I slide the card into the panel, type the code and hit the penthouse button, mentally crossing my fingers. The elevator starts to ascend and I release a huff of impatience mixed with a hint of relief: I half expected my pass not to work.
It’s that damn bad feeling again.
The one I’ve had since I received his text message.
He usually calls. He’s direct like that. He calls and if I can’t answer he leaves a voicemail. Few people actually do that these days. I mean, few people use their smartphone as a phone. They prefer the superficial contact through text messages. But not him. Back in the day, he used to leave me voice messages, and I got to hear his soft-spoken, educated voice telling me he’d call back later, or if I were lucky, giving me a room number and a time. Those messages always gave me sinful shivers.
But then this time he sent a text message. Well two, actually.
Short, impersonal, trite strings of words.
The first one said he would be too busy to see me on the day we had agreed and asked me if I didn’t mind postponing it to two days later. The second one came last night and cancelled everything. No adjourning, no explanation.
Enter the ominous feeling. Years since my spidey-sense pinged so loud.
So here I am. Committing what might be construed as breaking and entering. Not that I’m actually breaking. But I’m definitely entering.
I’m not vain enough to think he’d drop everything he’s doing for a tumble in the sheets with me, but it’s the way he did it. Something is wrong. It isn’t like him to be so offhand – not about engagements. If there’s one thing his highness takes seriously, it’s a guy’s schedule.
No, the whole thing reeks of evading tactics.
Now, since I’m retired and have a lot of time on my hands… my idle and slightly paranoid brain has cooked up two possible explanations for his avoiding me.
Explanation One: passive aggressive retaliation. He’s still pissed off at my little outburst regarding his accommodation and the fact that he was kind of a secretive asshole. Not that I was stupid enough to phrase it that way, thank fuck. But I know I may have gone just a tad overboard on this one, as was clear from the way he went all Ice Age on me in the blink of an eye. In all honesty, we both overreacted, which isn’t all that surprising for two emotionally dysfunctional guys our age – but it is true that I started it. I thought we were okay when I left, though. But who knows these days? My ex-wife could hold a grudge for weeks and withhold sex in the meantime. I have no idea if that’s something Daniel would do, but with my luck… This could mean I get stuck in the metaphorical doghouse for some time.
Explanation One would be easy to deal with, though. Because no matter how obnoxiously I may behave, I’m pretty confident I can get back into Daniel’s good graces with a little charm and a lot of groveling. As in, literal, bare-assed groveling – I was always told I was good at it.
Explanation Two, on the other hand… That’s the one that has me really worried.
Because there was a bit of a strange coincidence: I received my blood test results on the same day I got his first text. And so, Explanation Two would be that he also received his results and something showed up. Something bad enough that he’d feel compelled to call it off with me. That idea scares the crap outta me, to be honest. Because I don’t know much about him, but I know this: he would put an end to our arrangement if he thought there was a chance I might catch something unpleasant from him. Stupid bastard.
Now if Explanation Two turns out correct, the first thing I’ll do of course will be to hunt down and kill Dustin – probably strangle him with his own huge dick. Then I’ll need to have a little chat with Daniel and convince him to let me help him.
Admittedly, there’s always the off chance of there being a secret, hidden Explanation Three: an unlikely yet devastating scenario where he’s found true love in the arms of a young, handsome hunk of a lawyer and I’m nothing but ancient history.
But let’s just concentrate on Explanations One and Two, shall we?
The elevator stops, does the little chime thing and the doors open.
It’s official. I’m a stalker.
Oh the irony.
And now for the embarrassing bit. Nothing tells me he hasn’t left the city or the country. He could be anywhere on the planet, for all I know. A meeting in Shanghai, a seminar in Barbados, a sushi bar in London? Anything goes when you’re carrying a torch for a freaking billionaire. The only reason I’m here is because I don’t know where else to look for him. And if this place is empty, I’ll have to try very hard not to feel like a prize idiot.
To cut things short, I reach for my phone and call his number for what feels like the umpteenth time today. The telltale bleeping sound of his cellphone goes off somewhere in the lounge area. So that’s good. He’s here. What’s less good is that I can’t hear anything else. Not a sound, no one’s moving in the apartment.
Can’t say I’m thrilled about that.
Explanation Four is rearing its ugly head, with its gory crime scene and the lifeless body of my darling fuck buddy.
When I reach the lounge, I disconnect the call and his phone turns silent. A few more steps into the room and my heart freezes unpleasantly in my chest.
A figure lying prone on the couch.
Which is good. Means he’s not dead.
But there’s something undeniably wrong with his whole posture: his body is huddled against the back of the couch as if seeking warmth and his face is buried in the cushions in an attempt at shunning light. Not to mention that the dapper clothes seem way too formal for a mid-morning nap.
Okay, so we may be facing a hangover situation, and I’m not sure how that makes me feel. On the one hand I’m a bit miffed that I wasn’t invited to witness his highness getting rolling drunk, but on the other hand I am relieved to see no dreaded hunk-of-a-lawyer balls deep up his ass.
“Daniel?” I call gently, so as not to spook him.
I sit gingerly by his side on the edge of the couch, and as I place a hand on his shoulder, I realize something’s off: he’s totally unresponsive and radiating unnatural heat. I take a moment to look around and spot a couple of pills of some kind next to a small unopened bottle of water on the coffee table.
Okay. So, not a hangover, but nothing tragic either. I hope. Please nothing Explanation Two-related.
I lean over him and place a hand on his forehead to confirm what I already know – he’s burning up. His shirt is damp with perspiration and he looks miserably uncomfortable here. I should get him off that couch and into bed.
If this were a Hallmark movie, I could just throw him over my shoulder and carry him to bed. Problem is, he’s a heavy sonuvabitch. Far too heavy for me to do that easily and without hurting him, so I’ll keep that option as a last resort.
“Daniel, you need to wake up,” I call louder this time, shaking him gently. “Come on, wake up, buddy.” He’s really out of it.
I roll him onto his back and he gives a faint grunt this time, but nothing more. His face is flushed, his features are drawn and there’s the ghost of a frown on his brow. He looks unwell and wretched and…
And in spite of it all he’s beautiful.
I can’t resist brushing the back of my fingers against his cheek, then touching the damp strands of his tousled hair.
“Come on, Sleeping Beauty, don’t make me go Prince Charming on you,” I tell him. I swear if he doesn’t wake up on his own, I’m going to do something ridiculous.
But his breathing turns deeper and he frowns uncomfortably, so I call him again, my tone a little bit more commanding. And he finally opens his eyes – eyes that are too bright and glistening with fever.
My heart skips a beat even as my gut clenches with something totally inappropriate. The flushed cheeks, the parted lips, the hooded, hazy eyes – I’ve seen similar looks on him before and they were all post-coital. And even though I know that he’s ill, running a fever and probably feeling like death warmed up, I can’t help it – he turns me on.
I’m so going to hell for this.
“Hey,” I try.
He slowly blinks and sighs with what suspiciously sounds like drowsy irritation.
“Jack,” he says, his voice a gruff, tired slur. “What’re you doing here?”
Not exactly the warmest of welcome.
“Dropped by to see if you were okay.”
He seems to consider my answer for a second.
“I’m not,” he finally rasps, closing his liquid eyes in pain. He brings the back of his hand over his face to shield himself from the daylight. His highness is not a happy camper.
“I think you’ve got meds to take,” I provide helpfully.
“What time is it?”
He groans and rubs his hands over his face. “Shit,” he mutters eloquently.
“Got somewhere to be?” I ask.
“No. Should’ve taken these pills 12 hours ago.”
Jesus, he’s been out for 12 hours?
He slowly raises himself on his elbow with a wince and I pass him the bottle of water and the meds. He takes them with sluggish bad grace.
“This is creepy, by the way” he informs me, waving his bottle at me before pushing the pills into his mouth and washing them down with Evian.
“The word you’re looking for is thoughtful,” I correct smugly.
“That’s what stalkers say.” The snark is slower and raspier than usual but just as deadpan.
“I was worried.”
“I told you I couldn’t see you. I was just too busy the other day,” he explains, his voice thick with exhaustion. His tone is also deeper than usual with an on-setting cold – and far sexier than it should be.
“And last night?”
“In case it’s escaped your attention, I’m sick,” he huffs. “I’ve got a cold and a fever and I feel like shit. Figured I’d save you the trouble and cancel altogether.” He starts to settle back down on the couch again, but I stop him.
“Whoa, hey, no! You can’t stay here like this.”
“You need to get out of these clothes and into bed.”
He gives me an unimpressed stare, complete with hairy eyeball.
“And I don’t mean it like that,” I promise. Really. He’s sick, I get it.
He closes his eyes and sighs again, his weariness clearly heralded in the frown chevronning his brow. As if to support what I’m saying, an uncontrollable wave of shivers courses through him.
“Come on, you know you’d be more comfortable in bed,” I argue reasonably. “I’ll help you.”
I get up and hold an encouraging hand out for him to take.
He sits up bleary-eyed and a little stiffly – then he pointedly ignores my hand and he pushes himself up. When he achieves verticality, he sways so badly in front of me that I have to take him by the elbows to help him stay upright. His eyes are scrunched shut, like he’s fighting a sudden wave of dizziness.
“Think you can manage a shower?” I ask, not really convinced.
“No.” He shrugs out of my hands.
“Okay. Straight to bed, then,” I encourage, but he dodges the solicitous arm I’m trying to wind around his waist, so I take a step back and let him lead the way. I might be wrong, but I think I’m being treated like a bit of a nuisance.
Seems his highness is a bit of a dick when he’s sick. And the fact that I’m willing to undergo this treatment is a testimony to how much I love the bastard. That being said, I guess I can also be a bear with a sore head when I’m feeling under the weather.
He bumps open the door to the master bedroom. The bed is huge and unmade, and my guts twist pleasurably at the faint, musky scent that hangs in the air. The room smells like him and I’m not proud to admit that my libido is doing backflips.
Daniel sits on the edge of the mattress as soon as he reaches the bed, badly hiding the toll taken by the effort to get here. I head for what looks like a dressing room of some kind.
“Do you have warm pajamas you could wear?” I’m thinking flannel PJs would be perfect, but…
“What am I, five?” he finds the energy to snipe.
“Well, you must have something.”
“I sleep naked,” he mumbles resentfully, and I mentally flail to shoo away the oh-so-improper visuals traipsing through my brain.
“Right. Any sweatpants or sweatshirts in here?” I inquire, looking bemusedly at the shelving units and wardrobes lining the walls of the impeccable dressing-room. The place is something straight out of rom-com movie: expensive, fashionable suits are neatly arranged on racks and trendy tops are meticulously folded and stacked on shelves. There’s a wide, padded bench at the center of the room and strategically placed full-length mirrors on either side.
“On the right,” I hear him say. And indeed I soon find a surprisingly ordinary pair of overwashed sweatpants and a soft, faded sweatshirt.
Back in the bedroom, a surly Daniel is fighting the buttons on his crumpled white shirt – and seems to be losing, too. After he manages to undo the first three at the top, he slips the shirt over his head. I just make sure not to let my eyes linger on his enticing bare skin: I do need to preserve some credibility.
As soon as I get him into more comfortable clothes, he crawls under the covers and curls up into a ball on his side with a shuddering sigh. I sit on the bed for a moment, not knowing what to do with myself. I can feel him shiver helplessly, the tremors literally making the bed shake.
I should leave. My presence is obviously resented.
I also know that have no right to be here. I let myself into his home without his permission while he was asleep. If someone had tried to pull that shit on me I’d have kicked the intruder out of my apartment. But he’s in no shape to do that, so the decent thing would be for me to leave without being asked. To just get up and walk out. And leave him there.
Leave him alone, shivering and sick.
“Go away, Jack,” he rasps, teeth faintly chattering.
“Can I get you anything else?” I ask.
“No. You can l-leave now.” Dismissed. He doesn’t say the word but I can hear it loud and clear.
Another quiver from the huddled figure under the covers and my decision is made. I take my boots off, shuck most of my clothes and sneak in between the sheets to spoon up behind him.
“What the f-fuck do you think you’re d-doing?” he growls, his trembling making him stutter.
“S’okay, calm down,” I soothe, arranging the covers over us. “Let me help you get warmer, and don’t get any ideas.”
“I don’t need help.”
“I know you don’t. Just humor me, okay?” I wrap my arm around him until my hand rests over his heart, and then I pull him flush against my chest and nuzzle the back of his head. His body is wound up tight and it’s going to take ages for him to really start relaxing, but body heat is doing its work and after a few minutes, the spine-wracking shudders die down. The pills he took are probably responsible for the improvement, but I like to think my oh-so-self-sacrificing initiative also plays a part in it.
And God, it feels so good to be holding him like this, I’m almost thankful for his crippling cold. He may not share my delight, what with being in bed with a fever, wearing ratty old sweatpants and a retired Air Force Colonel, but I’m on cloud number nine. I do wish all parts of me were feeling as virtuous as the mushy, sappy mess that is my heart at the moment, though. I can’t exactly pretend it’s my sidearm poking him in the butt.
Let’s just hope he doesn’t…
“You’re not enjoying this, are you?” he slurs suspiciously, a hint of sarcasm in his voice.
“Not more than I’m supposed to,” I promise.
He gives a long-suffering sigh, but his hand closes over mine on his chest… and I’m hoping he can’t feel my heart doing crazy cartwheels behind my ribs. I kiss the nape of his neck and listen to him drifting asleep.
Moments like this are the cruelest. In moments like this, I almost have the balls to tell him that this is what I want from him. What I want with him. Every day and for the rest of our lives. Sure, the sex is stellar with him and I’ll want to fuck his brains out for as long as there’s a breath in my body, but this… The closeness, the comfort, the sweet achy feeling that I’d gladly disintegrate and become one with him… It’s just as good. Just as exhilarating.
And God, I don’t even recognize myself. I don’t recognize my own thoughts. This isn’t me. I was never meant to have feelings for a goddamn guy. Guys are for sex. For pleasure. Not for this. Not for cuddling and holding hands and caring and intimacy.
I can’t do this.
He’s just a nice, rich guy who likes a cock up his ass and enjoys slumming it with his favorite escort. A lonely billionaire who fancies the idea of becoming friends with his boytoy. And I’m just a sad, retired, deluded whore who’s made the pathetic mistake of falling in love with a client. And the fact that it happens to be one-sided is just the cherry on the fucking cake.
The clichédness of it all is killing me. I can already hear them playing ‘Pretty Woman’ at my funeral.
And yet… Sometimes the fantasy seems so accessible. Like all I’d have to do is just say the words and he’d fall into my arms with stars in his eyes and an admission of returned feelings on his lips. As in all good Hallmark movies.
“I love you, Daniel,” I surprise myself whispering against his skin. And nothing happens. The earth doesn’t move, the celestial choir doesn’t sing, and Daniel remains asleep, his breathing sluggish and regular.
An apt metaphor for our lopsided relationship.
I slowly release him and get out of bed, tucking the covers carefully around him. I get dressed and walk back into the lounge. It’s probably almost 12 pm by now, and a beautiful, late autumn sunshine is flooding inside the penthouse. The view is amazing and admittedly up-lifting, and I stand in front of one of the picture windows to stare at the majestically sprawling, snow-bedecked city with Lake Michigan beginning to ice over along its banks.
Too bad I feel so numb inside.
The elevator’s chiming drags me out of my glum reverie. Whoever this is, I suddenly realize I’m going to have to explain who I am and what I’m doing here. This is going to be fun.
Or then again, maybe not.
Jean-Michel, the illustrious Concierge, walks in with a cardboard box in his arms and a carrier bag balanced on top of it.
“Jack. That’s a nice surprise,” he greets me pleasantly, completely unfazed by my presence. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.” He puts down his cargo on the counter and comes towards me to shake hands, a friendly look on his face.
“I wasn’t expected,” I admit.
“Ah. Is Daniel home?” he inquires, his benign expression as unreadable as ever.
“Yes, but he’s… uh, bed-ridden. Not feeling good.”
A flicker of worry crosses his features before he regains full control of himself. He looks over at the bedroom door and purses his lips thoughtfully.
“He mentioned he was coming down with a cold last night. Do you know if he took some medication?”
“Took some pills half an hour ago.”
He looks at me for a second, presumably wondering what I’m still doing here, then hastily checks the vibrating pager at his belt.
“If I may ask, Jack, do you have anywhere you need to be this afternoon?”
“I’m meeting up with some friends later on,” I lie. I dread where this is going and I don’t like being ambushed into engagements so I always make sure I have a way-out.
His grey eyes turn serious and earnest, and I have the uneasy feeling that this guy sees right through me. He seems to hesitate for a second, then takes what has to be a highly unusual plunge for him.
“Can I… May I leave him in your care until then?”
Damn him, doesn’t he know it’s an unfair thing to ask of a besotted fool? I break eye contact and take in the vast apartment, the slightly quirky décor, the beautiful view beyond the picture windows, my mind wandering to the bedroom and the feverish man under the covers – and of course, I nod my agreement.
“Thank you,” he says as his expression softens into gratefulness. “Don’t tell him I encroached upon you to stay, though: we would never hear the end of it.”
“Not a word,” I confirm as I follow him out into the hallway.
He turns to me in afterthought when he reaches the elevator.
“There’s enough food in the bag for two I should think,” he informs me as the doors open and he steps inside the elevator. “And there is tinsel and baubles for the Christmas tree in the box.”
“What Christmas tree?” If there’s one somewhere it’s either well hidden or tiny. The penthouse appears to be devoid of any sort of Christmas paraphernalia, now that I think about it.
The doors swish closed and I hear Jean-Michel’s muffled voice say “Third door on the right!”
And the third door on the right reveals… A gym. Well, when I say a gym… It’s more of a room originally fitted with state-of-the-art gym equipment until someone decided to store stuff they didn’t know where else to put.
There is an ugly, gangly ficus dropping dead leaves all over a press bench; several cardboard boxes and beat-up metal trunks with “handle with care” labels stuck on them; a couple of creepy-looking man-sized statues swathed in bubble wrap; and propped up against a cross trainer that must’ve cost a fortune, the unmistakable silhouette of a tightly tied up Christmas tree.
Right. So I guess I have my work cut out for me.
It’s been years since I put up a Christmas tree. Christmas is something I’ve been studiously avoiding ever since my divorce. It’s not that I don’t like the holiday itself, it’s more that I don’t have any reason to take part in it. I’ve always considered Christmas as a family holiday – and it’s been a long time since I last had a real family to celebrate it with. Sure, friends and relatives have invited me over on several occasions, and I’ve even been known to accept a few times, but lately I’ve bailed out of most invitations. I’d rather spend Christmas in Vegas splurging money on good whiskey and a game of poker with old military pals than be a first-hand witness to another family’s giddy happiness as they enjoy their Christmas.
But the mission here is merely decorating a tree, and it’s not for myself, so I guess that makes it okay and I can take simple pleasure in it without any second thoughts. Besides, it’s for Daniel. Even if he doesn’t think much of my effort, it’ll give us something to laugh about. Hopefully.
So I get to work. Set up the tree in a corner of the lounge next to the couch where it’ll be nicely exposed but rather out of the way. It smells great and the decorations in the cardboard box are surprisingly nice and homely, though a bit eclectic. With a bit of golden tinsel here, a red bauble there, and the odd reindeer front and center, it soon begins to look quite decently Christmassy, if I do say so myself. Behind me, I hear noises that indicate the Lord of the Manor has got up and is showering, and there’s a strange quivery feeling in my stomach, because this is a kind of interaction we’ve never had before. This sort of mundane stuff is just a whole new level of intimacy. It’s both exciting and scary because I really have no idea how this could go down. I could get kicked out of the place by security, for all I know. I know Daniel loves my cock up his ass, but my decorating tastes? Not so sure about that – as the man soon confirms.
“What on Earth are you doing?” The voice is rough and tired but his Highness sounds utterly stumped.
“Hey, Daniel,” I call while remaining focused on the task. “I’m decorating a Christmas tree.”
“Who told you to do that?!” he splutters and starts coughing. “Jack, seriously, why are you doing this? And where did you get all this crap? And when did I ever suggest looting around my apartment was okay?!” The questions are fired with an increasing amount of choked outrage, so I turn around to face him…
And freeze where I stand.
A few feet from me, standing in the middle of room, there’s a guy I’ve never seen before. A Daniel I’ve never seen before. A very normal, very cute guy – light-years away from the sleek, wealthy businessman who first opened the door to his suite over a year and a half ago. Daniel’s showered and changed into an old pair of jeans but he’s kept the faded sweatshirt on. He looks seven kinds of rumpled and his hair is tufted and damp and sexy-looking, but what really makes me go weak at the knees, what really steals the breath from my lungs… is the pair of glasses currently perched on his nose.
Glasses. Wire-frame glasses that make him look impossibly sweet and beautiful and wise and smart and… so fucking hot!
I let whatever it was I was about to hang on the tree fall back into the box. Drop the box on the nearby couch. Zero in on the apparition. He takes a small step back, clinging to a fresh bottle of water and looking more than a little wary as I stumble into his private space.
“Hey,” I squawk inanely, feeling light-headed and breathless. “How’re you feeling?”
His searching, pale blue eyes try to decide if I’ve gone mad or if I’m really always this stupid.
“A little better,” he eventually answers. “What are you doing?” The question is repeated with less outrage, but just as much incomprehension.
“You wear glasses,” I tell him, stating the obvious.
“Yes, I wear glasses.”
“I’ve never seen you with them.” My hands are itching to touch his face, stroke the metal frames, kiss his lips, stroke his hair. Jesus, get a grip, O’Neill.
“I only wear them at home. I use contact lenses at work,” he explains with long-suffering patience.
“You’ve never worn them in front of me. Do I get the contacts? Does that make me ‘work’?”
“You sure are a piece of work,” he mutters. “And no, I don’t wear any eye correction with you. This is actually the first time I’ve taken a good look at you. Bit of a letdown, I have to say,” he has the nerve to smirk.
Bastard. He must’ve worn contacts with me at least for parts of the proceedings. Anyway…
“You look cute,” I inform him, cupping his cheek.
“I look weak,” he corrects cynically, pulling away from me slightly. “Which is why I can’t wear these at work.”
“Your work’s loss,” I breathe, leaning in for a kiss. But he flinches and puts a hand to my chest to keep me at a distance.
“Don’t,” he orders quietly. “You’ll catch my cold.”
“You think that’s going to stop me?” I chuckle as I coil an arm around his waist and kiss the side of his head.
“It should,” he says, his breath hitching as I let my lips trail on his skin. “Seriously, Jack, I feel like shit.” There’s annoyance in his voice, though I’m not sure who it is aimed at – me or himself.
“I know you feel like shit.” It’s why I stayed, after all. So I could take care of him. He does feel a little warm to the touch and his eyes are still a little too bright. I forego the unwelcome kissing and settle for a brief, comforting hug. “Do you feel like eating something?”
“No. Why are you here?” he asks bluntly, though not unkindly, as he shrugs out of my arms. I can see in his cold blue gaze that he doesn’t get it. There’s still the shadow of a doubt as to the supposedly ‘real’ reason for my presence. He really is trying very hard to understand why I’d be here, trying to look after him when he’s sick – and it pains me that he doesn’t seem to be able to comprehend why anyone would do that for another human being without an ulterior motive.
“I told you: I was worried when you cancelled last night at the last minute. I dropped by to make sure you were okay. And it turns out you weren’t. Found you passed out on your couch.” His eyes slide to the couch with a tinge of self-consciousness. I use the distraction to insinuate myself into his space again.
“I wasn’t passed out,” he argues, “I was asleep. You let yourself into my apartment while I was asleep.” A distinct sting of reproof in the words.
“I called you on the phone. Repeatedly.”
“Still didn’t give you the right to enter… and start hideously torturing Christmas trees in my home,” he grouses pettily. “Seriously, why are you doing this?”
“It’s called decorating.”
“It’s called stalking and …mmmnphg!”
My mouth is on his before he finishes his accusation and I silence him with a kiss, holding his face as tenderly as I can and trying not to knock the glasses off his nose in the process. And thank god, he stops being a stubborn ass and kisses me resignedly in return. I feel the delicious vibration of a soundless moan in his throat and it makes my guts do weird acrobatics, as usual.
“It’s what friends do, Daniel,” I whisper low, pressing our foreheads together. “They take care of each other.”
“Do they also set up ghastly Christmas trees without anyone’s consent?”
“Oh for cryin’ out loud, will you drop it with the Christmas tree?! It was Jean-Michel who told me to do it.” Hey if I’m going down, I’m taking everyone else with me.
“Wow,” the little shit mumbles, utterly unimpressed. “Let’s hope he never tells you to take up ballet dancing.”
“Right, I think that last remark makes you delirious in anyone’s book.” And I’m pretty confident I could nail ballet dancing if I ever gave enough of a crap. “I’ll get you something to drink while you finish the decorating.”
“I have something to drink,” he counters sullenly, waving his diminutive bottle.
“Orange juice, Daniel. It’s orange juice you need when you’re sick. Now go find a place on the tree for those suggestive-looking icicles.” He rolls his pretty blue eyes at me and it makes my heart lurch with pleasure to see we have this kind of relationship. And it’s not my fault those icicle things are filthily reminiscent of his dildo.
When I come back with the proper drink, he’s sitting on the couch, sifting through the content of the box with a thoughtful air on his pretty, bespectacled face. He’s considering a fistful of tinsel and baubles with a fond, melancholy look.
“They’re nice,” I offer.
“They’re not mine. They’re Anna’s, my housekeeper,” he elaborates quietly. “Well, they are mine, I guess: she gave them to me.” He seems a bit lost in his own thoughts for a moment. “They’re Christmas presents. I get one each year.” A corner of his mouth quirks up wistfully. “She knows I never do Christmas trees, but she keeps offering me these things and Jean-Michel keeps ordering a damn tree every year. And now they’ve even rounded you up. It’s like there’s a rule somewhere that says Christmas is non-optional.”
“We mean well.”
“I know you do: that’s what makes it worse!” His face is scowling but there’s an irresistible hint of tenderness in his voice.
“So don’t fight it. Go with the flow.” I pick up the box, drag him to his feet and plant him in front of the tree.
“I’m a ruthless businessman, you know. People call me heartless and fear my decisions,” he argues pointlessly.
“You don’t say.” My eyebrow tries to be impressed.
He heaves a much put-upon sigh, takes an iridescent snowflake out of the box and hangs it randomly on the tree. Then he gives me a ‘happy now?’ look.
“Aaand once more with feeling,” I encourage, shaking the box to make the decorations rattle invitingly. He smiles meanly as he fishes out a snowman with his outstretched middle finger and ostentatiously hangs it at eye-level – a not-so-subtle way of flipping me the bird.
“Charming. And so in keeping with the Christmas spirit,” I remark.
“I’d love to.”
He throws me a black look and then totally ruins it when his expression cracks up. And this is how we eventually finish decorating the infamous Christmas tree. With him being in bah-humbug mode and me providing a helpful and critical assessment of his manual skills and aesthetic tastes. This bickering is fun in a way that leaves me tingling all over – and if truth be told, in a way I’d rather not get used to.
“This is all for nothing, you know. I won’t even be here for Christmas,” he announces pensively as we contemplate our handiwork from the couch half an hour later.
“Where will you be?” I ask, ignoring the rush of cold in my chest.
“Away. Somewhere the well-meaning Christmas brigade won’t find me. I try to disappear from the face of the earth around this time of the year.”
“Is Christmas really that bad for you?” I remember Belinda said he was an orphan, and he told me the only family he had left was an insane grandfather... So yeah, maybe we shouldn’t be ramming it down his throat like this.
“It’s not bad, it’s just that… I’m not a religious man.”
“Christmas doesn’t have to be about religion.”
“I know. But it’s just an ordinary day, Jack,” he explains, his voice soft and quiet. “The sun rises, people open presents, they laugh, they argue, they eat, they drink, and then the sun goes down just as usual. I’m glad it is a special day for many people all around the world, but ultimately, it’s just another ordinary day to me. There’s nothing magical to it.”
“There is, if you have the right people around you,” I point out. “If you have the people you love to celebrate it with you.”
“And who are you going to celebrate Christmas with?” he asks, training his searching blue eyes on me.
“I don’t know yet,” I admit cagily.
“Don’t you have family, or loved ones with whom you’d want to spend the day?” he asks curiously. And I can literally feel my heart tear down the middle. I have to take a careful second to phrase my answer.
“I have, but they sometimes have other priorities and I sometimes get last minute offers I can’t turn down so I usually wait until the last minute to make a decision.” It’s vague enough and pathetic enough that I hope he doesn’t dig deeper.
“It’s December 18th.”
“I’m not in a hurry.”
“Do you get a lot of last minute offers?”
“Depends,” I shrug and pray that he leaves it at that. I don’t want to discuss this. Not after what I’ve just said about Christmas and being with the people you love. If he knew the truth he’d think me a complete hypocrite – and he wouldn’t be wrong.
A strange silence stretches between us, and he eventually collects his empty glass from the coffee table and goes for a refill in the kitchen. I slowly release a breath I didn’t know I was holding. If I had it my way, there’s no one I’d rather spend Christmas with than him. I’d spirit him away from his Ivory Tower and we’d go to my cabin and we’d stay there until the New Year comes around. We’d spend the day fucking, eating, napping and arguing about whose turn it is to do the dishes. It’d be the most amazing Christmas ever.
Daniel returns with two glasses of orange juice and sets one in front of me, then resumes the Christmas tree gazing from the couch. After a minute of introspective silence, he reaches out lazily and gently brushes a finely ornate silver ball with the tip of a finger. I can only see his profile so it’s difficult to read what his thoughts are.
“I have an offer for you,” he finally says quietly, almost unobtrusively. “I usually stay a week holed up in a little chalet in the French Alps at this time of the year. It’s nothing fancy, nothing like this place,” he twirls a self-conscious finger at his little Penthouse world. “But I can make room for you if you want.” When he turns to look at me, his ice blue gaze is clear, the curve of his mouth carefully neutral, and only the frown that minutely contracts his brow betrays the monumental effort he’s making. I can see this is a lot for him. And he probably doesn’t realize it is huge for me.
“I’d like that,” I tell him slowly, trying not to let a grin split my face in two.
He smiles in return – one of his rare open half-smiles.
“Just promise me you’ll leave all the Christmassy stuff at the door, okay?”
“Sure. Cross my heart.”
A soft snort escapes him as his body relaxes into the couch. He raises a hand to his face to rub at his eyes under his glasses and sighs tiredly, like this conversation has drained him. So I give him some space and go to the kitchen to heat up the food the concierge brought. And then I make sure he eats it – much to his annoyance – with a couple more pills. After that… well, after that, I come to the realization that he doesn’t need me anymore. He’s all set: he’s got all the medicine he requires, all the food he can eat. He’s warm and sleepy and I have held my promise to Jean-Michel. All that’s left for me to do now is get out of his hair and let him rest. It’s easier said than done of course. I want nothing more but to curl up in bed or on the couch with him and hold him while he goes asleep. Which is how I know I have to leave. But before I go, there’s one thing I need to ask. I wait until we’re standing in the hallway in front of the elevator to spring the question.
“Daniel, did you get your test results?”
“Yes, they’re in my bedroom somewhere. I’m clean.”
“Good,” I nod, an unexpected sense of relief flooding through me. Explanation Two can suck my dick. “Me too, by the way. I’ll send you a copy by…”
“I don’t need to see it,” he interrupts me shortly, then realizes he’s sounded rude. “There are not many people about whom I’d say this, Jack, but your word is enough for me,” he adds with a small shrug.
“Okay.” That’s good. He trusts me. Even though I kinda imposed upon him and let myself into his home without his consent, he trusts me to the point of inviting me to share his winter retreat. Now I just have to try not to let it get to my head.
An awkward silence settles between us as I rock on the balls of my feet. I feel the weight of his uneasy, puzzled gaze on me and punch the button to call the elevator to defuse it.
“Is that why you were worried and came here this morning?” he eventually asks. “Because you thought something might be wrong with my results?”
“Maybe.” How can he be so clear-sighted sometimes and so damn oblivious the rest of the time?
He purses his lips and looks at the ground between us for a second. The elevator doors open smoothly and I’m about to step inside, when he reaches out and clasps my arm gently, holding me back. His blue gaze, behind the distractingly cute glasses, is intense and alive with something I can’t really pin down.
“I haven’t… haven’t said thank you,” he whispers, leaning closer. “I can be an asshole when I’m sick. And some would say also when I’m not. But… It was thoughtful of you to come and check on me,” he admits, then presses a closed-mouth kiss to my lips. “Thank you, Jack.”
His face is inches from mine and his eyes are mesmerizing from so close. Those glasses make him look so heavenly sweet.
“Welcome,” I rasp with a half-smile. Throat’s too tight to work properly. The warm imprint of his hand around my bicep lingers deliciously, long after he lets go of me.
“Don’t forget that you’re now spoken for, for a whole week,” he reminds me with a quirk of his lips as the doors close.
I respond with a sloppy salute.
I’m not likely to forget. Seven days in close quarters, with nowhere to hide from him, no one to speak to but him – and nothing to do but him. 24/7. There will be no half measure. It’ll either be the best week of my life or the perfect recipe for disaster.
***The End (for now)***