“WHAT THE fuck?” Fabio Bonardi stared at his reflection in abject horror. It might have been a fairly low-quality hotel mirror and his eyes didn’t quite want to open yet, but even at five in the morning, he was awake enough to recognize a catastrophe when he saw it.
There, in the corner of his left eye, was unmistakable evidence he was getting old. Shit! Of all the things that could go wrong just before an early morning shoot, finding his first wrinkle was…. Hell, it wasn’t even on the damned list! He closed his eyes. Maybe this was a nightmare. Surely at twenty-eight, with the careful—not to say paranoid—way he took care of his skin, there was no way wrinkles would have a chance. Seconds later, not able to wait any longer despite his fear, he opened his eyes again. Damn! The thing hadn’t disappeared.
Fabio bent forward and stretched his skin, hoping it might magically spring back into its previous unwrinkled shape when he let go. Weren’t Mediterranean genes supposed to help you look younger? Apparently his luck had run out. The wrinkle was still there, and not even his otherwise blemish-free olive skin could hide it.
“Double fuck!” Fabio hit the marble basin with enough force for pain to race up his arm. “Ouch.” Talk about adding injury to insult. Or was that the other way around? He shook his head as he looked for his special moisturizer. It would have to do until Adair could work his magic. He was the best damned makeup artist in the whole business and almost reason enough to like coming to New York for a shoot. Almost.
Going through the motions of getting ready for a five-thirty pickup to the studio, Fabio let his mind wander. He’d always known this day would come. Taking care of the money he made, carefully investing it so it would be there once nobody wanted to hire him any longer, was second nature to him. He’d amassed a nice nest egg, and it looked as though it was time to use it to set Plan B into motion.
With a last admiring look at the figure he cut with his broad shoulders, narrow hips, and long legs, he left the hotel bathroom to get dressed in client-supplied underwear, blue jeans, and one of his oldest and most comfortable sweatshirts. Packing barely took five minutes because he only needed to make sure his stuff was in his carry-on, not think about what to take. He hated traveling with a lot of baggage, and he didn’t need a big wardrobe when he posed for fashion shoots all day, only to return to the hotel late at night for a quick salad before he dropped into bed.
The glamour of modeling? A total myth. Inexperienced guys might fall for it, but he’d been at this for ten years and knew better. Paris, Milan, and New York were good places to have on his resume, sure, but they weren’t any more fun on his sort of schedule than Timbuktu or Hicksville, Tennessee, might be. Not that he’d ever been to either of those places.
With the last shirt stuffed into the duffel, closely followed by his two bags of toiletries, Fabio closed the bag, picked it up, and left his room. He’d already checked his e-mail—five of them stalkerish in tone from people he didn’t know—updated his Facebook status, and sent a few tweets to fans who’d contacted him, so he was good to go. It was time to face today’s music. He sighed as he waited for the elevator to make it to the twenty-second floor to pick him up. He was so hungry, but breakfast was out of the question. So were most other meals. Fabio needed his figure to be perfect, now more than ever. He’d work out later in the day if he was lucky and would allow himself some food, maybe a dreaded salad and some chicken once he was done.
Checking out of the hotel consisted of dropping off his key; the agency that had organized the shoot would take care of the bill. The cute little guy working at reception gave him a radiant smile, and he grinned back. There was little harm in being friendly to someone he’d never see again and who couldn’t bother him with any requests for an autograph, or his picture to be taken next to the “famous Alessandro”—the professional name he used to gain some distance from his public persona. Fabio walked away with a little wave of his hand that made the receptionist blush redder than the plush crimson carpet on the floor of the hotel’s entrance hall.
“Good morning, sir.” The uniformed driver of the limo opened the door for him with the same cheerful efficiency as he’d shown the last two mornings. He was clearly more awake than Fabio.
“Morning.” God, he needed coffee so badly. His head was going to kill him if he didn’t get his next ration of caffeine soon. The coffee in his hotel room had been good but only a start as far as he was concerned.
He entered the dark blue limo, sinking into the leather seats while the driver closed the door, slid behind the wheel, and made his way into the early morning traffic. At least Fabio was ranked high enough on the global list of top models to be given his own car, so he had another twenty minutes or so to close his eyes and doze.
No sleep would come.
He pulled his iPhone from his pocket and composed an e-mail to his personal assistant. Lisa Ferro lived in LA and hadn’t come with him this time, since it was only a three-day shoot for an underwear manufacturer he’d worked for before. He hadn’t expected to need her help during this trip. Now he sent a message for her to research financial and small-business consultants. He knew what Plan B was, but he could do with some assistance around the details. Lisa was just the woman to find him what he required.
“We’re here, sir.” The driver’s voice returned Fabio to reality, and he nodded his thanks before leaving the car.
The chaos once Fabio entered the huge studio on the second floor was reassuringly familiar. He’d seen a few remodeled warehouses in his career, but this was one of the biggest. Instead of putting up separation walls to give the areas various identities and make each corner seem different, the architect had kept it all open, with only the occasional supporting wrought iron pillar to break up the space. There was a catering area to Fabio’s right with tables stretching out along half the wall. The makeup and changing areas were in the back and included both corners, and there was a rest area for the models against the left wall. The corner to his left and most of the area in the center of the room was set up with various groupings of furniture, lighting screens, cameras, and assistants with notepads running around like headless chickens.
Most of the other models were already there, gossiping as they pretended to rest and providing the ever-present buzz any fashion shoot worth its name created over time. They waited for their turn in makeup, and those who weren’t online used various types of smartphone to stay in touch with their fans. All of them were drinking what must be vegetable juices and herbal teas. Most of them were sipping water and looked famished as they glared at the tempting donuts and pastries on the long buffet table. None of the goodies were for them, but the equipment guys, lighting people, and various clothing assistants all wanted to eat. Nobody cared what sort of cravings seeing and smelling all that food created for the ever-hungry models.
Coffee was also available, and Fabio made a beeline for it. At least it was good quality. Harlan Cery, one of his favorite photographers, knew him and his preferences well and always made sure the locally provided juice of the gods was high quality. Never mind that some health nuts said it was bad for the skin. Fabio needed caffeine even more than to be wrinkle free, and that was saying something!
Where was Harlan, anyway? Fabio shook his head, remembering it was probably too early for the photographer who saw himself as an artist and enjoyed being eccentric. He was sure to appear at some point—Harlan was nothing if not professional. Fabio took a small cup of coffee and sank into one of the easy chairs in the waiting area at the back, sitting as far away from the other models as possible. None of them were in his league, so there was nothing to be gained by pretending to be friendly. That was all it could ever be between rivals who’d fight each other to the death to get the better shoot, the more famous photographer, or the more up-and-coming client. Fabio snorted, quickly covering up the sound with a cough. Everything in the business was so damned artificial, it wasn’t funny, but there was no point fighting it.
A few odd glances from the other models later, he had finished his coffee and started looking around to see where Adair might be lurking. After all, there was no point in facing Harlan until Adair had seen to Fabio’s new disfigurement. That thought made him sit up.
Disfigurement? A wrinkle? Now that he was fully awake and caffeinated, his reaction seemed overly dramatic. It wasn’t as if he had a damned scar like that kid had gotten a few years back. What was his name? Kyle something? The poor guy had only been eighteen when he was in a horrible car accident, and he’d vanished from the scene faster than a photographer could press the releaser. Rumor had it the damage to his face was extensive, and he’d certainly never appeared on the cover of another magazine.
Fabio shuddered. Now, that was a real problem. He wasn’t quite there yet, thank God, but the writing was on the wall, or in the mirror, since his horrible discovery this morning. He couldn’t wait to hear from Lisa. Plan B was suddenly a true priority.
“Ah, there you are.” Xavier, Harlan’s newest assistant, smiled and showed off a row of perfect white teeth. “Adair needs you in makeup straight away. Your first session isn’t until eight, but they want to do some test shots with you at seven.”
“Sure.” Fabio rose from his chair and followed the little guy into the back section. Where did Harlan find these eager little college kids? The photographer went through them at an alarming rate, none quite good enough to stay on, but there was always the next one to take the fired one’s place. Maybe there was a nest of them somewhere around here. The thought made him chuckle as he entered Adair’s domain.
“Someone is in a good mood today.” Adair stood with his hands on his hips, his jean shorts barely protecting his modesty, and the holey T-shirt giving everyone who cared to look a great view of lots of upper-body skin. His hair was as unkempt as ever, but his eyeliner, mascara, and foundation were immaculate. A dusky rouge accentuated his steel-gray eyes today, and the lip gloss was outrageously shiny. Adair looked good enough to be on a magazine cover himself.
“Not really.” Fabio shook his head as he took a seat in front of the mirror. “Just no longer a totally foul one.”
“Oh? Tell me more.” Adair shook out a protective cape and placed it around Fabio’s shoulders. “We haven’t had any good gossip all morning.”
“Well, this one is highly confidential.” Fabio frowned at Adair, quickly smoothing his face back into a bland nonexpression when Adair tsked at him. Right, he didn’t need more wrinkles. “Top secret in fact.”
“Classified enough that you’d have to shoot me if anything leaked?” Adair looked delighted, eyes bright with joy. “I’ve always wanted to know one of those.”
“I bet.” Fabio sighed and sat back, trying to relax and failing abysmally.
“So, tell me already.” Adair bent forward until one ear was at Fabio’s mouth. “Come on, inquiring makeup artists want to know.”
Fabio shook his head.
“What?” Adair stepped back and pouted. “Not fair.”
Fabio silently pointed to the area to the left of his eye where he knew the offending wrinkle to be. He couldn’t even bear to watch his face in the mirror. His looks were all he had. How the hell was he going to make significant money without them? He might have a plan for what to do next, but fuck if he knew whether it was going to work. He needed an appointment with a financial and business wizard as soon as possible. Yesterday would be good.
“No!” Adair’s gasp was loud enough for several of the assistants and other models to turn their heads.
Fabio hid his face in his hands. More attention. So not what he needed. Normally he craved it but not with a serious weakness exposed for all to see. Ridicule and bullying were sure to follow. He remembered those awful days in kindergarten and elementary school when he was fat and ugly. The kids had been merciless. His parents had shrugged and told him the other kids were right, he was a disgrace to the family. He’d almost starved himself to lose weight, but all they’d said was he shouldn’t have gotten fat in the first place. All of that had happened before he was ten, but he remembered it as if it had been yesterday.
“Honey, I am so sorry.” Adair had gone straight into his fluttering state. He rushed around the room to collect different products, some brushes, and other tools of his trade, before he returned to Fabio. “I’ll make it go away. Don’t you worry.”
“Permanently?” It was too much to hope for, but he suddenly wanted Adair to be a miracle worker.
“Sorry, sweetie, no can do.” Adair took Fabio’s chin in one hand and tilted his head this way and that. “I can hide it very effectively for a few more months, maybe, but only Botox or laser therapy or something similar can completely remove it.”
“Shit!” Fabio’s voice was way too loud, and a few grins were sent his way before the two other models being powdered looked away. Man, people are nosy around here.
“I agree.” Adair picked some foundation and started applying it across Fabio’s face. “It’ll be expensive, but it can be done.”
“No. Can’t do it.” Fabio couldn’t even think about it without his stomach turning.
“What do you mean ‘no’?” Adair paused for a second before returning to his task. “They’re getting very good at this stuff.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about. Well, not entirely.” Fabio shook as goose bumps appeared all over his body.
Adair looked at him with his “come on, give it up” expression, and Fabio had no choice but to tell him. After all, he might still need the man’s advice to find a less invasive method for ironing out this wrinkle.
“Well?” Adair stopped working and leaned back, making Fabio decidedly uncomfortable.
“I have a fear of needles….” Anything doctor- or medical-related, in fact. He didn’t know what had caused it, but it had been this way ever since he could remember, so it must be due to something that happened when he was extremely young.
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry to hear that.” Adair squeezed his shoulder. “Have you tried therapy?”
“It didn’t help?” Adair shook his head. “Must be really bad.”
Fabio nodded again. Even his wrinkle and its message about aging weren’t scary enough to get him to revise his belief about the medical profession. He knew it was stupid, but he’d rather accept the wrinkles and have to implement plan B than subject himself to a doctor’s care.
THE DAY had been exhausting. Fabio leaned back into the limo seat and closed his eyes. He was too tired to do anything other than follow the plan he’d set out for himself. He couldn’t even be bothered to check his e-mail or the various social networking sites he used to stay in touch with so-called friends and fans alike. He hated having missed his opportunity for a workout because the shoot had taken longer than planned. The stupid client had decided to visit and had ended up interfering. Harlan’s carefully prepared schedule had gone out the window since the idiots now wanted a “more youthful look” than the briefing had requested.
Fabio snorted. It wasn’t the “younger look” that had made the middle-aged man request a change. Sergej, a model barely out of diapers, had bewitched the client with his baby-blue eyes and angelic appearance. Not a look Fabio had been able to pull off even in his much younger days. Of course he’d get paid since they had originally booked him, but that wasn’t the point. The loss of face in front of all the other models, the lighting and photographer’s crew, and Harlan was what had hurt most. Add it to having discovered the wrinkle on the same day and the clusterfuck was complete. Fabio knew he was headed for the fashion scrap heap.
Without food in his belly, he was beginning to feel the familiar dizziness creep up, but there was no time to give in. Fabio swallowed and forced himself to sit upright. Time to man up and call Lisa, see what she’d found out. He had a couple of work-free days coming up, so he had time to focus on his future.
Once he switched on his iPhone, he discovered three missed messages: two from Lisa and one from his LA agent, Cal Mayberry. That one would have to wait. He wasn’t in the mood to face what was sure to be a demoralizing debriefing about what had gone wrong at the shoot. News traveled fast in this industry, and with Cal being ex-military, some of the discussions they’d had in the past had felt more like interrogations.
“Hey, Fabio.” Lisa sounded upbeat as usual, even though it was almost as late in the workday in LA as it was here in New York. “Long day?”
“Hi, Lisa.” Fabio settled back, ready for a longer discussion. “Definitely. Don’t want to talk about it right now. What have you got for me?”
“Couple of leads. I sent you e-mails, which you haven’t checked yet, I guess.” Lisa sighed. “There are quite a few people and companies claiming to be great start-up business consultants, but if you check some of the details and their references, it becomes clear that advising new businesses is an art in its own right. It seems to be quite a separate talent from strategic business consulting, which is huge. The most successful start-ups are those that worked with smaller consulting outfits, the ones that are more entrepreneurial.”
“Seems to make sense to me. The smaller the consultant the more familiar they’d be with the issues and opportunities a small business faces.” Fabio rubbed his temple. A headache of major proportions was waiting to break through.
“Exactly. Just in case I gave you the top-five large consultants, each with a contact name and number to call, as well as links to their websites and portfolios. In my second e-mail I included the top-five smaller companies who have good references and some pretty successful statistics.” Lisa cleared her throat. “Actually, one of them stands out particularly well, so I kind of recommended him.”
“Lisa, you’re perfect.” Fabio didn’t have the patience to wade through a lot of information, and Lisa was good at this stuff. She had incredible organizational skills, and sifting through lots of information to find out what was important was her strength. “Please tell me you made an appointment for me as well.”
“You haven’t even asked where this guy is located.” Lisa snorted. “Typical.”
“That’s what I pay you for, right?” He knew it.
“True.” She giggled. “Okay, hold on to your hat, and be ready for some changes. The guy works in New York City, for a company called Aaron, Lester & Partners, or ALP. He’s been there for seven years and has an impressive track record for companies of a wide variety. I think he’d be great at helping you figure out what sort of a business you want to start. You have an appointment with him at ten tomorrow morning.”
“I what?” His headache was suddenly right there, making his eyeballs hurt with the unexpected pressure. “Lisa, I’m in a limo on my way to the airport.”
“Easily fixed.” Lisa rustled with some papers. “I rebooked your flight to Friday night. The details are in another e-mail, so you have two days if you need them. You’re also booked into the Andaz Wall Street, which is a one-block walk from ALP’s office on Front Street.”
“Wow.” It was a bit sudden, but he should have expected no less. “Thank you.”
“No problem. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. Let me know how it all went.” Lisa ended the call. Thank God she knew how much he hated long good-byes and senseless small talk.
He gave his driver the new destination and pulled up his e-mails to start reading some of the information. Boy, Lisa was thorough. When he got to the point of checking out the guy he was going to meet, he was shocked. He stared at the name for a good minute.
Edwin Zachary. Edwin? Who the fuck named their kid Edwin? According to his profile, Mr. Zachary was only thirty-three, which wasn’t ancient. Fabio shook his head. His parents must have had a really strange sense of humor. With a name like that, Mr. Zachary was bound to be great at what he did to have achieved the reputation he had. He wouldn’t have had the choice of schmoozing himself through life.
Half an hour later, Fabio arrived at his new hotel, checked in, and was on his way to the gym within minutes. His room was functional, if a bit stark and cold, but he liked the hardwood floors. It wasn’t as though he was going to spend a lot of time in there, well, not with his eyes open. He was looking forward to getting an uninterrupted eight hours sleep for once. He ordered a steak and salad for later, but his workout came first.
The glances he received as he worked his way through his exercise routine were as admiring as ever. There were a few women and enough men to keep his interest. He checked them out for some mutual action later on. One guy, blond and buff the way Fabio liked them, was particularly interested, and it took only a smile and a wink to have him follow into the locker room. The showers were big enough for two, and they couldn’t get naked quickly enough. No words were spoken, since none were needed.
Fabio soaped up his hands, held the guy’s cock with a firm grip and made him moan before he was able to reciprocate. Once Mr. Eager had his hand on Fabio’s erection, they took off. Tugging and stroking each other’s cocks, they soon panted with desire as they raced for orgasm. It was embarrassingly quick for him, his release forceful but empty as usual. He made sure the other guy came before sending him away, then finished washing before wrapping himself in his robe and making his way back to his room.
Physically he felt a lot better. He’d exercised and gotten off, and a good meal and some quality sleep were soon to follow. He should have felt great, but all he could think about was what a lonely existence he had.
Shit, he really was getting old. He’d never been this sentimental before. At least not since he’d figured out the facts of life when his parents had called him stupid and an airhead because he wasn’t very good in school. He’d shown them though. He made more money in one year than they were likely to see in five times that long with their measly academics’ salaries. They might be respected members of the community, as they put it, but what good did it do them in terms of spending power and enjoying life? Not that it was his problem any longer. He hadn’t spoken to them since he took his life in his own hands as soon as he turned eighteen, and that had been ten years ago. Fabio had no intention of getting in touch with them ever again, and based on the lack of communication from their side, they felt the same way. Good riddance!
Fabio was lucky to have escaped their fate. His life, at least, was interesting. He earned good money, which he was about to invest in his first business venture, he traveled to interesting places, and he attracted very sexy men who fell at his feet if that was what he wanted.
So why the hell do I feel so miserable most of the time?
EDWIN ZACHARY stared at his reflection in his bathroom and wondered, not for the first time, what other people saw when they looked at him. His blond hair was cut fashionably short, his big blue eyes and full mouth made him look younger than his thirty-three years, and his high forehead and strong chin had been ridiculed by his family as long as he could remember. All of his relatives were somewhere between good-looking and gorgeous, and he’d stuck out as “too intellectual” all his life. Edwin could completely sympathize with the ugly duckling. Being handsome would have helped him fit in, but at least he was no less intelligent than his physicist father and biologist mother, and he’d had no issues getting an education and finding a good job. Unfortunately as far as they were concerned, he’d become a financial wizard and not a scientist, like his parents would have preferred, but that was their problem.
Too bad he’d had to disappoint them. Edwin took a step back and looked at the rest of his body in the second mirror on the back of the door. God knew who’d thought there was a need for another mirror in the same room, and he usually ignored it, but today it came in handy. His muscles might be well toned, and his legs were in good shape thanks to all the running he did to keep fit, but he’d never stand out in a crowd. Thank God for well-tailored business suits that gave him the gravitas he so sorely lacked without them.