“OOH, I just love a man in a kilt.”
Raven smiled at the newcomer, pretending he hadn’t heard the phrase a million times since he’d walked into the ballroom. Normally he didn’t mind being the center of attention, but tonight the overwhelming interest in him crawled over his skin like a swarm of fire ants.
No denying, he looked hot. His bright red plaid kilt matched the thick red streaks in his black hair perfectly. It was one of the reasons he’d bought the kilt in the first place, a few years ago. He had about a dozen kilts that matched various hair dyes, but he liked the classic red Royal Stewart. Unfortunately, all the sexy outer trappings weren’t enough to make him forget he wasn’t getting naked with anyone ever again.
Jeremy, Raven’s purported date, stepped closer to him. Close enough to almost slay Raven with his nearly lethal cloud of body spray.
“Jeremy, is that you?” The newcomer was not the first person who’d been surprised by the change in Jeremy since high school. Like every high school reunion Raven had seen on TV and in the movies, a giant poster board at the entrance to the ballroom displayed everyone’s yearbook photo. While Jeremy signed them in, Raven had taken the opportunity to inspect Jeremy’s image. Dude had had a shitload of good plastic surgery done. It was almost cliché: the geeky underdog who’d made it big coming back to his old stomping ground to revel in his new wealth and surgically enhanced appearance. Unfortunately, Jeremy hadn’t let the past go, and his personality bordered on rancid.
“Rebecca? It’s so lovely to see you again.”
Oddly, Rebecca appeared genuinely pleased to see Jeremy, and she coaxed the first happy smile Raven had seen on Jeremy’s face. If he didn’t know Jeremy was gay through and through, he’d have suspected Rebecca to be an old girlfriend or crush.
Rebecca gave Jeremy a hug. “I hear you’ve done well for yourself. You look fantastic.”
When Jeremy slipped an arm around Raven’s waist, he had to work at not flinching.
“This is Raven.”
“Nice to meet you, Raven.” Rebecca seemed nice, around the age his mother would have been, and was fond—perhaps overfond—of pink glitter. Maybe that was only natural, since Rebecca’s name tag proclaimed her head cheerleader. How she was even aware of Jeremy’s existence, Raven didn’t know.
“Raven’s my date. Gorgeous, isn’t he?”
Almost buckling under the strain, Raven managed to keep a pleasant smile on his face while Rebecca chatted, even though Jeremy was treating him like a slab of meat. It wasn’t the first time a guy had done that, and it wouldn’t be the last, but Raven badly wanted to correct the “date” misnomer. For a hefty sum, Jeremy had purchased Raven’s companionship—minus any sex—for the duration of his high school reunion weekend retreat. Raven wasn’t in the business of offering the “boyfriend experience.” Even if he had ever been planning to have sex again, there wasn’t enough money in the world to get him to sleep with Jeremy.
Jeremy’s grand plan had backfired in an unexpected way: he’d thought people would be impressed he showed up with an attractive younger man. He hadn’t anticipated Raven would garner more favorable attention than the changes in Jeremy’s appearance. Hence, his treatment of Raven as if he were an expensive possession.
Raven extricated himself from Jeremy’s clinging embrace and tipped the last of the beer in his bottle into his mouth.
Rebecca smiled brightly—or perhaps drunkenly, it was too early to tell—at them both. “He certainly is. I’m glad you found someone great, Jeremy.”
Sputtering, Raven managed to swallow his mouthful without choking to death or embarrassing anyone.
“Are you okay, honey?” Rebecca’s smile faded into concern.
“I’m good, thanks. Just swallowed wrong.”
Jeremy snorted, and Raven barely refrained from slugging him. Jeremy’s mind was in the gutter—again.
Rebecca patted him on the back and turned her attention back to Jeremy. “We’re seated at the same table for dinner.”
“Lead the way, Rebecca. I’m starving, although if this place is like most conference hotels, we’ll still be starving after our plate of rubbery chicken.”
Raven cringed, but Rebecca just giggled.
“Hey, baby.” Rebecca kissed the temple of an imposing man who was already seated at one of the round tables set for ten.
“I got you a glass of Chardonnay.” Big and beefy was pretty hot, even with the severely receding hairline. Raven peered at his name tag. Yet another cliché come to life. Bret was the quarterback of the team. Would Raven’s own high school reunion be so predictable? Not that he’d ever consider attending, outside of his nightmares.
“Bret, honey, you remember Jeremy, right?”
“Nope,” Bret grunted, and Jeremy looked like he’d swallowed a bug. Dealing with Jeremy’s ruffled ego for the whole weekend, and trying to calm him without encouraging any advances, was going to make this “date” last for-fucking-ever. Raven wasn’t quite at the point of counting down the hours, but he wasn’t far off.
“One too many hits to the head, eh, Bret? I guess what they say about multiple concussions is true.” Jeremy’s tone was jovial, but Bret’s face flushed a dark red.
Rebecca patted her husband’s arm. “He’s the one who tutored me in calculus.”
Oh. Now the Rebecca-Jeremy relationship made sense.
“Right. Him.” With those two words, Bret instantly dismissed Jeremy as a threat, and as a person. If this was how everyone had treated Jeremy in school, then maybe Raven had a smidgeon of sympathy. A nanosized morsel of sympathy. High school could be sucky.
They were saved from too much discussion as the rest of the guests at their table seated themselves and made introductions. Another football player and his wife, a drama club member and her husband, and a couple who were now teachers at the same school from which they’d graduated made up the ten at their table. Most of them, like Jeremy, had moved away from Orlando after graduation and hadn’t seen each other since. Dinner began, and throughout the meal there were a number of awards, announcements, and commemorative videos, so it wasn’t until the meal had been cleared away in preparation for dessert that any real conversation sprang up.
Rebecca’s cheeks had pinkened from the effects of three glasses of wine, and she smiled blearily at him. “Raven, what do you do for a living?”
“He’s in school right now,” Jeremy jumped in before Raven could answer. There were worse things he could have said, but he made it sound like Raven was still in high school.
“Uh, yes. I’m almost finished my business degree.” One last semester in the fall, and he’d be done.
“And how did you two meet?”
With a leer, Jeremy slung an arm over Raven’s shoulders. “Raven here likes to be taken care of. And I was just the man for the job.”
Horrified, Raven felt his jaw drop as heat flashed into his cheeks and an awkward silence fell over the table. With that one statement, everyone at this table either thought Raven was a gold digger or guilty of atrocious taste in men. Or both. He shouldn’t care what these people thought, and he rarely told people how he made a living, but he was proud of what he’d accomplished all on his own.
Raven smiled weakly at the other diners and extricated himself from his seat. “I’m going to go have a smoke.”
Amanda, the drama club member, spoke up. “I love your kilt. Is your family Scottish?”
“Nope. But it sure is easy access,” Jeremy answered for him and slid his hand under Raven’s kilt to grab his ass.
Raven barely held in a yelp of surprise and glared down at Jeremy.
“What?” Jeremy’s eyes widened in overly theatrical surprise. “I had to check to see if you were wearing your kilt properly.”
Raven glanced around the table. Forget awkward silence; Jeremy had just made almost everyone uncomfortable. Amanda looked as mortified as Raven felt.
“Don’t be long, you’ll miss dessert.” Rebecca giggled drunkenly, too soused to notice the undercurrents of tension.
“Eh, skipping dessert will help him keep his weight down.”
Amanda gasped at Jeremy’s cruel words, and Raven’s nostrils flared as he considered if decking Jeremy was worth it. Jeremy seemed completely oblivious to the censure.
When he was able to unclench his jaw, he spoke again. “Feel free to eat my dessert. I’ll be back soon.”
He detoured by the bar to grab a beer before leaving the ballroom. He wasn’t the only one ready for a refill, and there was a line, dammit.
Raven should never have agreed to this stupid job, but it had been good money. Despite the large number of women wanting to touch his chest or just plain ogle him, it would have been bearable if it weren’t for pompous, self-important, and passive-aggressive Jeremy.
The touching was a bit much. Overwhelming in a way it wouldn’t have been a year ago.
There had been a lot of touching—by everyone, not just Jeremy. For an ex–porn star, casual touching shouldn’t be such a problem, but it had been over a year since Raven starred in his last movie. Over a year since he’d had sex. Aside from doctors, nurses, and physiotherapists after his accident, he’d not been touched by anyone in all that time.
He had no family, no boyfriend, just his friends from the studio, but Raven had pulled away from everyone after the accident, and he saw them only rarely. Raven’s colorful appearance had invited a lot of casual touching from people he’d been introduced to at the reunion, which hadn’t much thrilled Jeremy either. Perhaps that was why he slapped a virtual brand on Raven’s ear the moment anyone demonstrated the least bit of interest.
Jeremy had also done about half a dozen underwear checks so far this evening. Bastard. Raven clenched his hands into fists, struggling to keep a neutral look on his face. Happy was too much to ask of him, but Jeremy was footing the bill for more than a couple months’ mortgage, and Raven couldn’t tell him to fuck off. He couldn’t ditch him, either.
Finally, finally, he got his beer and headed out of the ballroom.
His smile came easier and felt less like a mask the farther he got from Jeremy, and he moved with enough purpose that no one stopped him.
Motion-sensitive doors to the back garden whooshed open. Muggy, humid air slapped Raven in the face as he stepped out into the hot Florida evening. Almost immediately, sweat sprang up on his skin. At least his tight-fitted dress shirt was black; no sweat stains would show.
His haven was close. He took a tiny path, ducking the overhanging greenery. The resort treated smokers like lepers, hiding them well out of sight. Not that Raven was a big fan of smoking—it stank up his hair, and he’d seen what it could do to someone’s stamina—but it was a fantastic escape, especially from a handsy client with asthma.
He’d learned a long time ago that pretending to be a smoker gave him an out, a viable, believable reason to hide out that he’d used on more than one occasion. Leaning against a lamppost, he pulled out a battered pack of smokes and a lighter from his sporran and lit a cigarette without inhaling.
Raven held the cigarette down by his hip, tilted his head away from the smoke curling upward, and enjoyed the silence.