Gary got out of his babied, older car and stepped onto the curb, reaching back inside to retrieve the bottle of wine from the passenger seat. Shutting the door, he checked the address on the mailbox and confirmed that he'd found the right house before letting his eyes wander to the front door. His mouth dropped open, and he looked again. This was the right place, wasn't it?
He looked up and down the sidewalk and almost got back into his car and drove away. He shouldn't have come. The house was a beautiful Victorian with a turret and meticulously maintained yard. Where he'd been happy a few minutes earlier just to have been invited to a party, his first one in years, now he felt self-conscious about his clothes, which were old, but the nicest he had, and the grocery store bottle of wine he'd brought. Maybe he should just leave and go back to his tiny apartment and drink the entire bottle himself. Life had done a good job of beating him down: a series of jobs that always seemed to evaporate just when he'd get comfortable, and a few boyfriends who turned out to be frogs rather than princes. Unlucky and unremarkable, that was him. As he stood on the sidewalk, he saw the front door open, and he knew it was too late. He'd been seen.
"Gary, come on in." Tyler smiled and waved. "I see you found the place."
Gary forced his feet to move forward and gave himself a quick "what the hell" pep talk. Tyler was a client, a very good client, and he'd invited him to a party at his home. So screwing up his courage, Gary smiled and walked toward the front door.
As soon as he reached the front porch, his hand was clasped in a firm handshake, and he was greeted with a warm smile. "I'm so glad you could make it." Tyler ushered him into the imposing entrance hall with its rich woodwork and impressive furnishings. If Gary hadn't known already, it would be quite obvious from the furnishings that Tyler was a very successful antiques dealer. "Can I take your coat?"
"Thank you." Gary handed Tyler the bottle of wine and then slipped off his fall jacket and handed it to Tyler as well. "I wasn't sure what to bring," he said softly, a little embarrassed at his meager offering.
Tyler smiled brightly, taking the bottle. "You didn't need to bring anything, but thank you." Tyler turned the bottle in his hand looking at the label. "You got one, huh?"
Gary had no idea what Tyler was talking about, and it must have showed on his face.
"Sommelier Wines had already sold out before I could get a bottle," Tyler explained.
"One of what?" Gary asked as he suppressed a smile. He'd obviously gotten lucky with the wine.
"According to Sean, this is one of those unexpected vintages where the bottle costs ten or fifteen bucks and tastes like a hundred dollar bottle of wine. I've been hoping to try this since he sold out." The smile stayed in place as Tyler went on to explain, "Drinks are in the kitchen, food's in the dining room. Please make yourself comfortable."
Gary followed Tyler through to the kitchen where a large assortment of wine, liquor, and mixers were set out. A small crowd was standing near the bar, and a handsome older man was mixing drinks. "What would you like?" he asked as he looked at Gary.
"I'm not sure." He never knew what to order. Most people thought what he liked was too fruity. "What seems to be popular?"
"I have a pitcher of daiquiris if you'd like one, white and red wine, or I can mix you a cocktail. Just name your poison." The man smiled, and Gary realized that for an older man, he was a real hunk. Gary watched as another older hunk approached and slipped his arm around the bartender's waist.
"A daiquiri would be nice, thank you." Gary watched as his drink was poured and handed to him.
"By the way, I'm Bill Janssens, and this is my partner, Tom Carter." He held out his hand.
"Gary Keller." He shook both men's hands and smiled nervously.
"How do you know Tyler and Mark, Gary?" Bill poured himself a drink and stepped from behind the counter-slash-bar, Tom's arm still around his waist.
"I'm the Milwaukee representative for Gregory Martin Fabrics, and Tyler uses a lot of my fabrics when he reupholsters the antiques for the store." He took a sip of his drink, pulling his eyes momentarily away from the attractive men.
"Do you sell to individuals?" Tom asked, as Bill kissed him softly and then moved away.
"No, I'm a wholesaler, but anything you need could be gotten through Tyler." Gary took another sip and felt the alcohol start to warm his stomach. God, this was strong stuff.
"I need new curtains for the house. I made the last ones years ago, but I just don't have the time anymore."
Gary reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. "Give me a call, and I could meet you at Tyler's if he's willing. I've got a car full of books, and we make all different styles of curtains and draperies."
Tom raised his glass a little. "Gary, you're a lifesaver. I'll call you next week and set something up. I'm sure Tyler won't have a problem." Gary saw Bill motioning for Tom, and Gary expected him to move away, but Tom seemed to pull Gary along with him as he joined his partner, entering a circle of people who obviously knew each other.
"Gary, this is Sean and Sam, and their son Bobby and his partner Kenny." Gary shook hands with each of them.
"Haven't I seen you at Tyler's?" Bobby smiled as he took a gulp of his beer.
"I've seen you a few times. You're usually working with Mark. You're an artist, right?"
"Yeah. Mark and I are working on a project together." Bobby was obviously proud and pleased to be working with Mark.
"Tom, we were just talking about the cruise next month, and Sean told me that Phillip needs a roommate. He had one but the guy backed out because of a family issue, and now he's stuck." Bill looked truly disappointed for his friend.
"A cruise, wow. Where are you going?" Gary let his excitement overrule his usual reticence.
"We leave out of Puerto Rico and stop in Barbados, Antigua, St. Croix, St. Maarten, and St. Lucia. It should be a lot of fun," Tom said, with a little excitement of his own.
Gary looked at Bobby and Kenny. "Are you going too?" He sipped the strong drink, careful not to overdo it on an empty stomach.
Kenny answered for the two of them. "Bobby's watching the antique store for Tyler and I'm watching the wine store for Sean."
Tom set his empty glass on a coaster. "Is Phillip going to be here tonight?"
"Tyler told me he'd been invited." Sean looked around the room. "Speak of the devil." A tall, handsome, blond man in his early thirties approached the group. Hugs were exchanged and introductions made.
"I understand you don't have a roommate for the cruise," Tom commented.
"Yeah, Craig backed out at the last minute. I can't blame him, though. His mother's having health issues, and he can't be away for too long. Cost him enough, anyway. He'd already paid for half the cruise and they won't refund it. So he's out that, but if I still want to go, I have to pay for my passage plus the other half of his."
"When's the deadline?" Tyler asked as he joined the group.
"The travel agent said I have to let her know by Monday. I figure I'll go and pay the extra, but I'd be able to do more on the islands if a roommate freed up the extra cash, you know?"
"Gary, why don't you go?" Tyler asked, and all heads in the group turned to him.
Gary didn't know what to say or how to react. He'd love to go on a cruise--he hadn't had a vacation in at least two years, but he wasn't sure he had the money to spare, and he'd be rooming with a complete stranger. "I don't know if I can afford it," he said softly, regretting the words as soon as they crossed his lips.
"It's not very expensive," Phillip supplied, looking a little excited. And Gary had to admit, as he looked into those deep blue eyes, he wouldn't mind sharing a room for a week with a guy like that. He could feel heat settle in his groin, and he had to force his mind back to the topic at hand and off his starved libido. "Craig already paid for half the fare. So you'd just need to pay the other half and the airfare. The food's included on the ship."
Gary thought about it. It sounded like a lot of fun and maybe it wouldn't cost too much. He'd been working hard for years, making ends meet and making do. He deserved a little excitement and some fun. November was a slow month for him anyway, and so far October had been pretty good. "Can I think about it?"
Phillip beamed back at him, and he almost said he'd go just to see that smile again. "Sure, would you like to meet for lunch tomorrow? We could get to know each other, and I could go over things with you." Gary found himself agreeing before he could think twice about it.
Gary saw Tyler smile as he stepped away from the group. He followed, looking at all the incredible works of art as Tyler wandered through the house making sure his guests were happy. Gary noticed that Tyler kept checking his watch. "Where are you, Mark?" he heard Tyler whisper as he peeked out the front window from the office. Gary was about to go to him, until he saw Bill coming over.
"Is something wrong?"
Startled, Tyler jumped a little as Bill approached.
"No. I'm just wondering what's keeping Mark." He'd been doing that a lot lately. Tyler turned away from the window and faced his close friend.
"Is there something wrong?" Bill asked, obviously concerned for his friend.
"I don't want to think there is, but I'm really starting to wonder." The patter of scampering feet on the wood interrupted them as a miniature dachshund began jumping around Tyler's leg. He picked her up and she kissed him before settling in his arms. "We used to go into the store together most mornings, and when the store closed, we'd ride home together. Now Mark sleeps in, gets to his studio at noon, and doesn't leave till late. He never says what he's doing, and when I ask, he's evasive."
"You think Mark's having an affair?" Bill's tone said that he didn't believe it. "Mark loves you more than life itself. You know that. There's no way he'd have an affair."
"Then what other explanation is there?"
"Lots. Thousands. Maybe he's just working."
Tyler set down the dog down, and she scampered around the room, doing a doggie vacuum cleaner routine. Then she jumped around Gary's legs looking for attention. Sitting in one of the hall chairs, he picked her up and set her on his lap. Tyler's voice carried to where he was sitting, but he didn't mean to overhear. "I've checked his studio a few times, and I can't see anything that would take up that kind of time."
"There's an explanation Tyler. You just have to trust him."
"I do trust him; that's what's beginning to hurt. I hate this feeling of helplessness and doubt. Mark's my whole world, and if anything ever happened to him, to us, I don't know what I'd do. I just don't know how to deal with this." Gary saw the front door open, and the dog jumped down from his lap, running across the hall, jumping around Mark's legs.
"Jolie, how's my girl?" Mark looked so happy to be home.
"Talk to him, Tyler. Tell him how you feel." The words drifted from the office, and Bill walked out of the office door, Gary watching him head toward the back of the house. Mark walked into the office, carrying Jolie.
"I'm sorry, Ty. I got caught up and lost track of time." Gary got up from the chair and walked in front of the open office door. He saw Mark kiss Tyler and then put Jolie down before kissing Tyler again, hard. Tyler almost backed away in surprise, but returned the kiss, his passion for this man evident.
"I'm sorry I've been so tired lately," Mark said softly.
Gary turned away to leave them alone. It sounded like they needed the privacy. He hoped there wasn't something going on. Gary really liked Tyler, and he'd seen him and Mark together for as long as Tyler had been a client. They were an inspiration to him. Whatever was wrong, he hoped they worked it out.
"We should join our guests." Tyler began to walk toward the door, but he felt Mark's tug at his arm.
"They'll wait a few minutes."
Gary couldn't help turning around. The two of them were so loving to each other. He watched Mark pull Tyler to him and kiss him again as Jolie bounded around their feet. "Once this is over, I intend to take you upstairs and make up for all the time I haven't been around lately. I love you, Ty."
Gary turned away and left the room, not wanting to tempt himself to watch any more. It wasn't right, but what he'd seen warmed his heart. He wanted that so badly: someone to love who would love him back, someone who actually saw him. And Gary thought, not for the first time, that maybe that was the problem. Gary walked through the magnificent house and wandered into what he guessed was the family room, where he saw Bill and Sean talking together in the corner.
"I hope things are okay with them." The concern on Bill's face was plainly evident. "I did notice as I left that Mark gave Tyler quite a lip-lock. I hope he's mistaken."
"I'm sure he is," Sean said, as Gary made his way to them, hoping they'd welcome him into their conversation.
"Does Tom know?" Sean asked, obviously being cagey.
Bill turned, staring into Sean's eyes. "No, he has no idea at all." Bill smiled conspiratorially. "Can we meet this week? I really need to make sure everything is absolutely perfect."
"It will be, don't worry. Tom will never see this coming." Sean sipped his wine and returned Bill's look as Gary stood next to them.
"See what coming?" Tom asked.
Gary saw Tom's arms slip around Bill's waist as he nuzzled Bill's neck and ear. He loved that they weren't afraid to demonstrate their love for one another.
"Nothing." Bill looked momentarily flustered and then recovered, like he'd been caught doing something he shouldn't. "We were just trying to decide which excursions we might like to take during the cruise. There's a snorkeling package on Barbados with a catamaran that includes the chance to snorkel in Turtle Bay. The guide says we may even see some sea turtles. Sean was telling me that without your glasses, one could come up right behind you and you'd never see it coming."
Gary knew that wasn't at all what they'd been saying. It had sounded to him like they were planning some sort of surprise for Tom, and he didn't want to spoil it. Tom didn't look like he was buying it, but then Bill began pressing back against Tom, and Gary almost laughed at the far-away, lustful look that passed over Tom's face. Gary noticed that the subject died, just like Bill was probably hoping it would.
"If you'll excuse me, I need to see what Sam is up to." Sean made a hasty retreat, and Gary retrieved his drink from the table, intending to follow.
"Bill, what are you up to?" Gary saw Tom's hand graze over Bill's pants. "Plenty, I guess."
Gary hastened his retreat. He was starting to feel like a voyeur, and it was making him a little uncomfortable. Bill turned in Tom's embrace. "We're at a party, remember?" The rest of what was said faded away as Gary left them alone in the room and headed to the dining room, where Phillip was filling a plate. Gary joined him and Phillip smiled and began talking. Gary made up a plate and followed Phillip into the living room, where they sat down and talked... and talked. It had been a long time since he'd sat down and really talked to someone, and it felt good.
As the evening wore on, people began getting their coats and leaving. Gary got up from the chair he'd occupied for the last few hours. "I should get going as well."
Phillip stood up and, to Gary's surprise, gave him a hug. "I'll see you for lunch tomorrow. I hope you decide to go on the cruise. We'll have so much fun." Phillip hugged him again, and Gary found he was really looking forward to that lunch.