667, 668, 669….
A file slapped the desk in front of James, distracting him from his attempt at counting the dots in the ceiling tiles above him.
“I know you’re busy and all,” Brian said, his usual sneer in place. “But do you think you’ll have time to help a new client?” The man just lived to give him a hard time.
James took a deep breath. He desperately hoped his hatred of the man towering over him didn’t show. James knew open displays of boredom pissed Brian off, but James hadn’t had a prospective or existing client call in two days. He’d finished his purchasing reports, sent the work orders and e-mail. All calls done. What else was he supposed to do?
“Sure, Brian. Let me see what we’ve got, and I’ll head right out,” James replied. He tried to sound upbeat. It wasn’t that he didn’t like his job; he did. But Brian hated him, and he always got the leftovers—usually clients the other designers did not want for one reason or another.
“I’m sure this one’s right up your—” Cough. “—alley,” Brian finished with a snicker.
James never figured out how someone so hateful and narrow-minded as Brian stood working in their field, much less kept his job. In James’s opinion, art, even corporate branding and design, should attract people with a bit more open-mindedness. He had a few ideas on the latter but kept his opinions, and gutter-mind, to himself.
Forcing a smile across his face as he opened the folder in front of him, James called out to Brian’s retreating form, “No worries, boss.”
Brian paused and turned to look over his shoulder and with a nasty smile added, “Oh, and the guy’ll be here in about ten minutes. Don’t screw up.”
Ten minutes? Seriously?
He started to peruse the new client information, pleased that at least the file seemed to be complete—charts, images, budget, etc.—and his phone rang. He answered on the second ring. “Good morning, James Bryant speaking.”
“Ah, Jamie, got the file yet? ’Cuz let me tell you, this one’s something else” came the disembodied voice of his best friend and co-worker, Chase Manning. “He’s not like most of the scraps Brian-the-dick tosses you.”
“I’m sure I can handle whatever he sends my way. The clients aren’t usually as difficult as Brian and the others make them seem. They just don’t want to deal with high maintenance or quirky. Which, when you consider the job, makes no sense. But—”
“Jamie, dear,” Chase said, cutting him off. “That’s not it at all. This guy’s hot, and I mean H-O-T, hot. He’s waiting for you already and man, I so wish I had your job today,” he practically squealed. “So hurry up and get your sexy ass down here. Now.”
“Shh…. Don’t be so loud. The last thing I need is you to offend a new client. Now, go back to work and let me read over the file, would ya?” He shook his head and clicked off his Bluetooth. James glanced over the information for his new client. Seth Burns? Carl, their senior manager, had been trying to get Mr. Burns of Carrington Enterprises as a client for years. Wonder what he’s looking for and how this project slipped past Brian to me?
Setting it aside, James pulled out his messenger bag and loaded it with the folder. He already had all his staples in there: pens, pencils, a notebook or two, and a couple of sketch pads. He carefully hung it across his neck and shoulder so the bag wouldn’t slip. He preferred his backpack, but his boss frowned on “casual.” James gathered his forearm crutches, the plain black ones he only used for work, and he began the arduous task of getting up before he slipped his arms through the cuffs.
Once satisfied he wasn’t forgetting anything, James slung himself down the hall to the elevator, where he waited. He hated standing there, given Brian’s office faced the hall.
When James reached the main floor, Chase seemed to vibrate as he waited for him. His face reminded James of a child at Disney World instead of the twenty-five-year-old man he actually was.
“Do you want to meet with him down here in one of the conference rooms?” Chase pleaded, batting his eyes for full effect. He knew better than to act like that, but, oh well.
“Relax, Chase,” James said with a smile. Chase, his sometimes assistant and best friend, always worried about James walking too much, but then he never managed to understand the idea of limitations versus inability. James could walk, though he couldn’t walk far or carry much of anything. He simply needed his crutches. Limitations James loathed but had learned to accept.
“I just hate you traipsing up and down the halls. I wish—”
“Don’t,” James snapped harder than he’d meant to. “Sorry. You know I appreciate your concern, but I’m a big boy and can manage fine. Now, go back to your desk and do your job so I can do mine.”
With a huff, Chase flounced back to his desk. “Fine,” he called over his shoulder. “Be that way.”
James ignored him and pushed on, maneuvering himself around to reception to meet his new client.
He looked around and nearly gasped. The only man sitting in the waiting area was… beautiful. There was no other way to describe him. Dark hair, a straight, aristocratic nose, and a full, pouty bottom lip. And built? He wasn’t bulky but smooth and toned. The kind of body that comes from serious work and forethought.
Yummy, James thought but quickly corrected his wayward mind. He’s here for my work services, not me. At twenty-eight, he had already given up on finding his prince. He didn’t even bother trying anymore. He knew he was a good-looking man—having been told so many times over the years—but Victor, his ex, had taught him that he was too much trouble for a real relationship. Not like anyone asked him out since the accident and the stupid sticks, anyways. Focus on the job!
The man rose and held out his hand. “Mr. Bryant, I presume.”
“Yes, and you’re Seth Burns, correct?” James replied, pausing in his motions to take the crutch from his right hand and offer it in return for the handshake.
Seth nodded, a bright smile stretched across his perfect face.
“Wonderful,” James said. “I apologize for the wait. Now, if you would come with me. I’d like to discuss what you’re looking for, and what I can do for you.” James readjusted his crutches, turned, and headed toward the conference room he used on the first floor.
As they approached the door, James grabbed for the handle. Humph. Seth beat him to it, pushing the door open. Once the initial surprise died, he was left wondering why Mr. Burns had done that—no one but Chase helped him at the office. The only other time anyone helped was out of pity. He hated pity.
“Um, thanks,” he mumbled, trying to sound grateful instead of mildly annoyed.
“You seemed to have your hands full and mine weren’t,” Seth said with a shrug.
James knew his hands were full, but they always were. He hated being viewed as less of a man, or a cripple, because of the sticks he used to help him walk.
“Right, thank you,” he said, sliding into one of the rolling leather chairs at the back of the long cherrywood table. He placed his crutches against the closest wall for easy retrieval.
James gestured to the chair across the conference table and hoped Seth would sit. He hated to be stood over. Seth smiled and settled into the chair indicated. “Now, what can I do for you, sir?”
“We, Carrington Enterprises, are beginning a new venture and hope you can help with designs. Companies I can manage; design and draw, not so much.”
James nodded at Seth’s pause.
“Let me start by explaining the project you will brand. We’re opening a new hotel chain. This will be a little different than your usual hotel, though. Each site will be more like a large bed and breakfast, but they will cater to the GLBT community. It’s often an issue when a couple wants to vacation. They have to consider the area, the hotel, the other patrons even if they want to do something as simple as hold hands. That is, if they don’t want to be met with hate or possible violence.”
James wasn’t sure which impressed him more, the wonderful idea behind the hotel or the deep, commanding voice that instilled confidence in everything Seth said.
Obviously unaware of James’s internal dialog, Seth continued his spiel. “With our liberal policies and views, we have decided to make a place where judgment doesn’t exist. At least, that’s the theory.”
God, that voice! James shivered.
“Also, each site will have a club, bar, or restaurant attached. So, this will be an ongoing project, not a one-shot deal.” When finished with his little speech, Seth seemed inordinately pleased with the idea.
No wonder Brian gave me the account. He didn’t realize he had spoken aloud until Seth glowered at him.
“Excuse me?” Seth snapped. “I was assured you have no personal issues or biases that might hinder your ability to provide the needed work. Was I incorrectly informed?”
“No. No, sir. I apologize for my comment. It was out of line,” James said in a rush, trying to smooth over the obvious irritation his thoughtless words had caused.
“Are you able to do the branding or should I continue elsewhere?” Seth demanded.
“You misunderstand, Mr. Burns. I had wondered why I was given your account, considering I’m not one of the senior designers and your account would normally be reserved for one of them. Now that I hear what the project is, I understand why I was chosen.” He knew he was babbling but he couldn’t help it. “You see, I’m the only openly gay designer here and my family runs a small bed and breakfast. This project is perfect. In fact, once we have the branding set up, I’m sure I can point you in the right direction for some specialized marketing. Magazines, newspapers, websites, et cetera. We will help you with all of that, as well.” James tried to restrain the extent of his excitement over the project, but was unsure how successful he was. He didn’t want to seem flippant or inexperienced after admitting he was a junior designer with Skye Designs.
Seth raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Excited, are we? Carl said you were the man for the job. I guess he was right if enthusiasm counts. I have a full write-up of what we need and what we do and do not want to incorporate into the brand.” His smile fell and he became all business again. “This is an upscale getaway, not a high-priced bathhouse.”
“Understood, sir. I think the idea will work in areas with a large enough population of GLBT and open-minded people.” His hands itched to begin sketching and planning.
“Good. Once you’ve read over everything and start your designing, I want you to visit the site we chose for the first hotel. It’s here in Milwaukee, so it shouldn’t be too far for you. Would you be ready by Friday?” At James’s accord, Seth opened his briefcase and began pulling out folders and large manila envelopes and setting them in front of James. He paused, peered up at James, and blinked hard. “I should call someone to carry these things for you,” he mumbled, glancing at the items and toward James’s crutches. “You can’t fit all this in your bag.”
James pinched the bridge of his nose while counting to ten in his head. Why do they always see the sticks instead of me? “Mr. Burns.”
“Seth, please,” he interrupted, giving James a soft smile.
“Seth, Chase acts as my assistant when needed. He will tend to anything I can’t transfer up to my office personally. There is no need to be concerned.”
A strange look flashed across Seth’s face, but his expression quickly returned to his previous in-command smile. “Very good then.”
They chatted a bit about ideas and plans before Seth shifted his coat sleeve back to check his watch. With a slight frown, he said, “Well, I need to head back to the office. I will leave this all in your fine hands, James. Please call me here.” He pulled out his business card and wrote something on the back. “I look forward to our next meeting.”
Seth held out his hand. James flexed his fingers and clasped the offering. He knew this was for work, but somehow it felt different this time. Warm and strong, the grip shot tingles up his arm. Seth seemed to hold on a little longer than necessary for business needs. It had been so long since a man touched him, at least without violence or pain. James shook off the thought he might be interested. Beautiful men like Seth didn’t waste their time on guys like him. Besides, he wasn’t certain he wanted to go down such a painful road again.
James stood in the doorway, watching Seth saunter out the main doors, wishing for something, though not really sure what.
“So,” Chase said, bounding into the room. “Is he hot, or is he hot?”
“Hot? Yes. But, he’s also my new client and I’m not positive he’s gay. Even if he is, he’s probably taken. Men like him don’t stay single for long. Anyways, help me get all this upstairs. I need to get started. He wants me to visit the local site this Friday.”
DRIVING through the morning fog, James headed to the hotel construction site. Seth had assured him it was almost completed and was safe to visit. James pulled in and parked up front, then grabbed his backpack—the one he used outside the office to carry items—off the passenger seat. James slung the pack onto his back. He set his sticks in the gravel of the parking area, climbed out of his blue CRV, and headed up the wide, stonework stairs to the main entrance of the soon-to-be hotel. Hate stairs, he sulked. The ramp wasn’t finished yet.
Once he entered the foyer, James allowed his gaze to wander around the entryway, taking in the welcoming setting. Noticing a worker passing through, he asked, “Excuse me. Do you know where I can find Mr. Burns?”
“Yeah, he’s in the manager’s office over there.” The man was covered in dust. He gestured toward a closed door near a large desk, then continued on his way. James couldn’t help looking around once more to admire the rich wood tones, marble tiled floors, and beautiful crown molding, before he headed off in the right direction.
Before he could knock, the door swung open and a harried-looking woman stormed out, slamming it so hard it popped back open. Maybe now isn’t the best time, he thought and started to turn away when Mr. Burns appeared in the doorway.
“James,” he said. “Thank God you’re here. Please tell me you brought some ideas, before Stacey drives me to drink. She wants to start painting but can’t until we have everything settled with the designs.”
The way Seth’s eyes pierced him made James feel both nervous and ten feet tall at the same time. “If you have some place I can set up, sure. I have a few designs for you to look over.” He kept wondering why they had waited so long to employ Skye Designs. Normally you do all the branding much earlier in the project.
Motioning down the hallway, Seth led him into a large room—probably meant to be a conference or reception room, considering the carpet and acoustic tiles in the ceiling. “Come in. What can I do to help?” he asked, watching James settle into a comfortable chair before unloading his pack.
James was nervous. He’d never had such a significant or large account before, but he was excited as well. “We normally have the designs approved before getting to this point, but I’ll do my best to catch up. Give me just a minute to set up, then you can see what I have.”
“We’ll get to that in a few. I want you to finish setting up then come with me.”
James stopped midmotion and looked up, confused. “I thought—” He shook his head. “Never mind. Okay.”
Seth led James out of the room, into a wide hallway with large windows spilling filtered sunlight onto the veined marble floor, and began showing him around. Seth stayed close, so close James occasionally caught a whiff of his intoxicating scent, something bright yet deep—cardamom and cedar with a light musk. He wasn’t sure, but he was beginning to think just being near Seth could become a delicious addiction.
As they exited the elevator on the second floor, James stopped dead in his tracks. His heart beat so fast and loud he felt certain Seth would hear it slamming into his ribs. He stared ahead and prayed he was having a terrible nightmare. Those he could wake up from. Please!
Standing there, looking him up and down, was a phantom from his past. Victor d’Leone was even more powerfully built than the last time he had seen him. He stood in the hall, his arms crossed over his barrel chest, scowling. The sea-foam green eyes James once thought so beautiful and loving now bored holes through him. The ghosts of the last time Vic had been near him shot pain-filled shards of memory through him. Away. Yes, he had to get away.
“I… I… I…,” James stammered. He scrambled back into the elevator and almost fell when his left crutch slipped on the metal edging. He punched the close door button repeatedly while fighting the panic attack threatening to destroy his job and sanity. “No, no, no. Not happening,” he mumbled.
He hadn’t waited for Seth to react, nor had he explained anything; he’d just bolted. James headed toward the exit as soon as the elevator doors opened—forget the damn presentation. He scrambled for the steps, desperate to reach the car before he completely lost it.
Life was never that easy.
Seth appeared out of nowhere, sprinting after him in his expensive Armani suit and custom leather shoes. “James! Stop!” he commanded.
Fighting the panic, James tried to get a hold of himself. Stop? Is he nuts? “I can’t be here. I—I’ll come back later.” With protection!
A powerful hand grasped his right arm. Startled, he stopped. Staring at the hand that bound him to his worst nightmare, he begged, “Please, let me go.”
Try as he might, he couldn’t stop the panic and fear as it suffocated him.