“I am Gwen,” the cat said proudly, her tail held high.
With a twitch of her whiskers, she meowed and sprang through the air to land in the nearest lap, catching the owner of the lap off-guard. Judging from the startled look of surprise and the hands that flew up in surrender, the human didn’t dare to touch the furry intruder.
Gwen braced herself by digging in slightly with her claws, glad that things had finally quieted down long enough for her to consider emerging from her hiding place beneath the bed. Eventually, the human’s racing heart would relax, and Gwen’s heart would follow.
“Like all cats, I rely on my servants to provide for my feline needs—a nice meal, some entertainment-preferably in the form of a cardboard box, a soft lap,” Gwen continued, a deep rumbling purr vibrating from within her round body. “You, human, have what it takes… in the lap department, anyway. Maybe you could be my servant for a little while?”
Gwen released her claws and circled, placing each paw softly, testing. She looked at the owner of the lap and gave her prettiest blink. “Seeing how my other servants are occupied, I have no one to love me, but you.”
Her purring grew deeper.
Gwen knew her own charms. The human had no choice but to pet her. It shifted into a more comfortable position, one thigh rising while the other shimmied over, but it made no movement to evict Gwen from her comfy perch. Gwen knew best how to keep the human in place so it wouldn’t get bored and push her to the floor. She would tell a story that no human could resist hearing. A story of love and romance, of death and intrigue, of cats and kittens and even adorable little puppies… well, maybe not too many puppies—they definitely weren’t Gwen’s favorite creatures.
When the human petted her consistently and showed no sign of moving, Gwen began to tell her tale, “Once, I was queen of all that I surveyed. I had beautiful living quarters, and I was served fresh meat every day with sparkling water in a crystal bowl. I had a view of the harbor from my favorite windowsill. Best of all, my servant cherished me with all his heart. I was a good queen, of course. I didn’t complain when he locked me in our bedroom every time the telephone rang or when there was a knock on the door. I knew my servant was only doing what he could to protect me. That’s him, the blond one over there with his head thrown back in laughter.”
The owner of the lap smiled, as if it understood how important Gwen’s favorite servant was to her.
“As my servant, he does a pretty good job,” Gwen said. “I want him to be happy always, so he’ll keep treating me well. I’m sure it’s hard for you to believe it now, but there once was a time when he wasn’t so happy. He faced a dangerous situation where he stood to lose everything that was important to him. I’m talking about yours truly, of course. I was nearly made into a servant myself—never to see my Arthur again. Luckily for us, that’s the day when the beautiful boy on a magical machine came into our lives. He’s the skinny one with the big ears and the strong calves. Don’t let him fool you—he’s warm to sleep next to at night. I love him almost as much as I love Arthur. He’s sweet and funny. He’s quick with the cat treats, and he doesn’t mind if I get into the ‘nip every once in a while. I can’t believe that I almost didn’t get to meet him at all. It’s a long story, but it started just like this...
Merlin pedaled down Columbus Avenue, flying past cars that had stopped for the red light. He passed over the Mass Pike with its slow crawl of commuters headed for the suburbs. At the intersection, he skidded to the corner before riding against the flow of traffic through Park Plaza. He ignored the honking horns and turned right on Boylston, slowing only at the sight of a cop parked in front of La Teatro. Not wanting to be hassled for disobeying traffic laws, he stopped for the yellow light, his rear tire squealing before he touched his right foot to the pavement.
Traffic was heavy on Friday afternoon, when most people left the city early to get a jump on their weekend. Merlin privately winced at the idea. It wasn’t too long ago that he would have had plans for the weekend too—heading north to the mountains, or south to the Cape, or maybe staying in town to catch a game if the Sox were in town.
Sadly, those days were behind him now.
Merlin knew he wasn’t going to make any fun plans for this weekend… or on any other day off, for that matter. Not since Cenred dumped had him three months ago, after deciding he needed more attention than Merlin could give him.
“You ought to get a cat, Merlin,” Cenred had said before slamming the door for the last time. “That’s about all you have time for, and it’s obvious that you love cats more than you love me anyway.”
Maybe it would have hurt less if Cenred hadn’t sarcastically thrown in the patronizing, “It’s not you, it’s me,” for good measure.
The bastard broke Merlin’s heart.
Merlin took a swig from his water bottle, tilting his head back to squirt some of the cool liquid onto his face. The haze of exhaust from the automobiles and the summer heat made his skin grimy and slick with pollution and sweat, not to mention the SPF 50 sunscreen that melted into his pale skin as he rode all day. He bit at the back of his hand to tear off a fingerless biking glove with his teeth and yanked down the zipper of his Lycra shirt to let a spray of water splash onto his chest.
It wasn’t until he replaced the water bottle in its holder and stretched his fingers back into his glove that he noticed he was being watched. Across Tremont Street, the redheaded guy in the Subaru was definitely giving him the eye.
Merlin slid sunglasses to the end of his nose to get an unobstructed view of his observer when a pick-up truck pulled into the lane beside him. Without any warning, a German Shepherd in the passenger’s seat lunged out of the open window and began to bark its head off at Merlin.
Merlin shoved his glasses back into place and sliced across three lanes of traffic as soon as the light turned green.
“That’s a good way to get run over, asshole!” a motorist shouted.
Merlin resisted the urge to flip the driver off. He didn’t spare a backward glance as he cut through The Common and pumped his way up Beacon Hill.
He removed his helmet and lifted the sunglasses from his sweaty face to his forehead. It looked like most of the riders for Kilgharrah Kourier had made it back to the office already. Gwaine, Percival, and Elyan stood behind Freya as she intently stared at her computer monitor, engrossed in something.
Merlin tossed the canvas bag onto Freya’s desk.
Gwaine raised his fist. “What’s up?” he asked.
“Fucking hot,” Merlin said, punching Gwaine’s fist and nodding toward his other co-workers. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, they’re just watching that stupid cat,” Gwaine scoffed.
“Gwen?” Merlin asked, his eyes brightening at the thought. He scrambled behind Freya’s desk to get a look.
The cat on the screen was no stranger to Merlin. He had been watching Gwen for months. Cenred had bitched at Merlin for his YouTube-downloading, Twitter-following, Tumblr-squeeing about the cat time and time again. But with Cenred gone, Gwen received Merlin’s undivided attention. He was obsessed with her. The way she pounced on a box, no matter what size. The way she sprang though the air and penetrated the empty Mountain Dew case with her body, sliding across the floor with her hind legs akimbo.
“Watch this, watch this!” Elyan urged.
It couldn’t be.
A double penetration?
“Yes,” Merlin shouted with glee as the cat propelled herself through two empty soda cases.
Gwaine rolled his eyes. “What kind of loser watches cat videos? It’s not normal,” Gwaine grumbled while the others cheered.
Normal or not, Merlin loved to watch Gwen’s antics. He was thrilled that a new video had been uploaded to YouTube. He couldn’t wait to get home so he could watch it again, without Gwaine’s snickering to spoil his enjoyment of everything Gwen could do. It would probably be the most excitement he’d have all weekend.
The summer heat had made the tiny studio apartment into a stifling inferno. His skin hot and sticky from the day’s work, Merlin couldn’t wait to peel off his shirt. The sweat-beaded skin of his back instantly felt cooler without the heat trapped against it. He scratched at his chest, the dark hair matted and itchy from his day riding the streets.
With the air-conditioning unit blowing a cool stream of air through the room, Merlin flopped down on the futon, intent on resting for a bit before having a good wank in the shower. That redhead in the Subaru had reminded him of what he was missing. If not for that barking dog that startled him, Merlin might have considered making a move…
Who was he kidding?
He still wasn’t over Cenred—not by a long shot.
It had been years since Merlin had thought about sex with someone other than Cenred. And reminiscing about his ex was still much too painful. For now, he’d have to be satisfied with his own hand and his stray thoughts about any of the thousands of men he encountered as he made deliveries through the streets of Boston. It was utterly tragic.
Merlin slid his hand over his hardening cock as it pushed against the stretchy fabric of his shorts. He decided not to wait for the shower. He rolled the waistband over and shoved the shorts down his thighs. The hum of the air-conditioner drowned out the sounds of the city beyond Merlin’s four walls.
The rush of air was strong enough to make the flimsy curtains wave back and forth, a slow dance against the single window of Merlin’s apartment. He traced a finger around each of his balls, enjoying the way the cool air dried the bike-seat flattened hairs into springy curls. He stopped to tug his shorts below his knees, and spread his legs so he could give his boys more breathing room.
He pushed the thought of Cenred out of his head and focused on the redheaded stranger in the Subaru instead. He imagined the things they could have done together if Merlin had summoned the nerve to approach him.
Merlin traced the vein on the underside of his cock with a long finger. With his thumb, he collected the clear droplets of anticipation that seeped from the tip and pushed his foreskin back. A low sigh escaped his lips as he fisted his cock in the cool artificial breeze.
He imagined what it would feel like to have someone else’s hand on him as he writhed on the futon, or some stranger’s cock nudging him open. Maybe that guy in the Subaru? Merlin’s breath quickened and the muscles of his belly became tighter with each stroke of his fist.
Without a care about neighbors who might hear him above the hum of the air-conditioner, he moaned loudly as he milked himself, the thick splash of come splattering across his quivering belly. He barely had a chance to wind down when he felt the buzz of his cellphone vibrating against his ankle.
He wiped his hand on his bare chest and fumbled around for the phone. When he saw the caller’s name, he briefly thought about not answering, but instead he just wiped off his hand a little bit better and tried to put the memory of his wank behind him before answering.
“Hi Mom,” he said.
“You’ve finally decided to answer your cellphone? To what do I owe the pleasure?” Hunith sounded a bit exasperated.
“Cut it out,” Merlin sighed.
“Or maybe you’re not Merlin at all?” Hunith asked, a laugh in her voice. “I demand to know what you’ve done with my son.”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I was going to call you back tonight.”
“A likely story,” Hunith said. “I left you half-dozen messages. What if it were a real emergency?”
“If it was an emergency, you would have said so in your message, or you would have texted me,” Merlin said, tugging his shorts back up his hips to cover himself in the presence of his mother’s voice.
“Don’t be silly, you know I have no idea how that works,” Hunith said. “The next thing, you’ll want me to tweet something to you.”
“I’ve shown you how to do it a dozen times now. I’m afraid you’re hopelessly stuck in the twentieth century,” Merlin said.
“I think you’re right,” Hunith said. “I’ll never be able to get used to your fancy gadgets.”
Merlin let a span of silence pass. He listened to his mother’s breath, soft and vibrant.
“Is everything okay? There’s nothing wrong with Aithusa?” Merlin asked, concerned about the pet he had to leave in his mother’s care when he moved to the city and discovered that cats weren’t allowed in the studio that he and Cenred rented.
“No, Aithusa was sitting on my lap a moment ago, but when I screamed in surprise that you actually answered my call, he took off and ran out the cat door,” Hunith said. “He’ll probably bring me back a mouse, the little darling.”
“He’s a good hunter,” Merlin said. He imagined Aithusa’s loud purr and soft white coat, how proud the cat would be when he deposited a dead mouse at Merlin’s feet. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t seen his cat for a few months, he still found occasional stray white hairs on his clothing, a reminder that he did have a pet, even if he didn’t get to see him every day. “What’s going on?”
As he waited for his mother’s reply, he hoped she wasn’t going to bring Cenred up again. He glanced around the barren apartment. The oversized room should seem so much larger with all Cenred’s stuff gone, but the walls closed in on Merlin when he talked to his Mom. It had been hard enough breaking the news to her that he was suddenly single. Hunith had raised Merlin on her own. She hadn’t seen Merlin’s father since they had rolled around in the grass at a Grateful Dead concert back in 1988. She had repeatedly cautioned Merlin about the difficulties of going through life alone, even without a youngster to raise. Merlin dreaded the thought of her pressing him for more details, or worse—asking when he was going to find somebody new.
“I have wonderful news,” Hunith said. “At least I hope you’ll think it’s wonderful.”
Merlin sat up on the futon and slid his feet onto the floor.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s about me and Iseldir… we’re going to be married,” Hunith said.
“That’s great,” Merlin said, adjusting the waistband of his shorts. Iseldir and his Mom had been dating for a couple years. He seemed like a nice guy and he had treated Hunith with great affection when they had met Merlin and Cenred for dinner at Hunith’s home in Connecticut last spring. “Congratulations! If you’re sure that’s what you want, then I’m very happy for you.”
“Thanks so much, sweetie. I was hoping you’d be glad. For the two of us,” Hunith said.
Merlin could feel the joy emanating from her voice. “So, when is the big day? Am I invited?”
“Of course you’re invited, silly,” Hunith said. “In fact, I’d like to ask you if you’ll walk me down the aisle. Tell me that you will? Please!”
“I’d be honored,” Merlin said.
“We’re thinking of having the wedding around Christmas. That way, most of Iseldir’s relatives and everyone from our family will be in town already, and it won’t put people out too much.”
“That sounds absolutely perfect, Mom,” Merlin said. “I’m already looking forward to it.”
Hunith excitedly chattered away about the wedding, gossiped about the neighbors across the street whose house was for sale, and described how Aithusa was finally finished shedding his winter coat.
When the call ended, Merlin fell back onto the futon.
This was far worse than Hunith asking him for more details about Cenred, or whether he had found somebody new.
Hunith was getting married in only four and a half months. All Merlin’s relatives would be there. His old Aunt Alice would want to know why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He’d have to explain it to her for the tenth time. Then he’d feel terrible, like he had to apologize for who he was. His Uncle Bart would avoid him like the plague, as if being gay was something contagious. Every other relative this side of the Appalachians would want to set Merlin up when they realized he was single. They’d pester Hunith, who was supposed to be enjoying the happiest day of her life. No, Merlin knew only one way to avoid the drama of dealing with his relatives. He couldn’t go alone.
Merlin would need a date for the wedding.
Only an hour earlier, Merlin had been considering Debbie the eHarmony gal who loved every kind of cat as a possibility. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the genitalia that interested Merlin most, although the cat-love was a definite checkmark in her plus column.
Still, Gwaine’s idea was better.
It had been quite some time since Merlin hit the local gay bar as a single. The need to at least make an attempt to hook up with someone prickled Merlin’s skin as if he had something to prove. Finding a date to bring to his mother’s wedding would be more challenging, but he knew that he needed to take baby steps to get there.
And, if you couldn’t count on your favorite co-worker to be your wingman, who could you count on?
Accompanying Gwaine, with his lustrous locks and abs of steel, could only help Merlin’s chances at scoring, even if the simple act of going out in public had been difficult for him in recent months. The happy couples he saw everywhere were a depressing reminder of love lost.
The bar was only slightly crowded by the time Merlin and Gwaine ordered a couple of Sam Adams Summer Ales on draft. The Sox were playing the Yankees in New York, so the tourists stayed away from the local places where Gwaine and Merlin hung out, migrating instead to Kenmore Square where they could catch the game in the shadow of the hallowed Citgo sign.
Merlin and Gwaine found a spot along the glass wall that separated the outdoor seating from the air-conditioned interior. The bar had so many flatscreens that every patron could feel like they had baseline seats at Yankee Stadium.
The Sox were down 2-4 when Beckett was pulled out in the bottom of the sixth. The lackluster game gave Merlin the opportunity to scope out the other sports fans who decided The Fritz was better than spending an evening at home.
“Who’s that over at the end of the bar?” Merlin asked, nodding his chin toward a guy who seemed to be staring them down.
“Where?” asked Gwaine, looking across the room.
Although Merlin tried to direct Gwaine’s attention as inconspicuously as possible, the sexy stranger caught Merlin’s eye.
He was tall, dark, and handsome, clad in black jeans and a light pink polo shirt. Merlin shivered as he watched the stranger take a long pull off his bottle of Smithwick’s.
“Oh, that’s—” Gwaine snapped his fingers, trying to recall the man’s name.
“Come on Gwaine. You know everyone,” Merlin said, without taking his eyes off the man who now sauntered over to them.
“Good to see you again, Gwaine. Who’s your friend?” the stranger asked, his hungry gaze raking Merlin up and down.
The guy’s eyes were like molten pools of chocolate, drizzled with warm caramel. And his hair had the same sleep-tousled look as Gwaine’s did, only it looked a thousand times better on him.
“Lance! Lance from the Fancy Feast commercial,” Gwaine finally coughed up the name. He clapped Lance on the shoulder. “This is my friend Merlin.”
“Fancy Feast commercial?” Merlin said, awe-struck by the thought that Lance might like cats too.
“Yes, we worked together when I was doing some modeling,” said Gwaine.
“I love cats!” Merlin blurted out during the utter silence that permeated the crowd as Ellsbury hit a long fly ball that looked like it would almost make it into the Monster seats.
“Hah! I was sick for a month after that job,” Lance dismissed Merlin’s gushing with a wave of his hand. “I’m so allergic, I should have bought stock in Zyrtec.”
Ellsbury rounded first as the ball fell short of the Green Monster. The crowd moaned its disappointment as the announcer proclaimed, “Out at second base!”
This latest video was box-heavy. Some of Merlin’s other favorites featured Gwen jumping into bags, Gwen playing with catnip mice, and Gwen chasing feathers attached to a stick.
Merlin wriggled beneath the thin flannel sheet he had used to cover himself, reaching back to tug it over his shoulders. The night was far too hot for pajamas, even with the air-conditioner running, but he liked the feel of soft fabric on his skin.
He watched some of his favorite Gwen moments that he had stored on his hard drive.
Gwen leaping into a box that was too small.
Gwen leaping into a box that was too big.
Gwen leaping into a box that was perched on its side.
Gwen chasing a stuffed mouse that was tied to the end of a toy fishing rod.
Merlin shifted his legs and dug his knees into the futon. He reached up to pause the video so he could study the frame. For some reason, he had always assumed Gwen’s owner was a woman. She was a female cat; the connection seemed unremarkably logical, just as Merlin’s cat, Aithusa, was male.
Merlin hit Ctrl+ and enlarged the image on the screen until it was nearly pixelated.
“No,” he muttered as he studied the screen.
He fiddled with the plus and minus controls until he got the image to appear as clear as possible.
“That’s not a woman’s hand at all,” Merlin breathed with exasperation.
It was a man who owned Gwen, if cats could really be owned by humans. A man with impeccably manicured nails and good taste in furniture. And, of course, an undeniable love for his cat and her marvelous antics. He’d have to be quite obsessed with the feline if he spent every spare moment filming her in action and then uploading it to YouTube, where millions of fans anticipated Gwen’s latest stunt.
It hadn’t occurred to Merlin that Gwen’s owner could be a man. It was fun for Merlin to think about someone who loved cats as much as he did. He let the video play again and watched it until the end. Yawning at the end of the long day, he began to close the lid to his laptop, but despite his fatigue, he scanned the video again for the frame that best featured Gwen’s owner’s hand. When he isolated it, he took a screenshot of the image and saved it to his hard drive. But first, he set the picture as his background for his computer so every time he opened the lid, Gwen would appear, along with her mysterious owner’s hand that held a toy to lure his adorable cat.
Merlin closed the lid, pushed the laptop aside and slumped down into his futon, shoving his pillow under his head.
If only Gwen’s owner were a man that Merlin would have a chance to meet.
Merlin sighed and pushed the thought out of his mind. Even if he did meet Gwen’s owner, there was little chance that he would be gay, single, or that he would be attracted to a bicycle messenger who was depressed over getting dumped by his boyfriend.
No matter. Despite everything Cenred took from Merlin when he moved out and ended their relationship, Merlin still had some of his imagination left intact. Tonight, Merlin slept with sweet dreams of Gwen’s mysterious owner dancing in his head. Of course, Gwen was following him as he happily dragged a cat toy behind him.
“I don’t know why you bother flirting with her,” Merlin said sullenly as he and Gwaine trotted through Downtown Crossing on their way to the office of Kilgharrah Kourier.
Gwaine sipped his coffee concoction. “It’s my destiny to leave a trail of broken hearts behind me,” he said.
“You’re a real nice guy, Gwaine,” Merlin said, rolling his eyes. “No wonder you’re such a hit with ladies and gents alike.”
They paused at the crosswalk, waiting for the walk sign with a horde of office workers .
“Some were born to break hearts,” Gwaine said, slapping Merlin on the back. “Others were meant to have their hearts broken.”
“You wouldn’t be referring to me,” Merlin snorted into his vanilla latte extra extra as they turned onto Tremont Street.
“Oh, no, not you,” Gwaine said, holding the door to Kilgharrah Kourier open for Merlin. “You’re a heartbreaker, for sure. I still can’t believe you turned down a perfectly good lay, just because he was allergic to cats. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Merlin snorted and watched Gwaine lick the whipped cream from the end of his straw before depositing his empty cup in the trash, the door closing behind them.
“But that’s just the point,” Merlin pleaded as he stepped into the cool air-conditioned office. “He was allergic to cats. Some things are deal-breakers, you know? Besides, I’ll know when the right one comes along.”
“But you don’t even have a cat!” Gwaine said.
“Stop arguing, boys,” Freya quipped from behind her desk. “What’s wrong, Merlin?”
“The boy needs to get laid,” Gwaine said.
“I do not!” Merlin protested, his tips of his ears flushing red.
“Well, if you played on the other team, I’d go out with you,” Freya said. “You’re still adorable, even if all you talk about is that Gwen cat.”
“Exactly!” Gwaine said.
Merlin rolled his eyes.
Freya handed each of them a messenger bag. “These are all loaded up for you,” she said. “Now get on your bikes and ride.”
Merlin and Gwaine wandered past Freya’s desk and entered the work area to pick up their overhauled bikes. Old man Kilgharrah always insisted that his messengers leave the bikes at the garage on the weekends so Leon could tune them up before the messengers hit the road on Monday mornings.
Kilgharrah was a crotchety bastard. The messengers all figured that the weekend tune-ups were more about keeping them from using the bikes during their time off than ensuring the aging vehicles were safe to ride. Providing a helmet for each rider, as well as a cell phone and a basic repair kit were the limits of his generosity. Kilgharrah certainly didn’t care about his employees’ well-being. He just cared about keeping the company afloat.
Merlin grabbed his bag and read the manifest that described his route for the day.
Kilgharrah Kourier made very few deliveries over the weekend. Business picked up dramatically during the week. Besides being sworn process servers, messengers often ran into situations where clients needed original documents signed, or had important paperwork inadvertently left behind in one location when it was needed in another. Sometimes it seemed like a matter of life or death to the clients when they called. And sometimes, when a package needed to be brought from one hospital to another, it actually was a matter of life or death. Merlin hesitated to think of what might be in those heavy refrigerated packages he sometimes shuttled between Mass General and Boston Children’s Hospital. In any case, Merlin treated each pick-up and delivery as if it were an emergency. Clients liked it that way.
“Off to the courthouse,” Gwaine announced, tucking his manifest into the pocket of his messenger bag.
“Cleveland Circle,” Merlin groaned as he lifted his bike from the rack. He’d need more caffeine if he was going to start his day with a long climb from the harbor to the highlands, even if it was only an elevation gain of a hundred feet.
“Lunch at The Common?” Gwaine asked.
“I’ll meet you by the Swan Boats,” Merlin said, straddling his bike as Gwaine pedaled away.
Just then, the sliding glass door opened and Freya shouted from her desk. “Gwaine!”
“He just left,” Merlin called back to her, donning his helmet and snapping the buckle on his chinstrap into place.
Freya ran through the door waving a large manila envelope in her hand. “Merlin, can you head over to The Devonshire for a drop-off?”
“Sure, it’s almost on my way,” he said, taking the envelope from her. “It’ll give me a little warm up before I head over to Brookline.”
“Thanks,” Freya said, patting him on the head.
Merlin glanced at the envelope as Freya disappeared through the sliding glass doors and into her office.
He flicked the envelope once, and mumbled the client’s name, “Pendragon,” before he stashed it into his bag and sped out the door.
Merlin gave his armpits a sniff. He decided he smelled as good as he could after walking to work with Gwaine in the blistering August heat. This Pendragon guy was lucky Merlin was showing up at the start of the day, rather than after eight sweaty hours of riding through automobile exhaust.
A doorman guarded the entrance of The Devonshire, preventing ne’er do wells from gaining access to the building. Merlin leaned his bike against a light pole and removed the chain and lock from around his waist. When the bike was secure, the doorman showed Merlin to the revolving door while giving him a friendly nod.
His official Kilgharrah Kourier messenger bag opened doors for him in world-class cities, he chuckled to himself. In the lobby, he stopped at the desk and waited while a security guard buzzed the Pendragon apartment to inquire about Merlin’s admittance.
Merlin peeked into his bag to check the envelope for Mr. Pendragon’s apartment number and waited in the lobby for the elevator. When it arrived, he stepped back to allow a pair of businesswomen to exit before he hopped into the mirrored car.
The elevator speedily deposited him on the fortieth floor. He stepped out into the hallway, brushing past more of The Devonshire’s residents as they boarded the elevator to start their days.
He walked down the corridor, the golden numbers gleaming from each entryway. Number ten on a door to the left, number eleven on the door to the right... it only took him a moment to get oriented, his feet sinking into the plush carpeting. He followed the numbers, noticing the tasteful lighting and elegantly framed artwork. He paused at an oil painting whose slashed lines and smatterings of paint looked like a trio of dogs chasing a woman in a dress. Modern art. He couldn’t figure it out, yet he suspected that The Devonshire paid big bucks for such an atrocity to grace their walls.
The golden numbers that marked each door rose in increments as Merlin traveled further down the long corridor. Finally, he arrived at number seventeen as denoted on his envelope.
He cleared his throat and rapped the doorknocker four times in quick succession.
He took a step back and folded his hands in front of him while he listened to the approaching footsteps. He heard the lock being unlatched. The handle turned and the door edged open a crack. He supposed Mr. Pendragon had peered through the peephole to get a glimpse before opening the door to a stranger. Merlin was relieved to think that he didn’t look like much of a psycho to his clients.
When the door slid open, a gust of air-conditioning escaped from the apartment, chilling Merlin from head to toe.
The first thought that popped into Merlin’s head was that this client was far too young to be Mr. Pendragon. The Mr. Pendragon who lived in this apartment would have to be a wealthy investor or CEO of a successful company, surely not the gorgeous specimen of a man who stood in front of him.
The second thought that popped into Merlin’s head was that maybe the guy who opened the door was a fashion model. That might explain the elite address. And it would definitely explain the bronze skin and the high cheekbones and the artfully highlighted hair.
“Yes? Can I help you?” the golden god asked, with raised eyebrows. His eyes were a deep blue, somewhere between the sky above North Conway and the waters of the Caribbean.
Merlin’s mouth hung open at the sight of the thin line of flesh that appeared at the gap between the hem of Mr. Pendragon’s white tank top and his Harvard crimson sleep pants, which were slung low enough to reveal a trail of dusty golden hair that disappeared below his waistband.
“Uh,” Merlin said.
Taking in Merlin’s messenger bag and bike shorts, the man at the door asked, “Do you have something for me? You are the courier that the doorman just called about, right?”
“Uh, yes, I have a delivery for Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin said, fumbling with the strap of his messenger bag, getting it caught on his helmet as he tried to lift it over his head.
Mr. Pendragon folded his arms across his chest, which only made the hem of his shirt rise higher to reveal more of the glorious skin that was certain to become an integral part of Merlin’s wank fantasies from this day forward. Yes, this Mr. Pendragon must be a fashion model. That would explain the finely chiseled jaw and the hard biceps that glowed in the sunlight streaming through the enormous window that ran the length of the living area. Merlin salivated a bit, still struggling with the bag.
“Actually, I’m all but certain the Mr. Pendragon you’re looking for is my father, Uther Pendragon, and not me. I’ve never received a delivery here before,” he said.
At that moment, Merlin finally untangled the clasp of his helmet from the strap of his bag, causing his helmet to fall to the floor and bounce across the polished hardwood.
Merlin couldn’t have been more embarrassed than when he was doored by Mayor Menino’s car in front of City Hall last autumn. The mayor himself had helped Merlin up from the road, straightening out his twisted handlebars and brushing him off before mumbling for Merlin to remember this kindness in the next election.
“Do you need any… help?” Mr. Pendragon asked when Merlin dove across the floor to retrieve his bouncing helmet before it could scratch the finish.
“No, I’ve got it,” Merlin said, blushing furiously as he stood up again and stepped back into the doorway, helmet in his hand. He juggled it to his other hand so he could open the clasp on his bag and withdrew a large envelope. “I’m here to drop this document off for a Mr. Uhh… I can’t make out Freya’s handwriting… it looks like a U… Uther… well, it could be an A… R… Arthur? Her writing is truly atrocious… I don’t know how she stays employed. Uh… it could be for you?”
Mr. Pendragon leaned forward to look at the address on the envelope. “Arthur. It is for me after all,” he said resolutely.
Merlin tapped the label with his index finger. “Looks like it’s from Taylor, Ganson, & Perrin. Care of Morgana Pendragon. Estate settlement, it could be important.”
Arthur snatched the envelope from Merlin’s grasp. “I don’t see how my personal matters could possibly be any of your concern,” he said, nostrils flaring.
“Oh,” Merlin said, stepping back. He honestly wasn’t trying to pry, but knowing his clients’ business came naturally to bicycle messengers, especially when Merlin had something to gain by getting to know this particular client better. “Who’s Morgana?”
“My sister,” Arthur said, gritting his teeth. “Do you always pry into your clients’ business?”
Merlin’s face fell.
Arthur tore the envelope open and slid the documents into his hand. His eyes scanned the papers for a few moments. He sniffled loudly and pinched the bridge of his nose.
Merlin thought Arthur might begin to cry. Arthur’s eyes welled and he inhaled a large gasp of air as if he were going to begin sobbing at any moment.
Merlin bit his bottom lip.
At that very moment, Merlin remembered the first rule of being a bicycle messenger: never get emotionally involved with a client.