A Better Than Story
Paul Fallon is a fashion advertising guru. He’s a genius at dealing with difficult editors, art directors, and designers alike. He thrives on the chaotic atmosphere and constant challenges. But in his personal life, he’s hoping for peace and stability. Settling down with a nice doctor or lawyer sounds perfect. Anyone but an artist. He’s been there, done that, and he doesn’t want to relive the heartache.
Seth Landau is a model, occasional guitarist, and aspiring painter. He’s quirky, flighty, and wise beyond his years. Life has taught him some tough lessons, then given him opportunities he never dreamed of. He’s learned to appreciate the fragility of life and to express it in his work. Seth’s flare for the absurd combined with a supple mind and a beautiful body are too alluring for Paul to ignore. Against his best intentions, Paul is drawn to the younger man whose particular brand of crazy challenges Paul to accept that things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes taking a chance is better than being safe.
“ALL ART is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.”—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
I WOULD never understand how someone who cherished peace and organization wound up with a career in fashion advertisement. My job was the very definition of chaos. A state of utter confusion and disorder. There had to be some odd quirk in my personality that enjoyed sorting out caustic people and difficult situations. Whether it was an editorial issue, a designer with diva aspirations, or a simple case of incompetence, I was the one generally called upon to “fix” things. While it was true I was detail oriented and efficient, I wasn’t a superhero. Thankfully, today’s visit to an upscale DC magazine’s downtown office was a social call. No one would expect me to solve any problems. I hoped. This was a quick hello before I returned to my own office at the Phillips Agency a few blocks away. It looked like my timing was perfect. A photo shoot was about to commence. There was an air of control in the room, indicating someone competent was in charge. Thank God. And if my source was correct, it was the man I’d come to see.
Two men were chatting at the far left side of the enormous studio. The photographer and an assistant, I guessed. I turned to my right, noting the starkly painted white walls and light colored hardwood flooring in the wide-open space. There was a bank of windows along one side and though every blind was drawn, the large space was well lit. A giant screen used for backdrop covered the wall flanked on either end by portrait umbrellas, ready to diffuse light where needed. People milled about with clipboards and headsets, looking deceptively important. I smiled at a pretty young girl wearing a short brimmed Panama hat and bright red lips. If someone were to ask what she looked like later, her hat and lipstick would be the only two things I’d remember.
“Can I help you?”
“Yes, I’m looking for Aar—never mind, there he is now.”
I followed the sound of a familiar voice near the photographer’s camera equipment and stopped in my tracks when he came into view.
Aaron Mendez was beautiful. There really was no other word. He was small but fit and lean with dark brown hair, olive skin, gorgeous hazel eyes, and a brilliant smile that had the dual effect of setting me at ease and making my heart skip a beat. I called his name and mentally prepared myself for the sudden quickening of my pulse when he turned. Aaron was extraordinarily lovely, but he was taken. Acting like a lovesick puppy would be foolish, not to mention embarrassing.
“Paul! Oh my gosh—did I know you were coming by today?” He flashed a radiant smile before launching himself into my arms.
I chuckled as I caught him. His longish bangs fell enticingly over his right eye as he stepped away. I shoved my hands in my suit pockets to keep myself from reaching out to tuck the stray strands of hair behind his ear.
“I told Marsha but she may not have let on I’d be in your neighborhood today. I came by to pick up a portfolio. I’m only popping by to say a brief hello and—what’s so funny?” I narrowed my eyes playfully as Aaron pursed his lips together and shook his head.
“Nothing! ‘Popping by to say a brief hello,’” he said, pitching his voice to mimic my British accent with a giggle. “I love the way that sounds. So posh!”
“Hmph. I suppose it’s the best compliment I’ve had today, so I’ll take it,” I said with a self-deprecating shrug.
“Well, you look fabulous too. A little tan on your handsome face and your suit is divine. Very sexy. When did you get back in town? And where were you again? Buenos Aires and…. Curt told me but I forgot. Or I was too envious and didn’t want to think about my jet-setting friend seeing the world while I was stuck in rainy DC.”
Aaron cocked his head and grabbed a clipboard sitting on a nearby wooden bench as a production assistant pulled in a rack filled to capacity with couture clothing. A group of models, three young women and two men, trailed in after her. It would be time to get to work the moment the photographer was ready.
“I was in Argentina for a month and Brazil for a couple weeks. Enough time for even an Englishman to come home with a bit of sun. I’ve only been home a few days and other than a few quick trips to New York or Baltimore, I’ll be in DC for the duration. At least until summertime.”
“Good. Then you’ll get to enjoy all the rain we’ve been having too. It’s only fair.” He glanced at his watch distractedly and then at the door before giving me a chagrined half smile. “Looks like we’re about to start. I’m waiting on one more model but—”
“Not to worry. I’ll observe quietly for a moment, then be on my way. This isn’t a business call. I just wanted to come by to congratulate you.”
Aaron squealed like a child and gave me another impromptu hug. “Did Curt tell you? I’m so excited. Matty is too. We’re not sure yet when we’ll do it but—”
“Wait. What do you mean? I was talking about your promotion. You’re the assistant art director now, correct?” I felt my forehead furrow in confusion as I observed the excited man. I couldn’t remember how old Aaron was but I thought he was only a couple of years my junior. His enthusiastic nature always made him seem much younger.
“Yes. That happened. But something even better happened too. I thought maybe Curt mentioned it.”
“I haven’t talked to him yet. What is it?”
“I’m getting married!”
I couldn’t help responding to his obvious pleasure. I smiled widely and scooped him in my arms, squeezing him tightly around his middle. He laughed as he pulled away.
“Congratulations. That is even better news. So you haven’t set a date?”
“Not yet. I need time to plan something fabulous, but I’d love an autumn wedding. If I go into groomzilla mode now, I might be able to pull off a minor miracle in six months but it has to be completely perfect, you know?” I nodded as if I knew exactly what he was talking about when in fact I’d never come close to considering marriage with anyone I’d ever dated. I tuned in as Aaron continued. “It’s all brand new. Matt just proposed a week ago. There’s so much to do. Guest list, date, loca—oh thank God.”
I turned when he pointed in the direction of the studio door as a young man with longish dark blond hair entered. His crisp white ensemble and confident gait indicated he was one of the models. He was tall and thin with broad shoulders. And he was stunning.
Aaron bumped my arm and offered a sly grin when he caught me staring. “I know, right? Seth is dreamy. And it’s a good thing he is ’cause he’s always late. I’d better get things started before Vito notices the time and has a fit. Wait here while I make sure they have everything they need.”
I started to protest. I hadn’t intended to stay for long, but perhaps hearing about his wedding plans might help diffuse the slight pang of jealousy I couldn’t help feeling. It was ridiculous. I never had a shot with Aaron. Ever. He’d been with Matt for at least four years now and was obviously very happy. I cringed at the memory of me asking him out a couple of years ago before I knew he was in a serious relationship. He’d smiled and gently let me down, then told me he knew a nice guy I should meet instead. Curt.
Curt was great. He was good-looking, quick-witted, and he liked jazz. Or at least, he said he did. It didn’t matter. I traveled too much to spend time on a new relationship and by the time I returned from a three-month business trip to Indonesia, Curt was taken too. In fact, he was head over heels for his new man. And there was no sense in trying to compete with someone like Jack. He was everything I wasn’t. He was drop-dead gorgeous, heavily tattooed, and rode a Harley. I was good-looking, I supposed. Tall and lean with short blond hair and blue eyes. But where Jack was laid-back and casual, I was definitely more conservative and would not be coerced onto the back of a motorbike if my life depended on it. Obviously Curt and I weren’t meant to be, but I was grateful we’d become good friends since that first fateful coffee date two years ago.
Funny things happen when least expected. My frequent work association with Aaron combined with my failed romance with Curt had inadvertently introduced me to a new set of friends. It was good to know there were people who cared enough to notice my absence when I was out of town. Especially since I was an ocean away from home. The only drawback was being the only bachelor in the group. And as happy as I was for my blissfully coupled friends, it was becoming clear my constant globe-trotting was cementing my status as a perpetual third wheel. Maybe it was time to think about getting back in the dating scene now that I was in DC for the duration. I dreaded the very idea. However, the sorry truth was I’d spent a great deal of time traveling alone recently and even I was tired of my own company.
I moved to the side, a few feet from the action, making sure to stay out of the way while Aaron consulted with the production assistant and the photographer. I studied the painfully thin models dressed in couture casualwear. The general look of the shoot was bohemian streetwear meets runway chic. The three girls were draped in long white flowing fabric with interesting geometric cutouts along the seams. Ropes of brightly colored beads around their necks were the only concession to color. Their hair was wild, as though they’d been blown about in gale force winds, and the makeup on all was minimal. The men were also dressed in white. Pant legs were cut in odd lengths and their shirts were each a different style. The entire look was fresh and cohesive. Very well done. I glanced from left to right at the six statuesque figures posing in front of a white backdrop, but stopped short when I realized one of them was staring at me.
It caught me off guard. In this kind of controlled setting, the models rarely interacted with the people behind the scenes unless they were specifically called out. They were asked to preen, pose, and play to the camera. To incite random conversation or, worse, not pay attention to the photographer’s direction, was highly disruptive. Time was money. I met the young man’s gaze. He was the one who had come in late.
He was, as Aaron had described him, “dreamy.” His dark blond hair skimmed his broad shoulders and offset his high cheekbones, strong square jaw, and full lips. He was a model, so of course he was good-looking, but there was something different about him. He was interesting looking. Appealing in an exotic way. And he was still staring at me. He didn’t look away until Aaron came to stand by my side.
“We have four clothes changes to get through with new makeup and hair for all. Ugh,” he groaned.
“You love it.”
He giggled softly and smiled. “I do. These photos are slated for the summer edition, but I’m not sure which month I’ll use them yet. Probably June.”
“Wedding whites, eh? Perhaps Matt and you could wear something like it. He would look fantastic in the cutouts.”
He laughed a little louder this time and immediately covered his mouth with one hand as he made his eyes comically wide. I chuckled and glanced over the set. My gaze instantly landed on the gorgeous, longer-haired model again. I couldn’t look away. There was something very captivating about him. Aaron turned to see what had my attention.
“I told you he’s hot. His name is Seth Landau. He gets away with more than he should sometimes because he has a ton of experience and serious sex appeal.”
“Does Matt know you’re talking about the office eye candy like this?” I teased.
He rolled his eyes with a grin. “Matty has nothing to worry about and he knows it. Want to meet Seth? I can ask him if it’s okay to give you his number and—”
“Aaron. No offense, but the last time you tried to set me up—”
“You were out of town… a lot. You can’t get to know someone if you’re not around, right? And you and Curt became friends anyway so it wasn’t a total failure.”
“You just said you don’t have any plans to travel for a while so where’s the harm in having coffee or a drink? Who knows? Maybe sparks will fly!”
Aaron’s voice rose as he warmed to the idea. I shushed him then whispered in his ear, “He looks familiar somehow. What do you know about him? Are you sure he’s gay?”
I glanced over at the man in question. He had an almost androgynous look. Not feminine, not masculine… a little of both. His back was turned to me now. He had one arm wrapped loosely around one of the female models and the other around a young man’s neck in an almost proprietary grip. The shot was genius. Tension and sexual ambiguity draped in the finest linens and jewels.
“Very sure. It’s a small community and people talk. He’s lived in Europe for the past few years modeling for Italian designers and doing runway shows. That’s probably why he looks familiar. He’s a photogenic chameleon. You’ve seen him in a million ads. Probably even ones you’ve done. It’s weird how different some people look in person. In Seth’s case… even better than in print.” Aaron’s eyes twinkled mischievously as he adopted a faux British accent. “And as much as I’d love to sit here and gossip about him, it would be very unprofessional of me to do so in my present position.”
“You’re totally right, man. Way uncool to gossip. I’m down with you giving him my number but whoa….” I dropped my California “surfer dude” affectation and waited until Aaron stopped laughing long enough to hear my next question. “How old is he anyway? He looks young.”
“I don’t know. Twenty-seven, I think. Why? How old are you now? I forget.”
“Thirty-five.” I glanced quickly at my watch. As much as I adored Aaron, I had things to do. I couldn’t sit about ogling hunky models all afternoon. “I’d better get back to my office. Congratulations to you and Matt. I’m truly happy for you.”
Aaron beamed at me and gave another quick hug before stepping aside. “Thank you. And welcome back! I’ll tell Seth—”
“I don’t know, Aaron. I doubt I’m his type and—” I looked briefly at the action behind me just as the man in question began slowly unbuttoning his crisp white linen shirt. I couldn’t remember what I was going to say. I was mesmerized. Seth was built like a god, beautifully toned without a trace of hair on his golden skin. I gulped and started to turn away when he grinned at me. It was a wolfish upturn of the lips rather than a friendly gesture. Predatory almost. Interesting. I cocked my head slightly and smiled. We held eye contact for a moment until the photographer called his attention back to the shoot.
“Right. I’ll text you.” Aaron smirked.
MY PHONE buzzed later that day with a text message from Aaron. It was a phone number and a smiley-faced emoticon with heart-shaped eyes. I stared at it briefly then started in surprise when my attention was diverted by a single sharp knock on my door. My secretary waltzed in a moment later. Note to self… remind Kerri to at least pause before entering my office. Again.
“Hi there. It’s six. I’m leaving but bad news.” She waited until I glanced up at her before she continued, “Helene is on the warpath. She wants another meeting.”
“When?” I sat back in my chair and pushed away from my computer.
“Now. In the large conference room. Should I tell her you’re busy or—”
“No. Tell her I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Aye-aye, Captain. Anything else for today?” she asked with an eager grin. Kerri was a pretty young woman with long blonde hair and a sunny disposition. What she lacked in polish she made up for in enthusiasm.
“No… just the door thing,” I said with a wry grin.
“O-m-g! I’m so sorry. I forget sometimes and—”
“It’s not a bother. I’ll see you tomorrow. Have a good night.”
“You too, boss.” She pivoted gracefully on her impossibly high heels and slammed the door behind her.
I squeezed my eyes shut as I reached for the aspirin I kept in the top drawer of my desk. This was why I liked travel, I remembered. Long hours in the office dealing with a never-ending slew of emergencies was a slow form of torture.
My phone buzzed again.
Call him asap. He’s very interested :)
I stared at Seth’s number thoughtfully before composing a text message. If I had to meet with an ornery art director before leaving for the day, I may as well give myself something to look forward to this weekend.
Hello this is Paul. Aaron gave me your number earlier. I was wondering if you might be interested in having a cup of coffee this weekend?
I pushed Send. I couldn’t explain my racing heartbeat. It was coffee, for God’s sake. I’d been on hundreds of coffee dates. He might not be as interested as Aaron indicated. Maybe he was being kind or maybe—
My cell vibrated in my hand, interrupting my internal debate.
Coffee sounds great.
I studied the message for a moment before sending a reply to confirm a time and place. Hmm. The weekend suddenly looked promising.
I MADE an effort to shake my second thoughts Saturday morning. I couldn’t believe I’d agreed to another coffee date. I wanted to blame it on Aaron. He was hard to refuse. However, I knew there was more to it. The truth was I was a hopeless romantic who had become a borderline serial dater. I’d dated my share of nice guys. Truthfully, I’d probably dated someone else’s share as well. And while I acknowledged it was a necessary evil if I wanted to meet someone, I was tired of the game. I’d done it so many times I could almost write the script. A simple coffee or dinner date led to another, and if we really connected, maybe sex. Sometimes it led to a loose agreement of sorts. The “we aren’t serious, but call me when you’re in town and if we’re both free, let’s fuck” arrangement.
It would be a lie to say I hadn’t enjoyed a number of such liaisons. But I was a hell of a lot pickier nowadays than I had been five years ago when I’d first moved to the States. I didn’t want to fall into bed with a random bloke whose name I’d have a hard time remembering the following morning. I’d been there, done that. Lately I was stuck in a two to three date holding pattern like a swimmer in a rip current. I sincerely doubted the sexy model was the man to break my dating streak, but old habits die hard. The young man was gorgeous, gay, and hell… it was only coffee. What could possibly go wrong?
Undercover Boyfriend by Jacob Z. Flores Paperback
Finding Family by Connie Bailey Paperback
Run by Annie Kaye Paperback
Wolfsong by TJ Klune Paperback
Romanus & Chevalier by Mary Calmes Paperback
Émeutes à Baltimore by Madeleine Urban & Abigail Roux French Translation Paperback
Mascarade en croisière by Madeleine Urban & Abigail Roux French Translation Paperback
Absinthe of Malice by Rhys Ford Paperback
Embuscades sur la route by Abigail Roux French Translation Paperback
Fire and Snow by Andrew Grey Paperback
Requires site membership
La fortuna di Aiden by Con Riley Italian Translation eBook