar notes sounded vaguely familiar, but it was only when the violin joined in a second later that Micah recognized the theme from Disney’sAladdin. He grinned, fond memories rushing in. He used to love this song as a kid. Standing in the cool air a little longer was suddenly not a problem.

A hand touched Micah’s arm, feeling warm even through the cotton of his shirt.

“Will you dance with me?” Angel was beaming at him, his eyes like liquid gold in the glow of a nearby lamp.

Micah looked around, flustered. Here? Out in the park, in front of all these people? It should be safe, he knew. But for Micah, after what had happened in his hometown all those years ago, parks had always spelleddanger. He’d never done anything as open as dancing with another man in such a public space—even handholding was a stretch. But the song was seducing his heart, and other couples were dancing, and what the hell. It was his night.

“Okay.”

Angel’s shoulders were broad and strong; his hands kept a warm, steady pressure on Micah’s back, holding him so close that he could feel the movement of Angel’s chest with every breath he took. They stayed near the edge of the impromptu dance floor, swaying with the music. Micah felt safely surrounded, contained—in the familiar song, in the arms that felt as if they were made to hold him, in the magic of this evening. He turned his head, just to glance at Angel’s face, and couldn’t turn away, mesmerized by the look in his eyes. They held the world within—the world of affection, of caring. Of desire. It made something stir in Micah’s belly, a long-banished want.

Angel’s eyes flickered down to Micah’s mouth, and then back up. He bit his plump lower lip.

Around them, people were dancing, music was enveloping them in its sweet enchantment, and night air cooled Micah’s cheeks. Inside, he had suddenly only one desire. And he could have it. He’d been told to take what he wanted tonight.

As if reading his mind, Angel slowly inclined his head, pausing when his lips were an inch away, and Micah closed the distance as if pulled by an invisible magnet. Angel’s arms tightened around his waist, pulling him closer, and the thrilling, innocent touch of their lips became something deeper, hotter. Micah let out a strangled sound at the desperate want rushing through him, and that broke the spell. He pulled away, gasping.

They were in public, among dozens of people. In a park. At night. What was he thinking?

Micah looked around, his heart pounding. The song had ended; people stepped away from each other, clapping, with their attention focused on the stage. Only one girl was watching them, a pretty blonde who looked not a day older than sixteen, and she smiled sweetly when she saw him notice her. Hesitant, he smiled back, his anxiety fading. They were okay.

Still, they had been reckless. He turned to Angel. “Let’s walk some more.”

If Angel was surprised or disappointed, he didn’t show it. He simply took Micah’s hand and started navigating their way through the crowd.

“I love those outdoors concerts,” Angel said once the stage disappeared behind the trees. “I can’t wait for the summer and the Music in the Parks program.”

Micah nodded, unsure what to say. Just a minute ago, they were kissing. Part of him really,reallywanted to return to kissing. The other part was quietly freaking out.

Angel continued, as if unaware of Micah’s sudden awkwardness. “I wanted to live that life once, you know. Be a performer.”

That got Micah’s attention. “Really?” A vision of Angel in leather, on a stage with a rock star image that involved sweat, messy hair and eyeliner popped into his mind—uninvited, but not unwelcome. “Do you sing?”

“I used to,” Angel chuckled. “I still do, sometimes. I played the guitar, too, but not very well. We had a band in my friend’s garage, back in high school; it was calledThe Kraken Xplosion, with a capital X.” He grinned at Micah’s incredulous face. “Don’t ask me, I don’t remember how we came up with that, but at the height of our career we had three fangirls.”

“So what happened to the band? Were you any good?”

“We were terrible,” Angel laughed. “Mostly because we tried to write our own music, and none of us had any songwriting talent. I found a recording of one of our rehearsals a few years ago and listened to it. Jesus.” He paused and shrugged. “Oh well, we were just a bunch of kids dreaming of the big world. Then I realized that the way out of my hometown was actually called college.”

“So what did you study?”

“Nothing too interesting. Nothing connected to music, either. Doyousing?”

“Everybody sings. Some people just do it badly. You wouldn’t want to hear me try.”

“Aw, now you’re making me want to ask you to sing to me.” Angel grinned. Micah was a little in love with his smile. “Okay, here we are. This is where I wanted to take you.”

Micah hadn’t realized they were heading to a specific place. He looked around, curious.

The pond was in front of them, its water black and placid in the darkness. A big round moon, only a few days from full, was reflected in the still water, and the air smelled of lilac.

“Wow,” Micah breathed out, awed. “It’s beautiful.”

“Isn’t it? I wanted to show you, in case you’ve never been here at night. It’s more crowded during the day, of course, but still peaceful if you can find a good spot.”

“I’ve never been here before.” Micah said. “Thank you for showing me.”

Truth be told, Micah hadn’t been in a park for years, although the city was full of them. There were always more important, more productive things to do than just walk. Now, breathing the cold fresh air, he felt as though a part of him had missed nature more than he’d realized.

“I used to live nearby when I was in college,” Angel said. “It was my favorite place to study when it was nice out.”

“Great for dates, too, I’m sure,” Micah teased.

Angel gave him a lopsided grin. “Is it? I guess we’ll have to see.”

Still holding Micah’s hand in one of his, Angel used the other to cup his face and slowly, deliberately stepped closer to kiss him.

This kiss was purposeful and deep; Angel’s lips moved expertly against his. There was no hurry in the confident exploration of his tongue, and Micah found himself responding with enthusiasm he thought he’d lost forever.

He was breathless and his lips tingled when Angel finally pulled back, his eyes sparkling in the yellow light of the lamp.

“Hmm, I’d say it’s an excellent place for dates indeed,” Angel said. “What do you think?”

A burst of loud laughter came from a nearby pathway, followed by a chatter of young, male voices. Micah tensed, stepping away from Angel and letting go of his hand as fear shot through him.

“I’m not sure we should be doing this here.”

“Hey, you’re safe with me,” Angel said. “I promise.”

He held out his hand again and after barely a moment of hesitation, Micah took it, slowly relaxing. Something in Angel’s demeanor made him feel secure. They started walking down the path along the pond.

The wind had picked up again, much chillier now, and after a few minutes Micah found himself shivering. Since it had been warm all day, and he hadn’t expected to be out this long, he’d recklessly decided he didn’t need a jacket. Now he was paying the price. Still, he didn’t want this evening to end.

“Are you cold?” Angel was already slipping off his jacket. “Here.” He held it for Micah.

“I can’t take it. You’ll freeze,” Micah protested. If he locked his muscles, the trembling wouldn’t be too noticeable.

Angel grinned. He didn’t look uncomfortable despite standing there in a short-sleeved navy shirt. “I’ll be fine. I don’t get cold easily. Seriously, this is balmy.”

“Then why did you wear it at all?” Micah mused as he gave in and slipped his arms into the sleeves of the jacket. It hung a little loose, but the fabric was still warm from Angel’s skin.

“Pockets.” Angel shrugged.

Now that Micah was no longer cold, the walk regained its pleasant quality, improved further by the excellent view of Angel’s beautifully toned arms. They walked in contented silence for a while. Angel’s thumb traced idle lines over the sensitive skin of Micah’s wrist, which seemed to make Micah’s whole hand buzz with pleasure. Then, as they reached a park bench in a dark spot under a broken lamp, Angel pulled on Micah’s hand and sat down, then leaned back to look at the sky.

“I love stargazing,” he said. “Back in my hometown, on summer nights, I used to stay in the garden for hours, looking up at the sky and dreaming. When I was older, I would sometimes drive out into the fields and lie on the hood of my Jeep until sunrise. I could name all the constellations.” He paused and sighed. “It’s hard to see properly in the city.”

Micah sat down next to him. “I used to do that too,” he admitted.

“The Jeep in the field part?” Angel grinned.

Micah laughed. “No, staying outside stargazing. Every summer in Grand Marais, my sister and I would sneak out at night onto the open deck with our sleeping bags. Our parents found us sleeping there so many times they finally put a couple of cots there.” He smiled at the memory. “I loved it, falling asleep to the sounds of frogs and cicadas and the lapping of water, with the smell of pines and the lake, and the starry sky above us.”

“Don’t you miss it?”

“Now I do, thanks.” He pretended to frown at Angel. “I still go there sometimes, if I manage to find the time in the summer. But usually I don’t think about it, you know? Like you said, the city is not the best place to stargaze.”

“Tonight’s not bad,” Angel said, and then sat straighter and wound his arm around Micah’s shoulders. “Come here.”

Micah frowned, confused. “Where?” Angel gently tugged him closer and tapped his own thigh with his free hand. Micah’s eyes widened. “You want me to what, get in your lap? In public? I don’t think—”

Angel laughed. “No, silly. Lie down. You’ll be able to see the sky better.”

“Oh.”

Micah felt blood rush to his cheeks. He fumbled to slide down on the bench until his head was pillowed on Angel’s thigh. As soon as he was settled, Angel put his hand on Micah’s chest and let it rest there, a warm comforting weight over his heart.

The sky was breathtaking, the moon hanging white and heavy overhead, and the scattering of stars, though not as bright, looked just as mesmerizing as on those summer nights, years ago. Except Micah wasn’t alone now, lying on the deck next to sleeping Claudia, dreaming of the future when he could experience it with somebody else—with a boy, someone dear to his heart.

Now, he was here—free to be himself, out in the open, enjoying this moment with another man. And even though he wasn’t a boyfriend, and they weren’t curled up together under one blanket, whispering plans and confessions, it didn’t matter. Angel’s warmth, the subtle scent of cologne and detergent coming from his shirt and his fingers playing with Micah’s hair were enough, tonight.

The movement of Angel’s fingers was hypnotic: feather-light touches to his forehead, his cheekbones, following the outline of his lips. It was teasing and electrifying, and arousal grew like an ever-louder hum through Micah’s body until he couldn’t focus on anything else.


Page 6

“Do you have any more plans?” he asked dreamily. He still had a bit of his four hours left.

“Hmmm.” Angel’s fingers didn’t stop. “We could go for a drink if you want. Or to the movies, although it may be a little late now. And there’s this place that has a late salsa night tonight.”

“No.”

“Or… we could go to your apartment.”

“If we go to my apartment, can we get back to kissing?”

Angel beamed at him, his beautiful eyes sparkling. Micah’s hands itched to touch him. “Of course.”

Kissing him the moment theyclosed the apartment door behind them, Angel pushed Micah against the wall in the hallway, their bodies pressed together with purpose and impatience, lips clashing and hands grasping—neck, waist, fingers entwined in hair. Here, Micah didn’t have to worry about people seeing, or the possibility of an attack; he could let himself experience what he’d denied himself for so long.

Angel’s lips slid down to his neck and Micah moaned quietly at how good it felt, his hips bucking into the unyielding body pressed against him.

“God, you’re so perfect,” Angel whispered between kisses, his breath tickling Micah’s sensitive skin. “So handsome, so fascinating. I want to give you everything you need tonight.” He sounded as aroused as Micah felt. He sucked gently at the side of Micah’s neck, grazed his teeth over the spot, making him gasp. “Just take it, honey. Take whatever you want from me. I’m all yours.”

Surprisingly, his words were what shattered the spell. Micah opened his eyes, for the first time really registering their surroundings. He could see his living room through the doorway opposite, and the dark kitchen to the left of it. His bedroom was a few steps from where they stood, with his solitary bed that had seen so many lonely nights in his very single, very satisfactory life, and would see many more to come.

Tonight wouldn’t change a thing.

Sure, Micah could go on, let himself enjoy the moment of pleasure, let the fantasy lead him further—probably to that very bed, possibly to nakedness, maybe even to things he’d decided long ago he had no need for. And it could be lovely, and exciting and, most likely, it would feel good. But then what?

Then, morning would come, as it always did, shining its light on the events of this night, and Micah knew exactly how he would feel, waking up alone, with nothing but memories of an intimacy that wasn’t real. None of this was, after all. It was all a fantasy, a performance that he’d paid for. A masterful performance, and all the more certain to hurt afterward.

No, Micah couldn’t risk it.

Angel pulled away, the look on his face much more alert already.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and Micah had to remind himself:not real; none of this was real.

“I can’t do this,” he breathed out. “I’m sorry, I can’t.”

He was afraid there would be questions, attempts at persuasion maybe, or seduction, but he should have known better. Angel was nothing if not professional. He took a step away immediately.

“Of course. We can do something else—anything else. Do you want to watch a movie, or cuddle, or—”

“No. I’m sorry, Angel. You are amazing, but I think you should go now. Thank you so much for tonight, I really enjoyed myself, I just… I can’t.”

Angel nodded. “It’s okay. I understand.” He looked sad, and Micah wondered how far his acting went, how deep. How much of everything he’d said and done tonight was fake.

Probably all of it.

Angel bit his lip, and then released it. “So… did I manage to make you feel what you wanted to feel?” he asked.

Micah felt his throat clench. Right. He was supposed to feel loved. As though that could be faked. As though it was some sort of game. What had he been thinking? He hung his head, unable to look this beautiful, kind,professionalman in the eyes.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly. “But… you made me feel.”

He slipped off the jacket and handed it back to Angel. Immediately, he felt cold, even though the apartment was warm.

Angel nodded and touched his arm, just an empty gesture now. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it better for you,” he said.

“I doubt anyone could,” Micah admitted, more to himself than Angel. “But really, thank you.”

“Thankyou. Take care, Micah.” With a last fleeting smile—no dimples this time—Angel walked out of the apartment and out of Micah’s life.

His apartment felt emptier thanever: the flowers out of place in their gorgeous vivacity, the bed cold and unwelcoming. Micah sat in the kitchen with a cup of Earl Grey tea, going through the evening in his head.

Had he felt loved tonight? He didn’t think so. But what did feeling loved mean, anyway? The words hadn’t crossed Angel’s lips; Micah was pretty sure that would have thrown him right out of the mood. But he had felt a lot of things tonight that he’d always associated with happy relationships.

He’d felt safe and cared for, certain he could trust Angel. He’d felt important to him, in the center of his attention. Never during the night had Angel’s phone rung, never had his eyes strayed to another man—he’d had eyes and ears only for Micah, actively listening to what he had to say, showing him with little touches and gestures and compliments that he mattered.

It was a better date than Micah had ever had—the flowers, the handholding, the dancing. The walk and the stargazing. Micah felt desired, but at the same time respected. He felt a lot of things—enough to let himself be immersed in the fantasy from the get-go, so much so that, for a while, he’d almost forgotten what it really was.

So no, he may not have felt loved. But he’d felt happy, content and cherished, and that was much more than he’d thought he would get. The small, achy corner of his heart where his perfect date fantasy had resided as long as Micah could remember—always there, even when he hadn’t thought about it for months on end—felt empty now, and not in a bad way. It was too early to say what it meant, but Micah knew something had happened—some kind of healing, some chance to move on, to let go and find new dreams. Some part of him, young and needy and longing, was soothed tonight. For that, he was thankful.

His decision made, Micah opened his laptop, went to his PayPal account, and sent the bonus two hundred fifty dollars to Angel. The escort may not have achieved the impossible, but what he had done was still more than anyone else ever had.

Chapter 6

Claudia called Micah the nextmorning, just as he finished enjoying a relaxed breakfast and was getting ready to leave for work.

“What’s up, oh sister mine?” Contrary to his expectations, he was in a really good mood.

“Spill,” Claudia demanded, without so much as ahello.

“Spill what?” Micah asked, genuinely confused.

“Everything about the cutie, of course!”

“What cutie?”

Claudia shot back, impatient. “Honey, don’t play dumb on me. Jake saw you last night in the park.”

Oh damn. The last thing Micah needed was Claudia’s gossipy actor friend to have seen him with Angel.

“Really? I didn’t notice him.”

“Oh well, he said he wanted to come over and say hi, but you were apparently too preoccupied with your boyfriend, so he decided not to interrupt.”

“Who says it was my boyfriend?” Micah asked, perching on the edge of the hallway table, in sudden need of support.

“Please. Because you’re so famous for hooking up with random guys,” she teased. “Besides, Jake says the heart eyes could be seen from space. So quit evading and tell me when I’m going to meet Mister Amazing.”

“How do you know he’s amazing?” Micah winced. This conversation was definitely getting out of control.

“If he managed to get you to go out with him, I’m sure there must be something special about him.”

Micah didn’t answer. Anything he could say at this point would only make the situation worse.

Claudia knew about the fiasco with Brian, of course—knew better than anyone. She’d never liked Brian and hadn’t hidden it, but she’d forced herself to tolerate him as long as he’d been Micah’s boyfriend. She’d even refrained from saying the well-deserved “I told you so” after the break up. Afterward, she kicked her boyfriend out to a friend’s place for the weekend and gave Micah space on her couch, with ice cream and chocolate and enough liquor at his disposal to intoxicate a small army, so that he could mope and ramble about men and how they sucked in general. Never once had Claudia disagreed, even though her own relationship history was nothing short of perfect.

She’d worried about him since, Micah knew. She was the only person who truly understood the extent to which the relationship with Brian, not the break-up alone, had devastated him. And she knew him; she would not fall for the “it was just one date, no strings attached” ruse. Micah would have to tell her the truth.

But how could he?

“Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do,” Claudia said. “You will bring your man—what’s his name anyway?”

Micah bit the inside of his cheek, the pain steadying him.

“Angel,” he said. He couldn’t tell her the truth about last night. How do you tell your family that you hired a prostitute, for goodness sake?

He’d plan what to do later.

“Cute,” Claudia said. “So you’re gonna bring Angel to our play’s opening night on Friday. I’ll give you the tickets and invites for the after-party when we meet for lunch today.”

“I can’t,” he answered immediately. “I mean, I can, but Angel is busy Friday night.”

“Ask him anyway.”

“Claudia—”

“Ask him. I’m not taking no for an answer unless you actually ask him.”

Micah sighed. “Fine, I’ll ask. But I know he’s busy this whole weekend.”

“I’m sure he’ll find time for you. So, lunch at one? I expect to hear all the juicy details. See you!” She hung up, leaving Micah with a growing urge to bang his head against the wall.

“So is he coming?” Claudiaasked as soon as she entered their favorite bistro, late as usual.

“Hello, it’s nice to see you too. What can I get for you?” Micah said.

“Yeah, yeah. I’m buying today. We’ve got to celebrate the new developments.”

“I’m sure you mean my upcoming book and your upcoming premiere.”

“No, I mean you falling in love, you guppy.”

“Ah.” Micah hid behind his menu.

“And stop avoiding my question.” Claudia took it out of his hands. “Is Angel coming with you on Friday?”

Micah sighed. “I told you, he can’t.”

“Did you even ask him?”

“I didn’t have to. I know his plans and he’s most definitely busy then,” Micah said, picking up the menu again. “Okay, I think I’ll have the Caesar salad today. You?”

When Claudia didn’t answer, he looked up only to see her crushed expression.

“Why don’t you want me to meet him? Are you afraid I’ll scare him away? Because I promise to be on my best behavior. And I’m pretty sure he can’t be like the B-Bastard, right?”

Micah couldn’t look her in the eyes, focusing on the little spill of sugar on the table instead. “No, he’s not like Brian at all.”

“See? Come on. I’m happy for you, little brother.”

Micah had never felt so guilty. “Thank you,” he said through a tight throat.

“So,” she clapped enthusiastically, all hints of sadness gone in a blink. “Call him. Ask him. Now.”

Micah’s eyes widened. “Now? But—”

“Come o-o-on.”

She wouldn’t let go until she got what she wanted, Micah knew from experience. Sighing heavily, he took out his phone and pulled up Angel’s number. His only hope now was that the call would go to voicemail.

No such luck, of course. Angel answered on the second ring.

“Hi, Micah.” There was a smile in his voice. “I was just thinking about you.”

Claudia grinned and clapped soundlessly; she was sitting close enough to hear every word.

Angel continued. “Thank you for—”

“Listen, I’m sort of held at gunpoint here,” Micah interrupted him frantically before he could mention the money. Angel’s voice turned serious.

“You don’t mean literally, I hope?”

“No, no. It’s just, my sister’s friend saw us in the park last night. And now Claudia is sitting right here, insisting I bring you with me to her show’s opening night and after-party on Friday. As, you know, my new boyfriend and all.” He sounded faintly panicked even to himself. He just hoped Claudia would think it was because he was still nervous about her meeting Angel.

“Oh,” Angel said, and then proved once again that he was a master at this game, just as Micah hoped. “Then the cat’s out of the bag, I guess.” He laughed warmly. “What time is the show?”

“Half-past seven,” Claudia trilled, leaning closer to the phone. “Hi, Micah’s new boyfriend!”

“I know you said you’re busy all weekend,” Micah said. “But she’s one stubborn girl, so I had to call and ask.”

Angel hummed. “Actually, I think I could pull it off. I have somewhere to be, but I don’t need to leave until midnight, so if you two don’t mind if I pull a Cinderella, I can be there.”

Claudia cheered, grinning at her brother triumphantly.

“Great,” Micah said, trying hard to sound enthusiastic. “Okay, I’ll call you later. Have a great day.”

“You too, sweetheart.”

“He sounds nice,” Claudia remarked as soon as Micah disconnected.

“It’s rude to eavesdrop, you know,” Micah mumbled, overwhelmed with the sudden turn of events, the endearment still rattling in his ribcage like a rogue ping-pong ball.

She shrugged and got up to order their food. “It’s not my fault your phone is so loud.”

The line at the counter gave Micah a few much needed minutes to regain his composure. And they hadn’t even started talking. Given half a chance, Claudia would try to milk him for all the details.

“So, is he a good kisser?”

Exactly. Claudia plopped onto her chair and sat with an eager expression, ready for the interrogation.

“A gentleman doesn’t kiss and tell.”

“Is he a goodloverthen?”

“Claudia!” He glared at her. “I’m not talking to you about this.”

“You did, once.” She lowered her voice. “Did you even… you know?” She waggled her eyebrows. “How long have you been together, anyway?”

“Not long,” he said.Like, perhaps, less than four hours. “It’s still new.”

“Aww,” she cooed. “Where did you meet? How did it start? Are you guys official yet?”

“Sis, you can ask all sorts of questions when you meet him on Friday,” Micah said, determined to sidetrack the conversation. “Now, tell me about the show. Is your throat better? Did they approve of your costume suggestions? Tell me everything.”

Just as he hoped, Claudia’s eyes lit up at the switch to her favorite topic and she launched into a monologue that, with a little luck, would tide them over until Micah could come up with a very urgent and massively important errand. He was already texting one of his coworkers under the table with instructions to call him in ten minutes.

Micah called Angel again assoon as he found himself alone in his office. Now that he actually wanted to talk to him, however, Angel didn’t pick up. He called back ten minutes later.

“Sorry, I was in the shower,” Angel said, sounding bright and bubbly.

His voice made something warm flutter in Micah’s chest. He shook it away.

“Hi. Listen, I’m sorry for putting you in this situation. I tried to tell Claudia you were busy, but she demanded proof that I actually asked you.”

“It’s okay. Though I just realized that you probably wanted me to confirm that I can’t join you on Friday, didn’t you? I’m sorry. I was on my way somewhere and didn’t catch it in time. I’ll happily come up with a last-minute excuse if you want me to.”

Micah sighed. “No, it’s probably better to let Claudia have her way. At least she’ll be on stage and then distracted during the after-party, so she won’t have time to grill us too much. If I don’t bring you now, she’ll just whine until we meet her another day.”

“You’re not happy about this development,” Angel said.

Micah let out a bitter laugh. “No, I’m not.”

“And telling her the truth is not an option?”

“Definitely not. I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t even do casual sex.”

“Really? Never?” Angel sounded stunned.

“No. If I told her that I paid you… No matter what my motivation was, she’d never look at me the same again.”

“Okay. So what do you want to do? What did you tell her?”

“She assumed you were my boyfriend, and I didn’t correct her. I just told her that it’s still very new. I thought I could keep the act up for a little while, then in a week or two tell her it didn’t work out. You’re moving away, reuniting with an ex-fiancé, something like that. Are you up for this little charade? I promise I won’t make you play my boyfriend more than this once.”

Angel laughed warmly. “That’s okay, Micah. My work is constant acting. I think I can manage.”

“Thank you. How much should I send you?”

Talking about this in terms of money seemed inelegant. But the simple truth was, Angel was providing a service, and he was paying for exactly that. It was a business transaction. Nothing shameful in that, though Micah cringed again at the wastefulness.

Angel hummed, considering. “Just the theater and the party, no private time?”

“No, everything’s just for show. But it’s a bit more than four hours until midnight.”

“Hmmm, let’s say a thousand? But we’ll have to take your car or a cab. I won’t be able to get you home afterwards.”

“That’s okay. I’ll transfer the money today.”

There was a strange pang of disappointment in Micah’s gut as they discussed the details of the Friday meeting and then hung up. It wasn’t as though he expected Angel to do this for free—he was a professional after all, this was his job and his time—but some small, naïve part of Micah’s brain had to be reminded that no matter how magical last night had been, no matter how close they’d seemed to be, how perfectly Angel seemed to understand him, it was not real. This was a business transaction. Nothing more.

The show—The Crucible at theTheater in the Round— turned out to be excellent, and Micah wasn’t saying it just because his sister played the main antagonist. Everywhere around them, he could hear people discussing the play as they filed out afterward, and it tickled him that most of them mentioned Abigail, Claudia’s character, as one of the stronger performances. “A little evil, a little mad, completely mesmerizing,” he’d heard someone say. He made a mental note to repeat it to Claudia.

This was her first major role, a long-awaited step up, and there had been quite a bit of criticism when the casting was announced. A twenty-eight-year-old mostly unknown actress playing a key—and teenage—character? The skepticism at the choice had reportedly been universal throughout the Minneapolis theater community, but Claudia had held her head high and worked hard. Now that the final test had come, she was passing it with flying colors.

“Your sister was phenomenal,” Angel said as they were making their way out of the theater and to the restaurant two blocks away for the after-party. “So eerie she gave me chills.”

Micah nodded, his chest puffing up with how proud he was of her. “She was fantastic. I mean, I always knew she would be; I’ve seen her act since she was a kid, but wow, this was something else.”

“She really does look like you, though,” Angel mused. “The eyes, the hair, the shape of her face… I would have taken you for twins if I didn’t know better.”

Micah smiled and nodded, but didn’t try to keep up the conversation, and the rest of the walk passed in silence.

Tonight felt very different from Monday. Tonight Micah was doing this for other people, not for himself. And so, even though Angel was just as kind and attentive as he’d been during their “date,” and drop-dead handsome in a gray suit fitted so perfectly that Micah’s own designer tux seemed clunky, that hardly affected Micah at all. He felt distanced, two steps removed from his own emotions and needs. Yes, he would act his part, continue to hold Angel’s hand and smile at him, even kiss him if necessary, but the sparks weren’t there. This was nothing more than a role. It would be over and forgotten soon.

The restaurant was crowded and loud. Formal suits and glamorous gowns of every style and color filled the space. The guests milled around, talking, snacking at the buffet and sipping drinks as they waited for the stars of the evening to arrive. Micah had been at these parties before with Claudia, and Angel seemed to be no novice. They spent some time walking around with drinks in hand, grazing on finger food and chatting, and Micah found that, in spite of everything, he was enjoying himself.


Page 7

Then Claudia came in. She looked stunning in her shimmering red dress, dark hair in a loose French braid that made her face look soft and sweet, with just a touch of make-up bringing out the intense blue of her eyes. People crowded around her with compliments and congratulations as soon as she entered , but when she was finished with the initial wave of socializing, she wove her way to the corner table where Micah sat, anxiously squeezing Angel’s hand.

“Dear God, I need a drink,” Claudia sighed, dropping onto a chair opposite them.

Angel stood up immediately with his most winning smile, the one that made Micah warm and tingly to the tips of his toes even when they weren’t flirting their way through a fantasy.

“What can I get you, oh fair lady?” he asked with an exaggerated bow.

Claudia giggled. “Rum and Coke, please, my good sir. And please call me by my name. I’m Claudia.” She offered a hand that Angel took and kissed.

“Angel,” he said. “I’m delighted to finally meet you after hearing so much about you from Micah.”

Claudia pretended to glare at Micah. “I wonder what he told you.”

“All the best things, I assure you.” Angel grinned. “I’ll go hunt for that drink. Would you like another, sweetie?” He turned to Micah.

“No, I’m good for now, thanks.”

With a nod, Angel turned and disappeared in the crowd.

Claudia immediately grabbed Micah’s hand.

“Ooh, I like him already. Is he always so chivalrous or is it just for my benefit?”

“Pretty much always,” Micah admitted. As far as he knew, it was the truth. “He opens doors and brings flowers and offers his jackets on cold nights.”

“Oh my.” Claudia sighed. “Hold on to him. Gentlemen always make the best partners. I should know.”

“Right.” Micah shifted in his chair. “Speaking of which, where is Brad?”

She rolled her eyes. “In Arizona, photographing rare flowers. He offered to stay just to be here for the opening night, but this thing blooms only for a few days and he’d been waiting for this trip all year, so I told him to go. I, unlike the flowers, intend to blossom for a long time.”

Brad was a nature photographer who’d been increasingly recognized in the last few years, with prestigious magazines likeNational GeographicandAudubonpublishing his work. He had been Claudia’s boyfriend since they were both fifteen—with a short, tumultuous break in the sophomore year of college when they’d tried dating other people, only to run back to each other three months later.

Every time Micah saw them together, he couldn’t help feeling envy at how good they were as a couple—two halves of the same apple, soulmates, if there ever was such a thing. The thought that his sister was convinced he could have the same kind of connection with anyone gave Micah a painful lump in his throat. He hadn’t. He wouldn’t.

Angel came back with the drink and a small plate in his hands. He put both in front of Claudia.

“I thought you might be hungry,” he answered her surprised expression.

“Starving, thank you. But how did you know I love sushi?” She asked, reaching for the chopsticks.

Angel shrugged. “Told you, Micah talks about you.”

Micah arched his eyebrows. Yes, he had talked about Claudia. But the fact that Angel remembered this little detail from one of his silly family stories made it very hard for Micah not to stare at him, stunned.

Angel sat by Micah’s side and took his hand, stroking his thumb over the top of it as if he did that every day.

“Okay,” Claudia said after swallowing a mouthful. “So how did you like the play? Be honest.”

Micah was about to shower her with the usual—and well-deserved—compliments when Angel opened his mouth and delivered a five-minute review of the performance that somehow touched every aspect of it, with special focus on Claudia’s role, and summed up why it was amazing in ways that were much more constructive and eloquent than anything Micah could have found. Micah felt his jaw drop.

Angel looked at the siblings sitting there with identical stunned expressions and shrugged. “What? I have an analytical mind.”

Claudia closed her mouth with a click. “And a way with words. Wow. Could you write that down for me so that I can frame it?” Then she turned to Micah. “He’s a keeper.”

“Oh really?” he replied faintly.

“Definitely. I like him. You have my seal of approval.”

Angel inclined his head in silent thanks, his face earnest. Micah wanted to scream, or confess the truth, anything to just stop lying to her.

He didn’t.

Claudia seemed totally oblivious to the raging conflict inside of him; her attention was focused on Angel.

“So tell me, young man—why are you so intent on leaving us so early? Don’t tell me you have work to get to at midnight.”

From their first chat, Micah knew that it was exactly what Angel had. How was he going to maneuver his way out of this one?

“Oh, I have a company trip to get to.” Angel waved his hand without hesitation. “It’s kind of like a survival camp. Team-building exercises, all that. We need to be there by six tomorrow—not that we know wherethereis, yet, it’s a big secret—and the bus is leaving after midnight.” He gave Claudia his most charming smile. “Sorry, I can’t skip it. My boss is very strict about attendance at these things. He says it does wonders for mental health.” He rolled his eyes.

Claudia tapped her lip with a manicured finger. “Okay, in that case, you’re forgiven. What do you do, anyway?”

“Sis, stop with the interrogation.” Micah tried to hijack the conversation for Angel’s sake, but she just shushed him, and Angel squeezed his hand.

“No, it’s okay,” he assured Micah before turning to her again. “I’m a lawyer.”

Micah barely managed to hide his surprise. A lawyer? Really?Thatwas what Angel chose for a cover story? Was he crazy?

“I work at this little law firm specializing in corporate cases,” Angel continued. “I only started with them last year, so I’m still the new kid, but it’s the first step.”

Claudia just nodded, accepting the lie without question. “How did you two meet then? I assume it wasn’t through work.”

Okay, this one they’d actually discussed. Micah took over. “At a coffee shop, believe it or not. It started like a thousand cliché love stories.” He managed to keep his voice steady over thelovepart, though it burned in his throat.

Claudia arched her eyebrows. “Really? Tell me. I love a good love story.”

“Well, I saw him one day at this place near my office,” Angel said. “He didn’t notice me; he was completely lost in whatever he was doing on his laptop.”

“That does sound like my nerdy little brother all right.” Claudia grinned and Micah kicked her foot under the table.

Angel continued. “I didn’t manage to catch his eye even as he was leaving, but I was so enchanted that I asked the barista very nicely, and she said Micah came there several times a week around that time, and always alone. So I started timing my coffee breaks appropriately.” He smiled, as if revisiting a fond memory.

“How did you know he was gay?” Claudia asked.

Uh-oh. They hadn’t thought to talk about that, and Micah knew from experience that people generally didn’t read him immediately upon meeting. Nor did he advertise his sexuality unasked, not anymore.

“I didn’t know,” Angel said simply. “But he has this rainbow keychain, you know?” Micah let out a discreet sigh of relief. Saved by a keychain. “So I didn’t really assume anything, but I let myself hope.” He smiled at Micah again, his expression tender. “It took a few weeks, but finally I found a way to talk to him, and after another week I bought his coffee and asked him to go out with me. The rest is history.” He leaned in to sweetly kiss Micah’s cheek, and Claudia sighed happily.

“You must have been really convincing.” She sounded impressed. “No one has managed that since he swore off dating after a bad break-up, years ago. I was beginning to seriously worry.”

Angel looked at him, not quite able to conceal surprise. Micah just shrugged, but Claudia obviously caught on to their little wordless exchange.

“Ooh, you didn’t know? Has he even told you about Brian?”

“No, and I’d appreciate it if you let me talk about it when I want to talk about it,” Micah snapped.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.”

The beaming director chose that moment to come up to their table and, after short introductions, stole Claudia away to show her off.

They didn’t exchange more than a few words in passing with her until Angel had to leave, but she watched them across the room now and then, even as she talked to other people. So they made sure to act like a couple—holding hands, standing close in each other’s personal space, sharing a few chaste kisses as if they couldn’t stop themselves. Micah let his eyes linger on Angel’s body, let his hand linger, too—on Angel’s waist, brushing up his chest, his sleeve.

There was music, but Micah didn’t want to dance. They talked, but it wasn’t like Monday night. Mostly, they just exchanged remarks about the people around them, the party, the theater, biding their time until goodbye. As far as Micah was concerned, he was over it. He’d gotten what some part of him wanted from Angel during their “date.” Now he just wanted to close this short, bittersweet chapter.

So, just before midnight, he bade Angel a tender goodbye because Claudia was right there beside them in front of the restaurant, and then, with a secret sigh of relief, he stepped back inside.

He didn’t stay much longer, though. With Claudia in such high demand among the theater crowd, and no one else there that he really knew, Micah got bored after half an hour. When he found his already-tipsy sister in the crowd to tell her he was leaving, she hugged him tightly. He was surprised to see her eyes glimmer with tears as she pulled away.

“I’m really happy for you,” she said, sniffing. “You deserve to be loved and cherished like this. I’m so happy you found him.”

No amount of alcohol could wash away the bitter taste in Micah’s mouth.

Chapter 7

The next month was filledto the brim with work. Between the two conferences, the craziness of book promotion and training Rob and Rebecca—his nineteen-year-old twin employees—to teach the seminars so that he could focus on everything else that required his attention, Micah didn’t have enough time to sleep, let alone do anything that didn’t count as work. And that was just fine—it was the kind of pace he enjoyed, the schedule he thrived on. A little free time now and then was great, but he would go crazy if he had nothing to do for a few days. If that made him a workaholic, fine. It was nothing bad, not when his work was his passion, his hobby and his only constant companion.

He managed to call Daphne once, when he was stuck in traffic, and remembered to text Claudia with congratulations after reading a fantastic review of her performance, but mostly, his head was filled with schedules and obligations and plans. Every day, Rob and Rebecca left the office at reasonable hours to go home to their girlfriends, and Micah stayed behind, immersed in presentations and guest posts, interviews and contracts for new clients that had started pouring in already.

June was over in a blink of an eye, and July was setting out to be just as busy. Rebecca mentioned they should think of vacation, take advantage of the beautiful summer they were having, but Micah didn’t see that happening anytime soon. There was just so much to do.

The phone call caught him in the middle of writing a guest blog post for a large InfoSec portal, when inspiration was flowing faster than his fingers flew over the keyboard. He was in the zone, but one glance at the display told him this was not a person he could ignore, not when he hadn’t found time to call her in weeks. A pang of guilt reverberated through him as he picked up.

“Hi, Mom.”

“Did you forget how to use this modern device we call a phone?”

“No. I’m sorry, I’ve been busy, Mom,” he said. “I didn’t have time to—”

“Sweetie, you never have time,” she interrupted. “That’s life. You make time. I want to hear from you every once in a while.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

He really was. Every time they talked, he promised himself he would call at least once a week, and then he got lost in his work again. It wasn’t that he didn’t remember his parents, or didn’t want to talk to them—he just honestly lost track of time. His mom knew that, and even though she scolded him about it regularly, she understood. That was one of the amazing things about his parents. They understood. Or at least they tried, no matter what, even when it was hard.

“So,” his mom said. “I talked to Claudia last night and I’m really disappointed, honey. How come you’ve never told us about your cute new boyfriend?”

Ohshit.

He hadn’t even thought about it. He was going to ease Claudia into the idea that Angel and he weren’t a serious couple—not a couple at all, in fact. He’d had a plan. But with everything that was happening on the work front, he hadn’t spared a single thought to Angel in weeks. Of course, hoping Claudia would forget, too, was too much to wish for. And now he was in deep trouble.

“Um, because it’s just… still fresh, you know? I didn’t want to talk about him until I knew it’s something serious.” He stuttered, caught off-guard and already cursing himself for wading deeper into the lie.

“So what is he doing next weekend, that mysterious man of yours?”

Oh no.No. “I don’t know, Mom, but—”

“So he’s coming with you to the anniversary party.”

Micah felt his knees go weak even though he was sitting. His parents’ thirtieth wedding anniversary was to be a big celebration, with a vows renewal ceremony and his whole family and a bunch of his parents’ friends coming to the lake cabin. He planned to be there, of course, but there was no way he would be taking anyone with him.

“Mom, I don’t think he’ll have time, he’s a busy man, and—”

“Tell him to make time,” she said in that voice that meant no further discussion was welcome. “I want to meet the man Claudia says makes you look like a love-struck teenager.” Micah groaned, and she chuckled softly. “Come on, I just want to see you happy with someone before I die.”

“You’re fifty-one and in perfect health, Mom. You’re far from dying.”

“True, but you never know. At this rate, I may die of old age before I see you happily married. So bring this lucky boy with you. Even if it turns out he’s not The One, I still want to meet the man who captured my son’s heart.” Her voice was warm, laced with a smile, and Micah wished more than anything he didn’t have to disappoint her. He still tried to protest.

“But—”

“No buts. I’ll see you both on the eleventh. Now, tell me what you’ve been up to.”

One thing Micah was absolutelysure of: There was no way he could take Angel with him next weekend. He couldn’t keep playing this game. It had been a reckless one-night adventure that had already expanded into more of Micah’s life than he’d ever planned, and it had to stop now.

He would just tell his mom that Angel couldn’t come. Or, better yet, he would break it to them gently that they’d split. Simple as that. He would give it a few days for more credibility, and then he would call both his parents and Claudia, and he’d finally be free of this stupid lie.

Making the decision, once and for all, was such a relief. Feeling strong and calm again, Micah got back to work.

He didn’t think about Angel at all until the next Monday when Claudia called him. Micah was already in bed, exhausted after a long day, but seeing her name on the screen brought everything back. A rush of dread made him freeze with his hand on the phone. Crap. He was supposed to break up with his fake boyfriend, wasn’t he?

He took a deep breath and, with his chin held high and his resolve quickly gathered, he answered the call.

“Hi, a quick question,” Claudia said through the background noise of some crowded place. “Do you and Angel want to drive with us on Thursday morning? I’ve decided to go a couple of days early, give my understudy a chance to shine a little. It would be fun to go together. More eco-friendly, too.”

“Thanks, but I’m having brunch with a customer on Friday,” he replied, not quite sure how to say he’d be driving by himself. Despite his best intentions, he hadn’t taken time to invent the explanation yet.

“Workaholic,” Claudia sighed. “Okay, suit yourselves. Also, I feel obliged to report that our mother is unhealthily excited about your boyfriend coming with you. You may want to warn him.”

“Oh God.”

“Brad says he can offer pointers on how to handle our family if needed. You can give Angel his number.” Claudia sounded way too amused.

Brad was indeed an expert on dealing with their family—their parents had adored him from the first time they’d met him. Whether they would be as accepting toward Micah’s partners was hard to determine. They’d never met any—Brian had vehemently refused to go home with Micah.

Not that it mattered, really, because Micah had no intention of bringing anyone with him.

“Um, no thanks,” he told Claudia.

“As you wish. Anyway, I’ll see you there. ‘Night!” She hung up before he could say another word.

Any hope of sleep gone for the moment, Micah started on the long overdue process of planning his excuse.

He could call his parents and say Angel was too busy to come with him—he had a business trip, perhaps, or a case to prepare. Lawyers were notoriously busy people, after all. Still, he dreaded this conversation. Lying to his parents was never easy for him—his mom in particular had a lie sensor, and she never hesitated to call Micah out. Finding excuses and defending his nonexistent boyfriend at the same time seemed like more than he could handle.

Maybe he could just go alone and say his boyfriend had something urgent come up at the last minute. Surely they would understand. Again, lawyers. Though the thought of the disappointment on his mom’s face was hard to bear, especially if she was indeed looking forward to them coming together.

What he should actually do, of course, was to tell them there was no boyfriend. Not anymore, at least. But Claudia’s words were ringing in his ears: “Mom’s unhealthily excited.” Of course she was. She’d been waiting for this for years, even though she’d never said a word.

No matter what he did, he was going to disappoint everyone. Micah’s head ached. Tomorrow. Tomorrow was another day; he would decide then, when he wasn’t so tired. There was plenty of time.

However, they had a crisis situation when Micah arrived at the office, and he spent the whole day and well into the night tracking an information leak in a client’s network. And then it was Wednesday, just two days before Micah was supposed to go to Grand Marais, and he was not one bit closer to the solution. The prospect of disappointing his mom on the eve of her big day seemed crueler by the minute.

Twice, Micah picked up his phone to call her, and twice he put it down, not ready to press the call button. By six p.m., his hands were shaking and he couldn’t focus on work; all of his attention was occupied by his dilemma. He’d done it again—left an unsolved problem until the last minute, pushing it to the backburner of his mind and hoping it would somehow fix itself. He hated putting things off, and yet he kept doing it, over and over again. Wasn’t procrastination a form of cowardice?

This was stupid. It was a simple thing, just to call and tell his parents that he was coming alone. It wasn’t as though he had to really break up with an actual boyfriend. Still, he couldn’t. The questions, the lies—his mom would know something was off, and she would get it out of him, one way or another. And then Micah would never be able to look his parents in the eyes again. Even just a thought of their disappointed, shocked faces if they learned that Angel was a professional escort made Micah cringe.

If he only had more time—he would fix it. He really would. If he could buy himself a few more weeks to do it at his own pace.

That thought made him straighten up in his desk chair; the wheels in his head were turning. There might be a way.

Micah turned the idea over and over, all the way home, all through his solitary take-out dinner, all through an hour spent at the piano, where his thoughts always seemed to fall into natural order. He shouldn’t do it. It was a bad idea—risky, costly and cowardly. But it would give him a reprieve. And if he was going to do it, it had to be tonight.

After another hour, Micah picked up the phone and chose Angel’s number.

“I don’t think I can do it, Micah. I’m sorry.” Angel sounded apologetic.

“Oh.” Micah deflated; nerves that had been constricting his throat a moment ago gave way to defeat. Now he really didn’t have a way out. “You’re probably booked weeks in advance. I didn’t think about that.”

“No, it’s not that. I’m actually free this weekend,” Angel said. His voice was rough today, as if he was sick, and he’d only picked up on the third attempt. “The summer months are always slower; people go on vacations, find summer flings. That’s not why I can’t go with you.”

“Why then?” Micah asked. Maybe he could still convince him.

“I don’t take longer jobs. I told you, I never stay until morning. And you’re asking me not just to stay the night, but to stay on the job for forty-eight hours. I’ve never done that. I don’t think I can.”

“But isn’t this less intense than your usual jobs?” Micah asked. “I don’t expect you to do anything sexual.” He didn’t blush, too focused on what he needed. “You would just play my boyfriend, like last time, and even that only when there are people around. No need to pretend for me.”

“Okay, let’s say that’s feasible,” Angel said. “I wouldmaybeagree if it was in the city. But going off somewhere into the wilderness? It’s not that I have reasons not to trust you, Micah, so please don’t take it personally, but it’s not safe. I don’t really know you. I don’t know your family, or the area or anything about the situation. My profession is not the safest one; I have to take care of myself. I always have an emergency exit plan. I can’t see how I could have one here.”

The wheels in Micah’s head were turning, problem-solving mode in full swing. “Okay, first, it’s not a wilderness. There are plenty of other houses and people around.”

“Still—”

“And what if you took your own car? Claudia is going to be there, and she’s driving. I can return with her if need be. So we could go in your car, and if you feel unsafe at any point, or want to cut the job short for whatever reason, we can just say you had an urgent phone call and you have to go. I won’t stop you.” Micah was talking faster. That could work.Please let it work.

Angel’s tone cut his hope short. “Micah, I’m sorry. I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“I’ll pay you five grand,” he blurted out. When Angel didn’t respond immediately, he took a breath and continued, calmer. “You said summer months were slow. I’m sure you could use some money to compensate for that. I’m paying you five thousand dollars for two days of your time. All you have to do is pretend to be in a relationship with me. It’s not a bad deal.” He felt like shit making it all boil down to money, but he was desperate.

There was another moment of silence in the phone, then, “Let me think about this, okay?”

“Sure. Of course.”

“Can I let you know in the morning?” Angel’s voice sounded different from his usual bright tone now—it was neutral, carefully controlled.

“Yeah. Thank you.”


Page 8

Chapter 8

If meeting Angel the firsttime around, back in May, had been stressful, it was nothing to waiting for him to come pick Micah up on Friday afternoon.

Yes, Micah already knew the man he was going to meet, so he wasn’t going in blind. Angel would deliver exactly the mirage Micah needed from him—he’d be perfect, just as he’d been the last two times. The problem was, this time, Micah was keenly aware that Angel didn’t really want to take this job.

They were supposed to get to the cabin in time for late dinner, so Angel was picking him up at three. Micah left the office at two and sped home, irrationally convinced he would be late, only to have so much time to spare he cleaned his kitchen and repacked his suitcase to have something to do. He was sitting around twiddling his thumbs and trying to think of ways to make this trip bearable for both of them when the doorbell rang.

Angel stood there smiling when Micah opened the door, looking as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He was wearing simple blue jeans and a black V-neck T-shirt, which contrasted nicely against his tanned skin. His sandy hair was in perfect disarray. He kissed Micah’s cheek just as he had the first time they’d met.

“Hi, boyfriend. Ready to go? It’s shaping up to be a beautiful weekend,” he said, and Micah blinked slowly, frowning.

“Hey. You don’t have to do this, you know. You can save the act for when we’re there. I really don’t expect you to keep it up for two full days nonstop.”

Angel just waved his hand dismissively. “I’ll be fine. You called me on a bad day. I was tired and got weirdly paranoid. Sorry for that.” He reached for Micah’s small suitcase, picking it up from the floor. “Besides, I still owe you something.”

“You do? What’s that?” Micah asked, grabbing his garment bag and following him out the door.

“Your fantasy. I didn’t succeed, not entirely, and it’s bothering me. I don’t like to leave things half-done.”

He tried to take Micah’s hand when they walked to the elevator, but Micah stopped, pulling it away. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “I don’t think youcansucceed.”

“Well, I’ll take it as a challenge.” Still beaming, Angel strode down the hall.

Micah shook his head and followed him at a slower pace. It was going to be a long weekend.

Today, Angel drove a bluePrius.

“The Mini was a rental.” He smiled at Micah’s surprised expression. “That beautiful evening begged for a convertible. I wouldn’t buy one for myself, though, not for Minnesota winters.”

Ah. That made sense. Micah was once again impressed with the attention to detail Angel showed while preparing for a job, and the planning that must go into each encounter. Angel was good: He’d proven it before. Maybe this time would be fine, too. Maybe Micah should stop worrying about bothering Angel and lying to his own family and just relax. He had a role to play too, after all.

“So why didn’t you just tell your family that we’d broken up? I thought that was the plan.” Angel said half an hour into their drive. “I mean, I’m not complaining, but the way you’re talking about this, it sounds more like you’re backed up against a wall than genuinely interested in showing them you’re not single. Are they threatening to disown you if you don’t find a partner or something?”

Micah snorted and turned in his seat so that he could comfortably watch Angel. So far they hadn’t talked much besides discussing music to play on the way.

“No, nothing like that. But they worry, especially my mom. She thinks I’m unhappy alone. If I had just told Claudia we were over before she blabbed all about you, it would be fine, but I got distracted and forgot.”

Angel put his hand to his chest. “I am wounded. How could you forget our pretend love?”

“Work. And since Claudia already told them, my love life is in the spotlight, and I can’t just announce that we broke up immediately.”

“Why not? What does it matter?”

Micah sighed. “Because I bet half of my extended family knew the same day my mom heard about you. And the mere thought of their collective concern and their sympathy and the constant questions about why, what happened, and am I all right makes me want to run and hide, not spend the weekend with them. Besides, it’s supposed to be my parents’ special day. I don’t want it overshadowed with my dating woes, much less pretend ones.”

“Is it like that with your every boyfriend?” Angel arched an eyebrow, his eyes focused on the road ahead. “One might think they would get bored after three or four.” When Micah didn’t reply, Angel cast a quick glance at him. “Micah?”

“I only ever had one,” Micah mumbled, looking away. “In college. He left me after two years and I haven’t been interested in dating again since. So no, they don’t do this too often. It’s just that it’s been so long.”

He stole a look at Angel, suddenly desperate to see his reaction. Would it be pity? Disbelief? Judgment? But Angel was still focused on the road, his expression unchanged, neutrally kind. The question he asked was none of those Micah was expecting to hear.

“Are you still in love with him?”

Micah stared. “Who, Brian? God no.”

“Then why no dating?” It didn’t sound like criticism, just curiosity. For some reason Micah didn’t mind answering, as he usually did.

“I’m just better off alone.”

“Oh, okay.”

And that was that—no judgment, no more questions. Micah’s affection toward Angel grew.

They drove in comfortable silence for a while, with only the upbeat rock music from Angel’s road playlist filling the space. Micah stared at the fields whooshing by outside the window, the familiarity of the views making his heart ache with so many sweet memories. He should do this more often—take a break, even just for a few days, and drive up to Grand Marais, where he always recharged best. Just the road soothed him already.

Angel gasped when the first view of Lake Superior opened before them, breathtaking as ever. Micah turned to him with a smile.

“You’ve never seen it before?”

“Not in person, no.” Angel’s eyes were wide and he slowed the car down, stealing glances at the view. “It looks like an ocean.”

It really did, especially when the water was choppy like tonight. It never failed to affect Micah, that first view, no matter how many times he’d seen it before.

“Oh, you’re in for a treat,” he said, delighted to be able to offer something new and beautiful. “Come on, there will be plenty opportunities to look farther on.”

They stopped in Duluth for a gas and pee break, and then Micah’s favorite part of the drive began. The road led mostly right along the lakeshore. The open view at the vast expanse of water, bordered by the sharp cliffs and rocks typical for this side of the lake, disappeared behind trees every now and then. They rolled their windows down, letting in the pine-scented air, and Micah entertained Angel, pointing out hiking trails and lakeside resorts and the best restaurants and pie shops on the way, and telling stories of each spot he’d ever stopped at with his family. Angel listened, fascinated, asking questions and grinning at each silly detail.

“I love this,” he said. “I love seeing new places. I’ve always wanted to travel all over the world, but so far, I’ve only visited a few states.”

Micah had a sudden urge to take himeverywhere.

It was only after another hour that Angel was able to pull his focus from the view and turn to Micah.

“Okay, so help me prepare for my role. You said that your parents are accepting toward your sexuality. How about the rest of the guests? Should we expect any trouble?”

Micah thought about the three dozen people who were supposed to be at the celebration and shook his head. “I don’t think so. My family is generally an open-minded bunch, and so are my parents’ friends. Everyone knows I’m gay. One of my aunts will most likely ignore that we’re supposed to be boyfriends and tell herself and everyone else we’re just friends. And some people might avoid us because they still haven’t figured out how to talk to me since I came out, but they’re harmless.”

Angel snickered. “Oh, I know the type. It’s like they think you expect them to talk about gay sex with you, or marriage equality, or I don’t know, fashion trends and Broadway shows. As if you’d come out as an alien. They don’t mind, but they don’t know what to do with you.”

“Yes!” Micah exclaimed. “Thank God someone understands.”

Angel grinned at him. “Okay then, let’s go over the facts. We know how we met, when was that? How long have we been together?”

Micah thought for a moment. “Two months. Our first date was the second week of May. I don’t know how long you had stalked me before.”

Angel gasped. “I didn’tstalkanyone. I’ll have you know that I was very subtle and well-mannered in my completely innocent observation-slash-fixation.”

Micah chuckled. “I guess I’d have to be there to know. Okay, how old are you?”

“Twenty-six.”

“Where do you come from?”

“North Dakota.”

“Is that the official version or a fact?”

Angel shot him an amused glance and didn’t answer.

“Okay, college?” Micah asked. “I know you must have studied law, but where?”

“Hmmm. New York?”

Micah shook his head. “Bullshit. You wouldn’t end up here.”

“Fair enough. Is Chicago too close?”

Micah considered. “No, it should be fine. Why did you move to Minneapolis?”

“I like lakes.” Angel was clearly having fun with this. “Also, found work here? Followed a boyfriend? A girlfriend? I had a dream?”

Micah laughed out loud. “Let’s leave it at work. Have I met your friends?”

Angel nodded sagely. “You have. You declared them boring. I was mildly offended. We may break up over that in the future if you want. Have I met yours?”

“Well, you’ve met Daphne,” Micah said, his face heating up as he remembered in what circumstances that had happened.

“Ooh, right, Daphne! Her husband, too, I’m guessing? We could have gone on a double date.”

Micah’s eyes widened. “Wait, no. Abort. Not a word about Daphne to my parents.”

“Why not?”

“They know her now. I mean, they’ve never met her, but I asked her for recommendations for an event planner on their behalf, and eventually she just called my mom to offer advice, and now they’re best buddies. If Daphne hears your name, she’ll know immediately and she’ll never let me live it down. Especially since I didn’t tell her I contacted you at all.”

Angel laughed. “Oh, the web of lies and concealment you’re weaving. You know you’re bound to trip and get caught in it one of these days, right, sweetheart?” He reached to squeeze Micah’s knee, which made Micah’s face flush even hotter.

“Shut up, I don’t intend to let it go on for much longer. Just help me survive this weekend and you’ll never hear from me again.”

“Aw, you’re hurting my feelings.” Angel pouted. Even in profile, he looked ridiculous. And adorable. “But fine, abandon me after such a promising relationship. What do we usually do when we’re together, anyway?”

Micah pondered it. “Hmm, we go out to eat or have coffee? Watch movies and enjoy long walks?”

“What was the last movie you’ve seen, Mr. I-work-day-and-night?”

“Um.” Micah paused. Damn, Angel was right. He hadn’t been to a theater in at least a year, and he hardly watched anything at home, either, slowly abandoning the hope of getting caught up on the TV shows he liked.

“And there’s only so much time we can spend eating out and enjoying the fresh air; no one’s gonna buy that,” Angel said.

Micah huffed, annoyed. “So what do you propose, then?”

“We’re having tons of sex,” Angel stated, and Micah somehow managed to choke on air. Angel patted his knee and continued, “We don’t even have to say it. We can just be mildly suggestive, hinting at precious private time between our two busy jobs, and I can guarantee no one will ask for details.”

“I’m not sure I can be even mildly suggestive in front of my family,” Micah admitted.

“That’s okay. I can.” Angel grinned. “Now, there are snacks and drinks in the mini fridge behind my seat. Get us something to munch on and tell me everything I need to know in order to sound like the most charming, attentive boyfriend you could imagine.”

With some chips and a Pepsi in hand—Angel requested some string cheese and water—Micah launched into a monologue about his family.

After the initial flurry ofgreetings and introductions, the evening at the lake house was quiet. Most of the guests would arrive in the morning, and those who had farther to travel and were there already stayed at a hotel in town. Almost everything was prepared for tomorrow and running smoothly, thanks to the event planner Daphne had recommended, so the only thing left to do was enjoy a nice family dinner with Micah’s parents, Claudia and Brad.

It had been a while since they had last met like this, their whole family together, and despite his lingering nerves Micah had to admit that he enjoyed it immensely. The warmth of this home where so many good memories lingered and the quiet evenings with his family were among the few things he missed. He made a mental note to try to visit more often. Neither Grand Marais nor his family home were far from the city; Micah could certainly afford to visit more than twice a year. He knew he made this promise every year, but maybe it was time to start keeping it. Wasn’t he supposed to be an adult?

Angel played his role perfectly—charming everyone, looking at Micah with suitable adoration, listening to stories of Micah’s youth with delight, and commenting at all the right moments. He even took Micah’s hand under the table a few times, pretending to be subtle, but playing it so that no one missed the gesture. His mom winked at Micah and his dad’s grin couldn’t be wider, and for a moment, Micah felt awful.

Then he was effectively distracted.

“Oh honey, you’ve barely eaten anything!” his mom exclaimed, looking at Angel. “Don’t you like chicken? Maybe I can make something else for you, instead? Silly me, I should have asked if you’re a vegetarian.”

She was right. Angel’s plate was practically full; food had been moved around but hardly touched.


Page 9

Angel was already shaking his head. “No, no. Thank you, ma’am, it’s all delicious. I guess I got so focused on the conversation that I forgot to eat. Please forgive me.”

Her worried frown softened. “Are you sure? It’s not a problem.” When Angel nodded, she relaxed and added, “And please call me Helen. ‘Ma’am’ is fine when used by the kids at school, but coming from grown men like you, it makes me feel terribly old.”

Angel assented with a shy smile and then focused on his plate, leaving the five of them to carry the conversation. Micah watched him discreetly, mildly concerned, but soon enough his “boyfriend” finished the last of his portion. He politely refused dessert, though, smiling apologetically.

“I’m so sorry, but I will have to say an early goodnight—I’ve had an insanely busy week at work and I got up at the break of dawn today. If you could just tell me where I could sleep? I want to be rested for the ceremony tomorrow.”

He looked as charming as ever, but Micah could see tension in his features. The conviction that something was off came back with a vengeance. It flew right out of his mind, however, when his mom got up to lead Angel upstairs.

“You’re staying with Micah, of course. Here, let me show you the way.”

“What?” Micah felt his eyes widen to the size of saucers.

“Well, you’re an adult, son,” his dad said. “We really don’t mind the two of you sleeping together. Unless you don’t want to?” He frowned, looking between him and Angel.

“No, of course we want to. I’m just surprised.” Micah hurried to assure him.“Thank you.”

Micah stayed in the dining room for another half-hour, talking and joking with everyone, but soon his dad started yawning and everyone decided that going to bed early was a good idea if they were going to party until late tomorrow. Micah’s mom stopped him with a warm hand on his shoulder before he climbed the stairs.

“I like him, honey. And he’s obviously very much into you. I hope it works out.”

His throat tight, Micah nodded. “Me too. Thanks, Mom. Goodnight.”

Micahbracedhimselffortheunfamiliar view of a man in his bed, but Angel wasn’t asleep—or even in the room. The light was still on in the en suite bathroom. It seemed strange after Angel insisted he was exhausted, but Micah shrugged it off. Maybe he had a long bedtime routine. Or just hadn’t felt like spending any more time listening to stories of Micah’s childhood. No matter. They’d survived the evening, and tomorrow should be easier. With the vows renewal ceremony and so many people around, any attention they would get was bound to be fleeting.

Of course, there was also the night—two nights—that they’d be spending together in a double bed. Micah briefly considered sleeping on the floor, but that was ridiculous. Not only would he be stiff and uncomfortable in the morning, but it would seem as though he had a problem. Which he didn’t. He could easily sleep next to a man. They were only supposed to share the bed anyway, nothing more. It was like a sleepover.

A strange sound came through the bathroom door and Micah froze. It sounded almost like quiet choking. But he didn’t hear it again, just running water and what was almost certainly an electric toothbrush, and when Angel came out a few minutes later, he was smiling, if noticeably tired.

“Hi. Everything all right?” Micah asked, trying not to stare. Seeing Angel ready for bed in soft gray pajama pants and a black tank top seemed strangely domestic.

“Sure. I’m just exhausted. Do you mind if I go lie down? Should I maybe take the floor or… ? I mean, we haven’t discussed this.”

“Don’t be silly. Just go to bed. I’ll shower and… all that.”

“Okay.” Angel hesitated at the foot of the bed. “Which side should I take?”

Micah shrugged. “Whichever. I don’t have a preference. Goodnight, Angel. And thank you. You were very, very good out there.”

Angel flashed him a quick grin. “I’m a professional, after all.”

Micah took his time showering, letting the hot water dissolve tension in his muscles he hadn’t realized was there. When he finally left the bathroom, wearing a T-shirt and too-short pajama pants he found in his old dresser—he couldn’t sleep naked, the way he usually did, after all—Angel was fast asleep, curled tightly on himself on the left edge of the bed. Micah slipped under the covers next to him and closed his eyes.

Sleep didn’t come easily.

The last time he’d slept with a man was right after that dreadful last fight with Brian, mere weeks before they broke up. Everything between them was frozen and brittle that night, and Micah felt cold and breakable himself, or maybe already broken, and so tense there was no chance of sleeping. He’d much rather have gone home, but he’d promised Daphne she could have the apartment for herself while Danny was staying over. He’d contemplated leaving Brian’s place anyway and just finding a twenty-four-hour diner to sit in until morning. Anything would have been better than that cold bed and the cold, angry silence. But he’d quickly remembered that he had about a dollar in his wallet, and it was too cold outside to just walk the streets until morning; the January wind bit to the bone. So he’d stayed. He’d had no sleep that night.

But even before that, Micah had hated sleeping with other people. Admittedly, it just meant he’d hated sleeping with Brian because he was the only one Micah had ever slept with. Brian had been as demanding in his sleep as he was in everything else—pushing too close into Micah’s personal space; holding onto him, all hard knees and sharp elbows, until Micah was too hot and uncomfortable, barely able to breathe. Brian had been impossible to shake off, even after he’d fallen asleep.

At least with Angel, Micah didn’t have to undergo that. Still, it felt weird to share a bed with another man, and a virtual stranger at that. Micah lay awake in the darkness for a long time, listening to Angel’s even breathing.

He must have fallen asleep at some time because he woke to the sound of birds chirping outside the window. He felt rested and comfortable, snuggled in the cocoon of his comforter, with soft, warm skin under his hand and—

Wait,what?

Micah was fully awake within seconds, aware that sometime during the night, he had migrated toward the left side of his bed and taken residence on Angel’s shoulder. What was more embarrassing, his leg was tangled between Angel’s, and his hand had somehow found its way under Angel’s shirt to the warm skin of his stomach where it was resting now, splayed and comfortable. And Micah didn’t even want to think about what was pressed snugly against Angel’s hip.

This was mortifying. It would have been even more so if Angel had not remained blissfully asleep, unaware of the sneaky cuddle attack Micah had initiated during the night.

He stayed asleep, only mumbling sleepily and turning to his side when Micah moved away and out of the bed, and Micah couldn’t help but watch him for a moment—the relaxed, handsome face, the smooth tanned skin of his muscled arm, the mess of his hair on the pillow. He had a gorgeous boyfriend, he had to admit—even if he was fake. No one could look at him today and say Micah Geller didn’t have amazing taste in men.

Micah was sitting at thekitchen island with coffee and toast when he heard footsteps on the stairs. A moment later a pair of arms slid around his shoulders as Angel kissed his cheek, surrounding him in a warm cloud of spicy scent.

“Morning, love,” Angel’s sleepy voice murmured in his ear. “Did you sleep well?”

A piece of toast seemed to have stuck in Micah’s throat and he had to swallow convulsively to be able to talk. He cleared his throat. “Yes. Did you?”

“Like a baby.” Angel sat down next to him, smiling brightly. He looked radiant in the morning light coming from the open back door, his eyes so light they were almost yellow, with a few brown speckles around the pupils.

“The coffee is made and there’s an array of breakfast food in the fridge. Fix yourself whatever you like,” Micah said, forcing his eyes away.

It was bad enough that he still felt Angel’s warm skin under his fingertips; there was no need to stare, too. Maybe he should have made breakfast for him—he would probably do it for his actual boyfriend in such a situation. But getting too deep into the roles they played seemed dangerous, and there was no one here to watch them. Everyone seemed to be outside.

Angel got up and returned with a cup of black coffee. “I don’t eat breakfast,” he answered Micah’s arched eyebrow.

“That’s not very healthy.”

Angel shrugged. “So they say, but I never liked to eat in the morning. My mother used to force me to eat breakfast before school, and it was a legitimate childhood trauma. I gave it up as soon as I left home.”

Claudia breezed into the kitchen, her high ponytail bouncing with every step. She clapped her hands when she saw the two of them.

“Look who’s up! Took you long enough.”

Micah looked at the clock on the microwave. It was quarter past ten. The whole gathering was to arrive for lunch in less than three hours. He hadn’t slept this late in longer than he could remember.

Claudia looked at the two of them, waggling her eyebrows, a mischievous grin on her face. Micah was about to toss a piece of toast at her when a warm hand wrapped around his forearm and he looked up to see Angel’s devious little smile.

“Oh, you know,” he said, to Micah’s horror, “it’s hard to get out of bed when you have a sexy man in your arms.”

The fact that Claudia squeaked and covered her ears, fleeing out of the kitchen, mollified Micah somewhat. Still, he swatted Angel’s arm as soon as she was out of earshot.

“You can’t say things like that!”

“Well, she won’t ask again,” Angel said, amused. “And I’m pretty sure she won’t even think to question our relationship.”

“Yes, but she will think we’re having sex.”

“And that’s a bad thing how?”

Micah sighed. It was hard to explain to someone who probably saw sex as something as ordinary as food and sleep how different it was for him.

He settled on, “Just please don’t go around giving other people that mental picture.”

Angel nodded. “More subtle then? Okay, I can do that.”

Micah finished his coffee, wondering if it was too early for a drink. He might need one to survive the day.

Chapter 9

It was nearly midnight, andMicah needed a moment to himself. He’d forgotten how long and involved his parents’ social gatherings tended to be. Between the sheer number of people to interact with, pretending to be in a happy relationship and the emotional impact of watching his parents renew their vows, the last ten hours had been exhausting. He’d talked; he’d laughed and cried a little; he’d eaten two meals and drunk a bit more than he probably should have; he’d danced with Angel for half the night, and now he was feeling as though all of his defenses were wearing down. It was a dangerous state, so he’d escaped the party outside and hidden in the house, settling at the top step of the old stairs, where Claudia and he used to sit to eavesdrop on adults’ conversations.

“Here you are,” Angel exclaimed merrily as he plopped down next to him ten minutes later. “I missed you. I think your Aunt Muriel was trying to flirt with me, but I excused myself,” he said, taking the glass of wine from Micah’s hand and finishing it off. He looked tipsy, all flushed and loose-limbed as he perched on the narrow step.

“Hey, I was drinking that,” Micah protested without much fire. He was tipsy, too.

“Naw, I saw you swipe the bottle from the buffet.” Angel grinned. He reached for the half-full wine bottle hidden behind Micah’s back and filled the glass again. “See?” he said happily and reached for Micah’s hand, stroking it absent-mindedly with his thumb in a way that made Micah’s blood simmer. “Have I told you how much I love it here?”

“No?” Micah grabbed the glass before Angel could take hold of it again.

“I really, really do. All those woods around, and the lake and the sky. The stars areinsane.” He sighed. “Too bad we can’t just run away and watch them.”

“Who says we can’t?” It was out before Micah thought it through, but he discovered he didn’t mind at all. Screw defenses. He took another long swallow of wine and then set the glass down in the nook on top of the stairs, took Angel’s hand and stood up. “Come on. I’ll show you something.”

The party was still going strong in the backyard under the strings of fairy lights, with the open bar in one corner, the band in another and Lake Superior shimmering under the pale moon in the background. Some of the older guests had been escorted back to the hotel, but most were still dancing and drinking with enthusiasm more typical of twenty-year-olds.

Micah didn’t lead Angel that way. He strode out the front door and through the gate, then led him across the gravel road and down the overgrown path he’d been able to follow in his sleep since he was nine. He walked fast, and Angel kept pace easily, holding onto his hand.

“Is it safe here at night?” Angel asked at some point, when the music was no longer audible and the only thing illuminating their path was the moon shining through the branches.

“Yes,” Micah said, and then they pushed through the last thicket of bushes, and the meadow spread before them, empty and quiet. Angel slowed down and walked to the center of the circular opening, still holding Micah’s hand.

“Wow,” he breathed, and then he did what Micah had done so many times in the past: He flopped onto the grass, lying down to look at the starry canvas overhead. Micah followed suit and soon they were both spread on the ground, only their fingers touching as they let go of everything that held them down and focused on the stars.

“Don’t you feel incredibly small when you look up, knowing it’s just a fraction of the universe we can see?” Micah asked quietly an eternity later.

Angel’s voice sounded dreamy, awed. “Yeah. It’s like all our troubles are insignificant. We’re just specks of dust that somehow get to think and feel and decide. That’s pretty amazing, no matter how much crap life throws our way, don’t you think?”

Micah hummed in agreement, feeling more at peace than he had in ages. Here he was, watching stars with this gorgeous man, and at this very moment it didn’t matter if they had a day or a lifetime together, if it was real or fake. Life was good. Problems were far away. He was happy and free and a little horny, and so after another long quiet while, he did just what he felt like doing. Rolling over, he pressed his lips to Angel’s, tasting wine and a hint of chocolate, and boldly sliding his hand between the buttons of Angel’s dress shirt.

The house was quiet bythe time Micah and Angel came back, more sober now, but still holding hands all the way to the house. The bus hired to drive the guests back to the hotel must have come and gone because the yard was empty; the scattered remains of the party waited for the cleaning crew that was coming in the morning. Neither of them had a watch, but it had to be late. Everyone seemed to be asleep.

Micah’s lips tingled as the two of them tiptoed up the stairs to his room and quietly closed the door behind them. He was sure he hadn’t kissed so much in his whole life, and it was the best feeling in the world. Even with the alcohol mostly evaporated from his system, he felt drunk on the sheer pleasure of it—discovering all the ways he could kiss Angel, from innocent to absolutely dirty, from sweet kisses peppered all over his face one minute to desperate sucking on each other’s lips the next, with his hands in Angel’s hair and his hips pressing into the cold ground, desire coursing through every cell of his body. Who would have thought mere kissing could feel like that?

But being back in his room, with his elegant black suitcase on the floor and his laptop on the desk like a reminder of the important, real-life things waiting outside of this momentary bubble, was enough to dampen the happy buzz. Micah let go of Angel’s hand and grabbed his nightwear, heading to the bathroom.

“I’ll be quick.”

Already he felt embarrassed by his bold behavior, and the feeling only grew as he quickly showered and changed. He couldn’t meet Angel’s eyes when he walked out of the bathroom and headed straight to bed. He lay down on his side and closed his eyes, trying not to listen to the sound of running water mere feet away, not to imagine the view behind the wooden door. When the lights clicked off a moment later and the bed dipped behind him, he didn’t move, determined to pretend he was asleep.

Angel was having none of it, though. As soon as he slid under the covers, he pressed close to Micah’s back, his arm winding around his waist and his unfairly addictive lips tracing a slow path up the back of his neck. Micah shivered with how good it felt.

“What are you doing?” he whispered into the darkness, not quite able to pull away, but certain he should.

The tip of Angel’s tongue flickered out, a feather-light brush just under Micah’s ear. “I’m kissing you,” he breathed out, and sucked gently on the same spot.

“Why?”

“Because it feels good?” A nip to the lobe of his ear. “You’re talking too much, sweetheart.”

It took tremendous effort to move away from the pleasure of Angel’s talented mouth, but it had to be done. Micah rolled onto his back and looked up into Angel’s face, barely visible in the moon’s feeble illumination.

“I told you, you don’t need to pretend for me. Get some rest; you must be tired after all this craziness today. We’ll hang around for a few hours tomorrow and then we can go home, and you’ll be free of me.”

He saw Angel tense, his brows knitting into a frown and his mouth opening as if to say something, but then he relaxed again. His hand slid under the hem of Micah’s T-shirt. His tone was different when he spoke, firmer, more seductive.

“You’re paying me big money just to be here with you. Let me at least give you something good for it. I’mreallygood, I promise.”

Micah shook his head. “It’s not necessary, Angel. I’m paying you for exactly what you’ve been doing: pretending to be my boyfriend in front of my family.”

“And showing you what it’s like to feel loved,” Angel added, his thumb drawing maddening little circles just below Micah’s belly button.

“Are we still doing that?”

“Well, I am nothing if not persistent. So…” Angel moved closer, his breath tickling Micah’s neck. Micah shivered, but didn’t move away. “Let me show you—” Angel’s lips touched his sensitive skin, the rest of the sentence whispered softly against it, “what loving touch feels like.”

Then Angel’s lips were on his, and even though it was far from the first time tonight, it hadn’t felt like this before. This wasn’t just kissing for the sake of it—it was the first step into an uncharted territory, an overture to more. It was a kiss full of intent, of soft, unhurried curiosity, and Micah found himself kissing back, pushing his doubts and protests to the back of his mind. He’d stop, he’d sayenoughthe second it became too much, but for now, he let himself enjoy the touch of Angel’s talented mouth and the slide of his fingers under the soft worn cotton of Micah’s shirt. It had been years since he was touched like this, and his body soaked it in greedily, arching into Angel’s hand, starved for the contact.

Micah swallowed a soft moan when Angel left his lips to trail heated, wet kisses along his jaw and down the tendons straining in his neck. He pushed his head back and to the side, to expose more, feel more. The realization that he had to be quiet,so quiethere, where walls were thin and his family was sleeping so close, didn’t mortify him. On the contrary, heat spiked higher in Micah’s belly: He’d never had to be quiet before. Brian’s apartment, where they used to meet (because “Really, Micah, the tiny hole you share with that loud hag? Not my standards,”) had been spacious and empty save for the two of them, and Brian loved to hear Micah, insisted on him being loud and vocal, and sometimes it was too much, but Micah did it anyway. If he hadn’t, his boyfriend would have just fucked him harder, or spanked him with a hand strong enough to sting, anything to hear him gasp or cry out. So now, swallowing the breathy moans as his cock filled and hardened felt like freedom, not a restriction.

Angel rolled closer, his weight partially on him now, and Micah was sure it would be the moment when he felt the need to sayenough, but it wasn’t. He was almost pinned to the bed, but he didn’t feel trapped; he knew he could move any time and that made all the difference.

Angel’s hand wandered higher under his shirt. It was warm and soft, confident in a way that betrayed experience but didn’t feel scary or overwhelming, and when his thumb passed a nipple, Micah couldn’t contain a sharp inhalation; his hips bucked.

Hewanted. He wanted and the red light in his head still wasn’t there, the “too much too fast” mode wasn’t kicking in, and maybe he should just relax, let go, until it was. He could always saystop. Angel was a professional, and Micah was in charge, even if he let go.

So he did, hands finally untangled from the blankets to touch Angel’s smooth skin, feel his taut muscles playing underneath. The moment Micah embraced him, Angel hummed appreciatively. His weight shifted entirely on top of Micah, and it felt safe; it felt good. Angel’s cock against Micah’s hip was hard too, and the thought of touching it, feeling it in his hand and… other places, was simultaneously shocking and so hot Micah actually moaned aloud before capturing Angel’s lips again to keep himself quiet.

They kissed and kissed, their hands exploring and teasing, but no clothes were discarded, no fingers dipped below waistbands. They kissed until Micah felt dizzy, until he could barely catch his breath and every touch was like electricity, and he surprised himself, his face hidden in Angel’s warm neck as he whispered, “More.”

It was the first time he ever said anything like that, the first time he initiated anything, always having been the one trailing behind, being told to hurry up, to catch up, totry, come on, you’ll like it. There was so much power in this little word, and so many directions they could go, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted—just that he wanted, andso much.

That was okay; he didn’t have to know. Angel understood. His quick fingers pushed Micah’s shirt up and off, and there was a brief second of fear becausewhat if, but then again.I can always sayenough. He’ll stop.

He didn’t know why he trusted Angel so much, why he was so absolutely certain Angel would never cross his boundaries. Perhaps because Angel did this for a living, and Micah had paid. Or maybe because he knew Angel enough to be sure he could be trusted.

Angel’s fingers drew warm paths over Micah’s skin, new trails for his lips to follow, and Micah had to turn his face into his shoulder to muffle his exhalations. But that didn’t stop his hips from moving, demanding, and Micah refused to be ashamed. He was lost now, his only remaining mantraquiet, quiet, be quietas Angel moved his pants out of the way, and then off, and his lips were so fucking good, hot and wet and plump, his tongue’s movements electrifying, and God, his mouth—

Micah came with a shocked cry muffled by shoving his fist against his lips and biting on it; the bright spikes of pain were a wonderful counterpoint to the deep, tight pleasure as Angel swallowed around the head of his cock, which was buried whole in his incredible, talented mouth.

It took a long while before Micah’s ears stopped ringing and his thoughts returned to any coherent pattern. Even then, they were slow and heavy, his body pulled by sleep. The emotions and the nervous tension of the day, the alcohol, the best orgasm he’d had in a very long time—it all combined, turning him into a boneless puddle. He forced his eyes to focus on Angel’s smiling face above him and guilt stirred through the fog of satiated exhaustion.

“Oh,” he whispered, lifting his resistant hand to put it on Angel’s hip. “What about you?” He really should reciprocate—even though he might fall asleep before they got anywhere. Even though he wasn’t at all sure he wanted to. It was only fair.

Angel shook his head, though, and caught Micah’s hand. He kissed Micah’s knuckles and wove their fingers together on Micah’s stomach, lying down next to him.

“You don’t need to. Just sleep.” He pressed a soft, warm kiss to Micah’s lips. “Goodnight, sweet boy.”


Page 10

Micah was asleep before he managed to reply.

Waking in Angel’s arms wasn’ta shock this time. All night, Micah dreamt of continuing what they’d started last night, so the minute the first tendrils of consciousness returned in the morning, he knew whose broad chest was molded against his back, and why. He was more awed and pleased than surprised.

What did shock him, however, was that he was still completely naked, and that there was a very noticeable—and thankfully still clothed—erection pressed snug against his ass. Micah felt himself flush. His face was not the only place his blood was traveling to, though. That was yet another surprise: In the light of day and completely sober, he stillwantedjust as much as he had hours before. Perhaps more because his hesitation seemed to have disappeared. He yearned to turn in Angel’s embrace and touch him, feel his cock hard and warm in his hand. Make him gasp and moan. Make him come.

Micah clenched his itching hands and took a deep, measured breath. He had to stop. Angel wasn’t here for his pleasure. Micah had no right to think about him that way.

He tried to spot something, anything to wear within reach, so that he could get out of bed with a shred of dignity intact, but his wiggling wasn’t subtle enough. Angel’s arm tightened around his waist and he nuzzled his stubble-covered chin against the back of Micah’s neck, making him gasp.

“Mmm, don’t escape again,” Angel murmured into the heated skin. “Can’t we continue what we started last night?”

Micah’s breath hitched, his hips stuttering back of their own accord, all restraint gone in a blink. “What if they hear?” he whispered.

Angel was now kissing his neck in earnest, sending goosebumps down his arms. “We’ll be quiet.”

“I don’t have any supplies here.”

“I do.” Not stopping the kisses, Angel reached under his pillow and pulled out a small bottle and a strip of condoms. Micah wondered when he’d put them there.

Angel’s hand moved from his waist, inching lower, teasing, before he brushed his fingertips along Micah’s hard length. Micah whimpered.

“What do you want to do?” he breathed.

Angel’s fingers finally closed around his cock, one perfect stroke stealing all air from Micah’s lungs.

“Let me take care of you.”

The loud knock on the door couldn’t come at a more unwelcome moment.

The door flew open a second later and in strode Claudia, already fully dressed and perky, bouncing a little on the balls of her feet. “Rise and shine love birds, we decided to go—”

It was only then that she seemed to register what she was seeing—and Micah could only imagine what it had to look like from the outside: their bodies spooned together under the covers, his naked torso with Angel’s hand disappearing under the blankets, the lubricant and condoms on clear display on the pillow. Claudia shrieked and covered her eyes.

“Oh God, I’m so sorry, I didn’t think. I just wanted to ask if you want to go hiking because the weather is perfect and we could show Angel some of our favorite trails and oh my God I’m shutting up and leaving now; we’ll be downstairs; sorry, bye!” she blurted and ran out the door, miraculously not tripping before she slammed it behind her.

Only when her footsteps on the old wooden steps died down did Micah regain the ability to move. He promptly used it to turn onto his belly and hide his glowing hot face in the pillow.

“Oh my God,” was all he could say.

Angel didn’t sound nearly as affected. “Well, I guess there goes the mood.” He grinned when Micah turned his head to glare at him. “What?”

“I’m going to be traumatized forever. I’m going to need therapy. How can you be so calm?”

Angel shrugged. “You’re an adult. She knows you have a sex life, and we weren’t caught in the act. You’ll be fine. She’ll be fine, too.”

Micah wanted to throw the pillow at Angel’s stupid, amused face, but then he would have nowhere to hide. He settled for poking Angel’s shin with his toes. “I’ll never be able to look her in the eye again.”

“Aw. Are you sure? Because I would really love to go hiking before we return to the city.”

“Argh.” Micah covered his face again.

“I’m making you an ‘I’m sorry’ breakfast,” Claudia yelled from downstairs. “Please come down whenever you’re done. No hurry.”

Micah groaned and put his head under the pillow.

They did go downstairs eventually,and much sooner than Micah intended. Angel’s argument that the longer they stayed in the bedroom, the more it would seem as though they’d continued with what they’d been doing, worked as a miraculous incentive to hop out of bed. Or, well, to send Angel to the bathroom and then hop out of bed to put some clothes on.

And if they were going downstairs, they could just as well go hiking. Surviving Claudia’s knowing looks in relative seclusion seemed like a much better prospect than staying here with their parents and those of the family who decided to stick around for the day, and hoping she wouldn’t blurt anything out, as she was apt to do. Plus, the weather was perfect and the trails were calling to Micah now that the idea had been put in his head.

Claudia hadn’t been joking about breakfast. The smell of fresh coffee wafted from the kitchen. She stood by the stove adding to the already sizeable stack of pancakes. Brad was just finishing cutting up fruit, and the kitchen island where they usually ate breakfast was set for four people, complete with napkins and fresh flowers, chocolate syrup and whipped cream.

“Mom and Dad went to town to eat with the crowd,” Claudia said, her eyes focused on the plate she was carrying to the table. “They said they’ll be back by the time the cleanup crew arrives, so we’re free to go.” She put the plate of pancakes down and finally looked at Micah, her blue eyes wide and earnest. “Are you mad at me? I’m so, so sorry, I’m just used to you being alone. I mean, I knew you weren’t alone now, I just didn’t stop to think what it meant and when I saw you—”

Micah was grateful when Brad put his hand on Claudia’s shoulder, silencing her as if pressing a snooze button. “I think you should stop talking now, before you dig yourself into a deeper hole,” he said. He looked between Micah and Angel with his usual stoic expression. “We good? Going hiking after breakfast?”

“Yeah,” Micah said, sitting down opposite Claudia. His cheeks still felt hot, but his voice sounded normal. “We’re fine. These things happen. And yes, hiking sounds good.”

Brad just nodded, quiet as always, but Angel was more enthusiastic. “Awesome,” he exclaimed and skipped to the counter to pour them both coffee, grinning widely. He even ate a pancake, more to accept the peace offering than because he wanted to, Micah suspected.

They set out half an hour later, backpacks filled with lunch, water and towels in case they decided to take an impromptu swim. They picked a long, winding trail that would take most of the day to complete, with plenty of shade and spectacular views along the way. Brad had his camera and kept stopping to photograph a particularly interesting leaf or bird or sunny spot—except when Claudia used it to take snapshots of all of them.

Birds chirped high above, warm wind whispered through the trees, and they walked at a brisk, comfortable pace, sometimes all together, sometimes split into couples. Angel held Micah’s hand most of the way, and on this one magical day, past and future didn’t matter, and present was perfect. They were suspended in time, allowed to have anything they wanted, with no rules and no restrictions. They talked and they stayed quiet. They stopped to kiss on sun-dappled paths. Angel and Brad braved the freezing water of the lake and when they returned, laughing and shaking off cold droplets, they all ate lunch on the little pebbled beach. Micah fell asleep with his head in Angel’s lap afterwards, lulled by the others’ quiet conversation, only to be awakened by a hand caressing his cheek.

It was the best day ever—slow and carefree, far away from reality. Micah felt as though it filled a void within him. He’d never had a day like this—not in high school, when he wasn’t out, yet didn’t want to pretend and date girls, nor in college, when his boyfriend didn’t care for walks or nature or just idly being together without distractions and yet monopolized Micah’s attention, leaving no time for friends. It was a revelation: This was the everyday when you were in a happy, secure relationship. This was the easy, effortless being together that he’d never experienced with Brian. Such a small thing, and yet so very significant.

It was past four when they got back to the cabin, so the four of them ate a quick early dinner with Micah’s parents and then it was time to say goodbye and leave the cozy, happy space behind.

“I’ve never seen you so happy,” Claudia said quietly as she hugged Micah goodbye.

Well, maybe he’d never been this happy. He’d never felt like this. Because it seemed that now, in those little, everyday things, without grand gestures or really trying, Angel had managed the impossible: to fulfill Micah’s fantasy. He did know what it felt like to be loved, now. He knew the quiet contentment, the sense of safety, the feeling of being surrounded by caring and affection and accepted as he was every minute throughout the day.

Daphne had been right: He hadn’t known this. But now he did, and maybe—just maybe—he wanted to find this one day, for real. Maybe he was ready to open himself for love again. Maybe it was time.

Micah and Angel spent mostof the drive home in silence, as if trying to prolong the peaceful feeling of being cut off from city life with its constant noise and distractions, with obligations like leashes everywhere, pulling them in many important directions. Even music seemed like too much after the calm of the woods.

Micah felt tired—he hadn’t walked this much in ages—but it wasn’t just exhaustion that kept his words inside and his eyes staring into distance. He was holding onto this new feeling, trying to preserve it, remember it so that it didn’t slip away the minute he stepped into his apartment. He’d learned something important during this weekend. It needed processing, but a door had been opened. He wanted to make sure it wouldn’t slam shut again.

“I really enjoyed myself, you know.” Angel interrupted his train of thought some twenty miles before they reached the Cities. “It was more of a weekend retreat than a job. I feel bad taking money from you for that.”

Micah turned his head to look at him. “You earned it. They all loved you.”

“I adored them too,” Angel admitted with a soft smile. “You have an amazing family, you know that?”

“I know.” Micah nodded. He hesitated a bit before asking, “Isn’t yours like this, too?” Angel’s smile faded and Micah hurried to assure him. “I’m sorry if that’s too personal. I shouldn’t ask.”

“It’s okay. No, my family isn’t like yours. We’re not very close.”

“I’m sorry.”

Angel shrugged. “Don’t be. It’s okay, it’s just different. It was nice to be among such warm, welcoming people is all.”

The conversation stalled again, Micah’s thoughts meandering freely through the memories of the last two days, until he remembered something that made him frown in confusion.

“You swallowed,” he said.

“Hmmm?” Angel glanced at him. They were almost in Minneapolis now and the traffic was heavier.

“You said safety is your rule number one,” Micah said, “but we had oral sex. Without a condom.”

“Oh. Yeah.” Angel bit his lip before admitting, “I guess I got lost in the role of steady boyfriend for a bit. It’s never happened before.”

“Well, for the record, I’m clean. I was tested after Brian told me he’d been cheating on me, and I haven’t been with anyone since,” Micah said, his eyes trained ahead. It was only fair to alleviate any worries Angel might have. “Of course, you have no reason to take my word for it, but—”

“But I believe you.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

The soothing, calm atmosphere in the car was gone now, replaced by growing awkwardness. Real life was creeping back with every mile of the city passing by, and they didn’t talk again until they were in front of Micah’s building. He turned to Angel before opening the door.

“Thank you for this.”

“You’re very welcome.” Angel gave him his warmest, most charming smile, and Micah’s heart beat faster.

“Remember what I said about never contacting you again?” he asked on impulse.

“Yes?”

“I may not manage that.”

Angel laughed softly. “That’s okay. But I’m not going to fake-marry you, just so you know.”

Micah blushed. “No, of course not. I meant… what if I wanted to meet you again, but not like this?” Angel’s brow furrowed, so Micah hurried to add, “I mean, still professionally, of course, just not as a pretend boyfriend. More to… see your other expertise. Without anyone walking in on us.”

Angel’s smile widened. “Of course. Call me any time. I’d love that.”

“Okay. Maybe I will.”

Micah hesitated, unsure how to say goodbye. Just getting out of the car without a word seemed weird, but so did crawling over the console to hug Angel. Should he shake his hand?

Angel solved the problem for him, leaning to press a light kiss to his lips. “Thank you for a great weekend,” he said. “Take care, Micah.”

“You too.”

And that was it. A moment later, his bag in hand, Micah stood on the steps to his building, watching the blue Prius disappear around a corner and feeling as though something fleeting, but utterly groundbreaking, had ended, leaving him at the beginning of a new road, a different man.

Chapter 10

Suddenly, there were men everywhere.Not that Micah had kept to female company before, but in the week following the Grand Marais trip, he started to notice the maleness of roughly half the population around him.

He didn’t look at men as potential partners, nor did he scour the crowds in search of attractive guys, not really. He just watched. He noticed the different types, pondered their behaviors and attitudes, wondering how they translated into their connections with other people, regardless of sexual preferences. He watched couples, observing men of all kinds in romantic relationships. Some made him think of Brian; some were more like Angel; there were plenty in between and many he couldn’t read at all after short observations. There were those he would never, ever want to get close to, and a few that he’d like to talk to, just to see how their brains worked. It was fascinating, noticing and processing those qualities from an adult perspective, not as a love-starved teenager looking for anyone who would want him.

Unfortunately, others seemed to notice the change in him, too. A middle-aged man on the bus leered at him, and then grinned as he watched Micah blush and fumble to get out at the next stop. Rebecca asked him, amused, if he was checking Rob out when Micah spaced out over his coffee and somehow ended up absently watching his young coworker across the room. Daphne very nearly threw a party when they went out for drinks and Micah kept stealing glances at a man at the next table, whose arms and neck were covered in tattoos, but whose smile was one of the loveliest, kindest Micah had ever seen. Thank God the man’s girlfriend arrived, because Daphne was ready to push Micah’s number on him, and Micah just wasn’t prepared for that.

He would get there. The gates were open now, but he was in no hurry. He remembered all too well where his impatience to find somebody to love had led him. He wasn’t going to repeat old mistakes.

Besides, there was still so much he didn’t know. He had been judging all men and all relationships based on what he’d experienced with Brian, and he’d been wrong. What if he was wrong about other things, too? Like sex? Maybe there really was more to it than just mechanics and physiology, something better to experience than the pleasurable, but often uncomfortable, race to climax? Maybe Micah being frigid wasn’t the problem, as Brian had insisted, but the fact that he’d never had a compatible partner? Because what Angel had made him feel during that one night was nothing short of spectacular. Was it just the circumstances that made it so amazing, or would it be as good every time? What if they went further?

Micah didn’t have any delusions about Angel being boyfriend material, of course. He wasn’t stupid. Angel had been a stand-in, a persona tailored to fit Micah’s needs. The man Micah spent the weekend with didn’t actually exist. But if a stand-in who didn’t really know him could make him feel like this, there had to be a real man who could do that, too. And maybe, just maybe, Micah would meet him one day.

In the meantime, though, he might as well check the sex hypothesis.

Angel wasn’t picking up hisphone. Micah had called him five times over two days, and he never answered. Where did the line between determined and pathetic lie? Micah was increasingly certain he was getting close to crossing it.

In a last-ditch effort, he sent Angel an email late on Monday night, asking for one more date—a strictly sexual one this time. He kept the tone matter-of-fact, as he would in business correspondence, and resigned himself to the possibility that he might never get an answer. It was quite probable that he had worn Angel’s patience thin with his requests these last two months.

It was a surprise, therefore, when his phone rang barely a few minutes later; Angel’s name flashed on the display.

“Hey,” Angel said as soon as Micah picked up the phone. “I’m sorry, I had my phone on silent these last couple of days and hadn’t checked it.” His voice sounded strained and there was a distinct lack of his usual bubbliness. Micah frowned.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, just overworked. I wish I could sleep for a few days.”

“Oh, so business has picked up again?”

“For a while.”

Micah ignored the pang of jealousy that he knew was entirely irrational, though understandable when he had one of the hiking trip pictures Claudia sent him opened on his laptop. It was a slightly fuzzy shot showing Angel and him from behind as they walked down a sun-dappled path, holding hands. Their faces were turned toward each other. It wasn’t a flattering photo—Micah’s eyes were half-closed and his mouth was open as he talked, but the look on Angel’s face made it his favorite. It was the quintessence ofthatlook, the one Angel had been giving him every time they had been together, the one that made Micah’s heart leap: the dimpled smile, the laughing eyes, but most of all, the complete focus on Micah’s words, the fascinated engagement in their conversation, as if they were in their own little world, their company forgotten.

Micah hurried to click the picture closed.

“Oh. That’s… good?” he said.

“It is.” Angel said wearily. “But I have some time this week, if you want to schedule a date.”

“Don’t sound so enthusiastic,” Micah teased, only half-joking.

“Sorry. I’d love to meet you, I promise. I’m just exhausted tonight.”

“That’s okay. Any preferences about the day? It doesn’t have to be the weekend. I was thinking Thursday might be good. I can get to the office late this Friday.”

“Thursday sounds excellent. Should I come to your place or would you rather go to a hotel?”

Micah frowned. “Why would I want to go to a hotel?”

“Many people prefer that for one reason or another,” Angel said.

“Well, not me. My place is fine. Around nine, maybe?”

“Great. I’ll be there.”

Micah hesitated, biting his lip before the question rushed out of him. “Should I… prepare something? Or, myself, somehow?” He had no idea how far he wanted this to go, and was entirely ready for the possibility that he might freeze and decide to stop at some point. Pushing himself wasn’t the goal; learning his limits and preferences in a safe environment was. But that didn’t mean he shouldn’t be prepared.

Angel’s voice was warm and reassuring. “You don’t have to prepare anything. Your role is to just be there and enjoy yourself. I’ll take care of the rest. If you have anything unusual in mind, or any kinks to play with, just let me know and I’ll prepare accordingly.”

“No, no,” Micah hurried to say. “I want a perfectly vanilla night, nothing more than that. Give me your price.”

“A thousand.”

That was actually less than Micah was expecting. “Hm. How come you’re charging less for this than that first time?” he asked.

“You’re a regular.”

Ah. That made sense—though the realization that it would be his fourth meeting with Angel came as a bit of a shock. It was also slightly jarring how easily he accepted paying such a sum for the night.

“Okay,” Micah said. “I’ll send it tonight. See you on Thursday?”

“See you on Thursday.”

“Oh, and Angel?”

“Yeah?”

“Get some sleep.”

“Will do.” There was a hint of a smile in his voice before he disconnected.

Micah grinned at his phone, turned off the lights and decided to take a long, indulgent shower. The prospect of Thursday, though still mildly scary, was suddenly making him very, very excited.


Page 11

Chapter 11

Thursday didn’t happen.

Well, no, Thursday itself came, bringing with it sweltering heat and a six-hour workshop in a room with barely working air conditioning, but there was no sexy reward waiting for Micah at the end of the busy day, as he’d eagerly expected. Angel called Wednesday evening, apologizing profusely and sounding like hell. He was down with a flu, so they had to reschedule for next week. Micah was disappointed, but well, it happened. He couldn’t blame Angel for getting sick.

But when Angel called him to cancel again next week, and mere hours before he was supposed to be at his door, Micah did get a little annoyed. A “work emergency” might sound convincing if Angel were a firefighter, or maybe a doctor, but not an escort. It seemed as if Micah had just been pushed aside for another, more important, client. Angel apologized and promised to make it up to him by staying as long as Micah wanted him to, but Micah wondered if he really wanted him to stay at all. How good could their night together be if his stand-in seemed to not really want to be there at all?

He decided to give it one last chance. They rescheduled once more, but Micah promised himself that if Angel didn’t show up Monday, he would ask for his money back and give up on this particular experiment. He wanted to try skillful, unattached sex in safe circumstances, and feeling like a bother didn’t fit into the scenario at all.

Micah didn’t expect Angel tobring flowers this time, so the bouquet of sunflowers and red roses took him by surprise.

“Here,” Angel said, handing it to him. “I’m really sorry it’s taken so long.”

“That’s okay,” Micah found himself saying, his earlier annoyance already gone. “They’re beautiful, thank you.” He moved aside to let Angel in and gestured toward the living room. “Come on in. I’ll put them in water and I’ll be right with you.”

Arranging the flowers in the vase with Angel waiting in the next room felt like déjà vu, except the nervousness and uncertainty that had accompanied Micah before their first “date” were not there. He knew what he wanted, knew the man he wanted it from—or at least as much as he needed to know—and instead of anxiety, he was vibrating with excitement. He’d been aroused all afternoon, ever since Angel’s text message came, confirming that he would be there tonight.

Micah was ready.Soready.

He brought the flowers to the living room, setting the vase on the coffee table where a bottle of red wine and two glasses waited. Angel was standing by the window, waiting for him, and it was only now, when Micah looked at him in proper light, that he noticed the changes in him.

Angel looked paler than the last time Micah had seen him, three weeks ago. Dark circles under his eyes hadn’t been there before, and his whole posture seemed different, tense, yet a little slumped. He was dressed impeccably in khaki pants and a black V-neck shirt, but the clothes seemed ill-fitting, too loose in places. Even Angel’s face seemed thinner; his jaw and cheekbones were more pronounced.

Micah frowned. “Are you alright? You look—”Sickwas the word that came to mind, but he settled on “exhausted.”

Angel smiled—even his smile seemed paler—and stepped closer, putting his hand on Micah’s cheek and tracing his lips with the pad of his thumb. “I’m fine. I’ve been exceedingly busy lately, but I’m okay.”

The proximity and the touch, already sending tendrils of warmth through Micah’s body, were enough to push his worry aside. He nuzzled his cheek against Angel’s palm.

“Mm. This feels nice.”

“Good. It’s supposed to.” Angel pressed a soft kiss to Micah’s lips. He tasted like mint. “Where do you want me?”

“How about we just let this unfold naturally? Let’s have some wine, get in the mood. There’s no need to rush.”

“Of course.” Angel stepped away and led him to the couch.

It didn’t take them long to settle comfortably with wine glasses within reach, and soon the first gntle strokes of Angel’s fingers up Micah’s bare arms led to kissing, sweet and slow at first, but increasing in urgency. Micah fell into it with no hesitation, his body already waking in ways that felt new and dazzling, making him open and eager to explore and experience. Impatient, he tugged at Angel’s shoulder to get him into his lap, and Angel went easily, only breaking the kiss for the few seconds it took to change positions.

Halfway through the shift, however, Angel stilled and winced, barely containing a gasp. Micah froze with his hands on Angel’s hips.

“What’s wrong?”

Angel shook his head. “Just a cramp. I’m okay,” he said through clenched teeth.

But he didn’t look okay. He held himself stiffly even as he settled in Micah’s lap, and when he leaned in to go back to kissing, his breathing was fast and shallow against Micah’s neck. The way he was mouthing along the sensitive skin felt good, with his tongue setting the nerve endings alight where he traced hot little circles, but Micah was too concerned now to let go and enjoy the sensations. Something was amiss.

The conviction only deepened when Angel’s head fell heavily onto Micah’s shoulder a moment later and he whimpered, a distressed sound that couldn’t be confused with any kind of sexual noise. Micah put his hands on Angel’s shoulders and pushed gently, so that he could look at his face. What he saw startled him.

Beads of perspiration were gathered on Angel’s forehead, and his face looked paler than ever, alarmingly so. His eyes were wide and panicked, and he was breathing with difficulty. His arms were wound protectively around his middle.

“What’s wrong?” Micah asked. “What can I do?”

Angel shifted, gracelessly sliding off Micah’s knees and to the side; another whimper escaped as he landed on the couch. He curled forward, panting softly, before setting his feet on the floor, clearly bracing himself to stand up.

“I’m sorry, I have to—” He pushed himself up on unsteady legs.

A short, ragged scream was followed by a thump as Angel’s knees hit the floor hard, his head barely missing the corner of the glass coffee table. He folded in half, his arms still pressed against his stomach, and threw up on the floor.

The beige rug under his knees turned deep, violent red.

For a few seconds, Micah just sat there, frozen, unable to understand what was going on. His first conscious thought was the wine. Maybe Angel had an upset stomach and the wine didn’t sit well with him. That was all. He’d be fine.

But Angel’s glass was still untouched.

It was not wine staining the floor and dripping down Angel’s hand where he’d tried to block the flow.

That realization set Micah in motion. An eerie calm spread over him as his mind ticked, planning how to deal with a crisis. He had no time for emotions or panic now.

He knelt next to Angel, grabbing a box of tissues from the side table as he went, and began gently wiping the blood from his hand and then his chin. The tissue came away a bright, shocking red. Micah kept his voice low and soothing as he spoke.

“I’m calling 911. Is there anything I should tell them? Do you have a condition they should know about?”

The force with which Angel shook his head surprised him. “Don’t,” he rasped. “I’m fine. Just… stomach problems.” He paused to breathe, a shuddery inhale that sounded all wrong.

“Angel, you’re throwing up blood; that’s clearly not fine,” Micah said firmly. “Did it ever happen before?”

“Once. It’ll stop. I’m fine,” Angel insisted. “Just… bathroom?”

The short utterance tapped him out. His head hung low, he breathed for a moment before putting his hands on the floor, bracing himself to stand. Micah felt torn. His instincts told him he should call for an ambulance immediately, but, if this had happened before, maybe Angel knew better. The spot of blood on the floor wasn’t too big.

Still, it was blood.

He would help Angel up and to the bathroom, he decided, and then see how things were going, but he slid his phone into his pocket before winding his arm around Angel’s shoulders.

As soon as Angel rose to his knees, he let out another strangled scream and curled up again. His soft whimpers soon turned into heaving and Micah ran to the kitchen to grab a large glass fruit bowl standing on the counter. Grapefruits and limes rolled to the floor with dull thumps. Micah shoved the bowl in front of Angel’s knees just in time.

There was much more blood this time.

Micah pulled out his phone, inwardly cursing the screen lock as he tried to unlock it with one hand while using the other to dry Angel’s lips with a tissue. He was about to dial 911 when Angel weakly squeezed his wrist.

“Please. They’ll… ask.” It was barely more than a whisper and Micah thought he finally understood.

“About your insurance? It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure it out later; now is not the time to worry about it.”

Angel shook his head. “My… back.”

Confused, Micah dropped the tissues into the basin and raised Angel’s shirt to look at his back. What he saw made him gasp.

The wide expanse of skin was sticky with sweat and covered with red and purple lines, long and straight; the skin was broken in several places and just beginning to heal. They looked like… whip marks. He carefully eased the fabric back down.

“Who did this to you? You need to report it, Angel, but first we have to get you to the hospital.”

Angel shook his head again, with visible effort. “Client,” he whispered barely audibly, and then he coughed and curled up in pain, more blood staining his lips and dribbling down his chin. Micah grabbed the phone, his decision made, fingers already tapping out the number.

“Okay, I’ll explain it. You’re my boyfriend, remember?”

Angel nodded and then cried out when another wave of retching folded him in half.

The connection came in seconds, but it still felt like ages.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

Minutes later, Angel lay slumpedon his side on the floor. His eyes were closed and his breathing was shallow. Micah was… not praying, but silently begging any hypothetical higher power that might be listening for the ambulance to hurry up. It was a mantra, holding fear at bay. He kept one hand on Angel’s back and the other on his wrist, to let him know he wasn’t alone—if Angel could feel it.

Despite growing panic, he came up with a cover story. They were boyfriends. They liked kinky sex, and were into the BDSM scene a little. The marks? Completely consensual. He hoped Angel would confirm it once he regained consciousness, if they asked.

He hoped he would regain consciousness, period. That he might not was too scary to consider. But there was a whole lot of blood in that bowl, and Angel’s pulse was fast and weak against Micah’s fingertips, like a tired hummingbird’s wings.

Micah’s eyes fell on the messenger bag standing by the couch. He almost smacked his forehead as realization struck: He didn’t know Angel’s last name, his address, date of birth, nothing. What boyfriend wouldn’t know these things? Feeling like a creep, Micah reached to open the bag. The wallet was the first thing he found. Soon he was looking at Angel’s driver’s license.

Aiden Peter Reeves’s driver’s license.

He was twenty-three, not twenty-six; his birthday was on September twenty-fourth; and he lived near Dinkytown, just two blocks from Micah’s office. That had to be enough information for the paramedics, who were just ringing the doorbell.

They didn’t ask about anything but Angel’s name.

One look at the blood-filled bowl and a quick check of Angel’s vital signs sent the paramedics into a flurry of activity. They loaded Angel onto the stretcher and rushed him to the ambulance. Micah asked to go with them. But they said he would have to follow instead, gave him the name of the hospital and were gone. The spike of terror rose even higher. Micah barely remembered to give them Angel’s wallet.

The next two hours were like a surreal, chaotic dream. Not in his most pessimistic thoughts did Micah expect to end this evening in a hospital waiting room, alone with his thoughts, pacing and worrying for what felt like forever. He’d forgotten his phone at home, and the only magazine in the room featured articles about hugs, love after fifty and incontinence.

Finally, a doctor came out to talk to him. After a brusque interview about Angel’s bruised back, all Micah learned was that he was alive, out of surgery and would be okay. He wasn’t allowed to see him. The doctor suggested he should try tomorrow, but Micah could see how the man looked at him. The hospital couldn’t report abuse without the patient’s consent, but if it were the doctor’s decision, the police would be on their way.

Micah returned home after midnight. All lights were still on, and music played quietly where he’d left his iPod in the dock. A decorative cup that the paramedics had bumped in their hurry was lying on the floor in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by spare change Micah had been keeping in it. He stood in the doorway to his living room and the coppery smell of blood made his stomach turn. So much had happened, and now his body was catching up to what his mind had been processing.

The wine glasses were still on the table, but their contents had spilled after the paramedics shoved furniture away to make room for the stretcher. A couch pillow was pushed aside where he had sat with Angel, kissing, just a few short hours ago. The blood stains on the floor were darker; the contents of the bowl looked like a prop from some gory movie. Above all this, the flowers sat alive and vivid, jarring in their serene beauty.

Micah would have to enter this room. He’d have to clean up this mess. He knew of no equivalent of crime scene cleanup crews for medical emergencies, and the thought of waking up in the morning—assuming he’d manage to get any sleep—only to see evidence of tonight’s horror was too much to bear. He would clean right away. He just needed a second to breathe.

Closing the living room door, Micah went to the kitchen and dropped onto the nearest stool, his body sagging. How did it happen? What was wrong with Angel? Aiden, not Angel, but that was beside the point. Micah couldn’t think of him as anyone but Angel and he wasn’t going to try to change it right now. Had Micah missed something? Was it somehow his fault? Had he done everything he could? Should he have called 911 sooner?


Page 12

Noticing a dried splash of blood on his knee was Micah’s breaking point. It sent him into a gasping, sobbing frenzy. A scalding hot shower and throwing the pants away calmed him somewhat, but even then, he still felt as if he was balancing on the edge of a belated breakdown.

If only he could talk to someone.

Claudia could be here in a heartbeat, he knew. One phone call and she would rush to him, offering comfort and support and a shoulder to cry on, should he need that. And it would help so much just to be able to talk about it—about how terrifying it had been, how his hands still shook and his heart raced because Angel could havediedhere, on his hands, and Micah had felt so completely, utterlyhelpless, unable to fix it. The weight was almost too much to bear.

But he had to bear it. There was no one he could tell without wading further into lies, without getting his family more involved when they already cared about Angel too much. He had to deal with this alone.

No one said he had to do it sober, though.

It was much easier to deal with blood when he was completely numbed by hard liquor. It didn’t feel real at all, just like a spooky, gory dream: spilling the coagulated blood and red-soaked tissues from the bowl, carrying it—clean but tainted with the memory forever—and the ruined rug out to the trash, scrubbing the floor in front of the couch until his hands hurt. None of this was real; his body worked, but he felt as though he was watching it from the sidelines, unattached and unconcerned. He turned off the music, cleaned up the spilled wine and put the glasses in the dishwasher. He straightened the table and the pillow and left the window open to get rid of the lingering scent of blood. Then he took another hot shower, downed yet another double shot of whiskey and fell into bed and deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter 12

Waking up with a wickedheadache was never good, but waking up with a wicked headache and remembering what caused it—or rather, what caused the drinking that caused the headache—made Micah want to dive back into blessed unconsciousness, hoping to wake up to a better, gentler reality. But he knew that wouldn’t happen. Besides, his stomach was rebelling, which only brought back more memories, which didn’t help anything.

It was not a good morning.

Micah was grateful for the foresight and stubbornness that had made him clean up so thoroughly last night. Not that it made the memories any less vivid, but at least no additional stomach-turning scent or visuals were added to the mix.

It took an hour before Micah felt ready to face the day, and when he did, he decided to stop by the hospital on his way to work. He couldn’t stop worrying about Angel; he would be too distracted to do anything productive until he saw him and made sure he was okay. Sure, they weren’t really together—hell, Micah hadn’t even known his real name until last night—but that didn’t matter. Whether it was because the guy almost died in his living room, or because of everything that had happened before that, he cared about Angel’s wellbeing. He wanted to know that he was okay, wanted to help if help was needed. There was a connection between them that might not be romantic, not even friendship, but it existed and it affected Micah more than he cared to admit.

Micah had cleared his morning schedule, expecting his time with Angel to go long into the night. So now he loaded up on coffee, bought a bouquet of gerbera daisies in the little flower shop down the street and followed the route he’d taken last night in such a hurry, right to the reception area, where another middle-aged nurse sat at the computer.

“I’m here to see Aiden Reeves.” Micah did his best to smile pleasantly. “Could you tell me which room he’s in, please?”

The nurse tapped some keys and shook her head. “I’m sorry sweetie, but Mr. Reeves isn’t accepting visitors.”

“What? But… I’m his boyfriend.” The lie fell off his lips way too easily. It was becoming a habit.

A flash of recognition ran over the woman’s face and she frowned at him. “There’s nothing I can do.”

Micah massaged his pounding temples. “Can you at least tell me how he is?”

She shook her head, her lips a hard thin line now. “Sorry. You’d have to ask to see his doctor to learn anything more, but unless you are family, you are not entitled to the patient’s medical information.”

There was no use arguing. Micah had a worrying suspicion that the story of Angel’s injured back had travelled around the ward. No matter what he said, he could only make matters worse.

“I understand. Could you get these to him, please?” He handed the flowers to the nurse before leaving, still keeping the polite smile glued to his face.

Well, at least he knew Angel was alive and lucid if he’d refused to have visitors. Micah would just have to contact him another way.

He took out his phone as soon as he got to the office and called Angel, but he wasn’t too surprised when the call went to voicemail. Hospital days were ruled by a different schedule than normal life, he knew. Besides, Angel might still be sleeping off last night’s events.

During the next eight hours, Micah called twice more and sent three text messages, all of which remained unanswered. On his way home a realization struck him: Angel probably didn’t have his phone. Unless he’d had it in his pocket when he was taken to the hospital, the device was likely in his bag, which was still sitting beside Micah’s couch.

Angel’s bag was open, the way Micah had left it. He didn’t intend to look inside, really—he just wanted to gather it up and drop it at the hospital the next morning. If Angel still didn’t want to see anyone, Micah would leave it with the nurses and maybe, if he was lucky, he could learn something more about how Angel was. But when he picked up the bag, the wide opening revealed something that made him pause.

A clear plastic package was visible, and the obviously phallic shapes within left very little doubt about its contents. Feeling more creepy and inappropriate than ever, Micah took out what turned out to be a simple cosmetic bag. Nestled inside were two black dildos—one thin and curved, with a different-sized “head” on each end, the other shaped like a particularly large penis, complete with veins along the shaft and testicles at the base. Next to them was what he assumed was an anal plug, deep green and surprisingly pretty, with a loop on the opposite end. A bottle of toy cleaner and two silicone rings completed the collection.

Was that what Angel meant by coming prepared? Because wow, if he did, then he was seriously overestimating Micah’s expectations. Or his experience. Micah had never owned a sex toy in his life. He’d had a vibrator used on him once upon a time, but the most sex-related purchase he’d ever made was personal lubricant, and he still blushed like a virgin every time he went out to buy that. That didn’t happen often—his solitary sex life was hardly a busy one. And then there was Angel, arriving prepared to do all kinds of sexual things that Micah never considered doing with him. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Curiosity getting the better of him, Micah reached into the bag to see what else was there. Another, smaller plastic bag came out, this one containing a handful of little bottles with different kinds of lubricant and several strips of condoms, including some marked as XL. On the bottom of the messenger bag was a package of moist towelettes, a small black pouch that revealed a little silver vibrator, and a pair of black leather handcuffs, which froze Micah’s brain for a moment. A side pocket held a small stack of Angel’s business cards, just like the one Daphne had given Micah forever ago, and a large, almost-empty bottle of ibuprofen.

That was all. No phone, no keys, no other personal belongings.

Micah couldn’t take that bag to the hospital.

If Angel still refused to see him—and he had no reason to think that may have changed—he’d have to leave the bag with the nurses, asking them to pass it to their patient. If, by any chance, anyone caught a glimpse of the contents… well, Micah would probably never show his face at that particular hospital again. But worse than that, Angel’s private life would be under scrutiny—his profession might be revealed. And although Angel had never shown any sign of being ashamed of what he did for a living, and Micah didn’t know how secretive he was about it, he was sure that people would judge him, and judge him harshly. Whether or not that could affect the quality of care he received, Micah wasn’t willing to risk it. Being in the hospital, sick and vulnerable, was enough for Angel to deal with without additional drama.

Micah would just keep Angel’s things for him until the next time they met. There wasn’t anything in there that Angel would need right now, anyway.

The bag repacked, closed and safely hidden away in the closet, Micah grabbed his phone and sent another text message to let Angel know his belongings were safe and waiting for him. Again, there was no answer.

A morning phone call to the hospital confirmed that their patient still didn’t want visitors, and they still couldn’t tell him much about how he was, so Micah did what he did best: buried himself in work. Periodical re-testing of the long-time clients’ networks was usually the twins’ job, but it was just tedious enough to require his full focus. And when he discovered a major problem with one of them that took him and the company’s IT department late into the night and most of Thursday to fix, it seemed like exactly what he needed. Something normal, familiar and practiced, and in no way life-threatening.

Friday Micah called the hospital again. He hadn’t heard from Angel since that horrible Monday, and Claudia wanted to meet him or, preferably, them for lunch next week. Micah would find it much easier to talk about their fake break-up if his heart wasn’t in his throat with worry over Angel’s health.

Maybe if the hospital wasn’t treating him like an abusive boyfriend, he’d be able to learn more.

“Hello,” he said when the call was picked up, lowering his voice just in case someone remembered his previous calls. “I’ve just learned that my friend has been hospitalized. Would you be able to tell me where I should go to see him and what the visiting hours are?”

“Of course,” the young, upbeat voice in the receiver said. “What’s your friend’s name, sir?”

“Aiden Reeves.”

“Just a moment.” There was a pause and a soft sound of typing, then the woman spoke again. “Actually, Mr. Reeves was released this morning, so I suggest giving him a call and visiting him at home.” Micah heard a smile in her voice, as if it pleased her to deliver the good news.

“Oh. Already?” he said, stunned, and then caught himself. “That’s great. Thank you very much. Have a good day.”

“You too, sir.”

Micah put down the phone and let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. Angel was fine. He was home. Now he would finally contact him, and Micah would be able to stop worrying and go on with his life.

Five days, a dozen calls,and two unanswered emails later, Micah was frustrated. He had so many things to do—things he hadn’t been able to focus on properly because of his lingering worry about Angel.

On Wednesday, he put Angel’s bag in the trunk of his car as he was leaving for work and that evening he parked in front of a dilapidated apartment building, the address of which he remembered from Angel’s driver’s license. Or he hoped he remembered it because it definitely didn’t look like a place someone making at least a thousand dollars a night would ever choose to live in.

The area was less than stellar, and the building clearly offered cheap, basic accommodation for those who couldn’t afford to care about its neglected state. Micah knew the type—he’d lived in one just like this with Daphne. Lots of students did.

Perhaps Angel had moved but hadn’t bothered to get new documents? Micah really hoped that wasn’t the case. He just wanted to drop off the bag and be over with it.

There was no elevator, so Micah ran up the dusty stairs to the third floor and knocked on the green-painted door with no name or apartment number on it. When it opened a moment later, it was to reveal the very man Micah was hoping to see, alive and looking quite taken aback when he realized who stood at his doorstep.

Angel wasn’t nearly as pale as the last time Micah had seen him, but he still didn’t look well; a gray tinge substituted for his usual healthy glow. His black yoga pants and T-shirt hung loose on him, their color only highlighting the thinness of his body. He looked as if he’d been through hell and back, and Micah’s annoyance evaporated in a blink.

“Hey,” he said. “I’ve been trying to catch you.”

“Looks like you just did.” Angel frowned and crossed his arms. “How did you find me?”

“Your driver’s license. I needed to know your real name when the ambulance came, so I took a look.”

“Oh.” Angel looked down and away. “Listen, I know I still owe you that night. And I will deliver, I promise, I just—”

Micah’s eyebrows shot up. “You think that’s why I’ve been trying to contact you?”

Angel glanced up at him, and then down again. He looked so different from the confident, vibrant man whom Micah had learned to know these past few months that his heart ached.

“No, you’re right. I’m sure you’re too grossed out to consider it now. I’ll transfer the money back to you. Just give me a few days, okay?”

“Hey. I’m not grossed out and I didn’t come here to ask about the damn money or the sex.” Micah snapped. “I just wanted to know how you are, Angel! Last time I saw you, you were unconscious on my floor after throwing up tons of blood. I sat in that damn waiting room for two hours waiting to hear anything. I played the kinky boyfriend to explain your bloody back; I let people in the hospital look at me like I was a fucking abusive husband, and you think it’s about the money? Didn’t you think I might worry about you? Would it hurt you to send one stupid message to let me know you are fine?”

He was breathless when he finished, his flash of anger gone as fast as it had come. Angel was looking at him with wide, incredulous eyes.

“You went to the hospital with me?” he asked quietly.

“I followed behind. They didn’t let me go with you. But yes. I waited. Iworried, Angel. Not that they told me anything, except for ‘He’ll be fine.’ I tried to see you the next day, too.”

“You did?”

“Of course. I was told you didn’t want visitors. Didn’t you get the flowers?”

“I did. Thank you. But… I didn’t know you wanted to see me. I thought you dropped by to ask when I’d be out or something and you didn’t care to visit. I never told them to turn down visitors.”

Micah frowned. “Huh. Looks like they decided for you then?”

Angel stared at him in silence, long enough that it became unsettling. Micah nervously fingered the strap of the bag, remembering the official reason for coming here.

“Oh, and you left this at my place.” He slid the bag off his shoulder and passed it to Angel.

Angel uncrossed his arms to take it, and that seemed to break the spell. He opened the door wider and stepped aside.

“Come in. Sorry for the mess.”

The apartment was small—a tiny bedroom attached to a cramped living room with a kitchen annex—but it was bright and cozy despite the bare pipes running overhead. The double bed visible through the open doorway was unmade and there were a few dishes in the sink, but it was hardly a mess. Angel led Micah to a worn-out green couch tucked under the window; a plushy cream-colored blanket was thrown carelessly over the armrest.

“Can I get you something to drink?”

“Coffee?” Micah asked hopefully, sitting down. His head, which had been aching slightly for hours, was beginning to throb.

“Sure.” Angel moved to the kitchenette and pulled out a small Italian coffee maker and a bottle of milk. “Latte?”

“Please.”

They didn’t talk as the coffee bubbled on the stove. Angel seemed focused on the meticulous process of heating the milk and frothing it with a handheld device, so Micah busied himself looking around the room. Nothing betrayed Angel’s profession. Not that he expected sex toys on display or porn magazines lying around, but this was a room that could have belonged to Micah’s college self if it weren’t for the lack of a high-end computer station.


Page 13

A bookcase occupied most of the wall to his right, crammed with books that seemed to make up the majority of Angel’s possessions. Micah recognized several titles, but many names told him nothing. Some of the books looked used, well-loved even, and there seemed to be a wide spectrum of genres. There was a whole section of popular science and another with travel books—mostly about Egypt, Scandinavia and Greece. On the windowsill to the left, next to the little dining table, an older model iPod sat in its docking station. A library copy of a recent legal thriller by a popular author sat on the coffee table, bookmarked with a bus ticket, but no knick-knacks or personal pictures were visible anywhere.

“Here.” Angel put a steaming mug before Micah. “You don’t take sugar, right?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Okay.”

Angel returned to the kitchen and came back with a glass of tap water for himself, then settled on the opposite end of the couch, which still only left about six inches of space between their knees. He drank some water, put down the glass and then picked it up again.

“So…” he hesitated. “Thank you for getting me to the hospital. And for taking the blame for, you know.” He shrugged a shoulder.

Micah nodded. “Did they buy it?”

“I’m not sure. They kept asking if I really didn’t want to report it. After the third time telling them it was consensual, I firmly asked them to drop it.”

Micah took a sip of his coffee. It was good; strong and fragrant. “Was it?” he asked after a beat of hesitation. “Consensual?”

Angel raised his chin, his jaw hardening. “Of course it was.”

“And… you didn’t mind me seeing it when you came over that night?”

That made Angel falter. “Well… That particular encounter didn’t happen until the day before I was set to meet you and I hadn’t really planned on it going that way. But I rescheduled your night twice already, and I couldn’t do that again. I thought I’d explain it. I hoped you wouldn’t mind.”

“Okay.”

Oh, Micah wouldsomind. It would have totally freaked him out and probably put a stop to any further developments if he saw Angel’s back like that during—or before—sex, but he chose not to mention it. It didn’t matter anyway.

“And you’re right, I should have answered your calls, or at least texted you,” Angel said, eyes focused on his water glass. “I guess I’m not used to people calling just to check on me.”

“Oh.” Micah didn’t know what to say to this. So much seemed wrong about that statement. But Angel was already straightening up, his voice forcefully perky.

“Anyway, yes, I’m alright. I had an ulcer, it turns out, and it finally eroded a blood vessel. Apparently taking painkillers too often can do that to you.”

Micah winced with sympathy. “Ouch. And you never noticed it before?”

Angel shrugged. “I had pretty bad stomachaches sometimes, but they were always coming and going. I just told myself I had a sensitive stomach, you know? I didn’t want this to be serious. Now it got to the point where it could no longer be ignored.” He looked at Micah. “They said it was a close call. I’m lucky I wasn’t alone here when it happened, I guess; I might have tried to wish it away until it was too late.”

“You did.”

“Thank you for not listening to me.”

They were silent for a moment, and then Micah asked, “So that’s it, you’re fine now?”

“I’m still a little weak, but yes. They went in to stop the bleeding, pumped me full of blood and gave me tons of meds that I have to take for some time, but I’m okay.”

“I’m glad to hear that.”

“Because you were worried.” Angel smiled feebly, for the first time tonight.

“Because I was worried.”

A doorbell rang and Angel got up to open the door, returning with a bag from the local Chinese place.

“Sorry, I ordered before you came.” Angel stood awkwardly by the table. “But I can share.”

“No, thanks. I have dinner waiting at home. But should you be eating that? After the stomach surgery and all?”

Angel put the bag down on the kitchen counter. “I don’t cook and I have to eat something.” He shrugged. “But it’s pretty bland for Chinese. The doctors said I need to avoid hot spices, coffee, alcohol and too much fat, but for the most part, I can eat normally. It wasn’t really a surgery, just an endoscopy procedure. There’s not a mark on me.”

“Oh, good,” Micah smirked before he could stop himself. “You wouldn’t want any nasty scars on that marvelous body of yours.”

Angel chuckled, and it was music to Micah’s ears after his distant demeanor. “Please.”

“What? I’m serious. You have a nice body and I’m glad it’s not ruined before I even had a chance to see it properly.”

He felt the heat in his cheeks even before he saw Angel’s eyes go comically wide. “Are you flirting with me? After I scared you to death and ruined your floor?”

Fuck. That wasnotthe plan. Micah reached for his coffee cup again.

“Okay, shut up and eat your dinner. I have some caffeine to ingest,” he mumbled and determinedly didn’t look at Angel for the next few minutes.

After that, he may have glanced. Just a little.

“Okay, I’d better go. Itook enough of your time,” Micah said an hour later, looking at the clock.

They’d started comparing their tastes in books while Angel ate. The conversation had led to a rather fascinating discussion about urban fantasy versus high fantasy. Micah could just sit and talk to Angel for hours, but his stomach was reminding him he hadn’t eaten his own dinner, and Angel’s eyes were starting to droop.

“I’m glad you came,” Angel said. “It’s been nice to just… talk. It can get pretty quiet when I don’t go out.”

“No friends visiting you?”

Angel busied himself gathering dishes. His face was neutral, but he didn’t look at Micah as he said, “No.”

It wasn’t pity that made Micah ask, “Can I come by some other day? Keep you company?”

And he was sure Angel knew that because he only hesitated a little before nodding. “If you want to.”

Chapter 13

The next time Micah stoodin front of Angel’s door, it was a Saturday afternoon, he had his arms full, and it was all Claudia’s fault.

She’d met him for brunch—turned up at their usual bistro late, sniffly and sans make-up—and proceeded to whine about feeling like death warmed over and missing their mom’s chicken soup. Micah touched her forehead and then promptly put her in a cab and sent her home, calling Brad to warn him he was going to have a sick fiancée on his hands. Claudia was always a handful when she didn’t feel well.

Micah stopped by the grocery store on the way home and then he turned on the music, put on an apron, and spent a few hours in his kitchen. Claudia was right: There was nothing like homemade food to say “Get better” and “I care” when one was sick or recovering, and he could think of someone besides his sister who could use a pick-me-up. In fact, he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about that someone since Wednesday.

After a detour to drop off a pot of his famous chicken soup at Claudia’s, Micah made his way to Angel’s apartment. He hesitated before knocking. Maybe he was overstepping? Oh well. It was too late to turn back.

Angel opened the door with a smile, and then his eyes grew wider when he took in the container in Micah’s hands and the bag hanging heavily from his forearm.

“What—” he started, and then seemed to remember his manners. “Hi. Come on in.”

“Thanks.”

Micah walked right into the tiny kitchen and put his baggage on the counter.

“Oh, good,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if you had a freezer. It would be a bit of a problem if you didn’t.”

He turned to smile at Angel and was met with a wary frown.

“Micah, what are you doing?”

“I brought you food.”

Angel’s frown deepened. “Listen, I don’t want pity. I’m doing just fine and—”

Micah raised his hands. “Whoa, no. No pity here, I swear. I just wanted to help.”

“I didn’t ask you to.” Angel crossed his arms over his chest.

“I know, but this is what I do, okay? You said you don’t cook—well, I do. I love cooking and I don’t have nearly enough reasons to do it for anyone but myself. So why don’t you let me, just this once? I promise; I’m really good, and this is bound to be more healthy than takeout.” When Angel just watched him with his jaw set, Micah added, “But if you really don’t want me to, I will take this back. I can drop it by Claudia’s. She won’t complain.”

Angel slowly exhaled and Micah could see him work on relaxing his tense posture. Finally he said, “It’s really kind of you. I appreciate the thought, but it just wouldn’t be appropriate to accept such a gesture from a client.”

“But I’m not here as a client now. Would you accept it from a friend?”

It was more than food that he was offering, and Angel seemed to get it; his eyes scanned Micah’s face.

“Yes. I think it would be okay to accept it from a friend.” The frown on his face faded. “Thank you, Micah. But just this once, okay? I don’t feel comfortable… accepting things.”

Micah nodded quickly. “Just this once. I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable, I just… I thought you could use some good homemade food while you’re recovering.” He turned to the counter to escape the tension still in the air. “Here’s some homemade chicken soup—it’s lean, so it should fit your diet. And there’s a casserole and some chicken risotto; both can be frozen. Just pop them in the oven when you want them. It’s all natural and stomach-friendly; I checked.” He turned to Angel again with a careful smile.

Angel nodded. “Thank you. You really didn’t have to.”

Micah shrugged. “I had an excuse to freeze some for myself, too. I just made double.” Angel finally seemed relaxed enough to return his smile, so Micah stepped away from the counter and into the living room. “Okay, I’ll get out of your way. Put it where you want it.”

The coffee table was covered with books and papers, and Micah glanced at them curiously as he settled on the couch.

“Why are you reading about property law?” he asked, confused.

“Because the new semester starts in two weeks, and I want to prepare my books and notes while I have time,” Angel said, his back to Micah as he faced the open fridge.

“So… you’re still in school?”

“I am.”

“Lawschool?”

Angel finally turned to look at him. “Yes.”

“Really? I thought the ‘lawyer’ part was made up.”

Angel shrugged. “Sometimes it’s easier to stay close to the truth when you’re inventing a persona. Does it bother you?” He leaned against the counter, arms folded.

“No, just confuses the hell out of me. Why would you—” The look on Angel’s face warned him that he was entering an unwelcome territory. “Never mind. Why would it bother me? A prospect of having a lawyer friend in a year or two? Awesome. I’ll know who to call if I ever get in trouble.”

The moment it left his mouth, Micah knew it was the wrong thing to say. He didn’t know which part of it caused Angel’s face to close up—was it his assumption that they would become, and stay, friends? Or the prospect of Micah expecting anything from him in the future? Maneuvering this new dynamic was proving to be tricky without knowing anything much about Angel himself.

“So what should I call you?” Micah asked, risking even more awkwardness, but determined to establish it once and for all. “You know, when I’m not seeing you as a client,” he clarified when Angel seemed confused. “Should I still call you Angel?”

“Um. Well, Angel is a strictly professional nickname, and since you’re here as a… friend,” Angel said softly, “why don’t you use my real name?”

Micah grinned. “Aiden,” he tried it out. “I like it.”

Angel—no, wait, Aiden, he’d need to remember—smiled. He looked a little dazed, and Micah found himself babbling to fill the awkward silence.

“Fun fact: every time I hearAngel, my mind jumps to that scene inX-Men: The Last Stand. Have you seen it? I don’t know if you’re into superheroes at all, but there’s this scene where Angel—he’s a mutant with gorgeous, huge white wings—he just snaps the restraints and then jumps out the window and flies away. The moment when we see him unfold his wings for the first time—I don’t know why, but it’s just such a powerful scene for me.”

Aiden walked over to the bookcase and crouched to reach to the bottom shelf that was—Micah now saw—filled with DVDs. He pulled out a familiar case and passed it to Micah with a genuine smile on his face.

“I love that scene. I think it’s the freedom that makes it so powerful. Breaking free from other people’s expectations.”

Micah beamed. “Yes! Wow, I haven’t seen that part in ages. You know, Claudia always says she should have guessed I was gay because I never liked typical ‘guy movies,’ even way before I came out. I never wanted to watch horror or zombie movies, or action stuff—which, of course, doesn’t prove anything but a certain taste. But I’ve always loved superhero movies, especially those from the Marvel universe. She claims people who like them either have a hero complex or a hidden desire to be rescued, but I don’t think that’s it. They’re just… fun, you know? They don’t have to be deep and meaningful to be good entertainment. Not that they aren’t deep and meaningful sometimes.”

Aiden was grinning now, perched on the armrest. “Wanna watch it together?”

“Don’t you have school prep to finish?”

“Sometime in the next two weeks, I do.” Aiden shrugged. “But I have time. I can make coffee for you, and there’s ice cream; we can have a proper movie night. Well, afternoon.”

“Can you eat ice cream?”

“No one said I can’t, and it never bothered my stomach, so I’m gonna say yes. No coffee for me, though. I have herbal tea.” He made a face.

Micah laughed. “Okay then. You had me at ice cream. I’d love to stay and salivate over leather-clad mutants with you.”

Aiden waggled his eyebrows. “Wolverine?”

“Iceman, actually.”

“Ah. You prefer boyish good looks then. Fair enough. Why don’t you put the disc in and set it up? I’ll get the drinks.”

One movie turned into two because they both agreed that the second one in the series was the best of the initial trilogy, and between watching and talking and laughing, the sun had set by the time Micah left Aiden’s apartment. He felt more relaxed than he had in a long time, and Aiden lingered in the doorway, smiling that sweet, dimpled smile that Micah hadn’t realized had been missing since the weekend at the lake.

“Thank you,” Aiden said. “This was the best afternoon I’ve had in a long time.”

“Me too,” Micah admitted. “I’ll call you?”

“Okay.”

Micah was still debating whetherless than twenty-four hours was too short a time to call a guy after the first friend-date, especially when he didn’t have anything in particular to say and just wanted to chat, when his phone chirped with an incoming text message.

Angel:I swear I just moaned out loud over your soup. What did you put in there??

Micah grinned and replied,Was it a good kind of moan or an ouchy kind of moan?

Angel:Definitely good. I’m pretty sure I’ve never eaten better chicken soup, and that’s saying something because we had a cook when I was a kid. This is fantastic. What’s the magic ingredient?

Micah:Oh, you know, the usual. Organic chicken, organic veggies, some herbs, virgin tears, unicorn dust…

Micah:I can’t tell you all my secret ingredients, obviously ;) But I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

Micah:Just wait for the casserole.

Angel:Mmm, don’t tempt me, I’m not supposed to eat too much at once and I’m already considering seconds.

Micah::) I’ll leave you to it then. Enjoy!

Angel:Oh, I will! Thank you :)

Micah put his phone away with a smile. Cooking for someone else had never been this satisfying.

How much would you mindif I killed one of your clients?

Micah wrote the text on Thursday afternoon, sending it out without a second’s hesitation. Since Sunday, Aiden and he had been texting regularly, and glancing at his phone all through the day was becoming Micah’s new guilty pleasure.

Aiden answered not a minute later.

Angel:From the legal point of view, I would advise against it. Other than that, it depends on the client, I guess. Who did you have in mind?

Micah:Daphne.

Angel:Well, I’ve only met her once, so I wouldn’t feel the lossTOOterribly ;)

Angel:Wait, you weren’t serious, were you?

Angel:Micah?

Angel:Please don’t kill Daphne, she’s nice.

Angel:In fact, please don’t kill anyone, okay?

Micah:Ugh, are you sure? Because I’m very tempted.

Angel:What did she do?

Micah:She asked me to monitor her company computers. She thinks someone is leaking her schedules and ideas. I set it all up last night, and now she’s calling me every hour asking if there’s any news.THESE THINGS TAKE TIME, WOMAN!

Micah:I get that she’s worried, but dear God, I have a book proposal to write and submitTODAYand I can’t focus with her constant interruptions.

Angel:Have you heard of this wondrous little option of silencing your phone? If you put it in your pocket, you won’t even know she called.

Micah:Carrying a phone in your pocket is bad for your testicles, don’t you know? And silencing never works with her. She’d just come here and bother me in person. I think I’ll threaten her instead. That should work.

Angel:Whoa, remind me not to get on your bad side.

Angel:But hey, are we talking about balls now? Balls-adjacent topics are always fun to discuss. Tell me more.

Micah:Nope. Book proposal.

Angel:Boo. Okay, good luck! I’ll go for a run or something. Talk to you later :)

Micah was smiling when he got back to work, his annoyance gone. He could really get used to this.

“Do you like vegetarian lasagna?”

After a moment of silence on the receiver, a sleep-rough voice said, “Good morning to you, too.”

Micah glanced at the clock. “Were you still asleep? At eleven? How late did you stay up?”

“Hey,” Aiden protested, sounding more awake. “Friends don’t judge friends’ sleep patterns. And I don’t know; I fell asleep reading. Why are you calling me at such a godforsaken hour?”

Micah rolled his eyes, but his smile couldn’t have been wider. “To ask if you like vegetarian lasagna.”

“I have no idea. I like the regular kind.”

“Well, tough luck, because I have a craving for vegetarian today. Wanna come for dinner and try it? I’ve been told it’s divine.”

“Micah, we’ve talked about your attempts to feed me. I still have your risotto in the freezer.”

Micah sighed dramatically. “Okay, fine, let me rephrase it: Please come for dinner because I want lasagna and there’s no way I can justify making the whole thing just for myself.”

“Are you trying to convince me that no one else wants to enjoy it with you?” Aiden sounded amused. Micah could imagine him spread out on his back in the bed, smiling. Shirtless.

Oops. Better not go there.

He did his best to sound mildly offended. “I’ll have you know that I tried. Claudia is going out with the cast of her new show after the rehearsal tonight; Brad is out of town; and Daphne is doing some crazy diet again. No, I’m not on a mission to fatten you up, but I would enjoy your company. Will you please have dinner with me? We can watch both of the Wolverine movies afterward if you want.”


Page 14

Aiden chuckled softly. “Fine. If we’re dining with Wolverine, I can’t say no. What time?”

“Six?”

“Great. See you then. And Micah?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.”

Aiden didn’t bring flowers, buthe didn’t come empty-handed, either. As soon as he crossed the threshold, he handed Micah a cherry pie. The pan was still warm.

“I thought you didn’t cook?” Micah said, impressed.

“I didn’t say I don’t bake, did I?” Aiden grinned. He looked much better than a week ago. Some of his color was back and he no longer seemed as if he was about to collapse at any moment. “I’m actually very good at baking. I have this favorite little bakery where I bake all my pies.” He winked and Micah laughed out loud. He’d almost believed him.

“Thank you,” he said, leading Aiden to the kitchen. “I have a new item to add to my small pool of what I know about you,” he teased. “Cute. Sensitive stomach. Law school. Likes pie.”

Aiden chuckled. “I’ll give you one more: all pie except strawberry. I’m allergic. But not deathly so.”

“I’ll enter it into my database later.” Micah winked and turned to check on the lasagna that was bubbling happily in the oven.

It was great to have someone over for dinner again, especially someone easy on the eyes who could make Micah laugh without even trying.

After the first bite of lasagna, Aiden announced that he did indeed like the vegetarian kind, too, and they both got so full that they had no room left for pie. Dinner finished and the kitchen table cleared, they moved to the living room—or tried to. Aiden stopped dead in the doorway.

“Whoa,” he said in a strangled voice. “This feels weird.”

“Too many memories?” Micah paused with a DVD in his hand.

“Yeah. I haven’t really thought about…that, since. But I just realized I’m acutely aware how your couch looks from the floor level, and how my blood looks on your floor. And I get kind of weak remembering how much it hurt.”

Micah frowned, concerned. Aiden looked paler than he had a moment ago, and that alone was giving Micah flashbacks. Aiden wasn’t the only one for whom that night had been a nightmare.

“Are you going to be okay?” Micah asked.

“I think so,” Aiden said, but his hands were clenched so tight that his knuckles had gone white.

“Do you want to go home?”

Aiden shook his head, his eyes fixed on the spot where the rug used to be. “No, I want to watch a movie with you. It’s just—”

“We can watch it in my bedroom.”

Micah’s mom always admonished him that the bedroom was not a place for a TV, but he agreed with that only to a point. He would gladly get rid of it if he had someone to share the space with instead. But when it was just him, himself, and his occasional bouts of insomnia, the TV was handy.

Maybe watching a movie wasn’t what Micah had thought they would be doing the first time he had Aiden—or Angel—dammit,himin his bedroom, but he was glad he could offer an alternative to the living room and spend the rest of the evening together. The bed was made, so all that was required was some pillow readjustment, and they could settle to watch.

Micah couldn’t focus on the movie at first; he was too aware of his surroundings and the proximity of their bodies, and kept surreptitiously glancing around with a stranger’s eyes and cursing himself for not cleaning the room properly. He hadn’t expected them to end up here tonight, so a basket of clean laundry waiting to be folded sat in a corner, and the vacuuming he’d done earlier had been perfunctory at best. Used tissues made a pile in the little wastebasket by the bed; what if Aiden thought they were there for something other than the mild cold Micah had last week?

He felt too aware of his body also—considering and reconsidering every tiny shift before he made it, and of course, thinking about it made him extra-fidgety, which only made matters worse. He was a grown man. He should be able to watch a damn movie with an attractive guy by his side without getting all flustered like a ridiculous schoolboy every time their knees touched. They’d done this before. Only, of course, they hadn’t been on a bed then, which seemed to be making all the difference.

Aiden didn’t appear to notice Micah’s discomfort; or was nice enough not to comment. He was just watching quietly, and soon his calm demeanor made Micah’s edginess subside as well. By the time he got up to put in the second movie, Micah was relaxed and amused by the comments they’d been shooting back and forth. Half an hour later they were both reclined on the bed, seeking more comfortable positions. Aiden ended up with his head on Micah’s shoulder, and after he initially tensed in surprise, Micah was amazed by how easy and natural it felt.

He was not a tactile person—at least he hadn’t been for a long time now. Living alone and focused on work as he was, Micah often went days, if not weeks, without human touch. Claudia and Daphne would hug him when they met, but an occasional handshake or brushing hands while paying for something was the extent of physical contact he had with other people. His skin had long ceased to beg for more.

Of course, he hadn’t grown up in a cold void. His family was rather affectionate, so he still remembered what loving touch felt like, what a comfort it was to be close, to be held. Being with Brian had never fulfilled this need, not really. Their relationship had been very physical in the sexual sense, but they hadn’t touched much otherwise, unless Brian wanted to show his “ownership” in public. Normally, they hadn’t even held hands—the two times they had, out in the open, were firmly set in Micah’s memory, they were so special.

That was one reason being with Angel, during their faux date and then playing boyfriends, had such an impact on him. That was affection so pure, and yet so easy and natural, that it seemed to fill some gap in him, some lack that he hadn’t realized was so immense. And those times hadn’t even been real. Now, merely existing in this little bubble of an ordinary evening with Aiden—just them, no scenarios, no fantasies, no fronts—felt like a familiar warm quilt around Micah’s body.

Finally though, the movie was over and the bliss would soon come to an end. Aiden stretched like a cat by Micah’s side, his body loose and relaxed.

“That was nice,” he said happily. “And now I feel too lazy to move.”

Micah turned to his side to face him. “We have pie.”

“Ooh, right. Well, okay, I might move. In a moment or two.”

“You don’t have to. I’m not kicking you out. Not working tomorrow.”

Aiden yawned. “Yeah, me neither. Actually, I may not work for another two weeks. I have a check-up appointment this Tuesday and will hopefully get an all-clear, but they said to take it slow for a bit, so I decided to take a break to heal properly.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Micah said.

“I need to slow down, I think. Funny how scary experiences bring these things into focus.”

“So how long have you been in this job now?” Micah asked, emboldened by the intimacy of the moment.

But he overestimated; they might be becoming actual friends, but not to the point of sharing, at least not just yet. Aiden sat up and slid his feet to the floor in one graceful motion.

“Long enough to appreciate the little vacation,” he said with a smile, looking at Micah over his shoulder. “Now, I heard there was pie?”

“You know, I don’t thinkI’ve seen you smiling this much since we started here,” Rob suddenly said on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s so cute it’s creepy, andwayoverdue.”

Micah looked up from his phone. “What is?”

“You falling for some dude, of course.”

Micah just shook his head and got back to tapping his message. He wasn’t falling for Aiden. That was not why he was smiling like a loon in the most random moments or why the world was suddenly a wonderful, bright place. But the twins wouldn’t understand; not with their crowd of friends, surrounding them at school and popping by the office, calling at all hours—not with the girlfriends at home and no empty spaces that might never be warm again. They didn’t yet know how precious a new friend could be because they’d never been cut off or alienated by a possessive lover.

Micah put away his phone—Aiden was finished with his real-time commentary on the bioengineering documentary he’d been watching—and turned back to tasks at hand. His schedule was relatively slow this week. Rob and Rebecca had taken over most of the teaching; there were no conferences or promo events for his first book for a change, and no news about a potential second one. For now, Micah could simply focus on the everyday running of the company. Maybe he should use this time to go through his clients’ contracts, check whether any of them needed renewing or changing as their networks or requirements evolved. Making a face—he hated dealing with legalese—Micah pulled up a new document. Ten minutes later, he was fully immersed in work.

“Hi. What are you doing?”

It was an early Friday afternoon and Aiden’s pitiful whine from the receiver was the last thing Micah expected. He paused with a conference schedule printout in his hand.

“Working. About to take a lunch break, actually. Why, what’s wrong?”

“Can we go somewhere tonight?”

It was the first time Aiden had initiated anything, so even if Micah hadn’t had a free evening, he would have probably found a way to change that. As it was, however, there were no obstacles, and he was happy to agree.

“Sure. Anywhere in particular?”

Aiden groaned. “Out. I need fresh air and good company. I feel like the walls are closing in on me and my muscles are turning to mush.”

Micah chuckled. “You poor thing. So what do you want to do?”

“Can we go for a run? It will be too late for a real hike, but we could run around Lake Calhoun. How about that?” Aiden sounded enthusiastic and Micah hated to burst his bubble.

“Um, sorry to disappoint you, but I hate running. It’s the one type of exercise I absolutely can’t stand. The lake is a great idea, but can we do something else? Swimming? Kayaking? I could even get home a bit early.”

“Yes. Sure. Anything. Just, let’s go out. Can we meet at your apartment? It’s just a short walk from there.”

Micah had to smile at the eagerness in Aiden’s voice. “Yeah, sure. You could come over around four, I think. I don’t have much to do here today, so let’s call it an early weekend and spend a few hours at the lake before the sun sets.”

“Great! I’ll be there. And I’m buying you dinner afterwards,” Aiden said.

“You don’t have to, you know.”

“I want to.”

Clouds had shrouded the skyby the time they got to the lake. It didn’t look as if rain was imminent, but the temperature had dropped and the prospect of a swim didn’t seem appealing. Micah silently grieved the loss of a perfect opportunity to watch Aiden shirtless and wet, but kayaking sounded like fun, too.

They chose to rent two separate kayaks instead of a double and spent the next two hours racing each other around the lake, laughing and splashing each other whenever they got close enough. By the time they returned to the beach, Micah’s stomach muscles hurt from all the hilarity just as much as his arms ached from the effort of paddling, and both Aiden and he were ravenous and craved meat. After a quick discussion about whether burgers qualified as a stomach-safe option, and deciding that they did if they were real, quality burgers and not cheap fast food, they set off on a walk to the chosen establishment.

“I think I finally know what I need in order to start exercising with any degree of regularity,” Micah said after a while, when they’d fallen into a comfortable pace.

“What’s that?”

“Good company. That would motivate me, I believe. Otherwise, exercising is boring.”

Aiden laughed. “Exercisingisboring. But being outdoors is fun. Running, swimming. Skiing.”

“Aiden Reeves: fan of the outdoors.” Micah grinned and nudged his elbow. “Oh, look, another thing I know about you.”

Aiden shook his head. “You’re saying it like I’m so secretive and mysterious you have to guess things about me.”

“That’s because you are!”

“Am not!” Aiden exclaimed, his smile wide as ever. “Come on, ask me anything. I’ll give you any fact you want. Unless it’s embarrassing.”

Micah was curious about a lot of things, but he immediately rejected all of the more serious questions. The light mood of the evening was lovely; he didn’t want to risk spoiling it.

“Okay, tell me about your first boyfriend,” he said. “Or girlfriend, whoever was first.”

“Girlfriend. We were both sixteen. Her name was Natalie; she was a dancer, and she had the most beautiful pair of—”

“Aiden!”

“Eyes! What did you think I was going to say?” Aiden chortled. “She had beautiful eyes, very blue, kind of like yours, and she was blonde. She was smart, too—she went on to study at Sorbonne. It was a huge deal. See? I’m not secretive at all. Anything else?”

“Hmm, favorite subject at school?”

“Oh no, going for the heavy artillery, are you?”

Micah laughed. “How is that heavy artillery? It’s the simplest question ever.”

“Maybe for you. I always lovedeverything. How am I supposed to pick? I mean, all that knowledge—it was fascinating! Biology was my favorite, I guess. Maybe. But then there was literature, and history, and oh, geography! I loved learning about places I could visit one day.”

“I bet you were one of those brainiacs who read all their school books before classes started and had perfect grades?” Micah stuck his tongue out at Aiden.

Aiden chuckled. “You’d be surprised. I mean, okay, I did read them, but my grades were always below everyone’s expectations because I was too busy finding new things to learn to bother with boring stuff like homework, or tests. And I constantly annoyed my teachers asking too many questions and pointing out when they said something stupid.”

“You didn’t.” Micah’s eyes widened.

“I did! My parents were called in to school once because a teacher complained I made her sound incompetent. That was in third grade. They got really mad and told me to just sit quietly even if a teacher says black is white. So I took a notebook and wrote it down instead, all the mistakes any of my teachers made in class. There are some real gems. I kept it up until sophomore year, I think. I still have it somewhere.” He grinned. “I was a real brat, too well read for my own good.”

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