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Trial [MultiFormat]
eBook by Etienne

eBook Category: Romance/Gay Fiction
eBook Description: A Buckhead Tale, Appearances Trilogy: Book One Attorney Charles Barnett thought it was all over for him and his heart. In the three years since his partner died, he hasn't felt so much as a spark of attraction to another man. That suddenly changes when Charles is assigned a new case and meets his new client. Recent widower Philip d'Autremont has been traveling in all the same circles as Charles, but somehow they've never managed to meet. Now that they have, both men find themselves falling hard and fast. But there's more than one hurdle to Charles and Philip beginning a love affair, much less maintaining it: Philip is on trial for murder, a politically ambitious and homophobic district attorney is determined to convict him, and Charles is responsible for Philip's defense.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: March 2012


4 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

Prologue

She lay quietly, enjoying that delicious state which hovers between wakefulness and sleep, alternately drifting in and out of the latter. During the wakeful swings of the cycle, she was conscious only of occasional whispers of air as the central air-conditioning cycled on and off, stirring the dust motes hanging in the air revealed by the late-afternoon sunlight filtering through the blinds of her bedroom windows. She was, as the romance novelists are fond of saying, "basking in the afterglow." Their lovemaking had been more intense yet, at the same time, more tender than usual, perhaps because they had both known it would be the last time.

She had been very firm about that, telling her lover that she could not continue the relationship, given her changed status. She'd expected an argument or a bitter fight. In fact, she'd marshaled a litany of reasons as to why it was for the best and had been taken somewhat aback by the quiet acceptance. The only response she had gotten to what was essentially an ultimatum on her part was a quiet "I see."

It's ironic, she thought as she dozed off again. She'd been prepared for a terrible scene--one that failed to transpire. In a way she was glad it was over, for her lover had recently become even more domineering and possessive than usual, and she was, frankly, tired of the frequent bouts of jealousy that precipitated ever more acrimonious arguments. There was another irony at work as well, in that today was Mother's Day, and it was her incipient motherhood that she had given as the reason for suspending the relationship.

She was not quite sure why she awakened again, her latest period of sleep having been deeper than the previous episodes, but as she swam up through the fuzzy layers of consciousness, she became gradually aware of a presence in the room. Coming to with a start, she recognized the leather-clad figure with the black hood.

"What are you doing here?" she said. "I thought we agreed that it was over."

The figure remained silent as it moved to the side of the bed. It was then that she saw the handcuffs and rope dangling from one of the figure's hands.

"I see we're going to be kinky this time," she mused aloud as she automatically stretched her arms and legs toward the corners of the four-poster bed, the better to allow herself to be secured to them. It was a game they had played many times before, and she allowed herself to smile in anticipation of what was surely to come, even though she knew that she should be frowning at her wishes not having been adhered to.

She was still smiling when the figure produced a duffel bag and opened it, but the smile changed to a look of bewilderment when she saw something retrieved from it that was definitely not one of their usual toys. She began to scream when she realized what was about to happen and continued screaming for a time. When the screams finally turned into a gurgle, then stopped, the black-clad figure picked up the duffel bag, restored its contents, and left, closing the bedroom door as quietly as it had been opened. For a time, the only motion in the room was that of the dust motes that had been disturbed by the closing of the door and the only sound the occasional sigh of the air-conditioning. After a while, when the cool of the evening satisfied a thermostat somewhere in the house, the air-conditioning ceased cycling, and finally even the dust motes were still.

They remained so until the next morning, when there was a knock on the door and her maid said, "Senora, I have brought your breakfast."

Receiving no answer, the maid knocked again. "Senora, are you awake? It's almost ten o'clock."

There was no response from the silent room. Eventually the door was cautiously opened as the maid backed into the room holding a tray, pushing the door ahead of her with her ample backside. She was all the way into the room before she turned around. When she saw what lay on the bed, she dropped the tray with a clatter, and for the second time in less than twenty-four hours, the room was filled with screams of terror

* * * *

Chapter Two

Charles

The late May heat, though not excessive, hit me with a blast as I entered the parking garage underneath the downtown Atlanta office building where my law firm was located. The heat did nothing to improve my mood, which had been spiraling downward for the past hour, although one would have to be intimately acquainted with me to pick up any indication of that from my demeanor.

As the scion of an old Georgia family, I'd been reared in the very best "stiff upper lip" tradition by a dowager paternal grandmother, my parents having been killed in an automobile accident when I was very young. It was an article of faith in Gran's world that well-bred people simply must not ever lose their composure--at least not in public. "If you ever have to scream, yell, or cry," she'd said to me a thousand times while I was growing up, "wait for an appropriate moment, then go into the privacy of your room and do it. Whatever you do, never allow others, particularly servants or subordinates, see you lose control."

In its own way, it had been good advice--and better training. I would most likely have phrased it "subordinates or peers," but in Gran's eyes, anyone descended from the Lewis, Marks, and Barnett families of post-Revolutionary Georgia had few equals and no superiors. I was in her debt for having thus trained me; a childhood and adolescence of rigid self-control spent displaying the proverbial poker face had benefitted me as an adult in more than one pretrial conference, as well as in quite more than a few trials.

As I retrieved my Jaguar from its reserved parking place, I reflected for the umpteenth time that I could just as easily have walked two blocks to the nearest MARTA station, ridden to the Midtown Station a couple of stops up from downtown, and then walked a few blocks to my home, which was a three-story townhouse that had been built, along with several others, on one of the cross streets running between Juniper Street and Piedmont Avenue. I lived in a midtown area that had been, during its eighty-year history, alternately grand, deteriorating, merely dilapidated, and finally, downright seedy. It was only a block or two removed from the notorious strip of topless bars and porno establishments that had flourished along Peachtree Street in the sixties and seventies.

During the seventies, the area had become something of a ghetto containing a mix of gays, blacks, and Hispanics. Then, as the strip along Peachtree was cleaned up, the inevitable process of gentrification had begun. Buildings that were too far gone were razed and replaced by high-rises or, in some cases, blocks of townhouses like mine. Buildings that were still relatively solid were converted into condominiums and apartments. The area was still heavily gay, but the mix was now about half gay and half yuppie, with a few gay yuppies, sometimes known as guppies, for good measure. The majority of the blacks and Hispanics had been displaced by the workings of a free-market economy--they could no longer afford to live in the area unless they, too, were yuppies. In truth, the area was really totally yuppie, because the gays who occupied the expensive townhouses and apartments certainly fit that mold, with most of the older members of Atlanta's sizeable gay community preferring to live in and around Buckhead.

Actually, it would have taken me less time to go to and from work via the subway, but rising young (I kept telling myself, sometimes even convincingly, that thirty-two was still young) trial attorneys whose names had been appended for the past five years to the firm name of one of Atlanta's oldest and most prestigious law firms were expected to observe some conventions. Strange, I thought; Andrew--Andrew Chandler, grandson of the founder of Chandler, Todd, Woodward & Barnett, currently its senior partner and my mentor since forever, as he was an old friend of the family and Gran had turned to him regularly for advice in bringing up her orphaned grandson--hadn't batted so much as an eyelash when I'd told him in my initial interview that I was gay. He had, in fact, over the years been at least covertly supportive of gay rights and related issues. However, the old boy would have had a fit were I to ride the subway to and from the office every day. Such are the sacrifices we make for the sake of appearances.

The Todd and Woodward of the firm had, as Gran would say, gone to their respective rewards years ago, leaving only Andrew and myself representing the living among the listed names. True, we had six other partners and more than a dozen associates, but it would be years before another name would be appended to the firm's name, change being the antithesis of old-line law firms everywhere. Somewhere there was an unwritten code that allowed only one name change every decade or so.

As I pulled into the traffic heading north on Peachtree, those thoughts caused me to reflect for a moment on Andrew, who was the reason for my current annoyance bordering on anger. Andrew Chandler was tall, patrician, slim, silver-haired, in his early seventies, and possessed a razor-sharp intellect. He lived in an area of expensive old homes in Decatur with his wife of fifty-odd years, whom he referred to in the traditional southern manner as "Miss Emily." Their only son had died in Vietnam, and Andrew had long ago more or less adopted me as a surrogate for his lost heir. For my part, having Andrew serve in loco parentis had provided a sort of balance to Gran's rigidity. He and Gran were old friends, and the relationship between the two families went back decades, as indeed did that of many of the old families in Atlanta.

It was the Thursday before Memorial Day. I'd just successfully completed a grueling ten-day trial and had pretty much cleared my Friday schedule so that I could leave the office by noon and be out of the city shortly thereafter for a well-deserved (so I told myself) three-day weekend at my beach house in the Florida Panhandle. Andrew had called me into his office at four this afternoon and invited me to dinner at his club that evening to meet a prospective new client. I'd tried to persuade Andrew to have the client come to the office next week, but Andrew was adamant that the first meeting had to be both outside the office and tonight, i.e., a command performance. When pressed for details, he'd been somewhat coy, saying only that everything would be explained that evening. Hence my mood, for I could sense my weekend holiday slipping out of my grasp, and I really needed to get away. I could not, however, refuse Andrew--not so much because Andrew was my boss, but because I owed him so much. As an old friend of the family, Andrew had provided me with introductions to the right people at Harvard Law School and had further guided my career from junior associate to full partner over the course of a very short period of years. He'd been especially supportive three years ago, when Robert died.

Robert.... Merely thinking the name invoked a flood of memories. When I'd buried Robert, I'd also buried the best part of myself and very nearly all of my emotions and feelings. The few that remained were now walled up in a remote compartment of my brain, and with every year that passed, the walls grew stronger and more impregnable. I threw myself into my work with a vengeance, stretching my ten-hour days into eleven and sometimes twelve. When work as anodyne failed to ease the pain of loss, I tended to exercise myself into exhaustion and thence oblivion. Dozens of well-meaning friends had, after what they deemed a suitable period of mourning, begun to invite me to functions and dinners where I would inevitably wind up paired with their latest candidate for my perusal. Once in a while I was even tempted, albeit briefly. On those rare occasions when I felt a slight breach in my emotional defenses, I responded by adding another layer of bricks and mortar to the wall. Eventually, the invitations ceased and I achieved a sort of equilibrium with the situation.

One of the advantages of my townhouse was the presence of an attached garage, and we'd indulged in one that would accommodate three cars. As the door opened and I pulled inside, I noted the absence of my roommate Richard's Mustang convertible (a bright red GT, of course). The Mustang was part of his self-styled image as stud about town, and he was, no doubt, already at one of the after-work watering holes--most likely the Powder Magazine, a venerable old gay bar over on Juniper Street that was very popular as an after-work meeting place--looking for a companion for the evening.

Richard's love life, if one could call it that, was a succession of one-night stands. I couldn't remember any of his flings having lasted more than a fortnight, and I frequently lectured him on the inherent dangers of promiscuity in this the era of AIDS. Richard insisted that he practiced only the safest of "safe sex," and wasn't particularly worried about acquiring anything that penicillin couldn't cure. He frequently teased me about the Jaguar, saying, "As a card-carrying homosexual, you should be driving something a little more exciting." Truth be told, I would have preferred a coupe instead of a sedan, but I frequently had occasion to drive clients to meetings, and a coupe wouldn't have been practical.

The ground floor of the townhouse contained the garage, a small foyer, and a large living room that looked out into a patio and landscaped yard surrounded by a high brick wall. There was also a half bath (or powder room) for the convenience of visitors. I took the back stairs up to the second floor, which contained the eat-in kitchen, formal dining room, my study, and a large laundry room and storage area. I went into the study and put a newly acquired recording of the Goldberg Variations on the CD player, having opened a Coke (I presumed I would be drinking enough alcohol later) on my way through the kitchen. Lance, who'd evidently been down in the backyard, came in through the doggie door that led from the kitchen to the balcony overlooking the backyard. The doggie door allowed him to go out onto the balcony and down the steps to the patio area whenever he felt the need. In the small backyard he was completely protected by the eight-foot privacy wall.

Sir Lancelot of Buckhead was a three-year-old pedigreed Irish Setter. He reared up, placed his paws on my shoulders, and lapped my chin briefly in greeting. Lance was probably the only reason I was still sane. During my childhood, I'd owned an Irish Setter. By the time I went away to college he had been old and infirm, and his failing health had required that he be put down during my first break between terms. One of the very few areas where Robert and I had ever been in complete disagreement was the subject of pets, dogs in particular. He didn't like them, and they usually didn't like him. In addition, he was severely allergic to both cats and dogs, so the subject of having a pet had never been seriously raised during our years together. A few months after Robert died, Richard had brought Lance home to me--a tiny seven-week-old bundle of love covered in what was then dark fur, which turned into a rich chestnut as he matured. It had been love at first sight, and he'd become my constant companion. I'd quickly retrofitted the house to accommodate a large dog, installing the doggie door, for example. It was a rigid rule of the household that the doors leading down to the formal living room and to the garage were never left open or even ajar so that there was never any opportunity for him to slip downstairs and possibly out the door to face the dangers of busy city streets.

I decided to go upstairs and pack for the weekend--just in case this evening didn't cancel my trip. Music is and has always been my passion, and I'd indulged myself to the extent of acquiring a state-of-the-art stereo system featuring speakers in every room of the townhouse that could be turned off and on at will from a master console in the study. Had I possessed the talent for it, I would probably have made a better musician than lawyer, but alas, more than one teacher had told me what I'd already suspected--that I was meant to enjoy music but not create it at any level beyond the amateur. I did sing well enough to participate in choral activities at Harvard but hadn't indulged even that small talent for years.

Arriving finally in my bedroom, I changed into shorts, a pullover shirt, and deck shoes. Lance, who'd followed me upstairs, hopped up on my bed, selected his favorite corner, and watched me intently.

As always when I entered the walk-in closet, I was confronted with the section of clothes that had belonged to Robert and were now carefully hung, protected by plastic dry-cleaner covers. I knew I should have sent them to Goodwill a long time ago, but somehow I hadn't been able to make myself do so. I couldn't wear them even though we'd shared the same six-foot height, as the similarity ended there. I'm relatively broad-shouldered from years of working out, while Robert had been possessed of a swimmer's build and hadn't been much interested in improving upon nature.

I did my packing, then laid out the clothing I planned to wear for the evening--since I was meeting a prospective client, I settled for a pinstriped suit, white shirt, and conservative tie. Having well over an hour to kill, I decided to sweat out some of my frustration, so I donned my running shorts and shoes, which was Lance's signal to trot downstairs and find his leash. When I arrived on the second floor, he was waiting for me with his leash in his mouth, so I slipped the choke collar around his neck and led him to the door. We headed for Piedmont Park, which was only a block or so away and would be full of runners at this hour. I didn't necessarily consider that a plus, but it would be a change from my normal early-morning runs, which were almost always solitary.

As I ran, I wondered what kind of client Andrew could have lined up that required such circumspection. Since I'm a trial lawyer, it could be either a criminal case or some civil litigation, but try as I might, I couldn't come up with any ideas about the evening ahead.

About thirty minutes into my run, I began to calm down, and, more or less resigned to my fate, I headed back to the townhouse to get ready for what I expected to be the ordeal of the evening. Lance, as always, trotted easily beside me. It had taken months of training before he'd learned to repress his natural urge to surge ahead, pulling me with him.

Back at the townhouse, I paused in the laundry area long enough to strip, tossed my running gear into a waiting basket, and padded naked upstairs, while Lance headed for the kitchen and his water bowl.

Standing before the bathroom mirror, I took stock of myself--smooth body, thirty-four-inch waist, fairly broad shoulders, nicely proportioned and muscled, without even a hint of love handles around the middle, somewhat larger than average equipment (which when aroused became larger still), trimmed pubic area, shaved testicles, brown hair, handsome face, and a heart that I'd somehow managed to turn to stone. They say that lightning never strikes twice, and the metaphor most likely carries over into the interpersonal arena as well as the realm of physical phenomena. I wondered, as I sometimes tended to do, what I'd done to myself over the course of the last three years.

Ah, well, no time to indulge in self-pity, I decided and began the process of shaving.

* * * *

Chapter Three

Charles

Around seven thirty, dressed in what I knew to be my lawyerly best, I drove down Juniper Street, turned left on Ponce de Leon, and followed it east to the Greenwood Club to keep my eight o'clock appointment with Andrew and the mystery client. The Greenwood Club is even older and more prestigious, albeit less well-known outside of Atlanta, than the famous Piedmont Driving Club. It was located in a grand old Georgian home that sat serenely on a little rise overlooking Ponce de Leon, and was one of those places where you had to almost literally inherit a membership (or marry someone who had one) to belong. I believe they did accept a dozen or so new members each year, but not many could afford the reported six-figure initiation fee.

I had been there a couple of times before as a guest of Andrew and knew the food and service to be among the best in Atlanta. Their wine cellar was arguably the best in the Southeast, although fans of the famous Bern's Steak House down in Tampa might find cause to disagree with that assertion.

Surrendering the Jag to a liveried attendant, I walked through the door, which was being held open by a doorman who, despite my only having been there a couple of times, greeted me by name. The maitre d', who also greeted me by name, didn't have to be told why I was there. He simply informed me that Mr. Chandler was waiting for me in one of the private rooms upstairs and would I please follow him. Such are the pleasures and perks of old money.

I'd heard about but never been inside one of the private rooms of this club. By all accounts, they were for the convenience of members and were even equipped for overnight stays--some said, with considerable envy, assignations. It was also reported that in more than a hundred years, no member of the staff had ever been known to breach the confidentiality of who met with whom in those rooms. Thus I was becoming more and more intrigued as I followed the maitre d' up the stairs and down a short corridor. He stopped at a set of double doors and knocked. After a pause, Andrew opened one of the doors, said, "Thank you, Arthur," to the maitre d', and ushered me in, closing the door quietly behind us.

I took in my surroundings very quickly and got the impression that I was in the living room of a small suite. Around a fireplace there was a sitting area consisting of a sofa that, flanked by a pair of wingback chairs, faced a small coffee table. Under the coffee table and extending to the fireplace there was a small but exquisite oriental rug. Beyond the sitting area was a dining table set apparently for only two. In another corner was a writing desk featuring a telephone. The entire room reeked of understated elegance.

That was as far as my quick visual survey got, because rising from the wingback chair that had its back to the door and turning to face Andrew and me was easily the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. His, I noted, was a very masculine beauty, and all the more arresting for it. He was about my height, though of somewhat slimmer build--could that be a thirty-two-inch waist?--and I guessed his age to approximate mine within a year or so. His tailored dark-blue Brooks Brothers suit exuded quality and expensive taste. His head was a mass of jet-black curls. He sported a generous smile and a pair of the most intensely blue eyes I'd ever seen--eyes so liquid and inviting that even at a distance one could get lost in them. The face was vaguely familiar, but I couldn't have said at that point why. I was, in fact, so mesmerized that I couldn't have said much about anything, at least not coherently.

One of the things I've trained myself to do well over the years--all good trial lawyers have to be able to do so--was to listen peripherally to testimony and subconsciously focus upon the drift of it while consciously thinking about something else. This training kicked in automatically just in time to keep me from appearing to have been stricken deaf and dumb on the spot. I managed to focus on Andrew's introduction of the prospective client as Philippe (Andrew pronounced it in the French manner) d'Autremont, but not much else.

I saw something in those blue eyes--recognition, perhaps, or was that wishful thinking on my part? As I returned the firm handshake, something unmistakably electric passed between the two of us, and the handshake continued well past the upper limits of normal. His voice, I managed to note, resonated like liquid gold.

Somehow I got through the pleasantries without making a fool of myself, found a seat in the wingback chair opposite him without stumbling over anything, and managed to focus on what Andrew, who'd settled on the sofa, was saying, despite the turmoil I was feeling, for I felt a crack beginning to appear in my oh so carefully constructed emotional defenses.

"--don't recognize the name?"

I realized that Andrew was addressing me, expecting a reply, so I said, "Not that I recall."

"Haven't you been following the news lately?" Andrew said.

"Andrew, you know very well that I've been in court every day for the past ten days, and when I'm immersed in a case, I block everything else out, including, and most especially the news." That was particularly true when the case itself was making the news--I didn't like to read about it while I was in the middle of it.

"Mr. d'Autremont's wife was found brutally murdered a little over two weeks ago, on Mother's Day, to be exact, in their home on West Paces Ferry Road. It's been all over the media; doesn't that ring any bells?" Andrew said.

"Now that you mention it, I may have seen a headline in the newspaper. That's probably why your face is familiar," I said to Philippe. "The photo in the paper certainly didn't do you justice. I believe I saw the headlines across the breakfast table at a morning meeting with our top investigator."

I now remembered that Richard (who was, in fact, our top investigator) had insisted on telling me all of the gory details, of which there were plenty. The victim, Lucinda Meriwether d'Autremont, had been found on a Monday morning by her maid, who had just returned to work after a weekend off. Lucinda was found naked, spread-eagled, and cuffed and tied hand and foot to the four posts of her bed. A wooden stake had literally been driven through her heart. As one might expect, the media was having a field day with the gruesome particulars.

"Well, you may need to catch up on your news," Andrew said. "There's every possibility that Mr. d'Autremont will be arrested and charged with the murder. We're here tonight because I want you to consider representing him."

"Andrew, if that's what this is all about, why not have him come to the office during the day? Why all the secrecy?"

"Because there's a very special set of circumstances surrounding this whole affair." He started to elaborate, but before he could begin, there was a discreet knock on the door and a waiter appeared, carrying a round of drinks, which Andrew had evidently ordered brought up as soon as he'd been notified of my arrival. As we settled down with our respective drinks, Andrew began to relate the "special circumstances."

"Two days after the body was discovered, I received a telephone call from an old family friend who wanted to set up a meeting with myself and Mr. d'Autremont, and we met in this very room one evening last week. All that I will say beyond that is that I am convinced of Mr. d'Autremont's innocence."

"Why?"

"Because Mr. d'Autremont wasn't in Atlanta that weekend, and I'm absolutely certain of that fact. However, you will have to agree to neither question Mr. d'Autremont concerning his whereabouts nor to attempt to trace his movements on that weekend. This is nonnegotiable."

"Again, why?"

"I have stipulated to all concerned that you are not to be told and that you will agree to neither make nor cause anyone else to make any attempt to pursue the matter."

"All concerned?"

"Mr. d'Autremont, my old family friend, and others."

He paused as if he expected some comment from me. Hearing none, he continued, "It's probably just a matter of time before Mr. d'Autremont is arrested and charged with the murder, so what we want you to do"--and he gave me his sternest look--"is to get him acquitted without using that alibi."

"And if that turns out not to be possible?" I said.

"That would be, in a word, unthinkable."

"Andrew, as one of my favorite philosophers once said--'only an unthinking mind finds anything unthinkable.'"

"I, too, am fond of Philip Wylie, I even had occasion to meet him near the end of his life, but be that as it may, it will have to suffice."

"And I'm not to know any more concerning Mr. d'Autremont's whereabouts that weekend?" I tried not to sound sarcastic.

"In my judgment, it's safer that way. You won't be tempted to try and take the easy way out."

"Andrew, you know perfectly well that I'm not in the habit of taking the easy way out of anything. Furthermore, nothing of what you've told me entirely explains the cloak and dagger routine this evening."

"The reason for the cloak and dagger routine, as you put it, is that it occurred to me that if the police don't know that you are representing Mr. d'Autremont--at least until after he's arrested--you might have a little more room to maneuver behind the scenes, so to speak. He's quite sure that he's been followed by plainclothes detectives for some time now, up to and probably including his visit here this evening. You certainly have enough contacts downtown to find out what's going on, perhaps even what's going to happen, and possibly what kind of case they're building. By now they'll probably have uncovered the rather unconventional nature of Mr. and Mrs. d'Autremont's marriage, including the fact that both he and his late wife are, as you might say, family."

Andrew prided himself on being au courant with the latest buzzwords and had certainly heard me use the slang term "family" on more than one occasion in reference to gays and lesbians. His logic was, as usual, impeccable, and I lacked a suitable response, so I simply sat there nursing my drink. I must add that all the while he had been discussed as though he were not even in the room, the subject of our conversation had sat there toying with his drink, taking it all in. I found myself wondering what was going on behind those blue eyes.

Andrew couldn't stand it any longer and said, "So, what do you think?"

"I think that Mr. d'Autremont and I have a great deal to talk about before I can decide what, if anything, is to be done."

"Well, then," Andrew said as he got up from the sofa, "you may talk about it over dinner. I've got to go down to the lounge where Miss Emily is waiting for me to join her for our own dinner. I've already ordered for you, and I'll tell them to begin serving as soon as I get downstairs--I think you'll enjoy the wine I selected. See me to the door, will you, my boy?"

I got up and followed him out into the corridor, closing the door behind us, and said, "Andrew, what are you playing at here? Are you auditioning for the role of Yenta?"

"Why, Charles, whatever do you mean?" he said with a look of feigned innocence. I swear his eyes had a definite twinkle in them.

"You know precisely what I mean. 1) Any first-year associate, of which we have several, could handle this in the manner you've just outlined; 2) You knew that I was looking forward to a long weekend; 3) He's damnably attractive; 4) Probably available, which brings me to 5) Are you trying to set me up?"

"Not unless you want to be, my boy," he said, patting me on the arm. "Not unless you want to be." And with a twinkle in his eye, he turned and strolled down the corridor.

The mental crack began to widen a bit as it suddenly hit me that I wanted very much to be set up with this attractive stranger--which was totally out of character for me. Even before Robert, I'd not been particularly promiscuous. In point of fact, Robert had been one of only a few people with whom I'd experienced sex on the first date, and during the time we'd been together I'd been Simon pure and Simon simple, never once looking at another man. Well, perhaps I looked--I am, after all, human--but I certainly didn't touch.

Robert and I had met during my second year at Harvard and his first at MIT. We'd struck up a conversation in the classical music section of the record department at the Harvard Cooperative Society. The Coop, as it was known (pronounced "coop" as in chicken coop), was a series of connected buildings that offered everything from clothing to office supplies to books and records, etcetera. We'd chatted for a while about favorite artists and had continued the conversation across the street at Au Bon Pain, one of a chain of pastry and coffee shops that were and are ubiquitous in the Boston area, and have since expanded to other metropolitan areas. I invited him to my apartment, and we spent not only that night together, but every night after that until his death some ten years later.

Since Robert's death, I'd simply not had the urge, even though opportunities had abounded. Richard in particular had been very much the busybody, bringing home any number of attractive studs who would have been perfectly willing to crawl into my bed. In short, I simply hadn't been up to it, no pun intended, and had more or less resigned myself to a monastic existence. That is, until now.

At the end of the term during which Robert and I had met, my roommate gracefully agreed to vacate and Robert moved in with me, turning a de facto situation into one that was de jure. As far as his family knew, he was still living in a dormitory at MIT, and he'd maintained that fiction until the end of the school year. Before the summer break, I used family contacts to find jobs in Atlanta for both of us, and he spent the summer with me in Gran's big old house in Buckhead.

Gran knew about my sexual orientation and had learned to be more comfortable with it than I would have expected, given the era in which she was reared. Early on, she'd made it clear that she would have preferred to see me married and producing great-grandchildren, but she was intelligent--and educated--enough to understand that one doesn't choose these things. She had made Robert feel as welcome in her home as any of my other friends.

That summer Robert introduced me to his parents as a new friend from Atlanta, thus paving the way for us to room together for the next year without raising any red flags at home. His parents were strict Southern Baptists and not only knew nothing of but would never have accepted the reality of his sexual orientation.

I went back into the room at the club with a sense of nervousness that I hadn't felt in years, having just realized that for the first time since Robert's death I found myself with a strong case of lust--perhaps something even stronger than lust. And for the life of me, I didn't know what to do about it--for many reasons. If he was to become a client, then I should definitely not become involved. My Seduction 101 routines (never very good, at best) were covered by more than a decade of rust. The list was endless. All of which was pointless speculation and predicated on the faint possibility that there was a mutual interest. My instincts, rusty as they were, told me that I had in fact sensed something in that electric handshake.

Carrying all of this mental baggage along with me, I sat down to get acquainted with my new client-to-be.

* * * *

Chapter Four

Charles

"Well, Philippe," I said, stressing the French pronunciation (showing off?) as I settled back down, this time on the sofa, which placed me closer to and gave me a slightly different view of my prospective client, "we have so much to talk about that I hardly know where to begin. But first, let me apologize for Andrew and myself."

"Please, I'm much more comfortable with the English version of my name," he said, in that voice, which by now had begun to send chills down my spine. "Philip will do very nicely." He quickly added, "Apologize? For what?"

"For discussing you and your case as though you weren't sitting in the same room with us. It's a bad habit in which we lawyers frequently indulge, and it is, and was, rude. I assure you that no offense was meant."

"None was taken."

Before I could say anything else, there was another discreet tap on the door; then it opened and two waiters wheeled in a small cart carrying, I supposed, our dinner, or at least a portion of it. Without a word, they went to the table in the corner and quickly arranged the first course. When that task had been completed, the one in charge walked over to where we were sitting, cleared his throat, and said, or rather intoned, with the same solemnity he might have used to address a gathering of twenty people, "Dinner is served."

As we started on the soup, which appeared to be a broccoli and cheese combination--Andrew really was trying to make me susceptible; he knew that I loved anything containing broccoli--I asked Philip to tell me about himself, which, with starts and stops and occasional prompting by my questions, he did.

Philip was from a very old but somewhat impoverished Louisiana family who, during his youth, were still hanging onto a Louisiana plantation complete with a somewhat run-down antebellum mansion north of New Orleans. Lucinda, his late wife, was from a slightly less old but considerably more affluent Georgia family. As a child and young adult, she had frequently visited relatives in Louisiana who lived near the d'Autremont plantation, and they'd known each other since before adolescence. She was the only offspring of her family, and by the time she'd finished college was under intense pressure to marry and produce heirs. Neither of them, it developed, was particularly interested in marriage, oddly enough for the same reason. Philip had been interested only in boys from an early age, and while Lucinda occasionally, as they say, swung both ways, her predilection was for women.

Due to a chance meeting on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, in a setting that left little doubt--a gay bar, naturally--as to their respective sexual identities, they'd admitted the truth to each other. After that, they began to meet more often and had finally come up with a plan that would get her family off her back, so to speak. They pretended to, and actually did, date each other, dragging the process out for a couple of years before finally announcing that they were going to marry. Philip wasn't at that point, out to his family, although he'd never attempted to hide his sexuality from them, so it was easy for him to maintain his part of the charade.

Needless to say, it was a marriage of convenience. They'd occupied, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, the same residence on West Paces Ferry Road ever since their wedding several years earlier, and were in fact seen together in all of the right places and with all of the right people. Their private lives, however, were entirely separate. They had the means to and did maintain two small condos in different parts of town, which they used for the purpose of conducting those secret lives, and they had done so almost since the first year of their marriage. A very tidy arrangement, I found myself thinking.

There was much more than that, of course, and I filed all of it away for reference to be digested later. By this time, we'd worked our way through the soup, salad, sorbet, a wonderful veal dish that I recognized but couldn't immediately name, and a bottle of Mondavi-Rothschild Opus One. I made a mental note to compliment Andrew on his choice of wines.

I needed to ask Philip some very pointed questions about the murder, but I decided to veer off on a tangent first, and over dessert and coffee got him to talking about his life. It turned out that he was a somewhat gifted writer and had published a number of novels, all of them under pseudonyms. His real talent lay, however, in the field of real estate, and he'd accumulated a great deal of income property, overseeing the management of which took considerable time, which left him little time to indulge in much else. His social life, as he put it, was confined to the occasional weekend here and there. He'd managed to have several affairs over the years, none of them of any significant duration, and there was no one in his life currently, a revelation that started another chain of thought having to do with relationships.

Robert and I had maintained the fiction that we were merely friends and school roommates until after he received his degree in architecture. Because I still had two more years of law school at the time, he decided to do some postgraduate work so that we could stay in Cambridge together. When his parents came to Cambridge for his graduation, he told them of his plans for two more years of education, without, of course, telling them the whole story. They'd been adamant that he should come home and find a job. His summer savings and part-time jobs during the school year were insufficient for his needs without their support--they knew it and attempted to use that fact as leverage to persuade him to follow their wishes. Their tactics caused him to lose his temper, whereupon he told them precisely why and with whom he intended to stay in Cambridge for two more years. That, of course, had precipitated a breach in his relationship with his parents. They'd flown home in a rage, and had neither spoken to nor written him again.

Fortunately, I had a good income from a large trust fund that had been created when my parents died, as well as a smaller amount from a trust set up by my maternal grandparents. I wasn't rich, but I had sufficient means to allow myself the luxury of not having to work during college or law school. It hadn't been quite enough to support the two of us, but that income, augmented by our summer savings, some government loans and grants--because of my private income, I didn't qualify for grants, but Robert did--and part-time jobs in Boston managed to see us both through the next two years. I finished law school and he received his master's, after which we both found jobs in Atlanta and began our respective careers.

The waiters had long since cleared the table and departed, but not before reminding us that we wouldn't be disturbed and if we needed anything we should pick up the telephone on the desk to call. By that time, we were sitting side by side on the sofa, jackets off, enjoying a fine glass of Port--W & J Graham Tawny 40 Year Old.

Just as I was about to ask my pointed questions, he surprised me by asking me about myself. I gave him the short, condensed version, starting with school--including Robert--and leading up to the present.

We'd lived together until Robert died of a brain tumor shortly after the tenth anniversary of our first meeting. Even after three years, thinking about the final months of Robert's life brought me almost to the point of melancholy. At one point, I'd very nearly sold the townhouse that we'd bought, furnished, and decorated together, because everything in it was a reminder, one way or another, of Robert. In the end, however, I decided that I couldn't part with something that we'd both worked so hard to create, and I tried to concentrate upon remembering the happy years that had preceded those final months.

I hadn't gone out with anyone since then, despite Richard's constant attempts at matchmaking. Richard, my best friend since seventh grade, had moved into the largest of the three spare bedrooms during Robert's illness in order to help with his care, and had stayed on afterward taking care of me. Richard's presence and upbeat attitude were some of the things that had kept me sane during the first months after Robert died--that, and the love and affection of Lance.

Philip was attentive during my recital and made appropriately polite and seemingly sincere responses. In fact, he gazed at me so intently and with such evident interest that I distinctly felt the foundation under my defenses begin to shift and crumble. To switch the conversation to safer ground, I decided to cut to the chase, saying, "Enough about me already. We need to talk about the murder."

"What do you want to know?"

"First, do you have any idea who might have done it?"

"None whatsoever." He paused and looked thoughtful.

"What?"

"I just thought of something that Lucinda said recently."

"What was that?"

"I need to backtrack just a moment. Did I mention that she was about six weeks pregnant?"

"No, you didn't."

"Her family was still very much on her case to produce an heir, and she got this notion that if we produced an heir it would shut them up. She had herself artificially inseminated, using me as the donor. We could have gotten her pregnant in the normal way, but neither of us derived any particular pleasure from sex with each other. Anyway, the pregnancy was confirmed, and she did mention that she was thinking about breaking off her current affair for the duration of the pregnancy, at least."

"How did the other woman feel about that?"

"I'm not sure, but I got the impression that her lover was getting somewhat possessive and that Lucinda was tired of it. You have to understand that we simply didn't talk about such things very often."

"You're suggesting that she told this person, and that got her killed?"

"I suppose it's possible."

"Did she have any other lovers?"

"Never more than one at a time, as far as I know. We jointly agreed in the beginning that we wouldn't rub each other's noses in that aspect of our lives, and kept it totally separate."

"So you never met any of them?"

"Only once, and I didn't actually meet her, merely saw her from a distance. Three or four years ago, we turned up at the same party quite unexpectedly, each of us with dates. Lucinda and I spotted each other from opposite sides of the room. I nodded to her and pointed to the door, indicating that my date and I would leave, which we did. I didn't really get a good look at the woman she was with."

"Any chance that person was the one she was still seeing?"

"I doubt it. To the best of my knowledge her affairs never lasted longer than six months or so."

"Could one of her former lovers have killed her for some reason?"

"I'm not sure. If that's what happened, it's very strange that it happened at the house on West Paces Ferry Road, because we had what I thought was a firm understanding that we would never bring any of our sexual partners there. I never did, and as far as I know, neither did she. On the other hand, she might well have brought a former lover to the house in order to keep her current lover from knowing about it. When I was being questioned by the detectives, they kept pounding away at the fact that there was no evidence of forced entry. I suppose that could be taken as an indication that she knew the killer and had let them in."

"What exactly have you told the police?"

"Well, they wanted to know where I'd been that weekend and could I prove it. I told them I'd spent the weekend out of town and refused to tell them where, but I don't think they believed me. They also asked me who I thought might have done it, and I told them that I had no idea."

"Did they say anything else to you?"

"I'm not sure. I was very upset and in shock when they first questioned me. I'd just gotten home, and it's all a blur now. As you can imagine, Lucinda and I were not in love with each other, but we'd known each other for more than twenty years and were in some ways very close, almost like brother and sister."

"What makes you think they might arrest you?"

"Just a feeling, I guess. They keep coming back and asking the same questions over and over again, and I don't think they're satisfied with the answers. I also get the impression that they aren't looking very hard in any other direction, either."

"Is there anything else you think I need to know at this point?"

"Only that I think they might have somehow discovered that I'm gay."

"What makes you think that?"

"Nothing they said overtly, just some sly innuendo in some of their questions and remarks."

"I'll be honest with you, that's not good. Our dearly beloved district attorney is a notorious homophobe, and he's so publicity-hungry that he's liable to go after you for no other reason than that of milking the situation for all the free press it's worth."

"I know, I've heard stories about him, and that's one of the reasons for my concern."

I steered the conversation back to generalities for a time so part of me could talk while the other part assimilated all that I'd just heard. He had good reason to be concerned. If District Attorney Craig Wetherbee could work a gay angle into this case, he would run with it, even if it was built on thin air. A staunch Southern Baptist of the worst hellfire and brimstone sort, Wetherbee was notorious for his homophobia. It was rumored that he had aspirations to higher office, perhaps even the governor's mansion.

I snapped back to reality, realizing that I was being asked a direct question. "I'm sorry," I said, "I was woolgathering for a minute there. What were you saying?"

"Will you help me? That is, take the case?"

"Yes, of course," I said.

He must have sensed some hesitancy in my voice, perhaps even an unspoken "but," because he articulated it for me and said, "But...?"

"Well, the firm will want a retainer of at least $50,000 against $500 per hour for my time, $200 per hour for any associates' time, and any out-of-pocket expenses for investigators, etcetera."

"No problem...." Then a sly look came over his face as he said, "And what will you want?" with a slightly mocking tone in that golden voice.

I don't know what came over me at that point, but the shifting foundations of my fortress caused the crack to yawn widely open. From a spot on the ceiling I seemed to be looking down at us on the sofa, where I saw and heard myself saying, "You."

"In what way?"

"Naked. In my arms. On that rug. Right now."

"And what else?" His blue eyes were still virtually inscrutable, but there was a definite hint of something in them.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. Again, from afar, I heard myself saying, "You. In my bed. Every night."

"Not naked?"

"Well, I took that as a given and didn't want to seem redundant."

"For how long?" Still no discernible reaction.

"Until your legal problems are resolved or until we get tired of each other, whichever takes longer."

To my surprise and wonder, he stood up, said simply, "Sounds good to me," and started removing his tie. Of course, I stopped him immediately--I prefer to unwrap my own packages.

The next thirty minutes or so will be etched in my brain forever. We began to undress each other, starting with shirts and ties. His chest was as smooth as silk, and from the definition his muscles showed, I deduced that he worked out regularly. I stroked his smooth, tanned chest, moved my hand down to his extremely flat stomach, and said, "I'm glad that you're not hirsute."

"What would you do if I were?"

"Well, earlier in the evening I noticed that the bathroom is not only fully equipped but well stocked, including shaving cream and disposable razors. I guess I'd have had to try them out."

"Too bad I'm not. That sounds like fun."

I unbuckled his belt and unzipped his trousers, which immediately fell to the floor. He was wearing sexy low-rise square-cut boxer briefs, not unlike my own. I slid them down over his thighs, kneeling as I did so.

He said, "You have me at a slight disadvantage, you've still got your pants on." He proceeded to remove my disadvantage, and we embraced and kissed deeply. We sank down on the rug in front of the fireplace, and without any further conversation, it was all over with hands and mouths almost before it had begun. In point of fact, it had been so long since I'd experienced real sex--sex with oneself doesn't count--that I came as quickly as a sixteen-year-old virgin.

"Sorry to be so quick," I said, "but it's been three years."

"Not to worry, next time will be better."

"I don't see how it could be any better."

"Well, then, we'll just have to make it last longer."

And we started again. This time it did take somewhat longer, and it was, unbelievable as it may seem, better. Afterward, we lay side by side for a long while without speaking.

Finally, he said simply, "Penny."

"Well, I was just thinking of what Charles Ryder said the first time he saw Sebastian Flyte's ancestral home."

"I've both seen and read Brideshead Revisited, but I don't remember the line."

"Golly."

"You're surprised that I don't remember something from a series I saw several years ago?" he said.

"No. When Charles Ryder first saw Brideshead Manor House from a distance, he simply said, 'Golly.'"

"Oh yes, now I do remember. Most appropriate. Then as now."

There followed a great deal of inconsequential small talk, until finally I said, "Now that we've had some practice, let's go somewhere and try this in a real bed." Despite the fact that hours, even days, seemed to have elapsed, it was only eleven.

"My place or yours?" he said with a smile that lit up the room. With that smile I was hooked, knew it, and didn't give a damn.

"I think, given your uncertain legal status, that it had better be my place. This club has a covered entrance around back for use in weather that's too inclement for the portico out front. We can have my car brought around there, and if you were followed here, you won't be seen leaving with me--you can arrange to have your car picked up tomorrow."

He agreed, and when we were dressed and presentable, I used the phone to call down and request that my car be brought around to the rear entrance. Then he took the phone and told the appropriate person that he felt the need of a designated driver, was catching a ride with me, and would have his car picked up in the morning.

By eleven thirty we were back at my townhouse. I gave him the fifty-cent tour, and within minutes we were upstairs. We went through the ritual of undressing each other for the second time and were in bed almost in less time than it takes to tell about it. Strangely enough, I had no second thoughts about bringing this man to share the bed that Robert and I had shared for so many years.

I was hooked, all right. Head over heels, and I quite honestly didn't know what to do about it... except, of course, enjoy it while it lasted.


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