Embracing nothing again, my brain grumbled. I sighed and sat up. The windowshades were all up—I rarely lowered them—and the room was flooded with bright sunlight. A new day. What did that portend? The end of a momentary fantasy, or the dawn of a transformed life?
I chanced a look down at myself, stomach uneasy. Perceptibly thicker pecs, check. Faint hints of previously nonexistent ab muscles, check. Bumped-up shoulders and pump-retained upper arms, check. I was naked this time—my poor jeans were crumpled on the floor, again, like something in me thought they belonged there—and now I could definitely see the low-key level-up my legs had gotten, and my junk too. My thighs weren’t bigger, really, but you could kind of tell there was muscle under there now and not just generic flesh. And speaking of flesh, that cock…! It felt like it was all the way soft, but it looked like what I was used to seeing from a half-chub at least, all fat and long like it was ready for a hand, or something more serious. Sitting there on the edge of the couch the foreskin was just brushing the old cotton cover-sheet. I stared at it and it twitched once, as if to say, “Yes? Can I help you?”
Closing my eyes I leaned forward, elbows on knees, and shoved my fingers into my messy mop. My eyes popped open, and I let my fingers very slowly card through my hair. Was it this long before? I tried to tell myself I wasn’t sure, but I knew better. Another thought struck me and I pulled my hands back out of my hair and along my jaw on both sides. Sure enough—I’d shaved the morning before, but I had two or three days’ worth of soft stubble. It felt a notch fuller than my thin old beard normally came in, too, like I’d gotten a Viking facial-hair upgrade on top of everything else.
Dropping my other hand I tapped at my lips with the bend of my index finger, then opened my mouth enough to bite the knuckle. This was not good. The changes I’d noticed so far were mild—not so much Wes 2.0 as Wes 1.1 or 1.2. But if my cursedly curly hair was tumbling out at a faster rate than normal it wouldn’t be long before I started looking like a canary-blond Merida (with a Viking beard) or season-one Felicity (with, again, a Viking beard).
There was no way Birch wasn’t noticing a change like that. And if he asked how it happened, I would have to explain. I’d have to tell him what I’d done.
Okay. Okay. No need to panic. Maybe my hair just got a boost, like my pecs and my junk. No biggie. Nothing to worry about. Right? It was a one-time thing. Just one time, give or take——No! I wasn’t going down that road. Last night was… last night. It was there, confined in that moment in time, and I was here, now, at arm’s length from it and moving forward. Time’s arrow would take it further and further away without any effort from me. That was it. Done.
I decided my best course of action was to go about my business and have a normal day. I sat up again and slapped my bare thighs as if to punctuate my resolve. Hmm—I should probably get dressed, I thought. My jeans were right there in a heap, as was apparently becoming habit, but—where the heck was the shirt I’d been wearing? I remembered distinctly having worn my pink and white Gilmore Guys tee to paint in yesterday. I must have whipped it off at some point for me to have ended up doing that obsessive half-naked self-painting and weird foreplay session, but I could not see anywhere it might have gone. Everything else was untouched. The quinquetra-multitude painting was back on the easel—Birch must have set it there before letting me drag him back to the couch, though I didn’t quite remember. The drafting table where I did pencils and charcoals still had the sheafs and sheafs of sketches I’d done after the painting. Finished canvases in various sizes rested against the walls around the room, some of them in little stacks of three or four, and the blanks were stockpiled in the corner by the far end of the couch. Everything was where it should be, except my shirt.
Giving up, I reached over and grabbed my jeans, pulling them on as I stood, and tromped out of the solarium with a simple plan: a shirt, then breakfast. I usually didn’t have much more than coffee in the morning, but today I felt like I could go for a mess o’ flapjacks and still have room for a plate of bacon or three.
There was no sign of Birch in the bedroom, of course, and the bed was still made from Tanya’s pass through the living quarters yesterday afternoon—neither one of us had made it to bed last night. The neatly arranged bedclothes and pillows gave me a weird twinge in this light, like I was an outsider visiting my own bedroom.
I poked my head in the en-suite, and there, at least, I saw signs of my hubby: the shower door was still spotted with drops of water from his shower, and one of his favorite towels, a thick, heavy brown one he always said felt extra-snuggly as he dried with it, was draped neatly over the top track. I could smell his after-shave, too, which made my lips curve and my dick twitch just a bit. I liked how his musky scent, and he’d somehow found the right after-shave to complement it. The combination always turned me on, and when it was around and he wasn’t it sometimes felt like a promise of his return.
Okay. Going about my day. A quick shirtification, then breakfast… email… phone calls with the gallery. A normal day. I went over to the nearer of the two big, low dark-walnut bureaus and pulled open my tee-shirt drawer—and gaped at the emptiness therein.
I hauled the drawer out further and even reached a hand in. Nothing. I shoved the drawer in and pulled it out again. Still nothing. In a state of shock I grabbed the drawer underneath where I kept old tees and undershirts. Nope. No sale. Nothing but air and an old penny. No shirts.
My pulse quickened as I checked the other drawers, but they were appropriately occupied, as I’d somehow known they would be. Underwear, socks, shorts and trunks—all present and accounted for.
My walk-in closet? The same. Slacks and blazers were all hanging where they should be, but no dress shirts, no polos, no nothing. Even the hangers were gone.
I went back to the dresser, intending to check the drawer again, and caught sight of myself in the large mirror mounted over the bureau. For a moment I just stood there, staring at my reflection. There I was, Wes 1.2. Was the shirt thing… related? Was this a part of that? All the changes I’d catalogued before were there, but this shirt thing made me wonder—like maybe what had happened to me hadn’t just affected a few aspects of my aesthetic appearance. What else was different about me? What wasn’t I seeing?
My gaze fixed on my slightly plumper chest, and suddenly I remembered noticing the faded quinquetra, when I’d woken up from that first dream. Odd I’d forgotten about that. Was it still there? I looked for it in the mirror, but I couldn’t see it, not exactly. I felt like I was almost glimpsing it, like something out of the corner of my eye, except I was looking right at it.
I turned away from the mirror. No. This was stupid. I was not going to let my brain go off the rails. What would Birch say? Think it through rationally. Think it through.
So. My shirts were gone. What the fuck. Maybe… what? Had a prowler snuck in and, bypassing the safe and the silverware and Birch’s watches, instead gone straight for my collection of not-so-priceless and frequently paint-stained boyband tees? Had Birch decided to show his playful side for once and prank me? Or… had Trey physically snuck down from the attic to steal my shirts? I pictured my dream lover, whom I wasn’t sure even existed, tiptoeing down the stairs… darting into the bedroom to filch my tops while Birch was in the shower… making off with the goods back to his dark, garret domicile with a wicked grin. Yeah. Preposterous. But the other explanations didn’t make much sense either. And the places my gut wanted to go in search of what had actually happened were a little unsettling.
Or… maybe this wasn’t just about me. I glanced over at Birch’s bureau. If there was a shirt thief…
I moved over to the other bureau and pulled open the drawer Birch kept his few casual tees in. There they were, folded neatly in square, little piles. I pulled out one at random, a midnight blue one I’d gotten him as a joke once that read “Venture capitalists do it for the return”. I smiled as I put it on, drawing in the scent as I pulled it over my head. It mainly smelled like laundry detergent, but I thought I caught a whiff of Birch’s dark and familiar muskiness as well. It fit okay—just right, actually. Birch was still taller than I was, a bit, and even marginally buffed up I still didn’t match the toned and well-proportioned physique he was so proud of, the one he’d been keeping hard and honed out of pure habit basically since adolescence. I still didn’t know where that impulse had come from back then. He loved swimming, I knew that, but there seemed more to it. Was it hero worship of older, more jock-like peers? Sneers from the Iron Lady about people who didn’t take care of themselves? Some innate instinct in his genetics that prized hard abs and strong legs? Whatever the origin of his fitness-minded disposition, I’d had cause to be grateful for it, to say the least.
Okay. Breakfast. I headed out of the bedroom toward the back stairs. Pancakes seriously sounded like a good idea. Pancakes with lots of butter and that fake maple syrup I liked. And if I checked the fridge we probably did have—
A cool draft slid lightly over the skin of my back like the caress of a ghostly hand, and I stopped, my heartbeat instantly loud and fast. I was shirtless again.
The hairs on my forearms lifted, and not because of the breeze.
I glanced over my shoulder—my bare shoulder. I’d inadvertently left the tee-shirt drawer of Birch’s dresser pulled out. I reentered the bedroom and walked back to it apprehensively.
The midnight-blue joke tee was back where it had been before, folded small and neat with just the beginning of the text, VENT, visible on top, exactly the way it had been when I’d first pulled the drawer open. Like I’d never picked it up and put it on. Like I’d never so much as touched it.
I almost tried it again. Almost. Instead, I just clo-o-osed the drawer, very firmly, and walked resolutely out of the bedroom while trying very, very hard not to think about what had just happened. Breakfast. I would just go down and have breakfast. At this point, as long as the flapjacks I was about to make didn’t spookily vanish between the griddle and my grumbling stomach, I would count it as a win.
Sebastián, Birch’s (and I guess my) estate steward, accountant, and general personal finances dogsbody, was at the breakfast table, a half-eaten Dagwood-sized sandwich and a large ceramic bowl of greasy kettle-cooked potato chips in front of him while he scrolled through whatever on his tablet. Geez, the metabolism on that guy—he ate like a fratboy and was thinner than I was. I breezed past with a casual “Hey”, like I came down to eat topless all the time, and started pulling down stuff for pancakes. I was still trying not to think too much.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look up at me and frown slightly. “You been working out?” he asked after a moment, as if the idea were slightly perplexing.
“Sure,” I said. I turned on the oven so it could do keep-warm duties as I made the pancakes, then checked the fridge. Score! Bacon. This morning definitely called for bacon. It also called for rum in the pancake batter, but that was probably a bad idea. I pulled the bacon out and started the griddle and a frying pan heating.
“Growing out your hair, too,” Sebastián added thoughtfully.
I was pretty unsettled by everything and not at all sure how to deal with Sebastián. Out of habit, I went for my projecting-fake-confidence thing, tossing my hair back as I glanced briefly over my shoulder at him. “You like it?” I asked, mustering a grin he could take as either genuine or sardonic.
He wiggled his eyebrows. “I do,” he said, surprising me.
Quickly, I turned away from him, hiding my blush as I grabbed a whisk and started violently mixing batter. How the fuck had Birch managed to hire the hottest CPA in history? Sure, he was Birch’s best friend, but honestly, it was like the guy had been constructed by a bunch of horny queens with a Hot Spanish Guy checklist. He had it all—svelte dancer’s physique (with, it seemed, that annoying lightning-fast metabolism), tawny golden-brown skin, a conservative yet dashing dress sense (right now he was wearing dark, leg-hugging trousers, a dark blue well-cut blazer, and a white shirt open just enough to show his hairy chest), smoldering eyes and perfect cheekbones, dark perma-stubble and lush jet-black hair you wanted to run your fingers through, and, worst of all, a brilliant smile that went straight to your dick. He even had a slight accent, despite having come here from Spain when he was eight, which made me suspect he played up the whole “love child of Enrique Iglesias and Antonio Banderas” gig for kicks. It didn’t matter. It worked for him. He was the package—and that wasn’t even taking into account his actual package, which was as arresting as the rest of him.
And why was I so aware of all that today? Usually I was more or less immune to Sebastián’s allure. Mostly because he barely seemed to notice me. “More or less” meaning he’d caught me staring at him once, a long time ago, at a party not long after Birch had introduced us. Sebastián had tossed me a wink, probably more or less automatically, then proceeded to ignore me for three years, and I’d spent the whole time self-consciously not looking at him whenever we ran into each other.
Now, though, I could feel his eyes on me, and the heat was seeping right into my bloodstream.
“What’s the story with the compass?” he asked.
I poured my first pancake and started the bacon sizzling before answering. The truth was there hadn’t actually been a reason—I’d just wanted a tattoo between my shoulder blades and had chosen the compass at random. I gave him my standard line. “It’s there as a guide for any wayward travelers I meet,” I said, without looking around. “In case they have any trouble finding my ass.”
Okay, why had that sounded more like an invitation than usual? It was the same joke I always told whenever anyone wanted to know about that tattoo. Heck, I’d told my mother that joke when she’d asked about it.
“No problem there,” Sebastián said. His voice was closer than I expected. I turned around and suddenly I was in his arms.
I gulped. My face was inches from his. “You, uh, want some?” I asked, meaning the pancakes.
Sebastián nodded, his dark eyes riveted on mine.
Loud sizzling behind me trickled into my awareness, and it took me a second to realize it wasn’t some kind of mental static. “The bacon’s going to…” I mumbled, trailing off as he reached past me and switched off the burners. Click. Click. The sizzling died away, and all I could hear was my pounding heartbeat.
My hands were on his waist, under his jacket. I didn’t understand when that could have happened, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be not touching Sebastián anytime soon.
He moved closer, pressing his hips against mine. I could feel his thick hard-on, and he could feel mine.
“I want you, Wes,” he said, dead serious. “And you want me.”
He wasn’t wrong. Insatiable lust surged through me like a drug. Had he really been this intoxicatingly sexy the whole time? How had I kept away from him before now? “Fuck, Sebastián,” I complained softly. “Why are you so hot?”
He glanced at my lips. “Why are you so…” He moved in for a soft kiss, like he was tasting a meal he was about to devour.
“…irresistible?” he finished, his accent making my balls tighten.
I wanted to think about that word, about the illogic of all of this and everything that had happened today, but it was necessary that talking end and action begin. I slammed my lips onto his, and we kissed like it was impossible for us to get enough of each other.
Okay, that was not the plan for the morning.
After I fucked Sebastián over the breakfast table—using butter from the butter dish for lube!—I went back to making pancakes in a bit of a shaky daze and he returned to his tablet ands his emails, almost like it hadn’t happened. Only it had definitely, definitely happened. Sebastián refused my offer of his own plate of flapjacks but filched from my pile of perfectly crisped bacon with a cocky smile and a wink, like our being at arm’s length from each other was a thing of the past now and both our libidos were on board with that whether I liked it or not.
When I reached for the butter to smear some on my pancakes I felt him watching me, and when our eyes met his smirk was enough to make my stomach flutter. I spread that butter pretty damn defiantly, making sure to use the bit with the finger-marks. I met his gaze the whole time I was lathering up the top of my short stack, and his smugness was as thick in the air as the smell of sex and bacon grease.
Hmm, bacon grease, I thought distractedly, still matching stares with Sebastián. Maybe I ought to save that for——
Nope! Nope nope nope. I was not going to make a regular habit of drilling Sebastián with various assorted breakfast-themed lubes. Very deliberately I bent my attention to my food and began scarfing it down as quickly as possible.
“What’s your hurry?” Sebastián asked, sounding amused.
I swallowed a triple wedge of buttery flapjack. Jeez, I forgot the syrup! I’d been craving that shit, too. Too late now. “I just remembered,” I extemporized, hacking out another multilayer of pancakey goodness, “I… gotta meet with the gallery director today.” Which was true, apart from the “today” bit. My show was eight weeks off, so anytime in the next month would have worked. I carried on stuffing my face, trying to reroute my thoughts away from sex and in the general direction of the details and price points Dima still wanted to iron out.
“Are you going like that?” Sebastián asked. Now I could actually hear the smirk in his voice.
I looked up, and, after chewing and swallowing, fought down my nerves and tried to match him cocky for cocky. “Like you’ve never taken a fashion risk,” I taunted, taking the offensive. “Which one of us wore a gauzy shirt and a blue speedo to the company picnic two years ago?”
He wasn’t expecting sardonic aggression, and he raised his eyebrows slightly, like he was impressed. “I’m glad you remember,” he said.
Boy, did I remember. I was getting chubbed again just thinking about how he’d had all the spouses and admins, male and female alike, staring hungrily and gossiping in hushed, leering whispers over those thick, flat, hairy pecs and that luscious, rippling six-pack with the impossible-to-miss treasure trail leading straight down to a round, tightly contained blue bulge. Or—had his abs been that nice? Somehow I felt the edge of another memory, like I’d been thinking at the time it was pretty awesome for a verging-on-middle-aged guy with a soft but flat belly and hairy, nonexistent pecs to make add some entertainment to the summer outing by acting the over-the-top Lothario. But that wasn’t right. Sebastián had had us turned on and drooling, not just laughing, right? Plus the age thing didn’t make sense either. He wasn’t much older than us, and if anything he looked younger than the always-serious Birch.
Fuck, my head was a mess. I was the one who’d been bumped up a couple notches, not Baz. No wonder I was feeling mentally disoriented, given the quinquetra thing and the Trey thing and the shirt thing and, well, all the things. I needed to get a grip.
He considered me shrewdly as I ate and stewed. “This is a side of you I haven’t seen before,” he said. It couldn’t help noticing the hint of approval in that statement.
I looked up at him, a forkful of pancake paused in midair. “That’s… what I said ten minutes ago,” I quipped, because that was what Confident-Me would say. I made a joke of taking the forkful into my mouth, drawing my teeth lightly along the tines and licking my lips when I was done, making eye contact the whole time. Baz chuckled, and we finished our meals in surprisingly companionable silence while I went back to trying not to think about how fucking weird my life was all of a sudden.
I was a little distracted as I entered the four-car detached garage behind the old house through one of the open bays, so at first I didn’t notice long coverall-clad legs and big boots sticking out from under my machine-gray metallic Miata MX-5 convertible.
I loved that car. It was weird having money, and a year of marriage hadn’t helped me accept that it came mostly from my husband. Sure, my paintings sold okay, and I knew a lot of classmates and fellow artists that wasn’t true for. But married to Birch I could have had literally any car I’d wanted—like, say, the gleaming Tesla sitting beside it, or the perfectly restored brilliant-blue ‘67 Corvette 427 next to that.
So after a bit of internal struggle I’d compromised on a car I pretended I could have almost afforded without Birch’s ocean of wealth, and I hadn’t looked back. Mia (yes, I named it) was great to drive and looked grand, and I felt a kind of rush as I entered the bay at the sight of it—it looked damn good.
Fuck, even cars were turning me on today. Since when was I this randy?
Of course, you know the answer to that, I told myself snarkily. My blood had started flowing faster and hotter from the moment I’d set eyes on that strange symbol and slid cock-first into my own personal sex dream. But reminding myself of what had happened to me no longer gave me the same level of heebie-jeebies it had before. Somewhere along the way I think I’d subconsciously decided it was all too much stress to worry about. I’d probably flip back to freaking out later, but at this point I was just rolling with it all.
As if on cue there was a motion from under the floor, and a large, grinning man rolled out from under the car and waved up at me. “Hey there, Mr. Rayn!” the mechanic said cheerily. “Having a good morning?”
I watched as got up, and up, and up, until he was beaming down at me from a height advantage of at least a foot and a half. “Uh, hey, Ace,” I greeted the dark-haired giant absent-mindedly, while my graze climbed up his immense frame to his shining green eyes and brilliant smile. Something in my brain elbowed me with a reminder that he’d asked a question, and I added truthfully, “It’s, uh, been a very strange day.”
He moved a step closer, a little line of concern between his perfect eyebrows, and rested a hand on my bare shoulder, its weight both comforting and intensely arousing. “Not in a bad way, I hope?” he asked.
I stared up at him. Fuck, my big stupid cock was hard again. “No,” I said slowly, “bad is not the word I would use.”
Ace smiled beautifully, and fuck if it didn’t make me shiver and my balls tighten with improbably quantities of lust. Ace was impossibly handsome in that super-friendly, easy-going way that made anyone love him who ever met him. And everything about him was crazy, crazy hot. Not only was his face mesmerizing, with those bright eyes and the smooth skin and the huge, easy smile with the lips you automatically pictured around your dick, but… even in thick slate-blue coveralls you could tell he had a body like a Greek god, only one that had been accidentally hit with a growth ray that had sized him up by, like, 125%.
Man, imagine if the Gorgons did that to you instead of turning you to stone.
I struggled to get a hold of myself, despite a raging hard-on that seemed to be trying to get to Ace by means of the clever ploy of weakening the fabric of my jeans with a steady flow of precum so it could rip right through. I swallowed. “A-any problems with Mia?” I asked.
“Nope!” he answered happily. “I was just doing a quick maintenance check. She’s all good.”
“Cool,” I said, still gazing up at him. His hand was still on my shoulder, and his thumb had started to move along my clavicle.
“You look really good today, Mr. Rayn,” Ace said, his eyes dark now with obvious desire.
“Please,” I said. “Call me Wes.”
He nodded. “You look really good today… Wes,” he said, his voice lower and gentler than before.
I couldn’t even handle how much I wanted him. I glanced down at his coveralls, then back up to his face. He was watching me intently, like he was studying how hot I was and how aroused I was making him. “You know, Ace,” I heard myself say, “I’ve… always kind of wondered what exactly you wear under those.”
His slow-spreading smile was breathtaking to behold. He placed his other hand on my shoulder, heavy and warm, and I think my dick got even harder.
“I’ve always kind of wanted to show you,” he said.