Jackson adjusted his bowtie for the twentieth time, laying a finger above and below it to get a sense of whether it was straight or not. He slid his hand along the front of his shirt, ensuring he hadn’t missed any buttons and that the fabric lay properly along his chest and stomach. Even though the krewe was extremely conservative, Jackson wore a more modern style that Lyn had helped him pick out, so it wore more like a suit than a tux and meant it was much easier for him to put on without making himself look like a total doofus.
Jackson let out a harsh breath. Why was he so nervous? This wasn’t a date, he reminded himself, no matter how much the butterflies fluttering in his stomach told him otherwise. Dan was just curious. Almost all New Orleanians would jump at the opportunity to go to a Mardi Gras ball of any kind, let alone one from a prestigious krewe.
“How do I look, Mol?” Jackson asked, turning in his dog’s general direction, her soft panting coming from her bed in the corner. He fiddled with his cufflinks, trying to be certain he had the orientation of the fleur-de-lis, part of the Cadmus’ sigil, correct. The krewe members had enough to harangue him for without adding something as simple as that to their list.
Molly let out a whine that Jackson recognized as her “worrying” sound. She only made it when she could feel he was anxious, and under other circumstances she probably would have come up to him, but he’d commanded her to stay because he didn’t want to risk dog hair on his pristine tuxedo pants.
“Why do I always do this to myself?” he muttered, half to himself and half to Molly, as if she could answer back. “Remember that guy in my masters class on the crusades?” His name was Benji and unlike Dan, was definitely gay. He’d had an amazing sounding laugh and had helped Jackson with a few projects when he’d had no choice but to rely on a sighted person for help. They’d even fooled around once or twice, but Benji had admitted he wasn’t interested in anything more than a casual fling and broken it off just before the semester ended. Jackson had believed he was in love. Maybe not love love, but it had certainly hurt when he’d returned to class the next fall only to find out Benji was living with another grad student. And not just as roommates. Benji hadn’t wanted anything serious, not with Jackson, anyway.
Jackson sighed. His happy mood had evaporated, his dread about the party returning in a crushing wave. Why was he leaving Molly behind? Why was he going at all? Why was he going with Dan of all people?
A knock on the door made Jackson suck in a sudden breath. “Just a minute.” He crossed as quickly as his braces allowed to the dresser, hurriedly snatching his glasses and slipping them on. Only his doctors and Lyn ever saw him without them, and he definitely wasn’t ready for Dan to be creeped out by his eyes. “Come in,” Jackson said, adjusting his glasses and turning to face the direction of the door.
A hesitation from Dan, and then a smile-tinged voice that warmed Jackson from the inside. “You clean up nice.” Dan took a few steps closer, and Jackson ached to reach out and touch Dan’s face, his shoulder, his chest.
Instead, Jackson took a breath and smiled. Dan was a blur of indistinguishable color--mostly blacks and white and pink--that Jackson could see because he’d purposefully painted his walls a dark blue to better contrast with Lyn (and now Dan’s, thankfully) lighter skin tones, but there was a bright pop of red at what Jackson had to estimate was Dan’s chest level, based on how it moved whenever he heard Dan move. “Are you wearing a pocket square?”
Dan chuckled self-consciously. The red moved a little more. Maybe Dan had taken the fabric out of his pocket? “I was at the rental place and they had a whole rack of these things, and I remembered you’d mentioned how you can see bold colors better, especially if there’s a strong contrast, so . . .” Dan shifted his weight, making a strange sort of shuffling squeaking sound that Jackson guessed might be Dan sliding a food along the floor. Was Dan nervous, too?
Jackson’s smile expanded. “No, it’s . . . that’s perfect. I hate tuxes because it’s so much harder for me to see everyone. All the men sort of become this clump of black, and if we’re in a house with dark walls, then forget it. Lyn had a stripe of red fabric in her wedding gown so I could see her despite all the bright lights. Red is perfect.” Jackson started to reach up to pull his fingers through his hair but stopped himself. It had felt perfect and he didn’t want to mess it up, especially not in front of Dan. Although Jackson momentarily got lost in the idea that Dan would step forward and fix Jackson’s hair for him, the other man’s fingers in his hair, gliding along his scalp, and then maybe Dan would whisper, his breath hot on Jackson’s skin, and then . . . Fuck, he really needed to be laid. Maybe he could find someone for a quick mutual hand job at the party. He might have been the only openly gay member, but he was far from the only gay man in Cadmus. Blind or not, Jackson’s gaydar rarely failed him.
“Great,” Dan said in his laid-back way. “So um, I’m ready, but I can’t seem to figure out how to tie this fucking thing. Yours looks amazing, so please tell me you can help?”
Jackson laughed, an easy, freeing feeling. “I only know how to do it from my perspective, so I’ll have to stand behind you.”
“Sure. I should have gotten the kind that’s pre-tied on an elastic.”
Dan approached and dutifully turned around.
Jackson hesitated. How long had he been hoping for just this opportunity? Other than his hand or arm, Jackson hadn’t touched Dan at all. Now he had the perfect excuse to feel him up. Jackson reached out until he found Dan’s back, gliding his hand up along the smooth fabric of his dress shirt, feeling the firm muscle beneath it, losing himself for a moment, wishing he could tear the shirt away and use both hands, skin to skin, tracing every contour and dip, all the way from his ass--where Jackson hadn’t dared to go yet--to his broad shoulders. “Is the tie around your neck?”
Jackson felt around until he found the silk of the tie, holding it with one hand and bringing his other around Dan’s neck to find the other end. But he couldn’t stand on tiptoe, and Dan was several inches taller, so it made things more difficult. “OK, I’ve never tried to do this on someone else. Stay still.” Jackson stepped closer, trying to get the angle right, and it was all he could do to keep from pressing himself along Dan’s back. His hands trembled and he couldn’t manage to hold the silk properly.
“I think it’s great how you and your sister support each other,” Dan said, seemingly out of nowhere.
“What? Can you bend your knees? If you’re more my height this might work better.”
“Sure. Of course.” Dan obeyed, and that meant that Jackson wasn’t having to reach up half a foot and could more easily work the stubborn, slippery silk into the proper knots and bows. “I just meant going to this thing tonight even though you supposedly hate the krewe and balls and Mardi Gras because you’re a scrooge.”
Jackson sighed and pulled the bow into its final shape, adjusting it a little by feel to see if he’d made it even and straight. “I’d do anything for Lyn. She’s always been there for me.”
Jackson could feel Dan shift from one foot to the other, his shoulders rocking up and down slightly with the movement. Was he nervous? He hadn’t seemed before. “That’s so great.” But his tone was sad. “I don’t talk to my family and they don’t talk to me.”
Jackson couldn’t even fathom not speaking to his sister for more than maybe a day or two. “Did something happen?” Jackson was being nosy, but Dan had broached the subject, so it was his own fault if he didn’t want Jackson to ask.
“Am I done?” Dan asked tightly, pulling away abruptly.
Dan’s sudden mood shift stunned Jackson, and it took him a moment to say, “All done.”
Dan was quiet for a long moment. That quiet he could eerily do so well that Jackson would have thought the man had left if it wasn’t for the fact that the red pocket square gave him away. “You’re a lifesaver.” Dan’s voice had a hint of playfulness, almost flirtation to it, almost as if he were overcompensating for his temporary sour mood. Dan must have turned around. Either Jackson’s erection was visible or it was just written all over his face, because Dan felt the need to say, “It’s OK. Honestly, you have a lot more self control than I would if our situations were reversed.”
Jackson felt his cheeks heat, but he managed to say, “It was just a camera lens.”
Dan burst out laughing.
The party was at the posh Warehouse District home of one of the senior members of the krewe, so Dan had driven them and then cursed when he couldn’t find a parking spot anywhere remotely close to their destination.
“I’m on the curb side, right?” Jackson asked in confirmation. He never came to this neighborhood, and he didn’t want to add to his disorientation by stepping out into traffic when he climbed out of the car. He missed Molly, but he knew he’d be better off without her once he was inside the house.
“Yes. It’s safe for you to get out.”
Jackson did, immediately unfolding his cane and taking stock of his immediate surroundings, listening. He heard the quiet rush of traffic in the street off to his left, and he turned to see if he could make anything out, but in this area all the buildings had pretty universal facades in muted colors. None of the brighter shades found in many other New Orleans’ neighborhoods. The house they were looking for was supposedly a brick red, but if it was there, the color wasn’t intense enough to make it stand out amidst the murk of his vision.
Jackson finally get out, his door shutting with a thud, and Jackson heard him approach, his dress shoes making a sliding, graveling noise on the side walk. “So we’re going to head this way about a block and cross the street, then go a few more blocks and we should be there. I saw it as I was driving.”
“Which way is ‘this way’?”
Dan let out a long sigh. “Sorry.” He nudged Jackson’s back just a little until he was pointed more in one direction rather than facing the car. “This way. Do I need to . . . you’ll be OK?”
“I’ve only had a dog for seven years. I’ve been blind 30. I can manage, as long as I know where I’m going, more or less, so if I start heading the wrong way, correct me. Otherwise, I’ll be fine until we get inside and using my cane probably won’t be terribly feasible.”
They walked the block and crossed the street without incident, and were nearly to the house--or so Jackson surmised based on how long they’d been walking--when Dan spoke up again. “You’re going to think I’m crazy for saying this--”
“I already think you’re crazy.”
“Funny. It’s just, a lot of the time, even when you’re with Molly, I can almost forget you’re blind. But the cane sort of shatters the illusion.”
“Yeah, you are crazy. I don’t think I could fool anyone that I was sighted for more than a few seconds. And even then.”
“This is the place, but it’s got like, a dozen steps, at least, leading up to the front door.”
“You can see them?”
Jackson swept his cane along the sidewalk, searching for the iron gate of the alley beside the house. When he hit it, he stepped forward and felt around for the little box that had a keypad on which someone could enter a code to open the gate, and also a buzzer for deliveries. He slid his hands along the iron until he found what he was searching for, bringing them together on the box and exploring it until he stumbled upon the button that was a different shape and texture from the rest, pressing it. “Sort of. But I called ahead. Mansions like this are multistory, but they usually have elevators. I arranged for someone to meet me at the alley gate and lead me to the elevator.”
A few minutes later, Jackson heard footsteps coming in the direction of the house, from the other side of the gate. “Mr. Santoro?”
Jackson slipped out his wallet, then felt for the pocket where he kept his krewe membership card. It was a formality since he was the only blind man in the krewe, but they were sticklers for rules, so he checked the label he’d put on it to make sure he had the right card and that it was face up, then held it up.
A moment later, the voice from the other side said, “Very good. And this gentleman is your guest?”
Jackson slid his wallet back in his pocket. “Yes.”
The gate creaked and the man’s voice directed him to go ahead ten feet or so and then wait and he would let them in and take them upstairs to the party.
The elevator was small, barely room for both Jackson and Dan, and as the servant and Jackson’s reconnaissance had told him, opened in a back hallway. Once Jackson was confident he was on solid ground, he folded his cane and slipped it into his pocket. It stuck out a little, but he’d decided to leave his shoulder bag at home because even as a blind man he knew it would clash with his tux.
“OK, I know the general layout, but I’ll feel better if you lead me. The cocktails are first. Men and women separate.”
“You’re joking, right,” Dan said, getting into place in front of Jackson.
Jackson found his arm and held onto it, dreading the rest of the party but relieved he wasn’t alone. “No. Like I said outside, the krewe is all about traditions. When the krewe started it was pretty typical for men and women to be separate except at dinner, the dancing, and maybe the entertainment. And the krewe was only open to male members until the 1920s. So the men had their business and their wives socialized among themselves. And even all these years later, the tradition has held.”
“So which one of us is the man and which one of us is the woman?” Dan was joking, his smile leaking into his voice.
“I will hurt you. Less talking and more leading. Where are we?”
“Uh, we just passed a staircase, and there’s a big open space opposite it that looks a little like a ballroom. There’s a bar at one end and some musicians setting up on the other. There’s chairs and a couple small tables opposite, but most of the floor is empty.”
“So then we have the dining room on my left, up ahead, and the parlors ahead of that. The front door should be a straight shot. But . . .” There was something large and brown with some other colors mixed in ahead of him, and to him it looked like it was blocking off the entire hall just in front of him. Even though he trusted Dan, he put out his other hand just in case.
Dan chuckled. “There’s a big round table toward the entrance with a gigantic floral arrangement on top of it. But that’s like fifteen feet away. Maybe twenty.”
Jackson inhaled through his nose. “They're fake.”
Dan paused, then a little surprised, said, “You have no clue where they are and you know that? They look real to me.”
Jackson smiled. “If they were real, I could smell them. And if I could smell them, I'd have a better idea of how far away they are.”
“Really?” Dan asked, clearly skeptical.
“I know you’re wearing a little more cologne than normal, probably because you anticipated being nervous and sweating, because I can smell that, too. And I know the floor was waxed recently, not just cleaned. And if I really concentrate, I can just make out the scent of food. Maybe the hors d'oeuvres, maybe even the beginnings of dinner. It was stronger near the elevator; one of the kitchens must be in the back of the house.”
“One of the kitchens?”
“These houses usually have at least two. I’ve never been in this one before, but one of the other higher ups in the krewe lives in the home nearby that used to belong to a famous celebrity chef. And it had three kitchens. Makes keeping kosher easier.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t know about other religions. We’re close. The men’s parlor should be on the right.”
“I’d ask how you know but I’ll just say yes. We’re coming up to the table, so we’ll move a little to the right here.” Dan did a good job of guiding them past the floral arrangement, the colors of which Jackson could see more clearly now that they were closer. “Damn, it is fake. Remind me never to bet you,” he added in a low voice.
Jackson smiled. Dan made him feel light and warm inside in a way no man ever had before. Yes, he was attracted to him, disgustingly so, and if given the opportunity to tear his clothes off and lick every square inch of his body, he wouldn’t turn it down. But this feeling was more than a hard dick, more than that tingle in the bottom of his spine and just above his balls when he was about to come. It was happiness, a contentedness that came just from being with Dan that was totally foreign.
The faint hint of hard liquor, cheese, and old cigar smoke told Jackson they were nearly to the parlor. He whispered, “Only the oldest and most important members of the krewe get invited to the cocktail hour before the main festivities. So keep that in mind when we enter. Oh, also, most of them loathe me.”
Dan led Jackson into the parlor, but he didn’t warn him there was some kind of raised threshold, and his clumsy feet snagged, causing him to stumble. If Dan hadn’t caught him, he may have crashed face first into one of the guests, or even the floor, depending on who was nearby.
Jackson’s heart was racing both from adrenaline at the near miss and at the fact that Dan’s strong arms were holding him up, even if it was temporary.
“Jackson, filo, I see you made it after all,” the booming voice of Harold Melancon, the current king of the krewe for the season, rang out. Of course, his identity as the king was a secret known only to members until Lundi Gras, the day before Mardi Gras, but this was his house, so it didn’t take a genius to figure out. Cadmus was exclusive, but not quite as secretive as some of the other old krewes were, like Comus or Rex.
Jackson picked up muffled laughter and willed himself to smile as politely as possible. “Chairetísmata,” Jackson greeted with a slight bow of his head. “It’s Greek. A greeting. A krewe thing. Just go with it,” Jackson said under his breath for Dan’s sake. “Harold, filo,” Jackson continued, adding the Greek for friend as was customary for Krewe members when speaking to each other at official events, “This is Dan Oldendorf. He’s renting a room from me and had an insatiable curiosity to see behind the curtain. Dan, the man who spoke now is Harold Melancon, one of the most important members of the krewe. I’m not sure who else is here without assuming, so it’d help me if you could introduce yourselves.”
Most of the men Jackson recognized by their voice before they even fully said their names, but there were a few new members, or at least members who had moved up into the management positions Jackson wasn’t too familiar with. Considering he hadn’t attended a krewe event in years, it wasn’t surprising.
“What will you have?” Harold asked. “To drink?”
“Bourbon, neat,” Jackson said without hesitation. He didn’t want water or ice or anything else diluting his survival at this party.
Dan struck Jackson as more of a beer guy, and he’d never drunk anything else around him, but he echoed Jackson’s drink order.
Jackson listened to the drinks being poured, a whiff of liquor wafting up. One good thing about Krewe events: the alcohol flowed freely and wasn’t the cheap stuff.
“So what do you do?” Harold asked. It could have been Jackson’s imagination, but he thought he heard a hint of playful accusation there, and he hadn’t missed the additional muffled snickers when he’d introduced the man as his roommate.
The only thing Jackson knew about the layout of this room was that it had three walls (the fourth was probably either completely open or sealable with pocket doors--perhaps the groove in the floor for them to slide on was what he’d tripped over) and that there were about a dozen men besides him and Dan, plus a servant, he suspected, though he couldn’t be sure. It was possible Harold was serving the drinks himself, though Jackson doubted it. Still, he released his grip on Dan’s arm and tried his best to face the source of Harold’s voice, even though he couldn’t be sure where exactly the man was in the room. The acoustics made it difficult for Jackson to locate him with confidence using sound, and the walls were very dark, perhaps wood paneling. With everyone wearing black tuxedos, the contrast wasn’t enough for Jackson to make much sense of anything.
Dan was chatting about his photography, something Harold was apparently very interested in, name dropping some famous artists Jackson had never heard of but whom Dan was evidently familiar enough with to have a lively discussion about.
Some footsteps, and then a voice to Jackson’s right said, “Your drink, sir?”
Jackson put out his hand, but either the servant was dense or simply oblivious, and didn’t hand him the glass. He had a vague idea of where the man was, and thus where the drink should be, but that was all. He had the sense that everyone was watching him as he slowly, carefully reached out, hoping to find the glass.
Suddenly, he heard Dan say, “I’ve got them,” in a rush and the sudden clink like glass hitting another surface. “Here,” Dan said, pressing a tumbler into Jackson’s right hand.
Jackson heard what sounded like paper being passed from one person to another somewhere in front and to the right of him, and could just barely make out the whisper of two of the men. Something about a bet. Jackson frowned and clenched the glass just a little tighter than normal. He wouldn’t have even shown up this early if he’d known that Kevin, Lyn’s husband, wouldn’t be here. Apparently, being married to Lyn wasn’t enough to get him this level invitation. At least not yet.
“I almost knocked the drinks all over myself, didn’t I?” Jackson asked in a whisper.
“Yeah,” Dan replied back in a low voice that came off as sultry, although that was most certainly Jackson’s imagination.
“Thanks.” He should have just asked the server to hand him the tumbler. That’s what he normally would have done. It was these people, plus Dan, making him nervous and self conscious.
“Sorry about that,” Harold said, not sounding the least bit apologetic.
Jackson smiled and hoped it didn’t look as murderous as it felt. “No worries.”
“A toast,” Harold announced. Then he said it in Greek first, followed by the English, “To old friends and new, and Harmony too.” The traditional Cadmus toast.
Everyone murmured, “Yamas,” a Greek equivalent of “cheers,” except Dan of course, and Jackson took a sip of the Bourbon. God, it’d been a long time since he’d had something this good.
Conversation turned to banal topics, some of it related to the upcoming season, others about some ideas and complaints to address for next year, but nothing that hinted at the theme or specific floats. Not with Dan there. Dan, who seemed to fit in with these people like a hand in a glove, as if he’d been the one born into the krewe instead of Jackson. Everyone loved him, or at least pretended to love him because Harold did.
Finally, Harold approached--Jackson recognized the man’s uneven gait; he’d broken his leg when he was younger and it hadn’t healed properly. “Dan, I have this incredible piece upstairs I bought a few months ago, and I’d love for you to see it and give me your opinion. Black and white photography with a hint of color thrown in. It’s actually of one of our floats from last year.”
Dan nudged his elbow toward Jackson’s left arm, as if to signal for him to take it. When Jackson did, he said, “Sure. Lead the way.”
Harold chuckled. “I don’t think Jackson needs to come along. I doubt he’ll have very much imput on a photograph.”
Jackson clenched his teeth but said nothing.
“That’s not necessarily true,” Dan said. “I think Jackson has a lot to offer.”
“Should put him on the float design committee?” Harold guffawed, and his compatriots joined in.
Despite his best efforts to stop it, Jackson felt his face heat.
“He’s blind, son,” Harold said in a condescending tone, although if you’d asked Jackson he would have been certain that was Harold’s only tone.
“That doesn’t mean he can’t see,” Dan immediately retorted.
“Well, you’re only saying that because you’re fucking him,” Harold said after a beat.
Jackson’s blush felt like flames igniting his skin. The krewe members had always teased him for being blind, for being disabled, for being gay, for not being his father or his grandfather. But teasing and jokes were one thing. This was humiliation. “No one’s fucking anyone,” Jackson bit out, releasing Dan’s arm. “Take this,” he said shoving his mostly empty glass in Dan’s direction. Once he felt someone take it, he pulled his cane out of his pocket and unfolded it, not caring if he hit anyone or anything with it in the process.
Normally when you parted with a krewe member at an official event you said a traditional phrase in Greek that meant, essentially, “May Harmony be with you,” but Jackson didn’t bother. He turned himself around 180 degrees so he was facing the doorway, and remembering the threshold and the general layout Dan had described him, headed off without another word to find the bar.
Jackson entered the ballroom. This room had the opposite problem of the men’s parlor. It was brightly lit--at least for the moment--with white walls and a pale stone floor. Marble, maybe, based on the way it sounded when he walked on it. The tables, off to the left as Dan had described, were also draped in white table clothes trimmed with gold, the color of the krewe, and each had multicolored centerpieces that smelled like fresh flowers, unlike the grandiose one out in the main hall. The only thing that truly stood out in his vision was the blur of brown and black of the band playing quietly in one corner, just where Dan had described them, and the brown and gold of the bar in the other, a figure in black working, probably getting everything set up for when the rest of the guests arrived, which would be any minute.
Jackson swept his cane along the floor as he crossed the room in case there was anything unexpected in his path.
“I’ve been working these parties a long time and I thought I’d seen everything,” a man’s voice said as Jackson drew closer. Probably the bartender.
“Well, I haven’t seen anything, so we make quite a pair.” Jackson flashed a smile. He explored the foot of the bar with his cane and used that information to help him get close enough he could lay a hand on it. From what he could feel, it was nice, solid wood, with intricate carvings and a marble top. Definitely part of the house and not something temporary set up for this party.
The bartender chuckled. “What can I get you?”
Jackson was tempted to get another Bourbon straight up, but instead he ordered a Sazerac. It’d been a while since he’d had one, and the krewe wouldn’t hire a bartender who couldn’t make a great one.
“I’ve never seen you at any of these functions before,” the bartender said as he fixed the drink. “And I’d remember you, even without the cane.” There was a hint of flirtation in his voice--or was that just Jackson’s imagination again?
“This is my first Cadmus event in years. I’m Jackson. And you are?”
The bartender laughed. It wasn’t as silky as Dan’s, but it still sounded nice. Rich and light. “That’s how I know you’re not like the rest of the members.” He dropped his voice, and leaned in a little. “Kanoodling with the help.”
Jackson flashed a genuine smile, partially because of the bartender’s word choice. “Do i have to play Rumplestiltskin now? Start guessing until I get your name right?” Holy fuck, he was flirting back, wasn’t he?
“Greg,” he said, his smile clear in his voice.
Jackson held out a hand, not sure if Greg would be able to shake, but there was a sound like he was wiping his hands and then he slid his into Jackson’s. Greg’s hand felt nothing at all like Dan’s. He had a more delicate bone structure, for one. But Greg was clearly interested, holding the shake a little longer than necessary, his thumb brushing over Jackson’s in a purposeful way before he released. Jackson’s dick woke up instantly at the suggestive touch, although it didn’t send an electric tingle through his body the way even the most innocent contact with Dan did. But Dan wasn’t interested in him. Greg was.
The sound of a tumbler sliding across the countertop. “Here’s your drink.”
Jackson’ drew his fingertips along until they brushed against the glass, then he started to wrap his hand around it and found he touched Greg for only a fraction of a second. It could have been the man’s way of ensuring the drink wouldn’t spill, but again there was the suggestion of more, Greg’s fingers teasing one of Jackson’s in a metaphorical promise before the moment was over. Jackson’s breath came a little faster. it had been so long since he’d felt another man’s hands on him. He took a sip of his drink and coughed. Wow, Greg wasn’t cheating him on the alcohol.
“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re buttering me up for a better tip.”
Greg laughed. “Is it working?”
“Splendidly, except I’m not like most of these other members. Just a newbie history professor with eight years of debt who happens to have the right last name.”
“Really? Where do you teach?” Greg asked with genuine interest.
“Loyola. But I’ve only been teaching a couple years, so I’m at the very bottom of the totem pole. In fact, I think I may actually be underground. It’s hard to tell.” Jackson waved his hand in front of his face.
Greg chuckled. “I’m working on my PhD in biology at UNO. I would have finished sooner except my work keeps getting stolen.”
“Ugh. I’m sorry.”
“Eh, it’s a broken system, but it is what it is.” Greg paused, then he said, “Looks like the rest of the guests are starting to arrive.”
Jackson looked toward the entrance to the ballroom, and he could just make out the shapes of what he knew had to be people, the black of tuxes and the multicolored gowns of the women. Not to mention that the hum of dozens of voices was beginning to drown out the music. “And that’s my cue to go sit down out of the way. I get if you can’t do it because you’re swamped, but I’d love if you could keep the drinks coming.” Jackson used his other hand to pull out his wallet, feeling for the embossed stamp he used to identify all his cash. He offered a twenty to Greg.
Again, more hand contact than was necessary, Greg using a finger to tickle the underside of Jackson’s wrist suggestively before he pulled away. “I’ll bring the drinks to you myself whenever I can, and when I can’t, I’ll send them over. And maybe I’ll catch you on my break?”
Jackson found a pleased smile had etched itself into his cheeks. Greg really did want him. “Maybe you will.”
Jackson was on his third--or was it fourth? drink. Well, there was the one he’d had in the parlor, so was this the fourth then, or the fifth? Either way, he was well on his way to plastered when Lyn finally arrived. She was dressed in a red sparkly gown that even he could see, and he hated the way it caught the light, but he could tell immediately as Lyn hugged him that she was happy, so he wasn’t going to ruin that for her.
“It’s so good to see you,” Lyn practically squealed. She sat down next to him.
Jackson reached out for her. “Can I feel your face, or will that smudge your makeup? I want to feel your smile. I could use that.”
Lyn let out a happy, trilling laugh and took his hand and put it on her cheek, where he could feel her full grin, the way it made her cheeks stand out, and even the little dimple near her mouth. “I can always reapply. I’m sorry I’m so late.” She giggled like a schoolgirl and Jackson didn’t need to ask why she was late. At least she was enjoying her honeymoon.
Lyn’s levity was infectious and some of Jackson’s sour mood lifted. “I take it Houston was good?”
“Houston was amazing,” Lyn gushed, squeezing Jackson’s hand. “Well, Houston wasn’t amazing. It sucks. I don’t know how anyone can stand to live in that awful sprawl of a city. But the trip was just what I needed. Kevin was great. And I got to see my friends and do some fantastic shopping. I bought you some new shirts since the ones you have are looking a little ratty. It’s not fair that I’m blessed with a gay brother and he doesn’t like to shop.”
Jackson sighed wearily but it made him smile to know his sister was so happy. She deserved it.
Lyn leaned a little and said, gleeful, “Kevin and I had sex like twice a day, every day. Sometimes even three times!”
Jackson’s lip curled. He loved his sister, but he wasn’t particularly interested in the details of her sex life. “I didn’t realize Kevin had that kind of stamina.”
Lyn laughed it off and then asked, conspiratorily, “Speaking of sex, where’s Dan? Did you end up bringing him? I see you left Molly at home.” Her tone suggested that Jackson had some dirty details to dish.
Jackson sighed. “There’s nothing between us. We’re roommates. He was curious about all of this, that’s all. In fact, he’s upstairs with Harold right now.”
“Because Harold is a patron of the arts, apparently, and Dan is an artist, and I can’t see, so no art for me.”
“Jacky,” Lyn said sympathetically. She’d obviously sensed his bad mood, since talking about Dan had brought it roaring back to the surface.
“Well, would it cheer you up if I told you a secret?”
“I’m not seven anymore, Lyn.”
She squealed and practically waved his hand in the air in her excitement. But when she spoke, it was in a whisper just loud enough for him to hear over the music and the murmur of the crowd. “I’m pregnant!”
“What? Really?” That was really some honeymoon, considering how many years Lyn had been with Kevin and failed to conceive, not to mention they were both closer to 50 than 30.
Jackson could feel his sister vibrating in happiness through their linked hands. “I go to the doctor this week, but I was late so I took one of those tests, and I think maybe it finally happened!!” She squealed again. “But I don’t want to tell Kevin until I know it’s a sure thing. And I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but . . .”
Jackson tugged on her hand and held his other arm out to pull her into a hug. “I’m so happy for you, sis.” And he was, but his heart was heavy, and it leaked into his voice a little.
“Hey,” Lyn said as she pulled away, cradling his cheek. “Just because Dan isn’t the one for you doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. The bartender has been staring at you the entire time I’ve been here like he could fuck you with his eyes. He knows you’re blind, right?”
Jackson laughed. “Yeah. Guess I’m just that sexy he can’t help it,” Jackson said self deprecatingly.
There was the clomp clomp of heavy footsteps, the scrape of a chair, and then what sounded like a sack of potatoes dropped into it. Dan. “Be glad you didn’t get dragged along. I swear that guy knows just enough about photography to make himself sound important when the reality is he clearly is clueless. But he’s got some amazing pieces. And not just photos. I’ll tell you about them later, if you want.”
Part of Jackson really did want that, because he loved hearing Dan describe his passion, especially if he could make Jackson connect to photography the way he had at the gallery the other day. Since, Jackson hadn’t been able to stop thinking of the photo of the woman Dan had described to him. Jackson put himself in her place, imagining the smell of the grass and the nearby water, the sound of the breeze in the leaves above his head, the warmth of the sun muted by the shade of the tree. The loneliness that Dan had explained was painted on her face so real for Jackson it made his heart physically ache.
“When do we eat? Where do we eat?” Dan asked.
Jackson flipped the top up on his watch and felt the time. “Not for at least two or three hours. Dancing and hors d'oeuvres first. Some of the guests will be shooed away, since not everyone is invited for dinner.”
“So not everyone gets to come for cocktails and not everyone gets to have dinner? Sheesh.”
Jackson smiled faintly. “The most important guests will eat in the dining room with Harold, and everyone else will eat out here. More tables will be set up. Or maybe he has them prepared outside? I’m not sure.”
Dan groaned. “I guess I better stuff myself with canapes and mini quiches,” he grumbled.
“Or we could leave now and go somewhere to eat,” Jackson said hopefully, eager to be done with this party.
“Please don’t leave. I just got here,” Lyn whined, pulling on Jackson’s arm. “Kevin was hoping you’d introduce him to some of the men higher up in the krewe.” As if Jackson was so chummy with any of those people. “Let me find him. I’ll be right back.” She leaned in and kissed Jackson’s cheek before disappearing into the crowd.
“Do you want to dance?”
Jackson laughed. “Is there someone else here I’m not aware of?” Jackson said, looking around, one hand out, half joking and half wondering if his fingers would find another person. “They already think you’re more than my roommate. You really want to add fuel to the fire?” Not that Jackson could really dance. Maybe a kind of swaying shuffle, though the idea of clinging to Dan with his head on the larger man’s chest while he inhaled that fabulous cologne was enough to send a jolt straight to his balls, but what was the point? Dan sounded bored but too stubborn to leave after he’d convinced Jackson to drag him along to this horrible event.
“Trust me, it wouldn’t really matter at this point. Half the tour upstairs was Harold saying how he was aware of how men in the arts are of a certain persuasion but he didn’t understand why I was with you. Then he launched into a bit of a tirade about krewe tradition and how your family was neither moneyed nor powerful anymore.”
“Did he?” Jackson said with a bit of a growl.
“He didn’t go into details,” Dan continued in a voice that said, “Don’t shoot the messenger!” “All he said was that it was all very tragic.”
Jackson tilted his head as he heard footsteps approaching, hard to distinguish over the roar of the band--in full swing now--and dozens of conversations. He looked up and saw black. At first he thought it was a server, perhaps offering them something to eat, but then the figure spoke.
“You looked like you could use another.” Greg.
Jackson’s smile grew. “Thank you.” Jackson held out his hand for Greg to place the drink into it.
“And I brought one for your friend,” Greg added in a voice that suggested he didn’t believe for one second Dan and Jackson’s relationship was strictly platonic.
“You know each other?” Dan asked in an uncharacteristically gruff voice. Was he jealous? No way. Dan didn’t seem like the type to get jealous, and besides, if Dan wasn’t interested in Jackson, as it was becoming increasingly clear was the case, why would he have any reason to care if Greg flirted with him? Unless he was one of those people who was OK with homosexuality in theory, but once “the gays start flaunting it” as one wacko nutjob had said on the news once, that was a whole other story.
“Greg’s just keeping me hydrated.”
“My break’s in five minutes,” Greg said, and there was no denying the invitation. “I have to get back. Enjoy your drinks, gentlemen.”
“So that’s why you don’t want to dance with me,” Dan said in a teasing voice.
Jackson chose to ignore the comment and sipped his drink. This one was even stronger than the last one, and although Jackson could hold his liquor, if he kept this pace up, especially on a mostly empty stomach, he was going to need Dan to carry him home.
“Dan, there you are! I was wondering where you’d run off to,” Harold’s booming voice said a few moments later. “I should have figured you’d be with Jacky.”
“It’s Jackson,” Jackson growled. The only one he ever let call him that was Lyn.
Harold laughed dismissively. “Come along, Dan, there are some people I’d like you to meet. Do you ever do weddings? Because Judge Stevens’ daughter is getting married, and . . .” Harold’s voice faded away, and soon Jackson was alone again, with both his and Dan’s untouched drink, so he finished them both.
And then the alcohol started to hit him hard, and he decided he needed to pee, but he didn’t really know where the bathroom was, and he didn’t want to ask some random krewe member, so he stood up--not an easy feat since it felt like the floor was moving. He unfolded his cane and headed straight for where the bar was, even if he couldn’t quite make it out because there were other blurs around it. People, probably. He clumsily used his cane, whacking people’s feet and ankles, and giggling when he did instead of apologizing until he practically crashed into the bar.
“Greg?” Jackson slurred.
“Ready for another drink already?”
“Bathroom? Where is it?” Jackson turned his head and the room felt like it was tilting so he stopped. Closed his eyes.
“I’m taking my break,” Greg said, lower, like he was speaking to someone else.
“Now?” the person complained.
“Yeah. I’ll be back in five.” Then to Jackson, a little closer, like he was right beside him instead of in front of him, “Come on, I’ll take you.”
Greg’s arm wasn’t muscular like Dan’s. But bony, and long, from what Jackson could feel of it, and he imagined Greg was tall like Dan but slim, maybe even skinny. He also didn’t know anything about leading. That, plus being drunk made Jackson’s gait worse, so he bumped into several people and stumbled more than once before they finally made it to the restroom.
“This is the one for the staff, so we’re less likely to be kicked out if we take more than a couple minutes,” Greg said once he led Jackson into the room.
Jackson risked opening his eyes again, but the room was brilliant white and the fixtures were, too, apparently, because it was like staring out into the polar opposite of pitch black. The only advantage was it meant he could see Greg more clearly. Jackson started to unfold his cane, but being drunk, he didn’t slip his hand through the strap when he flicked it, and it went flying. He knew the handle was black and the tip was red, but it was too small for either of those colors to stand out enough against all the white. Even the alcohol couldn’t dull the flare of panic that rose up. Jackson could get down on the floor to search for it, but he might not be able to stand up again.
“My cane?” Jackson asked, slurring a little but worry in his voice anyway. “I don’t know where anything is.” Without the alcohol, he would have been calmer, ironically, but he couldn’t think clearly right now. All he knew is he wasn’t even sure where the door was anymore. He took a hesitant step forward, both hands outstretched, hoping he’d find something--a wall, the sink, anything--but his fingers met only air. “Greg?”
Suddenly Greg’s hands were on him, just above his waist, pressing up against him from behind. It made Jackson jump in reflex. “I’m right here; who cares about anything else?” Greg pressed closer and reached around, palming Jackson’s crotch and massaging him there.
Jackson didn’t like not having his bearings, and the alcohol was making his stomach rumble angrily, but he soon got lost in Greg’s touch. Apparently he wasn’t so drunk he couldn’t get hard. His panic and nausea faded away as lust took hold. Jackson bucked into Greg’s hold, his breath sped up, but Greg was teasing him. This was just the warm up; Greg knew exactly what he was doing. Jackson let out a soft sigh, leaning back against Greg’s tall, bony body.
“What do you like?” Greg asked, his voice hot in Jackson’s ear although he never stopped massaging Jackson’s balls.
“Touch,” was the only word Jackson could manage.
Greg chuckled. “Obviously.”
Jackson shook his head and immediately regretted it as his stomach contracted and he barely kept himself from throwing up. “No. No,” he said, frustrated, but he couldn’t manage to find the words to explain himself. He considered touch his primary sense; it was how he understood the world. And when it came to sex, touching his partner and feeling their hands on him, even in places that weren’t normally considered erogenous was a huge turn on.
“No?” Greg said, misunderstanding him. He turned Jackson around, guided him backwards, which Jackson didn’t like at all.
“No. Don’t know . . . behind me,” he slurred. He started to reach back so his hand would catch himself before he hit something, but Greg guided it away, almost hugging him now.
“Trust me,” he said, and a moment later, he pressed Jackson against the wall. Then he undid the button on Jackson’s pants and the zipper next, freeing his erection. Greg’s large hand engulfed Jackson’s cock, a thumb brushing over the tip and making Jackson shiver. “You’re well hung for such a little guy.” Jackson heard another zip and presumed Greg had liberated his own hard-on.
The embers of anger struggled to ignite; Jackson knew he was a small man but he hated being dismissed because of it. Yet Greg’s ministrations were skillful enough despite Jackson’s queasy stomach all his attention focused on coming. He tried to reach for Greg, either to ground himself, to touch, or perhaps to find Greg’s cock.
“No,” Greg said in a sexy, commanding way, using his leg to shove Jackson into the wall and hold him there, bringing them close enough their dicks touched.
The sensation made Jackson moan. Loud.
Greg laughed, wrapping his hand around both of their cocks and continuing to stroke, this time together. “I love a guy who’s loud, but not sure you want to announce us to the whole party.” Greg drew what felt like his thumb over the crest of Jackson’s cock, past the slit, and Jackson’s knees weakened. Thank God for his braces and Greg keeping him upright.
Jackson bit his lip hard, attempting to suppress the groans that escaped with every tiny movement. He reached out again, trying to find Greg’s arm as if for something to hold onto, but Greg growled another no and pressed so hard with what had to be his knee the shot of pain momentarily drew Jackson out of his haze.
“Tux. Can’t. Dirty,” Jackson struggled to say between pleasure and the alcohol fog.
Greg seemed to be enjoying turning Jackson’s brain to mush. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get your deposit back.” First, Greg’s leg released its hold on Jackson’s thigh, then Greg’s hand and cock pulled away. Before Jackson could fully process, he heard a soft double thud, and seconds later his cock was enveloped in warm, wet heat that made Jackson’s eyes roll back in his head.
A growl that formed as a tingle in his balls shot up and out of him before he could stop it, taking his breath away. He thrust into Greg’s mouth, momentarily losing his balance, but Greg caught him and braced him with one arm while the other with a slick slick sound of skin against skin worked his own cock toward completion.
Finally Jackson was able to take hold of Greg’s face, one hand on each cheek. He could feel them hollow out as Greg sucked, the movement of his tongue and jaw, the head of his own dick as he thrust. Jackson couldn’t help imagining it was Dan, although Greg’s face was like his body, long and angular and lean, whereas Dan was all bulk and muscle.
Greg swallowed and Jackson’s balls drew up, his stomach contracting in quick jerks. He was close. But Jackson didn’t feel . . . right. He gagged. Tried to push greg away, but despite his thinness Greg was strong. He must have abandoned his own cock because he still held Jackson in place with the original arm while Greg’s other hand grabbed his ass and pulled Jackson toward him, sucking more vigorously.
Jackson’s stomach began to spasm more intensely as he got closer, closer. Just a couple more seconds. . . .
And he blew.
Not just his load but also the contents of his stomach, which Jackson could hear didn’t hit the floor, but Greg.
A thud as Greg fell, a curse. “Holy fuck. You fucking puked all over me. Fuck. I’m going to get fired. You asshole.”
Queasiness and dizziness worked together to make Jackson feel unsteady. He didn’t bother to tuck himself in, stretching out, hoping to touch Greg or something other than the wall. But he found nothing. He felt bile pushing up his throat and struggled to swallow it down. “Sorry,” Jackson managed to say minutes too late. Figured first guy who showed an interest and Jackson fucking ruined it. Didn’t he always ruin everything? He killed his mother, bankrupted his father, almost doomed his sister to dying an old maid.
The sink was running somewhere in front of him and slightly to his right.
Jackson took a few hesitant, stumbling steps that way, his hands out, ready to catch himself, following the sound. But then it cut off sharply. Greg was muttering about how all those krewe pricks were the same and he deserved to get fired for his stupidity, and how he should have stuck to Grindr. He walked right past; Jackson could see the blur of black and feel the movement of air as he rushed by, but Jackson wasn’t quick enough to catch him.
“Find it your fucking self. I need to change clothes before I lose not only this job but every future job with this catering company.” The sound of retreating footsteps, then the opening and slamming of a door.
Lost in a vast sea of white, Jackson was left alone.