“THIS is like a slice of heaven, isn’t it?” Lil exclaimed, savoring the piece of strawberry cheesecake he’d just forked into his mouth. When he got no reply, he made a 180-degree turn to find Jody or Clark but realized that somehow they’d gotten separated again. Not surprising considering the amount of people who’d been crowding the Eli’s Cheesecake booth.
It had been like that most of the day, finding and losing each other in the crush of tourists and locals braving the heat and the lines at the annual Taste of Chicago. When Jody had suggested they attend, he’d warned Lil of the inconveniences, but also extolled the virtues of taking part in this annual Chicago tradition. Once a year, at the height of summer, thousands of Chicagoans and visitors from neighboring states made the trek to Grant Park for the largest food festival in the Midwest. Hundreds of vendors set up kiosks offering up a gastronomical overload of local specialties as well as the more exotic foods introduced by the diverse population of citizens who comprised the City of Chicago. It was a perfect opportunity to have a small or full-sized portion, depending on the appetite and the budget, as one traversed the endless aisles of tempting displays. Another great part of the festival, and equally as popular, was the music. Well-known singers and musicians appeared at the Petrillo Music Shell and other stages throughout the park for the entire ten days of the festival.
It was stinking hot, humid, loud, and so crowded it was easy to be carried along by the bodies that surged up and down the corridors like a human tidal wave. Lil had been adventurous, stuffing a wide variety of food into his tall, lanky body, which still retained a boyish quality in spite of his age. He’d had corn on the cob, a slice of pizza, Italian beef smothered in drippy juice, Korean bulgogi, Filipino eggrolls, and had even attempted a barbecued turkey leg, but ended up throwing most of it away in favor of the samosa that grabbed his attention as he passed an East Indian booth. He’d lingered at that location for a while, savoring the vegetable biryani and the chicken curry, enjoying the explosion of flavors as his taste buds were assaulted by the fiery spices.
Jody and Clark had kept up most of the time, but as they weaved in and out of the crowds, they’d lost each other, only to hook up again a few minutes later. Predictably, the couple showed up once more a few tables down.
“Aren’t you full yet?” Clark asked, watching Lil as he nibbled at another sample of chocolate cheesecake.
“I may puke any minute now,” he said, grimacing. “You’d think they’d have a tent for people to upchuck, or have an enema, so we could continue to stuff more food down our throats in a gluttonous loss of self-control.”
Jody reached over and tried to take the small plate away, but Lil protested, pulling his hand back. “Sweetie, stop! Who knows when I’ll get another chance like this?”
“You know you’re welcome to visit us anytime you want.”
“Jodes, the last time I was here, it was like the frozen tundra. I will never step foot in this town during the winter months, unless Clark’s in the Super Bowl, and you guys host.”
“Well, there’s always that possibility.”
“Look at this place,” Lil said, scanning the crowd. Most everyone was in some sort of undress in an effort to beat the sun’s unrelenting rays. Shorts, tanks, bikini tops, Daisy Dukes, and cutoffs were the chosen attire. “It’s hard to believe how cold it gets in the winter when you’re sweltering in this kind of heat.”
“I know,” Jody said, nodding, “another Midwestern delight. If you can’t stand the weather, stick around, ’cause it’ll change in an hour or so.”
“It’s not that unpredictable, is it, Clark?” Lil asked.
“It’s pretty fucked-up,” Clark pronounced. “The weather is the worst part about living here; I love everything else.”
“Well, I would hope so, seeing as how you signed on for another two years.”
“They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse,” Clark said with a grin. “Money aside, I like playing for the Bears, and Jo-Jo loves his job.”
“Yes, you’re both wallowing in contentment.”
Seeing Jody and his partner, Clark, the hunkiest athlete in the world, so content made Lil believe that love could conquer all. They’d traveled a hellish road to get to this happy place, but it had been worth every traumatic moment; after all they’d endured, the couple continued to be gay icons and poster boys for the power of love.
Lil and Jody had been roommates at Stanford and despite the vast differences in their personalities had become good friends. Jody was a shy and repressed newbie with practically zero experience being a gay man when Lil had first set eyes on him. They were like the odd couple: Jody was serious and driven, keeping a grueling schedule to attain his medical degree; Lil, although equally brilliant in his chosen field of architecture, knew how to have fun while striving for his personal goals. He was flamboyant and unabashedly gay, whereas Jody, although out, wasn’t in your face. They fed off their differences, bringing out the best in each other, and had remained good friends throughout college. Now, almost fifteen years later, they were as close as brothers.
Lil rejoiced in his friend’s happiness, but missed having him around. It hadn’t been quite the same since the couple had left the Bay Area two years ago to move to the Windy City after Clark landed the contract with the Chicago Bears. Lil visited as often as possible, but he was at the height of his career as well, having landed a lucrative deal with a premier builder from the East Bay. A customized Lampert blueprint was in big demand following his awards for excellence in the use of solar energy to heat and cool the mansions that dotted the hills of Danville, California. Lil’s business was thriving, and he didn’t have a lot of time to visit. On the personal front, he was still flying solo, having never found that special someone, and not for lack of trying. Love continued to elude the attractive brunet who’d been highlighting his hair for years, leaving him as blond as a Coppertone ad. It improved his overall appearance. Cornflower blue eyes and a golden tan completed the picture of the thriving Californian who still sparkled with a joie de vivre that hadn’t dimmed one iota, in spite of his age, a reality Lil had bemoaned as he blew out the thirty-seven candles on his birthday cake a few months ago.
“Oh, look, ice cream! Let’s have a cone or something,” Lil cajoled, grabbing Jody’s hand and pulling him along.
“Lil, I can’t possibly eat another thing,” Jody protested.
“Then wait here while I peruse, okay?”
“Sure, babe. Knock yourself out.”
Lil wiggled his way through the crowd, trying to get closer to the booth that was four people deep. Finally, his chest hit the wooden counter. He looked up at the menu and decided on a waffle cone filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with chocolate sauce.
“Can I help you?”
Lil took his eyes off the boards and was about to place his order when he came face to face with the voice and forgot what he was about to say. Standing in front of him was the most gorgeous man in the world, bar none. Holy shit!
“Er… do you serve vanilla?”
“Sure,” the guy said, smiling. The brunet had spiky hair and charcoal eyes, fringed by sooty curling lashes that were so thick they seemed false. His scruffy beard framed a luscious red mouth that practically screamed kiss me. He was wearing a wife-beater stretched tightly across the hard muscles of his impressive chest, but what really caught Lil’s attention was the tattoo that spilled down the man’s right arm, like a sleeve, in brilliant primary colors.
Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“You, anyway I can have it.” The words were out of Lil’s mouth before he could censor them.
The brunet laughed, showing off beautiful, white teeth improving an already perfect face. Lil’s pulse jumped, and his cock surged, definitely awakened by this gorgeous apparition.
“Do you want a cone?”
“Yes, please.” Lil was surprised he could even talk. His mouth felt like the Sahara at noon.
The hunk turned to get the cone and bent down to scoop out the ice cream, giving Lil a premier view of his backside. He was wearing white shorts—the logical choice to show off his tanned and shapely legs, not to mention the rounded ass that made Lil want to lean over the counter and take a bite out of each cheek. His legs were covered with a light layer of dark hair, very appealing to a man who had a thing for bears, or cubs, in this case.
“Here you go.” He passed the cone over to Lil. “Anything else I can get you?”
“I can always use a tour guide,” Lil said, grinning.
“Where are you from?”
“Cool,” the guy exclaimed, “I’ve always wanted to visit.”
“It’s a lovely city. Are you allowed to take a break? I can give you a virtual tour of my town.”
Ice Cream Boy glanced at his watch. “I’m actually due for a thirty-minute break very soon. Where would you like to meet?”
No kidding? NO KIDDING? “Umm, I’m with my friends over there.” Lil pointed at Jody and Clark.
“Isn’t that Stevens?”
“You know football?”
“Everyone in Chicago knows their Bears.”
“I suppose so. Why don’t you meet us over at the picnic area down yonder,” Lil said as he pointed in the general direction of the small grove of trees he’d spotted earlier.
“I can do that.”
“What’s your name?” Lil had to know.
The guy shrugged and rewarded him with another smile. “That’s my name; what’s yours?”
“Short for Lily?”
“Silly boy,” Lil said, laughing, loving his teasing smile. “It’s short for Lyndon Lyle Lampert, if you must know.”
“Such a mouthful.”
“Indeed,” Lil replied. God, he’s gorgeous!
Lil made his way back to his friends, who’d been observing the mating game.
“Caught a twink?” Jody asked, noting Lil’s enthusiastic smile.
“I don’t think he qualifies as a catch, Jodes. Let’s just consider this a nibble.”
“You may take this Taste of Chicago to a whole new level,” Clark interjected.
“And how is that wrong?”
“Not wrong, Lil. Just be careful,” Clark said. “You know nothing about that guy.”
“And he knows nothing about me,” Lil countered, “yet he’s willing to take his chances and join us for a few minutes.”
“Come on, let’s try and find some shade,” Clark said. His normally golden skin was showing some signs of sunburn after so many hours of exposure. They found a spot underneath a large tree, recently vacated by a family of five who were kind enough to leave them their blanket, thereby saving their place.
Lil threw himself beside his two buddies, who’d stretched out happily. “This is the life,” he said, folding his arms underneath his head. “Who knew you had such gorgeous men in this town?”
“We aim to please,” Jody deadpanned.
“So please aim,” Clark threw out, ducking when Lil tried to cuff him.
“Who said anything about doing the nasty? We’re going to talk.”
Jody glanced at his watch. “I’ll wager that by this time tomorrow you’ll have him in the sack.”
“From your mouth to God’s ear.”
“I don’t know anything about God’s ear. I believe in your supreme powers of seduction,” Jody said with a laugh.
“I don’t know, Jodes. I’m not a young ’un no more.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. You’re thirty-seven with the body of a twenty-seven-year-old, although you look better now than you did ten years ago. You’ve filled out and don’t look so scrawny.”
“Listen to you.” Lil flipped over onto his stomach and pushed up on his elbows, looking down at his friend. “I’m talking about my state of mind, Jody. I’m not into one-nighters anymore.”
“Since I realized it’s so pointless. I’m not going to find the man of my dreams by commando dating. Quick in and quick out doesn’t make for the best backdrop to a fairy-tale ending.”
“You still believe in that?” Clark asked seriously. “I thought you were more jaded.”
“After watching your story unfold, it’s hard not to believe in love,” Lil said.
“I’ll cross my fingers for you, Lil. You deserve to find the right guy, although I doubt that Ice Cream Boy is the one.”
Lil broke out in a self-conscious laugh. “He’s absolutely delicious, though.”
“I’ll give him that much,” Clark agreed.
Jody jabbed Clark’s rib cage with a sharp elbow. “Ow. I’m only making a statement, Jo.”
“You were ogling him.”
“Was too,” Jody teased, “but I’ll give you a pass this time; he’s fucking hot.”
“You guys, shut up. He’s walking this way.”
All three men turned to watch Grier approach. It was like watching an advertisement for body-building supplements. Grier was perfect, as tall as a ramp model, easily six-three, and just as graceful. He smiled at a couple of people he recognized, stopping to chat briefly before breaking away and resuming his walk toward Lil and his friends on the blanket. Grier appeared relaxed and unaffected by the stir he created as men and women followed his progress across the grassy area. Lil couldn’t keep his eyes off him, even though he had serious doubts about asking Grier to join them. He knew nothing about the boy, and yes, he did consider him a boy, although he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-two or twenty-four. Nonetheless, he was way too young for Lil, an improbable hookup, and a total waste of time since nothing could come of this.
“Hi there, Lyndon Lyle Lampert,” Grier joked, in a throaty voice, as sexy as his body. He flopped down on the blanket, and every one of Lil’s objections was trumped by the sight of that gorgeous smile.
“Hi, yourself,” Lil echoed. “Let me introduce you to my friends. This is Jody Williams, and of course, his famous partner, Clark Stevens.”
“Hey,” Grier said, nodding, “nice to meet you. I’m a big fan, Clark.”
“You like football?”
“Doesn’t everyone?” Grier asked.
“Not everyone,” Jody grumbled. “There are some of us who are more cerebral.”
Clark kissed him quickly on the mouth. “You’re just jealous ’cause it takes me away from you.”
“Duh… it’s rather difficult to compete with a national pastime.”
“Are you feeling deprived, Jo-Jo?” Clark teased lovingly.
“I can honestly say that I’m not deprived in the least bit.”
“I should hope not,” Clark parried, “especially after this morning.”
“Okay, guys,” Lil interjected. “If you’re going to share, let’s hear the salacious details.”
Jody covered Clark’s mouth. “Not another word.”
Grier observed the easy exchange between the famous couple then turned to Lil, who was staring at him blatantly. “Do you like football?”
“Honey, I love football for all the right reasons, and some of the wrong ones.”
“Let me guess.” Grier lifted his hand and ticked off an imaginary list. “One: tight pants. Two: tighter tops. And three: luscious biceps.”
“Stop.” Lil laughed. “I really do like the sport, and the hunks are just a bonus.”
“You enjoy football, or you’re just saying that to appease Clark?” Grier appeared genuinely surprised that Lil was interested in sports.
“He not only likes it, he can rattle off stats like any sportscaster,” Clark boasted, supporting Lil’s statement.
“Some of us Nellys do enjoy manly things, you know.”
“Who’s calling you a Nelly?”
“Isn’t that what you’re implying?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Is that so?”
Grier’s eyes traveled up and down Lil’s body with interest, and the blond returned the bold look with an equally heated gaze. In fact, their chemistry was so powerful, it affected Jody, who was watching the whole scene play out. He stood immediately, hauling Clark off the blanket.
“Where are we going?” Clark’s aquamarine eyes rounded in surprise.
“I have this craving for a funnel cake,” Jody threw out.
“You hate sweets,” Clark argued.
“Not anymore.” Jody glared and inclined his head in the direction of the seated men who hadn’t taken their eyes off each other.
“We’ll be back in about thirty minutes,” Jody said.
“Take your time,” Lil muttered.
“Thanks for sharing your blanket,” Grier said, smoothing out the area that Clark and Jody had vacated.
“It’s not ours,” Lil replied. “We’re squatting.”
Grier grinned. “Well, thanks for letting me squat with you. Any kind of shade around here is a blessing.”
“Do you own the ice cream you’re peddling?”
“Hell no,” Grier laughed. “I’m helping out a friend.”
“Is he a friend with privileges?” Lil asked.
“No,” Grier smiled. “Jake and I went to school together. We’re practically brothers.”
“Have you volunteered for the entire ten days?”
“As many of them as I can. I do have to earn a living, and he understands that, but fortunately, I’m on call this week, so there’s leeway.”
“What do you do?”
“It’s a shit job.”
“What is it?”
“I move furniture.”
“Is this an interim thing? Are you in college?”
“Let’s not talk about me, okay? How long are you going to be in town?”
“I just got here yesterday, so another six days.”
“What do you do in the real world?”
“I’m an architect.”
Grier whistled. “Well, you’ve come to the right city. Have you ever taken the architectural boat tour?”
“No, what is it?”
“It’s a leisurely boat ride up and down the Chicago River and a great way to see the architectural landmarks. I’m surprised your friends haven’t suggested it.”
“The last time I was here it was snowing; I’m assuming the boat tour wasn’t an option then.”
“You really should go, considering what you do. Why don’t we go tomorrow?”
“Sure, if you’d like my company?”
I’d love it. “That would be very nice.”
“Good, that’s settled,” Grier pronounced. “Tell me about Jody. Is he always so serious?”
“He’s a trauma doctor, so yeah, a bit more intense than either Clark or me,” Lil explained, “but he’s a great guy, and he does have a good sense of humor once you get past that solemn exterior.”
“Well, that’s a relief. I thought he didn’t like me.”
“Sweetie,” Lil replied, touching Grier’s arm tentatively. “What’s not to like?”
Grier responded with a thousand-watt smile that melted Lil’s resolve to be cautious and not jump in feet-first. Every single vibe he was getting was positive, and he decided to trust his instincts, which were usually pretty reliable.
“Jody’s the one, isn’t he?”
“You know?the dramatic news broadcast.”
“That must have been difficult on everyone.”
“You don’t know the half of it, hon.”
“I think it’s romantic as fuck.”
“You and a million other gay men.”
“And not so gay. I have straight friends who idolize Clark for being so forthcoming.”
“Well, it was a struggle, believe me.”
“But so worth it, right?”
“Now I’m the one making a judgment,” Lil said. “I would have never guessed that you’re such a romantic.”
“’Cause I look like an inked-up badass?”
“Let’s not forget the three studs in your left ear. What are they?”
“At least you’re a badass with good taste,” Lil joked.
“I happen to have very good taste,” Grier said. “And I think body art is beautiful if it’s done right.”
“Your sleeve is unusual.” Lil reached out and traced the design with a gentle hand. “I love the colors; the blues and reds are so vibrant, and these stars that trail off like this.” Lil’s hand moved past Grier’s arm to rest lightly on Grier’s chest, just where the last of the blue stars disappeared into his wife-beater. “Are there more?” Touching Grier’s body, however innocently, had sparked the desire that had been lying dormant underneath the pretext of friendly conversation. Time stood still as they searched each other’s eyes for some hint of what was happening. Grier held Lil’s hand against his heart, and he felt it thumping wildly.
“There are a few more stars in strategic places,” Grier whispered.
Oh, God. “I’ll keep an open mind about tattoos from now on.”
Grier took a ragged breath and pulled away reluctantly. “Listen, I’ve got to get back.”
“I understand. How do we get together for the boat tour?”
“Meet me at the dock tomorrow at around eleven. You can get all the info on the City of Chicago website. We’ll have lunch afterward.”
“You’re not a Nelly,” Grier said, alighting on Lil’s mouth like a hummingbird, dipping in for a sugary kiss. Lil opened to the surprisingly gentle touch and sighed when he felt Grier’s tongue tracing his lips.
“Tomorrow?” Grier confirmed.
Lil was blindsided by the kiss and struggled to find his voice. “Yes.”
Lil watched him walk away, studying Grier’s backside, which was just as amazing as his front. His torso was the classic V-shaped testament to hours of lifting weights, and now that he knew what the kid did on the side, he supposed his physique was due in large part to his job. Grier had never answered the question as to whether or not he was in college, but Lil hoped to learn more about the young man on their outing tomorrow, if he even showed up. The probability was low, considering they hadn’t even exchanged phone numbers, but there was something about Grier that led him to believe he’d be there. Lil hoped he’d have the opportunity to find out if his instincts were correct or not. Although Grier was certainly easy on the eyes, it would be great if he had a little more substance behind that beautiful façade. Lil observed him glance at his watch, and pick up his stride, almost as if he was going to be docked for being late, which was hard to comprehend, given what he’d been told. He was volunteering his time and surely entitled to be a few minutes late.