The counter beside the sink was spotless, but Solara wiped it down again anyway. Navon would be here any minute. She couldn’t let him enter a messy apartment.
And cleaning was the only thing keeping her from completely losing her mind. She hadn’t seen Navon in nearly a decade. Everything had changed since then.
Navon didn’t know “Solara.” During their relationship and the few years that had followed, Solara had still gone by the name Charlie Addison. Had still used male pronouns because male was correct for both her biology and gender.
And although Solara had started doing drag out in Los Angeles, when Navon had still been in the picture as a distant acquaintance, the stage name hadn’t even been close to Solara Flare. After fleeing to Boston, as far from Los Angeles as it was possible for her to get, she’d chosen a new stage name to go with the new need to stay hidden. And drag had begun to feel so right she used female pronouns even offstage. She was male both by biology and gender, but her new name and female pronouns helped her feel safer from the people she never wanted to see again.
She glanced around. There was a fork in the sink. It couldn’t remain. The place had to look good for Navon, even if Solara didn’t plan to let him through the door. She quickly washed the fork, then put it away.
No one from her old life had found her in nine years. Only her mother had known where she was, because her mother was the only family member who cared. Some of Solara’s Los Angeles friends might have wondered what had happened to her, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to tell them where she’d gone after leaving the hospital where Mason’s final beating had put her.
The doctors had repaired her physical injuries, at least. The mental ones had yet to heal.
Now Navon had tracked her down. She hadn’t asked how. Clearly she hadn’t covered herself as well as she believed, and that scared her.
. One of the two people from her life in Los Angeles whom she most wanted to forget.
She glanced around again and decided the kitchen was acceptable, so she went into the living room. There was a dust bunny under the couch.
“Shit.” She didn’t often talk to herself, but some occasions called for it, if for no other reason than being grounded by the sound of her voice. “I can’t keep doing this. He isn’t coming to inspect the apartment. He’s just going to hand over whatever he brought and then walk away.”
She didn’t believe that for a second. Every time she’d seen Navon in Los Angeles, the attraction that had brought them together for a yearlong relationship before her arrest had been as strong as the day they met. She hadn’t acted on it after she was out of jail, of course. The last thing Navon had wanted in his life was a recovering addict who’d served jail time.
And whenever Mason had seen Solara even glancing at Navon, he’d brought her home and smacked her around. The first time he’d injured her badly enough to need medical attention had been because of his jealousy of Navon.
Solara shuddered and leaned against the frame between the kitchen and living room. Mason was dead. He couldn’t hurt her anymore.
At least that was what Navon had told her when he’d called.
The sudden buzz from the speaker beside the apartment door made her jump. She hurried to the wall unit and pressed the button to let her visitor into the building. Although she knew a “secure” building was never entirely secure, the buzzer system at least gave her the illusion.
She opened her apartment door and waited. When Navon rounded the hallway corner, Solara caught her breath. He looked almost the same as the last time she’d seen him. Ageless. Flawless brown skin. Curly hair cropped against his scalp. His body, clothed in a tight blue T-shirt and faded jeans, looked just as tight and toned as it had years earlier. He had a backpack, which Solara assumed contained whatever he’d come to deliver to her, slung over one shoulder.
And the lust and need that flooded Solara was the same as she’d experienced the first time she’d set eyes on the man at a sidewalk café in Los Angeles. Her cock stiffened to half hardness, and the heat that filled her had nothing to do with the overly warm May afternoon.
She swallowed hard. Calm yourself, girl.
Navon was only here to give her something Mason had allegedly left behind. And then he would go away again.
Besides, she was nothing like the man Navon had fallen for over a decade and a half ago. She’d put on a good hundred pounds since then. Being a BBW was part of Solara’s persona, and she usually embraced it. Onstage in custom-made gowns and padding, she could camouflage the worst of the weight.
In her favorite RuPaul T-shirt and a loose pair of sweatpants, every roll of fat was visible. She cringed as she realized what Navon must be thinking of her. She looked like a slob.
He studied her with warm brown eyes filled with a mixture of concern and surprise. Those eyes had a few crinkles at the corners that hadn’t previously been visible. “Hi, Charlie.”
“Hi.” The word came out as a croak. Heart racing, Solara cleared her throat and tried again. “Hi, Navon. Come on in.” She hesitated, then decided it wouldn’t hurt to assert herself. “And I don’t go by that name anymore. It’s Solara.”
“Okay.” Navon looked confused. “Then hi, Solara.”
“Yeah. Hi.” Solara stepped aside.
As he walked past her into the apartment, she wished too late that she hadn’t moved. She had no clue what she’d been thinking to allow him access to her home. Her safe place. He didn’t belong here. He belonged in the long-distant past.
“Are you all right?” Navon asked.
“Yeah.” Solara gestured toward the couch. “Have a seat.”
Navon gave her another concerned look. Solara turned her back to close the door so she wouldn’t have to see his wrinkled brow and the frown on his face. His worried expression hadn’t changed either. It was the way he’d looked at her when he’d found out about the drugs.
And later, when she’d arrived at shows and parties with bruises on her face and arms. He’d never asked about those. He’d just given her that look.
Having him there was Solara’s worst idea in a long time. The memories Navon brought with him were more than she could stand. She would just have to get him to leave quickly.
She faced him again, forcing her expression into something she hoped was neutral. “I’m guessing you aren’t staying long.”
“That’s up to you.” Navon sat at the end of the couch and leaned back to cross one long leg over the other. He jiggled his foot the way he always had when he was nervous.
The movement both reassured and disturbed Solara. It showed that Navon wasn’t any happier about this than she. But it was another sign of how little he’d changed, while she was so far from the person she’d been in LA that she barely recognized herself sometimes.
“I was hoping we could catch up,” Navon said slowly. “And maybe you can tell me why you disappeared off the face of the planet for the past nine years.”
“Some things are better left in the past.” Solara sank onto the opposite end of the couch. She didn’t want to look Navon in the eye. He had every reason to wonder what had happened to her, but she’d hidden Mason’s abuse for so long that even now she couldn’t bring herself to talk about it.
Not that Navon didn’t already know. As far as Solara knew, everyone in their circle of friends had seen her bruised and battered. None of them had done anything about it, just as no one had done anything about Mason’s drug use. Not even the people who’d been instrumental in getting Solara into rehab, where she’d met Mason in the first place.
Solara had tried to help Mason get clean again. She knew damn well it wasn’t good for a recovering addict to be involved with a user. At first, he’d only gotten high when Solara wasn’t around. But a few days after they’d moved in together, he told her she had no right telling him he couldn’t use.
And then he’d beaten her for the first time.
She shuddered again and yanked her thoughts back to the present. She wasn’t the scared little man she’d been back in Los Angeles. She’d moved to Boston to start a new life. With the help of a new name and stage persona, a new home, and some good therapy, she’d grown stronger and more confident.
Mason couldn’t hurt her anymore, and she was damned if anyone else would. But having Navon beside her, with the same appearance and habits he’d had years ago, pushed her back in time to those terrifying years. She hated him for that.
She hated herself for agreeing to see him. She should have known better.
“You look good,” Navon said.
“I look fat,” Solara snapped. She was going to be strong, and she wasn’t about to cave to his compliments. If she told herself that enough times, it would sink in. “You haven’t seen me in nine years, and I seriously doubt I look as good as back then.”
“We’ve both aged,” Navon said. “That’s kind of what happens when nearly a decade goes by. Char— Solara. Right? You’re using a drag name day-to-day?”
“Easier than coming up with a new legal name and doing all the damn paperwork to change everything.” And you haven’t aged a goddamn bit.
Solara sank back. “Look. I don’t know how you found me. I don’t actually care either. You’re sitting here all sexy and shit just like always, and I’m a fat slob. So give me what you’re here to give me.”
Navon laughed. Not merely a small chuckle. A long, roaring laugh with his head thrown back. Solara was pretty sure his eyes were watering, though she didn’t want to look closely enough to be certain.
She stared at him. “Hell, man. Humor’s part of my performance, but I didn’t think I was that funny.”
“You think I’m sexy?” Navon sputtered between bursts of laughter. “We always did enjoy each other’s bodies. You think I’m sitting here thinking you’re fat and sloppy like you said? Not even close. If anything, you’re hotter now than back then.”
“Wow.” Solara had no clue what to say. That was the last thing she’d expected to hear.
Then again, she hadn’t expected him to be sitting on her couch either. If she’d been able to stick to her resolve, he wouldn’t have gotten through the apartment door. She would have made him hand over whatever was in the backpack, and that would have been the end of it.
But her traitorous heart had decided to let him into the apartment without bothering to consult with her brain. She wouldn’t let him in any more than that if she could help it. There wouldn’t be any point. He’d only come to Boston to deliver what had been found in Mason’s apartment. Then he would head back to Los Angeles and whatever life he’d built over the past decade.
Navon took a deep breath and blew it out through pursed lips. “Sorry. Damn, Ch— Solara. Did you seriously believe I’d find you disgusting? I don’t care what your body looks like, and a little extra padding never bothered me.”
A thrill of excitement ran through Solara. She shoved it away, along with her musings about Navon’s body. Just because he still found her attractive didn’t mean anything was going to happen. She wouldn’t let him stay long enough if she could help it.
“You aren’t here to inspect my body,” she said more harshly than she intended. “Just to give me what you found at Mason’s.”
“And to talk.”
The pleading note in Navon’s voice struck Solara in the heart. She couldn’t make him leave just yet.
“Okay, to talk.” She sighed. “Look. What we had, I fucked up. I know it. There’s no point in revisiting the past, because there’s far too much there that I don’t even want to remember. You were one of the good points, but what I did to us is something I live with every day. I’m not going to discuss it.”
“You really think that, don’t you?” Navon leaned toward her, completely serious now. “I waited for you, Charlie. You fucked up, yeah. I’m not going to deny it. It wasn’t so much the drugs. If you’d wanted help with that, I would have stood by you. The stealing was what I couldn’t handle. But you paid your time and got clean. I would have taken you back if you hadn’t hooked up with Mason. I never had a chance to tell you that, and I kick myself in the ass for it pretty much daily.”
Stunned, Solara moved back and folded her arms. She refused to let Navon see how deeply his words cut. She could have gone back to him, and she’d never known. All these years, she’d believed he had turned his back on her permanently when she got caught robbing a neighbor’s house for drug money. Even though they’d seen each other around once she was out of rehab, they’d avoided much interaction with each other.
“Are you here to rekindle old flames?” she asked. “Because if you are, I don’t know if I’m up for that. The past belongs in the past, Navon. Just having you here is bringing up a whole lot of shit. It’s nice to see you and all, but it sure as fuck ain’t easy. Hell, I’ve been clean since rehab however many years ago, but seeing you almost makes me wish I wasn’t so I could get high and forget you were here. Along with all the shitty memories.”
“It isn’t easy for me either,” Navon said quietly. “I lost the best thing I had in my life and watched it get destroyed. And then had it vanish out from under me. Now I’ve found it again. But it’s been a long time. I don’t know yet what I want. I just don’t want you to disappear before I have a chance to figure it out.”
“I don’t know if you can.” She didn’t know if she wanted him to either. Except part of her did. Part of her had always wondered about the might-have-beens, especially during the dark times with Mason and the lonely struggles when she had first come to Boston.
She would deny it until the day she died, but she had never stopped thinking about Navon. And with him sitting beside her, both her body and emotions were responding in ways she sure as hell hadn’t foreseen when she’d given him permission to come over.
They would never have what they’d had in the past. Life didn’t work that way. She didn’t even know if they could be friends. But she wanted him. Flat-out craved his body against hers, touching and fucking the way they’d done years ago. Sex with Navon had always been excellent, and those memories hadn’t faded a bit.
And she was unquestionably horny as hell. For months, with her drag daughter Mitch sleeping on the couch as he battled his own drug demons, she hadn’t been comfortable bringing anyone home. Nor had she dared leave Mitch alone for long, knowing how hard he was fighting to keep from relapsing.
He’d moved out nearly two months earlier, but Solara hadn’t tried to find another lover. Not even a fuck buddy or one-night stand. Obviously she should have done so much sooner than this. Maybe then she wouldn’t have paid so much attention to the way Navon’s shirt outlined his chest.
“Damn it.” She closed her eyes.
“Did I say something wrong?” Navon rested his hand on her leg.
The heat was too much. Solara opened her eyes and tried to glare at him but knew she wasn’t even close to successful. “You didn’t say anything wrong, but hell. How the fuck long has it been, and you just walk in here like we were together yesterday? You came to drop off something of mine that Mason kept so he could remember beating the shit out of me. At least you said you were only here to give something back to me.”
“I wanted to give you what Mason had, but also I wanted to see you.” Navon took his hand away. “You disappeared. No word. No trace. Last I knew, you were in the hospital. Stable condition, they said, but none of us could get any real information. And then when we tried again for an update, we were told you’d been released. We didn’t know where you’d gone.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Solara’s mind reeled. No one had made any effort to see her in the hospital as far as she knew, just like no one had bothered visiting or even contacting her six years earlier during her jail and rehab stints. Even after she’d left rehab clean and sober, the people she’d once been close to had kept their distance. From her perspective, her so-called friends had completely abandoned her.
Now Navon, whose support she might have accepted if he’d bothered to offer it, was telling her he and others had tried. It made no sense. Until the day she’d left Los Angeles, she hadn’t been hard to find. Performing in clubs, even doing TV appearances, she’d had a schedule so tight she’d kept people informed of where she was every second of every day.
Of course, Mason had followed her to most of her jobs and appearances. He hadn’t wanted to take a chance on any other man looking at her.
“Most of our old crowd,” Navon said. “Me especially. I tried to go to a couple of your club performances, and Mason told me not to show my face so I wouldn’t distract you. I have to be honest. It creeped me out. But he made it sound like he was only thinking of your career, so I listened. I wish to God I hadn’t.”
“It is what it is.” Solara had repeated that mantra to herself so many times over the years it barely had any meaning anymore.
“It was bullshit, and you know it.” Navon moved his hand closer to her leg again but this time didn’t touch her. “Why didn’t you tell anyone what was happening? I would have helped. You didn’t deserve what he did to you.”
Solara clenched her teeth. So many people had asked her the same question. The answer should have been obvious. A gay man being beaten by another gay man barely registered on anyone’s radar as a problem. Some even said those men deserved it for the sole reason of being gay.
Even those who accepted that domestic violence happened in gay couples probably wouldn’t have believed Solara if she’d asked for help. Even at her lowest weight, she’d been considerably heavier and a good five inches taller than Mason. Anyone looking at her would have at the very least wondered why she let Mason pound on her. Most wouldn’t have even believed Mason would be strong enough to inflict damage.
She’d told the cops who’d walked into her hotel room the night of the final beating that she was afraid no one would have believed her if she’d reported the abuse sooner. She’d said the same to the doctors and nurses who had scolded her for letting the abuse go on so long and to her mother, who had flat-out agreed with the people who didn’t consider beatings between gay men to be actual abuse.
“The people who should have helped me either called me a liar or asked me why I didn’t just turn around and smash the shit out of Mason.” She spoke slowly, considering each word and her tone. Having the question thrown in her face yet again brought back all the anger and frustration of not being able to give an adequate explanation. “Why would I have gone to you, of all people? I thought you’d given up on me when I was arrested, remember?”
“You got involved with Mason, and at first, you seemed happy.” Navon sighed. “When I realized you weren’t, it was too late for me to step in. Mason wouldn’t let anyone near you. Why didn’t you leave, Charlie? Why didn’t you stop him?”
“Fuck you.” Solara lunged off the couch and strode to her bedroom without looking back. Navon’s questions made her want to put her fist through the fucking wall, and she had to get away from him before she lashed out so badly she wouldn’t be able to repair it. “Leave. Just fucking drop whatever you have in the damn bag and get out of my apartment.”
Before Navon could answer, Solara slammed the bedroom door behind her and fell forward onto the bed. Whatever else happened that day, she was damned if she would let him see her cry.