One year later:
Brian swiveled his chair around, and looked out of the big office window behind his desk. Mid-town. Manhattan. New York fuckin’ City. He was indulging himself, he knew, what with the presentation he had to give in twenty minutes, but what the hell. The deep breath, good to give his brain a breather before gathering it in force.
He swiveled around, looked back at John Connely, who stood, leaning against the side of the doorway.
“You ready to go?”
Brian glanced at his watch, then printed out a last chart to serve as a reminder, not that he’d need it, but he could glance at the breakdowns he already had committed to working memory in the moments before the clients were shown into the conference room. He looked up at John, grabbed the material he needed. “Yup, let’s go.”
He followed John down to the smaller conference room, where they would be meeting with the five executives from Seton’s, the jewelry chain, and glanced across the wide shoulders in front of him. He laughed at himself slightly, shaking his head. Too bad the guy was hetero. Yeah, he’d fuck him if he had a chance, if only as a thank-you.
He’d been back in the States less than a week after that whole fucked up misadventure last year, when John had called him.
“Hey, Brian!” the voice had come through his cell, the one that still carried the Kinnetik number. He had no idea why he hadn’t thrown the thing in the trash. He hadn’t even remembered he’d had it, not really. Not until the damn thing started ringing from out of a pile of clothes still stacked to the side of Mikey’s living room.
“Who the fuck is this?” he’d barked. Yeah, charming as ever.
The man on the other end hadn’t been deterred, had only chuckled. “Charming as ever, Kinney. It’s John Connely.”
Yeah, fucking John Connely. Big rival, back in the day. A rivalry that stretched back to college. John had gone to work at one of those big firms in New York. And Brian had battled him for accounts, off and on, through the years, usually winning. But not always. So what the hell. “And?” Fuck if he knew why he hadn’t hung up immediately. Maybe it was his hangover; he didn’t have the energy. His eyes fell on the paper, Page Six of the Post, which he’d brought with him from New York, littering the floor next to the couch with the empty bottle of whisky. The report on Justin Taylor, son of scion Craig, arriving in New York with Ethan Gold, violinist extraordinaire, after being lost at sea with deckhand Brian Kinney. See photo. The beaming Gold, the small smile on Justin’s face, Brian long gone. Yeah, he’d missed that little reunion, he could only imagine. Justin still with Gold, all the way back to New York from France. Just like a little cat, always landing on his feet, cat, uh huh, he sure could rub up to the warmest lap… nope, nope, Brian wasn’t going there. The kid was taking care of himself, couldn’t begrudge him that, now could he? But such a waste… Arm candy for a violinist. That’s fucking great. And it was. Great. Fuck it, it was Justin’s life.
They’d gotten to port the night before Ethan had shown up. At least, Brian assumed Gold had arrived the next morning. Brian himself had slipped out of bed before the sun was even up, falling away from that warm body, the body whose photograph now stared up at him from the floor, that smile. On his way off the yacht that night, as the morning’s first tentative light announced the coming day, Brian had taken the cell phone that had been left on deck along with a shitload of euros, hell, they’d never be missed, and wasn’t he owed a huge amount of back wages anyway? He’d called Michael from the platform of the train that would take him to Paris. Michael, who hadn’t even realized he’d been well and truly lost for weeks, just hoping he’d turn up eventually. Well, what did Brian expect after that note that had announced his departure on Gold’s yacht, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back in three or four months…” So Brian was still in the time limit he had allotted Michael to not worry, so why was he so pissed? And then, after arrangements with the embassy, emergency passport (they already knew who he was because Gold had kicked up shit in the media — nothing like a long lost lover and media-frenzied reunion to orchestrate a bit of extra publicity for the release of his latest CD), and he was on a plane back to Pittsburgh, no harm, no foul, safe and sound, back on Mikey’s couch with a fucking evil hangover and the picture of his… no, no, a picture of Justin Taylor, son of scion Craig, arriving stateside with his boyfriend, just in time for Gold’s launch party. Looking like a dream. Fuck, he had been a dream. What a rude awakening, here he was again. On Mikey’s couch, back in the Pitts.
No reason to be pissed. Depressed, sure. No job, no life, nothing had changed, running hadn’t changed anything. Some extra cash in the bank account; thank god for direct deposit, he’d never had to deal with contacting anyone about his wages. They’d even paid him for the time entire time he’d been contracted, despite the fact that he’d been missing for more than half of it. No reason to be pissed that everything he already knew had only been confirmed, and he’d been an idiot to think “taking a break” would make anything better. He had the money, he’d gotten the break, that had been the point all along.
He snatched the paper from the floor, and crunched it into his fist. “Yeah, John, I remember.” His voice, weary now, responding to his old rival.
“So I did some investigating and found out that, indeed, the Brian Kinney of said deserted island castaway fame is you, not only that, but it seems that you are currently at loose ends.”
“So what, you’re calling to rub it in? Okay, yeah, you win this one, you happy now?”
“No, Brian, shit,” John interrupted, sounding sincerely sorry he’d been so flip, his tone immediately becoming serious. “No, I asked around through people I know, and found out what really happened to you. Man, that fucking sucks, and it isn’t right. I’m really sorry that Kinnetik was brought down in what amounts to a witch hunt.”
“Yeah, I know how it works, but what the hell, one man’s loss is my gain. I’m hoping you’ll come up to New York and work with me.”
“What?” Well, that had stopped him, and he quit convulsively flexing his hand around the newspaper in his fist.
“Yeah, there’s an opening you’d be perfect for, I’ve already talked to the guy in charge of hiring for it, I showed him some of your work, and it’s pretty clear he’s impressed. Plus, I’m in on whoever gets hired, and I want to work with you. Keep all the sharks in the tank with me.”
Shit. “Shit, John, what…” fuck, it was way too early for this. He leaned over, put his forehead on the palm of the hand that was not clutching the phone. “I’m not exactly a shark these days.”
“Oh, pft, you’re having a bad year, it happens. Come to New York, interview here. You think I’m gonna miss the opportunity to get you on board? Serious, Brian, one man’s poison…”
“Another man’s meat,” Brian completed. “Yeah, I get it. Okay, I’ll be there.”
And here he was.
The presentation went fine, and the clients seemed suitably impressed.
“I’m totally behind this, Brian,” Jake Dryfus, the man who seemed in charge of the Seton three, as Brian was calling this group, told him. “We’ve got to take this back and pass it up the next step. I’m sure it’s a formality, we’ll let you know, probably by the end of next week,” Kelly Dryfus told Brian.
“Oh… I’m sorry, I thought you were in charge of making the decision,” he said, confused. This wasn’t like him, to have missed something in research. More specifically, it wasn’t like Cynthia. His assistant was almost more thorough than he was. Almost.
“Well…” Jake glanced down the table, saw the two women he was with talking to John, and lowered his voice. “I’m sorry to have given you that impression, and I know I did when we set this up. The truth is, Seton’s made a deal with Craig Taylor, Ltd. for installment into his hotel chain, and part of the deal is that all business goes through them before getting the okay. The micromanaging is driving me crazy, but you know, what do you do?”
Brian felt his stomach clench hard on the mention of Taylor’s name, and his brain blanked out for an instant, before coming to fast, furious life. He had known some of the stores were installed in the Taylor hotels, but the direct connection to advertising approval was obviously very in-house information. No wonder it hadn’t turned up in the standard background research. “Craig Taylor… I had no idea.” His voice was remarkably calm, if he did think so himself.
“Yup, John’s handling the Laramie account.” At Brian’s blank look, he smiled slightly. “Laramie’s the reason we’re here. My liaison, one of the VP’s at CT, gave us the head’s up on the sweet campaign you, well, John, cooked up for them. We agreed, and here we are.”
Brian nodded, not really trusting himself to speak, but forcing himself to murmur the polite good-byes. After the Seton crew had left, he followed John into his office, taking a seat in front of the other man’s desk.
“So, hey, that went great! I loved that part where you told Karen, ‘a diamond may be forever, but you don’t want your customer’s forever satisfied with just one type of gem. Women.” He chuckled, but then noted that Brian did not seem as satisfied as he with the results of their work. “Hey, you okay? We got ‘em.”
“No, we haven’t got them yet.”
John waved his hand in the air. “Formality…”
“So you knew about the connection to Craig Taylor’s company? That it needed to be cleared up the ladder?”
“Yeah, sure. We’ve been working with them for… what, two years? We’ve picked up a bunch of their subsidiaries since snagging Coughlin, but not CT, Ltd. Not the main fucker.”
“I didn’t realize there was a direct connection in terms of the advertising approval.”
“Oh, it’s not really a big deal, that fucker Taylor is a control freak. Let Laramie deal with him, as far as we’re concerned, our involvement ends with the front men, well, front people at Laramie. That’s their problem. You know…” he leaned back in his chair, considering Brian’s face, “we should get together and start planning a strategy to take the CT campaigns away from Varleset. That’s where the real money is, and shit, you and I could pull something together that would just kill ‘em. Now that we have… okay, are about to have the Seton account, the two of us, #1 ad guy and #2…” He noted that Brian just eyed him, and didn’t rise to his usual bait by reminding him just who #1 was. “Hey… you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered, wanting, needing to get away from John and his euphoric post-presentation high. But not yet. “John, how did you know I needed a job?”
“What, a year ago?”
“Yeah. A year ago.”
“My clipping service sent me that piece about Taylor’s kid… oh. Oh, shit. Hey, you okay with this? You knew we had those CT Ltd. accounts, didn’t you?”
Brian shook his head, watching John carefully. He had known they dealt with subsidiaries, but shit, all corporations are interconnected. He wasn’t aware of how direct the connection was. “Did you hook me up here because you thought I’d be a good in for the larger account?” This wasn’t, of course, what he was thinking at all, he just wanted to see John’s reaction. What he really wanted to know, was whether he had been hired from word from without. Or, should he say, a bark from on high.
“What… No. No, Brian, I didn’t get you hired I thought your misadventure would give you an in with Taylor. I did think you’d get accounts, but only because you’re the best at what you do… well, second best.”
He eyed John, not saying anything.
John shrugged. “If you’re able to start a conversation with Taylor sometime, all the better. But he’s not exactly tight with his son.”
“I know that.” Not that that would make a difference, if Justin used his name in the right ears. And who the hell knows what went on in families? It was likely his father realized what he’d almost lost and forgave all. Ethan had seemed to, judging from that picture.
“Yeah, probably better than I would.”
Brian returned to his office, knowing he wouldn’t get the real story out of John. If there was a real story. It probably went back to Justin. It was too coincidental, and Brian didn’t believe in coincidence. If John wasn’t saying anything, it would be because he was told to keep his mouth shut. Or, more likely, he hadn’t been told anything at all. Brian sat heavily in his chair and booted up the company’s web site, checking out Laramie’s stats. Yup, there it was. John Connelly and David Grisham, V.P. The man who had hired him. Yup. There it was. And Laramie answered directly to CT Ltd. Unofficially. Of course.
It had to go back to Justin. God knows his own thoughts did, too much. Last Friday, at a club in Chelsea, sipping on a beer and suddenly seeing out of the corner of his eye a shock of blonde, which his head snapped around to bring into view as his stomach leapt into his throat… not Justin. Okay, New York was big. But, man, not really. You ran into everyone here, on the street corner, in restaurants, openings, museums, subway platforms, everywhere. Just the other day, he had started arguing over a cab before he realized the man yelling at him had been sucking his dick the week before. Manhattan was what, seven miles long, maybe two wide? Lots of people, not much space. Yeah, people popped up.
But not Justin.
And it hadn’t been until the Friday before that he was fully aware he’d even been looking for the little fucker, not that he was, exactly. Damn it, he wasn’t.
He pulled open the top drawer, and stared down at the photograph, the old Page Six society bit, Justin and Ethan, still slightly crumpled, despite its having lain flat under his pens and paper clips for the past year.
Justin was out of his hair. That was what he wanted, right? That was what he’d left him for in France. Sayonara, it was lovely, have a nice life. All even.
Only, maybe Justin didn’t see things that way. Maybe he’d felt the need to even things up. Only it would be more than evening up. Brian remembered the look on his face, when Justin had accused him of calling him a puppy to remind him of who he was. Or wasn’t. You think I’d make you my lapdog…
Well. Yeah. That’s exactly what Brian had thought. And there was no reason to think he’d been wrong. Justin sure seemed comfortable on the fiddler’s arm, didn’t he? And then he had disappeared, no more Justin in the society pages. He wondered if he’d made a deal with daddy. Keep it on the downlow, son, keep your face out of the public eye, and we’ll be right as rain.
Brian could imagine.
But he could only imagine.
“Fuck!” he growled, slamming the drawer shut. This was so not his problem. The kid knew how to take care of himself, so fucking what? That was a good thing.
But not if part of Justin’s taking care of business was to put Brian in his debt. Maybe, Brian might concede, maybe the kid thought it was paying off a debt. But Brian didn’t see it that way.
Well, he could quit his job. But hell, interviewers for any other position would surely want to know why he’d left for no good reason. And personal reasons were never good reasons. And the market sucked right now. Okay, so maybe not quit, maybe just leave his job after finding another one. But really, the fact that he would be coming from the secure position of having this job on his resume would be the in to another job, so it would still go back to Justin, who’d gotten him out of the gutter in Pittsburgh, and into a dream job in New York fucking City, and a two and a half million dollar loft in Chelsea that was simply to die for.
Or play the lapdog for.
“Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
“You okay?” Cynthia asked, pushing into the office, eyeing him warily. She had a handful of letter to be signed. “The presentation not go well?”
“The presentation went fine,” he snapped. She frowned, and he softened his tone. “It went fine, we probably got it.”
“Well, good.” She handed him the correspondence, and he signed his name after scanning each one carefully. Damn Justin Taylor, he refused to think about him, that little shit, he was determined to keep him out of his thoughts.
He managed to keep that vow for a whole three days, until the weekend. And then he found himself on Google, looking for him.
And he meant nothing. There were reports of him, even that Page Six thing, right up until a year ago. And then he seemed to drop out of existence.
Course, Google sucked. There were a lot of Justin Taylors, even in New York City, a grad student at Columbia, a lawyer about a block away from where Brian worked, and some fucker out in Brooklyn. None of them his Justin. Well, Craig’s Justin. Whatever the fuck.
He shut his computer off, and went to the gym. Fuck it. This was stupid, and the kid’s disappearance was telling in and of itself. Fine.
And then, one week later, he saw him.
It was at the meet and greet cocktail parties that Dryfus had set up to announce the official go-ahead for Brian to take the Seton account, some stupid thing with the executives at Seton and their minions, and Brian and John and their minions. Brian had taken a drink from Dryfus, and shook hands with Anabel Leon — gotta remember all the damn names, whether you give a shit or not — and then Jake was up at the podium in front of the hotel’s reception room where this was taking place, next door to the Seton’s Jewelry Store in the lobby of the Taylor downtown hotel, some stupid set speech about working together, blah de blah blah.
“…Mr. Brian Kinney!” and the applause, and his rise to the stage, a short joke, brief thanks, looking forward to working with you… more blah blah blah, exit stage left, finally making his way to the bar even though he was stopped every three feet to talk to people. Party face fully engaged.
And then he saw him. Hell, why hadn’t he seen him before? Two bartenders, one short and dark. The other Justin Taylor. A beacon in the boredom. He froze, ten feet away.
Justin finished handing off a martini, and turned his head to see Brian standing there, staring at him. And he smiled, a real smile, wide. As if he were really happy to see him. “Hey!”
What, Brian thought, approaching slowly, glad to see your assistance paid off? He stopped immediately in front of him. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
The fair eyebrows scrunched up, and he remembered in a shot that quizzical, what-the-fuck expression. “Uh, bartending? Want a drink? Let me guess, whiskey. How you doing? Well, that’s a dumb question, you’re doing great. Obviously. Where’d you go, by the way?” He turned to put ice into the glass, and Brian noted that the ice cubes clacked against the sides before the whiskey quieted their rattling. Justin’s hands were shaking.
Interesting. Justin was nervous.
“Hey, Brian, congratulations! White wine, please?”
He turned to look at Joan Armstrong. Fuck, how many managers did this store have? Was she a manager? or no, sales executive. Right. “Actually, Joan, we should all profit from this deal, so I hardly think the congratulations should be limited.”
“Ah, Kinney, cut the shit, it’s your night, enjoy it,” Joan answered, accepting the wine from Justin. “I was just talking to Bob, he said if your work comes through he’d pass the word down through the Board.”
Bob Jones, member of the board at CT, Ltd. Now that was big. He arched an eyebrow, and looked over at Justin. “I’ll be sure to talk to him, then.”
“Oh, good, well, looking forward to working with you, Brian… oh, John!” and she was off.
Brian turned back to Justin. “Well, one of us should be congratulated. You certainly landed on your feet.”
Justin shrugged, and Brian reached out and touched the lapel of his jacket, running his finger down the fabric. “Not exactly your usual standard.”
“Yes, they do.” They stared at each other. “Can we talk?” Justin blurted out.
Talk. This should be interesting. “Sure,” Brian said.
They slipped out the side door, and walked down the hall to a small conference room. Justin sat on the big table gracing the center of the room, and Brian leaned against the wall opposite, watching him.
“How you doing?” Justin asked, after the silence stretched out.
“You tell me,” Brian replied.
Justin laughed. It had a nervous edge. Good, Brian thought. “You seem to be doing well.” He was quiet for a moment. “Where’d you go?”
“New York. Obviously.”
Justin frowned. He eyed the man standing across the room from him, his arms crossed across his chest. Wow, he looked… shit, even better than Justin remembered. Not that he hadn’t taken peeks. He was right here in New York, after all, and Brian showed up at ad functions every so often. It was easy to lurk in the background, catch a glimpse and then go. But now, his eyes drank the other man in. He hadn’t wanted to meet Brian until… well, until he was ready. And tonight, with the Seton announcement cocktails, perfect. And shit, he just couldn’t stay away anymore. “No, I mean, in Marseilles.”
“Ah. Well, we were done. I left. Went back to life.”
Justin bit his lips, studying Brian’s eyes, which were giving nothing away. Back to life. “And got the job with the best ad agency in town,” Justin noted.
“Yeah, funny, isn’t that?”
“Funny? Why?” What the fuck was going on? Justin thought. He was missing something. Something was not right.
Brian ignored the question. “And you ended up back on Ethan Gold’s arm.”
Oh, well, damn. Brian was jealous? No way! Justin couldn’t help the grin from escaping.
Yup, thought Brian, watching him, I knew it. The little chameleon can take care of himself. He wrapped Brian around his finger on the island, he wrapped Ethan on his return. Hell, he went back to wrapping Ethan. The man with a yacht.
“Ethan’s in Europe,” Justin said, putting his arms behind him to brace him as he leaned his body back, his legs swinging out and back. His coat gaped open, and Brian’s eyes zoomed immediately to the outline of Justin’s dick against the fabric of his khaki pants. He looked up to see the little shit grinning at him, challenging him, setting off his own response.
“His loss is my gain,” Brian growled, and with two strides, was forcing Justin to collapse back completely on the table.
“Brian!” Justin gasped, completely not expecting this, and then the other man’s mouth was descending on his, his tongue reaching out and demanding entrance to Justin’s mouth, admittance that was willingly given. Brian plundered within him, biting at his lips until they were swollen, and Justin felt something elemental rise up in him to meet the other man’s rough contact. Here was what he craved, had been craving for a year, that no club fuck, no one-night stand could satisfy, and he pressed his body closer, his hands on Brian’s shoulders, pulling him in. This, this was all his wanted to say, all he stumbled over in words. Brian grabbed his hands, and stepped away, his face dark and unreadable, and then Justin was flipped onto his stomach, face down against the cold mahogany of the table beneath him, his pants unzipped and yanked from him in one pull. Justin heard a zipper behind him being disengaged, then the tear of a condom, the cold feeling of lube and fingers and cold and then heat, and then Brian was pushing inside…
Oh, fucking hell. He’d forgotten how good this was, no matter how it happened, even the shock of an almost animal coupling with almost no foreplay whatsoever. His body relaxed into the suddenness of the intrusion, welcoming it. Brian’s torso lay against his back; even with their clothes all but on, they fit together perfectly. Justin’s head was turned to the side, his cheek hard against the table, and there was a long pause while they both took in the feeling of their bodies’ union, in utter stillness. Then Justin felt the tops of his hands covered by Brian’s palms, and fingers interlaced with his, as Brian began to move, thrusting slowly at first, then building to a steady rhythm, Brian’s breath harsh in his ear. The movement steady, until Brian let out what might be a very small groan, and took his right hand away from Justin’s, to move it under his hips, running his fingers along the hard surface of the younger man’s cock, sweeping fingertips across the sensitive skin at Justin’s balls so that Justin gasped at the sensation gathering there, then moved the length of his index finger up the hard shaft, rubbing the weeping tip with its natural lubricant, curling his thumb and other fingers around to create a well of friction for Justin to thrust down into, and he did, he couldn’t stop, feeling the completion of Brian inside of him from behind and grasping him in front, and Justin allowed himself to just give into this perfect sensation, deprived of this for over a year now, and he came with a loud moan, setting off Brian, who emptied himself without a sound, but with a shudder.
They lay there for a long moment. Then Brian pulled out, tossed the condom in the nearby trash, and adjusted himself in one quick movement. Justin turned over, stood up, pulled his pants up. He looked at the man in front of him, but Brian was looking away.
“As you can see, I’m fine,” Brian said. “And you even got a bonus fuck. So you needn’t check on me any more.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Justin asked, spurred to sudden anger. What the fuck? The man had just turned him around and fucked his brains out, and now he was getting the full snark? What the hell?
“What are you doing here, Justin? Playing bartender in one of daddy’s hotels? At a party where I just happen to be guest of honor?” Arms crossed against chest. That again.
“Playing… I *am* a bartender, Brian. It’s my job,” Justin said quietly.
Brian stared at him. “Job. You have a job. That’s cute.”
“Cute. Cute like a puppy?” Justin replied, really angry now at Brian’s attitude. His temper fully engaged at Brian’s shrug. “And no, I didn’t just happen to be working here, I’m friends with Tony, the other bartender, and when he told me he was working this party, I asked if he could give me the job for the night because I wanted to see you.”
“See how I was doing.”
“Because I miss you.” Fuck, well, shit, he said it, it was true.
But all he got was that damn smirk.
“The fiddler not enough for you?”
“Ethan’s been out of the picture for over a year.”
“But you rode him all the way back to New York.”
“He said I owed him something, and he was right. I gave him a shitload of free publicity for his new album. He gave me a way back to New York. You weren’t there to help me figure it out. You just left me, Brian.”
Something in the tone alerted Brian; it sounded like real devastation. But Justin was good at assuming faces he wanted people to see. Brian knew this. He knew it. “You obviously managed,” he replied.
“If you’re angry over Ethan… I didn’t have much of a choice.”
“I’m not angry over Ian!”
“Then what are you angry over? You’re the one who decided to cut out on me…”
“You know,” Brian returned, “this little victim pose really doesn’t suit you. I liked you better when you were waving your money and ass in my face. But showing up at Daddy’s hotel to check on your favorite pet project… I didn’t need your help in getting this job. And I’m really sick of people thinking my career, my life, is some kind of pawn on their chessboards.”
Justin stared at him, before laughing sharply. “You think I… I had nothing to do with your getting that job, Brian.”
“Hm. Funny how you and your disgusting lifestyle disappeared from public view after the whole island incident. You reach some agreement with Daddy?” Brian shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong, puppy, I certainly don’t begrudge your taking advantage of your opportunities. We all have our talents.”
“And mine is to put my ass in service to whoever has what I want. You, my father. Ethan. The perfect whore. And hypocrite. Is that what you’re telling me?” Justin spat back.
“And this?” Justin gestured at the table.
Again, the shrug. “Like I said, taking advantage of the opportunity. I wanted to fuck you, you enjoyed getting fucked. Simple.”
Something disturbed him in those blue eyes, which became very bright, so bright that Brian looked away. But he couldn’t stop his ears from hearing Justin’s low voice.
“You know, a year ago, I would have said you were right. In fact, I did accept that you thought badly of me. Fine, he thinks you’re a whore, can you blame him? But I’ve spent the last year working like a dog for everything I have. I know exactly who I am. If you think what I felt for you on that island was just a whore reaching for the nearest dick… when I was with you I liked myself. You made me feel like I could be better than I was. And I let you touch me just now, because I miss feeling that, everything seemed to make sense when you touched me, and it’s been so fucking difficult since…” Justin paused, cleared his throat from the sudden tightness. When he started talking again, his voice was firm. “But fine, I’m just a whore. Believe what you want. You’re wrong, but what the fuck. I don’t need you to validate me. I know what I’m worth, and it has nothing to do with Daddy’s kajillions. I proved what I was to you on that island, and I proved it to myself in the last year. And I deserve better than being treated like a cheap fuck.”
He stormed out, slamming the door behind him.
Brian stood, motionless, for a very long time.
Brian sat, at his desk, staring at the report spread out in front of him. The private investigator had given him the run down, but he went through the reports, the pictures, meticulously, all over again, alone.
He hated being wrong. Especially when, looking back, he could see that his error could be traced to nothing less than his desire to see only what he wanted. Hell, he knew he could be prejudiced toward the negative, and generally was. But his prejudice usually fit to the details of the situation; he was rarely willful in it. He kept his eyes open, he could be cynical, but not arbitrary.
Never arbitrary. Well. Rarely arbitrary.
“Fuck,” he muttered, staring down at the picture of Justin coming out of the apartment building in Brooklyn — Brooklyn! Mr. Upper East Side, commuting into the city from across the river. How the mighty have fallen. So that Google search had turned up his Justin, but Brian was so determined to believe Justin had gone back to his old tricks that he hadn’t fathomed that the phone number of Justin Taylor in Brooklyn had indeed been the man he had been looking for.
Pictures of Justin bartending at Chadwick’s, in Chelsea. So that was true. He really was bartending. “Good tips,” the P.I. had told Brian. “Apparently, he’s a big hit with the customers. You know Chadwick’s is a…”
“Gay bar. Yeah. Got that.” Upscale. Big money. When he went out, Brian preferred dance clubs, or a more laid back atmosphere. Chadwick’s was a bit too stuffy for him. He had been there with a client once. Justin hadn’t been working. Brian wondered how many other times they may have come thisclose to meeting. Surely, Justin knew Brian was in town. He’d admitted that much, when they had finally, um, seen each other, at the Seton’s announcement. So why would he avoid Brian up to that point?
Brian slid the photos out of the way, and stared down at the two reports in front of him. SAT scores, for the test taken three months ago. 1500. The second report was from NYU, an art history course. A.
Well, he knew Justin was smart. Seems he was turning his native intelligence to better uses than what Brian had seen on Ian’s yacht.
“He’s currently enrolled in an art course. The Human Form,” the detective had told Brian when he had handed him the report earlier. “Not much surprise he’s doing as well as he is, considering he’d done very well in school up to the 10th grade.”
“His mother died the summer before his junior year. It was a big story at the time. They were on the way out to the Hamptons and a piece of debris on the Long Island Expressway kicked up through the window and impaled her.”
“Justin was in the passenger seat.”
“He went back to school, but his grades plummeted. Just barely graduated, and one of his former classmates seems to believe his dad basically bought his diploma.”
Brian raised his eyebrows. The PI chuckled. “You wouldn’t believe what people will tell you if you catch them in the right circumstances. And with enough alcohol in their systems.”
Brian hadn’t cared, but the next words he had definitely cared about. “This classmate’s assumption was that Jennifer had mediated between the two. With her gone, apparently the bad blood could flow until Craig cut the kid off last year. People thought it was a point, but apparently he meant it. He dissolved their relationship legally.”
“Cut…?” Dissolved their relationship? What the fuck was this?
“Check out the bank statements, the legal documents.”
The bank statements Brian now pushed the school reports aside for. That would explain why Justin was taking only one course a semester. It was all he could afford. And Brian wondered how he did that, NYU was expensive… but he knew, Justin had found a way. Obviously. And remembering Justin’s diatribe as he spit out the words, “I’ve spent the last year working like a dog for everything I have…” Yeah. He had found a way. Only pride, and self-respect, commanded that kind of angry defiance. A memory that sent Brian to the PI who had just dropped off his report, after fighting to forget the kid, again for two weeks. The report had been worth every penny. The guy was good.
It was all here, computer records documenting the elimination of Justin’s trusts, the shutting down of all the bank accounts he’d once commanded. The final signatures eliminating all of Justin’s affluence, cutting his life officially off from any connection to his father’s status, both personally and as a corporate entity. Everything dated five weeks before Brian had first laid eyes on him, walking onto the yacht and seeing that beautiful boy, draining a martini, starting at the skyline of New York. Brian remembered clearly, the way the alcoholic flush only accented the cheeks’ fine structure, the redness of the lips. Justin’s eyes had descended from the city, to meet Brian’s, widened, then narrowed. And then he had smirked, and licked his lips. And Brian had been ready to hate him from that moment, hate him for being rich, hate him for having everything he wanted with a snap of the fingers. Just another gaze that had targeted Brian in its sites. Hated being some rich boy’s toy. So he’d mistaken him, all along. Had Justin only been trying, desperately, to distract himself?
Had Ethan known?
The PI’s words on that subject had not comforted him. “The gossip I got indicates that people were fairly surprised your man went off on that yacht with Ethan. Apparently, Gold had been chasing the boy’s ass for about a year, and always got the brush off. The ride you ended up in the middle of, seems to have been whipped up a week after Craig Taylor disowned his son. One source states they think Gold took advantage of Justin’s situation to finally get what he wanted.”
“So Gold knew?”
“Can’t be sure. Craig’s business with his son was not common knowledge. But people knew. As I said, one source says yes. But it’s speculation.”
Brian had thanked the PI, and was left to brood over the material in front of him alone.
Brian stood up abruptly, and turned to stare out his window. But he wasn’t seeing the magnificent cityscape, the dying rays of the setting sun gleaming gold and red against the windows of the skyscrapers down on Wall Street.
He was seeing the sun reflecting off the ocean, and Justin’s body as it rose from the surf, shaking the water out of his hair, turning with that knowing smile towards Brian, who sat up the beach, just watching, watching the beautiful blonde boy stretch his body toward the sun. He was hearing Justin’s plaintive words on the island as they watched the boat on the horizon, “Here, I have you… and I have myself…”
Brian closed his eyes.
Justin thanked the patron who left him a five dollar tip for a ten dollar drink. Thank god. He hated Tuesday afternoon shifts. The business was beyond slow. Even Mondays were better; on Mondays men came in to drink to forget that the week had actually begun, or just to prolong the idea of the weekend one more day. By Tuesday, they’d given up, and gotten to work. And they stayed out of Chadwick’s. And the money stayed out of Justin’s pockets. And tonight he was due to go off shift at 8:00, so he’d miss what little bit of the dinner crowd there was.
Lord knew, he desperately needed the money. He was beginning to understand what Brian had been talking about… no, no, nope, not going to think about Brian, damn it, Justin repeated to himself, a litany since their disastrous meeting a month ago. “Fucker,” Justin muttered to himself. But it was true, money did make all the difference. Oh, he had known money was important, in an ideological sort of way, but this past year had taught him what it was worth. It was a lesson he’d learned well.
If it hadn’t been for Tony, Justin just might have learned another kind of lesson altogether. The kind that left scars. He had been lucky, and he knew it. And he owed Tony more than he probably could ever repay.
Ethan sure as shit had been no help. Bad enough Justin had had to stand by his side, as the reporters that showed up in Paris jostled for interviews of the jet setter rescued after his traumatic stranding at sea, instead getting the promotional bullshit of Ethan’s latest release, and promises that Justin would talk in New York. Where Ethan’s CD was being released to great fanfare. Of course.
“But I’m nobody,” Justin had sighed, trying to get Ethan to let him off the hook. He felt shitty for having used Ethan after his dad had disowned him. He had never really liked the guy, but at the time, in Justin’s panic, he had seemed a soft landing place. Anyway, with enough alcohol, hell, anybody would do. But after all the publicity, Justin considered whatever debt he owed him would be paid.
“They don’t know you’re nobody,” Ethan had insisted right back. “Don’t let them know until after they mob us in New York.”
Thanks a lot, Ethan. You’re a champ of a guy.
Justin hadn’t stuck around in New York. Ethan got Paris, and the free buzz. On landing at JFK, facing the photographers that Ethan had doubtless called out, he’d cut and run with less than fifty bucks in his pocket that very day. And then he had stayed awake for 48 hours, wandering the streets of New York, with no idea what he was going to do. He couldn’t go home… Home. That was the problem. He didn’t have one.
So he had been somewhat delirious after two days on his feet, otherwise he probably never would have called Tony. After all, what had they had in common? That one drunken night they’d met while Justin was cruising the bar at his dad’s hotel where Tony happened to work? sharing stories about their male conquests? One drunken kiss in a club downtown, before they both burst out laughing and agreed there was no chemistry for a quick fuck? But sure as shit for friends. Yeah, sure as shit for friends. Justin hadn’t followed through. Same as he hadn’t followed through on anything back then. And here he was, following through eight months later. And not out of fond memories. More like desperation. Oh, hell, exactly like desperation.
Yeah. Delirium. That was the reason he’d called a guy he’d hung out with one night, after not talking to said guy for eight months.
Tony turned out to be just a plain great person. Offered him the couch for starters, “until you get back on your feet.” Good thing too; by the time, Justin was practically collapsing. One easy step to getting advice on how to work a bar, then putting in applications for actual bartending jobs, with Tony as reference. Justin was young, good looking, great ass, and on Tony’s advice he had targeted the gay bars where he knew his looks would influence those hiring him to overlook certain gray areas in his credentials.
Landing at Chadwick’s had been a coup. Of course, Tony knew Barry, the bartender who was to relieve Justin in 30 minutes, and Barry had put in a good word for him. “Don’t fuck me over on this,” Barry had warned Justin, his eyes narrow. Justin could have sworn the guy could read “fucked up past” on his face. Justin had felt he had a sign advertising his lack of worth. It was a thousand pounds, and he’d never get out from under it.
But Justin had proven that look unwarranted. And he had taken it one day at a time, eventually shrugging that weight of shame from him. He had worked his way out from beneath it, and could stand proud, no more shame. He’d earned the right; he was his own man. And now he was rooming with Barry’s sister, Daphne, who commuted into NYU from Brooklyn — Brooklyn! “Who can afford Manhattan?” she’d scoffed, when he had asked her why she didn’t live downtown, closer to school. “Not me. Besides. I like Brooklyn. It’s got atmosphere. And I get a lot of reading done on the trains.”
Justin got no art done on the trains. Although she’d been right about the reading when he’d been in that Art History course.
He’d forgotten, in the last two years of high school, after losing his mother and the constant battles with his father and the slow decline into just wanting to shut all the pain out, he’d forgotten how much he liked school, to absorb new information, to push the boundaries of his imagination. And now, without his father policing his transcript, insisting on the right courses that would gain him entrance to Dartmouth or Sloan or some such fucking bullshit business management school, now school was actually that much more interesting, because he was absorbed in subjects he actually enjoyed. And, after one year of officially being poor, his taxes would reflect that he qualified for financial aide. Daphne had recommended taking an art history course before a fine arts course. “So you can have a writing sample to apply with,” she’d said. He’d studied in his limited spare time for the SATs. And he had the applications to art programs in his room, waiting for him. And with this course, and the one he planned to take over the summer, he would be building a good portfolio. It may take another year, but he should get into school, and have enough money saved to not starve in the meantime.
Practical wisdom. He was learning to look ahead, to plan his daily activities around what would be his next step, to think about how what he did today built what he wanted for tomorrow. Yeah. Brian was right. Money, or the lack thereof, really did change everything.
Brian. Fucker. Justin sighed, and picked up the cloth to wipe the bar after the big tipper left, leaving the bar practically empty except for two tables at the far end of the room. He hated thinking about the man as much as he did. Tony had gotten him that gig at the Seton’s announcement because he knew the woman who arranged the conference spaces. Tony had arrangements with her for bartending service when she needed people; he already worked the hotel bar. Tony had told Justin about the gig, asking if he had wanted extra work. Justin always wanted, needed, extra work. And Brian. It had seemed like fate, that this opportunity had come just when he was feeling good about himself. Justin had been so excited at the idea of seeing Brian again, really seeing him. Talking to him. Proving to him that that last conversation on the yacht was undeserved, now. He had been excited. Nervous. Excited. Terrified. Hell, everything he had done in the past year was with Brian in mind. He’d be proud of me, Justin would think. After a year, he figured, he’d proved that he was capable of being a man Brian could respect, maybe even admire. And he knew what Brian had been up to, and was happy to see his life working out for him. Hell, he ran Google searches on him all the time, like some love sick puppy.
Well. Exactly like that.
Justin glanced over at the occupied tables, noting the still mostly full drinks. The tips were fewer but bigger on slow nights, when he enjoyed giving patrons extra attention, getting to the tables just before they would have wanted him there. It was a great feeling, being good at his job. Too bad he didn’t have the excuse to walk across the room now, to distract him from the anger that rose, unbidden, every time he remembered Brian’s last words to him, almost a month ago. It was one thing to be called a whore when you deserved it, it was something else entirely to be called a whore when it was completely unwarranted.
When they had been on the Countess’s yacht, Justin had only been thinking of his own situation, whenever Brian mentioned their return to civilization. When he’d said, we’re not the same people we were on the island… Because Brian had been so focused on telling him who he would be, Justin hadn’t even considered who Brian might be in his real life. To Justin, he was just Brian; Justin had fallen in love with the man, he hadn’t thought that person he had fallen in love with might not even exist in reality. Or that Justin had just allowed himself the luxury of believing there was more than just convenience in their love play all along, that it had been more than just play. More than convenient use of the nearest body.
It had been more than play to Justin.
Those final words, after Brian had almost brutally taken him… It was just a convenient fuck. Mutual use. What was Justin upset about? They’d both gotten what they’d wanted from the other. Same as they had, all along.
But it hadn’t been that way for Justin. Or had the island really been just a fantasy, as Brian had tried to tell him? No. It was real. His body remembered.
No matter how it happened, remembering the feeling of Brian’s body against, inside him… Justin closed his eyes, feeling the blood rise in other areas of his body. It hadn’t been just convenience. He admired Brian’s toughness, his ability to get whatever he wanted accomplished, his tenderness once he’d decided something deserved his gentler attention, the opening up of something much warmer… the feeling Justin had when he was with him. As if he had found the home he had lost.
“Fuck,” Justin whispered, opening his eyes. It wasn’t enough. Brian had made clear he wasn’t interested in Justin’s situation. He hadn’t cared enough to even ask. And he sure as shit hadn’t come looking for him, almost a month after that infuriating encounter at the Taylor hotel. He sighed, took one last swipe at the spotless bar, and brought his gaze up from the counter to the patron who was taking a seat on the bar stool directly in front of him.
And came face to face with hazel eyes, straight nose, killer bone structure, and oh, those lips.