"Fuck!" Calvin Reece hopped on one foot and grabbed on to the toes of the other before deciding that he should really let loose. After all, there was no one to hear him, and he certainly had plenty of reason to swear. "Fuck, shit, fuck, fucker!"
Okay, that was enough. He wasn't much for cursing. His father had always told him that it was the sign of an uncreative mind, and now that Cal was an adult himself, he agreed. He sank onto the love seat next to the box of books he'd inadvertently walked his toes into and rubbed the tender digits, wincing. He didn't think he'd broken any of them.
His phone rang, and he made the conscious decision not to answer it. It was probably some magazine editor, and they could get in line like everyone else. He had a schedule so packed and complicated that he'd been wondering if maybe it was time to hire some kind of personal assistant just to keep track of his responsibilities.
Which was the main reason why being told by his landlord the month before that the house he'd been renting had finally sold was such an inconvenience. Six months' notice would have been hard to handle. A month and a half was barely enough time in which to blink, let alone pack all his worldly goods and find a new place to live.
He hadn't accomplished either of those things. Sure, there were boxes around, some of them packed, but he didn't have anywhere to take them. He could have moved to pretty much any city in the continental United States without changing his day-to-day life all that much. He was traveling for work as often as he was home. The actual process of moving had been so daunting that he hadn't been able to even consider it unless he was going to stay within the city limits. He liked Clayton, and it made a good base.
After so many years in this rented house, he hadn't been able to bear the thought of an apartment with neighbors on all sides, kids running and laughing above him when he wanted to sleep, elderly people complaining when he played music after ten at night. No way was he going back to that. It was irritating because he could have had his pick of a dozen apartments in move-in condition within days, whereas finding someplace with more privacy was like a treasure hunt he wasn't equipped for.
The phone had stopped ringing at least. Cal sighed and limped over to retrieve whatever message had been left.
"Hey, Cal, it's Derek. You're screening your calls, aren't you? Don't try to deny it. I know you're home. Anyway, Marianne and I are having a little thing Friday night, and she's inviting someone she thinks you should meet. Eight o'clock. Be on time, no excuses. Have a good one."
Cal couldn't help feeling a flicker of interest at the idea of meeting someone. Not with an eye to anything serious--just not his style. It'd been awhile since he'd hooked up with anyone, and that wasn't like him either. He didn't break hearts and he didn't make promises, but since the men he dated had the same priorities, it usually worked out just fine. The only problem would be if the guy Marianne had picked out for him wasn't his type or didn't understand the rules Cal played by.
The flicker was dying down to be replaced by pessimism. At twenty-five, Cal had been around long enough to know that a guy desperate enough to let someone fix him up with a date probably wasn't going to be all that attractive.
A moment later, it occurred to Cal that the nameless guy might be thinking the exact same thing about him, and he grinned. He'd be a pleasant surprise for whoever it was. Without vanity, he knew that he was good-looking, and he'd been told he was hot often enough for him to believe it. He rarely slept with the same man more than a handful of times, but he always made an effort to make the sex memorable. Why not? It made it better for him if his partner was satisfied, and Cal wasn't selfish by nature.
With a return to his initial positive reaction, he sent off a quick e-mail to Derek, accepting the invitation, and went back to the seemingly endless task of packing up his belongings. For a rolling stone, he'd accumulated a lot of moss.
Part of the problem with packing was that he was so easily distracted. He'd pick up a book intending to put it into a box. An envelope with some photos tucked inside would fall out of the book, and he'd be reminded of some friends he'd made when he was shooting pictures in the Yucatan or wherever. He'd go looking for the rest of the photos from that trip--he might be an excellent photographer with a degree from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco to prove it, but organized he was not--and the next thing he knew, it was three hours later and he hadn't even managed to pack a single book, let alone a box. It was ridiculous, he knew. Friends had suggested signing up for some kind of class that would help him get stuff under control. He'd made the excuse of having no time. Deep down, though, he knew that he never would. Being disorganized was part of him.
His phone rang again, and he answered it without really thinking. It turned out to be an old friend, Jason, whom he hadn't seen in months, and it didn't take much convincing for Cal to agree to meet him for drinks in a few hours.
Why waste his time packing when he didn't have anywhere to move his stuff to, anyway?
The club was busy, and the music loud. Cal let the atmosphere soak into him for a moment, enjoying the assault on his senses. Jason was easy to spot, in his favorite place by the bar. He was taller than most men in the room, with shoulders to match. Cal's taste ran to big men, and since he wasn't exactly pint-size himself, that meant he often had to compromise. The world needed more tall guys, even if it stopped mattering as much once they were on their knees or their backs.
Cal raised his hand in a casual greeting that Jason returned and shook his head at a guy who looked barely legal and seemed to think Cal's wave had been directed at him. He threw in a smile to soften the rejection and got a shrug back. The message of your loss came over loud and clear, making Cal's smile broaden. He began to make his way over to the bar. Jason would have a drink waiting for him with another on the way.
Jason liked to party, with a capacity for alcohol that Cal couldn't match without spending the next day with a hangover. He didn't intend to try. Too much to drink meant that he wouldn't appreciate what would inevitably happen after the clubbing part of the evening ended.
As Cal joined Jason at the bar, he realized there was a man perched on the stool next to Jason's, a man with a finger hooked into the waistband of Jason's beautifully fitted slacks.
"You made it," Jason said.
"We got you a drink," the other man added like a peace offering. He wasn't that much to look at, with shaggy hair and glasses that looked several years out of style. He did have nice laugh lines around his eyes.
"Thanks." Cal smiled, directing it more at the stranger. He met Jason's eyes and raised his eyebrows. "So, Jase, you've been holding out on me. I didn't know you had a boyfriend."
"I haven't seen you since February," Jason pointed out. "George and I met at the beginning of March. We had our five-month anniversary last week."
Cal snickered and shoved Jason's shoulder playfully. "Yeah, right. Five-month anniversary. Good one."
Jason looked hurt. Reproach clear in his voice, he said, "I'm serious."
He was serious, Cal realized, surprise leaving him tongue-tied for a moment, which was just as well since it gave him time to process the news. Jason in a serious relationship? Jason? He gathered his scattered thoughts. "Yeah, no, of course. I was just giving you a hard time. Sorry, my sense of humor's been kind of suspect lately. So...five months. That's great."
Jason was still looking perturbed. "I should've said something on the phone, not just sprung it on you like this. I thought you'd be happy for me."
George was glancing between them, a faint frown replacing his polite look of welcome. "Am I missing something? Were you two...I thought you just saw each other now and then?"
"No," Cal said quickly, trying to dig them out of what was rapidly becoming an awkward situation. "You've got it right. Jase and I hooked up from time to time, that's all. We were never exclusive. I guess I'm just used to thinking of him as--" He broke off, unable to think of a way to end his sentence that wouldn't get him punched in the face. "Uh, can we start over? I'm Cal, and I'm an old friend of Jason's who's very happy to meet you. Happy for you both," he added and flashed them his most charming smile. "Did someone mention a drink?"
The awkwardness lingered through most of the first round of drinks. In the flurry of ordering the second, it finally seemed to fade away, much to Cal's relief. It wasn't that he considered settling down the worst thing in the world; it was more that he thought of it as something people did when they were forty, maybe fifty. Not when they were still young.
"And we've hardly been separated since," Jason said happily, finishing the story of how he and George had met. Cal wrenched his brain back on track and gave them another smile.
"That's so great."
"It's the story we'll be telling our kids in ten years." George gave Jason a look of such sweetness that Cal literally felt his stomach flip over. Kids?
"Kids?" He did his best to keep his tone light. "Really?"
"Sure, why not? Don't most people want kids?" George asked.
Cal sure as hell didn't, and he couldn't imagine that changing no matter whom he met. "Right, yeah. So will you adopt or do the whole surrogacy thing...?" He'd heard the details of the complicated ways in which gay men had babies more times than he could count, and hoped he wasn't about to be treated to another such session.
Luckily, Jason smiled and leaned against the bar, saying, "We haven't figured that part out yet. We will, when it's time."
Cal had been planning to spend a few hours at the club, maybe go on to a bar and make a night of it. The club scene in Clayton was lively, and he'd always taken full advantage of that fact when he wasn't off on a shoot. His favorite place to hang out was the Riverside Bar over on Deacon Street. The name was boring; the place was anything but. A large converted Victorian house over a century old, with a long garden behind it leading down to the river that ran through Clayton. The garden was the place to be in the summer, with dozens of tables set out there and an outside bar dispensing icy beer and gaudy cocktails. The Riverside was owned by a gay couple who had renovated the mansion, which had been split up into some frankly seedy apartments. They'd knocked down interior walls, restored the exterior, and in the process created something for everyone: an intimate bar, a larger room much in demand for wedding receptions, and a restaurant.
Now all Cal wanted to do was make his excuses and head home. Jason settled down with a baby? Even to hear him discuss it as a possibility was too much for Cal to wrap his head around. He needed to get out of here in case maturity was catching.
"I hope it works out for you." Cal winced inwardly at how stiff and polite he sounded. "Look, I should be going. I've got a ton of packing to do and not much time left to do it in."
"That's okay," Jason said. "I'm not all that into the bar scene these days. Not when what's waiting at home for me is so much better." He patted George's hand, and Cal manfully managed not to gag in response.
Cal walked with the happy couple to the door, and they said their good-byes; he got as far as behind the wheel of his own car before he decided he couldn't go home in the mood he was in. He'd have to go out for a while until he recovered, and the Riverside would be as good a destination as any.
Dancing, a couple more drinks, and a casual good time were what the doctor would order, if the doctor knew Calvin Reece, and Cal wasn't the kind of guy who was averse to forging a prescription on occasion.
Especially on a night like this.
Derek and Marianne lived in a big executive home that should have looked cookie-cutter. It was saved, though, by the yard around it, which Marianne had coaxed into verdant lush brightness. It showcased a riot of flowering bushes at the front and in the backyard, spectacular rockeries, and a tiny, exquisitely neat knot garden of herbs, most of which Cal didn't recognize. Even in winter, something usually showed color, from evergreens to holly bushes. The amount of grass left for Derek to cut was about the size of a paperback book.
Cal shifted the bottle of white wine he was carrying from one hand to the other and rang the doorbell, already smiling in anticipation of being welcomed and fussed over. Marianne was convinced that his roving job meant he didn't eat enough, when what it actually meant was that he ate too much junk food. She always kept his plate filled over his protests that he was full, truly, really, honestly.
Cal was never sure what had taken Derek from being a client, with Cal providing the photographs for the launch of Derek's up-market bakery and attached cafe, to being a friend. Sometimes he thought that it was as simple as Marianne liking him. Keeping in touch with them was one more reason to stay in Clayton.
The door opened, and his smile widened as he saw Marianne, displaying her baby bump proudly.
"I brought you something you can't have," Cal told her, gesturing with the wine.
"I think I'm allowed to touch the bottle." Marianne reached out.
"No, no." Lifting the wine above his head, Cal stepped into the house and curled his other arm around Marianne's shoulders, leaning in to kiss her temple. "And how is the adorable mother-to-be?"
"Other than as big as a house, you mean?" Marianne sounded rueful, though her hand caressed her stomach as she spoke. Cal knew she was thrilled to be pregnant. Even though neither of them had come right out and said it, they'd been trying for some time before Derek had succeeded in knocking Marianne up, which was the way they'd finally come out and made the announcement. "I'm good. And I promise not to subject you to ultrasound pictures."
"She might promise that," Derek said, coming around the corner from the kitchen to join them.
"You, on the other hand, make no such promises." Cal handed the wine to Derek. "Here, take this. Just don't let her have any."
"Right, because she's such a lush." Derek rolled his eyes and grinned. "Hey, guy, it's been too long. Thanks for coming."
Cal lifted an eyebrow. "I didn't think you'd offered me a choice."
"Have I shown you the latest ultrasound pictures?" Derek asked, feigning innocence, and Cal laughed and let himself be drawn farther into the house, where half a dozen people, only some of whom he recognized, already mingled.
By the time Derek had organized him a drink, a perfectly chilled pinot grigio, Cal had eaten two bite-size circles of flaky pastry topped with something that smelled heavenly and tasted better. Cal didn't cook and didn't even try to identify the topping beyond the obvious, that it was some sort of mushroom and some kind of cheese. Between bites, he'd smiled at those he knew and introduced himself to those he didn't, wondering just who exactly he was meant to hook up with. So far, everyone seemed to be paired off as neatly as if Noah had helped with the guest list.
Derek left to answer the door again, and Cal wandered over to study Marianne's latest painting, hung in the formal dining room off the main hallway. She was self-taught and accepted compliments on her work with a skeptical twinkle in her eyes. Only one of her paintings was ever hung at a time. Cal wasn't sure what she did with the rest of them. Mercifully, she never gave them out as gifts.
"I know children in kindergarten who paint better than I do. I don't care. Painting keeps my fingers busy and clears my mind," she'd told him once. "Everyone needs a hobby, and this is mine."
Cal wondered what Derek would do when Marianne left to begin her maternity leave and he lost his business partner. Marianne didn't handle the day-to-day running of the bakery, focusing instead on developing new recipes for a planned expansion of the business into supplying local supermarkets with luxury cakes and desserts. As with the savories he'd been eating, Cal was hazy on the details, appreciative of the end result.
"Is that supposed to be an owl?"
Cal turned to see a man he didn't know staring at the painting on the wall. Tall, broad-shouldered, with a shock of untidy brown hair and gray eyes, the man looked around Cal's age. That was about all they had in common. He was wearing a truly appalling shirt and tie in two shades of mustard, clearly bought as a set, and a pair of faded jeans with a hole starting in one knee. Cal wanted to strip him naked, but not for the usual reasons.
"You'd have to ask Marianne," he said cautiously. He'd once praised a kitten she'd painted and found out later that it was the next door neighbor's rabbit.
"The wing feathers are all wrong. I like the way it's looking at the mouse in the corner, though. Very predatory."
"I think that's a--" Cal broke off to peer at the brown splodge. "It might be a mouse, now that you mention it."
"Or the end results after the mouse was consumed," the frighteningly dressed man suggested.
"Which would explain why it doesn't seem to have a face," Cal said. Inside, he was hoping this wasn't the guy Marianne had wanted him to meet. It was possible the man's clothing style--if it could be called that--was contagious. Like the plague.
The other man grinned. He did have a nice smile, Cal noted. "Or any other recognizable features. Hi, I'm Tom."
Cal shook the proffered hand. "Calvin Reece. Cal. Um, are you...?"
"The latest in Marianne's attempts at your blind date? No." Tom tilted his head as he considered the painting some more, squinting dubiously. "Which I only know because she already introduced me to mine. That blond guy over there. I don't think he's too impressed with me." Until then Tom had sounded reasonably self-confident, but his forced-casual tone as he admitted that last bit revealed the truth.
"Why do you think that? You seem like a nice guy." Most of the people Cal hung around with were pretty together, so he didn't find himself in the position of needing to bolster anyone's ego very often. He didn't mind doing it now. Tom did seem like a nice guy.
"Oh, I am." Tom squinted at the painting and frowned. "Look at him. I mean, he probably spends forty hours a week at the gym."
Cal couldn't help checking out the blond, who was talking to an extremely good-looking dark-haired man. "He's pretty toned," he admitted.
Tom laughed. "I think that's the understatement of the century. My roommate, well, previous roommate, teaches spinning classes full-time, and he makes her look like a couch potato. Oh, and get this--his name is Deuce."
"Seriously?" Cal dismissed the blond in favor of the other introduced topic of conversation. "Previous roommate?"
"I live in this house that's too big for one, including the bills, so I rent out part of it to help with expenses. Bedroom, attached bathroom, small do-whatever-you-want-in-it room. It works out pretty well," Tom said with a vague wave of his hand. Cal could think of plenty of ways that it wouldn't work out. He decided not to share them. "Sally was great; I loved sharing with her. She's been offered a job at this fitness place in Charlton, though, and the commute would be a killer, so she's decided to move over there. I'm going to miss her. She kept trying to get me to one of her classes and turn vegetarian, but apart from that, she was perfect."
"Mmm," Cal said, not really listening anymore. The dark-haired man had noticed him and was giving him an amused appraising look that made Cal feel warm all over. Marianne would kill him if he left early with tall, dark, and sexy, which was something to consider. If the man lived up to his looks, it might be worth it. He grinned back at the man, who smoothly detached himself from the conversation he was having and moved away, giving Cal one final "come and get me" glance as he headed for the kitchen.
"You know, I'm starving," Cal said, interrupting whatever Tim, no, Tom, was saying about the best steak he'd ever eaten. "I'm just going to go and grab some of whatever Marianne's putting out in the kitchen. It's making my mouth water. Catch you later?"
"Uh, sure," Tom said. "Nice to meet--"
"Likewise," Cal said absently and walked away.