nsync in black and white

Fiction by Pen . . . . . not real, made up, purely intended for entertainment

A Night at the Palace

my entry for the onceuponaremix challenge. Any resemblance to Cinderella is entirely intentional
thanks to Chrismm for the very speedy beta

This is the story of how I lost my favorite shoe.

See, this guy—no, wait, I was at this—no, back up a bit more. I guess when it started... I was in the kitchen, cooking the books when I should have been cooking the dinner.

And now, I sound like the villain of the piece. Look, it's not as bad as it sounds. I keep a legit set of accounts too. There's the IRS, for one thing—you can cheat your family, you can even cheat the public if you don't care what you're selling, but you can't cheat the IRS. Not for long, anyway.

Anyway, I'm not cheating my family. I work hard for them, worth every cent they don't pay me. They just don't need to notice that I, hmm, piggyback on their business to get mine up and running. And frankly, if they were half-way competent they would have noticed. I guess as long as they have enough money to keep themselves in beer and season tickets to the football game they don't care if the company isn't as profitable as it ought to be. I keep count. I'm calling it a business loan. I know exactly what I owe, and I will repay, with interest, and a year, okay, two years from now, the business my grandpa started will have a bumper profit and they won't have a clue what they did to earn it. And I'll already be a millionaire. Maybe.

Meanwhile, I sit here in the kitchen, with the laptop. It's cosy, and they never come down to this end of the house, not now there's a beer fridge in the TV room. It's my job to do the cooking and the cleaning and the shopping, now Mom's gone. So Mrs P comes in and takes care of the housekeeping stuff, and she puts meals in the freezer, because she is a doll and thinks I'm adorable and I promised her a decent pension as soon as I can afford it. I cook, too, if I'm in the mood, and sometimes Joey comes around and he cooks, or he sends me a vat of something from the restaurant.

My steps really are clueless. You'd think the difference between Mrs P's cooking and my cooking and Joey's cooking would be obvious to anyone, but they don't seem to notice. I guess if you have enough beer with it, what's on the plate don't matter.

Well. On this particular night I had a bucket of Joey's spaghetti sauce, he had it sent over, only needed warming up. The steps complained, of course, when I took dinner upstairs, because there was some crap on TV that they wanted to watch and I was interrupting them with food, but they loaded up their plates anyway. Imagine that.

"How are the accounts coming, boy?" Stepfather, with a glint of avarice in his eye.

"I'm making good progress, sir. I think. Um, two or three more days—"

"I guess you'll be spending the evening working, then," he said, helping himself to parmesan cheese.

"Uh, I—yes, sir." I looked mournfully towards the TV. Really, it was charity on my part. It made him so happy to think I was being deprived of something, like whatever godawful reality show he and the brothers were watching. "I'll, um, get right back to work, then."

So I settled in for a bit of web-surfing while I ate my own dinner. I've never figured out how Joey manages to make this stuff taste so good. I swear I use the same ingredients, and I follow his recipes, but there's something missing. Maybe it's magic. Oops, nearly forgot, I opened a bottle of wine, gotta have some of that. It was, after all, my birthday.

It would have been nice, I thought, to get out somewhere, go where there were people, have a good time... it wasn't impossible to sneak out, but it was difficult, and truth to tell, there's nothing in Lyttlehampton worth making the effort for, it's a small town in every way, and two hours by car to anywhere interesting. Which isn't much of an obstacle... if you have a car.

I'm pretty sure that the dark blue convertible had been intended for me, but then Mom died and the steps decided otherwise, and the only things they never let out of their sweaty paws are the car keys. And I didn't have my license yet, because... well. Anyway. No sense dwelling on what's done. And like I said, it's not like there's anywhere to go, not for me.

Except—shit! On the entertainments listing for Middleboro, something that made me groan aloud. Oh, if I'd known about that before, I could've, I could've... I could've what? It's not like I could afford a ticket, let alone the cab fare, let alone something decent to wear so that I didn't feel like a complete hick. The company's making money, but I don't get ownership of my shares until I'm twenty-five, thank you, Dad. I mean, I'm not saying I need a huge salary, but it sucks to be stuck here because I can't afford to live anywhere else. I guess my Dad didn't anticipate that Mom would marry an asshole after he died, and then be hit by some moron who thought he could drive a straight line with a bottle of bourbon sloshing around inside him.

So, no Justin Timberlake concert for me.


Oh well. It was still my birthday. I could have another glass of wine, if nothing else. I was just pouring it when there was a knock at the door.

"Hey, cat." JC breezed in, wearing a shirt with, I shit you not, pink feathers on it, and leather pants that he probably had sprayed on, and carrying a purple bag and a big white box with "Joey's" in distinctive red letters on the top.

"Wine?" I was cool. I was used to JC, well, as much as anyone can ever be used to JC, who is as unpredictable as a butterfly and twice as pretty. He dropped the purple bag onto a spare chair, dumped the box on the table with a flourish, and raised his glass.

"Happy birthday, Lance."

"Thanks. Is that a cake?" Suddenly, the visitation seemed to make sense.

JC looked around, vaguely. "Oh," he said, "the box. No, cat, that's not for you."

"Oh." I was disappointed, though I wasn't going to show it. Joey's mama made the most amazing desserts.

"We'll get to that later. This is good wine. Italian, very appropriate, Lambrusco, am I right?"

I'd have been more impressed if the bottle wasn't standing on the counter, but JC was pretty much used to me, too, so he ignored my best cynical eyebrow and beamed at me as he flopped into my seat and started wiping his finger round the plate to get at the remnants of sauce. Then he suddenly seemed to remember what he was doing here, in my kitchen, and sat up straight.

"I'm here to grant you three wishes," he said, happily.

"Oh. Okay. I'll take world peace, a cure for cancer, and a Ferrari."

JC looked a bit taken aback. "Dude, not those three."

I grinned at him. "You mean, it's my birthday and I don't even get to choose my own wishes? If you're my fairy godmother, you suck!"

"Hah! Wait till you find out what I got you!" he said, reproachfully. "But first, you should take dessert to the Pigs." JC's the sweetest guy in the world, but on the rare occasions he takes a dislike to someone, well, that someone better watch out. In the case of my step-family, he practically spits before he mentions them, and does his best to keep far out of their way. Which, when you wear spray-on leather pants and shirts with feathers, is a good call, because my steps are not what you would call embracing of the diversity. There'd be all sorts of names starting with 'f' getting thrown around if the steps caught sight of JC, which is ironic, really, because he's not only not gay, I swear he has more girls than he knows what to do with. A lot more than either of my stepbrothers, though that's not exactly surprising.

And on reflection, I guess JC probably does know what to do with them.

Anyway. The dessert seemed to be what was in the box from Joey's. It looked fabulous. "Tiramisu," JC explained. "Go on, take it up." So I got down a tray, and put three loaded bowls onto it, and when I got back JC was eating the remains of the spaghetti sauce right out of the pan.

"So what's with the sudden fit of generosity? Joey doesn't usually send dessert," I asked, topping up his wine.

JC smiled, and really, I never thought someone so all-round sweet could get such an evil look on his face. "Special recipe, cat. Don't you want to know what you get for your three wishes?"

"What have you done?" There was a secret hiding in that bizarre brain, I knew it. "Tell me what you did."

"First," JC obviously wasn't going to answer me, "you get this!" How he got his hand inside the back pocket—it must have been some localized distortion in the space-time continuum, because I'd have sworn you couldn't slide so much as a playing card in there—and pulled out an envelope. It didn't look quite as good as world peace, but I opened it anyway.

A ticket for Justin Timberlake's gig tonight.

Holy shit!

I stared at it for a minute, thinking, wow, so okay, this is probably more my thing than world peace anyway, and starting to calculate could I borrow enough money from the housekeeping to get me a cab...

"JC, this is, this is great, it's amazing, but—"

"Now, now. No buts. Although I understand the Timberlake boy has a very fine one, should you happen to like that kind of thing." He smirked at me, but JC can never keep up a front, and it turned into the cute little grin that probably explains why he gets all the girls. "Wish number two. In," he looked at his watch, "about eleven minutes from now, my friend Chris is going to be outside on his nice shiny motorbike, ready to take you to the Middleboro Palace."

"Seriously? Wow, JC. I mean... wow. But—"

"Didn't I say, no buts? I know, you're going to tell me you got nothing to wear." JC shook his head sadly. "Now, what kind of a fairy godmother would I be if I didn't bring you a beautiful ballgown? Hmm?"

"Um," I said, warily, because it wasn't completely beyond the bounds of possibility that JC had done exactly that, and I really wasn't into cross-dressing. If he thought I was going to go anywhere, let alone to see Justin Timberlake, in something he'd borrowed from one of his girlfriends... But when I saw what was in the purple bag, I just grinned.

I practically levitated up the stairs and took the fastest shower of my life, then dressed in my shiny new duds. Yes, JC, the shirt did match my eyes, no, JC, I would not be wearing eyeliner, thanks for asking, yes, JC, the pants were a leetle bit snug over my butt, yes, JC, that would be just fine.

Shoes, though. Problem. No shoes in the purple bag. I had no smart shoes these days and I was bracing myself to wear my tacky discount sneakers to see Justin Timberlake, jazz fusion artist extraordinaire, but JC was engulfed up to the skinny leather-clad ass by my oversized but sadly bare closet as soon as I mentioned footwear, and emerged flourishing a pair of sneakers I'd forgotten I owned. I hadn't put them on in years... back when I was in high school, they were my favorite pair, even though I hadn't worn them a lot because I didn't much like being the target for the jock-types who thought anything other than a big bold tick was too sissy to be tolerated. Black and green, and when I checked under the tongue of the left one, yes, I could still see the message Andy inked on there when we were fifteen. Andy, who got to go away to college and never came home nowadays.

They still fit.

"Come on!" JC urged me, "Chris'll be here any second, and the Pigs probably aren't asleep yet."

If he thought my stepbrothers were likely to fall asleep at barely eight in the evening, he was so, so wrong. But hell, I'd put up with whatever tomorrow brought, as long as I didn't miss this chance to get out and have an amazing time tonight. I grabbed my comb, stuffed the meager contents of my wallet into the pocket of my new, sleek, charcoal pants, and followed JC downstairs. There was a very loud growl from outside, which died to a murmur as JC opened the door.

There was a guy in black leathers, sitting astride a motorbike that looked as though it ate live meat. The guy pulled off his black helmet, revealing a bandanna and some very peculiar facial hair. Actually, he looked kinda familiar, and I was puzzling over where I could have seen him before when JC pushed me forward. I shook the hand Chris offered me, and began to thank him for giving me a ride, but he just handed over a spare helmet.

"I'm gonna wait here," JC announced. "You can tell me all about it when you get home." He turned and headed back towards the kitchen.

"Wait, JC!" I called. "What if they—" I gestured towards the house—"find you here?"

"Oh, they won't," he said airily. "Joey put ground-up sleeping pills in the tiramisu. You go have a good time."

The motorbike roared into life, drowning any protest I might have made. As a matter of fact I was filled with awe, and wishing I'd thought of it myself.

I settled in to enjoy the ride.

* * *

I don't know how fast Chris was going, but we reached Middleboro in not much more than an hour. It was seriously cool, riding the bike. Maybe I'd get one for myself, when I turned twenty-five.

He drew up a block down from the Palace, and I thanked him again as I handed the helmet back. "No problem," he said tersely, looking through me with fathomless dark eyes. "I owed JC a favor. I'll pick you up here at two o'clock exactly. Do not be late. If you aren't here, I won't wait for you, understand? I got other places to be."

"Two o'clock. Sure." No problem. Just to be sure, I set the alarm on my watch to give me two minutes warning.

The big bike revved again, and he was gone.

Two o'clock. Almost five more hours of complete freedom! And Justin Timberlake, besides. I headed for the club.

* * *

It was pretty empty in the Palace. There were a few people sitting at the little tables, but I'd been expecting a crowd. Never having been to a place like this before, I wasn't quite sure what to do, so I headed over to the bar.

The price list made me blink, a bit. I was looking for something I could afford when the bartender came over, a short, slender guy with sweet brown eyes, and asked what I wanted. I settled for a Coke, I figured I could make it last.

"Um, what time does the show begin?" I asked him.

"Justin? Oh, he won't be starting much before eleven," he answered. "The place'll start filling up in an hour or so, though. You're here early enough to get a good table." He moved away to serve a small group that had just arrived, a big blond, a tall guy with straight dark hair and a nice ass, and a shorter guy with a strange, thin beard who had his arm round a giggling, pretty girl in a slinky blue dress.

I leaned on the bar and looked around.

A few tables bordering the stage and dance floor, a raised level with more tables, and a balcony too. Mostly dark red, and circles of colored light wandering randomly around the room. For somewhere that called itself a Palace, this was a bit of a dump, really. No, maybe that wasn't quite fair, it was clean enough, and quite spacious, but I'd hoped a nightclub would have a bit more flash to it. Never mind. The music was good, liquid saxophone spilling out into the atmosphere, and three couples were even dancing, if you could call it that.

One of the couples was two men. Good. I knew Justin Timberlake had a sizeable gay following, but it was a relief to know this was a safe place to be.

I might, I thought, even have a chance to meet somebody. Not that it'd go anywhere, things being how they were, but oh, it would be nice to dance with someone, close like that.

"Can I get you a drink?"

I turned, startled. He was just barely taller than me, with sleek black hair and a smile like a greedy shark. I didn't like the look in his eyes, which weren't smiling at all. "No, thanks, I'm fine."

"Oh, come on, now, what're you drinking? Rum and coke?"

"No, thank you."

He snapped his fingers for the bartender. My immediate distrust was fast solidifying into absolute dislike, so I picked up my Coke and stepped away from the bar.

He grabbed my arm.

I gave him my best death glare.

He let go my arm.

"Hey, there you are! You want to go find ourselves a table?"

Sharkey and I both turned towards the newcomer. To be honest, I hardly even saw him, I just grabbed my Coke and said "sure" and followed the waving hand. I did not like people with no manners, and from the ugly look in Sharkey's eyes I was pretty sure he was about to get nasty. If he couldn't accept a 'no thank you', I didn't want to be around him any longer than I had to. Besides, it turned out the waving arm led me in the direction of the little group I'd noticed earlier.

The big blond guy greeted me with a sunny, innocent smile, and introduced himself as Nick. The intense one with the beard was AJ, the girl was Kitty, and the guy who'd come over to rescue me was—

Wow. Incredibly good-looking. Amazing green eyes under straight, thick brows. Fabulous bone structure. I think my brain glitched as I looked at him, and I could feel myself blushing. I hate that I blush so easily, sometimes at the stupidest things. And I had to do it in front of this man. Of course.

I was also so busy staring I didn't catch his name. But I scraped myself back together again enough to thank him for helping me out.

"It's no trouble," he told me. "Are you waiting for someone? If you're here on your own, you're welcome to join us."

I'd like to think I was suave and cool about accepting his invitation, but I wasn't. Luckily for me, Nick broke in asking me if I was just here for the show later, and had I been a Timberlake fan for long, and it was so much easier to talk to Nick, who was cute and sweet as a giant puppy and not intimidatingly gorgeous. Turned out these guys went to the Palace a lot, and like to see every artist who appeared there. They didn't know that much about Justin, though.

Whereas I'd been reading about Justin Timberlake for years, every little scrap of information I could find. There wasn't much, he wasn't mainstream enough for that, but Mom had bought me the very first CD years ago, the last Christmas she was alive, because funnily enough, I used to have singing lessons with the same teacher who taught Justin. I met him there, once—way before he turned professional, of course, and it's not like I had a precognition about him being a star, or anything. Actually I just remember his mom calling out: "Justin Randall Timberlake, you get your butt out here right now!" and thinking, poor kid, with all those syllables for a name. Anyway, I fell in love with the music, it wasn't like anything I'd ever listened to before—afterwards, of course, when I heard Billie Holliday sing, I understood why Justin always cited her as the biggest influence on his musical life, but this was back when I was just a teenager and as far as I knew, music was all either country or church.

After explaining all that to Nick, I was pretty much settled down, except for hoping I didn't sound like a total dweeb. Then we went from Billie to Sara Vaughn to Ella, and after a quarter hour I felt like I'd found some friends. I'm not sure how I came to let it out that it was my birthday, but after that they refused to let me buy any drinks—which was kinda good, because I don't think I had enough money on me for even one of the pretty pink cocktails Kitty was drinking, let alone a full round. Roll on twenty-five.

The place was filling up now, and there was quite a buzz in the atmosphere. Maybe half an hour to go until Justin came on stage, and the music was luring a bunch of people onto the dance floor. AJ and Kitty were up there, looking for all the world as though they didn't have any clothes on and weren't really vertical at all—I don't think I've ever seen a guy move his hips like that—and Incredibly Handsome asked me if I wanted to dance.

Well, I did, but.

"I don't exactly..." His incredible eyes were distracting. What was I saying? Oh, yes. "I don't really know how."

"I'll show you." That smile of his, it should have been classified as a deadly weapon. So I got up, blushing again, damn it, and he put his hands on my hips and I put my hands on his upper arms, and we. Danced.

Turned out it was a lot easier than I'd thought. And even nicer.

Anyway, we danced, until suddenly the music stopped and there was silence, and I jerked my head off his shoulder and he let go my waist and we looked up in time to see the sweet bartender guy making this big announcement, and we applauded and went back to our table, and Nick grinned at me and made not-very-secret thumbs up signs, and then Justin came on.


You've seen Justin Timberlake on stage, right? Well, maybe not, if you don't like the jazz fusion thing, but in that case, believe me, you have missed out, because I promise you, he owned that stage, and everyone in that club. I mean, maybe if there hadn't been an incredibly handsome man's arm over my shoulders, I might have been too worried about whether he was interested or not to enjoy the show, but there was, so I just snuggled right up against him to listen, and watch the Timberlake body in motion, which let me tell you is a sight to be seen.

It wasn't even possible to sit still and just listen, we just had to get up and moving like everybody else in there. I pretty much forgot that I couldn't dance, when the rhythm just carried me along, and I didn't care either way when Justin slowed it down and sang Now you say you love me, Just to prove you do and my handsome man pressed up behind me and put his arms around me.

In all, what can I say? It was a fantastic show, Justin was amazing and I—everybody—loved it. Whooped and hollered like crazy when he was done.

The Palace started emptying pretty quickly after Justin's show was over. I was a bit disappointed about that, I'd thought the place would be buzzing for a while yet, but it was only a Tuesday and maybe it was unrealistic. Middleboro is not the party capital of the nation. But not everybody was leaving, our little group showed no sign of moving on, so I just sat there feeling like I guess people feel when they've been drinking much more than, um, okay, Jack and Coke, which I'd had a couple of once I started to relax with these guys. It was like... like being in a dream. Time out from my real life. And before it ended, I wanted—I really, really wanted—to do more than dance with the hottest man I'd ever met.

Meanwhile, though, another dance was fine with me.

So we were on the floor, with AJ and Kitty doing their disconcerting thing a couple feet away, and Nick unexpectedly partnered up with a tall, skinny girl in most of a red dress, and Justin Timberlake walked in. Ten seconds later he was on the dance floor too, with a couple of salivating women shaking and shimmying around him. I caught his eye, and grinned at him over my partner's shoulder, and he sent me back a dazzling smile. Yeah, definitely a dream. I hung on tighter to my handsome man, enjoying the slight prickle of his neatly trimmed beard against my neck, and the feel of his hand on my skin, under the green shirt, and the hard ridge at his groin rubbing against mine. The best kind of dream, absolutely.

"You want to go outside for a while?" he murmured into my ear. Oh, yeah.

So we were over by the bar, trying to get to the stairs which, apparently, led to a balcony or something, but everybody who was left in the club was trying to crowd down to get closer to Justin, so it was taking us quite a while. And I bumped against someone, and apologized before he even turned round, and it was the shark guy with the eyes that didn't smile, and he just gave me a look that could curdle milk and emptied his drink over my left foot.

Obviously he intended it to go over my pants, but I'm not dumb and he wasn't very co-ordinated. But, shit.

The bartender came over and had a quick conversation with my handsome man, and opened a door behind the bar, so we went through and up a staircase and ended up in an apartment. Seemed the owner of the place lived here, over the shop, as you might say. Maybe he was downstairs now, enjoying the Timberlake effect.

"You wanna take that off?"

It squelched. And my sock dripped red. Tomato juice, I guess. Fabulous.

But he didn't make any comment, just took the soggy sneaker and sock and disappeared for a few minutes, leaving me staring around at the living room, which had two large couches and a low glass table, and some really interesting pictures all around the walls. I was looking at one—sea, sand, naked guy—and wondering whether I had the courage to say, Can I give you a blowjob? and also, would I be any good at it, when he came back in the room and put his arms around me from behind and whispered in my ear.

"The machine'll take care of it. Can you think of anything we could be doing while your shoe gets cleaned up? I mean, we could look at pictures, or..."

I turned in his arms. I put my hands either side his face. I kissed him. It went well.

What happened next is really nobody's business but ours, suffice to say we were on the couch and it was better than the dancing and nobody ever did that to me before and it was completely amazing.

And then my alarm went off.

It took me a few seconds to figure out what it was. I remember looking, blankly, at my watch, and thinking, Oh, I set the alarm.

And then, thinking, Shit! and gabbling out, I gotta go, and Thanks, and This was great, and running like hell down the stairs and out the club and along the block with one foot bare and my shirt open and my head full of panic, because if I was not home in the morning there would be all kinds of trouble.

The big bike was just revving up to leave but I tore across the street and grabbed the helmet, jammed it on my head and swung my leg over the bike. I saw my handsome man running towards us as the bike roared, but there was no way Chris was going to stop and let me say goodbye. I just hung on grimly.

The ride home wasn't long enough for me to stop wishing. But it was long enough for me to get myself together. I told JC I'd had a fabulous time and that losing a shoe was a small price to pay for the best night of my life, and watched him hop up on the back of Chris's motorbike and roar off into the darkness.

I was dreaming about my handsome man before I even went to sleep.

* * *

So you're probably thinking, is that it? Don't you get to see the handsome guy again?

Yeah. Well. I didn't know his name, and he didn't know mine. Okay, Lance, but that's not exactly going to help. If he came right up to the house he wouldn't be any the wiser, because my stupid stepbrothers call me Jimbo. Assholes. And I thought about calling the Palace and asking if I could speak to the bartender and asking him if he knew how I could get in touch with... the guy whose name I didn't know, but... even if he remembered me, and he knew the guy I'd been with, and he knew how to get in touch.... even if it was possible, then what?

I can't afford to leave here, not until I get some dependable income from my own business, which should be well before I'm twenty-five but isn't now. I need a roof over my head, and an internet connection. Also, I feel a kind of responsibility towards the company my parents used to run, and not just because my shares will be worthless when I inherit them if the stupid steps start doing the accounts. I mean, I may be sneaky, but I'm also competent. So I'm stuck here, with the good ol' boys, and unless I can get hold of some sleeping pills to put into their dinners... and while I think it was cool of Joey and JC to pull that one, I'm not sure I can really justify drugging the steps just so that I can go out dancing.

It gets lonely.

* * *

"Hey!" Big-ass stepbrother number one was over at the plant today, so this was big-ass stepbrother number two, asking for my attention with all his usual charm. "We need coffee. Good coffee. We got a visitor."

"Right," I said. A whirl of excitement, my life. Arguably, making a fresh pot of coffee was more fun than folding the laundry, which was what I had been doing. "I'll bring it up when it's—"

"No, I'll take it. You better stay hid. Stupid little fairy." He settled down at the table and poked at the peaches in the fruit bowl. Like he ever ate healthy stuff. Whatever. I fixed the coffee, even used the best beans, not that the steps deserve it, they can't tell the difference, but if we have a visitor who has them all rattled, it might be worth making a good impression.

"Who's the guest?" I asked casually as I set the best coffee cups out on a tray.

"That Richardson guy, big shot customer. Someone we gotta impress."

That was the truth. If the steps could persuade Kevin Richardson onto their customer database, that'd be a real coup. Ironic, really, that I'd approached his company on my own behalf, too. But not surprising, since he runs the biggest set-up anywhere around here. No wonder the steps wanted to keep him sweet. They'd probably manage to bluff him into thinking they knew what they were doing, and once we got his business I'd make sure nothing went wrong, so I wasn't too worried. Still, it was odd that he had apparently just dropped by without warning.

"We got any cookies?" he said, looking at the tray discontentedly.

"No, y'all finished them yesterday and I haven't had time to go to the store yet. But I could—"

"Never mind." And he was gone.


Like that was going to stop me getting a look at our very special visitor. I switched on the oven and got a pack of Mrs P's refrigerator cookies out, sliced up a few and put them on a tray. Ten minutes later I was breezing through the door with a plate of fresh, warm cookies as the perfect accompaniment for the cof—

I damn near dropped them.

He was there. Him! On the couch, elegant and perfect in a dark grey suit and tie, and every bit as beautiful as he was at the Palace. He looked up, and stared into my eyes, startled and surprised and pleased, and how could I tell all that when his expression didn't change? I don't know, but I could. Then his eyebrows twitched, and he picked up something that was on the couch beside him.

A black and green sneaker.

* * *

"You have no idea of the ridiculous things I did to try to find you," he said, resting his elbows on the kitchen table and sipping at another cup of the best coffee. The steps thought he'd left, but he just parked his Mercedes down the lane and walked back up to the house. "I got Nick to draw a picture of you, I took it every place I could think of, to the campus, all the clubs and bars in town, the cinema, the employment bureaux, everywhere. Nothing."

"How did you, find me, I mean?" I couldn't keep from grinning, it was amazing, it was miraculous seeing him like this. He was grinning too, though, so I didn't care.

"It was the traffic cop."

"Say what?"

"I was about to give up when I realized, I had your shoe." Kevin shrugged. "I asked a traffic cop if anyone riding a motorcycle like a bat out of hell had been picked up that night, who had a passenger with only one shoe, and the cop looked at me like I was a lunatic, which I guess was fair, and said why did I want to know. So I explained... and he grinned at me and wrote down this address."

"But we weren't, nobody stopped us. There was no traffic cop."

"That's weird." We looked at each other, baffled. "Maybe he was my guardian angel in disguise, or something," Kevin suggested. "Pretty good disguise, too."

"Shaped like a spinning top, sunburned red and balding?" I suggested, thinking of my stepfather.

"No... actually surprisingly hot. It was just the facial hair that was kinda weird."

"Weird like AJ's facial hair?" I licked my lips, didn't exactly mean to, but I wasn't at all sorry that he stared at my mouth.

"No, no, just. It was grown into spikes, like, um. Two little beard horns."

I started to laugh. "No wonder he didn't get picked up for speeding," I said. "He was my frog coachman." Kevin just looked at me, all cynical and sexy. Any second now I was going to have to leap across the table and kiss him senseless. But first, explanation: "I don't have a guardian angel, but what I got is a fairy godmother, who is a totally sweet straight guy with a sense of romance, who showed up here on my birthday with new clothes and a ticket to the concert and a ride."

"You shall go to the ball," he muttered, obviously trying not to laugh. "Does that mean we're going to live happily ever after?"

I moved round the table, and settled myself straddled across his thighs. "If the shoe fits."


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