Chapter One

Zachary Cooper

 

A LOUD cheering shout outside the door made Zachary flinch, causing the corner of the false eyelash to poke his eye instead of adhering to his eyelid. With a hiss, he pulled the lash away and slammed his eye shut.

Dammit, he hated false eyelashes. Nearly everything else about drag had become second nature. Blending the foundation and rouge. Gluing down and covering up his natural eyebrows, then drawing on new ones. Contouring to round out the already less-than-rugged jawline. Even the waxing, plucking, and tweezing didn’t cause more than a wince every now and then. But the damned false eyelashes. Things weren’t supposed to get that close to a person’s eyes. The liner was bad enough, but stiff lashes jabbed and left behind a glue residue that stung the rest of the night, no matter what he did. He couldn’t even wear contacts, which was why his father had paid for corrective eye surgery for him more than ten years ago with money they didn’t have. Or maybe that was more due to his mom dying a few months before and his father needing to feel like he could fix something.

Leaning toward the mirror, Zachary forced his eyes open. Sure enough, his right eye was already watering and bloodshot, which made the light green of his iris stand out like a beacon. If ManDonna was here, she’d tilt his head back and tend to his eye without smudging a speck of makeup. Not him; he’d have to redo the entire eye, and he still wouldn’t get it all cleaned out well enough.

There was a soft knock at the door, and it opened without a pause. Cody leaned in, swiping a lock of dark hair from his eyes. “Hey, Vahin sent me over with your nightly birthday cake shot.” He stepped all the way in, paused, then shut the door, concern growing in his voice. “Are you okay? You’re crying.”

Zachary reached for the drink. “No, I’m not. I just jabbed myself with a stupid eyelash.” After taking the shot glass from Cody, Zachary downed it in a gulp, not even savoring the sticky sweetness like he normally did. He wasn’t a big drinker, but ManDonna insisted they start each night off with a shot. She preferred Jäger or whiskey, both of which made Zachary want to throw up. By the fourth time, Vahin had come to the rescue and sent the birthday cake shot, which tasted like icing. It was heaven. He handed the glass back to Cody. “I might need a second of these tonight.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ll go get one.” Cody started to turn, angling his shoulder to avoid hitting the dresses hanging in the narrow workspace, but Zachary reached out and grabbed his arm.

“Actually, would you help me, please?” Zachary motioned to the vanity. “There’s a bottle of Visine in my makeup bag, the purple one. Would you do it for me? ManDonna normally does it. I can’t make myself put drops in.” He grimaced as some of the glue snagged his lashes again. “One second, let me try to clean this a little better first. And while I do that, would you please get another shot from Vahin? I thought I was kidding, but a second one is definitely called for.” He waved a hand at Cody while still looking in the mirror. “Oh, and would you let them know I’m going to be about fifteen minutes late but to put on some Demi, Gaga, or Britney. Something. ManDonna can go out there and work the crowd without any transition from sports to drag, but I can’t.”

 

 

LESS THAN five minutes later, Zachary was blinking almost normally again. He inspected himself in the mirror once more.

“I don’t know what’s in that stuff, and I’m sure it can’t be good for you, but it’s a lifesaver. Almost all the red is gone.” He glanced back at Cody, feeling like a diva by asking for so many favors. “I know you’ve got tables waiting, but may I steal you for another minute? If you can get my eyelash on, I’ll owe you forever. I can just see stabbing myself and starting this whole thing over.”

Cody swiped at his bangs again and looked nervous. “Uhm, sure. I can try. And I’m not working, so it’s okay. Darwin and I came here to have dinner and to watch you. We’re going to a movie later.”

That made him feel more like a diva, and not the good kind. “You’re here on a date? That’s even worse. I’m sorry, sweetie. Get back out there to your man.”

Cody let out one of his gentle, self-conscious laughs. “Darwin’s fine. He’s probably gossiping with Pat or something. And besides, we’ve been together almost a year. I think our relationship can handle a few minutes on our own during a date.”

Zachary reached out and squeezed Cody’s hand, love washing over him. He’d only known Cody a bit longer than Darwin, but he couldn’t help but see himself in Cody. They were both small, timid, and a bit effeminate. Well, Cody was a bit effeminate. Zachary was more than a bit. “I’m so happy for you, Cody. I really think Darwin is the one for you. Like the One.”

A flush spread over Cody’s cheeks. “Yeah. I’m pretty sure of that too.” He fumbled with his hands, then reached for the lash that had been abandoned on the vanity. “Here, let’s do this.” He pulled at the feathery black strip, but it stayed right where it was.

“Shit.” Zachary was glad ManDonna couldn’t see him right now. His drag mother would never let this go. Stabbing himself in the eye and gluing the lash to the tabletop. Then another thought caused him to groan. “I don’t have a replacement for that one. The others in my bag don’t match. We’ll have to do them both.”

“Oh, no. That doubles the chances that I’ll glue your eyes shut or something.”

Zachary laughed. “No, you won’t. Putting them on someone else is easy. I just hate doing it to myself.”

“Want a third shot?”

The thought was tempting. He was always nervous performing on his own. Not like he used to be, but still. However, he was already feeling the effects of the first two. A third, and who knew what he’d do on stage. Becoming Ariel Merman made him more a flirt than he would ever be in real life. A third shot could make her give some poor straight guy in the restaurant a lap dance, a real one, while his wife sat across the table. “Um, no. Another drink might cause havoc.”

 

 

EACH TIME she stepped onto the performance area of Hamburger Mary’s, Ariel Merman took more and more control of Zachary. Despite the eyelash debacle and the late start, the night’s performance was no different than normal. Though it may have been aided by the second birthday cake shot.

Actually, no, that wasn’t right. Ariel didn’t take control of Zachary. She set him free.

With his slim build and soft features, even at twenty-seven, Zachary looked more like a boy than a man. He was about as far from the cliché gay ideal as he could be, though he fit the twink stereotype perfectly. But even then, the guys who were into twinks found him too effeminate. Too gay.

The same features that left him feeling inadequate as a man made Ariel Merman the queen she was. There wasn’t one person who would guess Zachary was beneath the makeup, padding, dress, and long blonde wig. Though new to the scene, Ariel had already become known as one of the fishiest drag queens in Denver.

Each time she performed, her confidence grew, as did her daring. She was beautiful and perfect. And everything Zachary was not. Within the distance of applying the finishing touches in front of a mirror, exiting the dressing room, and entering the bright, colorful dining room of Mary’s to the cheers and catcalls of the crowd, Ariel’s light chased away each of Zachary’s shadows. Hardly any darkness of insecurity remained. Each step and hand gesture was effortlessly fluid and full of grace. Not an ounce of loneliness cut through her as she basked in the applause and laughter. She was witty, sexy, and aggressive. She wiped away Zachary’s timidity. She lacked his past and current hurts, worries, and fears. And while she was there, even the loss of Zachary’s parents couldn’t cut through. She was new, shiny, and blemish-free.

The first beats of the old-school Christina song “Dirrty” thumped from the speakers, and Ariel made her way through the tables, mouthing the words, seducing every man and woman with her green eyes, running silver-coated nails over bulging muscles and potbellies alike. Allowing Zachary to be free and to breathe.