THIS IS probably the worst idea I’ve ever had.

“You know, I think this is the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

Christian was briefly startled before turning to face his escort. What he’d momentarily taken for an echo was really only his so-called friend, David, offering his version of support. Christian glared at his self-appointed conscience and defended himself—even as he privately agreed.

“Shut up. It’s a freaking great plan, no two ways about it. And I look spectacular.”

The tall, muscular black man stepped back and deliberately checked him out from head to toe and up again while Christian tried not to squirm. In the ankle-length, Marie Antoinette–esque shepherdess gown, the coiffed wig complete with ringlets demurely brushing his shoulders, and the artful makeup applied by David’s second cousin—Shelly? Sherry?—who he’d thankfully never see again, he was already well off his game and floundering. Christian was sure that, at some point, he’d step on the hem of his gown just like in some farcical movie, ripping it clean off and exposing his decidedly not female equipment to the jeering crowd.

Or almost as bad, his hair-covered legs, which he’d adamantly refused to shave when they’d said it was time to get rid of the telltale growth, arguing that since the gown was nearly floor-length he didn’t have to. No way in hell, he’d declared. The cousins had finally stopped laughing enough to point out it was his forearms, not his legs, that were to be the object of their efforts. He’d tried for at least five minutes to convince them blond didn’t show, before teetering on the edge of giving in. Then they showed him what they’d been holding back and he’d given David a shove, telling him exactly what he could do with his razor. The elbow-length white gloves didn’t exactly go with the flounced half-sleeves, but he’d grabbed them like a lifeline.

David’s cousin—Shandra? Shayla?—had taken a rather disturbing interest in helping Christian transform himself into David’s date for the evening. Christian had to admit she’d done a good job, raiding the costume department of some community theater she belonged to and also pulling item after item out of her “accessory dresser.” Did all women need a whole piece of furniture just for their accessories?

But in the end, the face staring back at him in the mirror, even shaved and made up, had still looked exactly like his own. Fearing he’d never be able to pass for a woman, he’d almost called the whole thing off.

Until David had pulled Christian’s saving grace out of the bag.

The sequin-accented and jeweled demi-mask completely covered the upper half of his face, save for the uptilted eye holes. Then it swooped down in a sort of inverted heart, concealing his cheeks and trademark dimples down to the jawline, leaving only his tinted lips and chin visible. The mask itself was somehow molded into a very feminine countenance, and dressed and with it in place, Christian was shocked and gratified to see a sexy woman in his stead.

“Spectacular? I was going to say hot—until you opened your mouth.”

Christian’s jaw dropped. Fuming at the double-edged compliment, he was about to throw down regardless of the gown. Then the incongruity of his uber-straight friend calling him “hot” finally ticked over in his brain.

“You think I’m hot?” Christian struck a seductive pose, at least he thought so. Apparently David and—Shenice! That was it!—Shenice disagreed, from the severity of the winces he got in response.

“Damn, man. Don’t do that!” David held his hands out in a warding-off gesture and dramatically averted his head. “Yeah, I would totally hit that. If you weren’t such a dick. And didn’t have one.”

Shenice rolled her eyes, then coached, “You have to be more subtle, graceful. Fluid in your movements. You’re too blocky.” She watched him expectantly, but Christian was more interested in David’s comment.

“Yeah? Really? Huh. Maybe you’re not as straight as you think you are,” Christian teased as he turned to the mirror and tried to be less… blocky. Whatever the fuck that meant.

David laughed broadly, secure in his own skin. “You might want to keep in mind that you couldn’t look less like a guy right now. And I’ll admit there are some guys that do drag really well. Doesn’t change the fact that when I pull up the skirt, I don’t want to find an outie, you know what I’m sayin’?”

“Good point,” Shenice chimed in seriously. “Don’t pull your skirt up. Or let anyone else do it either,” she added, and Christian turned to look at her reflection in the mirrored wall. “Hmm, maybe we should tuck you.”

The placid expression of the mask was one hundred eighty degrees from what was on his face underneath it. “Tuck me? If that means what I think it means, no fucking way! And I’m not going to go around flashing people. What the fuck?”

David was almost down for the count with the laughter now coming from him in choked gasps. Shenice just crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow as she recited all the ways he could be outed. “Bathroom visit? Groping in the corner with some hot guy? Tripping and falling? Getting out of the car?”

“No. Way. My… stuff is not getting tucked.”

“Okay, okay. But you at least have to wear pantyhose. Just in case.”

Christian turned to David, looking for commiseration. He was wiping his eyes. No help there. Jerk.

Shenice was rummaging in her apparently bottomless accessory dresser again. “Here are some queen-sized.” She smirked. “No pun intended.”

David was slowly regaining his composure. “Hey, man, isn’t this a helluva lot of work just to go to a party your booty call is going to?”

“He’s not just a booty call.” He’s an old wound I have to excise.

“Have you two been on a date?”

Christian narrowed his eyes. “Of course we have.”

David sighed, all traces of amusement gone. “Let me rephrase that. Have you been on a date not at your house? In public?”

Christian’s eyes dropped as the arrow hit its target.

Shenice chimed in gently, “Honey, a man that won’t take you out and show you off to the world isn’t worth it. You’ve gotta have some respect for yourself. Trust me. I had this guy, oh, he was fine. Dressed nice, flashy car, you know the type. Comes on strong, knocks you off your feet, right? Next thing you know, you’re getting all the sex you want. But when you stop and think about it, that’s all you’re getting.”

Despite his best efforts, Christian found himself getting pulled in to her tale… so much like his own situation it was eerie.

“Dates just don’t happen, more like standing booty calls. You tell yourself, oh, he just wants to be with you so bad, other people get in the way. Honeymoon period. But if you’re honest with yourself”—there was true empathy in her eyes—“he doesn’t want to be with you. He wants to have sex with you. Sometimes he’s married or has a girlfriend. Maybe he’s just a selfish prick with impossibly high standards about who he’s seen with. Or in your case, maybe he’s so far in the closet he can’t find the door.” David was nodding, watching him somberly as Shenice made their case.

It was starting to feel like an intervention.

He shifted uncomfortably, glad he was safely hidden behind the mask. Only his eyes showed at the moment, and he was sure they could read the shame in his gaze. Because deep down, hadn’t he realized all this was true? Why else would he be going to such lengths to watch Carl unobserved? Why else did he need to see the truth with his own eyes, if not to cauterize the wound and start healing?