TAZ thought the purple and blue lights of the Empire State Building were the most beautiful things he’d ever seen. He pressed his nose up against the glass, gazing at the reflection of the glimmering exterior of the tall building on the surrounding structures in dumbstruck awe. Having no fear of heights and a wonderful sense of balance, he would have had no qualms about extending his torso beyond the edge in order to obtain a better view. Alas, this was completely out of the question as the observation deck on the 102nd floor—the highest public point—was inside the building and completely enclosed. There was an open-air deck sixteen floors below, but even that was surrounded by a barrier between Taz and his heart’s desire. Earthlings had an unreasonable phobia about such things, he’d noticed during his short time on the planet, always putting up barriers between themselves and even the slightest heights. How silly of them. They didn’t know how to enjoy what they had.
“Vor, don’t you think this is utterly beautiful?” he asked his date. Due to the slight refraction of the glass, Taz saw the image of his own cat-like green eyes bounce back at him. Smiling at his reflection, he looked for that of his very handsome companion. He’d been beside him a moment ago. Hadn’t he?
Receiving no response to his question, Taz turned his head. Standing beside him was a petite blonde, who gazed with equal rapture at the skyline. When their eyes met, hers grew hard and her lips tightened. “Don’t try nothing funny, buddy. I’m carrying mace.” She stamped her foot as if to emphasize the menace in her words. A moment later, she turned from him, hanging on the arm of a male companion. Taz heard her overly loud whisper. “Jeez. Can’t get away from the weirdos even here.” They pushed their way through the crowd that populated the observation platform, disappearing from view.
Although Taz had a perfect understanding of all Earth languages thanks to the ULT—Universal Language Translator—he wore in his ear, he still didn’t understand everything he heard. According to the study he’d done of the Earthlings in this particular section of the planet known as New York City, words had multiple meanings, and the inhabitants were known to blend and blur the lines between proper usage and unintelligibility. This was one of those latter occasions.
So where was Vorlod?
He turned and glanced about him at the tops of the heads of the crowd massed around the circular room. Vorlod stood out in any crowd. Taz was almost six feet tall, in Earth measurements, but Vorlod was a good seven inches taller. This date was not going the way Taz had hoped or expected. It was obvious to him that his companion was not quite as adventurous as he was. And he was more than a little bored. He seemed uninterested in anything Taz had to say, always looking around as if searching for something—or someone—else. Which begged the question—why had he even bothered to invite Taz on this excursion to Earth to begin with?
Taz was beginning to wonder if maybe Vorlod had ulterior motives for being there. Motives that had nothing to do with Taz.
There he was. He spotted the dark-brown hair of his date, and relief flooded Taz. Quit being silly, he chided himself, pushing through the throng in the direction of Vor. Taz felt his stomach rumble. They’d not eaten since they’d arrived, and Taz was starving. The economy flight Vor had booked them on provided no in-flight sustenance. It was a bare bones journey to a planet that only rated one star in the Universal Entertainment Guide. But it was cheap; that was its only outstanding feature.
“Vor, let’s see what we can find to eat….” His words trailed off as he drew abreast of the other man. He wasn’t alone. Standing beside him was Truba Vondyck. Truba was a student at the university, the same as they were. What in the name of the great horned Wussarian was he doing here on Earth? Why were he and Vorlod holding hands? And why did Taz smell mating scents emanating from them?
“Vorlod?” He tugged on one of the tall man’s sleeves. Vorlod turned an annoyed face toward Taz. Taz drew back slightly. The mating smell was stronger, and Taz could see the faintest hint of stripes that ringed the other alien’s neck. He knew exactly what that meant.
“What do you want, Fabrintazo?”
Taz flinched at the use of his full name. No one ever called him that. He much preferred Taz.
“I just thought maybe we could… you know… get something to eat?” He rubbed his stomach hopefully, but the possibility seemed to be growing more and more remote by the second.
Truba stepped closer to Vorlod; he turned disdainful eyes Taz’s way. “If you’re hungry, then go eat, and leave us alone.”
Us? What us? Vorlod was his date. This was his idea….
Wait a minute. Things were starting to fall into place now—images and words half-understood now revealed in all their ugly glory. He’d wondered why, after having asked Vorlod out more times than he could count and never receiving any reply other than “not interested,” the good-looking student had suddenly asked Taz to accompany him to Earth; he’d paid for his passage and everything. Now Taz understood only too well. Vorlod had wanted to be with Truba. That explained why Truba was on the same flight with them—Vorlod had claimed it was something related to school. Also he now realized the meaning of the strange looks he’d seen directed toward them by Truba. He had thought maybe Truba wanted to ask them something, but he’d kept his distance. Now it turned out Vorlod had only used Taz to make Truba jealous. He’d used the pretext of their date to follow the other Trygoshean to Earth and then he’d wooed him behind Taz’s back. How stupid could Taz be?
Now Taz was nothing to Vorlod but an irritation, a bit of space flotsam waiting to be kicked out of bed, except they’d never even gotten that far. They’d spent all of five minutes in the motel. Long enough to leave their things and embark on the whirlwind of activity that had led to this. Taz felt suddenly sick to his stomach as tears prickled his eyes.
“HELLO? Mr. Hatcher? Um, this is Justin. I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to come in today. I’m sick.”
The conversation lasted thirty seconds and ended with Reed throwing his cell on the bedside table and jumping out of bed. It was the third time this month Justin had pulled this. Except it was usually something he did on Mondays—now his inability to show up for work was carrying over into Tuesdays. Reed’s boutique was supposed to open in an hour, and damn it to hell and back, Valentine’s Day was the day after tomorrow. Next to the Christmas rush, Justin couldn’t have picked a worse time to play hooky. Reed was not in the mood to deal with his shenanigans.
“Damn kid,” Reed growled as he dressed in gray pants and a black silk dress shirt, part of the stock from his store. Justin wasn’t really a kid, not at twenty-five, but still…. He was only a few years younger than Reed, but on mornings like this, Reed felt every minute of his thirty years.
“He just couldn’t have called a little earlier, I guess, and saved me from making a mad dash downtown,” he fumed. “This may be the stunt that gets his dumb ass fired.”
Reed arrived with ten minutes to spare. The street was busy, cabs buzzing back and forth, pedestrians hogging the sidewalk. A light dew from overnight made the drab gray concrete glisten in the early morning haze. Streetlights flashed and steam spiraled up from vents in the street. He rubbed his hands together as he let himself inside, the cold making his hands shake. His manager, Peter, arrived a few moments after him.
“What are you doing here, Reed?”
“Hmm, good question. A question I seem to be asking myself a lot lately,” Reed growled.
“Let me guess—Justin called in sick.”
“Got it in one.” Reed stalked to the front door of the boutique and unlocked it, barely resisting the urge to fling the door open. He hadn’t had his morning coffee yet… a dangerous thing.
“You look tired. Tell you what, I’ll just go and start the coffeepot in your office. You’re not quite human without caffeine running through your system.”
“At the rate this day is going… make it a full pot.”
Truer words were never spoken.
By noon, he’d consumed enough coffee to float a battleship. Now he was tired, wired… and hungry. Not a good combination in his present frame of mind. He offered to get lunch for himself and Pete—he definitely needed something to soak up all the caffeine that was circulating in his system. There was this little deli down the street that made the best Reubens he’d ever tasted. Both he and Pete were addicted. Twenty minutes later, he debated with himself the advantages of sneaking out the back door of his own boutique as he eavesdropped on a conversation between Peter and an unhappy customer.
“But sir, as I’ve been trying to tell you, we can’t take this back. I’m sorry.”
“You can’t prove I wore it.” The voice was definitely belligerent. Reed rolled his eyes. He could tell the man was lying without even looking at him.
“It smells like cologne, sir. It didn’t when I sold it to you a few days ago.”
“This is bullshit. I want to speak to the manager,” the man demanded.
“I am the manager,” Peter replied. “And we’re not taking this back.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Shit,” Reed mumbled. Time for him to take over. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the backroom. “Is there a problem?” He sounded far calmer than he felt.
Hours later, Reed shoved his streaked blond hair out of his face as he locked the door. It was quitting time, thank God. It had been one of the worst days he’d had here in a while. The new customer who had tried to return an expensive Italian silk shirt he’d bought a few days earlier—which would’ve been fine if he’d had a receipt—had gotten aggressive with Peter. Reed had to step in and refuse to refund his money. That particular skirmish ended in a heated argument and a lost customer. Later that afternoon he’d received a shipment, already a day late, only to find out it was completely wrong and had to be returned. Reed looked around his shop. He still had the night deposit to do, and he needed to check inventory.
“I need a drink. Hell, I need several drinks. Fuck that—what I need is a nice long vacation.”
Privately, he could admit the truth—what he actually wanted was a man in his life. His last relationship had ended a year ago, and no one he’d dated since had really flipped his switch. As things stood, it looked as if he’d be spending another Valentine’s Day alone. What he needed was some excitement in his life, some pizzazz. Five years ago, he’d opened this boutique that catered strictly to men, and he’d worked like the very devil to make sure it took off. Masculine tones, dark woods, and an easy but professional atmosphere greeted the male clientele who chose to shop with him. Many of his clients came from Wall Street. He offered business casual clothes of high quality. But his real money-maker was his backroom. The volume of sexy underwear alone he sold almost equaled the sales from the front. The flattering fit and provocative styles of barely-there thongs, lean and sexy jocks, and comfortable silken boxer briefs brought back many a client for repeat business. Along with the high-end sex toys, quality videos, and discreet service Reed offered. No one got into the backroom unless they were recommended by another customer.
“Reed? I’m going now. Are you going to be okay here alone?” Peter stood poised in the doorway at the rear of the shop.
“Sure, I’ll be fine. I’m not going to be much longer.”
“Okay, then.” Peter waved. “See you later.”
“’Bye, Pete. See you tomorrow.”
Not leaving anything to chance, Reed double-checked to make sure Peter had locked the back door after him. Already tired, he started stocking shelves. He really needed to go to the gym tonight, but that was less likely to happen the more time he spent here. It had been a week since his last visit. At his age, he still had a good physique, and he wanted to keep it that way. He was around six feet tall with a swimmer’s build. He’d never been overly built, more long and lean with toned muscles. His hair was a dirty blond, parted in the middle with long sides, and tended toward blond streaks in the summer. He had big hazel eyes and a mole on the right side of his top lip. “Cute” was the word often used to describe him. Since he was a natural blond, the hair on his arms and legs wasn’t easily seen, and his chest was smooth.
Finally finished, he set the security alarm for the night. The boutique’s phone rang just as his hand landed on the doorknob, and Reed swore violently. For all of two seconds he debated not answering. Defeated, he turned back and picked up the phone.
Reed felt differently once he’d hung up. “Well, glad I answered that, after all.” Reed hurried into the back of the shop to his safe. A very wealthy client had called. Apparently he’d waited until the last minute to buy his partner a Valentine’s gift and now he was in a royal bind, otherwise called having his ass in a sling—and not in a good way. Reed snickered as he spun the dial on the safe. This was where he kept his most expensive sex toys. He didn’t mind interrupting his schedule for this—his client’s absentmindedness would turn into his own joy, and thereby make him a tidy little profit in the bargain.
“Perfect.” Reed picked up the platinum butt plug encased with diamonds around the base. The perfect gift for the gay man who has everything. He rang up the sale and wrapped the toy before heading out. He’d been requested to deliver the gift to the Empire State Building. For what his client had just spent on the thing, he would take it to him… gladly. So what if he didn’t get much sleep tonight? He’d go in late tomorrow. After all, he owned the damn shop and Justin wasn’t scheduled to work, Peter was. After he dropped off the night deposit, he had one more thing to do before he could go home.