THE sound of the ringing phone startled Michael out of his usual early-morning haze as he drove to work. He almost ignored it, but figured a call this early might be important so Michael pulled his old car off to the side of the road. “Hello.”
“Devon.” Michael couldn’t help smiling. “How can you be so chipper at this God-awful hour of the morning?” Devon always seemed to have buckets of energy, day or night, and especially in bed.
“Are you on your way to work?” Devon asked, ignoring Michael’s question.
“I’m in the car and should be there in ten minutes or so. Why?”
“No reason. I just wanted to catch you before you got there because I didn’t want to disturb you at your office.” Devon paused for a second, probably expecting Michael to say something, but he hadn’t had his first cup of coffee yet and was only functioning on autopilot. “Are we still going out tonight? I’ve been looking forward to it all week. I even got a new shirt so I’ll look good when we go out. I was thinking we could go to Boyztown tonight. They have the greatest music, and I can dance.” Now, that was always a sight. Michael could never take his eyes off his lover when he danced. The only problem was that neither could anyone else.
“Yes, we’re still on. I told you I’d take you out for your birthday, and I meant it.” Something kicked in and Michael felt alert. “I’ll pick you up at your place, and we can go to dinner first. Have a good day at work, and I’ll see you tonight.”
“Okay, you too,” Devon replied excitedly before disconnecting. Michael’s smile lasted all the way through the rest of his drive and until he was settled in his office, getting ready for his first meeting of the day. Thankfully, it was a Friday, and he only had to get through today and he would have two whole days of peace, fun, and Devon.
He and Devon had been seeing each other for the past six months, and it had been good, really good. Devon really didn’t seem to mind that Michael was older. They were good together, and Devon had recently began using the L word quite a bit, which made Michael’s heart jump every time.
“Are you going to stare at that screen all day or get some work done?” Kyle said from his door with a huge grin. Like Michael, Kyle was also an information systems project manager for Shoe Box, a worldwide retailer of athletic shoes, and they shared the same boss. But their similarities ended there. Where Michael was driven as far as his projects were concerned, Kyle had a laid-back attitude that Michael couldn’t understand. Somehow, Kyle’s projects seemed to come together out of thin air, while Michael worked very hard to make sure everything was the way it should be. It was infuriating, but Kyle was one of those guys no one could be mad at, and that included Michael.
“Sorry,” Michael answered, “I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“I think you’ll want to get that coffee now. Curtis called a management meeting for eight thirty, and you know how he is,” Kyle said after making sure the hallway was empty. Michael knew exactly how he was, even after having worked for the man only a few months. Curtis’s changing moods were well-ingrained upon everyone who worked for him. Michael had often thought the man needed a good dose of mood stabilizers, but couldn’t say that to anyone.
“Thanks for the warning.” Michael opened his e-mail and saw the messages from Curtis sitting in his inbox like terrorist pipe bombs just waiting to ruin a perfectly good Friday. Ignoring them for now, Michael got up and accompanied Kyle down to the cafeteria, returning a few minutes later, coffee in hand, to go through his e-mails and prepare for his day and the infamous meeting.
At the appointed time, Michael got up from his desk and hurried to the conference room, finding the other managers already there and Curtis sitting at the head of the table, looking toward the door. Michael glanced at the clock just to make sure he wasn’t late before closing the door and taking one of the empty chairs. Curtis had a real thing about being on time for meetings and appointments, even though the one person on the team most likely to be late for anything was Curtis himself. Every week, Curtis had a set time to meet with each of his managers, and more likely than not, Michael would be kept waiting for his appointment. But heaven forbid the world would end if he were a minute late for anything Curtis scheduled.
“We’ve been tasked with taking on an extra project because of the shuffles with the logistics team. They lost one of their project managers, and since our team still has two,” Curtis said, as he turned to Kyle and Michael with one of his self-righteous “I fought for you, so you owe me” looks on his face. “I’ll be reassigning the projects this morning, and things will need to change. Right now the workload isn’t balanced, and this additional project is going to make things even more complicated. Brian, I’m going to need you to take on one of the projects. It’ll be one of the simpler ones that fits with your team. Kyle and Michael, I haven’t figured out how I’m going to divide things up yet, but I’ll talk to both of you later this morning.”
Michael felt his stomach lurch, but he was careful to keep any reaction off his face. He currently had three projects, and all three of them were well under control, fully planned, and carefully timelined. He’d spent months doing all the requirements-gathering, documentation, planning, and team building, working nights and even weekends to make sure they were right, and now who the hell knew what Curtis was going to come up with. After Curtis’s little announcement, the man launched into stories that ate up almost the next half hour. Michael kept looking at the clock, wondering when he could get back to his desk. There was plenty to get done regardless of Curtis’s project shakeup, and he had calls that needed to be made. Zoning out, Michael tried to organize everything in his head so that when he could get out of here, he could get right to work.
“So I woke up in the middle of the night, wet, and when I lifted the covers, my crotch was green. The bag of peas had leaked all over everything. Never refreeze the bag of peas. Once they thaw, throw them out.” Everyone laughed, and Michael did as well because it was expected, even if he’d already heard the story of Curtis’s vasectomy and the infamous bag of peas at least twice. Kyle had confessed after the last telling that he’d heard it at least six times. The only comforting thought about that story was that the world would be spared from any more “little Curtises”—there was a God after all.
Finally, the waste of time Curtis called a meeting was over, and Michael hurried back to his desk. Checking his e-mail once again, he found it blessedly empty and began making calls, ticking other tasks off his list as he verified that all critical tasks were on plan. The last call he made was to the software rep, Marty, to make sure they would deliver the customized store register code as promised. Their timeline for delivery was already tight and any slippage would delay the entire project. Michael did not want to have to explain that to Curtis, or for that matter to Mark, the vice president of the technology development. After being assured that everything was on track and that no problems had been found, they talked for a few minutes about Marty’s new baby before disconnecting. Michael had known Marty for years and had worked hard under his previous director to build a good relationship.
Checking his list again, he set up meetings for the following week before starting to work on the next steps in his project documentation. Fridays were usually good days with limited meetings, which allowed him to get caught up, and if he were lucky, slightly ahead on the next week’s work. “Michael.” He looked up and saw Kyle peering into his office. “Curtis asked me to send you to his office.”
Kyle definitely looked a little worse for wear, and Michael wondered just what had happened, but Kyle walked away without saying anything more. Michael picked up his day planner, and after locking his PC, walked down the hallway toward the front corner offices where the directors and vice presidents had their offices. Curtis’s door was open, but he wasn’t at his desk. Taking a seat in one of the chairs, Michael opened his planner, updating his to-do list with tasks he needed to do next week, until Curtis walked in and shut the door. Glancing at his watch, Michael realized he’d been waiting for almost fifteen minutes.
“As I said in the meeting this morning, we need to reassign some of the projects, but something else has come up since then.” Curtis sat down in his leather office chair, fishing through the piles of crap on his desk. “The Shoe Finder project for Europe is in trouble. Europe doesn’t have the resources to work with Kyle to complete the project. They have people to do the work, but not manage it from their end. They asked if we could send the project manager over there to work with their people until the project is completed at the end of October.”
“So Kyle will be going to Europe for, what, five months?” Michael asked, trying to figure out which of Kyle’s projects he could take over to help out. “What can I do to help?”
“That’s the issue. Kyle isn’t willing to be away from his family for that period of time, and Mark wanted me to ask if you’d take over the project. I want to stress that this is Kyle’s project, and you don’t have to do this.” The last sentiments were added in a rush that rendered them completely meaningless. In other words, Michael read into it silently, you don’t have to do this, but Mark will remember that you weren’t a team player and weren’t willing to do what the company needed. Since Kyle had a wife and kids, those things didn’t seem to apply to him. Michael was speechless. He hadn’t seen this coming at all, and now everything had been turned on its end. Curtis continued talking without waiting for Michael’s response. “We’ll move the Canada and Asia projects to Kyle, and transition the Europe project to you. You’ll keep the automated-scheduling project since that’s already being implemented.”
“When do you need an answer?” Michael asked, bringing Curtis to a screeching halt, and Michael realized Curtis hadn’t made any plans for what would happen if Michael said no. Curtis had simply assumed Michael would do it, and he probably would have for Dennis, his previous supervisor and one of the best people Michael had ever worked with.
“We need an answer as soon as possible, but you know if you pull this off, this could be a career-making move for you,” Curtis said as he leaned forward, the part about the promotion that he knew Michael had been hoping for going unvocalized, but definitely implied.
Michael’s throat felt dry. “Let me think about it.”
“You did the US version of this project, so this shouldn’t really be all that hard,” Curtis told him, leaning back in his chair, and Michael could almost see him pull his salesman’s hat out of the drawer. “And you’ll get to spend some time in Europe. Have you ever been?” Curtis inquired, his voice taking on an edge of excitement.
“No, I haven’t,” Michael answered, feeling a twinge of excitement himself. “I need some time to think about this,” he said, checking his watch, “and I have a meeting in a few minutes.”
“Get back to me this afternoon, and we can hammer out any details.” Curtis turned his attention to his computer, and Michael realized he’d been dismissed. Opening the office door, Michael stepped out and saw Mark walking down the hallway toward him.
“Did Curtis talk to you?” Mark asked as he approached. “You’d be doing us all a big favor if you’d do this,” Mark told him, tilting his head back toward his office, and Michael followed him, taking a seat inside the plush, well-decorated office. “We shouldn’t have to ask you to do this. This is Kyle’s project, and I’m none too happy that he isn’t willing to go. I also understand that we’re asking a lot of you to go, but you’ve always stepped up for us in the past. Even when your plate was full, you never complained when anyone needed anything. You just somehow got a bigger plate, and I’m afraid we need that now.” Mark sat in his chair, hands on his desk, full attention on Michael. “If you do this, we’ll get you an apartment outside Amsterdam so you won’t be living in a hotel the entire time, although you probably will for a few weeks until we can make the arrangements, and we’ll fly you back to the States every four or five weeks. The European division will provide you with one of their leased cars, and of course you’ll be on expenses the entire time.”
“This is a lot to take in,” Michael said.
“Yes, but you’re single, and things like this are easier for you than some of the other guys,” Mark explained.
“That doesn’t mean I don’t have a life,” Michael countered, and he saw the surprise in Mark’s expression. “Curtis said the same thing you did, not in so many words, and I take exception with that argument. I may not be married or have children, but I have a life and people I love, who, if I accept this, I’ll be leaving behind for weeks at a time.”
“I know,” Mark explained, backpedaling a little. “I didn’t mean to belittle the effect on anyone’s life. This assignment will require some sacrifice on your part, but I wanted you to know that we’ll take care of you and we’ll owe you one.”
“Okay,” Michael said steadily, “I’ll think about it and let you know this afternoon.”
“I can’t ask for any more than that,” Mark told him as he nodded his head, and Michael got up from the chair, leaving the office, passing Curtis on the way. He smiled at him, but neither of them stopped to talk, and Michael went straight back to his office, shutting the door. Picking up the phone, he dialed the number for the call he was very nearly late for.
Half an hour later, he hung up, but left his door closed. He needed to think, and a steady stream of people asking him questions was not going to help him do that. Just when he’d gotten both his work and home life in order, something had to come and throw everything all out of whack. The thought of the chance to spend some time in Europe was enticing. He’d never been out of the country before, except to across the borders to Canada and Mexico, so at least he had a passport. Six months ago, he’d have jumped at this chance, but six months ago he hadn’t met Devon and started a relationship. At least he hadn’t bought a house yet, although he’d been looking for a few months. Picking up the phone, he dialed the one person he knew he could rely on for sound advice.
“Dennis, it’s Michael,” he said when his former boss answered the phone.
“Hey, how’s it going? You miss me yet?” Dennis asked with a smile in his voice.
“Every day,” Michael answered. “Are you and Carol getting settled?”
“She found a house she loves and then said she was pregnant again, so I’ve got plenty to keep me busy getting everything ready for the baby.” Dennis laughed and Michael joined in. He knew getting the new house ready for another child meant writing the checks for anything Carol decided she wanted to have done. Dennis was not a hands-on kind of guy. “How are things there?”
“Exactly as you expected.”
“I’m sorry about that. I was hoping I was wrong, and let me guess, they’re now asking you to pick up the slack.”
“They want me to go to Europe for five months or so to run the Shoe Finder project for them.”
“Why isn’t Kyle going? It’s his project. After you did the US, he begged me to give him Europe, said he wanted to try something new.” Michael could hear the frustration in Dennis’s voice. “I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised. Have you decided what you want to do?”
“I really don’t want to go. Things are good here right now.” Michael knew Dennis understood what he meant. Dennis was the coolest boss he’d ever had. Dennis had understood when he and Devon had started dating. He’d even encouraged him to get out of the office and find someone. It had been Dennis who had plucked Michael out of near obscurity from the small office in Dayton, promoting, encouraging, and helping him build the skills to be a good project manager. They’d worked well together for the past three years. Dennis deserved his promotion; there was no doubt about that. Michael just wished he’d been promoted within the same facility instead of half the country away.
“I know they are, but this could be a once-in-a-career opportunity. A lot of people are going to be looking at this project, and not just in the US, but in Europe as well, and right now that’s where the growth is.” Dennis started to chuckle. “Think about it, you’ll be six time zones and three thousand miles away from Curtis.”
Michael could barely hold back his laugh. “They want an answer this afternoon.”
“No one can make your decision for you, but decide what you want and stick to it. If you decide to do this, they owe you—make sure they know and understand that. You know I won’t let them forget it, either. Mark and I are now colleagues, so I report to the same people he does.”
“I wish I could talk more, but I have an appointment. Let me know what you decide.” Dennis hung up, and Michael stood, walking over and opening his door before going back to work. At lunchtime, he ate alone. Usually Michael ate with some of the guys or other managers, but today he wasn’t up for it. He had too much to think about. What bothered him most was that he knew he was going to do it. He knew he’d put his life on hold and do this project because they’d asked, but he absolutely didn’t want to go. It wasn’t in his psyche to turn them down. Michael had always done what the company needed and asked of him, and it really wasn’t in him to say no. He knew it, and he thought Curtis and Mark knew it too.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and Michael fished it out. Devon—that was another complication. They’d been going out for six months, and Michael was developing feelings for the man with deep blue eyes and blond curls that always flopped in his face. He certainly didn’t want to spend almost the entire summer away from him. Michael had definitely been looking forward to spending time with Devon at one of the local lakes, swimming and lying in the sun next to him, pretending to read while he secretly watched every move and breath Devon made.
“Hi, Devon,” Michael said with more energy than he was feeling.
“Is everything okay? I thought I’d call and see how your day was going.” Devon sounded so happy and totally sweet.
“Could be better,” Michael answered without further explanation.
“Are we still on for tonight?” Some of the excitement slipped from his voice. “We really don’t have to if you’re not up to it, I guess.”
“No. I promised to take you dancing, and I meant it. I’ll pick you up at your place at six, and we’ll go to dinner, dancing for a while, and then back to my apartment. And I don’t plan on letting you leave the rest of the weekend. So please pack a bag. I’ll even make pancakes tomorrow morning.”
“That’s a deal,” Devon nearly squealed into the phone. “I get out of work at five, so I’ll definitely be home at six.” Devon hung up, and Michael shoved his phone back into his pocket before leaving to go to Curtis’s office. He figured he might as well get this over with.
MICHAEL pulled in front of Devon’s apartment building a few minutes before six. The car had barely stopped when he saw Devon hurrying down the steps carrying a small suitcase, and rushing to the car. The man looked as sweet as Michael had ever seen anyone, curls bouncing with each step, tight black T-shirt and leather pants, in other words, sex on wheels. Michael got out of the car to open the trunk and practically got tackled instead. “I missed you too,” Michael said as Devon squeezed him before angling for a kiss, which he got, standing in the parking lot or not. Michael had learned very early that Devon was out and proud. “Let’s put your bag in the trunk, and we’ll go to dinner.”
“Can we get Chinese? I’m hungry for sweet and sour,” Devon asked as he put his suitcase in the trunk, closing the lid.
“Sure. We can go anywhere you want.”
Devon stopped and looked at him. “Okay. What’s wrong that you don’t want to tell me?”
“Who said anything was wrong?” Michael tried to look surprised but gave it up. He should have known Devon would see right through him.
“You hate Chinese. So I know the only time you ever agree to go there is when you’re trying to make something up to me. You may as well spill it because you know I’ll just dig and dig until you tell me.” Devon was like a dog with a bone when it came to secrets or any kind of news.
“I was going to wait until tomorrow, but I’ll tell you over dinner if you promise not to let it ruin our weekend.” Michael climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine, waiting for Devon to buckle up. It only took five minutes before they arrived at Devon’s favorite Chinese place. Devon was right, Michael really didn’t like Chinese food, but Devon did and this was for him. The hostess sat them at an out-of-the-way table, and after bringing a pot of tea, left them alone.
“So what’s this news?”
“I have a new project and part of it is that I need to go to Europe.”
“Can I go too? I have vacation time built up.” The hopeful look on Devon’s face twisted Michael’s stomach.
“Devon, I have to do a project for the European division. I’ll be away in Europe for five or six months.” Michael watched as Devon’s face fell, his smile changing to confusion and then a scowl. “I’ll be back about once a month for a week, but the rest of the time I’ll need to be working out of the Europe office.”
“Oh,” Devon said as he set his tea back on the table, staring at Michael like it was Christmas morning and Michael had just broken the toy he’d waited all year for. “So you’re leaving me.”
“No, I hope not.” Michael reached across the table to touch Devon’s hand. “I have to do this project. I was sort of thinking that this summer you could come over to visit me. I could take vacation time, and we could see things.” He had no idea what they would see, but he could figure it out.
“Yeah, I could, but you’ll still be gone for most of the summer, and I’ll hardly ever see you.” Devon was clearly disappointed, and part of Michael was happy that Devon was going to miss him, but he hated disappointing him. “I know you’ll be back, but only a few times.” Devon played with his now-empty teacup. “I know you didn’t have a choice and that this wasn’t your idea, but….” Devon looked down at the table, twisting the cup in his fingers nervously.
“Devon, I’d take you with me if I could. But you have to work, and much of the time that I’m there, I’ll be working too. This isn’t by my own choice, but I have to go.”
The server interrupted them to take their orders. She had to ask Devon three times what he wanted because he just didn’t seem to be listening, and eventually Michael ordered for him and she left. Reaching across the table, Michael untwisted Devon’s hands from the cup, touching his fingers. “You know I would if I could.”
“I know,” Devon said softly. “When do you have to leave?”
“Not until after Memorial Day. I’ll be gone most of June, but I’ll be back for Fourth of July weekend, and I thought that you could come for a visit if you wanted, probably the last weekend in July.” Michael was trying, but Devon just wasn’t giving him much to work with.
Finally Devon raised his eyes. “Could we visit Paris?”
Michael smiled, some of the worry in his stomach edging away. “We can go wherever you want.” Michael squeezed Devon’s fingers lightly. “I’ll have an apartment and a car, so we’ll be able to go all over and see everything,” Michael clarified, not really knowing what he was talking about, but some of the light came back into Devon’s eyes, and that was always good. “I know this is a lot to take in, but do you think we can put this aside at least for the weekend and just enjoy ourselves?”
“Yes, I’ll try,” Devon answered just before the server brought their plates, and Devon began to eat. The smaller man usually packed away the food, and tonight was no exception. Michael ate his kung pao chicken as Devon wolfed down his sweet and sour pork, two eggrolls, and the plate of fortune cookies the server brought when they had cleaned their plates.
“My news doesn’t seem to have affected your appetite,” Michael commented with a smile, and Devon peered back at him, curls flopping partially into his eyes. Damn, the man looked adorably beautiful, and Michael wanted to ask if they could skip the dancing and just go right back to his place, but he knew Devon was looking forward to going out, and he wouldn’t disappoint him, not twice in the same evening.
“You’re right, Michael. We have this weekend and the next few weeks, and I can either mope because you’re going away or I can make the most of it.” Devon’s eyes danced with a mixture of excitement and smoldering passion that nearly had Michael moaning out loud right there in the restaurant. “So let’s pay the check and go downtown.” Devon stood up, straightening his shirt. “I’m ready to make you forget all about everything but me.” Good God, if Devon didn’t give him a look that dripped pure sex, and the temptation to carry him home like a caveman asserted itself again.
Instead, Michael stood up as well, picking up the check and taking it to the cashier with Devon right behind him, so close he could hear his clothes rustle and smell the scent of his cologne—not overpowering, simply Devon. After Michael paid the bill, they walked out to the car, and Michael waited for Devon to settle in his seat before leaning over to kiss him. Then he started the car and drove out of town to the freeway.
It took half an hour, and an additional fifteen minutes to find a parking space, but then he and Devon walked down the bustling sidewalk to the club that Devon had chosen. Michael hadn’t been to clubs much, they weren’t really his style, but Devon loved them and Michael loved being with Devon, so they went occasionally. At the door, Michael could hear the loud techno dance music pouring out of the club. He paid their admission and followed Devon into the club, where men stood around drinking, watching each other, and a few of them were actually dancing. “Let’s get something to drink,” Michael said, leading Devon to the bar, where Michael found his companion created quite a stir, with most of the other guys turning to look at Devon. He paid no attention, much to Michael’s relief, and after getting their drinks, Michael followed Devon to an empty table. Sitting down, Michael watched people for a while as they sipped their drinks, Devon’s hand in his.
“I’m gonna dance,” Devon announced as he stood up and downed the last of his Manhattan. “Come with me.”
“You know I look like an idiot whenever I dance.”
Devon laughed out loud. “I know, but I still want to dance with you.” There was no way Michael could say no to that, so he followed Devon onto the dance floor, swaying a little to the music while Devon moved and gyrated around him. The man was sexy as hell with the way his entire body seemed to flow, and those hips, flexing and gyrating in his direction.
A tall, dark-skinned man in a shiny white shirt moved between them, matching Devon’s movements, and Michael simply stood and watched for a few seconds until the other man put his hands on Devon’s hips, pulling the two of them together. Devon stepped away, moving closer to Michael, who scowled at the other man, and he moved away, dancing with the next guy on the floor. Devon pulled him closer and continued dancing, his lithe body slinking and twirling around the dance floor.
“Mikey,” Devon said over the music, still dancing, “can we go home now?” Michael smiled and began doing a dance of his very own that ended when he and Devon walked through the door to his apartment and fell together on his bed, beginning a very different kind of dance.