Chapter 1 – Meet-Cute
Vincent Noland shook water off his freshly washed hands and stared into the sparkling clean sink as droplets landed, one by one, with a soft splat at the bottom of the basin. Much like his career, as evidenced by the sparse crowd at his first—and possibly last?—gallery showing.
He groaned and wobbled his head as if that would cast off his worries. Enough with the self-pity. Whether the showing was a success or a failure, he had to be present for it. He picked up a fresh cotton towel, dried off the remaining water, and tossed the used cloth into a receptacle.
He jumped when the bathroom door creaked open, and a couple guys stepped in. They ignored him and went straight to the urinals. Vinnie squeezed shut his eyes and straightened his shoulders.
He took a few steps toward the door, then paused to smooth his hands over his suit jacket. He was wearing Tom Ford from head to toe. All black because Alicia, the gallery owner, had recommended that so as not to detract from or clash with any of the artwork. His jewelry provided a little contrast to the darkness of his outfit. His earrings, ear cuffs, nose, and eyebrow rings were all platinum. For that matter, so were the piercings that were out of sight, beneath his clothing.
Sure—he suppressed a self-depreciating snort—that’s all he was doing. Just making sure his suit was in order, not delaying the inevitable.
Then metaphorically only, so as not to unduly wrinkle the unbelievably expensive suit, he pushed up his sleeves and strode out the bathroom door.
He swallowed a soft gasp but allowed a faint, shaky laugh to escape his lips. More people had arrived. Quite a few, in fact. His attack of nervous anxiety envisioning his art show flopping like the worn Tickle Me Elmo stuffy he’d had since he was a small child—and still kept on a shelf in his closet next to his rainbow Converse sneakers—might have been a touch premature. But really, if he couldn’t pull a decent crowd in Asheville, North Carolina, he didn’t have a chance in the larger art world. So thank fuck and praise Francis Bacon, Paul Cadmus, Grant Wood, and every other gay artist who’d come before him.
He touched his head, gently patting and checking—yet again—to make sure his hair was still in place. And of course, it was. His longish, thick, curly, purple Mohawk was usually worn natural. Or rather, a bit of effort went into making it look naturally tousled rather than like the overwatered fern it would’ve resembled had it been truly natural.
For the gallery opening today, his stylist had smoothed out his curls and French braided upward from the point at the back before gathering the balance into a man bun. He’d also worked an intricate razer pattern into the dark hair of the fade.
Vinnie’s gaze swept the room. He recognized some of the faces as those he’d seen at other openings around the city. And of course, Simone and his other friends were still here. Sure, they counted, in that they were here for him, supporting him and filling the space so it wouldn’t look empty, but they didn’t count-count. Not as potential customers.
But many others were milling around, stopping in front of his pieces, smiling, making comments to each other. Seemingly enjoying themselves. Hopefully, a few—or more than a few—would reach into their wallets and buy something.
“There you are, darling. Time to mingle.” Alicia wore a wide all-business grin over her all-black outfit—blazer, skinny pants, silk shirt, and killer black leather pumps. Her platinum hair was pulled into an elegant chignon. She lowered her voice and raised a single brow. “Do you need me to come around with you, or can you handle it?”
They’d spoken to each other enough that she had to know he could carry a conversation, but she was probably used to people freezing under pressure.
Vinnie shook his head. “No. Thank you, though. I’ll be fine. Anyone in particular I should target?”
“No, darling. Just circulate and make yourself available. If anyone makes eye contact and appears interested in a tête-à-tête, approach them.”
“Will do.” He refrained from adding a cocky two-finger salute.
He pasted on a smile he hoped appeared sincere. He was cautiously optimistic about the turnout, so maybe it did.
Two hours, a handful of sales, and a couple contacts—one with a successful children’s book author searching for a new illustrator, and another with a popular author looking for an artist for a graphic novel he’d outlined—later, and he was floating along on the kind of high that didn’t need chemical assistance to maintain. Alicia’s smile had relaxed into something less frozen than a politician trying to convince him he’d chosen to be gay.
A fresh group of faces was eyeing his art. They were probably making the rounds of all the downtown galleries.
Well…most probably were. Vinnie elbowed Simone. “I’d bet my night’s profits those guys aren’t part of the art walk.” The group of four men were whispering to themselves in front of a set of watercolors. They were probably in their low-to-mid-twenties, same as himself, and their collective military haircuts, deliciously bulging muscles, taut abs, tight asses, and bewildered fish-out-of-water (or soldier-in-an-art-gallery) gazes screamed that they weren’t here looking for something to hang on the breakfast nook wall. Not to mention, their casual clothes didn’t look like anything people setting out to tour art galleries would wear.
“You profiling them, sweetie?” Simone’s tone was deceptively innocent.
“No.” Except, yeah, he kinda was.
“Well, they make nice eye candy, regardless.”
He couldn’t argue with that. The tallest one, with Cherry Coke red hair, nudged the dishwater blond guy who was gnawing at his lip like he’d missed a meal or two. Which he clearly hadn’t. In fact…
“Weren’t they scarfing burgers at District 42?” It was them…he’d swear it. Vinnie’d been sitting at the bar sipping a “Mandara’s Mule” cocktail and talking Simone’s ear off about his hopes and worries regarding tonight’s opening.
“I knew I’d seen them somewhere. Red, especially, is a cutie. Think he’s taken?”
Vinnie’s eyes narrowed. Was the men’s presence at District 42 somehow related to their showing up here now? Bigots hoping to crash and burn the clearly-gay-guy’s exhibit, or possibly cause a scene to clear out the customers? Maybe Vinnie was jumping to conclusions, but there had to be some kind of ulterior motive, because despite Simone’s admonition, they were clearly out of place here. If they thought they could intimidate him with their burly presence, hulking in the shadows, they could kiss his silk-brief-covered ass.
“I don’t know what they’re up to, but I doubt it’s any good.” Vinnie set his jaw and neutralized his expression. “Wait here.”
He walked smoothly toward them. Being in the security guard’s line of sight might’ve helped bolster his confidence…just a touch. The brunet cuffed Dishwater Blond’s mouthwatering biceps, alerting him, and the man turned his gorgeous, wide chestnut-brown eyes to Vinnie.
Vinnie’s step faltered. Looking the man in the eyes, Vinnie didn’t get the impression he was up to anything. Not anything bad, anyway. Something, though?
“Good evening, gentlemen.” Vinnie kept his tone deceptively light, but the glint that no doubt hardened his eyes would give lie to that. “I’m Vincent Noland, the artist featured here tonight. Can I answer any questions for you?”
Cherry Coke Red nudged Dishwater Blond again, and the man cleared his throat. “Oh. Hi. I love your work.” He cast a glance toward the watercolors. A…nervous glance? Surely not. Much as Vinnie would like to think he could be intimidating if the situation called for it, he knew this bunch wouldn’t be cowed by his tough-guy attempt. Not if he’d assumed correctly about their intentions. “Um…” Dishwater Blond caught Vinnie’s questioning gaze and blushed. “I…uh…don’t really know enough about art to come up with—”
Cherry Coke Red elbowed the now-stammering dishwater blond guy. Again.
Dishwater Blond narrowed his gaze at Cherry Coke Red, then turned back to Vinnie. “Uh…do you have a favorite piece here?”
Vinnie blinked. He could answer the direct question, of course, but obviously, that was just something that had popped into Dishwater Blond’s head, not something he actually wanted to know. Probably.
Ash Blond, who’d been a silent observer up to this point, sighed and shook his head at Dishwater Blond. “For fuck’s sake, Leo.” Then he looked pointedly at Cherry Coke Red, who seemed to be the leader of the bunch. “Danny?”
Cherry Coke Red—Danny—rolled his eyes, looked at Vinnie, and said, “Leo here thinks you’re cute. No. You’re”—He made air quotes—“‘oh-my-fucking-god-gorgeous-but-so-out-of-my-league.’” He shrugged. “Anyway, he needed three wingmen to come with him to get up the nerve to ask you out.” He rolled his eyes. Again. More of a deliberate than a reflexive expression. “And still failed.”
Vinnie’s jaw dropped.
Dishwater Blond—Leo’s—face turned a shade that remarkably matched Danny’s hair. “Some fucking wingmen. Christ.” Leo made shooing motions with one hand, and Danny and the still-nameless brunet and ash blond guys slunk off toward another exhibit amid snorts of semi-suppressed laughter before detouring toward Simone, who couldn’t have been any more obvious about the come-hither look she was leveling at Danny.
Leo’s blush deepened, but he held Vinnie’s direct gaze, and his smile tweaked up when Vinnie grinned.
“Sorry about that.” Leo shuffled his feet but still maintained that eye contact. Good for him. Fighting the nerves. “I imagine you’re in a relationship anyway, and even if you weren’t…”
A delicious shiver, which had nothing to do with the relief he felt that he’d been so very wrong about the men’s motives, raced across Vinnie’s skin. Nobody’d ever gone to such lengths to facilitate a meetup with him before. Military types—not to mention, socially awkward military types—had never turned his head, but damn…that adorable blush.
Vinnie cocked his head to the side. “I’m not in a relationship.” And because he didn’t have the heart to tease the guy… “And I am”—he raked his gaze up and down Leo’s muscled body, pausing pointedly at the package nicely shown to advantage by soft, worn denim, before meeting Leo’s gaze again.—“Very. Very. Interested.”
* * * *
Leo – two years and a proposal later…
“Married! Married? To a man?” The look of abject horror on Leo’s mother’s face stopped Leo short. She’d known he was gay for years. Since before he’d joined the military.
He spread his arms, palms up. “What the heck, Mom. Why wouldn’t you want me to get married?”
“Not to a man!”
“I’m gay! You knew that! Who else would I marry?”
Leo’s dad sat in his brown leather recliner, eyes turned back to the football game from which Leo’s announcement had momentarily distracted him, seemingly unconcerned by his wife’s alarm.
“That’s just”—she lowered her voice and hissed—“sex!”
“Oh, for…” Leo bit off “fuck’s sake,” because “heck” was about as much as she would tolerate in her house. “I know you’ve heard of the concept of gay people marrying. I love Vinnie, and he loves me. We’re getting married.” He likewise refrained from adding, “so you better get used to it,” since that wouldn’t help the situation.
Leo looked at his dad for help, but Dad’s, “At least Leo’s obviously ‘the man’ in the relationship,” wasn’t all that helpful from Leo’s perspective.
“We’re both men. That’s kind of the definition of being gay.”
“You know what I mean.”
Sadly, Leo did know what his dad meant, and it wasn’t merely a reference to Leo’s life-long compelling need to protect anyone weaker than himself coupled with an equally strong motivation to be the strongest, most capable guy in the room. And even more sadly, nothing Leo could say would make his parents understand what he’d meant. Clearly, they didn’t know Vinnie very well, and thank fuck and all the LGBT Greek gods, they didn’t have any insight into what went on in his and Vinnie’s bedroom.
As a distraction, it worked beautifully, but, “I’m going to take Vinnie’s last name when we get married,” made even Leo’s dad sit up and turn away from the TV.
“You’re what?” His eyes widened. “Why would you do that?”
“Because Vinnie’s an established artist under the name Vincent Noland. We’re not fans of the hyphenated name, and it won’t matter if I change mine.”
“Of course it matters.” Dad slapped his thigh for emphasis. “You’re the man. You keep your name.”
“We’re both men!” For fuck’s sake!
“You know what I mean.”
Mom said, “Why don’t you each keep your own last names?”
At least she’d moved on from arguing against the marriage itself. Small victory?
“Because someday we hope to have kids, and it’ll be easier if we all have the same last name.”
“How are you going to have kids?” Dad asked, his eyebrows sky-high as if he’d never heard of the concept of adoption or artificial insemination with a surrogate.
And around and around they went until the shortness of Leo’s fingernails was the only thing keeping his palms from bleeding.
Later, when he told Vinnie about the conversation, Vinnie rolled his eyes. “They’re not perfect, but at least they accept you.”
Leo growled in frustration. “Or the image they have of me…being ‘the man.’”
Vinnie laughed. “You know, I don’t care about the name. I can use Noland professionally, but otherwise, be Bailey.”
“Really? You’d do that?” Leo tilted his head and studied Vinnie’s face, searching for the truth. “Because, honestly, I kind of hate to do that on principal. That whole ridiculous conversation pisses me off.”
“I get that, but at least they’re trying. They’re speaking from ignorance, not hate, and I really don’t mind.”
“I do mind, though.”
Vinnie blinked and stilled. “You wouldn’t want me to take your name?”
“What?” Leo widened his eyes, and a chill teased at a self-doubting corner of his brain. “No, that’s not what I mean. Of course, I don’t object to you taking my name. It just feels too much like giving in to their bullshit argument.”
One side of Vinnie’s delightful mouth quirked upward. “What are we, grade schoolers? We’re not going to let spite be a deciding factor in an important decision like this.”
Leo’s face heated. Was it spite? “You really wouldn’t mind?”
Vinnie put his palms on either side of Leo’s face and held his gaze. “You know my parents rejected me. This is me, rejecting their name. I don’t want it. And if I didn’t already have a following and publications under that name, I’d change it for professional purposes, too.”
Leo let out a huge breath, because tantrum aside, as much as he didn’t care one way or the other which name they used, not for his own sake, it seemed to be a big-assed deal to his parents. Vinnie’s sister was nice, and Vinnie maintained a relationship with her, but his parents were out of his life. “Okay. Cool.”
Vinnie grinned. “Cool.” He wrapped his lean but strong arms around Leo’s neck and kissed him.
Chapter 2 – Newlyweds
Leo – six months and a cross-country move later…
“Vincent Allen Bailey.” A wince supplemented Leo’s grumble. Damn, but Vinnie’s elbow was sharp, and he totally deserved the full name treatment for digging that pointy bone into Leo’s ribs. Even so, Leo grinned as he rubbed the sore spot.
Vinnie snorted. “You’re worse than me.”
Leo snickered and didn’t bother to pretend he didn’t know what Vinnie was talking about, let alone deny it. Bailey. It had been Leo’s surname since birth, but Vinnie had only acquired it three weeks earlier. Much to Leo’s mother’s delight.
The name change, that is. Not so much the marriage itself, although she’d come to terms with it. Accepted it, even.
After Vinnie’d made the decision to change his name when he and Leo married, he’d gone around testing out the sound of the name. Vinnie Bailey. Vincent Bailey. Vincent Allen Bailey. Leo’d melted a little each time he’d heard it softly sing-songed over the past month—and written with a flourish on scraps of paper he’d found scattered throughout their old home where Leo had last been stationed in North Carolina.
“Anyway,” Vinnie hissed as they stepped out of the dentist’s office and inconspicuously hitched his head toward the other side of the street. “There he is again.”
Leo had already noticed the object of Vinnie’s concern. Creeper Guy, the man Vinnie was convinced was following them. Leo had paid close attention to the guy ever since Vinnie’d first commented on him. Leo’s social skills might not have been as polished as Vinnie’s but his protective instincts were deeply ingrained, and Vinnie was the center of his universe. “He’s not stalking us.”
“He’s totally stalking us.” Vinnie’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “Bet he’s a homophobe. Seriously, we need to be careful and watch out for this guy.”
Leo chanced another glimpse in his peripheral vision. The man didn’t pop up in their vicinity any more than others did since they’d relocated to this small town near the coast in southern Oregon. Creeper Guy sometimes reacted a bit disconcertingly around them, but it didn’t seem like they were under surveillance. “He doesn’t give off a bigot vibe.”
“Closet case looking for a threesome vibe?” Vinnie’s shiver added a touch of dramatic flair making his opinion on that matter abundantly obvious in case the tone of his voice hadn’t cleared that up.
“No.” Leo snorted. “I don’t get any kind of sinister feel from him. I think maybe he’s curious about us because we’re new to town, and yeah, maybe because we’re a gay couple. But, he’s not following us. He’s awkward and anything-but-inconspicuous, so that makes us more likely to notice him.”
“Weirdo,” Vinnie muttered.
“Exactly.” Besides, Leo might be a teacher now—a product of the Troops to Teachers program—but he’d spent years deployed in the elite military unit, Delta Force. His training had been intense and wide-ranging, to put it mildly, and that was on top of the two black belts he’d earned prior to joining the military. If necessary, he could handle Creeper Guy. “Do you feel threatened by him?”
Vinnie was a professional artist and an amateur chef, and generally a good judge of character. He shrugged. “I guess I get more of a flustered or discomfited vibe from him than a truly threatening one.” He looked pointedly at Leo. “But, we should still watch our backs.”
“Yeah, I agree.” Leo absolutely intended to keep the man on his radar. The man’s vibe wasn’t malevolent, but it was…confusing, and a bit unnerving. Leo shivered. His impression was that the guy was fascinated by them and possibly wanted to approach them, but at the same time, was afraid to. So yeah, Creeper Guy was totally staying on Leo’s radar.
Half of Leo’s argument in convincing Vinnie to move to a small town had been the relative safety when compared to a large city. A nice place to raise a family was splashed across the header of the town’s website. It was a reasonable balance between easy access to hiking, rock-climbing, and the ocean to interest Leo, and proximity to the cultural events that appealed to Vinnie. So yeah, he didn’t need Creeper Guy justifying a future I told you so moment.
“I still think he has a foot fetish,” Vinnie muttered.
Leo hadn’t seen it himself—he’d been distracted, placing their order at the ice cream stand—but he trusted that Vinnie hadn’t exaggerated when he’d described the man’s triple take looking at their feet—or their footwear?—the first time they’d noticed the man. Perhaps the first time the man had noticed them?
“Maybe.” But probably not. After all, the rainbow of unique glass beads they’d put on the shoelaces of those pairs of sneakers got noticed by any number of people. Still, Vinnie’d said the guy’s reaction had been extreme.
“I’m hungry,” Vinnie said.
“We’ve gotta wait thirty minutes,” Leo said since they’d just had fluoride treatments with their semi-annual teeth cleaning.
“I went first. My wait’s up.” Vinnie was terrible at keeping a straight face, so even if Leo hadn’t known Vinnie well enough to know he wouldn’t honestly suggest something that selfish, it was obvious he was teasing.
“Come on.” Leo steered them toward their car. “Let’s go check out that park Miranda was telling us about.” Miranda was their new neighbor, and they’d asked her about local jogging paths.
“Or not.” Vinnie cocked his head. “Creeper Guy’s headed for the car park, too.”
“Good.” Leo took Vinnie’s hand. “I want to see if he reacts to our shoes again.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I totally believe you.” Leo lifted Vinnie’s hand and pressed a kiss to the palm. “I also think it would be useful for you to compare that to how he reacts to us this time.”
“Ug.” Vinnie affected a shiver. “I’d rather avoid him, but whatever.”
Creeper Guy had his head down, flipping through something on his phone, so he didn’t notice them. Leo timed their pacing to deliberately cross paths at the entrance to the parking lot.
When Creeper Guy finally looked up and saw them, he jumped and emitted a startled squawk. To be fair, that reaction could be normal for any particularly skittish person who’d been surprised. But his breathed, “Whoa,” and the way his eyes widened as he walked around them staring at—no, downright examining—their sunglasses could not be written off as merely garden-variety oddball.
Their BNUS sunglasses were brand new. Leo loved the clarity of the polarized military grade glass lenses. He’d gotten a pair for Vinnie, too. Sure, they were sweet shades, but…
“Dude,” Leo said.
Creeper Guy recoiled as if Leo’d slapped him silly rather than muttered a single innocuous word. Leo’s tone hadn’t even been censorious, it had been more of a quizzical what-the-fuck. “Sorry. Sorry.” Creeper Guy’s eyes bugged, and one hand flew up in a classic pearl-clutch. A couple heaving breaths later, and he visibly pulled himself together. “Um…sweet glasses.”
Riiight…Creeper Guy’d just been overcome by the awesomeness of the sunglasses. Sure. Vinnie’s burning gaze broadcast those same thoughts.
Creeper Guy was already backing away with a bead of sweat dripping down the side of his face despite the chill in the air, when Leo said, “Thanks,” then narrowed his eyes. “See you around.”
Leo wasn’t quite sure if he heard a mumbled, “Not if I can help it,” as Creeper Guy scurried to his car.
Shorter excerpt from later in the story:
They reached the quivering wall of air and rushed through it to the sound of the old woman on the bench screaming as their shoes found purchase on the park’s pervious rubber pathway, and they surged forward…then tumbled headlong onto the surface as the counterweight they’d been pulling vanished.
Leo grunted as his forearms scraped along the path. He stared uncomprehendingly at the stroller’s handlebar, still clutched in one hand. The handlebar and about six inches of pole on either side ending with a clean cut.
Leo gaped, unblinking and breathing heavily, at the path behind them. The wavering air…it was gone. The air was normal.
The woman hadn’t stopped screaming. Vinnie was panting—hyperventilating?—and snatching at bits of light green fabric that matched the stroller’s canopy.
“Oscar?” Leo’s voice came out in a squeak. Louder, he repeated, “Oscar?” He sat up and scanned the area. An unrelenting hand clutched his heart. Squeezed it. Squelched it. Liquified it. Oscar was gone. The entire stroller, other than the handlebar, was…gone.
Leo shoved his sunglasses to the top of his head. His breath caught in his throat, and he looked around again. He shouted, “Oscar!”
“No, no, no, no…” Vinnie chanted as he stumbled to his feet and spun around, fruitlessly looking everywhere…anywhere. He snatched another bit of green fabric floating on the air. “No, no, no, no…this isn’t happening.”
“Oscar!” Leo yelled again. His stomach lurched, threatening to heave because their actions were pointless. Wherever they’d been, that’s where Oscar still was. The portal had snapped shut, cutting them off, but every cell in Leo’s body screamed in denial of this reality. “Oscaaaaar!”
The woman stopped shrieking but sucked in rattling breaths behind her hands that now covered her face. Behind them on the path, voices broke through Leo’s focus.
“Oh, my God, did you see that?”
“What the hell just happened?”
“They just disappeared…into…thin air.”
“What happened to the kid?”
“Somebody call 9-1-1!”
In the field, the people who’d been kicking soccer balls had stilled and were staring, wide-eyed.
Vinnie crumpled to the ground, hugged his knees to his chest, bits of green fabric clutched in his hands, and rocked. Leo barely heard Vinnie’s words as they tore his heart in two. “No, no, no, no…”
Leo doubled over and retched. He’d failed Oscar. He’d failed Vinnie. He’d failed. Utterly and completely failed.
He hadn’t cried since middle school, but a garbled sob escaped him now. He dragged a forearm across his mouth and turned back toward where the wavy air had been. “Oscaaaaar!”
“Where did it go?” Vinnie choked on a rattling sob of his own. “Where did it go? We’ve got to go back and get him! Where did it go?”
Leo lifted his face to the sky. “Oscaaaaar!”
Aaaah! What happens next? (Hint: you don’t need to worry, Oscar is fine and the story has a happy ending, but the journey getting there is worth the ride!)