Alec silently cursed as he stood in front of the mirror and struggled with a silky bit of fabric that would do nothing except remain limply wrapped around his neck. Looking back at him was a young man in his mid-twenties who had the classic features that most people would consider matinee-idol handsome. He had wide-set blue eyes that looked aqua in the right light and full, sensual lips that often parted in a stunning smile. Tonight his chestnut brown hair was gelled into soft spikes that fell over his forehead. The young man struggled with the black strip of cloth for a few more moments before he gave up completely.
“Aunt Jo, I can’t get this tie done right,” he finally called out. The posh London accent that floated up to him in reply contrasted sharply with his broad American twang.
“Well, come down here, and I’ll see if I can sort it for you.”
Alec stepped out of his bedroom and went only as far as the waist-high wall at the top of the stairs before peering down at his aunt, who stood at the foot of the stairs on the floor below. “Aunt Jo, are you sure I need to wear this? Couldn’t I just wear a regular suit and tie?”
“Don’t be silly, dear. The invitation specifies black tie. You can’t very well look like an accountant who had blundered in from the street,” she said, craning her neck to speak to her nephew.
Alec was at his Aunt Josephine’s home in London, a bright, modern duplex in a glass-walled high-rise in the Docklands area of the city. He had been coming to this apartment every summer since he was fifteen. Alec’s parents, John and Fiona, lived in America, and every year between July and August, they would send him to England to stay with his favorite aunt until school started again in September. But this summer was different. Alec was no longer in school, and he had come back to the UK to stay.
Alec had completed his degree in the performing arts, and after a series of unsuccessful auditions in New York, he was eager to try out his musical theater talents on the London stage. In the short time that Alec had been back, he’d already had a modicum of success in landing a small role in the The Lion King, but he continued to look for that big break that would make him a star.
Although musically gifted, Alec had never considered the performing arts for a career until he discovered musical theater during his first year of high school. He auditioned for a part in his school’s production of Camelot on a dare and never looked back. Alec’s family had been supportive about his career choice, but he was also aware of his father’s expectation that at least one of his children would attend his alma mater and eventually join the family business. Instead, Alec had gone to a performing arts college, and now Alec hoped that if he could at least make a living in the theater, he could some how make it up to his father.
Tonight he was escorting his Aunt Josephine to a reception for the opening of a new exhibit at the Tate Modern, just one of the many art museums she supported.
Alec loped down the stairs with his jacket in hand and presented his throat to his aunt. “Maybe I should have gotten one of those clip-on ones,” he quipped.
“Good lord! Didn’t that brother of mine teach you anything about proper dress for a gentleman?” Jo exclaimed when she saw the mess that Alec had made of his tie.
Aunt Jo was in her fifties, a slight woman of Scottish descent who stood only five feet tall, but she had piercing gray eyes that could be used to cow the toughest of men.. It was an attribute that served her well in the male-dominated world of investment banking, but it was all behind her now that she was retired—at least, that was what she called the fact that she had lost her job in the subprime-mortgage collapse.
In contrast, Alec, at over six feet tall, towered over his aunt and had to stoop in order for her to reach his tie. “There,” she said after a moment, stepping back while Alec shrugged on his jacket. Jo looked on with a wistful smile as Alec settled the garment onto his broad shoulders. “Well, look at you. All grown up,” she remarked. Alec smiled self-consciously and gallantly offered his aunt an arm as they headed out to find a cab that would take them to the museum.
The exhibit was on one of the upper floors of the museum, and on the escalator ride up to the gallery, Alec couldn’t help but swivel his head from side to side to take in the cavernous gray expanse of the entry hall. The building that housed the museum had been an oil-burning power plant in its former life, and tonight its distinctly industrial atmosphere looked incongruous with people sedately milling about in formal dress while white-jacketed servers circulated with trays of hors d’oeuvres.
“Josephine! Josephine! I was wondering if I’d see you here! You should have let me know you were coming, dear,” a woman trilled at them as they entered the gallery.
“Jane, darling! What a wonderful surprise!” Jo gushed when she saw that it was an old friend. After an exchange of air kisses, Jo directed the woman’s attention to Alec. “Jane, you remember my nephew Alec from America. Alec, you met Jane a few years ago when we went to Arundel Castle.”
Jane was a woman of a certain age who fought it with every imaginable weapon known to womankind. Her brown eyes were kind, but she looked a bit surprised; her hair was beautifully coiffed, but the flattering shade of auburn was just a little too vibrant. She gave Alec an appreciative head-to-toe glance before offering her hand.
“Of course, very nice to see you again, Mrs. Granger,” Alec said, shaking her hand.
“Oh, heavens, you’re all grown up now. Please call me Jane. My, how time flies!” Jane exclaimed as she stepped back to give Alec another once-over. “Are you over here on business, or are you on holiday?” she asked.
“Alec’s in theater now, Jane, and he has a part in The Lion King,” Aunt Jo proudly chimed in.
“Oh, how exciting!” Jane said as her eyes lit up, and she inched closer in a manner that reminded Alec of a stalking lioness he had once seen on television.
“Well it’s only a small part. If you weren’t paying attention, you’d miss me completely,” Alec explained modestly.
“Well, I’m sure you’re brilliant, however brief your appearance. Now, you must have some champagne and then come meet my daughter,” she said, flagging down one of the circulating servers. Jane handed each of them a glass; then, snaking an arm around Alec’s waist, she steered them across the room toward a fashionably dressed young woman.
“Oh, Mattie! Mattie!” Jane called to her daughter above the din of the guests.
“Mattie, you remember Josephine, my friend from school. Well, this is her nephew Alec,” she said when they had gathered in front of a large, chaotically painted canvas.
Alec shook hands with a woman who looked not yet twenty-five with large brown eyes and short dark hair that was shot through with magenta highlights. She had a slight indentation under her lower lip where Alec guessed she normally wore a stud but had taken it off for this occasion. Between her thumb and forefinger was a small tattoo of a Celtic knot.
“Alec has just come back from America, and he’s appearing this summer in The Lion King,” Jane told her daughter.
“That sounds very exciting. Are you an actor, then?” Mattie asked with great interest.
“Well, I’m trying to be, anyway,” Alec answered.
“Mattie, dear. Why don’t you show Alec around the gallery while I steal Josephine away for a good chinwag? We haven’t seen each other in ages,” Jane suddenly said, and she dragged Jo away by the arm.
Both Alec and Mattie looked on in surprise as the two older women walked away.
Mattie looked at Alec and blushed. “I’m sorry. My mother can be so obvious.”
Alec chuckled and said, “Don’t worry about it. So, your mother said you could show me around. I guess you know a lot about this artist.”
Mattie laughed uncomfortably. “Well, no. That’s the really embarrassing part. My friend Peter is actually the art expert.” With an awkward wave of her hand, she added, “He went to get more champagne. He’ll be back in a minute.”
Alec was about to make a comment about the muddle of colors hanging in front of them when Mattie pointed toward a wall of people across the room. “Oh, there’s Peter,” she said. Turning to where Mattie was pointing, Alec saw a tall man about his own age threading through the crowd with a glass of champagne in each hand. The lines of his jacket showed off his narrow shoulders, and as he made his way toward them, it swung open to reveal a slender waist and a perfectly flat stomach. Alec watched with fascination as the young man coming toward them pivoted around the people impeding his progress with jaguar-like grace.
“They were out of the French champagne, so I got us some of the California,” he said as he handed a glass to Mattie.
“Oh, that’s lovely as well. Thanks. Peter, I’d like you to meet Alec,” Mattie said as she took the champagne from her friend’s hand.
The two men unconsciously gave each other a full-body sweep with their eyes before clasping hands in a warm handshake. Alec’s heart started to beat a little faster now that he stood face-to-face with Peter; he noted with appreciation that a very handsome face went with the fit body that glided toward him from across the room. Peter had deep-set violet-colored eyes and a strong jaw that was balanced by an endearingly, every so slightly crooked nose; his ash blond hair was short but long enough on top to give him an adorable tousled look.
A megawatt smile broke across Alec’s face as a little thrill shot up from the pit of his stomach. “A pleasure to meet you, Peter. So, Mattie tells me that you know a thing or two about this artist,” Alec said, waving a hand at the artwork hanging next to them.
Peter gave Alec a shy look and cleared his throat before speaking. “Well, yeah. I’ve been following her for quite a while. She came on to the London art scene a few years ago, and she is currently quite controversial for her use of color.”
Alec only heard a fraction of what Peter was saying as his mind began to wander. He was mesmerized by the way Peter used his long-fingered hands while he explained the painting, and he loved the way Peter bit his lower lip when he was reaching for a thought. Alec was about to start musing about the drape of Peter’s trousers when a voice made him jump.
“Well, I see Peter’s found you,” Jane said, suddenly appearing at Alec’s elbow. Alec swallowed and felt a slight warmth creeping into his cheeks as he came back to the present from his mental wanderings.
“Err, yes, Peter was just explaining the artist’s use of color,” he said in a flustered voice, hoping that no one noticed he had been staring at Peter.
“Well, I’m not particularly fond of this artist, myself. I find her on the whole rather disturbing,” Jane said while wrinkling her nose at the work.
Taking Peter by the arm, she started to drag him away. “Peter, dear, I was wondering if you’d come and give me your opinion on a piece I found,” she said, vaguely pointing to a spot behind her. “I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
Alec and Mattie stifled a laugh as they watched Jane usher Peter into the next room.
“Your mother is quite a persistent, isn’t she?” Alec commented before looking down in a sudden urge to check the shine on his shoes.
“I’m afraid she doesn’t always approve of my romantic choices and takes a proactive approach. But I suppose sometimes mother does know best,” Mattie said with a flirty glance.
Alec shuffled his feet uncomfortably and adjusted the sleeve of his jacket. “Well, I guess we should have a look around. Shall we go find the others?” Alec asked as he led the way.
They found Peter and Jane deep in discussion in front of an unframed piece of canvas painted with the barest hint of pink and fuchsia.
“Well, I think the artist intended to invoke a feeling by using the rough texture of the unpainted canvas,” Alec heard Peter explaining to Jane. Peter saw Alec out of the corner of his eye and smiled but quickly swung his gaze back to the hanging on the wall.
“Mum, it’s getting late, and we haven’t seen anything in the other room yet. Why don’t we all go around together?” Mattie threaded her arm through the crook of Alec’s elbow and guided them all toward the doorway to the next exhibit, but Alec begged off before they got too far.
“Would you please excuse me? I seem to have lost my Aunt Jo. You all go on and we’ll find you later,” he said before he let the crowd swallow him.
Alec took his time looking for his aunt and eventually found her in front of the refreshment table, eyeing the contents of the chafing dishes.
“Oh, hello, dear,” Jo said when she noticed Alec at her elbow. “I see it didn’t take long for you to part company with Jane.”
“Well, I didn’t want to leave you to wander by yourself. I am your escort, after all,” Alec said with a slight prick of guilt at his conscience.
Aunt Jo smiled knowingly. “It’s all right, dear.” Then, in a staged whisper, she confided, “She really is rather overwhelming. It’s best to take her in small quantities.”
Alec relaxed at this bit of information from his aunt. “Mattie and Peter seem very nice, though.”
“Mattie is a very sweet girl, but a word to the wise—Jane’s been looking for a suitable husband for her for ages,” Jo whispered again with a tap of a finger on Alec’s forearm.
“Jo, Alec! Well, there you are.” Jane’s voice came from somewhere behind them.
Placing a hand on each of their shoulders, Jane gathered Alec and Jo to her. “We are heading over to Vino Vivace for drinks, and we’d love it if you two would join us.”
Alec shifted uncomfortably, trying to think of a plausible excuse to extricate themselves from having to spend the rest of the evening with Jane, until Peter spoke. “It’s not far, and it’s a lovely night for a walk. Do come. It’ll be great fun.”
“Well, it does sound like a lovely way to end the evening, and I could do with a nice walk. We’d love to join you!” The reply popped out of Alec’s mouth before Jo could say anything.
As the little group walked the short way to the wine bar, the young people gradually drifted ahead of Jo and Jane, who hung back in a leisurely stroll. The two older women chatted on about old friends and enemies, while up ahead, Alec exchanged pleasantries with his new friends.
“So Peter, how did you get to know so much about art?” asked Alec as they waited outside the wine bar for Jo and Jane to catch up.
“I’m an architectural art historian. My specialization is in architecture, actually, but it all goes with the territory.”
“Peter works for the London Historical Renovations Council,” Mattie helpfully added.
“So you approve plans and stuff to make sure it fits in with the architecture of the area?” Alec asked.
“Yeah. I do that. I also go out to the work sites to make sure they are in compliance with their proposed plans.”
“That sounds very interesting, and what do you do, Mattie?”
“I’m a graphic designer for an advertising company, but I’d love to move into fashion work.”
Mattie inclined her head a little into a pose that made her look like flirty teenager. “Sooo, your aunt said you were in The Lion King. What character do you play?” she asked.
“I’m the third gnu,” Alec replied with a slightly embarrassed smile.
Peter let out a rumble of a chuckle that sent a tingle through Alec. “I’m sorry,” Peter said apologetically, “I wasn’t laughing at you. It’s just not often that those words are used together in a sentence like that.”
“Not at all. It really is a bit daft making a living dressed as a singing, dancing gnu,” Alec said softly. The two men locked each other in an awkward gaze until Jane and Jo, coming around the corner to join them, broke the spell.
Given the day of the week, Vino Vivace was not especially crowded, and they took a table immediately to the right of the door in front of the expansive window. As one would suspect from the name of the establishment, the decor was Tuscan themed. The walls were a serene shade of sand interrupted by painted scenes of vineyards and olive groves. Scattered about the room were groupings of comfortable sofas, club chairs, and low tables. On the left side of the room ran a long bar with a backlit countertop. Behind the bar was a row of wooden framed glass cabinets that displayed bottles of wine connected to a tap system. Above the cabinets were racks that held unopened bottles of wine.
As they drank the first bottle of wine, the subject of conversation was the art exhibit. Peter was passionate in his enthusiasm for the painter, Jane was adamant that it was rubbish, Mattie and Jo were unsure, and Alec… Alec only remembered watching Peter as he glided toward him out of the crowd.
When they progressed to a second bottle of wine, the conversation veered off to a slightly giggly discussion about the latest celebrity gossip. Alec noted with a pang of jealousy that Peter and Mattie were the perfect foils for each other’s slightly warped sense of humor. So when Mattie and Jane decided to step out for a cigarette while Jo excused herself to the ladies’ room, Alec was more than just a little glad that he finally had some time alone with Peter.
“So how do you know Mattie?” Alec finally asked after trying all evening to work out Peter’s relationship with the young woman.
“We met at university, in a design class. We became the best of friends after we’d done a project together.”
“So are you two… you know?” Alec asked, feeling bit bold after consuming his fair share of two bottles of wine.
“You mean are we dating? No, nothing like that. We’re just best mates. Closer even. She’s like a sister. Mattie’s a wonderful girl, though—smart, kind, and has a wicked sense of humor,” Peter answered, doing his best to be a wingman for Mattie. Feeling a bit bold himself, Peter leaned in close, nudged Alec with an elbow, and said in a conspiratorial tone, “You know, I think she likes you. I would be willing to bet that if you were to ask for her phone number, she’d probably give you her real one.”
The conversation still left Alec clueless about Peter’s sexual orientation, and unfortunately, he was still a couple of glasses of wine short of having the courage to ask the real question on his mind. Alec, however, was sure of his own sexuality; indeed, when he felt the heat from Peter’s flushed face on his own and caught the faint scent of his shampoo, a sudden desire to pull Peter in for a kiss washed through him, and he nearly whimpered out loud. An unbidden erection began to fill his trousers, but his Aunt Jo’s return from the ladies’ blessedly quenched his arousal.
“Well, it’s been a wonderful evening, hasn’t it? But I’m afraid it’s getting late, and we really should be going,” Jo said to Peter as she took her seat again. Alec felt the blood in his groin reverse its flow, and he let go of the breath he was holding.
Peter looked at his watch and agreed. “Oh, my. It is getting on in the evening. Hang on. I’ll just get Jane and Mattie back in here.” Peter twisted his torso around and rapped on the window glass. The two women sitting at the rickety smoker’s table outside, lit cigarettes still held between their fingers, turned around simultaneously; when Peter waved at them to come in, they stubbed them out and got up.
“Jane,” Jo said as soon as the two smokers came back into the bar, “we really should be getting home. It’s been a wonderful evening. Thank you for asking us to join you.”
“Oh, not at all. It’s been wonderful catching up with you,” Jane said as she gave Jo an air kiss. “We must do this again sometime.”
“Well, you have the number of my mobile. Give me a ring anytime,” Jo said as she made ready to leave.
Alec followed his aunt’s lead. “Peter, Mattie, it was a pleasure meeting you two. Why don’t we exchange mobile numbers and we’ll get together sometime for a pint?”
Mattie smiled broadly as she punched Alec’s number into her mobile. “That would be very nice! I could show you some really fun spots,” she said. Alec broke out his megawatt smile again when he exchanged numbers with Peter.
When Alec and Jo left the wine bar, Mattie, Jane, and Peter looked at each other and burst into excited giggles.
“Oh my God, he is so hot! He asked me if I was your boyfriend. I think he fancies you, Mattie,” Peter said with a twinkle of excitement in his eyes.
Mattie punched him in the arm. “Peter, you are so clueless! He fancies you, not me. It’s about time you found a new boyfriend.”
“What? Is he gay?” Jane asked, looking even more surprised than normal.
Mattie rolled her eyes and explained, “Mum, he’s only been staring at Peter most of the night.” Peter blushed and pretended to check his mobile for messages.
“Peter, you need to ring him! It’s about time you started seeing someone new,” Mattie insisted and punched him in the arm again.
“I don’t know if he’s out. You know what happened last time. He’s going to have to make the first move,” Peter said, slipping her a sideways glance.
Jane let out an exasperated sigh. “I think I need something stronger than wine,” she announced, and she got up to order something from the bar.