Damn. Late again. Double damn.
Jude was going to kill him.
Michael ran up the stairs, trying to get out of Herald Square Station without knocking into any of the late-night crowd heading toward the busy bars and restaurants of midtown Manhattan. His haste caused not a single raised eyebrow. At least not that he noticed. He was too busy cursing himself for not leaving the reception earlier, and worrying about Jude’s reaction to him being late. Again. Damn.
Once at street level, he paused to find his bearings. The damp chill of early December cut through his suit jacket. He pulled it closer as he walked down Thirty-Fourth Street.
Leave it to Jude and his très cool friends to celebrate a birthday at an upscale wine bar instead of someplace fun like a club where Michael could grab a real drink and dance off the stress of putting on a reception where everything that could go wrong, had gone wrong, and with a vengeance. He’d handled the late wine delivery, the broken ice machine, and myriad other minor crises with an outwardly cool efficiency that betrayed no sign of his pounding headache.
Michael wanted to skip this birthday party and go straight to the after-party. The thought of tumbling Jude into bed, then working off the strain of a hectic day with some vigorous exercise had him surreptitiously adjusting the crotch of his suddenly too-tight pants. After almost two years of dating, he wanted Jude more every day.
He’s like a freakin’ drug
. Tension faded whenever Michael imagined holding his lover in the blissful afterglow of good sex and talking about their days. It still floored him that he missed those conversations even more than sex when he worked too late to see Jude.
An outdoor patio in front of the wine bar held only a few scattered patrons on this chilly night, but Michael saw a crowd of sharply dressed clientele through the festively decorated windows.
After reaching the doorway, he stopped to look around, searching for Jude. Strings of colored lights and garlands of Christmas greenery draped the ceilings and walls. Michael took a deep breath. Pine-scented candles? Not bad. Michael found the smell calming. His tense shoulders relaxed a little.
He saw several people he knew, including the birthday boy, Tim...something. Tim lived in Jude’s building. Michael didn’t know him well, but he seemed the quiet, serious type. Tim didn’t seem very happy as he scanned the crowd.
Michael spotted Jude at one end of the long mahogany bar, then threaded his way through the crowd to join him. Deep in conversation with neighbors from his building, Jude didn’t notice him at first. The elderly ex-hippie couple had dressed for the occasion in jeans and floral-print shirts.
“We need another animal shelter in that location,” Betsy said earnestly. “Perhaps a fund-raiser?” Her husband, Ron, nodded in agreement. Betsy did most of the talking in that family.
Michael placed a hand against the small of Jude’s back to get his attention. Although Jude wore his typical black shirt and pants, he’d dressed it up with a black jacket. He looked positively edible.
Jude turned to him with a raised eyebrow but didn’t say anything. Or smile.
“Sorry I’m late,” Michael said. “I tried to get away earlier, but it was a pretty wild reception, and I wanted to make sure the cleanup got finished.”
“Did you have fun?” Betsy asked politely.
No matter how many times he’d tried to explain that being a party planner didn’t actually mean he partied all the time, the gray-haired lady just didn’t get it. But she meant well, so he bit back a retort and said, “The clients were reasonable people, so in the end, it went well.”
At least the exchange raised the ghost of a smile from Jude. The lack of understanding from his friends was old news. So the little bastard enjoyed Michael’s frustration? If it made Jude smile, he could live with that. Michael caught his eye and returned the smile, then stared deeply into his eyes. A slight flush stained Jude’s cheeks and turned his already dark eyes almost black in the dim light. There. That was more like it.
Smiling, Michael rubbed a circle on Jude’s back before dropping his hand. Faint lines of tension disappeared from Jude’s mouth as he shook his head and sighed. Michael knew he’d been forgiven. Again.
For some reason, that did a lot to ease his headache.
Jude returned to his conversation. Michael’s attention wandered. He glanced over at the birthday boy. Clad in a black turtleneck sweater and looking every inch--though not very many of them--the geeky young artist, Tim stood stiffly near the bar, holding his wineglass like a shield in front of his chest. He nodded politely and spoke to friends as they stopped by to wish him well, his mousy brown hair obscuring his wire-rimmed glasses with every shy dip of his head. No one stayed very long. Tim kept casting long, unhappy glances toward the entrance.
From the moment Michael had almost knocked Tim over as he’d bounded up the stairs to Jude’s loft--come to think of it, he must’ve been late then too--he’d thought Tim was as cute as one of those little ladybugs Michael had helped his nephews track down in the park the previous Saturday. Hopefully, Tim wouldn’t end up pinned to a board like--
An elbow poked him in the ribs. “Want to share?”
He blinked at Jude. “Huh?”
“Um...nothing.” The image of cute-as-a-bug Timmy pinned to a board like an insect could possibly be construed as more sick than funny. Michael deflected further questions by asking one of his own. “What’s wrong with the birthday boy?”
Jude looked up at him, tilting his head so his solemn brown eyes gazed into Michael’s wide blue ones. Michael stared back, the trepidation growing as Jude continued to look at him intently.
Finally, Michael couldn’t stand it anymore. “What--” He had to stop and swallow. “What is it? What’s happened?”
Jude slowly, sadly shook his head. Then he leaned forward and stretched up a bit so he could reach Michael’s ear. Michael held his breath. The noisy room made hearing difficult, and he didn’t want to miss whatever seemed so important.
Jude announced loudly right into Michael’s ear, “His boyfriend is late.” Then he settled back on his heels. He sipped his wine as he idly surveyed the crowd.
Michael gaped at him. “Oh you dick.”
Another almost-smile threatened to turn up the corners of Jude’s full lips while a rare mischievous spark lit his eyes. That impish smile made Michael want to twist his fingers into Jude’s chestnut curls and drag him into the nearest closet. Instead, he played along. “Jeez,” he whined. “I said I was sorry.”
Jude raised an eyebrow. “Feeling defensive, are we? I’m merely answering your question. Tim is unhappy because his inconsiderate boyfriend is standing him up at his birthday party. You asked.”
“Maybe he has a good reason. Maybe he...um...got hit by a bus.”
“Or maybe he works too much and forgets what’s important.”
Time for more deflection. “Have you met this guy? What does he do?”
Jude rolled his eyes at Michael’s change of subject but let it slide. “A couple of times in passing. He’s a lawyer with some big firm that specializes in art and entertainment cases. He and Tim haven’t been going out very long.”
Michael glanced over at Tim. His wineglass was almost empty. Not acceptable. If a guy couldn’t get drunk off his ass at his own birthday party, then when could he? “I’m going to say hi to the birthday boy and buy him a drink. You already spoke to him?”
“Sure, but I’ll come with you.”
Jude made arrangements with Ron and Betsy to continue their plans the next day, and then he and Michael made their way through the crowd toward Tim.
They were intercepted after only a few feet by a squealed, “Jude!” A cloud of Chanel enveloped them. The tall brunette clutched Jude’s shoulders while she gave him enthusiastic air kisses and then did the same for Michael. “So glad to see my favorite boys.”
Apparently, air kisses weren’t enough. Marta reached for Jude’s hand and then Michael’s. Michael returned the squeeze. “Good to see you too.”
Marta Solano might be a bit over the top, but that big personality had made her a successful artist’s agent and, more importantly, had landed Jude his first gallery showing, now only a week away.
“Do you know Tim?” Jude asked her.
“The birthday boy? Not really. A friend of a friend invited me. I love this place.”
“He moved into my building a few months ago. Michael and I stopped over to see some of his work the other day.”
“Tell me, darling.”
“Mostly figure painting in oils, very nice blending of tones.”
Michael touched Jude on the arm and then gestured toward Tim. “I’ll be over there.”
Jude nodded, then turned back to Marta.
Michael headed across the room. He figured Tim would forgive Jude for not stopping by again once he knew his fellow artist was talking up his work to an agent. After pushing up to the bar next to Tim, he spoke to the bartender. “Two more of whatever he’s having.” He nodded at Tim.
Although he still appeared anxious, Tim managed a smile. “Thanks, Michael.”
“Oh, did you want something too?” Michael asked innocently.
Lame as the joke was, it got a chuckle out of Tim. Michael grinned at him, then accepted the wine from the bartender. He handed Tim his glass.
Michael breathed in the aroma, then took a sip, swirling it around on his tongue. A nice California Syrah. He may have been in the mood for something a little harder, but the wine went down smoothly and helped mellow him out. He spotted a high table being vacated by a couple. He headed toward it, gesturing for Tim to follow. They settled onto the stools. Michael let out a sigh as he took the weight off his aching feet. When was the last time he’d even sat down?
“Bad day?” Tim asked.
“Just long and hectic. Hey, I’m supposed to be asking you that. You don’t look like a guy celebrating his birthday. What’s up?”
Tim shrugged and looked down, a faint blush coloring his cheeks. The straight bangs dipped to cover the lenses of his eyeglasses.
“Boyfriend problems?” Michael prompted.
“I guess you heard.” Tim grimaced. “He’s an attorney, you know? He wants to make partner in his firm, so if a client wants to go out to dinner, he has to go. I understand. It’s just...” He shrugged again.
“It’s just that it’s your birthday.”
Tim bit his lip. Michael watched the struggle on Tim’s face as the kid decided what to say. Finally, Tim burst out, “I don’t care about that, but this whole party was Steve’s idea. He invited the people he wanted to see, and now he’s not even here.”
“I wondered about that. I haven’t known you long, but this didn’t seem the kind of thing you’d go for.”
“I wanted to invite you and Jude and a couple of other people in the building over for dinner. That’s all. A nice, quiet dinner.” He looked around helplessly. “I don’t even know most of these people.”
Michael gave his arm a squeeze. “We’ll do that, okay? We’ll have dinner.” Michael smiled at him. “You’ll get a birthday do-over. Can’t complain about that, can you?”
Tim smiled back gratefully. Michael wanted to take him home, make him hot chocolate, and tuck him up with a teddy bear in front of a fireplace. He didn’t feel even a glimmer of sexual attraction, just some weird and unsuspected paternal instinct.
“I’m sure Steve will be here as soon as he can. In the meantime, Jude will be over in a minute. We’ll keep you company.” Michael switched subjects. “So what are you working on?”
Tim brightened as he talked about his most recent painting. After dating Jude for a couple of years, Michael had picked up more artsy lingo than he’d realized. He nodded pleasantly and enjoyed his wine.
Tim had started a detailed description of how he’d figured out the best way to compose his latest work when a deep voice cut in. “Tim, baby. Sorry I’m late.”
Tim’s face lit up as he hopped off his stool. “You made it.”
“Of course I did. Told you I’d be here, didn’t I? Had to socialize. Part of the job.” The big man in the charcoal-gray Italian suit and neatly trimmed dark hair stood almost a head taller than Tim, which put Steve about the same height as Michael.
“I know.” Tim reached for him. “I just missed you.”
“You’re a sweetheart.” Steve gave him a brief hug and then pushed him gently away. Not one for public displays. Lots of guys weren’t.
Michael stood. Tim introduced them. “Steve, this is my friend Michael. He’s seeing my neighbor, Jude.”
Steve extended his hand. Michael grasped it, then got his first good look at the man. The strong grip faltered as their eyes met with a shock of recognition.
A slow smile spread over Steve’s handsome face. “Michael.” His grip tightened. “Good to meet you.”
Michael blinked in surprise. After the briefest hesitation, he said, “Nice to meet you too, Steve.” Memories of their last encounter spread warmth across his face. He hoped the dim light hid the flush. If Steve wanted to pretend they’d never met, Michael had no problem with that.
Steve waved over one of the servers, then put in his wine order. He snagged a vacant stool from another table before pushing it right between Michael and Tim.
The man did look good. The dark hair seemed the same, but he’d grown a small, neat goatee. A little pretentious maybe, but it suited him. He’d always been large and well-built, but the strong body now seemed more defined. Michael’s gaze lingered on the tight, well-muscled biceps. Maybe he’d turned into a gym rat since Michael had last seen him. When did he have time for that if his job kept him so busy?
Steve’s bicep flexed as he lifted his arm to take his wine from the server. Blinking, Michael looked up to find Steve eyeing him in amusement. He blurted out, “I have a boyfriend. Jude. He’ll be over in a minute. I think you’ve met him.”
“The trust-fund baby on the top floor? Yeah, I’ve met him.”
“He’s not like that.” Any fleeting fascination with bulging biceps disappeared. “He works hard at his art.”
Steve raised a hand in apology. “Whoa. No offense, buddy.”
Tim intervened, obviously trying to head off any disagreement. “Jude has his first gallery show soon. He’s very talented.”
“I’m sure you’re just as good, babe,” Steve replied.
Tim laughed nervously. “You haven’t even seen his work.”
“No, but I’ve seen yours.”
Tim beamed at him.
Michael looked back and forth between them. What the hell was going on? What was Steve up to? The man was a player. Hard to picture him settling down with a kid like Tim. Okay, not a kid, and maybe Michael needed to stop thinking of him like that. Tim had been out of college a while, so he had to be in his early twenties. Steve couldn’t have been his first lover. Tim seemed a little innocent, though--as if life hadn’t knocked all the trust and optimism out of him yet. Michael had the uneasy feeling Steve might be the one to do that.
As Steve shifted on his bar stool, his thigh pressed against Michael’s and stayed there. Michael tried to move away, but he didn’t have much room. Where the hell was Jude? He looked across the room. Still talking to Marta. Gotta love her, but the woman could talk. Her hands gestured wildly in the air. A couple of other people had joined them.
Steve had arrived to keep Tim company, and Michael had stayed at the table long enough to be polite. Time to say good-bye and join Jude. He turned to Tim just as Steve raised his glass. Their elbows bumped. Red wine splashed onto Michael’s tie.
He flinched. “Damn.”
“Sorry, man.” Steve grabbed a cocktail napkin, then tried to dab at the red stain.
Michael took the napkin from him as Steve continued to apologize. “It’s nothing.” He looked up into Steve’s face. The amusement in his eyes belied his words. Michael frowned. What was so funny?
He dabbed at the spot again. “It’s just my tie.” At least the incident gave him an excuse to leave. He stood. “I’m going to the bathroom to see if I can rinse it out.”
Tim hadn’t said anything but appeared anxious. “No harm done,” Michael reassured him. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
Once he’d reached the relative quiet of the marble-floored bathroom, Michael breathed a sigh of relief. The empty room echoed with his footsteps. He pulled off his tie, then looked mournfully at the blue silk. He liked that tie, and he doubted it would recover from the incident. After dabbing at the stain with cold water, he wrapped the tie in a paper towel before tucking it into his jacket pocket.
He looked up into the mirror to see if any wine had spotted his shirt and then jumped at the reflection of Steve standing right behind him.
“Jeez,” he gasped. “You trying to give me a heart attack?”
“Only in a good way.”
Michael turned to him. “What does that mean?”
Steve stepped closer. “As in, you could die of pleasure, baby.”
Michael backed into the counter in an attempt to avoid a full-body press. “Pretty lame, but pick-up lines were never your strong suit.”
“I don’t remember you having any complaints back at the club.”
“No.” Michael smiled at the memories. “I never had anything to complain about. Neither did you.”
“I sure didn’t. Good times.”
“All three times,” Michael agreed.
“Awww. You remember.” Steve rested a hand on Michael’s hip.
“Sure I remember.” Mostly because three had been a record for him at the time. That powerful body had been difficult to resist, and the confidence that bordered on arrogance...very hot in a one-night-stand partner. Not so much in a life partner. Michael grasped Steve’s wrist, then pushed him away. “We had fun,” he acknowledged. “But that was a long time ago. I’ve moved on, and so have you.”
“No sweat, babe. I just came to tell you I’d pay for the dry cleaning.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Michael attempted to push past but found himself blocked. “Something else I can help you with?” he asked politely.
“Yeah. Wanted to tell you that you’re looking very fine.” Steve’s gaze wandered down Michael’s body. “How about we meet up later? For old times’ sake.”
It took a moment, but the light finally dawned. “You asshole.” Michael glared at him. “You spilled that wine on purpose.”
“No shit, Sherlock. How else could I get you alone?”
“And what about Tim?”
“He’s a sweet kid. Tight little ass.” Steve leaned forward. He rested his hands on the countertop on each side of Michael, trapping him against the counter. “But tonight I think I’m more in the mood for tall beautiful blond than sweet young thing.” His warm breath brushed Michael’s cheek as he leaned closer. “There’s something to be said for experience.”
Experience? Michael should have been offended but couldn’t quite manage the indignation when the comment struck a little too close to home. “You sound like you’re ordering off a menu.”
“Just like in the club. Look around and see who strikes your fancy, bring him home for a night, and that’s the end of it.”
“Those were fun times,” Michael agreed. “Uncomplicated, at least. But I’ve got something special going with Jude now, and I won’t risk that.”
He pushed at Steve’s arm so he could get past him. It felt like a steel bar blocking him in as the man resisted. Then Steve relaxed and moved aside so Michael could slip by. “Let me know if you change your mind, beautiful. You know you still want me.”
Michael stopped on his way to the door. “Tim seems to really like you. If you’re not that into him, why don’t you let him down easy instead of cheating on him?”
“Cheating? I never pledged he’d be my one and only. Make no promises, break no promises, babe.”
“Then why are you sneaking around behind his back, hitting on me in the bathroom, babe?
Why not do it in front of him?”
“No drama. Don’t need that crap.” Steve shrugged. “Anyway, I don’t make a habit of it. No time for it nowadays. Just saw you and had the urge.” Steve eyed him. “No need to mention it to him, is there?”
“Not my business. I just don’t want to see him hurt.” He left without waiting for an answer and then promptly ran into Jude lingering in the hallway by the open entrance to the bathroom. Michael winced. How much had he heard?
Michael looked at him searchingly. Jude stared back without saying anything, but Michael saw the slight lines of tension around his mouth...yeah, he’d heard at least some of that. Michael raised a hand to brush his fingers along Jude’s cheekbone. “You ready to go?”
Jude nodded. “I was trying to find you to see if you wanted to leave. I know you’ve had a long day.”
No smile. But hell, Michael didn’t have any reason to feel guilty. Did he?