Chapter One

 

“Hey, Brady! Get your pansy ass over here.” Loud, grating laughter followed the slur. Clearly Mr. Bigmouth thought he was funny.

Rodney Mansfield glanced toward the fire station as he sauntered past. Saunter. Funny word. Actually stalk was more accurate. But the object of his stalking wasn’t in sight. Just that bigmouthed asshole called Mick. Yeah. He’d been around before on Rod’s strolls. The guy got on his last nerve.

Sigh. No Hunter. The line of carefully assembled fire gear—pants inside boots, other paraphernalia stacked alongside—looked serious and ready. Shoot. Where was he? This was usually his shift, or so it seemed based on stalking evidence.

One more minute, then he had to go. He paused. Try for elaborately casual, darling. Nothing. No Hunter. Shit. Had to get back to the festival.

Rod took off at a run up Laguna Canyon Road and covered the couple of blocks in a few seconds.

“Hi, darling.” He waggled fingers at the attendant as he pressed through the turnstile. Once on the festival grounds, he maneuvered through the crowds. Some serious art patrons and lots of tourists were crowded around the high, slanted walls of displays that edged an open lawn of tables and chairs. The festival was an art fairyland after the busy traffic on the road outside.

“Rod! Who’s minding the store?”

He skidded to a stop before rounding the corner of the wall of art. Heidi was waving from her stall. Loved her stuff. Really gorgeous jewelry. He fingered the six gold hoops in his ear, many of which were Heidi’s creations. “Hi, darling. Kiss, kiss.” He smooched the air in her direction on the other side of the lawn. “Jerry’s watching it for me. I just had to pee.” A couple of art patrons’ heads turned toward him. Okay, maybe TMI. A failing of his. He looked at Heidi, who grinned. He shrugged. “Gotta get back before he gives away my best portrait.” He waggled his fingers. “LOL, dear. See ya.”

He started to jog and then stopped himself. Okay, Rodster, slow down before you run into someone. David was always telling him to just ease up a little and he’d live longer, but hell, who wanted to live longer if you couldn’t live fast? He laughed and sped up.

He cleared one of the rows of art displays and turned to cut over to the next and saw…. His heart stopped beating. Holy shit. He dove behind the wall. Here. He was here!

While Rod had been wasting time stalking, the object of his obsession was standing in front of Rod’s booth talking to Jerry. Oh God, beautiful. At least six foot two, with dark brown hair and wide, light eyes, the man was a walking work of art. But he was with a woman.

Rod had never seen Hunter with a woman. Of course, firefighters didn’t often invite their girlfriends to hang out at the station, so Rod wouldn’t necessarily have seen her while making his forays past the fire department.

He sighed. He’d kind of hoped. Of course, hoping was fucking stupid. Why would somebody like Hunter Fallon be interested in a little pipsqueak like Rodney Mansfield? Why would the most gorgeous human on the planet want to cozy up to the Runtback of Notre Dame?

But what could Mr. Gorgeous be saying to Jerry? Rod cut around the display and came up to the spot on the other side of the wall that backed against his own booth, beside the wall of “Roman’s” art. Rodney Mansfield. Aka Roman. Painter of huge, semi-impressionistic nudes of magnificent men. Yeah, yeah, he saw the irony in a miniature human painting huge nudes of gorgeous guys. Freud would’ve had a field day with him.

Maybe he could hear if he just oozed around the corner a little. He scooted closer and picked up a copy of the art show program. Turning his back, he pretended to read while sneaking toward his display.

Bingo. He heard that soft, low voice he sometimes caught on his walks past the fire station. Shivers. Oh God, the man was sex on a stick.

“That’s the most beautiful brushwork I’ve ever seen. It looks like oil rather than acrylic. Is it?”

OMG, Hunter liked his painting. Passing out was an option. Rod fluttered the program.

Jerry giggled. The surfer dude voice rang out, and Rod cringed. “Shit, man, I don’t know oil from vinegar. I don’t paint this. It’s Roman. I’m not Roman. I’m just watching the booth for him for a few, man. Hang around and you can meet him. They’re really pretty, aren’t they? I mean, these guys’ asses are radical. I’ll tell you a secret, man. I even posed for a couple, but not this one. Don’t know who this dude is, ya know, but ya wanna buy it?”

Shit. Rod wanted to rush around the corner. He loved Jerry, but sometimes the guy just didn’t think real clearly. Maybe a few too many drugs in childhood. But Rod couldn’t interrupt. What would he do if he met Hunter face-to-face? Faint city.

A pretty female voice said, “Darling, you should pose for this artist. He’s the only painter I’ve ever seen who could do justice to your beauty.”

Rod’s heart skipped. Paint Hunter? Jesus. And the woman called him “darling.” Shit! But of course Rod called everyone darling, so maybe it didn’t mean anything. Maybe.

That melodious voice laughed. “Give me a break, kid. Don’t let the guys hear you calling me beautiful. Us manly men are handsome or nothing.”

Jerry chimed in. “Hey, man, I think you’re beautiful too. Or, uh, handsome.”

Oh, Jerry, you don’t think.

After a pause, Hunter said, “Thanks. Look, if the artist comes back, just tell him I’m a new fan and I think his work is brilliant.”

“Sure, man. No problem.”

Rod let out a breath and leaned against the wall. A fan. The guy is a fan. He thinks my work is brilliant. OMG.

“Hey, Rodney, what you doing?” His friend Harry was walking by.

Rod waved the program. “Just checking the exhibitors.”

Harry laughed as he continued moving. “You ought to know that by heart.”

Yeah. He did. He took another deep breath and walked around the corner to his booth. “Hey, Jerry. Sorry I took so long.”

“Oh my God, oh my God, Rod, you missed it, man. The most beautiful guy on two feet. I’ve never seen anyone like him. Fuck, man, I wanted to hold him down and lick him all over. Oh, Rod, this guy is so great. I tried to keep him here so you could see him. I gotta see him again, I just gotta.”

Rod held up a hand. “Okay, I get it. You liked some guy.” Shit, Jerry never got excited about much.

“Not just some guy, Rod. This guy was, like, heaven, man.”

“Was he gay?” Might as well keep pretending.

Jerry looked like someone killed his puppy. “Nah, he had a chick with him. Really pretty. Damn, why are all the good ones straight?”

“I think straight women say, ‘Why are all the good ones gay?’”

Jerry slumped on the tall stool, then brightened as apparently a thought struck. “Maybe I could turn him?”

Rod had to laugh. “You don’t usually like to work that hard. You think he’ll consider being gay for you?”

“Oh man, dude, it would be so worth it. This guy is special.”

Rod adjusted the cards on the small plant stand beneath his paintings and glanced at Jerry. Talk about your gorgeous guys. Jerry had streaked blond hair to his shoulders surrounding an effortlessly beautiful face with full lips, wide eyes, and a cute, turned-up nose. The classic boy next door gone surfer dude. He wasn’t exactly an intellectual giant, but no one cared. Jerry was warm and fun. Friendly and unchallenging. He was great, and Rod enjoyed having him around. Yeah, and Jerry had even made him some money. Two paintings of Jerry in the buff had gone for top dollar. “Hey, darling, I owe you for booth sitting for me. Can I take you to dinner tomorrow?”

Jerry unfolded himself from the high stool. “Man, you don’t have to do anything for me. You know you help me out so much.”

“Indulge me, darling.”

“Okay, yeah. That’d be great.”

“We’ll go over to the Mexican place you like.”

“Cooool. See ya tomorrow.” Jerry ambled through the knots of people toward the festival’s exit.

“Great, Jerry. Yeah.” Rod turned back to the guest book and ran his fingers over Hunter Fallon’s signature. Did he have time to walk past the fire station before karate tonight?

 

 

Bird’s tail. Single whip. Wave hands like clouds. Single whip. High pat on horse. Hunter is gorgeous. Concentrate, Rod. Kick left heel. Push down. Who was that woman? Never saw him with a woman before. Pay attention. Needle at the sea bottom. What an ass. Flash, turn, deflect, cross hands, close. Shit.

He peeked up from his palms-together position. Master Chen’s frown relaxed, his forehead smoothing. “Now that we are focused from our Tai Chi”—he flicked a glance at Rodney—“Rodney, will you lead us through the katas? Please give our new students special attention.”

Rod glanced at the two new guys in the back row. Wow, one was cute. Rod bowed low. “Yes, sensei.” He started through the prescribed forms, and the twenty or so students followed him while Master Chen observed. He might be old, but Chen was still a master in every respect. He let Rod lead the class in all but the new material, but nobody better sell him short. Though short he was, two inches shorter than Rod’s five foot six.

But Chen could take down the biggest tyrants, which inspired Rod, though they couldn’t be more different. Chen’s smooth black hair was cut short to his head, and he wore clothing to match. Rod had bleached his hair white—streaked with pink this week—wore gold and silver hoops down both ears, and, when he wasn’t in a gi, favored a touch of purple and gold. He knew he and Chen looked funny together in the class, but Rod always said contrast made for great art.

Once the students were moving through their forms, he went to the back of the group, where the two new men were having a go. A short, stocky young guy in bike shorts and a tank top flailed about like a bad imitation of martial arts movies. Crouching tiger, hidden raccoon. Beside him, the cutie patootie moved his tall, lean body, dressed in a gi with a brown belt, through a series of forms close enough to the katas they practiced that Rod could leave him alone for a while. He grinned at the tall guy, who gave him a big smile back. Cu-tie. He turned his attention back to the flailing rodent. “Okay, let’s get organized.”

After fifteen minutes, during which he knew Chen and the cute guy were trying hard not to laugh, Rod managed to get the overenthusiastic recruit under control enough that he might not hurt himself or others. Rod walked to the front of the room and ran through the practice the students needed to do at home. Everyone sat to listen to a short discussion with Master Chen, and then class was over.

Man, warm. Maybe a cool drinkie before he went home. He waved at the students as they filed out and started pulling clothes from his gym bag.

A voice came from beside the front door. “Hey, is that guy who was teaching us a fag or what?” The voice had to be the flailing raccoon, because Rod didn’t recognize it.

Silence, during which his heart beat fast, but he kept sorting through his clothing just to see what would happen.

A voice he recognized as one of his more alpha male students rang out. “His hair may be pink, but his belt is black. I’d be real careful what I said to Rodney Mansfield.”

“Hey, no offense meant.” The raccoon sounded worried.

The other guy laughed. “It’s not me you have to convince.”

The voices faded out the door. Shit. Little pipsqueak. Of course, not his fault, really. Rod had learned a long time ago that since people were going to assume he was gay anyway, he might as well flaunt it. Get there first. He wondered if the guy had the balls to come back to class.

He stripped off his top and folded it into his gym bag. His favorite bright purple David Bowie T-shirt would be a better weight for the warm night.

“My, aren’t we fit.”

What? Oh, cute new guy. Rod turned to let Mr. Patootie get a good look at his muscled abs. He might not have much to show, but what he had was purr-fect. “I try to stay in shape.”

“You succeed.”

Hmm. Was he flirting?

The guy had a lopsided grin below gold wire-rimmed glasses that made him look smart and cute. “I’m Bill, by the way. Bill Abraham.”

They shook hands. The guy’s palm was big and warm. “Rod Mansfield. You did well. Have you studied long?” He pulled the T-shirt over his head.

“About three years. I just moved here from Northern California, and I heard about your studio. Thought I’d give it a try.” Another lopsided grin. “And you didn’t have to put on the T-shirt for my sake.”

Okay, full-on flirting. Kind of nice. “Figured I’d give the world a break. You live in Laguna?”

“Yeah, I got a little place down in South Laguna. I’m from Berkeley, and I decided if I had to live in Orange County, it better be in the one gay-friendly town.”

Rod stuck out a hip, planted his fist on it, and lisped. “What? You thought I might know something about that?”

Bill delivered a sheepish smile. “I don’t want to be presumptuous.”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t exactly have straight alpha male stamped on my chest.”

“And a very pretty chest it is.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere.”

“Will it get you to have dinner with me sometime this week? Friday?”

Hmm. The guy seemed nice enough. Shit, why was he hesitating? Afraid a date would cut into his mooning-over-Hunter time? “Friday’s a really busy night at the festival. I should be there.”

“Festival? Oh, like, the art thing?”

That was a strike. “Yes, I’m a painter. What do you do?”

“I’m a professor of mathematics at UC Irvine. They offered me a great position, or I’d never have left Berkeley.”

“I can’t add eight and nine.”

“Let’s start at one plus one. How about Thursday?” Again the eye crinkles. Definitely cute.

“Okay. I’ll find someone to watch my booth.”

“Great. How about Rick’s at eight o’clock?”

“I’ll meet you there, but you better give me a cellie ’cause life is unpredictable.” He pulled out his phone.

Bill took it and keyed in a number. “See? It all adds up.”