Saturday, August 22, 2015

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Brandt & Donnelly Capers by Xavier Mayne

Frat House Troopers #1
State trooper Brandt’s new assignment to infiltrate a sex-cam operation puts him in a very uncomfortable position, especially since he’ll have to perform naked on camera for his audition. Fortunately his partner and best friend, Donnelly, has his back—whether that means helping Brandt shop gay boutiques for sexy underwear or offering Jäger and encouragement while he researches porn.

Despite his mortification, Brandt gives the audition his best “shot”—and becomes an overnight sensation. But to meet the man behind the operation, he'll have to give a repeat performance, this time live on webcam opposite the highest bidder. Donnelly makes sure to win that auction for his partner’s sake, but their plan has a flaw: faking it is not an option.

In the aftermath, Brandt is a humiliated mess trying desperately to come to terms with what he’s had to do for the job and his own mixed feelings. But Donnelly has been on a journey of discovery of his own. Suddenly everything the two men thought they knew about themselves and each other gets turned inside out. Meanwhile, they still have a case to solve… but it may not be the case they thought it was.

When thrown into an undercover assignment from hell, at least that's how Brandt sees it, embarrassment leads to arousal which leads back to embarrassment.  Next comes shock followed by epiphany and finally love.  When the case is all said and done, Brandt and Donnelly walk away with new friends, new discoveries, occupational recognition, and the best of all a new found love.  How they get there is a unique blend of comedy, mystery, sex, and love that makes this series a guilty pleasure that I don't feel all that guilty about enjoying.


Wrestling Demons #2
Jonah Fischer’s high school wrestling career has been stellar, but now he’s the unwilling star of a series of videos that have hit the web. The whole world may have seen the evidence that his best friend turns him on. Jonah’s conservative family wants him cured, and his conventional town and school want him normal. The only person who still wants him just the way he is is Casey Melville, the same best friend who turned him on for all the world to see. Meanwhile, Casey begins to wonder if there’s more to his feelings for Jonah than he thought.

Officers Brandt and Donnelly—lovers as well as partners on the job—have been assigned to find the culprit who posted the video. While investigating the case, they also help Jonah and Casey find their way through their feelings, and steer them toward refuge when Jonah’s family turns against him. But the mystery remains: who wants to hurt Jonah badly enough to post those videos, and why? Thank goodness Jonah and Casey have found friends—they’re going to need all the help and support they can get.

Called in to discover who posted video from the boys locker room at a neighboring town high school, Brandt and Donnelly are faced with bigotry that is a bit cliche for small town attitudes but unfortunately, cliche or not, does happen.  While trying to discover the culprit they discover new friends, one a coffee house owner and two high school wrestlers that remind them of teenage versions of themselves.  We see new friends being helped by old friends and of course there is the returning comedy and sexiness elements that we saw in Frat House Troopers.


A Wedding to Die For #3
When a high-profile gay celebrity couple asks two of the city’s most established vendors to provide cake and flowers for their wedding and they refuse, a resulting boycott threatens to shut them down. It’s up to the next generation in the family-owned businesses to save them from ruin. Justin Capella, baker's son, and Roman Montgomery, floral scion, work together to plan the gay wedding of the year.

Justin and Roman haven’t seen each other since that fateful day in third grade when a single kiss shocked Justin and sent Roman to boarding school. As fate would have it, Justin and Roman rediscover love while working on the wedding. But disaster might pry them apart again.

Troopers Brandt and Donnelly are working with a statewide task force for the rights of LGBT citizens—all while searching for a killer wedding planner. As guests at the "wedding of the year", they are the first responders when all hell breaks loose. In investigating, the troopers are led to a shadowy figure they believe seduced Roman into doing his bidding. But the real murderer will cover his tracks at all costs, including Roman and Justin’s lives.

I think that A Wedding to Die For was my least favorite of the series but having labeled it so doesn't diminish the entertainment and enjoyment I got from the story.  I can honestly say that the bad guy in this one is very easy to hate.  Once again, old friends return to add to Brandt and Donnelly's daily lives in ways that only Bryce and Nestor can, aka wedding planners from hell.


Spring Break at the Villa Hermes #4
Troopers Ethan Brandt and Gabriel Donnelly celebrate the one-year anniversary of their engagement by flying south for a week of calm relaxation at the Villa Hermes, a gay boutique hotel on the beach. But when the rest of the guests turn out to be college guys on spring break (unwittingly booked into a gay hotel by a passive-aggressive travel agent), their week turns out to be anything but calm.

Ted, one of the spring breakers, has harbored a crush on his roommate and best friend, Bark, since they met freshman year. Now, on their fourth and final spring break, Ted knows they must soon say good-bye. A lacrosse star and ladies’ man, Bark has no idea Ted has fallen for him—until a storm forces the entire group underground for twenty-four hours of stress and truth-telling. Bark doesn't want to say good-bye to Ted at graduation either. He just didn't know how to put his feelings into words or if he could face the consequences of speaking them. Brandt and Donnelly help the college guys through their crisis by showing them what love between best friends can grow into.

Brandt and Donnelly may not have as large a part in this installment but they definitely leave a mark on the college boys who find themselves spending spring break at a hotel that isn't exactly typical spring break fare.  The officers spend a very interesting but much deserved week long anniversary vacation together and in the process they help a group of friends discover themselves simply by being honest with each other.  I think I found this to be as good if not better than Frat House Troopers, the level of honesty between the college friends was refreshing.  I can't say that it hasn't been done before because that would be lie.  For me it's one of those stories that I am finding it hard to grasp the right words without giving spoilers so for that reason I'm going with refreshing.


Bachelors Party #5
Med student Oliver Mitchell has discovered a way to make more tips as a bartender—put on ripped workout gear and serve drinks at the hip new gay club, Burn. The only catch is Oliver is straight. The staff and patrons don’t mind, though, and Oliver fits in well—until he meets James Buchanan Whitford, a local politician with a secret: he’s married. When James’s scheming wife attempts to catch him in flagrante with Oliver, they flee the city for the refuge of James’s cabin in the woods. There, Oliver faces a new challenge—he's starting to feel more for James than friendship. Their new relationship must survive political intrigue and small-town politics before they can be together.

With their wedding two months away, it's time for Troopers Ethan Brandt and Gabriel Donnelly to have a bachelor party. Ethan's older brothers are excited, but Ethan is not. As a straight guy who fell in love with another man, the whole ritual is fraught with complications, and he struggles to reconcile newly granted marriage equality with old traditions. Brandt and Donnelly work to help James and Oliver find their way to happiness while pulling off the bachelor party of the year.

Bachelor parties can lead to so much trouble but can be very entertaining.  In this installment, we find old friends once again helping new friends and Brandt's brothers with planning the boys' bachelor party.  We also get to meet Oliver, a man not unlike Brandt who has been straight all his life but now through his new job has met a politician and suddenly his life is turned inside out.  As usual everything comes together with the help of our beloved officers and their friends, Bryce and Nestor with the welcomed combination of comedy, sexiness, drama, and love.


Frat House Troopers #1
Chapter One
“YOU want me to what, now?” he asked, convinced he had heard incorrectly.

“You are to infiltrate, gather information, and convey the results to the attorney general’s office. I don’t see what’s so difficult to grasp. We do this all the time.”

“I didn’t expect when I joined the state police that I would be asked to—”

“To what? Do your job? We serve as the investigative force for the AG’s office. Sometimes that involves going undercover. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”

The trooper was silent for a moment.

“This isn’t like pretending to be a drag racer to stop sideshows or something. What you’re asking me to do is—”

“I’m asking you to take on this assignment, which was handed to me by the AG himself. You are the only one who can do this.”

Officer Brandt looked up, met the Chief’s eyes.

“Why? Why am I the only one?”

The Chief sighed and sat on the front edge of his desk.

“I would think that’s pretty obvious,” he said, in a more conciliatory tone than he had used before.

“No, it’s not obvious to me. I wish you would explain.”

The Chief looked at the ceiling, clearly wishing that something would fall from the heavens and smite him so he could avoid having this conversation.

“Look. You’re the youngest guy on the force. You sped through college and the academy, and you’re on the force at twenty-four. That means you are the closest in age to the targets of the investigation.”

“But, sir, you said the men who work there aren’t the target. You said the AG is going after the person who owns the place, and whoever is funding him.”

The Chief’s eyes rolled—again—as he drew a deep breath.

“What I meant was that you are the closest in age and appearance to the ones who work in the house. If we’re going to get good intel on what’s going on in there, we need someone working there. And the only way we get that is to send someone who looks like he could work there. And that’s you.”

Officer Brandt was stunned.

“Wait, this is about how I look?”

“Undercover work requires a physically appropriate operative. This is basic, Brandt! I wouldn’t send Ramirez to infiltrate an Asian gang, would I? You look like the men who work there, that’s all. You remember when they nailed that senator, the one from, what, Iowa?”

“Do you mean Larry Craig, from Idaho?”

“Right, that one. Now, when they wanted to stop men’s rooms from turning into pickup joints, they didn’t send some fat slob in there, right? They sent someone who could get the right kind of attention.”

Brandt was silent. His role in this investigation had not been clear to him when he entered the Chief’s office; unfortunately, clarity made things worse. He had drawn this assignment because the Chief thought he looked the part. He shuddered at the thought.

The Chief forged ahead, clearly hoping to bring this conversation to a close before more awkward words were spoken.

“One of the AG’s close friends and campaign donors is a contractor who works in the area where the house is located. His guys got a call to help with a renovation at the house, and they told him some of the stuff going on there. What we want you to do is pose as a carpenter and see if you can’t get them interested in hiring you.”

“And how do I do that?”

“You look the part, you act interested, and you say yes to whatever they propose you do. It’s that simple.”

Brandt sighed. It was anything but simple.

“You’ll keep working with Donnelly on this—report progress to him, and he’ll get you whatever you need to make it work on the inside.”

Brandt closed his eyes, sighed. Donnelly was his partner, and having him involved in this investigation would normally have been a good thing. But what he was being asked to do—he would rather Donnelly not know about it at all.

“You’re the finest we have, Brandt. Now go make us proud.”

“Yes, sir,” Brandt managed to utter as he stood and backed out of the Chief’s office.

Chapter Two
“SO, WHAT does that involve, exactly?” Donnelly asked, lifting his second beer to his lips.

“How the fuck should I know? It’s not like I’ve ever looked at one of these things.” Brandt drained his second beer, started looking for the third. The tavern was quiet, as one would expect on a Tuesday evening. Brandt and Donnelly had their entire half of the bar to themselves.

“Well, all they told me was that I’d be coordinating your support while you’re on the inside, and I get the concept of that, but I don’t really know what it’s going to involve. I was kinda hoping you had more info.”

Brandt scoffed. “Nope, they haven’t given me much except a passcode to use so we can get on the site and take a look—see what it’s all about. I’d rather have a root canal than punch up that website, I can tell you.” His third beer arrived, much to his relief.

“Well, ya gotta look sometime. It’s Tuesday, and Thursday is your… insertion.” Donnelly failed to control his giggling at this word, and Brandt landed a boot squarely on his shin to let him know he should have tried harder.

“Okay, funny guy, finish your beer and we’ll go look. You and me. And no hiding your eyes at the gory parts, like you always do with those stupid Saw movies.”

Donnelly wasn’t laughing anymore.

Back at his apartment, Brandt poured two large shots of Ja¨ger from the freezer and handed one to Donnelly, who was seated in front of the computer. Brandt sat next to him and took a big draw off the Ja¨ger, then began typing the web address into his browser. The screen filled with a banner announcing “Str8 Frat Dudes!”

Brandt took a deep breath as a photo collage of muscular young men in various states of undress filled in behind the banner. Donnelly looked at Brandt, his expression betraying the queasiness he was clearly trying to hold at bay. They tipped their glasses up and swallowed the last of the burning liquid.

“Well, you gonna click Enter?” Donnelly finally asked.

“You do it,” Brandt replied. “I don’t think I can handle what I’ve seen already.”

Donnelly took control of the mouse and clicked the button.

“Okay, it says to enter your ID and passcode.”

Brandt handed over the slip of paper the Chief had handed him earlier in the day. Donnelly typed.

“Okay, we’re in.” He looked at Brandt. “So to speak.”

Both men stared at the screen, gaping. Where the photography on the opening screen had left something to the imagination—if you were inclined to imagine what a football player might look like should his tight pants come unlaced, for example, or what would happen if an impossibly beautiful young man should pull the shorts off of another impossibly beautiful young man during horseplay on the beach—now there was no imagination required. The goods were on display in all their glory.

“Holy fucking shit, man,” whispered Donnelly, his eyes darting to the safety of the wall behind the computer screen.

“My life is over,” mumbled Brandt. “How am I supposed to do this? Going undercover there means doing, well… that.” He pointed at the screen, at all of the naked flesh displayed there, at all of the smiling faces of men who clearly enjoyed displaying it.

“At least you can see now why the Chief chose you for the job,” Donnelly offered, as if this were good news.

Brandt turned on his friend and partner. “What the fuck does that mean?” he spat.

“Hey, chill! I just meant that of all the guys we work with, you”—he pointed at Brandt—“are the closest thing to that”—he pointed at the screen.

“If you are telling me that I look like some male whore who sells himself on a fucking website, I’m going to offer you some free dental work, courtesy of the curb out front.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s just that you are pretty much their age—”

“I’m twenty-four. That’s two years younger than you, old man.”

“Yeah, but you look younger. And look at these guys—you are in as good shape as they are. Whoa! Except that one. Holy shit, look at those abs.”

“Should I leave you alone so that you can beat it looking at all of the pretty boys?”

“Shut up. I’m just saying that you are a good fit for this cover. That’s all. So, is this a standard prostitution sting? Go after the johns?”

“No. That’s what’s weird. They want me to get accounting records, of all things. They’re going to try to shut them down on Revenue Code 164.32.”

“Sorry, my Revenue is a bit rusty. Let’s see, 164, that’s consumer taxation, and the 30s are all about retail goods….”

“And services. Apparently the AG is going to charge them with not paying taxes on personal services rendered.”

Donnelly frowned, considering. “Why not just go for prostitution?” he mused. “Seems like that’s an easier one to make stick.”

“Because they aren’t prostitutes—they perform in videos. The closest thing to prostitution is the live shows they do. But there’s no touching or anything. The clients who pay to see the shows can be in other states or countries. It would be hard to make prostitution stick.”

“So, if they hire you on, you’re going to be doing… what? What do they do on video that people will pay money to see?”

“Well, let’s hit the Videos button and find out.”

Wrestling Demons #2
Chapter ONE
THE VIDEO was grainy; there was no sound, but the subject of the video was clear. A row of lockers occupied the frame and seemed to extend beyond it both left and right; in front of the middle locker stood a young man with a towel around his waist. The locker door was open, and he was busily engaged in taking out and replacing various articles that could not be made out clearly. Several times other men walked through the frame, and each exchanged a greeting with the central subject of the film. With several he conversed for a moment or two while continuing to tend to his locker. Finally, he picked up a bottle of some kind, closed his locker, and walked out of the frame to the right, where each of his interlocutors had also gone.

There was a sudden cut in the video, and the man walked back into the frame from the right. His dark, short hair was wet, standing in crazy spikes all over his head—a condition he intensified by rapidly shaking his head several times. He faced away from the camera, opened his locker, and replaced the bottle he had taken with him. Again, several others walked through the frame, from right to left this time, and he exchanged words with them as they passed and had more extended conversation with a couple.

Finally, he turned his back to the camera and brought his hands to his waist; he loosened the towel that was tucked tightly there. It opened, and it began to drop from his body.

The frame froze, the towel a blur of motion. The young man’s modesty was preserved, but only just.

“Oh no you didn’t!” shrieked Bryce. “You get that finger off the pause button or I will twist it so badly, when you hail a cab it’ll stop on the other side of the street!”

“But, my love,” soothed Nestor, his voice a humid breeze of old Havana, “we are out of the popped corn. You love the popped corn on the movie night. Please, let me make you more.” He slid the popcorn bowl from Bryce’s grip, kissing him on the cheek as he did so. “I will return, to fill your mouth with my salty goodness.” Nestor slid out from the sheets and strode out of the bedroom.

Bryce turned to watch Nestor go, and his fit of pique over the pause button seemed to evaporate under the influence of nudity. He watched the door for Nestor’s return, for the front of him was as fine as the rear.

A few minutes later, Nestor came back into the room with a full bowl of popcorn. He settled in next to Bryce and fed him the first few fluffy kernels.

“Thank you, doll. All is forgiven,” Bryce murmured between mouthfuls. “Now, can we get back to our feature presentation?”

Nestor nodded and pressed the pause button once again. Down at the foot of the bed, the screen jolted to life, and the towel succumbed to gravity. Down it fell, out of the frame.

Bryce gasped, his hand at his throat. “Oh my heavens—what a work of art is man!” His wide eyes were focused on the screen like an eagle’s when it spies plump, slow-moving prey. “Pause it! Pause it!”

Nestor rolled his eyes and hit the pause button. “Before you no like pause…,” he muttered.

“Hush! Now, look at that. Is it not a wonder? All that bunched muscle, that flawless skin, not a mark on it. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have an ass like that.”

“But my love, your culo is just as pretty as that one on the film.”

“I don’t want to have an ass like that—what would I use all that muscle for? But if I had an ass like that right here in bed with me—oh, the things I would do to it….” His eyes grew unfocused and dreamy. Then he snapped back to the moment. “I would share it with you, of course,” he said to Nestor. “Like when we split that pizza delivery man last week.”

“Mmm,” Nestor purred at the recollection. “Spicy, with extra sausage.”

“You know, we should order from them again. I think next time I’ll go for an additional topping.”

Nestor nodded his agreement.

“Now, though, let’s see what develops with our athlete here. If I know my locker-spy porn—and you know I do—I suspect he’s about to turn around and reveal the extent of his musculature. My guess is”—he cocked his head at the screen—“a soft five, or a semi six.”

Nestor pushed the pause button.

On the screen, the athlete reached up into his locker and pulled out a pair of underwear. They were boxers, in a faded plaid material, and even with the low quality of the video, signs of wear on the waistband were apparent. He stepped into them one leg at a time, not bending over enough to afford Bryce a view of the other sight he was looking forward to. The boxers bunched up under his rounded buttocks, and he slid his thumbs into the waistband and pulled them up, obscuring the view. The rest of the film consisted of the same athlete applying deodorant, pulling on his shirt, jeans, and shoes, and then finally donning a sweatshirt before slinging a backpack over his shoulder and slamming his locker shut.

“But… but…!” was all Bryce could manage to get out. He turned his crestfallen face to Nestor. “But… that’s it? That’s all we get?”

Nestor picked up the keyboard and searched the site for additional videos from the same user, but he found nothing. He shook his head, and shrugged at Bryce.

“Well, that’s certainly not up to the standards I have come to expect from! Really—all that buildup and not even a glimpse of the goods. I may have to compose a strongly worded e-mail.”

“Please, let this not ruin movie night,” murmured Nestor. “We have popped corn, and I bring a bottle of your favorite.”

“The strawberry kind? That stays slippery for hours?” Bryce asked through pouting lips.

Nestor nodded.

“All right,” Bryce said with a small, dignified huff. “Let’s see if there’s anything new in the way of drunk college boys.” He took a large handful of popcorn as Nestor’s fingers flew over the keys. “How terribly boring spring break must have been before smartphones and two-dollar margaritas.”

They sat back against their pillows as a conga line of naked men—half of them wearing backward baseball caps—jostled past the camera to the appreciative hoots of an assembly of bikini-clad women.

Bryce turned to Nestor and kissed him on the nose. “I love movie night.”

THE PHONE on his desk blipped, jolting him from his concentration on the report he was writing. The phone so rarely rang anymore—most communication came through e-mail or messaging—that every time it did, he jumped in surprise. It usually meant someone outside of his usual contacts was trying to reach him as everyone in his division knew how to reach him electronically.

“Brandt,” he said into the receiver.

“Officer Brandt, good. This is Chief Powell up in Woodley. Got a little issue here I hoped I might get your help on. Your chief said it was okay to contact you directly.”

Ethan Brandt had gotten used to this kind of call over the past six months. He and his partner Gabriel Donnelly were the first officers in the state police to be fully out as gay men, and the publicity around their mission last year investigating a sex-cam website had attracted the attention of police departments across the state. The calls for help generally involved one of two things: violations of the state’s statutes protecting gays and lesbians or people being filmed in compromising sexual situations. Come to think of it, Brandt reflected, most calls involved both of these things.

“How can I help you, Chief Powell?”

“We got ourselves a situation involving one of those cell-phone videos. Shows one of our high school students in… ah… well, in an intimate setting.”

Brandt sat up in his chair. Woodley… yes, he’d heard of this case. “Is this the video of the girl at that party?”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Ah, no. This is a new one.”

“I don’t mean to cut you off, chief, but I need to know—is the subject of this new one of age?” All he knew about the earlier case was that the girl whose image had been captured in the scandal was under eighteen. The state police had a unit for dealing with underage videos, and Brandt would involve them from the beginning if needed.

“Yes, yes….” There was a long pause. “He’s eighteen.”

“Wait, did you say he?” Brandt had definitely not heard of this case—in fact, he hadn’t heard of any such case in the state.

“Ah… yes. It’s also a matter of some delicacy in the community, Officer Brandt. Do you think you might be able to come up to Woodley for a meeting, help us figure out how to proceed?”

“Yes, of course,” Brandt replied immediately. He pulled up his calendar app. “My partner and I can be there tomorrow morning at… say, ten?”

“Oh, right, your ‘partner.’” The chief sighed. “I still can’t get used to…,” he muttered, then seemed to stop himself from going any further. “Anyway, tomorrow would be fine. I appreciate your help, Brandt.” He clicked off the line.

“Donnelly!” Brandt called two desks over to where his partner worked. “How do you feel about a field trip tomorrow?”

“Where we going? Someplace glamorous?”

“Yeah, not so much. Heading to Woodley.”


Brandt got up and walked over to his partner’s desk. “I can tell from your tone you are less than thrilled with my choice of destination.”

“You’re a mind reader, you are.” Donnelly grinned, looking up at his partner with eyes that sparkled with mischief but clearly showed he was very much in love. “What’s the occasion?”

“The chief there says they have a video of a high school kid, and they aren’t sure how to handle it.”

“Well, they could hardly do worse than they did with that one a few months back.”

Brandt squinted at his partner. “I didn’t know you kept up on the goings-on in Woodley, of all places.”

Donnelly rolled his eyes. “Ugh—that place. I grew up near there. Remember those great stories I’ve told you about my hometown? Well, Woodley’s even worse. Batshit conservative top to bottom. In high school we used to wrestle against them. You’ve never seen a town so fixated on sports, and on wrestling in particular. They always had some pastor come out and say a prayer before meets, but their true religion is wrestling.”

“Their public high school has prayers before wrestling meets?”

Donnelly nodded. “Yep. It’s that kind of place. So, thanks for the chance to go back and visit—it’ll be awesome.”

“Your job satisfaction, as always, is my primary concern,” cracked Brandt as he walked back to his desk.

THAT NIGHT, as Brandt pulled back the covers and slipped into bed next to Donnelly, he was already running scenarios on their trip to Woodley. “Today, when you said Woodley had fucked up the video case six months ago, what did you mean?”

Donnelly set down his e-book. “It was a classic case,” he replied. “Girl goes to a party at a friend’s house after the winter formal, ends up getting frisky in one of the bedrooms.”

“May be a parent’s worst nightmare, but I imagine it happens all the time.”

“Except this time, someone got video of it on their smartphone camera.”

“Again, probably happens all the time. Jeesh, kids today.” Brandt sighed at the decadence of youth—a neat trick, given that he was only twenty-five years old himself.

“Here’s where it gets more interesting. The video was taken—and posted online—by one of the people in the room with her.”

“Wait, one of the people with her? How many were in there?”

“Two besides her, apparently. You know, best buds doing some male bonding.”

“Oh. That’s a bit more… unusual. How did they handle it once the video got around?”

“Badly. Everyone ganged up on the girl. It was about the most intense slut-shaming you can imagine. Even some of her own family blamed her for embarrassing everyone.”

“But she wasn’t the only one there, and she certainly didn’t film it and forward it to her friends, right?” Brandt felt himself getting angry. “Didn’t the guys get some of the blame?”

“Yeah, not so much. The guy with the camera was pretty careful not to get their faces in the shot, so there’s no hard evidence on who it was. But that really doesn’t matter.”

“It should. It damn well should!”

“I mean, it doesn’t matter in Woodley. She was in the video having sex, so she’s the slut. They didn’t even work very hard on finding out who the guys were. She claimed that it was two stars of the wrestling team, but no one believed her.”

“Why not? She’s the one who would know.”

“Yes. But you missed the part about their being stars—on the wrestling team. Wrestling is like a religion in Woodley, remember? They would do anything to avoid those guys getting in trouble.”

“Well, that sucks.”

“Indeed it does. But it sucks the most for the real victim. She and her mom basically had to leave town. Went out west somewhere, I think, to live with relatives.”

“Hmm.” Brandt was reconsidering the nature of their meeting in Woodley tomorrow. “This Powell guy said he wanted to talk to us because this new video is a sensitive matter in the community. And it’s a video of a guy. I wonder if the two situations are related.”

“Look at you, already on the case,” Donnelly said, shaking his head. “Can you take a few minutes away from your work to do something for me?”

“Sure. What do you need me to do?”

“Me, if it’s not too much trouble.” Donnelly set his e-book on the nightstand and threw off the covers, revealing the porcelain skin and powerful musculature that Brandt loved so much.

“I think I can work you in,” growled Brandt.

“Hey, it’s my turn,” Donnelly replied. His delighted expression clearly conveyed he was up for anything Brandt might want to do.

“We’ll just have to see about that,” Brandt said with a sly grin as he launched himself atop his willing partner, and all thoughts of the scandal in Woodley left his mind.

WOODLEY LAY two hours to the north of the city. Brandt prided himself on never being late, so he had dragged Donnelly out of bed and gotten on the road by seven thirty.

“Can we stop for coffee?” groaned Donnelly.

“You haven’t finished the one I made you before we left the house!”

“Yeah, but by the time you find a place to get more I’ll have finished it.” He turned his sleepy eyes to Brandt. “I’m just trying to be efficient. You know, planning ahead.”

“If we make good time, we can stop on the outskirts of town.”

“We’re going to Woodley. There are no outskirts. Once you’re there, you’re there.”

“Then we’ll hit the Starbucks in town. Happy now?”

“Not so much. The Starbucks in Woodley closed last year. They were driven out of town by a group pissed off about the company giving domestic partner benefits.”

Brandt turned a disbelieving look on Donnelly. “Are you serious? Who does that?”

“The good people of Woodley, that’s who. When are you going to stop being surprised by that?”

“I guess I’ve just been sheltered. We live in a pretty great city, and almost all our friends and family have been completely supportive of us. I kind of thought the world was getting better all over.”

“I recommend you dial back your expectations, buddy. Woodley’s like a little chunk of 1958 that got lodged in the throat of time.”

“That’s one of your less appetizing similes, I have to say.”

“Sorry. It’s the caffeine deprivation. It’s all starting to get fuzzy….”

“Hold out for three minutes, drama queen. There’s a truck stop next exit that promises ‘top-quality expresso.’ Sounds yummy, right?”

“Spelling it with an x means it’s automatically going to be horrible. But as long as it has caffeine, I’m not going to quibble. Wake me when we’re there.”

“I told you it’s only three minutes,” Brandt began, but was stopped by Donnelly’s histrionic snoring. “Fine. I’ll wake you,” he grumbled.

THE POLICE department was, like the rest of Woodley, severe and old-fashioned. It inhabited a low-slung building in the middle of downtown, which it shared with the other municipal offices. Brandt drove slowly by but kept going so as to take in the whole town—and find a place to get decent coffee. The truck-stop “expresso” tasted like the by-product of a motor-oil recycling program, and they were both eager for a drinkable cup. They found a tiny storefront on the edge of downtown with a cheery sign out front and a wheezing monster of an espresso maker inside. Fortified, they decided to walk the four or five blocks back to the station.

“Did that barista wink at you?” Brandt asked as they walked.

“Are you asking me as a police officer, or as your boyfriend?” Donnelly asked. “I need to know whether I’m obligated to give evidence or to spare your feelings.”

“I thought so.” Brandt smiled. “Did you think he was cute?”

“Couldn’t really tell. There was so much steam from that pre-Mussolini espresso maker that I could hardly see his muscles and charm.”

“Nice. I take it we’ll be stopping back in to grab a little something to take home?” Brandt asked with a chuckle.

Donnelly stopped suddenly. “Do you think he’d come with us? We haven’t really talked about this—it’s all so sudden!” Brandt gaped at him, and he burst out laughing.

“Keep it moving, Officer Donnelly,” Brandt scolded. “We’ve got a job to do.”

They walked into the police department and presented their badges at the front desk. They were shown into a conference room and left with an assurance that the chief would be in shortly. They admired the photos of pastoral landscapes that decorated one wall of the conference room and the photos of various sporting events that decorated the other three.

“I see what you mean about this place and sports,” Brandt muttered.

“There’s no pride like Woodchuck pride,” Donnelly replied with a roll of his eyes.

“Woodchucks? Really?”

“Yep. I remember when I was in high school there was talk about updating the mascot. But in the end the forces of tradition won out. They always do around here.”

With a heavy foot, Chief Powell lumbered into the room. “Officer Brandt?” He was an energetic man of about sixty with a prodigious belly and a booming voice. He set the laptop he was carrying down on the table and shook Brandt’s hand vigorously. “Thank you for coming.”

“Chief Powell, this is my partner, Officer Gabriel Donnelly.”

Powell held out his hand with perhaps less vigor than he had shown Brandt. “Officer,” he said with an almost grudging undertone.

Donnelly simply nodded.

“Please, sit,” Powell said, taking the chair at the head of the table.

Brandt and Donnelly sat down on either side of him.

“Now, you’re aware of the incident we had back in the fall.” The officers nodded. “Damn shame that was—almost derailed our wrestling season before it even began.”

“Yes, that would have been a hardship,” Donnelly said, his voice low and even.

“But once that girl finally came to her senses and left town, things settled down. That’s why this latest development… well, I just want to make it go away as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Perhaps you can give us some details on what’s happened?” Brandt asked. Before leaving work yesterday, he had checked on whether any recent news had come from Woodley about a video scandal and had come up with nothing.

“About a week ago, one of the kids at the high school came to the school counselor about a video that was being passed around. Good kid, but she wouldn’t say who had passed it to her. Anyway, the counselor watched it and notified us right away.”

“And what does this video contain?” Brandt prompted.

“I’ll show it to you. As I mentioned, the person in the video is eighteen, but it’s still shocking. Of course, what shocks you city people may be different from what riles us country folks….” He cast a wary look at Donnelly, as if he suspected the officer from the city liked to watch videos of a depraved nature over his organic bulgur-flax granola in the morning. He opened his laptop and stabbed at the keyboard with fat, certain fingers; he spun it around to show them once the video window opened. “Here you go.”

The video showed a locker room and a young man in a towel.

WHEN THE video concluded, the chief shut the laptop and looked from Brandt to Donnelly. “Well, I think you can see why we’re so upset.”

Brandt looked across the table at Donnelly, who gave the smallest shrug, and then at the chief. “I assume you’ve interviewed him?”

“We brought him in right away, and his parents as well. They were beside themselves, naturally.”

“He had no idea the video had been made?”

“None at all,” the chief replied. “And if you’re going to ask next whether we found the camera, the answer is no. We searched the locker where it seems from the video that it was located, and all of the others on that row, and came up with nothing. No sign of anything having been there at all.”

Brandt took a deep breath, let it out. “Chief, I’m sure this has been embarrassing for the boy, and for his family, but I’m not sure how we can help.”

The chief leaned in, a deep scowl on his face. “Officer Brandt, I’m sure you appreciate that we cannot have a pervert on the loose taking video of innocent athletes. They have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the locker room, and that has been violated. And if this video is being passed around the high school, then it is only a matter of time before it finds its way onto the Internet and this young man’s future is over.”

Brandt had had enough. “Chief Powell, with all due respect, this video—while it certainly is a violation of this man’s privacy—would get a PG-13 rating if it were in a movie. If we’re going to have a manhunt every time a high school boy’s butt is displayed to the public, you’re going to have to make mooning a felony.”

Powell’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear, Officer Brandt. Someone has violated this young man, and they can destroy him with a click of a button. It is our duty to keep that from happening.” He turned to Donnelly as if giving up on Brandt altogether. “You see, Mr. Jonah Fischer is one of our top wrestlers, and as a senior he is currently being recruited by some of the top college programs in the country. This video could end all of that.”

“Pardon me, chief, but why would a recruiter pull an offer because Mr. Fischer was recorded without his permission?”

“You never wrestled, did you, son?” the chief replied, shaking his head at Brandt.

“No sir, I—”

“I did,” blurted Donnelly. “I understand the problem, chief.” He turned to Brandt. “Wrestling is different, Ethan. Most sports have their homophobic aspects, mainly as a defense against the idea that football players piling on top of each other or basketball players covering each other closely is in any way erotic.” The chief bristled at the word. “But in wrestling, all you have is contact. It’s two superfit guys in skintight singlets writhing around on a mat grabbing and holding, each trying to be the first one to climb on top of the other.”

The chief shook his head, clearly distressed at this characterization. But Donnelly was undaunted.

“That’s why wrestlers can sometimes be the most homophobic athletes—it’s kind of a natural response to the fact that everything they do to beat a competitor is exactly what they would do to make out with him. They need the deniability that homophobia provides.”

Brandt looked at the chief. “Does that about sum it up?”

The chief sighed and studied the tabletop for a moment before answering. “That isn’t it at all. Wrestling is one of the oldest sports, and one of the most pure. It’s the perversion of our modern world that makes it seem to some people—” He looked with obvious disgust at Donnelly, then resumed with a snarl. “—erotic. That’s why we have to stand strong against perversion in all of its forms. Whoever made this video wanted to turn the purity of athletics into something dirty, to expose this poor boy to the sick desires of deviants. No wrestling program is going to want to be associated with that.”

“Which is basically what I said,” Donnelly added. “That doesn’t mean it’s right, chief. There are gay wrestlers, just like there are gay football players and gay basketball players. And they compete and win just like the straight ones. Wrestling is a great sport, and it will get even better once it shakes off its homophobic baggage. There are surely some university wrestling recruiters who won’t care about the video, but until the entire sport comes around to that view,”—he looked to Brandt—“it could be a pretty big deal. If we can help this kid out by finding out who did this and stopping it from going any further, we should.”

Brandt nodded. “All right, we’ll see what we can do. Can we talk to this Jonah?”

The chief’s expression lightened. “I hoped you would want to do that. I’ve asked his parents to bring him in this afternoon when school is over. That’ll be at two thirty.”

“Good enough,” Brandt replied. “We’ll come back then. Do you mind if we head over to the high school and take a look at the locker room?”

“Like I said, we’ve gone over the place pretty thoroughly. But it wouldn’t hurt for you to take a look as well. I’ll let the wrestling coach know you’re coming by.”

“Thanks.” Brandt and Donnelly rose. “We’ll see you at two thirty.”

They shook hands, and the officers walked back to their car.

“Well, that was fun,” Brandt said as they strolled. “Thank goodness I had a native speaker of wrestling to translate for me. Otherwise I would have been completely lost.”

Donnelly shook his head and looked into the distance. “What amazed me is how he cannot see the similarities between these two video cases. Being filmed completely ruined that girl’s life, but he didn’t give a crap about her. This boy’s ass, though, gets him all worked up.”

“What do you think the odds are that this video is going to end up on a website?”

“Are you kidding me? Did you have your eyes closed when we watched it? Even setting aside those who watch hidden camera videos just because they’re hidden camera videos, there would still be a whole lot of people in the world who would watch that. He’s as well built as any of those guys Nick manages back at the frat house.”

“Dude, we’re supposed to be professionals here.”

“I’m giving you my professional opinion that our Mr. Fischer is definitely going to go viral, if he hasn’t already.”

Brandt shrugged. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve learned to respect your taste in asses.”

“Speaking of which, how about another cup of coffee?”

Even Brandt slapping the back of his head couldn’t keep Donnelly from having a good laugh at his own juvenile humor.

BRANDT AND Donnelly were shown into the coaches’ offices while a noisy group of phys ed students shouted and jostled their way through the locker room. They sat at the wrestling coach’s desk and awaited his arrival.

The athletic complex was, predictably, out of all scale compared to the rest of the high school campus. The facilities rivaled those of the university Brandt had attended and looked to be no more than five years old. The locker rooms were built in an elliptical shape, with the offices for the coaching staff in the center. They were raised up a half flight of stairs from the floor level in the locker room, and windows all around the offices commanded a view into all of the areas of lockers below. Underneath the offices, a half flight lower than floor level, were showers.

Once the din of high schoolers bound for the fields had died away, a fit and wiry man in his thirties sprang up the stairs into the room full of desks and strode over to meet the officers. According to the embroidery on his slick polo shirt, his name was Coach Woody.

“Ah, you must be here to see me,” he said as he extended his hand to the men. “I’m Woodrow Gustafson, the wrestling coach. Please, call me Woody.”

Brandt nodded. “I’m Officer Brandt, and this is Officer Donnelly. Chief Powell asked us to gather some information about the video of Jonah Fischer.”

Coach Woody grew immediately serious. “I’m so glad you’re here to help. I just hate the idea of anything happening to Jonah’s chances of getting a ride to college. Kid’s parents work so hard, but they’ve had some setbacks, and the only way he’s going to get a shot in life is a wrestling scholarship. Otherwise, it’s community college for him, and probably a welding job over at the works in Somerville. Now, don’t get me wrong—metalworking is what built this whole region, but Jonah’s far too smart for that. A good education and the sky’s the limit for him.”

“We all have the same goal, Woody. Can you take us to where Jonah’s locker is located? We’d like to see it for ourselves.”

“Oh, sure! Follow me.” Coach Woody turned and walked to the stairs on the far side of the office. The officers followed him down the stairs and around to a bank of lockers they immediately recognized from the video. “This is Jonah’s locker, here,” Woody said, stopping suddenly and pointing to his left. “Chief Powell figured the camera must have been mounted here.” He pointed to the locker opposite Jonah’s.

“No one’s using this one?” Brandt asked, peering through the mesh door into the empty locker.

“Not now. It had been used by another wrestler, but he left Woodley a couple of months ago. It’s been empty since.”

Donnelly opened the locker and ran his hand around the inside. “Wow, these are sure nicer than the ones my school had. No holes, no rusty vents. And nowhere to run wires.”

Coach Woody stood up straighter, clearly proud of the facilities. “Yep, these are state of the art. Solid, high-impact plastics, impervious to mold and mildew and fully vented on the front. Thanks to donors in the community, our wrestlers get the best.”

Brandt, who had been surveying sight lines up and down the row of lockers, turned to the coach. “What can you tell us about Jonah? Popular kid? Anyone who might have a grudge?”

“Oh gosh, no. Everyone loves Jonah. He’s the all-around good kid. Gets good grades, always on time for practice, volunteers with his church group. I can’t think of anyone who’s ever had anything bad to say about Jonah.”

Brandt nodded, his brow furrowed.

“I do have a question for you, though,” Woody ventured.

“Sure—ask away.”

“Why do people do this kind of thing?”

“What do you mean?” Donnelly asked.

“Take video like this?” the coach continued. “Who would want to see video of a guy changing his clothes?”

“The likeliest explanation is that someone wanted to embarrass him for some reason. Just about all high school students carry a device these days that allows them to take pictures or video of other kids doing stupid things—or everyday things that aren’t meant to be recorded or shared. Just kids being kids, not aware of the harm they may cause.”

“I get that part,” the coach said, nodding. “When I was in high school a standard prank was to shove some poor kid out into the hall in the middle of changing his clothes. Everyone would have a good laugh at his naked butt and life goes on.”

Donnelly nodded. “These days, in a lot of places that would be treated as a sexual assault. Times have changed.”

“I guess the Internet is the new hallway,” Woody said, shaking his head. “The video has kind of run its course around here. All the kids have seen it, and most seem to think it’s no big deal. But the police say they’re concerned about it getting posted online and more people seeing it. So that’s my question—who would want to see that?”

“That’s the magic of the Internet,” Brandt said. “There’s something out there for everybody, and there’s somebody out there for anything people might post.”

The coach shook his head. “I just don’t get it. I’m surrounded by kids changing clothes every day, and there’s just nothing”—he lowered his voice to a whisper and leaned close—“sexy”—he looked sheepish, then stepped back and continued—“about it.”

Donnelly seemed up to the challenge of explaining further. “Would you say the same thing about a hidden camera in the women’s locker room?”

The coach gulped. “Well… I… um, I’d have to say that… um….”

“Yeah, it’s like that,” Donnelly said, mercifully interrupting the coach’s embarrassed stuttering. “There are some people who wouldn’t mind seeing women athletes changing clothes, and there are other people who enjoy watching the men.”

“Huh,” the coach grunted. “So there are perverts out there who look at my wrestlers like normal guys would look at women?”

“I don’t think the labels ‘pervert’ and ‘normal’ are really helpful here,” Brandt said. “Let’s just say we’d like to make sure it doesn’t get posted online in the first place.”

Woody shook his head again. “That poor kid.”

BRANDT AND Donnelly stopped for lunch at a small, old-fashioned diner in the middle of town, where they were served what could charitably be termed “comfort food,” involving heavy plates of meat and gravy.

“Whew,” groaned Donnelly, pushing his half-full plate away from him. “It’s a wonder everyone in this town doesn’t weigh three hundred pounds.”

Brandt chuckled. “Most of the people I’ve seen are well on their way. Coach Woody seems like a notable exception.”

“So there’s a homophobe with sixty good years left in him. Yay.”

“Well, aren’t we cynical today?” Brandt winked at his partner while he took a sip of his iced tea.

“Sorry. It’s being back in this damn town. Every person we meet manages to work in some gay-hate without even seeming to be aware of it. It’s kind of toxic.”

“Given that, I appreciate how thoughtful you’ve been about Jonah the wrestler. You and Powell came at it from different sides, but your conclusion is pretty much the same.”

Donnelly grunted. “Huh. Much as I hate to agree with that guy about anything, he’s right that this video could pretty much screw the kid’s chances. Another ten years, it won’t matter. But for now, if we can help him, we should.”

Brandt looked at his watch. “We’d better get back to the station. Jonah and his parents will be there soon.”

They walked across the street to the police station and were back in the conference room by two fifteen to await the arrival of the Fischers. Promptly at two thirty, they were brought in by Chief Powell.

“Mr. and Mrs. Fischer, Jonah, this is Officer Brandt and Officer Donnelly. They’ve come here to help us get a handle on this situation.”

“We were so relieved when Chief Powell said the State Police would be coming to help,” Mr. Fischer said, energetically pumping Brandt’s hand and then Donnelly’s. “Thank you.”

The family shook hands all around and then sat down at the conference table. Powell retained his seat at the head of the table.

“We’re pleased to meet you, Jonah,” began Brandt. “I’m sorry it has to be under these circumstances.”

“It’s not the way I imagined my senior year going, that’s for sure,” Jonah replied, the corner of his mouth tucked up in what was likely intended to be a stoic grin.

“Do you have any idea who might have taken the video of you?”

Jonah sighed as if he’d been asked this question a million times. He shrugged and said, “I don’t. And it seems like a really weird thing to do. I mean, I get that it’s supposed to be embarrassing and stuff, but it’s not like I was doing anything weird. I’m not actually sure why everyone’s making such a big deal out of it.”

“Because it’s sick and wrong,” announced Powell. “It would be terrible if this kept you from getting a scholarship for wrestling, now wouldn’t it?”

Both Fischer parents nodded emphatically.

“I know, I know. It’s just really… awkward. I mean, I’m missing practice so we can all sit around talking about my butt being on the Internet.”

“Now, we don’t have any evidence that it’s on the Internet, buddy,” said Mr. Fischer in a fatherly “buck-up” voice. “That’s what we’re trying to avoid.”

Jonah replied to his dad with a voice that clearly conveyed how little he thought his dad understood how the Internet worked. “There’s not really anything we can do about that, is there? People post stuff like this all the time. So what if it shows up on someone’s Tumblr? It’s not like I’m some celebrity who’s going to get reposted all over the place.”

“Young man,” boomed Powell, “you have to understand that no university wrestling coach is going to take on a new athlete who’s got something like this hanging over him. They just won’t want to deal with the scandal and bad publicity.”

“Well, then,” Jonah replied, “maybe I don’t want to go to a university that sees it that way.”

Powell shook his head and emitted short bursts of mirthless laughter. “They all do, son, they all do.”

“We’re supposed to meet with the wrestling coach from State next Wednesday,” Mrs. Fischer broke in. “What are we supposed to tell him? Do we say something about the video, or do we keep it a secret and hope he never finds out about it?”

“Mrs. Fischer, I understand your concern,” Donnelly replied. “How about this: give us a few days to do some investigating, and we’ll be able to evaluate what the risks are. How about we meet next Tuesday and talk about what we’ve found, and then you’ll have a better idea how to handle the coach from State?”

The Fischers looked at each other, conferring wordlessly. Mr. Fischer nodded to his wife.

“All right,” he said. “We can do that. Until then, we won’t say anything and just pray this all goes away.”

“And we’ll be working on finding out who was responsible for recording the video,” Brandt said. “If we can do that, we can keep them from circulating it any further.”

They all rose from the table and moved toward the door.

“Thanks for your help,” Jonah said. “And I really have no idea who might have done this. I’ve thought about it a lot over the last few days, and I can’t come up with anything. I’ve always tried to be nice to everybody.”

“I’m sure you have, buddy,” said Donnelly, clapping his hand on Jonah’s shoulder. “Don’t lose any sleep over this. We’ll take care of it.”

Jonah smiled for the first time during the meeting and then followed his parents out of the conference room.

Once the Fischers had disappeared down the hall, Brandt turned to Powell. “Chief, you said the student who brought the video to the school counselor wouldn’t say who had sent it to her, right?”

“That’s right.” Powell shook his head. “She’s a good kid—probably scared to point the finger at whatever deviant did this.”

“It might be helpful if the school counselor could explain to her what the stakes are for Jonah. She may be willing to help out. If we can trace the chain back, it would bring us a lot closer to the origin.”

“I’ll talk with the counselor. See if she can draw her out.”

“Great. In the meantime, we’ll start working the other end of this. If it’s hit the web, we need to know.” Brandt turned to Donnelly. “Shall we head back to the city, consult our sources?”

Donnelly nodded. “Let’s roll.”

They walked out of the police station and up the street to where they had parked their cruiser.

“Last chance for coffee,” Brandt teased as they neared the cafe.

“You read my mind,” Donnelly said with a wink.

The cafe was empty, given the midafternoon hour. Behind the counter, tending to the enormous brass espresso machine, was the same barista who had seen to their needs in the morning. He turned when the bell jingled on the door.

“Can I—oh, welcome back!” he called, once he saw who had entered.

“You remember us?” Donnelly replied with a coyness in his voice that Brandt had never heard before. He wasn’t sure he liked it.

“Not often we get strangers through here. Especially not… like you.” The barista gave the officers a quick glance up and down. “What can I get started for you?”

“I’ll have a short skim latte with an extra shot, and my partner here”—Donnelly jerked a thumb over his shoulder—“would like a tall Americano.”

“Wouldn’t we all,” cracked the barista as he turned to prepare their drinks.

“God, you’re so embarrassing,” Brandt muttered to Donnelly.

“What? I’m just being friendly.”

“You know, less than a year ago the idea of two men being together made you crazy. You would have given Chief Powell a run for his money. But now look at you, throwing yourself at baristas. I guess we’ll call this progress.”

“Is it wrong for me to feel more comfortable with my sexuality?” Donnelly whispered. “And why are we having this conversation in a cafe?”

“Because this is where you decided to start flirting like a bead-deprived sorority girl at Mardi Gras.”

Donnelly rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“Here’s the latte for you.” The barista handed a cup to Donnelly. “And a tall Americano for your partner. Anything else I can get you?” He rang up the sale on the register.

“Now that you mention it,” Donnelly said as he fished in his pocket for change, “I do have a question for you.”

“Yes?” asked the barista, leaning forward in expectation.

Brandt groaned and looked away as he took a drink of his coffee.

“Why the hell are you in this town?” Donnelly asked.

“What?” The barista seemed completely flummoxed by the question.

“This is the most backward, traditional, and dare I say homophobic burg on the map. It must be awful living here. I’ve been here five hours and I’m going nuts. The next person who utters a thinly veiled bigotry—I swear to God I’m going to kick him in the throat.”

The barista was stunned by this outburst, and his eyes flashed to Brandt, who simply shrugged. Then he burst out laughing. “Five hours! Ha—you should try twenty-five years! I tell ya, I’d be outta here already if I hadn’t inherited this place from my dad a couple years ago. He put his blood, sweat, and tears into it, so I can’t really walk away from it. So I’m stuck here serving sweet, fatty drinks to blue-haired church ladies who drove my only competition out of town a year ago and want me to be grateful for it. Imagine my delight at having homophobia prop up my business.” He took a breath, a bit winded from his tirade. “Sorry, it’s been a long day—they all are. You two have been the highlight. Name’s Malcolm, by the way.” He held out his hand.

Donnelly blushed. “Well, you’re in luck, Malcolm. We’ll be back next Tuesday for more fun in Woodley. I’m Gabriel, and this is Ethan.”

“Nice to meet you both, and I’ll look forward to your return,” Malcolm replied with a wink.

“Well, sorry to drink and run, but we’ve gotta hit the road,” Brandt announced. “Can I have my partner back now?” he asked with a grin, but with a warning in his voice.

“Oh—oh, sorry. When you said ‘partner’ before, I thought you meant, like, in the police sense, given the car you’re driving. But you meant…. Oh.” Malcolm stepped back from the counter, hands waving in an alarmed gesture of distancing himself from Donnelly.

“Don’t worry about him.” Donnelly jerked his head toward Brandt. “He’s just a jealous boyfriend with a short temper and a big gun.” He winked at Malcolm, who managed a weak smile. “We’ll see you Tuesday,” he said as he and Brandt exited the cafe.

Malcolm waved after them.

“What was that about?” Brandt asked as he guided the cruiser down the main street toward the highway.

Donnelly looked at Brandt as if the answer should be obvious. “Think about it. What has Powell gotten himself so worked up about?”

“He’s afraid some gay Internet mafia is going to get its hooks into Jonah’s ass.”

“Exactly. And the best way to find out if that’s what’s going on is to get tapped into the gay population of the town. And now we know he’s named Malcolm.” Donnelly looked askance at his partner. “It’s called police work, officer.”

“And here I thought you were just flirting.” Brandt grinned at his boyfriend. “It kind of made me crazy.”

Donnelly smiled. “Good. Keep you on your toes.”

“Bastard,” Brandt muttered. But he reached over and stroked Donnelly’s hard, flat belly before straying down lower for a quick feel.

“Hands on the wheel, mister.” Donnelly’s mood seemed to brighten with every mile that opened up between him and Woodley. “So, where we heading?”

“Figured we’d go to the person who knows the most about Internet porn—get some expert perspective on where to start looking.”


“Yep. We can drop by the house on our way into town.”

Nick worked at the frat-themed sex-cam house they had investigated the year before. The business he helped manage was as ethically run as any porn shop could be. Brandt hoped he could help them narrow down the sites where Jonah’s video might be posted.

About ninety minutes later, they pulled up in front of the house. It was just another mansion in a development of mansions, with no outward indication of the exuberant nudity that was the lifeblood of the business.

Brandt knocked at the front door, and a few seconds later, Nick opened it.

“Jason!” he called, pulling Brandt into a bear hug. Jason had been Brandt’s cover name when he posed as an employee of the house for his investigation. Nick still used it sometimes to recall the time that they had worked together. “It’s great to see you!” He turned to Donnelly. “Gabriel, how are you, man?” he asked as he pulled Donnelly, too, into a bear hug.

“We called ahead and still you answer the door naked?” Brandt asked as they entered the house.

“I wasn’t naked when you called,” Nick said with a laugh. “I just like to do it for old time’s sake. Can I get you guys something to drink?”

“Nah, I’m good,” Brandt replied, and Donnelly shook his head as well. “We’ve got a case we could use your expert help with.” He took a seat on the leather couch in the living room.

“Happy to help. What’s up?” Nick sat on the other end of the same couch, seemingly oblivious to his own nudity.

“There’s a case upstate we’ve been called in on. Kid on the wrestling team got videoed in the locker room. Just being passed around among the students right now, but we’re worried about it getting posted online. He’s looking for a wrestling scholarship, and the video could blow it for him. We were hoping you might be able to give us some ideas about which sites to monitor so we can do damage control if it does show up.”

Nick’s brow furrowed. “Kid’s under or over?”

“Over, luckily. There’s one problem we’re not having to deal with.”

Nick nodded. “Well, you know we don’t deal with hidden camera stuff. The other sites I have contact with don’t either. There are sites that do a great business in it, but a lot of it is fake. You know, they film a pro pretending to be caught on tape.” Nick pondered Brandt’s question for a moment. “You know who might know about this kind of stuff—Andy. Remember, the guy I sent you to when you needed to buy a jockstrap for the private show? Because he’s in sporting goods, it’s possible he has some contacts in the locker room genre. I would pay him a visit—he’s still at Sporting Wood on Alta Avenue—and see if he has some leads for you.”

“Excellent,” Brandt said, standing up. “Thanks for your time, Nick.”

“Always a pleasure, Ethan,” Nick said, shaking his hand.

Brandt pulled him into an embrace, and they shared a laugh along with the hug.

Nick reached out and hugged Donnelly as well.

“You know,” Donnelly said as they embraced, “it’s our turn to have you and Pete over for dinner.”

“That would be awesome. Anything to get more of your home cooking,” he said with a wink at Donnelly. “Love you guys.”

“Love you too, Nick,” the officers said in unison.

Nick, being naked, didn’t see them all the way to their car.

“Grab some dinner?” Donnelly asked as they pulled out of the driveway. “I’m beat from all this driving.”

“Sounds good. Get something light, and we can hit the sack early. Play a little ‘the barista and the tough customer’?”

Donnelly socked him on the arm and laughed giddily.

A Wedding to Die For #3
Chapter One
The Bell Tolls
“NO. I can’t do it.” The man crossed his arms across his chest and shook his head gravely. His words had really left no doubt, but in case they had, his body language would have extinguished it with brutal alacrity.

It was hardly the demeanor one expected from a baker.

“I don’t understand,” said one of the two men sitting at the dainty pink-and-white cafe table. “Are you overbooked for that week, or…?”

“No, I just can’t do it.” The baker’s tone was even and businesslike, but his refusal was adamantine.

“But,” offered the other man sitting at the ridiculously precious table, its lace tablecloth woven with shiny strands of pink ribbon, “the piece in City magazine was so amazing—we just loved your designs. We were really hoping to have one of your cakes.”

“You’ll have to find someone else,” the baker replied, darting a glance through the front window of the shop as if concerned that someone might see him talking to the two well-heeled gentlemen.

“But why?” rejoined the first man, his tone mystified.

The baker sighed and shook his head wearily. “I don’t do weddings like… yours,” he said, almost under his breath.

The change in expression on the faces of the two men could not have been more sudden, or more drastic, had they been splashed with cold water. They sat back, shocked and offended, and then looked at each other in dismay.

“Excuse me?” said the second man, the excitement in his voice replaced with an icy crispness. His hands balled into fists atop the doily tablecloth.

“We’re just wasting each other’s time here,” the baker said, rising to his full five-and-a-half-foot height of imposing pudgy grandeur.

“I don’t think you know whom you’re dealing with,” the groom said, rising as well. As he was well over six feet of refined athleticism, he towered over the baker.

As stubborn as the baker had seemed while sitting, he became positively inflamed when having to look up at his foe. “I know perfectly well who I’m dealing with. I watch Channel 3 news—or at least I did until today. Now you should know who you’re dealing with. My family has run this bakery for three generations, and we are God-fearing, upstanding citizens. I will make a cake for any man and woman in this town who wants to get married, but the day two tuxedos go on the top of one of my cakes is the day I close this place down.”

“That, my good man, can be arranged.” The second groom, his voice even and calm, rose from his seat to face the baker. “You may have seen my fiancé on the nightly news, but unless you’ve found yourself on the losing end of a lawsuit, you’ve never seen me. Shortly you shall.”

The baker sneered. “You’re going to sue me into making you a cake?”

“No. But I am going to sue you for violation of Section 28 of the state constitution. In case you aren’t aware, that section has recently been found by the state supreme court to guarantee access to public accommodation to all citizens, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.”

“I’m not going to make wedding cakes for that parade of freaks—on my mother’s grave I’m not.”

“Then we will see you in court.” The attorney turned to his fiancé. “Now, my love, we have a florist to see, don’t we?” The men turned to leave.

“Good luck with that,” the baker growled to their backs as they walked to the door. “Most people in this business agree with me.”

The second groom turned back as they stepped out of the bakery. “Then we will be busy in court, won’t we?”

The baker shook his head and stomped back to his kitchen as the grooms walked past the shop’s front window.

“CAN YOU believe that guy?” The news anchor’s voice was livid, but his face gave no sign that he was in any way upset—he often referred to this as his Botox face, devoid of emotion in case the camera was still on him during a commercial break. “Apparently not everyone has gotten the memo that the Dark Ages are over.”

“Calm down, love,” soothed the attorney as the two men walked down the block and around the corner. “We’ll get him sorted out quickly with a saber-rattling letter. I’ll spell out just how much trouble he’s heading for, and he’ll come around.”

“But the court ruling on Section 28 was supposed to guarantee we would be treated like anyone else. Now we have to sue someone for the privilege of having him make a cake for us?”

“But just a few years ago, we never imagined that we’d be able to get married at all. Things move slowly until they don’t; that’s how the law works sometimes.”

“I know, I know—you’re right, as always. I just wish I were as calm as you are about it. I so wanted to reach across that lace-drenched table and strangle the homophobia right out of his fat head.”

“This is why people get married, love—to complement each other. I keep you from strangling bigoted bakers, and you remind me that not everything can be solved with a subpoena.”

“But I love your subpoenas! Mainly because it sounds like penis.”

“My God you are a big child. But I love you.”

They kissed and then looked up to realize they had arrived at the florist who, they hoped, would provide the flowers for their wedding. They opened the door with a tinkle of the ancient brass bell mounted on the jamb and approached the counter.

“We have an appointment with Monty. For a wedding?”

The diminutive woman behind the counter smiled up at the men. “And who’s the bride who would trust her flowers to the groom and his best man?”

The anchorman took a deep breath. “It’s our wedding,” he said with the winning smile he used to introduce cloying human-interest stories on the newscast—something involving a baby squirrel water-skiing or a kindergarten chess champion raising money for the blind.

The woman’s smile vanished. She turned without a word and walked into the back of the shop.

“Oh, shit,” exhaled the news anchor. “That didn’t look so good for us, did it?”

“Let’s not leap to conclusions,” the attorney replied. “Give folks the benefit of the doubt, right?”

The first man took a deep breath and nodded.

“Gentlemen, I’m Monty.” A whippet-thin man with salt-and-pepper hair cropped close to his head bustled out from the rear of the shop. Stray bits of greenery clung to his clothing, as if he had been standing too close to some kind of floral explosion. “How can I help you today?”

The news anchor dialed the human-interest smile back up to full wattage. “Pleased to meet you, Monty. We’re here to talk about flowers for our wedding.”

“Okay, so, that’s the part I don’t think I understand. When you say ‘our wedding,’ you mean….”

“The two of us,” the attorney announced in a tone that had no doubt struck fear into many a defendant. “We are getting married in June and would like to retain your services for the floral arrangements. We are planning to spend at least forty thousand dollars on centerpieces and decorative elements. Are you available?” This last was less a question than a challenge.

Monty turned and looked into the workroom, visible through the swinging doors behind the counter. The small woman who had been at the counter stared back at him through narrowed eyes.

“I’m so sorry, gentlemen,” Monty said to the men. “We’re simply not available to provide flowers for your… wedding.”

“Booked up for the entire month, are you?” the attorney replied. “Do you get many forty-thousand-dollar wedding orders? That’s not worth a little overtime?”

“It’s not that,” Monty said in a low voice. He glanced toward the back of the shop again, just for a second. “We don’t… uh… support that kind of… um….”

The news anchor took a breath as if to finish the florist’s sentence for him, but the attorney put a hand on his arm and gave one slight shake of his head.

The florist took another breath and forged ahead. “We don’t provide services for nontraditional weddings,” he said finally.

“Two people, friends and family, vows,” the attorney replied. “I don’t see that we’re after anything at all nontraditional, Monty.”

Monty closed his eyes and took a deep breath that seemed to help his agitation not a bit. “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said, a note of genuine apology in his voice.

“Are you aware of Section 28 of the state constitution?” began the attorney in what had suddenly become a rote lecture.

“WELL, AS wedding planning goes, this day was about the worst imaginable,” the news anchor lamented before tipping back his wine glass. “I worried about you turning me down, but I never dreamed that we would be rejected by both a baker and a florist on the same day.”

The men had sought refuge in a more Adam-and-Steve-friendly locale: their favorite wine bar on Alta Avenue. They had done some serious damage to an astringent chardonnay and were contemplating an assault on a cheeky gewürztraminer.

“Worry not, my love,” the attorney soothed. “We’ll get them sorted. I just have two letters to fire off first thing in the morning, and you’ll see how quickly they cave. This time next week they’ll be begging us to come in for a consultation.”

“Not sure I want them to do it now. Maybe we should just find someone on the Avenue to do it instead?”

“They’re who you wanted, and all you’ve talked about for weeks is how anyone who’s anyone has flowers by Monty and a cake by Capella’s. I want you to have everything you want, love, because you’re only getting married once.”

His fiancé smiled.

“Because if you try to divorce me I will take you apart in court, piece by gorgeous piece,” the attorney added with a wink.

“It’s amazing no one’s marched you down the aisle already, what with your gift for sweet talk.”

“NOW, DARLINGS, I love a good mystery as much as anyone—oh, the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out which member of One Direction is the straight one—but this is too, too much! I’m simply going to expire if you don’t tell me your big news right this very second, which as I’m sure you would agree would make quite a scene in this lovely and expensive boîte that my beloved Nestor and I could never afford to enter were we not invited.”

Brandt smiled at Donnelly, and they shared a laugh. Bryce’s performance was, as expected, a typhoon of aggrieved delight. “Bryce, it’s been all of an hour since I asked you to meet us here.”

“An hour that I spent feverishly imagining every possible eventuality. Why, my mind was so occupied I don’t think I was able to do a second of actual work after reading your text. Thank goodness it was slow in the shop.”

“Not many people wiling away a late Monday afternoon browsing the racks at Grindstone?” Donnelly asked.

“The only people in the store were a few college boys doing some kind of scavenger hunt thing. They weren’t interested in the clothes at all. They just piled into a dressing room together and mooned the mirror while one of them reached around with a camera.”

“They mooned the two-way mirror that you use for… loss prevention?” Brandt queried with a smirk.

“One cannot be too careful these days—we must be vigilant,” Bryce stated with an almost manly vigor. “Thanks to our professional observational techniques, in case we are ever called upon to identify them in a lineup, we are ready to serve.”

“Committed their buttocks to memory, did you?” teased Donnelly.

“And to the Instagram,” offered Nestor, brandishing his phone.

Brandt laughed and left aside the potential privacy issues brought up by Bryce and Nestor’s itchy shutter fingers. The men had proven themselves invaluable in several investigations over the past year, and despite their flamboyance, their discretion could be relied upon in a pinch.

“Now, at the risk of being tiresome, I must ask again,” Bryce resumed. “For what momentous disclosure have you summoned us? Keep a lady waiting long enough and your chivalry may be subject to question in the streets.”

“First, let’s get something to drink.” Brandt waved, and a waiter sped across the room to appear, somewhat breathlessly, at his side. His ability to instantly command attention from any man on Alta Avenue had been somewhat disconcerting when Brandt first noticed it last year, but as he had become more comfortable in the gay world of the Avenue, he came to see this as a benign superpower that he was careful not to abuse. He turned and smiled sunnily at the waiter.

“What can I get for you gentlemen today?” the waiter asked, generously including all four seated at the table though never taking his eyes from Brandt.

“We’d like a bottle of champagne, please,” Brandt replied with a playful hint of ceremony in his voice.

“Celebrating a special occasion?” the waiter queried, an eyebrow raised in playful interest.

“Yes, we are,” Donnelly replied. His intonation told that he was perfectly reconciled to Brandt getting the raised-eyebrow treatment from Messrs. All & Sundry.

“Excellent,” the waiter said with a knowing nod. “What’s our budget, then? School teachers on holiday, or rappers celebrating a tax refund?”

Brandt burst out laughing. “Something along the school-teacher line, I think.”

“Very good. I’ll be back in a jiff.”

“Champagne?” hooted Bryce. “The plot thickens. Though I am relieved to discover that the news must be good indeed, I’m still burning with curiosity. You are so cruel to drag this out, plying us with bottle after bottle of bubbly.”

“I ordered one bottle!” Brandt replied.

“The night is young,” Bryce pronounced, his head swiveling around the room, perhaps looking for anyone he knew who might witness him drinking champagne with the two strapping officers.

Brandt was relieved when the waiter returned to the table with the champagne almost immediately. He laid a flute in front of each man and then presented the bottle to Brandt for approval. It was a label rather nicer than he was expecting, but as this was a special occasion, he decided to indulge. He nodded, and the waiter popped the cork and poured all around the table.

Bryce was practically vibrating with excitement, quivering in his chair. Brandt wasted no time in putting him out of his misery.

“You two have become part of our lives over the last year, and we wanted you to be among the first to know that”—he turned and looked at Donnelly with what he knew was a sappy smile—“the love of my life has asked me to marry him, and I’ve said yes.”

It surely violated a law of physics that Bryce could both suck in a huge, dramatic breath and emit a high-pitched squeal of excitement at the same time. But Bryce had probably passed physics by dint of various extra-credit projects he’d performed for his teacher after school hours. Brandt simply waited for him to breathe again.

It was a long moment.

Meanwhile, Nestor turned his beaming face to the fiancés. “Long have I been dreaming,” he began solemnly, “of this very moment. I shall be honored to witness your souls unite as I have long imagined your bodies to do.” His eyes grew unfocused, as if he were imagining it as he spoke.

Finally, Bryce seemed to have found the composure to speak, if only a single word. “Among?”

“Pardon me?” Brandt said, leaning toward Bryce.

“We are among the first to know?” Bryce’s eyes glinted fiercely.

Brandt shook his head and smiled. He knew that Bryce’s dudgeon would only hold out so long before being overwhelmed by his excitement. “We told our families, of course, but you are the first friends we’ve given the news to.”

Bryce’s expression instantly changed from Dour Countess to Tipsy Cheerleader. “Oh! Oh! Oh! This is so exciting!” He laid a hand at his throat and made a great show of catching his breath. Then, with the practiced elegant motion of a hand accustomed to wearing opera gloves trimmed with marabou, he raised his flute. “It has been my great honor and pleasure to encourage the two of you as you made your way from the dark recesses of heterosexuality into the glorious daylight of your love for one another. I cannot think of two people I would be happier to watch walk down the aisle. Blessings and congratulations, my dears. May every happiness be yours.” Bryce raised his glass high, and then all four took a sip of the champagne, Brandt and Donnelly blushing at Bryce’s effusion.

Then Nestor raised his glass. “The first day I see you, I know. You fight against it, but I know. Now you stand up together and the whole world know.”

Brandt felt Donnelly’s hand grip his, and when Brandt turned to him, he saw tears welling in his fiancé’s eyes.

“You two are just the best,” Donnelly said, his voice a little thick. “I’m so touched.”

“You gonna get a lot more touched on the wedding night,” replied Nestor in a light, singsongy voice.

“Now, to the important business at hand,” Bryce interrupted the giggles occasioned by Nestor’s ribaldry. “First we need to know the date so that we can back schedule and sort everything by priority. We’ll need to convene a group of the city’s finest purveyors of matrimonial necessities, plus that really hot DJ—you know the one I mean, Nestor?”

Nestor nodded. “But, my love, they have not asked for our help.”

Bryce froze, his face pale with shock. His lips moved, but no sound emerged.

“Of course we would be so grateful for your help in planning the wedding,” Brandt blurted, eager to head off a meltdown.

Bryce closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “A very sensible decision,” he said once he had exhaled and opened his eyes again. “And we would be delighted to provide any assistance we can, of course. You are the very first of our select social circle to tie the knot.”

“Not surprising, given how recently it became legal,” said Donnelly, an edge to his voice. “It’s so nice that our state has finally seen fit to extend human rights to everyone.”

“I prefer to think that they simply weren’t prepared for weddings as fabulous as yours will be, darlings,” replied Bryce briskly, shaking off the political bitterness of Donnelly’s remark. “And fabulous it shall be. Now, what’s our date?”

“We haven’t really picked one,” Brandt said, looking at Donnelly with eyebrows raised. Donnelly shrugged in response.

“Well, since it’s April, and given the logistics we’re facing, I’d say the absolute soonest would be November. Next year.”

Brandt and Donnelly both startled back in their chairs.

“A year and a half?” Brandt asked.

“Bryce, you know we love you, but we aren’t looking for a Disney-princess-level event here,” Donnelly said gently. “We’d be happy with something small and simple.”

Bryce’s visage clouded.

“With your trademark elegance and style, of course,” added Brandt.

“Well, perhaps if we get started immediately and call in a few favors, we might be able to do next June,” groused Bryce with an unconvincing pout.

“We really need more than a year?” Brandt asked.

“All of the best people are booked a year in advance at the very latest. We’ll be scrambling just to find anyone at all who will meet my—sorry, your—standards. And we will be hard-pressed indeed to find the right wedding planner, which we must absolutely get started on right now.”

“Wait, I thought you were going to plan—”

“Oh honey, no! Think of us as your personal assistants, guiding you to the most fashionable and fabulous choices. Nestor and I are well acquainted with which caterers have the most muscular waiters, but for the heavy lifting, you need to engage a professional. I will start arranging audiences with the finest consultants tout de suite.”

Bryce and Nestor beamed at the engaged couple, fidgeting with excitement.

“We’re really doing this, aren’t we?” Brandt asked Donnelly.

“We are. God help us, we are.”

“YOU KNOW anything about this task force?” Donnelly asked Brandt as they drove to work the next morning.

“Just what the chief said in that e-mail yesterday. Not a lot to go on.”

“I kind of like what we’ve been doing lately, helping local law enforcement with sensitive investigations. I hope they’re not going to take us off that and put us on highway patrol or something.”

“If I know the chief, what he has in mind is going to be more challenging than aiming a radar gun at traffic on the interstate.”

“I hope so,” Donnelly replied. “But the last time he had a special project for us, you ended up doing naked videos. Not sure I’d be up for that again.”

“You saying you wouldn’t want me to make a sexy video? Are you getting tired of seeing me naked, Officer Donnelly?”

“If you were naked, I would gladly spend any number of shifts sitting by the side of the road doing speed enforcement.”

“I haven’t reviewed the uniform standards for a while, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that would be a violation.”

“That would be the least of the violations, I promise you,” Donnelly replied with a growl. He slid his hand up his partner’s thigh and gave him a squeeze.

“I like the way this is going. But, seeing that we’re in the parking lot of headquarters, I think we should probably just stay fully clothed and get to our desks. Sound good?”

“As long as you’ll be naked before this day is over, I’m good to go.”

“Promise.” Brandt leaned over and kissed his partner. “Now, let’s see what the chief has in store for us.”

Fifteen minutes later Brandt and Donnelly were sitting across the desk from the chief of the state police, waiting for him to return from a meeting down the hall.

“Every time I sit here, I remember when he gave me that undercover assignment,” Brandt whispered to Donnelly. “My entire life changed when he told me I’d be infiltrating a porn operation.”

“Yeah, that changed a lot for both of us,” Donnelly whispered back. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Brandt winked and grinned but said no more as the chief strode in and took his seat behind the desk.

“Brandt, Donnelly, good to see you. And great work, by the way, on sorting out that mess in Woodley. Read your report, and I’m very impressed.”

“Thank you, sir,” replied Donnelly for both of them.

“What you did to help out the Woodley PD got me thinking about how we might take a more proactive stance on those issues, and I had a meeting last week with the new attorney general. I proposed a new task force, and she’s on board. I’d like the two of you to head it up.”

Brandt expected more information, but the chief seemed to be waiting for a response. “We’re honored, sir, and we’re ready to serve. But what, exactly, would we be doing?”

“I’m sure you’re aware that people across the state are starting to file lawsuits to compel businesses and organizations to comply with Section 28.”

“Yes, we’ve been following the news,” said Brandt.

“Good. Now, this is the first time in a long while that a provision of the state constitution is running contrary to the law in many municipalities. We haven’t seen state preemption like this since the Civil Rights era. And it’s causing friction in more traditional communities.”

“You don’t have to tell us,” Donnelly replied with a wry chuckle. “We spent enough time in Woodley to know what that ‘friction’ looks like.”

“What we need, and what the attorney general needs, is a state-level resource to go to these communities and be very clear with them on what the constitution requires in terms of equal treatment. And that’s what we’d like the two of you to do.”

“So, we’d be responsible for Section 28 enforcement?” asked Brandt.

“Yes, but more than that, you would serve as a resource to local law enforcement on their obligations with regard to equal treatment, helping them update policies and training. You would advise local businesses about the need to bring their workplace practices into line. You’d also meet with politicians and local governments to support them as they work to bring the legal code and regulations into compliance with the court ruling. What we want to avoid is a long and costly string of lawsuits clogging our court system, which a simple and forceful explanation of the law would serve to prevent.”

“It sounds like something that lawyers would be more suited to,” replied Donnelly. “Why send state troopers to do it?”

“Because the two of you have been on the front lines. You’ve already shown what you can accomplish in Woodley, and I think you’re the right men for this. And the attorney general agrees. Now, you will have access to the district attorneys across the state if you need help from a lawyer. But we’re operating under the assumption that it’s better to consult constructively than it is to go in with lawyers blazing and read them the riot act.” The chief sat back in his chair and smiled at the men. “Well, what do you think?”

Brandt and Donnelly exchanged a look.

“We’re definitely on board, Chief,” Brandt answered on behalf of both. “Looks like a great opportunity to do some important work.”

“Excellent. Now, let me show you the first situation that needs your attention.” The chief turned to his computer and brought up a browser window. “This press conference was held yesterday afternoon.” He clicked the video frame, and the picture came to life.

Spring Break at the Villa Hermes #4
Chapter One
“I CAN’T believe it’s only three months away,” Donnelly said, his steady voice giving no sign of the pounding pace he was maintaining on the treadmill.

Next to him, Brandt kept stride. “What do you mean? We’ve been planning this wedding for approximately… eternity. Stars have extinguished while we sat picking out colors for tablecloths.”

“It hasn’t been so bad,” scolded Donnelly, cranking up the speed a little more. “Wendell has taken care of most of it, and Bryce has been handling the rest.”

“Yeah, about that. Did I mention I’d heard from one of the caterers Bryce ‘handled’? He’s not going to file a complaint, but….”

“I’ll talk to him. It’s not like it’s the first time. Remember when we asked him to pick up our car from the garage?”

Brandt chuckled at the memory. “But that one turned out okay. The mechanic was down for it, and we got free oil changes for a year. Bryce must wrestle above his weight class.”

Donnelly laughed so hard he nearly stumbled off the treadmill. “Look at you with your wrestling talk. Gearing up for the finals at the university?”

“Figured I should practice. I don’t want to embarrass Jonah and Casey by shouting the wrong things during their bouts.”

“Oh, did I mention Mal got back to me? He’s going to stay with us during the finals meet weekend.”

Brandt shot his partner a dagger-y look.

“In the guest room, of course.” Donnelly looked quite pleased to have incited a jealous reaction.

“Remind me to set up that trip wire in the hallway I’ve been thinking about.” Brandt smiled and cranked up the speed of his treadmill to meet, then exceed, Donnelly’s. “You know, after all the wedding planning, and the wrestling finals, it might be nice to take a little break.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I was kind of thinking we might take a week off and head down to one of those honeymoon spots Bryce has been going on about.”

“A whole week? In March?”

Brandt squinted at his partner. “Yes, at the end of March.”

Donnelly looked blankly at him. “What’s special about the end of March?”

“It’s only the one-year anniversary of your proposal, that’s all.” Brandt’s voice was casual, but he beamed; his track record of remembering significant relationship dates was so much worse than his partner’s. He was surprised when Donnelly stopped running and disappeared from his vision. Brandt hit the stop button on his treadmill and dropped off the back as the belt slowed suddenly. He stood next to Donnelly, whose face betrayed his astonishment.

“You remembered,” he said, his voice mystified.

“As a matter of fact, I did.”

“I love you.” Donnelly pulled Brandt into a tight embrace, right there in the gym. “You are amazing.”

“Does this mean you’re going to run away with me for a week?”

“I would go anywhere with you,” Donnelly said, smiling broadly. “Anywhere.”

“I’ll call and confirm the reservation.”

“You already made the arrangements?” Donnelly seemed unable to catch his breath.

“I did. I guess this is what they call sweeping you off your feet.”

Donnelly leaned close to whisper in Brandt’s ear. “My feet will be in the air all night.”

“Fuck,” breathed Brandt.

“DO YOU have everything, Teddy dear?” his mom called from the living room. “Your swim trunks and sunscreen?”

“Yes, Mom,” Ted called back.

“Clean underwear?”

“It’s not like I’m going to pack dirty underwear, Mom.” Exasperation was creeping into his voice.

“You’re going to be there for a whole week. You’ll need seven pairs of underwear, plus an extra.”

“I can count, Mom,” he shouted, losing the battle to keep his voice down.

“Do you have a hat?”

Ted slumped on the bed, exhausted from his mom’s hectoring. This was supposed to be a quick shot home to pick up clothes for a spring break that had suddenly turned into a whole week at the beach, thanks to Ted’s rich friend Howie. A week in the warm sun would be a welcome change from the layers of ice and snow that blanketed his university campus through the winter. But he was starting to think a day back home to pick up warm-weather clothes was too great a price to pay.

“I have a hat,” he called back wearily.

“And sunscreen?”

Ted flopped back on the bed, arms out, wishing for death to just take him already. This couldn’t get any worse.

“And condoms?” his dad called. “You got enough condoms?”

It just got worse.

“ALL RIGHT, bitches, let’s count up the score,” Bryce called, waving a square of cardstock at the others.

“I thought watching an entire day of college wrestling would have been excitement enough for you,” Brandt observed.

“Of course I appreciate the efforts of those sweaty, muscular lovelies as much as the next man,” Bryce sniffed. “But this adds an extra measure of fun, don’t you think?”

Mal leaned close to Donnelly. “Is he always…?”

“Oh, yes,” Donnelly replied. “Inexhaustibly.”

“All right, then. I got a bingo during the first round. Here’s what I marked off: visible jockstrap, semiboner, finger-in-cleft, wedgie tug, and the bonus middle square—teabag. Is that what everyone got?” Bryce looked around the group, smiling brightly.

“You missed singlet malfunction,” Donnelly noted, looking at his card.

“Which kind?” Bryce asked, pencil at the ready.

Donnelly checked his card. “Round one was… buttock.” He looked up. “Round three was the ball slip.”

“I can’t do this,” Brandt muttered, heading for the tub full of beers on the dining table, shaking his head and chuckling. “Can I get anyone another?”

“That would be great, thanks,” Mal called, holding his empty beer bottle aloft. “Oh, and I also got cut versus uncut.”

Donnelly turned to him with his mouth open. “How did you see that?”

Mal held up the binoculars still hanging around his neck.

“So, that’s round one,” Bryce announced, taking careful notes on his master scorecard—the one with pink glitter around the edges.

“It was nice to see Jonah and Casey doing so well,” Brandt said, returning with a beer for Mal and one for himself. “They seem to really be fitting in at the university.”

“I’ll say,” Mal replied, taking the bottle from Brandt. “They pretty much delivered the championship today.”

“I’m just glad to see their team so supportive of them and their relationship,” Donnelly added. “They deserve that, after all they went through in fucking Woodley.” He took a drink, then his eyes went wide and he swallowed quickly. “Oh, sorry, Mal, I forget you still kind of have to live there.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Mal said. “I’ve been thinking for a while about getting the hell out of there. You know the café we went to yesterday, after the early rounds of wrestling? The one on the south end of Alta Avenue?”

“Nice place,” Brandt said. “I think it’s the best coffee on the avenue.”

“Well, I had a chat with the owner yesterday, and he’s getting ready to retire. He’s kept the place up really well, but there are some things I would do differently. Like, he’s got a full kitchen but doesn’t serve lunch, and he brings in all of his baked goods on a truck the night before rather than making them fresh. Seems like I could make a pretty good go of it.”

“So you’d sell the place in Woodley?” Donnelly asked. Mal’s café was the only thing that had kept him going when they were in Woodley last year helping out with Jonah’s case.

“Actually, I already have an offer on the table for it. There’s a developer who wants to tear down half the block to put up some horrible chain restaurant. Which I figure is pretty much all Woodley deserves, so I’m inclined to sell out. It’s a great offer, and it will give me enough to buy the place on the avenue, plus some to make improvements.”

“It would be awesome to have you here,” Brandt said, genuinely happy for Mal. Anyone who escaped Woodley should be congratulated.

“Thanks,” Mal said. He took another drink of his beer. “So what’s this I hear about an exciting spring-break trip for you two?”

“Well, it’s not exactly a spring-break trip,” Brandt said. “We’re just going to get away for a week and have some quiet time together.”

“Good for you,” Mal replied. “Though from what Jonah and Casey were saying, the entire university is decamping for the beach that week. You’ll probably have some company.”

“I don’t think the college crowd is going to be descending upon the Villa Hermes,” Donnelly said. “It’s this little boutique B&B up on the bluffs above the beach. It’d be pretty hard not to notice it’s a gay-focused business when the photos on their website look like an Andrew Christian commercial.”

“Sounds… hot,” Mal said, eyebrows up.

“We’ve never really gone in for the gaycation,” Brandt said. “But after all of this political crap we’ve been dealing with on marriage equality, I would just like to be someplace where I can kiss my fiancé by the pool and not feel like people are staring at us.”

“People gonna be staring,” Nestor said liltingly.

Brandt blushed.

“As long as they are staring because they want a better view of my stud in a Speedo, I’m okay with that,” Donnelly said with a laugh.

Brandt looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “Speedo?”

Donnelly ran a playful finger down Brandt’s chest from his collar to his belt buckle. “For me?”

Brandt put his arm around Donnelly and kissed him on the cheek. “Anything for you.”

“Oh!” Bryce called. “Nestor, get your phone. You know how I like photos of our troopers being cute.”

“The phone say it full,” Nestor said, holding it up and shaking his head. “Too much cute already.”

“So when do you leave for your week in paradise?” Mal asked, once he had finished goggling at Bryce and Nestor.

“We fly out Friday after work,” Donnelly replied. “That gives us a few days to find the right color Speedo for you.” He nudged Brandt in the ribs. “Of course, they said on their site the pool is in a courtyard, so it’s clothing-optional.”

Brandt turned a stunned face to Donnelly. “You aren’t seriously considering…?”

“Who knows? An allover tan might just be the thing to lift the winter doldrums, don’t you think?”

“Who are you, you manslut?” Brandt cried in a voice full of mock outrage. “And you might want to look into getting that jaw rehinged, Mal.” He burst out laughing at Mal’s surprise in being called out on his reaction.

“I like this Malcolm person,” Bryce said to Nestor. “He has good instincts.”

“TAXI’S HERE, motherfuckers,” boomed a commanding voice from downstairs. “Finish packing your panties and get the fuck down here.”

Ted threw a last few things into his backpack: laptop and cables, the novel he was supposed to have finished for his Irish literature class last week, a baseball cap. He grabbed his suitcase and bolted into the hallway, where he collided with Thor, his roommate across the hall.

“Sorry,” Thor said, as was his habit. “When Paul cranks up that bullhorn voice of his, it kind of makes me crazy.”

“Let’s just get down there before he really turns up the volume,” Ted suggested, and they headed down the creaky old stairs together.

“Ted, Thor, nice of you to join us,” Paul said in a growl. “Did you happen to see the others up there?”

“Chad was in the bathroom, probably trying to figure out which hair product goes best with humidity,” Ted replied.

“Howie came downstairs a while ago,” Thor said. “I haven’t seen him come back up, so he must be down here somewhere. Did you check the kitchen?”

“No, I’ve been trying to convince the taxi driver not to leave us here because we can’t get our shit together,” grumbled Paul. “Can one of you ladies go check the kitchen?”

“I’ll go,” Ted volunteered.

“And see if you can rustle up Bark while you’re back there,” Paul called after him. He stepped out into the late-night gloom to be sure the taxi hadn’t pulled away.

Ted walked through the sparsely furnished living room and into the kitchen beyond. “Howie, it’s time to go. Paul’s going to kill one of us if we don’t get moving.” Ted looked around the corner, where the downstairs toilet and the back door were hidden. “Bark? You in there?”

“He’s not back there,” Howie replied, rinsing the last of his mac and cheese out of the cracked bowl he’d been using.

“Know where he is?”

“Left about twenty minutes ago. Said he needed a last run before being cooped up on a plane all night.”

“He’s out running? Shit, Howie, the taxi’s here right now.”

Howie shrugged and walked past Ted, brushing his shoulder on the way out.

Ted followed him back into the living room. Chad had finally emerged from the bathroom, so now their group numbered five, including the glaring Paul, who had returned from the curb with a new string of expletive-laced invective to motivate his roommates.

“Where the fuck is Bark?” he demanded.

“He went out for a run,” Ted said, knowing the abuse he was letting Bark in for.

“It’s ten fucking degrees outside, and that cocksucker goes for a little jog? At exactly the time he knew we have to leave? What the fuck was he thinking?”

“I was thinking I didn’t want to get all fat and grumpy on the plane,” Bark said, having appeared in the doorway behind Paul while he was ranting. He poked the big man in the belly and walked around him. He was wearing a black compression suit for cold-weather running.

“Can we get the hell out of here, please?” Paul shouted at him. “And for the record, this is not what fat looks like.” Paul lifted his flannel shirt and showed the six ingots of hard muscle arrayed on his hairy torso. “So fuck you.”

Bark smiled at him and started to pull the compression shirt off over his head. Ted watched with alarm, afraid of his reaction to Bark’s body but knowing that looking away would be as conspicuous as watching his every move. Shit.

Bark threw the shirt over to the sofa and then kicked off his running shoes. He stuck his thumbs in the waistband of the compression pants, and Ted’s heart skipped another beat. Maybe three, based on the sudden pounding in his head. Down and off went the tight black leggings, leaving Bark standing completely naked in the middle of the living room.

“Do you lie awake at night figuring out ways to get naked in front of other people?” Chad asked. “I mean, come on, dude.”

“What, it’s only appropriate when you’re being paid for it?” Bark jeered good-naturedly. “Like you?”

“You wish you got paid for it,” Chad retorted, somewhat lamely.

“If I played lacrosse like this, you know attendance would go up at our games,” Bark replied. “That would be payment enough for me.” He reached casually to a neat stack of clothes on the couch and within thirty seconds was dressed in low-slung cords and a thermal Henley—but, Ted noted, no underwear. He slipped on his boots, cinched them up, and stood upright. “Well, what are we waiting for?”

“Let’s move, bitches,” Paul said, his voice calm for the first time since the taxi arrived. He held the door open, and the group trundled with their luggage down the snow-covered steps of the old house.

On the way to the airport, Chad turned to Howie. “What kind of place is it?”

Howie shook his head. “All I know is that it’s on the bluff above the beach. The whole city was pretty much sold out, but my dad’s travel agent got us in as a kind of apology for messing up his last vacation.”

“What happened on your dad’s vacation?” Ted asked.

Howie grunted. “It was a mess. Dad told him to book the biggest suite at the hotel, and then we get there and find there’s a bigger one he didn’t even tell us about. Dad tore him a new one about that. So he made these arrangements for us as a kind of peace offering.”

“I think it’s really awesome you’re treating us to a spring break someplace warm,” Thor opined from the last row of seats. “I just hope it’s not one of those places where the tourist area is fancy and nice and the locals live in poverty. That would be a bummer.”

“Well, I’m sure you’ll be organizing community protests by the end of the week,” Howie said with a roll of his eyes.

“Not all of us come from money,” Thor replied without rancor in his voice, as if just stating a fact.

“How long are the flights?” Chad asked.

“We gotta take some little propeller thing to O’Hare, and that takes like an hour. Then we have a two-hour layover, and then it’s another four hours down there. So basically all fuckin’ night.”

Ted looked at the snoozing form to his left. Of all the people he knew, Barclay Burnett was the only one who could fall asleep anywhere, anytime, and wake up instantly when he needed to. It was like his body was a precision machine that responded to his every whim. And that body was a machine like no other.

Ted recalled the first time he saw it—the moment he found out he would be rooming with the man who possessed it. It was during freshman orientation, more than three years ago, and he was desperately trying not to get lost while looking like he was not the kind of person who had to worry about getting lost. He arrived at what would be his dorm room and found someone already there, unpacking. It was late August, and a heatwave that was merely uncomfortable elsewhere was simply unbearable in the unventilated freshman dorm. So it shouldn’t really have surprised Ted that his new roommate would have taken off his shirt as he went about the work of unpacking and arranging his stuff. But Ted wasn’t ready for it, not by a long shot. He opened the door and saw the broad, muscled back of his roomie, and he struggled to draw his next breath. Ted had never played a sport in high school, so his locker-room experience was limited. That was fine with him, because a sight like the one he was now looking at would have resulted in a distinctly awkward reaction.

And then the guy turned around. If his back was breathtaking, his front was exquisite. He was built like some exotic jungle cat, packed with muscle but capable of a fluidity that was mesmerizing. Ted had seen many men with such a physique, but only late at night on the Internet when he trolled Tumblr, hoping his parents wouldn’t see the blue glow under his bedroom door and burst in while he surfed one-handed. But he had always assumed the men with builds like this were lit by professionals and smoothed in Photoshop—surely no one could be that perfect. And yet, here he was, a ginger vision. Ted couldn’t think of a thing to say to this perfect creature, which was unfortunate given that Bark had asked him his name.

Though things got less awkward between the two of them during that year, they never approached normal, at least not for Ted; he never found out what it was like to have a normal pulse when in Bark’s presence. But they were happy enough in the blending of their personalities that they roomed together again sophomore year, and then in their junior year, they had found the old house for rent. The other guys had jumped at the chance to get off campus and keep the dorm group together. It was a good move for Ted, as he gained his own room and no longer had to suppress his reaction when Bark was naked. And naked he tended to be, whenever a chance—or even half of one—presented itself.

The six of them had, in a lot of ways, grown up together, but this would be their last spring break as students. A few months from now, they would graduate and go their separate ways, a prospect that made Ted far too sad to contemplate.

Ted closed his eyes and tried to think tropical thoughts.

“IT’S BEAUTIFUL here,” Donnelly said as the taxi took them through the still-warm evening toward their vacation destination.

“Anything’s got to be better than what we left at home,” Brandt replied. “Can you believe we got snow this week—the last week in March?”

“Ah, just look at that ocean,” Donnelly said, pointing out the window. “Enough to make you forget there’s anything like snow in the world.”

Brandt sat back and contemplated his partner for a moment. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this excited. If I’d known this is how you’d react to a vacation on the beach, I would have done it sooner.”

“It’s kind of like a pre-honeymoon,” Donnelly said, beaming. “Try it out. See if we might want to come back after the wedding.”

“Anywhere in the world will be fine with me once I’m your husband,” Brandt replied, taking Donnelly’s hand.

The taxi ride from the airport was a good half hour, but the time flew by for the troopers, so happy to be on vacation.

“Villa Hermes,” announced the driver as he pulled into the semicircular driveway at the front of the inn.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the finest of the area’s white-sand beaches, the Villa Hermes was a classic Greek cliff house, brilliant white among its pink stucco neighbors. Lit by a hundred beams emanating from the shrubbery, its bright blue doors and window shutters were a Santorini postcard rendered in the tropics. Brandt and Donnelly stepped out of the taxi while the driver pitched their bags onto the stone drive. Donnelly paid him while Brandt stacked and counted their luggage.

“Enjoy your stay… gentlemen,” the driver muttered as he got back into the car.

“I don’t think I like the way he said that,” Donnelly remarked. “Did that seem—”

“It seemed like something a taxi driver would say,” Brandt said soothingly.

Donnelly shook it off. “You’re right. Sorry. I’m just really sensitive to what people are saying when they pause like that. It’s like I’m hearing things, and all those things are homophobic.”

“Good thing we’re getting away from the job for a week, then, isn’t it?”

Donnelly nodded and picked up his suitcase. “Let’s get this R&R on the road, shall we?”

“Oh, you’re here, you’re here,” called a lilting voice from the front door of the hotel. “Please, come in, come in!”

They carried their bags through an open iron gate into a small courtyard where a fountain splashed with an elegant trickling sound, to be greeted by a tall, slightly built man in his early sixties who smiled broadly as he approached them with extended hands.

“You must be the Misters Brandt and Donnelly,” he exclaimed, shaking their hands in turn. “Welcome to the Villa Hermes. I am the proprietor, Winston Eubanks, but please, call me Winnie.”

“It’s a beautiful place you have here,” Brandt remarked, looking about the small courtyard.

“Why, thank you, sir,” Winnie said as he led the men into the small office off the courtyard. “It’s a labor of love; it really is. We’ve only been open a year, but Vic and I began working on it nearly five years ago. It’s like my little Greek paradise in this wasteland.”

“I’ve only been here for an hour,” Donnelly remarked, “but the area seems very pretty.”

“Oh, it is, it is,” Winnie replied. “I spoke only in terms of culture, or the lack thereof. But there is so much natural beauty, which is only enhanced during spring-break season when even more natural beauties fly in to take a week off from studying and fill the entire town with skimpy bathing suits and hormones. It can be quite intoxicating.” He looked up at the men, who seemed perhaps not as enchanted with this vision of hordes of horny college students. “But we don’t get that kind of clientele here, of course. Our little villa is a respite from all of that, though if you wish to see what all of that looks like, I can direct you to a vista point on our balcony from which you can observe the mating rituals on the beach below.” He looked from Brandt to Donnelly and back again. “If you’re into that sort of thing.”

“What I’m into,” Brandt said, looking at Donnelly, “is spending some quiet time with my fiancé and relaxing by the pool.”

“Then you have come to the right place. Let’s get you registered, and I’ll show you to your room. You have the finest accommodation we offer, the honeymoon suite. Privacy, luxury, and a view of the ocean. Come, let’s get you settled in.”

A short time later, they stood on the terrace off their bedroom, looking at the stars twinkling over the ocean. A hundred feet below them, the surf lapped gently at a beach that glowed white even in the pale moonlight. They could also see the pool, illuminated by torches where the infinity edge dropped off toward the sea.

“This is perfect,” Donnelly said as he wrapped his arms around Brandt and nuzzled his neck from behind.

“It is,” Brandt agreed. “Seems like we’re the only people here, doesn’t it?”

“Winnie mentioned they were fully booked, so more people will probably be getting here tomorrow.”

“So what you’re saying,” Brandt said, pulling Donnelly close so he could growl in his ear, “is that if I want to do something outrageously inappropriate to you on this balcony, I should do it right now, when there’s no one to hear you?”

“No one to hear me… what?” Donnelly murmured.

“Beg me for more,” Brandt whispered into his ear.

“Oh, fuck.” Donnelly took a couple of quick breaths. “Go ahead and assume that’s what I want, even if I don’t say it.”

“Then hold on tight,” Brandt said, slipping out from Donnelly’s embrace and circling around behind him.

Donnelly grasped the top of the solid, whitewashed half wall of the balcony with both hands while Brandt dropped to his knees behind him. He unbuckled Donnelly’s belt, unbuttoned and unzipped his pants, and slid them down to his feet. Then he ran his hands up the strong, smooth legs until his hands slipped into the leg openings of Donnelly’s boxer shorts. Donnelly took in a surprised breath as Brandt’s hands converged where his legs met.

“Hello, boys,” Brandt growled. He let go of Donnelly’s dangly bits to take hold of the cuffs of his boxers and yank them down to join the khakis pooled at Donnelly’s feet. He lifted each foot in turn and then tossed the pants and drawers behind him.

Donnelly now stood in the moonlight naked from the waist down. Brandt sidled up close, still on his knees, and pushed Donnelly’s knees apart.

“My, that sea breeze reaches places that don’t normally blow in the wind,” Donnelly said as he leaned forward and thrust his smooth and muscled ass back.

Brandt ran his fingers down the small of Donnelly’s back, fanning them out across the tight, powerful globes of his buttocks. He was delighted to see goose bumps flash into being in response to his tickling touch. Placing his hands around Donnelly’s hips, he closed his eyes and insinuated himself into the cleft, seeking that hot center he knew so well. Donnelly leaned forward a little more, opened himself to Brandt’s seeking lips. As soon as he made contact with that tight ring of muscle, Brandt darted out his tongue, teasing it with his hot, wet touch. Donnelly groaned, and the knot untied itself slightly, then puckered up tightly once more. Brandt pushed forward, his tongue slipping inside the hot center of the man whose legs were beginning to quiver with the exertion of remaining upright under Brandt’s assault.

Brandt laid the most delicate of kisses on Donnelly’s twitchy anus and then stood behind him. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small tube of slippery stuff he had stashed there on the off chance a suitably inappropriate opportunity might present itself. With an adept flip of the cap and a precisely aimed squeeze, he slicked up the erection caused by his tonguing of Donnelly’s ass and aimed it at the opening he had moments before been teasing.

“Wha…?” Donnelly wondered aloud at the intrusion. But surprise quickly gave way, and he moaned his assent.

Both men were startled by voices coming from the pool area below them. “Well, I don’t know,” a voice Brandt recognized as Winnie’s said. “The travel agent called and asked if we had room for six, and I said we only have four rooms and one of them is taken, so if they don’t mind doubling up, it should be fine.”

“Is it some kind of group thing?” a much deeper voice asked. “We wouldn’t want a bunch of spring breakers showing up thinking this is party central.”

“I don’t know who they are. But the agent knows what kind of place we’re running, so….”

Brandt, having frozen at the sound of voices, pushed forward once the voices died away. He wasn’t going to lose the chance at his partner’s ass just because they’d overheard some voices. Donnelly, however, seemed to think otherwise, as he tried to step back from the railing. Brandt held firm, though, and Donnelly’s backward motion served only to impale him on the first few inches of Brandt’s eight-inch erection.

“Ethan,” Donnelly whispered in a panic, “we should go in.”

“I’m planning on going in,” Brandt answered, and thrust his hips forward, forcing the next several inches of his cock into Donnelly.

“No, I mean we should go in the room,” Donnelly replied more loudly.

“I know what you really mean,” Brandt huffed. “You’re begging me for more.” He lunged forward, burying himself to the balls in Donnelly’s ass.

“No… oh God,” Donnelly babbled but ultimately surrendered to the force of Brandt’s onslaught. “Fuck… fuck that feels good.”

Brandt could feel the tension leave Donnelly’s legs, and he began to slide back and forth with a gentle rhythm that soon had the two of them swaying on the balcony, lost in their union.

“Oh, there they are!” called Winnie’s voice from below. “Settling in all right?”

The men looked down at the pool deck and saw Winnie in a floral dressing gown waving up at them. Donnelly relinquished his hold on the balcony ledge long enough to wave back.

“Lovely view, isn’t it?” Winnie asked.

“It’s… beautiful,” Donnelly replied, clearly trying to keep his breath under control.

“The rhythm of the waves is contagious,” Brandt offered, and he started thrusting imperceptibly into Donnelly again while both men smiled down at the proprietor of the inn.

Donnelly brought his free hand down and slapped Brandt on the hip, clearly trying to get him to back off. But Brandt was undeterred, intent on making a complete break not only from their daily life back home but the inhibitions that came with it. Suddenly he wanted to be the kind of person who has sex on a balcony on vacation. He kept the motion confined to his hips so it was not visible to the pool deck below, but it was certainly apparent to Donnelly, who squirmed a little as if trying to shake him off.

“Please let me know if there’s anything you need,” Winnie said. “And I’d like you to meet Vic, my partner in the villa and in life.”

A towering slab of man stepped into view and waved cordially up at the balcony. “Evening, gentlemen.”

“Nice to meet you, Vic,” Brandt answered, a small thrust of his hips accompanying each word.

Donnelly had to grasp the ledge with both hands in order to keep from pitching forward completely. Brandt took advantage of this by reaching around and taking hold of his penis, which protruded upward and, from the feel of it, had begun to drip precum in response to the pressure of Brandt’s cock on his prostate. Brandt’s hand was still slick with lube, and he slid it rapidly along Donnelly’s girthy prick.

“Well, we’ll leave you two to your romantic evening,” Winnie said, taking Vic’s hand. “We’ll see you for breakfast in the morning—just come down anytime.”

“Sleep in if you like,” Vic said, in the manner of someone used to toning down the enthusiasms of a voluble partner.

“Thanks, guys,” Brandt said, thrusting more vigorously now. “We’ll see you tomorrow.”

The proprietors walked out of sight.

“I can’t believe you,” Donnelly scolded, but his voice was husky and his breath short.

“Want me to stop?” Brandt teased.

“Fuck no.” Donnelly began to push back against Brandt, matching his thrusts and meeting him halfway.

Brandt surged more forcefully, building a fuck rhythm that had Donnelly gasping.

“Not going to last long if you keep that up,” Donnelly managed to say.

“Sometimes it’s not about the journey,” Brandt grunted. “It’s about the destination.” He felt the orgasm building deep inside, and it wouldn’t be long until it overwhelmed him.

Donnelly bucked and writhed and clamped down all along the length of Brandt’s invading cock. This was the clear sign he was about to come.

“Oh, and one more thing,” called Winnie’s voice from below.

“Fuck,” blurted Donnelly.

Winnie appeared on the pool deck once again. “We have a group arriving tomorrow, first thing in the morning, so if we’re a little busy please bear with us. Looks like we’ll have a full house for the coming week!”

“That’s… great,” Donnelly managed to get out before the orgasm swept away his ability to speak. The splatter of his semen on the balcony wall was, apparently, below the range of Winnie’s hearing.

But the sound of it put Brandt right over the edge, and he froze in midthrust as his cock jetted deep into Donnelly—who moaned quietly as Brandt flooded him.

“Well, good night, then,” called Winnie as he walked back out of sight below them.

“Good night,” Brandt managed as the tightness in his chest caused by their public performance began to recede.

Once they were alone Donnelly slumped forward onto the balcony wall. “Holy fucking shit,” he panted out.

Brandt leaned forward, covering him, wrapping his arms around him. “That was amazing,” he whispered, kissing Donnelly’s ear.

“Do you think he noticed?”

“I think he’s noticed just about everything about you,” Brandt said. “But I tried to be super subtle with my thrusting.”

“Subtle like a grizzly bear.” Donnelly laughed, then abruptly stopped. “Don’t make me laugh while you’re still inside me. I want to keep you there as long as I can.”

“That might lead to a repeat performance,” Brandt replied.

“I’m up for it if you are,” Donnelly said. “But I’m kind wondering about one thing: you’re carrying lube in your pocket now?”

“I figured we’re on vacation, I might as well be ready for a good time.” By the feeling in his groin, his body was getting ready for another good time already.

“I like the way you think,” Donnelly said, then wiggled his hips a bit. “I like the way you do a lot of things.”

“I’m glad. I’m planning on doing a lot of things a lot over the next week. A lot.”

“Best vacation ever,” Donnelly said, leaning back to kiss Brandt.

Bachelors Party #5
Chapter One
“YOU REALLY don’t have to do that,” Brandt said into the phone. It was a Saturday afternoon, and he was supposed to be vacuuming while Donnelly was out shopping for dinner.

“What kind of best man doesn’t throw a bachelor party?” Brandt’s brother Liam replied. “Look, the best man has three essential duties: ensure you get to the church on time and relatively sober, make a toast at the reception that will be both touching and embarrassing, and throw a bachelor party you won’t remember but the strippers will never forget.”

“I’m not really into the whole ‘get drunk and throw up on a stripper’ kind of party, Liam. I’m sure you enjoyed it at the bachelor party Noah threw for you, but—”

“That’s all I’m trying to do. Pay it forward. Noah did it for me, I did it for him, and now it’s our turn to do it for our little brother.”

“Wait, Noah’s in on this too?”

“Hell yeah. And since he’s basically been in baby jail for the last six months, he’s wound up pretty tight. He’s looking forward to this like Grandpa looks forward to martini hour.”

Brandt sighed. “It’s not as simple as that,” he said as diplomatically as he could. “It’s kind of complicated because of—”

“I know, I know,” Liam interrupted. “I’ll be honest with you, Ethan. I’ve never even been to a gay wedding, much less a gay bachelor party. But how much different could it be? It’s still a bunch of guys hanging out, having a little drink, getting into a little trouble. I don’t see why that’s so complicated.”

Brandt paced back and forth across the carpet he was supposed to be cleaning. “If you don’t see why it’s complicated, well, start with the whole stripper thing. How would that work, exactly?”

“What do you mean how would that work? There are guy strippers, aren’t there?”

“Yes, there are. But while I appreciate how accepting you and Noah and everyone have been, I don’t think you’d really enjoy watching guys take their clothes off.”

“But, isn’t that what gay people do at bachelor parties?”

“Honestly, I don’t know. Gay marriage has only been legal for a couple of years, and I’ve only been to one wedding.”

“The one where everyone got poisoned and one of the grooms died? I’m thinking yours is going to be much better than that.”

Time for a new tack. “Look, here’s the thing,” Brandt said. “This party, if you insist on throwing it, isn’t going to be a gay bachelor party. Yes, the two people getting married are bachelors, and some of our groomsmen are gay, but you and Noah will be there, and a couple of our friends from college, and you all are straight, last time I checked.”

“Marianne will be relieved to hear that,” Liam replied with a laugh.

“And then there are people like Will, who doesn’t really count as straight because he’s married to Lucas, but he wasn’t gay before they met. And the same is kind of true for me and Gabriel. So it’s pretty complicated.”

Silence on the other end of the line. Then, “Can I ask you something?”

“Of course.”

“Why are you getting married?”

Brandt paused, not sure what his brother was getting at. “Because Gabriel and I love each other, and we want to be together, and we’d like to make it official.”

“You could do that at the courthouse. Why have the big wedding?”

“Well, first, it’s not a big wedding. It’s just family and some friends.”

“It’s a wedding, Ethan. It’s more than just having some people over, and you know it. So why are you doing it?”

“Because it’s what people have always done to have their relationship recognized by everyone.”

“Exactly. You’re doing it because it’s what has been traditionally done. You may as well admit the tradition is important to you. And part of that tradition is the bachelor party.”

Brandt closed his eyes. “I get that, but the tradition depends on everyone being straight and everyone thinking the bachelor needs some kind of last hurrah before chaining himself to the same woman for the rest of his life, with strippers to show him what he’s going to be missing out on. That’s not really the case here, is it?”

Liam laughed. “You mean you aren’t giving up women forever? I’ll have to let Gabriel know about that.”

“Stop it, asshole. You know what I mean. Gabriel and I aren’t the traditional straight bachelors—we aren’t even the traditional gay bachelors. What we have is kind of unique, and that’s why the bachelor party idea just won’t work.”

“It will work, and I will make it work, and that’s the end of it,” Liam said in his stern firstborn tone.

Brandt slumped onto the sofa. “Fine. But I want you to remember when we’re picking ourselves out of the glitter-covered wreckage of this party that I warned you it wasn’t a good idea.”

“You worry too much, little bro. Now go make the citizens safe while I make plans.”

BRANDT AND Donnelly sat on their back patio eating dinner with their friend Malcolm.

“How’s the cafe doing?” Donnelly asked as he passed Malcolm a platter of grilled corn.

“I think it’s catching on. People who have been coming for years keep telling me how nice it is to have someone sprucing it up a bit. I convinced Casey to come in for a couple of weeks to help me get the bakery up and running, and I really couldn’t have done it without him. He can’t work for me because he’s on a wrestling scholarship, but he helped me hire and train a baker. Now I can work on getting the lunch menu going.”

“We’ll have to stop by soon and see for ourselves,” Brandt said.

“It’s not like I’ve spent every day hoping to see you there or anything,” Malcolm said with a pout.

“All right, all right, we’ll come by soon,” cried Donnelly, laughing.

“How’s the wedding planning going?” Malcolm asked, cutting into the steak Brandt had expertly grilled.

“The wedding is in great shape,” Brandt answered. “It’s the bachelor party that has got me worried.”

“Why?” Malcolm asked. “I thought the bachelor party was supposed to be the best man’s deal?”

“It is,” Brandt said with a slow shake of his head. “My big brother Liam is taking care of it, but it’s kind of tricky territory.”

“Why is that? Booze, strippers….” Malcolm shook his head. “And that’s about it, right?”

Brandt sighed. “When was the last time you went to a bachelor party, buddy?”

“Last year. Buddy of mine from college.” Malcolm chuckled and shook his head. “Man, that was a night.”

“Was this buddy marrying a man or a woman?” Donnelly asked.

“A woman.”

“And the strippers were…?”

“Women.” Malcolm answered, grinning at the memory. “There was this one who did this thing with a Ping-Pong ball and a kazoo that was just amazing. See, she—”

“Probably better left to the imagination,” Brandt blurted. He closed his eyes for a moment before continuing. “Anyway, did the person throwing the bachelor party know you’re gay?”

“Yeah, I think so. It didn’t really come up.”

“Not with strippers like that,” Donnelly said. “I don’t think it would come up for me either.”

Malcolm cackled with glee, and the two men fist-bumped over the table.

“I’m trying to be serious here,” Brandt griped, “and I’m surrounded by teenage boys making boner jokes.”

“Sorry, Ethan,” Malcolm said, sounding almost contrite. “Seriously, it wasn’t a problem for me. I was just along for the ride, and I think all of the other guys at the party were straight. Honestly, it was kind of hot to see them get all worked up over the strippers. A dozen straight bros tugging at their crotches while trying not to notice everyone else doing the same thing? You could cut the tension with a knife.”

“But we have a much more mixed group,” Brandt said, doggedly pursuing the topic. “There’s my brothers, who are throwing the party, and Gabriel and I are both having a friend from college in the wedding party, and they’re all straight. Then there’s Will, who’s married to Lucas, but before that he was straight. And then Bryce and Nestor, who are probably a ten on the Kinsey scale.”

“I know Bryce and Nestor are somewhat flamboyant, but I thought the Kinsey scale only went up to six—and that’s completely gay,” Malcolm replied.

“Yep. They would be a ten,” Donnelly said, laughing.

“So they wouldn’t go along with a standard-issue bachelor party?”

“Bryce and Nestor are somewhat excitable,” Donnelly explained.

“Excitable?” Brandt snorted. “Remember what happened when we made them sit down and watch Brokeback Mountain all the way through?”

Donnelly turned to Malcolm. “They had only seen the part in the tent and the two and a half seconds where Heath Ledger is naked. They could describe every frame of those scenes but hadn’t bothered with the rest of the movie. We thought it was important for them to have the full context.”

“You have never heard such wailing and carrying on,” Brandt continued, shaking his head at the memory. “Nestor just collapsed into a catatonic state, and it took fifteen minutes to coax Bryce out of the bathroom, where his keening was enough to wake the neighbors.”

“Well, you have to admit the end of that movie is kind of hard to take. I cried when I first saw it, and I’d read the original story in the New Yorker, so I knew it was coming.”

“But they weren’t crying about the ending,” Donnelly said. “We hadn’t even gotten that far.”

“What did it, then?” Malcolm asked.

“Anne Hathaway taking her shirt off,” Brandt deadpanned.

Malcolm’s mouth dropped open. “The sight of boobs had that effect on them?”

Brandt and Donnelly nodded.

Malcolm shook his head. “I’m as gay as the next guy, but Anne Hathaway? Om-nom.”

“Bryce and Nestor didn’t see it that way, I’m afraid,” Donnelly said, chuckling. “They screamed like Death himself had come for them. Wearing a polyester robe.”

“Okay,” Malcolm said, once he’d stopped laughing. “So no strippers for Bryce and Nestor.”

“Oh, they’re connoisseurs of strippers, but the male variety,” Brandt replied. “But I don’t think my brothers and our college buddies are going to go for that.”

“Why not?” Malcolm asked. “Gay guys have to put up with boobies being shaken at them all the time, and not just at bachelor parties. Movies, TV, advertisements—sex sells, and it’s almost always women who are the sex doing the selling. Having straight guys go to a bachelor party and look at male strippers would be progress. I think it would be good for them.”

“I’m not sure they’d see it that way,” Donnelly remarked.

“I’m sure they’re very nice people, but I have to ask. Why shouldn’t they ‘put up’ with something we would find sexy? Why do we always have to accommodate the straight folks?”

Brandt and Donnelly exchanged a look.

“That’s an excellent question, Malcolm.” Brandt took a bite of steak and turned back to Donnelly. “We have some stuff to figure out.”

Donnelly nodded but with a look that showed him to be less than confident. “Lucky us.”

DINNER HAD been cleaned up, and Brandt and Donnelly were preparing for bed. Donnelly flossed while Brandt washed his face. Then Brandt stood upright and looked at Donnelly in the mirror as he dried his face.

“Should I just tell Liam to forget the bachelor party?” he asked.

Donnelly pulled the floss out of his mouth and tipped his head thoughtfully. “Don’t you think that would be kind of disappointing for him? I haven’t known him my entire life, like you have, but what I do know is he takes being your big brother really seriously.”

“Why do you say that?” Brandt asked, leaning back against the counter.

“Do you remember last Thanksgiving, when your uncle’s new wife made that joke after dinner?”

“Yeah, that was pretty awkward. I would have thought Uncle Phil would have given her the heads-up that telling gay jokes wasn’t going to endear her to the family.”

“And remember later that evening when Liam’s car wouldn’t start and he asked Uncle Phil for help?”

“Uh-huh,” Brandt replied, suspicious of where this was going.

“Well, when they didn’t come back after a few minutes—and you were helping with the dishes—I went out to see if they needed more help. Now, Liam made me promise not to tell you about this, but I think you should know. Before I even got to the driveway I could hear voices—angry voices—so I stopped before rounding the corner of the house. Turns out Liam’s car was fine; he just wanted to get your uncle alone for a little talk. He asked your uncle to let her know she had offended everyone with that joke, and your uncle told him to mind his own business. I have never seen Liam get angry—he’s normally so even-keeled. But as I peeked around the corner, he lunged at your uncle, grabbed him by the collar of his jacket, and got right in his face. Told him unless he and his wife were prepared to stay the hell away from the gay jokes, he should just leave right then. Your uncle gave it right back to him. Said he’d never accepted that you were gay. It was just a phase, and once you came to your senses, you’d be normal again.”

“He really said that?”

“Yep. And then your brother got really quiet. He said he loved you, and he was proud of you, and he wouldn’t stand for anyone being in the house who didn’t feel the same way. It got really tense there for a minute—looked like they were going to come to blows. But your uncle backed down, and that’s why he and his wife seemed really quiet after that.” Donnelly put his hand on Brandt’s arm. “He loves you, Ethan. And I think throwing this bachelor party is his way of saying he’s happy for us. He wants everyone to know he accepts us and our marriage just like anyone else’s in the family.”

Brandt looked into the reflection of Donnelly’s eyes in the mirror, and when he spoke again, his voice was soft. “You know, when I told my family about us, I was worried about Liam’s reaction most of all. He’d always kind of been my idol growing up. He’s always said he supported me, but I didn’t know how much of that he was saying because he thought it was what I wanted to hear. It’s kind of amazing to know he would take on Uncle Phil. That guy’s always scared me a little.”

“I don’t want to pile on, but I think you need to consider how he would feel if you said he couldn’t throw you a party. It would be like you were rejecting his love and support. I know it’s going to be awkward, but sometimes things are awkward in the service of a larger goal.”

Brandt nodded and hung up his towel. “I guess you’re right.”

“You forgot the last part,” Donnelly said.

“What last part?”

“As usual. I’m right as usual. I’d have thought you’d have had that down by now.”

“Brush your damn teeth and come to bed, will ya?”

“Well, if you’re going to get all romantic…,” Donnelly said with a saucy wink.

“THANKS FOR taking the time to have lunch with me,” Brandt said as he sat at the table, opposite Will in his sleek sport wheelchair.

“I think you’ll discover I can always find time for a lunch invitation,” Will replied with a smile. “Delilah’s at such a clingy age right now, I think it does us some good to spend a little time apart once in a while.”

“How are she and Dylan doing?”

“They’re great, thanks. Dylan’s got a big part in the school play, so he’s turning into quite the prima donna. Lucas says he was the same at that age, so I guess there’s hope he’ll come out of it.” He looked around the cafe. “They serve lunch here now?”

“As of this week they do. A friend of ours moved here from Woodley and bought the place. He started the bakery up last month, and now he’s adding lunch. The guy works like crazy, but he’s really good at what he does.”

“Ethan! So glad you could make it,” Malcolm said as he strode up to the table bearing plates. “And this must be Will, whom I’ve heard so much about.”

“Will, this is Malcolm, the mastermind behind the new café.”

“Pleased to meet you, Malcolm,” Will said, extending his hand, which Malcolm shook energetically.

As always, Brandt was struck by the massive muscles in Will’s arm. His training for the biathlon in the Paralympic Games kept him to a rigorous workout regimen.

“Let me know if I can get you guys anything else,” Malcolm said as he hurried back to the kitchen.

“Seems like a nice guy,” Will said as he picked up his sandwich.

“He is. It’s really great he got the hell out of Woodley. That’s no place for anyone gay. Or sane.”

“He makes a fine sandwich,” Will remarked. “And are these homemade potato chips? I could be in real trouble now that I know this place exists.”

Brandt laughed and tucked into his own meal.

“So, I have a question for you,” Brandt said after they were several bites in.

“Aha! I knew there was an ulterior motive,” Will cried, then laughed. “Fire away, and I’ll do what I can.”

“Did you have a bachelor party?”

Will sat back in his chair, clearly surprised by the question, but then he knitted his brow thoughtfully. “Um, at the risk of sounding like a slut, which time are you asking about?”

“Either, or both, I guess. That’s kind of why I wanted to talk with you. You’re the only person I know who’s been married to both a woman and a man. I wanted to get your thoughts about having a bachelor party.”

Will nodded. “I see. I guess my checkered marital history is pretty rare, but I hope it will eventually seem less freakish as marriage equality evens things out.”

“We may have a long way to go on that front,” Brandt replied. “So, did you have a bachelor party?”

“For marriage number one, Juliet and I were just out of college and the first of our social group to get married. I had a lot of buddies who were really excited about finally getting to have a bachelor party, and they did it up big. Well, as big as our entry-level salaries could handle. Most of the money was spent on cheap, high-proof alcohol and a couple of pretty skanky strippers from a club out by a truck stop down the interstate. I guess I should call them erotic performers, because taking their clothes off was just the beginning.” He shook his head at the memory. “At one point they both had their fingers completely—”

“Feel free not to offer any details,” Brandt interrupted, holding his hand up.

Will frowned at him in exaggerated judgment. “Can’t stand to even hear about women now that you’re with Gabriel?” he wondered sarcastically.

Brandt thought about this for a moment. “Actually, I don’t know. I thought maybe it was all of the training I’ve had about sex trafficking and ugly things like that, but I guess it really comes down to not wanting to be reminded of who I used to be.”

“Wow, that turned serious,” Will said compassionately. He looked at Brandt for a long moment, studying his face. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Sure,” Brandt replied a little warily.

“Imagine you’re in a strip club, and the woman performing is the most gorgeous vision you’ve ever seen. She moves like a goddess, and she tosses her top at you, and then she rides that pole like she’s trying out for the Olympics as a sex gymnast. As a finale she lays herself in front of you and slides her thong down. Her ass is round and smooth, and she twerks it right at you. Then—”

“Stop,” Brandt said, his voice rough. “Just stop.” He turned away and took a couple of deep breaths before looking back at Will. “Why would you do that?”

“Because we’re the same, Ethan.” Will’s voice was low and serious.

“What does that mean?”

“It means what I just described gives me the same feeling it gives you. That old tug in the privates that defined our sexuality from the time we first discovered sex. When we fell in love with men, we had to rewire our idea of sex to accommodate the emotional connection we had made.” Will cast a quick glance around the room, then lowered his voice further. “I know it’s not politically correct, but I honestly believe the original wiring cannot be completely disconnected. You will always feel that twinge for a beautiful woman. I know because I feel it too. It doesn’t mean you are being unfaithful to Gabriel or that you aren’t fully committed to him. There are people who grew up gay, and even if they fell in love with a woman, they would still feel that pull when they see a hot guy; that’s how they’re wired. And that’s how it is for us; we have straight wiring and gay emotions, and that duality is the price we pay for the love in our lives.”

Brandt was stunned. “I had no idea—”

“That I felt it too? It took me a long time to get it figured out. Spent a lot of nights wondering what it meant that I still had dreams about women, and why I don’t have the same reaction to Ryan Gosling that Lucas does. At first I thought it was just going to take more time. But a couple of years passed, and nothing changed. Then, when Dylan was a baby, I got us into a group for new parents. It was essentially a mom’s group, because I was the only stay-at-home dad. And let me tell you, I quickly gained a deeper understanding of the term ‘MILF.’ Not that I was tempted to actually do anything about it, but it was a weekly reminder that the sexual identity I had thought was part of my past was still there. God, that year was rough.”

“What did you do about it?” Brandt asked.

Will chuckled. “Nothing. Not a damn thing. I wish I had a magic bullet for you, one that would give you boner immunity from women and make Mr. Gosling the man of your dreams, but there isn’t one. I’ve come to the conclusion that even though I love Lucas more than I ever thought it was possible to love someone, and sex with him is amazing, I will always respond to women on a physical level. And if you think about it, that’s not any different from any married man. Just because you’re committed doesn’t mean you’re all dead inside. If people stopped being dazzled by beauty when they got married, no one would ever get a divorce or have an affair. A happier world, maybe, but a less beautiful one. And certainly a less human one.”

“Ugh,” Brandt sighed. “This is a mess.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you and I are apparently unique in the entire experience of mankind. We hear all the time that sexual orientation is biologically determined and cannot be changed, and that sexuality is not a choice. But you and I grew up straight and had relationships with women, and then we each met a man who we were willing to set that all aside for. A lot of people would say that couldn’t happen.”

“I’ve had people say that very thing to me,” Will said. “Rude people, even if they may have been simply trying to understand it.”

“Here’s the thing, though. You and I are the conservative’s wet dream. We chose. We are living proof that sexual orientation can be chosen. And that’s a huge problem in the struggle for equal rights because if people can choose to change their sexual orientation, then there’s no essential sexual identity, and thus no basis for a claim of equal rights. They’ll say we made a lifestyle choice.”

Will looked at him for a moment. “That’s pure horseshit, and you know it.”

Brandt smiled. “You’re a straight shooter, Will. I’ve always respected that about you.”

“You’re right that we represent a problem for the way most people think about sexual orientation, but they’re the ones with the problem, not us. We’re not the ones judging people based on who they sleep with. If everyone could just stop caring about the kind of sex people have, then it wouldn’t matter whether it was biology or choice. It would just be sex, and who cares?”

Brandt shrugged grimly. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon. People love to put others in boxes and then assign value to the boxes. And the fact that we seem to have chosen to jump from one box to another makes us… dangerous? The problem is that we are most dangerous to a cause I hold dear. So if I want to help the cause of equality, I can never tell anyone I chose Gabriel over every woman on earth because I love him, not because I am biologically determined to love men.”

“Does he know how you feel? Does he know you chose him?” Will’s voice was suddenly low and intense.

“He does. It was a hard thing to tell him, but I had to try to find a way to make him understand.”

“And does he?”

Brandt nodded. Their understanding was beyond the words he had at his command.

“Then that’s all that matters. No one else needs to know, so it doesn’t matter whether they would understand it or not. He knows, and that’s enough.”

Brandt was silent for a moment, absorbing this. “Does Lucas know?”

Will nodded. “He was there for me right after Juliet left, and he actually tried to talk me out of falling in love with him. He had had a bad experience with a straight guy once and swore he would never let that happen again. I think he was expecting me to leave at any moment for the first year we were together. It finally sunk in when we decided to have kids and got married.”

“I feel silly asking this now,” Brandt said sheepishly, “but did you have a bachelor party that time?”

Will shook his head. “Because gay marriage wasn’t legal yet here, we had to go away to get married. Our marriage license was meaningless here until legalization, but at least we had it. It was important for us to do it before we had kids, to give them a proper legal framework. Romantic, right? It wasn’t until we got to the courthouse that I realized we were actually getting married. So the idea of a bachelor party didn’t really come up.”

“But if you did have a party, would there have been strippers? And of what gender?”

Will smiled slyly. “I am really glad I never had to make that decision.”

“Crap. Thanks a lot, buddy.” But Brandt put his hand on Will’s. “Seriously, thanks for talking today. You helped me a lot.”

“We have to stick together, Ethan. There aren’t many like us.”

“Aren’t we the lucky ones,” Brandt said with a sigh.

Author Bio:
Xavier Mayne is the pen name of a professor of English who works at a university in the Midwest United States. Versed in academic theories of sexual identity, he is passionate about writing stories in which men experience a love that pushes them beyond the boundaries they thought defined their sexuality. He believes that romance can be hot, funny, and sweet in equal measure.

The name Xavier Mayne is a tribute to the pioneering gay author Edward Prime-Stevenson, who also used it as a pen name. He wrote the first openly gay novel by an American, 1906’s Imre: A Memorandum, which depicts two masculine men falling in love despite social pressures that attempt to keep them apart.


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