THE ashes flew from his fingers the moment he lifted his hand to the wind. Weightless, ephemeral, they caught the stiff breeze and vanished over the water. The sky grew darker; a sunset painted in bands of fuchsia, orange, yellow, and dark purple streaked the clouds. Lady Liberty stood sentinel against the vibrant backdrop as a ferry made its way toward Staten Island.
Sam looked down at the now empty tin in his hands. He replaced the cover and sat down on one of the benches at the edge of Battery Park, smiling to see the words Macadamia Chocolate Chip printed on the top. How many times had he seen his lover toss his tubes of oil paints into the battered cookie tin as they headed to the park for a Sunday afternoon picnic? Even after Nicholas Savakis had made his name as a rising young painter, he never replaced that metal tin.
“Who needs all the bullshit?” Nick said when Sam suggested they buy him a new box for his paints. “This works fine.” So when the funeral director tried to sell Sam a fancy urn, he refused. Instead, he took Nick’s ashes in the hard plastic box and transferred half of them to the tin. He gave the rest to Nick’s family.
It’s what Nick would have wanted.
Sam had decided on this spot even before the funeral, but it took him more than a year to gather his courage to come here. This had been Nick’s favorite place to sit and paint. Sam had often met him here after work during the six years they lived together.
Sam loved to watch Nick’s dark hair blow about his face as his lean hands moved with careful precision over the canvas, his long brushstrokes capturing the multilayered colors of the water and sky. To someone unfamiliar with Nick’s work, his paintings might seem only an enticing blur of paint and texture. But over the years, Sam had come to see the world through the eyes of the lanky, slightly awkward man whose stained jeans echoed the blue and turquoise he favored in his art. The paintings were whispers of Nick’s soul, the beautiful soul Sam had cherished. Sam had hoped to spend the rest of his life with that perfect soul.
He inhaled the salty air and closed his eyes. In the distance, he could hear the drone of traffic. The air was warm for mid-November, but as the sun set below the water, he shivered. The lightweight coat over his suit jacket did nothing to stop the biting wind. Sam had planned to do this the summer after Nick’s death. Nick would have laughed at him; he’d have told Sam he always took too long to decide things.
“S’only your fault you’re sitting here freezing your ass off,” Sam could almost hear him tease.
I love you, Nick. Wherever you are.
He opened his eyes once more, realizing he still held the cookie tin in his hands. He stood up and slipped it back into his briefcase, then slung the strap of the case over his shoulder. He needed a drink; he wasn’t ready to face the empty apartment yet. Not tonight, of all nights.
Five years later
“MR. LIND!” the reporter shouted at him as he walked out the side door from Covent Garden. “Do you have a minute?”
Aiden had just finished rehearsing for his London debut in a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He was exhausted and looking forward to a hot shower back at his place. He pulled up the collar of his wool coat and tucked his scarf a bit tighter around his neck. With all the insanity that seemed to swirl around him recently, the last thing he wanted was to get sick and have to cancel a performance. He could see the headline now: Lovesick Opera Star Misses Opening Night.
Deep breath. I can do this. He turned and flashed his best, most confident smile at the woman. Opera singers never got much press attention, but ever since he’d met Cameron Sherrington, Aiden had been on the radar screen. Cam wasn’t only the outrageously wealthy heir to a global hotel conglomerate, he was also a sometime impresario who financed Broadway-bound productions and even a movie or two when it struck his fancy.
“Mr. Lind, I’m Janine Thomas, from the Sunday Press,” the woman said as he shook her hand. “I was hoping to ask you a few questions.”
He had been expecting the usual “Did you know that the queen will be attending your debut?” or “Are you and Lord Sherrington planning another vacation aboard his yacht this summer?” So he was entirely unprepared when she asked, “Is it true about Lord Sherrington and Jarrod Jameson?”
“What?” He stared at her for a split second, then swallowed hard and fought to regain his composure.
He knew Jarrod. Cam had invited him and about a hundred other guests to a party a few months before at “the castle,” as Aiden liked to call Cam’s family’s sprawling estate about an hour out of London, at which he and Cam sometimes spent the weekend. Jarrod was an Olympic swimmer and recent gold medalist in the European games held only six months before. Lean, muscular body, model good looks. Gay.
The reporter—Aiden had already forgotten her name—thrust a large glossy photograph into his hands. He knew he should hand it back to her, but he was so rattled he couldn’t think straight. The photo was grainy, obviously taken at night. It showed two men entwined and kissing behind a tall iron gate. The kiss was not chaste.
Aiden’s mouth went dry. He knew that gate—the gate in front of the London home he and Cam shared in Bloomsbury. One of the men looked a lot like Jameson, although he couldn’t be sure. And the other man… Aiden was pretty sure he recognized the familiar high cheekbones, the short brown hair that was always stylishly mussed, and the lean, athletic frame that looked so striking in an expensive suit. And well he should. He’d been living with the man for nearly a year.
He shoved the photograph back at her. “No comment.” His jaw tensed as he strode quickly over to the curb and flagged down a taxi.
“Mr. Lind!” she shouted as he ducked into the cab and shut the door. He ignored her and gave the driver his address.
AT NEARLY two in the morning, Aiden heard the front door open and close. He had spent the better part of the past three hours making a serious dent in the contents of a cut crystal carafe filled with expensive scotch. He was drunk, but not so drunk that he didn’t care. He wished to hell he was. He didn’t want to care. It hurt too much.
It was still so surreal, living in this incredible Edwardian house in one of the most expensive London neighborhoods. He had grown up in rural Mississippi in a three-bedroom ranch on his grandfather’s farm. The house had been comfortable but small, built in the late 1960s, when his father married his mother. A wedding present. Aiden had always wondered how his mother must have felt, having her front door a few hundred feet from her in-laws’ home. But if it had bothered her, she’d never mentioned it. Elizabeth Lind was the perfect wife and mother, attending church, cooking and cleaning and raising her two children. His mother’s world was far removed from the one into which Cameron Sherrington had been born—one of wealth and privilege. Aiden still felt like a usurper, a pretender to his current circumstances.
“Waiting up for me, sweetheart? I told you I’d be at the gallery opening late. Lady Billingsley insisted we go out for drinks afterwards, and you know how she is.” Cameron laid his coat over the back of the loveseat, walked over to Aiden, and bent down to kiss him on the head.
“I looked online,” Aiden said, his voice a monotone. “The gallery opening was last week.”
“Checking up on me?” Cam laughed and kissed Aiden again. “I’m sure you’re mistaken.” He walked over to the buffet and poured himself a glass of sherry. “I hardly imagined the party tonight. And it was a dull one, frankly. If Sarah hadn’t been there, I’d—”
“Was he good, Cam?” Aiden got up from the couch and stood in front of the fireplace.
“What on Earth are you talking about? And who is he?”
The slight twitch in Cam’s cheek told Aiden everything he needed to know.
“Jameson? You mean the swimmer? What would I know about him?” Cam refilled his glass and waved it in Aiden’s direction.
“I know you’ve been fucking him.”
Cam raised an eyebrow. “You’re drunk.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“We can talk about it in the morning, when you’ve sobered up a bit.” Cam gave him a long-suffering look that made Aiden feel like he was six years old again.
“Cam. Shit. You promised you wouldn’t—”
“Shhh.” Cam took Aiden in his arms and ran his hands through Aiden’s hair.
Aiden wanted to pull away, but he couldn’t do it. Instead he melted into Cam’s arms.
“You know I love you. What happens out there, it’s not us. This,” he continued, “here, this is who we are.”
The fire spit angrily, and Aiden watched it with calm detachment over Cam’s shoulder. Cam was right. This was home. He loved this old place with its creaky stairs, wood paneling, painted doors, and beautifully worn oak floors. They had picked out the furniture together, shopping the antique stores of Portobello Road until they found the perfect pieces.
“You’re being paranoid, sweetheart,” Cam interrupted. He ran a thumb over Aiden’s mouth, tracing his lips until Aiden closed his eyes. “You worry too much. You always do.”
Aiden took a deep breath. Maybe Cam was right. Maybe he was being paranoid. The photograph had been taken at night, after all. And he hadn’t been sure it was Cam.
“Come to bed, Aiden,” Cam purred as he licked a line from Aiden’s chin to the sensitive spot under his ear. “And let me show you how much you mean to me.”
Shit. He had missed his entrance. Again.
“Sorry, David. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
David Somers peered at him over the rim of his reading glasses and frowned. “It’s about time for lunch anyhow,” the conductor said as he stood up from the piano. “How about it? My treat.”
“I… ah… sure.” Aiden had eaten with David before, but he still felt supremely awkward around the superstar conductor whose old-world grace and sophistication were so far removed from Aiden’s humble upbringing. David was classical music royalty, and Aiden was the hick kid with the incredible voice.
They’d met three and a half years before, not long after he’d arrived in Germany. David had taken Aiden under his wing, gotten him work in the larger European houses, introduced him to the best European conductors. David was the reason Aiden was making his Covent Garden debut; in the terms of his contract, he had insisted on Aiden singing the title role. David had even sent Aiden to a friend who had his own line of clothing with one of the largest European fashion houses for a “bit of polish,” as David had put it. David had taught Aiden about good wine and good food. Aiden’s best friend, Cary Redding, loved to tease Aiden that David was his fairy godfather.
When David’s driver let them out in front of a small fish and chips place near Piccadilly Circus, Aiden was more than a little surprised. He’d been expecting something a bit more posh. David was clearly amused to see Aiden’s reaction.
“Fish and chips is an art form in its own right,” David told Aiden in his upper-crust New England accent. “Not everything on your plate needs to be haute cuisine.”
Ten minutes later, settled at a table near the back of the tiny restaurant, Aiden nodded in hearty agreement as he bit into a delicately battered piece of fish that melted on his tongue. “This is incredible.”
David’s response was a knowing but reserved smile. David never laughed, as far as Aiden could tell, and right now, Aiden was thankful for it.
“Something’s on your mind, Aiden,” David said. He never did beat around the bush.
“It’s nothing.” Aiden wiped his lips and tried not to blush.
“I’ve never seen you this distracted.”
Aiden was utterly embarrassed. It wasn’t as if he was going to discuss his love life with someone like David Somers. Why would David even care?
“I am not entirely oblivious to your situation,” David continued, apparently unfazed by Aiden’s silence. “I knew Lord Sherrington’s parents quite well.”
Oh God, Aiden thought. Can it get any worse? He waited for the other shoe to drop. David would fire him now, wouldn’t he?
“That’s interesting,” Aiden said, knowing he looked like a complete fool and reminding himself that there were other jobs to be had. Of course, none of the other jobs he’d gotten since coming to Europe were anywhere near his current gig: performing at the best opera house in Great Britain with the best conductor around, singing the title role in Don Giovanni.
“I simply wanted you to know that if you need anything,” David continued, “I’m here to assist. I have several spare bedrooms at my London flat.”
Aiden’s mouth fell open. Was the man offering to put him up if he left Cam?
David offered Aiden a warm smile. “I put very little stock in the gossip rags,” he said as he tore a piece of fish off with his bare hands, “but I am not so naïve as to believe that there is never a grain of truth to be found between their covers.”
“You… you would do that?” Aiden stammered as David’s words began to work their way to his fuzzy brain. “Put me up?”
“Of course. Aren’t we friends?”
Aiden coughed and choked on a piece of fish until tears appeared in the corners of his eyes.
David handed him an extra napkin with casual aplomb. Does anything ruffle this man? Aiden wondered. Friends? Me and David Somers?
“It would be my pleasure.”
“I… uh… I mean… that’s very kind of you and all, but….”
“Aiden.” David’s face was serious now, his expression sympathetic and kind. “You have far too little faith in your own abilities both on and off the stage. It isn’t my place to give you advice as to your private affairs, but I feel it’s my duty as your friend to remind you that I am here should you ever need my help.”
“I… uh… thanks, David. I’m honored. I mean, I’m—”
“There’s no need to thank me. And no need to speak of it further.” He gestured to Aiden’s plate. “By the way,” he continued, “the fish is far better consumed hot.”
Aiden nodded dumbly and went back to work on his food, knowing the heat in his cheeks was visible to his companion but unable to do anything about it. There was no doubt in his mind that David’s offer was entirely genuine.
David Somers wants to be my friend? It seemed so improbable, so surreal. And yet, there it was.
“YOU were splendid, darling,” Cam gushed as he met Aiden in the front entrance of his family’s estate and planted a kiss on his lips. “Not that I expected anything else, of course.”
Cameron had invited the entire Don Giovanni cast back to the castle to celebrate Aiden’s London debut. And the orchestra. And the stage crew. Half of London, really.
Cam guided Aiden into the grand ballroom of the estate to a round of applause from the guests. Aiden caught David Somers’s eye, and the conductor raised his glass and smiled.
The place was magnificent. Glittering chandeliers cast flickering slivers of light on the polished marble floors. The ceiling was painted with tiny stars on a deep blue background, the walls paneled in well-oiled wood that shone and reflected blue and white with the crystals overhead. Toward the back of the ballroom, enormous arched doors led out onto a patio running the length of the room. Aiden was reminded of the dizzying effect of a disco ball, only far more ethereal.
A jazz orchestra played at one end of the high-ceilinged room as women in ball gowns danced with men in tuxedos. Aiden had begged Cam for a little party at their own home. He was entirely out of his element here, amidst the titled guests and local celebrities. Cam, however, had insisted that Aiden deserved the lavish celebration, and Aiden, knowing it was useless to argue, had finally relented.
For nearly two hours, Aiden smiled politely as guest after guest congratulated him on his performance. Finally, at the end of his patience and feeling the usual exhaustion that followed an evening of singing, he walked onto the patio and into the damp evening air. The midwinter chill on the breeze helped clear his mind.
It was quiet here, overlooking the formal gardens. Beyond, Aiden could barely make out the copse of trees he and Cam had often picnicked under. Beyond that were the woods where they’d ridden on horseback—where Cam had taught Aiden to ride. Even now, as winter began to weave its tendrils throughout the countryside, it was still lovely. In spring, the trees and flowers would burst into a frenzy of color, each plant painstakingly placed for maximum visual impact. Aiden wished his mother could see this. She’d always loved to tend her garden.
Overhead, a plane made its way to parts unknown, but the only thing Aiden could hear was the wind as it moved through the trees and shrubs. He wondered what it must have been like for Cam, growing up in this beautiful but formidable place. They often spent weekends here in the spring and summer, but it never felt like home to Aiden. He couldn’t get used to the servants who pressed his clothing and turned down the bed at night, or the elaborate breakfasts that greeted them in the mornings with food enough for ten people.
In all his stays at the castle, Aiden had never once met Cameron’s mother. He once asked Cam how often he saw her, but Cam only laughed and pointed out that Aiden hadn’t seen his own parents or his sister in more than two years. Funny, thought Aiden, how he still missed his parents sometimes. But then again, John Lind had made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing to do with his only son. Aiden’s mother wouldn’t defy her husband, although she wrote to Aiden regularly by e-mail. His sister, Deb, had also made the effort to stay in touch, and he saw her once a year at most.
“Aiden!” he heard Cam call from the glass doors behind him. “You must meet Lord Cook and his wife, Audrey.”
With a sigh, Aiden turned and walked back into the ballroom.
AT NEARLY three in the morning, Aiden climbed the back stairs to the enormous bedroom he and Cameron shared. The room, as the rest of the house, was decorated in antiques. The bed was the only compromise in the room. Made of reclaimed wood Cam had told him once made up a wall-sized cabinet, it had been crafted to resemble the other pieces. Mahogany, finely detailed carving. Outrageously expensive. Cam had told him it was French and several hundred years old. Oil paintings of the English countryside hung at perfectly placed intervals on the damask-covered walls.
The party still continued below. It would go on until sunrise, Aiden guessed, but Cam would forgive him for turning in early. Not that Cam would hesitate to tease him mercilessly about being an early bird the next day. Aiden had a difficult enough time keeping up with Cam’s seemingly boundless energy, but after a long day and performance, Aiden knew it was a lost cause even to attempt it.
Aiden shed his tux, slipped into a heavenly pair of silk pajamas Cam had given him as a gift—one of many gifts—and washed his face in the spacious bathroom attached to their room. He reached for the toothbrush, neatly laid out on the glass shelf above the sink, when his stomach rumbled loudly enough for him to hear. He laughed. In all the chaos of the evening, he had forgotten to eat.
He never did eat much before a performance. He was loath to admit it, but he desperately feared burping when he was on stage. Not that he ever had. Still, it was a bit like a good luck charm for him, not eating. But afterward….
Damn. The servants would all be helping out at the party, so it wouldn’t be easy to find someone to bring him a snack. He didn’t want to get dressed again, he was too comfortable. He’d have to get the food himself without being noticed. Aiden smiled at the thought that he knew his way to the kitchen without descending the main staircase. He and Cam had sneaked down to the kitchen by way of the servants’ stairs more than a few times to snag leftovers after a particularly athletic round of sex.
He pulled on a pair of slippers and tied a warm woolen robe around himself. He made his way down the long hallway that joined the east wing of the house with the west, past the enormous staircase that led to the front entry, and toward the back stairs. He had nearly reached the stairs when he heard it—the sound of voices from a sitting room that joined a pair of bedrooms.
“Right… oh, yes… right there. That’s it. Just a little more. Oh… fuck!”
Aiden laughed to himself. He wasn’t all that surprised that some of the guests had made their way up here for a little added entertainment. The servants had been instructed to make the guest bedrooms available to Cam’s “good friends,” which in Aiden’s experience meant anyone who asked to stay.
He quickened his pace, not wanting to eavesdrop. The door to the sitting room was slightly ajar, so he kept his eyes focused on the stairwell so he wouldn’t be tempted to look inside. But then he heard a second voice, and he froze where he stood.
“Damn, but you’re tight tonight, sweetheart. Have you missed me? Have you been saving yourself for me? Because that tight little ass of yours is too delicious—”
Aiden’s gut roiled. He stormed over to the door and kicked it open with such violence that the sound echoed down the hallway. What he saw inside made him sick.
Jarrod Jameson was bent over an overstuffed settee. Naked. Cam, fully dressed, was ramming him from behind, his hands grasping Jarrod’s waist. Later, Aiden would realize that his gaze hadn’t focused as much on the men as on the antique sofa, with its beautiful carved scrollwork and hand-embroidered upholstery. Cam had taught him to appreciate the delicate beauty of just such an antique.
“Get the fuck out of here!” Aiden shouted at Jarrod as the two men abruptly separated.
“Aiden, sweetheart, I—”
“Shut up,” Aiden snapped at Cam as Jarrod picked up his scattered clothing from the Persian rug and ran out of the room, still naked. It was a good thing Jarrod left so quickly, because Aiden’s hands were balled in fists and he was having a hard time restraining himself from punching Jarrod’s face in.
Cam opened his mouth to speak, but Aiden didn’t give him the opportunity. “Don’t fucking try it, Cameron. It won’t work this time.” He turned and left, slamming the door to the sitting room behind him.
Back in his room—their room—a minute later, Aiden threw off his pajamas, pulled on a pair of jeans and a cashmere sweater, slipped on a pair of moccasins and a wool jacket, grabbed his wallet, and headed down the main stairway. He’d get his things later. He couldn’t stay a second longer.
Several guests were milling about the front door, drinks in hand, laughing. They barely looked at him in his street clothes. Maybe they didn’t recognize him.
Or maybe they don’t give a shit.
“I’m taking the Jag,” Aiden told one of the servants. The man looked at him with surprise but complied, returning a moment later to let him know the driver would be bringing the car around. Aiden was on the road back to London a few minutes later.
WHEN Cameron returned from the castle the next morning, Aiden had several suitcases spread around the bedroom and was packing his belongings. Aiden had tried to sleep but had given up in the end, deciding instead to get his things together. He couldn’t do this anymore. How could he have been so naïve? He had stupidly believed the man the first time. But the second….
What’s the old expression? Fool me once, shame on you… fool me twice, shame on me?
God, his chest hurt. His eyes were red from lack of sleep and tears. Ironic that the biggest night of his career would be the worst night for his heart.
“Darling,” Cam said as he looked into the bedroom at the array of suitcases on the floor and on the bed, “don’t do this.”
“Do what, Cam? Because last time I checked, I wasn’t the one doing anything. It was you, doing it to us.”
“Don’t you fucking call me that! You don’t deserve to call me that.”
“Dar—Aiden,” Cam began again, “let’s talk about this. We can straighten this out.”
“Sure. We can straighten it out. I’ll forgive you again and you’ll go on doing what you want, won’t you?”
“You’re jealous. You always were.”
“Cam, for God’s sake! Of course I’m jealous. We live together, and I just caught you fucking some—”
“Sweetheart. Aiden.” Cam walked over to Aiden and took him in his arms. “Don’t do this.”
Aiden did his utmost not to respond to that touch, to the touch that had once sustained him through the ups and downs of his career. It was one of the hardest things he had ever done, not to melt into Cam’s arms as he loved to do.
“It’s over, Cam. I can’t live like this. It’s not what I thought we were about.” Aiden’s voice cracked.
“I’ll never speak to Jarrod again.” Cam’s tone was reassuring. “I promise you.”
“It’s not him. Don’t you understand? You’ll just find someone else. I’m obviously not enough for you.”
There. He had said it. And it was true. Because no matter how much he told himself he deserved better, it all seemed to come down to his own failings. He, Aiden Reuben Lind, hadn’t been able to keep Cameron happy. It didn’t matter how he looked at it. He had failed. It was time to admit it. Time to leave. Time to move on.
“I want you.”
Aiden pulled out of Cam’s arms and walked silently to the bathroom, grabbed his toiletry bag, and tossed it into the suitcase he’d been working on. “It’s over, Cam,” he said as he latched the case and pulled it off the bed.
“What will you do without me?”
The question scared Aiden to death. “I’ll be fine,” he said under his breath. He hoped he sounded more convinced than he really was.
“You need me, Aiden. You need what I can give you. Money. Better name recognition. Work.”
Work. Aiden hoped to God Cameron wouldn’t interfere with his work. Would he do that?
“I’ll be fine,” he repeated.
“You’ll regret this, Aiden. I assure you.”
Was that a threat? He didn’t dare ask. “Good-bye, Cam,” he said. He picked up the suitcase and headed out the bedroom door. “I’ll send someone around to pick up the others.”
Cameron said nothing.
“DAVID,” Aiden said an hour later as he stood on the doorstep of David Somers’s London flat, “it’s good to see you. I hope I’m not coming at a bad time.”
David smiled and opened the door for Aiden, took the suitcase over Aiden’s protests, and led him inside. “The offer to stay here didn’t have an expiration date.” He gave Aiden’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You can stay as long as you like.”