“So, who’s going to be at this party tonight?” Michael asked while Asher put the finishing touches on his famous seven-layered, black beans and guacamole salad. Asher sprinkled shredded cheese over top of the dish he had promised to make for tonight. He snapped the lid in place and set the bowl in the refrigerator.
“Just a few of Ian and Milo’s friends,” Asher’s words were muffled, as he spoke with his head stuck inside the fridge. “Why?” He asked, once he backed away from the chilly icebox.
Michael quickly reached in and grabbed a beer before the door closed. He popped the cap and took a long draw from the bottle. Condensation instantly coated the glass in the warm apartment. While leaning against the countertop, Michael shrugged his wide shoulders. His fingers picked at a tear in the bottle’s label as a crimson blush crept along his handsome face, thick with a day’s worth of black stubble.
Asher inched closer to him. One step forward, and Michael slid over to the side, further out of Asher’s reach. “Michael?” Asher waited for an answer. When he didn’t respond, Asher caught Michael’s chin and forced him to look him in the eyes. “Hey, babe, what’s going on?”
The muscles flexed in Michael’s jaw. His hard gaze matched his stiff posture. “Have you and Ian ever…” Michael’s words trailed off.
“Is that what this is about?” Asher rolled his eyes and let out a sigh of relief. “Christ, Mikie, you scared the shit out me for a second. No, Ian and I have never dated. We grew up together. He and Paul have always been like brothers to me.”
Smiling with fond childhood memories, Asher opened up about his past. “Ian’s family lived three houses down from us, but it wasn’t until we started kindergarten that we became friends. His mom was very overprotective--”
“More than Lilly Burkhart?” Michael teased.
Asher playfully punched his arm. “Believe it or not, yes!”
Michael’s eyes crinkled when he smiled and Asher continued with his story. “On the first day of school, none of the other kids on the bus would let Ian sit with them. He was awkward and kind of geeky. A couple of the older kids were calling him bookworm, so Paul and I scrunched into our seat to make room for skinny little Ian to join us. We instantly clicked, and the three of us have been best friends ever since. So, you see,” Asher said placing a hand on either side of the countertop, trapping Michael between his arms, “the only love between Ian and me is purely brotherly love.”
Milo answered the door with a bottle of wine and two empty glasses in his hands. “Come in, mates! Come in!” He greeted Asher and Michael by giving each a glass and generously filling it to the brim, before pulling both guys into a quick hug. Soft music played in the background from somewhere inside the condo as Milo ushered them inside.
Pickwick Row was a funky urban neighborhood on the west side of town that catered to fresh new artists, all fighting for coveted wall space at the trendy new art galleries on Pollock Drive. It was also a haven for young talented street performers and bold slam poets who filled the cafés with their edgy rhymes.
“Ian is finishing up in the kitchen if you want to take that in and see if he needs any help.” Milo motioned to the bag Asher carried with them.
Giving Michael a reassuring wink, Asher left him with Milo as he headed in search of his friend.
“And tell him to hurry up so he can get that cute little ass out here and join us,” Milo shouted when Asher reached the kitchen doorway.
“Dude, I’m sorry, but I’m not taking any responsibility for your boyfriend’s ass, no matter how cute it may be.” Asher twitched his butt as he sashayed away, laughing with every step.
Michael stood there while Asher and Milo teased each other. After Asher disappeared into the kitchen, Milo turned and asked Michael if he wanted to meet the rest of the guests congregating in the living room. Milo had barely finished introducing Mark and Kelly when the doorbell rang again.
“Make yourself at home, Michael,” Milo said racing back to the door.
Vibrant colors and bold materials decorated the condo. Mark and Kelly shared a petite leather loveseat, leaving the couch and two overstuffed chairs unoccupied. Michael easily settled into the chair across from the young couple and started a conversation.
“How long have you known Milo and Ian?” Michael asked.
While waiting for their host to return, Kelly explained to him that she and Mark lived three floors down. “We became friends with them when our cat got lost in the building. The guys helped me search all night until we finally found Kiki-Kaboodle curled up, asleep in a basket of clothes, down in the laundry room.”
Mark rolled his eyes at his girlfriend as she recounted how they had met Asher’s friends.
Kelly was very animated, talking with her hands and flipping her hair over her shoulder while she told her story. “The great cat caper was two years ago and we’ve been friends with them ever since.”
The clock on the wall chimed seven o’clock at the same time Milo ushered the newest arrivals into the living room. “Mark, Kelly, do you remember JoAnn? She works at the Landon Academy with Ian.”
Kelly was the first out of her chair. She squealed, pulling JoAnn into a tight hug. “It’s so good to see you again, Jo. How have you been?”
“It’s great to see you, too. I’ve been enjoying every moment of my vacation. One of the benefits of being a teacher is having the summer off.” The women exchanged warm greetings. JoAnn stepped back and smiled, introducing the tall slender woman by her side. “So much has happened since the last time I saw you guys. This is my girlfriend, Cassie.”
Waggling her eyebrows, Kelly eyed Cassie’s long tanned legs that revealed sun kissed skin up to the fashionable mini skirt sweeping across her thighs. “Oh girl, it looks like you’ve gotten yourself a real catch!” Extending her hand to the new woman, Kelly told her, “It’s so nice to meet you, Cassie.”
The mood was fun and lighthearted as the group got to know each other.
Michael glanced between Mark and Kelly, both watching JoAnn’s cute new girlfriend. Milo leaned close to Michael’s ear, as if he was about to whisper, yet his booming voice was hardly hushed tones as he spoke loud enough for the entire room to hear, “I bet if JoAnn and Cassie asked Kelly to join them for the night, she would ditch our friend, Mark in a heartbeat.”
“Hey,” JoAnn playfully objected, “We might let Marky stay…and watch.”
Cassie burst into a fit of giggles. “I really like your friends, JoJo!”
Asher joined the party in the living room as the playful banter continued. He made his way to Michael’s side. This close, he could distinguish the warm earthy smell that was entirely Michael. It made his stomach flutter standing near to the gorgeous man, easily laughing and mingling with his friends.
Carrying a silver tray filled with assorted hors d’oeuvres, Ian announced to his guests, “Dinner will be ready in a few minutes.” He greeted their guest as he sat the try on the coffee table in the center of the living room.
“Good, because I’m starving,” Mark mischievously whined, extending his lower lip in a childlike show, bringing a round of laughter from the group.
Michael scanned the selection of food on the platter. Bacon wrapped scallops, pot stickers, and biscuits with a thick brown topping were fanned across Ian’s tray. Michael picked up one of the biscuits and sniffed at the garnish. “What is this?”
Ian smirked, watching Michael examine the unusual food. “It’s Marmite.”
“What’s Marmite?” Michael asked while the other guests gathered closer for a look at the display of food.
Milo grabbed a biscuit from the platter and popped it in his mouth. “Yummm, Marmite,” he said, licking his dark lips and giving Michael a playful wink, “You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, mate. It’s a true English delicacy.”
“Milo grew up outside of Cornwall. The last time his parents visited, his mother brought us enough Marmite to last a lifetime.” Ian bumped Milo with his hip.
Michael gave the biscuit one last sniff before popping it in his mouth. He suddenly made a sour face and grimaced, but he continued to chew until he swallowed hard, forcing the food down his throat and immediately started coughing.
Ian laughed and slapped Michael’s back. “Well, well, well, Mikie, it looks like you’re trying all kinds of new things, now, aren’t you? It just goes to show … you’ll never know what you’d like in your mouth until you finally give it a try.”
The color drained from Michael’s cheeks.
“Ian!” Asher snapped at his best friend.
Milo shot Ian a furious look. The rest of the dinner guests glanced around as the conversation suddenly turned tense.
The muscles flexed in Michael’s jaw as his dark eyes narrowed on Ian. “Only Asher gets to call me Mikie--”
“Oh, I bet there are lots of things that are off limits to everyone else, but our boy, Asher is still allowed to do to you--”
Michael punched Ian in his mouth.
“Goddamn it, Ian, what’s wrong with you?” Asher shouted just as Michael’s fist split Ian’s bottom lip wide open.
The women screamed and scramble to get out of the men’s way.
Blood smeared Ian’s pale skin. He stumbled backwards, but he didn’t fall. He winced, grabbing his chin and maneuvering it side to side to assess the damage. When there didn’t appear to be any, Ian chuckled, showing blood coating his perfect teeth when he smiled. “Shit, I was just joking around with him.”
“Well, don’t,” Asher’s voice was harsh, warning his friend to back off.
“Michael’s a big boy. He can’t take a fucking joke?” Ian squared his shoulders and challenged.
Angry and embarrassed, Michael balled his hands into fists, prepared for a fight. Asher and Milo tried to quickly diffuse the escalating situation. Asher stepped in front of Michael as Milo grabbed Ian by his shoulders and put several feet between him and Michael.
Still playing the perfect English host, Milo told their guests, “There’s another bottle of wine chilling in the sink behind the bar if anyone needs to be topped off.” Turning to face his boyfriend, his tone darkened as he growled, “You…Kitchen…Now!”
Asher squeezed Michael’s arm and gave him a reassuring smile. “I’m so sorry, Mike, I don’t know what’s gotten into him. Please don’t go. Just stay here and I’ll be right back.”
Michael nodded his head as he crossed his arms over his chest with a huff. Milo steered Ian towards the kitchen with Asher a step behind them. Shoving his boyfriend through the door, “What the bloody hell has gotten into you?” Milo demanded. The angrier Milo got the thicker his accent became.
“Come on guys, I was just having a little fun with him. Michael needs to loosen up. If he can’t take a harmless joke, then how the fuck is he going to react when a stranger calls him a faggot on the street? I was only teasing him and he fucking punched me.”
“You deserved that!” Milo glared at his boyfriend.
Rubbing his fingers over his face, Asher let out a long sigh. “Why would you make fun of him? Michael is having such a difficult time accepting his sexuality without you making it worse. I thought you of all people would be more understanding.”
“I never pegged you for the kind of guy to enjoy fucking in the closet, Ash. That must get the dust bunnies all hot and horny watching you guys screwing each other’s brains out while hiding in the dark. Is that what you really want?” Ian shook his head.
Asher lost his temper with his friend. “Not like it’s any of your business, but we haven’t fucked anywhere at all!” He shouted.
Milo stepped back as Ian and Asher got within inches of the other. Each man puffed out his chest, standing his ground, as they continued to glare at each other.
“Really?” Ian challenged.
Asher clenched his hands into fists. They trembled at his side as he glared at his best friend. “Yeah, really! We’ve kissed and made it past second base, but no home run, not yet, sorry to disappoint you.”
Ian rolled his eyes. “Did you ever stop and think that maybe Michael’s playing games with you? That this might be something that he just has to get out of his system, like an experiment before he finally gets married and settles down with two kids and a mini-van in the suburbs?”
“Michael’s not like that.”
“Come on, Ash, you even said it yourself, there’s no way Michael Waters is ever going to admit that he’s gay. Getting involved with him will only wind up hurting you in the end,” Ian said.
“You don’t know that.”
Ian threw his hands up in the air. “I’m trying to protect you.”
“I don’t need you to look out for me, Ian. I can take care of myself!” Asher yelled.
The doorbell was muffled by the shouting in the kitchen. Every word Asher and Ian said echoed through the condo. Michael and Mark watched the women pacing around the living room, pretending not to hear the argument going on a few feet away.
The remaining guests nervously looked at each other. “Well, this is awkward,” Kelly clucked her tongue.
“You have no idea,” Michael said while moving towards the condo’s front door, “I’ll get it.” Before he was out of earshot, he mumbled under his breath, “This might be my last chance for a quick getaway.”
Opening the door, Michael suddenly stopped in his tracks. His nostrils flared and the muscles flexed in his jaw as he ground his teeth together. Tyler! Standing there in the hallway was the man who had been walking around naked in Asher’s apartment just hours before he was shot.
Wheeeew! I didn't think this chapter was going to happen! An awful storm hit last week just minutes after posting Chapter 16, lightning struck to our house, also knocking down trees, power lines, the internet....it was bad!! Lots of repairs. They thought it was fixed the other day (which lasted about an hour before going back down for 3 more days)