New Year’s Eve

 

THE COUNTDOWN would start soon. I needed to distance myself before the party became a sea of embracing couples.

“Caleb! Where are you going?”

I stumbled through the kitchen’s archway and was assaulted by lean limbs and more exposed skin than I would ever allow myself in the dead of winter.

Leaning my head back, I blinked at my affectionate attacker. Charles, a friend of a friend who had eventually become my friend, wrapped his arms around my neck. He reeked of liquor, but so did I, so I didn’t recoil when he pressed a damp kiss to my cheek. His lip gloss left my skin greasy.

“Need air.” If I focused, I didn’t slur, but my spinning head made focusing a challenge. “Too many people.”

“Ugh—I know. This place is teeny-tiny, but my new digs in Staten Island will be bigger.” Charles gave an extravagant eye roll, made more dramatic by his false, glittering eyelashes. He wore too much ornamentation for someone so naturally striking. “Not that anyone will visit Landon and me on the Forgotten Borough.”

“Probably not.”

“Well, I know your WASPy ass won’t. Do you even cab it beyond Lower Manhattan?”

“I don’t—” I blinked again. Focus. “I don’t always cab it.” I didn’t take a cab to work. But I wasn’t working. I wasn’t doing anything.

“Uh-huh. Yeah, right.” Charles untangled himself from me. “Go find someone to kiss! Shake things up for the New Year, stud!”

“But everyone here is part of a coup—”

He spun away before I could finish, and I was again adrift in the sea of bodies. In Charles’s Washington Heights apartment, we were packed tighter than a subway car during rush hour. Every time I stepped around one body, another appeared. I couldn’t tell if more people were piling into the room or if I was simply moving too slowly to compensate for the crowd.

Ten!

The collective shout was a gunshot in my ears.

I flinched, ducked my head, and had to brace my hand against the wall to handle the fallout of making sudden movements while intoxicated. The combination of music, laughter, and the lower warble of the Times Square coverage on television was already pressing down on my sluggishly responding brain, but the yelling—

Nine!

Someone said my name, just one quiet voice lost in the cacophony of louder noises. I searched the room, identifying a number of familiar faces—Karen in a sparkly top hat, Michael and Nunzio laughing together on a couch, and scores of smiling people whose acquaintanceship I had shared with someone who was no longer in my life—but I couldn’t locate the speaker. The effort alone nauseated me. My eyes were sliding around as if I had no control of them, and the icy fingers of isolation were starting to pluck at me with a complete disregard for the fact that I was in a packed apartment.

Surrounded by people who didn’t know me. Or who only knew me because of my ex-boyfriend.

I kept moving.

Eight!

I stumbled out of the living room, almost tripped over the rope of beads Charles had used to designate the hall as a Do Not Enter zone, and slid along the darkened wall to the bedrooms. The railroad apartment was longer than I’d expected. The noise was muffled the farther I moved from the party, but the walls still trembled from the bass in Charles’s stereo system.

The sound reverberated in my ears, and I imagined my brain being shaken like a cocktail—unable to produce coherent, rational thoughts because a bartender was tossing it around in a metal cup.

Seven!

Panic set in.

New Year’s Eve, and I was alone. This had to be a sign. A countdown to the year I turned thirty-seven. I would officially be in my late thirties, and I was still single. I was unemployed. I had no close friends.

The closer the countdown came to “one,” the more horrifying that reality became.

Last year I’d still been friends with David. He hadn’t replaced me yet.

Last year I’d embraced him at the end of the countdown. It had been platonic, but he’d still looked up at me with those twinkling brown eyes. Still given me that brilliant smile. He’d still had the ability to make my heart swell in my chest.

Six!

I halted at the far end of the hallway and clumsily grasped the handle of the nearest door. The dim interior presented me with a haven for only half a breath. I’d barely made it beyond the doorframe before realizing the room was occupied.

A knot lodged in my throat.

Five!

David was sitting on the edge of a desk, his thighs spread just enough to cage Raymond between them. Neither of them looked up. They were too lost in a kiss that would take them to midnight.

They complemented each other in ways no one could ever deny. Even puckered with bitterness and stinging with resentment, I almost admired the silky clash of brown and blond hair, tawny and pale white skin; a slight, petite body and a long, muscular one.

Four!

I’d always imagined David’s and Raymond’s sex life was ferocious with the morphine rush of youth, but the way Raymond was cupping one of David’s cheeks while his other hand twined with David’s against the desk was languid. Sweet. Worshipful.

Three!

I backed out of the room and tugged the door shut. Too loud, but I needed to get out. I needed to unsee the image of David and his new boyfriend, the way they were so beautiful, so clearly infatuated.

Two!

“Last shot of the year!”

My eyes were blurry. I was crying. Fuck. Fuck.

I nodded jerkily, grabbed the shot from the stranger’s hand, and tossed it back.

My vision dimmed around the edges. Everything spun.

One!

Someone’s lips brushed my own. Tentative. Gentle. A you’re-my-last-choice kiss?

I pried my damp eyelashes open but could only make out black hair and vivid blue eyes. Soft skin.

I parted my lips and slipped my tongue into the stranger’s mouth. Yanked the fit body harder against my own. Groaned against those yielding lips. Groaned louder when we slammed back against the wall to an accompaniment of cheers, noisemakers, and a sloppy rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.”

The song trailed off as I felt myself fading. My last conscious thought was that the kiss tasted like gin and tears.

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

HE SLID his hand down the front of my underwear while fisting my hair with sharp, stinging tugs. I started to protest, but he dragged his fingers along the sticky slit of my cock. I moaned.

“I want to fuck you.”

“Shit.” He traced the veins protruding from my slicked length. “It’s gonna take forever for me to get you home.”

The words echoed in the deserted corridor, startlingly loud compared to the now-muffled music floating from the apartment two flights below.

“Here,” I panted. “We can do it here.”

 

My eyes opened to the pale daylight of winter.

I looked toward the window, knowing the sun would be hidden behind a mist of white clouds, and was struck by the sight of heavy crimson drapes instead of the sheer, gray roller blinds that were fixed in my apartment. Somehow I’d failed to immediately notice that I’d woken up in an unknown location. Everything felt, not just off, but wrong.

As my heart jolted, I squeezed my eyes shut and cataloged the series of strange sensations.

My body wasn’t nestled in the malleable material of my memory foam mattress, and I didn’t smell the warm, spicy scent of the aftershave I typically splashed on before bed. The mattress beneath my aching body was much stiffer than I was accustomed to, and the too-soft pillow cushioning my face stank of liquor, cigarettes, and sweat.

I couldn’t remember whose bedroom I’d landed in. Had I stayed at Charles’s apartment? No, Charles’s bedroom definitely did not have floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors, or exposed brick. Whoever lived here had more money than Charles could bring in as a part-time bartender, part-time aspiring dancer. But then whose place could it be?

My only remaining memory was doing a final shot with a mystery man as the clock struck midnight, and the sound of cheering voices as I’d initiated a bruising, hungry kiss. Everything after that existed only in a void.

I had no idea why my body was throbbing in a painful yet thrilling way, or why short blips of sexual imagery—like stolen stills from a pornographic movie—kept tumbling to the forefront of my mind. I’d once heard that blacking out was practically a rite of passage for young, gay party boys, but I’d never felt particularly young, I’d never been much of a party boy, and this lack of memory was too frightening to transform into a story that I’d ever recount wistfully to friends.

I opened my eyes wider, kept them on the ceiling, and felt around on the bed beside me. My fingers brushed someone’s back, and I leapt to my feet.

The man who slept beside me was very pale, very unconscious, judging from his low snores, and very naked. He was lying facedown, and even barraged with regret, confusion, and an intense hangover, I admired the silky black hair brushing against bloodred pillows and contrasting with smooth, alabaster skin. The man had a strong back—tattooed with an expansive set of tattered, black wings—muscular thighs, and a perfect ass. A sheet haphazardly covered the rest of his body.

He was certainly attractive, whoever he was.

A measure of relief sailed through me, but it collided with a more stalwart wall of condemnation and paranoia. I’d never had a one-night stand before. Never had sex with a stranger. And there weren’t even….

My breath caught.

I grabbed what looked like my briefs from the floor, yanked them up, and commenced a frantic search for some sign of safety. The room was so carelessly tended to that I didn’t know where to start. For what appeared to be a relatively expensive apartment, the place was a mess.

Clothing was strewn across the gleaming hardwood floors, bottles and an ashtray full of cigarette butts littered a metal side table, and tech magazines were stacked precariously on the windowsill. Nowhere amid the mess did I see a used condom or a wrapper. I did, however, find an overturned bottle of lubricant that had drooled its sticky contents onto the small table on the opposite side of the bed.

The seizing panic took over, and I was hovering over the man with a hand on his shoulder before I could stop myself.

“Wake up,” I said.

“Mmm.”

The sleep-clogged voice sounded familiar. My eyes narrowed, and I shook with more vigor.

“It’s—” I checked the clock, a metal thing that was more art deco than utility. “—after eleven in the morning, and we need to talk.”

“Fuck, Caleb, chill out.”

My brows snapped together. “Who…?”

I grabbed the man’s forearm and pulled him up before rolling him over to expose the wide mouth, high cheekbones, and piercing blue eyes of Oliver Buckley.

“Oh my God.”

Oli smiled sleepily and tried to grab the band of my underwear, but I staggered back.

“We slept together! Us?”

“Who else would it be?” Yawning, Oli smoothed his hair away from his face. “Don’t tell me you don’t remember any of it.”

“Oh God.”

“Maybe you do remember. You were saying that a lot last night too.”

My face was aflame as I looked wildly around for the rest of my clothes. “This isn’t funny, Oli. This is—I can’t believe—why did you do this?”

“Pardon?”

I spied the hem of my black slacks in a crumpled pile by the bedroom door. My navy button-down was hanging from the doorknob, but several of the buttons were missing.

“I was wasted. I must have been incoherent—”

“Trust me, you were coherent.”

“—and yet you took me to your house—”

The bedsprings creaked as Oli sat up. “Hey, you begged me to bring you here. You paid for the cab.”

“—and proceeded to sleep with me, despite the fact that I was way too intoxicated to reasonably consent to… to whatever it is that we did,” I gritted out. “And despite all of that, it doesn’t appear that you had the common sense or decency to use a condom. I swear, if I get anything from you, I’ll kill you.”

I jerked on my ruined designer shirt and cast a baleful glance in Oli’s direction. His expression threw chilly water over my fury. In his pinched lips, intense eyes, and balled hands, I could read anger and maybe even a little hurt.

“Are you done?” he asked coldly. “Or are the diseased-gay-rapist accusations going to keep coming?”

“I didn’t say—”

“You may as well have said it.” Oli swung his legs over the side of the bed and stood facing me, completely naked and unashamed. I had no idea how he could stand to be so vulnerable while embroiled in an argument. “Are you really trying to wash your hands of what happened by using the drunk cop-out? Because it’s really not my job to test the BAC of every nearly forty piece of ass who begs me to fuck them. Especially not when they’re coherent enough to tell me in graphic detail just how hard they want it in their ass. You may not remember what happened, but you weren’t passed out. You were pretty goddamn energetic, actually.”

 

His hips slammed against me harder, his dick driving into my ass steadier and deeper, until the head was nudging against my sweet spot.

 

My hands clenched around the torn shirt, but a spasm went through them. “I don’t even bottom.”

With his head cocked, Oli crossed his arms over his chest. “You sure? You fucked me first, but after that we went for a few more rounds, and you milked my dick with that ass during three of them. Right before you begged me to shoot inside you.”

 

“More,” I panted into the pillow. “I want your come.”

 

Mouth going dry, I looked down at the tattered remains of my outfit. Each piece was unsalvageable. Why had I even dressed up for Charles’s party? Whom had I been trying to impress?

The image of David and Raymond popped into my head, and my stomach curdled. Stupid question. How could I forget the answer?

“Caleb.”

“What?” My voice was sharp, but I did nothing to temper it. “Where are we? I need to get out of here.”

“Just calm down.”

“I’m quite calm, considering the circumstances.”

“Christ, Caleb. You had sex with a software programmer, not a serial killer. I get regularly tested if that’s what you’re worried about. Why don’t you tone down the indignant panic and cut me some slack?”

I didn’t want to cut him slack. I didn’t want to do anything for him. I needed out of this apartment and into a cab, to return to my home with my belongings. I wanted to sink beneath the water in my three-foot-deep bathtub and pretend the previous night never happened. The humiliation of wandering alone at a party full of couples, of watching David pour himself into someone else, and then of weeping like a fool while desperately kissing Oli in the hallway. That last damning memory was enough to make me never want to cross paths with him again. I couldn’t even look him in the eye.

“Hey.”

I jumped. He had moved closer without me realizing it. How long had I been staring down at my torn shirt while gripping the edges? Long enough for him to jerk on underwear—black-and-yellow briefs that emphasized his package. I averted my gaze and stared at the exposed brick wall.

“I know you’re upset, but it’s okay. I’m not a stranger.”

“Right. You’re David’s friend.”

Could he even understand what I’d said? My voice was barely audible. Strained. There was a lump in my throat where a clear passage should have been, and the words had trouble squeezing past. Rationally I knew I was overreacting. If I thought hard enough, I remembered enough to know he hadn’t lured me to his home. I’d begged for him. For it. For his dick. His come.

Oli’s hands settled on me, and I started again. My gaze flew up to him, and I couldn’t imagine how frantic I must look for him to have sympathy and confusion in his eyes. I stood stock-still as he cupped my face, the heels of his hands resting against my jaw as his fingers massaged behind my ears.

“Try to relax, okay?”

I said nothing. I focused on his eyes. They were very blue and reminded me of the ocean in Saint Croix. I’d gone there with my parents the summer before their divorce. I’d been nine.

“You, Caleb Stone, are not going out in the middle of the day to do the walk of shame back to your part of Lower Manhattan. That’s not you, and we both know it.”

I nodded slowly.

Oli smiled. He kept massaging. “You’re going to dump these clothes, go into my bathroom, and spend an hour beneath my badass custom shower. Then you’ll calm down, and we’ll talk. How does that sound?”

“I don’t know.”

“Does it sound better than standing in the middle of Broadway and flagging down a cab while wearing jizz-stained pants?”

Oh God.

Oli bit back a smile. “Sorry. Bad joke.”

“Please stop touching me.”

“Am I hurting you?”

“Of course not.”

“Then close your eyes, try to trust me, and give it a shot.”

Trust him? I hardly knew him. I almost said it, nearly recoiled from his touch, but something about those deep blue eyes was calming. He had an easy confidence that I’d never and would never possess.

Oli quirked his lips in a tiny smile, as if to say, Don’t worry. I got you.

I don’t know if it was the comfort of being in the presence of someone so self-assured or a niggling desire to not reject a man kind enough to help me even after I’d insulted him, but I consented to his request and closed my eyes.

I’d paid obscene amounts of money for massages in the past, but Oli’s cool, sure hands were just as talented as the petite woman’s who’d administered to me for two-hour overpriced sessions. Within moments I was listing forward, allowing him to steady me, and then melting against him as he rubbed my neck and head. It wasn’t the ideal position, but shutting my eyes and baring my gut-curdling anxiety to someone was bad enough without being prone. And he managed just fine. Worked out the tightness and needles of tension until I was breathing into his ear and half-aroused from the sensation of his touch.

When I released a slow sigh and thanked him, he pulled away with a smile and showed me the way to his top-dollar shower. I wanted to apologize for implying he was a diseased rapist, but the words stayed trapped in my throat.

Instead I shed my torn, dirty clothing and stepped into his shower. It was exquisite. Six body sprays and porcelain mosaic tiles. By the time I had adjusted the nozzles and had the water pounding into my skin at alternating rhythms and intensities, I was relaxed enough to melt into a puddle on the pebbled floor.

With my hands braced against the walls, I bowed my head and allowed water to drench my hair. It dripped along my face and into the seam of my eyes and open mouth. I wanted the soothing jets to not only wash the sweat, dirt, and semen from my body. I wanted it to wash away my mortification. I’d acted the fool this morning, and I had no doubt I’d behaved even worse the previous night. The aches in my body were indicative of… the kind of sex I’d previously only seen in porn. Rough, athletic, and leaving bruises on my hips, shoulders, and even around my neck.

Flashes of memory blitzed through my mind. Oli manhandling me in a way that had left me reeling from sensory overload—the dueling infernos of pleasure and pain filling my body until all I had been able to do was wail.

I’d begged him. I couldn’t remember it all, but the fragments were more than enough. Not knowing what else had gone on was frightening. I wondered if I’d made an idiot of myself. I tried to bury the question, but it kept coming back. The possibility of having fumbled like an oaf while trying to be sexy and wild was enough to ruin the simple pleasure of the shower and make my nausea return.

I shut off the water and stepped out to find a thick towel laid out for me on the side table. Drying off slowly, I listened at the door and didn’t leave the bathroom until I was sure the hallway outside was empty. The shyness was absurd, given we’d apparently gone at it all night, but I couldn’t help it. I’d already exposed myself enough.

Oli had also set out a pair of soft cotton pants, a thin V-neck sweater, and a pair of underwear still in the wrapper. Andrew Christian underwear. Of course. They were gray-and-pink and made my dick look huge. I spent several moments examining my crotch in the full-length mirror before dressing in Oli’s clothes. Some of my calm returned once I was put back together, and I allowed myself to look around his room before exploring the rest of the apartment.

He undoubtedly owned the place. There were far too many alterations for it to be a rental. Lots of exposed brick and metal fixtures gave it a deliberate unfinished quality, and the furniture was comprised primarily of edgy contemporary pieces. I hated edgy, but it suited Oli. Or what I knew of him.

We’d encountered each other a few times over the past couple of years, but my initial impressions had been that he was at once extremely open about sex and dating, yet guarded about anything to do with other aspects of his personal life. Before this morning, I hadn’t even known what he did for a living or that he had a massive tattoo on his back.

I found him in the kitchen. He was still shirtless and the tips of the black wings on his back disappeared into the band of low-hanging jeans.

“Thank you.”

Oli looked over his shoulder. He swept me with a once-over, but I couldn’t tell if it was admiring or just a quick check to make sure everything fit. His eyes paused on my bulge.

“Feeling better?”

“Somewhat.” I sat on one of the stools at the shining metal table. It had wheels and was awkward to sit on. I wondered where the hell he’d found such bizarre furniture. “I’m… really sorry for the way I spoke to you. I’ve never done this before, and I didn’t know how to handle it, so I lashed out.”

“Hey, it’s fine.” Oli moved from the kitchen counter while holding a mug in each hand. He set them on the table before sitting opposite me. “I know you don’t get down like that. You just threw me off by saying you didn’t remember any of it. I swear you weren’t incoherent or anything.”

“I remember… some.”

“Which parts?”

“I’d rather not recount all the ways I made a fool of myself. Okay?”

Oli stared at me, so I looked down into the mug. Instead of coffee, it was full of a honey-colored liquid. I sniffed it.

“What is this?”

“Passionflower tea.”

I raised an eyebrow.

He smirked. “It’s not an aphrodisiac. It’s good for anxiety.”

“According to whom? Dr. Oz?”

Oli’s smirk widened. “Maybe. I got it from Whole Foods.”

I laughed. “You crunchy-granola bastard. I would have never guessed.”

“Shut up and drink your tea.”

The tension bled out of me, and I tried to find a comfortable position on the little stool. I yearned for the high-backed chairs in my own kitchen.

“This is an interesting apartment. Not what I expected.”

Oli extended his legs beneath the table. His bare feet brushed against my own.

“What did you expect?”

I sampled the tea. It tasted vaguely of dirt. “I don’t know. Can programmers usually spend thousands of dollars installing custom showers?”

“I moonlight as an escort.”

My eyes flew up to meet his, and I frowned when I saw him silently laughing.

“You goofball. Be serious.”

Oli set down his cup before the liquid sloshed over the side. “You’re such a stiff, Caleb.”

“So I’ve heard.”

The smile faded from Oli’s generous mouth. “Oh, come on. I was kidding.”

I shrugged and drank my dirt tea. He nudged my foot again. On purpose this time.

“To answer your question—no I don’t get paid enough to own this apartment and have a custom shower. I work at a tech company that specializes in data mining—really invigorating stuff,” he said dryly. “I paid for this place with a small inheritance my grandparents left me. But… I do come from money. I thought you knew. My father is on the board of a major real estate corporation that owns half of Manhattan. Not that it matters to me anymore.”

“Wow. I had no idea.”

“Most people don’t. I have no relationship with him and no access to his money, so I don’t rep the connection whenever Scott Buckley III comes up in the business section of the New York Times.

“Wow,” I said again. “He’s really famous.”

“Maybe in the high-society circles.”

“Exactly. My own family runs in those circles.”

“I know. You’re a hedge-fund baby.”

I sniffed. “We prefer the term heir.”

Oli laughed, and I joined him.

Even though I’d tried to surround myself with people who were far from the Hamptons-in-the-summer upbringing I’d been born into, there was something comforting about talking to someone with a similar background. A fellow expatriate from the world of dysfunctional blue bloods who reeked of old money. No one else understood how twisted it was to be raised by people like Scott Buckley and my own father, whom my sister and I commonly referred to as “the sociopath.”

“Just to assure you,” Oli said after our mirth died down, “I really am STI free. I can show you my papers if you really want the proof. I just went to the clinic a couple of weeks ago.”

“You’re making me sound like the Gestapo of gay sex.”

“It gets old, man. I realize neither of us were on our A-game in terms of caution, but it’s not like we’re strangers. And me being sexually active and queer doesn’t automatically mean I have a festering disease.”

“If I knew you better, I wouldn’t have been so paranoid,” I said defensively. “I’d have had the same reaction no matter the gender of the person.”

“Uh-huh.” He did not look convinced. “Anyway, I’m fine. You’re good. I promise.”

Relief flooded me even though I’d already tried to soothe my paranoia. I waited for him to ask me about my own health and frowned when he didn’t. “Aren’t you curious if I get tested?”

“No. I assume you’re not the risk-taking type.”

I clenched my jaw. “Of course.”

Oli tucked his hand under his chin. “You’re a prickly asshole, aren’t you?”

“Not really.”

“Yeah, you are. Prickly and self-conscious as all hell.”

I took a large gulp of the tea. It scalded the back of my throat.

“David did a number on you, didn’t he?”

“Let’s not talk about David. Or that person he’s dating.”

“Raymond.” Oli’s lips curled up in a wicked smile. “Raymond is hot.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Liar. That guy could outshine the sun. You just hate him because he’s in love with David.”

That was an interesting way to put it. I’d never framed their relationship that way before.

“Is he really?”

Oli nodded with conviction. “It’s sickening, but yes. I wanted him for myself, but he’s hooked on your ex.”

I flashed back to the night before, when I’d drunkenly observed their affectionate embrace. At the time, it had burned like acid sinking into the cavities of my heart, but now… the knowledge grounded me. Raymond loved David.

“You’re an odd duck.”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because you’re smiling.” Oli wagged his finger at me. “I thought I had you figured out, but that threw me way the fuck off.”

“What did you have figured?”

“Oh, you know….” Oli looked around as if searching for the words. He waved a hand elegantly, painting random figures in the air. “I thought you wanted him back and were guilt-stricken that you spent five hours fucking his friend. But then you looked relieved that Raymond is in love with him, so I have no idea what to think.”

Warmth rushed to my face, and it had nothing to do with the steaming cup of tea.

“I thought he gravitated to Raymond because of the sex. He told me there was more to it, but I didn’t believe him. The boy is walking sex, and my brief conversations with him were so hostile I couldn’t imagine him being much more than a testosterone-driven hard-on.”

Oli started to speak but seemed to think better of it. He cocked his head again, blue eyes steady on me, and was quiet while I drained the mug. Only when I slid it to the center of the table did he speak again.

“You thought he only went to Raymond because the sex was better. That’s why you’re so self-conscious about sex. He made you insecure.”

“He didn’t make me anything,” I countered. “I’ve always been this way. I wasn’t in a position to date or pursue a relationship until I came out to my father. By then, I was thirty and very aware of my lack of sexual experience.”

“Late bloomer,” Oli said. “I get it now.”

“No, you don’t