Fierce & FabulousBy Elizabeth Varlet

Fans of Heidi Cullinan will devour this scorching new male/male series by Elizabeth Varlet. Behind the Sassy Boyz’s seductive smiles and sinful dance moves are desires that will leave readers breathless.

Fitch Donovan never thought a lap dance could change his life, but from the moment the gorgeous dancer’s lips touch his, his world comes screeching to a halt. No matter how hard he tries, he can’t shake the desire that rocks him to his core. He’s longed for this passion all his life—he just never dreamed he’d find it with another man.
Sharing a soul-shaking kiss with a straight boy is the kind of drama Ansel Becke just doesn’t need. Spotlights aren’t made for two and Ansel prefers to keep things on a one-night-only basis. So when Fitch shows up asking for an encore, Ansel knows he should send his gorgeous ass packing.
Though Ansel tries to pretend that what’s between him and Fitch is far from fabulous, there’s something about the big, burly contractor that makes Ansel’s world sparkle in a way no amount of glitter ever could. And Fitch will do whatever it takes to convince Ansel that when the thing you need most in the world falls right into your lap, you’d be a fool to let it go.
This book is approximately 82,000 words

Dear Reader,
Happy June! Man, do I love summer and everything that comes with it. Okay, not mosquitos, but the beach, sunscreen, cookouts, fresh fruit, long days and the opportunity to sit by the pool, ocean or other bodies of water and read for hours and hours. Love. It. This month we have some new releases that can be either your perfect beach read—or your perfect air-conditioned room read!
Lauren Dane debuts a brand-new sexy paranormal romance series with Diablo Lake: Moonstruck. In Diablo Lake, Tennessee, a town populated by werewolves, witches and more, magic woven deep into the earth protects the town’s secrets from outsiders. Katie Grady left Diablo Lake to get over a humiliating breakup. But her family needs her help, so she’s a sublet right across the hall from the guy she’s lusted after for years. Jace Dooley is hotter than ever, and their friendship picks up along with massive doses of grown-up chemistry.
If you’ve been waiting for the second book in Amber Bardan’s captivating Bad for You duology, your wait is over. Angelina has sacrificed everything to be with the man she loves, but on the run with their lives on the line, Haithem has a promise to keep—he’s promised to protect her—and he’ll stop at nothing to fulfill his promise. Didn’t You Promise is full of action, sex and emotions, and I loved every minute of it. Pick up Didn’t I Warn You if you haven’t already, and fall in love with sexy, mysterious Haithem like the rest of us have!
Professor Ian Larkin has two rules: no college kids and no playing without a safe word. College senior Kelly O’Connor is always in control—except when it comes to his sex life. When these two meet, the sparks are electric, but their relationship will need to survive meddling aunts, the university administration and Kelly’s own self-doubts in the male/male romance Against the Rules by A.R. Barley.
Sarah M. Anderson brings two beloved secondary characters from her Rodeo Dreams series, available from Harlequin’s Superromance imprint, to Carina Press in a male/male cowboy rodeo romance that’s sure to have us all telling the men in our lives, “You can leave your hat on.” And did I mention...cowboys and rodeo? Yeehaw!
Also in male/male contemporary romance, we welcome debut author Elizabeth Varlet and her book Fierce & Fabulous, the first in the Sassy Boyz series. Ansel Becke enjoys pushing the boundaries. He is fierce, he is fabulous and he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about him. Until one routine lap dance leads to a soul-shaking kiss and turns his glittery world upside down. Straight-arrow Fitch Donovan doesn’t understand his instant, blood-boiling attraction to the outrageous dancer—a man who wears makeup and heels as comfortably as he does a cocky smirk. But the pull can’t be denied and Fitch is willing to see where it leads, even if it goes against everything he’s ever known about himself.
Coming next month: So You Think You Can Write winning entry Emperor’s Arrow, the follow-up romantic suspense to Nico Rosso’s fantastically reviewed Countdown to Zero Hour and a debut author brings the heat with a new erotic romance motorcycle club series.
As always, until next month, my fellow book lovers, here’s wishing you a wonderful month of books you love, remember and recommend.
Happy reading!
~Angela JamesExecutive Editor, Carina Press

This goes out to the superheroes who dance in heels, to those who are brave enough to be themselves in a world that is not always accepting, and to those who love with all their hearts.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Chapter Twenty-Seven
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Chapter Thirty
Chapter Thirty-One
Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Thirty-Three
Chapter Thirty-Four
Chapter Thirty-Five
Chapter Thirty-Six
Chapter Thirty-Seven
Chapter Thirty-Eight
Chapter Thirty-Nine
Chapter Forty
Coming Soon
About the Author

Chapter One
A gay bar.
Of course it was a gay bar.
He should have known. Because only his sister would choose to celebrate her twenty-first birthday party in a gay bar.
Fitch sighed and scratched his jaw. Why couldn’t it have been a lesbian bar? They had those, right?
Then again, he wouldn’t have gotten any enjoyment in one of those either. Meg had ruined the whole lesbian-fantasy thing when she’d come out at fourteen. There was no pleasure in imagining two hot chicks doing nasty, beautiful things to each other when one of them kept morphing into your sister.
Fitch barely suppressed a shudder at the thought, but no one noticed. Not Meg or her friends, who were all too busy drinking and laughing and shouting over the thundering music to notice how uncomfortable he was.
A straight man in a gay club in New York City. He wasn’t the first, obviously, but he felt like it. He hunched over the Coke he’d been nursing for the past half hour and tried his best to ignore the interested stares he was getting. If his buddies could see him now they’d shit their pants laughing and then volunteer to kick some ass with him just as a matter of loyalty. As if he needed to protect his delicate manly sensibilities by resorting to physical violence.
He sighed.
No, he’d just have to suffer in silence.
The place was so dark it should have been impossible to catch anyone’s eye, but the rainbow laser light-beams moved in time with the strobe’s beat to create a disconcerting kaleidoscope effect that provided just enough light and just enough headache-inducing delirium for him to feel kind of trippy even though he was stone-cold sober.
Another sip of warm Coke didn’t help. And neither did the shadows or the uncomfortable hunch.
He couldn’t have stood out more if he’d had a blinking neon sign over his head.
The Vibe. If he’d been smart he would have said no as soon as Meg mentioned the name of the place. Then again, he’d never been able to say no to his baby sister. She was a devil with sweet eyes and he’d been devoted to her ever since she was born. Even if all she ever did was torture him.
“If you don’t cheer up I’m going to tell Mom,” Meg bellowed into his ear.
He looked up just in time to see her school her smile into a frown. Her hazel eyes reflected the rainbow lights and glittered back at him with an overly glossy veneer. Her cheeks were flushed and her lips twitched just enough to make him laugh. She’d always been a terrible liar.
“You are such a brat,” he said.
“Shut up, you love me.” Her giggle was slightly crazed.
“You’re drunk.”
She smiled and nudged his shoulder with her own. “I’m twenty-one, big bro! That’s the whole point.”
On his twenty-first he’d gone overboard with the Jack Daniel’s and ended up puking his guts out two hours into the party. The hangover had put him off the stuff for years. The way Meg was headed she’d be having a similar experience and the idea made everything else worth it.
“Sure, just remember that when Tara is holding your hair back and you’re worshiping the porcelain god.”
She pffted at him and turned to kiss Tara.
Jesus, she hadn’t even warned him. She really was a brat.
To avoid watching his baby sister make out, he turned toward the crowded dance floor. So much skin, so many grinding masculine bodies moving to the pop hit-slash-techno beat like the music put them into some kind of trance. Either the DJ was a wizard or the dancers were all caught in a lust frenzy. And the DJ was no wizard.
He rubbed his temple and considered heading to the bar to refresh his Coke, but the last time he’d done that he’d been hit on by three guys, all of them half-naked and young. Too young. And none of them had taken his “Sorry, I’m straight” as anything but a challenge. Better to just avoid the situation and hope the waiter would come by soon.
The music faded and the DJ’s voice came through the speakers. “And now it’s time for a treat. Put your hands together for the hottest show in New York City. Give it up, for the Sassy Boyz!”
Beside him, Meg squealed as the rest of the club erupted into cheers and turned to face a stage he hadn’t even noticed. The intro music started and the curtains slowly rose.
“Oh my God, they’re doing Jessie J’s ‘Do It Like A Dude’! I saw a clip of this one on YouTube, it’s awesome,” his sister exclaimed, practically bouncing in her seat.
“Jesus, you’d think you were at a Beyoncé concert instead of a drag show.” He shook his head at her.
Across the table her friend leaned forward. “It’s not a drag show. They’re not queens.”
The volume of the music rose again and every light but the ones on the stage went dark.
He’d expected big hair, big makeup, and outrageous costumes. Something artificial. Not four slim females wearing baggy jeans, loose T-shirts, high heels, and baseball caps pulled low enough to cover their eyes. He definitely hadn’t expected the bright red lipstick or the silky long hair. These were definitely not drag queens.
As soon as the lyrics started, the dancers began their aggressive, syncopated moves. They thrust their hips, popped their chests, and flexed their biceps in stereotypical macho fashion, grabbing their crotches and adjusting their caps to match the suggestive lyrics.
And if that weren’t statement enough, they topped it all off by shooting the middle finger to the audience while stomping their high heels.
The dancers were so hot, especially the tallest one with long blond hair. Yeah, she was really fucking sexy. A night with her would be jerk-off fuel for years to come.
Especially considering those fuck-me heels.
Fitch’s pulse grew heavy with each hard hit of the drums, each reverberating thrum from the bass. He spread his legs and smoothed his jeans over his thighs to create more room for his growing hard-on, because watching the dance was like looking into the eyes of someone sucking your cock.
So fucking good.
When the bridge came, they lowered to the floor to perform a grinding, thrusting move that simulated sex so effectively it was almost like he could feel it. He gripped his knees until his knuckles whitened, and breathed through his mouth.
Just as the first song started to fade, another beat took over. The dancers moved to the back of the stage, where four chairs now stood, and began a slow striptease.
With every piece of clothing they removed, the crowd grew more and more wild and Fitch’s heartbeat grew more erratic. They flung their hats off and flipped their hair while rolling their hips, bringing to mind all kinds of ways he could touch and kiss and lick just so the tall blonde in the front would repeat that sexy little thrust.
Across the table, Meg whistled and her friends cheered just as loud. It was all he could do not to join in too, because the girls onstage were now bent over and sliding the denim over their gorgeous, leather-covered asses.
Holy fucking Christ.
He swallowed and reached for his glass with a shaking hand, forgetting it was already empty. He had no choice but to let his mouth go dry because there was no way he was tearing his eyes away from the stage. Not while they were still up there, and especially not while they were stripping.
Finally, they sat just as the new song began.
Meg must have recognized the song because she cheered again even louder right before she, and everyone else at the table, sang the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
“Booooots and Boys.”
With the first word, the dancers extended their legs to reveal knee-high sex-kitten boots. And on the second—fuck.
He stared, heart thudding so hard in his chest he thought it might fly out, leaving a giant gaping hole.
The dancers stood facing the audience, and the crowd’s decibel level skyrocketed. They were nearly naked, wearing only those damn boots and tight leather shorts. But that wasn’t why he couldn’t breathe.
They were guys.
Guys in heels and makeup.
Like a slap to the face he realized what he was seeing and how slow he’d been to assume they were female dancers. For fuck’s sake, they were in a gay bar. Of course they were guys.
And still he was unable to tear his eyes off the blond in the front. Not a fucking girl. The guy’s chest was flat as a pancake, unless you counted the extremely well-developed pecs—which Fitch didn’t.
Christ! He was still hard.
How could he still be hard?
And why the fuck was his heart beating so goddamn fast? He reached for his empty glass again, eyes still glued to the stage, before remembering it was empty and cursing.
Good lord, the guy’s long legs were suddenly the hottest fucking thing he had ever seen. And God help him, that mouth. He couldn’t tell if it was the smoking-red lipstick or the crazy little smirk, but that mouth. It was killing him.
They danced, matching the music with their provocative energy, their feminine swishes, shaking their hips and flicking their hair. Strutting like models on a catwalk.
He couldn’t wrap his head around it. They’d gone from uber-masculine to realistically feminine within five minutes, and he was a massive ball of throbbing nerves cemented to his seat. He’d never, in his twenty-nine years, ever thought another guy was attractive, but his goddamn cock seemed to believe the long-legged blond was the hottest fucking thing he’d ever seen.
He took a deep breath and smoothed out the denim around his thighs.
No, this was just the effects of his six-week-long dry spell. He hadn’t gotten laid since Sara dumped him. Plus, the energy of the place was crazy sexual. Christ, sex was in the air and he wouldn’t be surprised if there were men fucking in the shadows.
“I gotta piss. Be right back,” he shouted to Meg. He pushed through the densely packed sea of bodies before she could respond. He needed air. He needed to get a fucking grip on himself. Figuratively, of course, though he was tempted to jerk one out in the stall just to ease the ache.
Once in the bathroom he splashed cold water on his face and took a deep breath.
If there was one thing he knew for certain, he was not attracted to men.
He definitely wasn’t gay.

Chapter Two
Ansel hit the last pose as the spotlights blinked off. His heart pounded against his rib cage, his skin glistened with sweat. They’d only danced for ten minutes, but they’d timed everything just right. The crowd loved their routine.
He took a deep breath and broke position. God, it was a rush to be onstage, to feel the caress of hundreds of eyes watching you. His whole body buzzed with the excitement of the moment. He grabbed Tam’s hand as they moved backstage and gave him a squeeze.
“Good job, honey,” he whispered.
“Thanks. I think the spin kicks and the second eight-count worked better. Don’t you?”
“It was fucking brilliant, Tam.” Z rushed past, pulling off the black gloves he’d worn during the second half of the dance.
Out front, the DJ’s voice came over the speakers. “Don’t worry, Queens and Kings, the Sassy Boyz will be heading out to work the crowd in a few minutes. So get your dollar bills ready because, trust me, you want to see what those boys can do up close and personal.”
Lirim snorted as he sat in one of the metal chairs in the dressing room and began pulling off his boots. “He wishes.”
“Or not,” Ansel said.
“You didn’t. Really?” Z stood naked now, wiping himself down with a towel. His light olive skin was smooth and taut over the hard muscles developed by dancing.
Dag, the DJ, wasn’t so bad. He’d only been working at the club for a couple of weeks, and yeah, okay, he was kind of a douchebag if you let him open his mouth, but the guy had a great ass and Ansel didn’t get to top very often.
He folded his arms across his chest. “It was a slow night.”
“Slut.” Tam grinned as he pulled off the tiny leather shorts.
“Says the genius who choreographs the dirty routines we dance every night. I think there is something twisted in your little brain.”
Tam ducked his head. His light brown hair fell like a curtain to hide his face from the rest of them. Even after years together, he still struggled to speak his mind, but Ansel didn’t let the lack of reply bother him.
He flipped his hair and cocked his hip. “Let’s hurry up, I need a drink—or two hundred. And damn, I want to get laid.”
“What else is new?” Z asked, pulling on his black G-string. It was always black with Azariah. “Just don’t get so wasted tonight that I have to drag your ass all the way to your apartment again. That was hell on my best pair of heels.”
“Shut up, Z.”
“I’m just saying you still owe me for that cab ride.”
“Didn’t you go home with that jock last night?” Lirim asked. Dressed in colorful briefs, flashy cuffs around his slim biceps, and multi-colored thigh-high stockings, he looked like the gay version of Rainbow Brite.
“I tried, but he got a palm full of balls instead of the pretty pussy he expected, and flipped out.”
“God, Ansel. You’re going to end up in the hospital pulling stunts like that.” Tam shook his head.
Been there, done that. They knew about most of his past, about Ray—maybe not all the gritty details—but the hospital was not foreign territory. Besides, he’d befriended an ex-Navy SEAL and knew all kinds of ways to protect himself these days.
“This one was too shocked to get violent, but it did mean I had to jerk off alone. That’s never as satisfying.”
He finished getting changed, reapplied his makeup to match his new outfit, rubbed some body glitter on his chest, and spritzed himself with the sample bottle of Flowerbomb he’d gotten from the Sephora counter.
He wore a pair of lacy black short-shorts that highlighted the bulge between his legs and made his ass look divine. He chose the same knee-high black leather boots he’d worn onstage and decided to go shirtless under a mesh shrug that made his pecs pop. He studied himself in the mirror beside Z, Lirim, and Tam.
They all looked fucking sexy. Maybe to some, confusing as hell. But that’s what they were all about. He smacked his ruby-red lips, fluffed his hair, and adjusted his package.
“Ready to work, bitches?” Lirim asked.
“They won’t know what hit ‘em.”
“Damn straight.”
“Well, not straight,” Tam said.
“Bent. Really, really bent,” Ansel said, and they all laughed.
Yes, pushing the boundaries was what he lived for.
He wanted to twist the fuck out of normal and leave the world baffled in his wake.

Chapter Three
Thursday nights at The Vibe were usually pretty quiet and though the dance floor and bar were crowded, it wasn’t as packed as it would be on the weekend. Ansel took note of a few potential sex partners. He didn’t usually pick up guys at work because it was a little tacky and besides, everyone who watched him perform already knew what he had between his legs. Where was the fun in that?
Last night he’d gone home with a jock. He’d been wearing his pretty purple suede, four-inch Jessica Simpson rip-offs and matching eye shadow. When the guys on the court whistled their appreciation, he wasn’t surprised. It happened all the time.
With his feminine features and liberal use of nail polish and makeup, people always assumed he was a girl. It wasn’t his job to convince them of his gender, one way or the other. Was it his fault people let their assumptions get them into trouble? It’s not like he was going to wear a sign on his head that said Warning. Cock Attached.
He wore what he liked and to hell with what other people thought. Though, okay, maybe he did add a little swish to his walk when cute guys were watching.
Still, maybe tonight he’d settle for something quick and easy.
Or maybe not...
Lirim, Z, and Tam branched off to work the room and earn their cash, but he headed to the bar. He was so sober, he was trembling as he leaned against the brass edge and smiled at the bartender.
“What can I get you, beautiful?” Terry winked.
“How about a double shot for now? Just need to loosen up a bit.” He had to shout over the music, but Terry was well practiced at taking his order.
“You got it, dollface.”
Terry was in his mid-forties, balding, and pudgy around the middle. He’d worked at the club for twenty years. The Vibe was his second home and he was a spectacular bartender, sweet and nonthreatening. Not so pretty to look at, which meant he wasn’t competition. The customers wouldn’t choose him over the dancers always on offer. Terry poured the double shot of dark whiskey and served it with a friendly smile.
“Thanks, hun.” Ansel tossed the contents back in a practiced swallow. It was the good shit. Terry always gave him the good shit. The warmth bloomed in his chest, and his arm steadied as the alcohol made its way into his bloodstream.
Letting the tranquility wash over him, he scanned the room for his first trick of the night. The strobe lights and beams swirled with dizzying effect, reflecting off glass and bared skin as the pulse of bass throbbed just like a heart, vibrating every surface. This was his church, and he reveled in the steady familiar pounding. One of his regulars was in the usual spot, but Ansel didn’t acknowledge him. He liked to make them wait. The jealousy always led to bigger tips.
Across the room Tam was grinding the lap of a happy woman with a bridal veil on her head, her blush almost as red as his own lipstick. Bridal showers were great. Brides were so much fun to tease. Near the center of the room, on the edge of the dance floor, a gaggle of girls was waving money in his direction. Their bright laughing faces were inviting and harmless, so he headed their way.
“Evening, ladies,” he purred loudly so they could hear him as he approached their table. The girl in the middle had her dark hair cut in an attractive bob, and she wore one of those fake tiaras you got from the dollar store. Only hers had a giant pink 21 perched in the middle.
“Oh my God, you’re so pretty, even up close,” one of the girls said.
He smiled and batted his eyelashes. She hadn’t meant her comment to be a backhanded insult, so he swallowed the retort on the tip of his tongue. Throwing shade at the customers was a bad idea. Plus, these girls looked fun and a little too naive to understand his particular brand of sarcasm.
“Aw, aren’t you sweet.”
There was one empty chair, so he spun it to the side and draped himself over it, crossing his legs in a dainty move he’d long ago perfected. “Are you girls having fun tonight?” One quick sweep of the group and he pinned them down—birthday party, a few lesbians, all over twenty-one but none over twenty-five. Lesbians and birthday parties were almost as much fun as bridal showers.
“It’s awesome. You guys were so good.”
“Thanks, sugar. I love your necklace, where’d you get it?” He nodded at the long silver chain with a black bow tie at the end.
As expected, the girl smiled and touched the piece. “Thanks, um. I think it was at a kiosk in the mall.”
“Oh cool, Manhattan?” Tourists then? No one shopped at the Mall unless they didn’t know any better.
The girl scrunched her face. “No, Hudson. We’re from the other side of the river.”
“Jersey girls? What are you doing all the way out here?”
At this, the birthday girl laughed. “To see the Sassy Boyz, of course. You’re famous.”
He warmed at their attention. “I hadn’t realized our reputation reached so far. I’m flattered.” He batted his lashes and waved a hand in a girlish gesture that made the group laugh. He joined them. They were fun and easygoing, but as much as he’d love to sit and gossip with them all night, he needed to pay his rent.
“So who wants to go first?” He slipped the bills off the table and surreptitiously counted them before tucking the pile into the waist of his shorts.
They all giggled. The birthday girl’s eyes darted up to focus on something behind Ansel.
“Hey, big bro,” she said.
“Meg.” The deep timbre shivered down Ansel’s spine.
The warning was so clear in that one single syllable. But the birthday girl didn’t seem to care. Her smile widened, and she looked into Ansel’s eyes with sly calculation.
“He’s first.”
Ansel lifted himself out of the chair in what he hoped was a tantalizing motion and flicked his hair over his shoulder as he spun to face the newcomer.
His breath hitched. Damn, the guy was hot.
A big bear with a strong, square, scruffy jaw and deep-set dark eyes. Older, maybe thirty, but sexy in a way that would only increase with age. He was tall, maybe even taller than Ansel—when he wasn’t wearing heels. He had big shoulders and arms and was clearly fit. He had on a worn blue T-shirt that clung to his upper body and made Ansel’s mouth water.
Most clearly of all, he was not happy about the situation. His mouth was a grim line as he stared down at his sister.
“Hello, handsome,” Ansel said, trying to draw his attention. “Why don’t you sit down?” He gestured to the empty chair.
Their eyes met and his heart stalled.
Normally he loved the thrill of reeling in the straight ones, of never knowing if you’d end up flat on your ass or bent over moaning. But he suddenly felt like he’d just collided with the most dangerous man in the world—and he didn’t like it one bit.
In fact, he was fighting the urge to run for cover. Then the man glanced at Ansel’s mouth and his nostrils flared.
Holy hell.
The temptation to flee morphed into one hot ball of fuck-me-now, and Ansel almost stumbled back with the force of it. Before he could do or say anything, the stranger clenched his jaw and looked back at his sister.
“No.” The stranger’s voice was deep and gravelly like sandpaper, and it sent goose bumps over Ansel’s skin.
“Come on, Fitch. It will be fun, and it’s my birthday,” Meg said.
“Damn it, Meg.”
“Seriously, it’s just a lap dance. It’s not like I’m asking you to kill a puppy.”
“A lap dance—from a guy.”
At his tone, both Ansel’s and Meg’s eyebrows lifted almost like they were connected by some invisible string.
“What, are you suddenly homophobic? Is my only brother a bigot and I somehow missed it for the last seven years?”
Fitch turned a bright shade of red and rubbed his palms over his scruffy jaw. “No, Jesus. I just, ah, fuck.”
“It’s not a big deal,” she countered. “When I came out, you said—”
“Yeah, yeah, okay. Doesn’t have a damn thing to do with this situation, though.” He sighed and pushed a hand through the mess of dark hair atop his head.
“It’s just a dance, for fun. Please?” Meg continued begging.
“Christ, you’re going to make a good lawyer.”
At his words, Meg grinned. “Love you too.”
Tall, Dark, and Grumpy finally sat in the empty chair, but he didn’t relax. His shoulders remained tense as boulders and he gripped the bottom of the chair so hard his knuckles whitened. Ansel almost laughed because, seriously, the guy acted like he was going to the fucking guillotine. It’s not like Ansel had special powers of persuasion to turn straight men gay—at least not if they didn’t secretly want to be turned. And it wasn’t like he’d bite—unless asked.
Was he really so frightening? This guy could probably lift him over his head and toss him away like a rag doll.
He took a step closer. The man’s eyes locked on to his boot and followed his leg up, up, pausing at his crotch for a fraction of a second, then rising until their eyes locked. Then Fitch’s tongue peeked out to wet his bottom lip, and laughing was the last thing on Ansel’s mind.
Maybe the guy wasn’t afraid of him. Maybe Fitch was afraid of himself.
Wasn’t that interesting?
Ansel smirked. Holding eye contact, he gave Dag the signal. The music changed to a familiar thudding cadence and Britney’s breathy moan. He let himself sway to the new beat, moving his hips and raising his arms to lift his hair off the back of his neck.
High-pitched giggles reminded him where he was and he winked at the girls. They were whispering and holding their phones, no doubt recording the whole thing to torture Fitch later. Ansel kind of felt sorry for the guy. After all, he was clearly at the club because of his sister and had been manipulated into a situation which made him uncomfortable.
His displeasure wasn’t because he was a bigot. There was no animosity in his eyes. No, it was something else.
Ansel stepped closer and rubbed a palm down Fitch’s arm.
“I’m going to give you the best damn lap dance you’ve ever had,” he said low enough so the witnesses couldn’t hear him over the music.
Grumpy’s nostrils flared again. “I’ve never had one before.”
Ansel couldn’t hide his surprise. “Really? A big handsome guy like you?”
Fitch shrugged, but the movement didn’t loosen him up at all. In fact, the closer Ansel got, the stiffer Fitch became, and not in the good way.
Ansel was tempted to give the guy a break and take it easy on him. Maybe perform a simple air dance and be done with it.
He wasn’t a total tramp.
But, shit, Fitch licked his lip again, and all those good intentions went flying out the nearest exit. A straight guy, a lap dance virgin, and showing clear signs of arousal?
Ansel would lose his slut card if he didn’t work this guy like a stripper pole and change his fucking life.
Just as Britney started to pant the lyrics to “Breathe On Me,” he kicked Fitch’s legs wider and positioned himself between them.
“You ready, baby?” he whispered, not really expecting a reply, which was good, because he didn’t get one. The only reaction was the subtle tightening of the muscles in Fitch’s jaw and the hastily indrawn breath.
Ansel lifted the corner of his mouth and turned away. Yeah, let Grumpy get an eyeful of his ass on display in the lace shorts. Everyone always said he had a great ass. He arched his back in time with the music and bent his knees enough to almost sit on Fitch’s lap. Almost. He kept moving and swaying, raising his arms and touching himself. He used his core muscles to lean back and rest his head on Fitch’s shoulder, thrusting his hips into the air. Sweat broke out and his abs ached from holding the position, but his wasn’t the only heart beating too fast.
Fitch’s panting breaths warmed Ansel’s neck and caused a shiver of arousal to twist down his chest. When he finally lowered onto the guy’s lap, Fitch grunted at the contact, sending another cascade of lust down Ansel’s spine to pool in his balls. He rubbed and teased, knowing his scent would twist itself in the fabric of Fitch’s shirt.
Each time Fitch inhaled, he’d smell the perfume, and he’d remember Ansel. He’d remember this dance.
And for some reason, that got Ansel’s heart pumping and skin tingling. He circled his arms around Fitch’s head to cradle him close. His fingers forked into the short hair at the man’s nape. The heat at his back, the pressure near his ass, and Fitch’s hot breath stirred his passion higher until his cock filled within the tight confines of his shorts. No doubt clear as day to anyone who cared to see.
But he didn’t care. It didn’t matter that he’d never gotten hard at work before. It didn’t matter that he was in the middle of a crowded club or that the man he was dancing for was clearly straight.
Right now, it was like he was in a bubble where only the two of them existed. And it felt amazing. God, he’d climb a mountain in heels if he could feel this good every night.
What a scary fucking thought.
During the bridge in the music, he lifted off Fitch’s lap and bent forward to run his hands over his legs, circling his hips in time with Britney’s breathing. When the last verse started, he turned around and straddled the man’s lap. Fitch huffed a breath and closed his eyes. He clenched his teeth so hard, Ansel was afraid they’d crack under the pressure.
The urge to tease was too powerful to ignore. He leaned close and licked the man’s scruffy jaw.
Fitch growled. Ansel shivered.
God, yes, that was good. Maybe he could convince Fitch to meet him in the bathroom later. He’d bet a week’s worth of tips the guy had a thick cock. He leaned close, circling his arms around Fitch’s shoulders so he could grip the back of the chair, and was enveloped by the subtle scent of aftershave and musk.
“Do you like it?” he asked softly, seductively.
Fitch let out a slow breath before speaking, “No.” He didn’t open his eyes.
Ansel laughed and flung his head back, raising his hips up higher until his erection rubbed into Fitch’s chest. When he curled up and over, his hair tumbled down to hide them from the rest of the room.
“Liar,” he whispered, before sliding his hands down Fitch’s arms.
He pried the other man’s hands loose from the chair and dragged them down his glittering bare chest. Fitch’s breath hitched, but he didn’t fight the hold. His fingers flexed almost imperceptibly as they brushed Ansel’s nipples.
Sharp arousal spurred him further and he pushed those rough palms down his abs to rest on his hips. He held them there as he rode Fitch’s lap like they were fucking. He groaned as the image came to life in his head, but never looked away from the dark, grumpy face beneath him.
Fitch’s Adam’s apple bobbed, his body shivered. Then, with a slow blink of extra-long lashes, he finally looked up with a sort of confused wonder in his eyes.
Ansel stopped breathing, stopped moving. The music faded away. The crowd around them disappeared. The only sound was the throbbing pulse of his own heart.
He walked the knife’s edge. And usually he got off on the unknown, on the potential danger that lurked just beneath the surface. That was why he enjoyed flirting with the straight ones. But this was different. This was stronger. Deeper. Scarier.
This was something real.
He didn’t like it. If he were honest, it freaked him the fuck out. But Christ, it was as if his body, his whole being, had been taken over by aliens because he leaned down and pressed his lips to Fitch’s mouth. And what shocked the shit out of him—more than his own insanity—was that Fitch let him in.
Ignoring everything, even his own instinct to run like hell, he swept his tongue in and tasted the chocolate-mint flavor.
Yes, he was a Slut with a capital S. He fucked strangers, loved one-night stands, and usually didn’t even bother to ask for names. But this was different.
This felt inevitable.
He was caught in an electrical storm. Every nerve popped and danced, every cell shivered in pleasure. And then Fitch’s grip on his waist tightened, fingertips dug into the flesh of his ass, and Ansel gasped.
The kiss ended with them both stunned. A second later reality rushed back in.
Frozen with shock, he looked over Fitch’s shoulder. The girls stared at them with their mouths open. Something ugly solidified in his gut—regret. And another feeling, so totally out of character, he was half-convinced he’d died—guilt.
He was not familiar with guilt. Not since he made the decision to leave home and never look back. Not since he’d realized trying to please everyone else would end up killing him. He didn’t know how to handle guilt so he ignored it. Or he tried to.
He swallowed, gathered himself, then winked and flashed his signature smirk at the girls.
“There, I think he learned his lesson, don’t you? Try not to give him such a hard time in the future. He was a good sport.” Doing his best fake laugh, he flipped his hair over his shoulder perfectly and capped off the performance.
Their audience smiled, sort of, enough to break the tension. But beneath him, Fitch ground his teeth together, his mouth bruised and covered in red lipstick. The sight caught hold of Ansel’s chest and squeezed.
Shaken, he stood and wiped a thumb over Fitch’s mouth to remove the evidence.
“See you around, handsome.” He spun on wobbly legs and sashayed away.

Chapter Four
What the hell?
Fitch couldn’t catch his breath. He wanted to punch something, or someone. He wanted to fuck. He wanted to lose his shit and forget everything that had happened in the past two hours.
He couldn’t do any of that. He couldn’t even fucking stand because of the raging boner that wouldn’t fucking die. His heart thudded like a goddamn jackhammer. Not letting him deny. Not letting him forget. He’d never forget the fact that he’d kissed a dude.
And he’d loved every fucking minute of it.
God, how far would he have gone if his sister wasn’t sitting three feet away? Would he have taken the guy into the bathroom and gotten his dick sucked? Jesus Christ. Yes. He couldn’t lie to himself. Yes. He would’ve loved to watch those goddamn lips devour his cock. To see those gorgeous big green eyes blinking up at him with the long lashes and the sexy eye shadow. And he wouldn’t have cared that they belonged to another man. He wouldn’t have cared one fucking bit.
He had to calm down. He needed to get himself under control because damn, he wasn’t alone. He could feel his sister and her friends staring at the back of his neck, waiting.
The dancer had played the whole thing off as lighthearted and fun, thank the Lord. Hell, that’s probably all it was to the guy, just one more lap, one more dance. And Fitch couldn’t—wouldn’t—dwell on that because it was his only safeguard at the moment. Right now, all he needed to do was keep the charade going.
With a deep breath, he plastered on the are-you-happy-now face his sister knew so well and turned to face the music.
“Satisfied?” he asked with as much calm and nonchalance as he could muster.
Meg blinked at him, her eyes wide, and for once in her life she didn’t speak, she just nodded.
Thank God for her girlfriend, who stood and pulled Meg onto the dance floor with an, “Oh my God. I love this song.”
The rest of the group followed, leaving him in peace. For that blessing alone, he’d have to go to church on Sunday to thank the big man upstairs. He grabbed a napkin off the table and wiped his mouth, just in case. He didn’t want to go the rest of the night wearing evidence of the kiss. He wished there was such a thing as a napkin for your brain, but he knew these memories wouldn’t be removed so easily. He’d be lucky if he could ever think of anything but the seductive feel of that hard body beneath his hands or the scent of that addictive perfume.
He sighed. God fucking damn it. Motherfucker. What was he going to do? He looked down at the napkin, at the faint red smear across the pristine white surface, and the rest of his life played out in front of him, clear as day. His future was plain as the paper he crumpled in his fist. He had a plan and one little kiss wasn’t going to change his whole life. Even if, deep down, he kind of wished it had.
He stuffed the napkin in his pocket and looked toward the bar to see if he could flag down a waitress. He couldn’t get swamp-ass drunk tonight because he was the designated driver, but another Coke would help wash away the sweet taste of the dancer’s kiss.
* * *
“Terry, give me the rainbow.” Ansel ran a shaky hand through his hair and avoided eye contact with the bartender.
“The full rainbow? You all right?”
“Fine. I just need a little color in my life.”
“Don’t we all, sugar, don’t we all.”
Ansel kept his head turned toward the dance floor. The last thing he wanted to do was explain the roil of emotions threatening to drown him.
How could he even begin to? It didn’t make any fucking sense.
It was just a silly little kiss, nothing to get flustered over. Except he was. His heart was beating a wild cadence and he was struggling to catch his breath. All because some stranger had looked at him—seen him.
Really seen him.
He just needed to get drunk or—even better—high as a fucking kite. Erase all these pesky emotions and float away into the clouds.
Lirim probably had a stash in his bag.
Terry went to prepare the drinks, leaving him alone at the end of the bar. God, why was he so shaken? It wasn’t like he’d never kissed a trick before, though it was rare. Usually it was a tactic for a better tip or to lure them into another dance. It had never been because he couldn’t help himself. Where was his usual detachment?
The shots would help and so would taking whatever he could pilfer from Lirim.
Terry lined up eight shot glasses and started pouring the mixture. From left to right, the rainbow took shape. “There you go, dollface.”
He tossed the first shot back and sighed. “Thanks, Terry.”
“You know your lipstick is smeared, sugar?”
Ansel lowered his eyes. Of course his lipstick was smudged. Half of it had transferred to the guy he’d just worked over. He downed the next three shots and willed himself to forget the incident.
It was just a dance. Same as any other night, same as any other trick.
The tingles started between his shoulder blades, a warm, pleasurable sensation of being watched. Without turning around, he knew Fitch was looking at him. It could have been anyone in the club; any number of his regulars were in the room waiting for him. But the heat, the comfort, and the fucking panic that darkened the edges of his psyche were a specific combination. One he’d never felt before tonight.
Fuck, he needed to get some air. His hand shook as he tossed back the rest of the colors. With a final thank you, he pushed through the crowd to the dressing rooms backstage. After eight shots, he had the beloved tingling in his fingers, the beginning of numbness that he craved, but it wasn’t enough.
Lirim’s bag hung on the back of the chair, a canvas carryall with a long strap.
He didn’t waste time. He dumped the contents on the counter and began pawing through in search of something, anything, to help him forget. He pushed aside lip gloss, a pen, a scrap of paper and some receipts, a case for glasses, which Lirim didn’t wear, some candy, and his friend’s phone. With every item, he cringed. This was a huge fucking invasion of privacy, and Lirim would probably kick his ass if he knew what he was doing.
But right then, all he cared about was forgetting.
He needed to be numb, damn it. How could he survive all these fucking feelings? His stomach clenched as he remembered the sweet taste of Fitch’s lips. And right after, the sting of his mother’s hatred, the memory of lying in the hospital too scared to confess the abuse.
The shame. Always, always so much fucking shame. He closed his eyes and forced it all away. He was older now. Stronger. He’d been through the muck and come out fresh and shiny. Fuck ‘em. Fuck ’em all.
He grabbed the case just as the door to the dressing room creaked open behind him.
“What the hell?” Lirim cursed, his normally soft voice turned angry.
Ansel spun, caught still clutching hard plastic in his fist. “Sorry, I just...”
Lirim shoved him away and started restoring his belongings when Tam came into the room.
“What’s going on?”
“That bitch has no fucking boundaries, that’s what’s going on.” Lirim refocused on Ansel. “Christ, Ansel. Are you drunk already? You’re lucky I don’t strangle you.”
Ansel leaned against the wall, letting the brick cool his heated skin. “I know, sorry. You’re always carrying. I just wanted a little hit to calm my nerves. Tell me you’ve got something. I’m going crazy.”
Lirim pinned him with an odd look, his brows pinched together, his soft blue eyes going hard and calculating. Then he shook his head and sighed. “Why? What happened? Did that prick Castor proposition you again?”
“What? No. No. Nothing happened. I just need to take the edge off.” He pushed away from the wall, walked over to the emergency exit and propped open the heavy door. He sucked in a deep breath of the cool evening air.
Tam came to his side and draped an arm over his shoulders. “If something is eating at you, you should let it out. It’s unhealthy to keep your problems bottled up.”
He squinted at his friend. “Yeah? Did your therapist teach you that? I don’t see you spilling your guts, hon. So, no offense, but fuck off.”
At Tam’s shuttered expression, Ansel accepted a second dose of guilt. Yeah, he was an asshole. He’d totally deserve it if they left his sorry ass to rot.
Lirim walked over and pressed a rolled joint into his palm. “Next time, just fucking ask.”
Ansel blinked, then met his friends’ understanding eyes. He curled his fingers around the gift. “Sorry.”
“Fix yourself up, get over whatever it is, and get back to work. Life is tough, but so are you, right?”
He nodded and swallowed his emotions. Yes, he was tougher than this—harder, steadier. He’d had to be. He’d spent the past six years learning how to survive on his own. And this situation didn’t even make it to the top fifty on his list of shit he’d had to wade through. A little fucking kiss was nothing compared to assault, abandonment, or near starvation.
Lirim helped him light the joint and he breathed the drug into his lungs. God, what was he getting so worked up about?
He rolled his eyes at himself. Idiot.
Still, it took the whole joint before he felt brave enough to face the crowd again.

Chapter Five
“Okay, Meg, time to go.” Fitch slipped an arm around his sister’s waist and propped her up with his hip.
“No. We still have time to dance,” she said. Or at least that’s how his brain translated her slurred words. What it really sounded like was Nustimdants, accompanied by a little wiggle.
“They announced last call, you lush. They’ll be closing soon anyway. And you have class tomorrow.” At this, he chuckled. Yeah, class. If only he could be there in the morning when she woke up with the inevitable hangover.
Again Meg whined, but this time she tried to walk with him toward the exit. It was more like he was dragging a life-sized sack of potatoes out of the club because she could barely support her own weight. Thank God her friends weren’t as wasted. There was no way he’d be able to manhandle five girls out the door.
Tara walked beside them and smoothed a hand down Meg’s hair. “Don’t worry, the party isn’t over yet. The sooner we get back to the dorm, the sooner I can give you your present.”
Meg laughed and hit him in the ribs.
“How do you think I felt every time Debby Singe used to come over to hang out and you two ended up making out in the rec room,” Meg mumbled and only years of translating Meg-speak allowed him to understand her.
“Debby Singe? You were only seven when I was dating her. How do you even remember that?”
With a wild, floppy hand Meg tapped the side of her head. “Brilliant. Remember?”
He gave a nod. “Yeah, you’re a genius who’s going to be puking her guts out in about thirty minutes.”
Meg’s face scrunched and she shook her head a little too hard. “Ouch.”
“Trust me. I know a thing or two about getting drunk. I’ve had more years of practice, newbie.”
Meg scoffed but rested her head on his shoulder as they continued to his Chevy. Tara opened the door and helped him position Meg into the backseat while the rest of the girls piled in afterward.
It was a just after four on Friday morning. He needed to be at the remodel site to check on the progress of the framework by nine. Thirty minutes to get Meg and her friends back to the NJCU campus and tucked in, and another thirty to get back to his apartment. If he was lucky, he’d be in bed by five, which meant he’d get maybe three hours of sleep before he had to start his day.
But the muttered “Best night ever” as he slid into the driver’s side and started the engine made it all worth it. He could handle no sleep if it meant his sister had an awesome birthday. Even when she pestered the crap out of him.
All in all, it had been a successful night. One Meg would remember for a long time with fond memories. He’d done his brotherly duty and even earned some brownie points he could cash in later. And he would.
After that lap dance, Meg owed him big time.
He still couldn’t figure out why he’d been so uncharacteristically drawn to the dancer. Even after the guy’s performance, Fitch hadn’t been able to stop himself from watching him as he’d worked the crowd. The fire of some bizarre jealousy had twisted his gut in knots just thinking about all the other men ogling that hard body, smelling that perfume, dreaming about those lips. It had been a relief to leave, as though removing himself from the situation was the only way to stop himself from wanting to punch someone.
Stupid. He was not fucking gay.
So why had he enjoyed the sway of the dancer’s hips so much, or how he walked in those heels? The way he danced. The way he sometimes looked over his shoulder and their eyes met.
The way he fucking breathed.
He was getting hard again. Damn it. He smoothed out his jeans and flipped on the radio. When the soothing melody of a Phillip Phillips hit didn’t cool his libido, he rolled down his window and let the breeze do the work.
He absolutely would not think about the dancer anymore. No fucking more. Christ.
All he needed was a shower. Yeah, that would help. Every breath he took contained little hints of the sweet floral perfume. It was like the scent had hijacked his cock and balls—every time he sniffed, a spark shot down his shaft.
Okay, seriously. That was the last time he’d think about it.
God fucking damn it.
* * *
“Let me suck your cock.” The twink Ansel had picked up after his shift at The Vibe licked the shell of his ear. They moved together on the dance floor of another club still packed with people.
They’d stopped serving drinks about an hour ago, but it hadn’t fazed anyone, especially Ansel. He was still mostly drunk and high and feeling no pain. No pleasure either, really. He was finally numb. The hot piece grinding into his thigh probably wouldn’t like that at all. He bent to paint a kiss over the kid’s lips and squeezed his ass.
The twink wore expensive jeans and a tight tank that read Yes, Your Gaydar Is Accurate. His bleached-blond hair was cut short and spiked with product. He reeked of cologne way out of Ansel’s price range and had an air of immaturity about him. On any other night, Ansel wouldn’t have looked twice at the kid. He was too young, too privileged, and too easy. But tonight Ansel just wanted to get off, get lost, and forget.
Although so far his tactic wasn’t working. Every other second that fucking lap dance popped into his mind and made him crazy all over again.
He tugged the kid closer so he could talk into his ear. “My buzz is wearing off. One of my friends has weed.”
With a quick survey of the crowd around them, he tried to find Lirim’s rainbow or Z’s black silhouette. They’d arrived together after dolling up at The Vibe, but as soon as he’d locked eyes with the cutie still clutching his hand, he’d waved goodbye. Now, he couldn’t figure out where they’d gone. There were too many bodies and too many distractions.
Drawing Ansel’s attention again, the kid smiled and shook his head. “I’ve got something better.” He dug around in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a dime bag with two small blue pills and two capsules filled with white powder.
With a gleeful smile, the kid opened the bag and took out one of each. He placed them both on his tongue and then pulled Ansel in for a kiss. Ansel fucking hated swallowing pills dry, but for this he’d deal. He’d never taken Molly before, mostly because he couldn’t afford it.
“What’s your name?” he asked the kid.
His new best friend swallowed down his own pair of pills, stuffed the empty bag back into his jeans and shrugged. “Does it matter?”
Was he an ass if he admitted it didn’t? Probably. But what else was new? He smiled. “Nope.”
“Come on, the bathroom door locks,” the twink shouted. His pupils were dilated and his lips swollen. How many times had they kissed? Ansel couldn’t remember. It hadn’t affected him. Not like the kiss he’d shared with Fitch.
Fuck, no, he needed to forget about that.
Get your dick sucked. Yeah, there was the cure.
He nodded and let the guy lead him toward privacy. As they pushed through the crowd he focused on the kid’s pert round ass, trying to picture it naked and spread open for his cock. He didn’t even get a tickle of interest at the image. It was like his libido was weighed down by some invisible stones and his mind had been separated from his body, floating up above in the clouds, calculating the probability of a dire future. The odds were good.
Ansel Becke’s demise was imminent and inevitable.
But high as he was, it didn’t bother him. So his limbs propelled him forward, moving toward the next tragic event, and he allowed it to happen. On autopilot.
In the bathroom the twink pushed him against the door and flipped the lock like he’d done it a million times. Maybe he had. And that was fine because Ansel had been around the block a few times too. As long as they both got what they were after, who the fuck cared?
The kid tasted like cinnamon candy. Every time he shoved his tongue into Ansel’s mouth the spice burst like he’d swallowed a handful of Red Hots. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, certainly not as pleasing as Fitch’s chocolate and mint flavor. Kissing Fitch had been like eating one of those after-dinner mints his grandmother used to give him when she’d visited.
Why did he keep thinking of Fitch when he had a hot twink ready to blow his mind? Ansel refocused and shoved him to his knees.
“You said you wanted to suck. So suck.”
The kid blinked up at him and smiled before reaching for his zipper. As the kid’s mouth engulfed his semi-soft dick, the euphoria unique to his Molly cocktail fully washed over him and he was lost in the tide of hazy bliss. Maybe, if he was lucky, he wouldn’t remember a goddamn thing in the morning.
* * *
The sun was rising over the horizon when Ansel finally stumbled up the stairs to the apartment he shared with his best friend in West Vill. It was a run-down building and the stairs were worn in places, making it hard to walk up without holding on to the wobbly railing. They lived on the third floor and there was no elevator. Usually he didn’t complain, but after spending most of the day in heels, his feet were crying so much he practically crawled up the stairs.
Plus, his head pounded and he wanted to puke. Who was the sadistic bastard that invented the forty anyway? He gripped the bottle he’d bought at the bodega near the club. It was almost empty. He’d chugged half of it before he got on the subway. It hadn’t helped. He sat on the stairs and pressed his temple to the wall. Maybe he’d just stay right here and die. He pulled off his pink peep-toed sling-backs and massaged his foot.
He was a fucking mess.
He knew it, but when you were holding on for dear life while the ride whipped you around and around, there wasn’t much you could do to stop the insanity. You just had to close your eyes and pray you didn’t vomit before it all stopped spinning.
That was what he did now. He closed his eyes and tried to breathe through the pain and the regret that burned in his stomach. After he’d unloaded on the poor twink he’d done little to reciprocate. The kid had taken himself in hand and finished the job without complaining. Afterward Ansel had wandered back out to the dance floor and searched the club until closing, but the boys had already left.
It wasn’t until he was outside, standing under the light of a streetlamp, that he thought to check his phone. He’d missed four calls and had a dozen texts, escalating from concerned to angry. That was when he’d bought the beer. Because what was better than drowning your liver in alcohol when everything seemed to be so fucked up?
Ansel scoffed. When he’d been on the streets and the only way to stay warm had been to layer old newspaper under his clothes, a little whiskey had been comforting, if not completely helpful. He and Ray had sipped a single bottle for weeks before needing to pander for change to buy another. But back then, the only problems he’d faced were the ones necessary for survival. Somehow they weren’t as troubling as having to fight the dark, tumultuous emotions and pain in his past.
Jesus, he wanted to pass out, but not in the hallway. It smelled like piss and something else he really didn’t want to think about.
He pulled himself up and tripped on a step, catching himself at the last minute. “Shit!” His voice was louder than he’d intended and he immediately regretted the outburst.
Mr. Craig’s dog started barking in 2B and the rustle of a chain and a twist of the deadbolt in 1A echoed in the corridor.
Whoops, he’d woken the landlord. He groaned and tried to climb faster. The only thing that could make this worse would be facing that bastard while he was out of his mind drunk. Who knew what would spew forth. He could be a major bitch when he wasn’t careful.
“Mr. Becke, do you know what time it is?”
He stopped at the top of the stairs on the second floor. Just one more flight and he’d be home. He looked longingly up before sighing and trying to focus on the landlord.
“Mr. Palecheek, ’m sorry I woke you.”
“For fuck’s sake, it’s Policek. Are you drunk?”
“No, nope, not. Nuh-uh. G’night.” He started to climb the stairs as quickly as he could while gripping the handrail with one hand, his heels with the other, and trying to hide the forty under his arm. But the fucking building kept swaying and his stomach protested every move with a nasty gurgle.
“Mr. Becke, I told you when you moved in this type of behavior would not be tolerated. It’s one thing for you to be queer. It’s another for you to flaunt your sinful lifestyle around the building. We have veterans living here. Good, respectable men and women. I will not have you sullying the place.”
The man’s tone was so much like the one his mother had always used, it raked across his skin. His apartment was at the end of the hall and though he could still hear Mr. Palecheek’s angry threats, he concentrated on making it to his door while the corridor kept stretching and swaying. If he could get inside, the night would be over. Everything would return to normal and he could go on with his life.
Just a few more steps.
If only he had a big strong man to carry him the rest of the way. A man like Fitch—tall, dark, muscular, and sexy as hell. He sighed.
But he was not the type of guy people fell in love with. He had way too much baggage. Not that he wanted someone to love him. Love was stupid and imaginary.
He hadn’t been so naive for a long, long time. He hadn’t believed in love since he realized his own mother hated the sight of him.
Love was a fairy tale.

Chapter Six
“What the hell, Bobby, these window spaces were supposed to be moved over three feet. Don’t you remember me telling you that at the Wednesday meeting?” Fitch pushed his fingers through his hair and tried to contain his frustration.
“Yeah, but your pop said we were doing it wrong. Sorry, man.”
“You know you’re supposed to call me when he does this.”
The older crew chief’s shoulders stooped. “I’m used to following his orders, Fitch. He’s been my boss for ten years.” He nervously scratched his oversized stomach, sweat stains forming under his pits. It was only April, but already the temperature spikes were making it hard for them to work.
“I know, but this is a big fuckup. It might cost us the job. Jesus, I wish I could just strap him to his armchair and make him watch Wheel of Fortune reruns all day.”
At this Bobby smiled, but his eyes remained sad. “He’d never stand for it. Your pop has to be in the center of everything.”
“Unfortunately he’s getting too old for that. Tell the guys to take the day off while I try to figure out how to deal with this.”
“You sure?”
“There’s no sense continuing if we end up having to tear it apart to fix the problem at our own cost. I need to talk to the client and see what they want to do.”
“All right. Sorry again.”
“Just fucking call me next time. Okay?”
Bobby nodded before heading toward the noise of pounding hammers and running saws. Great, now they’d probably have to eat the cost of materials and labor for this fuckup, which would dig into their profits more than the company could afford. They could lose the client altogether, which would be an even bigger blow. But more important, he had to worry about his old man. This wasn’t the first time his father had become confused on the job.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed his parents’ home number. His mom answered.
“Hey, Ma.”
“How did Meg’s birthday go? I haven’t talked to her yet today. Did she have fun?”
Bright red lips and killer boots filled his mind, and he temporarily forgot where he was and why he’d called. Fun? Would he say last night had been fun? No. It had been confusing as fuck. He’d tossed and turned all night after he’d dropped the girls off. Visions of hard naked abs and long legs kept him aroused until he’d finally jerked off and passed out. Not something he wanted to think about while on the phone with his mother and surrounded by a bunch of burly construction workers.
He took a nervous glance over his shoulder and wondered, not for the first time, if the guys had sensed anything different about him. Logically, he knew, having a moment of strange attraction didn’t change who he was, but he didn’t deny the paranoia he’d dealt with all morning.
Kicking a rock, he tried to remember why he’d called.
“Honey? Did Meg have fun?”
“Oh, um, yeah, I’d say so. I had to drag her out of the place. She probably has a killer hangover today. So be sure to torture the crap out of her.”
His mother laughed.
“Anyway, I’m calling because there’s an issue with the remodel.”
“Oh?” Her tone immediately changed, and there was a rustle as though she were moving into another room.
“I think Pop really needs to get checked out. He forgot about a recent change to the plans. Even if I can somehow work it out with the client, we’ll still most likely end up paying for the fix out of pocket. I can’t keep him away from work, but whenever he’s around, there are always things that need cleaning up.”
“Oh, dear.” His mother sighed.
“I know it’s scary to think of, but it’s time he sees a doctor.”
“I know. I just didn’t want to face it.” He could hear her holding back worry now.
“It might be nothing, but we won’t know until he makes the appointment.”
“You know your dad, honey. He’s stubborn. He’s not going to like this at all.”
“Just promise me you’ll make the appointment.”
“I will, I’ll do it today.”
He didn’t feel any better when he hung up, but at least he’d accomplished something he’d been putting off for months. They needed to know what they were dealing with, even if it was Alzheimer’s or something worse. Now all he needed to do was convince the clients not to hire another team.
He got into his car and started the engine. The remodel was the project of a city developer whose main office was in Tribeca. He could be there and back in time for dinner. He was just exiting the Holland Tunnel when his cell phone rang.
“Hi, big bro.”
“How are you feeling this morning, lush?” He smiled at the sounds of agony coming through the phone.
“Jesus. Don’t shout.”
He laughed.
“Listen, I just talked to Ma and she said you’re going into the city for a work thing.”
“Yeah,” he replied, a little suspiciously because his sister’s voice held a tone he knew like the back of his hand. It was the I-need-a-favor voice and it made him roll his eyes.
“Tara left her purse at the club last night, and since you’re going to be in the city anyway, could you swing by and see if they have, I don’t know, like a lost and found or something?”
“I know it’s a long shot, but we’re hoping that since we left so late, no one had time to steal it. Maybe they found it when they were closing up.”
He sighed and scrubbed his jaw. The last thing he wanted to do was go back to the scene of the crime.
“Please, she had her wallet and phone in there and some really important class stuff.”
“I’m already at the client’s office.” He pulled into a parking garage and found an open spot. “I’ll do it after. What does it look like?”
Meg’s sigh of relief eased some of his annoyance. “It’s a bright blue clutch with a silver clasp. Thank you so much, you’re the best.”
“Yeah, I am. You better remember this because I will expect repayment.”
He hung up and slammed his head back against the headrest in frustration. Forced to go to the club again, damn it. His stomach knotted and he gripped the phone still in his hand. It was the middle of the day, there was slim chance the dancer would even be there.
He couldn’t figure out if that thought made it better or worse.
* * *
“Do it again, only this time, Ansel, you need to pop your hip on five and walk forward on seven. And make sure you don’t hit Z in the arm when you flick your wrist,” Tam instructed. “Ready? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Yes.” As he counted, Tam clapped out the beat.
They’d been putting together the new routine to Pink’s “Slut Like You” for the past hour, and Ansel got the sense his friend was upset.
“Can we take five? I need a drink,” Ansel asked.
“The last thing you need is another drop of alcohol,” Tam said, his usually calm and sweet voice gone cold and angry.
“Okay, I knew you were pissed. And I wasn’t talking about alcohol. I need water. Agua. H-2-fucking-O. Why are you mad?”
“You were an uber-bitch last night, babe,” Z put in while stretching his hamstring.
“I’m always a bitch. What’s the big deal?”
“Yeah, you’re usually bitchy to me or Z, but never to Tam.” Lirim straddled a chair and pulled his hair into a messy knot on the top of his head. “And we’re talking explosive bitchatude. Even I wanted to punch you.”
“Tam, hon, whatever I said or did, I’m sorry, okay?” Ansel said. “I was totally out of it last night.”
“You’re always out of it. When was the last time you went to bed sober?” Z asked. “Hell, for that matter, when was the last time you came to rehearsal sober? Or at least without a hangover? How many times in the last year have you been too drunk to even make it to rehearsal? We’re lucky you haven’t missed a performance yet because Castor would fucking shit a brick. It’s getting out of hand. Last night was just another in a long line.”
“Fuck off. I’m serious.”
“Oh, you’re serious? Well, I guess I better back off then. Since you’re serious and all.” Z rolled his eyes, but before Ansel could say anything he’d regret, Tam interrupted.
“Listen, Ansel, I’m not mad because you hurt my feelings. I’m not even that upset about your drinking, though Z is right. I’m pissed because you never called to let me know you were okay. I spent the whole fucking night worrying about you. With your games, I’d thought you’d finally gotten yourself killed.”
Ansel rubbed his chest to dispel the sudden ache. “Sorry. I didn’t think.”
“We all know what it’s like not to have people care about us, but that’s changed now. We have each other. At least, I thought we did. But if you’re going to keep acting like that, I won’t be bothered to deal with it. I’ve got my own shit to worry about, we all do.”
“I was just...I just had a bad night is all,” Ansel tried to explain.
“Why?” Z asked. “What made last night any different from every other night?”
“The fucked-up thing is, I don’t know. And anyway, I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s get back to work. I need to sweat the funk out of my system.”
Tam sighed but let it pass. “All right, we’ll start again from the top with music and then work on the chorus choreo.”
They got into position and Tam started the music. Even though things were tense they ran through what they’d accomplished so far, then Tam broke down the steps for the next two eight-counts and clapped out the beats at half speed. The routine was fast and sexy, and by the end they were all dripping with sweat. It was three and a half minutes of wild fun. Their audience would love it. They just needed to work on the transitions between the two songs and they’d be ready for tonight’s show.
They were doing a final run-through to music when the front door squeaked open. The club was closed. And the door should have been locked.
Ansel glanced toward the noise and stopped in his tracks. The figure silhouetted by the morning sun looked familiar, which seemed completely absurd.
Goddamn it.
The bottom dropped out of Ansel’s stomach.
No. It couldn’t be him. Why? There was no logical reason for the guy to come back, especially not at this hour. But then the door banged shut and the light shifted, and Fitch’s rough square jaw and deep-set eyes were easy to see.
It only took a second, from the moment the door opened to the instant it slammed shut, but Ansel felt like there was a lifetime of emotions caught between the space of time. And in the next breath, Z collided into his back with a hollered “fuck.” And they both tumbled to the stage floor.
“What the hell?” Z asked, dusting off his knees. “Why’d you stop?”
Tam ran to the music and turned it off and all Ansel wanted to do was crawl beneath the floorboards and die. Instead, he stood and pulled at his shirt.
“Sorry, lost my place. Let’s go again.”
“It’s the boom-boom-flick-spin. You just had it,” Tam said, annoyed. Ansel couldn’t blame him, he probably thought this the fault of partying, not an overactive imagination and a rush of unexplainable fear.
“Yeah, I remember now.” He didn’t look up even though he could feel Fitch’s stare slide over him like warm syrup over pancakes.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
He brushed his damp, ratty hair off his sweaty forehead and looked down at his old drop-crotch sweats and ugly-ass T-shirt. He looked like shit and felt worse. Why, oh why, did the guy have to show up now? If he was about to get his ass kicked, he preferred to look his best. Plus, he felt way too raw and vulnerable to deal with everything Fitch made him feel.
He drank from the bottle of water Lirim pushed into his hand and took his position for the routine. Tam hit Play and the music drifted through the speakers.
This time, he didn’t lose the steps.
This time, he danced the hell out of it.
Because Fitch was watching.

Chapter Seven
So much for slim chances. Fitch had known he was in trouble when he walked into the dark club. As soon as he’d heard the music, his heart went wild. In that moment, he’d known—he’d been hoping to see the blond again.
But the urge didn’t stop the irrational fear he’d been fighting since their kiss. Hell, before that even, since the moment he saw that face. With his stomach in knots, he tried to reason it out, repeating Meg’s lectures. Attraction was a chemical reaction in his brain, gender wasn’t binary, and sexuality could be fluid. There was no reason to freak out just because he suddenly found himself drawn to another man.
The logical arguments helped, a little.
Leaning against the bar, he watched them dance. Even without the lights, the makeup, and the costumes, it was still hot. No one else was around except the four guys onstage. They were so talented, the way they moved, precisely hitting every note for extra emphasis.
And his dancer, wow.
Shit. When had he started to think of the guy as his dancer?
He didn’t even know the blond’s name.
His dancer looked over his shoulder and Fitch swallowed. Christ, he was in trouble.
For a beat, he debated walking out and never looking back, but he couldn’t seem to get his feet unglued from the floor. Something unnerving surged through his veins along with the repeated mantra. He wasn’t gay.
I’m not gay.
Really? Then why was his entire body pushing him toward this guy? If he had the same urge about a girl, he wouldn’t hesitate to make a move. Granted, it was weird as fuck because he’d never been into men before, but gender wasn’t the only deciding factor in attraction. Thanks to Meg, he had a greater understanding of the world outside his hetero-view. Maybe he was bi, though that didn’t seem right. But who really cared which label he used?
The attraction to his dancer was too strong to ignore. He’d made a promise to himself when Sara left him. He was tired of living for everyone else, tired of pleasing people just to dodge some discomfort. Christ, he’d wasted six months with Sara because he couldn’t tell her goodbye for fear she’d be crushed. And in the end, she’d left him because he refused to force his father into retirement and take over the company.
No. No more letting life happen to him. It was time he started participating, taking action. And there was definitely a craving under all this angst. Did it matter that the person he craved had male parts?
He wished like hell he had a cigarette. No such luck. He’d quit smoking two years ago when Meg brought home her research paper on lung cancer and begged him to stop. It had helped that his girlfriend at the time refused to kiss him after he’d smoked. Quitting had been the easy choice.
He took a breath and consciously relaxed his shoulders. He’d just ask the guy’s name and introduce himself properly. Maybe, if things went smoothly, he’d offer his number. ’Cause that was what he’d do if it were a girl.
But his dancer wasn’t a girl.
Which was why his heart jackhammered. When the song ended, the blond flipped his hair out of his face and met Fitch’s gaze. The heat in Fitch’s groin shot up to his wild heart and back down to his toes. It was not the flirtatious look a woman might send a man. It was a direct, in-your-face, dominating glare. It said What the fuck do you want? and When can we get naked? all at the same time.
Fitch tried not to fidget but failed. His pesky cock was bent at a painful angle and he had to adjust his pants. The dancer noticed. His precise blond brows rose and that arrogant smirk from last night returned. Half tease, half challenge, and it was just as mind-blowing without the lipstick. Was this how guys flirted with other guys? Usually, he played it light and nonchalant, because he was a big guy and women got nervous around him when he went full-on macho. Instinct told him another guy wouldn’t react the same. Especially since he was still held in an indecipherable stare.
“Just give me a sec. I’ll be right back.” The dancer’s sultry, melodic voice sent shivers down Fitch’s spine and he had to force his heart not to sprout wings and fly away.
He smoothed out his jeans and watched his obsession strut down the stairs and prowl toward him. The dude was not coy or demure, not with his walk or the direct eye contact.
“The club is closed. You shouldn’t be here.” He’d lowered his voice so it became an angry half whisper.
“The door was open.” He studied the guy and noted the differences from the night before. The scent was a big one. His dancer wasn’t wearing the perfume Fitch hadn’t been able to escape. Nor was he wearing makeup, and the small bit of scruff on his jaw was disconcerting when paired with the feminine lips and long eyelashes. Confusing but not repulsive. In fact, part of him actually found this unarmored version more appealing.
“Do you make a habit of entering every open door you come across?” The guy rested a hand on his hip and cocked his head so the long blond locks fell to the side.
When Fitch smiled at his catty tone, he gritted his teeth and scowled.
“Not usually, but this was a special occasion.” Fitch tucked his thumbs into the pockets of his jeans. The dancer glanced down at the motion and subtly checked out his goods. Hell, that was hot. Experimentally, Fitch widened his stance and adjusted his fingers to better frame his crotch.
The bob of the blond’s throat made him itch to push further, to see where this attraction might lead.
The blond squinted angrily. Oddly enough, his stare was just aggressive enough to make Fitch pause. With his bulk and muscle mass, he could easily overpower the other man, but his size didn’t seem to faze the dancer. Then again, the heels gave the guy a good four inches on him. Maybe the height gave a false sense of superiority.
The dancer ground his teeth and took a threating step forward. “What do you want? An apology? I’m sorry, okay? I got carried away last night. Do you want to hit me? Is that it? Not gonna happen.” He waved a hand in front of his own face. “This is my money maker, you got it? I will fucking cut a bitch if—”
“I’m not gonna hit you. Jesus.” Fitch cut him off. Did his dancer get threatened so often that he thought it was the only possible outcome?
The blond bit his bottom lip and his brow furrowed.
Fitch held his hands up, palms out. “I came to find a lost purse, that’s all. But since I’m here, maybe I could get your name?”
Instead of calming the guy, though, this seemed to agitate him even more. He took a step back and tensed. “My name, why?”
That was a good fucking question. At a loss for a plausible lie, Fitch went with the truth. “I’d like to think of you as something other than the dancer.” He left out the part where his brain had claimed ownership.
Those green eyes scrunched in suspicion. “Why think of me at all?”
Fitch’s stomach came alive with jitters. Everything in him screamed for another sample, another touch, one more—just to be sure. If he loved it just as much the second time, he’d need to face his fears. His perception of himself could need a drastic renovation. He might not be so straight after all.
So what if he wasn’t?
He was caring less and less with each passing moment.
He exhaled anxiously and took an awkward step forward, closing the gap between them. The blond didn’t move, but his green gaze did flick down when Fitch licked his lip. Fitch’s heart began the tango against his sternum and his palms grew damp. “I tried not to,” he admitted. “Not fucking possible.”
With a trembling arm, he reached out and clutched the back of his dancer’s neck. Then, with a tentative breath, he tilted his head up so their lips met.
As soon as they touched, the tension in his stomach exploded in a cascade of fireworks that ignited every nerve in his body. He forgot everything but the contact, the man’s taste, the odd feel of a stranger’s scruff against his own. He swept his tongue into the welcoming heat and groaned at the spicy flavor. His dancer kissed him back, wrapping strong, slender arms around his waist.
Fitch plundered and rocked his hips, while the other man clutched and groaned and met each move with a purposeful counter move. His limbs grew heavy even as his nerves tingled with unspent energy.
So good.
Better than last time—which didn’t seem possible, but there it was. Every cell came alive as their tongues entwined and their lips caressed.
They kissed for so long he became lightheaded. Fitch ended the kiss on a bitter sigh, but he didn’t pull away. They both remained where they were, staring into each other’s eyes, panting. Beneath his thumb, he counted the rapid pulse of the man’s heart and was thrilled to note it beat just as fast as his.
“Ansel.” The dancer’s tongue peeked out to wet his kiss-swollen bottom lip. “My name is Ansel Becke.”
“Nice to meet you.” Fitch breathed and forced his fingers to release their grip. “I’m Fitch Donovan. Can I give you my phone number?”
Ansel bit his lip and the carnality of the act made Fitch want to kiss him all over again.
“Get a move on. My shift starts in forty minutes and we still have to work out the transition sequence.”
A dark-haired guy yelled from the stage, and Ansel stepped out of Fitch’s hold and flipped the guy off. When he looked back, he wore that addicting smirk. “All right, Grumpy Bear. I’ll take your number.”
Grumpy bear? He wasn’t going to argue, not when he’d accomplished his goal. He handed over his business card and said his goodbyes. And if he strutted out the door with a little extra swagger, who would blame him?
It wasn’t until he was halfway home that he remembered Tara’s bag.
* * *
“Okay, spill, who the hell was that?” Lirim asked as Ansel returned to the stage.
“Fitch. I met him last night.”
“Oh my God, is that the first guy you danced for yesterday? I could have sworn he was straight.” Z’s surprise was nothing compared to Ansel’s own. He’d thought the same thing. But straight guys didn’t initiate kisses that hot. He was still throbbing from the intensity of those lips.
“Is he why you went off the rails?” Tam, of course, always focused on the heart of the matter.
Ansel did not want to get into the root of his crazy. Yeah, he’d freaked out and run straight into the first bottle he could find. So what? Wasn’t the first time, wouldn’t be the last. Alcohol was the bandage for his damaged soul.
“Well? What did he want? Besides kissing your brains out?”
The corners of his lips tipped up and he mentally kicked himself for the involuntary reaction. He schooled his face into an indifference he didn’t feel and gave a long exhale.
“He wanted to know my name.” He paused before adding, “And to give me his number.” And something about a purse he hadn’t understood.
His friends squealed and clapped their hands.
“Holy hell, stop it.” He covered his ears. “I probably won’t even call him.”
“Are you nuts? He’s gorge. Like, lick-him-from-top-to-bottom-and-never-get-bored hot.” Z fanned his face like he was about to faint.
“He is very attractive.” Tam nodded, but his tone brought to mind a scientist examining an interesting bug.
“Attractive? He was twenty feet away and I could still feel his aura searing my skin.” Lirim and his new-agey bullshit.
“You hookers are so fucking dramatic.” Yes, Fitch was good-looking. And yes, he kissed like a god. But that didn’t mean Ansel had to pant after him like a dog and bend over whenever the guy looked at him.
“We live for the excitement, darling.” Z batted his lashes and smiled. They all laughed. “Seriously though,” Z said, “you should call him.”
“We’ll see. Let’s finish up here so we can get on with our day.”
They spent another twenty minutes working out issues with the transition and adding in steps to smooth it out. As they were about to leave for the afternoon, the manager came out from the back office. Castor had rolled up the sleeves of his too-tight black dress shirt to his elbows, and the gold chain around his neck was tangled in his overly furry chest. He’d slicked back his thinning hair with too much grease so the effect was aging. And somehow, despite his complete lack of style, Castor still acted like he was God’s gift.
“It’s my boys.” He swung a beefy arm around Z’s shoulders and pulled him in for a squeeze. “My pretty pets. How ’bout I order us some pizza and we get naked? Eh? Hundred bucks for each of ya.”
Z’s lips curled in disgust and he pried himself out of Castor’s grip.
“Gross, Cas. We’re not your fucking playmates. You want to get laid, hire a rent boy,” Ansel spat, subtly wrapping a protective arm around Tam.
Castor laughed, not in humor. It was one of those bone-chilling, dangerous laughs that scared the crap out of you. “Never forget, I own you. All of you. You’d best remember to play nice before I decide it’s better just to have you declawed.”
Ansel took Z’s hand and ushered all of them away. “He’s a fucking asshole. We need to find another club.”
“Everywhere else already has entertainment and resident queens to bring in clients.”
“We offer something special and unique. We should be able to find a place.”
Lirim’s face pinched. “I like The Vibe, we just have to avoid Castor at all costs.”
“I saw him selling drugs in the club last week,” Tam whispered.
“What? How do you know it was drugs?” Lirim asked.
“Because I’ve been around enough shady business to recognize a meth addict when I see one.”
“I heard he runs half a dozen online porn sites out of a warehouse in Brooklyn.” Z twisted a lock of his dark hair around his finger as they walked arm in arm down the street toward the subway station.
“Yeah? And I bet he’s connected to the mob, or maybe he leads a cartel and has anyone who crosses him beheaded,” Ansel said. “You guys need to stop being so melodramatic. He’s just a jerk, same as all the other jerks we’ve had to deal with.”
“Except he’s the one who pays us,” Tam put in. “So we can’t bitch-slap him and walk away.”
“True, but that doesn’t mean we have to put up with his bullshit.”
* * *
Fitch was watching the baseball highlights on ESPN later that night when his phone rang. He answered on the first jingle without looking at the caller ID.
“Hello?” Could he help it if his voice was a little rougher than usual? He cleared his throat.
“Fitch? Honey? Are you coming down with something? Do you have a fever? I’ll whip up some chicken noodle soup for you tonight.”
His stupid heart sank and he sighed. “No, Ma, I’m not sick. Thanks though, you’re the best.”
Marge Donovan’s chicken soup would kill any virus within three hours. It was scientifically proven to scare away germs. It would also set your intestines on fire.
He could hear his mom calculating the probability of truth so he distracted her with a question. “Did you talk to Meg? How is she?”
She clucked. “Her hangover was still pretty bad when I called her, but not quite as debilitating as the time you decided it was a great idea to try your father’s brandy.”
“We agreed never to bring that up again. It never happened.” He smiled at her chuckle.
“When you see you sister again, just remember how terrible it felt.”
“Yeah, yeah, take all my fun away.”
“Listen, the reason I’m calling...” She paused and the tone of the call became more serious. “I just wanted to let you know that I made the doctor’s appointment.”
He sat up straighter and switched the phone to his other ear. “Okay, when?”
“The Monday before Mother’s Day.”
“But that’s not for four weeks. Isn’t there anything sooner?”
His mom sighed. “No, unfortunately. Your father will only go to Dr. Mac and you know he’s always booked. They did us a favor by adding an extra slot, but we’ll still have to wait.”
He rubbed the back of his neck. At least they’d set the date. “Are you all right?”
“Oh sure, don’t you worry about us, sweetheart. Hey, your dad wants to talk to you. We’ll chat later.”
“Okay, bye.”
“Hey, Pop.”
His father cleared his throat. “Listen, I, uh, I just want to apologize.”
“No need, really.”
“Did you speak to Greg?”
Greg was the owner of the development firm who’d hired them for the remodel. “Yes. It took a little negotiation, but he was very understanding. He’s a good man.”
“Yes, he is.”
“We’ll cover any extra costs needed, but he said the change was not a deal breaker.” He laughed, remembering the old guy explaining how he’d been inspired while watching the birds out his bathroom window.
His father chuckled. “That sounds like Greg. Thanks for taking care of it.”
“You know I’m ready to take over. You’re just too stubborn to retire.”
“Yeah, well, maybe it won’t be up to me.”
They said good-night and he promised to be at Sunday dinner. He placed his phone on the coffee table and rested his head in his hands. What would he do if his dad was sick? Meg would be devastated. She was Daddy’s little girl. Pop was still young, only sixty-five—it was too early to be dealing with this shit.
He spent the next hour zoning out to the television and trying not to think about his dancer and how to explain his lust for a man. It was one thing for his parents to eventually accept Meg’s sexuality. It was another for their son to suddenly decide he wanted to kiss another dude now that he was nearly thirty years old. They had plans for him. Ma wanted grandbabies. Pop depended on him to run the business. What would the crew think if they knew where his mind had been?
Today had been one hit after another, first the problem at the site then having to negotiate with Greg. Even though it went smoothly, the whole meeting had stressed him out. Then a second confusing encounter with his dancer. No, Ansel.
His name was Ansel. A unique name for a unique person.
He turned off the television and all the lights on his way to the bedroom. His bed was still rumpled from his restless night and his laptop was perched on the nightstand. He stripped down to his boxers, slipped under the covers, and turned on the computer.
This afternoon he’d made a step that could propel him into a gay experience and he was woefully ignorant about such things.
Time for a little research.
* * *
The bell above the door of the neighborhood deli-slash-convenience store jingled as Fitch pushed through late Saturday morning. He winced at the sound and the answering pounding it ignited in his sleep-deprived brain.
He’d spent most of the night staring at pictures of cocks, watching gay porn, and trying to understand his sudden attraction to a leggy blond dancer. No matter how many video links he’d clicked he hadn’t gotten hard until he’d closed his eyes and pictured Ansel. With Ansel’s green eyes held in his mind, Fitch’s cock never wilted no matter what happened on the screen.
Conclusion, he wasn’t gay. Not in the traditional sense. He was just fucking crazy for one sexy-as-sin dancer.
Really fucking crazy.
“Seems like someone had a rough night.” Enrico, the deli owner, laughed in greeting. “You look like shit, Fitch.”
“I’m still better-looking than you, old man.” Fitch slid up to the counter like he had all his life and settled in for Enrico’s customary banter. The man was only about fifteen years older than Fitch and didn’t look a day over forty, but it was fun to tease him.
The deli was already packed with customers hanging around, nibbling on free samples and chatting around the tables near the back. Aisles on the left displayed all sorts of Italian and Spanish goods, plus anything one might need in a hurry like smokes, milk and bread. Under the glass counter they stored the fresh goods: cheeses from Italy and France, sliced meats to make Enrico’s famous hoagies, and antipasti fixings that would make your mouth water.
“That right? Wait ’til you’re an old man like me, and we’ll see how many ladies are knocking down your door.”
Ladies. Not a beautifully effeminate man who danced like sin and made Fitch’s dick ache. Fitch hid his embarrassment with a cough and a scratch to the back of his neck.
“How many ladies you need, you selfish bastard? You’ve already hooked the best gal in town.” Fitch winked at Enrico’s wife, Esmeralda, who manned the register.
“You’ve always been a good boy, Fitch Donovan,” Esmeralda said. “And much more handsome than my no-good husband.” Her smile was wicked.
Enrico grumbled as he crossed to where she sat. “Woman, how many times have I told you to stop flirting with the customers?”
“But it’s good for business.”
“Good for business, bad for my ulcer.” He kissed Esmeralda on the cheek. “You’re gonna be the death of me, Essy.”
She patted his hand. “Maybe, but you’ll surely die happy.” She giggled at her own joke before focusing on Fitch again. “How’s your mother?”
“Ma’s good, whole clan is doing well. Meg’s studying real hard, just celebrated her twenty-first.”
“She didn’t.” The outrage in Enrico’s voice was comical and Fitch smiled.
“‘Fraid so, old man.”
“Mama mia!” Enrico crossed himself like he was chasing away evil spirits. “I must be dying, little Meg Donovan is all grown up.”
“Calm down, Rico. You’re not dying, you’re just old.”
The bell jingled again, signaling the arrival of another customer. Enrico waved at the newcomer then focused on Fitch again. “What can I get for you today?”
“A classic Italian with extra hot peppers and oil.”
While Enrico went to work slicing the meats and cheeses for the sandwich, Fitch took a moment to pick up a few essentials. He scanned the racks, grabbing pasta, jarred sauce, some bread, and peanut butter before moving to the next aisle. Various shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, and grooming supplies filled the space and at the very end were rows of condoms...and lube.
He’d never bought lube before. That one time he’d had anal with a girlfriend she’d done all the prep work. All he’d had to do was slip his dick in, but from everything he’d read and seen last night, there was so much more to gay sex than that. And he was going to need a lot of lube.
He could feel the heat rising up his neck to color his cheeks and he quickly checked over his shoulder to make sure no one was looking. Thankfully he was alone so he could peruse the labels. Not that he was going to buy anything. Not at Rico’s Corner Store and Deli. Not where everyone who came in knew his name, his parents’ names, and the names of their last four pets.
No fucking thank you.
He’d stop at the superstore at some point where he could get in and out again without seeing anyone he knew. Without having to explain why he was staring at a bunch of colorful boxes of lubricant and trying to figure out which one to buy.
Because, Christ, he wanted to have sex with another man.
And not just that, he wanted to do all the things he’d watched the porn stars do. All the things that seemed to drive them crazy with pleasure. Yeah, he wanted to experience it all with his dancer. To make Ansel moan like those actors did, but for real. With his tongue, with his hands, with his cock.
Damn it, he was getting hard.
This was stupid. There wasn’t any guarantee that Ansel would even call. Why was he getting himself all worked up? And why did the idea that Ansel wouldn’t call twist him up inside?
Shaking his head, Fitch took a deep breath and forced himself back into the present. He couldn’t think about it here. There were too many friendly eyes, too many familiar faces.
Worrying about how to explain his sudden obsession made him ill.
No one would understand.

Chapter Eight
Saturday breakfast with his roommate, Ange, was a tradition dating back to the day they met. The location had changed over the years, depending on where they were living and how much cash they had, but they’d never failed to make the date. It was one way they both stayed connected to Ray, the homeless veteran who’d saved their lives.
But it was also a good excuse for greasy sausage and pancakes.
Since they’d moved into their current apartment, they’d frequented the tiny diner less than a block away. The eggs were awful, but the coffee was good.
He sipped from his steaming mug as Ange slid into the booth across from him.
“Hey, girl, how was your shift?”
“Ugh, don’t get me started. I don’t know why I decided I wanted to be a nurse. Who in their right mind volunteers for this?” Her light brown hair was cropped around her ears. A lock fell forward when she propped her head in her hand and closed her eyes.
“People with great big hearts.” He pushed his mug toward her. “Have some caffeine, it will help.”
She took a great gulp. “Yeah, that’s the stuff.” She opened her eyes with a sigh. “So, dish? What’s new in the world of divas and glitter?”
He opened the menu, an unnecessary action. He’d memorized every item six months after moving into the apartment. And he always ordered the same thing, which Ange knew too.
“Whoa, avoidance. Now you have to spill.”
“Nothing new, same shit different day. Castor’s being a pig, Tam created another work of art, Z is cranky as hell, and Lirim is still floating on rainbows.”
“Right, and where’s this bridge you’d like to sell me? Seriously, I know when you’re hiding something. I’m not going to let you get away with it. Please, please, please, take me away from bedpans, barf and genital herpes.”
“Ew, nasty.”
“You’re telling me.”
The waitress, a plump older woman, arrived. “What can I get you two today? No, wait, let me guess. You’ll have the six stack with whipped cream and maple syrup, a side of home fries, and three sausage links.”
He smiled at her. “You’re good.”
She winked and turned to Ange. “And you, my dear, will have coffee, orange juice, three blueberry pancakes and a fruit salad.”
“One day I swear I’ll order something different.”
The waitress chuckled. “Ain’t nothing wrong with knowing what you like.”
“Hear, hear.” He lifted his half-empty mug in agreement.
When the waitress left, he took another sip of coffee, hoping Ange was too sleepy to remember the thread of their conversation. Unfortunately, he’d never been a lucky one. Before he’d even had time to swallow, she was right back to begging.
“It’s nothing. I just, sorta, met a guy and he gave me his number. It’s no big deal. Happens all the time.”
She sat back and squinted at him. “Yes, it does. So why didn’t you tell me right off the bat? He must be different.”
He suddenly found the folding and unfolding of his napkin fascinating.
Fitch was different.
He was the first person to make him dream of possibilities. He was normally a suck, fuck, and fly kind of guy. He didn’t do future. He didn’t do feelings. Not to mention the fucking cannonballs of tension that exploded in his stomach whenever the guy was near.
“Not really,” he said. But he’d never been able to lie convincingly to Ange. She always saw right through him.
“Confess everything or I will tell you about the man who came in today with an acute case of genital warts—in graphic detail. And I’m talking leaking pus and massive swollen tissue.”
He cringed. “Okay, okay, I surrender, just please stop being gross.”
Apparently satisfied, Ange crossed her arms under her breasts and smiled. He took a breath and told her the story. All about the dance, the kiss, his crazy overreaction, and how Fitch had shown up at the club. He tried to gloss over the effect Fitch had on him, but knew he was blushing. When he was done, he swallowed the rest of his coffee and went back to folding his napkin.
Ange sat forward and touched his hand. “You really like this guy.”
“Don’t be silly, I don’t even know him. He’s just a really good kisser.”
“Call him. Right now.”
“I’m going to bug you until you call him.”
“You’ll have to wait ’cause here’s our food.”
“Okay, we’ll eat first, but then you’re going to call him.”
He sighed and started digging into his breakfast.
* * *
He’d managed to put Ange off, but only because she was so tired she’d almost fallen asleep on her pancakes. She’d made him promise to call Fitch. It had been over an hour since their meal and he still hadn’t worked up the nerve. He sat on his favorite rock in Central Park overlooking the pond and watched the ducks swimming in the water. It was warm, a perfect spring afternoon, and if he weren’t feeling so anxious, he’d have soaked up the sun with glee. But as it was, the knots in his stomach were making it hard to breathe, and his palms were almost as wet as the water he was staring at.
If Ray were alive, he’d laugh his ass off over this. There were things to fear, like bombs, serial-killers, and starvation. Then there were things to embrace, like warmth, food, and friendship. Ray would classify calling someone you were attracted to in the latter category. Any other situation and Ansel would have too.
Ah, fuck it. He was being a coward.
With one hand clutching the dog tags around his neck, he pulled out his phone. He’d already memorized the number because he was insane like that. He took a deep breath and dialed.
Fitch answered on the third ring. “Hello?” The guy’s sexy voice sounded deeper than he remembered.
Ansel’s fingers tightened around the necklace until the metal dug into his skin. “Uh, hey. This is Ansel, Ansel Becke.” When Fitch didn’t reply, he continued. “You gave me your card, at the club. Sorry if this is a bad time.” Smooth.
“Yeah, I remember.” Fitch cleared his throat. “Hi.”
God, just that and he was already gagging for it. “Okay, well, how are you?”
There was a rustle on the other end of the phone. “Good, great. How are you?”
Maybe he wasn’t the only one feeling nervous. “Good, just enjoying the sun for once.” Really? The weather? How fucking lame was he? He banged his forehead on his knee.
“I know, I was out back earlier, but I came in for the game.”
“What game?”
“Baseball, the Jackals are playing the Bears. Do you watch sports?”
The hazy memory of his parents taking him and his brother to a Yankees game in the Bronx slithered through him like a poison snake. His mother had actually smiled and laughed that day. She’d bought Ansel one of those foam fingers and let him eat a hot dog. But the happiness was temporary and Ansel had been so very careful not to destroy it that he barely remembered the game.
He blinked away the past and forced a laugh because Fitch’s tone was so hopeful. “No, sorry. Unless you count ice skating or the dancing on So You Think You Can Dance.”
Fitch’s chuckle was good-natured. “Some of those people are probably in better shape than your average professional athlete.”
“Right, don’t football players take ballet to improve their flexibility?”
“Yep, nothing wrong with that.”
“Which team do you like?” He stretched out his legs and picked at a section of grass coming up through a crack in the stone.
“I’m going for the Jackals, but just to piss off my sister. She’s an epic Bears fan. It’s hilarious when they lose.”
“Is this Meg, the sister you were with on Thursday?”
Fitch cleared his throat again, and after a short pause, answered with, “Yeah, that’s her. Only sibling I have.”
“She seemed great.”
“She’s all right.”
“Was it her purse you were looking for?”
Fitch chuckled and the sound rumbled through the phone like good whiskey. “No, I can’t believe I completely forgot about the damn bag. It’s her girlfriend’s, she left it at the club.”
“What’s it look like?”
“She said it’s blue with a silver clasp.”
“I’ll have a snoop around and see if I can locate it for you.”
Fitch’s appreciation was warm when he said, “Really? That would be great. Thank you.”
Basking in the ease of their conversation and the enjoyable day, he didn’t reply.
“What about you? Do you have any siblings?” Fitch asked, after a few seconds of silence.
A pang speared Ansel’s heart and he stopped picking at the grass to rub at the ache. “Yeah. A younger brother, but I haven’t seen him in years.”
“Oh, that’s tough. Does he live far away or something?”
“No, not really. It’s a long, boring story.”
The TV blared in the background, the cheers of the crowd filling the silence between them. “I get it,” Fitch said, finally. “Maybe one day you’ll tell me, I’d be happy to listen, but no pressure.”
Maybe it was the heat from the sun or the tone of Fitch’s voice, but something had his muscles relaxing. “Thanks.”
“So, can we—I mean—I’d like to see you again. Maybe dinner tonight?”
“I would, but I have to work every night except Sunday.”
“At the club.”
“Will you be doing the dance I saw you rehearsing?” Fitch’s voice was so gruff, it sent sparks of electricity from the roots of his hair down to his toes.
“Possibly. It’s up to Tam.”
The half growl, half moan resonating through the phone forced him to shut his eyes on a surge of lust.
“That dance was hot. I’ll come by the club. Can we go somewhere after?”
His skin was on fire at the thought of Fitch being in the audience again. Technically he could leave right after their show, but that meant missing out on a whole night’s worth of tips. He bit his bottom lip and pulled at the hem of his T-shirt, debating with himself.
He needed the money to pay his rent. But damn, if the guy could get him this excited from nothing more than a simple conversation, he’d be stupid to pass up the opportunity for a good fuck. Of course, he ignored all the other warning bells, knowing this wouldn’t be his typical one-night stand.
“Yeah, okay, sounds good.”

Chapter Nine
Fitch stood in his bedroom studying his closet, trying to figure out what to wear on his date. It was a date, to him. A date with another guy, yes. He was still trying to convince himself Ansel’s gender didn’t make a difference, and the phone conversation was heavy proof. Ansel intrigued him.
He’d already chosen his best pair of blue jeans, but he still debated the shirt. The last two times they’d met, he hadn’t put in any effort. This time, he wanted to look his best. He’d showered, shaved, sprayed himself with cologne, and even bought new boxer-briefs.
And some condoms and lube.
Maybe that was presumptuous, but why lie? After his night of research and a trip to the store he was ready to be honest, at least with himself. He was nervous as hell, but every time he closed his eyes, he could taste Ansel’s kiss and his pulse started to race.
He had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he wanted it more than anything in his life so far. He’d made a vow to take control of his life, and this was one way to do that. Going after the things he wanted and saying no to those he didn’t.
No more avoiding conflict just to spare someone else’s feelings.
If he kept doing that, he’d never be truly happy.
His cell rang so he retrieved it from his dresser and answered.
“Fitch, man, where have you been?” Rob asked. “Annie has been asking about you again. Why don’t you come down to the pub?”
“Yeah, you remember Annie Hurley, the redhead with the great rack?”
The description brought to mind the daughter of one of Donovan Construction’s best local clients and her extremely annoying voice. “Right. Sorry, buddy, I’ve got plans tonight.”
“What do you mean? It’s Saturday night. There are no games this weekend and you’re not seeing anyone.”
He was distracted by his closet again. Should he go with the dark blue button-down or more casual with a decent T-shirt? It would be warm in the club, especially when the dancing started, but he wanted to make a good impression.
“Whoa, are you seeing someone? Why the fuck didn’t you tell me?” Rob asked, bringing Fitch back into the conversation.
Shit. “No, not seeing anyone.” He answered a little too fast and immediately felt guilty for lying. But technically it wasn’t a lie. He wasn’t seeing anyone at the moment.
This was their first date, a little premature to start talking about it. What if it didn’t work out? What if, when they started getting to know each other, the attraction faded? There was no sense spilling the beans about his potential gay lover when nothing had happened...yet.
So, why stir the pot now? If things got serious with Ansel, he’d tell Rob. Eventually.
He’d tell everyone, if it came to that.
Although he had no idea how.
Luckily, Rob didn’t seem to notice Fitch’s silent alarm. “Then come out with us. The guys are all here, Sammy, Todd, Ralph, and Craig. Even Rich was able to get away from the wife and kids for a few hours.”
All his friends were getting together without him. He sighed. “I wish you’d have told me sooner, but I can’t break my—” He paused, not wanting to say date. “Uh, my appointment.”
When Rob replied, he didn’t hide his disappointment. “It was kind of a spontaneous thing, that’s why I called. Oh well, another time, I guess.”
“Yeah, for sure. See you around.” He hung up, feeling terrible for putting off his friends in favor of a date with a stranger.
Okay, truthfully, if he were going out with a woman he wouldn’t care, but he wasn’t, and choosing Ansel over his friends made him a little uneasy. What did it say about him that he’d rather have a chance at sucking cock for the first time than hanging out with his friends?
He growled and rubbed a hand over his face.
Fuck, fuck, fuck. What was he doing?
Twenty-nine was too early for a midlife crisis, wasn’t it? And by now he should know his own sexual identity, shouldn’t he? Why was he so willing to do something that could turn his life upside down? Dating Ansel had the potential to turn everyone against him.
He was pretty sure his family would come around eventually, but that wasn’t a given. What if they were disappointed in him? What if his mom wanted grandkids so bad she never forgave him? And his friends, shit, if they found out how hard he got thinking about Ansel, they’d never look at him the same.
He sat on his bed and stared into the closet. The shirt he’d worn to the club was tossed in the corner, but he hadn’t washed it. Probably never would.
Ansel’s challenging smirk flashed in his mind, those glittering green eyes lit up by the club lights, his plump lips painted bright red. And the way his abs had fluttered under Fitch’s palms during the lap dance...Fitch’s pulse steadied and his limbs grew warm and heavy. His breathing calmed until he could stand again and walk to the closet.
He pulled out the green button-down his sister had given him for Christmas last year. She’d said the colors looked good with his complexion. He just thought it would play well off of Ansel’s awesome green eyes. It was fitted near his waist and made his shoulders look bigger than they were. He rolled up his sleeves to the elbows, left his collar loose by two buttons, and grabbed his keys and phone. It was only eleven. He was way too fucking early, but if he stood around waiting for another second he might never leave his apartment.
And he didn’t want to chance living the rest of his life without knowing.
If nothing else, he’d at least have a crazy story to never—ever—tell anyone.
The drive into the city took longer than expected. Traffic was backed up on the New Jersey Turnpike due to an accident near the waterfront exit. Which meant, instead of being early, he arrived at the club with barely enough time to push his way through the crowd before the lights began to dim. Heart thundering with a mix of excitement and adrenaline, he ordered his Coke and waited. The anticipation made it hard to concentrate.
He couldn’t remember ever being this nervous—or this fucking eager—for a date in his whole life. Not even when he’d finally scored one with Debby, the prettiest girl in his ninth grade class. Not when he’d met Sandra, the perky little Vietnamese girl he’d dated for three months in college. Not even during his last relationship, with Sara. It could be the newness of it all, but he suspected it was more likely due to a pair of wicked green eyes, long-as-sin legs, and a haughty smirk.
* * *
“Sorry I’m late.” Ansel ran through the back door of the club and pulled off his shirt. They were supposed to be onstage in twenty and he still had to fix his hair and do his makeup.
“Thank God you’re here.” Tam pressed a palm to his bare stomach. “I thought I’d have to rearrange the positioning on the fly. Not to mention what Castor would do.”
“Where were you? Have you been drinking?” Z sidled up behind him as he sat in the chair, and met his eyes in the mirror.
“Back off, Z. I took an extra shift and then the fucking train was late and I missed the bus. Threw me off schedule, okay?” He’d managed to get his foundation done in the cab on the way to the club and his cheeks were already highlighted and rouged, but he still needed to color his lids and apply mascara. “I’ll be ready, I promise. Can you get my clothes out of my bag?”
Lirim moved to collect his belongings on the floor where he’d tossed them upon entry. “No problem, just beat that face and take a deep breath. We still have time.”
“I was thinking we could do Gaga’s ‘Applause’ and ‘Bad Girls’ tonight.” Tam straightened the shoes against the wall.
“Really?” Ansel liked both of those routines, but Fitch was coming and he wanted to see “Slut Like You.” Ansel finished painting his lids and set the compact on the counter. “I was kind of hoping we could run through our newest set again.” He didn’t look up. Instead, he picked up his liquid liner and unscrewed the top.
“But we just did those routines last night.” Z was still standing behind him and his eagle eyes were squinting at Ansel’s reflection. He picked up a comb and ran it through Ansel’s windblown hair.
“I know.” He couldn’t help the one-shoulder shrug. “It’s okay if we don’t. I just thought...” He trailed off and went back to applying the rest of his makeup. Tonight, he was going for fifties glam, complete with winged liner and voluptuous lashes. Instead of the standard red lip, he chose a hot pink to match his nail polish.
“This is for that guy, isn’t it?” Z bent down so their faces were side by side. “You called him.”
He pressed his lips together before speaking, “It’s not a big deal.”
Lirim whistled and sat in the chair next to him. “He’s coming tonight?”
He used the application of gloss as an excuse not to answer.
“All right. We’ll do Pink and Brit again. We could use the practice anyway.” Tam smiled at him in the mirror.
“Thanks, hon.”
“I’ll just go tell Dag of the change. Be right back.” He turned and slipped through the stage door that led to the DJ station.
While he was away, Lirim gathered Ansel’s costume pieces and draped them over the nearest empty chair. Tonight he’d wear tight black faux-leather leggings, platform heels, and a long piece of black ribbon twisted up one arm and down the other. When he was dressed and ready, he took his place in their circle. He wrapped his arms around Tam to his left and Z to his right and hugged them close.
“Let’s kick some ass and take some names, girls.”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Love you guys.”
“Love you too, bitch.”
Their laughter was drowned out by the cheers of the crowd and their introduction by the DJ. As they took the stage, his heart thudded.
His fingers warmed and tingled. His cock was already half-hard and the music hadn’t even started yet. When the strong steady beat of Britney’s “Work Bitch” started, he fell into the routine. The music washed over him. The adrenaline of performing was almost as addictive as any drug, but tonight was different.
Tonight, he could feel Fitch’s eyes on him, and it made every cell in his body come alive.

Chapter Ten
Meet me out front in 20.
The text message came only minutes after the dancers left the stage to a wild, cheering crowd and the DJ’s announcement that they’d be out to mingle soon. Fitch’s fingers tightened on his phone as he tried to calm his breathing. Twenty minutes.
For some reason it felt like an eternity and an instant all at once. Especially after their performance. He’d thought the routine was hot during their rehearsal, but tonight it had been epic. From the moment the lights came up, Fitch had been hypnotized—and hard as a rock.
Sense memory or some such bullshit, because he swore he could smell the perfume from twenty feet away, and it curled around his balls like a living tongue.
He sent a quick reply before shoving the phone back in his pocket. Then he headed out the door. The early morning air smelled fresh and the streets around the club were quiet. The peace wouldn’t last long, not in the city that never slept—better enjoy it while he could. He checked the time on his phone and leaned against the streetlamp, relieved the club was in the West Village and it was the middle of the night. He could be ninety-nine percent sure he wouldn’t run into anyone he knew.
The click-click-click of heels came from behind and he turned to see Ansel approaching from around the corner.
He took in the sight. The guy wore sparkling black heels, a pair of tight black pants, and a baggy T-shirt that said I woke up like this written in gold sequins. He shimmered with metallic jewelry, long necklaces, bangles, and oversized rings. The light from the streetlamp made it seem like the words were glowing, and his shoes were filled with stars. Fucking dazzling.
“Hey,” Fitch said.
Ansel tucked his hair behind his ear and smirked. “Hey, yourself.”
Okay, now what? He rubbed the back of his neck and flicked his gaze over Ansel’s face.
“You look—” He swallowed, because there wasn’t really a word for it. Gorgeous? Did gay guys like to be called beautiful? How was he supposed to know? Fuckable? Irresistible? Amazing? Like walking sin?
Ansel blinked and lowered his eyes to Fitch’s chest. “Better than the last time we saw each other, I hope.”
“Yeah, yes, fucking great. I mean, not that you looked bad last time. I don’t think it’s possible for you to look bad, honestly. But, yeah, you look good tonight.” He scratched his jaw before adding, “Shall we go?”
Ansel tilted his head. “Sure, where are we going?”
“There’s a twenty-four-hour diner only a few blocks away.”
“Yeah, I know it. They have great fries.”
“Should we walk? It’s a nice night.” He glanced down at Ansel’s shoes. He wasn’t up on all the fashion terms, but those heels looked pretty damn high.
“Sure, I’m fine with walking. These bitches are nothing compared to my five-inch patent-leather pumps. Those fuckers kill.” He lifted one leg and made a circle with his ankle. “These have padding so they’re actually kind of comfortable.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Fitch said, before tucking his hands in his pockets.
They walked side by side down the street. Even though they were inches apart, he swore he felt the heat of the other man warming his arm.
“What do you do for a living, Fitch Donovan?”
“My family owns Donovan Construction in Bayonne.”
Ansel looked him up and down and nodded. “I can see that. You probably developed those muscles from lifting packs of cement over your head.”
Fitch ignored the involuntary flex of said muscles. “What about you? What do you do, other than dancing?”
“Why do you think I do anything else?”
Fitch lifted a shoulder. “I get the sense that dancing is your passion, and I doubt it pays enough for rent in Manhattan.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” Ansel paused a moment before finishing, “I currently have the most glamorous part-time job of slicing meat and filling sausages at a butcher shop in Midtown.”
“It’s a small place, good benefits, and pay is decent.”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you as someone who’d willingly wear a hairnet and plastic gloves.”
Ansel laughed. “I know, right? I think of it as being incognito, like it’s my secret life or something.”
“So who are you really, if you’re not the guy who handles meat?”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do love meat.” The look he shot Fitch was full of mischief and Fitch couldn’t help but smile and roll his eyes at the innuendo. “Too much?” Ansel asked with a smirk.
“I’m a lot to handle sometimes, or at least that’s what people tell me.” Ansel played with one of the long necklaces around his neck. “‘There is a vale which none hath seen, where foot of man has never been, such as here lives with toil and strife, an anxious and a sinful life.’” The last was mumbled half under his breath.
“What’s that?”
“Henry David Thoreau. It was my anthem way back.”
“Don’t tell me, you’re stripping your way through college.”
Ansel scoffed and shook his head. “More like stripping my way through life, honey.”
They rounded the corner laughing just as a group of guys crossed the street. Fitch didn’t pay much attention to them until one yelled, “Faggots,” shoulder-checking Ansel hard enough for him to stumble into Fitch.
It all happened too fast. One second they were laughing and the next Ansel was in his arms and the strangers were chuckling dastardly as they walked away. Fitch’s stomach knotted as he realized they’d included him in their insult.
He was a faggot.
For the first time in his life he was being ridiculed, and all because he stood next to Ansel.
He gritted his teeth and helped Ansel right himself. Even though he tried to be subtle about it, he could tell by Ansel’s pale face that his fears were broadcasted clear as day. And then, not only did he feel like an idiot, he was also embarrassed.
Anger flooded his system until he was ready to punch someone. Fitch was just about to turn toward the group and say something when Ansel’s hand caught his elbow.
“Trust me, it’s not worth it,” Ansel said. The understanding look in his green eyes was the only thing that stopped Fitch.
“They shouldn’t get away with that shit.”
Ansel’s pointed laugh was tight and tense. “That was nothing, don’t let it ruin the night.”
“Does that happen to you a lot?”
Those beautiful lips twisted. “More than you’re ready to know.”
They walked the rest of the way in silence and at the diner Fitch chose a table near the back, partly for privacy and partly to remain hidden from anyone walking by on the street. If Ansel guessed his motives, he didn’t say anything.
The place was long and narrow, with only a single row of booths in the center and tables scattered near the windows. The decor was classic fifties with red, black and chrome accents. Only two other customers took up space at this hour, one guy sipping coffee at the counter and a hooded figure in a booth on the other side.
As soon as they sat down, a tired waitress came over and presented them with menus. As he studied each option, his date flipped through the entire list in a few seconds. After he pushed the plastic aside, Ansel began folding a napkin from the dispenser on the table.
“Something to drink?” the waitress asked when she returned a minute later.
“Coke,” Fitch answered.
“I’ll be right back to take your order.”
They both said their thanks and she left to get their drinks.
“So, Fitch Donovan, why are we here?”
* * *
Ansel rested his elbows on the table and leaned forward. “No bullshit,” he warned. “I’m allergic.”
“I’m not much of a bullshitter. Not my style.”
“Good, so tell me, honestly, what is this?”
Across the table Fitch wiped the corner of his mouth with his thumb, an obvious stall tactic Ansel could see right through. No matter how forward Fitch had been in the club, being seen in public with someone like Ansel probably gave the straight guy hives. But instead of deflecting his question like Ansel expected, Fitch finally met his eyes.
“A date?” The way he said it sound like both a question and a statement, and oddly it gave Ansel pause—for a second at least. Then his instincts kicked in and shields were firmly back in place.
“Sorry, sugar. I don’t date. I fuck.”
Fitch coughed. “Oh. Right. Okay.” His brow scrunched adorably and Ansel sighed.
“Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment. It’s just, dating seems too sentimental. You know?”
“Not really, dating is all I’ve ever done, one girlfriend after another. Sometimes even when I didn’t want them.”
“So, you are straight. Not bi?” Mesmerized by the endearing bob of Fitch’s Adam’s apple, Ansel silently chastised himself. When had he become the type of person to go gaga over a dude’s throat?
“Straight as a razor, until Thursday.”
Did he really think it was a switch that got flipped at some awkward moment? Being handed so much power was wicked flattering, but Ansel knew better than to get caught up in it. “Just because your crank got turned doesn’t mean you’re suddenly all about the D.”
The waitress returned with the drinks, distracting them from the conversation as they recited their orders. When they were alone again, he pulled out Ray’s old flask and poured some rum into his Coke. Task complete, he leaned back and crossed his ankles, waiting for Fitch to reply.
“You’re right. I’ve been trying to test myself ever since,” Fitch said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been looking at other guys, you know, watched porn, to check my reactions. It’s not like I never noticed a good-looking dude before, but I’ve never been,” he cleared his throat before whispering, “aroused by one.”
Ansel matched his volume. “It’s not a crime. Why are you whispering?”
Fitch let out a breath and shook his head. “You don’t give a guy a break, do you?”
Ansel flipped his hair over his shoulder. “Why should I? No one has ever given me one. And anyway, I’m not the guy you want to be around if you’re ashamed of people thinking you’re gay. Hello.” He gestured to his painted face and glittery outfit. “I’m a blinking rainbow sign that says Queer as Fuck.”
Fitch looked at the table and drew a circle in the condensation left by his glass. “You’re vibrant, that’s for sure.”
“So, I’ll ask again. Why are we here?”
Again Fitch made eye contact. His deep brown eyes projected honesty and lust. “Because I can’t seem to get you out of my fucking mind.”
Ansel’s stupid, idiotic heart actually fucking skipped a beat. To mask the warmth suddenly spreading outward from his chest and up his neck, he lowered his head and pressed his lips together. Don’t fall for it. Pretty words came and went. He’d learned the hard way—love was a lie.
“But I do have some questions,” Fitch continued.
Glad for the distraction, he smirked. “Yes, it hurts like a son-of-a-bitch.”
“What? Oh.” Fitch shook his head and chuckled. “No, not about anal. And it can’t hurt that bad or so many people wouldn’t be doing it.”
“True enough. What’s your question?”
Before Fitch could speak, though, the food arrived. Ansel’s order of chili-cheese fries, a side of chicken fingers, and mozzarella sticks took up half the table while Fitch’s double bacon cheeseburger and onion rings fit on one plate.
“Are you really going to eat all that?”
“Hell yes. You’re paying, right?” He winked to let the guy know he was joking before biting off half a marinara-dipped cheese stick.
Fitch laughed and shook his head. “I thought this wasn’t a date,” he said, biting into his burger.
They ate in companionable silence for a while, Ansel enjoying the diner’s fries more than he remembered even while Fitch kept staring at him. If it had been anyone else across the table he probably would have felt like a bug under a microscope and gotten defensive, but Fitch’s eyes were warm and syrupy and full of awe. It gave Ansel the distinct and unaccustomed sense of comfort. Which in turn ignited his fear. He was who he was, after all.
“What? Do I have sauce on my nose or something?” he finally asked.
Fitch shook his head. “This is going to sound crazy, but you look hot shoving melted cheese in your mouth.”
Ansel’s laugh was so loud and unexpected it drew the attention of the old man at the bar, so he quickly muffled it with his hand.
“If you think that’s hot, baby, wait until I get on my knees,” he replied when he caught his breath, and batted his eyelashes for extra punctuation.
The groan that escaped Fitch’s generous lips set Ansel’s blood on fire and instantly they went from teasing to blast-furnace desire.
“You shouldn’t say shit like that to me in a public place.” Fitch took a deep breath and licked grease off his bottom lip. Everything about the man screamed hunger. And Ansel was the feast about to be devoured.
Holy shit.
He took a giant gulp of his rum and Coke, searching his muddled brain for a change in topic. They needed to douse the inferno before he combusted right there in the middle of the diner.
Clearing his throat, he said, “Anyway, you said you had some questions?”
“Right.” Fitch sat back in the booth and stretched out his legs, pulling at the denim in a familiar move that had Ansel wondering just how thick the guy’s cock was beneath the fabric.
“Well, the thing is, I’m not very familiar with the LGBTQ subculture other than what my sister tells me.”
“Just spit it out.” Ansel winced at his bitchy tone. “Sorry, I’m just impatient.” And horny. “I promise I won’t be offended.”
“Okay.” Fitch smiled. “So, Meg’s friend said you guys aren’t drag queens.”
He dipped another stick in the sauce. “She’s right. I am nowhere near as fierce as a queen.”
“But you wear heels and makeup. What’s the difference?”
“I don’t tuck, most queens do. They often wear fake breasts too. Drag is for show. A performance. We don’t try to pass ourselves off as women. We dress like this every day. We just like pretty things.”
“So you’re trans?” Fitch scratched his jaw before popping another onion ring in his mouth.
“It depends on what you mean by trans. Transgender, I am not. I don’t identify as female. I enjoy everything male about myself. But technically I guess you could call me a transvestite. We prefer androgynous more than anything, a little bit of both and neither at the same time. Completely ambiguous. But personally I don’t like labels. I’m just Ansel fucking Becke and screw anyone who has a problem with it. I like heels. And I love makeup because it’s fun to play with color. It’s like painting.”
Fitch’s brow creased, but he didn’t speak.
“Listen, you don’t need to understand. It’s a bunch of bullshit created to separate us with categories and distinctions. Oh look, there goes that white, Catholic, German, female, lesbian, mother, nurse. Why can’t it just be, there goes that human fucking being?”
Fitch put up his hands in surrender. “Whoa, I agree. I’m just curious about the definitions. I’m new to this whole thing, remember?”
Ansel pushed his fingers through his hair and leaned back. “Sorry. Sore subject.”
“I get it. My sister has given me speech after speech about gender equality, LGBTQ interests, and separation of humanity. I just want to understand you. Just you, not the whole world.”
Absurdly touched by Fitch’s statement, Ansel gave in to a small smile. “This is all you need to know about me. I like pretty things, but I also love my cock. I don’t want to be a woman, but I happen to look like one. I enjoy wearing heels, experimenting with makeup, and sparkly things. I also enjoy sticking my hand down my pants and scratching my balls, ’cause, yes, I do have them. So, if you asked me out tonight because you thought I was almost a woman or might eventually be one, you’re going to be disappointed.”
“That’s not why I asked you out.”
“Why did you, then?”
“I already told you.”
“Yeah, you can’t stop thinking about me. But what do you want to happen? Are we just going to share a meal and go our separate ways? Did you want to kiss me good-night? Or do you want to come back to my place and get naked?”

Chapter Eleven
Fitch’s burger was halfway to his mouth when Ansel stopped talking, the proposition clear in the arch of a blond brow and the sparkle in those green eyes. He swallowed the saliva pooling on his tongue. Would he ever get used to the guy’s utter frankness? He put his burger on the plate, glanced over his shoulder to make sure no one was within hearing distance, and debated his options for about five seconds before meeting Ansel’s challenging gaze.
“Is that last option on the table?”
Ansel’s slow smirk was ten times more mind-blowing than ever before. He blinked his long lashes. “Can we finish our meal first? These fries are too good to waste.”
Fitch somehow managed to make his food disappear in less than two minutes. When he was finished with his own plate, he started helping Ansel with his, not that he needed much help. He was doing an admirable job shoveling the rest of the fries, cheese and chicken into his mouth. He was smarter than Fitch and actually chewed his food. Their plates were empty in record time, and in complete silence. When the waitress came to clear their table, Fitch asked for the bill and paid.
“Thanks,” Ansel said as they left the diner. “For dinner.”
“It was all part of my plan to get in your pants.” He prided himself for speaking his mind without checking for witnesses first.
Ansel’s laugh was husky and sent another cascade of shivers down his spine. All night, the little noises, tempting looks, flirtatious smirks, rolled over Fitch like a tsunami of pleasure and left him trying to catch his breath in the aftermath.
“Honey, all you had to do was ask.”
Fitch led the way to his Chevy and even opened the door for Ansel, like a gentleman. His date might be of the same sex, but that didn’t mean he would abandon everything he was taught.
“Which direction?” Fitch asked as he pulled away from the curb. It was still dark and the streets were empty.
“Left here and a right at the next light.” Ansel dug around in the leather satchel he carried and came out with a pack of gum. He pulled out a stick. “Want one?”
Fitch took the offered piece and pushed it into his mouth. Fresh breath meant longer kisses and, damn, did he want to kiss Ansel senseless.
“Is this the purse you were looking for?” Ansel asked, pulling out a blue envelope-looking thing from his bag.
“You found it?”
“Terry picked it up after closing. Your sister’s girlfriend is lucky.”
Stashing the purse on the seat between them, Fitch said, “I’ll tell her, thanks.” He didn’t ask who Terry was because he was afraid of the answer. The familiarity with which Ansel said the name spoke of some kind of intimacy. The guy had said he didn’t date, he hadn’t said he wasn’t currently fucking someone on the regular. The idea made the burger in his stomach congeal and he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.
“It’s okay, you know.” Ansel’s voice was quieter than usual, distant. And when Fitch glanced over Ansel was staring into his lap, his fingers tangled together.
“What is?”
“If you’ve changed your mind.” Those long lashes fluttered as Ansel looked up at him and for a breath of an instant they were so easy to read, it was like looking into Ansel’s mind and knowing exactly what he was thinking. It was just a tiny crack in his armor, but it shined so much light it was almost blinding. And all Fitch saw was the fragile, yearning core of a man hardened by circumstances. A man he wanted to understand. A man he needed to know.
“I haven’t.”
Ansel glanced at the steering wheel where his fingers still clutched the leather and then back at him with a raised eyebrow as if to say, really?
Fitch huffed a laugh. “Okay, I’m nervous, but I’ve never let that stop me before.”
They didn’t speak again until Ansel guided Fitch to his street, not far from the club. As they were climbing the cement steps to the front door, Ansel looked at him over his shoulder.
“My landlord is a huge dick so try to be quiet until we’re up the stairs.”
Fitch nodded and followed Ansel through the front door of a dimly lit building. He spotted half a dozen code violations in the entryway alone. And Ansel had to work two jobs to afford the rent? Thank God Fitch didn’t live in the city. He’d rather pay for gas than live like a squatter. Though the building needed work, Ansel’s apartment wasn’t bad, in fact, it was kind of cozy. He walked a few steps into the living room while Ansel flipped the light switch and closed the door behind them.
“My roommate is working tonight so we’ll have the place to ourselves for a few hours.”
“You have a roommate?” Fitch turned to take in the layout and decor. The kitchen, dining, and living space were combined, but a hall led to what he guessed were the bed and bath. The whole place was an explosion of color and texture. It was vibrant and warm, just like Ansel.
“Yeah, Ange. She has odd hours because she’s working to be a nurse.”
Fitch raked his gaze over Ansel from the top of his blond head to the tips of his pointy heels. Now that they were alone, he didn’t know what to do next. Normally, he’d make the first move. He was big and had always been the more dominant partner. But that was straight sex. How should he handle gay sex?
Gay sex. Fuck. Was he really about to go through with it?
He took stock for the hundredth time since leaving his apartment to make sure this was really something he wanted to do, and found his interest hadn’t diminished during dinner. In fact, the small glimpses of vulnerability he’d seen in Ansel’s unguarded moments had embedded themselves in Fitch’s mind and refused to let him go. He wanted to see more of that. He wanted to see Ansel open and free. Somehow, he knew the sight would be spectacular.
All his worry flew out the window when Ansel came forward and pushed him back against the island separating the kitchen from the living room.
“I think we discussed something about me getting on my knees?” Ansel expertly unfastened the fly of Fitch’s pants.
Breathlessly, with trembling hands Fitch replied, “I do remember someone boasting about his skill.”
“The best you’ll ever have, baby. I promise.” Ansel pressed their lips together and Fitch forgot all his reservations.
In that moment, he didn’t care about anyone or anything other than Ansel and the way Fitch felt when he was near him.
* * *
Ansel kicked off his shoes and watched Fitch’s face as he lowered to his knees. God, he enjoyed the flare of nostrils and the hunger in those deep brown eyes. He kept watching while he tugged down Fitch’s jeans and cupped his hard cock through the soft fabric of his briefs. Fitch sucked in air, but didn’t break eye contact.
There were nerves in that stuttered breath, in those hooded eyes, Ansel could see it and moved cautiously, scared to frighten the rabbit. But Fitch just kept looking, his cock stiffening impossibly under Ansel’s hand.
Ansel’s asshole clenched in anticipation. Did he even have any lube in the apartment? Hell, and condoms. He never brought guys to his place. It was always more convenient to go to theirs, that way he didn’t have to worry about kicking them out. None of that awkward morning-after shit, because he always left five minutes post climax. But no way was he going to trek his sorry ass all the way back to Manhattan from bum-fuck Bayonne, New Jersey. He didn’t even know if there was a subway line so far out in the middle of nowhere. He’d blown all his cash on the cab to the club earlier, and like hell he’d expect, or even ask, for a ride after he’d had the guy’s dick in his ass. So, here he was, on his knees for the very first time in his own kitchenette, wondering if he even had supplies to get what he really wanted.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this hard before.” Fitch’s voice was so deep it sent shock waves through him.
Ansel shivered and closed his eyes. Goddamn, the man could turn him on with just the sound of his voice. Still rubbing Fitch’s erection through the fabric, he pressed his face into the bulge and inhaled sexy man musk and soap. He flattened his palms and extended his arms up so he could slide under Fitch’s shirt. Skin to skin, the hard ridges of his abdominal muscles reminded Ansel of an old brick wall, solid and unyielding. The only difference was the heat. Fitch’s skin was on fire. He wished he’d taken a moment to rid them both of their clothes because he wanted to see all that lovely simmering flesh tense and flex as he sucked down Fitch’s cock.
More than ready, Ansel curled his fingers around the hem of Fitch’s briefs and drew them down, slowly exposing Fitch’s package. Damn. What a beauty. He hummed in appreciation and smiled when the shaft twitched. It was about seven inches long and just as thick as Ansel had guessed. He hoped he had lube. If he didn’t, he was desperate enough to scrounge the kitchen for oil or something.
He rubbed his hands up Fitch’s thick, hairy thighs and met his burning gaze before licking the beautiful cock from root to tip. Oh, yes, now that was a treat. Ansel closed his eyes in pleasure as he swirled his tongue around the crown. In the dark, his other senses heightened to exaggerated levels. Fitch’s ragged breaths and muttered groans sparked Ansel’s own burning desire. The rough graze of hair under his palms made him think of virility and domination.
Submission wasn’t his kink. He was versatile and bossy, but his partners typically assumed control because of Ansel’s rather slim figure and feminine appearance. He was slutty enough not to care—most of the time. But for Fitch, he could go ass up, cheeks spread, and happily die in surrender, just to feel those magnificent muscles overpowering him.
His body shook with the visual, and he quickly unfastened his own pants with one hand while he gripped the girth of Fitch’s member in his other.
“Oh, fuck,” Fitch moaned when Ansel sucked hard enough for his cheeks to hollow.
He managed to pry his own dick out of the entrapment of denim and lace and squeezed hard. Good thing he was fucking coordinated after years of practice—jerking two cocks at once took some major concentration. With all his blood rushing south and his mouth full of cock, it was hard enough to breathe, let alone follow the choreography of strokes. Still, even with all his practice, he faltered when Fitch brushed hair out of his face.
The touch was so goddamn gentle Ansel tipped his head toward it, seeking more. He opened his eyes and looked up. Fitch’s gaze was filled with awe. Yeah, that was pretty damn satisfying—made him feel like a fucking rock star. Could he help it if his heart took a flying leap toward insanity in that moment? Best to forget the stupid thing even existed.
Keeping the eye contact, he teased his tongue into Fitch’s slit, gathering the purest essence on his tongue. He raked his fingers over the taut skin covering Fitch’s hips, reveling in the shiver of reaction. It was potent enough to overwhelm him. His balls pulled up, ready to shoot.
To regain his control, he stopped to ask, “How quick is your recovery time?”
Fitch blinked at him. “What?”
Just to tease, Ansel stroked the thickness in his hand, saliva making it nice and sloppy. Fitch grunted.
“How fast can you get it up again?”
Fitch lowered his lashes again. “I don’t know, ten minutes or so, why?”
“I am dying for you to come down my throat, but not if it means I can’t feel you pounding my ass as soon as possible.”
The hand that was previously resting gently on the back of his skull suddenly tightened into a fist and Fitch cursed. His cock twitched in Ansel’s hold. All muscle control in Fitch’s neck seemed to disappear. His head fell back and his hips thrust forward.
“Please, God yes. Fucking do it,” Fitch said.
Ansel’s smile widened. It was a heady feeling, making a man like Fitch surrender.
Reveling in the grip in his hair and the panting moans, he descended on Fitch’s cock until it hit the back of his throat. He worked it up and down, swirling his tongue around the veins, flicking the lip and small opening where the heaviest flavor leaked. Just when Fitch’s groans were about to reach the high note, he swallowed the entire length again. His throat muscles closing over and over again, and every time, Fitch’s whole body shuddered.
The big man cursed, endlessly. His entire body tensed, and his face crushed into a mask of painful bliss.
Ansel lingered, tongue swirling, and held his breath until his lungs began to burn and his vision grayed. Finally, Fitch roared, doubled over, and spurted his release down the back of Ansel’s throat.

Chapter Twelve
“Holy fuck,” Fitch said. Best blow job ever. And not for one second had he thought about Ansel’s gender as anything other than a blessing. Because no woman had ever sucked him that hard, that deep, before. Christ. He tried to catch his breath, but his whole body shook like a goddamn earthquake.
Ansel, still on his knees, nuzzled into Fitch’s bare hip and moaned.
“Just give me a second,” Ansel said, his voice strained.
Fitch opened his eyes. He’d been so turned on he’d lost all control. Had he pushed too deep? Had he hurt him? He tipped Ansel’s head back and stopped short. Ansel was stroking his own shaft.
Holy hell.
His cock was long and slim, just like Ansel. And his balls were completely hairless. The sight sent a zing of excitement all the way down to his toes. Fitch was so shocked by the sight, and the feeling, that he grunted.
But Ansel didn’t stop. His eyes were squeezed closed, his bottom lip tortured by teeth. A veil of rapture transformed his beautiful face, and the air in Fitch’s lungs evaporated.
Hot, hot, hot.
So much better than the porn he’d been watching.
Then those beautiful made-up eyes popped open and Ansel’s desire pierced him. All of a sudden, Fitch was overcome with a need to put that look on Ansel’s face himself. He wanted to be responsible for Ansel’s pleasure, not just a witness.
This was what he’d been waiting for.
Nerves suddenly came to life in his gut like a hive of angry wasps. He swallowed with a sandpaper tongue and focused on Ansel. Christ, he didn’t know how. But he wanted—no, needed—to try.
“Hold on, just a little more,” Ansel said.
“No. Stop, now.” He used his gruffest, most commanding voice and added an extra tug on Ansel’s hair, but it only seemed to spur the guy on, if his delighted gasp was anything to go by.
“Don’t worry, I’m still young enough to go again. I promise,” Ansel said, but the words sounded like they were being forced out with every gasping breath.
“Please.” Fitch changed tactics, gentled his hands and cupped Ansel’s cheek.
Ansel’s desperate strokes slowed and he sighed. “Damn, I didn’t take you for a sadist.”
Choosing not to reply to the taunt, he hooked Ansel under the armpits and helped him stand. Because Ansel had kicked off his heels they were finally the same height. Fitch smoothed a few stray hairs off Ansel’s glistening face, trying to get a grip on the swirl of thoughts and emotions twisting his insides. His stomach was a chaos of nerves. His heart was beating way too goddamn fast. He was still coming down from the best blow job of his life and his brain was suffering from lack of blood and oxygen.
But still, he wanted more.
Silently, he gripped the hem of Ansel’s T-shirt and, with great patience, slid it up to expose pale skin. Obediently, Ansel raised his arms until Fitch could tug the shirt over his head. His necklaces cascaded out of the tangle of arms, hair, and cloth and fell into place on his newly bared chest.
Fitch’s fingers trembled when he reached out to trace the shallow dip and curve of a well-developed pec. He wanted to learn all there was to know about his dancer’s body. Ansel’s nipple pebbled under his scrutiny and he found the reaction exquisite. He did the same thing to the other side. Ansel let out a breath but didn’t move, didn’t speak, no doubt sensing his need to explore, to understand. He lifted one necklace and placed it on the counter, a long gold chain with a cross. He did the same for the second piece. But when he tried to remove the third and last—a worn metal ball chain with a pair of scarred dog tags and an ancient-looking key—Ansel caught his wrist.
“Not that one. I never take it off.” His voice was hushed and serious.
Fitch released the chain. There was a story there, something important, but now was not the time to start digging. He smoothed a palm over his dancer’s slender shoulder, down his firm biceps, over his muscular but still elegant forearm, to his bangled wrist. God, the man was so solid under all that grace, so strong. It was some kind of weird deception that from a distance Ansel seemed so delicate.
Sliding the whole group of metal bands off, Fitch gave them a home near the necklaces. It was the same for the bracelets on the other wrist and the three rings Ansel wore on his left hand.
With every item he removed, another part of Ansel’s armor fell away. If Fitch was going to do this, he wanted there to be no hiding. No running from the truth, no trying to trick himself later that the whole encounter had been with a female. He didn’t want there to be lies or mistrust, regrets or worry. So when he finally allowed himself to look down, past Ansel’s toned stomach to where the tight black pants hung open and his long, slim cock jutted up from a hairless sack, he couldn’t deny the instant heat the sight produced, the twitch of interest from his tired dick.
Nor could he deny the tiny flash of fear.
* * *
Ansel couldn’t remember ever having a lover take so much pleasure in undressing him. The way Fitch studied his body with hungry eyes and gentle hands, he felt like a piece of clay taking shape before a master artist. Even though he itched to stroke what lay beneath Fitch’s clothes, he remained still under the scrutiny, some part of him unwilling to lose Fitch’s attention. His dick leaked and his balls hurt from denied pleasure, but when Fitch ran a work-roughened fingertip up his length, he was glad of the ache. Otherwise, he might have shot his load right then.
He guessed there was something to be said for denied gratification.
“I’ve never done this before so tell me if I’m doing it wrong.” Fitch’s eyes never wavered from their focus on Ansel’s dick.
“You’ve never touched your own cock before? I find that hard to believe.”
“I’ve never had one in my mouth.”
At his words, Ansel sucked in air. He hadn’t expected a blow job, not from a formerly straight guy, not the first time. His reply was automatic, barely a whisper. “You don’t have to.”
Fitch looked up and Ansel was caught by the dark hunger in his gaze. He absently registered the slow, steady slide of thick fingers over his cock until he was held in a grip so easy and sure, all he could do was blink. Then Fitch leaned forward and kissed him.
He trembled and opened his mouth to invite Fitch inside. He flicked his tongue along Fitch’s full bottom lip and tilted his head. Fitch took the bait and deepened the kiss, cupping his head with one hand while the other leisurely stroked his length. Damn, why was this making him dizzy? It was like his blood didn’t know which way to go, south to his pounding cock or north to his throbbing lips. He moaned and tilted his hips toward Fitch. More, more. Tighter. God. He was so close. Fitch pulled away, his warm breath fanning Ansel’s cheek.
“Good?” he asked.
“More than good, don’t stop now.”
“Where’s your room?”
Another stroke up and a squeeze to his crown. Ansel had to swallow a few times before he could form the words. “Down the hall, on the left.”
With a quick peck to his lips, Fitch released his hold and stepped back. “Show me.”
It took him a minute to remove his feet from the floor and another to shake the fog from his brain enough for Fitch’s words to make sense. Fitch had pulled up his pants and started unbuttoning his shirt before he could move. The sight of those thick fingers making quick work of tiny buttons should not have been such a turn-on. Ansel shook his head and hurried to his room.
Besotted idiot was not a good look. He took a moment in the darkness to put himself back together. Tonight was just like any other night. Fitch was just like every other guy he’d fucked. That didn’t stop him from kicking the dirty clothes into the closet, straightening the sheets, and checking the bedside table for condoms and lube.
Yes. Thank the lube gods, he had supplies.
Fitch came in as he was closing the drawer, the green dress shirt hanging from his fingertips revealing a chiseled chest covered with soft black hair. A scrumptious little trail followed the deep hollow of his abs to disappear into the waist of his pants.
Ansel stood rooted to the ground so Fitch closed the door and hooked his shirt on the doorknob. At some point, he’d kicked off his shoes. He was dressed only in his jeans and socks. With a nod, Fitch pushed them off. Following suit, breath shaking, Ansel did the same with his jeans and lace shorts.
Naked, Fitch came forward. “You’ll tell me if I do it wrong.”
Fitch maneuvered him until he was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“There is no way in hell you could do it wrong. I’m ready to burst from the thought of your lips around me.” Ansel swallowed and closed his eyes. He couldn’t look at Fitch. The guy was too fucking hot with his chest hair, and his furry legs looking like goddamn tree trunks. But then Fitch’s hands were sliding up his legs and he couldn’t not look.
Fitch lowered to his knees between Ansel’s legs and then caressed him from thigh to nipple. “You’re so smooth.”
“Part of the image,” he said, wondering what Fitch would think of him after he’d gone a few days without shaving. He was naturally blond. Any hair he was able to grow was fine and almost invisible. However, if he didn’t shave his face every few days he’d have a decent five o’clock shadow. He guessed Fitch needed to shave twice a day—he still hadn’t seen the guy without the scruff.
Fitch just hummed and pressed a kiss to Ansel’s belly, while those thick, dastardly fingers tweaked both his nipples. Ansel sucked air through his teeth at the jolt of lust that tightened his balls.
“Still good?” Fitch asked.
“Yeah, great.”
Another hum and tweak, but this time the kiss was to his dripping cockhead. He held his breath and waited. Should he have warned him? Fitch was straight, after all. He’d probably never tasted his own come, let alone that of another man. He was just about to open his mouth and apologize when Fitch looked up and swiped the precome off his mouth with his tongue. His deep groan could have been a fist for the pressure it stoked in Ansel’s balls.
“Not what I expected,” Fitch said, smacking his lips.
“What does that mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s kind of fruity.” He licked Ansel like a lollipop.
Fitch chuckled. “You’re impatient.”
“Yes. Yes, I fucking am. And you are a cruel bastard.”
There was that hum again. Fitch licked his shaft from balls to slit. At the same time, Fitch pushed Ansel’s knees wider and adjusted position between them. Finally settled, Fitch took a firm grasp on the length and met his eyes before sucking on the head.
A string of curses came pouring out of Ansel’s mouth. His abs tensed as his hips came off the bed, but he never looked away. Not when Fitch palmed his balls, not when he swirled his tongue around the head. Not even when he started fisting the base in rhythm with his mouth.
Ansel wanted to remember every fucking moment of this night because he was pretty damn certain it would be the best night of his life.

Chapter Thirteen
Fitch could get used to cock-sucking if it meant listening to Ansel’s chorus of sex noises while he did it. He knew he was being clumsy, and his grip was probably too rough. He didn’t have nice smooth hands like Ansel—his were calloused and scarred from work. But the way he panted, Fitch must be doing something right. He peeked up to get a good look at Ansel’s flushed cheeks and parted lips. Ansel’s hands fisted the sheets on either side of his hips, eyes locked on his. Then, Ansel’s tongue swept out to wet his bottom lip.
It was hard to deny the urge to split himself down the middle so one half could continue feasting on cock while the other kissed those incredibly tempting lips. Hell, while he was at it, he might as well separate into three because his dick wanted in on the action too. It was twitching like mad between his legs. Rather than distracting, the pleasure only drove him harder. He redoubled his efforts, moving his fist over Ansel’s slicked shaft and following the movement with his mouth and tongue the way so many women had done for him. Who knew he’d soaked up so much knowledge about giving head?
Ansel’s guttural groan came just before a full-body tremble.
“I’m gonna come.”
Fitch only had a second to react. He pulled back enough for the first jet to hit him on the chin.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck.” Ansel’s body trembled as he painted his own stomach.
Ansel’s load dripping down his face, Fitch tried to catch his breath, waiting for some kind of revulsion to swamp him, but it never came. Yes, he was shaking, partly from nerves but mostly from excitement. Watching Ansel come was better than any porno Fitch had ever seen, and the only thing on his mind was how quickly he could make it happen again.
When the trembles stopped, Ansel blew out a breath and collapsed backward on the bed, with a breathy, “Goddamn.”
Fitch smiled, filled with a kind of terrifying reverence for the man—for the act. He hadn’t expected to enjoy giving head. But he had.
It was weird, sure. But also fucking awesome.
Fitch wiped some of the spunk off his chin with a finger and tested it with his tongue. With a little practice, he could probably work up to swallowing a load.
“I don’t think I can move. You’re going to have to fuck me like this because I’m dead.”
Fitch chuckled and maneuvered so he could spread out next to him. “I did okay, then?” It was a rhetorical question. It was pretty fucking obvious Ansel had enjoyed himself. He turned his head so he could watch Ansel’s profile in the glow of the streetlight.
The corners of his lipstick-smudged mouth tipped up just a little. “Yeah, it was good. You know, for your first time.” He rolled to his side to face Fitch. “You’ll get better with some proper training.”
Fitch altered his voice to imitate Ansel. “Oh fuck, oh fuck. Jesus Christ. Holy fuuuuck.”
Ansel laughed and punched him in the shoulder. “I did not sound like that.”
“Okay, if you insist. Whatever you sounded like, it was lewd. I loved every note.”
Ansel’s smile turned sultry and he blinked in a feminine way. “Why, Mr. Donovan, you say the sweetest things.”
“My mother taught me to be a gentleman, what can I say?”
Ansel traced a finger through the hair on Fitch’s chest, around one nipple and then the other. “You could say you’re ready for the next round.”
Fitch grabbed Ansel’s hand where he’d been brushing his fingers over his heart. With a single move, he rolled until Ansel was flat on his back and Fitch was leaning over him. “I was born ready,” he rumbled with a flex of his hips, his erection prodding Ansel’s thigh. “I’ve just been waiting for you.”
Ansel parted his lips on a gasp. “Impressive.”
He leaned down, but just before their lips touched, he whispered, “I aim to please.”
As soon has he swept his tongue along Ansel’s bottom lip, he opened, not just his mouth but his legs and arms as well. They moved until Fitch was settled on top, their cocks straining alongside each other, arms gripping and clutching at bare flesh. Ansel wrapped his legs around Fitch’s waist and thrust his hips up. Their mouths fused together in a carnal lip-lock that could probably make the devil blush, it was so fucking vulgar.
Fitch couldn’t remember ever being this turned on, especially after he’d already come. The fact that this was happening now, with Ansel—a man, blew his mind. But he was beyond caring, with every nerve begging for a touch of Ansel’s skin and every taste bud aching for a taste. The only thing on his mind was satisfying the hunger.
“Damn, this is crazy,” Ansel panted when they unsealed their mouths.
Fitch moved to suck on Ansel’s Adam’s apple. Between licking the bump and grazing his teeth down Ansel’s neck, he managed to ask, “What is?”
Ansel’s fingers dug into his ass and he trembled beneath him. “I just fucking came, like, five minutes ago.”
“Yeah, it was hot.” He moved to suck on Ansel’s earlobe, and finally inhaled a whiff of the perfume he’d missed. Growling into Ansel’s skin, he burrowed into the scent.
Ansel cursed. “Lube. We need the lube right fucking now.”
* * *
Ansel struggled to get out from under Fitch, but the guy had his mouth on his earlobe and wouldn’t let go. The sparks shooting down his spine were too tempting. But he wanted Fitch inside him, needed it. His ass was practically fucking purring at the thought. He pushed hard at the giant shoulder above him.
“Lube, Fitch. Or I’m going to go off from the friction alone.”
Fitch grunted and bit his ear. It shouldn’t have sent a torrent of pleasure to his toes, but it did. They curled. Stupid toes.
He pushed again, even while his hips tipped up to get more of what Fitch was offering. Not only could the guy suck dick like a motherfucking pro, but he could also get him hard again in minutes.
Too good to be true. He’d better remember that or else he’d be lost down a sinkhole of pesky, crippling affection. No one wanted that, especially him. Maybe, with luck, Fitch would be the worst ass-fucker in the world.
In a move he rarely used, Ansel hooked his foot near Fitch’s knee, grabbed his elbow and tugged while rotating his hips, toppling them over. He ended up on top. Fitch blinked up at him in shock.
“How’d you do that?”
Ansel ignored the question. “Fuck me now or die.”
Fitch chuckled. “Damn, you really are impatient.”
“It’s your fault. I’m not usually raging so hard.” He leaned over to the bedside table and got supplies from the drawer. He set the foil condom packet and a tissue on Fitch’s chest, and pumped a couple squirts of lube onto his fingers.
“I can do that,” Fitch said when Ansel reached around to stretch his own hole, but he looked a little worried at the thought. Ansel didn’t take offense—most heterosexual guys had no clue about how to prep for anal properly and they tended to have a hang-up when it came to buttholes.
“I can’t handle more of your teasing,” Ansel said to set Fitch at ease again. It worked. When he met Fitch’s hooded gaze the guy looked like he was holding himself back from his new favorite snack. It was kind of intense, and scary hot. “This won’t take long.”
“Don’t rush, I like watching.” Fitch gripped his hip with one big palm and ran the other down Ansel’s chest and stomach. Ansel’s cock sprang up between them like one of those bobble-head dolls. Bounce, bounce, bounce, every time he twisted his finger to spread the lube. Hissing, he pressed a second digit inside and scissored. He might be a slut, but it’d been a few days since he’d had something up his ass.
Fitch took Ansel’s cock in hand and gave it a firm stroke, which worked as a distraction from the slight pain.
“Next time, it’ll be my fingers opening you up.” Fitch sounded confident now, like within the last minute he’d talked himself into wanting it.
Ansel gasped at the words and the punch of pleasure they caused. “What makes you think there will be a next time?”
At his question, Fitch surged up into a sitting position so they were face to face. His burly arms tightened around him, one big hand cupped the back of his head.
“This,” Fitch said, before devouring his breath in a core-searing kiss. Fitch had such a solid hold on him, he couldn’t have fought it if he’d wanted to. With his fingers still jammed up his ass and his free arm trapped at his side, he was awkwardly stuck. To his eternal and forever private humiliation, he loved it. He basked in the restraint, in knowing he could do nothing but surrender. So for a few brief moments, he just let go of all his barriers, his denials, his worry. He gave it up and flew into the heat of Fitch’s kiss.
As the strong minty flavor mixed with the taste of their mutual passion, Ansel’s dick gave a desperate twitch. The kiss was too all consuming, too dangerous. If he forgot his head for one single breath he’d be lost forever. It was the edge he knew so well, the fine line he’d been walking his whole life. Everything he’d ever secretly desired, wished for, ached for, bled for, was all suddenly within reach. He just didn’t know if he had the courage to reach out and grab it.
And if he did, he was pretty sure it would suffocate the life out of him.
When he finally pulled back, Fitch stared into his eyes.
“There will be a next time.” Fitch’s deep, lust-filled voice tickled all of Ansel’s fantasies.
He swallowed. Every time he’d let a man believe he was a girl he’d gotten this same rush—the high giddiness that poured through him and made his limbs lighter than air. The unknown danger, the deception, the challenge, it was all intoxicating. But there was no deception here. The only challenge was with himself. The only danger would be holding on to his heart.
With a shuddering breath, he nodded, even though he already knew he could never see Fitch again after tonight. Not if he wanted to keep his world intact.

Chapter Fourteen
Fitch wasn’t a huge believer in God or fate—another secret he kept from his mom and his pastor—but there was something greater than himself pushing him toward Ansel. Maybe there was a lesson he needed to learn.
Maybe it was something else he couldn’t put into words.
For whatever reason, the idea of never seeing Ansel again had caused his gut to seize up in knots and his brain to malfunction. He needed to follow where this attraction led.
Fitch pressed his lips to the corner of Ansel’s mouth and relaxed his hold.
“Good. I’m glad we cleared that up. My cock is aching to get inside you.” Revelation of all revelations, that was. No matter how often he’d tried to imagine being with Ansel over the past couple days, he’d never thought he could want inside another man this much.
So much it hurt.
Ansel’s breathy laugh warmed his cheek as he shook his head. “And I thought I was insatiable.”
Fitch crooned and reached around to palm the smooth globes of Ansel’s ass. “You get me all worked up, Angel.”
“Oh honey, I’m not an angel. If anything, I’m the wickedest devil you’ve ever met. There is nothing innocent or pure about me.” To emphasize his statement, Ansel wiggled on his lap.
“I’d argue, but right now my brain has turned to pudding.”
Ansel laughed like he’d won the argument, and resumed his preparations. “Point proven.”
“I’ll agree to whatever you say if you’ll just shut up and sit on my dick.”
This time, Ansel threw his head back and chuckled to the ceiling, a laugh that vibrated all points of contact. Jesus, Fitch couldn’t remember the last time he’d had so much fun during sex. Yeah, it had always felt amazing, but had he ever been so relaxed? So playful? His smile stretched so wide his cheeks ached, and he had the foolish desire to pause time and lock this moment away in a bottle. His spirit felt light. He’d be content to never move.
Then Ansel sighed, pulled his fingers out, and met Fitch’s eyes with that wicked smirk.
“Are you sure you’re ready for this?”
“Angel, I could ask you the same thing.”
Ansel’s eyes narrowed at the nickname. He shoved Fitch back to the mattress with a guttural growl. “This is not my first show, Grumpy Bear.”
Ansel picked up the tissue and cleaned his fingers.
“Mine either, Angel.”
“Stop calling me that.” His fingers dug into Fitch’s chest as he adjusted position.
“I don’t know—you’re sexy when you’re pissed off.”
Those sinfully paint-smudged lips tightened. Fitch stretched his arms above his head and tilted his hips up so his erection brushed against Ansel’s crease. The contact caused a shiver to rack his slender body and a breath escaped from his parted pink lips. Ansel closed his eyes and shook his head like he was trying to regain focus.
“Damn, I almost forgot the condom. Where’d it go?” Ansel searched the bed frantically.
Fitch joined in, his hands feeling over the sheets on either side of his torso until he slid over the cool packet.
“Here.” Fitch tore it open, and Ansel shuffled back so he could roll it on.
Fitch grabbed the lube and pumped a couple squirts onto the latex. Ansel had been too distracted to stretch properly and he didn’t want to hurt him. If he were any kind of gentleman, he’d take a breath and make sure his lover was fully adjusted. But his blood was pounding in his ears, and by Ansel’s ragged breaths he knew his dancer wouldn’t stand for more delays.
“Come here,” he said, pulling Ansel back into position straddling his hips, hovering over his straining cock.
Ansel’s voice was hushed when he spoke, “Don’t look at me like that.”
“Like what?” He held on while Ansel descended.
“Like that. Damn it, stop.” Ansel reached between his legs and gripped the length for insertion.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Pudding brain, remember?”
Heat enveloped the head of his cock. Ansel bit his bottom lip and shivered as his hole was breached. Fitch fought his own full-body quake. His heart stuttered and took up a home in his throat. He knew his fingers were gripping Ansel’s hips too hard, he’d probably leave bruises, but there was nothing he could do to stop. His body had disconnected from his brain and was no longer responding to commands.
He was doing it. And, Christ, it felt amazing.
The heat, the pressure, the knowledge that he was invading Ansel. Fitch was inside him. His balls tightened and fire zipped up his spine.
“Stop looking at me like I’m special,” Ansel whispered. It was so quiet and said with such a plea, Fitch barely heard because he was so focused on his own discovery. But when he finally did, the heart in his throat grew so large it almost choked him.
It took a moment to swallow back the emotion enough to respond. “Sorry, Angel, but that’s one thing I can’t do for you.”
With his words, Ansel’s tremble grew. He closed his eyes and shook his head. His fingers clawed Fitch’s shoulders and he clenched his jaw. Then, with a hoarse cry, he seated himself fully on Fitch’s dick.
Zings of pure pleasure pushed a grunt from Fitch’s lips and without thinking, he thrust up, into the heat, toward the bliss. The action forced another curse from Ansel. Without opening his eyes, Ansel lifted up enough so when he pushed back down, the friction ignited the most amazing heat. Hell yes, it felt awesome. Better than Fitch had imagined. Certainly better than ever before.
But something was missing because Ansel still wouldn’t look him in the eye.
They moved together, Ansel lifting up, Fitch following. Their groans matched the slow, steady pace, but Fitch wanted more. He needed to see the desire in Ansel’s green depths.
“Look at me,” he said.
Ansel shook his head and shivered on another grinding of hips, his breath releasing on a high moan.
Fitch increased the force of his thrust. “I said, look at me.”
Again, Ansel shook his head, this time more wildly so his hair swished around his face and hid it from view. Frustration overcame him and he pulled at Ansel’s arms until he collapsed forward. Their chests pressed together, both damp with sweat, their nipples pebbled with passion. The contact made them both groan.
Fitch wrapped his arms around his dancer even while Ansel buried his face in Fitch’s neck. Their hips continued to work together in an unending assault of greed. Fitch loved the weight above him, heavier, more solid than female partners. Ansel was hard edged, in his attitude and his physicality.
“Open your eyes, please.” He combed Ansel’s hair with his fingertips then smoothed a hand down his back.
“I don’t want to.” Ansel’s breath warmed his neck and his cock quivered between them.
“I need you to look at me.”
“Oh for fuck’s sake, just fucking fuck me and shut up.”
Fitch had to fight a laugh. As much as Ansel’s annoyance made him smile, his need for eye contact was too deep to ignore. He forced his body to stop moving even though it went against every instinct he possessed.
As he expected, Ansel cursed him, calling him every name in the book, but he didn’t look up. Because of their position, Ansel didn’t even have to slow down. He was on top. He was in control. He whipped his flexible hips up and down over Fitch’s shaft, seeking his own satisfaction. Fighting, with every swearing breath.
Goddamn, it was ferociously hot and he was about to lose his head, to forget his need for connection. He grabbed Ansel’s ass and tried to stop the guy’s frantic movement, but Ansel’s muscles were toned to perfection, and he was stronger than he looked. Fitch needed to restrain him now or it would end too fast.
In desperation, he wrapped his arms around Ansel and rolled until he was looking down at his lover’s painted face.
“No, you bastard.” Ansel punched out wildly, his eyes squeezed tightly shut. His fist connected with Fitch’s shoulder.
“Stop it before you hurt yourself.” He grabbed Ansel’s wrists and dragged them above his head, pinning them to the bed. He hooked his feet over Ansel’s ankles to hold him still and pulled his cock almost all the way out.
Ansel’s desperate, angry sob twisted Fitch’s already aching heart.
“Open your eyes and look at me.”
That plump bottom lip tucked behind a row of straight white teeth and Ansel’s chest hitched. A moment passed and then another, Ansel’s breath fluttering wildly in and out. Finally, he spoke, but what he said wasn’t what Fitch expected.
“Please don’t make me.”
Four little words, and so much pain and fear in Ansel’s voice, that Fitch completely lost his mind. Emotion took a hold around his throat and his whole body—hell, his entire fucking soul—shook with the urge to protect. He wanted to curl around Ansel and hide him from the world, kill all his demons. Even if he was one of them.
His arms shook as he looked down at this stranger who was fast becoming as familiar as his own heart.
The pool of blond hair spread out around him, those pink lips parted to reveal teeth and tongue, his strong nose and prominent brow. The goddamn painted lids squeezed tight, like a child hiding from a monster. Only this time, the monster was Fitch.
No, Ansel wasn’t afraid of him. He was afraid of how he looked at him. Like he was special.
Well, fuck that shit.
Ansel was special. In fact, from everything Fitch had seen so far, Ansel was probably the most special, unique, amazing person he had ever met. And whoever had made the guy feel like he wasn’t would be feeling Fitch’s boot up their ass one day. That he promised.
He growled and eased his cock back into the tight, hot heat of Ansel’s asshole. “I will fuck you all night long. I will fuck you until you’re ready to explode, until you can’t stand it. But I swear to God I will not let you come until you look me in the eye.”
Ansel’s sob was louder this time and not full of fear or pain. No, this time it was a sob of surrender, a cry of joy. Hope warmed Fitch’s chest. He leaned down to press a kiss to Ansel’s lips even as he gently pulled out and pressed back in, out and in, infinitely slow, patient. Letting Ansel know his threat was real.
Those long, sinful lashes fluttered like butterfly wings and he held his breath until Ansel’s brilliant green eyes were revealed. Fitch’s heart burst at the sight and he felt like sobbing himself.
Instead, he rammed his cock home.

Chapter Fifteen
Ansel stared up at Fitch, and the warmth in his deep brown eyes made the cannonballs return.
“Bastard,” he said, even as Fitch began a devastating assault on his hole.
Fitch smiled and looked down at him with that indescribable look on his face. Ansel didn’t want to put a name to it, but his ridiculous heart began a syncopated beat anyway. He let out his pent-up breath and felt a piece of himself fall away.
Then Fitch rubbed against his prostate, and all thoughts about danger and falling disappeared. Oh, holy God that was good. He hissed and curled his body to seek more of the same, but Fitch was still pinning him down.
“Call me what you want, but I think you like it.” Fitch’s thick fingers wrapped around Ansel’s stone-hard cock and squeezed.
It was so difficult not to close his eyes. With the way Fitch was watching him, fucking him, and now stroking him, he was overwhelmed with sensation and emotions he didn’t want to face. Too many fucking emotions.
His heart thundered so hard he thought it might be wearing tap shoes. His asshole quivered and pulsed with every push and pull of Fitch’s shaft. The friction built to a crescendo until his balls tightened.
Fitch groaned and lowered so they were chest to chest. He cupped Ansel’s cheek and maintained eye contact. “You feel so fucking good,” he whispered.
Ansel panted a breath. “Don’t stop. I’m so close.”
“Yeah. I can feel your ass clenching. Don’t shut me out, Angel.”
He couldn’t help the whine that loosened his chest or the jolt that shook his legs. His lids drifted and his eyes rolled back.
“No, let me watch you come.” Fitch pressed a kiss to his lips and Ansel forced himself to focus on the man above him. The man making him crazy. He’d die if the evil jerk stopped now. So, he pinned his eyes open and plummeted headfirst into bliss.
His cry of release echoed in the quiet room, challenged only by Fitch’s return groan. His legs tightened uncontrollably around Fitch’s hips as they moved. His body shook and his cock spit his sticky load between their bellies.
Above him, Fitch jerked and flexed, his eyes never wavering from Ansel’s gaze, but his mouth dropped open when his orgasm hit. The shocked shout of gratification helped soothe some of Ansel’s angst. His instincts were confused. Part of him was squirming under the intensity of the moment, while the rest was shouting his joy to the sky. Luckily, Fitch released him, breaking the bond with a final deep tremble that closed his brown eyes.
“Wow,” was all Fitch said before collapsing on top of him with his face pressed into his shoulder.
Ansel smoothed a palm down Fitch’s big, muscular back. Just one second to enjoy the weight, the connection. He wanted to soak it up so he’d remember on nights when the loneliness got to him. He closed his eyes and carved the moment into his memories. But it didn’t take long, and before he’d taken another breath, the agitation started to tighten his stomach again.
“Get off me, you oaf.” He squeezed Fitch’s sweaty ass cheek and felt his chuckle.
“Christ, you never quit.”
“Mmm, haven’t so far.”
With a pained groan, Fitch lifted himself enough to plant a quick kiss on his lips. “Determination. I like it.”
“No, just survival instinct.”
With two fingers anchoring the condom, Fitch eased out. It didn’t sting too bad, but Ansel still hissed.
“You’ve got a fat fucking cock, nothing to be sorry about.”
One corner of Fitch’s mouth tipped up. “Should I be saying you’re welcome, then?”
Ansel’s smile turned coy and he batted his lashes playfully. “Thank you, baby, you fucked me like no other ever has. You rocked my world.”
“Where can I toss this?” Fitch dangled the come-filled condom, eyes darkening with something that looked like jealousy.
Damn. He didn’t have a wastebasket in his room. Thinking fast, Ansel sat up and took the soppy latex.
“In the bathroom, I’ll take it. Be right back.”
The awkward after-sex shit was about to start and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it now, after the intensity of their fucking. Not to mention the weirdness of being in his own domain. He should have felt more comfortable here, but being in his safe space with Fitch was just fucking odd. Another jumble of confusion on top of everything else. He eyed the bedside clock on his way out and noted the time.
Almost three in the morning. He tried to remember when Ange said she’d be home and came up blank. Just in case, he tiptoed down the hall and closed the door as quietly as he could. Before disposing of the condom, he wrapped it in a bunch of toilet paper. He didn’t want Ange to see it and start interrogating him. For the next five minutes, he avoided the situation by cleaning up, the whole time debating with himself as to how to handle kicking Fitch out. In the end, he decided to be honest. He did have shit to do in the morning after all.
But when he got back to his room, Fitch had spread himself out on the bed. Still naked, his cock hung limp between his widespread legs. His eyes were closed when Ansel returned, but at the sound of the door he opened them and patted the mattress at his side.
“I’ll leave in a minute. I know you’ll want to get some sleep. Just come here for a little while. I don’t think I’m strong enough to drive yet.”
Ansel shook his head and sighed. Everything in him wanted to snuggle up to that big, furry body, to feel the warmth seep into his bones, to have those arms around him while he fell asleep. He couldn’t allow any of that. But he did slide onto the bed and rest his head in his hand.
“Tell me why you’re not freaking out.”
“About what?”
“You just had gay sex. Doesn’t that make you anxious?”
Fitch sighed. “I freaked out, trust me. The first time we met, I’d been in the john chastising myself for getting hard during your dance. Then I spent the whole night and day after our first kiss debating and denying. It wasn’t fun.”
“And now?”
Fitch wet his lips and rolled so they were both on their sides facing each other. “Now I’m just following my gut. I don’t know. There’s still a little voice in the back of my head telling me this should feel weird, wrong. But it doesn’t. Not at all. It feels fucking amazing. All of it. So to hell with my brain.”
Ansel dropped his gaze to the middle of Fitch’s chest. “How different was it?”
“You mean from fucking a woman?”
Nodding, Ansel followed the pattern of stitches on his comforter with a finger.
“I don’t really know how to answer that,” Fitch said. “You’ve never been with a girl?”
“No, I’ve known I was gay since before puberty so there wasn’t really a point in experimenting.”
“Are you asking because you’re worried I didn’t like it?”
Ansel scoffed. “Don’t be stupid. I know I’m a great fuck. I’m just curious.”
Fitch studied him a moment. “Well, I guess it’s only different because the vagina produces its own lube so it gets slippery if you do it right. But in my experience, anal is tighter, hotter, much dirtier. Both are fun. But I have to say fucking you is probably going to be on my highlight reel.”
Stupidly, Ansel warmed at the compliment. “Good. I’d like to imagine you jerking off remembering how good my ass felt.”
“I can pretty much guarantee it.”
Neither spoke again for another few minutes. The only sounds were those from the street below and the occasional ragged breath between them. Fitch reached out and touched the dog tags around Ansel’s neck.
“Why don’t you ever take this off?”
Ansel sucked in a breath and rolled to his back, the pain of loss suddenly fresh because of the memories Fitch’s innocent question stirred to life. He didn’t want to answer, but his mind went back to their phone conversation and how understanding Fitch had been when he avoided family questions.
“They belonged to the man who saved my life.”
Fitch didn’t reply, but he did reach out to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Ansel’s ear. The move was so soft and gentle, Ansel took a deep breath and continued.
“I was almost eighteen and had been living on the streets for about a year when we first met. Well, met isn’t really the right word.” He took a moment as the memory burst to life. The fear of being chased by six men down an alley, the smell of their hatred, the pain of their words. “A bunch of guys followed me from the shelter and taunted me for three blocks, calling me all kinds of names. I’m sure you can imagine. I was younger and not quite as glittery as I am now, but I’ve always looked like this.”
Though he didn’t say anything, Ansel could hear Fitch grinding his teeth. Still, his touch remained tender as he smoothed a palm down Ansel’s side. It made remembering easier, the way the men had cornered him, the dread as he’d fought back even knowing he didn’t have a chance. He’d been lying in a ball on the dirt-covered pavement when Ray had crawled out of his box.
“They attacked—and Ray came to my rescue. He saved me.”
That was putting it mildly, but no one would understand how amazing it had been to watch Ray take down six guys all on his own, no weapon in sight. He hadn’t even worked up a sweat, but he’d scared them. Enough that they’d taken off and never bothered Ansel again. To this day he knew if it hadn’t been for Ray, he would have died that day. He clutched the dog tags in his fist.
“After that I kind of followed him around like a puppy. He was a veteran, hence the dog tags. He taught me how to defend myself, and looked after me until he found Prism Center for me, an LGBTQ shelter for homeless youth where he knew I’d be safe.” He didn’t tell Fitch about how Ray died, how he’d met Ange, or how he had come to be in possession of Ray’s tags. Those were secrets for another day, or maybe never. Never would be good. The pain of reliving the way they’d met was enough. He didn’t want to think about how he’d lost his hero.
“Jesus.” Fitch’s curse was as soft as his touch and just as comforting. Even though he probably still had a whole slew of questions, he didn’t ask them. He didn’t push, for which Ansel was grateful.
“I would have stayed with Ray, but he’d made me promise. And I’m glad he did, otherwise I would never have met the guys, never would have started Sassy Boyz,” Ansel added.
He shoved the memories and the sadness away and turned his head to study Fitch’s face. He was scowling at the wall like it had deeply offended him. In that moment, Ansel knew Fitch would have protected him too. In fact, if the look on his face was any indication, he wanted to kill the assholes who’d attacked him, right now.
And there went his stupid fucking heart doing that leaping thing again.
Ansel cleared his throat. “Okay, that’s enough soppy chitchat. Time for you to leave, Grumpy Bear.” He shoved at Fitch’s shoulder and rolled off the bed.
He needed Fitch gone. Now. This was becoming way too intense, way too fucking real. He picked up Fitch’s jeans and briefs and tossed them on the bed, followed by the shirt.
“Get dressed,” he ordered before hightailing it out of the room to gather everything they’d left in the kitchenette. He found Fitch’s shoes near the counter and brought them back to his room, along with his jewelry, heels and T-shirt.
Fitch stood in the middle of the room with his jeans hanging open and his shirt in his hands.
“Calm down, I’m leaving,” he said as he slid into the green button-down.
Ansel leaned against his door. “Sorry, I’m being an ass.”
Humor lit up Fitch’s eyes. “Good thing for you, I’ve discovered asses are a whole lot of fun.”
A chuckle released some of the tension that had tightened Ansel’s shoulders. When Fitch had his socks and shoes on and his jeans zipped up, he came forward. He stood before Ansel, who was still, ridiculously, naked.
“I’m going to call you tomorrow,” Fitch said.
Instead of pulling him into another mind-melting kiss, Fitch simply pecked him on the cheek and reached behind to grab the door handle. Ansel didn’t follow him down the hall, but he did watch him go. Before he left, Fitch looked over his shoulder.
“Sweet dreams, Angel,” he said with a warm smile. Then the door closed again and Ansel was left standing in the doorway of his room completely naked.

Chapter Sixteen
Ansel didn’t get any sleep that night. After Fitch left, he watched the rising sun cast shadows on his ceiling. He heard Ange come home around four o’clock. If he’d been asleep, she wouldn’t have woken him. She was always quiet, or maybe he was usually a sound sleeper. Either way, he didn’t go out to say hi. He was still too raw to face anyone. Rather, he tossed and turned, finally giving up the pretense with a sigh.
He made quick work of showering and getting ready, mostly because he didn’t want to look at the evidence of his night with a certain not-so-grumpy stranger.
It was Sunday. Much like the Saturday brunches he shared with Ange, he had started a tradition of Sunday dinners with the boys. Ansel always cooked because he was the only one who enjoyed it. And also because he was the only one with a living space big enough for the five of them. Ange had become an honorary member of the Sassy Boyz because of her sheer awesomeness. Not to mention she’d been a part of Ansel’s life for just as long.
Since he hadn’t shopped all week, the first thing he needed to do was buy some food. But he also had to stop by the club to pick up his paycheck. Fucking Castor always made them beg for the money. Since Ansel had skipped out on the after-party last night, he’d have to beg extra hard.
Luckily the grocery store he liked best was empty on Sundays so he zipped through the aisles, picking up the essentials for a traditional German spätzle, like his mom used to make. He also got some toilet paper, milk, and Ange’s favorite cookies. In a completely uncharacteristic act of whimsy, he threw a packet of after-dinner mint chocolates in the basket too. He’d eat them and think of Fitch, while doing his best to forget him.
Logically. He rolled his eyes.
When he got back to the apartment, Ange was still locked away in her room. So he put the groceries away and cleaned up a little. Around noon, he left again and made his way to the club.
He found Castor on the computer in his office. A mad grin stretched across his face when Ansel entered, making him appear half-possessed.
“Ah, my diamond. My star. Come in.”
Ansel’s skin crawled at the greasy compliment. To fight the shudder, he stiffened his spine and raised his chin. “I’m in a hurry, Castor. Can I have my check?” It was worth a try. He knew Castor wanted to toy with him, but it wasn’t in him to play along.
“In a moment. Sit down.” He pulled out the expensive crystal decanter from his bottom drawer and a pair of matching glasses. “Have a drink with me.”
“No.” The answer was automatic even as his mouth watered for the taste. He didn’t sit and he never, ever, ever, took a drink from someone who made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. He’d learned that the hard way.
“You never relax. Why so tense?” Castor poured whiskey in both glasses. The sound made Ansel thirsty and his hands began to shake.
“I’m not tense. I’m just in a hurry.”
Castor pinched his lips together and started tapping his finger on the crystal glass. “I pay you well, yes?”
Ansel leaned against the doorframe and clenched his jaw. Every fucking time, the threats, the cajoling...the temptation.
“You pay us almost as much as we deserve,” Ansel ground out. Unfortunately, this was not the right answer. It never was. Castor’s grip on the crystal tightened and his lip curled up to bare his teeth. It was supposed to be a smile, but it was all wrong.
“You should have more respect,” Castor spat.
“I give you all the respect you earn. Now give me my money.”
For a second, he thought he’d pushed too hard this time, and Castor would refuse to pay him. But then the man’s fat fingers curled around an envelope on the top of his desk and he tossed it. The paper fluttered to the ground between them.
“Take it, bitch, and get the fuck out of my office.”
Ansel hid his ire while he retrieved the check and scurried out. The asshole would get what was coming to him one day, he hoped. Pushing on his oversized wannabe Marc Jacobs sunglasses, he left the club. Outside, he tore open the envelope with trembling hands and cursed at the small bundle of bills. Before he could make another terrible decision and march right back into Castor’s office, he collided with a solid body.
“Sorry,” a semi-familiar voice said.
Ansel looked up with an apology on his lips, but the words died when he saw who he’d run into. His stomach bottomed out and alarm seized his heart. “Lars.”
His brother.
When had he gotten so tall? The last time Ansel had seen him he’d been a puny little teenager, barely thirteen years old.
“Ansel? Wow, is it really you?”
He couldn’t speak so he just nodded while trying to come to terms with seeing Lars again. To being face-to-face with his blood. He wouldn’t call Lars family, not anymore.
“Thank God, I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Lars smiled and pulled him into a hug. Somehow his little brother was now not just taller but also broader. His arms felt like a boa constrictor squeezing the life out of him.
Ansel remained stiff in the embrace. “Why?”
There was no reason he could think of that his brother should be looking for him. He’d stopped being part of their family when he’d left home. Sooner, actually—he’d probably stopped being a part of it when he was nine and his mother had come home to find him wearing her lipstick and heels. She’d backhanded him so hard, he’d fallen and hit his head on the toilet seat. He’d spent three days in the hospital.
She’d never apologized.
“Because you’re my brother, dumbass.” Lars pulled away and looked at him. “Can we go somewhere? Talk?”
Could it be possible that Lars had really missed him? For years after he’d run from the abuse, he’d thought his family might follow, search for him. He hadn’t made it difficult. He’d only gone a few hours away. There was a clear trail too, if anyone had ever bothered to look. Back then, he’d been young and naive and full of hope. Hope that maybe his family really did care. Funny how a couple of cold winters, an empty belly, and getting your ass kicked by men three times your size hardened a person.
But as he looked into his brother’s eyes, he began to question himself. All these years he believed Lars would be exactly like their parents. What if he’d been wrong? The idea fluttered in his chest like a newborn butterfly emerging from its cocoon.
Just because their parents were heartless didn’t mean his brother had to be. Lars had been so young when he’d left. He pressed his lips together and crushed the envelope in a fist.
“Yeah, there’s a place not too far away.”
* * *
For the second time in less than twenty-four hours Ansel pushed through the doors of the little diner. The smells hit him first, the tempting scent of burgers on the grill mixed with fried potatoes. His stomach grumbled loud enough to be heard over the dull roar of the dining crowd.
“There’s a table for two over there,” a harried waitress said with a swipe of her forearm to her brow. She pointed at the same booth where he’d sat with Fitch. “Here are some menus, I’ll be right over to take your drink order.” She scurried off to help another table.
In a strange coincidence, Lars slid into the side Fitch had claimed, and being in the same position a second time ignited memories of their night together. Memories Ansel really didn’t want to be caught up in.
Like that night, he pulled a napkin from the dispenser on the table and began folding it. Even though the restaurant was full of people and the ambient noise rang in his ears, it was the silence hanging between them that made him bite his lip.
What was he supposed to say to his long-lost brother? Hi, how’ve you been? Got a girlfriend? What’s your favorite band?
No. He couldn’t bring himself to ask anything so lame, so shallow, when an entire ocean’s worth of history separated them. Instead, he pulled another napkin and another and another. Until, when the waitress finally came, a stack of paper squares became the table centerpiece.
They each ordered iced tea but no food. They wouldn’t be there long enough to eat, especially with the lunch rush delaying service.
Stillness crept in again until Lars finally broke the tension. “You look really good.”
Ansel looked up from the new napkin he folded and squinted, muscles tense. “Good?”
After all, the last words he’d heard from his family were vicious and painful slurs. But it had never been Lars shouting them, he had to remember that.
“Yeah, what’s wrong with good?”
Ansel shook his head. “Nothing.”
Jesus, he wasn’t prepared for this. Looking at his brother all grown up was like looking at his parents. Lars had their father’s build and their mother’s eyes. And if it weren’t for the short haircut he could be looking into a fucking mirror. The family resemblance was so obvious he was choking on it.
Except Lars was the son his parents wanted.
A real man.
Not someone who pranced around in ladies’ clothes and got fucked in the ass.
Old wounds he’d thought long healed began to bleed again. He tightened his fists until the blunt fingernails clawed both palms.
“So, how have you been?” Lars asked.
How much did he know? What had their parents said? He hadn’t been good, that’s for fucking sure. Not until recently, at least. Now his life was finally on the right track. He was off the streets and had food in his belly. He had a job and a hobby he enjoyed. He had people who loved him for who he was.
“I survived.”
His brother’s face fell. “Yeah, I guess that was a stupid question. Sorry.”
Ansel lifted a shoulder. Lars seemed genuinely apologetic, so he’d give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Had nothing to do with you. I’m sorry for lumping you in with them for the last six years. I should have given you more credit.”
“Maybe. It’s not like I could have done anything different though. They’ve been riding me every fucking minute since you left. The only reason I can be here now is because I start at Columbia this fall and I’m in the city for a prelim course.”
“Wow, Columbia. That’s big.” Ansel patted himself on the back for portraying the perfect amount of impressed while his stomach curdled with jealousy. Once upon a time, he’d dreamed of going to Columbia to study English Lit, before shit got really bad at home. When he’d made the choice to run, it had been a life or death decision.
His mother might not have literally killed him, but his spirit would have suffered an agonizingly slow demise. The day he’d walked out the door was the same day he said goodbye to his dreams of studying the greatest writers in history. He hadn’t opened a book since.
“They have a good medical program.”
“She’s still harping on about that? She’s always been obsessed with having a doctor in the family.”
Lars didn’t meet his eye. “It’s not that bad. I don’t hate the idea as much as you did.”
“Good.” He really hoped his brother wasn’t being browbeaten into a profession, a life, he didn’t want. “So, how long are you in the city?”
Their drinks arrived and Lars took a sip before answering. “I have to go back to Connecticut tomorrow morning. It was just a weekend program.”
“Oh.” Ansel swirled his straw through the ice cubes in his glass. “Listen...” He paused and looked up. “I’m having a few friends over for dinner tonight. It’s a casual thing. We do it every Sunday. I’m cooking spätzle.”
“Do you want to come over? I could use some help making the salad.”
Lars grinned. “Sure.” There were no lines on his face, no strain in his eyes, and no sharp edge to his smile.
In comparison to Ansel’s own, his brother’s life had been easy. So fucking easy. The bitterness on his tongue tasted like the blood and tears of a childhood spent in fear, and the sweat of a lost adolescence.
But then Lars added, “I’d love to come,” and Ansel shook off his envy.
None of it was his brother’s doing.
Truth was, his brother’s acceptance went a long way toward healing wounds that were still fresh, even after six years.

Chapter Seventeen
Ansel and Lars were in the kitchen putting the final touches on dinner when the boys arrived around six that evening. Ange opened the door and let out a high-pitched squeal before hugging all three of them at once.
“You guys, I missed you. Why do you only visit when Sparkle Pants cooks?”
“Sparkle Pants?” Lars asked.
“Jesus, you just saw them last week, woman,” Ansel chided before sipping his vodka on the rocks. Then to his brother, “Don’t repeat that, if you want to live.”
“Oh, who’s the hot dish?” Z strutted forward with an extra sway and pointed a perfectly manicured finger at Lars.
“Stop it, ho.” Lirim hip-checked him out of the way and curled his lips in a coy smile.
“Knock it off. This is my baby brother, Lars. And if any of you sluts touch him, I will chop off your hair while you sleep, I swear to God.”
“Damn, girl. Talk about going full psycho. Nobody better touch my hair.” Z waved his hand around dramatically.
“Your brother?” Tam’s big eyes went wide.
With a hesitant shrug, Ansel tried to portray everything he was feeling. Luckily, Tam was part mind reader because his return grin was huge.
Out of all of them, Tam knew the most about Ansel’s past. Not because they’d known each other the longest, but because when they’d first met at the shelter Tam had been in a really bad place. Ansel had shared his own awful story in an effort to bring Tam out of his shell. Knowing he wasn’t alone had helped Tam make changes.
“Sorry, they’re all insane,” Ansel said to his brother.
“They’re fun.” Lars nudged him. “Nice to meet you all.”
“Oh, honey, it’s nice to meet you too. I’m Azariah, but everyone calls me Z, ’cause I’m Zany.”
“Hi, Z, I can see that.”
Lirim pushed Z out of the way. “I’m Lirim.”
“We just call him Lirim because he’s boring.” Z snickered.
Next was Tam, who rolled his eyes. “Don’t mind them, really. I’m Tam. It’s nice to meet you. I didn’t know Ansel had any family in the city.”
“I’m here for the weekend, school thing.”
“Cool, I’m glad you could make it to dinner. Your brother is an awesome cook.”
Ange rubbed her hands together and went after Z, who was snacking on celery and carrots at the table. “I’ve been smelling food since I woke up and I’m starving. Let’s eat.”
Because of the rather small size of their kitchen, dinner was served buffet style. Everyone piled their mismatched plates with salad, cheesy spätzle, and fried onions before taking their places around the table.
“Sparkle Pants, this looks positively delicious.” Ange shoved a forkful of noodles into her mouth and moaned.
“It’s an old family recipe which apparently dates back five generations, but I’m not sure how much of that story I’m willing to believe.” Ansel picked up his fork and speared a tomato.
“What story?” Lars asked.
“The one Oma Richter told. Don’t you remember?”
Lars shook his head.
“Apparently, this traveling thief was going from town to town stealing anything he could get his hands on. Until one night, while he was in the midst of his thievery, he was tempted off course by a wondrous smell. A village maiden had made these cheesy, creamy noodles and left them on the table to cool. One taste and he was in love. He quit his unlawful ways, married the maiden and became mayor of the town.”
“Oh my God! That is the craziest family tale I have ever heard.” Z laughed.
Lars laughed too. “So, you’re saying we have a thief and a mayor in our family tree?”
“According to Oma, the same man held both positions. And our spätzle recipe is worth more than gold.”
“I can believe it,” Ange said.
“No way am I going to quit a paying gig for a meal,” Z said with a shake of his head. Then he met Ansel’s eyes and winked. “No matter how good it tastes.”
“So I guess the old saying about a man’s heart being through his stomach doesn’t apply to gay men?” Lars asked.
“No, honey. The way to a gay man’s heart is through Grindr,” Z said.
“Don’t be a cliché, Z,” Lirim said.
“Okay, what the hell is Grindr?”
“Don’t get them started, seriously,” Tam said.
It only took Z thirty minutes to convince Lars to set up his own account on Tinder, the Grindr for straight people, after explaining the benefits the app could provide a soon-to-be college student in New York City.
After dinner Lars stayed to help clean up, but with so many hands it didn’t take long. Plus, Lars needed to be back at campus before the doors locked. He said his goodbyes to Ange and the guys, and then Ansel walked him out.
“You know where you’re going from here?”
“Yeah, no problem.”
“This isn’t such a bad neighborhood, but stay alert.”
Lars smiled. “I’ll be fine, Ansel.”
“Thank you for coming. It was really great to see you again.”
“Give me your cell number. As soon as I get back I’ll buy a burner and we can stay in touch.”
“Yeah, okay.” As he rattled off his number, Ansel worried that keeping contact would get Lars in trouble. If he thought it necessary to get a burner phone before calling him, the parents must have a tight hold on his leash.
Though their mother had never laid a hand on Lars while Ansel was living with them, he couldn’t be sure the abuse hadn’t transferred when he ran away. The last thing he wanted was for his brother to be on the receiving end of such hatred, especially because of him.
“Lars, if you ever need anything...”
“Same here.” Lars pulled him into another hug, and this time Ansel hugged him back. “I’m really glad you found a family that appreciates you, Ansel.”
Ansel watched his brother walk away and forced himself not to douse the bright ball of hope kindled in his chest. Once Lars was out of sight, he turned to find his friend standing near the doorway.
“You okay?” Tam sat on the stoop and pulled him down too. The night air was warm and even though there was a faint smell of garbage in the wind, it wasn’t too unpleasant.
“Yeah, I just didn’t expect him to show up.”
“He was looking for you?”
“I guess so, can you believe it?” He leaned against his friend’s shoulder.
“Yeah, sweetie. I can totally believe it. He seemed genuine. I liked him.”
He bit the inside of his cheek and looked to the sky. After a breath he said, “He turned out pretty good despite the sucking pit of despair we grew up in.”
“You turned out okay too.”
“I suppose I should give them some credit for that as well.” He sighed.
“Only a little.” Tam laughed.
* * *
The boys took off around ten, leaving Ange and Ansel curled up on the couch sipping chamomile tea from giant mismatched mugs while they watched TV.
“Thanks for buying my cookies.” Ange nudged him with her foot.
“You deserve a treat. You’ve been working hard.”
“I know, right? And there is no end in sight.” She rested her head on the back of the couch.
“Shut up, you love it.”
She didn’t reply but her eyes twinkled. They both focused on the show until the commercial break. Then she started in with the interrogation he’d been expecting.
“So, your brother...”
“That was a shocker.”
“You’re okay?”
“Good talk.” She rolled her eyes. Ansel stuck out his tongue and they both burst out laughing. When they finally caught their breath the show had returned, but Ange wasn’t done prying. “And what about that other thing?”
“What other thing?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
He sighed and then looked at her. “I called him. We went on a date. We fucked. The end.”
Ange’s eyes bugged out of her head. “What? I just saw you yesterday at breakfast.”
“I work fast, honey.” He winked at her.
She repositioned herself so her feet were tucked under her butt and leaned closer. “How was it?”
Heat flooded his cheeks as he recalled the previous night. Evidence of it still littered his room, in the form of rumpled sheets and the lingering smell of Fitch’s aftershave. It was why he hadn’t gone back in there.
He focused on the television. “It was really—” Mind-blowing? Fantastic? Life-altering?
The best sex of his life.
Never going to happen again.
All true.
“Great,” he said, his mind lost in the darkness of his bedroom, remembering the intensity of Fitch’s stare—the hunger and admiration in his eyes as he filled Ansel’s ass. The way he had completely taken over and left all of Ansel’s walls crumbled and ruined. A lot of time had gone into building those barriers, a lot of pain and disappointment. It wasn’t fair that a stranger could rip them apart so easily. All Ansel was left with was a tissue-thin insulation.
And he couldn’t risk that last bit of protection for anything.
Not even kind eyes and a great cock.
While he’d stared at the shadows across the ceiling after Fitch left, he knew he couldn’t afford to let it happen again. He would never survive building those shields anew when Fitch was done exploring his newfound gayness. Ansel would be nothing but a pile of bare nerves and lost dreams when Fitch realized he was just a pretty whore with nothing real to offer. They could never have a happy ending. He was a stripper. He drank too much, fucked too much, and had barely escaped starvation on the cold lonely streets. He was disposable. Not someone you built a life with, and definitely not someone you took home to the parents. He was too confusing with his gender-bending queerness, too offensive. No, the end was inevitable, which was why it was better to minimize the destruction it caused to his life.
No matter the yearning, he would stay away.
“And?” Ange pushed.
“And what?” He sipped his tea to calm his racing heart and refused to look at her.
“When will you see him again?”
“I said it was good. I didn’t say it would happen again.”
He could feel her suspicious squint but refused to give in. She meant well. She only wanted him to be happy. The trouble was, her idea of happiness was different than his. Despite her past, Ange had somehow held on to a childlike sense of innocence and the dreams that accompanied it.
Britney’s high-pitched voice singing “Toxic” interrupted the stillness of the room and his stomach dropped. He lunged for his cell, but was too far from the side table and tangled in a blanket. Ange reached it first. She eyed the screen and lifted her brow.
“Grumpy Bear?”
He winced, which only made Ange’s brow spike into her hairline. That, along with the ringtone, would give her all the proof she’d need. Fitch was more than he’d claimed.
“Give it.” He waved his fingers at her until she handed over the phone.
But instead of answering, he hit Ignore and put it on silent before stuffing the stupid thing into his pocket.
“That was him.”
He took his mug to the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you answer?”
He didn’t reply as he washed the cup with shaky hands. Fitch had actually kept his promise. Why was he so shocked by that? He’d seemed the sort right from the beginning.
The phone in his pocket buzzed to indicate a voice mail and Ansel almost dropped the ceramic into the sink.
Ange came around the island and rested a hip on the counter facing him. “I can tell you like this guy.”
Carefully, Ansel placed his cup on the drying rack and wiped his hands on a dish towel. “So what if I do? It would never work, so what’s the point?”
“You’re so cynical. How do you know it won’t work?”
“Come on Ange, I love you, but seriously, you know me. You know what I’ve been through. This guy is so ordinary it’s like we were born on two different planets.”
“He’s too normal for you?” she asked with a tilt to her head, her voice laced with disbelief.
“Yes. No. Shit.” He forked both hands through the hair at his temples and made fists. The pain helped him focus his thoughts. “I’m too fucking crazy for him, all right? I have too much baggage. I’m too sarcastic, too sassy. I’m just too fucking much. There is no way I’d ever fit in his world and you know it. I’m not one to delude myself.”
Ange folded her arms under her breasts. Her lips pinched together and a wrinkle marred her brow as she looked at him with something between anger and worry. She blinked slowly, as if trying to find the right words.
“You’re right,” she said, finally.
He’d been so prepared for her to say something else that he was taken aback by her agreement. “What?”
“There is no way he could ever love you, right? You’re too broken, too weird, too outrageous for someone like that. So, I agree.” Ange’s cold words were softened only by her pained glare. At some point during her reply she’d lowered her arms. Now, her shoulders sagged and her hands curled into fists by her hips. “It’s not like you deserve happiness.”
A lash of shock split him open inside. Just the words coming from his best friend’s mouth were enough to hurt him, even if he knew she didn’t mean it. This was just her idea of tough love.
But it was all true.
The soft click of her bedroom door echoed in the hollowness of his chest.

Chapter Eighteen
Fitch leaned against the hood of his Chevy, fiddling with his phone. It’d been three days since their date and he hadn’t been able to get Ansel out of his head. Time slowed to a crawl. Every day he woke up thinking about him, and he went to sleep with Ansel’s name on his lips. The dreams. Fuck, the dreams were incredible. So real he had a hell of a time waking up in the mornings. His goddamn imagination had never been so vivid, except when it tortured him with hollow images of his dancer. Every sharp curve and wicked smirk his mind conjured were so much like the real thing he been suffering from a permanent hard-on.
He’d called twice. Left messages both times, but Ansel still hadn’t called him back. After the first miss, he brushed it off as a timing issue, since it had been pretty late on Sunday night. He’d spent the morning sitting in church listening to the pastor go on and on about forgiving sins and the path to heaven. All the while irrationally terrified of being struck by lightning for entering a house of God still smelling of sex.
Gay sex.
After, his mother insisted he and Meg come over and he’d ended up staying late. Pop had seemed uncharacteristically melancholy. His mother was putting an overly cheerful face on things, which only served to betray her worry.
When he finally made it back to his apartment all he wanted to do was hear Ansel’s voice and try to forget the day.
Except Ansel hadn’t answered.
And when Fitch had called the next afternoon it was the same thing again.
He’d waited. Hoped. And still no word from the man who occupied his mind every waking minute, hell—every unconscious minute too. Three fucking days of torture.
If Ansel wanted to talk, he had Fitch’s number.
So why was Fitch staring into space, debating yet another desperate attempt to reach him?
Because he’d been hypnotized—by long legs and green eyes, by a smooth cock and a perfect ass. Fitch swallowed and ran a hand through his hair.
It wasn’t like they’d made any declarations. It was only one night. They’d fucked. Yes, Fitch had made Ansel promise they would see each other again, but that didn’t mean anything. Ansel danced for huge horny crowds night after night. He took his clothes off and shook his ass for money, and he seemed to enjoy it. He was magnetic when he moved to the music. Hell, when he fucking breathed. There was every possibility that he had more than a few lovers. Maybe Fitch was just another notch on his bedpost.
The thought made him grit his teeth.
The whole fucking thing had happened so fast he’d been unprepared for the strength of their chemistry, or the power of his own desire.
He didn’t want to think about Ansel with other guys. Fuck, the idea of it made him want to punch something, but what could he do? He kicked a clump of dirt with his steel-toed boot and sighed. This wasn’t like him. He wasn’t the type to get possessive over someone who clearly didn’t feel the same way. He liked to think he had more confidence than that. Usually he was relieved when his girlfriends finally broke up with him because, more often than not, he’d wanted to end the relationship much sooner and never had the heart.
Hell, he’d never once felt like he might die if he didn’t kiss someone.
Not until Ansel.
The idea that Ansel was blowing him off after the night they’d spent together made him doubt his own feelings. Was he just being clingy and dramatic? Or had their connection been as real as he thought it was?
Fuck. He needed to forget the guy and get back to his old life. He should be working. They still had a bunch of stuff to get done before Easter weekend.
So far, his father had stayed away from the job site, giving Fitch the space he needed to get the project back on track. They were now on schedule to finish by the last week in June. He had to haul a load of lumber to the site and pick up construction materials. He needed to fill out the paperwork for the plumber and schedule the inspection so they could start laying the tiles in the kitchen and bath. Then he had to help get the workspace cleaned up for the long weekend.
And yet he’d stood by his SUV since lunch. Jesus Christ on a fucking cracker.
He didn’t chase.
But he also didn’t give up easily. He clutched the cold plastic in his hand, doubts assailing him. How could he be this worked up over another guy? And why? Damn it, why was he so sure it’d be worth all this effort?
Yes, the sex had been out of this world, but he could get decent sex with less stress.
Closing his eyes, he brought to mind Ansel’s green eyes, the way they’d blinked open for him, filled with so much pain and hope and fear. It was those eyes that decided it—they both deserved the chance to see what could be.
He blew out a shaky breath and called his dancer for the last time.
He wouldn’t beg. He’d be honest.
Ansel appreciated honesty.
So when, yet again, he heard Ansel’s voice mail message, he closed his eyes and lowered his head, waiting for the beep.
“It’s me. I promise this will be my last message. You don’t want to see me again, and I get it. Maybe I’m not what you want, that’s okay. Whatever the reason, you should know that you changed my life. I won’t forget you. Please, never stop sparkling.”
When he hung up, he had to force air into his lungs. Somehow, he’d move on, but he’d never forget the man who’d given him a new look on life.
And, apparently, transformed him into a poet.
Rolling his eyes, Fitch lumbered toward the building where his crew was hard at work. At least now he would never need to reveal his secret to anyone. He’d never need to deal with their shock or homophobia. He’d never find out which friends would still be friends if they knew he’d fucked another guy.
The tiny bit of relief he felt with those thoughts flooded him with shame.
* * *
It had been four days since he’d seen Fitch. Four measly days. But for some reason it felt like forever. Like he was going through withdrawal. He couldn’t concentrate at work. Picking up Tam’s new choreo was more difficult than it had been in years. And dealing with the concerned stares from his friends was worst of all. If he didn’t know any better he’d swear that Ange had gone behind his back and spilled the tea.
But no matter how angry she might be at him, she’d never betray his trust like that. Still, something was up with the boys. They kept giving him weird looks and whispering behind his back. Finally, during rehearsal, Ansel snapped.
“Is somebody going to tell me what the fuck has you hookers’ panties in a twist lately? For fuck’s sake, you keep acting like a bunch of gossiping tweens and I might have to reconsider my afternoon plans.” He glared at them all in turn, but not even Z met his eye. Z never backed down from a fight. The guy had conflict in his blood. So Ansel knew it was bad.
“Lirim? Tam?”
But neither of them answered. They swung their gazes to Z and even from a few feet away Ansel could read the pleading in their eyes.
“Shit,” Z said with a put-upon sigh before turning toward Ansel. “Do you even realize you’re halfway to wasted right now?”
“The hell I am.” He’d only had two beers at lunch and a couple of sips from his flask after work. He was far from wasted—he wasn’t even tipsy.
“Okay, you keep playing that denial card, honey.” Z sounded annoyed but not totally angry. “Thing is, Castor has noticed too and he’s not happy.”
“Fuck Castor.”
Z sighed. “Normally, I’d be right there with you.”
Z didn’t answer. Instead he lifted a perfectly plucked black eyebrow toward Tam, who did a turtle imitation. His slender shoulders came up around his ears, but he did finally meet Ansel’s gaze.
“He threatened to tell my parole officer I’m hooking again,” Tam said, his voice softer than it had been in years. It was the same timid voice he’d had when they first met, and hearing it again after so long made him ache for his friend.
“Said if we miss a performance for any reason he’d make it impossible for me to keep living at Prism Center. Without the Center, I’ll have to go back to jail. Staying there, getting counseling, is a condition of my parole.”
“What a fucking asshole,” Ansel said. But what did he expect? They were just starting to get their lives together, just starting to make something out of what little talent they had. Of course something was going to ruin it. That was how life worked.
“Right, so we all need to make sure nothing interferes with our performances,” Z said.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Bitch, you know exactly what I’m saying, don’t play the dumb blonde with me.”
“Wait, is this some sort of fucking intervention?”
“No,” Lirim said. It was the first word he’d uttered all day. “We’re worried about you, Ansel.”
“Jesus, I’m fine. Why don’t you all start worrying about your own damn selves. I don’t need mothering now any more than I did six years ago.”
“Right, so you’re going to tell us that you’re not doing your damnedest to sabotage your life with booze? That you didn’t fuck Mr. Tall, Dark, and Scrumptious the other night? And that it didn’t make you want something you think you can’t have?”
Z was making far too much sense. His words hit a nerve Ansel hadn’t realized was exposed and he flinched.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“What the fuck do you know about it?”
“Not a damn thing. But I wonder, are you so fucked up that being happy scares you so much you go running into the bottle? You keep pushing all the good stuff away, babe, and you’ll end up broken and alone. You’ve been there once already, do you really want to go back?”
Something ugly slithered inside his chest at Z’s words and the truth behind them. No, Ansel didn’t want to go back to where he’d been six years ago. But what was he supposed to do? Start believing in the impossible? Shit, that was Ange’s territory, not his.
He was a realist.
But then he remembered how Ray had saved him, how he’d found the Prism Center, how he’d met the Boyz. All those good things, they were real. They happened. They weren’t just dreams Ansel had conjured up to keep himself warm at night. Maybe. Just maybe, Fitch could be real too.
What was the harm in trying? It wasn’t like he had that much to lose.
* * *
Ansel had always considered himself overconfident to the point of cocky. He strutted around in his high heels and bright colors like he was a fucking pop diva. He didn’t give a fuck what people said to him or what they thought. He’d learned from a goddamn ex-Navy SEAL how to defend himself. He wasn’t afraid anymore. At least, he hadn’t thought he was. But maybe his real fears had only scurried deeper into the depths, like roaches avoiding the light.
He’d avoided Fitch’s calls and ignored the messages, but each time his phone beeped with the little reminder, his determination weakened. Who knew what might happen if he answered the phone? Seeing Fitch didn’t mean he had to get his heart broken. Hell, he was already broken. His family had tossed him aside because he hadn’t fit their mold of the perfect son. Nothing would ever hurt more than that, and yet he’d survived. You might even say he’d thrived. It had been a struggle at first, but he’d managed to find people who cared.
Not everyone looked at him and judged him worthless.
So late Thursday night, buzzing because one of his regulars had paid for shots, and wet from the shower, Ansel sat on his bed with his knees tucked under his chin, and finally listened to Fitch’s messages.
His wet hair dripped down his naked back, but it wasn’t the chill that gave him goose bumps. It was the sound of Fitch’s voice, defeated, hopeless. It killed him that he’d made Fitch feel like that. Somehow, in the past few days, guilt and regret had become the two emotions he was most familiar with. After years of thinking only about himself, it was odd to be semi-responsible for someone else’s happiness.
Odd, and also a little thrilling.
Ange’s words echoed in his mind and combined with the new, unusual warmth of having a relationship with his brother. It made believing in the impossible suddenly not so farfetched. If his brother could come back into his life so smoothly, maybe happily-ever-after wasn’t such a long shot.
Ansel closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and called Fitch.
“Hey, Angel.” Apparently Fitch’s voice still had the power to set him on fire, though it was gruffer than he remembered.
“Sorry, did I wake you?”
A grunt and some muffled movement. “It’s okay, nice to finally hear your voice.”
Ansel swallowed past the regret lodged in his throat.
“So, um, how have you been?”
Fitch hummed. “Haven’t been struck by lightning.”
“Were you expecting to be?” Ansel lowered his legs and leaned his head against the wall at his back.
“Not really, but sitting through church service next to my parents on Sunday was more bracing than I’d anticipated.”
Ansel smiled in the darkness, but didn’t reply.
“What about you?”
“Also not struck by lightning.”
Fitch’s chuckle was deep and comforting. Some of the tension in Ansel’s gut released.
“What’s new in the exciting life of Ansel fucking Becke?”
Ansel sighed. “Do you want the long answer or the short version?”
“I’ve got nothing else to do tonight but talk to you.”
It wasn’t really an answer, but he figured Fitch wanted to hear whatever he wanted to tell him.
“Remember how you asked about my brother the other day?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Well, you wouldn’t believe who I ran into last week...”
“Really?” The surprise and interest in Fitch’s voice warmed him, and he sank deeper into the comfort of their conversation.
“Yep, it was crazy. I hadn’t seen him in six years and then out of the blue we literally bumped into each other.”
“How was it?”
Ansel couldn’t have hid his happiness if he’d wanted to. Knowing he had family in the world who didn’t hate the sight of him helped restore his long-buried optimism and gave him something to look forward to. “Good. We’re going to stay in touch, I hope.”
Fitch was silent for a moment, and when he finally spoke his voice was softer, gentler. “Can I ask why you haven’t seen each other?”
Could he talk about it? It would be a hell of a lot easier to speak about his past over the phone. And after everything Ansel had put him through, Fitch deserved a little background.
“Are you sure you want to hear this sad tale of woe?”
“If it’s your sad tale, then absolutely, yes.”
He sighed and braced himself for the memories. “I left home when I was seventeen. I ran away.”
“Really? Why?”
“Let’s just say the house wasn’t the greatest environment for a teenager who preferred pink over brown and heels over loafers. My mother didn’t take it well when she walked in on me trying on her shoes and wearing her lipstick. That was the first time she hit me. I was nine.”
“It didn’t get any better either. I was shocked the nurses never called child services. It must have been pretty clear what was happening to me. But no one ever helped.”
He remembered the pitying looks the women would give him every single time his father brought him to the hospital. Every time they needed to do an X-ray or put his arm in a cast or stitch up his bleeding skull. But they never fucking said a word.
Honestly, though, he wasn’t sure he would have been any better off if they’d stepped up. He doubted foster care families would have taken him in. And the system was a total fucking waste of taxpayer money. He’d survived on the streets and if Lirim’s history was any proof, his path had been a blessing.
On the phone, Fitch was silent. But it wasn’t an uncomfortable quiet. His soft, even breathing gave Ansel the courage to continue his story.
“She used to call me fagboy or Miss Priss. I’ll never forget it, the way she curled those words into the worst insult I could have imagined at the time. Still, I managed to put up with all of it until my seventeenth birthday.” Even just remembering caused his voice to tremble and his skin to itch. These were memories he had buried for so long as a defense mechanism. During his time at the shelter the in-house therapist had tried her best to get him to talk about the abuse, but he’d always refused.
He’d been scared to give it voice, like talking about it would bring it all back. Like saying his mother’s name would make her appear.
Even now, he curled into a ball and shivered in imagined fear, wondering if Fitch could hear it in his voice.
“Damn, that must have been tough. What happened on your birthday?”
“Nothing.” He said it so quietly it sounded somewhere between a whisper and a sigh.
There was another quiet breath before Fitch asked, “Nothing?”
“Not a damn thing. It was like I didn’t exist. No party, no celebration, no presents, nothing. My parents completely ignored me.” He remembered how cold he’d felt, how alone, and struggled to keep in mind where he was now. His new life was full of people who cared about him. But it was hard to hold on to those new and precious feelings when the whirling darkness seemed so much bigger, so much more powerful.
“Yeah,” he choked out. “It would have been easier for me to take a beating. At that point I was so used to the slurs and curses and everything that went along with them, they seemed normal. The complete absence of any reaction...” He trailed off, remembering the empty ache in his chest that day.
He’d felt like a ghost in his own home. And when he found himself wishing to be smacked around, he’d known it was time to get out. So he packed his school bag with everything he thought he’d need and took off.
“So you left,” Fitch said.
“And never saw my brother again.”
“And your parents? Have you seen them since?”
Despite the awkward memory, he answered, “My father, yes. Once.”
“He found you?”
“No. No one ever came to look for me. I’d, um...”
“It’s okay,” Fitch’s deep rough voice rasped out before he cleared his throat. “You don’t have to say any more if you don’t want.”
Ansel bit his bottom lip. “I got myself into trouble one day, about four years ago, and ended up in the hospital.”
“After everything, your father came to visit you in the hospital?”
“Not exactly. The nurses called him automatically while I was in surgery.” He’d had to have his arm set with pins. The bastard he’d gone home with had been one of the bad ones. When he’d realized Ansel had a dick he’d gotten violent, and even though Ansel had fought back he’d still ended up with a broken arm.
“What happened?”
“He wasn’t happy, especially since one of the nurses told him why I was in there.”
Fitch seemed to be waiting, but when Ansel didn’t continue he finally asked, “Which was?”
Ansel took a deep, cleansing breath and hit the back of his head against the wall, just once, not too hard, but it still throbbed. “Because I’m an idiot who keeps doing the same stupid shit.”
“I highly doubt that.” Fitch’s reply was sweet, if naive, but Ansel appreciated it anyway. “What did your dad do?”
“Nothing really. Mostly he was pissed that he’d been called at all. He told me to stop using the family name because he didn’t want my mother to find out about everything I’d been doing to sully it.” He’d been lying in the hospital bed, bruised and bloody with his arm frozen in a cast, and all his father could do was lecture him.
“What an asshole.” It was almost a growl and reminded Ansel how angry Fitch had become when he’d told him about Ray. How protected he’d felt. And just like that night, the confusion and fear started to cloud around him like thick black smoke. But this time he fought back.
“That’s my family.”
“It still sucks.”
“It’s all right.” Ansel smiled into the dark. “I told him to go fuck himself. If he didn’t want people to know we were related he could change his own fucking name.”
Fitch laughed and the sound was like a beacon of light chasing all his monsters away. “Good for you.”
The approval warmed him, and his stupid fluttery heart danced as he basked in the feeling for a second. It was a new experience. Yes, the boys and Ange were always on his side, and Ray had been steady as a rock while he was alive, but they were different. They’d gone through similar things in their own lives, which made it easier for them to accept him. Having the acceptance of his brother was great. But having someone like Fitch understand him, root for him? That was some kind of addicting shit.
“How did your family take Meg coming out?” he asked, wanting to change the subject.
“My dad didn’t get it at first. Ma was sad because she wants grandbabies, but they were great after it sunk in. They never made Meg feel like she wasn’t loved. I think that’s most important.”
Ansel tried to imagine a family like that but couldn’t paint the picture in his mind. Everything he’d experienced in his childhood was the exact opposite. “Yeah, it is. I’m curious, what was it you said to Meg when she told you? The way she used it against you the night we met, it must be something—”
“It wasn’t anything insightful or brilliant, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Fitch cut him off. “I told her I didn’t give two shits.”
He laughed. “Really?”
“Well, I didn’t. I don’t. Why should I care who she sleeps with? Who she loves? As long as she’s happy, that’s all I care about. I’m not going to love her any differently just because she’s attracted to girls. Hell, I’m attracted to girls. How could I not understand the allure?”
At the reminder of Fitch’s usual preference, Ansel quieted.
“You still there?” Fitch asked after a moment of silence.
“Still here,” he answered.
“Did I say something wrong?”
“Was it the being-attracted-to-girls thing?”
“It’s not anything I didn’t already know.” He covered his face with his free hand, mentally kicking himself for being affected by such an offhand statement. Especially when it was something he was aware of, one hundred percent.
“It’s also not the whole truth. Point of fact, I’m so fucking hard for you right now I had to take my briefs off just to get some relief.”
Ansel sucked in a breath, his cock instantly filling and stretching.
“And another thing, there has never been a woman that turns me on as quickly and thoroughly as you do.”
“Fuck,” Ansel whispered as a shiver shook him.
“Do I have your attention?”
Closing his eyes, he imagined Fitch spread out naked on his bed the way he’d been last week. “Hell yes.”
“Good because, if I recall correctly, we talked about my jerking off to the memory of your ass. I’ve been thinking about both ever since.”
Kaboom! There went one of his cannonballs. He lunged over the side of the bed and found the bottle of lube, still on the floor where he’d kicked it after Fitch left. He squirted two pumps into his palm, reclined, and began stroking.
“Tell me you’re touching yourself.”
“You think I’m going to miss an opportunity to come by the sound of your voice?”
Fitch crooned. “You like my voice?”
He could barely speak with the way his heart was racing. “It gives me fucking goose bumps.”
Fitch’s chuckle was wicked and ended with a guttural groan that curled Ansel’s toes. “I love the way you smell. I’m holding the T-shirt I wore during your lap dance. It still fucking smells of you.”
Holy shit. The thought of Fitch getting himself off to his scent almost made his balls explode.
“Thank you, Viktor and Rolf,” he said.
“Who the fuck are they?”
The edge of envy in Fitch’s deep voice sent delicious shivers down Ansel’s spine. “They’re the designers who made the perfume. It’s called Flowerbomb.”
“Oh, then yes. Thank you, indeed.”
“Christ, I think you’re trying to murder me.” He squeezed his cock and arched his back. Jerking off had never been so much fun before. It usually took him much longer to get to the point where he couldn’t catch his breath. There was something about Fitch’s voice, it was addicting.
“How would you want it? Do you want to ride me again?”
Ansel hissed as his cock twitched, memories of their single night together making the questions come alive.
“No. I want you to take me from behind, hard and fast. Dominating.”
Fitch groaned. “You like to be held down, don’t you?”
Ansel didn’t answer, but he was pretty sure his gasp was all the proof Fitch needed.
“My kinky little angel, fuck. I wish you were here right now.”
“Me too. I miss your weight. I want you on top of me, pressing me into the mattress.”
“Yeah, Angel. Squeeze your cock for me, let me hear you.”
Ansel groaned then, a loud long groan as his knees came up. He wished he had time to get his dildo, or at least lube up his fingers. Because he really wanted that stretch in his ass and to remember how Fitch had felt inside him.
“Fuck, Fitch,” he whispered after. “I want you so bad.”
Fitch’s answering growl sent shooting stars straight to Ansel’s balls. “Damn, I want to fill you. I want to feel that tight hole squeeze me.”
“God, yes.” His whole body was on fire now, pulsing and seeking for the cause of its pleasure, and Fitch’s absence brought a whole new level of frustrated desire surging through Ansel’s blood.
“How close are you? Because I’m about to come.” Fitch’s harsh panting breaths were evidence of his rising need.
Ansel moaned, his hips lifting off the bed over and over, seeking the end. “Really fucking close.”
“Yes, Angel. God, your sex noises turn me on. Fuck, I wish I could watch you come.”
Ansel’s fist whipped faster up and down his straining cock, his eyes squeezed shut. He didn’t want distractions. He just wanted to fall into Fitch. The image of him lying on the bed was seared in his dreams. The hard, hairy body ready for the taking. And those eyes, yes, those damn chocolate eyes. He’d drown in that gaze and leave the world behind.
“I can’t be too loud. I don’t want to wake Ange.”
“If I were there I’d cover your mouth so you could be as loud as you needed.”
“Yes, oh fuck. Shit. Yes.” He came in a torrent, his body convulsing in pleasure.
On the phone, Fitch cursed in his sexy growl. Ansel didn’t move, didn’t speak. He wanted to hear every noise.
On the last breath of a fading groan, Fitch whispered, “Ansel,” and it sounded like a plea.

Chapter Nineteen
“Why did you get me a whole bottle?” Ansel tried not to let his alarm show. Fitch had bought him a gift that was worth more than a week’s worth of groceries. It was expensive and way too generous, even if Fitch’s family did own their own construction company.
Such a gift was a big deal. A statement.
His stomach roiled and he pressed his hand to it. He’d never had a lover buy him anything before and had no idea how to process it.
“It was the smallest they had. I thought you’d like it.”
He did. He liked it way too fucking much. That was the goddamn problem. He’d been looking forward to tonight even though he’d tried not to. After their phone conversation, he hadn’t been able to distract himself. He didn’t want to ruin their second date by having a panic attack.
Ansel looked up from the shiny gold gift bag stuffed with rainbow paper and the pretty pink box of Flowerbomb nestled within, and smiled at Fitch. The guy had taken the time to get him a gift they could both enjoy.
“Thank you,” he said. The words were sincere, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to run away. As sweet as the gift was, it had to be too soon for such a gesture. They’d only known each other for less than two weeks. Ten fucking days.
“It was selfish.”
“No, it means a lot, but you didn’t have to buy me anything.”
Fitch looked out the window. They were seated near the entrance of a popular pizza joint in the heart of the city. It was warm and smelled of melted cheese and tomato sauce inside, but outside the night was chilly for the time of year.
“Consider it an early birthday present or something,” Fitch said without meeting his eyes.
“Really early.” He tucked the gift bag near his feet.
Fitch turned to face him. “When is it?”
“August twenty-eighth, what about you?”
“May twenty-third. How old are you exactly?”
“Don’t you know it’s rude to ask a lady that question?” Ansel pushed his hair behind his ears and off his collarbone.
“Wait, I can figure it out. Hold on.” Fitch looked to the ceiling. “Twenty-three?”
“How’d you guess?”
Fitch tapped his temple and winked. “I’m just that good.”
“You were seventeen when you left home and you said it was six years since you saw your brother.”
Ansel bit the inside of his cheek, because the idea that Fitch was so into him that he remembered every word he’d said? Hell, that was scary—and damn sweet. “When you lay it all out, it’s not as impressive.”
Fitch laughed. “From now on, I’ll keep my methods mysterious.”
Their pepperoni pizza arrived and they each grabbed a slice. Ansel tore off a piece of the crust and mopped up the grease while Fitch folded his and let the oil drip onto the paper plate.
“You’re going to let all that go to waste? What are you, a barbarian?” Ansel reached over and dabbed his crust into Fitch’s grease and then popped the chunk-o-yum into his mouth.
“Seriously? That’s all fat.”
“You’re gonna give yourself a heart attack.”
The inflection of his voice made Ansel wonder if there was more on his mind. “If something’s going to kill me, I doubt it will be pizza grease. More likely it will be alcohol poisoning or an allergic reaction to bullshit.”
Fitch shook his head. “My grandfather died from a heart attack when he was only fifty-five. Turns out we have a history of heart problems in the family tree.”
“That’s major.”
“I try to be careful, watch what I eat, get enough exercise, you know. But there are no guarantees, I guess.” He focused on the table.
Ansel sensed a deeper issue and reached across the table to touch Fitch’s hand. “Listen, I know it’s none of my business, but is there something wrong?”
Fitch looked at where their fingers connected, quickly glanced around the room, and sighed before looking into Ansel’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to let it affect our date.” Even under a day’s worth of facial hair, Ansel could see the pink tinge of Fitch’s embarrassment. What he didn’t know was if it was from holding hands in public or something else.
“It’s okay. You just seem, I don’t know, worried about something.”
“It’s my father. He’s...well, we don’t really know yet, but something isn’t right. He’s forgetting things more than usual and gets confused. I guess it’s been weighing on me more than I realized.” He turned his hand to cup Ansel’s in a warm and gentle hold.
So, not embarrassed then. Or at least, not enough to stop.
Stupidly, the small act warmed something inside Ansel he hadn’t realized was so cold. He squeezed Fitch’s hand and blinked away his emotions, even while his heart was swelling in sympathy. The love Fitch had for his father was so plain to see, it hurt. “I’m so sorry. Is it Alzheimer’s?”
“I hope not. He has an appointment in a couple weeks. We’ll know more then, but the wait has been dragging me down.” He paused before adding, “Sorry.”
“Stop apologizing.”
“Okay, sorry.” Fitch smiled and once again his eyes were warm and twinkling.
Ansel laughed and the tension that had gripped his shoulders fizzled. He squeezed Fitch’s hand once more before returning to the task of eating his pizza.
“I have no idea what we have in our family,” Ansel said. “My parents were first-generation immigrants and I only ever met my grandmother when she came to visit on the holidays.”
After his confession Fitch seemed lighter when he replied, “Immigrants? Where from?”
“You mean you can’t tell? Come on, Sherlock, where have your powers of deduction gone?”
“Not deduction, just math. And you’ve never mentioned anything about this before. I would’ve remembered.”
Ansel lowered his eyes to the triangle of cheese on his plate and picked off a piece of pepperoni. “Wir kommen aus Deutschland,” he replied before popping it in his mouth. His accent was rusty. Oma Richter would have been ashamed.
Fitch snapped his fingers. “I should have guessed, your name is totally German. And Lars, wow, you couldn’t get more Mein Kampf than that.”
Ansel laughed. “Are you saying my brother must be a Nazi?”
Fitch wiped his fingers on a napkin, chuckling and shaking his head. “Sorry, it was the only thing I could think of in German.”
“Looks like I’ll have to educate you.” He sucked on his bottom lip and looked up as he tried to remember some of the bad words he’d learned as a kid. “Let’s start with blas mein schwanz.”
Fitch’s whole body shook with quiet laughter. “Hell no, I’m not going to repeat a single thing your dirty mind comes up with. You’ll have me wishing people a pleasant pig fuck as I wave goodbye.”
Ansel hid a smile behind his hand as he blinked innocently. “I’m flattered you think so highly of me.”
“Only you would take that as a compliment.” Fitch grabbed another slice, still grinning.
“I have a lot of practice finding the positive spin when life throws you shit.”
* * *
Fitch followed Ansel up to his apartment after spending the past hour watching him stuff cheese between his lips. He’d become one sick fucker in the last few weeks.
Who had a fetish about cheese?
“Do you want something to drink?” Ansel asked, crossing to the small refrigerator in the kitchen area.
“No, thanks. There is something I need to know, though.”
“What?” Ansel leaned against the appliance.
Fitch followed. “Are we exclusive?”
Those ruby lips parted, but no sounds came out.
“I’m into you. Really fucking into you.” Fitch rubbed the back of his neck. “But I don’t sleep around. I don’t want to be wondering who else you’re screwing. I almost drove myself crazy with those thoughts this past week. If we are doing this, then I can’t have any doubts. I have to know you’re in it with me.”
Less than two feet away, it was easy to see Ansel’s pupils dilate, the tic in his jaw, and the rapid rise and fall of his chest. If only Fitch could read his mind, know what he was thinking. He waited, and with each new breath, dread solidified in his gut. He’d pushed too hard. Ansel wasn’t the type to commit.
He’d come up here tonight in the hopes of having another chance to feel Ansel’s smooth, hard body against his, to get a breath of the perfume, and taste his lips. It had been idiotic to ask for assurances before getting his cock inside him. But Fitch couldn’t deny he needed it. He wasn’t sure he could stand another day, let alone another week, without knowing they were on the same page. And now, since they obviously weren’t, he could maybe move on with his life.
Yeah, sure, keep telling yourself that.
“Right,” Fitch said with a shake of his head. “That’s pretty stupid, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s just...” Ansel’s words were quiet, his eyes were full of dread and courage—an odd mix, intriguing. Attractive.
“It’s not that I don’t want to.” Ansel shut his green eyes and took a deep breath. “I do. I want what you’re offering, so much. But it terrifies me.”
Fitch closed the distance between them. He cupped Ansel’s cheek. “I’m afraid too.”
Ansel looked at him. “I don’t know if I can do it.”
Stomach twisted in knots, Fitch whispered, “Just promise me you’ll try. We’ll go from there.”
Ansel’s gaze drifted to his mouth and up to meet his eyes. “I don’t want anyone else, anyway. And, last week...I didn’t. I couldn’t—”
Fitch cut him off with the kiss he’d been waiting for since he left last week. He sucked Ansel’s full bottom lip, then licked his way inside, behind his teeth to the center of the sweet taste. Their tongues twisted, lips caressed, and teeth grazed. It was deep. It was passionate.
It was like coming home.
When he pulled back, Fitch rubbed a thumb just below Ansel’s lip to wipe away the smudged lipstick.
“You are so fucking fun to kiss.”

Chapter Twenty
Ansel couldn’t believe he’d done it. He’d actually agreed not to fuck anyone but Fitch, after two dates and one night together. His heart beat a mile a minute. He couldn’t seem to catch his breath. He just kept remembering why he’d called Fitch again. Why he’d taken the step toward some kind of future. He wanted...something else. Something new. And maybe that put his heart at risk, but when Fitch looked at him like that, it made him think unicorns were real and they pooped rainbows.
He just hoped that in the end he wasn’t so broken he couldn’t be repaired.
Then Fitch kissed him again and he didn’t have to hope. He’d sacrifice a hell of a lot to savor this feeling. The guy tasted like heaven. Determined to stop worrying about the future, he reached around and grabbed Fitch’s ass with one hand and snaked his other up to play with the hair at his nape. Fitch closed the small gap between them and pressed him tight against the refrigerator.
“I want you so bad,” Fitch grunted into his ear before closing his teeth on the lobe.
Ansel’s cock jumped and his hips flexed. “You have me,” he said. “Anything you want, it’s yours.” And wasn’t that a revelation? Because he meant every fucking word.
He shut his brain down. It was better for both of them if his body led the way tonight.
Fitch thrust his tongue into his mouth again with a deep, hungry groan. A big palm moved to his throat, a thumb pressed softly against his heavy pulse. It was a gentle hold, non-threatening, comforting.
“Do you mean it?” Fitch asked, barely a finger’s width between them, his hot breath panting against Ansel’s wet lips.
Where was all his sass? With anyone else he’d make some smart-ass remark to cool things down, lighten the mood. But he wanted Fitch to know he took this seriously. This wasn’t just another hookup. He’d come to terms with the power of their attraction since listening to the messages. Deep down he’d known since the first moment they’d laid eyes on each other. There had been instant recognition there, instant fear. He was tired of running away. If he was going to run in his goddamn heels, he wanted to run toward something, something amazing.
“Yes.” He didn’t know if he was capable of following through on the promise, but in that moment he belonged to Fitch.
Fitch’s fingers flexed imperceptibly on his throat. “This is gonna sound crazy. And if you don’t want to, it’s fine. But ever since I saw this one video online, I can’t get it out of my mind.”
What kinky thing Fitch was going to ask of him? But before he could think of anything, Fitch said, “I want to eat your hole.”
Ansel trembled as he held Fitch’s gaze. That wasn’t something people did with casual hookups. He wet his lips trying to find the right words. He was grimy from the club. Even though he’d done his prep before work, he hadn’t planned on getting rimmed.
“Shower first,” he said.
Fitch’s lips curled into a devilish smile and he pressed a quick kiss to Ansel’s parted lips. “Really? Have you done it before? What’s it like?”
“No. It’s always been one of those fantasies you never really believe will come true.”
Fitch’s eyes softened. “I’ll try to make it worth the wait. I’ve been doing my research, I think I know what to do.”
Ansel leaned forward and said against Fitch’s lips, “I have no doubt.”
The bathroom was too cramped so Fitch waited in the hall until Ansel was undressed and under the hot spray. Then, inch by devastating inch, Fitch revealed his hard, hairy body. The tan lines around his collar and biceps were new, but the rest was just as Ansel remembered. He gripped his cock with a soapy fist and let his eyes roam.
“Angel, do what you need to do before I climb in there with you and break the shower.” Fitch leaned against the sink, legs spread, thick cock hard against his stomach, hands gripping the edge of the counter.
How was Ansel supposed to concentrate with such a distraction so close?
He squeezed some body wash into his sponge and started washing away the sticky sweat and club smoke. He spent extra time cleaning his privates and did his best to ignore Fitch’s grunts and groans. He was facing the tiled wall of the shower when he lifted his leg to the edge of the tub and used his fingers to rub the soap through his crease. He needed to be super clean. He didn’t want anything to ruin his chances.
He was twisting one lathered finger inside when Fitch’s hand slid down his spine.
“Let me.” Fitch massaged one cheek, petting, coaxing.
Ansel steadied himself with both hands on the tile wall and closed his eyes. Standing in the tub put his ass at Fitch’s chest level. There was nothing to hide him from inspection. He was spread open, exposed like he’d never allowed himself to be with anyone else. Tremors rocked his body. Only his dancer’s balance kept him from collapsing when Fitch pressed a sudsy finger to his hole.
“Mmm, yes.” His ass fluttered around Fitch’s digit.
“Damn, that’s hot.” There was a tinge of surprise in Fitch’s voice.
More. He needed more. He pressed back, moving his hips trying to force Fitch deeper.
“Easy, Angel.” One burning palm gripped his ass while Fitch stretched him. It was torture. It was a fucking tease. It was awesome.
“I’m clean enough. Fuck.”
Fitch chuckled and went back to the sink while Ansel rinsed, and then turned off the water.
“I’ve missed your cursing.”
Ansel smirked over his shoulder as he ran the towel over his chest. “I hope that’s not the only thing you missed.”
“I can think of a few other things.” Fitch locked his eyes on Ansel’s ass.
Just to make the guy smile, he wiggled his hips before turning. It worked and the grin splitting Fitch’s face was reward enough.
* * *
The bed was neatly made up this time and the clutter was gone. His dancer must have cleaned up for him. The idea made Fitch smile as Ansel closed and locked his door. He dropped his pile of clothes in the corner while Ansel flipped on a small lamp on the dresser and started combing his hair.
Fitch moved to stand behind, his cock nestled in the terrycloth-covered crease. “I thought you were in a hurry?”
Ansel tipped his head to expose his neck as he ran the comb through his wet hair. “I have to do this now or I’ll never untangle the mess once it’s dry.”
Fitch kissed up the long column of his throat.
“It would go faster if you didn’t distract me.” Ansel’s voice was breathy and it made his cock throb.
“Can’t help it. When you’re close I need to touch you, otherwise I go insane.”
“Fuck it.” Ansel tossed the comb on the dresser and turned in his arms.
Fitch grinned right before Ansel brought their mouths together. It was a wild mating, desperate, intense. Not like any other kiss they’d shared. Ansel tugged on his hair, grazed his bottom lip with his teeth, and made the hottest noises. Their bodies collided, each of them gripping, clutching, wanting to be closer. But the towel was in the way. Fitch ended the kiss with a frustrated groan and pulled off the offending material.
“Get on the bed,” he said.
Ansel blinked those amazing lashes flirtatiously. “I like it when you get bossy.”
“I know, Angel.” He smacked Ansel’s ass. “On your back, I like seeing your face.”
Ansel arranged himself in the middle of the queen-size mattress, knees bent, legs open like a goddamn offering. And Fitch’s mouth actually watered. He’d never done this before, but he was dying to try. During the past two weeks, he’d watched a ton of gay porn. As research.
It was time to put his new knowledge to good use.
As he approached, Fitch tried to slow his jackhammering heart. He wanted to do this right, make it so good Ansel would never forget. He maneuvered into position between Ansel’s legs and pressed a kiss to his shaking thigh.
“I’ve been tested,” Ansel said, his voice tiny and brittle.
Fitch paused and looked up to meet his wide green eyes.
“Just in case you were wondering, you know.” Ansel wet his bottom lip before it disappeared behind teeth.
What did it say about him that he hadn’t even thought about the risks he was taking? What did it say about his desire?
“I haven’t been tested.”
A wrinkle formed between two blond brows. “It’s okay, as long as we’re careful.”
He smoothed his palms down both of Ansel’s thighs. The skin was so smooth and luxurious, it was like petting polished porcelain.
“We don’t have to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.” He was so close to Ansel’s cock now he knew his breath must be fanning the moist tip.
Ansel expelled a pained laugh and lifted his hips. “Sex doesn’t make me uncomfortable.”
No, not sex, but intimacy sure seemed to make the guy squirm. What was more intimate than having a lover’s tongue in your ass? If Ansel wasn’t going to mention it, he wouldn’t either. He would, however, take his time.
He wanted Ansel wild, desperate, willing to do anything for just another moment. Deep down, that was how he’d been feeling since the night they’d met. Completely off balance.
Choosing not to reply, he settled lower on his stomach. Ansel’s cock was long and slender, his balls were high and tight and completely hairless. Fitch didn’t want to know how much effort it took to stay that way. Though he appreciated it as he sucked on the taut sack.
Ansel gasped and lifted both knees to his chest. Fucking perfect. Fitch swirled his tongue around the treat in his mouth while his own desire skyrocketed. He’d never imagined balls could be so delicious. He was tempted to stay right there for the rest of the night. If Ansel tasted this good here, how much stronger would his flavor be a little further south?
With a loud pop, he removed his mouth from Ansel’s sack and lifted his beautiful ass higher off the bed so he could bury his face between two firm cheeks. With the first lick across the sensitive star, Ansel began a keening moan. He was bent in half, his knees touching the mattress on either side of his chest, spread wide open with his cock leaking all over his abs.
Fitch thrust against the soft comforter for friction but didn’t close his eyes. He had a perfect view when Ansel’s face transformed into a mask of amazement. The blush that colored his face, the wonder flashing in those stunned green eyes, the way he couldn’t seem to keep still—it was all so charming, Fitch lost a piece of his heart. He knew the instant it broke away and fell into Ansel’s unknowing hands.
And he didn’t give a shit.
No matter what happened later, he’d always remember the awe on his Angel’s face.

Chapter Twenty-One
Fitch spent endless minutes licking, teasing, feasting. The sounds he forced out of his dancer were mind-blowing and he hadn’t even breached the hole yet. Still, he’d only tasted a hint of Ansel’s flavor and he wanted more. He stiffened his tongue to a point and flicked it fast over the tight star until it fluttered. A little steady pressure and it blossomed, letting him in.
Ansel fisted the sheets as his body rocked up to meet the invasion. The steady, breathless curses were music to Fitch’s ears.
So damn good.
He licked in as far as he could, swirled around, then fucked Ansel with his tongue.
“Oh my God.” Ansel panted, his head tipped back, the tendons in his neck stretched taut.
It was perfect, just what he wanted, complete and utter surrender. Ansel wasn’t thinking about anything but the way Fitch made him quake. Fitch reached around a muscular thigh to grip his lover’s cock, fisting him in time with his tongue lashes.
Ansel’s voice reached epic heights and his strong grip clutched at the back of Fitch’s head, holding him in place.
“Oh Christ. Fuck. Don’t stop, damn it. Oh God. Fuck.” It went on and on. Ansel’s fingers dug into his skin and his hips whipped up with amazing strength.
Fitch didn’t stop. He didn’t slow. He kept up the punishing pace until Ansel froze. His noises stopped. He didn’t even breathe for one heartbeat. Then he exploded.
His roar echoed off the ceiling, his cock pulsed, and jets of semen covered his pale torso.
Fitch pressed one final kiss to Ansel’s thigh before crawling up. He kissed his lover’s come-covered belly, then his beautiful flat chest. He kissed Ansel’s throat, his chin, his flushed cheek. Fitch looked into his lover’s face. Finally, he kissed his lips.
Ansel only moved enough to drape an arm over his shoulders and kiss him back.
When they separated, Ansel still hadn’t caught his breath. “Where did you learn how to do that?” His voice was rough and croaky.
He chuckled. “I’m not touching that one.”
Ansel punched his side, but it was an odd angle and without real intent so he barely felt it, which made him chuckle harder.
“I can’t move,” Ansel said.
Fitch lifted himself up. “Don’t worry, I’m gonna do all the work. All you need to do is take it. Now, where’d you hide the lube?”
Ansel looked up from hooded eyes and pointed to the side table. “Everything is in there.”
He patted Ansel’s side as he moved to gather the supplies. “Can you flip over or do you need me to do it for you?”
“Fuck off.” Ansel flashed a crooked smile and shook his head. “I think someone is getting a little too full of himself.”
Ansel rolled over, rose to his knees, and nested his face on the pillows. Presenting his hole as if he were one of the porn stars Fitch had been watching all week. When Ansel noticed him staring, he winked.
“You really are a sassy one, aren’t you? Perfect name for your group, especially if the rest of them are like you.”
“Honey, I’m the queen of sass. Ain’t no one like me.” For emphasis he wiggled his ass.
“I’d certainly have to agree with that, Angel. You are one of a kind. A goddamn star.” He landed a light smack to Ansel’s beautiful behind.
“Fuck.” Ansel buried his face in the cushions.
“You look good in this position.” He lubed his fingers and began to massage Ansel’s passage.
Ansel grunted. “I look good in every position.” It was muffled because he was still hiding his face.
Fitch grinned, grabbed a handful of ass with his clean hand, and squeezed. “Can’t argue with that.”
Ansel was already relaxed so Fitch’s index finger was sucked right in. It was glorious, watching a piece of himself move inside his dancer. Last time, he hadn’t been able to watch. This time, he was going to memorize every moment. He pushed in as far as he could and rotated his wrist like a corkscrew. It wasn’t hard to locate the prostate, not when Ansel hissed and shoved his ass back for more.
“You like that?”
Ansel didn’t reply, he just buried his face deeper in the pillows and thrust his hips. Confirmation wasn’t necessary, but he wanted to hear it anyway. He loved hearing Ansel’s voice. He crooked his finger just enough to rub the gland and then he retreated. Ansel whined, punched the bunched-up fabric near his head, and then tilted his face so he could glare over his shoulder.
“Remember last time when I called you sadistic?”
Fitch bent and kissed Ansel’s spine even as his finger found the spot inside his lover’s rectum again. He rubbed it.
“Yes, God.” Ansel reached around to grab Fitch’s arm, undulating his body in a wicked dance while Fitch teased every knob of his spine. “More, please.”
With a growl, Fitch grazed his teeth over Ansel’s skin. He pulled out to add more lube, then he worked two fingers inside. Ansel’s body was a fire and touching it set him aflame. His pulse had gone from quick to so impossible, he saw fireworks. Still, he urged Ansel to open further. He used his hand and fingers as a tease for the real thing. For endless minutes, he thrust and twisted and scissored until Ansel was begging incoherently, his fingernails digging hard enough to break the skin on Fitch’s arm.
“Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me,” Ansel sang.
“Soon, Angel. Soon.”
“God, Fitch. Please.” It was the hitch in his lover’s throat that pushed him into action. His hand shook when he grabbed the condom packet. He tore it open without finesse and rolled it on just as awkwardly.
“Okay,” he said.
As soon as Fitch plunged in, they both sighed. Fitch wrapped himself around the other man and breathed. Ansel clenched his ass and the shock wave rippled down Fitch’s cock to his balls then ricocheted up his spine. Groaning, he ground himself deeper into his lover. He held him tight to his chest as he moved his hips in little circles.
“Goddamn, Angel. You feel so good.” He clutched at his dancer’s body, buried his face in his shoulder, and urged them both to climb higher and higher.
Ansel’s only reply was a panting, heated moan.
It was the timeless give and take of a lust that had the power to rip worlds apart. They moved together again and again until Fitch’s skin was slick with sweat and Ansel glowed. If he could have made the minutes slow he would have, but too soon he was clenching his teeth to keep the peak at bay. He needed Ansel with him when he let go. For some reason, it felt necessary that they reach the end together.
“Not gonna last.” His balls got high and hard, his cock swelled.
Fighting the pleasure, he reached around and fisted Ansel’s half-erect cock.
“Yes, fast and hard.”
Fitch tightened his grip and quickened his strokes until Ansel was trembling in his arms and groaning into the sheets.
“That’s it, Angel, I need you to come with me.”
“Yeah. Fuck, Fitch.”
They moved together with increasing speed. Their skin slapped, their huffed breaths mixed. Before long, they were both shouting their release into the darkness.
* * *
Ansel stirred to consciousness when the warm wet cloth wiped his ass. He was disoriented until he opened his eyes and saw his lover’s content face looking down at him.
“I got you,” Fitch whispered in that deep sexy voice.
His pulse fluttered. “What happened?”
Fitch’s grin was incorrigible. “I fucked you into oblivion.”
“You wish.”
Fitch pressed a kiss to his temple, chuckling. Ansel would’ve fought the tender care, but he couldn’t be bothered. Every muscle in his body had forgotten how to move.
He didn’t remember a time when he’d been showered with so much adoration. He was a spotlight whore, he loved attention, but it had always been shallow. What Fitch gave was a whole different animal. It felt good. He closed his eyes again and let himself enjoy being cared for.
“Are you always so attentive after sex?” he asked. “I bet the girls eat that up like candy.” Good, just the right amount of callousness.
“I try,” Fitch answered with a final swipe between his legs. He dropped the cloth to the side of the bed and curled around him.
Fitch was a giver. Everything he’d witnessed so far about the man proved it. But who took care of Fitch? It seemed like he was always doing stuff for everyone else, being the designated driver for his sister, taking care of the business for his dad, watching over his mom, and even showering Ansel with affection. For the first time since they met, Ansel wanted to do something for Fitch. Something special. He just didn’t know what.
“You don’t have to do it for me. I’m not a damsel. I won’t get offended if you fuck and run.” He peeked at Fitch’s face to see his reaction.
One brow lifted, Fitch asked, “Is that what usually happens?”
Ansel tried to shrug, but he still had trouble communicating with his muscles. “Pretty much.”
Fitch shifted closer. “Not my style.”
He could so easily get sucked in by Fitch’s sincerity. He rarely met people as true and honest. Those he found became permanent fixtures in his life. Ange, the boys, Ray—they were all good, caring people. It had hurt so much to lose Ray. He didn’t know if he could handle losing any of the others. And Fitch? There was no chance what they’d started would last. But he couldn’t stop himself from burrowing deeper into the promises held in those deep brown eyes.
He was such a fucking fool.
Gathering as much strength as he could, he rolled away. A lame attempt at distance with the even lamer excuse of checking the time.
“How long was I out?” It was already four in the morning. The sun would be up soon and even though it was Easter Sunday, he had to work.
“Don’t worry. I’ll leave soon.” Fitch hooked his middle and pulled him back against his hard body.
God, he was warm. Ansel sighed and snuggled into the comforting heat. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Sure,” Fitch said as he pressed a kiss to the back of his neck.
“I’m not trying to kick you out, but I do have to work in, like, five hours.”
“It’s okay. I promised to go to church again with the folks so I’ll need to leave soon.”
Fitch’s cock was nestled against his ass, hard and insistent. Ansel pushed back against it. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in any hurry.”
Fitch moaned. “I told you. I have no control over it. Whenever you’re close, my body goes mad.” He underlined his words by thrusting his dick into Ansel’s crease.
Ansel rolled to straddle Fitch. “We don’t have time.”
“It’s so hot when you do that.”
He smirked and shook his head. “I don’t think you’d like it if I really topped you.”
With hooded eyes, Fitch asked, “You top too?”
Ansel tilted his head. Was that interest he saw? Wow. In his experience the really straight ones avoided bottoming like it was the most terrifying thing in the world.
“Not very often. Most guys look at me and assume I’m a bottom.”
Fitch’s brow furrowed. “I guess I’m guilty of that. I didn’t even think about it.” He looked past Ansel like he was deep in thought.
“Don’t worry, I like bottoming. I like bottoming for you a whole hell of a lot.” He stroked Fitch’s still-hard shaft to add weight to his claim. The distraction worked. Fitch regained focus and sat up to surround Ansel with his arms. They played leisurely even though both of their bodies were primed and desperate.
“When can I see you again?” Fitch asked when they broke apart.
“I don’t know. I’m working double shifts at the shop all week to cover for a coworker. As it is, I’ll be missing three rehearsals.”
“And I’m busy with this remodel project. I wouldn’t be able to get back into the city during the week anyway.” Fitch nibbled his ear.
“Saturday night again?”
“If I call, will you answer this time?” Fitch stopped his assault on his neck and looked into his eyes.
He had to swallow the giant lump of guilt at the worry he saw there. “I’ll answer. And if I can’t, I’ll call back.”
Fitch got dressed in silence and this time Ansel walked his lover to the door. Their goodbye kiss was full of promise. It made him consider all kinds of crazy, stupid things. Things he’d given up a long fucking time ago. Happy endings and peace-on-earth type of shit that just didn’t happen for people like him.
Nothing in his life had proved him wrong yet.
But for the four hours after Fitch left, Ansel slept without dreaming, without worries.
He slept like he’d never slept before.

Chapter Twenty-Two
Fitch called after church. He tried not to think of it as a test, but it was. If Ansel didn’t answer, he could be pretty sure about the potential future of their relationship. And this time he’d let go.
“Hey.” Ansel sounded hurried when he picked up on the second ring.
Fitch ignored the rush of relief that left his lungs. “I’m on my way to brunch with the family, but I wanted to hear your voice.”
Even over the phone he knew Ansel was rolling his eyes when he spoke, “Stalker. I’m working here.”
Fitch chuckled. “Okay, bye.”
About an hour later, his phone buzzed with a text. His mother squinted at him. They weren’t supposed to have their phones at the dinner table, but he’d forgotten it was in his pocket.
“Sorry.” He pulled it out to switch it off but checked the message first.
You gave me a hickey, jackass.
He struggled to hide his amusement, and embarrassment, as he silenced his phone and shoved it back into his jeans.
“Something funny?” Meg asked. Nosy brat.
Later, while Meg was helping in the kitchen, Fitch sent a quick reply.
I had to wear long sleeves to cover the scratches on my arm. It’s fucking hot today.
Ansel’s answer was an emoticon with its tongue sticking out.
Things were quiet for the rest of the evening. They did a good job of keeping his father’s mind off of the appointment. Fitch directed the conversation toward sports when he could, and his sister prattled on about school more than she ever had before. By the time they left, his dad was fast asleep in his favorite chair and their mom was whispering her thanks.
If he felt any misgivings as he hugged his parents goodbye and kissed his sister on the cheek, he ignored them. There really was nothing to tell—yet. He still had time.
He wasn’t lying.
Ansel called around ten and they’d chatted while he rode the train to the club.
The next morning Fitch woke to find two messages from Ansel.
Going onstage soon. Wish you were here.
Slow night. Only the weirdos party on Easter.
The last one was delivered at two in the morning. Fitch looked at the clock and decided not to wake Ansel with a call. He sent a text instead.
Hope you had sweet dreams, Angel.
He went to work with a little swagger in his step and the crew noticed.
“Looks like someone finally got laid,” one of the welders said.
“About damn time,” another one answered. “I thought we’d have to deal with his grumpy ass ’til Christmas.”
“Hey, boss, who’s the lucky lady?” asked Remy, his best mason.
Surprised by the question and the topic, Fitch floundered under the scrutiny. He couldn’t very well tell a group of hardhats that he’d been daydreaming about cock, could he? Not if he wanted to keep their respect. He could picture the shit show that would happen if they found out. No doubt more than half would walk out on the build, and the rest would try to kick his ass just for being queer. No, until the end of this remodel, he’d keep his relationship a secret. He couldn’t risk the backlash.
“Uh-oh, he don’t wanna answer. She must be ugly as shit.” One of the laborers laughed.
“That true, boss? Did you end up in one of them beer goggle situations?” The five guys standing around chuckled.
“My cousin had one of them, ended up marrying the hag.” Another round of guffaws.
Feeling guilty for being such a chickenshit, Fitch ground his back molars. “Fuck off, all of ya, and get back to work.” He stomped off to grumbles about the return of his bad attitude and how the ass he’d plowed must not have been that great.
Around three he got Ansel’s reply and suddenly his crappy afternoon wasn’t so bad.
Sorry, overslept. Late to work. Talk later.
Fitch waited to call back until he was alone and could talk freely without worrying one of the guys would overhear his conversation. He was in the kitchen making a sandwich, the TV on in the background, when he dialed again and put the phone on speaker.
“Hi,” Ansel answered.
“I’ve got a few minutes. We’re in the middle of rehearsal, but I asked for a break.”
“How was your day?”
“A bitch, same as always. Yours?”
He sighed as he spread mustard on his bread. “The crew asked if I got some because, apparently, I was acting like I won the lotto.”
Ansel breathed softly. “What did you say?”
“Not a damn word.” He couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth, how freaked out he’d been, how he wasn’t able to make the confession because he was a goddamn pussy.
“Z was wondering if I was coming down with the flu last night because, in his words, I wasn’t being my usual trampy self.”
“That’s harsh.” Fitch tried to focus on Ansel instead of his own issues as he layered the meat, cheese and sliced tomatoes.
“Nah, that’s actually pretty sweet for Z.”
“So, you haven’t mentioned...” He paused to consider his next words, but Ansel answered before he could finish his thought.
“Us? No. They know about you because they saw you the other day, but no, I haven’t said anything about our arrangement.”
Arrangement. That was an odd word choice. It made Fitch feel like they were doing something seedy.
“Why? Are you going to tell people?”
If he were dating a woman, his family would already know about her. “Yeah, I mean, eventually. Not right now, but it’s not a secret. Is it?”
It wasn’t the right moment. His parents were going through a tough time. He didn’t want to add any stress on top of the worry about his dad’s health. He didn’t believe they’d disown him, but that didn’t mean they’d be happy. His mom wanted grandkids so bad she’d pestered the crap out of him when he was with Sara. And she hadn’t even liked his ex.
“No.” The way Ansel extended the single syllable, it sounded like he wasn’t so sure. Then he cleared his throat. “I’ve got to go. They’re calling me back.”
“Bye, Angel.” Fitch hung up and brought his sandwich to the couch. He spent the rest of the night thinking about how to tell his parents he was dating a man.
And not just any man, but one who liked to wear makeup and heels. A man who danced half-naked for tips.
He was struggling to be okay with that last bit. How could he expect his parents to accept it?
* * *
For Ansel, the first few days after Easter weekend were a blur. He was busy with work, rehearsals and dancing at the club. He didn’t have time to think about his budding relationship. But after the first night, drinking only a couple beers and keeping his flirts to a minimum, the boys picked up on the change in his behavior. Z was the only one who mentioned it, but Ansel caught the side-eyes and curious looks from the other two.
He didn’t say anything. Part of him was nervous talking about it would be like ensuring your birthday wish didn’t come true. Another part was simply being selfish. Fitch was his. He didn’t want to share.
And maybe that made him a toddler with a new toy, but fuck it. He didn’t let people wear his new shoes when he got them either.
He lived by the motto I licked it so it’s mine.
He’d seen it on a T-shirt somewhere and it’d stuck with him ever since. Perfectly accurate for his mental state, especially in regards to Fitch. Plus, he’d never done the whole dating thing and he didn’t want the boys to start with their squealing and clapping.
After all, he was still convinced it wouldn’t work out in the end.
In fact, after his last conversation with Fitch, he was one hundred percent sure their arrangement was going to go down in a ball of flames.
He was also sure he was going to hold on until the very last minute. Because Fitch made him laugh without being sarcastic. Fitch made him smile without being rude. And when they were together, he didn’t feel the need to act like someone else. He’d always been himself around Fitch. The guy looked at him with those warm brown eyes and made him feel like he had wings. Like, if he wanted, he could fly to the moon and bring back stars.
“Earth to Ansel! Jesus, where is your head?” Z snapped his fingers in front of his eyes.
“Bitch, get out of my face before I punch you in the throat and make you taste the rainbow.”
Tam snickered. “You were daydreaming, Ansel.”
“Seriously, first you ask to take five so you can answer a mysterious phone call then you zone out in the middle of Tam’s instructions?” Lirim let the questions hang.
“Not to mention I haven’t seen you this sober since we met.”
“Shut up, Z, that makes me sound like an alcoholic.”
Z’s dark brow rose, but he wisely kept his mouth shut.
“You have been acting strange,” Tam said.
Ansel pushed hair off his face. “It’s nothing. Christ, I’m just sort of seeing someone.”
“I knew it.” Z punched a fist in the air then gave Lirim the finger.
Lirim shook his head. “Dick.”
“Duh, it’s that guy. What was his name? Phillip?”
“Fitch. And you’re an idiot.” He picked at the chipping polish on his thumb.
“What do you mean ‘seeing’? Like seeing, seeing? Or just seeing?”
He tried to puzzle out Lirim’s question. “I have no idea what you just asked.”
“He means are you fucking or dating?” Z translated.
He crossed to the speakers. “Dating. Are we going to stand around gossiping like a bunch of high school cheerleaders or are we going to finish this choreo?”
“Dating? For real?” This was accompanied by Tam’s big doe eyes. “Exclusively?”
He sighed and rested his hands on his hips. “Yes. Jesus, it’s not a big deal. He doesn’t sleep around so, yeah. We’re going to try being exclusive. Really, it’s not a big deal.”
“You said that already,” Z said with a smart-ass grin on his face.
“If I didn’t love you so much, I’d kick your ass.” Instead, he flipped him off. “Can we please get back to work now?”
“Bless my heart, I never thought I’d see the day that Ansel Becke didn’t want to talk about his sex life. It’s a goddamn miracle.” Lirim held his hands up as if he were praying to the heavens, and everyone laughed.
A minute later, they were running through Tam’s dance to Gaga’s “Applause” and he didn’t have to hide his smile.

Chapter Twenty-Three
Lars called for the first time that night. Ansel clutched the phone and smiled into the mirror as the guys rushed around behind him in the dressing room getting ready for their performance.
“Hey,” Lars said. “Sorry it took me so long to call you.”
“No biggie, how are you?” Ansel asked.
“Okay. Looks like I have to take a few extra classes in the summer to be ready for Columbia in the fall, but it’s not so bad. There’s a girl in my study group who likes dancing and she got all excited when I told her about you.” Ansel could hear the smile in his brother’s voice, and laughed.
“Is she pretty?”
“Oh yeah. Thanks for being a great wingman.”
“You’re welcome. And all without being there. Just wait until you’re in the city, I’ll introduce you to all the girls. If not me, then Z will be more than willing to help.”
From the corner of the dressing room Z snickered. “Between the two of us he’ll have more dates than he knows what to do with.”
Lars chuckled. “I heard that.”
“I think that was the point.”
“Where are you? It seems loud.”
“We’re backstage at the club. Our show starts in about twenty minutes.”
“Oh, do you need to go?”
“In a bit, it won’t take me too long to finish getting ready. So, tell me, what else is new?”
“Not much, I’ve mostly been studying. I got a C on my last American Lit test so Mom has been on me. I have a makeup exam next week.”
“Is Mr. Hine still teaching American Lit?”
Lars groaned. “Yes, the guy is as old as the poems he’s teaching us. I swear he’s a vampire or something.”
Ansel laughed. “I thought the same thing when I was taking his class. He’s got the beadiest little eyes.”
“Yes!” Lars chuckled with him and their camaraderie lifted some invisible weight from Ansel’s shoulders.
“What are you studying now?”
“The test was on Poe.”
“Ah, one of my favorites. ‘And all I loved—I loved alone,’” Ansel quoted. “Listen, if you want help, I did okay in that class before...” He trailed off because they both knew what happened and neither of them needed a reminder.
It was too nice just having a conversation about meaningless things with his brother. There was no need to bring up the past. Especially since there was nothing either of them could have done to change it.
“Showoff,” Lars said with a smile in his voice. “But thanks. I might take you up on that offer. I suck with anything that isn’t math or science.”
The exact opposite of Ansel. He’d excelled in English, Creative Writing and Art. Basically anything that allowed him to express himself without fear.
Or, at least, less fear. There had always been an undercurrent of angst no matter where he was.
“No problem, just give me a call. Whenever.”
As hard as it had been to accept his brother suddenly showing up out of nowhere, now Ansel found himself basking in the connection. It was so refreshing, that link and the safety that went with it. After all this time, he wondered how he’d ever lived without it.
Tam came up behind him and squeezed his shoulder. “We’re on in ten,” he said, meeting Ansel’s eyes in the mirror.
Ansel nodded at his friend and the understanding in his gaze. “Okay, Lars. It’s showtime so I’d better let you go and finish getting glammed up.”
“Sure, okay.”
“It was really nice to hear from you. I hope you’ll call again soon. Or, you know, visit. Anytime. You know where I am.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I do. And I will.”
“Great. Then, I guess I’ll see you. Or talk to you. Soon.”
“Definitely. Bye. And break a leg. Or whatever the saying is.”
When he hung up, Z, Lirim, and Tam surrounded him with their friendly eyes and happy smiles. Like they could feel what he felt, the lightness. The relief. And it made him happy to think that a little bit of his joy was touching them too. God knew, they all deserved some happy in their lives.
* * *
“I told my friends about us,” Ansel said over the phone.
Fitch held back his shock, but only because Ansel’s voice was so tentative. “You did? When?”
“They interrogated me after we hung up yesterday.”
He couldn’t interpret Ansel’s tone. “And?”
“That’s okay, right?”
“Of course it is. I’m kind of relieved, to be honest.”
“After our last conversation I got the impression you were keeping it a secret. And—”
“That’s not your style.” Now there was the Ansel he knew. The teasing laugh eased the pressure under his sternum.
“I guess I’m predictable.” Fitch fluffed the pillow behind his head and stared up at the ceiling.
“Maybe a little. But that’s not a bad thing. You’re steady. Steady is good. Trust me.”
“As long as it’s not boring.”
“No way, Grumpy Bear. You’re far from boring.”
“So, how’d they take it?”
Ansel’s chuckle made him smile. “I think they were more surprised than I am, really. They’ve known me a long time and I’ve never dated anyone before. They acted like it was the second coming of Jesus.”
Fitch’s grin grew at the pleased annoyance in Ansel’s words. “They seem like a handful.”
“More than, but I love ‘em.”
“Sounds like me and my sister. She is the biggest pain in my ass, but I’d do anything for her.”
“I got that impression the night we met, but I think you’d pretty much do anything for anybody. You’ve got a kind heart.”
The pressure under his sternum came back, but this time it wasn’t unpleasant. It was warm and soothing.
“Thanks.” His voice came out gruff so he cleared his throat and adjusted his position on the bed. “So, how long have you known them? The guys.”
“Feels like forever.” Ansel paused. “I met Z when I was still on the streets with Ray. We sometimes crashed in the same shelter when the weather was bad. Lirim was already at Prism Center when I joined, he showed me around and I eventually brought Z in. Tam was the last to join, actually he’s still living there. We’ve been through some shit together, you know, stuff that bonds people like family.”
“I’m glad you all found each other, Angel. That you weren’t alone.”
“Yeah, me too. What about you? Do you have any friends you’re super close with? I’ve only ever heard you talk about your family.”
“I have a few, but no one I’m as tight with as you are with your friends. Really, we only ever talk when one of us wants a wingman or there’s a big game.”
“Oh, well, that’s still nice.”
He thought about breaking the news to Rob and the others that he was dating a guy and winced. They weren’t homophobic, Fitch would never have put up with it because of Meg, but he couldn’t picture them understanding. He couldn’t really picture anyone understanding, but he needed to grow some balls quick. The way his heart seemed to soar whenever he heard Ansel’s voice told him this thing wasn’t going to go away. And soon there’d be no hiding his excitement.
“I should probably call them soon, actually. It’s been a while. A lot of things have changed, so catching up would be...good.”
Ansel was quiet for a second too long and Fitch knew he’d sensed his apprehension. Especially when he said, “You don’t have to tell them for my sake.”
“It’s not that.” He tried to find the right words. “I just don’t know how to explain us in a way that everyone will grasp. Most days I can barely wrap my own brain around how I feel about you. I just keep thinking how they’ll look at me, wondering if I’ve secretly been eying their junk all those times we shared a locker room together or something.”
He breathed out forcefully enough that the fringe near his forehead ruffled, and Ansel laughed on the other end of the line.
“It’s not funny,” Fitch complained with a smile.
“Sorry, but in the scheme of things, that worry seems pretty minor.” Though he’d stopped laughing, Fitch could still hear the humor in his tone.
“Yeah, which is why I’m going to grow up and rip off the Band-Aid. Soon.”
“If you really want to.” There was a note of sympathy and a hint of indulgence in Ansel’s answer.
“I do, Angel.” He let that sink in for a minute. And although Ansel didn’t reply, the silence was comforting. After a few minutes, he thought maybe Ansel had fallen asleep, but the rustle of fabric told him differently. He looked at the bedside clock and cursed under his breath. It was late, and he was exhausted, but he really didn’t want to hang up the phone.
So he didn’t.
Who cared about tomorrow when he had Ansel’s attention right now?
“Oh!” Ansel said, finally breaking the silence. “I almost forgot. Lars called.”
How could two words radiate so much emotion? Joy and gratitude and astonishment all colored Ansel’s voice to the point that Fitch had the mad desire to get in his car and rush to his apartment just so he could see his face.
“Did you have a nice chat?” Stupid question considering how happy Ansel sounded.
“He told me about his classes, and studying, and a girl he met who likes dance. It was just silly stuff, but it was nice.” The last word sounded a little self-conscious, and the tension in Fitch’s chest coiled tighter. He couldn’t imagine never seeing his sister again, never talking to her. She was like another limb sometimes. They’d been close their whole lives, even though he was older.
“I’m sure he feels the same way, Angel.”
“Yeah. I think he does. Crazy, huh?”
“Nope, crazy would be not seeing how wonderful you are.”

Chapter Twenty-Four
By Friday, Ansel had completely lost himself in the glow of a new relationship. His friends teased him every fucking day about the grin he couldn’t seem to remove from his face. Ange hugged him each chance she got, which he didn’t mind so much. She gave great hugs. And he’d even heard from his brother again. It was a brief call, but it had been welcome.
Things were good. He was happy.
The phone calls with Fitch were the best, though. They spent a lot of time getting to know each other. They texted good-night and good morning every day. A month ago he would have called it cheesy Disney fluff, but he found himself enjoying the sweetness of it all. Maybe some of his hardship-induced cynicism was wearing off. Wouldn’t Ange be thrilled?
He’d just left the butcher shop after his shift and was nearing the station when his phone rang. He answered without looking at the caller ID because the only person who called at this time of day was Fitch. “Hey, babe. I’m just about to get on the train. Can I call you back?”
He stopped on the top step. “Fitch?”
A voice he hadn’t heard in six years crackled in his ear. “I should have known it was you.”
Isa Becke.
His mother.
He reached out to grab the railing. One simple sentence and he was instantly transported back in time, transformed into a child, innocent and frightened. Memories whizzed through his mind, bright and shiny at first, back before his mother began her torment. Before he’d become the forgotten son. Back when there was occasionally warmth in her eyes when she looked at him. His throat tightened and he crushed the phone to his ear, somehow unable to simply hang up. Still stupidly desperate for that comfort he’d lost so long ago. She’d always had a strange sort of power over him, and apparently six years away hadn’t changed that fact.
“I should have guessed you would slither into his life like the filthy little snake you are.” Her voice, withering.
At three-and-a-half years old, he’d cried the whole way to the barbershop because he didn’t want to get his hair cut. Even then he’d felt different and he’d wanted to express it with long hair. But his mother had gotten so angry with him she turned the car around and shaved him bald in the bathroom with his father’s electric razor. She’d said it was for his own good, that people would tease him. He didn’t want to be teased, did he? And he’d better stop crying. Only whiny little babies cried when they got a haircut. He wasn’t a baby, was he?
He had stopped crying, even while his whole body shook so hard he feared he’d lose pieces of himself.
Maybe he had.
“Don’t play games with me, Miss Priss.” The nickname scoured through his flimsy shields and struck him in the heart. “I know you’re the one he’s been talking with. I found this number on a scrap of paper in his pocket. You’re trying to poison him with your nastiness.”
Oh God, Lars.
Sucking air through his nose, he leaned against the rail. His knees shook and he wasn’t sure he could hold himself up without the support.
“I’m not. I wasn’t.” He tried to fight the old feelings of inadequacy, he really did. He wanted to believe he was stronger now, but it was like a tsunami of memories washing over him, and every word she said brought with it another flood of insecurity.
All those nights in the hospital. The years of quiet, seething anger directed at him from across the dining room table. But worse, those darkly tempting moments when she’d shown him kindness. Those minutes when he wanted nothing more than to do everything and anything she asked just so she would glance at him again.
He couldn’t let all that twisted control and hate find a new focus in Lars. He locked his legs and tightened his hold on the railing. His brother didn’t deserve to be treated with such disregard.
“No—” He tried to argue, but she cut him off.
“You are scum. Do you hear me? You are garbage.” Her accent became more obvious as she spit the hatred through the phone. “Du abartige Tunte, Ich bin so wutend du geboren wurden to unsere Familiennamen beschädigen. Ich wünschte ich Sie getötet als du geboren wurdest.”
He covered his mouth to muffle his sob. Even after all these years, her words still had the power to hurt him. She didn’t spout anything new—he sullied the family name, and she wished she’d killed him the day he was born. He’d heard it all before, you’d think he’d have become immune to her poison. But every word hit its mark, carving another slice out of his newborn happiness.
Obviously he’d been lying to himself. He wasn’t strong or confident. He was just a kid, wondering why his mommy didn’t love him. Unable to fight back, unable to run away, unable to do anything at all because he was weak and worthless.
Her voice shook when she continued, “Your brother has a bright future. He is a good boy.” But Ansel wasn’t. Her tone spoke volumes. Every emphasis, every word, was the perfect weapon to pierce his heart.
He imagined her eyes flashing like they used to right before she backhanded him across the mouth. He winced, either at the memory or at the words. It didn’t matter. She was right. He was broken. He was trash. He deserved everything she’d ever done to him and more. Lars didn’t need him messing up his life. No one did. All he ever did was ruin things. He should be ashamed of himself for reaching above his lot in life.
All the sickening shame came rushing back.
He lowered to the step because he couldn’t stand anymore. He curled in on himself. Tears pooled in his eyes, making the city blur around him. People rushed past but didn’t stop. If anyone noticed that he was dying inside, they didn’t care. He pressed his hand more tightly against his mouth as though he could stop the pain if he didn’t give it a voice.
All his worry about how bad it would feel to lose Fitch, and he’d never considered how it’d hurt to have his brother taken away again. His heart was raw and fresh from his recent struggles, and now he had to deal with his mother’s venom? He couldn’t handle it.
“It’s bad enough you tarnish your father’s good name. I’ll not allow you to cling to Lars and suck the life out of him.”
His shoulders shook with silent sobs. If he opened his mouth she’d know she’d hit her target. She’d know he wasn’t tough. He was a sissy, a filthy queer, a deviant fairy, weak and useless. He was everything she’d ever accused him of being.
He didn’t deserve happiness because he was abnormal.
He was damaged.
* * *
Ansel didn’t know how long he sat on the cold concrete step of the subway entrance. His mother had long ago hung up with a final heart-shattering warning, but he hadn’t moved. He still held on to the railing, his fingernails digging into his palms. Someone had stolen his phone, and though a part of him had wanted to chase the bastard down, he was still too lost and unfocused to do anything but shout.
The sun set and the sounds around him slowly changed from rush hour traffic to early evening gridlock and then into the semi-quiet of night. It wasn’t until his legs grew numb that he finally made himself move. In a daze, he rode the subway to his usual stop and drifted to the shop on the corner. It was late when he finally bought a bottle of tequila and a pack of Camels. Before he’d even left the shop he’d already downed a third of the liquor. He was peeling off the plastic of the cigarettes when a guy in a baseball cap brushed passed him.
“Hey, beautiful, need help with that?”
He blinked at the lighter the guy held up and pushed the cigarette between his lips. The first lungful choked the crap out of him and he coughed.
The stranger chuckled and sidled up next to him. Ansel didn’t pay attention as he leaned against the brick wall and lifted the tequila to his lips.
Numb. Numb. Numb.
He didn’t want to feel. He needed his bandage, the oblivion. He needed to forget, again. He closed his eyes and fought another sob when he remembered pieces of his mother’s lecture. No more Lars, just as well. He was really no good for his brother anyway. He was no good for anyone. It’d be better if he just fucking accepted that and finally gave up. As he took another mouthful of burning alcohol, his friends’ faces floated into his mind, but he shut them down too. No more memories, no more hope, just the endless darkness that booze provided.
He didn’t deserve them. He didn’t deserve happiness.
“Whoa, girl. Take it easy.”
He looked at Baseball Cap sideways and took another drink. He wasn’t in the mood to teach this fucker about gender stereotypes. Christ, he’d just gotten his soul crushed by his own fucking mother because he liked what he liked. He could not deal with more bullshit.
“Okay, you’re on a mission, I guess. That’s cool.”
Couldn’t the asshole see he was in pain? Did he have to paint Fuck Off on his forehead? His mascara had, without a doubt, run down his cheeks from all the crying, and half of his lipstick was on the palm of his hand. He was a disaster.
Almost half the bottle was gone now. He should probably start heading toward his apartment if he wanted a chance at passing out in his own bed.
He took one step away from the wall and wobbled.
Slowly then, because he wasn’t drunk enough yet to subject his feet to the disgusting crud on the pavement. He took another crooked step.
“You need some help?” Baseball Cap asked with a steadying hold at the small of his back.
The guy was tall. Not quite as tall as Ansel, but tall enough so it’d be easy for them to kiss, even wearing his platform heels. He tilted his head to study the stranger’s face, not that he’d remember it. His goal was to get so plastered he’d forget his own name and everything else that happened today. The stranger smiled and edged closer. Yep, he knew that look—the hey-baby-let’s-fuck look was real familiar.
For a beat he debated shoving the stranger away. Fitch’s warm brown eyes floated in his mind and with that image a flood of memories came at him. Fitch’s indulgent smile, the way he seemed to know what Ansel needed even before Ansel did, the strength in his body, the strength of his heart. God, Fitch had such a fucking good heart. He didn’t need Ansel’s issues on top of everything else, on top of worrying about his dad. No, Fitch was way too fucking good for him. Best to murder the hope of a happy ending with a six-foot bullet to the groin.
He licked his lips and leaned into the guy. An invitation. A promise. Yeah, he knew how to play this game.
It was so easy he could do it while chugging tequila and sucking down a cigarette.
He didn’t even need to talk, which was good, because he didn’t think he could form words anymore. He waved his hand in the general direction of his apartment.
Baseball Cap smiled. “Well, all right, beautiful. Let’s go.”
The walk was slow, but Ansel was too busy swallowing his pain with equal amounts of booze and nicotine to notice. He listened with half an ear as the guy told him about touring the city, seeing all the sights, and getting a kick out of everything. But really, who the fuck cared? Not him. He was focused on polishing off the bottle in his hand so he could toss it. His hands were starting to get too heavy to keep the grip. He’d flicked his first smoke about half a mile back and was now sucking on his second.
His mind was foggy, but so was the pain. Everything had dulled to a shallow, manageable grayness. Even the streetlights seemed less bright. Somewhere, somehow, the stranger had curled an arm around his waist, fingers tucked into his front pocket like he was fucking property.
Just another thing he couldn’t be bothered to give a fuck about.
“Damn, you sure can drink, can’t you? That’s pretty impressive how you swallow all that booze. I wonder what else you’d be good at swallowing.”
He turned his head to meet the guy’s flirtatious gaze. Seriously? Was that the best the guy could do? He was shit-faced drunk and he could still come up with a better line.
“Is that your way of asking for a demonstration?”
“Holy shit, she speaks.”
He tried to roll his eyes but ended up rolling his head instead. “Funny.”
Baseball Cap laughed and squeezed tighter. Walking a straight line spiked from difficult to impossible. He stumbled, but the flirty stranger caught him before he landed flat on his face.
“Just playing, girl. You like to have fun, don’t you? Yeah, you do. Someone who drinks like that knows how to let loose.”
Christ, this guy was annoying. Ansel pushed his face close enough to tap his forehead on the bill of the guy’s hat.
“You wanna have some fun, babe?” He used his sexiest, breathiest voice and watched the guy’s tongue hang out like a predictable dog panting after a bone.
“Hell yes.”
So fucking easy it was boring. He leaned down and gave the guy his sloppiest, dirtiest kiss. It was awful. There was no heat, no spark, it was like he was dead inside. His partner didn’t seem to mind—he buried a fist in Ansel’s hair and tugged.
“Yeah, babe, I’m going to fuck you so hard your teeth rattle.”
Ansel almost gagged. This idiot was a prime example of what not to say when trying to get laid.
He gave another fuzzy thought to Fitch as he stumbled across the street toward his apartment building. Though he was too drunk to stop himself from making terrible choices, he wasn’t so far gone he didn’t recognize them. None of it mattered. His mother had set him straight. He wasn’t good enough. He’d never be good enough, not for Fitch, not for his brother, not for his parents. Might as well burn it all to the ground.
He stopped in the middle of the road and looked over his shoulder. He tipped the bottle to his lips and drank the rest of its contents.
“Are you coming?”

Chapter Twenty-Five
Baseball Cap caught up with him at the front steps and pushed Ansel up against the concrete. The bottle slipped from his useless fingers with a crash that echoed down the street.
“Whoops,” Ansel mumbled with his cheek pressed against the rough wall.
“Shh, beautiful. You’re going to wake your neighbors.” He moved his hips to grind against his denim covered ass.
“Fuck ’em.”
The guy laughed but it didn’t sound nice, or happy. It was grating like the shattered glass under his feet. Speaking of his feet, fuck, they hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. How long had he be standing in heels? He tried to clear his head a little, but the shaking just made him dizzy. The idiot dry humping him against the building was now also sucking on his neck like a vacuum hose.
“Shit, baby, let’s get inside before I explode in my pants,” the guy said.
“What time is it?”
“Almost one, why? Got a hot date?” He snickered in a rude and condescending way as he moved away just enough for Ansel to reach the door handle.
No, no more dates for him.
They made it inside, barely. Baseball Cap didn’t waste time once the door was shut behind them. He pinned Ansel against the door and trapped his hands above his head.
“Are you as hot for it as I think you are?” The guy forced a slimy tongue into his mouth and wiggled it around like a dying fish.
Ansel had to breathe through his nose and close his eyes just to stop himself from puking. That would bring an end to the situation fast. Just then he felt the dude’s wandering hand near the waist of his pants. While he had been concentrating on not throwing up, Baseball Cap got his pants unbuttoned and shoved his hand inside. Problem was, Ansel was pretty sure the guy was expecting something much, much different down there.
The stranger’s fingers skimmed along his uninterested cock. He reeled back as if he’d been bitten by a poisonous snake.
“What the fuck?” The horror on the guy’s face was hilarious.
Ansel’s laugh was manic.
“Was that a fucking dick?” The dude looked so disgusted, his lip curled up like he smelled something rotten. “Stop laughing, bitch.” He reached out and grabbed a fistful of his hair. “You think it’s fucking funny? You like games? How ’bout I shove my fist down your throat? Would you like that?”
The dude’s grip was so tight, his head was pulled back all the way, causing tears to run out the corner of his eyes. It should probably sting, but he was too worn out from it all, too fucking frozen from the phone call and the drinking. He felt nothing. Not even fear.
“You’re disgusting,” Baseball Cap cursed. He spat into Ansel’s face, then punched him in the stomach.
Ansel grunted but he couldn’t fight back. He’d consumed a whole bottle of tequila in less than six hours it was a wonder he could even stand up. In fact, maybe he wasn’t standing. Maybe the reason why his hair was pulled so tight was because his legs had buckled and the only thing holding him up was the stranger’s grip in his hair.
Still, he tried to push Baseball Freak off. He managed to shove hard enough for the guy to stumble, but since his fist was still pulling at his hair, Ansel fell too.
“Get the fuck off me,” he said.
They clashed and tumbled into the banister with a loud bang. Mr. Craig’s dog in 2B started barking.
“I’m going to teach you a lesson, you fucking faggot. You can’t go around fucking with people.” Baseball Freak bashed a fist into his cheek. “You like getting your ass reamed, I’m going to tear you up with a goddamn baseball bat. How’d you like that?” Another punch, this time getting a good shot to his ribs. For a moment, Ansel stopped breathing. He lost focus. The world grayed around the edges.
His head hit the solid wood step and he registered a foot to his chest as he tried to cling to consciousness.
“What is going on out here? Mr. Becke?” His landlord’s gruff voice was the last thing he heard before he fell into darkness.
* * *
Ansel woke to shouting.
He clutched a hand to his head and groaned. Where the hell was he? What happened?
“No, Mr. Policek, please. There has to be another way. I’m sure he didn’t mean to cause so much trouble.”
“I don’t care. I’ve had enough. I had to call the police, Ms. Reynolds. The goddamn police! The whole building woke to that nonsense. He is a disturber of the peace. I’ve told you both, time and again, to keep the noise down. You’ve missed rent more than enough times to have you thrown out for violating the rental agreement. I won’t have him in my building any longer. If I have to, I’ll tell the police the guy was a john. It will be easy for them to believe Mr. Becke is a whore. Don’t force my hand, Ms. Reynolds.”
That didn’t sound good. Ansel rolled over and fell off the couch.
The door slammed. He winced. His head was pounding. His mouth was dry. He had to pee.
“Are you okay?” Ange sounded defeated as she helped him off the floor.
“No. I feel like shit.” He was going to be sick. He covered his mouth with his hand and stood to go to the bathroom. Unfortunately the room began to spin, he landed on his knees and had to crawl into the kitchen. He managed to get to the garbage bin before he lost it.
Ange was there when he was done. She pushed a glass of water into his shaky hand and wiped his mouth with a paper towel.
“I thought you were better. I don’t get it.” She shook her head, the disappointment in her tone worse than puking in the garbage.
He drank half the glass and leaned his head against the cupboards. He should probably try to move, but the floor was pretty damn comfortable. “Get what?”
“You, Ansel. You.”
He didn’t get it either. What was happening? He blinked, but it didn’t stop the room from spinning.
“Mr. Policek is evicting us. We have to be out by the end of the month.”
The bottom dropped out of his stomach and he spun to the can again. “He can’t do that,” Ansel whispered with his head still hanging near the bucket.
“But he has done it, and I don’t think we have a leg to stand on here, not with what happened last night. What you did.” The last was a quiet condemnation, worse because it came from his best friend. His stomach ached.
Ange’s phone rang and she crossed to the living room to grab it.
“He’s here.” She sighed. “I know. Yes, fine. Okay, see you in a bit.” She hung up and sat on the couch facing the television. He could only see her profile, but she looked worn out. “The boys are on their way over.”
He rubbed his pounding head. “Why?”
“You missed a performance. You’ve had us worried to death for hours. No one could find you. You didn’t pick up your phone.”
He’d missed a show? He swallowed and closed his eyes. The guys were probably pissed at him. Oh shit, Castor’s threat. Fuck, Tam. He must be going crazy right now. Ansel’s heart twisted with self-reproach. He was such an asshole. And now Tam, his best friend, might suffer. Because of him.
God, why wouldn’t the floor just open up and swallow him?
He curled into a ball and lay there until Tam knelt beside him.
“Hon, are you alive?” Tam asked, petting his head and shoulder.
“Do you want to sit up?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake, get your ass up.” This was Z. He hooked Ansel’s arms and tugged until he could do nothing but stand. They guided him to the couch then sat beside him. He leaned back and closed his eyes again. It was still dark outside, but the lights were on in the living room and they made his headache ten times worse.
“What happened?” Tam asked.
“Nothing.” There was no way he was going to tell them about his evil mother. And especially not how it had been so easy for her to push his buttons until he was a sobbing, pitiful mess with no self-control.
“I’ll tell you what happened. He fucking drank himself into a coma again and this time he forgot about his commitments,” Z said. “You know Castor insists that we don’t miss any performance, especially you. He flipped out, Ansel, docked our pay for last night, and threatened Tam again.”
“Sorry,” Ansel croaked because his throat was tight and sore. He couldn’t look at Tam. If he did he might never forgive himself.
“Sorry. Like a simple apology is going to save Tam or get us back the money we lost.”
“Do you even understand how worried we were?” Ange asked.
He’d never heard that tone from Ange and it shredded him. He closed his eyes and fought the urge to run because he knew there was nowhere he could go to get away from the pain in her voice. Or the anger in Z’s.
“Ansel, talk to us. Please.” Lirim was still calm, but the plea was one of desperation. “We want to forgive you, but we can’t unless you tell us what happened.”
“It’s like Z said. I drank too much and lost track of time.” The lie tasted bitter on his tongue, like blood.
Z’s “Told you” and Ange’s “Like hell” tumbled on top of one another.
But it was Lirim’s “Come on, how naive do you think we are?” that won out.
Ansel didn’t reply. He couldn’t bring himself to lie again and anything else seemed pointless.
They were all silent for a while as the sounds of the city waking up filtered through the thin walls of the apartment building. The sun streamed through the dirty windows, making the dust in the air look like tiny stars. It was magical.
And sad.
Because there was a tension between them all that hadn’t been there before, and it was his fault. And he wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to repair the damage.
Finally, Lirim broke the stillness. “Who was the asshole who did that to your face?”
Ansel put a hand to his throbbing eye and met his friend’s concerned gaze across the room. “What’s wrong with my face?”
Z took his hand and pulled it down. “You have a big fucking black eye, babe.”
With a sigh, Ansel collapsed against the back of the couch again.
“Don’t worry, we’ll cover most of it with makeup, no one will notice,” Tam added. They were the first words Tam had said since they sat down, and the kindness in them broke Ansel’s heart.
“Tam—” His voice broke but he pushed through it, some part of him needing to be punished for what he’d done. “I’m sorry. I was an asshole. I’ll talk to Castor. I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you. I promise.”
“I doubt there’s anything you can do.”

Chapter Twenty-Six
Fitch called Ansel’s cell for the hundredth time. When someone finally picked up, it wasn’t the sexy voice he’d been expecting.
“Yo, ’sup?” the stranger asked.
“Who’s this?”
“Who the fuck is this?”
“The guy who’s gonna kick your ass if you don’t put Ansel on the phone right now.”
“Who the fuck is Ansel? Shit, you got the wrong number, Homes.” The line went dead.
He stared at the screen for a good five minutes. It was the same number he’d been dialing for two weeks. Fitch scowled.
It was Saturday morning, their date wasn’t until much later that night, but now he was worried. If Ansel was blowing him off again, a stranger wouldn’t be answering his phone. More than likely he’d gotten mugged and his phone had been stolen. Fitch didn’t have any other way of contacting him. Fuck.
He paced his living room. Should he drive into the city early and show up unannounced to make sure Ansel was safe or should he just wait it out and turn up for their date as planned? He shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck.
There was no way he’d be able to stay sane if he waited.
He grabbed his keys from the counter and locked the door behind him. On the way, he stopped and bought a couple of large coffees and a dozen donuts. At least he’d come bearing gifts.
It was a little after nine when he arrived. He’d never visited uninvited before and never in the light of day. It was a dilapidated building but a decent neighborhood. The city bustled around him, people going about their regular Saturday routines. The shops were open and cars crowded the streets. It was so much different in the daylight.
The front door was open so he climbed up the stairs to Ansel’s apartment and knocked on the door. There was a scuffle, some curses, and finally the locks started to click. The door opened a crack and a dark eye peeked out. Then the door swung wide and a dark-haired guy grabbed the donuts and the coffee.
“Ansel, it’s for you.” The door shut.
Fitch scowled.
A second later the door opened again. Ansel slid out and closed it behind him.
“Jesus Christ, what happened?” Fitch asked. A bruise the size of a fist darkened Ansel’s eye.
Ansel winced and touched his free hand to his temple. “What are you doing here?”
“I was worried about you.” His voice broke and he rubbed a hand over his face to cover it up. Jesus, his stomach was cramped up tighter than a hardwood joint.
“Shh,” Ansel said, rubbing his temple.
The ache that had formed in his chest was torn open as soon as he saw Ansel’s face, and the only thing his lover could do was shush him?
“What the fuck, Ansel? What happened?” He couldn’t hide his frustration and he stalked forward a step.
Ansel looked at the floor.
Unease made Fitch’s breath shallow and he swallowed a ball of dread. This couldn’t be happening. Things had been going so well, he’d almost started to believe it would be okay. He shook away the dread that threatened to bring him to his knees and forced the words out.
“Damn it, just fucking tell me.”
Ansel avoided eye contact, like if he made it, all those dark skeletons would come stumbling out to say hello.
Fitch grabbed Ansel’s shoulders and shook. “Tell me.”
“I picked up a guy, okay?”
Fitch froze with a pain that ripped a hole through his chest. The jealousy he’d been holding back surged through everything else and made him blind with rage.
“I brought him home to fuck,” Ansel continued as if he wasn’t tearing Fitch apart with every word. “I was wasted and forgot to tell him I had a dick. There was a fight. I don’t remember half of it because I drank a whole fucking bottle of tequila. Okay?” With lips pressed tight together, Ansel banged his head against the door.
Fitch balled his hands into fists and punched the wall.
Ansel flinched.
“I told you I wasn’t good at this.” Ansel’s eyes were still closed, face red except for the dark eye. “You kept pushing.”
He ignored the catch in Ansel’s voice. “It’s my fault? Seriously?”
“I’m sorry. You deserve better.” God that sounded so much like what all his girlfriends would say when they finally cut him loose, it almost made Fitch sick. For the first time in his life he was being dumped before he wanted to be. And fuck, it hurt.
This was why he’d never made the first move, never ended a relationship. He’d never had the temperament to hurt someone like this. Always feared causing anyone pain. This is what he got for being a good guy? Fuck. He couldn’t breathe with the sting of it and it pissed him off.
“I’m not good for you,” Ansel whispered. “Go find a sweet girl, marry her, make babies. Your mom would be so fucking happy.”
“Leave my mother out of this,” Fitch shouted. The volume surprised him and he took a deep breath. “Just...wait a minute.” He took a step back and sucked in air that seemed too warm, too sticky. He’d promised himself he could let Ansel go, but he hadn’t expected it to hurt so fucking much. He needed to take a moment to think.
But, like he’d simply been waiting for a chance, Ansel gripped the door handle. “There’s nothing to wait for,” he said, his voice cracking. “It’s over, Fitch.” A shaky breath and then, “We both knew it couldn’t last.”
Without looking back, Ansel slipped back into the apartment and shut the door.
* * *
Ansel pressed his forehead to the solid wood, his hand shaking on the lock he’d just flipped closed. He could feel Fitch on the other side of the barrier and the struggle to remain still took all his concentration. His body vibrated with the urge to go to him. To apologize. To beg forgiveness.
God, it hurt.
It hurt so fucking bad.
So much worse than he’d imagined.
His stomach cramped and twisted, his head pounded, even his fucking toes ached. His chest tightened enough to make breathing difficult. It could be the hangover. Probably not.
No, this felt like his heart was being ripped out of his chest. Even though he’d known it was coming, there was no way he could protect himself. Fitch’s retreating footsteps sounded through the thin door and Ansel squeezed the handle. He could turn it, run after him. But what would he say? There was no excuse for what he’d done. Everything he’d said was the truth.
Fitch did deserve better.
He deserved picket fences and simple days.
He deserved to love someone who was clean and shiny and bright.
Ansel was none of those things.
He didn’t want to cry with his friends still here. Things were bad enough already.
He hadn’t acknowledged, even to himself, how much he’d wanted the relationship to work. Until this moment he’d honestly believed he was content without hope. Oh, how very wrong he’d been. He’d had hope, it was just disguised as something else, something slippery and unnameable. But after today, after seeing the look on Fitch’s face, there was no faith left, no wishing for a brighter future.
There was no getting over this one, no moving on with his life like nothing had changed. Everything had changed, and all because of one man.
He didn’t have it in him to pretend any longer. He was worn out.
Broken into tiny pieces that would never fit again.
There was no way he’d keep it together if he returned to his friends. They had blessedly given him privacy for the exchange, but were surely waiting to interrogate him. He didn’t have the strength for that right now. He needed to be alone. He needed the darkness.
Silently, he shuffled to his room. The lights were off, but the sun filtered through the unwashed windows. He shut the door behind him and crawled onto the bed. He wanted so badly to regain some of the numbness from the night before.
There were three opened bottles of alcohol in the apartment. He knew exactly how much was in each one. But he was too aware of the disaster he’d made of his life to lose himself again so soon.
In lieu of oblivion, he curled into a ball, closed his eyes, and faced the storm of emotions.
The first tide of anguish broke the dam, and tears cascaded down his face.
He wept for never seeing his brother again and for failing Fitch. He grieved for his childhood and losing Ray. He cried for it all.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
The next afternoon Ansel went to the club early and found Castor behind his desk.
“Christ.” Castor balled his fist and leaned back in his chair. “What the hell happened to you?”
Ansel steeled his spine. He knew he looked like shit. He didn’t feel that great either, but this needed to be done. “Had some trouble.”
“Damn it. No one is going to want to pay to see that shit.”
“I’ll cover it with makeup.”
Castor scoffed. “You’ll need a fucking truckload.”
“Do you want me to dance or not?”
Castor let out a frustrated groan. “Yes. You dance, and you’d better make it good or I might decide to—”
“No. Don’t you dare threaten Tam again.”
The scowl that transformed Castor’s face might have been comical if Ansel wasn’t pumped full of adrenaline and hanging on to his temper by a fingernail. “Are you giving me attitude?”
“You want to punish someone for last night, punish me. I was the one who flaked out. You’re going to pay the others what they are owed and leave Tam alone.”
“Or else what?” Castor’s eyebrow rose in challenge.
“This is not a threat. I’m not you. I don’t bully people into doing things.”
“What is it then?”
“A negotiation.”
Castor’s laugh was scornful and amused. It was an odd mix that made Ansel’s skin crawl.
“What exactly are you offering in this negotiation?”
“I’ll dance the whole week and you won’t have to pay me a cent.”
Castor seemed to consider this for a moment. His eyes rolled to the side and his lips thinned in thought. “Counter offer, make it two weeks and I get to fuck you.”
Ansel snarled. “My ass is not for sale.”
There was that weird laugh again. Ansel shuddered.
“Okay, fine. Three weeks without pay,” Castor said.
“You’ll leave Tam alone and you’ll pay the boys what they are owed?”
Castor waved a hand. “Yes, yes. Fine.”
The grin that spread across Castor’s face was one of pure satisfaction.
Twenty minutes later, Lirim, Tam and Z arrived. They didn’t speak to him as they dropped their bags in the dressing room and started setting up for rehearsal. But Tam did squeeze his shoulder when he walked by, and that little gesture flooded him with relief.
They worked on one of their older routines, tightening up the timing and adding newer, more complicated steps in places that needed a boost. The atmosphere was heavy with things unsaid and pain still unforgiven. Ansel didn’t know how to make it better.
And apparently, neither did the rest of them.
About an hour into rehearsal though, Castor came out with three envelopes, met Ansel’s eyes with a smirk, and tossed them on the stage. Without a word, he went back to his office leaving the boys looking at Ansel in question.
Tam was the first to pick his up and his mouth dropped open when he saw its contents.
“What did you do?” Tam asked.
Ansel turned away, he didn’t want them to see through him. He didn’t want them to know how much he’d sacrificed. “I made it right.”
* * *
Monday evening Ansel came home to find the apartment filled with boxes. He dropped his bag near the door. It was too soon to start packing. He was still trying to change Mr. Policek’s mind, and even if he couldn’t, they hadn’t yet found another place to live.
“What’s going on?” he asked Ange, who was carrying another container out of her room. She dropped it on top of the counter and sighed.
“I’m moving out.”
“What do you mean? We don’t have anywhere to go.”
Ange pushed her sweat-matted hair off her face and looked at the floor. “I’m moving in with a coworker.”
Her reply was the last thing he’d expected. “Ange.” He took a step toward her.
“It’s been a long time coming, I should have moved as soon as I got the assignment in Brooklyn.” She shook her head. “I just...I didn’t want to leave you alone.”
“I’m sorry, I fucked up. I know I did.”
“Yeah, but I’m not leaving to punish you. It’s the best choice for me.”
“Being away from me is the best choice? We’re family.” How could this be happening? Ange was like his sister. They’d lived together for years and now she was going to leave him alone? It was like losing his brother all over again, like losing Ray...and Fitch.
She turned to face him, her hip resting on the island separating the kitchenette from the rest of the room. “No, don’t twist my words. You know I love you. But Kelly offered me a room when I first started. She lives real close to the hospital so it will be so much easier to get to work.”
“If you need to be closer to work, fine. We’ll find a place together.” He tightened his arms around his middle, fighting the tremble that had taken over his body.
She shook her head and fiddled with an imperfection in the laminated countertop. “You need to be here, close to the club, your job. It would be just as bad for you to trek all the way to Brooklyn and back every day.”
“I don’t care. I would do it.”
The corner of her mouth tipped up even as her chin wobbled. “I know you would. You’re the best, truly. I love you.”
“Then why are you leaving?” His voice was thick with emotion he didn’t try to hide.
Ange took a deep breath, swallowed, but didn’t look at him. “You scared the shit out of me.”
He scrubbed his face, not caring that he smeared his makeup. “God, I’m sorry, I was a fucking idiot.”
“I don’t want to worry about finding you sick or injured or—” She broke off and he knew she was remembering Ray.
“Ange.” He hugged her while she shook.
“One day he was there and the next he wasn’t. It was like I was going through the same fucking thing with you. I can’t do it again. I need to stay focused.”
He didn’t reply. The knife in his heart had sliced open his throat and he was bleeding on the inside.
“I’m not Ray,” he finally choked out. “I’m not going to kill myself.”
He felt the shake of her head. “No, but you’ve got a problem, just like he did. You may not do it intentionally, but you live so violently. I worry about you every day.”
“You don’t have to worry.”
“I can’t stop myself. You need help, real help.”
“I’m fine.”
She pulled away, face scrunched in anger. “You are not fine. I know something happened to you, something you haven’t told anyone. You think I can’t tell when something is bothering you?” She pushed his shoulders and stormed down the hall.
“Ange.” He followed.
She spun. “I’m moving out, Ansel, but I will never stop caring. I love you too fucking much.”
He stopped. “I love you too.”
“I know. You love me. You love Z, you love Lirim, you love Tam, you loved Ray. I even thought you might start to love the guy you were seeing—but you don’t love yourself.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight
“Honey, you haven’t touched your food. Are you feeling okay?”
Fitch looked up from his plate of Chicken Parmesan and met his mother’s concerned gaze across the table. “Yeah, Ma, I’m good.”
“Did I burn it?” Her brow creased.
“It’s perfect, like always.” He stuffed a forkful into his mouth.
“Leave the boy alone, Margie,” his dad said with a pat to her hand. “He’s probably still lost in work, right, son? I used to do the same thing.”
He took the excuse offered and nodded. His mother didn’t seem to buy it, but she didn’t question him when he took another bite.
The truth was he hadn’t thought about work since seeing Ansel. He’d been walking in a haze. The only things on his mind were the haunting green eyes he missed so much. He’d spent the afternoon holding his mom’s hand while his dad got checked out by the doctor. The news that his father wasn’t suffering from something serious should have made the queasy, empty feeling in his chest go away. But his dad’s problems were treatable and the hollowness in Fitch remained.
The only other option wasn’t something he wanted to think about.
He swallowed without tasting the chicken.
There was no denying it. He missed Ansel. He missed his voice, his scent, the feel of his body as he moved. He missed his dancer’s laugh, his smart-ass remarks, and killer smirk. Reality was dull compared to the dream he’d been living. It had lost all its shine.
If he hadn’t been constantly surrounded by curious eyes since Sunday morning, he probably would have broken down and cried like a baby. But he’d never shed a tear for a lost relationship before and he didn’t want to start now.
Later, he was in the kitchen helping his mother load the dishwasher.
“Are you sure you’re not coming down with something?” she asked.
He scraped the food he hadn’t been able to finish off his plate and rinsed it in the sink. “I just didn’t have much of an appetite today. It’s nothing you have to worry about. How’s Pop?”
“Don’t try to change the subject, young man.”
He stacked the cups in the machine. “Ma, I’m fine.”
“Is it relationship trouble?” Her question made him pause. He looked up to see her smug smile. “I knew it.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Too bad.”
He sighed. Knowing his mother, she wouldn’t let him leave until she was satisfied. “Okay, I was seeing someone. Now I’m not.” He shrugged and went back to filling the dishwasher.
“Oh, honey, what happened?”
“It just didn’t work out. We were too different, I guess. I don’t know.”
He added the soap and closed the door to start the cycle before meeting his mother’s expectant gaze. “I guess the relationship wasn’t as serious as I’d thought.”
“How long have you been dating?”
“A couple weeks.”
“Fitch—” his mother began.
“I know, I’m sorry I didn’t mention it sooner.”
“Oh, stop, I don’t care about that.”
“You don’t?”
“I don’t need to know every girl you go out with. You’re a grown man.”
He didn’t reply so she continued, “So, I take it she was seeing other people?”
He rubbed a palm over his face. The truth was a sharp-edged stone behind his teeth. He, not she. But the time for that confession had long passed and saying it now wouldn’t bring anything but confusion. “Ma, it doesn’t matter. It’s over.”
She was quiet for a minute and he thought she might be done questioning him. But when she was finished putting the leftovers away she turned and said, “Did I ever tell you about the time I cheated on your father?”
“What?” He glanced toward the living room to make sure his father was out of hearing range.
“Calm down, it was a long time ago. We’d only gone on three dates. It was the way things were back then, free love and all that. I wasn’t always a mother, honey. I had a life before marriage and children.”
He tried to picture his dowdy mother decked out in hippie flowers and rainbows but couldn’t manage it. “I don’t need to know this crap, Ma.”
“My point is, you are so much like your father. He is the committed sort too, always has been. But I was a wild child back then. If he hadn’t given me a reason to change, who knows where we’d all be today. If you think this person is the one, don’t give up so easily. People can surprise you.” She rubbed his shoulder and left the kitchen. Through the archway leading to the living room, he watched her lean down and kiss his father on the cheek. The love that transformed his father’s face was pure and timeless. When the old man reached up and pulled her down to his lap, she giggled like she was twenty years younger.
Fitch had always thought of his parents as the perfect couple, but he’d never really paid attention to the hard work they put into the relationship. His mother’s words repeated in his mind.
People can change.
The question was, who should do the changing?
* * *
Ansel handed over the cash and took the bottle of whiskey from the cashier. Ange’s voice had haunted him the entire day, whispering softly in the back of his mind, making him question everything. He’d avoided going back to the apartment because she was leaving and he couldn’t bring himself to face that special sort of pain. Typical. He was always trying to escape something, wasn’t he? But it was late now and he didn’t want to get drunk on the street again. As soon as he unlocked the door, he knew Ange was gone. The air felt different, colder. He shivered as he crossed to the kitchen table and sat with his bottle.
With a twist of the top, the stringent sweet and smoky scent of failure and loss filled his senses. But before he could take his first sip, he spotted Ange’s apartment keys on the table.
Their sharp edges dug into his fingers when he clutched them. Just like the air, the metal was cold. He shivered again and wished for a blanket or a coat...or a friend.
But Ange was gone. The boys were still pissed at him and he’d lost all connection with his brother.
Maybe it wasn’t the apartment that was cold. Maybe it was him.
Could loneliness turn your bones to ice? Could regret make your heart freeze?
There was a note in Ange’s handwriting where the keys had been.
Love yourself first, it read.
And next to it was a brochure for Alcoholics Anonymous.
He stared at the words until they blurred.
Love yourself first. Like it was that easy. Like he could just forget what a mess he was and forgive all the terrible things he’d done. Like he could ignore the people he’d hurt.
Thunder shook the windowpanes, and drops of rain splattered on the glass, a fitting soundtrack to the turmoil of his life. He was sick of it. So much drama, heartache, so much fucking pain. He was ready for it to end. He closed his eyes and Ray’s weather-beaten face appeared in his mind’s eye.
There had been no outward sign of the depression that took Ray away from them. He wondered if Ray had felt like this—done. Finished. Ready to give up.
And if Ansel didn’t do something to change his life, would he eventually end up like his hero? Would Z’s prediction come true?
The idea frightened him more than anything else.
His stomach knotted at the certainty of that future. He’d tried with Fitch. He’d tried to be the type of person who might get a happy ending, but at the first obstacle he’d fallen back into his old habits. He’d failed. Failing had hurt so much. He didn’t know if he was capable of trying again. But he knew for sure that if he didn’t try, he might as well drink every last drop of alcohol in the apartment and jump off the roof because he’d be a walking corpse anyway.
He didn’t want to end up like Ray. He didn’t want to be a disaster his friends kept having to clean up until they finally had enough of the mess and left him to wither.
There had to be more to life. And even if he didn’t get his happy ending, at least he could say he’d tried. That he’d fought.
He wouldn’t just give up.
If there was one thing he’d learned in his life it was to keep moving forward. This was his crossroads. His one chance for redemption.
He’d picked up the brochure and started to read.
They said the first step was admitting you had a problem. He’d lost Fitch. He’d lost the apartment. He’d lost his budding relationship with his brother. He’d lost his roommate and he’d lost the boys’ trust.
Not all of it was caused by drinking, but some of it was. Ange was right.
He needed help.
Ever since he left home he’d turned to alcohol to numb the pain. If he were honest, he’d started before that. He used to raid his parents’ liquor cabinet after every berating, every beating. It had become his escape. A way to deal with the shit life handed him.
But being drunk hadn’t helped in a long time. Friday night was the most recent example of the trouble it could cause. The drink had propelled a painful situation into a disaster that hurt his friends. He’d had so many other options. He could have called them and told them how upset he was. He could have surrounded himself in their accepting warmth. Instead, he’d sucked down the poison like he’d always done before. Now he was homeless again.
Homeless. Fuck.
He thought he was through with the streets. Ray would be so fucking disappointed—all the guy ever wanted was for him and Ange to be safe, to have a roof over their heads. And he’d done it too. He’d made Ray proud. Then he went and screwed everything up.
Well, he’d just have to start again.
This time, sober.
It was dark in the apartment when he finally rose from the table with trembling legs and crossed to the sink. Only the streetlights outside provided illumination through the dirty windows to color the room in a sickening green hue.
The open bottle of whiskey was still clenched in his fist like an extension of his arm. A piece of him. A heavy burden he’d been carrying for far too long.
His chest hurt, his stomach ached, his head pounded and fear shook him so hard he had to steady himself with a hand to the cold Formica countertop. He was forced to breathe through his mouth because if he didn’t, the tempting scent of the bottle’s contents might make him change his mind. Already his mouth was watering for a taste, like Pavlov’s fucking dog. But he’d made his decision. So, with more strength than he’d thought he had, he lifted the whiskey and began pouring it down the drain. Every glug-glug-glug was a pull on his soul, like part of him was slithering down the pipes, sliding away into the darkness. But it didn’t make him feel any lighter.
There was still a great weight on his shoulders. His arm began to shake and he had to force himself to close his eyes and not watch because it felt like he was ripping off his skin.
When the last drop of amber liquid disappeared, he rinsed the bottle and shoved it into the trash. The simple task had been more of a challenge than walking in heels ever was. He was left sweating and shaking like a leaf, filled with the desire to turn back time. Or transform into a slug and follow the alcohol into hell.
He stared at the shiny metal drain for endless minutes, trying to catch his breath, to regain some resolution, because he wasn’t done.
There were more bottles tucked away in the apartment. And if he didn’t get rid of it all tonight, he’d never have enough willpower to stay away from them. So, with a haggard breath, he kicked off his heels and began the exhausting work of taking his life back.
* * *
Eighteen hours later he was standing outside a nondescript building waiting for the urge to puke to pass. He was shaky and sweaty and his head was pounding, but the determination he’d found the night before hadn’t diminished.
If anything, his obvious withdrawal was a sign that he really did have a problem.
According to the woman he’d spoken to on the phone, the AA meetings were held on the first floor. It was large room with metal folding chairs arranged facing a podium. A table was set up near the entrance with soda, water and coffee. Ansel hovered near the door until a lady came up behind him with a plate full of homemade cookies.
“Hey, sweetie, first time?” she asked.
He tucked his hair behind his ear. “What gave it away?”
She smiled and held up the plate. “Cookie? Chocolate chip, no nuts.”
“Thanks.” He took the offering, even though he wouldn’t be able to eat it without throwing up, and shuffled farther into the room.
“I’m Susan.”
Susan set the plate on the table and poured herself a cup of coffee. “Don’t worry, no one will make you talk today if you don’t want to.”
Ansel nodded. “That’s good. I’m not sure what I would say.”
“No one ever knows until they stand up and start speaking. My first time, I was so nervous my hands shook. But I stood there, opened my mouth, and let it all out. It was like an exorcism, you know? All the demons just poured out and after, I was cleansed. I grew up Catholic and our priest used to tell us that confession was good for the soul. I’d always thought it was a bunch of bullshit, pardon my French, but after the first time here I really did feel better. You will too, one day.”
She touched his arm and gave him a warm, welcoming smile. “Come on, you can sit by me.”

Chapter Twenty-Nine
“Hey, sis, to what do I owe this pleasure?” Fitch held open his front door for Meg.
“Ma called.” She dropped her laptop bag on a dining room chair and crossed to the refrigerator.
“And that explains this unexpected and rare visit because?” Fitch closed the door and followed his sister into the kitchen.
“She thinks you’re suffering from a broken heart.” Meg laughed and stuck her head in the cooler. “She made me promise to come over and comfort you.” She found a bottle of beer, twisted the top off and took a healthy swallow. “So, here I am, comforting.”
He tried to hide his wince. Unfortunately, he wasn’t fast enough.
“Oh my God.” Meg set her beer on the counter. “Seriously? But you’ve never fallen in love before. I didn’t even know you were dating someone. Who is she?”
“No one.”
“It doesn’t matter, he ended it.”
Far too late, he realized what he’d let slip. Meg wasn’t quite as slow and her eyes widened.
He escaped into the living room. He didn’t correct himself. He didn’t deny it. Denying his relationship with Ansel felt like a betrayal. How crazy was that, after everything? He couldn’t bring himself to lie about it. He could, however, avoid, avoid, avoid.
He flipped on the television and sat on the couch. As if he could concentrate on anything else with Meg hovering. She’d followed and was now standing over him.
“What? Why are you still looking at me like that?”
“You’re gay? How could you hide that from me this whole time? You didn’t even tell me when I came out? That’s harsh.”
“I’m not gay.”
“Yeah, right. I saw your face, Fitch. I can’t believe you’d lie to me. After everything you said seven years ago?”
“Christ, Meg.” He covered his face and groaned. “I’m not lying. I’d never lie to you.”
She sat on the couch, one foot tucked under, facing him. “Really? You’re not gay?”
He knew he wasn’t, technically, but he had slept with a man, more than once. And he’d wanted to continue to do so into the foreseeable future. The end of his homosexual relationship had not been his choice. But how could he explain it to Meg? He looked over at her. She bit her lip, confusion and worry wrinkling her brow. It was a very similar expression to the one she’d worn when she’d sat him down and made her own confession.
He sighed. “No. But I’m not strictly straight either.”
The wrinkle on her forehead deepened. “Are you bi? Pan? Fluid?”
He smoothed down his thighs and stretched his neck. “The person I was seeing is—” Oh fuck. Was he really going to say it?
Yes. It might be too late, but finally saying it aloud felt right. Like he was coming clean and shedding the doubt and confusion that had held him back.
“He’s...a man.”
He pushed out the breath he’d been holding and clutched his knees.
Meg blinked at him. “You’ve been dating a man?”
He nodded.
“But you’re not gay?” A skeptical eyebrow flicked up to her hairline.
“I know, it sounds like I’m in denial when you say it like that.”
“I’m not gay. I’ve never found guys attractive, ever. I don’t think I’m bi, because I still don’t find guys attractive, except for him. He’s...special.” Fitch pushed fingers through his hair. “But it doesn’t matter anymore, he ended it.”
“Is he the one who texted you at dinner?”
The memory made one side of his mouth curl up and he didn’t bother to hide it from his sister. “Yes.”
“And the reason you’ve been mopey lately?”
This time he pressed his lips together. “Yeah, I suppose.”
Meg nodded and adjusted so she sat facing the television. “Heartbreak sucks.”
“That it does.” He sighed.
“Can I ask, why did he break it off? What did you do? If it was because you wouldn’t be out of the closet with him, I’m going to kick your ass.”
Fitch winced. Had his reluctance played a part in the disaster their relationship had become? Had he somehow made Ansel feel unworthy? “He said I deserved better.”
“Do you?”
For some reason her question, more than anything else, just kneed him in the balls. His chest ached with the emptiness he’d been hiding from since Ansel had shut the door in his face. He couldn’t catch his breath as he shook his head, staring at the floor between his feet.
He remembered the vulnerability in Ansel’s green eyes their first night together, the way he memorized poems and spoke about his friends, the laughter in his voice when they talked, how amazed he’d been when his brother came back into his life. All of these things, they didn’t fit the image of the guy with a bruised eye and defeated shoulders. And suddenly it clicked—Ansel had been running away again.
“Fuck.” His voice full of the pain he’d been holding back. He’d made a mistake. He didn’t deserve better. There was no one more amazing, more vibrant, more alluring, more fun, than Ansel Becke. And he’d walked away from all that wonderful energy without looking back.
Without fighting.
He’d been a coward. A stupid, blind, jealous coward.
No, he didn’t deserve better. But Ansel did.
* * *
“Where are you going to live?” Ange sipped her coffee.
They’d found a middle ground for their traditional Saturday breakfast, halfway between her new place and their old one. It was a semi-gourmet breakfast spot that boasted a design-your-own-omelet station. Ansel had ordered a sausage and mushroom omelet. It was time to break old habits. Eating something new at brunch every Saturday was an easy way to start.
“I’m not sure. I’ll be sleeping on Z’s couch for the first few nights, but beyond that I’ll have to play it by ear.” Z was still giving him the cold shoulder, but had made it clear that Ansel would be staying at his place until he got his shit together because that’s what real family did. They helped, even when they were mad.
Ange’s lips thinned as she twisted the paper of her straw into a ball. God, he’d missed her. He never appreciated how nice it was to see her every day. Nor had he realized all the little things she’d done around the apartment. Without her, the space felt empty and unfinished. Hell, his soul felt empty these days.
“Promise you’ll call me before you resort to sleeping under a bridge somewhere. We don’t have a lot of room, but I’d rather share a bed than think of you on the streets again.” She didn’t meet his eyes and he knew she was feeling terrible for moving out.
“I don’t blame you for leaving. And I’m not going to end up like Ray. I know I have people in my corner. I might, occasionally, forget I can lean on you, but I know you’ll always be there to pick me up.”
She reached over the table and rested her hand over his. “You can count on it.”
Their food arrived and his omelet turned out to be damn good. And to think if he’d ordered the same as always, he would never have known.
Change wasn’t always easy, but it could lead to great things. Or at least that was what Susan had said in her confession during the AA meeting yesterday. Eating something new wasn’t quite so earth-shattering as staying away from booze, but it was still new. And change was something he needed to learn to embrace so he could transform his life through sobriety.
He’d remained dry since everything fell to shit one week ago. Daily AA meetings helped. He still craved the oblivion that alcohol provided, but he was clear-headed now. Being detached from life hadn’t solved any of his problems, it just created new ones. Not just for himself, but for his friends too—the people he cherished. He wouldn’t do that to them again. They’d earned better treatment.
“So what are your plans for the rest of the afternoon?” he asked.
“My shift doesn’t start until six, why?”
He placed his fork on the table while smoothing down the paper napkin. “There is a...well.” He cleared his throat and started again. “I’m going to speak at my meeting today and I was wondering if, maybe, you’d come to support me.” He snapped his eyes up to catch her reaction.
She breathed through parted lips and brought a hand to her heart. “You’ve been going to AA meetings?”
He tilted his head and lowered his eyes. “Ever since you left. Thank you for the pamphlet.”
“Oh, Ansel. I’m so proud of you.” She touched his hand again and her smile was so wide it reached her shining eyes.
“You were right. I need help.” He clutched Ray’s tags in a loose fist. “So, will you come with me?”
Incredibly, her grin grew. “Are you kidding? Of course I will.”
They finished their meals, chatting about Ange’s work and his plans for finding a new place. They paid and started down to the station to catch the train.
“What will you do about all of your furniture?” Ange asked.
“You won’t believe it. Mr. Policek actually offered to let me keep stuff in the basement until I find a place.”
“Seriously? I thought the guy hated you.”
“I know, me too. Turns out he’s actually got a tiny heart beating in his chest. He saw me tossing stuff on the sidewalk and I guess my sad story was enough to melt the ice inside.”
“Too bad he didn’t find enough heart to let you stay.”
“I burned that bridge, no one’s fault but my own. He was right to kick me out. I’m just sorry you got caught in the middle.”
They made their way to the West Village, Ange smiling the whole way. She held his hand and gave him encouraging squeezes. They arrived at the meeting just as everyone was starting to take their seats. Ansel led Ange to his usual spot, near Susan. He made the appropriate introductions and sat back to wait for his turn.
About half an hour later, Susan nodded at him and he walked to the podium. He gripped the edge of the wood and looked out at all the faces in the room. He’d heard most of their stories, felt their pain, gotten to know bits of their personal struggles.
He puffed out a breath and looked at Ange. “My name is Ansel and I’m an alcoholic.”

Chapter Thirty
Ansel hurried from the subway station to his apartment on Saturday night, the evening air colder than usual for late April. His AA meeting went long and there was some kind of delay with the trains so he only had thirty minutes to get ready if he wanted to make it to the club in time. He turned the corner and stopped.
Fitch sat on the concrete step leading to the apartment building’s front door. His arms rested on his knees and his head sagged forward, but Ansel didn’t need to see his face. He had everything about Fitch memorized—his build, his stance, the way he moved, the way he smelled. Every detail was etched in his brain like carvings in stone. He must have made some noise because Fitch looked up and their eyes clashed.
Ansel’s breath hitched and he tightened his grip on the bag strap over his shoulder. “Fitch.”
He flinched at the nickname even while his tired heart perked its head up and took notice of the relief and desperation that tinged Fitch’s voice.
“What do you want?” Lifting his chin, Ansel crossed his arms. It hurt to see Fitch again. He was just getting used to not hearing that deep, sexy voice, to not looking into those brown eyes. Now he’d have to start the withdrawal all over again from the beginning. One taste of Fitch was more addictive than any drug, and more devastating than alcohol had ever been.
Fitch stood. “To see you again.”
The words weren’t meant to punish him, but they did. They were like feeding crumbs to a starving child when he knew there wouldn’t be anything else to eat. Ansel hugged himself tighter and stiffened his spine, reciting in his head the affirmations he’d learned at AA.
“Well, mission accomplished. Goodbye.” He moved up the stairs staying comically close to the railing to avoid any possible contact.
“Ansel.” The longing in Fitch’s voice was so sharp it made him stall just inside the door, his hand clutching the handle.
Damn it, Fitch sounded just as lost as Ansel had felt for the past seven days. He peeked over his shoulder and really studied the man. His dark hair was ruffled like he’d been tugging at it. His clothes were unkempt, wrinkled. He had dark circles under his eyes and, most worrisome, the warmth within them was gone.
“I was hoping we could talk,” Fitch said.
Ansel’s fingers clutched the doorknob. Doubt and self-preservation warred in his chest. He owed Fitch one chat at the very least, after what he’d done. But he didn’t trust himself to withstand the cascade of emotions being alone with Fitch brought to the surface. Thanks to AA, he had more ways to cope without alcohol, but he was a long way from being stable.
“You’ll have to talk while I get ready. I’m late.” He puffed out a breath and launched himself up the stairs without waiting for Fitch to follow. If things went south, he vowed to call Tam. No matter what, he would not drink.
“What happened to all your stuff?” Fitch asked as he entered on his heels.
Ansel had completely forgotten the state of the apartment. It must look like he was robbed...He bit the inside of his cheek. No lying, no avoiding. Not this time.
“We’ve been evicted. Ange has already moved and the rest of my stuff is scattered around the city, hiding in my friends’ closets.”
“Evicted? What the hell, why?”
Ansel took a deep breath. “I invited a dangerous man into the building, had a drunken brawl in the entryway, broke the railing, woke up the whole building with the noise, passed out on the stairs, leaving my landlord to deal with the guy. Someone called the cops, though I can’t remember that part. I, apparently, woke up long enough to puke all over the floor. It took two police, Mr. Policek, and Ange to carry me into the apartment.” He swallowed the sour taste of humiliation. “So, yeah, we got evicted and it was my own damn fault.”
“Christ, Angel.” Fitch took a step closer.
Ansel winced again. Damn that fucking nickname. “Don’t.” He shook his head and backed away. “I have to change.” Wasn’t that the truth? Yes, he meant change his clothes, but the statement had a deeper, unconscious meaning for him. His life was a mess and he needed to make serious improvements if he wanted to have any kind of future. “I have no idea what’s in the fridge but help yourself.” He spun and hustled down the hall. Being close was harder than he’d thought, but confessing the disgraceful way he’d acted stung worse than ripping tape off pubes.
His room was fairly empty, only a small pile of clothes remaining. The bed was the only piece of furniture. The hinges squeaked when he sat with a sigh and bent to remove his high-top sneakers. No heels today, most of his shoes already transferred to Z’s place for safekeeping.
Of course Fitch followed him. He should have anticipated that and locked the door. Foolishly he hadn’t even closed the damn thing. Fitch leaned against the frame, arms crossed, eyes sharp.
“The guy, did you pick him up before or after you started drinking?”
“What?” Ansel looked up from untying his shoe, heart in his throat. Why the fuck couldn’t Fitch just get it through his thick skull that he was bad news. What was the guy still doing here?
“Before or after?” Fitch repeated.
Fitch’s face scrunched and he nodded.
“But I wasn’t so drunk I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“And what was that?”
Looking away, Ansel resumed the task of removing his shoes. What had he been thinking as he’d lured the stranger to his apartment? Not a damn thing. He’d been so consumed with grief and self-loathing he hadn’t given a thought to the guy next to him. He pushed down the lump lodged in his throat and pulled off his sneakers, tossing them to the floor.
“Getting fucked by a stranger.” The words were hollow. He pulled his T-shirt off and tossed it to the mattress before unfastening his skinny jeans.
“Just one more question.”
Somehow Fitch had moved without him noticing, and now his breath heated the back of Ansel’s bare neck, sending goose bumps over his skin. Tightening his core to stop the shiver of reaction from betraying him, he turned but didn’t back up. He wouldn’t retreat, even if the desire to burrow into Fitch’s heat scared him to death. No fleeing. No chasing. He’d accept life as it was. Reality was a brutal bitch, one he needed to learn to face.
“What?” Ansel tipped his chin up and cocked a hip—an arrogant front to mask his unease.
“What were you running away from?”
Shock tore a breath from his lungs before he could stop it. Unable to speak, he shook his head.
“Was it me? Us? Was it too much, too fast?” Fitch asked. “I need to know. Did my own insecurities cause this? If I did something to make you run away from me—”
“It had nothing to do with you.” He turned away with the pretense of looking for something to wear. God, he really was a coward. Truth was, he just couldn’t face the worry in Fitch’s eyes, the guilt. Ansel was the one who’d fucked it all up, not Fitch. So he should be the only one full of regrets and remorse.
“What then?”
Keeping his head down Ansel answered, “I told you. You deserve better. I’m—”
“No good.” Fitch gripped his shoulders and forced him to turn. “Yeah, I don’t buy it.”
“What makes you think it was anything else? You’ve only known me for a few weeks.” Frustration made him sound bitter.
“You’re right, and in that short time I’ve watched you hide when things got too real. I didn’t realize it then, but the night we met I watched you down seven shots in less than two minutes. You were trying to ignore the way our kiss made you feel, weren’t you?”
“Fuck off.” Ansel shoved Fitch’s shoulder, but the bastard didn’t budge.
“And all those times in this room, when it got too intense you’d try to push back. When you couldn’t, you hid. I should have figured it out sooner. I was just so fucking caught up in the idea of you being with someone else...” Fitch trailed off and his grip softened into a caress. “What was it, Angel? Please tell me.”
Ansel stared at Fitch’s chest, head and heart in turmoil. What was the big deal? He’d told a room full of strangers during his turn at the podium. He’d told Ange. He’d even planned on telling the boys soon, maybe tonight. It wasn’t a fucking secret anymore. And maybe, if Fitch knew what a goddamn basket case he was when it came to family shit, Fitch would finally understand he wasn’t worth the effort. He looked up to meet Fitch’s eyes and had to bite his lip at the affection reflected back at him.
He’d better get this over quick.
“My mother found my number in my brother’s pocket and called to see who it belonged to. When she realized I’d been talking to him, she made her irritation very clear. She told me to stay away from him, berated me like she used to do. I let it get to me, just like always. She knows exactly what to say to break me down.
“It’s no excuse for my behavior. I’m old enough to understand that actions have consequences. Everything that happened after she hung up, that’s all on me.” He took a deep, cleansing breath. “I make bad decisions, Fitch, I always have. I’m irrational, flighty, selfish, impatient and insecure. I’ve got so much baggage it wouldn’t fit on an aircraft carrier. Trust me when I say you don’t want to be involved with me. You deserve—”
“Shut the fuck up.” Fitch crushed their mouths together.
Ansel’s worn-out heart soared at first contact. The flood of need racked his body and he went along with the rush. He opened under Fitch’s onslaught. It wasn’t a gentle kiss, it was a desperate, aching connection between two souls who’d pined for each other. Too fucking long, his body insisted, he’d been away from this paradise for too fucking long.
Panting heavily, Fitch pulled away and sifted fingers through Ansel’s hair. “Can we start over?”
“There is no going back,” Ansel said with regret. One of the things he needed to accept was living in the moment and not dwelling in the past. No one could turn back time.
Fitch’s face fell and the sight broke Ansel’s heart. He didn’t want to be the cause of Fitch’s pain.
He took a shaky breath.
“But we can move forward,” he whispered. “If you want.” There was no way he could stop his pulse from beating the hell out of his ribs, but when Fitch smiled, he didn’t give a damn.
“Yeah, Angel,” Fitch said. “Forward is perfect.”
* * *
Fitch brought his mouth to Ansel’s again—he needed another taste. Kissing his dancer had, at some point, become like breathing. Necessary.
Thank fuck he’d gotten his head on straight and come back to confront him. Otherwise he’d be sitting alone in his apartment like a stale piece of bread. There was still so much they needed to hash out, so much he didn’t understand. But right now, all he could think about was feeling his lover’s hard body, hearing the moans of pleasure, savoring the beautiful mouth. And, damn, relishing the scent.
Ansel was wearing the perfume.
Fitch’s chest expanded as he breathed it in, remembering the day, the look on Ansel’s face like he’d never received a gift before. After everything, he wore it. Did Ansel think of him when he sprayed it on his skin? When he caught a whiff during the day? Christ, why did those thoughts make his hands shake?
Sweeping his tongue along Ansel’s bottom lip, he glided his palms down into the loose waist of his lover’s jeans to grip his ass. With little effort he smashed their fronts together. The contact scorched through the thin shirt he wore, straight to his heart. So hot, it burned.
He pulled away from Ansel’s lips with a groan. “Damn, you are an instant fucking inferno.”
Ansel didn’t reply, he chased Fitch’s mouth until they reconnected. His deft tongue took control and deepened the mating like he was just as frantic, just as wild. Ansel ground against his denim-covered thigh so hard it had to hurt. They separated only to breathe, Ansel pressing quick kisses on his jaw, neck, and over to his ear.
But, suddenly Ansel stiffened with a groan. “Shit, I almost forgot.”
Undaunted and determined not to be distracted, Fitch grazed his teeth down Ansel’s neck and smiled when his lover shivered in reaction.
“Fitch,” Ansel moaned in frustration. “I’m late. I have to get to the club.”
“Mmm, I’m not done feasting on you yet.”
Ansel pushed at his arm. “I can’t be late. I had to miss a few rehearsals and need to run through the changes to choreo before our show.”
With a sigh, Fitch stopped what he was doing enough to look into Ansel’s face, but he didn’t remove his hands from their home on his ass.
“When do you have to be there?”
Reluctantly, he reached into his pocket for his phone to read the time.
“It’s seven-twenty. I can drive to the club in ten minutes, fifteen at most. How long do you need to get ready?”
The corner of Ansel’s mouth rose and he shook his head. “I have to change and grab my makeup and stuff. Five minutes.”
Fitch gave his most feral grin. “That gives me twenty minutes to fuck you until you can’t stand.”
Those full painted lips parted on a breath. “I don’t have any supplies. I wasn’t expecting...”
Fitch shoved his phone back in his pocket. “Okay, so no fucking.”
“Blow jobs?”
“Tempting, but I don’t think I could stand not kissing you.” As proof he pressed his lips to Ansel’s.
“A good old-fashioned grind then.” Ansel flashed his trademark smirk.
He cupped Ansel’s bruised face and rubbed a thumb along his playful lip. “Damn, Angel, I’ve missed you.”
Ansel lowered his gaze, hiding his eyes behind thick lashes.
“No, don’t do that, not anymore, not again.” With one finger he lifted Ansel’s chin and stared into cautious eyes. “I missed you so much. Do you hear me? When you shut the door it was like you shut out the sun. All the light, the warmth, the joy, it all vanished and there was an Ansel-shaped hole in my world. I won’t let you hide anymore, Angel.”
There was a tense moment of silence between them, and in that single breath Fitch waited like he was on the edge of a cliff expecting someone to push him over.
“I missed you too,” Ansel finally whispered, the green of his eyes twinkling like emeralds.
Fitch was caught up in their brilliance while he struggled to calm his racing heart.
“It’s difficult for me to believe what you say,” Ansel continued. “Or to trust the way you look at me. I’m not sure I will ever think it’s real.”
“Then I’ll keep looking at you and saying things until you get tired of it. I don’t know what this is—” he gestured between them “—but it is more fucking real than anything else in my life.”
“Mine too.”
Fitch rested his forehead on Ansel’s. “So, about this grinding business.”
Ansel’s laugh destroyed whatever tension was left between them and sent it scattered to the floor like dust.
“Okay, Grumpy Bear,” he said, reaching for the hem of Fitch’s shirt and pulling it off. “Let me show you how it’s done.”
* * *
At seven forty-four, Fitch pulled up outside the club.
“Door-to-door service and an orgasm in less than thirty minutes, beat that, Uber.” He smiled smugly at Ansel in the passenger seat.
“You’re the best.” Ansel leaned across the center console and kissed his cheek. “Thanks.”
“I’m just going to park and be right behind you.” And maybe stop by a convenience store to pick up condoms and lube.
“You’re coming to the show?”
“Is that a problem?”
Ansel shook his head. “I’m rusty. Haven’t rehearsed all week.” His hand rose to touch his eye. The discoloration had faded but was not completely healed. “And I can’t afford to skip the private dances again. I’m going to need all the cash I can get.”
“I’ll wait all night if I have to, Angel, but I’m taking you home tonight.”
“You don’t have to, I can ride the subway like always.”
“Sorry, you’re not getting rid of me. I’m nowhere near done with you yet.” He winked. “Consider this your intermission. Act two begins later.”
The chuckled reply was full of indulgence. “If you insist.”
“I do. Now go before I get ticketed for double-parking and causing a traffic jam.”
Ansel gathered his bags and opened the door to slide out. Before he closed it, he turned and leaned in, his tongue peeking out like he wanted to say something but didn’t know the right words. Fitch remained silent, waiting.
“I, um. I’m glad you came back.” Ansel’s lashes lifted and their eyes locked.
“I should never have left, Angel.” Fitch added, “I’ll see you in a bit.”
“Okay.” Ansel smiled and closed the door.
As he drove away, Fitch looked into the rearview mirror to see Ansel standing on the curb, watching him go.
There was no denying the truth of their relationship. He was headed for a deep, endless vortex of the L-word. And he had a feeling this time would be the last time he ever fell. Funny, unlike with everyone before Ansel, he didn’t have the urge to catch himself.
Maybe it was like those circus performers who performed dangerous stunts. There must be a calm that washed over a person right before they stuck their heads into the jaws of a lion or let go of the trapeze bar. Whizzing through the air without a safety net—yep, that was how he felt. He didn’t know when he’d land, if he ever did.
Didn’t really care as long as Ansel was with him.
And wasn’t that some sappy shit.

Chapter Thirty-One
“That’s a big bag for a few condoms and lube,” Ansel said as they climbed the stairs to his apartment.
Fitch chuckled as dangerously as he could while trying not to wake Ansel’s neighbors. “Big plans require big bags.”
As he unlocked the door, Ansel looked over his shoulder. “Big plans?”
Fitch crowded into him and nuzzled his ear. “Very big, Angel. We’re going to give this place a proper goodbye by christening every room.”
Fitch crossed the threshold and set the bag on the kitchen counter. As soon as he turned around Ansel was on him, long arms circling his neck so their mouths mashed together.
“I like the way you think,” Ansel huffed between kisses. “Couldn’t get you out of my head all night. I felt you watching me.” He shivered and bit Fitch’s bottom lip. “So hot.”
Fitch groaned and crushed Ansel snug to his front.
“It was hell, trying to keep my hands off you.” To punctuate his words he squeezed Ansel’s ass with both hands and ground his cock into his hip.
Ansel moaned. “Fuck me.”
“Get your pants off,” he ordered, slapping Ansel’s side before tugging his own shirt over his head.
Ansel didn’t waste time. His shaky fingers unfastened the snap and zipper while he kicked out of the heels. In no time Ansel stood in a pair of pink lace booty shorts and a loose white T-shirt that had Femme on Purpose scrawled over a hand flipping the bird. As always, he was armored with chains and bracelets and rings that glittered in the light coming from the lamp hanging over the table.
Ansel rested a hand on his hip. “Now what, Grumpy Bear?” The slow, flirtatious blink tightened Fitch’s balls with need.
The well of patience he’d relied on all night completely evaporated. He tugged Ansel around the corner to the couch and unbuttoned his jeans. Sitting, Fitch freed his aching cock and squeezed it in a fist. This round would need to be fast and dirty. He didn’t have the restraint for romance.
“Open yourself for me, Angel, then sit on my cock.”
Ansel pulled off his lace shorts before pawing through the bag. He cracked up laughing. “Sliquid Sassy? Where the hell did you find this?”
Fitch shot him a grin. “Got lucky at the store, thought it suited you.”
Ansel flipped open the cap. With a sultry look in his eyes, he straddled Fitch’s hips. “I guess I have a new favorite lube,” he whispered. Fitch found the box of condoms and tore one open while Ansel prepped himself. By the time he was done rolling on the latex, Ansel was biting his lip and moving into position. He clutched Fitch’s bare shoulder and sank onto his cock with one smooth move and a long, lewd groan.
“God, Angel.”
“Mmm, so good.”
Ansel ground his pelvis in little circles, seemingly unconcerned, or maybe delighted, that the lip of his cockhead kept catching on Fitch’s abs.
Bombs went off in Fitch’s brain at the friction, but he held on enough to pull Ansel into a kiss. He slid his hands under Ansel’s shirt and felt the muscles of his back flex each time he lifted his hips. Fitch would never get used to how strong Ansel was beneath the delicate exterior, how graceful. Every time he moved, Fitch had to catch his breath, and not only when he was buried so deep inside the heat he could feel his lover’s pulse.
“God, Fitch.” Ansel pressed his forehead to Fitch’s as he rose and fell, over and over again.
“Yeah, just like that, Angel.” He met each move in perfect harmony, folding Ansel close so he could feel the strong heartbeat against his ribs.
It was rough. It was frenzied. It was exactly what they both needed. They held each other, breaths mingling, lips kissing, as their bodies whipped the pleasure higher and higher.
“Don’t stop,” Ansel said. “Oh fuck.” Faster and faster, sweat beaded on his pale skin, he smashed his mouth to Fitch’s. Their tongues thrusting in time with the pistoning of their hips. Their hearts thudding so loudly it was like the music of the club. Ansel’s fantastic sex noises grew to a peak and suddenly his sandwiched cock twitched and coated Fitch’s stomach in a sticky, wet, glorious mess.
He gripped Ansel’s ass and pounded up, once, twice, then followed his dancer into the abyss with a groan.
* * *
Ansel rested his head on Fitch’s shoulder, savoring the way those strong arms held him secure. He closed his eyes and drifted on clouds as his body regained its equilibrium. Every fucking time with Fitch was better than the time before. It was amazing and totally impossible. He felt Fitch’s lips on the bare skin near the collar of his shirt and pressed closer.
Then his stomach grumbled loud enough to shake the walls.
Fitch laughed. “Christ, are you dying?”
Ansel smiled and sat up. “Almost. I haven’t eaten since this morning. I’ve just been so strapped for time.”
One calloused palm rubbed his naked thigh. “How come? Are you working double shifts again?”
“No, I’ve just been busy.”
“Too busy to eat? So busy you missed a bunch of rehearsals? What aren’t you telling me?”
“It’s awkward to talk about it with your dick shoved up my ass.” He moved off Fitch’s lap, carefully keeping the condom in place.
“There are wipes in the bag,” Fitch said, standing to remove the condom and toss it in the trash. He pushed off the jeans and reseated himself on the end of the couch wearing only his boxers. Ansel turned away and busied himself with the contents of the plastic sack as a distraction. The lube was pretty epic, he’d have to show the boys. They’d all die with giggle fits.
He found a cardboard cell phone box. “What’s this?”
Fitch looked up and his face transformed into one of embarrassed apprehension. “I, uh, well, yours got stolen. So...”
“I know. I know. You don’t need me to buy you stuff, but it’s really for me. I don’t like the thought of you without one. What if there’s an emergency? And anyway, it’s just a cheap burner. You can buy your own minutes, or get a package if you want. As long as I can get in touch, that’s all I care about.”
Ansel bit his lip and shook his head. “I was going to say thank you.”
“Oh.” Fitch’s expression softened. “You’re welcome, Angel.”
Setting the box aside with a wary look, Ansel pulled out the wipes and cleaned himself up. It wasn’t that he wasn’t grateful. He needed a phone and it was sweet of Fitch to get him one. He just wasn’t used to anyone taking care of him.
“So, tell me what’s been going on that you haven’t had time to eat.”
Ansel pulled his lace shorts back on. It was one thing to be emotionally vulnerable, it was another to be naked at the same time.
He hadn’t gotten to the point in his recovery where it was easy to admit his faults. But Fitch should know, if they were going to try to make this relationship work.
He sat on the opposite end of the couch and tucked his knees to his chin. “Um, I’ve started going to meetings. You know, for AA.” He focused on a loose thread on the back of the couch. “I’m an alcoholic.” He held his breath for a beat before swallowing the embarrassment the confession still caused. It was only the second time he’d said those words aloud and they burned.
Fitch’s fingers brushed his and stilled his nervous thread-pulling. “Wow, that’s big.”
“It takes a lot of courage to admit something like that, Angel. You are really fucking brave.”
He finally lifted his face and tangled his fingers with Fitch’s. “I’m trying to be.”
All he saw in Fitch’s face was acceptance and it made him feel cleansed. The band around his chest loosened, and gratitude rinsed some of the grime off his spirit.
“By the way, how’s your dad?”
“It looks like he’ll be fine. Stubborn old coot.”
“That’s great.” Ansel tickled the hair on Fitch’s forearm.
“I also, sort of, told my sister I was dating a guy.”
“Really? But—”
“I know, perfect timing, right? Just when we break up, I finally spill my guts. I guess I’m not a great actor because my family saw right through me.”
Ansel pressed his lips together and fought the self-reproach. The past was the past. He couldn’t change what happened so he shouldn’t dwell on it either. “What did she say?”
“She was confused, but supportive.” Fitch paused before adding, “I think my mom might suspect too. I’m going to tell them tomorrow after church.”
“Are you sure? What if they don’t take it well? I know your parents accepted your sister, but this is different.” He was their only son, their heir. Fitch was supposed to take over the family business and continue the family name. It was more than likely his parents would not take the news well. And for someone like Ansel? Even worse.
Fitch tugged him across the couch until he was cradled between his knees. “It is different, Angel, and not just because you happen to have male parts.”
His stomach chose that moment to protest again and Fitch smiled up at him. “I think we’d better feed you.”
“Thank fuck. I’m starving.” Ansel pushed off and went to the drawer where Ange stored the takeout menus. “Pizza?”
He found the one he wanted and tossed it to Fitch. “I’ll have a large extra cheese with peppers. I’m going to take a quick shower.”
“If you’re not out in ten minutes, I may come in after you. Fair warning.”

Chapter Thirty-Two
Ansel took longer than ten minutes, but Fitch decided not to bother him. Instead, he tried to clean up some of the mess and get a handle on his feelings. His dancer was an alcoholic. He’d suspected as much and he was absurdly proud of Ansel for taking the first step.
Even if he had to go the rest of his life without another drop of alcohol, he’d do what he could to support Ansel’s recovery.
The pizza arrived as Ansel came into the kitchen wrapped in a purple towel. His pale skin was still wet from the shower, his hair combed through but not dry. Fitch groaned and slammed the door on the delivery guy.
“Christ, if I didn’t know you were starving...” He let the threat hang. Ansel’s raised eyebrow and cocky smile said he knew exactly what he did to Fitch’s libido.
“Ditto. That look is pretty hot.” Ansel gestured to Fitch’s open jeans, bare chest and feet. “But it will have to wait, because if I don’t eat soon I might faint.” He sat at the table and opened the pizza boxes. “What the hell is that?”
“Sausage, bacon, pepperoni, jalapenos, and olives,” Fitch said as he sat across from Ansel and pulled out a piece.
“You’re crazy.” Ansel picked up a slice from the other box.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“You’ve got so many toppings you can’t even see the cheese.”
They ate in silence for a while, each taking another slice after finishing their first.
“So when exactly do you have to be out of here?” Fitch asked, savoring another jalapeno.
Ansel licked the grease off his mouth. “Tomorrow night is my last.”
“How are you going to move everything?”
“The landlord is letting me store the furniture in the basement for a few weeks. Ange and the boys are coming tomorrow to help with that. Then they’ll each lug a box of my stuff home with them.” He pulled a pepper off his slice. “I usually do a Sunday dinner for everyone, but since all my shit is packed we’ll probably just order Chinese or something. Do you, maybe, want to come?”
Fitch swallowed, the spicy mouthful burning his esophagus on the way down. He put his slice down and took a big sip of water. Cautiously, he replied, “If you want, I could take boxes in the truck so your friends don’t have to maneuver through public transportation with them.”
Ansel’s eyes brightened. “Cool, thanks.”
A pleasant warmth filled Fitch’s stomach and it had nothing to do with the hot peppers on his pizza. Smiling, he watched Ansel stuff slice after slice into his mouth with an expression of pure bliss on his unpainted face.
“You have a really bad habit of staring at me when I eat,” Ansel said.
“Sorry, but I told you about your mouth and melted cheese. Weirdest fucking turn-on, I know, but there you have it.”
With an arched brow, cheeky grin and hooded eyes, Ansel wrapped some of the cheese around his finger before sucking it all off.
“Fuck.” Fitch took the slice from Ansel’s hand and put it in the box before slapping the lids shut and tossing both boxes to the counter. “I think it’s time for round two.”
He pulled a chuckling Ansel to his feet and ripped off the towel. After a quick kiss, he turned Ansel and bent him over the table.
“Fuck, Fitch.” Ansel’s usually sultry voice had deepened another octave into a husky rumble.
“Ready to bless the kitchen, Angel?”
“Hell yes.”
* * *
Much later that night, Ansel was catching his breath on the bed in his room after another mind-blowing orgasm. He couldn’t remember ever having so many in one night. It was like Fitch was on a mission. A mission to destroy Ansel for anyone else, ever.
And it had worked.
“Damn,” Fitch said to the ceiling.
“My thoughts exactly.”
Fitch found Ansel’s hand on the bed between their hips. “Your apartment has been thoroughly anointed.”
Ansel burst out in a fit of laughter. “Yeah, I’d say so.”
Fitch joined him and together they chuckled, joy infusing almost every dark corner in Ansel’s soul. He turned his head on the pillow and studied the amazing man next to him. Fitch’s profile was aristocratic, like a Disney prince. His wide smile brought out the dimples in both cheeks and gave those deep-set brown eyes crow’s feet. But the imperfections only added to the allure.
Keeping his hand in Fitch’s, Ansel rolled to his side so he could run the other along Fitch’s scruffy jaw. He’d never seen him without facial hair.
“How often do you shave?”
Fitch rubbed his free hand over the opposite cheek. “In the morning, and again in the afternoon if I have a chance. Which I didn’t today. Sorry, did I give you beard-burn?”
“I hope so.”
Fitch shot him a confused look.
“I like that you’re hairy,” Ansel clarified.
“Is that why you call me Grumpy Bear?”
Ansel shifted closer so he could trail a finger through Fitch’s chest hair. “No, you’d be more of a wolf than a bear. I call you Grumpy Bear because that’s what you reminded me of the first time we met. Grumpy Bear, from the Care Bears.”
“Are you shitting me? I reminded you of a cartoon?”
Ansel laughed at the false offense in Fitch’s tone. “Not just a cartoon, I had one of the stuffed animals when I was little.”
Fitch rolled to straddle his thighs and started tickling his ribs. “I’ll show you. Keep laughing, Angel.”
“Okay, okay.” It was difficult to speak between snorts. “You win.”
Fitch stopped the torture and leaned forward until his nose almost touched Ansel’s. “What’s my prize?”
Ansel caught his breath at the heat in Fitch’s brown gaze. “Anything you want.”
Fitch’s grin was wicked. “Oh, you just gave me far too much power.”
Suddenly Ansel’s heart stuttered in his chest and his lips dried. “I trust you.”
Those three simple words stopped time. Fitch froze, even seemed to stop breathing, and so did Ansel until his lungs began to burn. Half a dozen heartbeats later, Fitch finally moved enough to kiss him.
“Thank you,” Fitch whispered against his lips. He stayed there for another moment, just looking into Ansel’s eyes. Then, like a switch being flipped he pasted on a hungry half-smile and straightened. “I’ll claim my prize at a later date and I won’t promise you’ll have any warning.”
“Yep, total wolf.”
Grunting, Fitch toppled off him and moved to the edge of the bed. “If I’m a wolf, what does that make you, Little Red Riding Hood?”
Ansel kicked Fitch’s hip. “In your dreams. I’m the fucking woodsman.”
“You are pretty deadly,” Fitch agreed over his shoulder, finding his boxers on the floor.
“What are you doing?” Ansel rose to his knees.
“It’s pretty late and I still have a long drive ahead of me. If I want any sleep at all I better get going.”
“Or—” Ansel paused until Fitch looked at him again “—you could stay.”
Turning fully, Fitch studied him. A moment passed while they stared into each other’s eyes. “Or I could stay,” Fitch repeated, slowly. “But if I do, I’ll want to snuggle and I know how you get about all that mushy shit.”
Sounded like heaven. “Hmm, tough call, but I think I can handle a little cuddling if it means you get more sleep. After all, it is my fault you’re up so late.”
Fitch tossed the boxers to the ground again and reclined in the bed. “I have church in the morning so I’ll need to leave early.” He tugged Ansel down into his embrace and pulled the sheet over their naked bodies.
“That’s fine.”
“I may not let you go, all night.” He kissed the top of Ansel’s head.
“That’s okay too.”
“Good night, Angel.”
“Sweet dreams, Grumpy Bear.”

Chapter Thirty-Three
During church service the next morning, Fitch was struck with a strange mix of nervous calm. He was happier than he’d been in months and knew he wasn’t hiding it very well. Ansel had let him spend the night and they’d slept in each other’s arms until the sun came up. If he hadn’t promised to be at church, he might have stayed in bed all day. Feeling Ansel’s soft breaths against his chest, the heat at his side, the strong arms around his middle, had been heady.
He followed his parents back to their house after the benediction. As soon as he’d parked, his sister was at his window waiting like an eager puppy. Opening the door, he rolled his eyes at her.
“You made up with him, didn’t you?” She kept her voice hushed, but it still carried enough to have him looking toward the front door.
“Oh my God, you’re going to tell them.”
How the hell did she always know what he was thinking?
“Would you please be quiet? Christ, Meg.” He shut the car door.
“Sorry, I just didn’t realize it was so serious.”
He pushed a hand through his hair and took a deep breath. “I just don’t want to feel as though I’m hiding something.”
Meg’s face scrunched. “Yeah, I get it. Don’t worry, I’ve got your back.” She hooked her arm around his and tugged him into the house.
His parents were great people. They raised him and Meg to be open and honest about all the important things in life. When Meg came out, they accepted her eventually. Deep down, he knew they would love him no matter who he dated. But even if they were the most open-minded couple in the world, this news was going to shock them. He’d been chasing women since puberty.
He and his sister entered the kitchen where their mother was putting together the salad for Sunday lunch. Their dad sat at the table sipping water, instead of his usual beer, and doing the crossword puzzle.
“Meg, can you set the dining room table? The lasagna just needs a few minutes to heat up.”
“Sure, Ma.”
“I’ll help,” Fitch offered.
“No, honey, why don’t you sit? You’ve been smiling all morning, did you find a solution to the problem we discussed?”
All right, it looked like he would be doing his confessions in the kitchen. He sat at the table and wiped his palms on the denim over his thighs.
“Yes. We talked, and—” he paused to suck air into his lungs “—he and I have worked things out.”
His father looked over the top of the glasses perched on his nose. His mother didn’t turn to face him, but she stopped tossing the salad. The sudden stillness freaked him out so he cleared his throat.
“He?” his dad finally asked. At this, his mother dropped her tongs and crossed to stand behind her husband.
“Yes, Pop. I’m dating a man.” A quick glance showed his mom resting a hand over her heart.
“Oh, Fitch.”
“I don’t understand,” his dad said, his confusion clear by the look on his face.
“I know it’s completely out of the blue—”
“But, you’re straight. Don’t tell me you’ve been lying to us your whole life.”
“No. I am straight...mostly. It’s hard to explain.”
“What about giving me grandbabies, Fitch? Don’t you want a family?” At his mother’s words he made the mistake of looking up into her eyes and his throat closed at the disappointment he saw there.
“I’m sorry, Ma,” was all he could say.
She shook her head as her cheeks reddened. “But...but, you can’t be gay too.”
“It’s okay, Margie, he’s not gay. This is just a phase.”
“It’s not.”
“You’ve upset your mother. Knock it off.”
“Don’t Pop me. You don’t get to come in here, after church for Christ’s sake, and tell us—I don’t even know what you’re telling us. It’s not like you’re some inexperienced virgin, son. You shouldn’t be this confused.”
“It’s not like that. I’m not confused. It’s not a phase. I’m not going through any kind of midlife crisis. That isn’t what this is.”
“What is it then? Explain it to us. Because it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. How can a grown man sleep with women one day and choose men the next? Eh? Tell me that.”
“Not men, Pop. Man. Just one. And it didn’t happen overnight. Ansel and I have been dating for a few weeks.”
The gasp at the doorway brought his gaze up to Meg’s wide eyes.
“Is that his name, Ansel?” His mother’s voice was soft and sad.
Keeping his eyes locked to his sisters’, he said, “Yeah, Ma, Ansel Becke.”
Meg mouthed Oh my God! before shooting him a huge grin and quietly leaving the kitchen. Figures she’d know Ansel’s name—apparently she and her friends were huge fans of the Sassy Boyz. Now, she’d probably try to take credit for hooking them up like she were a matchmaker or something.
“Meg is gay, this isn’t any different—”
“It’s a hell of a lot different and you know it.” His father scratched his beard, squinting across the table at him. “You want me to give you control of the business, but how can I do that now? What about the crew? You expect them to follow orders knowing you’re a fruit?”
“That’s not fair. I’m great at my job. Maybe it will take some time for them to get used to it, but most will stick around out of loyalty.” He hoped.
“Like hell they will! And what about our clients?” His voice rose until he was shouting and his cheeks turned a ruddy shade of red. “I’ve had enough of this. No. You’re not gay. I won’t accept it. I won’t.”
“Honey, calm down.”
“No, Margie. He can’t expect us to be okay with this.”
“I know it won’t be easy for you to accept. Maybe you never will, but Ansel makes me happy and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure he’s happy too. Hopefully, that means we’ll be together for a long time. I hope you can come to terms with that. I really do.” Without another word, Fitch rose from the table and left. His heart ached and his stomach twisted in knots. He’d known it would be a hard thing to explain, but he’d never imagined that his parents wouldn’t be on his side.
* * *
Ansel wrapped another piece of newspaper around the glass vase he’d picked up at a flea market and added it to the box of junk on the counter. Somehow he’d accumulated a ton of worthless junk since settling down. It was hard to believe he’d once been able to carry everything he owned in a small backpack. Maybe if he hadn’t wasted all his money on these trinkets he could have afforded a better place. Ange came up behind him and rested a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“How are you doing, Sparkle Pants?”
Shaking his head at the stupid nickname, he said, “Just thinking about the day I bought this and how crazy life was three years ago.”
“Life is still pretty fucking crazy.” Z stuffed throw pillows into a bag.
“Speak for yourself,” Tam said.
“Oh yes, you are the picture of calm, cool, and collected.” Z rolled his eyes behind Tam’s back.
“Maybe not, but three years ago I was locked up.” Tam’s bold statement shut Z up. “I’d say things have improved since then.”
“He’s got you there, Z.” Lirim folded another shirt and pushed it into the duffel he’d borrowed from his housemate for Ansel to use.
Z changed the subject. “Are you sure you want to sleep here tonight? You’re welcome on my couch.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be fine.”
“You’re not going to have any furniture,” Ange said as she sealed the box he’d just finished packing.
“Fitch is bringing an air mattress.” He turned to wrap up another piece of crap, avoiding the shocked faces of his friends.
“Do you mean we’re finally going to meet the guy?” Ange asked.
“He’s coming?”
“Holy shit, this is huge.”
“Christ, you’d think I’ve never had a man before,” he complained as he began filling a new box.
“Not one that lasted more than a couple nights.”
“And we’ve never met any of them.”
“Nobody has ever slept over, either.” This from Ange who’d stopped packing to smile at him.
“I invited him to have dinner with us tonight. He offered to help pack and move stuff with his truck.”
“I love him already,” Z said. “Anyone who saves me from lugging your crap on the subway is my hero.”
“I’m glad you’ve worked things out, Ansel.” Tam came over and hugged him from behind. “He seems like a good guy.”
“I’m reserving judgment. You guys are too easy to please.” Lirim wasn’t usually such a cynic. There was a knock at the door and everyone hushed. He opened it to find Fitch waiting with a box of donuts and six coffees.
“You’re spoiling them,” Ansel said, taking the coffee and ushering Fitch into the kitchen.
Everyone crowded around and started speaking at the same time.
“You’re the best.”
“Save me a chocolate one.”
“Bitch, get out of the way.”
“Thanks, Fitch.” Of course, Tam was the only one with any manners. Ansel grinned at Fitch and lifted a shoulder. They were his family, wild, crazy, and completely awesome.
“Chill out, guys. Let me introduce him so he knows who to avoid.”
Z looked up from his pastry and made a disbelieving sound through his teeth. “Too late for avoidance, babe. I’m Azariah Hayes, aka Z.” He held out his clean hand, which Fitch shook.
“Ah, the mouthy one. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Z laughed. “All true, I’m sure.” He grabbed a coffee and sat at the table.
“It’s great to finally put a face to the name,” Ange said, taking Fitch’s hand.
“You must be Ange.”
“The one and only.” She took a place next to Z.
“And these two are Lirim Savage,” Ansel said with a gesture, “and Tameron Kis.”
“Call me Tam.”
Fitch nodded. “Hi, Tam.”
Lirim looked Fitch over and finally stuck his hand out for a shake. “Nice to meet you.” He bit into the donut and went back to the living room.
“Sorry, I’m a little late. Had a little hitch in the plans this morning.” Fitch hooked his thumbs into his front pockets and met Ansel’s eyes.
Ange raised a brow. “What sort of hitch?”
“Mind your business, woman,” Ansel admonished without looking at her, because the look on Fitch’s face spoke volumes. Fitch had told his parents. Though Ansel was anxious to know what happened, he didn’t dare ask in front of their audience.
Fitch smiled, wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Everything is fine.”
“Damn, Ansel is blushing. Lirim, you’re missing it. Come quick, he’s turning beet-red.” Z snickered.
Fitch stepped away, putting distance between them like he was nervous showing affection in front of witnesses. So Ansel picked up a powdered donut and tossed it at his friend. A distraction for everyone in the room, including himself, because he ached at the loss of contact.
“Don’t be an ass.”
Z caught the donut and shoved half of it into his smiling mouth with a saucy wink.
“So, what can I help with?”
“Mr. Policek left the key to the basement. We have to move all the big stuff down there. The boxes are going to Z’s place.”
“Okay, I’ll start in the living room.” He turned, but Ansel stopped him with a hand on his arm.
“Thank you.” He pulled Fitch closer and was surprised when Fitch actually fell into the kiss with witnesses.
Ooohs and awws sounded behind them. Without ending the kiss, he shot his friends the finger.
* * *
“Did I pass the friend test?” Fitch curled an arm around Ansel’s naked shoulder while they lay on the air mattress, post-fuck.
“Does it matter?” Ansel blinked up at him.
“Of course, I want them to like me so I have allies.”
“Planning on going into battle?”
He smiled. “You know what they say, love is a battlefield.”
Ansel rose to his elbows. “Love?”
Fitch’s heart leaped into his throat. Stupid mouth. The perfect example of a sex-addled brain. He tried to swallow and shrugged. “Don’t panic, it’s just a figure of speech.”
There was a moment of tense silence while he silently urged Ansel to forget the blunder.
After a few beats, Ansel’s shoulders relaxed and a corner of his mouth tipped up. “I think you have them eating out of your hand.”
Relief flooding his system, Fitch closed his eyes. “Z and Tam, maybe, but I’m not sure about Lirim.”
Ansel snuggled back into position on his side. “Lirim has been acting out of sorts lately. Don’t take it personally.”
After spending the day packing, moving the furniture to the basement, and hauling the boxes to Z’s place, they’d ordered Chinese and ate on the living room floor. The guys told stories about how they met and how they formed their dance group, but Lirim had remained aloof. Even so, Fitch enjoyed the day a hell of a lot more than he’d anticipated. Z was hilarious, Tam was really polite, and Ange was a firecracker. Plus, they were all very protective of Ansel.
“Tell me what happened this morning with your family,” Ansel said, drawing circles on his chest.
“My sister is beyond thrilled I’m dating you. As soon as she heard your name she got all excited. You may have a crazy fan on your hands.”
He felt Ansel’s smile against his skin, and the warm breath fanned his nipple, causing it to pebble in the chilled night air.
“And your parents?” The caution in his voice twisted Fitch’s insides. With Ansel’s history it probably seemed like a fairy tale to have parents who loved you unconditionally. Fitch swallowed the worry he’d been keeping at bay since he left his parents’ house. It wasn’t like they’d disowned him. But there was still a hole in his chest and he couldn’t forget the look on his dad’s face.
“That’s a work in progress.”
Ansel rose again, a quick and graceful move, to stare down at him. “What happened?”
“Nothing, don’t worry. It’s just a lot for them to deal with. We just need to give them some time.”
“I knew it. I knew this was a bad idea.”
“Stop it. This is anything but bad, we both know it.” To emphasize his point, Fitch pulled Ansel down for a kiss.
Their tongues tangled and Ansel softened against his chest with a moan. “I don’t want to let you down,” he mumbled between breaths.
Fitch smoothed a palm down Ansel’s spine and clutched his perfect ass cheek, tilting his hip up as his cock filled. “Impossible.”
“What if your family doesn’t approve of us—of me?” Ansel looked at his chest. “I’m not your average gay man.”
“I don’t want average. I want amazing. I want you.”
Ansel stopped their frantic kiss with hands to Fitch’s shoulders. “I’m serious. After everything, if they don’t like me, it’s all fucked.”
“I’m not saying it will be sunshine and puppy dogs, but you really don’t have to worry so much. Just can we please keep kissing?”
He rubbed a soothing hand on Ansel’s thigh and waited. He wouldn’t push, but he did hope that one day he’d be able to introduce his family to the guy who’d changed his life forever.
* * *
Fitch was watching ESPN and waiting for Ansel to call on Tuesday evening when his phone rang. Recognizing his parents’ number, he gritted his teeth and answered.
He sucked in a breath at his mom’s tentative voice and the telltale hollow echo that meant she was on speakerphone. He was prepared for anything—another lecture by his dad, begging, maybe even crying on his mom’s part. He just hoped that when it was over they’d all be able to look one another in the eyes.
“Yeah, Ma?”
He waited while his parents whispered to each other. He couldn’t make out what they were saying, but he could tell his mom had won.
When she finally spoke again, her words were confident. “We would like to invite you and your beau to dinner this Sunday.”
His stomach clenched. Dinner. Christ, he was overcome with appreciation for his parents even while he was filled with dread. Was Ansel ready to meet the parents? Hell, they’d just gotten back together. How would he deal with the pressure of family?
He let out a frustrated sigh. “That’s nice, Ma. Thanks. Maybe it’s a little too soon, though. I wouldn’t—”
“Your mother wants to meet the man you’re carrying on with, son. You will bring him to dinner on Sunday.” His father’s voice was stern like when Fitch was a boy and he’d done something that displeased him. Franco Donovan had never shouted at his children, he’d never had to. Because he had that tone. The one that meant Fitch had better do exactly what he was told or there would be dire consequences. And even though he was almost thirty years old, that tone still worked.
“Yes, Pop. I’ll invite him.”
“Damn straight you will,” Pop said.
“Franc,” Fitch’s mother chastised him. “Watch your mouth.”
“Just making sure he doesn’t disappoint you, Margie.”
His mom sighed. “Honey, we’re both looking forward to seeing you this weekend. Okay?” The way she emphasized both filled Fitch’s heart with warmth. They might never be able to understand his choice, but at least they were trying to accept it.
Now all he needed to do was convince Ansel to take the leap too.
They said their goodbyes and for the next hour Fitch wondered how he’d persuade his Angel to face his fears and join him for family dinner. When Ansel finally did call, before his performance, Fitch hadn’t come up with anything clever.
“Something troubling you?” Ansel asked, after he finished a long-winded retelling of his afternoon.
“Not troubling, per se...” Fitch trailed off.
“Don’t bullshit me. You know I’ll break out in hives and then Z will tear you a new one for ruining the show.”
“My parents called,” he said simply.
Ansel’s quickly indrawn breath was his only reaction.
“They invited us to dinner this Sunday.”
“Yes, both of us. As a couple.”
There was silence on the other end of the phone for longer than was natural.
“Angel? You still alive or should I call an ambulance?”
Ansel cursed under his breath. “Sunday?”
And all of a sudden Fitch smiled. His chest felt like it expanded four sizes and his skin was too tight for his body. Ansel was so much braver than he’d given him credit for, and his pride in him was overwhelming.
“I’ll pick you up at seven.”
* * *
The familiar jingle of Enrico’s bell sounded as Fitch pushed through the door into the deli. It was Friday afternoon, and he’d decided to pick up lunch for the crew. Mostly, he just needed to get away from all those curious looks and all that judgmental testosterone. But before he could even make it to the counter, a familiar redhead sidled up to him. Her cloying perfume made him shudder even as he smiled.
“Annie. How are you?”
“Missed you the other night.” Annie Hurley was the oldest daughter of John Hurley—owner of Hurley Realty, a local development firm that sent Donovan Construction thirty percent of their work. And the woman Rob had been trying to set him up with. It seemed like ages ago now. So much had happened since then. He was a completely different person.
He rubbed the back of his head. “Sorry, had plans.”
“Those plans include pizza at Bella Vita’s with some big blonde tramp?” Her tone had gone from sweet as sugar to acid rain, but it was the words that caught Fitch short.
His date with Ansel. How did she know?
“My sister saw you practically drooling over your date. Pathetic, she said.”
Fitch blinked at her. They were in the middle of Enrico’s and it was early afternoon. The place was packed and every single customer knew who he was, where he’d grown up. They knew everything about him...except this one thing. People he’d known all his life tried to look like they weren’t eavesdropping, even though they were. And he couldn’t do anything to stop it.
This was his neighborhood deli and Annie fucking Hurley was getting in his face because she was jealous? They’d never even kissed, for Christ’s sake.
“Skinny little thing, too, Gracie said. No chest to speak of. I can’t believe you’d walk away from all this,” she said with a gesture to her own ample bosom, “for some scrawny piece of ass. What’s she got that’s so special?”
He could feel every eye in the room focused on him. The burning itch started between his shoulders and climbed up his scalp until it felt like a million fire ants were making a meal out of his skin. Enrico raised a brow at him, but Fitch couldn’t even offer the man a nod because he was stuck.
Shit, he’d been stuck for weeks in this crippling confusion and dread. It made him feel like the biggest fool because he knew better than to worry about what other people thought. Their opinion would never give his life meaning.
The question hung in the air, sucking all the oxygen from the place until Fitch was lightheaded enough to throw caution to the wind.
He was so done with hiding. He wasn’t ashamed of his relationship. Ansel was amazing and Fitch was so fucking proud to know him.
And hell, if his parents could make an effort to accept their relationship he didn’t care about anyone else. So, fuck Annie Hurley, and fuck her gossiping sister, and fuck their father too, if necessary. Fuck everyone.
“A cock, for one,” Fitch finally answered.
He felt the gasp spread through the crowd like a pebble in a pond as everyone grew silent around them. But he ignored their audience and focused on Annie’s shocked face. Her mouth gaped open so she looked like a fish.
“But, but, Gracie said she was—”
“Yeah, he gets that a lot. His name is Ansel, he’s my boyfriend. And yes, he gets mistaken for a girl all the time because he’s fucking gorgeous. But I can assure you, he’s one hundred percent male.” He waggled his eyebrows at her, just for fun.
At this, Annie turned red as the sliced meats in Enrico’s cooler. But Fitch barely paid attention because the confession seemed to take the weight of the world off his shoulders. All of a sudden he felt free and calm, and the only thing he wanted to do was see Ansel and kiss the daylights out of him.
He knew the gossip train had been set in motion, and in no time everyone in town would hear about what happened, he might have just lost a big client, maybe he’d return to the site and no one would be there—but he couldn’t work up the energy to care.
He’d made his choice. He chose Ansel fucking Becke.
Glitter and all.

Chapter Thirty-Four
A suit. He actually bought a fucking suit. And a tie. Christ, he was either an idiot or...nope, just an idiot. Ansel readjusted the shopping bags as he approached the entrance to Z’s apartment. Ever since Fitch invited him to dinner, his heart hadn’t stopped the insane tap dance. It was driving him crazy. How long could a guy be this nervous and not die of a goddamn heart attack?
He was in serious danger here.
And he’d bought a fucking suit.
Gray. A gray suit.
Gross. Who wears gray? Boring, normal, straight people, that’s who.
And if he wanted the Donovans to like him, he needed to fit in and be boring and normal too.
He pushed the key in the lock.
With one hand full of purchases and the other on the door, he turned toward the familiar voice.
“Lars, what are you doing here?”
He had the insane urge to check behind him to make sure his mother wasn’t about to attack. His brother pushed off the wall and came over to help him with the bags.
“Your landlord said this is where I could find you. Why did you move? I’ve been trying to call the number you gave me, but it’s out of service.”
With a sigh, Ansel pushed the door open and led the way into Z’s quiet apartment. “You shouldn’t be here. Mother will be pissed.” His stomach clenched painfully in remembered anguish, but he swallowed it back and concentrated on his new strength.
“Maybe, but I don’t care.”
Ansel locked the door behind them while Lars dropped the bags and crossed to the window.
“I heard her on the phone with you,” Lars said to the glass.
Ansel had never heard his brother’s voice so full of fury. He wrapped his arms around his middle. It didn’t matter that it had been weeks since the call, it still hurt. He still held on to the regrets from everything that followed.
“I’m sorry for putting you in that position. She had no right to speak to you that way.” Lars turned to meet his eyes.
“It wasn’t anything new. You know that. It just took me by surprise.”
“I should have known better. Hell, I should never have kept it a secret in the first place. You’re my fucking brother and I have every right to know you.” He was practically vibrating with determination.
Warmth filled Ansel’s chest. “Thanks, but I don’t want you to lose your education just to hang out with me.”
“They’d never do that. I’m their last chance so, basically, I hold all the cards. I told them I’m coming to school in the fall and I will talk to you whenever I want. Our relationship is none of their business and unless they want to lose another son, they’d better leave it alone.”
“Yeah, man. We’ve already missed too much of each other’s lives. I don’t want to miss any more.”
He didn’t smile, but he did pull his brother in for a hug.
When they separated, Lars looked him in the eyes. “So are you going to tell me why you moved and what happened to your phone?”
On a groan, he crossed to the refrigerator. “I fucked up.” He stared into the cooler and right there on the top shelf was a six-pack of beer. His fist closed around a bottle before he’d even realized what he was doing. The glass felt cold and familiar—comforting. The urge to take it out, twist it open, and guzzle it down was so strong he shook with it. He could imagine the taste, bitter and hoppy, and his tongue watered. It was a good brand. Z tended to be a snob about things like that. It would be smooth and full and satisfying.
It would make him feel better.
He could be numb again.
His stomach clenched and he forced his fingers to release the bottle. With a deep breath he grabbed two cans of soda and quickly shut the door. His pulse raced and he’d started to sweat, but his mind was clear.
More than anything, he wanted it to stay that way. He no longer needed the oblivion of alcohol. He never wanted to be numb again.
He popped open his can and handed Lars the other. “There is one thing you should know. It’s kind of important.”
His brother sat on the couch and opened his soda. “Okay, shoot.”
“I’m an alcoholic.” It wasn’t getting any easier to admit.
“I’m one week sober, going to meetings and everything.” He tucked his hair behind his ears. “Just trying to get my shit together.”
“Whoa, you’re seeing someone.”
“What?” Shock made him lift his head and meet his brother’s open curiosity.
“Dude, it’s all over you. Plus, in my experience, men only better themselves for women. Or, in your case, another guy.”
“And how much experience can a nineteen-year-old possibly have?”
Lars laughed. “You didn’t deny it.”
“Shut up, smart-ass.” He laughed too and sat beside his brother on the sofa. Defying their parents took a lot of courage, and a healthy dose of insanity. He admired his kid brother for standing up to them. All he’d ever done was run away. Running took a lot less courage.
“So, what’s his name?”
Ansel punched his shoulder. “His name is Fitch.”

Chapter Thirty-Five
Fitch arrived at Z’s apartment with a ridiculous bunch of flowers in his hands. The smart-ass laughed when he opened the door, his dark brows wagging with delight.
“Did you seriously bring him flowers? You are such a starry-eyed moron.” Z grabbed the bouquet and led the way into the cluttered kitchen area.
“Habit,” Fitch offered, in an attempt to save face.
“Uh-huh, sure.” Z filled a glass with water and carefully arranged the stems. Actions which clearly opposed his sarcastic tone.
When the blooms were perfectly displayed, Z turned to him and tipped up his chin. “He’s been in the bathroom for an hour. He even went shopping.”
“Is that unusual?”
“Not entirely, but the bags weren’t from any of the shops I recognize. Let me go hurry him along.” He strutted down the hall calling for Ansel.
A minute later, Z returned with a funny look on his face.
“What’s wrong? Is Ansel okay?”
The guy squinted at him, pressed his lips together, and crossed his arms.
Before Fitch could push for an answer, he heard Ansel’s voice.
“I’m fine, sorry for making you wait.”
No wonder Z was pissed. Ansel wore a suit. A regular, standard gray suit. His beautiful blond hair was slicked back into a bun and there was no trace of makeup or jewelry. No trace of Ansel.
He looked gorgeously masculine in a way that Fitch found surprisingly appealing. He never would have thought a man in a suit could fluster him, but Ansel did. He looked perfect.
And completely wrong.
Fitch took a moment to center his thoughts before speaking. “What are you wearing?”
Ansel pressed a hand to the stiff fabric of his suit jacket and looked down at his polished black shoes. “I wanted to make a good impression. Don’t you like it?”
Fitch glanced at Z, who shot daggers at him, and then back to Ansel.
“You look fantastic no matter what you wear, but this isn’t who you are.” He gestured to the suit and took Ansel’s hand. “I don’t need you to change yourself for my family, Angel. I want them to know the real you.”
“The real me is an alcoholic stripper who wears too much makeup and prances around in heels, not exactly the kind of person parents want dating their formerly straight son.”
“No, the real you is a magnetic, funny man who is interesting and beautiful, full of confidence and strength. Never, ever dull your shine, Angel, not for me, not for anyone. You make the world a brighter place.”
“I want to see glitter and heels and confidence like the night we met. That cocky smirk and that killer strut. Ansel Becke doesn’t give a fuck what people think of him.”
Ansel closed his eyes and sighed. “But I do. I care now because of you. Everything has changed.”
It took all of Fitch’s strength to stop the rush of emotions that threatened to overwhelm him at Ansel’s confession. But he didn’t want a watered-down version of a shooting star.
He needed his Angel bright, wild, and full of life.
Cupping Ansel’s cheek, he said, “You know, the first time I saw you I thought you were a girl.”
Confusion at the change in subject was quickly wiped away, replaced with irritation. “Is that supposed to surprise me? Everyone assumes I’m female, at first.”
“I thought you were hot, but then you turned around and I knew I was wrong. You weren’t just hot, you were explosive. I was ten times more attracted to you once I knew the truth.”
Ansel’s brow wrinkled.
“Talk about being confused. I’m almost thirty years old and all of a sudden I was getting a hard-on for another man. But it was your confidence, your balls-to-the-wall and fuck-everyone attitude, your bravery. That’s what got me.”
Ansel blinked.
“Things change. That’s life,” Fitch continued. “We grow, we learn, we keep moving forward. It’s scary as fuck, but all we can do is hold on to what’s important. You know who you are. You have known since you were young. You left home because of it. You’ve gone through so much, fought so hard, to have that kind of freedom. Don’t go trying to be normal now. Normal is boring.”
With sure fingers, Fitch reached around and untangled Ansel’s hair until it fell in a smooth golden wave. Then he slowly gathered the strands and twisted them around his wrist and gently tugged until Ansel’s shocked green eyes snapped up on a gasp.
Fully aware of Z watching them from a few feet away, Fitch leaned close enough to graze his lips over Ansel’s cheek.
“Go change, Angel,” he whispered. “Just be you. You are amazing. But hurry, or we’ll be late.”
Ansel bit his lip, indecision swirling in his eyes. Not wanting to give his lover time to argue, Fitch kissed him. He took his time exploring the lips he loved, and the tongue he’d come to crave, until they were both out of breath. When he was done, he released Ansel’s hair and turned him by the shoulders.
With a pat on the ass, he shoved Ansel toward the hall. When the bathroom door slammed, Fitch turned to raise an eyebrow at Z.
“Impressive,” the smart-ass said. “I knew I liked you.”
“Glad you approve.”
“When are you going to tell him you love him?”
Fitch shoved fingers through his hair and eyed him with a questioning squint.
“Just because I’m immune to that particular disease doesn’t mean I can’t recognize the symptoms in other people,” Z answered the unspoken inquiry.
Fitch sighed. “It’s too soon.”
Six weeks. It was so difficult to believe it. Just a little over a month and Fitch felt like he’d gone through hell and was holding on to paradise with his only pinky finger. One false step and he’d fall into the pit and never find a way out. Every night he sat in his empty bed knowing the man he loved was dancing for other guys, and the jealousy ate at him. He’d struggled with the irrational fear. And knew he’d be struggling with it for a lot longer.
Because Ansel would run again.
And Fitch would chase him. He’d be chasing Ansel for the rest of his life.
* * *
The Donovan house was just as Ansel had pictured. A quaint little three-story single-family home with an adorable bay window and perfectly manicured shrubs. As Fitch pulled into the drive and shut off the motor, Ansel admired how welcoming and warm it looked. Not for the first time, nerves threatened to freeze him in place. It was one thing for Fitch to say it would be okay, but another entirely to face the potentially disapproving looks.
What happened to all his bravado? Christ, he felt like he’d gotten his balls chopped off. Even wearing his favorite black patent-leather pumps with the red bottoms and his killer ruby lipstick, he was out of sorts. Though changing out of the suit was probably for the best. If the Donovans were going to judge him, he’d rather know right up front. Still, he had toned it down a little. He’d kept the suit pants on but chose a simple white camisole and black sequined shrug. He’d forgone the majority of his jewelry but had kept the tie, which hung loose around his neck to highlight the green in his eyes.
Fitch squeezed his knee to draw his attention away from the house. “It’s going to be good. I promise.”
“I trust you.”
Fitch’s brown eyes softened and his dimples appeared. “Thank you.” He leaned over and pressed a chaste kiss to Ansel’s lips. Exactly the same way as the last time he’d confessed his trust, like Fitch knew how hard it was for him to it give away. How difficult it was to earn.
But it was so easy to trust a man like Fitch—he was solid and sincere. He’d never once given Ansel any indication he was untrustworthy, but his parents were a completely different story. No matter. For his lover, he would face them and hope they were as honorable and accepting as their son believed them to be.
They got out of the truck and walked to the front door hand in hand. It swung open before they’d climbed the stairs and an aging, big-bosomed woman appeared.
She wore a calculating expression and an apron she twisted in her hands, but her energy wasn’t hostile.
“Ma, this is Ansel. Ansel, this is my mom, Marge Donovan.”
“Nice to meet you.” Ansel extended his manicured hand.
Marge shook it. “I’m glad you accepted the invitation.”
“Thank you for inviting me.”
The corner of her lips tipped up just enough to be called a smile, but not enough to portray true happiness.
So Ansel met her grin with a tentative one of his own.
She turned to Fitch. “Honey, your dad got a call from John Hurley this afternoon. He’s not happy.”
Fitch sighed. “Thanks for the warning.”
“Maybe you can explain to him what happened.”
Ansel didn’t know what they were talking about but from the look on Fitch’s face it wasn’t good.
“It’s nothing. There was just an incident at the deli on Friday.”
Marge hugged her son and then led them into the house. “I made my special pot roast with fingerling potatoes and an heirloom tomato salad. I hope you’re hungry.”
“Sounds delicious.”
“Fitch, Meg and Tara are in the living room arguing with your father about sports. Go distract them and prevent bloodshed while I finish up in the kitchen. We’ll eat in just a few.”
“Would you like some help, Mrs. Donovan?”
Fitch’s mom squeezed his arm. “It’s Marge, dear. And thank you, but no. You go in and introduce yourself. Meg has been so excited to see you again.”
They followed the sound of raised voices down a narrow hall.
“Did you tell them about me?” he asked in a whisper.
Fitch scrunched his brow. “What do you mean?”
“She didn’t even question the heels or the lipstick. Did you prepare them?”
“I never got the chance, but Meg might have.”
“What happened on Friday?”
Fitch cringed and rubbed his knuckles on his scruffy jaw like he did when he was nervous. “I, kind of, came out, I guess.”
He couldn’t have heard that right. “What do you mean?”
“This girl and her sister saw us at Bella Vita’s. I told her you were my boyfriend. Everyone heard me say it so I’m sure the whole town knows by now. Her father is one of our biggest clients. He’s the one who called my dad.”
Holy shit.
“Why the hell didn’t you tell me this before dinner?” He kept his voice low because they were standing in the hall and he didn’t want anyone to overhear, but his fears were rising up to choke him again and it made his words shake. “Christ, you know they are going to blame me, don’t you?”
“Hey—” Fitch pulled him into a hug “—nothing is your fault. It was my choice and I’ll take responsibility for whatever comes from my actions. I couldn’t stand hiding it anymore. I didn’t want to keep pretending.”
“But, Fitch...”
Fitch pulled back just enough to meet Ansel’s gaze. “I can face anything if you’re by my side, Angel.”
Without another word, Fitch led him into the living room to meet the rest of the family.
Because Fitch needed him.
He recognized Meg immediately; her laughing eyes were so familiar because they were just like Fitch’s. She and Tara sat on one of the couches touching in a way that clearly said they were lovers. Fitch’s father sat in a reclining chair with his ankle over his knee.
“Pop, this is Ansel. Ansel, meet Franco Donovan, the most stubborn old man in New Jersey.”
Franco rose, his shrewd eyes scanning Ansel from pointy toes to extended lashes. “So you’re the man that has my son tied up in knots, willing to abandon his own family.”
“I’d never abandon you, Pop.”
But Franco held up a hand. “I will speak to you later.” His focus returned to Ansel, waiting for a reply.
“I guess I am, sir. And you must be the one who raised him to be such an open-minded, tolerant person. Thank you for that.”
He heard Meg’s muffled laugh behind them, but didn’t dare turn around to acknowledge her.
Franco took Ansel’s hand in an overly aggressive grip. His still-sharp eyes were glued to Ansel’s face, no doubt waiting for any sign of weakness. No matter how much that handshake stung, Ansel wouldn’t flinch.
“And this is Meg,” Fitch said, with a warning growl, interrupting the exchange and forcefully pulling Ansel away. “I’m sure you remember her loud mouth.” Meg kicked Fitch’s calf and waved without getting up. “And Tara, her girlfriend.”
“Nice to see you both again,” Ansel said.
“Oh my God, I love your shoes. Are those real Louboutins?” Tara’s eyes went big as she took in his prized possession.
“They’d better be for the price I paid.” Ansel lifted a foot to show off the red bottoms. “Even getting them secondhand broke my bank account.”
“Damn, I bet. But totally worth it. They look great on you.”
“Everything looks great on him,” Fitch said with an encouraging shoulder squeeze before pulling Ansel down to the sofa opposite the girls.
At Fitch’s remark, Meg smiled. “My brother, the romantic.”
The weight of Fitch’s muscular arm settled over Ansel’s shoulder like a comforting blanket.
“Don’t tease him, you’re exactly the same,” Tara quipped.
“They get it from their father. He’s always showered me with affection, gifts, and flowers for no reason,” Marge said, as she entered the room and kissed Franco on the cheek before announcing, “Dinner’s ready.”

Chapter Thirty-Six
“So, how do you feel about children, Ansel?”
Fitch choked on the potato he’d just swallowed and snapped his eyes to his mother as he coughed.
Beside him, Ansel tensed. “Children?”
“Yes, do you want a family one day? Do you like kids?”
“Christ, Ma—”
“Watch your mouth, son,” his father said.
“Um. I’ve never really thought about it, Mrs. Donovan.”
His mother hummed like she understood. “Well, you are still too young yet, I suppose. But Fitch is made to be a father.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
Ansel looked at him. “I think you’d make a great dad.”
This seemed to please his mother because she nodded. “And you know, there are so many options available for same-sex couples these days—in vitro, surrogates, even adoption.”
Meg snickered across the table and Fitch shot her the evil eye.
“This goes for you too, young lady,” his mother said. This shut Meg up pretty fast and her cheeks turned a nice rosy shade.
“Ma, we’ve only known each other for a few weeks. It’s a little early for this conversation.” Fitch rubbed a hand down his face.
“It’s never too early to plan for your future.” Thankfully, his mother let the topic go and returned her focus to cutting the meat on her plate.
After that they talked about the business and school, but eventually the conversation turned to Ansel’s dancing.
“I confess, I watched one of the videos before meeting you,” his mom said. “Meg mentioned they’d seen you dance and I was just so curious.”
A flash of fear crossed Ansel’s face before he quickly concealed it. Under the table, Fitch entwined their fingers.
“They are amazing, aren’t they?” Fitch asked.
“All my friends are stalking the four of you, it’s kind of crazy,” Meg said.
“Really?” Ansel asked, still looking at his mom at the end of the table.
“I can’t believe how you all move so gracefully wearing those shoes. I can’t even walk a straight line.”
Ansel took a deep breath before replying with a cautious tone. “We practice a lot.”
“They rehearse every day,” Fitch added.
“That’s dedication.” This came from his dad with an impressed lift of his eyebrows.
“We love it. Dancing brought us together,” Ansel said. “They are my family.”
“What about your parents?”
At his mother’s innocent question, Ansel flinched and set his fork on the table before clearing his throat. “My family’s not as supportive as you are.”
“Oh.” His mother’s brow wrinkled and she shook her head. “I’m sorry.”
“Because of your eccentricities?” his father asked with a wave of his hand to indicate Ansel’s head-to-toe style.
“Pop,” Fitch warned.
“What? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dressing that way. But I can see how it might be difficult for some parents to accept, that’s all.”
Ansel let go of Fitch’s hand and tugged on the tie around his neck as a blush spread up over his cheeks. “It’s okay, Fitch, your father is right. I was a challenging child.”
“Now, don’t twist my words,” his father said. “Parents should love and support their children no matter what, but sometimes it’s hard to do. Marge and I love our kids to hell and back, but when Meg came out, we cried. Not because we loved her less, but because we knew her path would be full of obstacles. And now our son will be headed down that same path and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Dad, it’s not like it used to be.” Meg reached out and rubbed his arm.
“That’s good, sweetie, but we still worry. And now we’ve got double the fear. Being different is always hard. And you—” he nodded at Ansel “—are quite peculiar. I don’t know how we would have handled it.”
Fitch was about to admonish his father, but Ansel placed a hand on his knee.
“Mr. Donovan, lately I’ve come to understand that we are all given challenges in life, sometimes difficult ones, but we are never given anything without a reason and nothing we can’t handle.” Ansel took a breath and smoothed down his tie before continuing.
“You and your wife have loved and nurtured these two and raised them to be good people who can influence the world for the better. You’ve protected them until they became strong enough to defend themselves. I’ve only met her twice, but I know Meg is smart and tough and willing to stand up for her beliefs. And Fitch...” Ansel looked at him, and the emotion swirling those green eyes almost stopped Fitch’s heart.
How the fuck had this become such a tense mess? Fitch debated gathering his lover up and heading out the door, but he couldn’t shield Ansel from the world. No matter how much simpler it would be, they couldn’t just have each other. If they wanted a future together, they would need to come to terms with family, in every sense of the word.
“Fitch is the most incredible, giving, honorable man I have ever met. Whatever path they each walk, you and your wife have given your children the tools to come out the other end, and maybe—hopefully—to help others not so fortunate along the way.”
A sob drew their attention to the other side of the table where his mother sat, fingers pressed to her mouth. Without speaking she rose and crossed to Ansel. She pulled him up into a tight hug.
His father, the giant who’d raised him, taught him how to throw a baseball, bandaged his first scraped knee and every bruise after that—the man who never showed weakness in front of his kids, sat speechless now, because of Ansel.
“That was so beautiful,” his mother whispered.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Donovan, I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
“Don’t mind me, dear.” She hugged him tighter. “I’m so sorry your parents don’t know what a remarkable young man you’ve become.”
Ansel’s arms tightened. “Thank you.”
After another silent moment his mother pulled away with a self-deprecating laugh. “Well, now I think it’s time for dessert. What do you say?” She looked around the table with a lifted brow, settling on her husband. “It will give me time to fix my mascara.”
Ansel pulled a tissue from his pocket and pressed it into her hand. “I would love some dessert.”
* * *
Compared to dinner, dessert was smooth sailing. They enjoyed cheesecake and coffee and talked about simple things. Around ten, Meg and Tara left for campus. Soon after, Fitch and Ansel followed.
As they were leaving, his father pulled Fitch aside and clasped him on the shoulder. “Son, I want you to know how much I love you.”
“I know, Pop.”
“The way you dealt with the remodel issue and taking care of your mom and sister showed real fortitude. I can admit I don’t understand your new relationship, but I figure it’s none of my business. I can see you’re happy and that makes me happy. You’re a good son. I’m honored you want to take over the business.”
“It’s your legacy.”
“This thing with John—”
“I can handle whatever comes.”
“He’s threated to pull his business if I don’t fire you.”
Christ. “Pop, I want to make you proud. I want to take over the company, but if it’s a question of that or Ansel, I will always choose him.”
“Yeah. I kind of figured as soon as I’d heard about what happened. So I told John to do what he had to do.”
“Shit.” That meant he’d lost the company a client already.
“You’re my son and a damn fine contractor. It’s your company now.”
Fitch’s throat closed. “Pop...” He couldn’t think of anything to say to that.
“I suspect he’ll start a smear campaign to try and turn some others against you, but you’ve been raised around these people. They know you. They know how hard you work. If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, I suspect many of them will care more about their profits than what goes on in your bedroom.”
Fitch rubbed a hand down his face. “I’ll do my best.”
He’d known that outburst was going to come back and bite him on the ass. He hadn’t cared then and he couldn’t bring himself to regret it now.
“I’m sure you will, son. You’re a brave man and far smarter than I ever was. I’m proud of you.” His dad grunted in that way he had that meant the conversation was getting a little too emotional and it was time for it to end. They slapped each other on the shoulder in a one-handed hug.
Then his mom pulled him into her arms with a whispered “I like him” and a kiss on the cheek.
After Ansel said goodbye, Fitch took his hand and they settled in his vehicle. The moonlight shone on Ansel’s blond hair and his face was relaxed and peaceful.
“I can take you back into the city now, but my apartment isn’t far away and I was hoping you’d want to stay the night? I’ll take you to work in the morning.”
Ansel’s eyes were soft. “Okay.”
The drive was quick and completed in silence. His building was a two-story converted multi-family home. Donovan Construction had done the conversion back in the day, so Fitch had gotten a great deal when he moved in. His neighbor was a seventy-year-old woman with three cats, but she had a separate entrance so he only ever saw her when she asked him to feed the animals. Which, luckily, wasn’t often. He was not a cat person.
Inside he flipped on the light and kicked his boots off. “Make yourself at home. Do you want something to drink?”
“Sure.” Ansel pulled off his heels, set them next to Fitch’s boots, and followed him into the kitchen.
“Cold or hot?”
“Cold is fine. Nice place.”
“It’s nothing special, but it does the job.” Fitch took out a couple sodas and handed one to Ansel.
“It’s roomy.”
“Want the tour?”
“I do, but first...” Ansel set his soda on the counter and closed the distance between them. His long fingers combed through Fitch’s hair as their lips connected.
Ansel kissed him more tenderly, more intensely, than ever before. His tongue caressed, his fingers played, and his teeth nipped in that intoxicating way he had, only more. It was so much more this time.
On the last stroke, Ansel pulled back just a little. “Thank you.”
“For what?”
“For tonight, for being right, for trying to protect me.”
“You don’t need protecting, Angel.”
“No, I don’t. But you tried and it meant a lot.”
Fitch smoothed both palms down Ansel’s hair. “It wasn’t as easy as I’d hoped it would be. I’m sorry about the drama.”
One corner of Ansel’s mouth tipped up. “Are you kidding? That was pie compared to what I’m used to.”
“You were amazing.”
Ansel blinked and rested his forehead on Fitch’s shoulder. He didn’t say anything, just stayed there, tucked into Fitch’s neck. His scent drifted up, surrounding them both. Fitch wrapped his arms around him and held him close.
“My parents like you. And you know my sister is your biggest fan.” He felt Ansel’s smile.
“I like them too.”
Having Ansel in his apartment, being together with his family, he began imagining what the rest of their lives might be like, and it became everything he wanted. Everything there was.
If only he could convince Ansel they could make it work.

Chapter Thirty-Seven
“And this is where wishes are granted.” Fitch flicked on the bedroom light and allowed Ansel to enter first. It wasn’t fancy. He wasn’t the decorator Ansel was, but it was clean. The king-size bed took up most of the floor space. He’d changed the sheets and used his black comforter instead of the ancient plaid one. He’d set a few candles on the side tables, and while Ansel wandered to the dresser to look at the pictures displayed, Fitch lit them.
“Wishes? You think you’re some kind of fairy godmother?”
Fitch tucked the lighter back into his pocket. “More like the genie in a bottle. Rub me just right and I’ll make all your dreams come true.” He wiggled his eyebrows and felt his heart lift when Ansel laughed and punched his shoulder playfully.
“Someone has a dangerously inflated ego.” The candlelight danced across Ansel’s pale skin and made his eyes twinkle, or maybe that was happiness, Fitch couldn’t be sure.
Pulling on Ansel’s tie, Fitch said, “Should I reenact my Ansel Becke orgasm impression?”
That killer smirk flashed. “Not if you want to live.”
He teased his fingers between the edge of Ansel’s top and the waist of his pants. “You’re the one questioning my ample abilities.”
“I think there are other ways you can prove your power.” Ansel pressed his body closer and reached down to palm Fitch’s groin.
“I love the way your mind works,” he said with an involuntary flex of his hips.
Ansel hummed and nuzzled the soft skin behind his ear. “That’s the second time you used the L-word. If I didn’t know better I might get certain ideas.” Ansel’s tone was teasing, but his words took hold of every muscle in Fitch’s body and held him immobile.
Ansel was pressed so tightly against him, he must have sensed the tension because he pulled back with a sardonic smirk.
“Don’t worry, Grumpy Bear. I’m just kidding. I know it was only another figure of speech.”
Figure of speech. Yeah. Fitch consciously relaxed his shoulders and forced out a laugh.
“I guess I’d better dust off my thesaurus. Wouldn’t want you to get any notions in that pretty little head of yours.” The fake pretentiousness colored his tone just enough to make Ansel chuckle. At the sound, Fitch breathed a little easier.
“Too late, I’ve got all kinds of notions. But they mainly center on your lips, and your hands, and your big, beautiful cock.”
Awkward revelation avoided, yet again, Fitch let himself smile. “Now that is something I can get behind.”
Ansel leaned forward again and sucked his earlobe, grazing his teeth against the flesh as he pulled away.
“You sure?” Ansel whispered, teasing his tongue around the shell.
Fitch felt that sultry tug like an electric spark and he moaned. Barely able to breathe, he pushed out, “Oh yeah, one hundred percent,” before he captured his lover’s lips and devoured him.
Ansel’s familiar taste was hidden behind the bitterness of coffee and the sweetness of cheesecake, so Fitch deepened the kiss to chase it down. Like his lover’s scent, he wanted to drown in the flavor. It was spicy and sweet and completely addicting. As he swept his tongue in, dueling with Ansel’s equally desperate tongue, he gripped his lover’s firm hips. They ground together, wrapped in a lust that was both terrifying in its intensity and soothing in its intimacy.
It was silly to project his own feelings onto something as simple as a kiss, but he ached to believe that Ansel might feel the same. And even if he didn’t now, Fitch needed to have hope that Ansel could eventually come to around to it.
Love. It was big. Big and fucking scary. He’d always imagined settling down, getting married, and having enough babies to satisfy his mother. But as he considered that future against one spent with the man in his arms it paled in comparison. Even if they never had kids, even if they never tied the knot, even if he never heard the words he ached to hear, Ansel was the option that gave his life color.
He’d be chasing Ansel for the rest of his life and he’d die a happy man.
With that thought in his mind, the stress faded and he fell into their mating with renewed abandon. He clawed at his lover’s cotton-covered back and nipped his full bottom lip, knowing his own mouth would be smeared with the waxy red gloss for the rest of the night. He wasn’t even bothered by the thought.
Ansel gasped with a curse, gripping Fitch’s hair in two fists as he thrust their bodies together.
“How do you want me?” Ansel asked.
Fitch paused, trying to catch his breath. His mouth was suddenly as dry as he was desperate. He wished he’d brought the soda upstairs, but he hadn’t been thinking that far in advance. His heart thudded against his rib cage and he licked his lips before taking a step back.
“I was thinking...” He ran a hand through his hair and swallowed. “Hoping...” he corrected. “That we could try something new tonight.”
Ansel’s smudged red lips tipped up in his signature smirk. The same one that always brought Fitch to his knees, and this time was no different. Those green eyes glittered at him.
“Different?” With a tilt to his head. “Kinky different? Do you have a pair of handcuffs hidden somewhere?”
Ansel reached out and slid the drawer of the bedside table open just as Fitch said, “Wait.”
But it was too late. Ansel’s eyes went wide.
* * *
“What’s this?” Ansel grabbed the butt plug, utter shock making him stupid, and turned to wave it at Fitch.
He knew what it was, obviously. But he couldn’t figure out why Fitch would have one. It was a relatively small one made of black silicone. Right beside it was another bottle of the Sliquid Sassy lube. His brain stuttered, struggling to process the information. Apparently, Fitch wasn’t doing any better.
“You don’t know?”
Ansel scowled. “Of course I know. Why do you have a butt plug? Did you want me to use it? If so, you should have asked. This one is way too small for me.”
Fitch’s lips thinned and his face grew pale. “No.” He shook his head, his Adam’s apple bobbing endearingly.
“It’s not for you.”
Kaboom. Kaboom. Kaboom. Ansel’s heart beat so hard it felt like it might break right through his chest and make a run for it.
His limbs grew heavy even as shock waves rippled up and down his spine.
Fitch was using a butt plug. Why?
The image of the slender black silicone length sliding into his lover’s ass filled him with a lust so strong he almost lost the strength to stand. Fitch was gorgeously muscular and hairy. To see him spread open, vulnerable—God. Ansel’s dick was ready to rip out of his dress pants.
“You said you liked to top sometimes.” Fitch’s response was quiet, and there was a tiny flutter in his breath like the nerves couldn’t be contained
Because Ansel liked to top sometimes?
For him?
Fitch was preparing, for him?
Confusion warred with the evidence until it all jumbled in Ansel’s stomach. Taking a deep breath he tried to clear his mind, to focus, because something was being said here without anyone actually saying anything. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.
Or maybe, he didn’t dare hope.
He bit his lip while weighing the toy in his hand and turned to Fitch.
“You want me to fuck you?” Having his bossy, controlling top at his mercy would be so much fucking fun.
At Ansel’s words, Fitch closed his eyes in a slow blink. When he opened them again, they were filled with desire. And fear.
“Why?” Ansel took another step, stalking Fitch and wielding the toy like a sword.
Fitch’s gaze darted to Ansel’s lips before his tongue peeked out to lick his own. When he spoke his tone was once again full of uncertainty.
“Because I...I...” Fitch looked to the ceiling, presumably searching for the words. Ansel studied the blush that spread up his throat, the rapid pulse surging through the vein there, the way his chest rose and fell.
He’d never seen Fitch so out of control. Ansel stopped his advance and his heart waited.
“Because...I...umm,” Fitch struggled.
I love you.
Those three little words hung in the air. The breath in Ansel’s lungs died and every nerve in his body trembled like his soul was on the verge of flying into a million pieces.
It was a single moment, a tiny slice of time.
Say it.
But it expanded into forever and eternity, into forgotten dreams and unrealistic longings.
Say it.
His childhood had chased away every secret fantasy of a happily-ever-after, every wish of a love that could last a lifetime. His past was unforgiving, brutal, and hard. But ever since meeting Fitch, he’d started to believe his future could be different.
Say it.
He’d started to want those silly things from a time when everything was simple, easy, and honest. Because that’s how Fitch made him feel. And so he held his breath. Waited.
Say it.
“I...I’m curious.”
The disappointment took Ansel by surprise. The glow that had bloomed in his heart during that wink of time dimmed. He blinked and consciously restarted his heart, his lungs, his mind, until he could focus again and analyze what he was truly feeling. Hope?
Hope for their future. For his life.
And he was finally seeing the truth.
He wanted to be loved.
He wanted to love. To love with all his heart, to love Fitch unconditionally.
So instead of being disappointed, he took a deep breath. He brought the plug down hard into his other palm so the slap sounded in the silence of the room. Fitch looked down, eyes caught on the toy as Ansel stroked it.
“I can work with curiosity,” Ansel said. The cannonballs were still exploding inside when he tossed the black length to the bed and pulled off his shrug.
Yes, he loved to top. It was a treat he rarely enjoyed and Fitch wanted to give it to him. The importance of such a gift wasn’t lost on him. This was why his nerves rattled so much his hands were shaking.
But beneath the anxiousness, there was a throbbing ball of excitement. Because, holy fuck, he was about to make love to Fitch in a way his Grumpy Bear had never done with anyone else before.
He’d be the first.
As he pulled off his cami, letting his loose hair and tie fall haphazardly around his face, he finally admitted what he’d been running from for weeks.
He wanted to be the only one.
He wanted to be Fitch’s, forever.

Chapter Thirty-Eight
Fitch couldn’t see anything but the black toy against the black blanket. Out of the corner of his eyes he knew Ansel was already half naked. His lover’s words made a vague impression, but he was stuck. Pinned, by regret and fear and a hunger he couldn’t deny.
He’d avoided saying it, again. What was his problem?
His chest felt too tight, like a thousand rubber bands had wrapped around him. Fuck, he’d seen the expectation in Ansel’s face too. Known his lover was waiting, maybe even hoping, but he had chickened out.
Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
Why couldn’t he get it out? What was holding him back? Was it just the fear of pushing too hard or was it some kind of perverted self-preservation? He didn’t know and didn’t have time to analyze now, because Ansel was getting naked.
They were about to fuck.
Anxiety slithered through him when he considered what was about to happen. He’d thought he was prepared. He’d used the butt plug enough over the past few days to feel comfortable about it. He’d studied articles online. He’d even signed in to an anonymous chatroom to ask questions. He’d bought the right supplies and made sure he was super clean before dinner. But Christ, he’d been fooling himself. The reality of knowing he was about to have a dick in his ass was so much more terrifying than he’d imagined, even while his cock filled and ached within the tight confines of his jeans.
He struggled to take in air. Every inhale was short and bitter. Just when he was sure he was going to ruin the night by passing out, Ansel’s palm cupped his cheek.
“Hey. Are you sure? Because you’re looking a little green.”
Fitch blinked until the eyes he loved so much came into focus and suddenly he could breathe again. The warmth of Ansel’s touch gave him another connection to hold on to, so he did. He covered Ansel’s hand with his own and kissed his wrist.
“Yeah, sorry.”
“I mean, I know my cock is pretty fucking scary, but you’re a big guy, I’m sure you can handle my massive penis.”
Fitch laughed and pulled Ansel in for a hug. “You got me. I’m shaking in my boots because I’ve seen the anaconda in your pants.”
Ansel snuggled closer, burrowing until Fitch felt the hard beat of his heart on his own chest. Knowing his dancer was just as anxious calmed him a little. He tucked his fingers into the waistband of Ansel’s loosened pants, teasing the top of his ass.
I love you.
His lips might not be ready to say it aloud yet, but his heart was.
“Don’t worry, Grumpy Bear, I’ll take it easy on you.” With those words, Ansel grabbed his ass and both of their cocks twitched.
“I trust you,” Fitch said.
After a deep breath, Ansel pulled away and look into his eyes. “Thank you.”
Ansel started unbuttoning Fitch’s shirt, one button at a time. He pushed the fabric off until Fitch was naked from the waist up. With a sexy little hum, Ansel combed his fingers through his chest hair, tugging gently.
“I love your hairy chest,” Ansel said.
Something about the way he put extra emphasis on love caught Fitch’s heart.
Ansel pressed a kiss there, then swirled his tongue over the nipple just beneath until it tightened.
“Are you going to torture me all night?”
“Not all night.” Ansel laughed and the cool air fanned Fitch’s other nipple into the same reaction as its twin. “Just until you’re begging.”
With nimble fingers, Ansel flipped open Fitch’s pants and lowered the zipper while his lips played on his collarbone.
“That’s not gonna take long.”
Not long at all. Especially when Ansel slipped a hand into his boxers and gripped his throbbing cock in a sure fist. On the first pull, Fitch was already cursing to the ceiling. All his uncertainty about bottoming forgotten. As long as it was Ansel touching him, he didn’t give a fuck whose cock was in whose ass. Whichever way they made love, it would always feel amazing.
* * *
Ansel kept a tight hold on his libido and took his time undressing Fitch. He wanted tonight to be good. He needed to show Fitch the best part of bottoming.
He shoved the jeans and boxers down Fitch’s thighs and knelt to pull them off. Naked, Fitch looked down at him, his stomach sucked in and his chest still like he was holding his breath. Then Ansel mouthed the head of Fitch’s cock and all that pent-up air burst out of the guy in a low whine that drove Ansel crazy.
“I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing those amazing lips around my cock,” Fitch said, his tone guttural and desperate in a way that fired Ansel’s blood.
He licked again. “Sucking you is one of my favorite things so I guess it works out for both of us.”
Fitch played with the loose strands of hair near Ansel’s temple. With a quick swipe from balls to slit, Ansel tongued the length until Fitch’s abs trembled. With one hand, he palmed the sack hanging between Fitch’s thick thighs and felt those muscles twitch at each caress.
The air grew thick around them, a mix of his perfume and the faint scents of sex and sweat. The candles Fitch lit earlier gave the room a romantic glow that suited the situation. He’d never been one for romance, but tonight was about more than just getting off. Tonight was about connection, and Ansel wanted to make sure they were on the same page. If he could make Fitch feel as good as he felt...Well, he was still a little too scared to put his wishes into words.
He closed his eyes and concentrated his efforts. He sucked and stroked in choreographed moves, up and down Fitch’s length while gently massaging the sack in his hand.
“Angel. Oh fuck.” The fingers in his hair tightened a fraction and he snapped his gaze up to see Fitch’s face scrunched into a mask of pleasure.
His own dick throbbed behind the zipper of his suit pants and he groaned. Fitch glanced down at the sound. When their eyes met, Fitch fisted his hair until it stung, those full lips parting as Fitch sucked in a breath. He whipped his hips back and forth in a crazed desperation until the balls in Ansel’s palm constricted.
Goddamn, that was hot. Ansel’s chest swelled with heat and affection as he stared into Fitch’s eyes. But he couldn’t let the night end so soon.
Instead of following through and allowing Fitch to climax, Ansel slowed the pace. Pressing two fingers into the stretch of skin just behind the sack, he gave the cock one final kiss.
“Don’t stop.”
“That was just the beginning, Grumpy Bear.”
He stood and pressed a small kiss to Fitch’s lips before adding, “Lie down.”
Fitch swallowed but didn’t argue. He moved into position so his head rested on a pillow, looking at Ansel expectantly. Standing at the foot of the bed, Ansel unfastened his pants. And if his hands trembled a little, he ignored it just like he did when he stepped out onstage. Nerves had to be expected when something mattered as much as this did, but he’d always been good at dealing with the pressure. Of course, nothing in his life had ever been as important as this. And he’d certainly never been anyone’s first before.
He took his time, moving to a song only he could hear because he knew Fitch enjoyed watching him dance. Plus, it helped him relax. Eventually falling into a familiar rhythm, he kicked off the slacks and shimmied his lace-clad hips while playing with the tie still around his neck.
“Damn, the way you move...” The pleasure in Fitch’s voice made him mad with pent-up desire. But seeing him reach down to squeeze his own package like he was afraid he’d come just from watching Ansel dance, well fuck, that was unbeatable.
With a quick breath, Ansel pushed off his shorts and climbed on the bed to join his lover. Like his heart, their kiss was frantic. They grasped at each other, clutching skin and muscle, raking fingers into flesh. Desperate, like they both understood the gravity of what was about to happen, and they were both overcome with need for it. If he were honest, it was hard to breathe, not because of the frenzy of desire, but because his throat was tight with emotion.
Ansel struggled to regain his composure. Slowing down, even just a little, felt like he was dying of thirst and Fitch was the only cure. Just because he couldn’t help himself, he sucked Fitch’s throat, then his chest, his belly button, then his pelvic bone. With each kiss, Fitch’s panting slowed, but his moaning grew louder.
“Knees up,” Ansel murmured between kisses.
Fitch complied, raising his head enough to make eye contact. His mouth hung open, his cheeks ruddy.
“I’m going to show you how good this can feel.” Ansel maneuvered himself between Fitch’s legs.

Chapter Thirty-Nine
Ansel’s tongue was made of magic. Fitch’s hips surged up without conscious effort because what his lover was doing felt so damn good. His cock leaked steadily onto his tense abs, and his thighs hadn’t stopped trembling since Ansel began.
It seemed like Ansel had been at it for hours. His appreciative moans were muffled because his face was pressed so deep, but they still stirred Fitch’s passion higher. Impossibly high. Any minute now and he’d fly apart. Every slight wisp of air across his cockhead tightened his balls painfully.
“Angel,” he chanted over and over again.
His body couldn’t make up its mind, to seek the pleasure or to run from it. It was too intense. He fought with himself, thrusting up then back, and up then back, in constant conflict. But Ansel held on, both arms wrapped around his thighs, his long and slender fingers digging with a strong grip, spreading him open.
Christ, he had never been so vulnerable before, with everything on display. He let his head fall back to the pillow as sweat beaded on his forehead. Watching Ansel’s partially buried face just pushed him higher.
“God, fuck,” he groaned while clutching the sheet near his hip.
Somehow, his lover swirled his tongue just right and caused Fitch to shout and vault up again. At his reaction, Ansel chuckled but didn’t stop. Their combined hunger and panting breaths, the curses and moans, every grunt and holler, heightened his desire until he was right at the peak, ready to come without anything touching his cock. Just one more thrust of that sweet tongue and he would die.
But, as if he knew, Ansel withdrew. Following one slow, gentle swipe, he slid up to his knees and kissed Fitch’s pelvic bone when he whined.
Yes, he fucking whined. Like a goddamn child. His balls ached, his muscles were so heavy he couldn’t move, and his cock was ready to split itself in two. So, yes, he whined. And if he didn’t get some relief soon, he might even cry. But, his lover just smiled and massaged his thigh while he reached to the drawer and pulled out the lube.
“Not much longer.” Ansel’s soothing voice calmed Fitch enough to realize what was coming next.
He tensed at the pop of the cap.
Ansel immediately focused the full intensity of his eyes directly on him. “I’ll take it slow. No pain, I swear.” He squeezed a healthy dollop of gel onto his fingers without breaking eye contact.
Mouth dry, Fitch labored to get the words out. “I know. I want you inside me.”
Those green eyes heated, the lids drooping seductively just as Ansel’s slick fingers found his asshole. Because of the foreplay, he was already relaxed enough that the first digit didn’t hurt.
“Nice,” Ansel whispered. “That’s it, just stay loose for me.”
With his dry hand, he rubbed Fitch’s flank. And it was a little embarrassing that the action went a long way toward calming him down. Though it was nice seeing Ansel be so sweet and caring. If he wasn’t already in complete and utter love with the man, this moment would have pushed him to it.
Ansel took his time, spending minutes stretching him with one finger, then two. Scissoring and twisting before adding more lube and another digit. His ass stung, but not in a bad way. It was a tightness that warmed and pulled until all his focus was on that point, on feeling more of the sweet burn. He wanted to be full.
“Damn, you’re so hot.” Ansel’s tone was full of awe as he pulled his hand away. “I think I could spend a lifetime like this.”
Fitch’s stomach tightened and his pulse raced, captured by Ansel’s confession.
A lifetime.
I love you. Stay with me.
Ansel ripped open the condom and rolled it over his cock.
Mouth full of things he didn’t want to spill out, Fitch nodded.
Ansel positioned himself and bit his bottom lip, still smudged from their kiss. He glanced down to where their bodies were about to join, then looked up. Their eyes connected and he didn’t look away even while he slowly forced the head of his cock through the breach.
“Push out for me,” Ansel grunted.
Fitch obeyed, every ounce of air in his lungs rushing out through his lips as Ansel penetrated him. He lifted his hips and welcomed the invasion.
God yes. It was like finding his way home after decades of being lost.
Just as his lover had promised, it didn’t hurt. Not really. Ansel went so slow, so steady that by the time he was balls deep, sweat had pebbled on his chest. Fitch had the bizarre urge to lick him there, to taste the salty evidence of effort and control. His cock twitched and the echoed ripple in his ass made him groan.
Braced above him with shaking arms, and blond hair hanging limply around a taut but beautiful face, Ansel waited. And all Fitch could do was stare up at his lover in awe. He really was an angel. With the glow of the candles reflecting off his skin, and the unrecognizable look in his eyes, he looked like heaven. For a heartbeat, neither of them moved, they didn’t blink.
And then his dancer smirked. “Jesus, Grumpy Bear, you’ve got one tight ass.”
Fitch’s heart grew even bigger and on his puff of laughter, Ansel thrust so the sound ended on a long moan.
“You are such a goddamn smart-ass.” Fitch pulled his lover down so they were chest to chest.
He loved this man. He really did, and somehow he’d find a way to tell him. A way that made certain Ansel didn’t run away.
Ansel’s hips plunged and retreated in shallow, gentle movements while they tangled together. Sandwiched between them, Fitch’s cock leaked his joy, making an ever-loving mess. Neither of them cared. They were both covered in sweat, lube, saliva, and precome. He rubbed his hairy calves over Ansel’s smooth thighs, enjoying the contrast, the strength. He tilted his hips up for more because having his lover inside him had become the greatest thing in his life.
He clutched at Ansel’s flexing, powerful ass, urging him faster, harder. Ansel murmured incoherently as they kissed, demonstrating the passion of their mating through grunts and sighs. Fitch responded, echoing the noises, only louder.
He seized Ansel’s hair and bit his ear, grinding his cock up for more friction. Ansel cursed and reached down to lift Fitch’s hips. The new angle pushed Ansel’s dick even deeper and ignited a cascade of fireworks behind Fitch’s eyes.
Holy shit.
His body quaked involuntarily.
Ansel licked his throat, then whispered, “Prostate,” before doing the same move again and again and again until Fitch’s entire body electrified and his chanting became a perpetual hum.
Fuck. It felt too good. Ansel’s heavy body, his words, the connection. It was overwhelming. Christ, his heart was going to burst. His body would disintegrate. He whipped his head to the side and sucked in air.
“Can’t,” he muttered. Still holding Ansel like a lifeline.
“Too much?”
“Yeah. Yes. Oh fuck.”
Ansel kissed his eyebrow. “You want me to stop?”
The idea killed him. “Hell no,” he forced out. Another hard thrust and he gasped, “Don’t stop.”
“I’ve got you,” Ansel said. “You can break. Even if you shatter into a million pieces, I’ll put you back together.”
And there it was, the very thing that broke him. Fitch sobbed. He tucked his face into his lover’s neck and let himself burst. His orgasm ripped through him, wave after wave of bliss. His cock throbbed with the release; jets of warm semen covered both of their stomachs. His anus convulsed around Ansel’s cock, and on the tail end of his own climax, he felt his lover’s rhythmic movements stutter.
When Ansel cried out in surrender and collapsed over him, Fitch gathered him close and kissed his hair.
“We’ll put each other back together, Angel.”
* * *
“Is it always like that?” Fitch’s quiet question stirred Ansel’s damp hair. Limbs still too heavy to move he tried to tip his head to catch his lover’s eye.
Ansel smiled and slid off enough so he could remove the condom and toss it into the basket near the bed. When he was done, he fell back onto Fitch’s chest and traced circles through the hair.
“Is it always like what?”
Pride filled his chest. Combined with the post-orgasm high he was careless and dopey, so he told the truth.
“Only ever with you.”
Fitch’s arm tightened around him, his heart thudding under Ansel’s ear.
“Angel—” It was the same fearful, tortured tone Fitch had used before, and a piece of Ansel wanted to ease his lover’s worry, to make everything better.
But he didn’t know how. He’d never been in this position before. On the verge of something so great he couldn’t quite believe it was real. What if he fucked it up like he did everything else in his life? What if he got so fucking close to the rainbow only to have it ripped away?
That would hurt like a motherfucker.
He grazed Fitch’s nipple with his teeth to distract them both before Fitch said whatever it was he wanted to say.
“Glad to know I rocked your world, Grumpy Bear. Hopefully, we’ll do it again sometime.”
Fitch’s smile tickled his forehead. “Anytime you want.”
They cuddled in silence while the candles burned low. Even though the lights were still on, neither of them seemed inclined to move. Just as his eyes started to drift shut, Fitch spoke.
“You know, I’ve been thinking. I mean, you said yourself my place has enough space.” He brushed some hair behind Ansel’s ear. “You could always stay with me if you can’t find another apartment. Or just, if you wanted to. Or whatever.”
It was ridiculous how easily his heart seemed to flip these days, or how happy a simple sentence could make him.
He lifted himself up and looked into Fitch’s earnest face doing his best not to betray his excitement. “You want me to stay here?”
Fitch nodded. “Yeah, I mean, you can. I just wanted to offer the option.”
“Like live with you?” What happened to the air in the room?
“Well—” Fitch took a deep, unsteady breath and looked Ansel straight in the eyes “—yes.”
Ansel was quiet for moment, letting Fitch’s words, and his actions over the past few weeks, sink in.
“It’s just another choice, you know. I don’t want to pressure you or anything. I’d...” Fitch paused and took another breath. “I’d love to have you here, but I know it might be too soon. So, whatever you need. Okay?”
Whatever he needed? What about what Fitch needed?
“Thank you. But how would I get to work?”
Fitch blinked in surprise then moved so he could rest against the head board. “I could drive you at first, and there are buses and trains that go into the city every hour. Do you have your license?”
“No, I never needed one. I’ve lived on the streets since I was old enough to drive.”
“Right, well, I could teach you, if it’s something you want to learn.”
“You’d teach me how to drive?”
The crease appeared again. “Of course. If it’s something you want, I’ll teach you even if you don’t move in with me.”
Move in with Fitch.
Ansel looked around the bedroom, imagining his stuff scattered around. His design aesthetic and colorful approach would change the space. And he found the idea didn’t scare him as much as he thought it would.
He sat up and mirrored Fitch’s position. Holding Fitch’s hand, he said, “I’d enjoy knowing how to drive. I’ll consider the rest.”

Chapter Forty
Three days later Ansel was still debating Fitch’s offer. Hell, he thought about everything that had happened that day from the suit to the dinner, from being accepted by Fitch’s family to realizing he wanted his own happy ending—even if it was stupid.
On Monday, after work, Z had pestered him with questions. So many that they’d continued into rehearsal and spilled over to the others as well, until Lirim and Tam were interrogating him too.
Trouble was, he didn’t have any answers.
He was still reeling from it all.
Was he ready to go after something he wanted so much? Could he face the potential disaster if he failed?
That’s what he talked about during his AA meeting Tuesday afternoon. Afterward many of his fellow addicts came up to him and shared some of their experiences. Even Susan, who’d become a good friend, thought Fitch would be a good influence. They weren’t supposed to get into relationships until a year after sobriety, but this was different. He and Fitch had been together since before Ansel started AA, technically, and while they were together Ansel hadn’t had much desire to drink.
With their advice still in the back of his head, he rushed to Z’s apartment to change before their rehearsal. It started to rain, so on his way out the door he grabbed a hoodie and slipped it on. He had no idea where Z and his roommate kept the umbrellas.
He locked the front door and skipped down the steps, in a rush to catch the train.
“Miss Priss.” The shrill voice stopped him in his tracks.
He whipped his head around to see his parents standing on the sidewalk, their town car double-parked on the street. His father held a large black umbrella over both of them, but droplets had splattered up to cover his mother’s perfect cream pumps with muddy tracks.
Compared to them, he looked like a wet dog. A wet, dirty dog with perfect glossy lips and killer heels covered in metal spikes. He straightened his shoulders and tipped up his chin.
“It’s Ansel. You should know that, Mother.” He put every ounce of hatred and sarcasm into that word. “You are the one who named me.”
Her lips thinned and she glared at him.
“I told you to stay away from him.” She came closer, forcing his father to follow so they both remained dry.
“When have I ever done anything you told me to do?” Though his words were brave, his hands shook. He pulled the sweater tighter around his middle to hide his fear. The urge to step back, to turn on his heels and run in the other direction, was almost overwhelming. But over the past few weeks, he had learned a lot about himself.
He was strong. He was loved. He was worth loving.
And it was not his fault that his parents were assholes.
“How dare you. You foul ingrate. Keep your disgusting ways away from Lars.”
She brought her hand up to slap him. He saw it in slow motion, like he’d done so many times before. Her slap was so familiar he had to stop himself from seeking it out like a normal child might a warm hug. Those fingers, so long and slim, like his, were always adorned with rings. And they hurt like nothing else ever had in his whole life. As she swung back, the raindrops gathered between the jewels, making them glitter and shine even more. And he tensed.
He prepared like he’d always done. The instinctual reflex a body naturally does right before trauma is inflicted. But then he breathed.
He was strong.
He was loved.
He was worth loving.
Looking straight into her eyes, eyes that were almost mirror identical to his own, he caught her wrist just as she was about to make contact.
“No.” He gritted his teeth, seething with anger because these people were supposed to protect him. They were supposed to nurture him and forever support him, no matter who he loved or what he wore. And they’d failed. They. Had. Failed.
Not him.
It wasn’t his fault. He squeezed the delicate bones until his mother gasped.
“Let her go,” his father warned, his accent so much thicker than hers. Ansel didn’t pay him any attention. The man had stood on the sidelines his entire life. He’d always let her run the show. He didn’t deserve to be acknowledged now.
“You don’t get to touch me,” Ansel continued. Staring into his mother’s shocked eyes, he noted, with a manic happiness, the tinge of fear he found there. His voice was quiet but full of anger. “You don’t get to speak to me. You don’t even get to think about me, ever again.” He stepped closer so she was forced to look up at him. He was taller now, and wearing heels that made him tower over both of them. “From this moment on, you have no control over my life.”
He shoved her hand away from his face. Then he spun on his toes and walked away.
* * *
He was thirty. The big three-O. Almost seven weeks ago, he’d met Ansel for the first time.
When Fitch woke up on Friday morning, it took him a few minutes to realize that it was his birthday. There had been so many other things happening in his life, his birthday just sprang up out of nowhere. Until his sister called.
She begged him to go to breakfast, her treat. She said Pop had already told what was left of the crew he’d be taking the day off. News to him. You’d think they’d have asked if he even wanted to celebrate. Especially considering how much work there was to be done. After his big confession, most of the newer guys had quit. He’d tried not to take it personally, but it was hard. He was a good boss. He had always treated everyone well, the pay was fair and the work was regular. But hell, now that they knew he liked cock they couldn’t stand to look at him anymore.
He should probably be grateful. He didn’t want to be around homophobes anyway, but losing so many hands meant he had to work ’round the clock to keep the pace up and meet the deadline. He didn’t want to burden those who’d been loyal by piling it all on their shoulders, though he’d offered overtime for anyone who wanted to help, and some had taken him up on the offer. He should really do some work today. The last thing he wanted to do was dwell on his birthday.
Fucking thirty. Christ.
He absolutely was not happy about being another year older.
He met Meg at a local spot and enjoyed a plate full of clog-your-arteries goodness, listening with half an ear to her stories about campus life and her latest date with Tara.
As much as he loved his sister, she could prattle on and on without end and he just wasn’t in the mood to pay attention. Especially when she wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t heard before. He forked another bite of grease into his mouth thinking of his phone conversations with Ansel over the past few days.
On Tuesday night, Ansel had told him about his encounter with his parents and, honestly, he’d almost dropped the phone and started a rampage. The last time, fuck, last time...
Fitch blinked at his eggs trying to remember that his lover was tough, not a fragile victim he needed to protect. Something Ansel had confirmed by how succinctly he’d handled the situation, displaying courage and those mighty balls Fitch loved so much. He only wished he could have been there to witness the looks on their faces. From what Ansel said, they’d been shocked stupid.
But later, Ansel had acted differently. Whenever he called to check in, he was rushed. When Fitch called, it felt like he was interrupting. The knots of anxiety he’d thought had faded came back and had been twisting his insides for days. More reasons why he’d completely forgotten about his own birthday.
He worried that bringing up the living situation was too much and now Ansel was trying to back away without hurting him. Hard to believe after the night they’d shared, but the fear and jealousy were still there. And the most frustrating thing was he couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The tighter he held on, the quicker Ansel would disappear. So he ate his breakfast, listened to his sister, and counted the minutes until sunset when he’d be able to look into his lover’s eyes again and know for sure.
“You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said all morning,” Meg complained.
Fitch looked up, chagrined. “Sorry, got a lot on my mind.”
She checked her phone. She’d been doing that since he’d sat down. “We can go now if you’re done.”
He pushed his plate away and tossed some cash on the table.
“You want me to drop you off somewhere or take you back to campus?” he asked as they climbed into his truck.
“I’m spending the day with you, big bro. You think I’d ditch you just because you ignore me? Nope, sorry, I love the crap out of you. You can be as surly as you want.” She stuck her tongue out at him, then buckled her seat belt. “We can go to your place, unless you want me to take you to the art museum. They have this new show by a local lesbian artist. She makes lifelike molds of vaginas. It’s awesome.”
He shook his head. “My place it is.”
With Meg’s laugh lightening the mood, he drove home, trying his best not to get caught up in his own misery. Ten minutes and thirty jokes later, they pulled into his driveway. Meg got out first, head down, phone in hand, thumbs flying over the keys as she typed out yet another text.
“You know, you could have invited Tara since you can’t seem to go five minutes without her.” He rolled his eyes and unlocked the door.
“It’s not Tara.” Her voice held a hint of glee and he turned to raise an eyebrow at her while he flipped the lights on.
“What’s going on—”
He spun at the sound of welcome from behind him and was caught by the happy faces of all his friends and family. Meg shook him by the shoulders and kissed him on the cheek, laughing.
“We totally got you. We got him, Ansel!” She pushed past him to where Tara stood.
Stunned, Fitch didn’t move as he took in everyone surrounding him. Dozens of people, his parents, his cousins, aunts and uncles, Rob and the gang, even some people from work. And in the corner near the fireplace, Ansel stood with Ange, Lirim, Tam, and Z.
Ansel had thrown him a surprise party. Those glittery green eyes focused on him, and all of Fitch’s stupid fears disappeared. There was nothing but warmth and acceptance there. The knots loosened even as his heart rose to his throat. He wanted to go to him, to kiss him, to thank him, but before he could move, he was cornered by his guests.
One after the other, they came up to him with congratulations and birthday wishes. Somehow, he managed to force his way through the crowd into the kitchen.
“Happy Birthday, Fitch. You don’t look a day over forty,” his friend Rob said, shaking his hand.
“Funny, jackass.” He laughed, pulling a soda from the cooler. “Thanks for coming.”
“Of course, man. We’re friends, even if you didn’t tell me you were gay. Or bi, or whatever.”
The mouthful of soda went down the wrong pipe and Fitch coughed until Rob swatted him on the back.
“You could have, you know? My wife’s cousin is gay and he’s a real cool dude. I wouldn’t have judged you or nothing.” From his tone, he sounded slightly offended.
“It’s not like that. And I was going to tell you, but it all happened so fast, I just haven’t gotten the chance.” He turned to Rob. “How’d you find out?”
“Didn’t know for sure until just now, really.” Rob smiled and took a drink of his own soda. “Your guy, Ansel, he called me up out of the blue. Said he’d gotten my number from your sister and was planning a party for you. He introduced himself as your friend, but I’m not stupid. Soon as I saw him, I had a feeling. I don’t think everyone knows, but it’ll be hard to keep it a secret when they catch a glimpse of you two together.”
“It’s not a secret.”
“It won’t be for long, in any case. He’s a cool guy. Worked real hard putting this together for you.”
Over the heads of his guests, he saw Ansel talking with one of his cousins and a group of Meg’s friends. His dancer laughed at something one of the girls said and began speaking with his hands, like he did sometimes.
“He cares about you a lot, man. He wanted to make sure everyone you knew was invited. He took care of all the organizing of food and everything. Only thing I had to do was give him the contact info and help him haul the balloons and boxes of stuff over here this morning.”
Boxes of stuff?
For the first time since he’d arrived, Fitch took a good look around his crowded apartment and noticed the decorations. Balloons, banners, streamers and glitter covered everything, but beneath those surface decorations were other things. A few colorful mugs sat on the shelf where he kept his cups. A vase of flowers sat on the windowsill. His curtains were different. A bright throw rug had been tossed on the tiled floor of the kitchen.
In the living room, throw pillows spiced up his drab furniture, picture frames that weren’t his were arranged on the mantel next to knickknacks he’d never seen before. But the thing that got to him most was the faded blue Care Bear on his favorite chair.
Grumpy Bear.
He looked at Ansel, who smiled and winked. All Fitch could do was raise a brow. Right there, surrounded by everyone, Ansel pointed at himself, made a heart with his fingers, and pointed to Fitch.
It happened so fast he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him, but the sudden thud, thud, thud of his heart said he wasn’t mistaken. But had Ansel meant it? Or was it just a symbolic gesture?
Fitch licked his dry lips and turned to Rob. “Thanks, again, for coming. Would you excuse me for a minute?”
He didn’t wait for a reply before maneuvering through the swarm of people toward his lover. Halfway across the room, his mother caught his arm and pulled him into a hug.
“Happy birthday, sweetheart.”
“Thanks, Ma.”
“Such a nice party, so many people showed up.”
“Yeah, it’s real nice.”
He was just about to keep moving when his sister shouted above the crowd, “Time for presents. Fitch, get up here.”
He glanced at Ansel, at his mom, at the crowd who’d all turned to smile at him, then back at Ansel, and sighed. Ansel tilted his head toward where Meg was standing, his grin teasing. Yeah, yeah, he’d open his presents first. Fitch rolled his eyes but made his way to the front of the room.
Meg handed him gift after gift, reading out the giver’s name as he carefully removed the paper. He’d never been good at receiving them. Even during Christmas, he was careful and shy while Meg had torn through the wrapping and only gave thanks when forced to stop and take a breath. His parents gave him a sweater and his sister bought him a new toolbox. He got socks, ties, more tools, gag gifts, sports stuff, and so many other things he lost track.
“This is from Z,” Meg said, handing him a rainbow gift bag with rainbow paper.
Fitch looked at the smart-mouthed dancer, noting his raised eyebrow and challenging expression, before pulling out a T-shirt. It was pastel pink cotton with text in rainbow colors and it read: My boyfriend wears heels bigger than your dick.
Fitch laughed, then pulled off his shirt and tugged the new one over his head for all to see. Most of the crowd chuckled too when they read the words.
“Nice shirt,” Meg said. “This one is from Tameron.”
It was a framed poem, “Rumors from an Aeolian Harp,” by Henry David Thoreau. One of Ansel’s favorite pieces. Fitch had looked it up after their first date.
“Oh, I love that one,” Meg said over his shoulder.
“Thanks Tam, it’s perfect.” He set the frame on the mantel behind him.
“Last one,” Meg said.
As he ripped into the paper he asked, “Who is this from?” Only, Meg didn’t reply.
“Me,” Ansel said, taking a step forward. “And Lirim. I asked for his help because I can’t draw a straight line to save my life.”
It was a painting. A beautiful, colorful, wild abstract piece of art. He stared at it, at a pair of eyes portrayed so realistically they seemed real.
“It’s messy. Crazy, like me,” Ansel continued.
Fitch looked up. “Our first—”
“Yes,” Ansel cut him off, glancing to the side, reminding him they weren’t alone. After a moment, he took another step forward. “Same makeup.”
It wasn’t just the same makeup, it was the look in those painted eyes, the emotion somehow so perfectly portrayed even in paint. Just like the first night they’d slept together. The way Ansel had looked at him, too scared to hope, too lost to know his own worth. So vulnerable. It had torn Fitch in two then, and seeing it now brought him right back to that dark room.
His chest expanded and he gripped the frame until his knuckles turned white.
“This is amazing,” he whispered, unable to take his eyes off the gift. Buried beneath the eyes were other things that made his heart quicken, a pair of angel wings, musical notes, a storm cloud, and a grenade. It was a collage about their relationship and he cherished every single inch of it.
“Thank you.” Finally, he raised his eyes.
“Lirim did most of the work. He’s the real artist.” Ansel shrugged one shoulder and gestured to his friend.
“Truly, it’s beautiful, Lirim,” Fitch said. Lirim just nodded with a small smile.
“We want to see it too,” Meg said, taking the painting. At first glance, she let out a sigh. While she distracted the rest of the guests, Fitch closed the distance between himself and Ansel.
“You threw me a surprise party.” They stood less than a foot apart but didn’t touch.
“Yeah,” Ansel said, his eyes on Fitch’s mouth.
“You invited all my friends and family.”
“You decorated my house.”
“I did.”
Ansel’s lashes fell and rose again in slow motion. “Because, I love you.”
So simple. So clear. His words, the pure emotion behind them, the honesty in his eyes. It rocked Fitch enough that he thought he might lose all power in his limbs.
“You have changed my life, Fitch. Since the moment we met, my whole world became brighter. Suddenly things I’d thought impossible were possible, because you were there. I love you. I think I’ve loved you forever. And I’m not afraid anymore. You are the best man I have ever known and you encourage me, inspire me, to be the best I can be. I love you. And if the offer still stands, I would like nothing more than to stay here, with you.”
The room around them had grown silent at some point during Ansel’s speech.
“Whoops,” Ansel whispered. “Sorry, they weren’t supposed to hear that.”
Fitch grabbed Ansel’s wrist and tugged him into a hug. “I’m going to kiss the love of my life now. If anyone here has any issues with that, get the fuck out.”
With the cheering and laughter of friends and family as a soundtrack, he kissed Ansel.
“I love you so goddamn much,” he admitted between kisses. “If you can be brave so can I.”
Ansel wrapped his arms around his neck and brought their foreheads together so that their breath mingled between them.
“Thank you for helping me believe in happy endings again.”
“Oh, Angel, this is only the beginning.”
* * * * *

I must acknowledge the inspiring work of Yanis Marshall, whose dancing helped bring the Sassy Boyz to life. His passion for dance is contagious.
I’d also like to thank the entire Carina Press team for making me feel so welcome and being wonderful from the very beginning, especially my amazing editor, Deborah Nemeth, who I swear is made of magic.
Lastly, this series would not be possible without the truly unconditional support of my Hubster. Thanks, babe. You rock my socks.

Coming soon from Elizabeth Varletand Carina Press
Dark & Dazzling (Sassy Boyz Book Two)

About the Author
Elizabeth Varlet is a thirtysomething newly married world-traveler who devours books like they were candy. A nerd at heart, she spends way too many hours bingeing on episodes of her favorite television shows and dreaming of the day she can adopt a dog—whom she’s already named.
She started writing stories in high school and hasn’t stopped. Now her characters like to get frisky under the covers. Or the stars, or in a car, or up against the wall—they’re not picky.
Elizabeth believes in love of all shapes and sizes and wants nothing more than to share the beauty in the form of stories.
Visit her at for updates.
And if you want exclusive goodies sign up for her newsletter:
Or follow her on social media:
Facebook Author Page:

Whether you’re looking for a male/male romance that’s sweet, sexy or somewhere in between, you’ll find it at Carina Press!
The Ethan & Wyatt series by K.A. Mitchell
An unexpected fresh start leads to an unlikely-but-absolutely-perfect pairing in this male/male new-adult duology from bestselling gay romance author K.A. Mitchell
GETTING HIM BACK (Ethan & Wyatt, book one)BOYFRIEND MATERIAL (Ethan & Wyatt, book two) (August 2016)
“It is well written and entertaining in all the ways. But there is also an extra…sweetness to the tone which fits with the youth of the characters.”—Dear Author
The #gaymers series by Annabeth Albert
A new geektastic series from multipublished male/male romance author Annabeth Albert.
STATUS UPDATE (#gaymers, book one)BETA TEST (#gaymers, book two)CONNECTION ERROR (#gaymers, book three) (October 2016)
“This book was a perfect mix of sweet, angst and sexy. This book had it all.” —Gay Book Reviews on STATUS UPDATE, recommended read
The Sassy Boyz series by Elizabeth Varlet
Meet the Sassy Boyz, a group of androgynous male dancers in New York City who struggle to overcome difficult pasts to show that even damaged boys can find love.
FIERCE & FABULOUS (Sassy Boyz, book one)DARK & DAZZLING (Sassy Boyz, book two)
The Boundaries Series by A.R. Barley
Featuring an enemies-to-lovers romance, a professor–student relationship and a silver fox who falls for a drag queen, this series is all about testing—and breaking—all the boundaries.
OUT OF BOUNDS (The Boundaries Series, book one)AGAINST THE RULES (The Boundaries Series, book two)OUTSIDE THE LINES (The Boundaries Series, book three) (October 2016)
“A sweet, feel-good story of two young men who help each other heal.” —Gay Book Reviews on OUT OF BOUNDS
The Letting Go series by j. leigh bailey
These young men will have to let go of who they were to become all they can.
NOBODY’S HERO (Letting Go, book one)RECKLESS HOPE (Letting Go, book two)FIGHT TO FORGIVE (Letting Go, book three)
“I highly recommend this new-adult story to anyone who enjoys seeing the awkwardness of the late-teenage years blossom into young adulthood and the love for another that will not be denied.” —USA TODAY on NOBODY’S HERO, recommended read
Order your copies now!
Connect with us for info on our new releases, access to exclusive offers and much more!
We like you—why not like us on Facebook:
Follow us on Twitter:

In A.M. Arthur’s male/male romances, friends learn that there’s more to life and love than just sex—no matter how steamy it is!
“In depicting the hurts of living and the healing comfort of love, [A.M.] Arthur hits all the right notes.” —Publishers Weekly
The Belonging Series (New Adult)
NO SUCH THING (Belonging, book one)MAYBE THIS TIME (Belonging, book two)STAND BY YOU (Belonging, book three)
The Restoration Series (Contemporary Romance)
GETTING IT RIGHT (Restoration, book one)FINDING THEIR WAY (Restoration, book two)TAKING A CHANCE (Restoration, book three)
The All Saints series (Contemporary Romance)
COME WHAT MAY (All Saints, book one)
Order your copies now!
Connect with us for info on our new releases, access to exclusive offers and much more!
We like you—why not like us on Facebook:
Follow us on Twitter:

Signing up for our FREE eNewsletter is quick and easy!
Get the latest information from Carina Press, PLUS get access to members-only EXCLUSIVE deals and coupons! As an eNewsletter subscriber, you’ll get the inside scoop on everything Carina Press and be the first to know about our newest releases!
DON’T MISS OUT! Sign up now!
Connect with us for info on our new releases, access to exclusive offers and much more!
We like you—why not like us on Facebook:
Follow us on Twitter:

We think you have a good book in you!
Do you write in the below genres? Harlequin’s Carina Press wants to see your manuscript.
• Contemporary Romance• Romantic Suspense• Historical Romance• Paranormal Romance• Mystery• Erotic Romance• LGBT• Science Fiction & Fantasy
Submit today!
All manuscripts receive a thorough evaluation by a Carina Press editor and a decision within 12–16 weeks. What do you have to lose?
To learn more about our submission guidelines, visit

ISBN-13: 9781460397404
Fierce & Fabulous
Copyright © 2016 by Elizabeth Varlet

All rights reserved. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental. This edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher. Trademarks indicated with ® are registered are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the Canadian Intellectual Property Office and in other countries.