He handed his invitation to the doorman with a curl of his lip. Why did he always end up at these things? When some breeder needed babysitting for a couple of hours, Ryder called him. When the firm agreed to put in an appearance at a charity function, the CEO didn't go, oh no, he was too busy having a life. So they sent him. As if he didn't have anything better to do with his time than to waste an evening at a lame-ass costume party. Pardon, a masquerade ball. Which meant he'd had to go out and buy a mask. Something that wouldn't detract from his fabulous tuxedo. He'd almost bought a latex mask from one of the bondage shops on Liberty Avenue but, in the end, his better judgement had prevailed and he'd settled for something more pedestrian from an upscale costume shop: a black velvet mask outlined in silver filigree. Tasteful if not adventuresome. Still, he'd approved when he'd checked himself in the mirror before leaving home. And the looks the doorman was giving him confirmed his impression.
"Enjoy," the man said.
"It's possible. Just not probable," he added.
"I'm off-duty in three hours."
Brian looked the guy over more closely. Doable. Especially if his package lived up to its outward appearance. "I'll keep that in mind." He passed through the crowded ballroom in search of the bar. If he had to go through this farce, the least he could do was to get good and buzzed. "Scotch," he told the bartender and casually checked out his ass he turned to get the bottle. Another of the gay brotherhood. Seemed that all the waiters at all of the parties (gay and straight) he went to these days were queer. Whatever happened to straight waiters? It used to be challenging, trying to get a self-professed straight boy to admit that he found Brian attractive. He'd pick one out of the crowd, pay extra special attention to him all night, be exceedingly polite and charming, and by the end of the evening, the guy would be creaming in his pants and begging Brian to fuck him. He smiled as he wandered through his memories. He'd had more than his share of supposedly "straight" boy pussy in his day. Some of them had been so tight his cock had ached but it had been worth it. There was nothing like virgin ass.
Unless it was experienced ass. There was something to be said for guys who knew what the hell they were doing. Guys who worked your cock over with their asses until you were practically screaming for mercy. As if you actually wanted to be free of them. He knew a handful of guys who could take it all night long and he called one of them every now and then to come over and play. Especially when he'd had a run of unexceptional fucks. Not that he wasn't always fantastic but sometimes his partners failed to live up to their hype and his expectations.
Again he swept the room with his hard, hazel eyes. Maybe he'd get lucky and find someone in the crowd. He had a taste for something other than cater waiter tonight.
Two drinks into the evening, he decided to mingle. Actually, he decided to go look for some hors d'oeuvres to offset the alcohol. Wouldn't do for him to get tanked at a charity ball. So he walked around and found a waiter with a full tray, snagged two canapé, and looked for a spot where he could settle down and watch the proceedings from a distance. Jesus, it was uglier than Loser Night at Babylon. None of these people could dance and that was coming from a guy who knew he wasn't any Gene Kelly. Why did they even bother? There was nothing worse than seeing some old guy doing the Funky Chicken. Except seeing some young guy doing the Funky Chicken. Pathetic.
"Pretty unimpressive, huh?"
He looked down and saw a woman standing to his left. He hadn't heard her come up next to him. Then again, he usually didn't pay much attention to women. They were definitely off his radar.
"The dancing, I mean."
She had a soft yet husky voice, reminded him of what's her name, that actress, the one who'd been in all those movies with Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall, that was it. Bogie and Bacall. Not exactly the same pitch but it had a similar quality. He liked it.
"Yeah," he replied. "I don't know when I've seen worse."
"They should make the Funky Chicken punishable by death," she said and they both laughed.
He studied her outfit: a golden mask that obscured a great deal of her face and reminded him of the sun and a cream, spaghetti strapped dress that fell in soft folds about her feet. She was very slender, had no breasts or hips to speak of but he'd noticed that a lot of women these days didn't have any hips or breasts. To compensate, however, she had a fabulous ass. Not exactly feminine in shape, it, in fact, resembled a boy's behind more than anything else. Seventeen, eighteen-years-old, still ripe, firm. Waiting to be parted and tasted. Raising a brow, he gave his head a little shake, to clear it of impure thoughts. Who would have ever thought it? Brian Kinney having fantasies about a woman's behind. To be fair, he wasn't thinking about her but of the resemblance between her ass and a young man's ass. Still, having her ass somewhere in the equation disturbed him. Either he'd had too much to drink or not enough.
"I'm Justine," she said, holding out a gloved hand.
He took it. "Brian."
"You look as if you hate these things."
"Boss made me come."
She seemed amused by his words and if she'd been a guy he would have known why: his choice of words. A gay man would have smirked at the double entendre. Although anyone who knew Ryder knew that he could never make Brian come unless he stroked his cock with a contract which made him a partner. Brian thought he'd do anything to make partner, even giving it up to Ryder. Fortunately, it hadn't come to that. The signs were there, it wouldn't be long before he was a partner in the firm. He'd paid his dues and he'd brought in a number of high profile, top dollar accounts. One or two more functions like these and he could pick out his new office.
"What do you do?"
"Advertising exec. You?" He asked more out of politeness than of interest. Yet, he did find her interesting in a way.
Curiosity got the best of him. "How'd you afford a ticket to this soiree?"
"Institute bought a couple of tickets and raffled them off to raise money for the cause."
"And you came? Voluntarily?"
Justine laughed and again he found the sound pleasurable: she had a deep, rich laugh that seemed to warm her entire body. "I'm too old for trick or treating so I thought I'd see how the other half lived for a change."
"I remember what it was like being a poor student. Face pressed against the glass."
"Now you're on the inside, looking out. How's the view?"
Brian fixed his eyes on her masked features and answered, "Fantastic."
A dimple appeared in her cheek. "Are you flirting with me?"
The question caught him off-guard. "I…"
"Would you like to dance?"
Flustered, he accepted. As he followed her swaying hips onto the dance floor, he wondered what in the world had gotten into him. He hadn't danced with any women other than Lindsay and Deb in years. In over a decade, really. Yet here he was, leading Justine around the dance floor and enjoying himself. He was a little rusty but, after a while, the two of them moved as if they were true partners.
"Have you ever seen Simply Ballroom?" she asked and he racked his brain until he came up with the film.
"Yeah." Smiled. "I like that film." It was a good movie and the kid who starred it in wasn't too hard on the eyes either.
"That's really the reason why I came. I've never had a chance to play dress-up like this before. So I thought it'd be fun. Rent a ball gown and a mask and pretend to be Vivian Leigh."
Brian disagreed. Vivian Leigh had been dark whereas Justine was fair, hair like soft-spun gold flowing over her milky white shoulders. Watch it, Kinney he told himself. You're getting poetic. Never a good sign in an Irishman. Still, he said, "Jean Harlowe."
"Mmm, Marilyn Monroe," offered Justine with a smile.
"Very good," she said. "You know your film goddesses."
He grimaced. "I have a friend who's into old movies. Makes us watch them whenever we're over at his place."
"And I bet you grumble about it but, secretly, you love it."
Brian raised both brows, caught out. "It's something to do."
"Like coming to this function and dancing with me?" When he didn't answer, she paused and disengaged her hand from his. "That's the end of our song. Thanks for the dance."
He watched her go in search of other partners and returned to the bar for another drink. Sat there not really seeing the dancers swirl about the floor in a riot of color. Instead his thoughts turned to Justine. What was it about her? He hadn't shown any interest in women since Lindsay. And even then it had been more about two friends experimenting, reassuring themselves that the choices they'd made in life were the correct ones. He'd known he was gay, had known it since he was fourteen but when presented with the opportunity to maybe not be, he'd taken it. If it had been any other woman but Lindsay, he wouldn't have bothered. They'd clicked. He'd admired her. Still did. She was his match in more ways than one. If she'd been a guy, there might have been a chance for them to be something more than good friends. Maybe. But he didn't do relationships, didn't do commitment. The very thought of settling down made him feel as if he were suffocating.
And then the thought came to him: What if he'd been straight? Would Ryder have already made him a partner? It was a possibility. He knew that Ryder wasn't completely comfortable with his sexuality but it had never interfered with their working relationship. Or had it? He'd been judging Ryder by the things he said and done, maybe he should have been judging him by the things he hadn't said or done. Maybe Ryder had been wearing a mask, masquerading his true feelings for the sake of business.
But it was too late now, too late to go back and take another path. He was gay and he intended to remain that way until they tossed his shrunken carcass in a grave. And, if he had his way about it, he'd go with his cock lodged firmly up some guy's ass.
"A penny for your thoughts. I'd offer more but I'm a poor student."
Justine had returned. "No luck?" he asked, having been a little stung by her abandonment of him.
"No," she replied, shaking her head. "It's no good, you're the best one here."
He cocked his head. "Are you flirting with me?"
"Definitely. Is it working?"
A grin appeared on his face. "I have to tell you, I'm gay."
If he'd expected her to deflate upon hearing the news, he was disappointed. "So we dance a few dances, talk about nothing, and then we go home."
He held out his hand. "May I have this dance?"
"And a gentleman too." She sighed dramatically, playing the screen diva to the hilt; Emmett would have been proud. "Why are all the best ones gay?"
Two songs later, they decided to relax and find a place to talk. Encumbered with food and wine, they made their way towards a couple of empty chairs in an alcove and hoped they got there before someone else.
"If I didn't think I'd fall flat on my face in these heels, I would have run," Justine admitted as they settled into the chairs.
"I only run on the treadmill," Brian joked.
They ate and talked about the Institute, about Justine's studies. She wanted to be a serious artist but was willing to work as a commercial graphic artist until her big break came. Brian was impressed. Not too many young people knew what they were going to do with their lives. She seemed extremely mature for her age. Whatever that was.
"How old are you?" he finally asked when curiosity wouldn't allow him to remain ignorant.
He evaded the question. "Older than that."
"Come on," she laughed. "I told you now you have to tell me."
"Is this like, 'I showed you mine, now you have to show me yours?' "
"I was the neighborhood champion."
He took the plunge. "Thirty-one."
"I know: so old."
She waved his answer away. "No, I mean, you don't look like you're thirty."
"So what? Have you talked to any young guys lately? They're empty-headed assholes who only have one thing on their minds."
"Sex?" It's usually what he had on his mind.
"Impressing other guys," she complained. "With their salaries and their cars and their lofts and their designer suits. It's sickening. Makes me want to give up on guys altogether and start sleeping with women. I hate shallow men." She sipped her wine. "What about you?"
"I don't know if you'd call me shallow—"
"No. Do you like shallow guys?"
"I don’t really think about it."
"What? Don't you ever talk to your dates?"
He wondered how much to tell her, after all, once the evening was over they'd never see each other again. Why expose his life to the scrutiny of a stranger?
She must have sensed his unease. "I’m sorry. I'm prying."
"No… it's just that… I don’t really date guys." He licked his lips. "Actually, I've only been on one date in my life. And I ended up fu—having sex with the waiter."
"While you were on your date?"
"Yeah. Guess you could say I'm not too good at relationships."
"Hmm." She chewed a cracker topped with shrimp salad. "So you just fuck 'em and leave 'em?"
"Yeah." He scratched the back of his neck the way he did when he was nervous or under the gun. "You mind if we talk about something else?"
"I know all about fucking."
"I'm sure you do but—"
"Haven't you ever been tempted?"
"To do what?"
"Fall in love." Her blue eyes sparkled and her lips parted as if she were waiting for a lover instead of an answer to her question.
Brian swallowed. He knew what she wanted, some hint of decency on his part to let her know that she hadn't been wrong about him, that he was a nice guy and all he needed was the right person to come along. It's what they all thought. But it wasn't true. That was just a mask they devised for him to wear but he refused. "No. That's not who I am," he told her.
"So you don't need anyone?"
"People only let you down. You only have one person you can depend on and that's yourself."
"Pretty tough philosophy."
"I've done okay by it. When my friends and I get together, least I don't bore them to death with stories about how my heart got broken yet again."
She moved closer to him, her knees touching his and he could feel her warmth. "But to never know what it feels like to be in love: that crazy, mixed-up feeling when you think you're going to throw-up but, at the same time, you think you could fly, you could do anything… I don't think I could live like that."
"Then you don't have to." Her words smarted. There'd been guys he'd been tempted to let inside his guard but, in the end, he hadn't trusted them not to hurt him. He'd regretted it at the time but life moved on and he forgot about them and, even if he didn't, he'd forgotten their names, their faces. They were just footnotes on a page from his life.
Justine gathered her things. "I think I'll go look for the other student from the Institute. See how he made out. Thanks for talking to me. I'll see you around."
She shrugged. "I'm young. I'll get over it."
Get over what? Long after she'd gone, he remained in his seat pondering her last words. Get over what? Over being disillusioned by him? But why would that matter to her? Unless… Christ. And he'd told her he was gay. He'd warned her. So why hadn't that stopped him from feeling… something for her, he didn't know what. Why was he so drawn to her?
A shadow crossed his face and he looked up. She had come back.
"I thought that was a pretty good exit, didn't you?"
He stood and embraced her and, surprising them both, kissed her passionately, his tongue slipping between her open lips to seek her tongue. He was stiffening and as she pressed against him, she eased her hand between them and cupped his groin. What the hell was happening? Why was he reaching for a zipper that didn't exist? Why was he seriously thinking about pushing her up against a wall and pulling down her panties—
He pulled away, breathing heavily, heard her whimper in complaint. He tried to explain his actions. "I…"
"What's wrong?" she asked as she neared him again, reached for him.
"This is crazy," he said. "I'm gay. I've been gay almost all my life. I don't know what the hell is going on." He took off his mask and held it in his hands, helpless to explain his actions any further. To think that all this time it might really have been a matter of finding the right woman disturbed him.
"Maybe you like me," Justine suggested. "Maybe you like me a lot and maybe you want to spend some more time with me."
"I do," he said softly. There was no point in denying his attraction. He was lost. "I don't know why, but I do."
"Why wouldn't you?"
"Because I'm gay," Brian explained, thinking maybe she had some hidden problems he hadn't picked up on before.
"And you're a woman. Gay guys don’t normally sleep with women." He attempted a joke. "They take your fag card away if they find out. Severe punishments. Public whippings by drunken drag queens, that kind of thing."
"Not a problem." Justine gripped his arm and whispered in his ear, "I'm not a woman." Brian's eyes widened more from the register of the voice than from the words that the voice had spoken. That was no woman. Dropping all pretense, the young artist removed his mask and said, "Hi. My name is Justin and… I think I'm falling for you. That a problem?"
And Brian shook his head. It wasn't a problem at all.