MITCH JENKINS threw down his pen with a groan. “You know what? They must think we’re idiots.” He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes as if that would wipe away all traces of Bronwen Dempsey’s pathetic excuse for an essay. No such luck—it was still lying there when he peeked at his desk.
Angela Frampton raised her head from her grading and chuckled. “What have the dear little darlings done now?” She put down her pen and stretched. “Go on, tell me. I could use a laugh.” She gestured toward her neat pile of assignments. “Anything not to have to look at yet another paper that proves my students don’t listen to a word I say.” Angela tilted her head to one side. “So go on, spill.” She started packing away her pens.
“I assigned an essay on Lord of the Flies for my tenth grade class,” Mitch told her as he leaned back in his chair, his laced fingers cradling his head. “So far, I count ten, maybe twelve students who’ve all used goddamn CliffsNotes in their ‘research.’” He hooked his fingers in the air and snorted. “Yeah, right. The extent of their research was to repeat the notes verbatim or copy and paste whole paragraphs from the Internet. I bet they all thought they were being so clever, so original. Did they think I wouldn’t notice? Oh, course not, I forgot, I’m just some dumb schmuck of an English teacher with a degree in English literature and obviously don’t have enough brain cells to recognize what is basically the same essay repeated over and over again.” He shook his head. “And these will be the same kids who’ll go running home to mommy and daddy to complain I’m being unfair and harsh when I give them an F. Is it wrong of me to expect an essay to contain at least one original thought?” Mitch exhaled, pushing all of the tension out of him in one long breath. “Are we there yet?” It had been a long fucking week.
Angela got up from her chair and came over to him, placing her hands on his shoulders and kneading the tense muscles. She bent lower to speak quietly next to his ear. “You’ve got three more weeks, Mitch, then it’s adios to all this for the summer. C’mon, I know it’s been a rough couple months, but you’re nearly there.” She pushed her thumbs into the flesh on either side of his spine and kneaded hard.
Mitch groaned and leaned forward, giving her room. “Damn, you’re good at that. You’d make a fabulous masseuse, do you know that?” He grunted when she dug in deeper, her agile fingers finding the knots of tension at the base of his neck and between his shoulder blades. He gave a low moan of pleasure; it felt that good. Clearly there was some recompense for staying behind to work when everyone else had left for the evening. The teachers’ lounge was deserted, save for the two of them. Not that this was the first time he’d benefited from Angela’s magical fingers. It was getting to be a regular Friday night habit.
Angela chuckled. “Can you not make those noises, Mitch? If anyone passes by in the hall, they’d be forgiven for thinking something awfully dirty is going on in here.”
“Who cares?” he groused. “The students have gone, ’cause who would stick around school on a Friday after four o’clock?” He guffawed. “Oh yeah, I forgot—the poor teachers who have to grade their plagiarized crap.” Mitch chuckled. “And if there’s anyone out there perverted enough to listen with their ear pressed up to the door? Screw ’em. Let ’em think what they like.”
“You’re a wicked man,” Angela said, laughing. “You’ll ruin my reputation.”
“Honey, your reputation is quite safe, trust me.” It wasn’t as if he made a big thing about his sexuality, but he didn’t hide it. Besides, Angela was an absolute sweetheart. She and Mitch often chatted during their prep period or over coffee during their lunch break. “And one day, you’re gonna make some lucky man very happy with those fingers.” Angela snorted and Mitch snickered. “Okay, that sounded dirty even to me. I think we’d better call it a night.”
“Why, Mr. Jenkins, Miss Frampton, whatever are you doing?” A theatrical gasp accompanied the words.
Right on time. “Hey, Aaron, you ready to leave?” Angela hastily withdrew her hands and straightened. Mitch grabbed hold and patted one hand, gazing up into her sweet face. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. He kissed her fingertips. “These are wonderful.”
Angela blushed from the neck of her blouse up to the roots of her auburn hair as she pulled free of him. “Oh hush. Have a good weekend, Mitch.” She glanced over his head and gave a slight nod. “Aaron.” Once she’d picked up her purse, she fled the teachers’ lounge, cheeks still flushed.
Aaron Weldon flopped into the chair facing Mitch. “I don’t get it. What do you have that I don’t?”
Mitch arched his eyebrows. “Excuse me?” He stretched, his spine popping.
Aaron flung out his hand, gesturing toward the closed door. “You get back rubs, giggles, ‘have a good weekend, Mitch,’” he mimicked, “whereas all I get is a cursory nod and my name.” He let out an exaggerated sigh. “And what makes it worse? She knows we’re both gay.”
“God, you talk a load of crap,” Mitch groused, rising from his chair to get his jacket. He was more than ready to leave.
Aaron gave a knowing smile. “I get it. You’ve got that whole wounded by love thing going for you. Women are suckers for a guy with a broken heart.” No sooner had the words left his lips than he froze. “Oh. Yeah. Sorry, Mitch, I didn’t—”
“Save it, okay?” Mitch said stiffly. He didn’t want to think about Jerry. Two months had passed, but the pain was still fresh, still raw.
Aaron sighed. “I was meaning to talk to you on the way home. I wondered if you wanted to meet up tonight.”
Mitch glanced at the pile of essays. He’d be spending most of Saturday grading them.
That made the decision a damn sight easier.
“Sure. What do you have in mind? And don’t say meeting up with some guys you found on Grindr, ’cause if that’s the case, I’m changing my mind.” He shoved the papers into his bag.
Aaron pulled a face. “What have you got against Grindr?”
From the hall came the sound of a door closing.
“Not in here,” Mitch said hurriedly. “You never know who’s hanging around. We can talk on the train.” Not that he wanted to.
Aaron nodded and rose, grabbing his backpack. “Let’s get out of here, then.”
As they headed down the quiet hallway toward the exit, one of the custodians, Bertha, greeted them with a cheery wave. “Have a good one, fellas.”
Mitch grinned. “Same to you, Bertha. And thanks for those books you left on my desk this morning. Books are always welcome.” They’d gone straight onto the shelf in his classroom where he kept paperbacks for the kids to borrow.
Bertha waved her hand dismissively. “Pfft. You were doin’ me a favor. Now the eldest is off to college soon, he’s clearin’ out his room. He was gonna throw ’em out!” She shook her head. “Kids. Don’t appreciate nothin’. I figured you’d have a use for ’em.” Her smile lit up her face. “He still says you’re one of the best teachers in the place. And he had some damn good teachers in Atlanta, so that is really sayin’ somethin’.”
Damn. Mitch was too long in the tooth to be blushing at a compliment, but his cheeks heated up regardless. “Your Tony was a sweet kid who loved learning. Kids like that are a joy to teach.” He gave her one last smile before he and Aaron departed. “Enjoy deciding what you’re going to do with that room once he’s gone.”
Bertha let out a whoop. “Honey, got that one all figured out. That’s gonna be my new sewin’ room. You know how long I’ve wanted me one of those?” She grinned. “Soon as Tony is out, my sewin’ machine is in, baby.”
Mitch could still hear her chuckling as he and Aaron descended the stone steps in front of the main building, hurrying to 77th Street to catch the subway. The Upper East Side was gearing up for rush hour, the traffic already swelling along with the noise. Mitch swung his jacket over his shoulder, enjoying the warmth of the late afternoon sun. Early June was a lovely time of year in New York City, and right then the temperature had to be in the high seventies. Perfect, as far as Mitch was concerned.
“I remember Tony Blasco,” Aaron remarked. “Nice kid.”
Mitch chuffed. “And gay as a three-dollar bill.” He adjusted his backpack to a more comfortable position. “He took a lot of crap from the jocks when he was a sophomore and he joined the theater group.”
“What—you think he’s gay just because he was into the arts?” Aaron rolled his eyes. “Geez, talk about stereotyping a guy.”
Mitch chuckled. “No, I think he’s gay because I caught sight of him one weekend in Central Park his senior year. He was sitting on a bench with Sammy Williams, and they were doing their damnedest not to look like they were holding hands.” The memory made him smile. “Young love, huh?”
“You think his mom knows he’s gay?”
“Not for me to speculate,” Mitch replied with a shrug. “All I can do is hope she’s one of those parents who supports their children, whatever their sexual orientation. Lord knows, we have plenty of the other kind in this country.” He pushed aside the familiar pulse of rage toward parents who could abandon their children simply because they were LGBT. He’d been damned lucky with his family. “Talk to me about your plans for this evening.”
“There’s a bar I’d like to take you to,” Aaron said as they descended into the bowels of the city and through the turnstile that led onto the subway platform. “Well, it’s sort of a club too.”
Mitch groaned. “Please, not another strip joint. That last one was embarrassing.”
“What was wrong with it?” Aaron’s tone was indignant.
Mitch leaned in close and lowered his voice. “They were supposed to be strippers, right? Sorry, but I do not class playing around with the hem of your sleeveless shirt as stripping.” He sighed. “Now Atlanta, there’s a city that has good strip clubs. For one thing, you get to see the whole package, not like in this puritanical city.”
Aaron coughed. “New York—puritanical? Hell, I’ve heard the Big Apple called a lotta things, but that is not one of them.” He grinned. “NYC is the Gay Mecca.”
Mitch arched his eyebrows. “Well, your Gay Mecca has some pretty strict ideas about sex.”
Their train pulled into the station, and they quickly got on board. Aaron grabbed two empty seats near the door and flopped down into one of them. Mitch joined him, his backpack sitting on his lap.
He sighed heavily. “Go on, then—tell me about this club.”
“It’s on West 38th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenue, and it’s called the Black Lounge. It’s more of a bar-cum-restaurant, but it has three floors. The second floor is quieter, with leather couches, soft music—you know, more conducive to talking. And then there’s the third floor, which is where the dancing happens.”
“A gay restaurant?” Mitch didn’t think the Garment District had such a thing, although it wasn’t often he ate far from his home turf of 4th and Perry. He knew the area; it was frequented by a young gay crowd, the perfect spot for a club.
Aaron shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t eat much in the restaurant. I just take the stairs up to the second or third floor. Both have bars, and the music’s not bad.”
“Are we talking casual, swanky, what?”
“It’s a swanky spot, for sure. Pretty classy.” Aaron leveled a keen glance at Mitch. “So… you still wanna meet me there tonight?”
The mood he was in right then, Mitch would’ve agreed to anything. “Sure. I’ll meet you outside. What time?”
“I was thinking maybe nine, ten o’clock.”
Mitch could do that. He leaned his head against the window and closed his eyes. He hadn’t been to a club for a while. Jerry’s exit had been a real kick to the balls. He’d only started to venture out after he’d grown tired of jerking off. What he hadn’t counted on were his own hang-ups getting in the way of a good time.
“You okay, Mitch?”
He popped open one eye and peered at Aaron. “Yeah. Why’d you ask?”
Aaron stared at him. “Why’d I ask? Really? You’ve been one badass moody bitch ever since… you know.”
Shit. “That bad?”
Aaron snorted. “Why’d ya think I’m taking you out on the town tonight? I figured you really needed a fun night out. You know, music, hot guys…. You never know, you might get lucky.”
Mitch could’ve told him that wasn’t about to happen, but he didn’t want to put a damper on things. He knew Aaron’s heart was in the right place. He regarded his colleague with affection. “Thanks. I do appreciate it. And I’m sorry for having my head stuck up my ass the last couple of months. I guess being dumped really knocked the wind out of my sails.”
“I haven’t asked you about it ’cause I figured you didn’t wanna talk about it.”
“Well, get a few drinks in me tonight,” Mitch confided, “and I may spill my guts.” Not that he wanted to talk about it, but Aaron deserved that much.
When the train pulled into the station, he and Aaron parted company with the promise that he’d call if he changed his mind. Mitch didn’t think it likely. A night of alcohol with the possibility of eye candy was definitely an improvement. He changed lines and headed across to West 10th Street. He had time to grab a bite to eat and maybe even a nap before showering and taking the train up to 34th Street. It would be a lovely night to walk the remaining four blocks.
Aaron was right. Mitch needed a night out. Anything to get away from the constant nagging voice telling him it was his fault Jerry left.
THE BLACK Lounge was definitely upmarket. Mitch took one look around the crowded space and felt shabby. He’d never seen so many smartly dressed men in one place. The bar was a sea of Hugo Boss, Gucci, and Ferragamo. The background music was low and unobtrusive, and the bar top seemed to be one long line of cocktails and glasses of white wine. There were small tables set up with two or three chairs, and at least four couches that Mitch had spied so far. From above came the pulse of dance music.
“When you said classy, you weren’t kidding,” he said quietly, leaning closer to Aaron while they waited at the bar. “I keep looking over my shoulder for the bouncer to walk up to me and ask me to leave because I don’t meet their dress code.”
Aaron cackled, the sound just a shade too loud. Heads turned in their direction before conversations resumed. “Mitch, you look fine. Stop worrying.”
Mitch glanced at his black shirt, the top two buttons open to reveal the black hair that covered his chest. He wore black jeans that had been sitting in his drawer for months, the tags still intact, and he’d polished his boots until they shone. No jewelry except his heavy watch, a silver thumb ring, and the single diamond stud in his earlobe.
Maybe a tie would help?
The bartender placed a beer in front of him, and he nervously swallowed half of it. “Feeling a little underdressed, to be honest.”
Aaron snickered. “Will you quit stressing? I repeat: you look fine. Now finish that up so I can get you another. Maybe something classier, like a cocktail.” He winked and sipped his Manhattan.
Mitch bit back his groan. “See? Even my choice of drink is all wrong for this place.” He gazed at the tables and couches, taking in the men of all shapes and sizes. Lord, but there were some good-looking guys, not one of them badly dressed. He estimated one man’s suit would cost as much as Mitch made in a month.
Aaron appeared completely relaxed, as though he spent every night in the bar.
Come to think of it….
“How often do you come here?” Mitch asked him.
Aaron’s face flushed. “Oh, I’ve only been here a few times.” He took a longer drink from his cocktail and peered into the distance, as if studying his environs. Mitch regarded him steadily, but Aaron was doing a good job of avoiding his gaze.
Okay, that’s weird.
Mitch huffed and returned his attention to his beer while drinking in the scenery. His earlier estimation had been entirely correct—the guys in this bar were gorgeous. His gaze was drawn in particular to one tall hunk of good-looking sitting alone, sipping a cocktail. Now and again the guy would flick his gaze in Mitch’s direction and smile. Mitch tried hard not to stare, but damn, Mr. Tall, Dark, and Sexy just drew the eye. When he shifted position, drawing Mitch’s attention to his crotch—fuck, how in hell did I miss that?—it became apparent, even at a distance, that the man was hung.
The blatancy of his calculated action was enough to pour ice water over Mitch’s groin.
Uh-uh, not going there.
“You got good taste,” Aaron murmured, nudging Mitch’s arm. “Why not stroll over and say hi?”
“Because that’s not me,” Mitch returned under his breath.
Aaron stared at him sardonically. “Wanna explain that one to me? ’Cause last time I looked, you’ve been single for two whole months and he is fucking gorgeous.” He arched his eyebrows. “You telling me you haven’t been laid in two months?”
Mitch did his best to breathe evenly. “Look, you’re perfectly happy to go on Grindr or Scruff or whatever and hook up with random guys based on the way they look and how their profile reads, but not me, all right?” He knew all about Aaron’s sex life. His colleague wasn’t the shy, retiring type, and when he got lucky, Mitch always got to hear the gory details—whether he wanted to or not.
Aaron rolled his eyes. “Geez, Grindr again? Consenting adults, right?”
Mitch drained half his glass before turning to face Aaron. “I’ve used it too, okay? I had a couple of hookups about a month ago, but honestly, I’m just not sold on the whole one-night stand thing. I’m not happy about going to some guy’s place, and as for them coming to mine? Forget it.”
“Sounds like you got issues,” Aaron remarked.
“You’re damn right I have issues!”
That came out louder than Mitch had intended. His cheeks grew hot as he took in the glances in their direction, but Aaron said nothing.
Mitch took a deep, calming breath. “I like situations where I feel in control. Hookups, one-night stands, call ’em what you will—there are too many unknowns for my liking, especially nowadays.”
“Well, there’s disease, for one. You don’t know anything about the guy you’re fucking, or who’s fucking you. Plus there are some real crazies out there. Most of all, I guess I’m scared of that lack of control.” He drained the rest of his beer and met Aaron’s gaze. “Can’t believe I’m telling you this, but… I’ve been thinking about using some site like RentMen.com.” He’d done more than think about it, but Aaron didn’t need to know that.
Aaron frowned. “Why them and not Grindr?”
“It seems legit, and it looks like all the guys are vetted.”
Aaron stared at him in silence. After a moment he put down his cocktail glass and shifted closer on his barstool. “Okay, I know RentMen has a good reputation, but you’ve got it all wrong. Anyone can advertise on that site. You still don’t know what you’re getting. All the company does is provide the site.” He tilted his head. “What if…?” Aaron grabbed his Manhattan and took a gulp, his face contorting as he swallowed.
For some inexplicable reason, Mitch had goosebumps. He watched Aaron without a word. Aaron studied his face intently, and Mitch wondered what the hell was going on.
When he couldn’t take the silence anymore, he gestured wildly. “All this is driving me crazy. Spit it out, Aaron, whatever it is.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Aaron began, enunciating slowly. “You wanna get laid, but you’re not happy taking home some stranger you know nothing about. You’re even less happy about going to his place.”
“It just doesn’t feel… safe,” Mitch admitted. He knew it was a hang-up, but it was proving difficult to overcome. At this rate I’ll never get laid again. The alternative was the slow and steady dating route, but Lord, there were times when all he really needed was a good, hot fuck.
“So what if I told you about a club I joined recently?” Aaron’s gaze never wandered from Mitch’s face.
The goosebumps were back, big-time.
“What kind of club?” Mitch knew he sounded cautious, but he couldn’t help it.
Aaron leaned closer, his voice barely audible. “A secret club, which provides any type of guy you could imagine. Guys who are vetted. You get to spend time with them in a controlled, secure environment. Would that be of interest to you?”
Mitch smirked. “Christ, Aaron, sounds like you’re describing a brothel.”
Aaron’s eyes widened. “Shh, not so loud.” He glanced around them, biting his lip.
Fuck. “Oh my God, you are.” Mitch gaped. “You’re talking about a fucking brothel.”
Aaron straightened. “I’m talking about a club where you can only get in if you’re a member, or a member’s guest. And they run background checks before they accept you as a member. They don’t advertise, it’s all word of mouth. Everything the client wants, they provide—and I do mean everything. You pay by the hour, and you get to see before you buy, if you catch my drift. The guys are taken care of, tested, checked out, you name it. When you become a member, you have to sign a contract stipulating that you do not disclose any details about the club to anyone.”
“What, like you’re now disclosing to me?” Mitch raised his eyebrows.
“You, I trust. And if I take you there, you’ll have to sign the same contract, okay?”
Mitch breathed deeply. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Aaron nodded. “Why not come along, see what you think? And if someone catches your eye, he’s yours for a couple of hours, on me.” He held up his hands. “No pressure, Mitch. If you’re not happy, then we leave. I don’t mention it again.” A faint smile twisted his lips. “But if you do spy someone who pushes all the right buttons….”
“Sounds like an awfully expensive gift, Aaron.” Mitch knew what the guys on RentMen charged per hour for their time, and what Aaron was describing didn’t come across as cheap. “Why would you do that for me?”
He snorted. “Look, we may get along, but I’m not about to shell out that kinda money for you to get laid. Think of it more like bonus points I’ve accrued. I don’t have a clue what happened with Jerry, but it’s obvious you’ve been through some shit. You need this.” He sat back and drained his glass. “Well?”
Mitch thought fast. A look wouldn’t hurt. He could get an impression of this club and make a decision based on his gut feeling. And of course, there was always the possibility that he could get laid. God knows, he’d had enough of fucking his fist.
“Okay, let’s do it,” he said quickly. “Where is this place?” He grabbed his jacket from the stool next to him and rose to his feet.
Aaron simply raised his gaze to the ceiling before looking Mitch in the eye.