But nothing prepared him for falling on Jared Emory's head.
Aloof dance superstar Jared is a sweet, vulnerable man and Dawson's life suits him like a fitted ballet slipper. They forge a long-distance romance from their love of the theater and the magic of Denny's. At first it's perfect: Dawson gets periodic visits and nookie from a gorgeous man who “gets” him—and Jared gets respite from the ultra-competitive world of dancing that almost consumed him.
That is until Jared shows up sick and desperate and Dawson finally sees the distance between them concealed painful things Jared kept inside. If he doesn’t grow up—and fast—his "superstar" might not survive his own weaknesses. That would be a shame, because the real, fragile Jared that Dawson sees behind the curtain is the person he can see spending his life with.
About the book--
I have to admit-- having all three release dates cascading down on me in less than a month was something of a shock. I did not expect that, and I'm sure people are sick of me. Amy Lane? She has another one out? Really? Isn't there a rule, like a mongrel dog popping out too many puppies? Doesn't she need to be fixed?
Well, yeah, probably, but I'm not going to concede yet that I'm broken, so we'll just leave it at this. Anyway, I'm proudof Behind the Curtain, particularly because it came so soon after Going Up! Going Up! was all about grown-ups, (okay, well, sort of-- Zach really was the perfect example of the socially-handicapped 8th grader in a man's body) who have decided who they are and what they are going to be.
Behind the Curtain isn't anything like that.
Dawson Barnes isn't a fully fledged grown-up yet. He's not as young as Rusty in Christmas Kitsch, and he's definitely higher on the confidence and self-realization scale, but still-- he's very cognizant that the best part about college is that he's open to possibilities.
Jared Emory, his love interest, has only one of those.
Together they have a rather quirky chemistry, but they also have the seeds of Dawson's adulthood: Dawson needs to see the world from the other side of the curtain. In order to do this, he needs to look beyond what's simple and what's easy, and commit himself to a path. In this case, his path is Jared.
Like Christmas Kitsch, this book borrows a lot from my own experiences as a young adult in love. Unlike Rusty's story, Behind the Curtain plays with my background in theatre, and my love of that big vaulted room with the dusty velvet curtains and the hard, bright lights, and the stories told on stage. I sent this one to Chicken, and she read it and said, "Geez, mom-- you really did pay attention when you were backstage at my dance recital, didn't you!"
I said, "Well, it wasn't like I wasn't in theatre from sixth grade through Junior College, was it!" Of course, unlike Dawson, I decided not to make theater my major (I had nowhere near his talent backstage, and none of Jared's talent in front of the curtain) but still…
There is a peculiar kind of magic when you are living in the theater. Every emotion becomes exaggerated, and every gesture is infused with meaning. People date, break up, cheat on each other, grow up, and all of it is on display, even if it's not on stage, because the atmosphere is so closed, so devoted to in front of the curtain and behind it, with no thought to outside the theater, even. The moment people become aware of the outside of the theater, that's it. They've grown up, and they're no longer part of the claustrophobic little family on the stage.
That's sort of what this story is about. The moment you realize that your little makeshift family during college isn't going to be your family forever. It's the moment you grab your lovers hand and say, "The world is so much wider than this place, and we're going to explore it together." That doesn't mean you leave the theater, per se-- it just means you outgrow your home turf and move on to other things.
DAWSON LOVED the guy like a brother, but seriously, he was going to kill him for this. “You left it where?”
Benji Gomez grimaced, the little divots at the corner of his apple cheeks growing deeper. “Well, I didn’t really leave it, but it’s up on the catwalk.”
“So, like, your five-pound physics book can come catapulting out of the sky onto the stage at any given moment—that’s what you’re telling me.”
“I really don’t think it’s going to come catapulting from anywhere, Dawson. It’s just….”
Dawson looked up above the stage and noticed that the third light, back tier, was still crooked. “Benji, you’re killing me. I got you this gig so you could get some hours in—you know, join the guild, we could be—”
Benji nodded. “Yeah, I know. Backstage brothers. I hear you. But I want a degree to go with that guild, you know that!”
Dawson knew. Light and sound engineering so he could design the stage productions. He’d be good at it too—if anyone on the planet still wanted to work with him when he screwed up like this. “Yeah, but dude! Look at it! What’s the degree going to get you when you’re the techie who beans the biggest star our stupid theater has ever seen!”
Jared Emory—star of the Los Angeles Ballet, was coming here to frickin’ Rocklin, California, for a four-day gig. Go figure. Dawson hadn’t seen him yet, but he’d heard girls squealing about him all week. Dawson had been too busy rewiring the light board—with Benji’s help, actually, so maybe Dawson should shut up about his fuckups.
It didn’t help that Benji, his best friend since kindergarten, was looking at him with soulful brown eyes and a smirk. God. Dawson was such a sucker for that look. Benji had a plan—Benji’s plans were always the best fun.
“Okay, okay,” Dawson muttered. “I’ll go get your book.” Dawson’s boss wasn’t supposed to know Benji had been working on this design—Benji wasn’t in the guild yet. But if Dawson could get his professor to sign off on Benji’s volunteer work, he could be in the guild, and then Benji could quit waiting tables and Dawson and his buddy could be the joined-at-the-hip twins they’d always been.
Of course, Dawson might be better off finding someone he could be joined at the groin with instead, since Benji’s unrequited crush on his fitness instructor had sucked up what little free time he had between work and school. It was pathetic—Benji swore he was making progress with the lovely Darian Ritter but Dawson kept telling him the poor girl probably didn’t know Benji’s name.
But then, Dawson thought, looking at Benji’s boundless enthusiasm as he tried to work the curtain, that unrequited thing sort of followed Benji around, didn’t it?
“Here,” Dawson snarked. “You call that stagecraft?”
Benji rolled his eyes. “I taught you how to do this, Dawson.”
“Yeah, and I passed you up—you’re making it jerk like a duck with hiccups.”
“Nice metaphor, smartass—oh shit—who’s out there?”
“Who’s out… oh crap!”
The voice that floated across the stage was a surprising light baritone, a dry sort of voice, with no rough edges. “There’s a shadow here. Man, did someone leave something on the catwalk?”
Dawson and Benji exchanged agonized glances. “I’ll get it,” Dawson mouthed, because in spite of the fact that he tended to knock stuff over with his elbows and bony hips when he walked, he was the one with the guild credentials to actually be up on the catwalk when it wasn’t a school production.
“No!” Benji got distracted sometimes when he was studying, but that was because schoolwork didn’t come easily to him. When it was something physical, he moved like a silken dancing god, in spite of broad shoulders and biceps that had been expanding exponentially since high school. If he could deliver a line with any semblance of organic humanity, he would be on the other side of the stage.
And when he was trying to save Dawson’s ass—which was how Dawson had survived high school, frankly—he could move with shocking speed.
Which was why he ended up on the catwalk, scampering like some sort of tree animal, to get his book back.
And how Dawson ended up right behind him, because Dawson didn’t have the sense God gave a fucking tree animal.
Benji didn’t make a sound as he skittered along the walk, grabbed the book, and headed back, because the stairs up the walk only hung from one side. Unfortunately, that was where Dawson was, clinging to the dusty iron with clammy hands. Every muscle in Benji’s body tensed as he literally ass-clenched to a halt, sending the catwalk swinging on the iron chains attached to the ceiling, and Dawson startled backward to give him some room.
The catwalk swayed and one of Dawson’s hands slipped. Benji dropped his physics book and grabbed his hand, and Dawson’s other hand splanged out as he tried to get his balance. The physics book went fluttering and thumping to the stage as Benji grabbed that flailing hand. Except the near hand was under the catwalk rail, so Dawson ended up with the corner post of the catwalk in his chest, and that was when his feet lost purchase and when Benji ended up hanging over the catwalk with the post digging in his neck, holding Dawson above the stage.
“Oh fuck,” Dawson said, and Benji rolled his eyes, grimacing in an attempt not to let Dawson fall, grime from the catwalk smudging his long-jawed brown face.
Dawson grimaced back at him, squinting at all of the dislodged dust that was falling in his eyes, and then some of it hit his nose and the sneezing fit took care of the rest.
He plummeted the remaining eight feet to the stage, smart enough to let his legs collapse as soon as his feet hit and dumb enough to let his head bonk as his spine unspooled on the wooden stage.
“Dawson!” Benji yelled, and it was gratifying, really, how worried he sounded. Fourteen years of friendship really did mean something to the guy, in spite of how much time he spent in the gym trying to get the pretty girl fitness trainer with the limpid brown eyes and adorable tiny nose to pinch his taut round ass.
“Fine,” Dawson said automatically. His head ached and he could still see stars. Of course, he was looking up into the blackness of the stage ceiling and all the lights were on, so maybe that was it.
Dawson swallowed. Okay, there were stars in front of his vision, and they were getting in the way of the prettiest man Dawson had ever seen.
Ink-black hair, mercury-blue eyes—and they looked real too, not contacts—and perfectly eye shaped. Round in the middle, pointy on the sides, and wide. Dark stubble carelessly covered a square jaw and a perfectly angled chin. There might even have been a hint of a divot under that stubble, but Dawson was too busy looking at the firm, not-too-pillowy, not-too-lean mouth, and the way the perfectly rectangular eyebrows were arched in surprise and concern.
“Hey,” Dawson said, blinking up at the perfectly perfect man. “Sorry. Did you want something?”
“Well, I was hoping techies wouldn’t be crashing on my head during an actual performance,” Too-Pretty replied. Which meant….
“Oh shit. Jared. I’m sorry.” Dawson started to push up and then his neck and head both creaked.
Benji thundered up in a minute, rolling his eyes and pushing Dawson down. “Jesus, Dawson—if I’d known you’d wanted to be a trapeze artist, I would have studied something totally different!”
Dawson squinted up at him. “Yeah. ’Cause that’s why we go to school. To be acrobats.”
“Your sarcasm is functional. Time to get up.”
“Wait—he could be hurt!”
Dawson smiled at Jared Too-Pretty. “He’s nice,” he said, looking at Benji for agreement.
Benji was scowling at the pretty man, though, and didn’t respond. “He could be hurt,” Benji said dryly, “but I’d be more seriously worried if I hadn’t seen him do something like this every month for the last fourteen years.”
Dawson giggled. “Heh heh heh… the time I fell out of the car when it was moving was the best.”
“You were in the hospital for three days. Not the best. Not even close. How’re the stars?”
Dawson squinted and realized that the swimming baby fish in his vision were receding into darkness except when he looked at Jared. “Mostly setting. He seems to be collecting them, though.” Dawson smiled at his star-sieve. “You’re like the king of pretty. Do you collect stars for a reason, or do they just gather around you ’cause you’re so bright?”
Jared startled back, looking indignant. “Is he feeding me a line?”
“Oh, you wish,” Benji snapped protectively. “If he was half that smooth, he’d have gotten laid by now. C’mon, Lothario, let me help you up.”
Benji’s big hands moved tenderly on his neck and shoulders as Dawson sat up and counted the fish. Benji started rubbing gently with his thumbs and suddenly Jared spoke, that light baritone getting sharp all of a sudden.
“Do you have any idea what you’re doing?”
“I learned this in football,” Benji said. “Sports medicine was going to be my major.”
“Your major.” Dawson looked up to see Jared Too-Pretty arching one of those oddly rectangular eyebrows, and he wondered if anyone else heard Your major. Isn’t that a laugh given that you’re in a teeny-tiny junior college in a Podunk town on the edge of the Northern California Bible Belt, and stop rubbing his neck or you’ll give him brain damage packed into the three little syllables.
“Benji’s smart,” Dawson said, melting into Benji’s touch and the comfort of the guy he’d known forever. “Benji’s my brother.”
“Brothers.” How did he do that? He didn’t even put a question mark at the end of it. He just let his silence etch in a zillion words. Brothers, even though neither of you look alike and you’re obviously both the same age and he’s a Latin god and you’re a pale collection of elbows, knees, and ears—I remain skeptical.
“Yup,” Benji said, rubbing a comfortable hand from the base of Dawson’s skull down his spine to his lower back. “And brother, you’re good to go—I’ve got a class.”
Benji stood, and before he could get into place to offer Dawson a hand up, Jared was there, sending Benji a look from under brooding black brows.
Benji narrowed his eyes. “Be careful with him,” he said after a moment. He nodded at Dawson and Dawson took that as a cue to trust the amazing-looking dancer with the mercury-blue eyes. He put his hand in Jared’s and felt himself gently and bonelessly pulled upright, and then turned around while Jared felt his back and manipulated the muscles at the base of his skull like a pro.
“How’s your vision?” he asked tersely.
Dawson focused on his fish-free feet.
“No longer swimming,” he said. “Or is that ‘swimmingly,’ you know, like Cary Grant would say? ‘My vision is doing swimmingly, darling, I can almost walk on two feet now.’”
“I’ll take that as ‘good,’” Jared said dryly, and Dawson wanted to step on his foot.
“Really? You don’t respond at all. I mean, I practically fell on top of your head, you know—a little wonder? A few quips? Some laughter to ease the tension?”
Jared’s amazingly firm fingers kneaded into the base of Dawson’s skull some more. “If you were any less tense you’d be comatose,” he said without inflection. “Now, did your friend really just run to his next class without his book?”
“Oh fuck!” Dawson lunged away from those amazing hands to grab the book off the ground and winced as his shoulders threatened to seize up. He tried to turn his head to talk to the dancing mangod, but that hurt his neck, so he ended up turning his whole body and backing up. “Hey, could you tell Professor Weber I’ll be back in a sec? I’m getting double duty for this one—money from the tech guild and credit for the class. I don’t want him to think I’m shirk—oh fuck!” He ran into a stack of flats and they went slithering down across the floor. “Oh God, I’ll fix tha--ouch!” And he stumbled down the stairs and off the stage onto his ass. “Oh Jesus. Don’t worry. Don’t come over. I’ve got to find Benji or he’ll spaz out. Ouch. That’s gonna hurt. Fuck.” Fumbling with the book, Dawson scrambled to his feet, actually turned around, and staged a tactical retreat.
He got to Benji right before he walked into the science building, and gasped out his name.
Benji turned, his almond-shaped brown eyes widening. “You brought me the book?” he asked. Dawson grabbed hold of the doorframe, bent double, and tried to get his breath. Benji fished in his pocket for his asthma inhaler and offered it—they’d shared the same prescription since kindergarten, which had been where they’d bonded. In the nurse’s office, both of them hyperventilating into paper bags while the nurse double-checked their paperwork.
Dawson nodded and took a hit of albuterol, then handed back the inhaler and struggled to catch his breath.
“Where’s yours?” Benji asked sternly. Dawson gestured vaguely back to the stage, where his backpack sat in a dark corner. “Dammit, Dawson—I left you near your backpack, with your inhaler, with a perfectly nice hottie rubbing your back, and you kill yourself to give me a book?”
Dawson took one more breath and decided he could stand up. “The damned book was what had me falling on the stage in the first place!” he argued.
Benji glared at him. Dawson studied his shoes.
“Okay. Fine. The book was my excuse to leave.”
“And why would you want to do that?”
Dawson wiggled his toes inside his tennis shoes and watched the rubber over the Converse canvas ripple. “He was bossy.”
Benji sighed and took two steps away from the building, looking down at Dawson’s wiggling toes and waiting for Dawson to look him in the eyes. “Dawson, you know I love you, right?”
“Yeah.” Of course. No doubts. Benji loved him just like a brother.
“Then I need you to find a guy who loves you like a boyfriend, okay?”
Dawson hated this conversation. “Darian still won’t give you the time of day.”
Benji held the book, with its newly broken binding and teased and fluffy pages, in one hand. “Possibly not,” he said with arched eyebrows, “but I was hoping she’d let me read off her book.”
“What the—I didn’t even know she had this class!” Dawson stood up and glared at him indignantly. Benji grinned back, his eyes lazy and deceptively innocent.
“Oh. Oh. Ooooohhhh….”
“Oh.” Benji’s voice was flat and infused with meaning, and Dawson actually realized that he and Jared had that much in common.
“I have had it up to my eyeballs with guys who communicate with one syllable, do you get me? Done. Finished. Completely.” Dawson turned around and started back to the ugly theater with the green copper roof and the big fake owls hanging from each corner to scare the starlings.
“Dawson, I’ll see you at home tonight!”
“Your turn to bring dinner, ass hat,” Dawson grumbled, and Benji laughed, probably because he knew it was actually Dawson’s turn, and Dawson was due for the cleanup too. But Benji would bring it anyway, because he was Dawson’s boy and he’d feel bad about the inhaler and the book and Dawson falling from the catwalk.
Benji really was that good of a guy.
Which didn’t quite make up for the fact that Jared was gone when Dawson got back to the theater. The flats had been restacked, the curtain returned to its original position, and light 3F had actually been positioned correctly, complete with the half gel Dawson had wanted but Benji hadn’t put on it.
And Dawson’s serviceable black backpack sat on the corner of the apron, leaning against the proscenium, like somebody had found it and wanted to put it out for when its owner came back.
“Nice job, Dawson.” Professor Weber’s voice was surprisingly short on irony, and Dawson looked out into the darkness to see his tiny bent form as he hobbled out of the tech room and down the aisle. Professor Weber had spent his life in the theater, doing tech when he got too old to act and teaching when doing tech was too hard on the body. He used to direct a play a year at Sierra College, but in the past five years, he’d turned that over to the local theater guild, supervising the facility use only. He was probably in his eighties, and Dawson—who had been raised by a very patient father and appreciated a patriarch who didn’t want to kill him after a minute and a half—sort of loved the old geezer.
For one thing, he’d been exceedingly gay in a time when nobody wanted to admit theater majors were often exceedingly gay, and he’d managed to come through that and not hate everybody including himself.
For another, he got Benji and Dawson, and not many people bought the whole “platonic friends since diapers” thing, especially teachers, which was why they’d frequently sat at the far corners of any room within the first week of class.
That usually lasted until the second week of class, when the teachers claimed their psychic vibrations were fucking unnerving. (Okay, that was one teacher, but most of them conceded that they were actually less disruptive when they could sit next to each other. If nothing else, Dawson helped Benji with his homework and Benji helped Dawson get there on time and remember what day it was. A match made in kindergarten, if not heaven.)
Professor Weber had watched them push-pull each other through their first year at school and had declared them “brothers of the heart”—and had let them be. Occasionally he gave them a little bit of help, like now, when he was going to sign off on Benji’s hours for the guild.
“I didn’t do it all, Professor,” Dawson said now, looking at the stage dubiously. “In fact, I came back to fix the stuff I knocked over and try to reposition that light—I think the bolt is stripped.”
They both looked over Dawson’s shoulder as the light fell out of position and sort of hung, dangling, facing the floor.
“Can Benji fix it, do you think?” The professor had a faint accent—Dawson wasn’t sure where it was from, whether it was Yiddish or Polish, but he loved it. The remnants of his white hair tufted out from behind his ears, and his nose was unapologetically rumpled and large.
“Probably—he’s good with that stuff.”
“If he can’t, I’ll get the custodian.” Professor Weber nodded earnestly, but Dawson shook his head. The custodian assigned to the theater sort of hated them—or, well, Dawson had maybe said something disparaging about his intelligence level in his hearing, so maybe he had cause—but Benji was better at that physical stuff anyway.
“No, Benji can do it,” Dawson told him. He hopped up on the apron and grabbed his backpack, noticing a piece of paper fluttering away from the back. He picked it up curiously.
Take two Motrin and stay away from catwalks. —J
Fish. Fish mouth open, fish mouth closed. Gasp for air. Close mouth. Blink. Stare at professor. Remember to speak.
“Who is it from?”
“Uhm, Jared—you know, Emory? The dancer?”
“He was here? What’s he like?” Suddenly the gray hair and corrugated bloodshot skin became insignificant, and the rheumy eyes sharpened to angel blue. “I hear he is a handsome boy.”
Dawson allowed himself to moon a little. “Prof, he would turn your knees to water—”
“And your other parts to stone, yeah?”
He could almost feel those strong fingers kneading into his back. “Yeah,” he agreed, nodding emphatically. Carefully he folded the note and tucked it into his pocket. “All parts would be affected.”
Professor Weber laughed and then grew very sober. “Good,” he said. “Benji can’t be your world forever.”
Dawson swallowed. “Yeah, so everybody says.” Including Benji, who was the only person whose motives Dawson didn’t question.
Benji loved him. That wasn’t going away.
“Look, Prof,” he said, pulling out his phone and grimacing. “I’ve got an English Comp professor who’s going to crucify me if I don’t get my ass in gear. Benji and I will be back tonight after he gets off work, okay?”
“Yeah, sure. You still go swimming in the afternoons?”
“Yeah-huh!” Dawson ran lightly down the apron. Without pausing, he put a hand on the rail for the stairs up to the stage and swung himself down in one heave. “Leave a message on my phone if you need me, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” Professor Weber said, waving his hand. He had a little office along the side hall by the stage, with a comfortable corduroy couch that was known to occupy his afternoons until his son came to pick him up. The theater department could probably be made vital and thriving with a newer, younger professor at the helm, but nobody wanted to displace Weber. He was an institution.
Dawson waved good-bye and went tripping off into the chilly February afternoon.
AT SIX o’clock, the indoor pool in the relatively new gym complex had no aqua aerobics, no recreational swimmers, and, often, nobody but Dawson, doing laps in that happy, mind-numbing splashy echo of one person in a swimming pool. He’d been on the swim team in high school and had won a handful of bronze medals, but nobody had ever accused him of being a superstar. That didn’t stop his love of what swimming did for his body.
He was doing his cool-down lap, backstroke, so he could float a little and feel the blessed pull of his arms in the water, and play with the drift to see how quickly and how far one stroke could haul him. And then another. He let his feet bob and stuck his toes through the water and heaved himself back with satisfying double-armed strokes closing his eyes and drifting in for the last few feet. His hand bumped the edge of the pool and he looked up….
And right into the blue-mercury eyes of Jared Emory.
His hands went up and his elbows shot out and his ass sank down and his knees rose up and for an entire nanosecond he was 155 pounds of thrashing limbs and blinking eyes under the blue. A hand of steel latched under his arm and he remembered he had a brain and actually grabbed hold of the edge of the pool and caught his breath.
Jared Emory was still there, water dripping from his hair, his gray hoodie, his jeans, and his spectacular eyebrows, which were now raised to his hairline.
“You just did that.” Again, that uninflected voice, but Dawson wasn’t stupid. I can’t even believe you are this stupid, clumsy, and weird. You disgust me. Dawson could hear all the things Jared didn’t really say, and as usual, he couldn’t fix them.
“Apparently so,” he said, pulling his swim goggles up so he could get a better look at Jared’s sardonic black-fringed eyes.
“Do people actually let you out by yourself? Do you have to apply for a pass? They don’t assign you a keeper?”
“Well, usually there is a keeper—but he’s on a date.” Because against all odds, Benji had convinced the super-adorable Princess Darian to grab a bite to eat before Benji’s shift at the little Mexican food place off Taylor.
“That guy doesn’t count,” Jared snapped, annoyed.
“That guy was born for the job,” Dawson declared with dignity. “Now was there something I can do for you, or were you just here to scare the crap out of me?”
Jared stood up and brushed water from his zippered hoodie and smoothed it from his hair too. “I need to rent you.”
Dawson swiped water from his eyes and tried to process that. “I’m not that kind of a boy.”
“No, idiot—I need a techie for tomorrow. My manager said if you were working the stage you had to be guild, and he set it up with the school. I’m running a free dance workshop tomorrow, and we didn’t get the staff set up yet.” Jared looked uncomfortable for a minute. “The kids are disabled. They want to dance across a stage with lights and music and think they’re superstars, and I need lights and music.”
Dawson mentally consigned his two hardest classes to the four winds. “That’s really fucking awesome. I’m in. What do you need?”
“You. Out of the pool.”
“And presumably in clothes and dried off.” Dawson grinned, because that went without saying if he was going to run the light board. Eschewing the ladder, which meant going under the four lane lines to his right, he put his hands on the pegs of the starter’s platform and hauled himself up. It was awkward, which was why nobody did it, and as he was scrambling to get his foot on the concrete while he sprawled on the rough platform on his stomach, he felt two impatient hands on his thighs helping him swing around and find his feet. The platform scraped across his abdomen and he let out a startled squawk, pushing himself up and backward and right into Jared Emory’s arms.
“Oolf!” Jared staggered back, but, well, he was a dancer, and with a little help from his own bare feet on the wet concrete, Dawson found himself pushed back up and steadied.
The echoes of their thrashing died around them, and the pool house fell awkwardly silent.
“Uhm, yeah. Thanks,” Dawson grunted, looking at his abnormally long feet and feeling stupid.
“Don’t thank me,” Jared snapped. “Clothe me! God, I’m sopping wet and all my shit’s at the hotel!”
Dawson turned around and grimaced, because sure enough, Jared Emory, star of stage, sky, and stratosphere, really was standing across from him sopping wet.
“I, uh, have some extra clothes in my bag,” Dawson muttered, and yes, it was true, but it meant he was going to have to put on the clothes he’d worn into the gym, and they still had some of that day’s hot dog and chocolate cake, which he’d had for lunch, smeared on the front.
But, well, it wasn’t Jared’s fault he was a spaz, either.
“Which way to the locker rooms?” Jared asked. His lower lip thrust out sulkily, but he sounded civil, so that was a plus.
“Uhm, follow me!” Dawson chirped, hoping to make up some goodwill.
Jared’s gaze swept from Dawson’s swimmer’s shoulders, down his back, down his backside, and to his long and narrow feet.
“No,” he said flatly, and although his hair was dark, his skin was fair enough for Dawson to see the dull red wash up his cheekbones.
Dawson reached behind him to make sure his Speedos weren’t sagging.
“Don’t make them tighter,” Jared commanded, and Dawson froze, midwedgie.
“Uhm, okay.” Dawson grabbed his towel and wrapped it around his shoulders. “Uhm, lead the way—around the pool, toward the back, look for the little stick guy with two legs instead of a skirt.”
“I’ll do that.” You’re babbling, and because somehow your Speedo has offended me mightily, I’m going to be shitty and snarkastic until we no longer have to interface, so deal with it.
“You know, you’re the one who startled me.” Dawson felt compelled to remind him of this, because right now Jared was going to be wearing pants that were short and a shirt that was too tight, and considering he seemed to be a genuinely awesome guy, this was not the impression Dawson had ever wanted to make.
Dawson waited to hear the subtext, but nothing was forthcoming. “Uhm, you are?”
“I didn’t mean to startle you.” And now you’re belaboring the point.
“You move like a cheetah.”
Without warning Jared whirled around, shoulders hunched in a classic theater exercise of a stalking cat. Dawson squawked and backpedaled, running right into the wall, and Jared laughed silently and turned back around to the locker room.
“Nice,” Dawson said. He was trying to keep the whole “arrogant-nerd” vibe going, but the truth? He could hear his heart doing an entire tap-dance chorus in his ears, and the thrum of his pulse was actually beating in his wrists. Jared Emory was beautiful, and for an equally beautiful second, Dawson had been afraid (hoped!) the guy would eat him alive.
“Sometimes. When you want me to be.”
Dawson listened for the subtext, and for a moment, he thought he heard an entire hallelujah chorus of it being shrieked in Latin. It was loud enough to echo in the silent locker rooms, but then, Dawson didn’t speak Latin.
“Uhm. I, uhm. Yeah. Here’s my locker.” Jared leaned against the adjacent one and Dawson’s hands shook as he rotated the tumbler. “Once around right, thirty-one, once around left, seventeen, straight right to twenty, and—” He tugged on the lock and it thunked, securely closed. “Okay, oh shit, once around… crap, missed it. Okay, once around… fuck!” His hands kept slipping because his palms were sweaty, which was weird. They were wet and cold in the locker room and—“Once ar—”
Jared’s hand closed over his, and for a second Dawson smiled up at him, sort of charmed. Wasn’t that sweet? He was calming Dawson down.
Oh, yeah. He didn’t even need to translate the subtext for that one. He stepped to the side and in short, quick moves, Jared opened the lock and pulled it off the locker, and Dawson’s backpack and clothes did to him what they usually did to Dawson.
Attacked like hyenas high on the scent of a fresh corpse.
“Augh!” The backpack came first, and it was heavy, and the clothes came next, and Dawson grabbed those because his underwear were on top, and, well, dude, and Jared stepped sideways and let the collection of iPod, wallet, cell phone, and earbuds slither down on top of everything else as it hit the wet concrete ground.
Dawson could not pick his shit up fast enough.
“I’m sorry about that, okay? I, you know, if I’d known you were going to get it open that quick, I would have warned you. It’s just that I sort of have a system, right? I open the locker and shove my hand in and generally one or two things fall down.” Electronics and wallet shoved in the locker, dirty clothes tuckedunder the arm, and backpack with change of clothes bailed out of the water. Dawson held it up and smiled ingratiatingly, hoping for peace. “Uhm, my clean clothes are in here, and I don’t think the water got to them, but, well, if you could take that and settle it down on a bench, I can, you know, get organized.”
“I doubt it.” The words were flat, spoken dryly, with only a lift of an eyebrow as Jared set the backpack down. Of course his meaning ran rife with subtext, but behind the ironic eyes, Dawson could see the hint of a lip curl and even a few even white teeth. Oh holy Jebus blessed be—a smile.
Dawson relaxed fractionally, and he tucked his towel under his pits so he could straighten his clothes. “Yeah, well, uhm, you know. Organized for me. I’m sorry about all the trouble, you know? I’m not normally—well, I am a spaz-puppy, but I don’t usually spread the misery quite so effectively.”
Jared’s mouth quirked up a little more and he inclined his head. “If it wasn’t forty degrees outside, I wouldn’t mind being covered in… misery, okay? Let’s get changed—I haven’t eaten yet, and it would be great if I could tell you what I need before I go.”
“Oh, hey!” Dawson said, rifling through his bag. He pulled out a matched set of PowerBars. Like his asthma inhaler, he never left home without them. “Want one?”
“Thank you, yeah—let’s get changed first, but yeah.”
Dawson handed Jared the roll of fresh jeans, underwear, long-sleeved T-shirt, and hooded sweatshirt, and turned his back so he could put on his old stuff.
“Oh my God,” Dawson said quietly, eyeballing his underwear. He was relieved to find that in spite of the rather odd day, he had not once actually crapped his pants, and he shucked his Speedos quickly and tucked them in the little plastic bag so he could shove them in the front pocket of his backpack.
“You have the whitest ass I have ever seen on a living human.”
Dawson flailed and pulled his towel up around his waist. “I was saying ‘Oh my God, I’m finally comfortable enough not to be a danger to the whole frickin’ world’ and you’ve got to say something like that?”
He risked a glare behind him only to find that Jared had changed at faster-than-human speed. He was currently belting Dawson’s jeans around his waist, and his waist was narrow enough, but the jeans were tight against his thighs and groin because, well, Jared had serious muscles there like any self-respecting dancer.
“Okay. Those jeans are dangerous,” he conceded, and Jared glared at him. “I’m sorry! Seriously! I didn’t mean for any of this to happen!”
“That’s nice,” Jared said when he was done with the button. “Am I circumcised?”
Dawson widened his eyes and stared hard. “Uhm, I’m guessing no.”
“Good guess.” He gave Dawson’s shirt a few stretches with his elbows and then pulled it over his wide chest, where it adhered like a Band-Aid.
“Uhm, nice poky nipples also,” Dawson observed, apology dripping from his voice like water down his backside.
“Are you even dressed yet?”
“Are you going to make any more comments about my ass?”
Jared thought about it for a moment. “It’s nicely proportioned, almost hairless, and sort of sweetly round.Now can you get dressed?”
Dawson turned his back again and proceeded to move silently, mortification etched into every line of his body. “I, uhm, haven’t had it described like that before,” he offered as he was pulling his stained baseball shirt on over his head.
“Yeah?” Jared sat down creakily, given how tight his clothes were, and tried to lace up his sneakers. “How is it usually described?”
Dawson propped one foot up on the locker room bench. “Virginal.”
Jared broke his shoelace. “Goddammit, Dawson!”
“You’re going to blame that on me?”
Jared shook his head, staring at the offending lace. “Yes. Yes, I actually am going to blame this on—olf—you!”
Dawson finished tying his other shoe for him. “Here, don’t stress. I’ll tie them. I’m sure somewhere out there is a nice boy or girl or pansexual god who will miss that thing if you self-circumcise on my jeans.”
“Currently it’s only me,” Jared said, and once again his temper evened out as Dawson sank to his haunches and knotted the ends of the lace together so he could tie Jared’s tennis shoes. “And my ex-boyfriend didn’t miss it so much because he spent his time with other ‘things’ besides mine.”
Dawson glanced at Jared’s crotch and then grinned up into his amazing eyes. “Well, he was real fucking stupid, ’cause I’m telling you, that thing looks like it’s worth waiting for.”
Under all that stubble, Jared’s mouth pursed, a definite smile in the corners. “Well, thank you. You’re sweet. But then, that’s sort of West Hollywood, you know?”
Dawson stood up and offered Jared a hand. He took it, leaning heavily as he tried to flex under the constraints of the damned pants. “Nope,” Dawson said, taking a step back so they didn’t crowd each other. “I’ve got nothing. I’m like, terminally small-town.”
Jared’s gaze traveled a speaking circle, taking in the surrounding gym and probably the campus of the junior college and the environs of the bedroom suburb that was Rocklin. “Do you want to change that?”
Dawson shrugged. “Yeah. Sometimes. I’ve been to LA. Sometimes I want to be lead tech at the New York Met or San Francisco ACT. But sometimes I want to be one of the people who changes shit in Sacramento and helps put it on the map. And sometimes I want to be like Professor Weber and just make the world better by teaching boneheaded kids this thing I really love. I’m only twenty—don’t I get to decide?”
Jared’s formidable eyebrows knit together. He crossed his arms in front of him and gnawed absently on his thumbnail, which was bare almost to the quick in both the cuticle and the nail. “Twenty. Huh. Yeah. Yeah, I guess you do.” He sounded like he’d really thought about it.
“You seem surprised.”
Jared shook his head and shrugged, shaking his arms out and grabbing the zippered hoodie with resignation. “It’s not going to zip,” he muttered.
Dawson grunted, still guilty. “Yeah, you have the pecs of a god—rub it in some more. Why would that surprise you?”
“Because,” Jared said, pulling the sweater over his arms and wincing when it tightened on his biceps. “Because you’re twenty and you’ve got all your choices ahead of you, and I’m twenty-five and most people think I’m counting the hours until injury ends my career. I just forget, that’s all. That twenty is young.”
He rolled up his wet clothes into a little bundle and started out of the gym. Dawson followed slowly, making sure all his shit was tucked in his almost-empty backpack and that his Speedos weren’t going to drip all over his iPod before he zipped it up.
He caught up when Jared was crossing the almost-deserted quad, and silently handed him the PowerBar.
“No worries. I’d take you out for a late dinner, but, well, I’m broke, and seriously, all we’ve got that’s open this late is Denny’s.”
“I know. It’s right by my hotel. It’ll do.”
“You got Adalberto’s down in LA?”
“Well, if you ever want to go off your ballerina diet, you need to try one of their carne asada burritos. Their drive-through is open all night.”
Jared turned in the foggy moonlight and flashed him a grateful smile. “Nice rec—we’ll see how much I gain by the end of this trip, and I might just stop there.”
Dawson grinned, happy to help, and, quite frankly, happy to take some of that pensiveness out of their conversation. They got to the stage and Dawson pulled out his keys and turned on the house lights.
“Do you need the stage lights?” he asked, concerned. They’d been off for some time, and they always took about twenty minutes to warm up.
“No, but I do need to see what your light board and sound board look like.”
“Yeah—no problem.” Dawson opened the tech booth and showed him in. Standard stuff—of course Benji had set it up, so it was better than standard.
Jared nodded. “Okay—I’m going to need a couple of things. First, I’ve got a CD—the tracks are in order and I’ll give you cues from the stage, okay? First, second, third—but we may need to repeat. You can’t just doze off, okay?”
“Yeah, no problem. This is a guild gig. I like to be on my toes.”
“Good. And as for lights, the setup you have going for my performances should be good, but we’re going to need someone to man the spotlight. Can we do that?”
“Yeah. Benji’s got tomorrow off and his classes end at eleven—will that be early enough?”
“Yeah. The workshop starts at twelve, that’s fine. He needs to pay attention, though.” Jared swallowed and looked at Dawson like he meant business—but he also seemed to be almost pleading. “These kids have to think that they’re the real thing. Like… Cinderella and Prince Charming and the whole fairy tale, you got it? That spotlight has to follow them, and their music has to be on cue, and all the little stuff that makes a pro performance professional? That has to happen for these kids. They can’t ever think, ‘Well, it was just a workshop,’ okay? They’ve got to think they’re superstars.”
Dawson nodded firmly. “I hear you. We’ll take it real serious. Benji’s a good guy—honest. Hasn’t let me down since we were rug rats. I’m….” He looked out at the stage where he’d almost landed on this guy’s head only hours before. “I know you didn’t see us at our best, but I swear, Jared—this place? This place is where I dance.”
Jared nodded, and there was a space there, like he’d really listened. “Okay—standard light setup?” He sat down in front of the board.
“Then here’s the cues.” He reached into the jeans rolled up in his lap and pulled out some sodden Post-it notes, thankfully written on in pencil. “Okay—you got a pen?”
Dawson reached into the front pocket of his backpack and handed one to him, and they spent the next twenty minutes talking about cues and music while Jared wrote down which lights should come up with what number on new Post-its. Dawson watched him, taking notes with half his brain, because this stuff came second nature to him. The other half of his brain was trying to reconcile the slightly arrogant diva to this guy who was putting himself out for a free gig, and what he came up with was sort of heartening.
Jared Emory wasn’t a bad guy, really. Now if only Dawson’s galloping pulse could admit that he really wasa guy instead of a god, this whole gig would be cake!
“Oh yeah—one more thing,” Jared murmured, looking at a sodden notebook that had apparently been in his hoodie pocket. “Look—I might not need this, but can you or someone else come up on the stage if I need you to?”
“While I’m running light and sound?”
“You could put that stuff on hold and have Benji spotlight you. I just need someone to model.”
“So you don’t want to ask, like, a dancer? Haven’t you been practicing with them all day?”
For the first time since Dawson had fallen out of the sky onto his head, Jared looked uncomfortable.
“I need someone nice,” he said after a moment. “Someone normal and not perfect. It’ll help if you’re… I don’t know, you. Awkward. I’m going to be correcting your feet and your posture, and they need to see that I’m not just doing it to them. The other dancers can fake it, but trust me—it’s better when it’s you.” He paused. “Or, uhm, someone like you.” Another pause. “And I might not need that anyway. It depends on how high functioning the kids are. Sometimes it’s all they can do to move across the stage.”
“Okay, then.” That intensity was a little frightening. “Well, if you need me, give me a holler—I swear I won’t be reading my English lit.”
“Herman Melville?” Jared asked out of the blue.
“No, because I’m not suicidal. Nathaniel Hawthorne.”
Those eyes lightened, and when Jared’s just-right mouth relaxed into a smile that showed actual teeth, Dawson’s entire groin/abdomen area constricted, waiting for the sucker punch of desire.
“Good—the romantics were hopeful,” Jared said, and Dawson couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move for a moment, because there was no guarding against that much raw want.
He nodded mutely, knowing his plain brown eyes were wide and probably limpid with oooolf, and that Jared couldn’t help seeing it.
He did—he must have. He smiled wearily and stretched and said, “Okay, I think that’s all we need. Time for me to get some dinner and some yoga pants and crash.”
Dawson shook himself. “Do you need a ride?”
Shrug. “My rental is at the hotel. I can walk—it’s not far.”
“Yeah, but it’s, like, dark. And foggy. And people drive like assholes. My car is small, I mean”—oh God—“you may need to unzip my pants to get in, but—”
He stopped because Jared had crossed his arms and was now laughing into his hand.
“Uhm. Yeah. Stupid idea.”
“No, no.” Jared waved at him to lead the way from the tech booth. “Any activity that needs me to unzip your pants is a good one.”
“Guh….” Oh God.
Jared bumped him from behind as he stalled out at the doorway. “Dawson, I haven’t slept in twenty-four hours. Tell your hard-on to give it a rest and I’ll take that ride, okay?”
And just the mention of his hard-on was humiliating enough for Dawson to be able to walk again.
“Twenty-four hours?” he asked, moving like it was just a normal, everyday thing.
“Yeah. Performance last night, pack, airport, plane, arrive—find a shuttle. I mean, I’m not sure if you know this, but your airport is out in Bumfuck—”
“And this campus is a little north of Yemen, and LAX is the armpit of Satan—yeah, I’m aware.” Dawson led the way out of the theater and down the walkway to the crosswalk. It was about a quarter of a mile to his car, but that sort of beat a mile and a half to the Denny’s.
“Satan’s armpit has more class than LAX,” Jared said dryly. “I take it you’ve been there?”
“Yeah, to visit my mom when I was little.” Dawson’s pocket buzzed and he pulled out his phone. Bringing Darian to movie night. Don’t hate. She’s bringing popcorn flavoring so you’ll like her. He grunted and the crosswalk light turned green. He looked to his right anyway, because not everyone stopped in the fog, but Rocklin Road looked clear. “Dad would send me out, her driver would pick me up, and I’d spend the rest of the summer by the pool. Didn’t see much of LA, but I knew that shitty airport.”
“They’ve fixed it up in the last five years,” Jared told him.
Dawson shrugged. “Yeah, I saw some of that. Four years ago I told Mom I was gay and she could just put money in my college fund. My little half brother was two by then, she had her hands full ’cause she kept losing nannies, and she took me up on it.” Dawson sighed and led the way to his little Honda. “She’s been a name on a check ever since.”
Jared grunted a little. “So you stay with your dad?”
“He set me and Benji up in our own apartment during our first year of school. I know—we’re spoiled rotten. He only lives a few miles away in Lincoln, so we spend weekends there when we don’t have a show. Mom’s been the name on the guilt check, Dad’s been the actual ‘Yeah, Dawson, you’re gay, I’m not shocked, wear a condom’ parent.”
Jared’s chuckle sort of hit him like hot chocolate in the pit of his stomach. “Did he really say that?”
Dawson smiled at the memory. “Yup. I had Benji come with me to tell him, and we sat down in the kitchen, and Benji said, ‘Gee, Mr. Barnes, would you like me to get you some cookies, some milk, a glass of wine, some beer?’ and Dad said, ‘Thanks, Benji, I can get my own snacks in my own house, but that’s really sweet. Why aren’t I watching The Colbert Report right now?’ And I said—well, I said a whole bunch of stuff, and I went back into the history of homosexuality in civilization and the history of theater and the arts and how really, the whole gay thing complemented the career choice, and my dad interrupted me and said—”
“Let me guess,” Jared said, unbuttoning his pants and bending down to open the door.
“Yup. ‘Dawson, you’re gay, I’m not shocked. Wear a condom and let me get back to my show.’” Dawson grinned at him in the darkness as he turned the ignition.
“So what’d you say?” Jared asked, still smiling gently.
“I was sort of like this—” He unhinged his jaw and stared into space. “—but Benji? He was like, ‘Does that mean we can go to the movies, Mr. Barnes?’ and my dad was like, ‘If you stop for ice cream on the way home, I’ll pay for your tickets.’ And that was it.”
Jared laughed that quiet, self-contained laugh again. “That’s sweet. How long has Benji known?”
“Since second grade.” Dawson pulled slowly out of the parking lot—God, he hated the fog. “He wanted to kiss the little girl in front of us and I wanted to kiss him. He said—and I’ll never forget this, because Benji’s never been super smart, right, but this was really wise. He said, ‘If I say no, will you still be my friend?’ and I was really hurt, right? But I said, ‘Yeah, Benji. I can’t make you like me like that,’ and then he looked really hurt. He said, ‘Then I can’t make Becca like me like that either. But that’s okay, ’cause we’re still friends.’”
“Wonderful,” Jared said, and suddenly he was talking in subtexts again, but this time Dawson couldn’t read between the lines.
“Yeah,” he said distractedly, squinting to make sure no one was barreling off the freeway and ignoring the light. Cautiously he stepped on the gas to make the green light, and he let out a breath when they cleared the intersection. God, this little space by the overpass could be a nightmare. “What’s wonderful about it?”
“Nothing. Unrequited crushes. Nothing important.”
“Right. Just the thing that’s gonna squash you flat. How’d you come out?”
“I didn’t go home,” Jared said just as Dawson was creeping up to the turnoff to Denny’s and the Holiday Inn.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means that I told my parents I wanted to go to dance school. I was fourteen, and I couldn’t think ofanything better than dancing six hours a day between studies. It… God, it was all I could ask of the world.”
“Why for?” Dawson asked curiously. He was always curious about what drove the front of the house people to go out and figuratively bleed on the stage.
There was a sudden quiet. “It’s hard to explain,” he answered eventually. “Let’s just say… well, it’s all I am.”
Dawson swallowed. His blithe maybe-plan for the rest of his life seemed reckless all of a sudden, like he was squandering something. “What did your parents say about dance school?” he asked.
Jared’s voice gained strength with this answer. “Well, my mom said they’d pay, but if I turned out to be ‘one of those dance people,’ I shouldn’t bother to return home. So I graduated from the academy and into the theater and rented a flat with five other theater people who are also never home, and I haven’t seen my parents since then.”
“Names on a check?”
“That sorta sucks. At least my mom tries once a year.”
“It just is,” Jared said on a yawn. “Here. Drop me off at Denny’s—I can walk from here.”
Dawson felt sort of bad, but his pocket buzzed again. He pulled to a stop right in front of the Denny’s and checked his phone.
Please don’t ditch out—I told her if you don’t get along this will be the shortest relationship in history.
Dawson sighed and punched in OMW and then looked up at Jared. “You know, you could come over to my place. It’s movie night, since we’re both working the show and the weekend’s toast.”
Jared rolled his eyes, and suddenly the dick was back. “Yeah. I could be your beard so you could pretend you got over your crush in the second grade. Night, Dawson. Thanks for the help.” And with that, he was up and out of the car, closing the door solidly behind him.
“What. An. Asshole.” Dawson watched as he walked up to the Denny’s—probably to have the world’s sorriest salad, no dressing, for dinner—and waited until he got inside. Then he pulled out carefully and made his way down Rocklin Road toward his apartment building on Taylor. He had a death grip on the steering wheel, but at every stop, he rubbed his chest, angry at himself. It wouldn’t hurt so much right there if he hadn’t started to like the guy to begin with.