First movie premiere. First love. First heartbreak. Of those firsts, Jeremy Ash could do without the last, but the blonde babe on actor Kit Harris's arm made denial impossible. Jeremy's sight narrowed. Excluded the gawkers, photographers, and guests. Memories of months of intimacy--taut muscles and tangled limbs, harsh breathing and demanding mouths--faded against the backdrop of disappointed love.
As if choreographed, Kit turned with exaggerated slowness, took in Jeremy's tux with a hasty toe-to-head glance, and then pasted on his Hollywood smile.
Jeremy blinked stupidly. "You said you were coming alone."
Fear skittered, wraithlike, here then gone, in Kit's blue eyes, and Jeremy almost felt sorry for him. To be ruled by that fear--to be so afraid of what others thought of you that you couldn't own who you were? That had to suck, but being jilted for Amber Winslow, a lingerie model with nothing to offer but perky implants and an obvious dye job, sucked worse.
"Dude, we're in public." Kit barely moved his lips. "Chill."
Fists balled at his sides, Jeremy jutted his chin and struggled for breath around the crackling tightness in his chest. He searched for words--something biting and eloquent. Without a script to prompt his creativity, he only managed, "Coward."
Kit's jaw hardened, and ice glittered in his eyes. From lovers to enemies in ten seconds. Likely a world record. Jeremy snorted his derision and walked away.
"What was that about?" Amber asked.
"Nothing. Just Ash being a dick," Kit replied.
Jeremy overheard Kit's lie. Where love once bloomed, hatred took hold, creating a black stain on his sense of wonder and beauty in the world. Being gay wasn't a sin. Creating this feeling of anger and worthlessness in another human being, however? That went down in his book as a biggie. If fairness and justice existed at all, you couldn't destroy a piece of someone's soul and not suffer major consequences. Or at least the green monster on his shoulder said so. Hoped so.
"Whoa! Hold up!" Vance Stone, the picture's casting director and an associate producer, grabbed Jeremy's sleeve.
"What?" Jeremy jerked his arm away.
"You're forgetting the photo call." Vance eyed his scowl. "C'mon. I'll go with you."
"No." He started to walk away again.
Vance blocked the theater entrance.
"Don't blow your big break throwing a public tantrum," he muttered. "That'd only be letting Harris win."
Stunned, Jeremy blinked at the man. "You expect me to stand against the sponsor backdrop and promote a gay film with that closeted motherfucker? Pretend he didn't just tear me into little bits?"
"You're an actor." A wry smile twisted Vance's mouth. "Act."
"And condone his behavior?"
"No...and do your job. Promote this film. Behave like the professional we took you to be."
Jeremy winced at the critique. Anger diffused, he took in the milling crowd for the first time since he'd spotted Kit. "Where do I go?"
Vance gave him an atta boy pat and propped an arm around his shoulder to guide him to the opposite side of the building where photographers and journalists lay in wait. Jeremy spotted Greg Falkner--the screenwriter and executive producer of the film--along with his partner, Aaron Blake.
Greg stood in front of a reporter who held his microphone like a weapon. From several feet away, Jeremy heard him confess, "Yes, I'm gay."
A lump formed in Jeremy's throat and dissolved with painful slowness at the screenwriter's bravery. To write this film--No Apologies--put his money behind it, and then risk so much personally tonight by finally coming out? That took balls--balls Jeremy's costar apparently lacked.
Flashes popped, obscuring his vision as Vance deftly herded him into the limelight. Shoving his hands in his pockets, Jeremy posed for the photographers like the PR people had taught him. His grin felt tight, and he knew he looked wooden.
"Let's get Kit Harris over here!" one of the paparazzi called. "Add some sparkle to the scene."
The actor loped assuredly onto the strip of red carpet in front of the sponsor banner, prompting Jeremy to look at his feet. Mouth turning dry, palms slick with sweat, he adjusted his footing and tried to find a stance that didn't conflict with Kit's confident slouch.
Thumbs hooked in his belt loops, Kit exhibited panache and swagger even standing still. He didn't have to stage his appearance to make it interesting or engaging. Everything about him electrified and entranced. Strong-boned features, at once exotic and masculine, graced a face of breathtaking beauty. And Kit's smile--his real smile, on the rare occasions it surfaced--captivated.
Blond, tanned, and easygoing, he represented Jeremy's polar opposite and his true north. The beacon by which he'd navigated Hollywood over the past year. Finding himself cast adrift, Jeremy forced no little bravado into his smile and anchored one arm around Kit's shoulders.
Sea salt and sunshine...the taste of cinnamon...Sunday morning light playing over golden lashes...
Kit's spine stiffened.
"Chill, dude," Jeremy said through clenched teeth. "You're just hangin' with the homo."
Kit slung his arm around Jeremy's back, and they played the part of two friends mugging for millions.
"Hey, Harris!" one of the photographers yelled, invading the moment. "Give us a preview!"
Kit laughed uncomfortably.
Jeremy grinned, almost maniacal. "A preview of what?"
"Kiss!" yelled another photographer.
"Afraid your girlfriend'll have your balls?" Jeremy spoke out the side of his mouth, then cocked his head at Kit. "Sorry. I forgot. You don't have any b--"
Kit met the dare, cutting him off. Warm lips perfunctorily pressed against Jeremy's own. Sensual nerve endings flickered weakly to life, then extinguished when Kit pulled away.
"That's not acting!" one journalist taunted. "Unless you're playing a dead fish!"
Taking command of the scene, Jeremy grabbed Kit's lapels and jerked him close. With measured slowness, Jeremy canted his head sideways to meet Kit's open mouth and delved deep. Heaven's gates unlocked. The world dropped away. Tongues and teeth and bruising pressure remained. A lifetime later, the need for oxygen seared Jeremy's lungs. Reluctantly, he pulled back and took in Kit's stunned gaze and pink cheeks.
Wishing he could find a quiet corner and cry, Jeremy forced a know-it-all grin. "How's that for acting?"
Kit stumbled out of Jeremy's grasp and--straightening the sweeping cut of his lapels with a jerk of his hands--pasted the Hollywood smile back on his face.
"Amazing for a newcomer, isn't he?" Kit gave Jeremy's shoulder a rough squeeze. "With so much experience to call on for the part, he couldn't help being a natural."
"Done here!" Vance swept onto the carpet. "Gotta get these fellas inside."
Jeremy waved at the photographers, lingering a moment longer than Kit and stealing the limelight for himself. The fucker deserved to be shut out of a few of the shots, he justified, though the saner voice in the back of his head nagged at him for his childish behavior.
"I'm going to kick both your asses," Vance whispered, furious, as he yanked the actors into a darkened anteroom off the theater lobby.
Guests, producers, Greg, and Aaron mingled in the high-ceilinged, art deco entryway. The hum of conversation and clink of champagne glasses belied the tension seething between him and Kit. Jeremy glared. Kit crossed his arms and glared back. They faced off. Only Vance's presence kept the barely leashed violence from erupting into a fistfight.
"What the fuck, Kit?" Jeremy asked. "Why are you doing this? Denying us? Denying who you are?"
"Whatever you thought we had? It's over," Kit shot back. "Consider our little fling my experimental phase. Or research. Just don't consider me interested."
Jeremy's nostrils flared on a stinging inhale.
"Fuck you, you prick." He choked on the words. "You think just because life handed you a golden ticket you have the right to screw with people's emotions?"
"Calm down." Vance sounded the low warning as heads turned toward the anteroom.
But they didn't calm down. Nose to nose, toe to toe, they faced off next to a rack of usher's outfits. Brass buttons and gold braid glittered in Jeremy's peripheral vision as he tried to think of something hurtful to say--something to wound Kit's heart and make it ache as awfully as his own. Except what came out only made Jeremy's pain worse. "I love you, you...you complete...shithead."
Kit stepped back. Jeremy took in his stunned expression--parted lips, high color along the blades of his cheekbones--and thought for one shining moment he might have gotten through to the idiot with his confession. Jaw snapping shut, Kit cloaked his shock in a mantle of arrogant bravado, and Jeremy's hope fractured.
"Get in line," Kit said with infuriating insouciance and stepped around Vance.
"Oh my God," Jeremy whispered, attention riveted to Kit's retreating back. "It's really over."
KIT CLENCHED HIS jaw and shouldered his way through the throng. His date long forgotten, he almost didn't notice as Amber fell into step with him.
She tossed her hair over her shoulder and smiled slyly up at him.
"Save it," he said, preempting her poisonous strike.
Walking past countless rows of Hollywood insiders who called their congratulations, Kit looked straight ahead until he came to his seat. The red velvet cushion next to his own sported a placard with the name Ash. Kit positioned Amber next to Jeremy's empty seat. Sadness, thick and foreign, impeded the flow of oxygen to his lungs as he sat on Amber's opposite side. The emotion surprised him, and he resented its intrusion into his perfectly choreographed world. Or at least it had been perfect until Jeremy entered it. Now? Up looked like down. Left like right.
Touching his fingertips to his mouth, he recalled the insistent pressure of Jeremy's lips--relived dominant kisses laced with the musky, sweet taste of desire. To go from that devastatingly violent lip lock to "I love you"? The juxtaposition of action and emotion made Kit's head swim with the contradiction. Something about it held him captive, forcing him deeper into thoughts of his sexuality than he'd ever wanted to go.
The house lights went down, and Jeremy still hadn't taken his seat. On the screen, sweeping views of the New England countryside grew progressively narrow. Tightened. Until the camera swept in on the pillared austerity of a brick-and-ivy institution. Focused on a single pane of glass and cut into the scene beyond. Boys in military dress clustered at tables in a mess hall. One kid sat alone... Dark. Dangerous. Brooding. And the object of his classmates' animosity.
"Why do all y'all hate him so much?" Kit's character asked his classmates.
Though Kit knew the script for No Apologies by heart--had helped breathe life into its most intimate scenes--it claimed his attention as violently as Jeremy had claimed that kiss. Life and art comingled over the next hour and a half, informing Kit's knowledge of himself and his predicament. Watching himself and Jeremy on the screen, Kit saw the undeniable truth in their glances and touches. No actor, no matter how good, infused the merest glance with such a vivid depth of connection and understanding unless he'd lived it. Really felt it.
Staring across Amber at Jeremy's empty seat, Kit dug his nails into his palms and forced himself to stay put. Why did it take the emotional distance of the medium for him to see the message in Greg's script? A message he'd lived every day for almost six months? How had he missed the love between these two characters--or between himself and Jeremy--during filming? At the time, he'd chalked up the whole thing to two guys with a hard-on for one another. How had he not seen the film had more to say? So much more.
If only he'd taken the time before now to really think, then maybe Jeremy's seat wouldn't still be empty when the lights came up and the house roared its approval. Craning his neck, Kit swept the theater with his gaze. No Jeremy. He stood.
Amber clutched his arm. "Where are you going?"
"As far away from you as possible," he answered. "Do what you want, Amber. I really don't care anymore."
Catching Vance's eye on his way out, he mouthed, Where's Jeremy?
After-party, Vance mouthed back.
Kit kept walking, found the valet, and grabbed his helmet from under the counter. To annoy Amber--and make a splashy entrance--he'd taken his Ducati Monster to the premiere. He scanned the lobby and relaxed a notch when the evil witch didn't appear out of the woodwork just to spite him.
The valet rode the Monster to the side entrance. "Nice bike, man."
Too distracted to answer, Kit jammed his helmet on his head and sped his motorcycle past the lingering crowd. He had to find Jeremy--had to tell him all the things he should have said. Taking a corner too fast, Kit saw only Jeremy's face when he'd said, "I love you." At the memory of his response, Kit's guilt screamed at him louder than the engine beneath him.
Self-respect shredded, he sped up, trying to outrun his feelings. Once he found Jeremy, he'd make it better. He'd tell him what he'd figured out--what he'd known all along and been too blind to see. So many things he needed to say. Would Jeremy let him? Was it too late? A blaring horn startled him into a reflexive swerve. He went right and so did the truck. Bright lights. Brakes squealing. The rush of pavement. He was flying and falling, and his last thoughts before impact were of love and how it felt exactly like this.