“Mitch, what the hell ever possessed you to do such a thing?”
“I told you right from the start that I didn’t want to participate in that eBay auction, but you pushed and nudged and nagged until I gave in and went along. If you don’t like the results, don’t blame me. You’re the one who asked for it.”
Mitch DeSantis sat on the sofa in his living room with his knees pulled defensively up to his chin. This scolding from April bore a surprising resemblance to the guilt-inducing talks he’d suffered from his last foster mother. June Whitten knew how to make a kid behave by instilling a sense of remorse, then playing on it until that recalcitrant child’s conscience was cringing.
April, who’d been standing over him, settled on the coffee table and trained a steady gaze on his face. Understanding slowly replaced the disapproval in her soft, brown eyes. “I know you don’t like the notoriety that comes with this job, but they go hand in hand, Mitch, and there’s really no way to separate them. You’ve been handling the publicity chores so well lately too. That TV Guide
spread you did for Case Files
with Allison went wonderfully well. The photo shoot, the interview, all of it.”
As he listened, Mitch let his gaze wander over the colorful yet muted designs of the vintage carpet at their feet. There was a distinct resemblance between following those convoluted lines with his eyes and deciphering the maze his thoughts wandered through. Memories from the past mixed with his encounter with Ben. Those were then overlaid by his present, which, at the moment, was dominated by April’s gentle rebuke.
“This auction deal was for a worthy cause, something you yourself believe in; that’s why I pushed for you to take part in it. I didn’t think it would be that big a problem for you. I know having to interact socially with people you don’t know makes you nervous, but I thought seeing as it was just one person that it would be okay. Was it really so bad?”
Her question brought his splintered thoughts back together with a snap. Mitch sighed and ran a hand over his chin. He could feel the stubble sprouting. It reminded him of how it had felt to touch Jamie’s face when he needed a shave and that in turn brought to mind the news he’d received just that morning. Squelching that thought he sighed and answered, “No. I don’t know. I never gave the guy a chance. I’m sure he thinks I’m a real dick.”
At this confession, it was April’s turn to sigh. “Oh dear, he seemed like such a nice guy too. I just hope he didn’t say anything too damaging to that bitch, Cathy Reed. I’ve tried contacting him, but he’s not returning my calls.”
“I suppose if he said anything juicy enough we’ll be seeing it on television…maybe even tonight.”
“Don’t remind me. I may have to do some damage control…but Mitch, you still haven’t answered my question. Why did you do it?”
Mitch was on the verge of telling April it was none of her business, but considering the job he paid her to do, how well she did it, and how much he relied on her, he relented. “I…received some news this morning about someone I was once very close to.”
“I take it the news wasn’t good?”
“I guess you could call it good and bad. The person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with is marrying someone else. Good for them, bad for me.” Mitch tried a nonchalant shrug, but the tightness in his chest belied his outward indifference. Even though he’d had no contact with Jamie for the past four years, it still hurt to think of him with someone else.
“I’m so sorry. I take it…what I mean is…” April frowned. “Crap. I hate being insensitive, but should I know any details? Is there anything here that could jump up and bite us on the ass?”
Mitch huffed in bitter amusement. “No. This relationship was over before I garnered any attention as an actor, and I’m certain Jamie won’t want any publicity.”
“Jamie Sandlin. We spent our last eighteen months in foster care together in the same house and after that we lived together for three and half years.”
“That’s quite a run considering you were both so young. Was she your first serious love?”
While it was tempting to keep Jamie’s sex concealed, Mitch decided now was as good a time as any to come clean. He’d never felt the need to share this with her before, but taking into account what had happened in the limo earlier at his first sight of Ben, he decided it might not be a bad idea.
“Yes, he was,” Mitch answered, waiting for her reaction.
Saying nothing, Mitch merely nodded.
“Whoa. You’ve never exhibited an interest in other guys since I’ve known you. At least not that I’ve noticed. I’m surprised.”
“That’s because I was never interested in another one, before or after Jamie. He was…special. For all I know, he’ll probably be my one and only same-sex relationship, but I thought you should know.”
“Thank you for confiding in me.”
“I trust you. You’ve become more than an employee. I consider you a friend.”
“Really? I thought you considered me your mommy,” April replied with a pleased grin.
“Very funny, although you are what, fifteen years older than me?”
“Bastard! Ten and you know it. Turn on the television. Let’s see if we need to sue anyone for slander.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Mitch groaned.
He did as April asked, and while she planted herself on the sofa beside him, he flipped through the channels until he found Hollywood Now
just beginning its opening theme music. The show’s two hosts started off with their usual banal banter before introducing the first segment.
“Was Case Files
star Mitch DeSantis dissed? Here’s Hollywood Now
reporter Cathy Reed with our lead story.”
Hit by a shocking jolt right to the solar plexus, Mitch twisted in place, stretched his legs out and scooted to the edge of the sofa. Side-by-side head shots of him and Ben Searcy filled the screen for a moment before they were relegated to the background and the camera zoomed in on Cathy Reed’s smiling face.
“After reviewing the tape, no one here in the Hollywood Now
studio seems to be quite certain, but it looks as though bookstore owner Ben Searcy was less than pleased with Case Files
star Mitch DeSantis. Mr. Searcy, winner of the eBay-sponsored charity auction that offered lunch with the actor, abruptly left just as the main course was served. Our sources tell us that Mr. DeSantis spent most of the time conversing on his BlackBerry rather than with his guest. Not very polite behavior, Mitch,” Cathy Reed offered in a playfully disparaging tone.
“When asked for his opinion of Mitch, Mr. Searcy replied…”
At this point Ben’s interview played and Mitch once again reacted even as he listened to Ben’s carefully worded assessment of the time they spent together. Just as had happened in the limo, the sight of Ben and the sound of his voice, even this pale, electronic substitute for the real thing, caused a stirring in Mitch’s groin and made his toes curl. It was an instant reaction that had surprised the shit out of him. Following their introduction, a whole set of disconcerting desires had arisen.
Something about Ben’s neatly styled black hair had made Mitch want to run his fingers through it until it was mussed and tousled. Perhaps it was the shimmer, reminiscent of costly silk, that made him yearn to feel such apparent softness against his skin. And his eyes, so green and bright and filled with such honest delight when they’d first met. They’d made Mitch long to know that such a look was truly directed at him and not just the image he projected on television. The rest of Ben’s features, taken one at a time, tended toward average and nothing noteworthy, but put together, they formed a pleasing whole. A face that would be considered almost pretty except for whatever element existed to make it distinctly masculine.
Mitch silently cursed. As much as he’d tried to convince himself that his initial reaction was a fluke, there was no denying it now. Something about Ben Searcy had gotten to him, and in light of his memories of Jamie, he felt his emotions roil. It seemed especially portentous for this to happen now. Now that his former lover was about to commit himself to another man. It was a bond Mitch had longed for, but had never managed to win from Jamie. The love they shared had been too one-sided.
The only person he’d ever wanted a serious relationship with had been a man. While he had no such aspirations where Ben was concerned, it was still disconcerting to realize that he was the first person, male or female, Mitch had met since Jamie to inspire such a strong reaction. Not only was it unnerving, it was exciting, confusing and frightening at the same time. Mitch returned his attention to the television in time to hear Cathy Reed’s closing remarks.
“Is this what’s known as a backhanded compliment? In this reporter’s opinion, the answer is yes. And if that’s so, does this mean that good guy Mitch DeSantis is actually a snob? We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. I’m Cathy Reed, reporting for Hollywood Now
Mitch hit the Mute button and turned a questioning gaze toward April.
“Well, it could have been worse,” she said, answering his unspoken inquiry. “Ben was surprisingly discreet, which in light of what happened, it was very nice of him. He’s obviously a very intelligent man. He either knew the possible consequences of saying something damaging to your reputation or he wanted to avoid stirring up trouble and ending up in the middle of a media frenzy.”
“He definitely managed to sidestep Reed’s leading questions.”
“Yes. I’m going to send him something nice to make up for all the trouble. I think it’s the least we can do, especially as he was so generous in his bid. The Books for Kids organization was very pleased with the check they received.”
“He didn’t bid, you know,” Mitch defensively pointed out.
“What do you mean?”
“He said his business partner is the one who bid and gave him her auction win as a…” Mitch halted, struck by how this revelation was going to make his behavior look even worse.
“As a what?”
“A birthday present.”
“Shit. How was I supposed to know it was his birthday?”
“Now I’m definitely sending him something nice, something extra
“Good idea and I’ll pay for it.”
“That’s what I’d intended all along,” April archly informed him.
Feeling like a total bastard, Mitch collapsed against the back of the sofa. He cursed himself for making Ben Searcy a convenient target for the resentment, hurt, and anger he’d been feeling earlier in the day. It wasn’t Ben’s fault he had a phobia when it came to social interaction with strangers. It wasn’t Ben’s fault that Jamie hadn’t been able to return his feelings with the intensity that Mitch himself felt. No. And it certainly wasn’t Ben’s fault that Jamie had apparently found someone who had
been able to win his heart. Perhaps things wouldn’t have been so bad had Ben not unknowingly awakened such strong feelings in Mitch, but then again, he couldn’t be blamed for that either. All he’d done was be himself.
Mitch was honest enough to admit the fault was his and he was willing to accept responsibility for treating Ben badly. He was also ready to acknowledge to April that it was because of his aversion to strangers as well as the final loss of a past love that had made him behave so badly, but no way in hell was he telling her the rest of it. At this point, he had no intention of confessing that none of the women he’d dated since Jamie’s departure incited his interest the way a few moments in Ben’s company had done. While his initial reaction had made him push the man away, the truth was, in spite of being scared at the very thought of it, he wanted to see Ben again.