Cam gave Julie a quick hug, a light kiss. He wanted to be just about anywhere else but here.
“Do you mind if we don't go to the drive-in?” he asked as she reached for a jacket on the hall tree. “It's pretty chilly outside. And I need to talk to you about something.”
Her arm stilled as she looked at him. She was a lovely young woman, really—smart and good-natured and pretty—who, at the end of this school year, would have her master's degree in social work. From the day they'd met, when she'd accompanied her house-hunting parents to a showing, Cam had valued her friendship. Problem was, he didn't value it in quite the same way she valued his friendship.
Julie lowered her arm. “Do you mean you want to go somewhere else or stay here?”
“Where's Alice?” Cam asked. He didn't want to stay here if Julie's condo-mate would be cranking up the tunes or the television set. Alice's presence was obtrusive, to say the least.
“Where she always is on a Saturday night,” Julie said. She continued to watch him, warily. “Out with Neil.”
A night-cooled breeze slithered from an open window and skated across Cam's face. It felt good. He'd been uncomfortably warm since stepping through the door.
“Then let's stay here,” he said, and hastened to add, “unless you're hungry. We could go to Pietro's or the Highline. They don't require reservations.”
Julie finally lowered her arm. “No,” she said with a cheerless smile. She led Cam into the living room, where she immediately lit a trio of fat, fragrant candles on the coffee table. “I have a funny feeling I won't have much of an appetite.”
Christ, he felt like a schmuck. On the drive over here, Cam had decided he would not, under any circumstances, resort to the dull old saw, It isn't you; it's me. Skip Kratzner, one of the other agents in the Bell-Jablon Realty office, had once bragged about that line being his standard whenever he cut a woman loose.
“They never question it,” he'd said smugly, “if your delivery's right. You gotta sound like you're really confused and afraid of commitment and just generally messed up.”
What the line actually meant was I've found someone younger, with a smaller ass, bigger tits, a better job, and a more lenient attitude toward my fondness for vodka. And Cam knew damned well that any astute female was familiar with the translation.
He refused to be a cowardly shithead like Kratzner. He vowed to be candid with Julie.
They both sat on the couch, but not close together. That was yet another indicator of Julie's suspicion. The fact she didn't offer Cam a drink didn't mean too much, though. She'd made it clear from the start that her casa was his casa and he could help himself to anything…except Alice.
“I'm gonna grab a beer,” Cam said, getting up almost immediately after sitting. “You want something?”
“Bring me one too, please.”
Wondering how to phrase his revelation, Cam strode across the open area between living space and kitchen-and-dining space. He pulled two bottles of beer from the fridge—leave it to Julie to have a seasonal brew on hand—but didn't bother grabbing glasses. She'd once said she hated “drinking like a girlie girl.”
Can it. You know she doesn't think like that.
Yeah, but other people think like that. My dad thought like that.
Your dad's dead. Or have you forgotten why you're on a month's leave?
Cam thought he might be losing his mind. Just a little. He reconsidered his mission. Then Paul Patrillo's image swam up from his subconscious.
You can't keep ignoring it. If it isn't Paul, it will be somebody else.
Cam handed over one of the bottles and resumed his seat, careful not to move even farther away from Julie. Her gender might not appeal to him, but she didn't have viral hemorrhagic fever.
“How's your mother doing?” she asked, then took a drink. “Did your sister ever come in from Palo Alto?” Her clear hazel eyes were bright, alert.
“Mom's doing all right,” Cam said, reminding himself to call her within the next day or two. “Carly keeps making excuses.”
Julie put an arm on the back of the couch and rested her head on her hand. “I get the impression your sister isn't like you at all.”
Cam shrugged. His fingers made clear tracks on the moisture of his bottle. “Fraternal twins aren't all that much alike, often.”
A Felix the Cat wall clock suddenly caught his eye. It belonged to Alice, who loved cartoon characters. Her bedroom was Betty Booped and Popeyed to death.
“Hm?” He snapped his head in Julie's direction.
“I think I'm gay.” It just popped out of his mouth like a burp. He took a long swallow of beer as blood rose in his face. A real belch rose on its heels, and he quickly put a loosely curled hand over his mouth to stifle it.
Julie's eyebrows rose, but considering the confession she'd just heard, she didn't look too shocked. “Are you serious?”
Cam let out an acerbic laugh. “Believe me, no man is going to kid about something like that.”
Her eyebrows hitched higher, then fell. “I suppose not.”
As if mocking him, Felix rhythmically swung his tail and shifted his eyes. Cam wanted to shoot the damned thing.
He turned toward Julie. “Haven't you noticed anything…different about me?” Now that he'd cleared the biggest hurdle, he began to feel relieved
She studied him, probably trying to recall any telltale signs. “You mean, aside from the fact you're the most polite man I've ever met?”
Polite. Nice way of saying “aloof.” The thought prompted a wan half-smile. “Yeah, aside from that.”
Julie turned down her eyes and picked at the bottle's label. Sam Adams began slowly to lose his head. “Like what?”
Shit. Now this was getting humiliating. Cam feared he would have to spell out for her all the things she should've noticed by now—how restrained a lover he was, right down to his passionless, almost demure kisses; how he'd never gone down on her; how certain practices did excite him, like bondage play and being teased while he was tied to her pencil-post bed; how he loved having his ass fondled.
“Remember when we went shopping at Sp'racy for toys?” he said, hoping to spark some realization.
“Sure I do.” Julie smiled. “That wasn't so strange.”
“Don't you remember the kinds of things I was looking at?”
“We looked at a lot of things. Laughed at a lot of things. I only remember what we bought.”
Cam, too, put an arm on the back of the couch. He scratched at his forehead. Much of his laughter that day hadn't exactly stemmed from amusement. It had been forced laughter, a jittery eruption of nerves and guilt.
“I didn't buy the things I wanted most to buy,” he said. “Because you didn't seem too thrilled with them.”
Julie's brow dipped. Her gaze slanted off to the side. “Oh.”
Yeah, “oh.” Oh, the eighty-dollar plug. Oh, the leather wrist restraints and the mask and the switch. The only reason Cam had wanted the mask was so he wouldn't have to look at Julie while he got off on the other stuff, while he imagined a man in her place. He hadn't realized it then, but he realized it now. If a man was doing him, he'd sure as hell want to see the hunger in the guy's face, watch his cock rise.
God damn. Even here, now, the thought excited him. Shamed him too.
“But the porn we've watched; you seemed to—”
“I was reacting to the men, Jules, not the women.”
“Not at all?” She seemed to be voicing her last shred of hope, which was obviously that he was bi, not gay.
“Not too much.” He turned up his free hand. “I couldn't seem to help what I kept focusing on.”
Cam couldn't bring himself to be brutally frank. Julie didn't need to hear how some of those close-up shots sort of turned his stomach. He'd averted his eyes whenever the camera zoomed in on some spread-legged actress. It was the blowjobs that kept him riveted to the screen, the masturbation sequences involving hard and nicely hung actors, the crawl of fingernails over their chests or abs or thighs.
Julie puffed her cheeks as she blew out a breath. “Wow.” She stared at nothing halfway across the room.
Cam had said what he'd needed to say. Now, he decided, he'd just let her ask questions. Or talk about it. Or cry. Shit, if he didn't know how he was supposed to act, he sure as hell didn't know what would be appropriate for her.
“I actually thought I might be falling in love with you,” she said to the room. Moving woodenly, as if she'd been numbed by Cam's bulletin, she set her beer bottle on the coffee table.
“Good thing you'd only thought about it.” Cam cringed as soon as the words left his mouth.
Although he was trying to get her to look on the bright side, the statement came off as flip.
“Yeah, good thing,” she said wryly, her glance matching her tone.
“I'm really sorry, Jules.” Cam slid closer to her and grabbed the hand that lay limply in her lap. It was cool and slightly damp, kind of the way he felt inside.
She didn't resist, just tried to muster a smile. “You're a decent man, Cameron. I know you wouldn't lie about something like this just to blow me off.”
“No. No, of course not,” he said ardently. “I like you. A lot. I like being with you. I just, I guess I just—”
“Don't like being with me in a certain way.” Julie's smile broke through, and she squeezed his hand. She was finally able to look at him. “What brought this on? When we met, which was only like eight or nine weeks ago, you didn't exactly shy away from me. People don't just wake up one morning and realize they're gay.”
This was another difficult part of the Big Reveal, trying to explain to her something Cam didn't fully understand himself.
“I met someone,” he murmured. That was the easiest explanation. At least it was the one uppermost in his mind at the moment, so he'd spontaneously plucked it out and tossed it on the table.
It certainly caught Julie's attention. “A man, I presume.”
Cam nodded. “It isn't like we're together or dating or anything. He just…he's gay and he's attractive, and there's a certain…chemistry I can't ignore.”
“But you must've had some inkling before now. I mean, you're twenty-four years old!”
Sometimes, talking to a bright woman wasn't a pleasure. Cam fidgeted, repositioning his butt, his legs. He took a long swallow of beer. The alcohol finally started doing what it was supposed to do: loosen his thoughts and his tongue.
“Yeah, I had plenty of inkling,” he said, withdrawing his hand. It no longer felt right resting in Julie's. “But I always tried to repress it, mostly because of my dad. Until I went to college, anyway. And then it just became a habit, I guess. Maybe peer pressure played a part.” It sounded so trite, but it was the truth.
Cam gave Julie a condensed and sanitized version of his childhood. A good childhood, for the most part, but lorded over by a father who was the quintessential man's man, an ex-marine steelworker who loved sports and the outdoors and clearly wanted his son to be a tough guy too. He'd urged Cam to get into some competitive extracurricular activity in elementary school and carry it into high school.
Cam had chosen wrestling.
Wrestling! How predictable it seemed now. He could put his hands all over guys' sweaty bodies and feel the taut exertion of their muscles and listen to them grunt. Cam remembered now, or allowed himself to remember, how often he'd masturbated in his parents' shower after a wrestling match. Many of those engagements had lent ripe substance to his late-night fantasies.
His parents' freaking shower. Damn, if his father had known…
No sports in college, though. Instead, immersion in his studies. Hopping from one major to another in an ongoing attempt to land on something practical, something his father would perceive as a fast track to respectability and financial success. So art history, Cam's first love, was out. On he went to interior design—no, that wouldn't do—and finally, real estate and urban land economics. He hadn't been a brilliant student, just an assiduous one. It kept him occupied.
Julie listened with interest and sympathy. “So now that your dad's passed away,” she said delicately, “you feel free to come out.”
Cam took another drink to relax his tightening stomach. “That might have something to do with it. I'm not really sure. But I think it was more…” Having Paul Patrillo close to me. Having him looking into me and seeing the truth, trying to draw it out.
“That man,” Julie said.
“I think so.”
Sighing, she reached for her beer and tilted the bottle to her mouth for a long swallow. “Well”—cradling the bottle in her lap, she slumped against the back of the couch—“there's really nothing I can say except to wish you luck.” She gave his thigh an encouraging pat.
“Thank you. You've been really good about this, Jules. And thanks for the wishes. I'll need all the luck I can get.”
Her smile was regretful but kind. “Just be careful who you hook up with and why. Okay? There are a lot of predators out there, regardless of orientation.”
A chill of anxiety slithered through Cam. His naïveté on this front was pretty damned appalling. He was vulnerable; he really would have to watch himself.
What he'd just done fully hit him then, like a walloping slap. Good Lord. He'd actually taken the first step toward his own liberation. His father really was gone, and peer pressure, such as it was, had become immaterial. Clients and coworkers didn't have to know about his personal life. It was his life now, all his.
Cam thought about the sex. Anticipation supplanted his caution. Then doubt supplanted the anticipation. Would he embarrass himself through his inexperience? Would the first man he went after think him a bumbling clod and have no patience with him? Maybe even ridicule him?
Julie's voice pulled Cam out of his thoughts, although she seemed to be talking more to herself than to him. “I suppose Alice is going to say I told you so.”
Frowning, Cam looked at her. “Why's that? Does she think I'm…effeminate or something?”
Julie chuckled softly. “Don't worry, Cameron. You're not. Al just thinks every guy with good looks, taste, and manners is gay.” She rolled her head on the back of the couch and snickered again.
The grinning cat on the wall rolled its eyes.