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Taste
by Mickie B. Ashling

Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: What should have been a brief interlude turns into something deeper when Lil Lampert meets Grier Dilorio at the Taste of Chicago. Lil is in town visiting good friends Jody Williams and Clark Stevens, and he didn't plan to hook up with a younger man and discover a mutual love for architecture, interior design, and a unique sexual kink that keeps Lil coming back for more. By all appearances, Grier is the quintessential bad boy who loves speed, tattoos, and leather, but Lil slowly uncovers another side: selfless, responsible, and tender, especially for Luca, the son he's had to deny. With Lil's love and support, Grier will make a decision key to opening the door to a possible future together, one that includes fatherhood, something Lil has dreamed of but has never dared to explore. Spin-off of Horizons.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011

eBookeBook

28 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [321 KB]
Words: 66957
Reading time: 191-267 min.


Chapter One

"This is like a slice of heaven, isn't it?" Lil exclaimed, savoring the piece of strawberry cheesecake he'd just forked into his mouth. When he got no reply, he made a 180-degree turn to find Jody or Clark but realized that somehow they'd gotten separated again. Not surprising considering the amount of people who'd been crowding the Eli's Cheesecake booth.

It had been like that most of the day, finding and losing each other in the crush of tourists and locals braving the heat and the lines at the annual Taste of Chicago. When Jody had suggested they attend, he'd warned Lil of the inconveniences, but also extolled the virtues of taking part in this annual Chicago tradition. Once a year, at the height of summer, thousands of Chicagoans and visitors from neighboring states made the trek to Grant Park for the largest food festival in the Midwest. Hundreds of vendors set up kiosks offering up a gastronomical overload of local specialties as well as the more exotic foods introduced by the diverse population of citizens who comprised the City of Chicago. It was a perfect opportunity to have a small or full-sized portion, depending on the appetite and the budget, as one traversed the endless aisles of tempting displays. Another great part of the festival, and equally as popular, was the music. Well-known singers and musicians appeared at the Petrillo Music Shell and other stages throughout the park for the entire ten days of the festival.

It was stinking hot, humid, loud, and so crowded it was easy to be carried along by the bodies that surged up and down the corridors like a human tidal wave. Lil had been adventurous, stuffing a wide variety of food into his tall, lanky body, which still retained a boyish quality in spite of his age. He'd had corn on the cob, a slice of pizza, Italian beef smothered in drippy juice, Korean bulgogi, Filipino eggrolls, and had even attempted a barbecued turkey leg, but ended up throwing most of it away in favor of the samosa that grabbed his attention as he passed an East Indian booth. He'd lingered at that location for a while, savoring the vegetable biryani and the chicken curry, enjoying the explosion of flavors as his taste buds were assaulted by the fiery spices.

Jody and Clark had kept up most of the time, but as they weaved in and out of the crowds, they'd lost each other, only to hook up again a few minutes later. Predictably, the couple showed up once more a few tables down.

"Aren't you full yet?" Clark asked, watching Lil as he nibbled at another sample of chocolate cheesecake.

"I may puke any minute now," he said, grimacing. "You'd think they'd have a tent for people to upchuck, or have an enema, so we could continue to stuff more food down our throats in a gluttonous loss of self-control."

Jody reached over and tried to take the small plate away, but Lil protested, pulling his hand back. "Sweetie, stop! Who knows when I'll get another chance like this?"

"You know you're welcome to visit us anytime you want."

"Jodes, the last time I was here, it was like the frozen tundra. I will never step foot in this town during the winter months, unless Clark's in the Super Bowl, and you guys host."

"Well, there's always that possibility."

"Look at this place," Lil said, scanning the crowd. Most everyone was in some sort of undress in an effort to beat the sun's unrelenting rays. Shorts, tanks, bikini tops, Daisy Dukes, and cutoffs were the chosen attire. "It's hard to believe how cold it gets in the winter when you're sweltering in this kind of heat."

"I know," Jody said, nodding, "another Midwestern delight. If you can't stand the weather, stick around, 'cause it'll change in an hour or so."

"It's not that unpredictable, is it, Clark?" Lil asked.

"It's pretty fucked-up," Clark pronounced. "The weather is the worst part about living here; I love everything else."

"Well, I would hope so, seeing as how you signed on for another two years."

"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," Clark said with a grin. "Money aside, I like playing for the Bears, and Jo-Jo loves his job."

"Yes, you're both wallowing in contentment."

Seeing Jody and his partner, Clark, the hunkiest athlete in the world, so content made Lil believe that love could conquer all. They'd traveled a hellish road to get to this happy place, but it had been worth every traumatic moment; after all they'd endured, the couple continued to be gay icons and poster boys for the power of love.

Lil and Jody had been roommates at Stanford and despite the vast differences in their personalities had become good friends. Jody was a shy and repressed newbie with practically zero experience being a gay man when Lil had first set eyes on him. They were like the odd couple: Jody was serious and driven, keeping a grueling schedule to attain his medical degree; Lil, although equally brilliant in his chosen field of architecture, knew how to have fun while striving for his personal goals. He was flamboyant and unabashedly gay, whereas Jody, although out, wasn't in your face. They fed off their differences, bringing out the best in each other, and had remained good friends throughout college. Now, almost fifteen years later, they were as close as brothers.

Lil rejoiced in his friend's happiness, but missed having him around. It hadn't been quite the same since the couple had left the Bay Area two years ago to move to the Windy City after Clark landed the contract with the Chicago Bears. Lil visited as often as possible, but he was at the height of his career as well, having landed a lucrative deal with a premier builder from the East Bay. A customized Lampert blueprint was in big demand following his awards for excellence in the use of solar energy to heat and cool the mansions that dotted the hills of Danville, California. Lil's business was thriving, and he didn't have a lot of time to visit. On the personal front, he was still flying solo, having never found that special someone, and not for lack of trying. Love continued to elude the attractive brunet who'd been highlighting his hair for years, leaving him as blond as a Coppertone ad. It improved his overall appearance. Cornflower blue eyes and a golden tan completed the picture of the thriving Californian who still sparkled with a joie de vivre that hadn't dimmed one iota, in spite of his age, a reality Lil had bemoaned as he blew out the thirty-seven candles on his birthday cake a few months ago.

"Oh, look, ice cream! Let's have a cone or something," Lil cajoled, grabbing Jody's hand and pulling him along.

"Lil, I can't possibly eat another thing," Jody protested.

"Then wait here while I peruse, okay?"

"Sure, babe. Knock yourself out."

Lil wiggled his way through the crowd, trying to get closer to the booth that was four people deep. Finally, his chest hit the wooden counter. He looked up at the menu and decided on a waffle cone filled with vanilla ice cream, topped with chocolate sauce.

"Can I help you?"

Lil took his eyes off the boards and was about to place his order when he came face to face with the voice and forgot what he was about to say. Standing in front of him was the most gorgeous man in the world, bar none. Holy shit!

"Er... do you serve vanilla?"

"Sure," the guy said, smiling. The brunet had spiky hair and charcoal eyes, fringed by sooty curling lashes that were so thick they seemed false. His scruffy beard framed a luscious red mouth that practically screamed kiss me. He was wearing a wife-beater stretched tightly across the hard muscles of his impressive chest, but what really caught Lil's attention was the tattoo that spilled down the man's right arm, like a sleeve, in brilliant primary colors.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.

"Your order?"

"You, anyway I can have it." The words were out of Lil's mouth before he could censor them.

The brunet laughed, showing off beautiful, white teeth improving an already perfect face. Lil's pulse jumped, and his cock surged, definitely awakened by this gorgeous apparition.

"Do you want a cone?"

"Yes, please." Lil was surprised he could even talk. His mouth felt like the Sahara at noon.

The hunk turned to get the cone and bent down to scoop out the ice cream, giving Lil a premier view of his backside. He was wearing white shorts--the logical choice to show off his tanned and shapely legs, not to mention the rounded ass that made Lil want to lean over the counter and take a bite out of each cheek. His legs were covered with a light layer of dark hair, very appealing to a man who had a thing for bears, or cubs, in this case.

"Here you go." He passed the cone over to Lil. "Anything else I can get you?"

"I can always use a tour guide," Lil said, grinning.

"Where are you from?"

"San Francisco."

"Cool," the guy exclaimed, "I've always wanted to visit."

"It's a lovely city. Are you allowed to take a break? I can give you a virtual tour of my town."

Ice Cream Boy glanced at his watch. "I'm actually due for a thirty-minute break very soon. Where would you like to meet?"

No kidding? NO KIDDING? "Umm, I'm with my friends over there." Lil pointed at Jody and Clark.

"Isn't that Stevens?"

"You know football?"

"Everyone in Chicago knows their Bears."

"I suppose so. Why don't you meet us over at the picnic area down yonder," Lil said as he pointed in the general direction of the small grove of trees he'd spotted earlier.

"I can do that."

"What's your name?" Lil had to know.

"It's Grier."

"That's different."

The guy shrugged and rewarded him with another smile. "That's my name; what's yours?"

"Lil."

"Short for Lily?"

"Silly boy," Lil said, laughing, loving his teasing smile. "It's short for Lyndon Lyle Lampert, if you must know."

"Such a mouthful."

"Indeed," Lil replied. God, he's gorgeous!

Lil made his way back to his friends, who'd been observing the mating game.

"Caught a twink?" Jody asked, noting Lil's enthusiastic smile.

"I don't think he qualifies as a catch, Jodes. Let's just consider this a nibble."

"You may take this Taste of Chicago to a whole new level," Clark interjected.

"And how is that wrong?"

"Not wrong, Lil. Just be careful," Clark said. "You know nothing about that guy."

"And he knows nothing about me," Lil countered, "yet he's willing to take his chances and join us for a few minutes."

"Come on, let's try and find some shade," Clark said. His normally golden skin was showing some signs of sunburn after so many hours of exposure. They found a spot underneath a large tree, recently vacated by a family of five who were kind enough to leave them their blanket, thereby saving their place.

Lil threw himself beside his two buddies, who'd stretched out happily. "This is the life," he said, folding his arms underneath his head. "Who knew you had such gorgeous men in this town?"

"We aim to please," Jody deadpanned.

"So please aim," Clark threw out, ducking when Lil tried to cuff him.

"Who said anything about doing the nasty? We're going to talk."

Jody glanced at his watch. "I'll wager that by this time tomorrow you'll have him in the sack."

"From your mouth to God's ear."

"I don't know anything about God's ear. I believe in your supreme powers of seduction," Jody said with a laugh.

"I don't know, Jodes. I'm not a young 'un no more."

"Oh, for fuck's sake. You're thirty-seven with the body of a twenty-seven-year-old, although you look better now than you did ten years ago. You've filled out and don't look so scrawny."

"Listen to you." Lil flipped over onto his stomach and pushed up on his elbows, looking down at his friend. "I'm talking about my state of mind, Jody. I'm not into one-nighters anymore."

"Since when?"

"Since I realized it's so pointless. I'm not going to find the man of my dreams by commando dating. Quick in and quick out doesn't make for the best backdrop to a fairy-tale ending."

"You still believe in that?" Clark asked seriously. "I thought you were more jaded."

"After watching your story unfold, it's hard not to believe in love," Lil said.

"I'll cross my fingers for you, Lil. You deserve to find the right guy, although I doubt that Ice Cream Boy is the one."

Lil broke out in a self-conscious laugh. "He's absolutely delicious, though."

"I'll give him that much," Clark agreed.

Jody jabbed Clark's rib cage with a sharp elbow. "Ow. I'm only making a statement, Jo."

"You were ogling him."

"Was not!"

"Was too," Jody teased, "but I'll give you a pass this time; he's fucking hot."

"You guys, shut up. He's walking this way."

All three men turned to watch Grier approach. It was like watching an advertisement for body-building supplements. Grier was perfect, as tall as a ramp model, easily six-three, and just as graceful. He smiled at a couple of people he recognized, stopping to chat briefly before breaking away and resuming his walk toward Lil and his friends on the blanket. Grier appeared relaxed and unaffected by the stir he created as men and women followed his progress across the grassy area. Lil couldn't keep his eyes off him, even though he had serious doubts about asking Grier to join them. He knew nothing about the boy, and yes, he did consider him a boy, although he was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-two or twenty-four. Nonetheless, he was way too young for Lil, an improbable hookup, and a total waste of time since nothing could come of this.

"Hi there, Lyndon Lyle Lampert," Grier joked, in a throaty voice, as sexy as his body. He flopped down on the blanket, and every one of Lil's objections was trumped by the sight of that gorgeous smile.

"Hi, yourself," Lil echoed. "Let me introduce you to my friends. This is Jody Williams, and of course, his famous partner, Clark Stevens."

"Hey," Grier said, nodding, "nice to meet you. I'm a big fan, Clark."

"You like football?"

"Doesn't everyone?" Grier asked.

"Not everyone," Jody grumbled. "There are some of us who are more cerebral."

Clark kissed him quickly on the mouth. "You're just jealous 'cause it takes me away from you."

"Duh... it's rather difficult to compete with a national pastime."

"Are you feeling deprived, Jo-Jo?" Clark teased lovingly.

"I can honestly say that I'm not deprived in the least bit."

"I should hope not," Clark parried, "especially after this morning."

"Okay, guys," Lil interjected. "If you're going to share, let's hear the salacious details."

Jody covered Clark's mouth. "Not another word."

Grier observed the easy exchange between the famous couple then turned to Lil, who was staring at him blatantly. "Do you like football?"

"Honey, I love football for all the right reasons, and some of the wrong ones."

"Let me guess." Grier lifted his hand and ticked off an imaginary list. "One: tight pants. Two: tighter tops. And three: luscious biceps."

"Stop." Lil laughed. "I really do like the sport, and the hunks are just a bonus."

"You enjoy football, or you're just saying that to appease Clark?" Grier appeared genuinely surprised that Lil was interested in sports.

"He not only likes it, he can rattle off stats like any sportscaster," Clark boasted, supporting Lil's statement.

"How unusual."

"Some of us Nellys do enjoy manly things, you know."

"Who's calling you a Nelly?"

"Isn't that what you're implying?"

"Sorry, I didn't mean to."

"Is that so?"

Grier's eyes traveled up and down Lil's body with interest, and the blond returned the bold look with an equally heated gaze. In fact, their chemistry was so powerful, it affected Jody, who was watching the whole scene play out. He stood immediately, hauling Clark off the blanket.

"Where are we going?" Clark's aquamarine eyes rounded in surprise.

"I have this craving for a funnel cake," Jody threw out.

"You hate sweets," Clark argued.

"Not anymore." Jody glared and inclined his head in the direction of the seated men who hadn't taken their eyes off each other.

"Oh, right."

"We'll be back in about thirty minutes," Jody said.

"Take your time," Lil muttered.

"Thanks for sharing your blanket," Grier said, smoothing out the area that Clark and Jody had vacated.

"It's not ours," Lil replied. "We're squatting."

Grier grinned. "Well, thanks for letting me squat with you. Any kind of shade around here is a blessing."

"Do you own the ice cream you're peddling?"

"Hell no," Grier laughed. "I'm helping out a friend."

"Is he a friend with privileges?" Lil asked.

"No," Grier smiled. "Jake and I went to school together. We're practically brothers."

"Have you volunteered for the entire ten days?"

"As many of them as I can. I do have to earn a living, and he understands that, but fortunately, I'm on call this week, so there's leeway."

"What do you do?"

"It's a shit job."

"What is it?"

"I move furniture."

"Is this an interim thing? Are you in college?"

"Let's not talk about me, okay? How long are you going to be in town?"

"I just got here yesterday, so another six days."

"What do you do in the real world?"

"I'm an architect."

Grier whistled. "Well, you've come to the right city. Have you ever taken the architectural boat tour?"

"No, what is it?"

"It's a leisurely boat ride up and down the Chicago River and a great way to see the architectural landmarks. I'm surprised your friends haven't suggested it."

"The last time I was here it was snowing; I'm assuming the boat tour wasn't an option then."

"You really should go, considering what you do. Why don't we go tomorrow?"

"We?"

"Sure, if you'd like my company?"

I'd love it. "That would be very nice."

"Good, that's settled," Grier pronounced. "Tell me about Jody. Is he always so serious?"

"He's a trauma doctor, so yeah, a bit more intense than either Clark or me," Lil explained, "but he's a great guy, and he does have a good sense of humor once you get past that solemn exterior."

"Well, that's a relief. I thought he didn't like me."

"Sweetie," Lil replied, touching Grier's arm tentatively. "What's not to like?"

Grier responded with a thousand-watt smile that melted Lil's resolve to be cautious and not jump in feet-first. Every single vibe he was getting was positive, and he decided to trust his instincts, which were usually pretty reliable.

"Jody's the one, isn't he?"

"The one?"

"You know--the dramatic news broadcast."

"Yes."

"That must have been difficult on everyone."

"You don't know the half of it, hon."

"I think it's romantic as fuck."

"You and a million other gay men."

"And not so gay. I have straight friends who idolize Clark for being so forthcoming."

"Well, it was a struggle, believe me."

"But so worth it, right?"

"Now I'm the one making a judgment," Lil said. "I would have never guessed that you're such a romantic."

"'Cause I look like an inked-up badass?"

"Let's not forget the three studs in your left ear. What are they?"

"Onyx."

"At least you're a badass with good taste," Lil joked.

"I happen to have very good taste," Grier said. "And I think body art is beautiful if it's done right."

"Your sleeve is unusual." Lil reached out and traced the design with a gentle hand. "I love the colors; the blues and reds are so vibrant, and these stars that trail off like this." Lil's hand moved past Grier's arm to rest lightly on Grier's chest, just where the last of the blue stars disappeared into his wife-beater. "Are there more?" Touching Grier's body, however innocently, had sparked the desire that had been lying dormant underneath the pretext of friendly conversation. Time stood still as they searched each other's eyes for some hint of what was happening. Grier held Lil's hand against his heart, and he felt it thumping wildly.

"There are a few more stars in strategic places," Grier whispered.

Oh, God. "I'll keep an open mind about tattoos from now on."

Grier took a ragged breath and pulled away reluctantly. "Listen, I've got to get back."

"I understand. How do we get together for the boat tour?"

"Meet me at the dock tomorrow at around eleven. You can get all the info on the City of Chicago website. We'll have lunch afterward."

"Sounds good."

"Lil?"

"Yes?"

"You're not a Nelly," Grier said, alighting on Lil's mouth like a hummingbird, dipping in for a sugary kiss. Lil opened to the surprisingly gentle touch and sighed when he felt Grier's tongue tracing his lips.

"Tomorrow?" Grier confirmed.

Lil was blindsided by the kiss and struggled to find his voice. "Yes."

Lil watched him walk away, studying Grier's backside, which was just as amazing as his front. His torso was the classic V-shaped testament to hours of lifting weights, and now that he knew what the kid did on the side, he supposed his physique was due in large part to his job. Grier had never answered the question as to whether or not he was in college, but Lil hoped to learn more about the young man on their outing tomorrow, if he even showed up. The probability was low, considering they hadn't even exchanged phone numbers, but there was something about Grier that led him to believe he'd be there. Lil hoped he'd have the opportunity to find out if his instincts were correct or not. Although Grier was certainly easy on the eyes, it would be great if he had a little more substance behind that beautiful facade. Lil observed him glance at his watch, and pick up his stride, almost as if he was going to be docked for being late, which was hard to comprehend, given what he'd been told. He was volunteering his time and surely entitled to be a few minutes late.

* * * *

Chapter Two

Grier was not as concerned about being late as he was about being interrogated. He knew his family would be showing up very soon and the last thing he wanted to listen to were negative comments ruining his impulsive, but otherwise perfect hookup. He'd surprised himself by offering to play tour guide tomorrow, but when Lil mentioned his career, it seemed like a logical suggestion. Grier hoped that the excursion would give him an opportunity to learn more about the architect who'd made quite an impression. He wasn't in the habit of picking up strangers, let alone kissing them in public, but there was chemistry between them that was more powerful than all the warning voices in his head.

By the time he rounded the corner and approached the ice cream booth, the entire cast of players had arrived. His father, Santino, brother, Ali, and best friend, Jake, along with Jake's dad, Vicente, were handing out the frozen delights as fast as they could scoop them.

"Hey, where have you been?" his dad asked.

"Sorry, I lost track of time."

Santino nodded, and Grier took his place beside the others and got to work. Each year during the Taste of Chicago, the Dilorios offered their friends the Garcias a helping hand, manning the Vinita Ice Cream booth. It was a grueling schedule--ten days of hard work. But the payoff was always huge, and it had become a tradition between the two families. Santino Dilorio and Vicente "Enteng" Garcia had been neighbors for at least twenty years, almost as long as Grier had been alive. The Garcia twins, Jake and Jillian, went to the same school as the Dilorio brothers, and it was a natural progression from neighbors to good friends.

Children were the common denominator, and both families were dedicated to providing the best for their kids. Life revolved around school activities, and because Nita Garcia worked as a registered nurse while Meredith Dilorio stayed at home, responsibilities for day care had been shared, and the twins had spent many after-school hours over at Ali and Grier's house waiting for one of their parents to come home. On Nita's off days, she had watched the kids to give Meredith some time to pursue her own activities without being hampered by two little boys who were only eleven months apart and could have very well been twins themselves.

The Garcias were originally from the Philippines and brought with them many of the values and traditions of their homeland, along with the wonderful recipes they happily shared with their neighbors. The Dilorios soon found themselves craving many of the exotic treats that came out of Enteng Garcia's kitchen. He was a chef by day and did all the cooking for the family, which Nita accepted gratefully since she was usually exhausted by the time she got home. She barely had enough energy for her children after an eight-hour shift in the ICU at Alexian Brothers Medical Center.

Around the time the kids were in middle school, Enteng decided to open the ice cream parlor, inspired to become self-employed by Santino Dilorio, who owned a small fleet of trucks and was an independent contractor for Mayflower. Years of experimenting with recipes, combining local and imported ingredients, finally paid off: tubs of mango, ube, and coconut ice cream sat alongside the more common vanilla and chocolate, usually served in homemade waffle cones. They named their business Vinita, a blending of the names Vicente and Nita, and because it was located in a strip mall close to the high school, it became a favorite stomping ground for the neighborhood kids and a huge success. When the Dilorio boys and the Garcia twins were old enough to have part-time jobs, it was scooping ice cream at Vinita.

"Where have you been?" Ali asked, as soon as Santino stepped away for a moment.

"Taking a break."

"With Clark Stevens and his band of queers?"

"What, you've got people spying on me now?"

"Sorry, Grier," Jake apologized. "I happened to mention that you were with Clark."

"And what if I was, Ali? Who gives a shit?"

"You know damn well that Clark Stevens is an acknowledged homo, and anyone associated with him is automatically labeled."

"I am a homo," Grier spat out. "And the sooner you and Dad accept it the better off we'll be. I'm sick of this fucking charade."

"He can't deal with any more grief right now."

"It's not the end of the world, Ali. It's just my life."

Ali, short for Alissio, had made it his business to protect his father after dealing with the fallout when Grier had announced he was gay. Santino Dilorio, a normally pleasant man, transformed into an apoplectic tyrant after Grier had been caught with Johnny Callahan on his knees in front of him. Grier had been sure his father would have a heart attack when the school principal explained the circumstances surrounding his weeklong suspension. Grier had listened to his father ranting for days. Santino was old school Italian, staunchly Catholic, and a firm believer that homosexuality was wrong on every level. Never mind what Meredith and the psychologists had advised. He would not condone behavior that was inherently against Mother Nature.

Santino had maintained that Grier's interest in the same sex was his mother's fault for coddling her youngest child and saddling him with her English family's surname, instead of naming him Giovanni, a good Italian name, after his own father. It was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy to his mind. Anyone named Grier would have to be different, and his youngest son was definitely unique. He was no cookie-cutter child, and this was made apparent when three-year-old Grier insisted on painting his room purple, a tribute to his favorite dinosaur, Barney. It was much easier to blame Meredith than to accept that one of his sons was hardwired wrong. He'd hoped Grier's interest in the same sex was a passing phase, one he'd outgrow as soon as he reached maturity. He'd been encouraged in this belief when Grier became immersed in weightlifting and football. In Santino's world, queers didn't involve themselves in such manly pursuits. They were hairdressers and fashion designers, not body builders with a penchant for ink. Grier's physical appearance was nowhere near Santino's image of homosexuals. The very idea that Grier would consider any sort of sexual relationship with another guy was incomprehensible. Talk of homosexuality had been laid to rest along with Meredith, who had died of cancer shortly after Grier's twenty-fourth birthday last year.

Yet Ali knew better. He was well aware that Grier was, and always would be, interested in the same sex, but he'd made it his mission to keep this knowledge away from Santino, who was still recovering from his wife's sudden passing. The last thing their father needed was to worry himself sick over Grier and his sexual orientation.

Grier shrugged off the disapproving glances, hoping that Ali would drop his line of questioning. He'd be glad when the Taste was over and everyone resumed their normal schedule. Ali would go back to playing stockbroker, making financial dreams come true for strangers, all the while dressed in expensive suits, and Grier could go about his business, far away from Ali's watchful eye.

Grier's path had veered left several years ago, and he was still trying to figure out what to do with his life. Meredith had been a huge support, and her death had left a terrible void. She'd been much more than a mother; she was his friend and understood his needs. When she realized her son was gay, she'd been lovingly tolerant, and always took the time to listen as he shared his hopes and dreams for a career in interior design. He'd had to shelve his dream after he saw the way his father reacted to his misdemeanor in school and knew in his heart that he wouldn't support Grier's career choice. Meredith had been working on convincing Santino when the cancer struck out of nowhere.

Grier had always been interested in design and color. He'd been so proud of his artistry after he and Meredith had completed their amethyst paint job, changing the boring white walls of his bedroom into a colorful playground for his toys and stuffed animals. Since then, he had believed that the world would be a better place if it were colored right, but it would take a special person to carry it off. He'd fallen in love with texture and fabric designs, leaning toward the bold and experimental, combining hues that normally didn't match, but somehow, in his expert hands, they did. Yet all his ambition was curtailed by the need to appease Santino and find a career that was manly enough for his father, a decision that continued to haunt him. He'd learned how to drive the massive eighteen-wheelers to keep the peace, but preferred the mindless job of heavy lifting, the lesser of the two evils as far as he was concerned. He dreamed of walking away from it all, talking about it tentatively while his mother was still alive, but her illness and sudden death had put his dreams on hold.

Maybe tomorrow would bring some insight. Lil appeared quite confident, and Grier was surprisingly comfortable in his presence. There seemed to be a connection that went beyond the physical. It was hard to explain since it was so new, but he was optimistic and encouraged, not to mention wildly attracted to the blond, who made his heart beat just a little faster. And yes, he was aware that the man was at least a dozen years older, confident in his sexuality, and a complete unknown. But the fact that he was good friends with the most famous football couple in Chicago gave him some reassurance that he wasn't hooking up with a serial killer. If nothing else, they could talk shop.

* * * *

Later that evening, when Lil, Jody, and Clark stood with the crowd listening to Michael McDonald belting out "What a Fool Believes," he noticed Grier with a group of people. There was a white-haired gentleman and a younger man, probably relatives. The family resemblance was easily apparent in their height and facial features, although neither of the men had Grier's "It" factor. The other members of the party were Asian, and Lil wondered how they were connected. Grier turned and caught Lil's eye as if he could sense his presence. He winked at him, but made no attempt to leave his group.

Lil continued to observe the group long after Grier looked away. They were too far away to make out any of their conversation, but he could tell that there was an easy camaraderie amongst all of them. His eyes were drawn to the little boy who kept tugging on Grier's wife-beater, and he watched as Grier bent down, picked up the kid, and sat him on his shoulders so he could see above the crowd. He must have been around five or six years old with a mop of jet-black hair that fell over his forehead in a classic Beatles haircut.

"What are you looking at?" Jody noticed Lil paying more attention to something over on his right than center stage.

"I'm observing my eye candy over yonder."

Jody followed Lil's gaze and noticed Grier immediately. "He seems to have his hands full at the moment."

"I wonder who he's with."

"Aren't you meeting with him tomorrow?"

"Yup."

"So ask him then, and stop staring at the poor man. You'll burn a hole into his backside."

"Which is quite delectable, I might add."

"Stop gawking, Lil."

"You're no fun at all, Dr. Williams."

"I'm watching out for my best friend. There's no point in getting excited over something you can't have."

"I wasn't planning on falling in love with the man, just having wild and passionate sex."

"Where are you meeting him?"

"Wherever the boats depart for the Architectural Tour. Do you know where that is?"

"No, but we'll look it up. Why don't you bring him back to the house when it's over? We'll have a barbecue."

"That sounds like a good idea."

The music finally stopped, and the crowd began to break up and head toward the street to make the long trek to the parking lot, or bus stops for public transportation. It was the same sea of people from earlier in the day; Lil and his companions sort of flowed along with the masses.

They came very close to Grier's group, but he appeared unwilling, or unable, to stop and talk, so Lil gave him a wide berth. He was able to discern facial features, however, and the kid who was still on Grier's shoulders looked very much like the young woman by Grier's side, who in turn looked like a female version of the young man bringing up the rear. It all happened in a blink of an eye, much too fast to make any sort of assumption, but Lil was struck by the Asian woman's beauty. He'd have to ask Grier about her tomorrow.


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