TWO days in California and I was already in love. How could I help it? The palm trees, the heat, the pretty people wearing brand names I could admire but never afford. I hadn’t gotten one weird look for my clothes or my nail polish or my piercings. Even the sun felt different than it had back in Wilmington. Warmer somehow, freeing. Or maybe it wasn’t the sun that had changed. Maybe it was me.
I guess leaving your home state and driving across the country alone can do that. I wasn’t the same guy who’d shoved all his worldly possessions into the back of a rusted powder-blue Chevy station wagon and put Delaware in his rearview mirror last week. This was the new and improved Dusty. Dusty 2.0. Version one was still back in the ’Ware. I’d left him behind, along with every hard time and bad memory I’d experienced there. California meant a fresh start, another chapter in The Life and Times of Dustin Davis. And what could be better than starting that chapter in a place as awesome as West Hollywood?
Not much. I smiled to myself at the thought and transferred my keys and iced latte into one hand so I could dig into my pocket for my phone with the other. I wanted to call my friends, Rue and Erik, share some of the excitement, tell them I adored our new little house and the neighborhood that surrounded it.
I’d spent the whole morning exploring, walking up and down the boulevard, checking out the shops and restaurants. Rue was going to love it, I already knew, and I thought Erik might too, once he got settled. It was a change for him—for all of us—but a good one.
I hit the speed dial for Rue’s number and lifted the phone to my ear, nodding at the woman who was walking past me with a primped-out poodle at her side.
“Hey, Dust,” Rue answered after a couple of rings. “How’s it going?” I started to respond, but his voice interrupted me. “I’m gonna put you on speaker, okay?”
“It’s great!” I said once I heard Alice, Rue’s daughter, babbling happily in the background. “I found this awesome little coffee shop. Kind of reminds me of The Bean, but don’t worry, Erik, it’s a lot cleaner.” Rue’s boyfriend laughed at my words, the sound familiar and warm, making me smile. God, I missed him. Rue and Alice too. I couldn’t wait until they were with me.
“You guys are gonna love it here,” I went on, moving to the edge of the sidewalk so a woman pushing a double stroller could get around me. “It’s totally gorgeous, and the house is so cute! The pictures didn’t really do it justice. Just wait ’til you see. And the neighborhood is so nice and quiet, and, Erik, you’re going to love the backyard. There’s plenty of room for a garden and maybe even a pool if the landlord would let us—”
I broke off when the front of one of my flip-flops got caught on an uneven section of sidewalk and nearly sent me flying forward. I stumbled, almost dropping my phone, and probably would have fallen flat on my face had someone not reached out to grab my upper arm and steady me. The touch went through me like an electric shock, instantaneous and hot, sending a rush of goose bumps across my skin. My breath caught, and every fine hair on my body stood on end.
I looked up, speechless, mouth hanging open, and found myself staring into the prettiest brown eyes I’d ever seen, rich and warm as dark amber honey, and surrounded by what seemed like an unfair amount of thick, curly lashes.
The face that went along with those eyes was just as pretty. More than. Beautiful maybe. But, no, that wasn’t quite right either. Stunning. Yeah… that was exactly it. Because this guy, this gorgeous guy, with his strong jaw and straight nose, high cheekbones, elegant eyebrows, and olive skin, he’d stunned me silent. And that was before I got to his lips, which were so lush and full it took all my willpower not to lean in for a kiss.
Oh God…. I blinked at him, trying to think of something, anything to say, like “hi” or “thanks for saving me from falling on my face,” or maybe even “marry me,” but I couldn’t get my throat to work. I just stared up at him, struck stupid by his eyes, his mouth, his gentle fingers and their steadying grip.
“Okay?” he asked, and those lips, those oh-so-kissable lips, curved up into a grin that hit me right in the solar plexus, dead center, straight shot—boom.
I blinked again, seemingly incapable of speech, and his smile broadened.
“Yeah, you’re okay,” he said, sounding amused. He released my arm and stepped back. “Take care.”
Before I could muster any type of coherent response, he was walking away, and I finally registered Rue’s voice in my ear. “Dust? What’s up? Did you wander out into traffic?”
“Who is that?” I murmured without thinking. The awe was clear in my voice, even to me.
Rue laughed. “You haven’t even been there two days, and you’re already checking out the guys?”
After a moment, I forced myself to laugh too. “You know I’ve been checking them out since day one,” I said, and that was true. But I hadn’t seen anyone like him. Not anywhere. I needed to find out who he was. “Hey, guys, I’ll call you later, okay?”
I hit “end” on my phone and quickly shoved it back into my pocket, turning around to look in the direction the guy had gone. The latte I’d bought and completely forgotten about was cold in my hand. I dropped it into a garbage bin as I moved up the street, eyes searching the group of people in front of me, looking for a head of sun-kissed brown hair. He’d had a few inches on me, but unfortunately not enough height to really stand out in the crowd.
Where did he go? I had to find him. I needed to know his name, get his phone number, his address, e-mail, whatever, it didn’t matter. I’d seen beautiful men before, even had them flirt with me a time or two, but I’d never reacted so strongly to anyone. No one’s touch had ever felt like that. No one had ever taken my breath away by just looking at me. Twenty-four years of life and I’d never experienced anything as intense as that moment, those few seconds, standing on a sidewalk in the middle of a crowd with a complete stranger.
It meant something. It had to mean something. But I didn’t get to find out what. I looked, and I looked. I even took that same walk the next day, and the two days after that.
I didn’t run into him again.
“SO, HOW short do you wanna go? Would you like me to take a couple of inches off the ends?”
The client I was working on—Rachel—caught her lower lip between her teeth and eyed her reflection in my station mirror. “I don’t know,” she said dubiously. “What do you think? I’ve never gone above my shoulders before, and I’m not sure my husband would like it if I did….”
Personally, I thought with her long, narrow face, she’d look better in a cute, chin-length bob, maybe even with some soft waves thrown in, but I could tell from her expression she wasn’t ready for that kind of change. Not on her first visit with me at least. And her current cut wasn’t terrible; it just needed to be livened up a bit.
“How about I just trim the edges and put some layers in? Add a little bit of volume?”
Rachel chewed her lip some more and met my eyes in the mirror, her blue ones dark and anxious. “Okay.”
“Don’t worry.” I smiled brightly and gave her shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “You’ll look gorgeous when I’m done. Your hubby won’t be able to resist you.”
She grinned shyly at that. “It’s our one-year anniversary today. He’s taking me to The Palm.”
“Ooh, nice,” I said as I got started, parting her wet hair down the middle and gently running my comb from root to tip, working out the knots and considering how many layers I should put in. “Happy anniversary. One year, huh? You’re practically still newlyweds then.”
“Thanks! Sometimes it feels like we are. You know how it is with work and everything.” She waved her hand under her cape, nails swishing against the nylon. “We barely get to see each other. But I’m excited. He took the whole weekend off for me.”
“That’s great,” I murmured, and if my smile was a bit dimmer, my voice a little less enthusiastic, I hoped only I noticed.
“I just can’t wait to be alone with him, you know? He normally works the night shift, and it’s been so long. I mean, really, really long. I’m talking weeks here.”
I chuckled softly, reaching into my apron pocket for my trimming shears. Oh, honey, you have no idea. It had been months for me. Not since my ex, Gary, whose name now made me cringe, even if sometimes I couldn’t help missing the version of him I’d known at the beginning. We’d had a lot of fun together before everything went to crap. He’d said he loved me, treated me right. Then he decided he could slap me around whenever I pissed him off… and I’d let him get away with it too, because I was scared, ashamed to tell anyone, terrified he’d leave and I’d be forever alone. It had taken that night at the Two Koi, the first and last time he’d hit me in public, for me to realize I was so much better than he deserved, and being alone was nowhere near as frightening as staying with him.
“Are you seeing anyone?” Rachel asked suddenly, as if she’d read my thoughts.
I paused with my scissors poised and ready to snip the first of the layers I had planned. A flash of pretty brown eyes popped into my head and was gone faster than I could blink. I wished—oh, did I wish—I could say yes to her question, but I hadn’t seen him since that day last month, and before him the only guy who’d really interested me had been head over heels in love with someone else: my best friend, Rue.
“Nope,” I said cheerily. “Chronically single, that’s me.” There hadn’t been anyone serious before Gary, and no one since. Erik never had eyes for anyone but Rue, and my brief stint with Paul back in May didn’t count. We’d fooled around some, but that was all. Nice as he was, I’d known from the start he wasn’t for me. Still, I had hope. Maybe it was running on fumes these days and half a breath from giving out, but it was there. Eventually I’d find him, my one, and he’d want me and only me.
“It’ll happen,” Rachel told me with a sage little nod.
Instead of answering, I plastered on my sunniest smile and got back to the business of cutting her hair. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe her. It would happen for me—I knew it would—but the wait was getting awfully lonely in the meantime.
Rachel spoke again after a few seconds. Thankfully, she’d found a new subject to focus on. “So, how long have you had your septum pierced? Did it hurt when you had it done?”
“Oh,” I said, my smile easing into something that felt a lot more natural. Piercings were a topic I could talk about all day. “It wasn’t bad, actually. My eyes watered, but that was about it. The one that really hurt was my daith, which goes through the cartilage in the middle of my ear. The piercer had to push three times before the needle went through.”
Rachel cringed. “Ouch.”
“Yeah, it kind of sucked.” Total understatement. That experience was the reason I only had it pierced on the left side. “But you know what I’ve heard is the worst?”
Rachel shook her head and stared at me in the mirror, eyes wide.
I winked at her. “It’s below the belt. I’ll give you three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
“COME on, come on,” I muttered under my breath, standing up on my tiptoes to see what was holding up the line. I was in my favorite smoothie shop, only a few doors down from the salon where I rented a chair. I’d dashed over during a gap between clients, thinking I’d be in and out like normal, but the line hadn’t budged since I’d entered the shop.
I glanced at the watch on my wrist. It was my favorite for work—waterproof, pink face, thick black leather band, and lots of stainless steel accents—and currently it was telling me I had less than ten minutes before my next appointment was due. I shifted anxiously from one foot to the other, wondering if I should just leave and come back later, but, damn, I was thirsty, and I’d been craving my favorite smoothie all day. Thirsty or not, though, I didn’t really want to keep a client waiting. I’d only been at the salon for a couple of weeks, and I’d been lucky to find something so quickly and so close to home. I didn’t want to do anything to mess it up.
I debated for another few seconds, sucking nervously on one of the studs in my lower lip (bad habit, I know), and had just started to turn to leave when the guy at the head of the line finally moved, and the girl in front of me with the cut arms and preppy black fauxhawk stepped up to the register.
I bit back a sigh of relief and shuffled forward behind her. I’d almost thought she was a guy at first—a hot guy—but then she’d glanced sideways and I’d noticed the disappointing lack of an Adam’s apple in her profile. Tragic. She was working that whole androgynous vibe, though, and her body was seriously amazing. If I had to guess, I would’ve said her ethnicity was Korean, just judging by her facial features alone. She reminded me of a girl I’d known back in high school.
“I’ll take a peach-basil smoothie,” she said. Her voice was low, a little raspy. “Large, and add an energy boost, would you?”
I spoke before I could think better of it. “Oh, you like those too? I thought I was the only one.”
She turned to me in surprise. I realized then we were almost the exact same height. I was kind of short for a guy (the bane of my existence since middle school, let me tell you), but she was taller than most of the Asian women I’d known. Our heights were where the similarities ended, though. My body was slender without any real muscle definition, while hers was lean and sinewy and hard. No softness to her at all, except maybe in her face, but her squarish jawline balanced out the roundness in her cheeks. Just looking at her made me feel guilty I’d skipped doing Pilates with Rue three times that week. “Yeah,” she said after a beat. “I love basil. I make these at home all the time.”
I grinned at her. “Basil is great. I cook with it constantly. Sometimes I even add it to my ice water.”
“Really?” She seemed to consider that for a moment. “I’ll have to try it.” She smiled and extended a hand. “I’m Michelle, by the way. I’ve seen you around, I think. Do you work nearby?”
“Dusty,” I said, reaching out to shake her hand. Her grip was firm, the skin of her palm a bit rough against mine. “I work over at Embellish. You?”
“I teach classes at Cobra Fitness.” Ah, so that explains the body then.
“Ma’am? Here’s your change.”
Michelle turned back to the cashier, who was holding out a couple of singles. “Thanks.” She took her money and stepped aside so I could order.
“I’ll have the same thing, but make mine a medium, please.”
The cashier nodded and accepted my cash. I’d ordered it enough times that I had the exact amount. I dug an extra single out of my apron and tossed it in the tip jar before joining Michelle at the other end of the counter.
“I love this place,” I said, just to keep the conversation going. Aside from my clients and coworkers, it was rare for me to see anyone but Erik and Rue. And Alice, of course. They were my family, and I loved them more than anything, but I was sort of starved for new people to talk to. I really needed to start putting myself out there. Even though I knew they didn’t think of me that way, sometimes it was hard not to feel like a third wheel, especially with us all living in the same house. “There weren’t very many like this back in Wilmington.”
Michelle gave me a questioning look. “Wilmington?”
“Ah. How long have you been in California?”
“About a month.”
“Liking it so far?”
“Loving it,” I answered with a smile. What wasn’t to love? Being in Cali was the realization of a dream. Sure, Rue’s more than mine, but I was happy to be out of Delaware and somewhere I felt like I actually fit in. And as much as I’d joked about it with Rue in the past, I’d never particularly wanted to work in some posh, exclusive salon, never cared about styling the rich and famous. I was happy working somewhere like Embellish—nice, but not ridiculously expensive or over-the-top.
I didn’t have a single complaint about my job. I got to do exactly what I’d always wanted: make people feel confident and look pretty. Rue and I had experimented, doing each other’s hair and makeup throughout all of high school. It hadn’t taken either of us long to figure out what we wanted to do after graduation, although coming up with the money for the program had been another matter entirely. That had taken years of saving. But I’d never doubted it was what I should be doing. There was only one thing lacking in my life, one dream that remained unfulfilled. And maybe soon that wish would come true too.
“Good,” Michelle said. “I’m glad you’re enjoying it. I grew up in LA. Can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
“Ma’am? Your drink.”
Michelle glanced over to where the cashier had just placed her smoothie. “Well, I’d better take off. I have a class at three. It was nice meeting you.” She grabbed her cup and started for the door. When she reached it, she turned back to look at me. “Hey, if you have any interest in joining a gym, stop by Cobra. I’ll give you a tour.”
“Thanks. I definitely will.”
She nodded once and left. A few seconds later I had my own smoothie, and with a minute or two to spare. I made it back to Embellish just as my client was taking her seat.
“COME this way. I shoot back here.”
I led the newest girl—Britney, I thought—down the hall to the third bedroom in the apartment I shared with my twin, Archer. A three bedroom in West Hollywood had been ridiculously expensive, but the room had great light, and I needed it for my job.
“Um, so what do I have to do?” Britney asked. She was my third Britney in a month. Before that had been Ashlee, Jessica, and Cindi—all hopeful, all down on their luck. They’d come to me, hoping I’d give them the look to get hired. Most of them assumed I’d want something other than money in return.
I coughed. “The bathroom’s right there if you want to check your makeup or hair. I’m useless at that. I’ll get the studio prepped.”
She thought I wanted sex. I shook my head. “Just go ahead and get ready. I’ll get my cameras set up.”
I fiddled with my tripod and the draping that I’d set up. Britney had requested my “vampy” package, so I’d gotten out the red velvet curtains earlier, and set up the bed in the corner with silk sheets, lamps, and candles. It looked like a scene right out of some teenaged girl’s fantasy. Britney probably had been one of those daydreaming teens not too long ago. Too bad all she got was a gay photographer to take her picture, and if she was lucky, a career in porn.
“Um, I’m ready.” The girl stood hesitantly in the doorway to my studio room.
“Okay, let’s start with a few in your street clothes, some face shots, and then we’ll move on from there.” I kept my voice businesslike but gentle. Britney looked a little more scared than the rest of them. I gestured to a plain wooden chair. “Why don’t you sit on that chair backward? Rest your face on your forearms.”
She walked hesitantly over and straddled the chair, resting her face on her arms like I’d instructed. I guessed she was one of those girls who was barely out of high school. She was eighteen, I’d made her show ID, but I would guess she hadn’t been away from home for long. Runaway? Kicked out? I had heard just about every story. They usually started to talk when they realized that I wasn’t ever going to touch them.
“Looks great,” I said. Truthfully, she had too much makeup on, and the poor thing was fake-tanned within an inch of her life, but they all wanted a break so desperately. I saw in her eyes that Britney was no different. “Okay, let’s do some shots with your bra and panties.”
“O-okay. Just take my jeans off?”
I nodded and gestured to a hook over in the corner of the room. It was the part I hated most. Not the actual pictures, but asking the girls to take off their clothes. Truth was, if they wanted a job, they’d have to do it. But it didn’t mean I liked asking. Britney’s jeans and tank top disappeared quickly, and she stood awkwardly by the bed. I had to hold in a sigh. It was going to be one of those.
“So, Britney, the way this works is I’m going to need a variety of shots both from the front and the back, with your underwear and then naked. It’s best if you start in a position that’s comfortable, and we’ll go from there, okay?”
“Okay,” she answered with a tentative smile. She crawled, coltish and unsure, onto the bed, and tried her best to strike a sexy pose. I started clicking and gave her as much encouragement as I could muster.
By the skin of our combined teeth, Britney and I managed to get through the photo shoot without major mishap, and enough decent shots that I could have some ready for her to send to different studios. Part of me wanted to tell her that anything, even flipping burgers, was better, but then I thought that maybe it really wasn’t so bad. “It’s just sex,” my brother Archer always told me. “Quit taking shit so seriously.”
“Why are you so nice?” Britney’s voice surprised the hell out of me. I’d been in the kitchen pouring an iced tea and letting her dress on her own.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you’re the first guy I’ve met in this business who didn’t assume I’d be ready for sex. Why?”
I shrugged. I didn’t feel the need to tell every girl who passed through the door that I was gay. “It’s business. If you get in with the big studios, the owners are all in it for money, not to get laid.” (Partly true. I hoped.) “Hopefully these shots will help.”
“Well, thank you anyway.” She hesitated at the door. Shit. Here it comes. “Listen, I haven’t been in town long. Would you like to get some dinner sometime?”
I sighed. I felt awful for her. “Sure. As long as it’s just as friends. I’m… well, I’m actually gay.”
Britney’s sigh of relief was far lustier than my sigh had been. “Thank God. I really could use a friend. Would you mind?”
I handed her another of my cards. “Give me a call sometime. We can talk about anything but porn.”
She laughed and took the card. “Sounds perfect.”
I was cleaning up and putting the props away later when I heard the front door open and slam shut. Archer. My brother should’ve been at work—I looked at my watch—for at least three more hours. I knew, because I usually got whining phone calls for a ride home at least twice a week. For as much as we looked almost exactly the same, my twin brother wasn’t much like me. What he was, most of the time, was irresponsible, snobby, promiscuous, and entitled. Sometimes I wondered how we’d popped out of the same woman’s uterus. I loved my brother, for those rare good moments we had, but sometimes I wondered if Archer was going to be a screwup for the rest of his life.
I poked my head out of the studio. My brother was indeed home, with some random twink on his arm. Typical. He was wearing some shorts that I had never seen before and a new pair of sandals. Half the time it seemed like he spent most of his paycheck on new clothes rather than real things, like bills. Archer and his friend were giggling and leaning on each other, running into the wall and swaying. Skipping work and drunk in the middle of the day. Fantastic. I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. Archer hadn’t noticed me until I spoke. Once he did, he made an exaggerated shushing noise and covered his lips with his finger. Then he rolled his eyes.
“We’d better be quiet. The fun police are home. Fuck, Asher, maybe we should just ship Mom down here. She can ground me when I don’t do what she wants.” Archer rolled his eyes again. Drinking buddy number ten for the month snorted and buried his face in Archer’s neck to laugh.
“I’m serious, Arch. Why aren’t you at work? Your shift isn’t over for hours.”
Archer coughed dramatically, trying not to laugh. “Well, you see, I woke up this morning and I just really felt sick—” Cough, cough. “—so I called Marcie and told her I needed to go to the doctor.” More laughing. I started to wonder if they were more than just drunk.
“And is this your doctor?” I gestured at gigglepants.
“Nah.” Archer held up a bottle that he’d had concealed behind his leg. “I saw Dr. Cuervo today. Cured me with just a couple shots.”
I groaned. “You’re an ass. Our rent is due in a week and a half.” I only made Archer pay a third of it, since I used the extra room anyway. Lots of months, I was lucky to get a quarter.
“Why don’t you take more nudie pics if you need the cash?” Archer’s lip curled. He knew I was embarrassed about that, and he still said it every damn time. I, who was thrilled that every single one of my twin’s dumb friends knew what I did for a living, shook my head and turned to go back into my studio.
“You coming out with us tonight?” Archer called, like I ever went out with Archer and his buddies. There was mocking in his voice, but only someone who knew him well would hear it. He was playing nice for whoever the twink on his arm was. Must be hoping to get laid.
“It’s Wednesday. I have to work tomorrow. So do you.” I shut the door to my studio on my brother’s mocking face and went over to the pile of mail I’d brought in earlier. Hopefully it would contain something that would make my day. I’d been applying at magazines for months, hoping to get that one break that would take me away from porn photography, from shooting guys in khakis for catalogs, the one that would make me a high fashion photographer… the kind who didn’t have to share an apartment with slobby Archer and his plethora of wayward friends.
There wasn’t anything. Of course. The only bright side to my day, if you could call it a bright side at all, was the fact that I’d made a new friend. Britney, real name Lizzy Shelton, from Sutton, Nebraska. We were going to have lunch in a couple of days, and we’d both agreed to talk about anything but porn. I hoped that having at least one real friend would save her from that look that I’d seen so many times—the dead, empty eyes with the fake smile, the smile that said “give me my money so I can get the fuck out of here.”
I’d seen too many girls die that way, alive but not really. There didn’t need to be another.