“Royal flush,” Noah laid down his cards and let loose a rare grin. Oh, today was so his day.
“You cheated!” The soldier cast him a dirty look, face suffused with anger and humiliation.
Noah gritted his teeth and swallowed down the retort hot on his tongue. Silently, he started counting to three.
He only got to one when he heard his father. “My son does not cheat,” Colonel Mayer dragged out each syllable of the sentence like a threat. As much as he hated, oh, hated the fact that Noah was gambling at all and with a ruffian like Kevin, there was a certain amount of pride in his name, in his legacy. The Mayers were honorable, thank you very much.
Noah looked up, surprised. His father did not often weigh in his favor. His father did not want him to journey to New York on his own for a year – “Grant me at least a year, sir. I will do you proud.” – of learning at Columbia University. No sir, not even with the acceptance letter, not even with the scholarship.
“Does that mean I get to go? Sir?” Noah patted surreptitiously at the packed duffle bag at his feet. He had been prepared just in case. He was taught since the age of two when he lost his mother to be prepared always, just in case.
Kevin Davis looked like he wanted to murder Noah right then and there, as if he were some comic strip villain with a lethal superpower who could smite with a mere look. As far as Noah knew, no one could smite with a mere look in real life, not unless you counted his father.
“Do not disappoint me, son.” The Colonel’s tone barely registered. The one that said ‘you know I am only letting you go because I hate to lose in front of my men.’ The only thing Noah heard was yes.
“Thank you, father!” Noah shook the Colonel’s hand then held out his palm for his ticket, his golden ticket to freedom. Kevin scowled at him but slapped it down nonetheless.
Luciano Grimaldi was no stranger to ships. After all, he was born in the archipelago nation of Malta. Not to mention, shipping was his family business. This day, however, was special. He was accompanying his father Damian and his mother Lily on the trip of their lives, aboard the magnificent RMS Titanic for its historic, maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. They were going to visit his grandmother Lucinda Walsh, whom he had never met in the seventeen years of his life. (Though, oh, the stories he had heard!) And then he was going to start his university years at Columbia.
He could hardly wait. It felt like his life was just beginning. Everything back home was starting to suffocate, what with the forced engagement to Lady Madeline. Not that she was not lovely, mind you. Just – well, Luciano had always had an appreciation for the male form, let’s just say. (And the male voice and the male smell and the male, well, everything.)
Just two days ago Madeline fell from her horse and had to be confined to bed rest. “You will join us soon,” Damian had said, a command dressed up as sympathy. Madeline had given them a weak smile, sweet and distant all at once in that amazing breeding that confined her. In one of their rare, severely inebriated states, Lucinano and Madeline had once confessed the truth to each other. “I love Casey.” “I like men.” They had laughed, positively roared, faces flushed red in the night. They never spoke of it again. But somehow, well, somehow Luciano knew Maddie’s horse riding accident had been no accident at all.
Noah lay on his back on a deck bench. The breeze was gentle, a calm blue palm. He cracked a wide grin. Freedom. This was new.
And then he saw him, on an upper deck – a halo of gold, gorgeous, untouchable.
“Set your sights a little lower, my man,” a stranger’s voice floated to him, barely contained laughter sandwiched in the words. “That’s Lucinao Grimaldi, heir of Grimaldi Shipping that you’re drooling over up there. He’s as likely to look at us as we are to look at women.”
Noah blinked slowly and swallowed. No, he – he wasn’t that obvious, was he? “Excuse me?” He looked over at the slight man with the crooked grin and the mussed hair.
“Tony Smith,” he held out his hand. “Nice to meet you.”
Noah looked back up and saw an empty space where Luciano had been. He gave a mental sigh. Perhaps Tony was right. What chance did he have, outside of daydreams? He introduced himself, “Um, Noah.”
And they got to talking about the small (though clean) cabin space they had below deck and the small (though serviceable) sandwiches they had for lunch. “I have some apples,” Noah reached into his pockets.
“I love you, Mr. Um Noah,” Tony sank his teeth into the green skin, the white flesh with such enthusiasm that Noah had to smile. He could do with a friend. He had never been in great supply of those, not with how much his father moved them around.
Luciano sat with his back ram straight, his smile as stiff on his lips. The dining room for the first class was magnificent, truly. He could wax rhetoric about the gleam in the chandeliers, the polish on the floor, and the succulent meals on their tables until the end of his days. He really could. It was just the company that he dreaded. He hated the pretense and god, all of it was a set match, doomed from the start. They stepped regally down the wide staircases, never running, hands hooked onto appropriate arms. They sat, not a hair out of place, not an air out of place. They ate, noise level dialed down to ‘civilized.’ They talked about nothing, coated in so many layers of lies. How was the love of his life? How awful that she sprained her ankle just two days prior. If it were only a week prior or well, not at all. Did he miss her?
Luciano tasted not a thing as he lifted his fork again and again to his lips. He did not fancy the smoke and brag portion of the evening either, when he got a bit of reprieve from the women. The men were far worse.
“Excuse me,” he got up from the table mid-dinner the second day. “I’m going to go see whether there is any truth to those dolphin stories,” he grinned, happy to have half-listened enough to the conversations around the table to make up this lie. He averted his eyes quickly when Damian glared at him.
Luciano heard the fast clicks of his heels as he hurried from the posh glitter of the rooms. They were coming as quickly as his breath. He felt like perhaps he was committing a crime, doing something illicit, which really, with his name and his family’s reputation, he hadn’t had much of an opportunity to do.
The night air was a welcome slap of cold. Luciano thrust his face into it and closed his eyes. He inhaled deep and smelled the sea. It was wonderful, all salt and endlessness. He resumed walking till he made it to the far edge of the stern. Just for the hell of it, he swung a leg over the rail. Dare devil – that he never was. That was more like his friend Casey, who didn’t have a family name to sully. He let out a laugh and swung his other leg over. This was ridiculous, ridiculously awesome. And then he made the mistake of looking down at the water. Oh, that was quite a long way down. He gulped.
“Don’t do it,” a voice came from behind him, a voice deliberately calm.
Luciano turned his head and almost fell. What in the world? Did he just conjure up some gorgeous creature out of thin air? He needed to do that more often.
“Really, think about it. You’re on the most magnificent ship, which is making history as we go. You are endowed with um, with great uh, hair!” The young, fit figment of his imagination stumbled over his words. “Don’t throw that away.”
“You think I’m about to jump ship?” Luciano ignored the hair comment (which was very true; he had fantastic hair) and cocked an eyebrow up, mock question mark. “Are you insane?”
“With all due respect, sir, I’m not the one hanging off the back of a ship here.” The cheeky bastard lifted a shoulder and a corner of his lips.
“Are you even real?” Luciano did not mean to blurt out that particular thought. It was just that sometimes thoughts had a way of making their way out of his mouth faster than he could detain them.
Tall blue eyes did not answer, just advanced slowly with his palms held out, as if placating a horse. Luciano fumed. “What do you think you’re doing?”
The boy-man-figment touched a warm hand to his jacket sleeve and lowered his voice. “I’m a real boy. Do you believe me now?”
“Who are you?” Luciano’s voice did not catch. It was the cold air, was all.
“Noah Mayer, at your service,” Noah gave him a little bow. And then blushed. “I mean – not – not in a dirty way ‘at your service.’ Just – can I give you a hand back over the railing? It’s an awfully long way down and I hear the water’s freezing.”
“I hear there are dolphins down there.”
Noah laughed, threw his head back and laughed at him. Luciano tracked the movement of the parted lips, caught himself and snapped his gaze back up to Noah’s eyes.
“Dolphins are not going to throw you back on the ship, you know. At least I wouldn’t trust their aim. Flippers and all.” Noah pointed to his own arm.
“You’re seriously crazy.”
Noah just looked at him, indicated which side of the railing they each were on and shrugged.
“Shut up and help me back over.”
“My pleasure,” Noah let his hands linger on Lucinano’s arms and on his waist.
Lucinano truly fell this time as he turned, unsteady as he was, and he tripped over Noah and landed heavy on top of him. They stared at each other, breathing heavy, neither letting go. The air felt warmer than just moments before.
“Lucinano! What is the meaning of this?”
Noah started under him and Lucinao scrambled to his feet at the sound of his father’s voice. “Father, it’s not what it – ”
“No?” Damian’s face was wrapped tight in fury. “Officers, arrest this man!” He pointed to Noah, who was blushing like a virgin and trying to disappear through the floor of the ship as hard as he was staring at it.
“He was trying to take advantage of my son, to corrupt him – ”
“Father, no!” Luciano threw himself in front of Noah as the men advanced. “No, I – I was looking for dolphins and I was leaning over the rail too far. I almost fell! Noah here,” he elbowed Noah hard in the chest, “rescued me.”
“Uh, yes. Dolphin watching – it’s a dangerous sport.”
Luciano bit back a laugh. No one dared to speak to his father like that, like he was an equal. He cut in, taking in the look of disgust on Damian’s face, “So, really, we should be rewarding him, father. He saved me from a painful death. I hear it’s freezing in the water.”
Damian held his glare and visibly forced himself to relax before pulling a fake smile. “Very well. How much do you want?”
“You think I want your money?” Noah’s voice dripped with disdain.
“What Noah meant to say is that he doesn’t want any monetary compensation. But he’s never been to our dining room before and would love a turn around the room.”
Noah barely hid a smile at the cleverness of Luciano, who had just brought them more time with that lie. Noah put on his most angelic face and nodded his assent.
“For the man who ‘rescued’ my son, anything,” Damian played the game right back, dismissed him with the turn of his back. “Let’s go Luciano. Your mother’s waiting.”
“I’ll be right there.” Luciano waited until Damian was far enough away. “Well, Noah, I’ll see you tomorrow night?” He gave Noah his card, “Just show them this. They should let you in.”
Noah let his fingers linger as he accepted. “I’ll see you, Luke.” Noah looked down at the card, where ‘Luciano Grimaldi’ was written in classy cursives. He snapped his head back up. “Sorry, I meant – you just look like a Luke?”
“No, no, I like it,” Luciano considered. “That’s what my grandmother in America calls me. She absolutely detests my birth name, and well, my birth father for that matter.”
Noah’s smile was warm, his eyes just this side of mischievous. “Good night, Luke. Sweet dreams.”
“Dolphin-free dreams,” Luke countered. “Good night, Noah,” he walked a few steps backwards before turning away from Noah and bending his smile into his mouth, giddy with something like anticipation.
The next day brought with it great weather. The decks were full of people milling about, pointing at nothing on the horizon. There was not one cloud, just blue floating on blue. Yet the infinite stretch made people fanciful, made them shout and laugh and walk around fast like they had somewhere else to be, like they had already touched shore on New York City.
All of this activity made it harder for Luke – god, how refreshing was that name? Now he was Luke, a new and improved Luciano – to find Noah. He looked and looked but what he found was life, more life here on this ship than he thought possible when he was stuck sitting in the stilted polish of the first class cabins.
There was a fiddler down there, playing a lively tune as children around him clapped and sang. There was a young couple, madly in love and not just put together because they made a good set on the game board. Out there was a father pushing a toy truck for his boy and girl, both of whom were beyond delighted despite the chipping paint on the toy. And there was a mother nursing, discreet yet proud as she smiled down at the bundle under her cloth cover.
Luke wondered what Noah was doing right now. Was he watching out for dolphins? The hours went so slow.
Noah was actively trying not to look for Luke. He knew if he looked he couldn’t look away. And if he didn’t look away in public, he was going to get Luke into more trouble than they were already in. With a great amount of self restraint, Noah stayed below deck to chat with Tony and with the kids in his cabin. They were playing some kind of a board game, not anything he was familiar with (in his defense) and the girls – Natalie and Faith – beat him soundly.
“All right, all right, I concede. Girls rule,” Noah feigned exasperation when in fact he was almost as giddy as they were as they laughed and cheered.
Tony rolled his eyes at him. “Pathetic, man. You’re pathetic.”
“Oh yeah? Play poker with me and then we’ll chat.”
“I’m not dumb. Do I look dumb to you? I know how you got your ticket. Go fool someone else, fool.”
Noah pushed him back, laughing. No, there were no fools here, not unless you counted fools of love. He thought of Luke and tried not to stare at his wrist, at his watch, at the one possession he owned of any value. The hours were dripping by like honey.
Night draped over the ocean like a many layered dress. First there was a thin under slip of pale pink. Then came playful drapes of yellows and oranges. Then royal purple sat on them all until they slowly disappeared.
Noah liked the purple best. It meant time to see Luke. It meant dinner in the first class dining hall. It meant he had to go with this lone suit of his, whether it suited or not. He fiddled with his tie, worried about whether it matched his shoes.
“Phew, if he doesn’t eat you up, he’s an idiot.”
Noah blushed and tugged harder on his tie. He felt like he was strangling himself. He had always been useless at tying ties, much to the Colonel’s exasperation.
“I say leave it,” Tony yanked the tie askew again. “Leave him something to do for you.” He winked and pointed to his head. “Always thinking, I am.”
Noah had to laugh. “If they don’t let me in on the basis of this crooked tie, I’m blaming you.”
“Hey, just trying to help a brother out.”
“You look handsome, Noah,” Faith blushed as she stared at his tie.
“Aw, thank you, Faith.” Noah knelt and gave her a hug, half for her but half for himself too. He needed all the faith he could get.
“Boys are yucky,” Natalie wrinkled her nose. “But you’re okay, Noah. You smell nice, not like Tony.”
“I’m right here.” Tony pulled a comically hurt face before ruffling Natalie’s hair. Natalie stuck out her tongue then squealed when Tony mock gave chase around the tiny room.
Faith shook her head at how immature her little sister was being. “Kids,” she rolled her eyes.
Noah chuckled fondly and nodded goodbye to her and to her mother Carly behind her. He had a good feeling about tonight.
“Your tie,” Luke’s hands flew up to fix it when he was within touching distance. Noah silently vowed to thank Tony later. “There, perfect,” Luke spread his hands flat over Noah’s chest, resting them there for a moment.
Luke’s eyes were mesmerizing under the lights of the chandelier, dancing green and gold and warm. Noah felt like he could breathe even less evenly than before. “Your tie’s perfect,” he said, sad that he didn’t have the same excuse to touch Luke back.
Luke looked down and yanked it off completely. “There. Now it's perfect.”
“Isn’t there a dress code?” Noah teased. “No shoes, no ties, no entry?”
“They don’t make the women wear ties.”
“No, just these back breaking heels is all,” came a voice to their side, snide.
“May I introduce Jade Taylor,” Luke gestured to her, “the newest member of our society.”
Jade leaned close to Noah and whispered loud enough for Luke to hear, “He’s trying to say I’m new money in as nice a way as he knows how.”
“You know I don’t care about that, Jade,” Luke stuck his hands in his gorgeously tailored pants and Noah tried not to follow the motion. “If I could, I’d go party with Noah instead of sitting through three hours of hot air in there.”
“You’re invited,” Noah blurted out. “To party,” he clarified when Luke looked at him. “Tonight! Um, if you’d like.”
Luke gave him a brilliant smile.
“I see our guest of honor has arrived,” Damian glided down the stairs with a beautiful woman on his arm.
Noah nodded his head stiffly in acknowledgement. When he was introduced, he kissed Mrs. Grimaldi’s free hand, or rather, the elegant white glove covering it. “Lovely to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”
“Thank you. Good to finally meet you, Noah,” Lily flashed him a genuine smile, her face changing completely and looking so much like Luke for a moment that Noah just stared, slack jawed. These were a line of beautiful people. No doubt the grandmother Luke spoke of was just as lovely.
He cleared his throat. “Shall we?” He gestured in the general direction away from the stairs.
Jade grabbed his arm before Luke could do something stupid. “Let’s,” she led them towards something that smelled so much better than the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that Noah had for lunch.
Noah sat between Luke and Jade and was grateful for Jade’s subtle guidance when it came to the proper diner etiquette. “Just follow me,” she whispered in his ear. “Look at which fork I’m using and use that one.”
Luke leaned over to whisper in his ear a moment later. “Lies. It’s all lies whatever she’s telling you about me.”
Noah smiled and resisted the urge to whisper back. Damian was already glaring hard enough at him from across the table. He bumped his leg against Luke’s instead under the table.
Luke pressed back, strong thigh, strong leg, and all heat and continued to eat and drink as if it were all the same proper proceedings below board.
“So, Noah, tell us all about our hero. What do you do when you’re not rescuing passengers aboard ships?” Damian jabbed the pointy end of his knife in Noah’s direction.
“Oh, I’m not that interesting yet,” he shrugged. “My father’s in the army, a Colonel. We travel a lot. So I’ve grown accustomed to taking each day as it comes. I actually won my Titanic ticket through a poker game.”
“Really?” Jade and Luke were clearly amused and impressed. Damian and some others were clearly not.
“Besides poker,” said Damian, “what else do you do?”
“I’m a great shot actually. My father insists that I join in the training whenever I can. But what I really love is movies. I’m going to study filmmaking when I get to Columbia University.”
“Columbia? Me too!” Luke pressed into him hard under the table. To be fair, Noah was crushing back just as much.
“Yes!” Luke laughed as he became more animated. “Literature department. I want to become a writer.”
“Hey, perfect,” Jade pointed out. “You could write him scripts to direct.”
“I could!” Luke enthused, rather loving this new knowledge about Noah.
“Let us not be hasty now, Luciano,” Damian gave him a fatherly look from across the table. “You have your whole life ahead of you. You could write or you could take over Grimaldi Shipping and find yourself too busy to write. Your fiancée Madeline might be with child soon after you marry. You never know. Life – life has a funny way of going the way it wants to sometimes.”
Properly chastised, Luke bit his lips and quieted. “Yes, father.” He shifted his leg away from Noah’s and sat up straighter, like he was trying to impress a particularly strict tutor.
Noah shoved a piece of chicken in his mouth and almost choked on it. At least he was using the correct fork, he thought wryly.
Jade however carried on as if nothing humiliating just happened at the table. “That’s the truth, Damian. You never do know what life hands you,” she looks pointedly at Noah and then at Luke as she smiled. “So,” she nudged Noah in the side, “how are your cabin mates? Tell me all about them.”
“You’re engaged?” Noah walked two paces away from Luke as they exited the dining hall. Glass – it was all glass everywhere. Glass and lights. Damian could see, he was sure. Damian and the rest of the diners in the hall.
Luke sighed. “Yes, not by choice but yes,” he left it at that as they walked up the stairs. “Am I still invited? To the party?”
Noah wanted to say no. He was a fool, wasn’t he? Only fools fall for the unattainable. “Of course.” He supposed it was the look in Luke’s eyes, the pleading look, the one that said he might actually cry (or at the very least pout) if Noah said no.
“Good,” Luke beamed at him. “What’s the dress code? Do I need to put my tie back on?”
“How was it? Did you get meat? Wine? Was it absolutely amazing?” Faith and Natalie blurted out all of those questions and were in the midst of asking more when Noah walked through the door. “Did you steal a kiss?” Tony added.
They stopped short the moment they spotted Luke behind Noah.
“Not yet,” Luke answered for Noah as he shifted on his feet. “Hi, I’m Luke.” He crouched as he presented the box Noah hadn’t noticed to the girls. “You must be Faith and Natalie. Do you like pastries?”
“Marry me, Luke!” Natalie gave him an impulsive hug. “Wow,” she added as she stared into the box with her sister. “Thank you thank you thank you!”
“You’re welcome. You’re welcome. You’re welcome!”
“Oh man, Noah, watch out, dude, these two are about to steal your boyfriend.” Tony whistled.
“Shut up,” Noah shoved at him as he walked past. He tugged at his tie and managed to pry it loose to shove into his duffle bag. “You guys ready to go dancing?”
“You bet ya!” Natalie spoke around her mouthful and Luke looked at her with envy. His mother would have had his hide for speaking with his mouth full.
“Save a dance for me?” He asked her.
“You bet ya!” She swung around and let her skirt express her enthusiasm for her. “I’m a good dancer. Better than Faith.”
“Is that so?” Luke touched Faith’s shoulder lightly to let her know he was only playing along. “Guess I’ll have to dance with both of you to know for sure.”
“Watch out, Luke,” Noah laughed. “These two are super competitive. And they will whoop your ass in Excuse Me!”
“Excuse me? What?” Luke laughed and looked from face to face, completely confused but amused and god, free. No one talked like this in the first class cabins. Except maybe Jade on rare occasions of courage, when the crowds were thin.
“It’s a game, see…” Faith finally found her tongue. She was the expert on the game, the thing was. She couldn’t let her little sister explain it. Nat might get it wrong.
Dancing was clearly a different animal here was the first thing Luke noticed. There were no careful circling, no straight lines of ladies and gents, hardly any rules at all, it looked like. It was just circles of noises, bounces of enthusiasm, tons of swirling around by the hands, by the waist, till you’re dizzy.
So far he had danced twice with each girl and told them they were both amazing, the best dance partners he’d ever had the pleasure of dancing with. That seemed enough to set the girls blushing, enough to make them not begrudge the other Luke’s clear affection.
“You’re good with kids,” Noah told him when they stood in a corner, just watching the room while they catch their breaths. (Noah had been dancing with the girls too. And now it was Tony’s turn.) Noah got quiet as he thought about it. “You’ll be a good dad.”
Luke slipped his little finger down to hook around Noah’s. It was crowded enough here, with enough chaos that Luke didn’t think anyone would be looking at them. “I don’t love her, not in that way. She’s a dear friend but that’s all. And she doesn’t love me. She told me that she loves another. I think she faked her fall from her horse so she could delay our nuptials. Maddie’s a grade-A rider. She doesn’t make mistakes like that. And it was her favorite horse. He wouldn’t have thrown her.” He let his words settle into the air between them and chanced a look. Noah was frowning but also licking his lips, considering.
Luke took a breath and looked away again. “I-I told her once, when we were both thoroughly drunk at a New Year’s celebration. ‘Let’s share secrets,’ she said. And I told her I was – I liked,” Luke squeezed Noah’s little finger. “And she told me about Casey, a groom in their stable. She’s in love with him.”
“Oh,” Noah managed finally. “How – do you know what she’s planning to do?”
“Be happy,” Luke smiled to himself, “if she could help it. Maybe she’ll elope.”
“Do you want to dance?” Noah suddenly tugged them away from the wall, the shadows casted there. “I love this song.”
Luke couldn’t chase the smile away from his face even if he tried. “I thought you’d never ask.”
The song was a fast one, a jig of some sort, something that made him as good as jog in place. He laughed as Noah taught him the steps, as Noah swung him around and around and around. “How do you even stand after this?”
“You don’t!” Noah shouted back over the music and the chatter. “You just pretend to!”
“Awesome! I’ve been pretending all my life. I totally got it!”
Luke thought he had never laughed this much in this short amount of time in his life. There was just enjoyment of the now and hope for the future, not the usual mope for the now and fear for the future that he had grown accustomed to. He didn’t want the night to end.
He didn’t even care that his muscles were sore and sort of punching him from the inside. He could deal with all that later. This was the good sort of hurt. He’d heard about those.
Eventually though, even parties such as this had to wind down. “Come on, girls,” Carly gathered a sleepy Natalie in her arms and held a hand out for Faith. “Let’s get you to bed.”
“I’ll walk with you,” Tony held Faith’s other hand as Carly shot him a grateful look.
Luke and Noah knew when they were being deliberately left alone. That happened enough to Luke whenever he was around Maddie that he was used to it. Nobody was ever as subtle as they would like to think they were.
“So,” Luke brushed his knuckles against Noah’s as they walked along the long corridors. “What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
Noah ducked his head and rubbed his neck. “I –um, I do these sketches sometimes? Just – scenes in my head, but they come out better if I have live models.”
“Models, huh?” Luke nudged his arm. “I bet you say that to all the boys,” he paused. “And girls?”
“I don’t – I mean, my father, you know. I never really had opportunities. Not that I really wanted – not that often. Maybe just once. We had this neighbor… anyway,” Noah trailed off, flustered.
“Would you like one?” Luke seemed to melt closer to him. “Opportunity?”
Noah felt his throat go dry at the fan of Luke’s breath against his neck. He scanned the halls, which were mostly deserted but for the stragglers wandering around.
Luke tugged him to a nook between two hallways. He had seen the layout for the ship more times than he cared to and was fairly familiar with all the lines and curves of it. Now he just wanted to learn the lines and curves of Noah.
Noah moved first, dipping his head and landing his lips sweet on Luke’s, tentative, just tasting, testing. Luke found his heart gave a little at that. He could very well fall for Noah. He might already have. Luke tipped his head back and parted his lips. As he expected, Noah gave chase, following heat, tongue licking in to find Luke’s.
And Luke finally got it, got why people cared so much about a kiss. A kiss never made him feel like this before, not with Maddie, no matter how much they tried. A kiss, he understood, may never feel like this again. It burned and spread and held him all over, much more than the points where Noah was actually touching him – lips, tongue, cheek and waist. Much more. Luke could feel it in the soft give of his knees. He could feel it slither hot along his thighs. He could feel it brace him around his hips. He could feel it pinching him in his toes, making him want to stand on tiptoe, to kiss back harder. So that was what he did, holding on tight to Noah’s arm and Noah’s back, giving as good as he got.
“Say yes?” Noah spoke the words on Luke’s lips, making him shudder.
“Yes?” He wasn’t even sure what he was agreeing to. He was pretty sure he would agree to pretty much anything.
“Good. I look forward to drawing you, Luke.”
Oh, right. That. “I look forward to… too,” he said.
Noah kissed him again, fast, playful, just sudden enough a thrust against him that Luke felt his whole body react.
“You drive me crazy, Noah.”
Noah grinned at that. “A definite improvement. Last night you just thought I was plain crazy.”
Luke had to laugh. Wow, was that last night? What a difference a day made. “Good night, Mr. Mayer.”
“Good night, Mr. Grimaldi.”
“Sweet dreams,” they said in unison.
Before Luke could walk off though, Noah slipped a hand in Luke’s pocket, stealing his tie. “Insurance,” he held it up. “I promise you’ll get it back tomorrow after our session.”
“I better,” Luke laughed. “I think I’m starting to get attached to it now that it’s not around my neck.” He started walking backwards. “I’ll meet you at the dancing hall at nine?”
Noah nodded and watched him go. Insurance wasn’t the real reason he wanted the tie. He just – it was something of Luke’s that he got to hold onto the whole night. He held it to his nose and inhaled. Luke’s shampoo. That was what it mostly smelled like. He looked up to see Luke had stopped walking and was watching him. Noah threw him a grin and hooked the tie around his collar, tugging it around him as he started walking. He felt like whistling all of a sudden. He didn’t though. He had a feeling Tony would make fun of him. Plus, half the ship was already asleep. Him? He was definitely not dreaming. This was real.
The first class sections of the boat felt polished with money. Everywhere he turned, the walkways were wider, the floor cleaner, the suits and dresses more expensive. Noah felt like he had dirt specks all over him though he had wiped clean this morning. He had even combed his hair three times before messing it all up again by dragging his hands through it.
“You’re worse than a girl,” Tony shook his head at him.
“Am not. I just want to make a good impression.”
“Judging by the state of your lips last night when you got back, you made a great impression.”
Noah blushed as the girls giggled.
“Do you all want to come?”
“Me?” Tony sat up straighter, starting to run his hands through his own hair.
Noah laughed. “Sure, why not? Let’s all go.”
“Field trip!” The girls rushed to put on their best frocks.
When Luke met them at the dance hall, he greeted them like friends he hadn’t seen in months instead of just hours. “Wow, look at you. You are absolutely darling, ladies.”
“What about me?” Tony smoothed down the lapels of the one suit he owned and waggled his eyebrows.
“Darling is not the word I’d use for you.”
Noah snorted and kept close to Luke as their group made their way upstairs. He was glad for the company when they bumped into Jade and someone named Reginald Addington. Glad because Tony fell immediately into conversation with Reginald, exuding more charm than Noah had ever seen him. Glad because Carly and the girls fell into girl talk with Jade about her pretty necklace and their darling dresses and strangely, something about ponies. Glad to be left alone, after all, with Luke.
“I brought my sketch pad. Shall we go someplace more private?”
Beside him, he heard Luke inhale sharply. They walked a few more measured steps, nodding to a few more men in immaculate suits that Luke knew, before he was grabbed and shoved inside a darkened room, its windows papered for privacy, its interiors still dusty and empty. He had just about two seconds to take inventory before he felt Luke push him against the wall and kiss him hard, teeth scraping his bottom lip and tongue insistent until he opened his lips on a moan.
Luke ran his hands inside his jacket and shoved a thigh between Noah’s legs. “Been,” Luke kissed him between words, “wanting to.” Luke does something with his tongue that made Noah go literally weak in the knees. “Do this since I woke up.”
“Are we – is this?” Noah lost his sentence for a bit as he chased Luke’s lips with his own. “Is there a lock on the door?”
Luke pried himself loose, panting hard against him. “No. Shit, no.” He thumped his head against Noah’s chest a few times. “You make me do crazy things, Mayer.”
“Is that a compliment?”
“Want to see my room?”
Noah almost choked. When he recovered, he cupped Luke’s cheek and kissed him again. “Does it have a lock?”
Luke room definitely had a lock. It also had more than just one room. It was a suite in fact – bedroom, attached wash room, even a little private breakfast area.
Luke rambled on as he showed Noah around. “I know it’s ridiculous that I get so much room to myself but Maddie was supposed to come…” He trailed off.
Noah came up behind him and brushed his hands down Luke’s arms. Luke was tense, but visibly relaxed at Noah’s touch, even leaning back a little. So, Noah wrapped his arms around him and their eyes met in the vanity mirror.
“So, how do we do this?”
Noah responded by undoing the topmost of Luke’s jacket buttons. He could feel each breath Luke took as he worked his way down the line of textured disks.
“You do this for all your subjects?” Luke gave a small smile as Noah peeled his jacket away.
“No,” he kissed Luke’s neck. “You’re the first.”
Luke breathed deep again, awfully distracting in the way it made his lips fall open, soft and inviting.
If Noah didn’t really want a portrait of Luke, he didn’t think he could withstand this slow torture. They both worked on the many buttons of Luke’s crisp white shirt. Noah swallowed and moved his hands away when Luke’s skin came into view. Beautiful.
Noah turned and searched for his pencil, trying not to trip. He could do this. He inhaled deeply and with his back still to Luke gave him instructions. “Lie down on the sofa when you’re done. On your stomach.”
He fiddled with his sketch pad, turning the pages – he’d drawn Tony that first day, Carly and the girls on the second – and flipped to a new blank page. He smoothed down its already smooth surface and grabbed a chair to face the sofa.
By the time he got himself settled, Luke was sprawled out naked over his curved-back sofa, sultry and beautiful with the light playing on his skin. “Perfect, just –” Noah couldn’t help it. He got up and moved over to where Luke was and crouched. He arranged Luke’s hands and trusted himself only to touch Luke’s ankles to arrange his legs.
He was breathing heavily by the time he made it back to his seat. Luke looked vulnerable like this, young. Noah wanted to capture it all – the strong back muscles, the slopes of the shoulders, the shadows beneath Luke’s hipbone that were driving him crazy. And Luke’s expressive face – especially those eyes and those lips. Noah started sketching, fingers working slower than usual because of how unsteady they got at intervals. Luke Grimaldi was too good to be true.
“Let me see,” Luke stretched out his hands as soon as Noah pronounced the drawing done.
Luke looked at the sketch for so long that Noah started to fidget though he was the dressed one of them two.
“Do I really look like this?” Luke kept looking at the picture. “I look really...”
Noah gripped his pencil nervously as he let his eyes roam over Luke again. “You are.”
Luke looked up at him, dimples on his face. “May I?” He gestured to the rest of the sketch pad.
“Go ahead,” Noah dragged up a chair. “That’s my father. He’s in profile because he hates being drawn at all. I did this on the sly during one of their drills on the base at Paris.”
“I can see the resemblance,” Luke tilted his head this way and that. “You are much more handsome, I have to say.”
Before Noah could try to shrug away the compliment, Luke flipped to the next sketch. This one was a landscape. Slanted rain. Dark shadow of trees. Fences. “You have a good cinematic eye, Noah. What’s the story with this one?”
“Star crossed lovers. Secret meeting at night. Or, maybe a transitional moment, before a war hero comes home.”
“Hmmm,” Luke flipped another page. This one showed a child hiding behind a giant sunflower.
“Isabella. She was our neighbor in Rome. She had just lost her two front teeth.”
The next page was an old woman, her skin so wrinkled she looked like tree bark. “Madam is eighty eight. Look at her smile.”
They made their way to the sketch of Tony eating an apple. Luke laughed. “You can tell he really loved that apple.”
“I had to stop him from eating the core.”
Luke snorted. “I don’t doubt that. Oh,” he stopped at the picture of Natalie and Faith braiding their mom’s hair together. “That’s lovely.” He smiled as he traced the wayward hair on Natalie’s forehead. “You know, once upon a time I thought I could have a family, complete with children and a lap dog. But…” Luke trailed off as he flipped to the page with his likeness on it again. “So, what’s the story here?”
“I thought you were the literature student?”
“Fair point,” Luke handed the sketch pad back to Noah. “The young prince was desperately lonely. He thought he could take off to the other side of the world and start his life over. But along the way, he met another prince, tall, with blue eyes, kind to strangers, funny, and a great kisser, and he fell in love.”
Noah looked up from where he was putting away his drawing supplies. Luke was staring at him, naked in every way. Love. Noah had not heard the word spoken so easily like this, not in a long time, not since the fuzzy memories he had of his mother. He swallowed down the nerves and the bubbles of happiness bursting like light inside him. “The other prince was taken by surprise too. He never expected to win all of this in a game of poker. He had never met anyone as generous or as wonderfully spontaneous, or as smart or as good a kisser.”
Noah didn’t know how else to finish the story except by doing. He took Luke’s face in his hands and drew him in to a long kiss, a love-you kiss. He smoothed his hands over Luke’s ears, his neck, over the jut of Luke’s collarbones, over the lovely slopes of his shoulders, over his back. Noah followed his pencil lines and kept going, letting his hands explore where his eyes have lingered.
Luke tugged Noah down to the sofa with him and practically crawled into Noah’s lap. “You are in violation of the dress code here, young prince.”
“Am I?” He glanced down at Luke’s fingers on his buttons. “We must fix that.”
“We must. It’s imperative,” Luke leaned in, sucking along Noah’s lower lip and making him melt against the back of the sofa. They worked fast to rid Noah of his dress code violations. They groaned together when they were bared, skin to skin.
Luke stroked them together, smearing the wet of their tips down to coat their lengths. “Luke,” Noah nipped and then kissed a spot on Luke’s chest as the strokes sped up. “I do, you know. When you said –“
“I love you.”
“Same here.” Noah held him steady with hands on hips and stared right back, not backing down from the declaration or the one reflected in Luke’s eyes, in his smile.
Luke leaned down and kissed him again, a smile missile of a kiss. One of Noah’s hands joined Luke’s and stroked them together. Luke gasped at contact and the noise spurred Noah on. They came almost embarrassingly fast, Luke slumping down onto Noah and Noah slumping back onto the sofa.
“Take a bath with me. And then we can try more things.”
A bath and more with Luke sounded like heaven. “Race you,” Noah perked up right away.
They ran, stark naked into the adjoining wash room, laughing. Luke drew them up a hot bath. Noah moaned as he sank down into the water. “Oh, this is so good,” he said as he tilted his head back. Before he knew what hit him, Luke was there between his legs kissing his neck, licking at his Adam’s apple. Noah circled him in his arms.
They didn’t emerge from the room until all the mirrors were fogged. At one point, Luke stuck his palm to glass, needing to find purchase.
His hand print stayed. When Damian would look for Luke later that night, he would see the print there and would grit his teeth.
But Damian would be too late. Luke and Noah had taken the day for themselves, talking and not talking, making the best of the hours.
Damian was there the next day when Luke sneaked down to third-class halls to meet Noah for breakfast. It looked like Damian had taken to stalking.
“There you are, Luciano,” Damian made it sound accidental. “Your mother and I missed you at lunch yesterday, and you arrived rather late to dinner. I see you’re not joining us for breakfast.”
“Father,” Luke fiddled with the picnic basket in his hand. “Sorry, I would have sent word but –”
“Too busy entertaining your new friend?”
“Yes!” Luke went with it. “We were comparing notes about our freshman year at Columbia. Noah’s thinking about taking some writing classes, to better develop his cinematic narrative. And I was thinking about taking up –“
“And you have to compare notes over breakfast? Here?”
Noah, mortifyingly so, found himself speaking. “Mr. Grimaldi, if I may, it was my fault. I rather developed a fondness for the grapes in the first-class dining hall and the girls have fallen for the pastries like mad. It was me – I begged Luke to bring us more.”
Damian looked from the flushed face of Luke to the blush on the tip of Noah’s ears. “I see,” he said slowly. “Come up to lunch today and bring the girls. I’d like to meet them.”
“Of course, father.”
They barely dared to breathe as Damian departed. And then they collapsed into laughter. “Oh my god! We’re such bad liars!”
“Definitely not university men yet with our caliber of storytelling.”
“You brought food!” Tony and the girls advanced and Luke surrendered the basket.
“Yes, because I was obviously bringing food for you, Tony.”
“We’ll save you some,” Tony winked at them. “Noah’s cabin’s empty right now, I’ll tell you that.”
Luke and Noah only thought about it for a moment. “See you later, Tony.” “Enjoy your grapes.”
It felt even better on Noah’s narrow bed. Luke had Noah trapped tight beneath him as he sucked bruising kisses to his neck.
“That’s going to show.”
“Good,” Luke discarded the rest of Noah’s clothes. “I want them to know. I’m proud to be with you.”
Noah reached to undo Luke’s clothing. “Your father is going to have me killed. Or carted off to another country, just to keep you safe.”
Luke snorted at that. “No, Damian’s – I’m his only heir. He may not like this but I hope one day he will accept it.”
“That’s what I love about you. Everything is possible with you. If you just hang off the back of a ship, you can see dolphins –”
“Shut up! And there so are dolphins in there. I’ll show you later! We’ll go to the stern again and look out. It’ll be great.”
Noah just beamed up at him. “I’d like that. I’d like to do lots of things with you.”
When Luke waggled his eyebrows, Noah swatted at him. “Not like that! Well, yes like that too, but not just like that.”
Luke grinded down into Noah and there was a lot less talking after that.
Lunch was a stilted affair. Natalie was made to sit still with her knees together the whole time. She was forbidden from grabbing treats with her hands and had to instead resort to cutting everything with heavy silverware.
Noah’s hickey was visible just above his collar. Damian couldn’t stop staring at it or glaring at him. Even Lily became several degrees colder when she caught on.
“Oh my wow!” Natalie remarked later, “Luke, do you really have to eat there every day? How can you stand it? It’s almost worth it for the food but not really. You like us better, don’t you?”
“Of course I do,” Luke looked at her, quite amused. “Why do you think I keep sneaking down there to visit you?”
“You come to visit Noah but you just get us too.” Natalie told him. “Sorry.”
“Natalie!” Carly looked exasperated. “Do pretend to have some manners.”
“I do all the time, mama,” Natalie clung to her and gave her a kiss.
Noah leaned in close to whisper to Luke, “Maybe we could just adopt her. Miss Carly looks like she’s about done.”
Luke laughed but whispered back, “You’re a genius. Adoption could totally work.”
Discreetly, they linked their pinkies as they walked.
“There!” Luke pointed.
Noah looked over his shoulders. “Where?”
“Come here, Noah!” Luke grabbed him and slotted him perfectly behind him and pointed. “There!”
“Are those really -?”
Luke laughed and leaned back. “Yes! Dolphins!”
“That’s amazing! One day I’m going to make a film about them.”
Luke laughed harder. “You would, wouldn’t you?”
“Why not? It wouldn’t be the craziest thing I’ve ever done.” Noah tightened his hold around Luke’s waist, to make sure they don’t plunge into the ocean.
Luke spread his arms out to his side.
“What are you doing?”
Luke just grinned as he looked back. “I’m flying! Look at me, Noah, I’m flying!” And with the wind in his hair, it looked just about plausible too.
“Just crazy for you.”
Noah nuzzled into Luke’s neck, as brave and free, as happy as he had ever felt.
They figured out that they can pretend to carry a heavy load between them and overlap their hands that way. No one was the wiser. They walked the lengths of the ship holding hands and making plans.
“I’ll teach you to play basketball,” Luke promised, “if you teach me more dance moves.”
“Deal,” Noah rubbed his thumb over Luke’s. “I’ll make you the best gelato float you’ve ever tasted in your life.”
“I’ll watch your first movie and tell everyone I knew him then.”
“I’ll buy your first book.”
“I’ll dedicate it to you.”
Their banter was broken when they heard panicked voices above them.
“That’s the captain,” said Luke.
They both stilled, eavesdropping. And then they saw it, the ghostly outline of an iceberg headed straight for the ship.
“It’s supposed to be the fastest ship in history,” Luke squeezed Noah’s hand. “Maybe the turn –”
Noah squeezed him back.
The ship collided with a thud and the voices above them fired off graver statistics.
“We need to warn –”
“Yes. I’ll go get my parents. You go to the girls and Tony. Get them and meet me in the first-class dining hall. Hurry!”
The empty picnic basket dropped between their hands, a dull thud.
“We have to go,” Noah grabbed his sketch pad and shoved the little wallet of money he had into his coat pocket. “The ship just collided with an iceberg.”
“Whoa, whoa, lover boy, slow down. I thought you went to look at dolphins.”
“Tony, listen to me! We don’t have much time. The ship is going down. They are planning evacuation. I’m going to try to get you all up with the first-class. They’re getting off the ship first.”
“This is the best ship of our time. What are you saying? It can’t withstand a little iceberg?”
“A huge iceberg. And no.”
Reginald burst into the room. “Tony! Come with me. I’ll tell them you’re with me.”
“You’re serious,” Tony blanched.
“Yes, go!” Noah pushed him and took Faith’s hand in his as Faith took Natalie’s hand in hers and Nat took Carly’s. “Come on.”
The news must have traveled like bush fire. There was a rush of bodies along the hallways and somewhere five different babies were crying. Every corner they turned, there was a Lord’s Prayer being recited, rosemary beads being caressed. Noah scooped up Faith just as Carly scooped up Natalie. They held hands and ran as fast as they could through the throngs.
“Nobody has manners in an emergency,” Natalie pointed out as someone running past them rammed into her arm really fast.
Carly looked like she was trying not to cry. “I love you baby.”
They passed a group of musicians performing a haunting melody. They even passed a drunk.
By the time they got to the dining hall, they were completely out of breath. The ship was also noticeably starting to list to one side.
“Mother, please,” Luke was holding onto her and to the banister. “We all need to rely on the kindness of strangers. He saved my life. I’m going to save his.”
“Luciano, there are rules,” Damian cut in as he looked up at Noah. “I don’t make them.”
“Father,” Luke snapped impatiently. “You of all people know that rules are meant to be broken. I have seen you close deals based on your sheer creativity. Please, let them come with us.”
“You know the captain knows who they are. He sat at our table many a time.”
“Yes,” Luke cut in. “The captain is a compassionate man. He will understand. He liked Noah.”
“Not the way you like Noah.”
Luke scoffed. “What do you want me to say, father? That I love him? Because I do. I’ve never felt like this before, dad. Remember your story to me about how you and mother met? It was love. And this – this is love too.”
“I don’t have to listen to this,” Damian growled.
“Luke,” Noah swallowed and stepped forward, pushing the girls in front of him. “It’s okay. I’ll be fine. But Mrs. Grimaldi, I will be forever in your debt if you could take Miss Carly and the girls with you. Please.”
Lily gave him a small nod.
“Noah!” Luke ran up to them, kissing the girls’ cheeks as he passed them. And he threw himself into Noah’s arms. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Same here,” he hugged fiercely back.
“I’m staying with Noah,” Luke said as he disentangled himself.
“No!” Luke startled as Noah and his parents all said in unison.
“You have to go, Luke,” Noah held his hands. “You have to write your books, remember? And adopt your babies. And learn to dance. You have your whole life ahead of you.”
“So do you,” Luke gripped onto Noah’s hands and refused to let go.
“Luciano, stop being foolish!” Lily called to him.
“Mother, would you willingly leave Damian behind? If Noah can’t come with us, then I’m staying with him.”
“Luke,” Noah pleaded. “I love you. I will always love you. But please go. I want to think of you living a long, happy life and enjoying your days at Columbia and beyond.”
A tear rolled down Luke’s cheek. “You finally said it.”
“Well, this is an extraordinary day,” Noah ducked his head. “And you’re an extraordinary man.”
“God, you’re so stupid for playing poker.”
“I think you meant smart. Otherwise, I’d never have met you.” Noah kissed his tears away. “Go on. I’ll see you off.”
The story from this point on gets a little more muddled. Some say that Luke really did get on one of those life boats, taking Noah’s sketch pad with him, that he kept his promises to Noah – learned how to dance and adopted his babies and wrote his books, dedicating his first one to N. Mayer.
Some say that Luke got off the life boat at the last moment, scrambled up after Noah because he couldn’t bear to part with him. They huddled together against the cold and kissed and made promises. Luke made it out alive because he was sheltered on a plank, and Noah, well, Noah died with Luke’s name sweet on his lips. In this version Luke kept his promises too.
And yet some, some knows the whole truth. My great-great granddaddy himself told me his story.
“I couldn’t do it. I stood there in the life boat as it was being lowered and I looked up at Noah standing there, noble and handsome, and at attention like a soldier – and I knew I would be making the biggest mistake of my life if I just let him go. So I climbed out – almost fell into the water too.”
‘God, Luke, you’re so stupid. Why are you so stupid?’
“And I stayed close to him the whole time, my arms around his waist. We were shivering because of the night – it was so cold. And then we were shivering because of the water – it really was freezing.”
’And where are the dolphins now? Told you they were unreliable.’
“There was a plank – debris from the ship. It was probably some part of a desk or a bench. It was narrow enough.”
’I have military training, Luke. You don’t. That’s why you’re getting on it and I’m not.’
“I told him to stop calling me a girl. And he said he never thought of me as one. It was why he liked me so much.”
’You are a brat though.’
“I told him he loved that part of me too.”
‘That’s a bratty thing to say.’
“I made him sing with me, to keep awake. It was so hard with the water constantly dragging us down into the numbness.”
‘The only song I know is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. It was what my mother used to sing to me.’
“I taught him a Maltese tune. I purposely taught him the hardest song I knew.”
‘Luke, your song is mocking me with how many words it has.’
“I just told him us Maltese had a reputation for wordiness sometimes.”
‘Now it makes sense. Can we sing Twinkle now?’
“Of course I told him no. It took a long time of floating, trying not to float off. I sucked his fingers into my mouth a few times, to distract him, to keep him awake.”
‘You’re going to give the dolphins a show if you keep doing that.’
“Of course I asked him if that’s a promise.”
‘You’re seriously crazy.’
“But he smiled. There was ice at the edge of his lips and he was still beautiful. I wish I could draw ‘cause you should have seen him back then. Then after forever, the rescue boats came, with their bright headlights. I wanted to scream out but I couldn’t. I’d lost my voice from talking so much. I barely got a couple of ‘help’ out there. But Noah? Noah put his fingers to his lips and whistled. The boat turned right around like a puppy.
Of course, when we were dragged on board, they thought Noah was done for. He was so cold. They wouldn’t let me give him my blanket because they said I needed it too. ‘Please stay calm, sir,’ they kept saying.”
‘Yeah, Luke. Stop being hysterical. It’s rude.’
“That was when I knew he was okay. We lived together through university and for the rest of our lives. Some people thought we were just best friends. But oh, darling, we were so much more. I dedicated a book to him, you know? And my Noah? He made a film about dolphins.”