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The Way You Know Him

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Prologue

June

The taxi cab took a corner on two wheels and Justin cursed as he was flung against the side door. “Okay, Lance. Remind me -- what is this thing we’re going to?”

Lance rolled his eyes. “Do we really have to go through this again? Look, I told you I had to work this one night, just this one night while you were here,” he said with some exasperation. “I also told you that you didn’t have to come with me.”

“Hey,” Justin protested. “It’s not that I don’t want to go. I’m a good friend, I’m interested in your career and stuff.” He braced himself against the door as the cab driver took another corner. “What is it you do again?” he asked, and grinned when Lance elbowed him.

“Honestly, Justin, if you’re not going to be able to behave yourself, I’d rather you not be there,” Lance said, but he was smiling.

“Behave? What do you mean, behave?” Justin asked with mock indignation.

“No, I’m serious. This is my job, and these are people I work for, and I’m trusting you here. No insulting my co-workers, no flirting with my associates, no telling stories about what a dork I was at Harvard.” Lance’s voice was stern.

Justin smiled as he watched the city fly by his window, letting his eyes linger on the clean, wide sidewalks, the well-dressed people strolling past the windows. “If they knew what a dork you were, there's no way you'd get invited to a posh, high-class party in New York City.”

“It’s not that posh,” Lance answered absently, and Justin’s eyebrows went up.

“This looks pretty posh to me,” he muttered as Central Park came into view. Even in the dark this part of the park and the surrounding buildings looked beautiful. “Like I said, I can’t believe a dork like you knows someone who lives in a place like this.”

“I’m not a dork. And I don’t know him,” Lance said with some alarm. “I mean, I know of him, everyone knows of him, but I’ve never met him. I don’t think my boss has even met him. Maybe not even his boss.” Lance shifted and Justin realized he was nervous. “Remember, I told you that the firm I work for is sponsoring that opera fund raiser, and Mr. Chasez is hosting this cocktail party, I guess, to thank the firm, and yeah.” Justin watched in growing amusement as Lance brushed at the front of his coat and reached up to his throat to check the knot in his tie. “I would rather not go either,” he confessed. “But my boss seemed to think that he was doing me this huge favor including me in the invitation, and I couldn’t say no.” Now he sounded apologetic. “And I’m sorry. I know a night of watching me do some corporate ass kissing isn’t the way you wanted to spend your vacation.”

“It’s not a problem,” Justin said breezily. “And it’s not really a vacation. I mean, I had to job hunt and get an apartment and stuff.”

Lance grinned at him. “I still can’t believe you got that job, man. On the first interview.”

Justin smiled with a completely false modesty. “Oh, I was just lucky,” he said, and grinned when Lance laughed.

“Yeah right. Well, we should celebrate tomorrow night, for sure. Go out and do it right.”

Justin nodded. “Yeah, and you know what? I want to go to that club. That one you told me about.”

Lance raised his eyebrows. “Oh, that club?” he said, and glanced slyly at Justin. “Sure. We could do that. I’d imagine that even an ugly-ass hick boy like you could get some action there.” He leaned away as Justin threw a half-hearted punch.

“Watch it,” Justin threatened. “Be nice to me, or I’ll tell your boss about that time you ran naked through the park by Emerson Hall . . .” He trailed off as they pulled up to the front of a gorgeous high rise with a team of real, uniformed doorman. His smile dropped away. “Well,” he continued quietly. “I guess we’re going to get a look at how the other half lives, right? Like reverse slumming.”

Lance snorted as the door opened and he slid out of the cab behind Justin. “Yeah, right.” He bumped into Justin as he stood on the curb and they both froze. “Jesus,” Lance murmured, and Justin nodded in silent agreement as they took in the high, well-lit overhang, the spotless marble sidewalks. Another doorman held open the heavy beveled glass door and ushered them into a lobby that looked more like a five-star hotel than an apartment building.

“Damn,” Justin murmured in appreciation as Lance produced his invitation for inspection. “How did you say you know this guy again?” Lance rounded on him and he held up his hands. “Kidding, kidding,” he said, and smiled as Lance shook his head.

“I’m wishing I’d just told the boss I had plans tonight,” Lance muttered as they were shown toward the gleaming bank of elevators.

“It’s kind of intimidating,” Justin murmured back, making an effort to keep his jaw from gaping. The uniformed attendant informed the elevator operator that they were going to the Chasez penthouse and they were shown to a separate elevator. They watched in silence as the attendant keyed in a security code and the doors parted silently. For a moment Justin feared they were going to have to ride up with this strange, uniformed man, and he wondered wildly if they were supposed to give him a tip for letting them in his elevator.

But the man stepped aside without looking either of them in the eye, and they both relaxed as the doors closed behind them and left them alone in the large mirrored elevator. “Just think, a few more years of ninety-hour work weeks in your finance firm, and you’ll be the one with your own apartment -- uh, penthouse -- right here in this building.” Justin grinned as Lance laughed and shook his head.

“Seriously,” Lance whispered back. “I don’t know if I’d want to live in a place where the elevator attendants are this snooty.”

There were no numbers in this elevator but they seemed to climb forever. Justin couldn’t tell when the elevator began to slow; their only warning was a low, subtle chime before the doors slid silently open.

Justin’s first impression was of spacious and cool elegance -- the elevator opened directly into a large and high-ceilinged private foyer. Mahogany paneling gleamed with discreet touches of polished brass, the marble floor shined with polish, and glancing up Justin saw the high ceiling was actually a large, domed skylight. It must be stunning in the daytime, he thought.

Lance’s elbow brought him sharply back to the present and Justin realized they were not alone. A tall thin man -- good lord, a butler -- had apparently sprung up from the marble floor and was murmuring a greeting. He was actually helping Lance divest himself of his raincoat; Justin hastened to scramble out of his before the man could perform the same service for him. He took Justin’s worn but perfectly respectable coat with an air of disdain before directing them down the hallway, where sounds of a large crowd could be heard.

Lance straightened the knot of his tie as they walked and heaved a big sigh even as he pinned a smile to his face and waved to someone at the end of the hallway. “Remember,” he muttered at Justin. “Behave yourself.”

“Trust me,” Justin deadpanned, and snickered when Lance rolled his eyes.

The hallway ended with three wide stairs descending into a large room that was stunning in its bright illumination. Justin felt his mouth open in an O of appreciation as he took in the vaulted ceiling, white walls and two entire walls of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the mostly darkened central park and the lights of the city. The view was amazing. There was a fire crackling warmly in a large marble fireplace across the big room, glittering people in formal wear talking and laughing, uniformed caterers easing discreetly through the crowd with hors d’oeuvres and crystal flutes of champagne. The noise level was considerable, almost drowning out the small string quartet that played in a corner near the window.

“And there’s my boss. Here we go,” Lance muttered as he moved past Justin and greeted a tall, distinguished-looking man and his heavyset wife near the bottom of the stairs. For the next half an hour Justin followed Lance, smiling and shaking hands as he was introduced as Lance’s former college roommate, making small talk with Lance’s colleagues, speculating on the opera performance that was to be the culmination of the evening. After awhile Justin quietly extricated himself from a group of people talking enthusiastically about a new proposed federal tax break for nonprofits, and eased his way toward the nearest waiter with a tray of hors d’oeuvres. He was starving.

The caterer was a young and very pretty woman, and it was nothing to charm an entire plateful of finger food from her, along with two napkins and a very flirty smile. Justin gave her his brightest smile in return and moved slowly across the crowded room, taking care not to spill anything from his plate on the immaculate ivory carpet. His goal was the corner where the two huge walls of windows met, but the crowd seemed thickest there as people congregated to enjoy the view. There was a long balcony outside too, he could see now that he was closer. It was a pity that the rain kept people from going outside to enjoy it.

The room was packed, and it was an effort for Justin to find an unobtrusive spot in which to get some serious eating done. His day had been a full one, beginning with the successful job interview in the morning and followed by the complications of securing his cousin’s husband’s Chelsea sublet in the afternoon. It was an incredible piece of luck that allowed him to get that apartment, but dealing with the paperwork had eaten up his day, and when he’d returned to Lance’s apartment there had been just enough time to clean up and change before heading here. Breakfast had been a long time ago.

Justin gave up trying to find a flat surface on which to set his plate. He scooped up another canapé and stuffed it whole into his mouth, juggling the china plate and the napkin as he chewed hungrily.

An elegant crystal champagne glass filled with amber liquid appeared in the periphery of his vision and Justin froze. A voice, low and amused, said, “You know, I’d heard the food here was good, but I didn’t think it could be that good.”

His mouth full of hors d’oeuvre, Justin let his eyes travel slowly from the long, elegant fingers holding the glass, up the arm clothed in impeccable black cloth, to a handsome chiseled face with a full, soft looking mouth and a pair of gorgeous and coolly amused blue eyes. Justin swallowed his canapé whole and, mortified, felt himself start to cough.

The man transferred the glass to his other hand and gently thumped Justin on the back as he choked. “Easy, now,” he murmured as Justin drew a deep and tortured breath of air. “Here,” he said, and held out the glass to Justin. “Drink.” Those full lips quirked into a half-smile that made Justin blink.

Justin took another deep breath and a healthy gulp of champagne, aware of the other man’s blue eyes watching him intently. He cleared his throat and tried to speak.

“Thank you,” Justin said, and tried a smile. He hoped the blue-eyed man would smile back.

He did, and it was a smile of astonishing charm, showing a glimpse of teeth under full, soft-looking lips and causing his eyes to scrunch in a way that made Justin’s heart skip a couple of beats. “You’re welcome,” he murmured, his voice low and encouraging Justin to move closer. “It wouldn’t do to have you keel over on the floor. Might ruin this nice party.”

“Oh, we can’t have that, now, can we,” Justin commented just as quietly. He couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the other man’s face, the clean and smooth lines of his cheekbones, the thick dark hair curling down to his collar. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” he said appreciatively, and as a waiter passed by he hastily rid himself of his plate and napkin. He held out his hand and gave the man his finest, slowest, brightest smile. “I’m Justin.”

The man’s smile widened a little and he never took his eyes from Justin’s as he reached forward and slid his hand into Justin’s outstretched one. His fingers closed firmly and oh-so-slowly around Justin’s, pressing their palms together. “JC,” he said in response, and when he drew his hand away Justin’s heart was galloping. “And I think you’re right. We haven’t met.”

“I would remember if we had,” Justin murmured, and JC’s smile sparkled with real amusement.

“Is that right?” he said speculatively, and then turned slightly to nod toward the windows overlooking the park and the lights of the city. “It seems you were enjoying the view,” JC commented politely.

Justin never took his eyes from JC’s face. “Yes. Yes I am,” he said firmly, and gulped a little as JC took the half-empty champagne glass from his fingers and took a long and deep sip. He licked his lips deliberately and Justin felt his heart stutter again.

“So, are you a fan of the opera, Justin?” JC’s voice was low and almost lazy, and his eyes, when he turned from the window to look at him, were knowing.

“Not at all,” Justin answered forthrightly. “I’m tagging along with my friend Lance. He works for the firm, I’m visiting him from out of town.” He watched as JC took another sip from Justin’s glass and felt his throat go dry. “What about you?”

“Not a big opera fan either,” JC said dismissively. He looked amused. “But the pre-opera parties can sometimes be . . . rewarding.”

Justin grinned, and shifted his feet so he moved a little closer. “Well, the hors d’oeuvres are excellent,” he said, and was rewarded with a smile.

“You should try some more of the champagne,” JC said. “It’s quite good.”

“I plan on it,” Justin said, and tried not to stare at JC’s throat as he deliberately downed the rest of the contents of Justin’s glass and licked his lips. “So, what about you? Do you work with Lance?”

“No, I’m afraid I do not know your friend Lance,” JC said smoothly. “Perhaps you’d like to introduce me?”

“Maybe later,” Justin murmured. He allowed his eyes to travel lingeringly down JC’s figure, elegant in a perfectly fitted black formal suit with a crisp blue shirt and a silk tie that would’ve cost two weeks’ salary at Justin’s new job. Nice, he thought. His eyes skated back up to JC’s face. Really nice. Then he saw the slightly raised eyebrow, the amused blue eyes, and fought back a blush.

“Yes, perhaps later,” JC said, and now he was definitely laughing at Justin. “So,” JC started, and Justin struggled to concentrate. Converse, damnit, he told himself, and applied his attention to JC’s words. “Are you enjoying yourself here?” He indicated the huge common room with a gesture, and Justin turned from the window to look.

“It’s, ahhh. Well,” he started, and snagged two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter, handing one to JC. “It’s a very nice party. This place is certainly, uh, big,” he said diplomatically, and JC raised a perfect eyebrow. “And white,” Justin added recklessly. “And really, really empty and cold. Like nobody lives here, or like whoever does live here has no personality whatsoever.”

Both of JC’s eyebrows went up this time, and Justin cursed himself. Why did this man rattle him so much? He’d met gorgeous men before, he’d met gorgeous rich men before, he’d just spent five years in and around Harvard for Christ’s sake. Get a grip.

“Really?” JC asked, his eyes leaving Justin and narrowing as they traveled around the crowded room. “What makes you say that?”

“Well, there’s no comfortable furniture,” Justin pointed out. “Nothing on the walls that tells you anything about the people who live here, no pictures on the fireplace mantle, and,” he gestured to the walls, “no books.” He shook his head sadly. “How can there be no books? It just seems . . .” He broke off and shrugged. “I guess it’s just different from where I grew up,” he finished and at last he’d said something right; JC had turned his attention back to him and this time Justin was prepared for the effect those blue-green eyes had on his central nervous system.

“And where was that?” JC asked, and he seemed truly interested. Justin shifted a little closer and JC didn’t move away; Justin caught JC’s eyes flicking down his body, looking him over much as Justin had examined him just a few minutes ago. Justin smiled and let him look, trying to suppress the pounding of his heart.

“Tennessee,” he finally answered, exaggerating his drawl just the slightest bit. “I’ve been in Cambridge these last few years, though,” he added, and JC glanced slyly at him.

“Ah,” he said smoothly. “A Harvard boy, am I right?”

Justin grinned at him. “You’re right about the Harvard part,” he said, and paused to take a healthy sip of his champagne. “But I’m not a boy. Really, not a boy, JC.”

JC’s smile grew and warmed; he lifted his chin and cocked his head a little, his eyes bright and hungry on Justin’s face. “No, I can see that,” he murmured agreeably, and Justin felt himself flush.

He was gathering his courage for a more direct sally when JC’s attention was caught by something over Justin’s shoulder. Justin blinked at the rapid change in facial expression, from smiling and, thank god, appreciative, to cold and shuttered. Just like that. Justin started to turn around to see what had dragged JC’s attention away from him, but was stopped by JC’s hand, stretched out as if to shake his.

“It’s been a real pleasure talking with you, Justin,” he said, and his voice was still low and intimate, sending a frisson of awareness down Justin’s spine. “But if you’ll excuse me, I really should see to the rest of my guests.” He smiled brilliantly as Justin froze in horror, squeezed his hand meaningfully, and walked away.

The noise of the party swirled around him and Justin fought to get his breath back. He couldn’t believe he’d just . . . He’d said . . . Why hadn’t he thought . . . Oh god, Justin thought miserably. Oh god, the sexiest man he’d ever met, and in less than five minutes he’d managed to insult him. And the host of this party . . . Justin closed his eyes for a moment in utter humiliation. Lance was going to kill him.

“Justin,” and right on cue, there was Lance’s tense voice and sharp elbow, knocking into Justin’s arm. “Justin, please tell me you weren’t just trying to pick up JC Chasez.”

Justin took a big mouthful of the excellent champagne and opened his eyes, looking blindly out the huge window as he swallowed. “That,” he said wryly, “was exactly what I was trying to do.”

“Oh for the love of god, Justin,” Lance started, and Justin sighed. “I thought we had an agreement here. I thought . . .”

“Lance,” he said quietly, still staring at the window. “I had no idea who he was. He didn’t tell me his last name. Or anything, really,” he added. He took another gulp of his champagne, feeling it burn down his throat. “I insulted his taste. Or maybe his decorator’s taste,” he added morosely.

“Oh god,” Lance said quietly. “Justin, I can’t believe . . . JC Chasez is a VP at Antaeus Corp. Everyone knows who he is; he’s been on the cover of Business Week,” he added. “He’s the most ruthless businessman in New York, and his company is our client. And you tried to pick him up and then you insulted him? In his own house?” Lance sounded desperate. Justin sighed again.

“Hey, I offered to introduce him to you,” he offered weakly, and Lance practically snarled at him.

“I can’t believe you,” he hissed. “You, that’s, oh fuck. Justin.”

“Hey, it’s not that bad,” Justin said quietly, turning to face Lance. “I mean, yeah, I came on pretty strong, but he wasn’t exactly shooting me down.” He raised his head and started to scan the room, searching for the slender figure, the head full of dark hair. There, by the fireplace, speaking calmly with two other men in similar formal dress. As Justin’s eyes lit on him JC raised his head, and Justin felt the impact of those eyes from all the way across the room.

His heart stuttered again. “As a matter of fact,” Justin said slowly, staring hard, “As a matter of fact, he approached me first.” Their eyes locked across the room and as Justin watched JC tilted his head and gave him a very small, speculative smile.

Justin felt a rush of adrenaline and kept from gasping with an effort. Instead he smiled back and nodded, and felt a surge of sharp anticipation as JC’s eyes lingered on him before he turned back to finish his conversation. Justin watched as JC moved away from the two men, greeted another, and headed toward the far corner of the big room, possibly to speak to the musicians. Justin glanced at the clock; it was getting late, but perhaps all was not lost.

“You’re leaving,” Lance was informing him. “You’re leaving right now, you’re getting in a cab and going back to my apartment, or to wherever you want to go as long as it isn’t here. You are leaving before you ruin my entire career and life. No,” he added as Justin turned a big smile on him. “No, don’t even think about it, Justin. No way.”

“Lance,” Justin said distractedly, as if Lance hadn’t spoken at all. “Excuse me for a moment.”

“Where are you . . . No, Justin, wait . . .”

Justin didn’t even hear him as he moved away and started working his way slowly across the room. The string quartet had stopped playing and JC was speaking with one of the musicians, getting interrupted every few seconds by someone shaking his hand and, apparently, saying goodnight. There was a general but very slow exodus of people toward the wide hallway leading to the elevator. Justin grimaced. It was going to take a while to get two hundred people down to the lobby in one elevator.

A trio of perfectly dressed business men seemed intent on having JC ride to the Met with them in their limo, and Justin eased up beside JC just as he turned away from graciously declining the offer. He was smiling as he came face to face with Justin, and he casually held out his hand to shake, for all the world as if they’d known each other forever.

“How very nice of you to come tonight, Justin,” JC said smoothly, and Justin struggled to keep his composure as he felt that warm palm slide slowly against his again.

“Thank you for inviting me,” he replied with some composure, and for a moment they grinned at each other before JC released his hand. “Listen, I want to apologize for what I said earlier, about your place here . . .” Justin gestured vaguely at the room, and JC tilted his head slightly, his eyes bright on Justin’s face.

“I don’t know, Justin. The more I think about it, the more I feel as if I’ve been bitterly insulted.” His smile was brilliant, and his eyes intent, and Justin was caught by them like a deer in the headlights. “Really, I’m not sure that you’re capable of making it up to me.”

Justin held his eyes and smiled slowly. He dropped his voice so JC had to lean closer to hear. “Actually, I think I am. Capable, I mean.” He paused, and added, “And I’m sure this place isn’t nearly as impersonal when it’s not wall-to-wall people.” He held his breath and waited for JC’s response.

JC’s facial expression did not change but his smile suddenly seemed sharper, his eyes bluer. “Well, why don’t you stick around, and find out,” he said lightly, and with a final electric look he turned away to speak with another group of people.

Heart pounding, Justin stepped aside and moved away as JC began speaking to a woman in a beautiful burgundy silk gown with a king’s ransom of jewels around her throat. JC held her hand as she spoke, and she was gesticulating with her free hand and tilting her head and exhibiting all sorts of flirtatious behavior. Justin heard JC say something about how he was just back from Milan and needed to give the New York office some attention, but of course, he’d definitely call her in a couple of weeks. This was accompanied by a smile so breathtaking that Justin’s throat went dry and it apparently had a similar effect on the woman, who simply nodded and smiled as JC pressed a kiss to her cheek and turned to smile at an older gentleman who tapped him on the shoulder.

Justin hung back by the fireplace, making himself inconspicuous as the party attendees moved slowly from the room and to the elevator. He saw Lance moving purposefully toward him and cut him off with a smile.

“Hey,” he said quietly as Lance drew near. “Thank you so much for bringing me with you tonight. I think I’ll just hang out here for a while.” He took another glass of champagne from a passing waiter and sipped at it to hide his grin. “You should feel free to go on to the opera without me.”

Lance stared at him as if he’d sprouted another head.

“Yes,” Justin added. “I’m absolutely serious.”

“Justin,” Lance murmured seriously. “I think maybe you weren’t listening to me earlier. This guy isn’t like someone you’d pick up in a bar, you know? He’s powerful, really, really powerful. And ruthless. And well-known.”

“And hot.”

“Well, yeah. But Justin, that’s really, really not the point.”

Justin regarded him steadily. “Is he wanted for murder or anything nasty like that?”

“No. I mean, not that I know of.”

“Then I don’t care, Lance.” Justin drained his champagne glass, his eyes on JC as he bid farewell to another large group of glittering people. His stomach was fluttering in the best possible way, and he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face as he turned back to Lance. “Seriously, man. I’m single, I’m of age, I have cab fare, and I can take care of myself. Just, you know, go to the opera. And I’ll see you later.”

Lance frowned sternly at him for a moment, than sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “You’re right, I’m sorry, I don’t mean to act like your mother.” He straightened up and glanced around. “Okay then, I’m going to take off.” He raised an eyebrow and quirked a sly grin at Justin. “Have fun.”

“You know it,” Justin murmured, and grinned at him as he moved away. The room was thinning out, and Justin set his glass down and followed a short hallway until he found a large bathroom.

He washed his hands, rinsed out his mouth and anxiously inspected his reflection in the large mirror. Had the knot in his tie been this crooked when he was talking to JC? He frowned at his neat black suit. It was fine, but it was off the rack and nowhere near the quality of JC’s, or most of the people’s he’d seen here tonight. He brushed at his sleeves and rubbed his hand over his jaw and checked his hair, grateful that he’d just had it trimmed. He looked fine. He looked better than fine, he thought, raising his chin and examining his reflection. He looked hot. He thought of the look JC had given him from across the room and took a long and deep breath, anticipation tingling pleasantly in his stomach.

He waited a decent length of time before returning to the living room. When he emerged from the hallway he blinked in astonishment. JC’s staff was really something -- the room had been cleaned and straightened and transformed back into a reasonable sort of living space, complete with furniture, subdued lighting, and JC, seated on a black leather couch with his suit jacket gone and his tie loosened. His blue eyes examined Justin intently from over the rim of his champagne glass. Justin’s heart stuttered in his chest and pounded in his ears, and he walked toward JC on legs that didn’t quite feel steady.

As he drew closer JC set his glass down on a table and rose to his feet to face him. “So,” he said quietly. “What do you think now?”

Justin cast a cursory look around the almost-empty room and smiled. “It’s a great room for a big party,” he said diplomatically, and felt his pulse accelerate when JC grinned at him.

“Yes, it is that,” he said agreeably. “Maybe you’d like to see some more of the place?”

“I would,” Justin answered, and eased himself closer so that he was just at the edge of JC’s personal space. JC’s eyes grew dark and his smile faded. He took a single, purposeful step that brought his mouth within inches of Justin’s, and Justin focused on his full, soft-looking lips.

“Well then. Come with me,” JC murmured, and when he turned away Justin followed in a daze.

He led him down another hallway and up a half flight of stairs, into a huge bedroom that must have been right above the main room they’d been in. Justin had a confused impression of long windows, wood floors, indirect lighting, thick floor rugs in warm colors and a large bed against the opposite wall, but all he could really focus on was the small smile on JC’s lips and the flush across his cheekbones when he turned to face him.

Justin wanted to say something, something devastating and cool, something to make JC look at him with the sort of desperation Justin was starting to feel. But his heart was pounding so hard, thudding in his ears and beating in his chest and making his hands shake. He couldn’t seem to draw enough oxygen. JC’s eyes examined his face closely, and his smile faded. Without a word he leaned in and brought his mouth firmly to Justin’s.

The room seemed to spin and Justin choked back a moan as JC’s lips smoothed persuasively against his own, warm and soft as they coaxed him to open. His hands reached blindly forward and found JC’s waist, and the warmth of his skin through the fine cotton shirt made him gasp. He wanted his hands on that smooth and heated skin; he wanted to grip JC’s head in his hands and explore every inch of his slick mouth; he wanted to scrape his fingertips through JC’s thick dark hair; he wanted to tear his clothes off and drag him to the floor right where they stood.

“Easy,” JC murmured against his lips, and Justin realized that his fingers had tightened desperately on JC’s waist, digging hard into his skin and twisting the cloth. He loosened them and pressed his palms against the warmth, sliding them up to JC’s ribs. JC made an encouraging noise in the back of his throat and eased a little closer, standing toe to toe with Justin as their tongues tangled slowly, drawing another low moan from Justin. JC’s fingers were traveling up and down the front of Justin’s shirt, lingering at each button but making no move to undo them as his mouth continued to wreak havoc on Justin’s senses. He didn’t even notice that JC had peeled his jacket from his shoulders until he heard it hit the floor and he opened his eyes, dazed. Then JC’s mouth moved across his jaw and to the soft skin under his left ear, and Justin closed his eyes again, lost.

He didn’t realize that his tie had gone the way of his jacket and his shirt was unbuttoned until he felt fingertips skating over his chest, pulling the shirt open as they traced a slow pattern on his skin. Justin’s head tilted back and he sucked air desperately as JC’s mouth opened warmly against his throat. His own hands had not moved; they were still pressed against JC’s waist. He couldn’t believe he’d just been standing here, letting JC drive him crazy. Justin shuddered into action.

His fingers shook as he brought them to JC’s throat, stroking the warm skin before fumbling with the knot of his tie. It was already loosened and Justin pulled it off with a great deal less finesse than JC had done his, shaking it loose from JC’s collar and tossing it to the floor. He paused and gulped convulsively, shivering at the feel of JC’s tongue on the thin skin over his collar bone. Then JC was easing Justin’s shirt off of his shoulders, smiling and murmuring appreciatively as his hands smoothed over the warm skin of his upper arms and crept around to his back, pulling him against his body.

The feel of JC’s fine cotton shirt against the over-sensitized skin of his chest made Justin close his eyes and groan softly. His fingers lost all coordination as they fumbled with the buttons on JC’s shirt, and froze completely when JC’s hands moved low on his waist and pulled his hips closer, closer, tight against him until their bodies nestled together in all the right ways. “There, now,” JC whispered in Justin’s ear, his breath warm and making him shiver as he moved one leg between Justin’s and eased him closer, his hands firm on Justin’s hips. “Better?”

Justin nodded frantically and squirmed against the delicious friction, his mouth open as he panted for air. JC’s hands were burning the skin at his waist as they slid around and started to slowly work at his belt buckle. Justin leaned forward, his mouth searching blindly for JC’s as his hands scrabbled at his shirt, trying to pull it out of his pants. His arousal was painful and almost overwhelming. He twisted slowly against JC’s thigh and nearly groaned with pleasure when JC lifted his head and kissed him again.

The slow slide of JC’s tongue was driving Justin to distraction and he struggled to keep focused. He needed to get JC’s clothes off, he needed to get his hands on his skin, he needed to get them both horizontal. He let his tongue be coaxed into JC’s warm, slick mouth, sliding dizzily against JC’s tongue as he focused on unbuttoning his shirt. He didn’t quite succeed -- at least one button popped off beneath Justin’s impatient fingers -- but JC didn’t seem to mind, grinning against Justin’s mouth and chuckling low in his throat in a way that made Justin want to rip the rest of his clothes off, right now.

“Shoes off,” JC murmured, bringing his mouth back to Justin’s, moving hypnotically against his lips. “Now.”

Justin managed to blindly toe his black dress shoes off without breaking contact with JC’s mouth or body. He’d finally gotten JC’s shirt open and was mesmerized by the silky warmth of his skin; his lean waist and stomach, ridged with muscle; the hints of hair arrowing down toward the waistband of his pants. JC’s hands were busy at the front of Justin’s pants and Justin pulled his lips away from JC’s gorgeous mouth as he felt his zipper being pulled slowly down. He panted helplessly, dropping his forehead to JC’s shoulder as JC stroked him slowly through his thin underwear, circling the rough cloth gently over the head. Justin trembled so hard his teeth chattered, and JC crooned sympathetically.

“That bad, huh?” he whispered, and Justin lifted his head and opened his eyes in time to see JC lick his lips and smile. The sight almost made him whimper. JC pushed Justin backwards with one finger on the middle of his chest, and even as his body screamed protests at the loss of contact, Justin obediently shuffled one small step and sat down abruptly on the bed.

JC was still dressed in his shoes and pants, with his dress shirt on but hanging open. Justin reached his hands out but JC ignored them, efficiently stripping Justin’s underpants and slacks from his body, leaving him naked and spread out on his bed.

Justin felt feverish, his body aching and his skin tingling and sensitized. He felt like he couldn’t get enough air and he couldn’t keep himself from squirming restlessly on JC’s thick comforter. He started to sit up, reaching out to touch JC and to pull him down on the bed with him, but once again JC neatly avoided his hands. He leaned down and placed a finger at the base of Justin’s throat, drawing it slowly down the center of his chest to his abdomen, watching Justin’s face intently as he closed his eyes and groaned, thrashing helplessly.

“Okay,” JC murmured, and without warning he leaned down and wrapped his mouth around Justin’s aching cock.

The pleasure of it slammed through Justin’s body; his heels dug into the mattress and his spine twisted, arching right off the bed. JC’s hands scorched the skin on his naked hips, his tongue swirling firmly around the sensitive head of Justin’s cock, and Justin grit his teeth and panted. He shuddered like he’d been on the ragged edge of an orgasm for hours instead of making out for just twenty minutes. He clenched his eyes shut and struggled to hold on as JC licked and sucked firmly. He didn’t dare look, or it would be over.

And JC didn’t seem interested in prolonging it, because he eased his hands between Justin’s thighs and under his naked buttocks, squeezing rhythmically at the sensitive flesh and urging him to squirm, thrust. Justin dug his fingers into the comforter, feeling his neck arch and his mouth open, hearing the helpless sounds coming from deep in his throat. His knees were wide open to JC, he was spread out in front of him like a sacrifice and none of this was going the way Justin thought it would, but the ferocious pleasure was building inside of him so quickly he couldn’t breathe, and with a final thrust he threw an arm across his face and came so hard he almost blacked out.

When he came back to himself he was sprawled ignominiously on JC’s bed, and JC was standing beside the bed, still dressed. His shirt had been untucked from his slacks and was open in front, showing his lean chest and muscled stomach, and he was smiling at Justin, a glittering and hungry smile that made Justin’s heart stutter in his chest despite his satiation. JC lifted his hands and calmly began unbuttoning the cuffs of his shirt as Justin struggled blearily to a sitting position.

“I hope that took the edge off,” he commented quietly, his smile knowing and sly.

“God,” Justin murmured as his head cleared. “Oh, god, um. JC, come here,” he said, reaching out to JC as he stripped out of his shirt. Justin’s mouth went dry as his hands went to the fastening of his slacks. “Come here, let me do that,” he said, his eyes avid as more skin was revealed.

“No, you’re too slow,” JC said with a wicked grin, sliding his slacks down his legs and allowing Justin to rub a hand down the long curve of his back as he bent. He stood up and Justin gulped convulsively. JC’s body was beautiful in the dim lighting, smooth and lean. Justin stroked an appreciative hand over JC’s bicep, then got to his knees and wrapped his arms around him, his hands smoothing greedily over his long back and firm ass, luxuriating in the warmth of his body, pulling him close and tilting his head up to kiss him deeply.

JC’s erection nudged firmly against Justin’s thigh. His mouth was warm and tasted faintly bitter, from himself, Justin realized. The thought made him gasp and he felt his cock twitch. JC ran his hands over Justin’s jaw and into his short hair, fingernails scraping gently against his scalp and making him shiver with pleasure. Justin pulled JC forward until he was kneeling on the bed in front of him, and then started to kiss his way down his chest. His hands smoothed down JC’s abdomen and closed gently around his cock just as his tongue found JC’s left nipple.

JC hissed in appreciation, his hands stroking over Justin’s head and over his shoulders, but when Justin would’ve moved lower he pulled his head up, leaning in to kiss him again.

“I have a better idea,” he whispered. His lips were full and swollen, his eyes dark, and Justin gulped as he wordlessly nodded. JC smiled at him slowly and kissed him again, kissed him until his mind swirled with heat and his cock was hard again. When JC’s mouth lifted Justin found himself once again on his back and panting for breath, and JC was kneeling between his legs, his fingers glistening as he set the tube of lube aside. Justin gripped the pillow beneath his head, raised his knees and took a deep, shuddering breath.

JC seemed to be in no hurry, despite an erection that had to be painful. He was slow and very careful, leaning down to kiss Justin’s stomach and stroking his thigh soothingly, whispering to him as he writhed.

“Justin,” he whispered. “You really are so lovely,” and he leaned down to mouth Justin’s cock, swollen and sensitive and aching again, while his fingers turned and twisted inside. Justin exhaled noisily, almost a cry as his hands found JC’s head and dug through his hair, trying to make him move higher, suck harder, something. He couldn’t quite breathe, he was sheened with sweat and panting like he’d sprinted a mile. His body was screaming for release, and JC’s free hand was firm on his stomach, keeping Justin from thrashing as he lazily licked up his cock and across his stomach.

“Oh fuck,” he breathed, his voice hoarse and croaking. “God, JC, please. Now.”

JC’s tongue flicked over a nipple as his fingers did something that made Justin shudder. He felt sweat break out on his brow. “I’m not ready yet,” JC said quietly, teasingly, and there were his teeth, biting gently on Justin’s collar bone as he squirmed.

“You are,” Justin said desperately, “you are, I know you are, please JC, please . . .” he trailed off with a gasp as JC’s mouth opened warmly on the side of his neck, tonguing at Justin’s racing pulse. Justin’s hands stroked urgently over his shoulders, encouraging, imploring. “Oh god. Please. Now.”

JC leaned back and Justin closed his eyes and hissed as the fingers were slowly, gently withdrawn. He kept them closed and listened to his body hum urgently. He heard the foil rip and wanted to watch, or sit up and help, but he was already too far gone.

A moment later the mattress shifted and Justin whimpered as he felt JC probe gently at his opening, and there it was, firm and thick and cool from the lube, and Justin lifted his knees further and tried to breathe.

JC’s voice was low and sweet as he leaned over him. “Justin,” he said softly. “Justin, I want you to open your eyes.” Justin squirmed desperately against JC’s body, against the cock gently teasing him, trying to get closer. “C’mon, Justin,” JC whispered. “I want you to look at me.”

Justin pulled his eyes open with an effort. JC’s face was close, hard-edged and unsmiling as he poised over Justin’s body. There was sweat on his upper lip and a thin bead sliding down the side of his face. His mouth was tight with restraint, and the sight made Justin shudder into action. He slid his hands up JC’s braced and trembling arms and over his smooth shoulders, drawing him closer. They stared into each other’s eyes as JC slowly, slowly slid inside.

Justin’s feet flexed desperately as JC paused, pulled almost all the way out just as slowly, and then moved back in with more force. Three more slow thrusts and then another agonizing pause as he leaned forward, his lips meeting Justin’s. Justin squirmed encouragingly, his own cock trapped between their bellies and his hands frantic on JC’s ass, his back, urging him to move, move move. JC smiled against his lips.

“Easy, now,” he whispered and Justin shook his head, no, no. But JC’s voice was trembling a little and when Justin circled his hips encouragingly JC sucked in a breath and sank his teeth into his lower lip, and Justin stared raptly into his face as he finally, finally started to thrust in earnest.

The comforter beneath them was thick and soft, enveloping Justin gently as the heated body above him drove him deeper and deeper. He couldn’t keep his hands still, running his fingertips greedily over JC’s damp chest and waist and widening his own legs and arching his back a little to catch the delicious friction on his cock as JC’s thrusts drove him slowly out of his mind. He groaned desperately as JC found the perfect angle and gave a wicked twist of his hips once, twice, again and again, and Justin clenched his teeth against the scream as he came.

Justin was still gasping for air when JC slowed, his hips still moving fluidly for a breathless few seconds as he bit his lip and grappled for control. Justin rubbed his back and dug his fingers into JC’s smooth ass, coaxing, demanding, and JC shuddered hard. Then he dropped his head and sank firmly into Justin’s body, moving urgently until he groaned, trembled, and came.

Justin was still shaking from his own climax when JC pulled slowly out. He was dimly aware of him moving away, and returning with a warm cloth that he pulled gently across Justin’s stomach and chest, dabbing carefully at his exhausted cock. His eyes were already closing when he felt the mattress dip and JC’s lips touch his mouth, and then everything went dark.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin woke slowly, his body stiff and exhausted and his brain numb. There were soft lips and a slick tongue sliding up and down the curve of his neck, and if he wasn’t so exhausted he would smile. But this was the third, or possibly the fourth time he’d been woken up this night, in this bed, and his cock was already firmly informing him that it had nothing left to give.

“Justin,” a voice whispered in his ear, the soft breath making him shiver. Just like the last time he’d woken from a light doze to find JC’s mouth on his throat and his hand on Justin’s already-awake cock, and he’d rolled him over so he was facing him and guided their bodies together and it had been so good, so good it had almost hurt Justin when he’d come for the fourth, or was it the fifth, time that night . . .

“C’mon, Justin.” JC’s voice was so sexy, low and dark and amused, and it did something amazing to his central nervous system because just the sound of it made Justin’s body react in ways he’d thought impossible just moments before. He took a deep breath and prepared to stretch, testing out his soreness factor. He rolled over to his back and opened his eyes, ready to smile.

The room was glowing with the pre-sunrise light, suffusing it with warmth. JC was naked, the sheets covering him to the waist, one hand propping up his head. His eyes were knowing and intimate, his smile lazy.

“It’s time for you to go,” he said softly, and Justin froze before he could smile in return.

JC gazed steadily at him as his words echoed in this ears.

"Go?" Justin blinked at him in disbelief. JC wanted him to leave?

Apparently so: JC nodded.

It took a moment for this to sink in, and when it did Justin closed his mouth with an audible snap. He turned away and sat up, hoping to hide his flush of humiliation. He could practically feel JC’s eyes on his back, and Justin climbed as swiftly from the bed as his stiff body would allow.

His clothes were still in a heap on the floor and Justin dressed as quickly as he could, keeping his back turned as he pulled on the clothes from the night before. The silence thudded in his ears and his breath was short. His face felt like it was on fire. He shoved his feet ruthlessly into his still-tied shoes and stuffed his tie into his jacket pocket, leaving his shirt unbuttoned at the throat. Gathering his courage, he glanced at the bed.

JC still reclined against the headboard, his mouth still curved in a small, sated smile. “It was really nice to meet you, Justin,” he said quietly.

“Same here,” Justin said, relieved that his voice came out normally despite his dry throat. “I’ll, uh, just have the doorman get me a cab,” he added, and bolted for the door without looking back.

~ ~ ~ ~

Ah, the joys of the morning-after walk of shame, Justin thought as he exited the elevator in his rumpled evening clothes and saw the attendant’s impassive face and carefully averted eyes. The gleaming mirrors inside the elevator had told him everything he needed to know: he had red, blurry eyes, a swollen mouth, a sheet-crease on the left side of his face and a lurid hickey at the base of his throat. He lifted his chin and strode directly for the main lobby doors, murmuring in assent when the doorman offered to hail him a cab. Less than a minute later he was safely inside the taxi and giving Lance’s address to the driver, and as the cab pulled away Justin leaned back against the seat with a deep sigh, his body relaxing into bonelessness. He felt numb -- he couldn’t believe he’d woken up less than ten minutes ago feeling so incredibly good. He closed his eyes and thought about nothing at all.

Twenty minutes later the sun had come up and Justin was quietly letting himself in to Lance’s apartment. He pulled the key gingerly from the lock as the door opened, not wanting to disturb Lance or his roommates, but as luck would have it Lance was sitting at the kitchen counter, eating cereal and reading the newspaper. He stopped in mid-crunch when he saw Justin come through the door, and his eyebrows shot all the way up to his hairline.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, spitting cereal crumbs all over the table. Justin rubbed a hand over his face and laughed a little.

“No, not this time,” he said, his voice sounding raspy even to himself. “It’s only me.”

Lance stared at him, his forehead wrinkling a little. “Should I ask how you’re feeling?” he ventured cautiously. He looked like he didn’t know whether to laugh or be concerned.

Justin closed the door behind him and tossed his raincoat onto a hook by the door. “I don’t really know,” he admitted, and Lance set his spoon down slowly, his eyes intent. Justin eased himself gingerly into the chair opposite and pulled the open box of cereal toward him, reaching in for a dry handful. The scene felt so comforting and familiar -- he was reminded of college, talking over the previous night’s parties on early mornings during the three years he and Lance had shared a dorm and then an apartment.

“Well,” Justin started slowly. “I met this really great guy, smart and very, very hot, and I had a marathon night of the best sex of my entire life. And then,” he continued wryly, “I got kicked out before the sun came up, sort of like I was a hooker.” He crunched his cereal thoughtfully. “Maybe even a sub-par hooker,” he added, and paused to grab another handful of Captain Crunch. “So, I guess I’d say that I was feeling great until, oh, half an hour ago. Now,” he summed up, rooting in the cereal box and not meeting Lance’s eyes, “now I pretty much feel like shit.” He raised his eyes to Lance’s and smiled humorlessly around a mouthful of cereal. “And how are you today?”

Lance smiled sympathetically and shook his head. “I told you not to get mixed up with that guy, Justin. He’s not like people in college or back home in Tennessee. He’s a rich, ruthless, scary business man, and he’s well-known and important and . . . Well, I’m not surprised he treated you like shit.” He resumed eating, his eyes sympathetic. “I’m sorry he treated you like shit,” he added. “But I’m not surprised.” He frowned as Justin dug into the cereal box again, and pushed the milk carton across the table. “And get a bowl, would you? Jesus.”

Justin rolled his eyes before rising slowly and moving to the kitchen for a bowl and a spoon. His body ached languidly in half a dozen good and bad ways. He would enjoy each of them if he weren't feeling so fucking humiliated, he thought, and felt a dull sort of resentment against JC. What a buzz kill.

He didn’t want to think about JC anymore. In fact, he thought determinedly, he didn’t want to think about him at all, ever again. Starting right this minute.

“So, how was the opera?” he asked Lance as he walked back to the table, bowl in hand.

“It was pretty good,” Lance said, and his green eyes glinted with mischief. “During intermission I heard JC Chasez’s grandfather telling someone that JC couldn’t make the performance because he had a, and I quote, ‘very important business conference.’” Lance grinned as Justin choked on his milk. “Yeah, I was amused.”

“A business conference,” Justin murmured, and shook his head. “Well thank god he didn’t notice the person who was, uh, actually hanging around waiting for everyone to leave,” he said.

“Not that it really matters to you,” Lance pointed out. “You’re leaving next week anyway.”

“Yeah, but I’ll be back in a couple of months,” Justin said thoughtfully, and Lance folded his newspaper and set it firmly aside.

“Even then, it’s not like you and the Chasez family will be running in the same circles,” he said sternly. “Unless he’s on the cover of some magazine, you’ll probably never see him again.”

“Yeah, and thank god,” Justin muttered, and sighed.

Lance’s sharp eyes watched him closely as he spooned up his cereal. “Best sex of your whole life?” he asked, and smiled as Justin nodded morosely. “Too bad he’s such an asshole.”

Justin shrugged. For a moment he remembered JC’s slow smile and husky, teasing voice, his gentle fingers and warm mouth and the way his body had curved and flexed . . . Justin’s jaw tightened as he thrust the memory aside. “It sure is,” he replied casually, and bent to his cereal.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC sat motionless and waited for his grandfather to arrive at the club for lunch, a martini in front of him and a handsome waiter at his side anxiously watching his water glass, eager to fill it at any moment should JC pick it up and drain it all at once. It was nearly noon, but the lazy, sated heaviness he felt from the previous night continued to linger. JC closed his eyes, his mouth curving into a small, satisfied smile as he remembered the taste of Justin's skin, the small of his back, the soft, breathy sounds he'd made just before he came.

As was his usual practice, JC had kicked him out at the break of dawn -- it was both messy and unpleasant to make a one-night stand any longer than one night -- but he really had been exquisite, and for just a moment, JC wished that he'd talked to him a little more, maybe gotten his phone number, seen if they could hook up again. It was a shame that he hadn't, but such was life, and JC had far too many other things to worry about to waste much time on regret.

The club was always busy during lunch, but this never mattered to the Chasez family, who tended to eat their meals in private dining rooms instead of among the throng. For years now JC had been meeting his grandfather here once a month to discuss work, family, and anything else that came to mind. Most times they ended up talking about work: JC's grandfather was the single person JC knew who was more dedicated to Antaeus than he was, and his grandfather loved to bounce ideas off of JC even though he didn't always take his advice. That was actually fine, because one day, JC knew, he would be in his grandfather's position -- one day, he would make all of the decisions -- and when that time came, he could do whatever he wanted with the company. Until that day, however, JC was content to follow his grandfather's lead. He was old and crotchety, but he was deadly smart. JC had learned nearly everything he knew about business from him.

Finally, the old man appeared, and JC frowned as he watched him limping slightly. His knees were probably bothering him again -- his grandfather had been an enthusiastic athlete in his own day, and his doctor had told him just last month that he was going to need knee replacement surgery in the next year or so. JC fought the urge to protectively slide his hands over his own kneecaps, then stood up to greet his grandfather, who hugged him, pounded him on the back, and took a seat.

The new arrival prompted a flurry of action from the silent waiter: a scotch and a bottle of wine were brought to the table, it was quickly confirmed that the two men would eat exactly what they always did, and another glass of water to be watched over was provided. Once he and his grandfather were alone, JC looked carefully across the table, trying to ascertain his grandfather's mood. All signs veered toward grumpiness, which was absolutely normal and indicated that everything was just fine. JC took a deep breath and prepared to listen.

"Feelings," JC's grandfather began in an aggravated, crabby voice, and JC was very, very careful not to smile. "I'll tell you, young man -- I never had a feeling in my life. When I grew up nobody cared how you felt about something -- they just wanted you to put your head down, shut up, and get your work done. And we did! That's exactly what we did."

"I know," JC said, and it was true. His grandfather had worked every day of his life since he was in his teens.

"Yes you do." His grandfather leaned forward and beamed at him with still-brilliant blue eyes. "You're a good boy -- you work hard, and you've done a wonderful job. I'm proud of you."

"Thanks, Grandpa," JC said. "I --"

"Now, your brother -- that's another issue altogether," his grandfather interrupted, and JC sighed inwardly. His grandfather had some definite opinions about Tyler.

"When you were his age, you were top of the class, big man on campus, all of it. You took your business courses, you got your M.B.A., and you went to Europe to work -- you planned it out and you executed it just like a man. And now Tyler -- all I hear from him is 'I don't like that major! It doesn't feel right to me!'" His grandfather waved his big hands in the air in a gesture of bewilderment and annoyance. "What the hell, Joshua?"

JC spoke carefully. "He'll figure something out. Not everyone is as -- focused as I was, but that could actually be a good thing. You know how smart Tyler is, and you know he'll do well in the end, no matter what he chooses to study."

"Hmph," his grandfather crankily said, then settled back into his chair and relaxed a bit. "That was a nice party you gave last night."

JC took a sip of wine, put down his glass, and nodded. "Yes. I'm glad you thought so."

"I don't really go in for all that fancy food, or for the ridiculous decorating scheme you've got going in your public rooms. It's like walking through a metal box, very cold and sterile."

Good lord -- was everyone a critic? "Grandpa, those are -- I paid a designer thousands of dollars to make it look that way, and I like it. I mean, in terms of design alone, it --"

"Yes, yes, I'm quite sure it's all very fabulous," his grandfather brusquely said. "Well, no matter how horrible the decorating, you at least had a few very pretty young ladies there."

"Yes. Definitely." JC knew exactly what was coming next.

"Yes, lots of pretty young ladies," his grandfather repeated dreamily, and then looked conspiratorially at JC. "I was going to ask you why I didn't see you at the theater afterward, but I'm pretty sure I've just answered my own question."

JC thought again of Justin on his back, the long, gradual curve of his torso in the dim light, his head turning restlessly back and forth on the pillow as JC had fucked him, had gone in deep and slow and in exactly the right way, over and over again. He thought of the particular pitch Justin's voice had taken right before he'd given way completely, the lovely, desperate, hungry tenor of it, and --

"If I didn't know you better, I'd say you were blushing," his grandfather teased, and JC really did blush then, ducking his head and fighting desperately for control. Why was he acting like such a fool over a single one-night stand? He really needed to get it together.

"It's all right," his grandfather said magnanimously. "You're young, you're handsome, you're unattached -- these things happen. It's perfectly normal. I just hope you realize that this isn't something you can be doing for the rest of your life."

"Oh, no. I --"

"Because at one time or another, Joshua, you've got to settle down, devote yourself to family and career just like I did."

JC smiled faintly and kept his mouth shut as he remembered the wistful looks that had passed over his grandmother's face as she told him that his grandfather would yet again miss dinner, or the movie they'd been planning to see, or a trip to the cabin, or JC's birthday party. She'd always been so careful to say that he loved them all very much, to let JC know that while grandpa wanted to spend time with them, he simply couldn't get away. But eventually he'd learned to forgive his grandfather for his many absences. The company demanded his time in ways that family didn't, and that was just how things were.

"But why am I lecturing you? I know you'll come through for me in the end." His grandfather smiled warmly at him. "You always do."

They paused then as the waiter sat down a steak in front of JC's grandfather -- very rare, just the way he liked it -- and grilled salmon for JC. For a few moments they ate silently; then, his grandfather lifted his head, pointed his fork at JC, and said, "The figures from Europe -- you did quite well."

"It was lucrative, yes," JC acknowledged, because he had done well; he'd worked efficiently and tirelessly and it had paid off: new sources of capital, plans for further acquisitions, a series of deals that JC knew no one else could have pulled off. He could definitely feel pleased with himself on this count.

"You've got the Chasez touch all right," his grandfather said proudly, and then shook his head and grimaced. "I just wish that I had ten of you. New York has been hell as of late."

JC gave his grandfather a long, steady look. He knew for a fact that all their major holdings in America were doing just fine, and so there was only one thing the old man could be talking about, namely--

" -- Phoenix Press," his grandfather was saying. "God knows I love that publishing house, but I'm not sure how much longer I want to keep taking hits with it."

"Grandpa, it's publishing, and it's not a big commercial house. We've known forever that we're not going to turn much of a profit on it." JC spoke quickly as thoughts of his grandmother and how much she'd loved the press filled his mind. "We knew that from the start, and we decided --"

"I know, I know." His grandfather picked up his knife again and began to slice impatiently at his steak. "But every year their deficit grows, and I'm starting to get sick of it."

"But again, that press was never intended to be a big money-maker. Remember what Grandma always said? There's a mission to that kind of publishing, a higher purpose."

"Yes, well, they're high all right. They're two million dollars high -- two million dollars alone last year. And each year it gets worse."

JC frowned, because that really was a lot. "Well, it's a depressed business. Too many books are published each year and not enough people buy them. But just because the press is in trouble right now --"

"No one reads anymore! What people do these days is play around on the damn Internet! They waste all the time in the world talking into cell phones and writing e-mails!"

"I know, I know," JC said and then, not at all wanting to hear that particular rant again, quickly added, "But what about Phoenix? What are you planning to do with it?"

"I have an offer from Bertelsmann." His grandfather took a long drink of wine and grunted in approval. "They collect presses like salt shakers."

JC sat back and thought of his grandmother and tried to conceal the horror he felt at the idea of a giant conglomerate owning the family-based business she had devoted so much of her time to. Takeovers and acquisitions felt very different when you were on the wrong end of them.

"Look, I'm sure it doesn't have to come to that," he said as smoothly and as persuasively as he could. "They just need someone to come in and set them straight. I mean, all they think about is books -- I'm sure they don't understand business the way we do."

"Well they should. I'm sick and tired of it, sick of their stupid excuses and their shoddy performance year in and year out. No, I'm quite sure of it -- the thing to do is sell."

"But Grandma --" JC frowned as he watched his grandfather flinch, then went on anyway. "Grandma loved the press so much, remember? You weren't the only one who cared about work."

"Well, no, but her primary responsibility was always toward the family. Publishing was just something she dabbled in."

"You know that's not true -- you know how important it was to her," JC said evenly, ignoring his grandfather's increasingly uncomfortable gestures. "And so I think we should try to save it."

"I'm a businessman, Joshua. I'm not about to let my feelings get in the way of business decisions that need to be made, and neither should you. Absolutely not."

For a long, horrible moment, they locked eyes until JC quietly said, "Two years. Give me two years with it -- let me go in there and restructure and I -- I'll lower that deficit by half in two years, Grandpa. If I can do that, would you reconsider?"

"Two years? I'm not about to waste you on a useless charity mission for that long." The old man was growing truly irritable now.

"Okay, how about this," JC proposed, thinking evenly and clearly, trying as always to figure out how to pitch the deal, how to bring home exactly what he wanted. "I work one year intensively, set them up, help them reorganize. During that time I continue with my responsibilities to the Antaeus board of directors -- and once it's over, I step back even further, become a consultant to them. And if they're not turned around by then, then we really should sell, because if I can't fix it --"

JC trailed off, held his breath, and waited for his grandfather to smile, relaxing imperceptibly when it finally came.

"If you can't fix it, my boy, nobody can," his grandfather finished, and laughed.

~ ~ ~ ~

JC wasn't feeling quite so confident later in the day as he sat impatiently in the office of Phoenix Press's business manager and watched a tight-lipped woman in her fifties scurry about in haphazard, disorganized fashion looking for the most recent financial figures. She should have known exactly where they were -- the press should have had up-to-date, precise information on everything, particularly since they were losing so much money. As JC watched her settle uncomfortably in her seat, clicking her mouse and staring anxiously at her computer screen, he felt annoyance spread quickly through his chest and settle in his abdomen. He couldn't stand incompetence and inefficiency.

Hoping to ward off anger, JC stood up and wandered into the hallway, opening the catalog they'd handed him when he first walked in. The receptionist at the front desk had had absolutely no idea who he was until she'd heard the name Chasez -- after that, she'd gone wide-eyed and fluttery, giving him demure looks from under her eyelashes even as she phoned Tom Willston, the longtime director of the press. JC had spoken briefly and directly to Tom, explaining calmly and insistently that he wanted to see the financials right now, today, and that no, it wasn't necessary for them to prepare something formal, and could they just please direct him to the business department?

This was how JC liked to work -- he liked to walk into the middle of situations without being expected, liked to see how people responded to unforeseen complications, how they performed under pressure. He lifted his eyes from the catalog and looked through the doorway to see the business director chewing on her fingernail, still staring haplessly at her screen. So far, the press wasn't doing very well.

The catalog was competently designed and the copy was well written, but the books . . . well. JC flipped through page after page of esoteric titles and frowned. No wonder they were losing money. He was fine with unconventional subject matter, but if that's all they were doing . . .

JC sighed and felt himself growing impatient again, so he walked back into the business manager's office and stared expectantly at her.

"I -- I've just about got them, Mr. Chasez," she said nervously, and JC let his gaze harden a bit.

"Why is it taking you so long? Why is it you don't have these things at your fingertips?" he asked in the quiet, controlled voice he always used when he was beginning to fight his temper.

"Well, I mean to, of course, but there's so much to do -- so many --"

"Are you telling me that this press is not maintaining adequate financial records despite the fact that it's running a huge deficit?" JC asked even more softly and watched her squirm in her desk chair.

"Well, we do, it's just -- we tend to wait until midway through the fiscal year before we do anything, and since that's a ways off right now . . ."

"Okay," JC said, and now he let steel slip into his voice, because it was time -- it was beyond time. "Print out your financial report for the last fiscal year and give it to me now. Right now."

With trembling hands, the woman -- Betty, he thought her name was? -- printed out a twelve-page document and handed it to him.

"This is it?" JC didn't bother to hide his disdain, and she nodded miserably.

JC walked out of her office without saying anything further to her, then headed straight to the press library, the place where copies of all Phoenix books still in print were currently stored. His grandmother had loved this room, and it still bore traces of her presence in the paintings on the wall, the rugs on the floor, the elegant curve of the reading lamps she'd chosen. JC took a seat and began to flip through the report.

Half an hour later, he was gripping his forehead and fighting off a throbbing headache. This was shit. This was worse than shit. They had no meaningful analysis, could tell him nothing about which titles had sold best, which subject areas were the most successful for them, which marketing campaigns had been effective. Beyond the occasional infusion of capital from a best seller here and there, this press had absolutely no idea where it stood.

Turning things around was going to take a lot more work than he'd first envisioned. JC closed his eyes for a moment, moved hands to his neck and absently massaged a sore spot, then exhaled heavily and got to his feet, grabbing the utterly inadequate financial figures and heading straight for the director's office. Come the new year, Tom Willston was going to get a much-needed early retirement.

~ ~ ~ ~

August

“You know, I think I’d rather have the couch facing the window,” Justin said thoughtfully, and smiled at the expected exasperated groan.

“Will you make up your mind?” Lance asked. “By the wall, by the window, at an angle. This is it,” he said firmly, standing up. “You make sure this is where you want it, ‘cause I’m not moving this behemoth of a couch again.”

Justin leaned down to grasp the bottom of his side of the couch and waited for Lance to grab the other side. “Don’t be insulting my couch,” he gasped as they lifted it. “It’s practically a member of the family. I have many fond memories involving this couch.”

Lance looked revolted. “Do not give me details,” he warned, “or I’ll drop this end right now.”

“Just a little farther,” Justin muttered, straining to keep his side up. “This way. No, this way,” until finally the couch was positioned the way he wanted it. They set it down with identical grunts and Justin collapsed over the arm.

“Why did I say I’d help you move again?” Lance asked, breathing hard. “Oh yeah. You promised to feed me.” He raised his eyebrows meaningfully.

“Yeah, yeah I got it,” Justin said. “Relax,” he suggested, grabbing his wallet from the top of a stack of boxes. “Sit down on my couch and enjoy the view. I’ll be right back.” He stifled a laugh as Lance aimed a horrified look at his giant orange couch, and jogged down the stairs.

Justin was smiling as he hit the sidewalk and headed to the corner deli for take-out. This was only his second day here, but already the man behind the counter greeted him with a smile; a neighbor had introduced herself in the lobby and handed over a stack of mail that had been left in her box by accident, and nobody had stolen his New York Times, despite it being left overnight in front of the mailbox wall.

He liked it here, he thought as he crossed the street and walked back to his apartment. It had been a mistake to stay in Cambridge past graduation. He hadn’t minded working at Harvard University press; it had taught him a lot and he’d loved the work, but he’d felt restless, in need of a change. This, he thought happily, was exactly what he wanted. The big, bustling city, the new job at the well-respected and venerable commercial press, the new apartment. He was out of his rut, and ready to tackle his new life, and he couldn’t be happier.

When he returned Lance had opened his newspaper and spread it out on Justin’s narrow kitchen counter. He looked up guiltily when Justin came through the door, loaded down with paper bags, and quickly folded the section in front of him, sliding it under the sports section. “How about those Mets?” he asked loudly, and Justin blinked at him in puzzlement.

“What are you talking about?” he said as he set down the bags. “Give me that.”

“Give you what?”

“Whatever you’re hiding and looking so guilty about. Jesus.”

Lance sighed and lifted the sports section, allowing Justin to slide what was underneath toward him. “The society pages?” he said with confusion. Then he caught sight of the picture on the front page.

Full color and taking up half the page, it was a close-up of JC Chasez, devastating in a formal black tuxedo, standing with a small group of glittering, beautiful people in expensive formal clothing. Justin tried to read the caption, and could not. His eyes were riveted on JC’s face, the lazy smile, the sharp cheekbones and slightly sleepy eyes, the lean fingers wrapped around a crystal glass. His hair seemed a little shorter, he thought fuzzily, and then blinked hard when Lance reached over and whipped the paper out from under his hands.

“Tell me you’re not still thinking about that fucking asshole,” Lance said fiercely.

“I’m not still thinking about that fucking asshole,” Justin responded automatically. The smile he raised to Lance’s face was a little wistful. “He sure is hot, though.”

“Very hot,” Lance agreed evenly. “Too bad he’s such an asshole. Too bad he never called you.”

“Dude, not only did he not call me, he never even asked for my number.” Justin shrugged, elaborately nonchalant, and started pulling containers of food out of the bags. “Grab me a soda, will you?”

Lance turned to the small refrigerator, but his eyes were sharp on Justin’s face. “Well, good,” he said quietly. “Because I don’t want to see you moping around like you did when you were at my house last June.” He handed Justin a soda can and cracked another one open for himself. “You know what? We should go out tonight. We never did get to that club I told you about. We could go there, celebrate you finally becoming a resident and stuff. What do you say?”

Justin shrugged, unwrapping his sandwich and taking a healthy bite. “You know, I’m pretty tired. Maybe next week? Let me get the first week of my new job under my belt.”

Lance studied him carefully. “Justin, what exactly did that guy do to you? Because this isn’t like you at all.”

“What?” Justin said defensively. “He didn’t do anything to me, I’m just tired. I’m not in the mood to go out. It’s not a big deal.”

“Uh huh,” Lance said skeptically, but he let it drop and Justin was relieved.

The fact was that Justin had spent far more time than was healthy thinking about That Night With JC, as he’d started to refer to it in his head. There were memories that had the power to make his skin break into goose bumps even now, memories that involved the warm, smooth feel of JC’s skin, the silky tone of his voice, the touch of his hands, now gentle, now firm. He felt himself break out into a sweat just remembering the way his body had felt, the sounds and words JC had coaxed from him.

But then he remembered -- always, always he forced himself to remember -- the perfunctory way he’d been dismissed at dawn. It worked like a cold shower, and Justin turned back to his food, smoothing out his frown so that Lance wouldn’t question him further. He needed to stop thinking about JC, he told himself firmly, and with an effort kept himself from looking at the picture in the newspaper again. It was absolutely certain that JC wasn’t thinking about him.

~ ~ ~ ~

Justin entered the lobby of Phoenix Press and took a deep breath, suppressing a shit-eating grin so his new co-workers wouldn’t think he was an idiot. Phoenix was one of the oldest, most prestigious presses in the world, and Justin could almost feel the excitement, the bustle as hundreds of people worked on thousands of books, made critical decisions about editing and design, worked against publishing deadlines. He introduced himself to the lobby receptionist and tried to wait quietly as she called his new boss, Joey Fatone. He was almost fidgeting in excitement and anticipation.

The lobby was tastefully decorated in tones of mauve and burgundy with deep cherry wood accents. Justin resisted the comfortable furniture in the waiting area and the dignified brochures detailing upcoming publications. He walked to the wall by the waiting area and examined the many awards on the wall, awards for design, for editing, many, many awards for bestsellers. Justin felt a flush of pride as he moved along the wall. He’d loved the press at Harvard, but always he’d craved the excitement of a big commercial press. It was such a thrill to be here, to be working on books that could be reviewed by the best reviewers in the world, to meet and work with best-selling authors. He couldn’t wait to get started.

“Justin,” came a jovial voice, and he turned to see Joey Fatone walking toward him with a big smile. He looked a little harried -- his hair looked like he’d run an egg beater through it, and his button-down shirt was wrinkled and untucked. But he seemed pleased to see Justin as he shook his hand and ushered him out of the lobby.

There was an interesting level of tension in the halls and Justin’s smile faded as he saw people scurrying madly about, their faces tense. “Nothing for you to worry about,” Joey said cheerfully as he led Justin down a wide hallway. “Marketing lost some important art that nonfiction editing needed, and their manager’s on a rampage and threatening to have the entire department fired if they don’t find it.” He shot another smile at Justin as they left the chaos behind them and climbed another set of wide, thickly carpeted stairs. “It’s just the normal noises around here,” he continued, and Justin followed him, eyes wide.

Joey continued to chatter genially as they continued on, stopping to introduce Justin to people they passed as “Justin Timberlake, acquisitions wunderkind from Haaaarvard.” Everyone they met seemed nice, greeting him easily and teasing Joey for being an ivy league snob. Justin felt happier and happier -- he was going to really like it here.

“This will be your office,” Joey said, opening a door and gesturing grandly inside, and Justin felt the grin almost split his face. It wasn’t huge and it was long and narrow and a little oddly shaped. But there was a state of the art flat screen computer monitor on a spacious desk, a long window that didn’t look directly into anyone else’s office window, and a door with a lock. It was fabulous, he thought happily as he set his messenger bag down and tugged at the high-backed, ergonomically correct chair. He couldn’t ask for anything more.

There was a loud crash when Justin pulled the chair from the desk, and he blinked in confusion at the messy pile of boxes and thick envelopes that had been stacked precariously on the seat of the chair and were now scattered all over the floor. They looked like manuscripts. A lot of manuscripts, he thought, his smile fading.

“Oh,” Joey said as Justin stared. “I figured you’d want to get started right away,” he said with a coaxing smile. “Those are just some things that have, uh, kind of slipped through the cracks.” The smile grew bigger and Justin felt himself smiling back; Joey was kind of hard to resist. “Just take a look, okay? Let me know what you think.”

Justin stacked the pile on his otherwise clean desk while Joey told him that he’d be sharing an assistant with two other editors, then handed him a security pass and keys for the employee entrance, employee restroom, and his office door.

“I’ll just leave you to settle in,” Joey said cheerfully, leaving Justin to eye the stack of manuscripts. “If you get any phone calls from authors, um, it’ll probably have to do with one of those envelopes there. I’ve been having my assistant tell people that you’ll be handling them.”

The top envelope, Justin noted with alarm, was postmarked eight months ago. He looked helplessly up at Joey as panic started to stir.

Joey’s grin seemed to fill the doorway. “Coffee or soda in the kitchen down the hall and we’ll have lunch today, okay? I can show you all the cheapest, most filling places in the neighborhood.” He winked at Justin and disappeared.

Justin sat down at his new desk and stared, dumbfounded, at the teetering pile of boxes and manila envelopes. Right on cue the black telephone on his desk started to ring and he looked at it in horror until it stopped. The message light was already blinking.

Justin took a deep breath and laughed. “Big city. Big press. This is what you wanted,” he reminded himself. “So here we go.” He found a letter opener in his top drawer and grabbed the top envelope, slicing it open and pulling out the first manuscript.