Fugly

KZ Snow

 

Prologue

The only lessons learned by going clubbing are usually those related, first, to picking a buddy for the night and, second, to one’s blood alcohol content when the time comes to drive home. But one slushy, sloppy evening in March, in a place called the Foxhole, three of my friends embarked on a whole new educational journey—one that would teach them something of far greater value than the size of the dick concealed within a pair of designer pants.

I was on my third Snapple and minding my own business when Fallon Tate tossed the shit that hit the fan. Of course, he didn’t see himself doing anything of the sort. He thought he was simply complimenting a certain man by giving him the old ass-grab. After all, it was a way to convey one’s admiration in a loud and crowded place.

The whole mess started when that certain man entered the bar. He was a serious head-turner. Jake Pelletier and Todd Heileman also noticed him. Of course they would. Fallon, Jake, and Todd had been meeting for drinks every Friday since time immemorial, or at least for the last few years, so when one of them was at the Foxhole or Bent or Lady Dah’s, the other two would likely be there as well. I was just an occasional hanger-on.

Truth be told, all of them would’ve liked a piece of the beautiful stranger. They had a kind of ongoing competition that centered on scoring with the hottest men at any given bar, and this guy would’ve been a major coup. A hundred ten points on the hundred-point scale, easily, and none of them would’ve tried denying it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The evening began inauspiciously enough, with the four of us grouped around a table at the Foxhole. The bar, to the right of the entrance, was shaped like a loose, elongated C, which allowed for visual contact from all points. Directly across from the entrance, beyond the vast expanse of dance floor, was a stage where the DJ set up. Low platforms cluttered with tables and chairs ran along the other two walls. The “Hunt Club,” as I thought of my three companions, had decided to stake out a position on the rear platform. From there they could scan not only the patrons already in the place but the ones just walking in.

Fallon, Jake, and Todd first did a bit of catching up. They always had interesting stories, for they all had interesting jobs. Jake, the literary agent, mentioned an inspirational how-to book that had bagged a hefty advance. He was the quintessential young urbanite, dark and casually elegant, with an enormous vocabulary and dry wit. Fallon was much more colorful. The most garrulous and entertaining of the three, he was lithe, punk-haired, and pierced.

Fallon was a movement coach. He taught pageant contestants and wannabe models how to pose and strut; he helped singers and public speakers deliver their messages as much with their bodies as with their voices. Fallon knew natural beauty and easy grace when he saw them, and he had a penchant for trying to get natural beauty and easy grace into bed with him—if, that is, they came bundled in, or with, a male package.

“Got another peewee princess this week,” he said. “Pageant mom looked like Tweedledum and her kid looked like a tricked-out Alice after she’d chomped on the shrink me side of the magic mushroom.” He patted the side of Jake’s face. “That was for you, sweetness. You’re not the only one who reads books.”

“True,” said Jake. “And I’m not the only one who saw the Disney movie.”

Fal didn’t get a chance to let the implication sink in, because Todd asked, “Was she a brat?”

“Let me put it this way,” said Fal. “Imagine how Alice would’ve acted if that caterpillar had been smoking crank instead of hash and he’d shared some with her.” Dramatically, he rolled his eyes and made a gesture vaguely resembling the sign of the Cross. “I need to start packing Ritalin.”

Todd, the most soft-spoken of the three and, at five-foot-eight, the shortest, had the most fascinating job. Morbidly fascinating, that is. He was an embalmer at the Sudbury-Bischoff Funeral Home. As if to counteract any preconceived notions of men in his profession—that they all looked like Ichabod Crane by day and Pumpkinhead by night—he kept his meticulously highlighted hair in a youthful, sideswept fringe and his body in a state of buffness.

He told us about a recently deceased twenty-two-year-old man whose sister had found him hog-tied in his closet, hitched up to the empty clothes rack, with a plastic bag over his head—something the youth had apparently done to himself.

“A girl I know who assisted with the autopsy was amazed he got his body into that position,” Todd said. “The binding method was really elaborate. His arms and legs were twisted in weird ways. A lot of thought went into it.”

“Jesus,” breathed Fal. “Trussed up like a smokehouse ham.”

The rest of us grimaced.

“But why would he kill himself that way?” Fal asked.

“I doubt that was his intention,” said Jake, who glanced at Todd for confirmation. “Sounds like an autoerotic kink gone awry. Problem was, he didn’t put enough thought into getting out of it.”

Our mortician friend nodded. “It happens more often than you’d think, and mostly to men. All age groups, too. They get off on bondage combined with hypoxia. But it’s like any addiction. You push it too far and you can’t bounce back.”

“So was he, like, in a knot when you got him?” I asked, which prompted uneasy laughter.

“He wasn’t too bad. The ME’s the one who had to deal with the contortions. I just had to do some light work on his limbs—massaging and flexing. By the time we got the guy, he was going out of rigor.” Todd smiled wryly. “That’s one of the advantages of early-stage decomposition. It softens and relaxes stiffened muscle fibers.”

“Another bit of trivia to spout when conversation flags,” Jake said.

I shivered.

Face scrunched in disgust, Fallon stared at Todd. Then he snapped his fingers. Fal’s finger-snap had become the acknowledged signal that it was time to change the subject.

The Hunt Club began doing what it did best: scan the area for prey while making snide comments about the men who weren’t up to their standards.

A group of five kids walked in. They looked like kids to me, anyway, but were probably students from the university.

“Here comes the itty-bitty-titty committee,” Todd said.

“I don’t mind snack-sized,” Fal countered.

“Then maybe I should introduce you to Gabriel,” Todd told him. “I think he’s got a crush on me. I’d like to nip it in the bud.”

Gabriel was a new Sudbury-Bischoff employee, an allegedly short and quirky young guy who took care of the cosmetic side of their preparation work. Todd preferred tall, handsome men. All three of them did.

Although none of us would’ve said so to Todd, we all wondered how he managed to hang on to any hook-up after the hook-up found out what he did for a living. It was an irrational prejudice, granted, but a prejudice we had trouble overcoming. Fallon had once said, “I’d do Toddy in a minute…after I knew he’d spent a day getting detoxed by a hazmat team and another twenty-nine days in the shower.”

A short time after the twinks walked in, Jake peevishly noted the “glamazon” who was dancing with a man he fancied. Fallon, possibly taking umbrage, said glam was better than butter-faced, which described the glamazon’s partner.

“Damn, look at that one,” Todd said, pointing out a guy who was wending his way from the DJ to the bar.

“Yowza,” Jake said distastefully.

“Boy must’ve tumbled from the tippy-top of the fugly tree,” said Fal, “and hit every branch on the way down.”

My companions were just warming up. I knew the routine. Once alcohol and laughter had washed away all their work-week tension, they’d begin to circulate. Although I didn’t approve of their snarkiness, I could hardly fault the Hunt Club for hunting. We were all in our late twenties. We got horny on a pretty regular basis.

It was just before the Wow Guy strolled in that I noticed a lone man sitting at a table behind and to the left of ours, the fingers of one hand curled loosely around a squat tumbler of amber-colored liquor on ice. He looked older than us—late thirties, maybe—and had a kind of dark, smoldering intensity conveyed by every aspect of his appearance. Even his facial hair gave him an alluringly sinister air. Judging by his legs, which seemed longer than the average mortal’s, he was tall, too.

I thought he looked like a pirate, sexy as all fucking hell-and-damnation, and my attention would’ve been riveted to him if I weren’t so concerned about seeming rude. My companions, I figured, were being rude enough.

He sat angled away from the table, his left ankle propped on his right knee, and I got the distinct impression he’d been listening to the Hunt Club’s conversation. Our eyes met for a brief tick before his gaze moved languidly to the dance floor.

I didn’t point him out to the Hunt Club. One of the guys would’ve probably hit on him while another made some snotty comment about his age. I had a feeling the whole scenario wouldn’t have played out too well. When the man rose and headed for the restroom—he was tall, and very well built—I hoped beyond hope Todd, Fal, and Jake wouldn’t notice him.

They didn’t. Because, seconds later, Mr. Wow appeared.

People had been trickling in both directions not far from our table as they entered or exited the Foxhole. Its lobby was maybe ten or twelve feet behind us. Mr. Wow stood out from the flow like a piece of gold in a mountain stream. He stepped to one side and looked around the club’s interior.

He was around six-one, I estimated, with a perfectly proportioned body, beautiful but not vacuous face, and rich hair the color of some rare, finely grained and polished wood. The blue of his eyes was deep and faceted; the contours of his lips, pure erotic fantasy.

“Come to papa,” Jake muttered as Fal did a double-take and Todd’s eyes got bigger.

I was impressed by the newcomer, but I wasn’t particularly interested in him. Men that stunning were usually one of three things: soullessly vain, stupid, or taken. Sometimes they were all three.

There’s my bonbon,” Todd murmured.

Fallon waved a finger in front of his face. “Uh-uhh. No dibs allowed.”

As Mr. Wow moved in the direction of the bar, Jake was already pushing back from the table. Refusing to be denied their chance, Todd and Fal also rose. I stayed put.

The tall man who’d been sitting behind us returned from the restroom as my companions hustled down the testosterone trail. He’d no sooner resumed his seat than he, too, did a double-take…and his gaze went directly to the same gorgeous guy the Hunt Club had targeted. Abruptly, he began to get up from his chair. Then he froze for a second and settled back into it.

His reaction mystified me. He couldn’t see anything of Mr. Wow from this vantage point except his back. As I puzzled over this, I gave the tall man another surreptitious glance. He was smiling as he continued to look toward the bar. My puzzlement deepened.

Nothing further happened. Not for a while, anyway. I idly looked around the dance floor, wondering if I should bother trying to score tonight. Lights dappled the twisting bodies and shone off sweat-glazed faces. I felt as if I were gazing into an aquarium full of sinuous, exotic fish. There were plenty of available men here, but my heart wasn’t into cruising. My heart was already taken, damn the damned thing. Besides, I wasn’t exactly what the Foxhole’s patrons would’ve considered a hottie.

I must’ve been keeping my peripheral vision trained on the bar, because I saw Todd and Fallon almost simultaneously make their moves. Jake had already engaged Mr. Wow in conversation—a predictable development, since he was a smooth talker. Todd, who didn’t have the gift of gab, opted for a more direct approach. He put a hand over Mr. Wow’s hand just as Mr. Wow slid his wineglass across the bar for a refill. The gesture obviously meant I’ll catch this one. And, by the way, I’d love to get naked with you. Just check out the muscles of my forearm if you need persuading.

And then Fallon tossed the shit into the fan.

Jake was standing on Mr. Wow’s left, and Todd was seated on Mr. Wow’s right. Fal stood just behind him. While the pretty man’s attention was divided between Jake’s talk and Todd’s hand, Fal slyly rubbed and cupped the guy’s ass. Mr. Wow jerked around. He didn’t look particularly angry, but he did say something. I wished I could’ve heard what it was.

At that moment, a chair scraped sharply on my left.

The tall guy had obviously been watching my predatory friends. Eyes narrowed and jaw set, he glowered at the scene. Thank goodness he remained seated. Gradually, his attitude relaxed.

My curiosity was royally piqued now, so I inched my chair toward his. “Excuse me,” I said, sounding deferentially hesitant. Such an approach seemed wise. This man was the polar opposite of a pussy. Not a leather-clad bear, just tough as nails. Really big ones.

When he turned his head to regard me, he looked both imperious and, strangely enough, receptive. I had the immediate impression he was very strong-willed but not mean-spirited.

I moved closer so we could better hear one another. “Do you happen to know that good-looking man at the bar, the one my friends are fawning over?”

The left corner of his mouth lifted toward a smile. “Yes, I know him.”

The dude was even more striking up close. I began to feel a little spellbound. He had a deep voice with a hint of roughness, and his eyes were mesmerizing. The irises scintillated—that’s the only way I can describe them—and they seemed subtly to change color as he looked at me.

I would’ve bet anything he was the perfect storm in bed.

He watched me patiently, probably wondering what the hell my point was.

“Seems you have a low tolerance for hound dogs,” I said, only because that thought was near the top of my mind. Of course I couldn’t voice my uppermost thought, which vaguely had to do with putting my hand between his legs.

For a split second I was on the verge of either creaming my jeans or pissing myself.

Goddamn.

I nearly fell off my chair when he started laughing.

“I guess I don’t hide it very well,” he said. His subsequent smile was genial, but it didn’t blunt the drill of his gaze.

I cleared my throat. “Anyway, I just wanted to apologize for my friends’ behavior.” No further explanation was necessary, since he’d obviously been watching and listening to the four of us.

“It isn’t up to you to apologize,” he said. “They’re not children and you’re not their father.”

I couldn’t argue the point. “So, uh…if you know that man at the bar, why haven’t you joined him?” I laughed nervously. “I guarantee your presence would be a deterrent.”

His smile broadened for an instant, and then his gaze shifted to the pretty man. He looked wistful. “I don’t often get to sit back and just watch him interact with people. It’s…interesting. And helpful.”

Curious explanation. “Helpful how?”

It seemed hard for him to turn his attention back to me. “As immunization.” He chuckled quietly, looked down, and shook his head.

I didn’t want to keep pressing him. His motives were none of my business. “Just don’t take my friends too seriously,” I said. “Your date—”

The man’s gaze jumped to my face. “He isn’t just a casual date.”

“I’m sorry. Your partner—”

“He’s more than that, too.”

I didn’t want to risk pissing him off by making more wrong guesses. “I was just going to say…he’s really exceptionally beautiful, and—”

The man shocked me into silence by rolling up his eyes.

“What, you don’t think so?” I asked.

“Of course I think so. I’m just sick of hearing about it. And I’m sick of people trying to score a piece of it.”

Uh-oh. I’d inadvertently nudged his sore spot. “That’s understandable,” I said, trying to placate him. “But my friends are just—”

His face tightened. “Vain? Condescending? Shallow?”

I was going to say my friends were young, single, gay men who weren’t too much different from other young, single, gay men, so their interest in extraordinary male specimens was completely natural and shouldn’t be held against them. Instead, though, I winced. The tall man didn’t just resent the Hunt Club for sniffing around his lover; he was finding fault with their very characters.

I wasn’t sure how to counter his assessment. It was damned accurate. He’d taken in everything Fal, Jake, and Todd had said and drawn logical conclusions.

“I guess your description fits,” I said. “Sort of.”

The tall man made a scoffing sound. “‘Sort of,’ my ass. How can you stand all that narcissistic bullshit? You seem like a decent guy.” He cast another look toward the bar. Whatever he saw didn’t seem to upset him—too much, anyway—and for that I was profoundly grateful. “Just listening to their snotty comments made me want to smack them into next year.”

There was no doubt in my mind he could do it. I tried to explain my tolerance. “I think of them as…victims.”

The man lifted his eyebrows and gave me a dubious look. “Oh, come on. Save it for Oprah.”

“I’m serious.

“Okay, what are they victims of, pray tell?” The question was a challenge.

I’d actually given this issue some thought, so at least I didn’t have to wing an answer. I, too, had trouble dealing with the Hunt Club when they were in bitch mode. But I’d also been around them when they weren’t.

“Maybe ‘victims’ is too melodramatic,” I said. “Maybe products is more appropriate. Products of unresolved crap from their pasts. Maybe products of a society that places more emphasis on surface than substance.”

Eyes narrowed, the man studied me as he considered these possibilities. “It seems to me,” he said conclusively, “these products need to be recalled.”

I had no idea what he meant, but it was clear his tolerance for bad behavior hadn’t improved any. I lobbed my Hail Mary pass. “I think they’ll turn around once they’re finished sowing their wild oats and settle down.” Oh, Christ, now I sounded like their grandpa.

The guy let out a single, skeptical laugh. “Buddy, that’s not going to happen until the mirror, mirror on the wall gives them a major adjustment in perspective.” He finished his drink and got up. “And I’d say that adjustment is overdue. They might act like adolescents, but they are adults.”

He stared in the direction of his significant other. Within a few seconds, he smiled and lifted a hand. I too looked toward the bar. Sure enough, the breathtaking man who’d monopolized so much attention was smiling too. He immediately turned away from the trough and pushed through the crowd.

I watched as the two separated lovers came together. They kept smiling and had eyes only for each other. The pretty man’s color was high. He virtually glowed with pleasure.

“Hi, baby,” the tall man murmured as he folded his sweetheart into his arms.

They kissed, slowly and carefully, as they caressed each other’s face and hair and back. I couldn’t stop looking at them. Of course I’d seen dozens of men kiss before, but here was a passion so abundant, it didn’t allow for the merest trace of hesitation or embarrassment as it spilled into the room.

I felt it whisper against me—a love most people could only dream about. And although Jake, Todd, and Fallon were light years away from comprehending such a bond, they’d managed to cheapen it.

“How long have you been here?” the pretty man asked as they drew apart.

“Long enough to watch you get pawed.” The tall man tenderly touched his lover’s face.

“Didn’t you find it amusing? I did.”

“You have a strange sense of humor.”

“You’re not going to do anything to them, are you?”

“Nothing that’ll make a scene or get me arrested. I’m a reformed barbarian, you know.”

The pretty man pulled back a few inches more. “I don’t think you’re reformed. I think you’re still in recovery.”

The exchange was full of affectionate humor. Neither man had really stopped smiling. It was obvious they doted on each other.

“So what are you going to do?” asked the pretty man. “Because I can tell you’ve got something planned.”

A wily smile spread across the tall man’s face.

“Oh shit, Jackson. Not that stuff.”

“Hey, I haven’t worked it in a while.” The man named Jackson dipped forward for another kiss. “You know the saying: Use it or lose it. Besides, it should benefit everybody concerned.”

I continued to stare as the couple left the platform and moved toward the dance floor. Then I looked for the Hunt Club. They were no longer at the bar, so I assumed they were on the prowl.

The lights dimmed. Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” drifted out of the sound system. I glimpsed the intertwined lovers dancing in the middle of the crowd. Although they weren’t moving much, there was a halo of space around them, an enchanted circle.

They were inviolable.

Jake suddenly appeared on the platform, startling me out of my fugue.

“Looks like you all struck out,” I said.

“It confirms one of my assumptions—that only married straight men are seducible.”

“They’re married?”

“So sayeth Beauty.” Jake looked over his shoulder. “Who was the Beast? I saw you talking to him.”

I shook my head and shrugged.

“So you struck out too.”

“No. I didn’t even bother stepping up to the plate.” And I’m glad I didn’t. Because I think he’s going to open a can of something on your asses.

Damned if I knew what, or how he planned on doing it, but the thought still gave me chills.

Chapter One

One Month Later

Before his first coaching session of the day got under way, Fallon called Jake from the Stage Right Academy’s parking lot. He didn’t want to call Todd, because Todd was probably at the funeral home, pumping chemicals through some stiff’s circulatory system. Besides, Jake could give him an update.

“You with a client?” he asked when Jake answered.

“No, but I have an editor on the landline. Hold on a minute.”

Fallon tilted to the right and stretched upward to glance at himself in the rearview mirror. Those rough, red patches on his face weren’t very well concealed by foundation. He’d found out that much the last few times he’d gone clubbing. By the end of each evening, he’d felt like Freddy freakin’ Krueger with a manicure. Too bad none of the men he’d asked to dance had gotten around to looking at his nails.

“How’s the ick?” Fal immediately asked when Jake returned.

“Please don’t call it that. Fish get ick, not people.”

“Yeah, well, don’t bet on it. Have you heard anything more from your doctor?”

“Same shit,” Jake said. Papers shuffled faintly in the background. “She can’t see anything. Even if I put my hand right on the spots, even if I tell her that other people have noticed them, she still swears there’s nothing there. Now she’s suggesting I see a shrink.”

Fal dropped against the back of the car seat. “At least your doctor isn’t trying to make money off you. Mine gave me the same ‘I don’t see or feel anything’ line then wanted to run a batch of tests. They would’ve probably set me back a grand, at least. And I don’t have insurance.”

“Insurance isn’t that much of a blessing,” Jake said. “My deductible’s in the thousands, and the company still jerks me around any which way they can. That’s why I told my doctor right off the bat, ‘Don’t run me through a gamut of tests if you don’t have a clue what you’re looking for.’ So she got huffy and told me to see a psychiatrist.”

“What about Todd?” Fallon asked.

“His doctor still thinks it could be an allergy to latex, since Todd wears those gloves so much of the time. But that doesn’t make sense. The rash isn’t on his hands. What’s more, he’s never had a problem with condoms.”

“And it doesn’t explain why we have the same skin condition.”

“Or why there’s no visible evidence of an allergic reaction,” Jake pointed out.

Fallon sighed. “I don’t get it. We can see this crap on ourselves and each other. The guys we hit on can see it. But our doctors and families and other people can’t.”

Jake called out, “Be right there,” to someone in his office. “David thinks we’re cursed.”

For a moment, Fallon didn’t think the remark was addressed to him. It didn’t seem related to their conversation. He frowned but said nothing.

“Fal? Did you hear me?”

“Yeah, uh…I didn’t think you were talking to me. What was that again?”

“David Ocho thinks we’re cursed.”

What?

Another voice sounded in Jake’s office. “I’m sorry; I’ve gotta run,” Jake said. “I’ll get back to you later.”

Fallon stared at his cell for a few seconds before snapping it closed and tucking it into his coat pocket. He had to get to work anyway.

*

Another day, another dreamer.

Fallon strolled around Runway Room Two. He checked the audio and video equipment and the positions of the lights—everything was good to go—then sat on a folding chair before a table that supported a small control panel. He crossed his arms over his chest and his legs over each other and impatiently began bobbing the uppermost.

“Tyler?” he called out, then checked the wall clock.

Although Tyler Burke was paying for ninety minutes’ worth of coaching, he was again pissing away at least thirty of those minutes in the dressing room. Fallon had yet to see him in street clothes. He always arrived at Stage Right before Fallon got there, and he always departed after Fallon had left the room.

Fallon rose, walked the length of the runway, and went to one of the two doors flanking the stage. “Ty, you don’t have to practice in costume, you know.”

“Yes I…fuck…yes I do.”

Fallon leaned an ear toward the door. “What happened? Are you all right?”

Another “fuck,” this one clipped and muted. “Yeah, I’ll be okay. I just speared my goddamned cornea with one of my eyelashes.” He obviously meant the fake ones.

“I’m telling you, you don’t have to be in full—”

“Just go away and let me get ready. Christ knows I’m paying enough.”

Shaking his head, Fallon went back to the console. Many of the hopefuls who paid for Stage Right’s services were lost causes—Tyler Burke was a perfect example—but the coaches and instructors weren’t allowed to tell them that.

Another five minutes went by. For the umpteenth time in the past month, Fallon touched his face. The rash, or whatever the hell it was, had put a heavy damper on his sex life. Going out in this condition didn’t net him anything but negative attention. He’d found that out at Bent this past weekend and at Lady Dah’s the weekend before.

Humiliating, being treated like a leper. One tantalizing techie he’d asked to dance had even said to him, “Sorry, man, I don’t know if you’ve got scabies or herpes or what, but I sure as hell don’t want it.” After that, Fallon had gone on the Internet to look for a less threatening skin condition to call his own. Now he blamed the blotches on eczema. Todd fell back on the latex allergy and Jake claimed to have a form of dermatitis.

None of the excuses helped much. He and his friends were still generally shunned.

“David Ocho thinks we’re cursed.”

A chill crawled across Fallon’s back. What a freaky thing to say. David Ocho didn’t seem like a nutjob. Then again, Fallon didn’t know any writers but him. Maybe they were all a bubble off plumb.

Occasional thumps and mutters came from the dressing room and redirected Fallon’s thoughts. He checked the tune Tyler had picked for this session.

“Oh no,” he groaned under his breath.

Etta James's “Tell Mama.”

The dressing room door opened, and the World’s Ugliest Drag Queen rocked and faltered up the steps to the stage.

“Well?” Ty said. “Hit the lights.”

His vocal register was closer to Paul Robeson’s than Etta James’s. Good thing he’d be lip-syncing. Fallon hit the lights.

A blinding sparkle and gleam surrounded Ty’s beefy form. Fallon squinted against it. Tiny stars born of sequins, glitter, and bugle beads went nova every time he moved.

Fallon lifted a hand to shield his eyes. “Don’t you think that gown is a little…Vegas showgirl with relatives in a Chinese bead factory?”

“The boss likes glamour.” Ty smoothed his square hands over his platinum wig, highlighting the stitchery of fine black hair on the backs of his fingers. “Besides, I got this for a steal from a guy who’s retiring from the business. I can’t afford new dresses.”

Fallon wanted to say, Ty, for godssake, you look like a man piñata at a birthday party for Cher. You are not cut out for this line of work.

“I’ll show you what I’ve come up with so far,” said Ty. “Then you can help me finesse it.”

“But we haven’t finished ‘finessing’ the Nina Simone song yet.”

“I worked on that at home. Now I need to get his one down.” Ty glanced at his palm.

“What’s on your hand?” Fallon asked suspiciously.

“The lyrics.”

Fallon sagged. Why on God’s green earth had this man decided to moonlight as an entertainer?

Ty was getting antsy. He wriggled. “Let’s just kick this off, okay? I’m starting to itch under here.”

There wasn’t much Fallon could do except honor Ty’s wishes. The client was king—or, in this case, some bizarre king-queen hybrid. After adjusting the level of light, Fallon checked the angle of the stationary camcorder and turned on the music.

With a series of body-wide jerks, Tyler “Bubbles” Burke began his assault on Etta James.

Fallon paced around the runway, studying his student. He mounted the stage and regarded Ty from the rear. He had a damned nice ass, but it was hardly a girly ass. His shoulders were too wide to convey lithe grace. And his movements…

“Stop!” Fallon clicked off the music with the remote he carried.

Startled, Ty turned. His feet wobbled, ankles nearly buckling.

“Okay,” Fallon said, walking up beside him. “For starters, you need lower heels. You’re either gonna cripple yourself or somebody in the audience when you fall off the damned stage. For another thing, you’re too focused on remembering the lyrics to act the lyrics. We’ve discussed this before. Let the rhythm of the song and the story it’s telling determine your movements.”

He looked up at Ty. Damn, the dude was tall. Within the tar pits of his eye makeup, his gray irises were astonishingly pretty. Fallon suddenly wished he could see this man in his natural state, stripped of all the goo and bling.

“Are you sure you’re gay?” he asked without thinking.

Ty put his hands on his narrow hips and compressed his glossy lips. “Actually, no. Even though I haven’t been near pussy in the thirty-one years since I emerged from the womb, I’m still not sure.” His sarcasm morphed into suspicion. “What are you getting at?”

What he was getting at hit Fallon in a most abrupt and jarring way. I’d love to see you come out of that dressing room looking like a boxer instead of a bitch. “Nothing. Never mind. Just stand at the end of the runway and watch me. I’ll show you what I mean and talk you through it.”

His reaction to Ty rattled him. He’d been attracted to a man in drag just once before, and that was six years ago in New Orleans. But that man was physically flawless, moved liked a gazelle, and was done up only for Mardi Gras night. It was all in fun, and he worked that fun to perfection. Tyler Burke, however, wanted to make this a second career and, what was worse, looked and moved like an alien inhabiting a human body.

When Fallon wondered if Ty could see his “eczema,” his surge of self-consciousness rattled him even more. Why should he care how he looked to this guy?

He reran the song to the beginning. Ty took up his viewing position at the end of the runway.

Just do it. Just ignore him and do it and don’t think.

It wasn’t hard for Fallon to let the song carry him away. As long as he could remember, his body had responded to music as naturally as a planet responded to gravitational force. So, as Etta James sang, his arms made a fluid flourish here, his hips swayed there, his hands and feet rose and fell in pantomime, and his upper body shimmied seductively. It felt great. Better than a swim in a cool, clean lake on a hot, muggy day. Better than any drug-or alcohol-induced buzz. People who said they didn’t like to dance always left Fallon incredulous.

“Repeat please,” Ty murmured after the song ended. He stood with his arms crossed beneath his false bosom.

Fallon went through the song a second time, explaining why certain motions and gestures fit certain parts of the lyric. He tried to keep his improvisations similar to the first run-through so his student wouldn’t get too confused.

Tell mama, he cajoled his audience-of-one, what you want, what you need.

Ty didn’t look confused. He looked mesmerized. And Fallon was starting to feel just a little aroused. He didn’t know if dancing was doing it, or the fact he had such an attentive audience, or, God forbid, the thought of a butch man in a lounge-singer dress suffering the unique agony of a growing erection. A hideaway gaff, designed to keep one’s dick tucked neatly between one’s legs, was not a boner-friendly piece of apparel.

“You know,” Ty said when the CD player went still, “you are really good, Fallon. Really good.”

The compliment made Fallon’s body temperature rise. He noticed the line of black chest hair above the scooped neckline of Ty’s gown, the prominent biceps and cabled forearms that weren’t entirely concealed by the long butterfly sleeves, slit along the outside.

“You could be a dancer,” Ty added.

Fallon swiped his fingers up over his forehead to his hairline. “I was. Until three years ago. I had to give it up.”

“Why?”

“Recurring Achilles tendonitis. The pain kept getting worse.”

“You sure don’t seem impaired.”

“What I just did,” Fallon said, “is nowhere near as strenuous as dancing professionally.”

Ty nodded. He licked his lips and looked down. When he again met Fallon’s gaze, his eyes were full of sympathy. “I’m really sorry. You’re made to be a dancer. I could watch you all day.”

“Thank you.” Ty’s sincerity put a small knot in Fallon’s throat. No one had expressed any regret over his forced retirement in a long, long time. He’d even stopped allowing himself to feel regret.

Ty chuckled. “Not that I know shit about dancing. Obviously.” He shifted unsteadily from one high-heeled foot to the other. Delicately, his dress clattered.

A not-unpleasant tension began to hum through the air.

“I’ll help you learn,” Fallon said quietly. His conviction and determination surprised him. “Come on. Try it again. I’ll stay up here and ease you through some movements if you want me to.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Ty nodded. “Yeah, okay. If you think it’ll help.”

They both walked back to the stage and faced the runway.

Throughout three more runs of the song, Fallon coached and coaxed. First, he had Ty shadow him. Then he followed behind Ty. Hesitantly at first, and then more boldly, he put his hands on Ty’s hips to coax them into loosening, or lifted Ty’s arms to encourage their participation in the performance. “Oh-oh-oooh, listen to the music,” he sang softly close to Ty’s ear, reminding him to get lost in the song. Whenever Ty stumbled, Fallon steadied him. Whenever Fallon laughed, Ty laughed with him.

As the session drew to a close, they weren’t exactly dance partners, but they’d eroded the barrier between reluctant mentor and inept protégé. Their pessimism had crept toward optimism as surely as Ty’s falsies—or, rather, his breast forms—had shifted toward his armpits.

After forty-five minutes, Fallon suggested they take a break. He felt invigorated but Ty was sweating like a marathon runner, rivulets coursing down the shallow gully of his chest and through the thin brush of its hair. That dress must’ve weighed half a ton.

For the first time in nearly a month, Fallon realized, he hadn’t been obsessing over the Riddle of the Rash. It had simply flown from his mind. He’d been having a good time.

Fallon poured two cups of water from the cooler beside the door, drank one and handed the other to Ty, then grabbed a packet of pre-moistened towelettes from a shelf beneath the console. He led his star pupil to one of two loveseats stationed parallel to the runway.

“Progress,” he said, dropping onto the cushion with a happy sigh.

“You think so?” Ty asked hopefully. He pulled out one of the towelettes and swabbed his forehead and neck.

“Yes, I do.”

“How come we didn’t try this sooner?” Ty emptied his cup in three swallows, his Adam’s apple bobbing beneath a faint sanding of stubble.

As Fallon watched, the answer came to him and steeped him in shame. Because I wrote you off before I even gave you a chance. Because I thought you were a big oaf, a glittered-up Shrek, and no galumphing reject from Torch Song Trilogy deserved the benefit of a trained dancer’s expertise.

“Because I’m an idiot,” Fallon said. “Tyler, why are you doing this, anyway?”

His made-up eyes lowered. “I’m not very good, am I. If I were you, I’d be wondering too.”

“You’re getting better.”

Ty smiled wanly. “I do it because I need the money. And because it makes people smile. And because I just might meet someone who’d like to get to know me better.”

His reasons, and the way he’d uttered them, touched Fallon. “Don’t you meet people when you’re driving cab?” That was Ty’s primary job. He’d said so at the beginning of their first session.

“I’m around a lot of people, but I don’t meet too many of them. They get in, they ride, they get out. Besides, I’m not much of a talker around strangers. That’s another reason I do shows. They pull me out of myself.”

He slowly crumpled his paper cup. Fallon noticed the shiny crescent of lipstick on its edge.

“Tyler, take off your wig.”

The request seemed to jolt him. “Why?”

“Just do it. Please. It must be pretty uncomfortable by now anyway.”

Reluctantly, Ty pulled the wig from his head, placed it on his lap, and vigorously stirred his fingers through a shock of shiny black hair. It released the scent of sweat-laced shampoo. Motes of talcum powder drifted through the light.

“Now close your eyes.”

Ty narrowed them but didn’t close them. “You’re starting to scare me.”

“Don’t be silly.” Fallon smiled. “I’m your teacher. You should trust me.”

Laughing quietly, Ty closed his eyes.

Fallon carefully peeled off the false lashes. Feathery black fans lay beneath them—not as long, of course, but much softer, with a demure curl.

“Now keep them closed.”

Fallon pulled a few towelettes from the pack. He gently scrubbed at the makeup—eyes first, then blush-on. He was about to clean Ty’s lips when he realized the soap in the cloths would taste like shit. So, instead, he used his fingers and thumbs. He felt Ty’s breath against his skin.

“Wait,” he whispered, enjoying this impromptu cleansing, enjoying it a lot. He seemed to be unwrapping a present.

As he worked on the pancake foundation, Ty’s brows began drawing together. His face began tightening. Within a moment, Fallon knew why.

The livid ridge of a scar ran from the left side of Ty’s mouth almost to his earlobe.

“What happened to you?” Fallon asked, trying not to OMFG in shock.

“Robbery,” Ty said in a flat voice.

He opened his eyes. Their color was even lovelier when it was set off by that natural fringe of dark lashes. His brows had a nice shape too. So did his cheekbones. And his very masculine, not puggy and not bulbous nose. And his clean-lined lips with that slight dip in the upper.

“One of your fares?” Fallon asked, starting to feel the way he did in New Orleans, only stronger.

“Yup. Five years ago.” Ty smiled. “I wasn’t a bad-looking guy until then.”

“You’re not a bad-looking guy now.”

Ty’s gaze moved to one side. He ran the back of his hand over his mouth, one way and then the other. As he grabbed a towelette to wipe off his hand, he checked the wall clock.

Fallon wished he had more water at hand. His throat was dry. “Ty, have you noticed my…skin condition?”

“You mean those inflamed areas?” His gaze went from one to the other, and he frowned slightly. “Yeah. More now than before. Actually, they’ve kind of gotten more noticeable since I came in. It’s probably from you sweating.”

Okay, Tyler definitely saw them, but Fallon was surprised to hear his description. To Fallon, the ick looked blood-red and felt slightly scaly, which was exactly how it looked and felt on Todd and Jake. Other men seemed to see it that way too. But not all other men.

“I never made anything of them,” Tyler said. “Why?”

“You don’t think they’re repulsive?”

“No.” With a shy smile, Ty studied Fallon’s face. “Actually, I think you’re pretty damned hot. Even if your hair does look like you stuck your head in a badger burrow.” He grabbed his wig off his lap and stood. “I gotta run. Thanks so much for your help. I mean it. I didn’t think you had any faith in me until today.”

“I didn’t.” Fallon rose and touched Ty’s arm. “Wear your street clothes next time, okay? It would help if I could see you out of drag, get a better sense of your build and your natural way of moving.”

Ty put his hands on his hips and nibbled the inside of his cheek.

“You seem to have a problem with that.”

“I’m just afraid you’re gonna lose faith in me again.”

“Why?”

Self-consciously, Ty shrugged. “Because I’m not exactly built like a ballerina.”

“I can’t wait to see,” Fallon whispered, and then thought, I’m going to do right by this man, goddammit, if it takes every last erg of his energy and mine.

 

 

To continue reading, close this window, click the ADD TO CART button, and checkout.