As I sat in the lavish waiting room, I reminisced about what had brought me to that day in the first place. In my never-ending quest to process the second most devastating event of my life, I’d decided it was better to put it down on paper in hopes of seeing the words on the page to receive more clarity than I’d been able to achieve in my thoughts and nightmares of that day. Of course, once I opened the floodgate of memories and a new Word document, it poured out of me to the tune of five-hundred and twenty-four pages, to be exact.
I’d written a book about the second heart-shattering event in my life and how the experience changed me from the fun-loving, carefree, college student I’d been before it happened, to the bitterly angry and mistrusting man I’d become. The first heart-shattering event had been a mere warm-up for the pain to come, and the first one involved the death of my parents.
The ‘what-ifs‘ had shredded my psyche for years. What if I’d been ten minutes later that day… would I have even known what had transpired? What if I’d been ten minutes earlier… could I have prevented it from happening at all? What if I’d stayed and allowed him to explain to me why he’d done what he’d done… could I have forgiven him? Would my life be a one-eighty from the hollow existence I’d been living all these years, or would things simply have run their course, and we’d have parted as friends?
“Mr. Marsh, Ms. Graves will see you now,” the perky receptionist instructed, pulling me from the memories. My heart was pounding in my chest, and my palms were sweating at the mere flash of that horrible event. It wasn’t the best time for me to take a tortured stroll down memory lane.
I rose from my seat, adjusted my tie and jacket, and grabbed my leather bag to follow the receptionist down a short hallway to a large, mahogany door. She knocked twice, and when the door opened, I was surprised to be greeted by a beautiful, blonde woman impeccably dressed in a blood red suit. Her bright blonde hair twisted up fashionably, and her big blue eyes echoed the smile on her face.
“Mr. Marsh, please come in. I’m Lily Graves. It’s a pleasure to meet the man behind so much creativity.”
I walked into the lush office and took her hand, shaking it. “Ms. Graves, it’s a pleasure to meet you, though I have to admit I expected you to be older. I’d have assumed the president of a successful publishing house would have had a few more birthdays under their belt,” I explained because I was sure the look on my face gave away my shock.
She laughed and extended her hand for me to take a seat as she strolled behind her desk and sat down. “Thank you, Mr. Marsh. I get that a lot, but I think you’re overestimating our success. Catnip Publishing is my mother’s baby. My brother and I recently took over the reins because she and Dad wanted to travel. She’s still involved, but not in the day-to-day details. We’re not as well-known as Byrdsong Publishing, but we’re making inroads into the market,” Ms. Graves informed me, mentioning my current publisher.
“I’m sure that it’s just a matter of time before you compete head-to-head with Byrdsong, Ms. Graves,” I responded.
She nodded in appreciation, I was assuming, before she spoke. “So, let’s get down to it, okay? What made you decide to leave the mystery genre and write a book like this? I’ve been reading your Caine Winslow mysteries since they first hit the shelves, and I understand your last book is now in its second printing. Tell me why you didn’t publish this book through Byrdsong? Candace didn’t tell me you’d severed your relationship with them,” Lily Graves inquired. I remembered the discussion Candace Byrd and I had had after I gave her the draft manuscript to read.
“Thornton, as your publisher for the last five years and your friend since junior year of college, I have to tell you the truth. I believe you’re making a mistake by writing gay erotica. I mean, the story has a lot of possibilities, but I just don’t see how I’d be able to get Dad to move on it. We’re much more mainstream here, and it’s not a direction I see him allowing us to go,” she explained. I knew it was a risk, but the story, or rather the memories, just wouldn’t let me go.
“Okay, how about another, less mainstream publisher? You’ve got connections, Candy. I really want to get it published,” I implored.
She sat for a moment and drummed her fingers on my kitchen table. “Can I give this to a friend of mine? She’s at a small publishing house, and they have a division specializing in erotica. I’ll get her feedback regarding the story and call you,” she responded with her perfect smile.
Candy called me a week later with a meeting time set, and we discussed some of her concerns regarding my brand. At the end of the day, she’d handed the manuscript off to the head of Catnip Publishing, and they wanted to meet with me.
“Ah, well, Byrdsong and I haven’t severed our professional relationship, per se, but this type of story isn’t one they would be interested in publishing and promoting. I still owe them a final Caine Winslow book, but I’ve yet to come up with a plot. Candace has agreed, as long as this book publishes under a pen name, it’s not a conflict if another house is willing to pick it up. The only stipulation Byrdsong demanded is my picture can’t appear on the jacket, and frankly, I feel the same way,” I stated, leaving no room for negotiation on the matter.
It was far too intimate a story for me to publicly acknowledge it was autobiographical. It was marketed as a work of fiction, and only a handful of people would know it to be anything else. No way was I ready to own that truth. I was still humiliated by the events. Writing the fucking book was supposed to be the first step forward to moving on with my life and letting go of my past. Owning it? No fucking way.
Ms. Graves glanced at her computer and clicked on something before she smiled a bit and looked back at me. “That’s not a problem, Mr. Marsh. We find, when marketing erotica, it’s rare a story reaches a level of fame where it would be necessary for book tours or a media blitz. The level of acceptance of this genre has only just started taking off.
“I’m not saying this book couldn’t reach a level of success where it might become more mainstream, but the demand for gay romantic erotica is still in its infancy. Once the housewives of America dipped their toes in the pool of sexually explicit fiction, they’ve become more willing to look at other pairings rather than simply male/female.”
I nodded in response, finding her research to match my own. “Well, I’ve found a great deal of gay erotic fiction online and even some published works, so I’m hoping maybe this book can pave the way for success in the genre that can reach that of other niche categories. Society has come a long way toward accepting alternative lifestyles, so maybe it’s time gay romance stopped being a dirty little secret,” I suggested.
“Well, let’s hope so. I, uh, I’ve got a few questions about the manuscript,” Ms. Graves responded, moving a finger on her laptop’s touchpad. Her lips moved a bit as she read something before she looked up to offer a smile. “Ah, okay, at the beginning of the story, the character, Ethan, is immediately smitten with Jeremy when they meet on the elevator. Do you feel that’s believable… that ‘all-consuming, love at first sight’ aspect?” she asked. It immediately took me back to the first time I laid eyes on Kennedy Catrelle.
“Hey, would ya hold that elevator?” The voice echoed down the hallway, catching my attention.
I reached up to grab the door and stuck out my head, seeing a blond-haired guy in a pair of basketball shorts and a holey t-shirt racing across the lobby of the dorm building. His hair was long and pulled back in a ponytail, and covering his eyes was a pair of aviator sunglasses. He was well-built and suntanned, and I didn’t think I’d ever seen a more beautiful guy in my life, not that I spent a lot of time looking at men.
He walked in and dropped the box in his hands on my foot, causing me to dance around a bit. “Shit, man, I’m sorry. It has been a crappy day all around. You okay?” he asked as the bell inside the elevator chimed because we’d had the door open for too long.
“I’m fine. Moving sucks, doesn’t it?” I offered, uncharacteristically attempting small talk. I wasn’t one to talk to strangers, ever, but there was something about the guy that put me at ease.
“Man, that’s an understatement. Kennedy Catrelle,” he responded as he stuck out his fist. I assumed it was for me to “bump” which was ridiculous, but I did it anyway.
“Thorn Marsh. What floor?” I asked since I was standing by the control panel.
He reached into the pocket of his t-shirt and pulled out a piece of paper. “Four, please.” He looked up to see the button already illuminated, and he turned to me with a toothy grin. “You on that floor as well?”
“Yeah, 404. You?” Every cell in my body was praying he was my roommate. I’d been resistant to contact the stranger I’d been assigned to share with because I was sure if I didn’t like the guy, I’d work myself into an ulcer and chicken out of even attending the school.
It was my parents’ dream for me to go to college, and after their deaths in a car accident, my Aunt Nora made it job one to keep me on track. It was mainly due to her love and support I’d accepted the scholarship from Gonzaga University instead of my father’s alma mater, Dartmouth. I wanted to be closer to her and my uncle, so I chose to stay close to home… well, at least within driving distance of Portland.
“I’m in 406. Guess we’re gonna be neighbors. So, you from Spokane?” he asked.
“Chicago, actually, but I moved to the area a couple of years ago after my parents died in an accident. My aunt and uncle live in Oregon, and since they’re my guardians, I wanted to be close. You?”
“With this accent? Naw. I’m from New York, but I was born in Texas and spent the summer down there helpin’ my grandparents on their ranch. That’s why the accent’s so damn thick. It’ll simmer down once I get used to bein’ around people who actually speak in full sentences. I didn’t want to be too close to home for college, so I decided to haul my ass all the way across the country from New York. Can’t get much farther away and stay on the continent, ya know?” We both laughed and agreed.
When the door opened, we both gathered our things and stepped into the hallway, walking in the direction of our rooms. Just as we both slipped our keys into the locks, Kennedy turned to look at me and pulled off the sunglasses. “I think we’re gonna have a great year, Thorn.” It was at that moment when I looked into his bright blue eyes and felt my heart skip a beat. I would come to believe that was the moment I fell in love with him…
I snapped out of the memory when I heard Ms. Graves’ nails drumming on top of her desk. “I’m sorry. I just needed to get my thoughts together. Based on the astronomical way in which the relationship implodes, I thought it was for the best to have the main characters feel instant chemistry. I believe it adds to the tension when I—Ethan walks into the bedroom and catches Jeremy with a woman.” Hell, I knew it did for me.
“Okay, uh, I guess that makes sense. So, the scene when Ethan kisses Jeremy the first time, I’m curious why you chose not to make it a drunken kiss and then build the tension from there. You know, Ethan waits for Jeremy to acknowledge it happened but Jeremy pretends he doesn’t remember to avoid the conversation? Why’d you take the direction of having the two of them get into an argument regarding a pair of underwear?”
“Boxer shorts,” I corrected with a laugh. That was a warm memory for me, and it still made me smile.
“Why are you wearing my boxers?” I asked Kennedy as we I stood in the laundry room of our dorm on a Sunday night. I was surprised to see the waistband of a pair of my drawers sticking out from Kennedy’s jeans, and I wanted to know what the fuck was going on.
I’d taken him home with me for the weekend to meet my aunt and uncle. We’d had such a great time, and it was becoming harder and harder to keep from telling him I had feelings for him other than friendship. He hadn’t dated anyone in the five months we’d been together at school, and we spent all of our time with each other, so if he was interested in a girl, I was sure I’d know it.
“Oh, when I got out of the shower this morning, I figured out I was out of shorts. You were downstairs in the kitchen with your aunt, so I went out of the bathroom on your side and snagged a pair from your bag. You always pack a lot of shit when you go home, so I knew you’d have an extra pair. I’ll wash ’em right now,” he explained as he began unbuttoning his pants. The idea of him standing in the laundry room without any pants on made my dick hard, and the sleep pants I was wearing were already tenting embarrassingly just by being in his presence.
“No! Just… just keep them on. It’s rude to go into someone’s things and take what you want, Kennedy. I don’t go into your room and Take. Your. Shit!” I shouted, trying to divert his eyes away from my boner.
He appeared to be shocked for a minute, which wasn’t a surprise because I wasn’t one to yell at anyone. He quickly took off his jeans and whisked down the boxers, throwing them at me with no warning. They landed on my head, but they didn’t cover my eyes because I saw he was just as hard as me.
“Don’t be a prick about it, okay? I’m sorry. It’s just… I just…” he mumbled as he pulled his jeans back on, stuffing his hard cock inside. It was too late to unsee it; the damage had been done. I removed the underwear from my head and took the two steps to cover the space between us. I grabbed his face with my hands and pulled it to me, planting my lips against the beautiful pink mouth that had haunted my dreams and my thoughts since the day I’d met him.
The surprise was when he grabbed my hips and pulled me into his body, rubbing his erection against mine hard enough to bring a moan from both of us. His tongue slid along my bottom lip, and I opened up to allow him entrance. At that moment, everything else in the whole world seemed to disappear. It was Kennedy and me—just the two of us. No one else existed.
“Well, I can’t really say why that plot point came up, but I liked the idea of it, so I went for it. Now, before we continue to dissect every reason why I chose to include something or why I didn’t include another thing in the story, which I have no problem doing if you’re serious, are we going to pursue a business relationship or are we just wasting each other’s time?” Discussing the book brought back memories, and if she was just nosy because she was a fan of my mystery novels, I was going to make short work of the meeting.
Suddenly, there was a loud clatter from another room before her computer chimed repeatedly. She hit a button and laughed. “Fine!” she shouted and then looked up at me with surprise. “I’m sorry, it’s just that some people are very impatient,” she yelled before she looked at me again, a smirk threatening to blossom on her pretty face.
“I can confirm, Mr. Marsh, we’re very interested in your book. Ordinarily, I’d have requested you bring your agent along for this meeting, but my brother isn’t available to today, so if you leave your information with my assistant, we’ll contact your people and hammer out the details regarding a schedule, an editor, and further negotiations regarding publishing the book. We very much want you to sign with us for this book and any future of the same genre.”
She typed something into her computer and turned her attention back to me with a smile. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to continue to explore some things with the manuscript. Let’s skip ahead to the cheating scene. I’m curious why you didn’t have Ethan and Jeremy discuss what happened that afternoon. Why did Ethan just take off and move to San Diego? If they loved each other so profoundly, wasn’t the relationship worth fighting for at least? You don’t give a reason why Jeremy slept with Annie in the first place, which leaves the affiliation unresolved.
“Ethan moves on in his life, but Jeremy’s memory doesn’t dim in his mind. Ethan has a series of one-night stands before he finally meets Alec, but even that relationship doesn’t discount the never-ending thoughts of Jeremy in Ethan’s mind. He and Alec make a life, but it doesn’t feel like an H-E-A. It just feels like Ethan settled. Will there be a sequel? Maybe something from Jeremy’s point-of-view?” she asked, paying very close attention to my words and body language to the point it was a bit unsettling.
How could I tell her she was spot on in her assessment without letting her know it wasn’t a happily-ever-after because I hadn’t ever gotten over Kennedy, much to the dismay of my last lover, Joey, a/k/a Alec. We decided to break up because I couldn’t care for him as much as he cared for me. The worst part of it was I wasn’t distraught when he left me. I was surprised he’d stuck around as long as he had.
“What? Do you mean a sequel where Ethan runs into Jeremy, and they get back together, living that H-E-A you referenced? Ms. Graves, I hate to break it to you, but real life doesn’t work that way, now does it? I was going for a bit of reality, along with a lot of sex. I suppose if you insist on wrapping up the Ethan/Jeremy relationship in a pretty package, I can try to work one up, but I’m not sure how Ethan would resolve the issues he’d have with Jeremy if they did cross paths again,” I replied, but then my mind ran away with me.
“How would Ethan ever trust Jeremy again after what he walked in on with Annie? What could Jeremy possibly tell him to erase the heart-wrenching pain he’d inflicted on the man who loved him more than life itself? The profound heartbreak I, uh, Ethan suffered at finding his lover, the man he believed to be his soul mate, fucking a woman on their shared bed would be tough to forgive.” I felt tears welling in my eyes, so I looked down, hoping she didn’t see them.
I cleared my throat and decided to throw her a bone. “Maybe I can rework the Alec/Ethan relationship and give it more energy and a better resolution? I realize its rather one-sided at that point, but maybe Ethan can put more effort into the relationship, so it feels like he’s healed enough to be able to move on?” I tossed out, the thought of even considering it soured my stomach.
She didn’t seem happy with my suggestion. “Well, that’s one way to go, but you’re still going to need a reason why Jeremy cheated. Otherwise, how would Ethan be able to get over it without it seeming as though the relationship didn’t mean as much to him as you’ve initially led the reader to believe,” she assessed.
She looked at her computer again, and I decided she was too preoccupied with something else for me to rip open my heart and spill the pain I felt every time I thought of Kennedy so she could pick through it.
“Ms. Graves, why don’t you let me get you a draft with the Alec/Ethan relationship tweaked a bit? I’ll consider everything you’ve said, and I’ll see if we can reach a middle ground,” I stated as I began gathering my things to leave.
“Mr. Marsh, you can tell me to fuck off if you’d like. The emotions in this manuscript are so poignant that I can’t help but believe a lot of this comes from personal experience. I get the impression someone you loved and trusted was careless with your heart. Am I right?” she pried.
I was about to lash out at her and tell her to, indeed, fuck off. I looked up at her so she’d see and understand that, in no uncertain terms, was I going to share anything personal with her. Unfortunately, when I looked into her eyes, there were unshed tears and some pain I didn’t understand.
My anger immediately evaporated. “Ms. Graves, are you able to see the emotion because it’s something you’ve experienced yourself?”
She reached for a tissue and quickly dried her pretty eyes. “Actually, I have experience with both sides of the relationship coin, Mr. Marsh. You see, I had a boyfriend back in high school who cheated with a friend of mine. I was young at the time, and it wasn’t true love. It did, however, leave an impression on my heart,” she offered sincerely.
She sniffled a bit before continuing. “That’s not why I can see the pain in you, though. Someone I’m very close with was unfaithful to someone who didn’t deserve it, you see. Not only was that person hurt badly, but my friend was also nearly destroyed by the guilt. Life is too short to live with so much pain and regret, I believe.”
She was so earnest that it touched me deep inside. “What happened to your friend?” I asked.
“I think that’s something—” she began.
Just then, a door opened behind her, and I lost the ability to breathe.
To be continued…