Cover Art by Meredith Russell
The Book
Written with Meredith Russell...

Blu Taylor is an artist. After years of trailing up and down the country with his activist parents, he finally found somewhere to call home. He sees color and art in the world around him, and yet is never truly part of it. Despite the devotion and financial support of his best friend, there's a line he can't see through and that keeps him just on the outside of everything and everyone else.

Thomas Harrington has everything. The money, the car and the designer suits. But there's something missing from a seemingly perfect life. Something he had the misfortune of losing when his mother was taken ill.

After attending a local art show, Blu is contacted by Tom and offered everything he has ever wanted; a chance to show at a gallery. Though there is a growing attraction between the men, their worlds couldn't be more apart. Blu speaks through paint and brushes and Tom's life is wrapped up in words and paperwork.

Though opposites attract, it might be these same differences that push them apart.





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Reviews

Hearts on Fire Reviews - 5/5 -  "....The writers actually had me teary eyed at one point. And when a book hits me on an emotional level like that I usually rate high. They deserve it. The writing was crisp, clean, and realistic...."

MM Good Book Reviews - 4/5 - "....So for this one, I recommend it to those who love artists and businessmen, a sweet love, a bit of conflict, wonderful lovemaking and a happy ending...."

Dark Diva Reviews - 5/5 - "....Ms. Scott and Ms. Russell show the depth of both Blu and Tom’s insecurities without emasculating either character...."

Randy's Book Bag Reviews - "....Over the past few months I’ve become a fan of RJ Scott’s work and this novella certainly holds to her unique style to some degree but there is also a large flavor that can only be attributed to the contribution of her writing partner on this project...."


Excerpt

Chapter 1

"Just a minute!"

Blu Taylor was an outsider, lost in a world he knew nothing about. He'd been invited in, and he'd accepted, but the experience had so far left him with sweating palms and the inability to string a sentence together in conversation. He just needed a moment to collect his thoughts. These people were so different from him and everything he believed he stood for. Rich men in expensive suits and perfectly made-up women in cocktail dresses circulated the studio, and money was being thrown around like it was going out of fashion. The music was loud and the lights dim, and his best friend banging on the bathroom door was only adding to the pain growing behind his eyes.

"Blu, you need to be out here," his friend called through the locked door.


Blu turned on the faucet and held his hands under the cold running water. He wasn't sure he needed to be anywhere. He wasn't sure this was actually real.

"I know you're in there!"

Just go away. Blu shut off the water and closed his eyes. Nobody would even notice he'd disappeared. His name wouldn't even provoke a raised eyebrow among these people. He was no one, a wannabe. Shaking the water from his hands, he pressed the backs of them to his cheeks as he looked in the mirror above the sink. It was warm in the studio, and he had heated red patches down the side of his neck and beneath the collar of the simple white T-shirt he wore.

"Blu," his friend said, persevering despite being ignored, "don't make me cause a scene. Because I will, and you know it."

He did know it. This was all Jackson's fault anyway, his and that stupid flyer's. So, a month ago, Jackson had come home after a night of heavy drinking, burst into Blu's room at three in the morning, and dropped less than daintily on the end of Blu's bed. He'd been at some swanky party, where drinking anything other than the hundred-dollar bottles of champagne would have been frowned upon, and there apparently it had been—a flyer on the bar for an upcoming art show, and with it a call for unknown artists to compete for an invitation. Jackson knew the word to focus on. Free exhibit space, free drink, free food, and with it, free promotion. It was all free, assuming Blu entered a portfolio piece and got selected. At three in the morning, and with Jackson bouncing above him on the bed, Blu would have agreed to anything.

Sighing, he moved his cool hands down across his hot skin. What the hell had he been thinking? He could have been back at the apartment working to earn the advance he'd been given just that morning.

"Blu. Blu. Blu."

Was he five years old? Blu listened to the continual call of his name. It was getting louder. Wiping his hands dry on his jeans, he looked in the mirror at his glassy hazel eyes. He'd never put himself in the spotlight like this before. The whole experience of these people and their money was overwhelming. Taking a deep breath, he flashed himself a smile. It was only half-convincing, but it would have to do.

"Blu. Blu. Bl—" Jackson shut up as Blu pulled open the bathroom door. He eyed Blu up and down and flashed a mischievous smile. "I'm slightly disappointed." When Blu looked at him curiously, he added, "I was hoping you'd hooked up with one of the suits. Thought maybe I'd be getting that rent you owe me."

"I haven't paid rent in three years," Blu reminded him.

Jackson sighed. "Exactly."

Blu studied his friend for a moment. Jackson was someone Blu could never quite figure out. He had a dry, yet wicked, sense of humor, and Blu was often confused by it. Like now. Did he want Blu to start paying rent? His answer came eventually, as Jackson's composure cracked and he began to laugh.

"Your face," Jackson said, and raised the beer bottle he had in his hand. "To relaxing and enjoying ourselves." He met Blu's eyes as he made the toast. "To getting you noticed."

"To making it out alive," Blu added, and took Jackson's beer. "To keeping our wits about us." He put the bottle down on a nearby table. He watched Jackson's face fall as his friend looked sadly at the half-finished beer. It was for his own good. Jackson had been brought up with these kinds of people, and now at twenty-five, he had a silly notion of rebelling. Blu was already uncomfortable enough without Jackson acting out.

Luckily, Jackson seemed to take the hint. "Fine," he said, and ran a hand through his short, spiked blond hair. He spun around as Blu motioned back toward the main exhibition area. "But we're going to mingle, and I mean we."

Blu knew Jackson was right. What was the point in being here if he wasn't going to make the most of it? "Sure, but don't you dare leave me alone with any of them. You chase women on your own time." Jackson disliked the arrogant divas, but it wouldn't stop him from banging one, given the chance.

"Whatever," Jackson said above the music as they made their way through the numerous exhibits. "Just don't screw this up."

Walking through the studio made Blu feel even more inferior than usual. The space was filled with artwork, most by people he'd never heard of, but having looked repeatedly at the price tags, he assumed they must be something special. It was interesting to see what people considered art, but there were some genuinely exciting pieces hidden between the pretentious nonsense. Thousands of dollars for something that looked like mangled food cans? He stopped and stared at the twisted metal object that sat on a plinth. These people lived in an alien world.

"You've got visitors." Jackson rested a hand on Blu's shoulder and smiled. "They look really keen," he said with a hint of sarcasm.

Blu looked toward the back corner of the studio. He and the half-dozen other selected artists had been grouped together in the small area. Each of them had been invited to display four or five pieces of their work. He looked at the two men Jackson had pointed out. Neither seemed particularly interested in any of the art surrounding them.

"Tough crowd," Jackson noted. The attention of one man was focused on his smart phone, and the second man was holding a glass of wine loosely in his hand and a leaflet in the other, seemingly bored as he stared at the gallery of work in front of him. "You should go and talk to them. Brighten their day."

Blu looked between the two men. How hard could it be to introduce himself? "About what?" He met Jackson's green eyes, noting the incredulous look in them. "What?"

"Oh, I don't know. Scuba diving?"

It took a moment for Jackson's suggestion to register. "Very funny," Blu said, and shook his head as he tried to clear his sweeping bangs from his forehead. He admired the designer suits both men were wearing. He really should have worn a shirt.

"Go on before someone else does," Jackson said, reminding him of his competition. He kept forgetting the idea of getting a spot in the studio was to promote his work.

He'd gotten this far, though he wasn't quite sure how. Before he could talk himself out of it, Blu stepped forward. Focused, Blu made a line straight for the two men. Suddenly, there he was, standing beside them. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Say something. He looked over his shoulder at Jackson for help, but Jackson simply waved his hands, urging him onward.

"Are you okay?"

Blu froze and stared across the room at Jackson. Unhelpfully, Jackson laughed and turned away.

"Hello?" The word was said slowly, as if its owner were coaxing a child to speak.

Embarrassed, Blu turned his head and met a pair of inquisitive blue eyes. "Hi," he managed. "Sorry. I'm the artist…" He pointed up at the wall. "I thought I should introduce myself." He extended his hand, praying it wasn't shaking too badly. "Blu Taylor." He was relieved as the man took the offered hand.

"Harry Dalton," the man said. "And my friend here is Tom Harrington." He glanced sideways at his preoccupied companion before giving Blu's hand a firm shake. He released it, allowing his thumb to run over Blu's skin in a heated touch. He smiled, turning back to the art as he said, "So these belong to you?" He looked at the four pieces, giving nothing away. "Not bad for a first showing." His smile brightened, though Blu was hesitant to believe it was as genuine as it appeared.

"Thank you," Blu said. He was kind of relieved.

"You're very welcome." Was this guy flirting with him? "Actually, I remember this one," Harry suddenly said as he pointed to a male portrait. "Your portfolio piece."

Blu looked up at the painted canvas. He'd chosen the piece for two reasons. It was an image he believed the organizers would see as something they could readily sell but also one that retained something of himself and his style. "You've seen it before?"

Harry nodded. "It's very revealing." He turned to the man beside him. "Tom." He smiled as his companion momentarily lifted his head from his phone. Harry seemed keen to engage the guy in conversation. "It's one of the entries we discussed."

The guy feigned a half-interested smile. Blu thought he was going to say something until the screen of his phone lit up, and his attention was gone just as quickly as his interest. Saying nothing, the guy raised a hand and took the call.

Another suit with too much money. Blu watched the man walk away with the phone pushed firmly to his ear.

"He's a busy man." Harry swirled his wine around his glass before taking a drink. He pressed his lips together and seemed to make a decision. "Excuse me for a moment." Harry rested the palm of his hand against the small of Blu's back as he moved past him, their bodies brushing against each other, as he followed after his friend.

Blu watched him leave. That wasn't so bad. It felt like an achievement. He sighed as he spied on the two men. Harry waited almost unnoticed at his friend's side, and Blu found it kind of sad and also a little too familiar. He knew the feeling of being unseen.

"So, how'd it go?"

Blu jumped as Jackson appeared at his side. He wished someone would turn down the music. "It was fine," he replied in a raised voice.

"Just fine?" Jackson stared at the artwork behind them. "Why'd you pick these anyway?"

Blu looked up at his work. "What do you mean?"

His friend shrugged. "I've seen your work," Jackson said. "These seem rather…" He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "Normal."

Blu leaned closer to Jackson to be heard above the music. The band was reaching a crescendo in the current song. "The only reason I'm here is because of him." He nodded toward the portrait. "It's obviously what people are looking for."

Jackson didn't seem to agree. "Look around. They're young and rich. They'll throw money at what they think is seen to be cool. Don't get me wrong. These pieces are great. I just prefer the stuff you do out there." Jackson gestured with a wave of his hand toward the dark night beyond the impressive floor-to-ceiling windows.

Blu sighed inwardly. The art he did out there was a different thing entirely; wild and exaggerated pieces, inspired by the city and its people. He enjoyed creating them. The bold blocks of color, and the fact he did most during his time as a street artist on the streets and in the parks, just gave them an edgier feel. Blu looked at the portrait, and the damn thing stared back down at him through dark, painted eyes. Was it judging him too? No, these had been the right pieces to show tonight. These were about putting himself on show as a commodity that people would actually be interested in buying into. If he could be accepted here, then he could be accepted anywhere. Each image here was still part of him, reflecting something of himself. From the sad eyes of the male portrait edged in deep reds and blues to the interlocking fingers of two obviously male hands, these works were representatives of himself. So screw anybody that didn't approve.

"Which reminds me," Jackson continued. "Did you go to that meeting I set up for you?"

Blu nodded. Of course he'd gone. He might have all the social skills of a kid high on too much sugar, but he wasn't stupid. The Laughing Dolls wanted an artist to create the perfect image for them, and Blu knew he was good enough. He could give them exactly what they wanted.

"And?"

He smiled, teasing as he kept Jackson waiting, until he finally confessed, "They gave me an advance."

Jackson curled his hand into a fist and looked like he was about to punch the air. He seemed more excited than Blu. "I knew it. This is going to be awesome."

Laughing, Blu wrapped his hand around Jackson's fist. "It's one gig. It might not lead anywhere."

"It's all about promotion and word of mouth." Jackson stopped and looked at Blu. A wide smile spread across his face. He seemed genuinely excited. "One band tells another band, and before you know it, you're making U2's next album cover."

It was nice to see one of them so positive about it. It was one album cover for an unsigned band who played the local bar scene. He had a long way to go before Bono came calling. "Thanks." He turned to look behind him and across the room. He noticed the two men from before, surprised as the one on the cell phone—the pretty one with dark hair and soulful brown eyes—leaned in and quickly kissed the second on the cheek before leaving.

"This could be the start of something big for you, Blu," Jackson said encouragingly. He was still looking at the wall of artwork. "I might have to start charging rent."

"Sure," Blu agreed, only half-listening as he met Harry's eyes through the crowd. He instinctively raised a hand and waved. Harry smiled and looked at Blu from over his wine glass. His eyes seemed to narrow thoughtfully as he tilted his head to one side and swung his glass between loose fingers. Blu might be a gay man, and he certainly wasn't an innocent, but he felt confused by the look Harry was giving him. Nobody had looked at him like that in a long time. He lowered his eyes, embarrassed by the attention. In truth, nobody had looked at him like anything in quite a while. People didn't want to see the stories a street artist's eyes held. Ducking his head, he raised his eyes and shyly returned Harry's smile. It was then something unexpected happened. With a seductive sway, Harry made his way through the crowded room, headed straight for Blu.



* * * *



Blu wasn't sure what he was expecting the morning after. The sex had been okay. It was just two guys using each other to get off. Harry was just a little on the arrogant "fuck the poor guy" side. Being topped by someone who seemed to find it delicious to be banging the guy off the street was evidenced by the labels he'd thrown at Blu while he was being fucked. Apparently he should like it rough, want it now, and various other bad porn-talk throwaway lines. Blu was so out of there, and as soon as Harry was snoring contentedly, he gathered his stuff as quietly as he could and let himself out of the seventeenth floor apartment. Feeling like a reject from some Pretty Woman storyline, he managed to avoid most human contact and found himself out on the street at ass o'clock in the morning. Gathering his bearings, he realized his options were limited. Five dollars in coins was not going to get him a taxi back to the loft, and it wasn't fair to phone Jackson to come get him when it was—he peered at his cell phone screen in the dark—three o'clock. Okay. A walk back home was his only real option, and peace stole over him as his feet hit the sidewalk.

The streets were his. Every corner he turned held the promise of a new view of this beautiful city. Every step could hold inspiration for his next piece of art. He stopped and examined graffiti on walls and doors in the early morning light then crouched down and looked at the curious tracings of mud and water at the back of a grocery shop. The chance for art was evident in every single thing he saw. He dodged the people sleeping in doorways snuggled deep in blankets and paper, and he whistled as he crossed the bridge. No one spoke to him; no one told him he shouldn't be walking. The city was his until it began to wake. The first things to break the peace were the dump trucks collecting garbage and the early morning cops clearing the doorways, followed by the guys in suits clutching coffee and talking into cell phones.

As he hit his own neighborhood and passed Vera's coffee shop, the city had really begun its slow rise to wakefulness. As the morning brightened and the sun claimed the night, eerie shadows made Blu stop and stare. The streetwalkers on Third eyed him with the jaded suspicion of experience as he stopped to look at the patterns on the walls of the converted warehouses in the old industrial district. He moved on, and according to his built-in body clock, it was somewhere around seven am, and he was hungry.

Letting himself into Jackson's loft, he sighed as he closed the door behind him. He was home. The vast main room was silent and tidy. Not that he and Jackson were tidy by any means, but Jackson's money paid for a twice-weekly visit by a maid service.

A sleepy voice came from his left. "Blu?" A disheveled Jackson came out of his room, yawning widely. Blu wasn't entirely sure what Jackson did for a living—something way past clever to do with accounts and money—but Jackson was running late if he hoped to be in the office at eight. "You're back," Jackson added on another yawn.

"Yeah," Blu answered, just for something to say. He crossed to the coffee machine, all stainless steel and shiny buttons, filled it with water, and pressed the right combination for sweet white coffee. When his was finished, he created a strong black cup for Jackson and then sat next to his friend, who was slumped tiredly on a bar stool at the counter.

"What happened to the guy?"

"I give him a two for topping," Blu answered immediately. Ever since they had met a little over three years before, the two men had been scoring their hook-ups from one to ten. A two was pathetic. Giving marks for topping made the hook-up even more pathetic.

"Meh," Jackson managed to say before nearly inhaling the black caffeine. Blu watched as his best friend went from near comatose to normal human being as the coffee hit his bloodstream. "A two," Jackson said finally. "Shit. That's bad."

"It wasn't that he was bad," Blu said quickly. "He was just…" He searched for the right word. "Entitled."

Jackson winced. "Sorry."

"Wasn't anything to do with you," Blu responded on a laugh.

"I made you go talk to them."

"I decided to have sex with the guy."

Jackson looked at him with his patented worried expression. It was the same expression he had worn perpetually since they'd first met. It hadn't been a proud moment for either of them as they'd bonded at the city lockup over the supposed responsible adults in their lives. The same responsible adults they were both there to bail out. Blu's parents had been on one of their monthly causes, charged with a breach of the peace, while Jackson's father had been brought in on a DUI. Dysfunctional families seemed to be the glue that cemented their friendship, and they'd shared the urge to leave it behind and find their own way in the world. The difference between them was Jackson had the money to do it. Blu was the struggling artist with no education. His appearance at the jail had been more about moral support than actually being able to help while Jackson was negotiating and calling lawyers left, right, and center.

"Rich guys aren't all assholes," Jackson offered. He made himself another black coffee and leaned in as Blu hugged him from behind.

"Why can't you be gay, Jack? Then all my problems would be solved."

It was an age-old argument and one in which Jackson always gave the same answer.

"And miss out on all the boobs that get thrust my way? No deal, Blu Taylor."

Blu chuckled and released his hold. "You're gonna be late. You do know it's way past seven, right?"

Jackson turned to face him, and Blu saw the exhaustion bracketing his friend's eyes. A run of late nights and an overindulgence in alcohol was taking its toll this week.

"I own the company, Blu. I think I can be late once this year."

"Don't blame me when your stocks hit the floor," Blu said. He tried to keep a straight face.

"Fuck off." There was no heat in Jackson's tone. He yawned again and made his way across the wood floor to his room. "M'going back to bed."

"I'll phone Margaret then?"

Whatever Jackson's reply had been was lost in a mumbled sentence as the door to his room closed behind him. Blu dialed Jackson's office and told Margaret, the den mother type who kept Landsing Investments on the straight and narrow, Jackson wouldn't be in. She made some noise about appointments and meetings, but Blu tuned it out until, finally, she snapped a hurried goodbye, and the phone call ended.

Coffee and cereal in hand, Blu sat on what he considered his end of the huge ice-white leather sofa. Last night had pretty much been a waste of his time. He hadn't sold a painting and he hadn't connected to some wealthy patron who would put him up for his own show. All that had happened was a more than disappointing hook-up with Mr Richie Rich. Not exactly the night he had hoped for.

His cell vibrated, and he looked at the screen. It wasn't a number he recognized, so he ignored the call. It vibrated once more, but whoever was trying to contact him didn't leave a voicemail. Probably a misdial. He watched TV for a good twenty minutes before he realized he wasn't even listening. After putting his bowl in the dishwasher, he went into the third bedroom of the loft, the room that Jackson had said he could use. The room that had once been a dumping ground for rubbish was now the place where he created art. A huge skylight let natural illumination flood the space, and his easel stood directly beneath it. Paintings leaned against the pristine white walls, and a small table held brushes and paints and a pile of rags.

It had once been a nothing room, and now, it was Blu's art room. His sanctuary. Where, according to Jackson, he was going to create great things.

He had an album cover to design. Paying work. Not much admittedly but enough to make him feel like a paying member of society. He inserted the CD into the player and glanced at the playlist. For one second, he had that overwhelming need to be able to read the list. He pushed it from his mind. Jackson could explain the titles later. Dyslexia was a bitch at the best of times, but sometimes, like now, when he was immersed in the music and the magic of his art wound its way around his head, words didn't matter.




Chapter 2



It was Blu's turn to cook, and he had his hands full when his cell started moving on the work surface next to him. Jackson grabbed it when it let out the piercing chorus from "Bad Romance".

"Jesus, Blu, your music taste sucks balls," he grumped as he connected the call. "Blu's phone."

Blu turned and grinned at his friend. They would never agree on music or TV or film, or anything really. That was probably why they were still friends after all these years. He was curious who was on the other end of the call. Not many people actually had his number, and judging from Jackson's raised eyebrows, it was probably a sales call.

"Okay," his friend was saying, "I can pass that on to him…seven…no problem."

"Jackson," Blu said, "who is it?"

Jackson held up his other hand to forestall Blu asking questions, and Blu just shrugged and turned back, poking at the baked potatoes to see if they were ready.

"An extensive skill range. I can vouch for that…definitely…seven…thank you, he'll be there."

Call ended, Jackson came to stand next to Blu and placed the cell phone carefully next to the butter.

"Who was it?" Blu asked curiously as he placed the steaks on the plate and added a potato. Expecting some monologue against the telecom world harassing poor innocent cell users, he was shocked when Jackson only said one thing.

"We need to get you a suit."

That really wasn't what Blu had been expecting. Concern filled him quickly. What was wrong?

"What? Jackson, what?" he asked.

"That was the office of a guy named Thomas Harrington the Third." Jackson couldn't seem to help the snigger that left his mouth as he said the full name.

"Okay?" Shit. Were his mom and dad in trouble with the cops again? Jeez, that was just what he needed. His hippy parents had only just come out of their last run-in with the authorities. With a name like Thomas Harrington the Third, the guy had to be a lawyer. Disappointment at his family began to build inside him, and suddenly, it was important Jackson just get on with it and tell him. "What did they want?"

"Seems like this Harrington guy wants to meet you, tomorrow at seven at The Café."

Blu blinked. He was confused. Why would his parents' lawyer want to meet him at the most expensive restaurant in the city?

"What?" That really was the best he could come up with.

"He was at the show last night, and he loves your work and wants to meet you. Maybe discuss, and I quote, 'How the office of Thomas Harrington the Third can help Mr. Blu Taylor's move into commercial sales'. That has gotta be company speak for funding, Blu, or patronage."

"At the show. My work. Funding." Shock had him summarizing what he had just heard into manageable chunks.

"Like I said." Jackson looked him up and down, and Blu knew what he was seeing. Blu hadn't changed out of last night's white Armani T-shirt, borrowed from Jackson which was now covered in paint, and the jeans he wore were the comfortable ones with the rips. "We need to get you a suit."



* * * *



This wasn't the first trip to Jackson's menswear shop of choice. Blu's role was normally to watch and help decide and to tell Jackson what looked nicest on him. It was a trip made at least three times a year wherein Jackson spent an obscene amount of money on clothes for his tall six-three frame. He always added in clothes that turned out to be unfortunately too small for him. It was Jackson's way of buying shit for Blu, and as yet, Blu had never called him on it. This time, though, it was Blu who was standing in the changing room with a young guy fawning over him and telling him how the cut of the suit made Blu look very sophisticated.

"I'm not going for sophisticated," Blu bemoaned to Jackson. Jackson, the bastard, just lay back in his sofa-type chair and sniggered.

"Turn round," Jackson encouraged. Blu did. "Your ass looks fine in that."

Blu strained to see in the mirror then realized Jackson was teasing him. Still didn't matter, 'cause hell yes, his ass did look good if he said so himself.

The suit was the cheapest of the ones Jackson had pulled from racks for him to try. At five eleven, slim hipped and broad chested, Blu was eminently suited to the pants and jacket. The crisp apple green shirt made his eyes look good, suited his wallet, and satisfied his artist's eye for color. He let Jackson choose the tie, some combination of green and black, and then he ended up standing at the register for the purchases to be rung up.

When the total displayed on the small customer screen, Blu felt ill. He might be useless with words, but he mostly understood numbers. This whole get-up was going to cost him more than five times his simple advance from the band. Jackson and he didn't discuss how to pay; his friend simply added it to his account, and not for the first time, the word freeloader reared its ugly head in Blu's mind. Suddenly overwhelmed and with emotion choking his throat, he pulled Jackson to a stop when they were outside the shop. The press of humanity swarmed around them, but Blu focused only on Jackson.

He had so much to say to his friend and so many thoughts he wanted to put into words. His gratitude for a friendship that went above and beyond the call of normal friends. Jackson's unconditional support, both financial and emotional. He couldn't take those thoughts and form them into a rational sentence.

"I love you," he half-whispered, almost wondering if Jackson had heard him. Jackson smiled, and then his smile quirked into a wide grin and his green eyes sparked with mischief.

"I'm still straight," he intoned with a smirk.

"Fuck you, Middleton," Blu snapped in quick retaliation but said it without heat. Jackson pulled him in for a quick hug, and then they separated.

"Hey, I got the suit, so coffee is on you."



* * * *



Why had he let Jackson talk him into this? He'd spent the last day and a half lost among canvases and paint. He just couldn't focus on anything and must have started over a dozen or more times. The meeting with Thomas Harrington the Third, as Jackson enjoyed reminding him of the full title, was now less than an hour away. He'd spent the last two hours showering and scrubbing paint off his hands, arms, and face, and hunting for his one and only pair of dress shoes. Blu stared at himself in the full-length mirror on his closet door and ran a hand over the neat creases down the sleeve of the pale green shirt, letting his finger and thumb linger over the cufflinks Jackson had loaned him. Couldn't he have just gotten buttons? Twisting the emerald-studded piece of metal, he closed his eyes and then brought his arms down to his sides. Opening his eyes, he looked at himself. This was as good as it was going to get. Frustrated, he brushed his bangs across his forehead and firmly ran his hands backward above each ear. Fuck.

His hair was a force of nature, and sometimes he swore it was under the wayward influence of his parents. But he was who he was, and he couldn't imagine ever venturing into Jackson's corporate world of short back and sides with more product slicked through his hair than the wax on, wax off scene from The Karate Kid. In a last-ditch attempt, he combed his fingers through his hair, hoping to tame the dark, sweeping bangs. He'd learned his lesson. Extra volume shampoo was indeed the devil.

"You ready?" Jackson slapped his hand loudly against the back of Blu's door as he leaned around the frame and stuck his head into the room. He smiled brightly as he met Blu's eyes in the mirror. "Looking good."

Blu didn't disagree, and yet, he knew he looked uncomfortable in the dark gray wool and cashmere suit. "I think I might be coming down with something." He gave Jackson a pathetic look.

"You're going." Jackson wasn't going to listen to his excuses. "Even if I have to drive you myself and go in with you."

A chaperone would be embarrassing, but then, on the other hand…

"So, you know what you're ordering?" Jackson asked.

Blu nodded. They'd gone through this a couple of times. "Pass on the appetizer, stick with the house white if offered wine, and then the meal was the third one down on the right of the third page, which was basically a foodie's version of chicken and potatoes—chicken al mattone."

Jackson grinned. "Which means?"

He just needed to order the damned thing. Rolling his eyes, Blu recited, "Basically someone's flattened it with a brick."

"Perfect." Jackson beamed proudly. "You are ready to be released into the civilized world. Go forth and eat, drink, and fuck. Oh, and make lots of money."

"There will be no fucking." He was sure of that. "I'm still getting over my night with entitled guy. And besides, not every guy I know is gay." He turned from the mirror. "Though I suppose there's still time."

Jackson gave a comical shudder as he stepped into Blu's room. "How about we make a deal?" he suggested as he walked up to Blu and began to straighten Blu's tie.

Blu loved Jackson for that. His friend never hesitated around him, and there was never any awkwardness between them. "Okay."

"In forty years time, if we're still living in this place, me, working at Landsing, and you, not paying any rent, then I promise I'll let you suck my wrinkly old cock," he said. "It's the least I can do." He rested a hand on Blu's shoulder and looked at him seriously. "I love you, man."

"Fuck off." Blu laughed as he pushed Jackson's hand away. "You're such a dick." There was no malice to his words. He knew what Jackson was doing, and somehow it had worked. The feeling of foreboding didn't line his stomach quite as heavily as it had moments before.

Jackson stepped back and looked at Blu in the mirror. He seemed pleased with what he saw as he smiled and assured Blu. "You'll do fine."



Blu nodded. He could do this.


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