"Yes! Yes! Oh yes! Uh ... not! Hmmm, maybe. Mmmmhmmm. Yes, that's it!"
"What in the hell's going on in here? It sounds like you might not be alone, but I know better than to hope that," Cassie Baker said, sticking her head into Austin's office, with her hand over her eyes.
"Hey, come on in. Look. Isn't this the perfect one for the layout on the strange animals? Have you ever seen such a cool pic? I don't think I've ever seen anything more beautiful. Wow, the light coming through the fan is just awesome. This just has to be the first shot in the series. What do you think?" Austin Edmunds held up a stunning picture of an albino peacock that was truly amazing. It was part of a story he'd done on a rescue operation that specialized in unique and exotic animals.
These animals had been taken from illegal situations and often-abusive owners. The article would be powerful. He had some heart-wrenching photos of animals that were new to the home, and some of those would be in the article, but this peacock was such a success story that it deserved to be front and center. One of the sanctuary's staff members had told Austin that, when they'd gone to recover the special peacock, they'd been appalled at the shape he was in. Now he was magnificent. Austin was thrilled with the light and shadows and the purity of the overall picture. This one was probably going to end up on one of his walls, really large.
"Austin, you're right. This is beautiful. No wonder you were so ... uh ... vocal in your comments. It sounded like you had someone hot in here and you were getting off on ... him." She snickered a little when she got the look she had obviously expected on his face.
"Cassie, don't start. You know I don't..."
"I know, I know. You don't talk about your lifestyle and you don't mix business with pleasure. And most of all you're..." She paused and they said the next line together.
"Not interested in meeting your brother!" They smiled, she with resignation and he with amused frustration. She'd been bugging the shit out of him about meeting her brother for the two years he'd worked here. As soon as she found out he was gay, she had started her campaign on her brother's behalf. Austin wondered if the guy couldn't get his own dates. He certainly wasn't interested.
"You gonna be alone forever? I've never seen you date or heard of you with anyone."
Austin knew she was really fond of him and worried that he had no one in his life
He snorted. "And you won't. I told you, even if I did have a life, I wouldn't parade it in front of you. I might as well put it on the web as let you in on the info." He winked to lighten the dig.
"Oh, come on. I'm not that bad," she said, hands on hips.
"Face it, you're doomed to a life of wondering if I'm ever going to get a date ... or a life worthy of your notice. I'm happy as I am. Alone." He said it with conviction.
"Bullshit." She responded with just as much conviction and hurried away from his lunge for her, laughing as she went.
After Cassie's hasty departure, Austin got back to choosing pictures for the article on the rescue sanctuary he'd visited a couple of weeks ago. He loved his job at the upscale men's magazine where he'd worked for the last two years. Getting this job had been his salvation, and he would do nothing to mess up his current good situation. He'd been to hell and back, and liked "back" a lot better.
He tried not to think of his life before: his problems, his fears, and his pain. He always tried. Tried not to let his mind go there, knowing that there was a place that left him freaked and stressed and nothing like the Austin his current peers knew. To them, he was well spoken, sophisticated, and fashionable. He laughed to himself. Little did they know. He was a gutter rat who'd pulled himself up out of the quagmire his life had been and into the world of career success, money, and prestige.
He fit in so well at For Men To Know. He'd made a name for himself in the field of photography, and had been thrilled when his work had taken him into the realm of photojournalism. He had a way with words, and could put those words with photos in a way that touched places within people. He could make them see beauty, pain, hatred, fear, joy, poverty, and opulence with a few choice words and pictures that expressed them perfectly.
His boss knew what a find he was, and had increased his salary every time some other magazine tried to entice him away. He secretly liked being the center of the frequent tug of war. His portfolio improved every time.
Ha! Just the thought of him even having one, knowing what one was, was so far from his former life, it was laughable. Growing up, he'd been good at things, too. Good at stealing, lying, fighting, and hiding. Those were the things he did best back then.
His father had been quite a role model. Everyone in his particular ghetto knew Big John was good at what he did. He was an enforcer for the local mob boss. Austin had seen him kill two different people and threaten several more. Big John liked his work. He only had to threaten Austin, and Austin would comply with whatever was asked of him.
Austin hadn't been a big kid. He was thin and wiry. He had huge eyes, dark brown like the best chocolate, with lashes that he used to get teased about. His hair was brown, thick, and curly. He'd worn it long then. There was no love or tenderness in his home or the entire neighborhood. He didn't even know what it was like until he was in his teens and met Howie.
Okay, now he'd done it. He'd thought of Howie. How many times over the years had he sworn he would forget him? Nothing he promised himself ever worked. Howie was in his head and his heart forever. He might as well face it. From Howie, he'd learned about honor, tenderness, respect, love, and what it meant to be gay. God, he still missed him ... so much.
"Austin! Hey, come on, meeting in the conference room. Mandatory. What were you daydreaming about? Tell me you were thinking about a hot date you have planned for this weekend." Cassie had come by his office to prod him on. She giggled and dodged his swipe at her shoulder.
"Nah, brat. Want to come over for supper Saturday night? Or if you'd like, I'll even take you out ... to the Reagan Star." He liked her, and they often spent off time together. He liked her best when she left him alone about his life--or lack thereof.
"Sounds fun. But ... the Reagan Star? Wow, that is like the hottest place to eat right now. I've never been. I'd love to go there ... please."
"I offered, didn't I? One condition, though. You give me a break and don't hassle me about dates and men and life in general. Deal?" He knew she'd been dying to go there, so he felt sure he'd have a night off from her aggressive attempts on his behalf.
"To eat at the Star? Deal." She hooked arms with him and they went into the meeting, both smiling.