Dean Winchester hadn't been late to an audition in twelve years, and he wasn't going to let Seattle traffic win. Not even the parking meter that only took American coins would stop him. Dean ran down the crowded sidewalk and a Canadian dime slipped out of his hand. It rolled away, abandoned. He had five minutes to check into the Novak building's lobby and he was going to make it.
Pedestrians staring at phones or tourist maps clogged the crosswalk. Dean dodged them, each running step one yard closer to the smoked glass tower that held his future.
The scream stopped Dean in his tracks. He searched the crowd, drawn to a space adults wove around after looking away.
“Mommy!” That was a little girl’s high voice, fried with fear and tears, and no one was helping her. Dean looked at his watch.
He had three minutes.
Damn it, it's a kid.
Dean turned back.
A tiny girl with eight braids sprouting from her head cried alone in the street. Tears tracked down her face. Dean crouched, one knee on the sidewalk, and took her sticky brown hand. “Hey, honey. Hey. What are you doing here?”
People flicked curious glances at them, but no one stopped. No mother appeared to save her. She squeezed two of Dean's fingers and didn't let go.
“What's your name? I'm Dean.”
“Were you in the coffee place?” He pointed to the familiar green and white sign, just a little way up the street.
“Coffee,” she said.
“Come with me, okay? We're going to find your mommy.” He scooped Keisha up and settled her on his left hip. She buried her hands in his leather jacket, rested her smeared cheek on his shoulder. It was up to him now. He had to be her hero.
The scent of brewing coffee spilled out of the open door. Dean ducked in, looking around. A man in a green apron pointed to him, and a blonde woman in yoga wear rushed forward to take the child in her arms.
“Mommy, you're squishing me,” Keisha complained.
The woman laughed through her tears, rocking her child back and forth. “I just took my eyes off her for a second.”
“Kids are escape artists,” Dean said. “No harm done.”
She gave him a watery, grateful smile. “How can I thank you?”
“No need,” Dean said. “Take care, now.”
He slipped out of the Starbucks, pretending not to hear the manager calling after him. Pedestrian traffic split around him as he checked the time. Hope tumbled to the concrete: the minute hand on his watch stuck straight up.
Dean Winchester was late for an audition for the first time in twelve years.
He'd come to Seattle on hope and a loan. Alfie took his lunch shift, but he had to be at Hy's for the dinner rush in five hours and this audition was a bust before he even got in the door. He'd blown it. But that little girl needed help, and he wouldn't change what he’d done if he could have those five minutes back.
Security asked for his name and escorted him to an elevator that whisked him to the 22nd floor. A table with a massive vase of white, star-petaled lilies took up the middle of a semi-circular room. His bootheels scuffed over the pale wood floor, bearing left to greet a woman who waited with a silver-backed tablet. High platformed heels made her tall enough to look him in the eye, and she tossed a thick veil of dark brown hair over her shoulder with a smile.
Dean gave her a smile right back and studied her burgundy painted lips before answering. “Yes. Sorry, I'm late.”
She gestured at him to follow her. “We're running behind, you're okay.”
Hope melted the tension in his stomach. They hadn't called him yet.
He would be thirty in nine months. He was on the bubble at Hy's after taking three days to shoot a werewolf script. Crowley had urged him to take the time for this call, believing it was something big. Maybe it was. He still had a chance.
The woman opened the door on a conference room, showing him to a seat with a script. Another actor sat at the table, a blond and blue-eyed surfer type. He flicked a look at Dean and dismissed him.
The woman gestured at the surfer guy to follow her through a door while Dean turned to his script. He was reading for a guy named Chet—Dean built up an image of him, deciding his history, circumstances, personality. The lines filled him with excitement. Chet had more lines on one page than Dean had ever performed in a gig. This wasn't a three line speaking part. This was a role.
Dean turned the page and read on, finding the hook in the story: Chet was a stranger at a family wedding, and his date was a guy. Dean went back to the beginning and read again, fitting that knowledge into his image. He could feel Chet. He could do this, and let it shape his career, why not? Actors could be out. John Barrowman and Neil Patrick Harris were; he could be too.
The door opened, and surfer guy gave him a smirk as he walked out. Dean rolled his eyes. Shit actors tried to demoralize the competition and he didn't give a damn about anyone's performance but his own. He stood up and buttoned his jacket. Eye contact. Smile. Say their names.
He stepped across the threshold and nearly stumbled. The little gods of drama made him late to audition in front of Ezekiel Fraser, Oscar winning director of The Baseball Cards, and Castiel Novak, the boss of television production at NetWatch. They had final say on every show NetWatch produced, and he might have just blown his chances for the entire network. The fact that it was them made his heart trip hard--this was a big deal, if they were handling the casting.
Never mind that. Tall and relaxed. Confident. Own the room.
He found his mark and stood still while everyone got a good look at him. He smiled at the woman who'd led him here, murmuring, “I'm Dean.”
“Ava.” She smiled and went back to studying her script.
Ezekiel settled into a tall chair next to Castiel. “Thank you for coming. Will you slate?”
Dean didn't look at the camera. “My name is Dean Winchester, and my agent is Fergus Crowley.”
He had to ignore Castiel. He had to stop looking at his eyes. He picked up a Starbucks cup with elegant hands, long fingered and dextrous. Stop looking. Dean trained his gaze at a spot between Ezekiel Fraser's shoulder and the rolling camera.
He still had a chance. He was going after it.
Ezekiel nodded. “Action.”
Ava kept her eyes on the page as she read, “So, how did you meet my brother?”
Castiel picked up his paper cup and tested the latte's temperature on his fingertips. It warmed his hand through the white and green cardboard: still hot, but not enough to scald his tongue. He sipped and the guy from Starbucks took his mark.
This was the fifth audition. Ava had made good choices, each man handsome and skilled, but they'd been wiped away by the gorgeous guy who had stopped a mother's nightmare when he came in with her missing child on his hip. Castiel stared and had forgotten to put sugar in his drink. He went upstairs with a bitter brew, wishing he'd stepped forward to thank him. That he'd talked to him. Got a closer look at his hazel-green eyes, high cheekbones, and that mouth--
But here he was, like a second chance.
“Action,” Zeke said.
Before the slate, Dean cradled the room in his presence. At Ezekiel's command, he transformed. He became Chet, a nervous-but-hiding-it young man on a tightrope of a first date: the escort of a man who’d chosen his brother's wedding to come out.
Ava read her first line with her head ducked toward the clipboard, inflection flat as Kansas. It rattled the rookies, flushed out the unskilled. Castiel held his breath, waiting for Dean's response.
Dean fit into the role like a glove. Ava looked up from her clipboard and spoke her lines with more life. Dean made a self deprecating joke and Ava touched his arm. They made it to the end of the script and Dean didn't stop, tapping his foot to an unheard song. Dean smiled shyly and asked Ava to dance.
They were in a hold before Ezekiel called out, “Cut. Thank you, we'll let you know.”
Dean's presence unfurled with his smile. “Thank you,” he said, and walked out.
Castiel waited for a beat after the door closed. “Him.”
Ezekiel reviewed the footage of Dean's audition, as if his camera relationship mattered. “There are eight more applicants.”
“I don't care,” Castiel said. “He's the one. Nobody's going to top that.”
His best friend peered at him. “You don't have to go through with this. Go alone.”
If only he could. “Mother's all but moved Dash's place setting next to mine. I need a date, and it's him.”
Ezekiel folded his arms across his chest, the corners of his mouth turned down. “Castiel.”
“This is the best solution,” Castiel said. “If he says no, then we'll look at the rest.”
Dean's resume lay in front of him, the straight into the camera stare of his headshot mesmerizing. “Ava, do you have his background?”
She gave him a file. First page: twenty nine, born in Lawrence, Kansas. One brother was four years younger, the other, a half-brother, was eleven years Dean's junior. Castiel skipped pages to look for red flags. No problems with drugs. A shoplifting arrest at fifteen… Castiel skimmed the police report.
He'd stolen bread and peanut butter.
Castiel's heart flipped over.
Ezekiel adjusted the camera. “Bring the next applicant.”
Castiel fished his phone out of his jacket pocket. “I need to call him.”
“He lives in Vancouver,” Castiel explained. “I should meet with him before he leaves town.”
Ezekiel stared at him. “Don't you think you should--”
“No.” Castiel found Dean's number on his resume and dialed.
Zeke rolled his eyes. “Or you could just phone him up now.”
Castiel held his hand up for silence. “Hello, Dean. This is Castiel Novak.”
The call was brief, but Castiel had to shake off a trickle of guilt at the joyful smile in Dean's voice. Dean Winchester was the one.
He scooped up Dean's file and headed for the door.
Ezekiel spoke as his hand touched the doorknob. “This won’t turn out the way you expect, Castiel.”
Castiel didn't answer him. “Ava, can you print a copy of the contract and bring it to my office?”
The door swung shut on her answer.
Kevin's maroon Ford Focus sat next to the curb where Dean had left it, a yellow ticket fluttering from under the driver's side wiper.
“Sonofabitch.” He'd only had four American quarters. Had it been longer than twenty-four minutes? Nausea rolled through him as he added fifty dollars to today's price tag.
His phone rang.
He had it in his hand in a moment. The caller had a Seattle area code. He was on international roaming, the charges were ridiculous. If it was a wrong number--
“Hello, Dean.” He knew that deep, rough-edged voice. “This is Castiel Novak. Can you come back to the office? I'd like to talk to you about a contract.”
Clouds parted and the sun shone on him. A contract. A contract. “Yes. I'll be right there, I just have to get change for the meter.”
He tugged the yellow paper from the wiper, and it was a handbill advertising an Industry Night party at a local nightclub. Dean whooped. He made change and ran back to the Novak building, stomach swooping like he was on a roller coaster.
He'd quit Hy's properly, if he had time. He could buy a new mattress for his bed. He could buy Sam and Jess something nicer than a waffle iron for their wedding. He checked back in at the desk and rode the same elevator upward. Excitement put him on his toes, trembling with the urge to dance.
Ava waited for him next to the bouquet of lilies. He smiled. “Ava, thank you so much for reading for me.”
“It was a pleasure.” She balanced her tablet in the crook of one arm and shook his hand again. “Mr. Novak is waiting for you in his office.”
She led the way through a maze of corridors to a huge, glass-walled office, westward windows full of a view of Elliott Bay. Dense, deep gray carpet and bamboo walls made the office a dim, comfortable den. Castiel relaxed on a plum leather sofa, a heavy-bottomed glass of whiskey by his knee. Everything screamed money, from the perfect fit of his monogrammed shirt to the heavy Swiss watch on his wrist.
He stood up to shake Dean's hand, his grip firm. “Dean.” The smile he flashed was bright. The lines around his eyes crinkled.
Dean's hand tingled. “Mr. Novak.”
“Please call me Castiel.”
Dean allowed himself a half second to take in the blueness of Castiel's eyes before he retreated to a polite and attentive look. He had to keep this professional. “Castiel. Thank you for calling me back.”
Castiel's smile faltered for an instant. “First I want to apologize, Dean. I called you here for a job, but it's not quite what you may expect.”
The joyful shivers Dean had been holding down stilled. “I'm sorry?”
Castiel gestured to the decanter. “Do you drink scotch?”
Dean flashed an apologetic smile. “I do, but I have to drive back to Vancouver.”
Castiel nodded. “I need an actor for something extraordinary. As such, here is your compensation package.”
Castiel slid a document to Dean. Dean picked it up and blinked. A hundred thousand dollars, plus an expense account for travel, accommodation, wardrobe--
This couldn’t be happening. Dean looked for a production name. Was it a feature? He scanned page after page, long past the point where a show should have been named. He skipped down the page and halted at a breath-stealing phrase: “The party of the second part will demonstrate a reasonable level of public affection.”
Dean set it down, his throat tight. “What is this?”
“Not what you think.” Castiel picked up his drink. “If you refuse, it won't reflect on your career. I need your help.”
“I signed an NDA for the audition,” Dean said. “It applies to this conversation too?”
Dean watched Castiel carefully. “Can I talk to my lawyer?”
“I encourage you to seek counsel.” He sipped the amber liquid, his long throat bobbing as he swallowed. “May I tell you what I need?”
Dean sat back. “I'm listening.”
Castiel rolled the glass in his palms. “Both of my brothers and my best friend are getting married in the next eight weeks. I require a companion to attend their weddings with me, and various social engagements between them.”
“You want a plus one?” Dean wished he'd accepted that whiskey. “But you could—Mr. Novak--”
“Castiel, you could have your pick. Tons of guys would want to go out with you.”
He smile grew wider. “Thank you. I think this is the best solution.”
“Why?” Dean shook his head. “I apologize. I shouldn't have asked.”
Castiel tilted his head. “You may ask me questions.”
“Okay, let's start with that one.”
Castiel stretched one arm along the back of the couch. “It's simple. I don't want any romantic expectations. Once this plague of weddings is over, I'm going right back to my work.”
Dean didn't let his consternation show. “So, hire an actor. Not to sound stalkerish, but I know you usually go to big media events with your sister.” Anna Novak and her long red hair regularly featured in red carpet photos, often listed among the best dressed.
Castiel nodded. “My family is exerting pressure on me to date, despite my own wishes. I'm appeasing them while avoiding the idea that my invitations have true romantic potential.”
Ah. “They're trying to fix you up with a nice boy?”
Castiel smirked. “You have the essence of it.”
“So. Go to weddings with you.”
“And other social events, for the sake of public appearances.”
Being Castiel Novak's fake boyfriend for two months was a gold mine in networking potential. The money was more than he made in three years of waiting tables and bit part acting calls. Plus an expense account?
There had to be a catch.
“Uh, Castiel. How much of the boyfriend experience are you trying to contract, here? Sorry, but I want to know.”
“You have a right to know.” Castiel set down his empty glass. “I don't expect you to have sex with me.”
Dean's held breath slowly released. He wondered if he would have done it. He glanced at the contract again with a little disquiet. Would he?
Castiel spoke into the silence. “In fact, whenever we're in private, the charade is off.”
Dean cocked his head. “So we, what. Just hang out?”
Castiel sat back again. “In matters of physicality, I'm looking for the appearance of an affectionate, monogamous relationship, newly begun and amicably ended in the middle of June. If you can stand to kiss me where other people might see, that's as far as I'll want you to go.”
Affectionate, monogamous relationship. Shit. Linus.
Dean had forgotten about Linus, which said it all. He hadn't introduced Linus to anyone. They'd gone for coffee and a couple of dates, and Linus could be a real good kisser if he'd take a little advice, but--
But nothing. There was a hundred grand sitting on the table. He'd have time for another hot fireman later. The middle of June, though? Dean pursed his mouth. A hundred grand wasn't worth--
“Is there a problem?”
Dean snapped back to attention. “Sorry. I have a conflict with your end date.”
Castiel smiled. “Perhaps we can work something out. What's the conflict?”
“My brother is getting married at the end of May.”
Castiel's shoulders sank, relaxed. “The last wedding is in the middle of May. I wanted to end the contract in June for some fizzle-off time. If you don't want me to attend your brother's wedding, I can arrange an out of town business trip.”
It would be too weird having Castiel along. Dean looked at the contract again. “This isn't what I imagined doing when I set out to have an acting career.”
“For what it's worth, I think you're a talented actor. I'm casting a new television series, producing in Vancouver.”
“You don't need to do that,” Dean shifted, pressing his hands together. “I mean thanks, but you don't have to give me a part because I took on this job.” He'd earn his parts. He wouldn't trade favors. “Actually, do you expect me to stop working while you need me for this plus one stuff?”
Castiel blinked. “You want to continue working your day job?”
Dean chuckled. “I meant if I got a call for an acting job. If it didn't interfere with your important dates.”
“It wouldn't be wise to turn down a call if you didn't have to. I'm busy during the week, so you'd have time.”
The job was more money than Dean had ever seen in his life. This could open a lot of doors, for the cost of a few public kisses. Pecks on Castiel's high cheekbones. Kisses on his mouth. Maybe getting caught in a quiet corner with kissing that got more serious. No, he wouldn't mind kissing Castiel Novak. Not at all.
That’s enough. Eyes on the ball, Winchester. “Can I take that to my lawyer and get back to you?”
“How long do you think you'll need?”
Dean licked his lips. Sam needed to see this now. That meant staying in Seattle until he was home from work. That meant kissing his job at Hy's goodbye, and if Sam said no...
He glanced at Castiel, who lifted his stare from Dean's mouth to his eyes. His lips tingled as if he'd just been kissed. Did he imagine it?
Castiel swallowed. “If there’s something you want to negotiate, I’m open to that.”
Did he just--
No, he couldn’t have. Dean held onto his breathing rhythm, closed his parted lips, but the tension up his belly wouldn’t be dismissed. Only kissing, he said. Nothing more.
Fuck it. High churn was part of the restaurant business. He could find another job, if push came to shove. He picked up the pile of papers. “I'll probably know by tonight.”
“Great. Call me.” Castiel handed him a card. “That's my personal number. Anytime before eleven.”
Dean had worn a cologne that smelled of citrus and peppery spice with a hint of darkened wood. Castiel kept his nose in his whiskey to keep from testing the air. When they settled the contract and went on a date, he'd have an excuse to come close enough and guess all the notes mixed on Dean's skin.
Castiel grimaced and picked up the decanter. He shouldn't be thinking of Dean's cologne or burying his nose in the man's neck. Shouldn't even do it while they posed as newly entangled in a relationship.
And they would. Dean's expression went from suspicion to relief as he learned what the job really was—and then wasn't. His glances at the sum Castiel offered kept him hooked long enough to be convinced before he took the deal to his lawyer. It was too good to resist, the opportunity for an actor on the cusp of his thirties just too ripe.
Castiel tried to banish an image of Dean with his mouth fallen open and his eyelids lowered, full of anticipation as he leaned closer to Castiel, the soft meeting of their lips—it haunted him, and Castiel Novak was not haunted by fantasies of beautiful men. He didn't dream of men who had faces and names.
Dean was exactly what Castiel wanted. He would launch Dean's career after the weddings were done. He could take his pick: New York, Hollywood, even Toronto. Castiel put his nose inside his glass, letting peat, smoke, and salt water cloud the lingering scent of Dean and--
He moved the glass away and breathed again. Bergamot, that was it.
Dean was too much. He was going to pay for it with a hero's measure of stoic endurance. Dean was going to say yes, and Castiel wouldn't renege on the offer.
His phone vibrated and he answered it before the ringtone registered. “Hello.”
“Castiel, you should have come with us.” Michael had called, jovial and wheedling as only his oldest brother could be. “The skiing is a disaster. It's too warm down in the village, and all your bunny hills are a shambles.”
Castiel smiled and leaned back. “If the skiing is no good, why should I have come?”
“Because you ought to be suffering along with us.”
“I've still got some work to do.” His brothers leaving gave him a narrow window to audition potential candidates. He'd claimed the auditions were for the pilot of Grosvenor Lane, and Ezekiel had gone along with the conspiracy in spite of his opinion of Castiel's plan. He planned to use these two days to establish the blossoming of his new relationship. If Dean didn't say yes...
No. Dean couldn't pass up that much money. Castiel had his background. He knew.
Wind sounded on Michael's end of the line. “Are you coming up on Friday?”
“Saturday.” It was time to start the show. “I have a date.”
Michael yelped. “You have a date? Who?”
“No one you know.”
“Wait, Castiel has a date?” His other brother Lucas asked, his voice muffled by distance. “Put us on speaker.”
“Castiel, a real date? Finally! Will you toss him in the deep end?”
“Castiel wouldn't do that,” Michael scoffed. “He's going with Dash.”
This was it. “I don't want to go with Dash, Michael.”
Michael sighed. “Don't be difficult, Castiel. Please.”
Castiel made a face. Dashiell LaCroix and Michael had been friends for years, and Michael believed that since he liked Dash, then Castiel should adore him. Michael also liked Dash's family, who were swimming in oil. A perfect match for his youngest brother, as far as Michael was concerned.
“I do like Dash,” Castiel said. “But I don't like Dash that way.”
He didn't like anyone that way.
The hiss of an opening soda bottle sounded nearby. “How many dates have you been on with this new guy, Castiel?” Lucas interrupted. “How long have you been holding out on us?”
“Friday will be the first.”
Michael gave a relieved sigh. “So you're not bringing him to the wedding.”
Only a mouthful of whiskey remained in his glass. It wasn't that Michael drove him to drink. Castiel just wished he'd poured more than a finger's worth. “Actually, I was planning on inviting him.”
“Castiel, we've worked our fingers to the bone planning this wedding. If your date is an embarrassment, Hael will never forgive you.”
Lucas made a rude noise in the background. “Lighten up, Michael.”
“Dash would make a fine date,” Michael protested. “He and Castiel suit each other.”
Castiel gritted his teeth. “The fact that Dash likes boys isn't enough reason to think he's suitable.”
“Fine,” Michael sighed. “Be difficult. Why don't you bring Tracy Bell? It's good publicity for her going into Grosvenor Lane.”
“Why don't you bring Ava?” Lucas asked. “Ava carries herself well, and she knows her place.”
It was a bit vicious, but Michael didn't take hints well. Castiel shoved his voice into Michael and Lucas’s bickering. “Neither of them are real romantic prospects, that's why.”
“You're right, you have to bring a man,” Lucas said. “Why can't you be bisexual?”
Castiel grinned and filled his glass with water. “To make your life difficult.”
They laughed until Michael interrupted. “What does this date of yours do, Castiel?”
He knew the question was coming. He also knew how Michael would take it. “He's an actor.”
“Castiel. An actor? Really?”
“But I can bring Tracy Bell to your wedding?”
“That's different,” Michael protested. “That's business.”
“That's ridiculous.” Castiel got off the couch and crossed the room, resting his head on the cool glass. 4th Avenue lay far below, the cars and people so small.
“You haven't been on a date in years.” Michael had gotten louder, his voice strained. “And you're jumping back into the pool with an actor? Bringing him to my wedding?”
“Shut up, Michael,” Lucas said. “Castiel, how does he make you feel?”
Dean? Dean didn't make him feel anything. He was the right man for the job—talented, sexy, warm, caring... “I don't know.”
“Castiel,” Lucas's voice was gentle, but he wasn't letting his younger brother wiggle off that hook. “This isn't rocket science. Does he make your dick hard, or does he make your heart leap?”
Castiel didn't miss a beat. “Both.”
Silence from their end of the line. If they'd been in the room he'd watch his brothers exchange glances as what he said sank in.
“I want to meet him,” Lucas said. “He must be something else. See you Saturday.”
“Saturday,” Castiel agreed, and hung up.
Why had he said both? He hadn't hesitated, hadn't engaged the filter between brain and mouth. It was the answer that shut his brothers up. Maybe he'd known it would.
He tapped his phone again.
“Ava. Can you book me into a room in downtown Vancouver for Friday night? And I need reservations for dinner, close to the hotel.”
Dinner was a fine date. It was traditional. He didn't have much time to get to know Dean before he needed him to be his boyfriend.